Monday, March 28, 2016

A Comedian Revisited



Quite like my earlier trip to the US (summer 2014), this time around too it’s been family, museums and …… books. A visit to the local William K Sanford Town Library, browsing the well-stocked shelves; and a couple of hours later, armed with a load of sweet-smelling tomes, stagger out with the pleasing prospect of bliss through the ensuing weeks

One of the books I picked up was a charmer, last read in Chennai, a couple of years earlier. The book in question – ‘I shouldn’t even be doing this!’-- is a memoir from Bob Newhart, the gentle American comic of the Newhart tv series (and sundry films) fame. And unsurprisingly, the lines sound and feel just like Bob – quietly hilarious.   

   As the jacket blurb declares, ‘That stammer. Those basset-hound eyes. That bone-dry wit. There has never been another comedian like Bob Newhart.’ In this his first book (published back in 2006), Newhart takes his readers and fans on a warm witty ride that starts with his childhood in Chicago, continues through his early attempts at having a normal career as an accountant (when he tried to reconcile petty cash by using his own pocket change), his early forays into radio and audio-comedy -- and then dwells drolly, on his tv and film career. But rest assured that it is no compendium, no bibliographic account of his days in the spotlight. Rather it’s a look-back, a revelation of funny inside stories, a fuzzy-wuzzy tale of a catholic upbringing that turned a normal American youngster into a graceful funnyman.

  There are the asides, the throwaway lines, lessons from a life well-lived; to wit:
'For some reason, comedians are still children. The social skills somehow never reach us, so we say exactly what we think without weighing the results.'
‘Most comedians are committable. People say I’m the most normal of all comedians – and I’m still certifiable.’
‘I always thought we were from an upper-middle class family until I met an upper middle-class family and realized that we weren’t.’ When Bob Newhart’s maternal grandfather moved in with them and took over Bob’s bedroom, the realization hit home­­: ‘we weren’t middle class.’
‘…like most kids I didn’t pay much attention in church, and I only took communion because I was always hungry.’
‘All religions are basically saying the same thing, and that is: “Be nice to each other.” ‘
‘Being a comedian means you are anti-authority and subversive at heart.’
After making it through a Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, and a Catholic College (where he got an undergraduate degree in management and accounting), Newhart joined a law college affiliated to the Catholic Church. He dropped out of law school mid-way, but study of law gave Newhart an appreciation of the precise word. And here is Newhart on lawyers and comedians:
‘…trial lawyers are actors. They stand in front of judges and juries and entertain them with borderline preposterous stories -- not unlike those told by stand-up comics, come to think of it.’

In 1952, Newhart was drafted at a time when the Korean War was on; but he talked his way into training within the confines of the US. His experience did however form the basis of one of his first comedy routines (The Cruise of the USS Codfish/The Submarine Commander), something that proved a springboard to later success. As the comedian remembers: ‘It was all about how someone totally unqualified can rise three levels above their competency because the organization is so big that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing.’
 The book is replete with entire chunks from Newhart’s most popular comedy monologues—all quietly deadly funny. One can actually imagine Newhart play the bumbling submarine commander addressing his men on the USS Codfish, prior to completing two years at sea: ‘OH, all right. I’ve just been notified that we will be surfacing in a moment, and you’ll be happy to know that you will be gazing on the familiar skyline of either New York City or Buenos Aires. Dismissed, men. That is all.’

   Draft duty done, Newhart passed time as an accountant in Chicago, all the while contemplating a possible future in comedy. ‘Swapping absurd stories on the telephone with a friend in advertising’, led to the duo’s first radio routines – and the minimal payment the budding comedy pair had gingerly requested. But as Newhart recounts, ‘After thirteen weeks, we had lost $325 on the venture and our comedy enterprise collapsed in financial ruin.’

Newhart wished to discover whether he was funny only to friends, or…was there a living, somewhere in it? Unmarried still, with no family to provide for, Newhart took on part time jobs, still keeping his secret dream alive. And as he worked he made mental notes on all the foibles of his fellow men.

 It was finally the un-remunerative radio shows that provide Bob Newhart with small openings into the world of stand-up comedy, televised or not. But a viable living in comedy was still some time away.

The inevitable happened soon enough. Bob Newhart’s success story started with a comedy album in April 1960; The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart was a Billboard #1 topper for weeks; it was soon followed by seven more of the same, besides rewards in the form of three Grammys. And along with success came a delayed marriage but a happy big family, besides more on the professional front: touring the clubs in places as different as Las Vegas and Peoria; a film career of sorts where Bob did small roles in big films (apparently he was there in MASH) – and of course a fantastic tv career through the nineteen-seventies and eighties.

 My own introduction to the Newhart brand of quiet hilarity came in 1990, when Indian television opened up to the wonders of satellite tv. The Bob Newhart Show was our first experience of an American sitcom – and our family liked it very much indeed.

In the new millennium, an older but still twinkly-eyed Newhart continues to charm us occasionally; he was my pleasant surprise in the film Legally Blonde 2. Sometimes he makes a guest appearance on a sitcom or soap – and talking about this sort of new television, Bob lets it rip: ‘Then there is Desperate Housewives, which is either a serious drama or spoof depending on which side of the humor scale you fall.’

There’s plenty more of this sort. It is not exactly a new book; a decade old to be precise. But it still makes for a fun read.  It could even impel one to search out Bob Newhart on YouTube. In any case, intelligent entertainment  is guaranteed.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Book Review of The Americans, a novel by Chitra Viraraghavan

                                            An Indian-American Burrito Bowl        

I have read this novel after returning to India from a three month stay in the US, my mind, a mélange of images involving all who constitute the melting pot called America. So, a new book called ‘The Americans’, authored by a Chennai-based Indian -- it sounded intriguing.

Of course, through the past decade, I have read a few ‘Diaspora Novels’ written by America-based Indians, about their own and others’ immigrant experience. Generally these have been breathless affairs about lonely souls languishing in a frozen impersonal landscape, remembering the warmth and bustle of India, caught between two cultures.

At some point this school of writing did get monotonous. And I stopped reading them, preferring instead the witty self-deprecating views of ‘international’ Americans like Bill Bryson and Paul Theroux.

In Chitra Viraraghavan’s debut novel, I hoped for a fresh perspective, different in tone from the ‘sitar-whine’ of a few other famous works.

Luckily, the book   lives up to the promise of newness, displayed in its artistically designed cover.

Expectedly, and ironically, the title refers to Americans who are for the most part, Indians. It is also a rather unlikely novel as far as structure goes. The characters get introduced chapter by chapter as they  move the story forward;  people and stories intermingle, and at select points, conclude each tale, though not always with a period. Sometimes it is a question mark.

 Be that as it may, the book begins well enough with, real, relatable, familiar people, – some, rather startling in their emphatic individuality.

 We are first introduced to Tara, a thirty-something self-employed professional, returning to the US after eight years. She is there at the invitation of her doctor sister Kamala – who needs her help. There is an autistic son she is attempting to understand; a seemingly bratty teenage daughter who needs unwelcome supervision and baby-sitting; a coping spouse; and Kamala’s own inner battles and outer conflict zones. And this is where the first non-Indian character appears—an Israeli lady housekeeper with her own back story.

These people are introduced by and by, but the character that charmed me, the gentle retired teacher from Chennai, C L Narayan – luckily, he makes his debut at the beginning, in the second chapter. Here is somebody one could relate to, understand. His hesitation  and misgivings as he makes his first trip abroad, his attempt to change his dollar supply ( a hundred precious dollars) to make a phone call while  at Chicago’s airport, his gratitude at finding  helpful fellow Indians – it’s all quite real without being boring.

Later on quiet Mr. CLN proves to be   surprisingly resilient and innovative, as he deals with indifference from a self-centered offspring. And I was actually cheering for him as he stepped out, explored and discovered a new country and its people.

The cast of characters is rich and varied, adding depth to a rather unconventional novel without a single trajectory. But the various lives do touch each other, leaving a few questions answered, and some with just a hint of promise or even despair as the case may be.

Some of the more unusual characters include, among others, a voice from the past – an African American student who connects with her empathetic Indian professor. Then there is weird, hyper sensitive Akhil, trusting no one, seeing enemies in shadows. And you have poor perceptive wise unlucky Shantanu, exploited by Indian gangsters in a foreign land. The poor chap,   a secret songwriter, is also ultimately a hero, but one destined to remain in the shadows.

 Completing the cast, somewhat, is an unhappy Indian couple. The wife is full of yearning and technicolour dreams while the contemptuous husband does his own thing – and yet finally, the man is there for his unfortunate bitter half.

This is character driven novel that simultaneously sparkles with dialogue, drama, action, feeling; there is also some humour, albeit  in small doses. Walking through a very Indian locality in urban USA, Shantanu sees the gaudy jewellery stores, clothes emporiums and restaurants; notices ‘the subtle difference in the way cars were parked on the street…He could have been in Lajpat Nagar market.’

Ultimately the story is essentially that of Tara, the pivot to this Indian merry go round in America.

However, I did feel that the ride ended rather abruptly, as the characters walk off to their own sunsets, some to a brighter dawn, some to a questionable future. Perhaps that’s life. There are no pat solutions.

To me, the value in the book lies in its richly drawn characters along with many telling lines. To quote one, the thoughts of the gentle 69 year old retired teacher: ‘Something perhaps that baffled his generation, something they were unprepared for -- the foreigners they seemed to have bred.’

Incidentally, during my recent visit, I discovered and enjoyed the burrito bowl. Something foreign, but Indian too, satisfying. Just right!

Here is a link to the book and its publishers:

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Lines from a Library-fest

One of the joys of this US summer holiday has been this -- access to a wonderful public library. Every fortnight I make a trip to the William K Sanford town library and spend a happy hour or two savouring a varied collection of books and periodicals. Have come across books that I am not likely to come across in India, considering they are not exactly bestseller material, nor particularly  India-centric.Then I cart home half a dozen books that please me and also spouse (who dips in, reads a bit, then dozes off). Me, I read all of it, then reluctantly return same to library. In Chennai i have often bought books that I have loved-- i mean purchased for a price when possible, from my very good local lending library, Murugan library, part of group. Can't do that here in the US! 

I re-read for the third or fourth time, one of my all-time favourites --  Bill Bryson's iconic work (now being filmed) --  A Walk in the Woods. Here's  a sampler.
From Chapter 8: 'Each time you leave the cossetted and unhygienic world of towns and take yourself into the hills, you go through a series of staged transformations --  a kind of gentle descent into squalor -- and each time it is as if you have never done it before.' 

From The Angry Island by A A Gill -- a witty critique of current day Britain -- some telling lines:

'It is in the nature of TV and the nature of nature on TV that it comes with a plot, a narrative and a purpose.'

'The English can cover nature with their own blanket of sentimentality and create a world they want it to be, not to be part of it, but to oversee it, to be custodians.'

And here is a line that is particularly fascinating :
'It's worth bearing in mind that the defining characteristics of fascists and psychopaths are great sentimentality combined with amoral cruelty.' 

Here is a dig at Americans and Britishers, together:
'Only Americans and those imitating Americans play basketball; and only those with some weird desire to imitate the English would possibly want to have the world's biggest dog show -- Crufts.'


From a wonderful collection, 2013 Pushcart Prize 37 Best of the Small Presses; the introduction:

'It's the MOST GHASTLY of times and the most glorious of times.

First the ghastly: politicians; lifestyle; consumers; a culture of celebrity glitter; an internet tsunami of instant facts, factoids and nonsense that obviates knowledge and wisdom; a 'greed is good' oligarchy; vanity publishers taking over the commercial publishing empire; legitimate and terrified publishers in a race to the best-seller bottom; bookstores collapsing; Kindle in charge; profiteers cashing in on wannabe authors with zero talent -- the result? A new censorship of clutter.Everybody into the pool and you don't have to know how to swim. A cacophony of drowning shouts.

Yet it is also the most glorious of times: of course there are thousands of examples -- for instance, the authors of the stories, essays, memoirs and poems printed and mentioned in this edition.....The Word survives indeed thrives in the ruins.'

From the collection, a hilarious and touching story published by Conjunctions, a small NY publisher.

A Family Restaurant by Karen Russell


This morning, my father approached me waving the new menu from RAY'S ITALIAN FEATS, our rival across the street, and demanded that I type this up for you. 

"Write the story.It's a menu, Leni, it's supposed to have the story."
"Which one?"
"Jesus, I don't know, the story, our story! The family story!"

.....Nineteen seventy-five: A restaurant opened up across the street from us. Ray's Italian Feats.
"Italian Feats? What, he's turning Dago cartwheels over there?"
"I think it was supposed to be 'Feast'. "

 The following poem is said to be the contribution of a fourth grader, Rasheda White. Published in ECOTONE


I hear an old man and woman playing chess
for some false teeth.I hear a tree knocking
in the sand and the sand flies up and down
and it sounds like a window. I hear cold
old shadows chattering their teeth in the winter.
I hear my sister polishing the shadow's fingernails.
I hear shadow kids playing with a shadow beehive
in the yard and a shadow kid gets chased by the bees
and all the bees are gone so a homeless man comes
down and gets some honey. I hear my mother
in the kitchen drying out the darkness.


Thursday, May 08, 2014

Rental Rant


I am writing this piece after reading the following article:

The BBC news item -- along with similar pieces in TOI and sundry web sites -- makes it clear that a section of Singaporean home owners are none too enthusiastic about renting their homes out to Indian and mainland Chinese  migrant-residents. Apparently these worthies are not house-proud and, well, their kitchens smell of cooked food.

A Singapore apartment block

My own two cents (or two rupees if you will), on this emotive topic:

A point I'd like to make, in defense of Indian kitchens, is this -- don't many kitchens carry a faint scent, as per the type of food cooked? Which is why it is important to have an airy well-ventilated kitchen – or  your asafoetida /frying sesame seed oil / frying  garlic--it's all going to waft out into a neighbour's space.

It is to be noted that this sort of  smelly problem has a long history. Even two decades back British neighbours were none too happy with 'curry smells.' And, I can report that at home, in India, orthodox vegetarians  may not be gung ho  about a gust of garlic/meat/ fish emanating from a neighbour's kitchen. But, and this is important, it shouldn't bother one beyond a point.

I live in a fairly cosmopolitan colony and realize that the occasional olfactory kitchen  assault has to be accepted with grace.

As did a Chennai friend when confronted with the overpowering smell of cooking cabbage in the homes of expat Koreans who worked in the city. She would give English language lessons to some families -- and Korean staple Kimchi was part of the package deal, perhaps.

 But kitchen smells are simply a small part of the whole problem, as per Singaporean home owners. Shabbily maintained dirty homes are not acceptable anywhere in the world, but particularly so in a small crowded island nation that is well-developed, but accepting of temporary migrants from developing neighbour nations.

Admittedly, in India or anywhere else for that matter, nobody wants to let out a home to a slob. I remember this middle-aged couple from my New Delhi neighbourhood, circa nineteen eighties; when they vacated their barsati flat they also left behind  a stunned and furious home-owner staring at soot-blackened and greasy kitchen, along with a dirty living room (the sole room).

The terrace flat was redone -- and not let out for the next six months.

I must make a point here --that poverty does not necessarily equate with slovenliness. My maid once mentioned that she kept a better home than some of her employers. You can have enough money and still reside in an indisciplined poorly kept home.

Part of the problem, as a net commenter mentioned, is the fact that Indians, especially men, are used to having a maid clean up after them. So a society sans help/maids --it's a problem initially, for an Indian on his own, abroad. And yes, even women can be slobs.

 Mostly, the wife is perhaps too tired to do all the cleaning, all the time.

 A family needs to be involved totally, together, in running a lean, mean, clean home. And Indian men need to help beyond the random token jab at housekeeping (when the wife is ill).

 Luckily, more men are now seen to be willing participants in housekeeping.

Or you are going to end up with a Singapore-like situation:  NRI not welcome.

It's a tricky situation. A home-owner is generally apprehensive about the fate of property being let out.While the rent is welcome, property damage is not. And mixed multi-cultural societies are fertile breeding ground for prejudice and discrimination.

 Ironically, it happens here in India, Indian  against Indian. We have all heard of Mumbai's predominantly  vegetarian housing societies and their refusal to entertain non-vegetarian tenants. But I am pretty sure that few would have heard of cases like this one-- a US based lady refusing to rent out a newly built Chennai home to an Indian family, preferring instead, an expatriate tenant. Her reasoning (besides the big bucks expected) --  the home would be better maintained. Of course this incident happened a couple of decades back --  and a developed India with a richer middle-class may now  not be host to such irrational biases.

Most residents, whether Indian or otherwise, we try and run ship-shape homes. And some criticism against Indian style living – it sticks in my gut. An Indian commenter from Australia noted that Indian homes look slovenly because of clothes flapping and drying away. Excuse me you shallow Aussie NRI. Freshly washed clothes on a clothesline dry up in a few hours, get folded, then stored away. A few hours of residential symmetry lost, but so much of energy saved. Yes, aesthetics do matter, but to me, saving the planet and its resources matters far more. Hand wash and sun-drying help in saving of  water and electricity, besides the clothes too, occasionally. A blanket social ban on clotheslines, -- not acceptable, in my book. A discreet clothesline should be well in order.

What is required is a judicious acceptance of Asian and Western lifestyles. Indians cook more at home, often from scratch. We live pretty healthy lives, are economical by choice, and ecologically too we are doing our bit, have been doing so for years.

So give us a break. Our homes are generally good. It’s the streets that need cleaning.

But  that’s another rant, India's  dirty urban spaces.Another day, another post.


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Two recent book reviews for Sunday Deccan Herald

This is the second time that I  have reviewed a Shobhan Bantwal book. The Unexpected Son was released in in India in August 2013.

Here is my review  :

And here is Shobhan Bantwal's  homepage:

The prolific  Canadian writer Margaret Atwood has recently come out with 'Maddaddam', the third and final installment of her science fiction trilogy.

More about the book and its predecessors, here :

And here is my review of Maddaddam :

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Book Review of Jump Cut

Jump Cut
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli
Harper Collins Publishers India
Pages: 293
Price: Rs.299/-

The  link above leads to my  review in the New Indian Express.It is a slightly shorter version of the original piece   -- which I am sharing here, below, on my blog.

                              Ray Raman and Friends (to say nothing of Dog Raj)

With apologies to Jerome K Jerome (author of a comic classic) and Krishna Shastri Devulapalli (Chennai-based author of his second book Jump Cut), -- the title of this review is my own contributory header to a book that  has charmed me as much as KSD’s first (the hilarious Ice Boys in Bell Bottoms, 2011).

 Set in India’s bustling Tamil film industry, Jump Cut is ironically reminiscent of a favourite film, Khosla ka Ghosla (a 2006 Hindi film comedy on real-estate scamming). Both relate tales of exploiters getting their comeuppance, sport an irreverent air, and speak up for the underdog.

 In main Jump Cut (a film-editing term) is a seriocomic credit-heist caper dealing with the familiar subject of credit-theft in our various film-industry ‘woods’. Plenty of mediaspace has been devoted to the perennial problem of intellectual property rights violations, and stealing sans compensation. But whilst the thieves win mostly, occasionally a Ram Sampath wins too – and here, in fiction, a son avenges his cheated father.

And so you have the tale of the US-based Ray (full name Satyajit Ray Raman, son of film- scriptwriter and veteran cineaste Raman), in India to attend on his hospitalized dad. Post-funeral, Ray discovers that professional heartbreak is the root cause of his father’s untimely heart-attack and quick demise. Raman’s diaries, scripts and conscientious associates reveal to the son, the father’s unhappy and unsuccessful professional life.

The villain is revealed soon enough – Raman’s associate-employer Rajarajan, the non-entity turned hugely successful writer-director. Ray soon   becomes aware of the perfidy his film buff  father was subjected to, the numerous ideas and scripts stolen without a thought. After an initial attempt to appeal to Rajarajan’s non-existent conscience, Ray employs the help of friends and sympathetic helpmeets (including Raman’s dog Dog Raj, so named since ‘anyone who is anyone in Tamil films is a Raj’) -- and thus begins a bizarre revenge-revel, that’s enjoyable to read even as one wonders whether such an elaborate prank could actually be pulled off. Incidentally, the book is a visual read, much like a film script.

Ray’s first meeting with the loathsome but savvy Rajarajan is a scene straight out of a satirical film on the movie industry. A tad exaggerated maybe, but effective enough. One begins to root for Ray and read on to understand how the impossible is achieved, how an ordinary man (with a little help from friends, faithful workers and said dog) is able to turn the tables on somebody who seems infallible and untouchable despite being a crook.

The novel plots and zips along to a satisfying ‘gotcha’ culmination. Concurrently, there are passing hilarious asides on the local film scenario –‘first-name-only demigods’ uniquely southern, the politico-cinema world of TN, language chauvinism and attendant hypocrisies….thus you have the fictional Tamil lyricist Chentamizh Chelvan (native of Tadepalligudem, AP).

There's a  bit of magic realism mixed up  with all the filmi shenanigans and revenge-plans. The late father makes sudden appearances.... a few instances seem inexplicable, while one early incident has a hilarious explanation.

  A rich cast of characters (including some quirky and liberated Chennai-ites) livens up the book -- but changing adaptable Chennai is an important character too. ‘The city had grown aimlessly, bringing white-collar folk to shirtless areas’.

 Locals rule with their unapologetically expressed Tamil slang.  An auto driver expects ‘untime’ extra fare for a midnight ride. 
KSD’s language often delights: ‘The car let out a smoker’s cough and died.’

Ultimately, there is satisfying closure; in love too.

An empathetic, insightful, fun read, Jump Cut works. And if you enjoy  watching films and reading film related writing, do give this book a chance.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Tamil writer discovered (in translation)

Thanks to two recent review assignments I have discovered a Tamil writer, the late  Sundara Ramaswamy (1931-2005). Thanks also  to Penguin Classics for introducing this lesser known writer to  an uninformed readership. Mr Ramaswamy deserves to be read, his particular Tamil-Travancore-Nagercoil world understood and appreciated. The writer was  fondly known known as 'SuRa' in literary circles

Here is a link to the recent releases of Sundara Ramaswamy's translated works.

And here  are the links to my reviews of two 'SuRa' gems.

Here is Mr. Sundara  Ramaswamy himself.