Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Unreal Aliens



                                                  

             A Romp with Real people in an Unreal World



  This hilarious political satire is a must read for any Indian ( or India follower) familiar with the loony world of Indian social media, with its seriously weird khichdi-cast of characters that populate the political- social circus of our public life. And Unreal Aliens presents the full parade -- mufflered mustachioed politician at large, a sleepy-head retired PM, verbose cricket commentator making painful puns, actors with unsought opinions,TV anchor stars who bully and outshout panelists and public alike, business savvy yoga gurus...and among others, a prime minister with a penchant for spiffy suits, colourful headgear and careful camera angles. Nobody is spared, many are named, caricatured, made fun of in a goofy, pretty bold, but good-natured manner....and one can't help but guffaw even if one is travelling by train while reading the book as I was. It's an unreal setting with real people -- and luckily no one's complaining -- and so may it remain. We need these laughs to survive tough times.

The book is authored by Karthik Laxman, a co-founder of the popular satirical- spoof website The Unreal Times, that till very recently, devoted itself to the honourable and necessary task of cocking a snook at our more colourful public figures. The website has (sadly) shut down , as of November 30, though one understands that it's Facebook avatar survives. UnReal Aliens is the second book that has emerged from this stable -- as a follow up to their first book Unreal Elections (2014), a satirical send up of the 2014 Indian election that proved a game changer.

This second book has plenty of chuckles -- and a trajectory that reminds me of popular Hindi cinema. It's got a rip - roaring first half, a somewhat muddling middle ( thanks to the author's love for Hollywood films like 'Inception' with its confusing dream within a dream concept) -- and a climax that is made to work despite its absurdity. That laughs continue right up to the climax -- which left me with a startled ( and satisfactory) what the eff feeling....but I am getting ahead.

In short the story is all about the world's first alien 'invasion'. And who do you think gets the honour? No, not good ol' USA which has made a gazillion films that show Americans saving the world from scary aliens .

A small company of aliens land in Modi's India, circa, 2016! And at the start, these guys come in peace -- similar to the American screen hero ET or our Indian Jadoo ( Koi Mil Gaya) , or the recent PK. Led by their commander Qaal-za, these grey- skinned hairy , four-armed Morons from the distant planet Mor are in search of their lost Prince, kidnapped decades ago, suspected to have been deposited ( and lost) in India. There is bonhomie ( covered by the media, but of course), a joint ' Mann ki Baat session to share mushy details about their budding friendship', plenty of talk about future joint ventures ( like 'manufacturing alien spaceships and saucers under the Make in India programme')....all of which dissipates into an uncomfortable standoff, when the aliens reveal their intention of searching for their long lost Prince.

But Modi and co refuse outright to give up any Indian who may or may not be the kidnapped alien prince. Though they do arrange a Lagaan style cricket match, between the inexperienced newbies and the Indian cricket team -- a riotously funny account; and this section alone makes the book worth its modest price. The visitors lose the match ( after some other- worldly shots) and a fair chance to search for their prince. Then the unhappy delegation now get bushwhacked by the waiting forces around them -- the opposition politicians, the TRP hungry media, our opportunistic rogue neighbour Pakistan ever - ready to create trouble for India.

And now the angry aliens really invade India. More Morons arrive , landing quietly in places as far apart as Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu ( at an Amma canteen in Chennai, no less) , Mumbai's TOI office, Lutyen's Delhi...the nation is at war, as zombified Indian citizens and a clueless central government wonder what to do.

It's a crazy rollercoaster ride from here, involving dreams within dreams. There's plenty of action, farce, hilarity, confusion, confrontation and a concocted climax that concludes a zany UnReal story situation, but peopled by real guys like Subramaniam Swamy as the 'Inception' inspired leader of the defence team -- which stars among others, worthies like a sleepy retired PM, a sleep inducing economist cum former PM -- and the mufflerwala CM with his perpetual complaint :' Sab mile huey hai ji.'

The book's varied and merry cast includes a politician mother and her child-like grown up son -- we know who. Of course, the author does not shy away from naming anybody. In any case the caricatured characters are all inhabitants of an UnReal impossible ( yet life like) India -- so any litigation angle is taken care of, I guess.

The book is very visual, reading like screenplay for a satirical film. It's all in good fun -- though Rahul , poor chap does get it more than others.

Ultimately what sticks in memory are the very life like situations and dialogues. -- drawn out as exaggerated subversive caricatures. Sample :

On the Northern outskirts of Islamabad....stood Pakistan's proudest educational institution, the Pakistan Institute of Terrorism Science, more popularly known as 'The PITS' in its military- jihadi circles.

General Raheel Sharif is speaking to the new students : 'Our faculty is truly world class. Seven of our faculty members are Nobel Laureates in terrorism, which means they have made it to the top ten of the US' most wanted list. Hafiz Saeed is a faculty member here. Al Zawahiri teaches every alternate year. Osama Bin Laden was a residential professor at PITS before his um, retirement.'

Beneath the humour real issues are quietly addressed. A teenage girl in a UP village is captured by the aliens but manages to escape, reaches home -- and realises that one of her brothers is threatening to kill her for 'bringing dishonour to our family.' The girl flees -- back to the spaceship and her erstwhile captors.

The ironies of India 2016, have been captured well in a most delightful manner. UnReal Aliens is well worth a read or two.






Some book reviews published in the Sunday Herald


                                                                               
              
                                              Published on September 14, 2014


                                                                         

                       
                                                       Published on July 12, 2015

                                                                               

                                                                            
                                              Published on May 22, 2016

                    
                                                                     


                                                 Published on November 27, 2016

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 easwarilibrary.com 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

WELCOME TO " A FAMILY RESTAURANT "!
OWNED AND OPERATED BY THE BANKOPOULOS FAMILY SINCE 1929

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



A SHADOW BEEHIVE

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  :

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/361318/a-post-past.html

And here is Shobhan Bantwal's  homepage:  http://www.shobhanbantwal.com/

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 :  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MaddAddam

And here is my review of Maddaddam :  http://www.deccanherald.com/content/367973/apocalypse-amp-after.html