Monthly Archives: March 2016

Courtesy: http://www.india.com/whatever/icc-cricket-world-cup-2015-if-ms-dhoni-virat-kohli-and-the-indian-cricket-team-were-superheroes-319393/

Can we please not make a ‘God’ out of Kohli?

There comes a time when a player reaches a zone, a certain zen-like metaspace where nothing else around him or her matters. Roger Federer enjoyed that zone for a good part of a decade. At their peak, the Australian cricket team was an unbeatable force, an unstoppable juggernaut. It goes without saying that Virat Kohli is in that zone right now.

But while tributes flow in from all quarters, there are some that amuse me. The comparisons with Sachin Tendulkar are inevitable, but I am amused by the word ‘God’ that is being used to describe Virat Kohli.

 

Thoda zyada ho gaya, bro.

Thoda zyada ho gaya, bro

 

Perhaps it is our tendency to deify people; perhaps it is an integral part of our ethos, of elevating people to a pedestal and worshipping them. A handful of Indians have acquired this Godly status (if we exclude Babas and saints, that is).

There is Lata Mangeshkar, who is often referred to as Maa Saraswati herself, there is Rajinikanth, a phenomenon that defies every logic of modern cinema-making. And of course, there is Sachin Tendulkar. There are people who have had temples made for them (Khusbhoo), but not all of them can boast of a divine following that Amitabh Bachchan commands.

*

What does being a ‘God’ entail?

One, supreme talent. To become a God in India, you have to be supreme at what you do, the absolute best. Being one of the top, or someone who was there for a while, won’t cut it for us. You need to have an impeccable record, one that can be easily converted into numbers – 100 centuries, 25,000 songs, 30 years in the industry.

Secondly, you need to adhere to the Indian morals of humility and grace. There were people who were very good at their craft, but could not become Gods because they did not possess such qualities. Rajesh Khanna, Dev Anand, Mohammad Azharuddin.

More often than not, you need to begin as a child prodigy, slowly climbing up on the basis of hard work and talent. That’s the other thing, we place a huge amount of importance on talent. Perhaps the thought can be pegged back to our mythological times, when talents were ‘gifts’ bestowed by gods and goddesses. You also need to have a long career – an origin story, a story of resurgence, victory over evil. That’s another integral part of the narrative.

But being ‘God’ comes with its own set of problems. One, there is insurmountable pressure on you all the time. You have to live up to the pedestal created for you, and that entails a blemish-less professional and personal life. Being linked up to people, or losing your temper are out of question. As a God, you don’t get a day off; it’s a full time job.

And when you fail to live up to the stature of God, all hell breaks loose.

Amitabh Bachchan had to apologise to his fans publicly for films like Boom and Nishabd. Tendulkar was dragged into Maharashtra vs India mud-slinging contests for no reason whatsoever. ‘Non-believers’ still taunt Sachin fans about him asking for a tax refund on his Ferrari. Dhoni had stones pelted at his house when he failed in a match. Lata Mangeshkar refused the Filmfare Award because it came in the form of a naked woman. They had to wrap it in a handkerchief before giving it to her, apparently. (I wonder how the trophies are stored in their cabinet, though. Did Lata-di get little sarees stitched to protect the dignity of the Black Lady?)

We also become intolerable to criticism over our Gods.

Look at how we have handled Sachin’s legacy after his retirement. Whenever a legendary player comes to India, we invariably asking him the ‘Sachin Koschen’ –

 

Reporter: ‘Do you think Sachin Tendulkar is the greatest player in the world? Yes or no?

Former Great: ‘Ahem, well…you know…’

Nation: ‘Aye, gandu! What do you know about cricket? Fuck you, Tendulkar is best’.

PoopScoop: ‘Five Reasons why Former Great is a dumbass’.

Facebook Posts: An Open Letter to Former Great. Dear Former Great, Fuck You. Thanks, Indians’.

Twitter: ‘Aye Maria Sharapova, tu Sachin ko nahi jaanti hai, jhoot mat bol saali’ #Khangress #Aaptard

Baba Sehgal: Hey Sharapova, you wanna share-a-poha?

*

And the chaos descends into pandemonium. For you see, while being God is a full time job, being a devotee is also a full time job. You have to worship, you have to defend. You have to take up virtual arms against those that question the godliness of your God; it is your right, as well as your duty.

We did that to Tendulkar.

The guy had to single-handedly fight through shitty batting line-ups, and by the time there was a stable set of guys around him, he’d been elevated to God-level. The pressure was visible in his game – the jittery starts, the slowing down while nearing the century, the nervousness while chasing. I wonder how many matches Sachin could truly enjoy, like he did as a youngster. I wonder how he felt when he heard a hundred thousand screaming fans turn pin-drop silent because of him.

And then, when he went through a bad patch, he got booed by his home crowd. It happened to Gavaskar in his final match too. There were reports of people flinging their food and fruits at him!

*

Kohli is 27. While he is yet to truly peak as a batsman, there will inevitably come the bad patches. It is in the nature of the sport, considering the numerous aspects involved with the game today – schedules, endorsements, corporate and national responsibilities, the pressure of being a living-breathing brand.

Kohli is from a different generation. In fact, there is very little that is ‘Indian’ about Kohli. In all aspects, he is ‘Australian’ – there is the brash approach, the ability to take up challenges, the consistency. It is a different generation. One that is comfortable walking hand-in-hand with a superstar girlfriend, and also pointing a middle finger at a packed Sydney Cricket Ground.

what kohli

kohli-middle-finger_getty1

Virat-Kohli-fined-for-finger-gesture-300x240

This is a different generation, and it requires another epithet – ‘God’ seems outdated and quaint. Let him be who he is, an outstanding player, a brash, aggressive fighter. Let him screw up and make mistakes and go through good patches and bad patches.

Fuck God, and (I never thought I’d say this) fuck Tendulkar.

Let him be Virat Kohli. No God, just a human.
***

 

(Featured Image courtesy: www.india.com article – What if the Indian team were superheroes?)

Kohli images courtesy: 1) crichotline.com, 2) Getty Images.

Why Holi is the bestest festival for Indian Men

PoopScoop Specials: Why Holi is the Bestest Festival for Men

Hi folks! 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

A big warm hug from our team at PoopScoop, where we get underpaid writing staff to write articles that you’d NEVER have thought of. We use innovative techniques like waiting for a festival and then writing a detailed, research-oriented piece on the subject. As you all know, today is Holi. So here is the Holi article, which is about Holi, which is today! Yayy!! #LifeGoals #Gogols Now I’ll add some more content to the first para, ‘cos admit it, you don’t really want to read this shit. You’re waiting for GIFs.

Yay!!!! Let’s begin!

1. Holi is best Indian festival.

Holi is indeed the best festival among Indian festivals, is Holi. Very nice festival is Holi, the festival of colours.

Holi_Intro_GIF

2. Holi means, everybody has to dance. Yay! #LifeGoals

Holi means, everybody has to dance. Yay! #LifeGoals

giphy

3. Holi is a time when logic, morals, and sexual harassment cases are kept aside for a day

As you all know, Holi day is a holy day. So we can all let our hair down and our dicks up. That which you feel like, you may do today. Take into your arms the one you wish to hug.

Holi_Song_Ang_Se_Ang_Lagana_Full_Song_Darr_Shahrukh_Khan_Juhi_Chawla_Sunny_Deol

4. Holi is a good time to pick up chicks. Yay!

#LifeGoals #RelationshipGoals #PickingUpChicksGoals

Uday_chopra_picking_up_chicks_on_Holi

5. You can have lots of Bhang on Holi

You can have lots of Bhang on Holi, and hallucinate about Abhishek Bachchan’s wife dancing with you in a yellow saree.

SRK_hallucinating_on_Holi

6. And Indian women, honestly. They want to make the sexay time during Holi

Indian women have many weaknesses. IIT-IIM husband, Baba Ramdev’s shampoos, and Holi. As soon as they see Holi colours, Indian women lose their minds. They be running to men and doing vulgar-vulgar things to them. But it’s nice only. Yay! #RelationshipGoals

Women_go_all_horny_during_Holi

7. We will celebrate Holi in spite of urban India reeling under a water crisis.

Hey, fuck you for asking uncomfortable questions. Why don’t you ask the factories who pollute the atmosphere? Why don’t you ask all the Gujarati men who eat radishes and fart all afternoon? The thing is, even if we don’t want it, we have to celebrate Holi. ‘Coz the girls be horny, and what if she dances with that Aditya fellow? Already his parents are talking to her parents. So a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta doodh. Yay! #FestivalGoals

We_have_to_celebrate_Holi_no_matter_what

 

Now I’ll share this on social media and waste three and a half minutes of all your lives.

Yay! #LifeGoals

 

Image Copyright belongs to Paul Bourdrel 

Taken from http://www.night-groove.net/

My Favourite ‘Shakti’ Moments

Two aspects of music have rung true throughout my life.

One, that there is a right time for the right music to walk into your life. A destined time when your mind is fertile and the music makes a divine connection with you. Any sooner, and the connection is premature. There are times when people introduce you to a musician, and while a faint connection is made, the final connection is made much later.

The second aspect of music is the ability of music to transport you to another time. The oldest and most efficient Time Machine available to us yet, it’s fascinating how a few notes strung together in a particular combination have such a tectonic effect on our senses.

*

Shakti’s entry into my life was rather innocuous. Not the forceful manner of friends ‘Dude, you haven’t heard XYZ? Dafuq?? Play this song right now, it’ll change your life’. Not like that. It was slipped past me with just the right amount of curiosity, and I went to watch them perform in the Old City.

Organised at the beautiful Chowmahalla Palace, the performance had to face a number of interruptions. A few ministers walking in, much to the chagrin of Zakir Hussain. A baaraat in the adjacent lane throwing up My Name is Sheila as if to challenge these guys. (Read my blog about the show here)

But there was one moment from the concert that stuck with me.

Shankar Mahadevan had started a song. A slow, lilting track, that seemed to envelope the entire night in a glittering blanket of silence. It was a heavenly, haunting track; I remember looking up at the sky, and pigeons who had congregated on the Palace flew away in a cinematic moment.

That moment had remained with me for four years, haunting me everytime I thought of the band. I had tried capturing the moment in any way possible, through my neanderthal Nokia phone, by trying to remember the words. But in the end, the moment, in all its essence, evaded me.

As I discovered later, the time wasn’t right. I had just about met Shakti and flirted for a few moments. The torrid love affair would come later.

*

Shakti was a superband that was formed in the early 70s by John McLaughlin and Zakir Hussain.

Back in the 60s, John McLaughlin was an acid-dropping, Ken-doll lookalike hippie who was introduced to Indian music and spiritualism. But unlike The Beatles who hung around for a bit, had a bad trip, and left, John McLaughlin went on to have a life-altering relationship with Indian music.

Shakti was formed by fusing together the Indian musical school of raga, the Hindustani and Carnatic schools, and garnishing it with western Blues by McLaughlin himself. The original line-up consisted of McLaughlin (Guitar), Zakir Hussain (Tabla), L. Srinivas (Violin), ‘Vikku’ Vinayakam (Ghatam).

The line-up has gone through a number of changes over the years, witnessing a second lease of life in the late 90s with extended tours around the world. While the original band was called Shakti, the later avatars adopted the name Remember Shakti. For much of the last decade, the line-up consisted of McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, U. Srinvas (Mandolin), Shankar Mahadevan (Vocals) and Selvaganesh (Mrudangam/Ghatam/Khanjira).

If you aren’t very fond of classical music, Shakti might not be for you.

However, if you have an inclination for classical music, put your devices on Airplane mode, and join me as I take you through my favourite Shakti moments.

A: ‘INDIA’ by SHAKTI, circa 1975

This video is a throwback to the early days of Shakti. Shot in the peak of the counter-culture movement, when you could listen to great musicians while stretching on the grass after smoking some, with Lakshmi-Shiva-Durga dancing in your brain. The sound of this track is very different from the Shakti sound of today, as there was no vocalist. McLaughlin at the time wielded an acoustic guitar, and the wonderful L. Shankar accompanied him on the violin. The video is grainy, but the sound – solid as oak. Also, look closely and you find two young white girls (groupies?) behind the band, something you wouldn’t dream of finding in Shakti’s concerts today.

‘India’ is a track that is reminiscent of the golden days of world music, a time dipped in spiritualism, hope and psychedelia. The track is also a fine introduction to the sound of Shakti, the black and white images of the time adding a thin layer of exotica to the proceedings.

 

 

B. TABLA SOLO BY ZAKIR HUSSAIN

Among the many bootlegged videos of the band across the world, this one is my favourite. Shot on a handycam, with a man whose hand is so steady, you’d think he was Hawkeye himself.

Shakti concerts maintain no strict routine, dipping into the rich jazz tradition of improvisations and syncopation. In this particular concert, the proceedings come to an end with Vikku performing a solo on the Khanjira to a thunderous response by the Russian crowd. As someone who can play the khanjira (albeit the Western, Tambourine-like version), Vikku’s solo is a startling exposition of the gamut of sounds that the khanjira can cough up, when pushed to its boundaries. At once, Vikku transforms the khanjira into the light smattering of rain on a tin foil. And just as suddenly, it becomes a lion, roaring and ripping flesh off its prey.

And just as Vikku draws his symphony to an end, Zakir Hussain takes over on the Tabla.

I have watched Zakir Hussain perform since I was five years old, as he was a regular visitor to the ashram I grew up in. I was used to the long-winding, cocaine-crazed taals he pulled off with aplomb. A much younger, more hirsute Zakir Hussain was accompanied by his father the late Allah Rakha and brother Taufiq Qureshi.

And yet, it is when I see the performance through the eyes (lens) of the foreigner, when I hear the raptures of surprise and the moans of joy, that the real relevance of Shakti struck me. They were taking Indian music beyond the niche, connoisseurs of Arts. They were taking it to universities and colleges, introducing impressionable young minds from across the world to the enigmatic world of Indian classical music.

Zakir begins slowly, his fingers skirting the surface of the tabla in soft, measured steps. And then they slowly grow. One moment, they are anklets tied to dainty feet, and in the next, they are the feet of Shiva in the midst of the Taandav, trampling the earth under them. The hands holding the camera begin to shake, the hands playing the Tabla begin to blur, but the beats keep going, like a million tiny beads stringing together a gigantic necklace, until the end, when every member of the family pitches in to make the flame grow higher.

Perhaps the greatest proof of the performance can be seen in the reactions of U. Srinivas, who was quite close to his death at the time. He sits slouched and lifeless throughout the performance, but can’t resist claps and sighs when Zakir Hussain launches into the tirade of taal and theka.

 

C. GIRIRAJ SUTA by composed by Thyagaraja, sung by Shankar Mahadevan 

Another of Shakti’s staples, Giriraj Suta (wrongly spelt as Giriraj ‘Sudha’ in all Shakti albums for some reason) was composed by Thyagaraja, in praise of Ganesha. This version was adapted and written by Zakir Hussain. While the band prefers to open their performances with this number these days, my favourite rendition of the song is from the same performance in Russia.

In the video, John and Srinivas have just finished a powerful song, when Zakir Hussain welcomes Shankar Mahadevan on to the stage. In slow, halting English and using his hands to draw symbols and shapes, Zakir Hussain proceeds to explain to the largely Russian crowd about Guru Poornima, and the relevance of the festival.

What follows is one of the sparkiest renditions of the song I’ve seen. The audience is shocked and exasperated at the same time. And everytime they assume the song has ended, they launch into a thunderous applause…only to have Shankar switch gears and take it one notch higher. It happens again and again; Mahadevan slows down, teasing the audience – and quickly shoots out another magazine of sargam to the bedazzled crowd. When the song finally ends in a crescendo, the audience is too stunned to react!

 

D. ‘SAKHI’, traditional Thumri rearranged and rewritten by Zakir Hussain

‘Thumri’ is a form of vocals in Hindustani music, in which the singer extols the virtues of a lover. The lyrics most often denote love and pining; the form finding its origins in the Hindustani culture of Uttar Pradesh.

‘Sakhi’ is a beautiful thumri that sings about a lover waiting for her beloved. It has begun raining, she says, but you aren’t here yet. The song is stirring, sensual, and utterly captivating.

Shakti has performed the song numerous times, and there are a variety of versions on the internet. It is a tribute to the beauty of classical music,that no two renditions are similar. There is a version where Srinivas’ mandolin holds Mahadevan’s vocals and takes the song firmly into the domain of the Qawwali, and another where he turns it into a Carnatic keerthana, only to smile and let it flow onto Jazz later. In another version, there is a thin, unrecognisable voice that is just about holding the fort with the vocals.

And yet, it is not the song itself that fascinates me.

Remember ‘the moment’ I was talking about in the beginning of the post?

I had a small recording of the aalap on my phone, and would listen to it on and off. But the old phone vanished in the quick, untraceable manner that all Nokia phones began to vanish a few years ago, and soon, the tune was lost to me forever.

It was only years later, when I watched a clip of the Shakti concert at Hyderabad, that the moment came rushing back to me. The beginning of the song, the pigeons fluttering away in an asynchronous symphony. In the magical manner that only music can, I was transported back to the time. When the heart was lighter, the lungs clearer, when dreams were more lucid, and the soul less ridden with guilt.

*

This version of Sakhi is probably not the best version, musically. There are better versions of this song, but there is something about the video.

This particular performance was held in France, and a fantastic crew of French filmmakers captured the concert in the beautiful aesthetic style that seems to come naturally to the French.

Using montages, slow-motions, and weaving the audio with the video in the most symmetric, congruent manner possible, they create an output that gives me goosebumps every single time. It is a beautiful amalgamation of the rich musical traditions of North and South India, mixed with Western Jazz, seen through the prism of French cinematic aesthetics.

The other versions of the song do not capture the intricate, spiritual rapport that the musicians share among themselves. They way John smiles at Srinivas when he extends Shankar’s aalap. The minor frown that Shankar wears when John ventures into the deep jazzy solo. The racy interlude between the percussionists, like two friends running for their lives inside a hilly tunnel. The slow, assured beauty of the vocals that seem to sew everything up, like  ambrosia after a heavenly meal.

Sakhi for me is music at its most perfect, most sublime state.

They say that Time is a healer, but I doubt Time could ever compete with Music as a healer.

Sakhi, this particular song, helped me to wash myself of albatrosses around my neck. It taught me to let go, to smile and reminisce. May be life is like classical music. There is no single, perfect version, no ideal. That the joy lies in stringing together newer versions. Sakhi taught me to close my eyes. To listen. To take in a deep breath and blow out.

 

 (Featured Image Courtesy of Paul Bourdrel. Taken from http://www.night-groove.net)

The only film title to have TWO grammatical errors in it.

Word of the Month (March’16) : Anti-National

The word has often given me a lot of trouble.

But before I go on to dissect it, I would like to clarify a few points so that we are on the same page (I love that phrase – Hey, are we on the same page? Yes, but it’s a different book. Oh, shit!)

What does the term ‘Nationalist’ really mean?

The dictionary defines it as an unwavering, unfaltering devotion to the nation’s cause, a firm belief in the fortunes of the nation. But here, I’d like to raise a question. Does believing that ‘India is the best country’ constitute nationalism?

Also, how does one go about this loyalty? Are we all by default expected to believe that the nation we were born in is the best nation in the world? By that logic, people in Syria must also believe that theirs is the best nation in the world. As must people in Burundi, Niger, and Malawi.

My second question is this – how is a nationalist supposed to view the nation’s faults? In the event of a nationalist being displeased with an aspect of the nation, how does he/she express it? Is a nationalist allowed to criticise the nation? Or does one’s nationalism blind one to the faults of the nation?

Is a Nationalist expected to only speak of the nation’s positives? If at all a negative aspect was mentioned, does one cease to be a Nationalist? For eg, two people who have lived all their lives in Dubai, are asked about their opinion on the place.

The first person, a man, says that he loves Dubai as it has the best hotels, swanky cars, and the glitziest malls in the entire world. The second person, a woman, says it’s all good, but she hates the fact that she isn’t allowed to drive a car or go for a walk by herself.

Is the man the Nationalist? Or the woman Anti-nationalist?

Why is it that when a doctor points out a problem with our bodies, we pay the person respect and money. But if someone points out a problem with the nation, he/she is automatically anti-national? Is the doctor considered anti-human??

*

If I ask myself the above questions in a completely objective manner, I don’t think I qualify as a Nationalist.

For one, it was a matter of chance that I was born in India.

I mean, I didn’t choose to be born here. It wasn’t destiny or any of the bullshit that films and songs make us believe. The fact is, I was born in India without my choice. Does that mean I am forced to believe that my nation is the greatest? So people in Bangladesh must believe that there’s is the greatest nation in the world as well, right?

So is this Nationalism a ritualistic phenomenon? Is it religious in nature?

Do I feel proud of being born in India? I am not very sure.

I am proud of things I did, I achieved, I created. How can I be proud of something I had NO role to play in? I was born on a Friday, and I’m not really proud of it; it just happened.

I feel a sense of silent pride that we as a nation haven’t descended into chaos. Look at all our neighbours, and you get the sense of chaos that we could have descended into. I am proud of the fact that India managed to uphold its basic constitutional principles for so long. It gives me great satisfaction that we have (in most ways) managed to live with each other in spite of our differences and diversity, that we have kept refueling the engine of democracy that keeps our nation chugging along.

But I’m not proud of EVERYTHING about our nation – that would be lying. I hate the fact that we as a nation still believe in the caste system. In spite of all our Ekta and Shobha, behind the curt smiles and folded hands, our parents still shamelessly subscribe to the system.

I hate the fact that in most parts of the nation, women can’t walk around freely. That as an average citizen of India, you’re given shitty government amenities, and your entire life is a race to earn enough to bypass the need for government services like education, food, water, housing, and healthcare.

I like a few things about my country, and a few things make my blood boil. So where does that place me?

Am I a nationalist? Am I an anti-national? Or semi-national?

The only film title to have TWO grammatical errors in it.

                The only film title to have TWO grammatical errors in it.

*

Which brings me to the issue of Kanhaiya Kumar in recent times. When he was branded an anti-national and asked to leave the nation. It’s been a trend of sorts. Chipmunks with access to internet and a keyboard, asking people to leave the nation – whether it is Kanhaiya Kumar, or Aamir Khan, or Javed Akhtar.

Firstly, WHO THE FUCK are you to ask someone to leave the nation?

Did you do a tapasya for a thousand years to gain the rare privilege of being in India? Nope!

Your parents had sex, some random sperms traveled from Point A to Point B, and you were born here. So shut the fuck up! You can’t ask everybody with a different opinion to leave!

This is a nation we are talking about, not fucking Bansal’s Chemistry Coaching Classes!!

*

I don’t believe India is the greatest nation in the world. If you believe it is, you’re either supremely dumb, or you blindly consume the stuff that fat politicians and psychotic journalists peddle on television everyday. A few things about our nation are awesome, and a few things suck donkey balls. That’s just the way it is, and my loyalty to my nation doesn’t change those basic facts.

If I look at where I stand in terms of the above questions, I realise I am certainly no nationalist.

And neither are you, dear orangutan with a keyboard and an internet connection. You have absolutely no right to ask someone else to leave the nation, because you’ve done ZILCH to earn the right in the first place. A few thousand kilometres this way or that, and you could’ve been born in Pakistan or Bangladesh. So shut the fuck up about your patriotism already!

You didn’t choose to be born in India. Neither did Mahatma Gandhi, or Narendra Damodardas Modi. It just happened that they were born here, that’s all.

*

I’m sorry, but blindly believing that your country is the greatest in the world doesn’t amount to nationalism.

There’s a term for it – Jingoism.

North Korea tells its citizens that they live in the greatest nation in the world, and they all firmly believe it. At one point, a certain someone worked on the same principle – that Germany is the greatest country in the entire world.

The fact is, every great movement in the world was at some point anti-nationalist. The fight for civil liberties in the USA, the fight to end slavery, the fight for equal rights, they were all concepts seen as being ‘against the nation’s interest’ at some point.

Every single political hero in the world – be it Gandhi, or Mandela, or Che, or Malcolm X, or Ambedkar – they were all hawking ideas that were seen as ‘dangerous’ to the nation’s ‘fabric’ at some point of time. But shutting them off because they dared to question the status quo would have been foolish, wouldn’t it?

Should we follow Nationalism as a religion, then? Should it be sacrosanct, unquestionable, unshakable, like Isl  the world’s favourite religion?

*

I have mixed feelings about being an Indian.

I have some hope, and some despair. And frankly, active citizenry is not about chest-thumping and sharing shady links on Facebook. It is about raising uncomfortable questions, and trying to find solutions for them. To blindly believe ki hum best hai, no matter what – is not nationalism. It is a flavour of religious fanaticism.

If you ask me to shut up and leave the country for criticizing India, you need to go enroll yourself in Bansal’s Chemistry Coaching classes.

They need people like you there!

Sea of poppies

Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Sea of Poppies’ – A Completely Biased Review

I am sorry for disturbing you at Lunch Break with a seemingly profound question. But if I were to tell you that I recently came to possess an electronic device that has changed my life, would you believe me?

Perhaps not. It is the trap of using the words ‘life’ and ‘change’ in the same sentence, and that comes with its own baggage.

But how about this? How about if I told you that the electronic device has turned my life topsy turvy, if only in the most blissful of ways? May be that would be a more digestible sentence. The device in question is the Kindle eBook reader, and I’d require an entire blog to recount in great detail the many ways I’m completely obsessed with it. It has fragmented my life into three parts, and I find myself either reading, writing or doing stand up comedy. So lost am I in this Bermuda Triangle of sinful pleasure, that I have been able to finish a book every two days.

I am aware of the desensitisation of reading too much, too soon. That if you switch from one book to the other, you’re robbing yourself of the true experience of reading a book. You aren’t giving yourself time to savour and relish the essence of the book. You’re robbing yourself of the experience of sitting back and contemplating and concreting your thoughts on the book. That it gets reduced to a mechanical process.

These are all wonderfully valid points. But I’d have to disagree with them. I hope I’m able to make my point clear at the end of this post, but without much ado, let us dive in to the review for the book. I have never reviewed a book, except to recommend them to friends, when I adorn the avatar of an Amway salesman.

If you’re the literary sort, this review might not be what you’re expecting. I’m unaware of the literary nuances of a book review, but like Himesh Reshammiya might say, ‘Chuck it, Jai Mata Di, Let’s Rock!’.

*
My first exposure to an Amitav Ghosh book was a rather strange occurrence.

We had congregated at Bakul Children’s Library – a voluntary organisation that also happens to be the noisiest, and my most favourite library in the entire world. There was a talk by an inspirational and spiritual talker.

I am not a fan of the tribe, but I’d tagged along anyway. The speaker, a pretty young woman, was speaking in the language that motivational speakers do – Vaguelish – a bunch of vague quotations and philosophical musings strung together for a bunch of impressionable minds.

One particular exercise in the entire routine was to ‘find answers’ for our ‘deepest questions’. For this, we were to pick up a random book, close our eyes, and think of a number, and the question that was most disturbing us. We were then to open to the page number that the universe had conspired to whisper in our ears, and lo and behold! – we would find the answer to the questions that were gnawing at our less-evolved minds.

I walked up to the rack of books and scanned through them. Suddenly, it was an audition. These great writers across lands and ages, vying for my attention for a few moments. I wasn’t going to spend time with them, read and ruminate over their thoughts – No. I was merely going to use them for a few moments for an utterly selfish motive. I remember smiling throughout, at how beautifully absurd the entire exercise was.

I had read merely two authors in the entire rack – RK Narayan and JK Rowling – but I chose to ignore them. I didn’t want my greatest question in life to be answered thus –

‘When will become of me in a few years?’

‘Adava Kedavra!’ he shrieked, and all that remained of the body was smoke and dust.

So I took my time running through the books till I chose Amitav Ghosh’s The Glass Palace, probably due to its intriguingly beautiful cover. Dressed in a pretentious white kurta, blue jeans and thick-rimmed glasses, I chose to find my answers by judging a book by its cover.

I don’t remember what my question was, or what reply the universe chose to bestow upon me that hot afternoon. But I never touched an Amitav Ghosh book again.

*

Cut to 2015, and as part of my MPhil in Diaspora Studies, a professor mentions Amitav Ghosh and his work. Much of our course deals with the times of indentured labour, when the British steered the first intercontinental exoduses to feed their farms and plantations across the world.

Perhaps there is a time for everything. Just as I was flirting with the idea of a historical novel, I chanced upon Sea of Poppies. One glance at the number of pages (the other way that I often judge a book), and I knew I wasn’t going to be able to finish the book in two days. It would take longer than that, and might require a little more investment than the ones I’d read so far on my newly purchased, life-changing, electronic device.

I clicked on the cover, and set sail on the journey.

*

The year is 1938, and many parts of the Ganga basin have been consumed by poppy cultivation. Funded and regulated by the East India Company, Opium has become the magic potion that keeps the East India Company robust.

Deeti is married to an opium-addicted former sepoy who isn’t going to last too long. His brother has his eyes on Deeti, and she has to choose between agreeing to his conditions, or setting herself alight in the funeral pyre of her husband.

Raja Neel Ruttan is a zamindar who owns lands, people, and runs their lives, blissfully cocooned from the rest of the world. He spends his time collecting books, discussing the affairs of the world, making love to his concubine, and flying kites with his little son. But the picture is too perfect in a world that is beginning to witness tectonic shifts, and he is stripped of everything he prided himself upon.

Zachary is a sailor from America who set sail with a ship – Ibis, and plans to spend the rest of his life on it. He is young, indispensable, and seems to be liked by each and every person he meets. Is he just a large-hearted American sailor? Or is he the avatar of Lord Krishna?

But Amitav Ghosh uses the characters as mere garnishing – to sprinkle over the already simmering pot of conflict. There is the British Empire that is working on attacking China in what would be known as the Opium Wars. There is the sea itself, calm and serene like a mother’s lap one moment, and vicious and unforgiving the next. There is the ship Ibis – the mothership that carries in its womb these fragmented lives that have come together under bizarre circumstances. Travelling to an unknown land where it is rumoured that they will be friend and eaten. Or made to work like slaves without care or comfort.

Then there is the language that Ghosh chooses to stir everything together with. Using folk songs from Bhojpuri, swearwords in Hindusthani, afflictions from Britain, and the sycophantic ‘Indian-English’, the author concocts a wonderful language that could only be spoken by men who live on waters all their lives. The language is representative of the people on the ship – strung together from all parts, forced to live together.

Sea of Poppies is the first real epic Indian English novel that I’ve read. It was a question that would trouble me often in the last few years, when I decided to read books with more seriousness. I would wonder why no Indian author chose to write a sweeping epic based on people from our wonderfully diverse country, surely it must be a goldmine for a writer!

This book turned out to be the answer to my questions. The book made me experience the thrill of going back to it book after a short break, like being reunited with your partner after a few days. I spent the last four days lying on my back, chewing on tasteless vadas, and sipping on phony pineapple juice, all the while traveling with the characters on a journey that was going to alter their lives forever. I finished the book a few hours ago, and all I wanted to do was write about it.

Not a flashy, snarky blog where I make snide remarks at people. But a piece where I could revel in converting my thoughts into words, just watching the black letters form words and ideas on the white paper.

*

Going back to the question I had raised at the beginning of the post, on why I am reading with a mad frenzy, without break or pause.

All through my life, I have gravitated towards people who possessed two defining qualities. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but they were all women who loved animals; and were able to express their thoughts in the most beautiful manner. None of them want to be writers today (which is rather unfortunate), but if I try to put my head around what attracted me to them, it is perhaps this very quality. The ability to string together words in a manner that they could light up the insides of the other person’s head. It is a superpower that even superheroes do not possess.

I would often wonder how they did it. How were they able to convey their deepest thoughts in such a flowing, lucid style? Why did I have to struggle to mask my thoughts with humour, or lace them with abuse and sarcasm?

As I finished Sea of Poppies, it struck me why they were all better at expressing their thoughts. It was because they had grown up reading beautiful books. Those books had influenced the manner in which they thought, spoke, and reacted.

And as I think back to myself at that age, I was a coward. I did not have the courage to even consider studying Literature, choosing instead to spend five years pursuing the one course chosen by people who have no clue what they want to become – B.Com.

Now, I feel like I am permanently playing catch-up. For some reason, people assume I’ve read a lot of books, and everytime the conversation steers towards books and authors, I end up making long mental notes of books and authors. Sometimes, I didn’t have the time. Other times, I didn’t have the resources.

But now that I have the greatest electronic device invented by man in my hands, I do not want to stop. I can probably live without the introspection and the savouring. May be it is a luxury I robbed myself of. But that’s alright.

There’s a lot of catching up to do, and my Kindle tells me there are 3 hours 22 minutes left in the next book I’m reading!