April 30, 2006


Posted in Uncategorized at 10:03 am by falstaff

JAP’s post today about wierdos at Delhi Airport made me think of my own memories of IGI Domestic Terminal A. I’ve spent more time than I care to remember in that terminal – for close to two years I was on the Consultant Travel Plan (aka ‘take two flights and call me on Monday morning’) – first flight out Saturday morning to Delhi, last flight in Sunday night back to Bombay. When you get to the point where you meet the gentlemen with the henna-ed hair and the walkie-talkie who manages boarding gates at IGI more often than you do your closest friends, you know you have lifestyle issues.

At any rate: Delhi Airport. The thing I hate about Delhi Airport (other than its tendency to get all mystical and coy and hide itself behind veils of smog just when you have an urgent meeting to make) is its complete lack of decent book stores. My memories of airports, much like my memories of cities in general, consist mostly of the books I buy there. So Heathrow is forever linked in my head to a copy of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, and Chennai airport (which I’ve visited all of twice) is the source of my collected short stories of Saul Bellow. And Bombay, of course, has Arjandas Gangadas [1], which is where pretty much my entire Robert Jordan collection, as well as a good number of my Calvinos come from.

This may seem like a pedantic quibble (I can see Veena preparing to shout ‘book snob’!) but the thing is, having a good bookstore in an airport is a real help. To begin with, it gives you something useful and amusing to do while you wait for your flight to be announced. Second, it means that every time your flight gets delayed and you realise that you’ve already read two of the three books you’re carrying and have kind of lost enthusiasm for the third, you’ve got back up. A good bookshop is like a boredom first aid kit – no airport should be without one.

For me personally, Arjandas and co. were particularly important because with the crazy hours I was working I almost never had time to actually make it to a bookstore. I mean I’d go to stuff like the Strand Book Sale, but just regular in-flight reading was a problem. There were weeks when I actually had to dip into the dozens of unread books I had sitting at home in order to fortify myself for a flight (oh horrors!). So that tiny little bookstore [2] in Bombay was my only real opportunity to get in half an hour’s worth of book-browsing (plus how can you not love a bookstore that’s open at 6 am in the morning?).

Delhi, to the best of my knowledge, has nothing similar. The one time I made the mistake of wandering into the ‘bookshop’ at Delhi airport, the only things I managed to find were a) a whole bunch of guidebooks on India, b) a bunch of Kushwant Singh joke books c) the latest Sidney Sheldon and d) children’s colouring books. I’ve seen more variety on the pavements of CP.

The one thing Delhi Airport does have in its favour (as JAP points out) is the Cafe Coffee Day [3]. An authentic caffeine source is obviously a major plus for any airport. The trouble is that I don’t actually like the airport Cafe Coffee Day outlet. For one thing it’s always understaffed (I should say that everything that follows is based largely on my experience from two years ago – things may have changed since – though my experience with the one time I passed through Delhi Airport this January suggests they haven’t). Apparently the people who staff this outlet have never figured out that airport outlets may actually need to have different timings from regular cafes. So if you catch one of the early morning flights out of the airport, you’ll always find one sleepy looking guy behind the counter who’s always surprised to see the number of people who start queuing up for coffee around 6:30 am. Who knew that all these people were going to show up at the airport that early in the morning? What in earth could have motivated them? [4]

My bigger complaint against the outlet, though, is their complete inability to get their heads around the concept of a double espresso. Here’s how the drill goes. You walk up to the counter. You ask for a double espresso. The guy behind the counter instantly goes into his clockwork spiel about how espresso is extra-strong black coffee. You give him the look that says he’s such a low form of life you don’t know why you’re still wasting time talking to him. You say, yes, I know that, that’s why I want it. He looks disbelieving. He says “Are you sure, sir?”, like you’d just asked him to perform an abortion. “Yes, I’m sure”, you say, in as loud and distinct a voice as possible (wondering if there’s a consent form somewhere you have to sign), “and could you make it a double”.

The guy turns around, stares at the board. Then informs you that they don’t serve double espresso. You tell him yes, you know that, but they serve single espressos don’t they – all he has to do is put two single espressos in a cup. He shakes his head violently. He has limits, he seems to say, he’s prepared to be kind to you, but there is an ethical line he will not cross. Putting two shots of an espresso in a single cup is practically illegal – he could lose his license to dish out coffee from an airport kiosk for something like that.

You try reasoning with him. They do extra shots of espresso, don’t they, how about if he gives you an espresso, with a shot of espresso added to it? He thinks about this for a minute, then his moral compass swings back firmly to No. He can’t do that either. By this time you’re beginning to lose your temper. Just for the heck of it you ask for THREE single espressos. He looks a little worried at this, but can’t see a way to refuse. He places the three espressos on the counter, each one accompanied by about four sachets of sugar and a cup of water – as if espresso was some kind of dire medicine. Or hemlock. You brush these aside. Then, still standing at the counter, and with visible contempt, you pour all three shots of espresso into a single cup, drain it to the bottom in a single go, slam the cup back on the counter, and walk away.

And the next time you’re at that counter, you just order a latte, because you don’t have the strength to go through that all over again.

So much for Cafe Coffee Day [4]. The real source of amusement at Delhi Airport (especially if you’re interested in watching wie…, errr, studying human nature) is the whole identifying baggage thing. Why they actually make you go through this is beyond me, but on any given day there’ll always be at least 10% of the people around who will not be familiar with this arcane custom [5]. And it’s always fun to watch them make the discovery, which usually happens just as their plane is boarding, meaning that every now and then the relative calm of the airport security area is broken by the urgent cries of uncle-jis leaping bravely into action, leaving their wives at the boarding gate with clear instructions not to let the flight take off without them (as though otherwise she would just have sauntered on to the plane and not noticed that her husband wasn’t with her; oh, and presumably on the assumption that the sheer bulk of her presence at the boarding gate will keep the plane from taking off) and running as fast as their pot-bellied bodies will allow to go identify their luggage (as I understand it, there’s now a movement to make the 126 metre Delhi Airport Baggage Identification Dash a formal Olympic Event). It’s annoying if you happen to be on the same flight as them, but otherwise it’s most entertaining.


[1] I think that’s the name, though I’m not sure. I’ve always thought of it as ‘that little bookshop’ in Bombay airport.

[2] If you’ve never been there – it really is microscopic – if you’re lucky and there’s no one else in there, you might just about be able to breathe, but that’s about it. That’s by normal human standards, of course, by Bombay standards it’s a massive block of real estate practically wasted

[3] Though the Bombay airport terminal does have a Cadbury’s vending machine, stocked full of delicious chocolate. That machine’s a real technical marvel by the way. I, in my ignorance, once tried getting a bar of Temptations out of it by actually inserting money in the slot and pressing a button to specify my selection. Fortunately, I was stopped from doing this by an irate attendant who came charging up behind me and demanded to know what I wanted and what I thought I was doing. After he’d calmed down a bit and realised that I was a bona fide customer and not some Luddite out to destroy all the machines of the world, he then proceeded to show me how the machine really worked. He took my notes from me, counted them, slipped them into his cash box, then proceeded to open the front of the vending machine, calmly pick out the chocolate I wanted by hand, give it to me, count out my change and hand that back as well, and wish me a good day. By the time I moved to the US I’d got so used to this procedure that the first time I tried getting Sprite out of a vending machine here, I just stood pointedly in front of the machine and waited for the attendant to come by and serve me.

[4] For more griping about this Cafe Coffee Day outlet and its clientele (and Delhi Airport in general), see my post here

[5] Again, for those of you not familiar with this – Delhi Airport requires you to go ‘identify’ your checked in baggage before you board the flight. This means that while you’re traipsing your way through the security checkpoint, your bags have taken the low road and made their way to a little holding area off to the side, where they’re waiting anxiously for you to come and claim them for your own. The actual identification process is supposed to consist (as I understand it) of the attendant actually matching your baggage tag to the one on your bag, thus confirming that you are actually boarding the flight along with your bag (though in an age of suicide bombers, I’m not sure how much security that guarantees) but in my experience it usually consists of you pointing to your bag and some guy with a sketch pen making a mark on it. I personally have twice accidentally identified other people’s bags for them (you know – you point to your bag and the guy makes a mark on the one next to it and then you say no, no, not that one, THAT one, and he obediently marks your bag as well, but the first bag has been tagged now and will get put on the plane anyway). In theory, however, bags that don’t get identified don’t get put on the plane – meaning that if it is your first time flying through Delhi Airport, and you’re not the kind of person who speaks Klingon and can therefore actually understand the announcements over the loudspeaker, you’re almost certain to have that panicked moment where you go running to the holding area to make sure that you’re not leaving your bags behind.


April 29, 2006

The Tower of History

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:32 am by falstaff

“As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, nor of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most captivating of the passages. It is the ability to participate in this conversation, and not the ability to reason cogently, to make discoveries about the world, or to contrive a better world, which distinguishes the human being from the animal and the civilized man from the barbarian.”

Michael Oakeshott, quoted by Russell Baker in the New York Review of Books

It occurs to me this morning (see how much you can get done if you don’t waste time shaving?) that History is the true Tower of Babel. Once, perhaps, there was purpose to it; once we built story upon story hoping to pierce the very vault of heaven [1]. But now we know that the future is a sky we shall never touch, and History has become just a place we live in.

Age upon age, floor upon floor, men speak their different tongues [2], live out their crowded, ordinary lives. Real estate is expensive here – it’s not easy to get a place – so you would think the conversation between those who did make it would be truly sublime. But it is not so. In truth, History resembles nothing more than an after-event cocktail party, the kind where everyone who’s anyone is invited, and no one is quite sure who the host is. Everywhere you look people laugh and quarrel, swap anecdotes and recipes, check out each other’s clothes and gadgets. Someone is always standing in the corner, sulking. Someone else is rapping on his glass with a fork, trying desperately to get everyone’s attention so he can make his big speech. Someone is shouting into the deaf old woman’s ear, asking her if there’s anything else she needs. The intense, glowering young man has finally decided to make his move. The girl in white recognises this, and is afraid.

And all the while we are conscious of the footsteps above us, the dimly heard shuffling of the future, wondering what it is that they might be doing up there, and whether their party is really so different from ours.

And what of the future, directly above us? Does it also show such curiosity towards us as we do towards it? No, for it has its own future to listen to. And besides, what is there to be curious about? Everyone there has passed through the past, the facts are known, are remembered, and it is only those who stand by the windows, and hear the snatches of conversation floating up through the air, who realise that they have misjudged the past, that it too has evolved, that it is utterly different from how they remember it.

The view from one side of this tower is pretty much the same no matter what floor you’re on, as is the view from the other side (though being a tower, and circular, there are as many sides to History as there are angles). As we climb higher, our view broadens, true, we can see further. But outside of this tower there is really nothing to see – just a low plain running to whatever horizon we happen to be staring at. And going higher also means that the details become more blurred, till we can barely see the ground we stand on.

There is no leaving the tower, of course. There are no elevators, and the way down the winding staircase, even if the guards were to let us through, is much too long for any one man. That is why we continue to invent the future, that is why we continue to build. Not because we have any hope of finding heaven, but because what other way is there for us to escape the crowded, smoky confines of this present of ours but by building a future on top of it? And so, every now and then, a group of young people will break from the herd, climb their way up to the roof of this edifice (some will fall on the way) and build for themselves a new story, whitewashed and roomy and perfect. Except, of course, the minute their work is finished the people they were trying to leave behind will pour into it, the future will be hijacked by the crowd, and they shall be pushed again to the edges, to the windows, staring out from their suffocation.

We could jump, you say, but in truth even that is impossible. This is where the tower stops being a tower – gravity in time works differently from gravity in space. If you were to throw yourself out of History, you would not fall back into the past [3] – instead you would hang suspended in mid-air, with nowhere to go. You would become (the word is Kertesz’s) fateless.

What are we to do then? How are we to escape this present, this press of bodies – some living, some dead – that ceaselessly push up against us? We cannot. Our only hope is to turn our back on this mass of humanity, lean as far as we can out of the window, and with as loud a voice as we can muster, shout our name into the sky. And hope that someone, up there in the future, will hear us.

[1] There is the question, of course, of whether History is a circle or a straight line. Personally, I’m of the opinion that it’s a spiral, though whether we’re going up or down is a matter of taste.

[2] What they’re actually saying, of course, is usually the same thing the people in all the other floors were saying. They just don’t know it because the words are different and the accents have changed. Which, of course, is the whole point of the Tower of Babel. Remember all that stuff about ‘divide and rule’? It’s right there, in Chapter 11 of Genesis:

“And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.

Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”

[3] At least not if you jump alone. If you managed to take the whole floor with you, then it may be possible to destroy History, but why would you want to? You’ll only have to start building it all over again.

Categories: ,

April 28, 2006

Plagiarise That

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:43 pm by falstaff

In other news, the discovery of an important new play by Samuel Beckett. This one’s bound to leave the audience speechless.


The Paladion Effect

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:01 am by falstaff

Okay, I realise this is my third post in under 24 hours, but what the hell.

Chandrahas’s post on Borges made me go and issue out a copy of Chronicles of Bustos Domecq from the library (it’s a delightful book, though not, perhaps, Borges’s best work). One of the pieces in the book struck me as particularly relevant to the current discussion on plagiarism.

In the piece, Borges (or rather Domecq), in his glorious mock-academic style, extolls the virtues of one Cesar Paladion. This extraordinary novelist, a true literary innovator of his time, takes the use of quotations in such masterworks as Eliot’s Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos to its logical extreme. If it’s legitimate to use entire lines by other authors in one’s own work in the name of inspiration, Paladion asks (and clearly, it is acceptable, even necessary, to use the same words as other writers), then why not a whole book?

Motivated by this idea, Paladion gives us such wonders as Emile, She, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Georgics (he is rumoured to have been at work on The Gospel According to St. Luke at the time of his death). Each of these masterworks consists of a single book-length quote from another author – Paladion, with the iron discipline of the true artist, does not add nor omit a single comma, nor does he commit the “all-too-easy vanity of writing a single new line”. Domecq, quoting Farrel du Bosc’s authoritative study, which in turn quotes the literary critic Myriam Powell-Paul Fort (don’t you just love Borges!) calls this an “amplification of units”, and argues that it is an act of signal genius, that the literary community has regrettably overlooked, perhaps because of the confusion occasioned in lesser minds by the apparent similarity of Paladion’s work to those of the writers he quotes, though in truth, of course, aside from their entire prose content, these works could not be more different.

Kaavya, are you listening?

Categories: , ,

April 27, 2006


Posted in Fiction at 9:17 pm by falstaff

“The sound of the tango is the sound of a rose weeping in the sunset”, he writes. “It is a carnal wound, one that requires all the agility of our youth to stitch it up again. All dance is ephemeral, but the tango, for all its dramatic frenzy, is doubly so, because underlying it is the eternal languor of violins. The tango is a flimsy fabric, flung proudly about, to hide the nakedness of the evening’s despair.”

He looks up from his typewriter. In the time it has taken him to write this paragraph, the light has got worse. The sound of his wife washing up in the kitchen fills the room with its clanging. Far away the traffic of the city sighs like an abandoned mistress.

“Have you noticed how no one ever smiles when they’re dancing a tango? This is because the very idea of pleasure is anathema to the dance. Laughter is the enemy, because it could detract from and destroy the sexual seriousness involved. If the tango is not to collapse into the ridiculous, it must maintain at all times its air of being in deadly earnest. As with all true art, absolute authenticity alone makes the illusion possible. A well danced tango is a ritual, a sacrifice. To laugh during it, would be like laughing in the middle of a sacred rite. “

He reaches for another cigarette, discovers it’s the last one in the pack. He’ll have to go down to get more. He tries to remember how long the shop stays open. He had better go soon.

“There is a sense in which every tango is a battle, fought between a man and a woman, with the dance floor for a battlefield and sex their only weapon. That is what all this flashing of limbs, all this feint and parry of gestures adds up to. Who wins in this battle is unimportant – surrender can be as much a victory as control – what matters is only the racing rhythm of the heartbeat that it leaves you with. It’s as though the dance were practise, as though the dancers were merely sharpening themselves against each other – like knives rubbed together until the sparks fly from their blades – preparing themselves for other, more desperate battles to come. Precision is everything in the tango, its fundamental grammar is that of stab and thrust and plunge, because it is the only way to puncture the swelling roundness of the music, its ripening sorrow.”

Is he being a little too over the top here? He reads over what he has written. It does seem a bit, well, florid. He shrugs. It’s probably what they’re looking for. The true Latin spirit. He grimaces, then writes on.

“Many people have accused the tango of being too grandoise, too exaggerated. ‘Why do we need all this fussy play-acting’, one North American critic writes, ‘when we can savour instead the simple yet sublime grace of the ballet’. To think this is to miss the very point of the tango. The ballet is founded on an idea of transcendence that the more down to earth tango simply does not believe in. At its heart, the philosophy of the tango is a faith in the overt and the overdone. If we live our life in these grand gestures, the tango seems to say, then surely the end, when it comes, shall arrive with a flourish. If we cannot hope for salvation, we can at least ensure that we go out with a bang.”

In the apartment, the radio coughs like an old radiator. A quick burst of static announces that the news is next. As the dusk gathers, he pushes his chair back, takes one last drag on his cigarette, stares unseeing at the scarred surface of his writing desk. He is remembering a time when the curfews were still a daily feature, when it was still possible to get shot going down to the corner store for a loaf of bread.


Such stuff as dreams are made on

Posted in Uncategorized at 7:32 am by falstaff

Is it possible to be a writer, or someone who likes to think of himself as a writer, or just a plain old bookworm, and not love The Tempest? Has there ever been a more indulgent, a more self-aggrandising fantasy for the literati? Which of us has sat through the first act without nodding along to “my library was dukedom large enough”? Betrayed by the crafty and self-seeking politicians who rule our world inspite of our superior wisdom, abandoned by the Caliban masses, who, unheedful of the grace we offer them, have chosen to worship some drunken carouser, turning their ingrate backs on our so potent art, socially shipwrecked, marooned on the island of ourself with only our own intelligence (and that, perhaps, of some doting but heedless child) to admire what wonders we have wrought herein, which of us has not longed for the power that Prospero wields? How wonderful it would be if we had a muse as obedient and nimble as Ariel, if poetry would flow so trippingly of our tongues. How marvellous it would be if by mere shake of pen and study of book we could command the world’s attention, bring the lost to knowledge, the innocent to love and (this is the best part) so reduce those who wrong us or are rude to us to subservience, that it may be in our strength to forgive them.

It is in the impossibility of this dream that the true comic potential of Shakespeare’s play lies. It is a tribute to the Bard’s incredible gift that he makes something so blatantly improbable seem so breathlessly real, making it possible to take the play, and therefore ourselves, seriously. To swell with almost Shelley-ian pride and exult in the notion of the poet as statesman, the philosopher as a man of action. This is the same fantasy that sustains academics in the illusion that their work makes a difference to the ‘real’ world. We believe it because we want to, because we need to. But you have only to step back for a minute to see how hilarious the whole thing really is, what an orgy of wish-fulfillment. Great comedy works by taking something small and hidden within us and blowing it up like a balloon and letting it float lightly in the hushed air of the theatre. And that is exactly what The Tempest does.

Except that Shakespeare being Shakespeare, the truth is subtler and more desperate than it seems at first, as it often is in life. Prospero, it turns out, will betray us. Will throw away his book, break his staff, abjure his now ‘rough’ magic. He will abandon this fiefdom of the imagination, that he is established lord of, returning to reclaim his place in the world even though it cost him dearly to do so (“every third thought shall be my grave”). It is an act of treachery against his fellow-magicians, an act that should make us cry out, with Browning “Just for a handful of silver he left us / just for a riband to stick in his coat”. Why does Prospero do this? How would it have been if he, beguiled by this world of ideas he had created, had chosen to have nothing more to do with his enemies, and remain, Selkirk-like, on his island, possibly stifling even his beloved daughter, when her need for other company proved too importunate?

How are we to take this return of Prospero’s? Is Shakespeare perhaps issuing us a warning, reminding us that the world exists and must be faced, sweet as the play may be to linger in. That we must use poetry as an asylum, retreating to it when we are lost and without hope, and leaving it behind when we have found “all of us ourselves”? Or is this self-inflicted exile merely Shakespeare’s way of distancing himself (and us) from all that is unattractive about Prospero – his overbearing pride, his manipulativeness, the evident supremacism that he brings to his relationship with Caliban? By having Prospero leave the island, is Shakespeare seperating the wheat from the chaff, the mortal from the spirit, and giving us leave, in doing so, to keep what we love about Prospero in the island of our hearts, and banish the rest from our memories, as being unworthy of our creed? Could the true salvation of man lie in reclaiming paradise and then leaving it of his own free will?

And is the choice really Prospero’s to make? Or is it rather Ariel’s, without whose power Prospero, for all his bluster, can do little, and whose impatience he has bought for the few hours he needs to finish his final opus, only by promising him his freedom. Who is the master here, who is the slave? If you have ever had the experience of writing something, then going back and reading it and not being able to believe that it came from your pen, you know (as Shakespeare, more than anyone else, doubtless did) that the muse is not so easily tamed, nor art so easily turned to our purposes. Ours is a pretend mastery – what little control we are granted is purchased through great study and enormous application, and even so we are more like to follow the spirit than to command it, shaping the garment of our commands to whatever motions its pleasure leads us to. Is all this playacting, the breaking of the staff, the repeatedly promised and finally given leave, merely the final gesture of an aging artist who knows his talents will no longer obey him?

Every time I read The Tempest, or watch it performed (as I did last night), I am struck by how much, even by his own standards, Shakespeare manages to pack into the play. How can one single play be about colonialism and government, about nature vs. reason and reason vs. art, about magic and innocence, about disposession and betrayal and vengeance and the virtue of forgiveness and, most of all, about music, about poetry? How can one play be about all of those things and still be a compelling, human drama, filled with unforgettable characters, moving speeches, and some of the finest verse ever written?

And yet for all that, there is a sense in which The Tempest is one long epilogue, a last Hurrah, a work that both celebrates the power of the imagination, and faces up to the reality that lies beyond. There is a deep sadness in the play, it shines like a lonely spotlight on the stage when Prospero steps forward to speak his last lines, to declare his charms o’erthrown. A great play is ending, the time of our release grows nigh. If the play is a simulacrum of life, then surely the short sleep of its ending is death, and we, its audience, must be released of it no less reluctantly than we would be of our own existence. Spells must be broken gently, if they are not to hurt.

Parting has never been a sweeter sorrow.

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April 26, 2006

Passing it on

Posted in Uncategorized at 10:39 am by falstaff

Oscar Wilde wrote: “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on.”

On the theory that the same principle applies to links, here are a couple of interesting articles that showed up in my mailbox this morning.

Crazy Snake Man writes in with an article about a new drive by the Maharashtra State Education Department to test quality of learning outcomes in schools and set up penalties / incentives for teachers in low performing / high performing schools. There’s clearly much that could be done to make the effort more comprehensive, but it’s heartening to see the quality of outcomes finally being given priority, and as I said in my earlier post, setting up appropriate incentive systems for teachers is key to improving the primary school system.

Meanwhile, B. points to an editorial in the HT that argues for the importance of primary education reform (rather than reservations in elite institutes) for achieving social equality. I’m not sure I agree with everything the authors are saying (some parts of the piece sound too much like they’re just ranting) but the overall point – that elite institutes should be privatised and the funds allocated to them spent on reforms in the primary sector – is one I support.

Finally, this is probably as good time as any to mention a mail S. sent me in response to my reservation post, saying that in her experience, the government’s a lot more responsive than I give them credit for in my post. Citing a number of examples where state governments have been very open to new initiatives her organisation is working on, S. writes:

“Wanted to say that at least in my limited experience, the govt has been terrific- very open, pretty grateful for the added insights, connections- I mean it took some time to build those relationships, but once you rope in both the political and the administrative cadre, things move both well and fast. Yes there are petty ego issues sometimes, but I think those kinds of things happen as much in the Indian pvt and non profit sectors too…Maybe it’s because we already have a very strong rep in govt systems, but maybe it’s also because policy makers are really fairly open to quality, non-threatening help and support.”

That doesn’t necessarily square with my own experience, and I still feel there’s a lot more the government could do to encourage private participation, but it’s good to keep in mind that there are organisations out there that have had positive experiences and instances when the government has been open and supportive.

Categories: ,


Posted in Uncategorized at 12:05 am by falstaff

You didn’t seriously think I was going to let this whole Kaavya Viswanathan thing go by without comment, did you [1]? According to the New York Times, Ms. Viswanathan now claims that the copying was “unintentional and unconscious” and that she wasn’t aware of how much she had “internalized Ms. McCafferty’s words.” Let’s leave aside, for a moment, the implausability of this argument (I mean okay, so we’ve all borrowed a phrase or two from Shakespeare without realising it, but 29 whole passages? Unconsciously? Come on! Forget the ethics of the thing, Harvard should throw her out just for coming up with so flimsy an excuse. I mean even Harvard’s most incompetent graduate has managed to come up with a more convincing story than that; true, Ms. Viswanathan doesn’t have Karl Rove on her team, but still!). The real question to me is this:

Is it better to be a manipulative little vixen who fooled everyone into thinking she was this hotshot teen phenomenon (I especially love the ‘high pressure Asian and Indian families’ pitch – so eminently marketable), conned her way into Harvard, got herself a sweet book deal and an option from DreamWorks, all at an impossibly young age, and almost, almost got away with it OR the kind of ditsy teenager who internalises a book called “Sloppy Firsts”[2] by someone who’s a (former) editor at Cosmo (can it get more cliched than that)?

Personally, I’d cop to the plaigarism charge any day of the week. After all, law suits are one thing, but if you don’t have taste what do you have? Being a chick-lit writer (I believe the term is ‘young adults’. Ya, right.) is bad enough, but at least you can point out that you get paid for writing the stuff (which is more than I can say for my dissertation, for example, which is almost certain to arouse no interest whatsoever from Dreamworks). Actually paying to read this stuff, however, and then lapping it up as it were God’s own gift to the written word, is just unforgivable.

It’s at times like these that I’m reminded of the words of that greatest of all mathematicians to come out of Harvard.

P.S. I particularly love the agent’s defense of Kaavya at the bottom of the NY Times piece. Apparently, it’s just that “teenagers tend to adopt each other’s language”!

[1] As someone who’s literate, I must, of course, strenuously deny any suggestion that I might actually have considered reading or even so much as heard of Ms. Viswanathan before the current controversy broke out. As far as I’m concerned she’s just a silly nuisance who’s taking up space in the Books section of the Times which by rights should be going to Philip Roth.

[2] The other books are called, apparently, ‘Second Helpings’ and ‘Charmed Thirds’, thus combining deathless prose with what, for their readers, is doubtless advanced mathematics. One wonders what the next book in the series will be called. ‘Holding Fourth’, perhaps?


April 25, 2006

Taking arms against a sea of biographies

Posted in Uncategorized at 8:10 am by falstaff

Have you ever noticed how the minute you read or learn about something new, you suddenly start seeing it everywhere? As though the Universe were conspiring to give you as much exposure to it as possible? I’m sure there’s a reason for the phenomenon, something, doubtless, to do with attention (Kundera talks about this somewhere – I think it’s in Unbearable Lightness – something about how coincidence is just what we happen to notice), but it still always strikes me as uncanny. [1]

At any rate, my new word for the day yesterday (courtesy of Ash over at DP [2]) was fisking and the next thing I read is this delightful NYRB article by Anne Barton reviewing a bunch of new Shakespeare ‘biographies’[3]. I particularly loved the bits where she tears into Clare Asquith. It’s wonderful how scathing Barton manages to be, how entirely dismissive (she ends the review of Asquith’s book by suggesting, politely, that she focus her future literary endeavours on Southwell, and leave Shakespeare alone!) while still being logical and objective. Make no mistake – under the thin veneer of scholarship this is a rant, but it’s a classy, academic rant, and that’s what makes it so delicious.

Oh, and don’t miss the end of the article either – the bit where Barton outlines, citing the book by David Ellis that she’s reviewing, the six strategies for writing Shakespeare biographies. And concludes with:

“Looking at the seemingly never-ending flow of new Shakespeare biographies over the last decade, it is hard not to feel that (barring the unlikely emergence of any important new information) a moratorium on such works really ought to be imposed. There may still be a book to write about just why lives of Shakespeare continue to proliferate—and to sell—as there is for a proper investigation of the psychology uniting all those continued attempts to demonstrate that he was only the front man for the true author, whether Marlowe, Edward de Vere, Bacon, Sir Henry Neville, or Mary Sidney.”

P.S. Meanwhile, in Falstaff land, Shakespeare month continues. Coming up: a week’s worth of passages from Shakespeare on Poi-tre. Watch that space.


[1] Oh, and in case you’ve never noticed this before, don’t worry. If there’s anything in the theory, you should start observing the phenomenon right about now.

[2] Another day, another DP reference. Ho hum.

[3]Personally, I’ve never seen the point of all this speculation about the ‘real’ Shakespeare anyway. Who cares? I’d much rather re-read the plays.

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April 24, 2006

Mister Brown to you

Posted in Uncategorized at 9:44 am by falstaff

A couple of links from DP (see! see! I do love you guys!) to posts talking about racism (this one by Dinesh, and this other one by Amardeep featuring an immigration incident with Amartya Sen) inspired me (hey, it’s Monday morning – I’m grasping at straws here) to do my own post about racism.

Personally, I’ve always been fairly impressed with how genuinely multi-cultural the West (by which I mean, of course, primarily the US [1]) is. I mean okay, so you’ll get the occasional oddball who’ll have an issue with you because you didn’t come over with the Mayflower (like the guy at the Philadelphia Airport check-in counter who spent ten minutes ‘checking’ whether he could let me on to the plane if the only id I had was my Indian passport – as though it were okay to let me into the country with the thing, but not okay to let me fly to Greensboro, NC on it), but there are messed up people everywhere.

The point is that, at least in my experience, these incidents are few and far between, and, which is more important, they are cautious and implied, rather than explicit. In general, even the most bigoted among us recognise that racial prejudice, if proven against them, could get them into serious trouble. So they’re extremely careful about what they’ll try to pull. You can argue that that kind of political correctness is a sham, but it’s a comforting sham, because the fact that we’re all forced to adhere to it is a statement about where we want to go as a society. That’s a standard that Indian society itself, as many people have pointed out, often fails to meet.

Ironically enough, my own sense is that, being an Indian student in the US, the stereotype actually works in my favour. I remember flying in to the US a few years ago on a tourist visa to meet my then girlfriend, and being subjected to a long list of questions, simply because I didn’t fit into any of the familiar moulds that the immigration folks were used to dealing with. No, I wasn’t a student. No, I didn’t have family in the US. Yes, I understood that I wasn’t allowed to work on a tourist visa, but I didn’t want to anyway. I was just on vacation, meeting up with friends. They couldn’t believe it. People were supposed to go to India for exotic vacations, not the other way around. Hell, Columbus, Ohio doesn’t even have a Lonely Planet guide of its own.

Now, though, I get no such hassle. Being an Indian student in the US is such a cliche that the bored looking immigration officer at EWR didn’t even bother to comment on it. He just stamped my passport with a bored expression and waved me on.

The only time I can actually claim to have experienced blatant racism was in Switzerland. I was at a conference there, and I and a couple of other Indian students were coming back from a day-trip to Interlaken when a scruffy looking guy on the train started shouting at us. It was wierd. There was no provocation, no obvious trigger, one minute we’re sitting peacefully in the train, admiring the scenery, the next minute this guy’s glaring down at us and ranting about how ‘people like us’ are ruining the country and it’s obscene how we all show up here like insects, etc. etc. We were so surprised we let him go on for a good two or three minutes. Then, at some point, he said something like “Who the hell asked you people to come here anyway?”, to which we promptly replied “errrmm…actually the University, along with the Ministry of Education, invited us to come present at a conference” (okay, so we made up the Ministry of Education bit, but you know). That shut him up. It was one of the sweetest moments of my life.

The point is though that that’s pretty much the only time I can remember being actively attacked or heckled for being Indian. Which doesn’t mean that people aren’t surprised when you don’t fit the stereotype, of course. I remember going for the Lynyrd Skynyrd concert in Philly last year, where my friend and I weren’t just the only South Asian people present, we were probably the only people who didn’t vote Republican, didn’t eat grits for breakfast on a regular basis and were actually wearing trousers and a shirt! You should have seen the shock on the faces of the cowboys sitting around drinking beer from the back of their pick-up trucks when we showed up. They couldn’t believe we were there to listen to Skynyrd. But they weren’t upset about it – once they got over their initial surprise (which took a while – it was a hot day and their beer cooler was already half empty) they were entirely delighted with the idea that people had heard of their favourite band half way across the world.

We’re all welcome to make our assumptions about other people. Just as long as we’re willing (and happy) to find that we’re wrong.

P.S. If you were reading the post carefully, you’re probably wondering why I spend so much time travelling to morgues like Columbus or Greensboro. I know. I keep asking myself that too.

[1] It hasn’t escaped my notice that neither of the incidents in the posts DP links to actually happen in the US. But I’m not going to let something as trivial as factual consistency stop me, am I?

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