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I'd write more, like you said I should. If only, there was more to me.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006


If there is one thing that our selectors can't learn from the past, it selected the movies that should make it to the Oscars.

After the disastrous 'Paheli' interlude, the selectors who have chosen Rang de Basanti (RDB) as India's entry to the Oscars in the Foreign Film category have got us guessing again. How and when does a movie make great cinema? In this case, not just great cinema, but something that is going to be the face of Indian cinema, if it does make it to the short list.

Like last year, it wasn't as if the selectors weren't spoilt for choices. Among other movies, there was the brilliant Bollywood rendition of Shakespeare's Othello in the form of 'Omkara'. Then there was the blockbuster 'Lage Raho Munnabhai' . But they chose ahem... RDB. A generation may awaken, but our selectors won't.

If I remember correctly if a movie has too much English dialogue, chances are it won't even make it to the short-list. And RDB sure did. Apart from that, it's up against Deepa Mehta's 'Water', which is Canada's entry in this category.

So your guess is as good as mine - chances are RDB is not going to hold too much water. There goes another opportunity to stride down the red carpet!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Depends on which side of the fence you are on, you would see either former US President or Fox newsman Chris Wallace in the line of fire.

Wallace asked the question, Clinton pretty much flew off the rocker, pounded his clip board and sent the ratings soaring. 'Fox News Sunday' which aired the contentious interview recorded its best ratings in nearly three years.

It all started when Wallace asked Clinton- "Why didn't you do more to put bin Laden and Al Qaeda out of business when you were President? Why didn't you do more, connect the dots and put them out of business?"

Clinton exploded calling Fox News a "right-wing bullying and propaganda machine." He also said that he had tried to "get bin-Laden" and implied that President Bush has not.

There was more to come....
Bill Clinton: "You did Fox's bidding on this show, you did your nice little conservative hit job on me."
Chris Wallace: "I asked a question, you don't think it was a legitimate question?"
Bill Clinton: (Clinton taps Wallace's clip board at this point)
"It was a perfectly legitimate question, but I want to know how many people in the Bush administration you ask this question to.

Clinton even accused Wallace of arranging the interview "under false pretenses" by saying it would focus largely on his efforts to fight global warming.

But when Wallace offered to discuss the global warming initiative, Clinton insisted on finishing his answer to the questions about terrorism:

" ask me about terror and Al Qaeda with that sort of dismissive thing when all you have to do is read Richard Clarke's book to look at what we did in a comprehensive, systematic way to try to protect the country against terror. And you got that little smirk on your face, and you think you're so clever. But I had responsibility to try to protect the country. I tried and I failed to get Bin Laden. I regret it. But I did try and I did everything I thought I
responsibly could."

It was interesting to watch the whole saga unfold. For one, it showed that no amount of media training can ever teach you how to keep your emotions in check. Or maybe the intent was not to keep emotions in check. While it was almost amusing to watch Clinton that angry, what left me stumped was Wallace himself. Why wasn't he retorting, why was he attributing his questions to the emails he received, instead of sticking to his ground and saying these were questions he wanted answers for, questions he believed viewers would be interested in? What I wanted was more hard-talking, what I saw instead was a newsman drawn into the corner. Clearly, political combat beat journalistic combat hollow. Pity about that.


When did you last hear of a ghost-written, oops sorry that's supposed to be a co-written account receiving a million dollar advance? Well, Pakistan's military chief scored a coup by doing that. He has also become the first serving Pakistani Army Chief and President to publish his autobiography.

While thousands of copies have been spotted in Pakistan, no one's entirely certain about its worldwide sales. Though I bet with an advance like that, publishers Simon & Schuster aren't tearing their hair about it.

'In The Line of Fire' chronicles President Musharraf's journey from a middle-class Delhi family through the partition of India, the creation of Pakistan and his ascent to power.

Among other things, the Kargil War, the 1999 military coup ousting then premier Nawaz Sharif, 9/11 and the events after that have been discussed in the memoir - the title of which interestingly has been inspired by the famous Clint Eastwood flick - 'In Line With Fire'.

Expectedly, the rumblings have begun. Some points raised include:
- The CIA paid Pakistan millions of dollars for for catching al Qaeda fighters during the five years since 9/11
- How the US administration persuaded him with threats to join the global war on terror

The quotes are as colourful as the charges. The General recalls watching the aftermath of the terror attacks on television:
"America was sure to react violently, like a wounded bear. If the perpetrator turned out to be Al-Qaeda, then that wounded bear would come
charging straight towards us."

In another part Colin Powell is said to have told President Musharraf "you are either with us or against us."

Though the most damaging comments are reserved for Richard Armitage:
"In what was to be the most undiplomatic statement ever made, deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage added to what Colin Powell had said to me
and told the (Pakistani intelligence) director general... that if we chose the terrorists, then we should be prepared to be bombed back to the Stone Age."

It's a charge that Armitage has denied. While the verbal duels are about to take off, what's clearly emerged is the fact that when it comes to President Musharraf there is a very thin line between friends and foes. What his friends make of his account, would be indeed interesting to see. Now, if only someone would sign up US President Bush for his interpretation of the events that clearly changed the world as we know it.

Friday, September 22, 2006


Take a look at this...
then read on...

This is the father-son bond of Dick and Rick Hoyt. From the time Rick was born, Dick has strived to give him as normal a life as possible.

Rick was born in 1962 with a brain disorder. His umbilical cord coiled around his neck and cut off oxygen to his brain. Dick and his wife, Judy, were told that there would be no hope for their child's development.

"When he was eight months old the doctors told us we should just put him away - he'd be a vegetable all his life, that sort of thing. Well those doctors are not alive any more, but I would like them to be able to see Rick now," Dick says.

Read more about this amazing story here:

Thanks for the links, Matt and Bala.


The first thing that strikes me about Fan Wu is her earnestness. At her book launch, she speaks a tad too loud into her mike. The wine that was slowly settling me into a state of slumber loses its effect and as Fan's voice booms into the microphone I am alertness personified. Considering this is happening at what is usually my deepest sleep time, I consider it a feat in itself.

The next day when she is to appear for the studio interview, I tell her she needs to take it easy with the microphone. The sensitive creatures that these things on the collar are, they make a hmmm sound like a thought that too long to formulate, a cough ends up sounding like a killer flu and let's not even get into the sneeze.

Normal folks would have snapped for effect or given me a - of course I know that look. Fan's answer leaves me stumped, "Gosh, I get so excited, but I'll remember that." She adds for good measure with just a tinge of nervousness "you know this is my first TV interview, I hope I'll do alright."

She does more than just alright. On air, she is calm, assured and confident. Pretty much like the confident voice that emerges in her debut 'February Flowers.' The novel is a fresh new voice, told through its two central characters - the brazen, rebellious Miao Yan and the clever loner, Chen Min. In fact, some observers say Fan herself is a fusion of the two key characters. I'm not entirely sure of that as Fan comes across as a person who knows what she wants, she certainly doesn't look rebellious to me and her ability to warm up to people and places is a definite indicator that she is not a loner. In the interview, she stresses that the novel is "not autobiographical". I agree.

What is interesting though is the fact that the inspiration for the book - a coming of age story set in Guangzhou in the early 90s only came after Fan's move to the United States. Love and longing, as they say, is a logical fallout of displacement. Ask anyone who has stepped out of the comfort zone of 'home' and you get a sense of what that feeling is.

She first put her creative pen to paper, when she won a scholarship to Stanford at the age of 24. While pursuing her masters in communications, she started writing privately. It all began with short stories, though Fan soon realised that she had so much more to say.

Inspired by another Chinese-American author Ha Jin, she started work on her book - in 2002. It took her three years to complete work on it. Writing it was one thing, hoping it would catch the eye of a literary agent turned out to be quite another. Fan talks at length about the painstaking efforts that went on for almost a year. That was till her manuscript finally came to the attention of noted Literary Agent Toby Eady.

Quite the scholarship, this turned out to another life-changing moment. Once the manuscript was in the hands of the man who introduced the world to 'Wild Swans', Fan's life as an author took off.

Her debut was selected by publishing giant Pan Macmillan for the launch of their brand new imprint - Picador Asia. With that Fan got a book, we got a great read and Asia got a promising new imprint that will showcase new voices in the months ahead. Now, that's what I call a story.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


Not since the BBC's John Simpson took me through 'A Mad World', 'Strange Places, Questionable People', made a clean sweep of his mortal failings by telling all about the time he was slapped by former UN Chief Kurt Waldheim, have I read anything as memorable as Eric Campbell's 'Absurdistan'.

Come to think of it, how often have TV stars shown us their real failing sides? How often do you get insights into what makes it to TV and what doesn't? And how often have you seen a successful correspondent tell you how he wrecked his seemingly perfectly timed piece to camera or got his professional life together while his personal life was simply falling apart?

Eric Campbell does all of that and a whole lot more. The errors of his life are as diverse as his television stories. Some of these have taken him to China, Russia, Afghanistan and beyond. In fact, all you have to do is name an obscure place and chances are Campbell has been there and reported on that.

Quite like Simpson's work, it is the forthrightness and brutal honesty of Campbell's writing that helped me connect instantly with his work.

The stories he tells, span a wide range - comic, tragic, horrific, reflective, lyrical and at times even spooky. The one that stays forever though is the one about his friend and cameraman Paul Moran's tragic death while on assignment in Iraq in 2003.

Some of these moments are what I hope to re-live in what will definitely be a literary lunch to remember. Together with the immensely popular Christopher Kremmer, we will hopefully be able to present life beyond the war zone.

This will be happening at Alila Ubud on Monday, the 2nd of October. Lots more exciting stuff happening at Ubud, so if you are still looking for excused to get your bags packed, take a look here:

Before I sign off for today, here's more about the author of 'Absurdistan'.

Eric Campbell began his life as a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald. A series of ill-advised career changes saw him languish in the backwaters of television, covering travel stories for a few years. But he never gave up and eventually landed a job as the ABC's Moscow correspondent in 1996.

Till 1999, he covered the tumultuous changes in the former Soviet Union. His assignments included reporting the wars in Chechnya, Afghanistan and the Balkans, tracking polar bears in the Arctic, filming at secret military bases in Central Russia and travelling by sled with nomadic reindeer herders in Siberia.

In 1999 he was awarded a New York Television Festival Award for environmental reporting and was a finalist in the Australian Walkley Awards for his coverage of the war and humanitarian crisis in Kosovo. His stories on the al-Qaeda in Afghanistan won a Logie for best news coverage.

In 2000 he returned to Sydney to be a reporter/producer for ABC TV's award-winning Foreign Correspondent programme.


I've been sitting fingers firmly in cheek, still no Booker Prize winning thoughts flowing. Spoke to a pal without for a moment letting my fingers leave my cheek. She listened with varied degrees of disbelief. To confirm her doubts I pulled out two more shots that of Suketu Mehta and Shauna Singh Baldwin. Anita Desai too has been captured in a pensive mode. So I'm going to give more power to this thought. If you find me 'In Custody' of a new yogic posture in the days ahead, you'll know what happened.


A couple more days to go before the immensely exciting Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. As I was pinning the last of the Festival posters, was struck by the author's mug selection. So many of them were caught in that writerly pose. Each with their hands firmly tucked on their chin or their cheeks. Is there a connect between positioning the fingers and literary flow? Maybe I should give this pose a shot, who knows words just might come easily. Click here for more literary shots:

Friday, September 15, 2006


It's out! Someone please pass me the Kleenex! Claire Messud and David Mitchell are not on it! Ok, so 'Black Swan Green' wasn't entirely 'Cloud Atlas' - it wasn't meant to be right. Please tell me didn't anyone find the narration stirring? What about Messud's 'The Emperor's Children'? Sure, the story was about its simplicity itself. Isn't that what got it into the longlist in the first place?

The only saving grace for me was seeing two familiar names i.e. books I've read or am in the process of reading. Hisham Matar's 'In the Country of Men' and Kiran Desai's 'The Inheritance of Loss' have made the cut.

Whether or not they will remain the front runners is quite another story though.

As things stand now, Sarah Waters' 'The Night Watch' - a 1940s tale of heroism and love which narrowly missed out on this year's Orange prize - is tipped at 2-1. A close second is Edward St Aubyn with 'Mother's Milk' at 3-1. St Aubyn's novel is a sequel to his 1990s trilogy, 'Some Hope' that followed the fluctuating fortunes of the privileged, dysfunctional Melrose family.

While some critics and book sellers have dubbed it a "brave shortlist" with a focus on "talent for the future" I'd agree with the Guardian's literary editor, Claire Armitstead who had called the longlist "respectable but not startling".

If you haven't seen it already, here's what you should be reading, if you into the whole awards determine my reading thing:
Kiran Desai - The Inheritance of Loss (Hamish Hamilton)
Kate Grenville - The Secret River (Canongate)
M J Hyland - Carry Me Down (Canongate)
Hisham Matar - In the Country of Men (Viking)
Edward St Aubyn - Mother's Milk (Picador)
Sarah Waters - The Night Watch (Virago)

You have till October 10th to read and figure out, who you think should walk away with the US $94,000 award to be announced at yet another glittering ceremony in London.


The results of the second United Nations straw poll to select a successor to UN Chief Kofi Annan are out. And the story is almost repeating itself. South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon has emerged as the front-runner, with the UN Under Secretary-General for Public Affairs, India's hope - Shashi Tharoor following a close second.

Will the results, when they finally emerge, return the diplomat turned author to the world of literature? That was one of the many issues that cropped up in my wide-ranging conversation with Shashi Tharoor during his whistle stop tour to South-East Asia, which expectedly was in a bid to lend a shot in the arm to his UN campaign. Singapore was one of his chosen stops and while he plugged his UN bid with ease, I wasn't entirely sure if he'd be in the frame to switch to author mode.

The journalist in me told me the worst I could hear was a tough 'No', so it was entirely worth taking my chances.

Those looked rather bright when the ink was about to touch the paper. They say you can tell a lot about an author by the way he signs your book. The minute Tharoor had inked in 'For The India We Share' in my copy of 'India: From Midnight to Millennium', I knew I had a chance, notwithstanding the rather stand-offish PR person who gave me that look that meant - don't even try, you know it can't be done.

While walking him to the set, I mentioned I worked on a book segment as well and whether he'd like to talk about his life as an author. 'Yes' came the reply. Knowing that we had cameras round the bend, I took the next chance,
"So can we do it after your live interview?"
"Sure" he said....

Yes, it turned out to be as simple as that. I never go into my interviews without all my research done (book festival organisers in this part of the world would vouch for that!), though in this case, I barely had time to get the books in the shot and get cracking.... Here's how it all began:

Q : Dr Tharoor, thank you so much for your time. I'm going to start with 'Riot' - a novel that touched me deeply. You told it through several memorable characters. How did these characters play in your head and how hard was it to feel that you were convincingly getting into the heads and voices of these different people?
A : You're right, its a novel about multiple versions of reality, about what the nature of truth is and how people have different perceptions of the truth both for the past and for the future, the way in which people unfortunately use history as a battle axe to fight out the battles of today. Given all of that, I felt it was important to not have one particular voice because one voice assumes one view of reality. I felt with a novel like this, everyone's view, which is of course, completely mutually contradictory has to be given its ones expression. So I came up with this idea of writing the novel through the voices of all these different characters. It was a challenge for me as a writer, both in terms of style because the voices had to sound sufficiently different that the reader would instinctively know who was speaking as it were but equally you had to get into the head to imagine the voice of the character. To give you a simple example, when I described this fictional town in 'Riot', which is a town like many towns that I've seen growing up in India, I had to do it in the voice of this lady who is a middle-aged educated American white middle class English Professor. So I not only had to imagine the town, I had to ask myself what would a character like her notice about a town like this, from her foreign perspective. That was part of the challenge, but in fact in many ways it made it for me a far more interesting experience as a writer to try and re-imagine as it were things that I would have only seen from my perspective.

Q : But why pick an American aid worker who really doesn't belong to any side in the riot?
A: It's a novel about collisions of various sorts. There are collisions of different duelling histories, collisions of different views of modernity. It's deliberate that you have an American Coca-Cola executive, in the days when India was protectionist about Coke coming in to introduce his product in this rather closed market. That meant cultural penetration into a society, which was somewhat closed. There are also collisions among individuals. The American aid worker is somebody who comes to do good but comes with a colossal amount of her own cultural baggage without her own full understanding of the society that she is in her naive and idealistic way trying to change for the better. So she is ultimately defeated by her incomprehension. That had to a require a foreign character and to me an American character made the most sense for the various other things that happened in the novel as well. Doing that meant that these collisions between various ideas and various ways of looking at the world came into full play. If you recall, one of the things I have in the book is her father, the Coca-Cola executive saying "you people have too much history. I don't care about your past, it's your future that I want to be a part of." That's an attitude which in some ways, I think we are seeing more of in India these days. The novel is set in 1989, if you were to write a novel like this about India in 2006, I think you'll have a lot more characters who are as impatient about the future as the American characters in my novel. So it is a portrait of a particular time.

Q : Speaking of India, I visited Punjab last year. After almost ten years, I went on a road-trip from Amritsar to Chandigarh. When I came back, I told my friends here how there were no villages left in Punjab. Almost every little town was on the cusp of transforming into a booming metropolis. Shopping malls, bustling markets - almost all the consumerist trappings were there. The changes were fascinating. You've tracked India from 'Midnight to Millennium', captured various facets of our fascinating country. What is it that strikes you most about all these changes transforming India right now?
A: You are absolutely right about the changes, Deepika. I'm always hesitant to pick any one thing about a country as large and complex about India. But my short answer would be, there's an extra-ordinary sense of optimism about the future. Whenever you meet Indians today, pretty much from all backgrounds, I'm not just referring to the educated classes, but people who are domestic servants, people who are drivers, workers, shop keepers - when I speak to them I see an absolute conviction that life will be better for their kids and that their own lives will be better than their parents lives. That's true across the board in India, there is that sense of optimism that opportunities are much greater than they've ever been. Its a fascinating thing and it's exactly the opposite of what I knew when I was growing up in India. When I used to meet people of my parents generation who would tell me I would not have in my 20's what they used to be able to have because of the way the country had gone in terms of economic choices and other things. It's been a complete reversal and that I think is the most encouraging thing.

Q : Moving on, why a book based on the great Indian epic 'The Mahabharata' on the one hand and Bollywood movies 'Show Business' on the other? Two entirely disparate fields, what drew you to these?
A : Well, each of my books is very unlike the next. I hope you'll agree that though they are by and large unified by an interest in India, they are completely different ways of looking at the Indian experience. The novel, we just talked about 'The Riot' is a fairly serious look at a powerful and painful reality whereas 'The Great Indian Novel' and 'Show Business' are both satires. 'The Great Indian Novel' was an attempt to really re-imagine the entire political history of 20th century India through a reinterpretation and re-invention of characters, episodes, philosophies from 'The Mahabharata'. That was my first novel and I pretty much threw everything into it as it were.

Whereas 'Show Business' is simultaneously about the movies, about politics and about a certain view of religion - all three of which are meant to be 'Show Business' not just Bollywood. But it's using Bollywood in a sense or cinema as a metaphor for exploring the Indian condition. The fact is both novels are united by the fact that they are satires. They are also united by the fact that they are about the kinds of stories a society tells about itself. What, in the case of the epic, were the lessons of our legends. 'Mahabharata' is part of the popular consciousness of most Indians and at the same time the legends of the nationalist movement which again is part of the received wisdom about the political heritage of India. So I took the two, conflated them and played an unfamiliar tune by striking familiar chords.

With 'Show Business', so many people go to our movies. We make five times the number of movies than Hollywood does, we sell possibly ten times the number of tickets. Of course, much cheaper tickets. So there's this huge film industry, which particularly in a country which at that time was more than 50% illiterate, cinema became and was the principal fictional vehicle in the country. The transmission of the fictional experience was through cinema rather than through novels, books and stories, largely because so many people couldn't read. So I asked myself what are the kinds of stories that our cinema is telling our people about ourselves? What are these escapist fantasies meant to reveal and again what are the lives of those who produce these fantasies. So its a novel that looks at all of that and in that process I hope tries to illuminate some aspect of Indian reality. One of my favourite reviews really of that book was in The Sunday Times of London, which said "this is an enormously funny and enjoyable book without for a moment being frivolous". That's precisely the point I wanted to convey - that you can make some very serious points, have some very serious insights into your society while writing it in a rollicking and entertaining manner.

Q : Moving on, how did your recent collection of essays 'Bookless in Baghdad' happen?
A : It's a collection of literary essays published around the world in the last couple of years. Unfortunately, I've had very little time to pen something new. One of the 40 essays, from which the book derives its title happens to be about my visit to Iraq at the time of the peak of the sanctions, when I found the middle class selling their own books on the sidewalks in order to survive. So it's a literary rumination about the place of literature in people's lives using that Iraqi example. But a lot of the other essays are Indian type reflections as it were about Indian writers, about the popularity of P G Wodehouse in India, on why Indians don't read Pushkin, on why I don't like Nirad Chaudhari (laughs)... so you get the drift. It's very much a thinking aloud for the reflective and I hope the interested reader about the joys of reading and writing.

Q : A lot of writers I interview these days who are Indian but live outside of India, don't want to be called Indian writers. Do you have any problems with that label?
A : I have absolutely no hang ups about that. In fact, there is at least one writer I can think of who says she is an American writer of Bengali origin, I'm not at like that at all. I'm an Indian writer, I've never had any other passport. I happen to live in New York because that's where my job places me, but I lived in Singapore, I lived in Geneva and tomorrow I might be sent off to Timbuktu for all you know. But the fact is, I'd still be an Indian wherever I go. I haven't made the leap of the imagination that immigration entails, I see myself very much as a writer with Indian concerns, Indian sensibilities and a lot of my own writing is in any case a self-interrogation about what India means to me and therefore, through me to other people as well.

Q : I know, you are running out of time, but I have to ask you this. Most of us grapple with 9-5 jobs or in my case a 3am to noon job. You have a high-profile and demanding job at the UN, how do you even find time to pen your thoughts?
A : It's actually worse at the UN. It's often a 9am-8pm job, never quite 9-5, often the hours are much longer than that. As I've risen up the structure of the UN, my social obligations have also multiplied. Often a lot of evenings are gone to dinners and other events. As a result, my time for writing has indeed shrunk over the years.

It's worse when it comes to writing fiction because for that you need not just the time, you need the space inside your head, the space in which you can create an alternative moral universe populated with people, characters, episodes and situations that are as real to you as the people you meet in your daily lives. That obviously has become much more difficult now.

In the old days, I'd write pretty much every evening, every weekend or when I was on holiday, I would ensure some of my time would be spent on writing. I would even write on planes, cars - pretty much wherever or whenever I could. Some of that has subsidised. But who knows. I am currently a candidate to be Secretary General of the United Nations. It's entirely possible that the Security Council will vote to return me to the world of literature, in which case I might be answering your question differently next year, Deepika.

- Hopefully, you'll get the best of both worlds Dr Tharoor. Thank you so much for your time.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006


A review in The Statesman about Hisham Matar's 'In The Country of Men' had this to say: "Who would publish a book about the troubles of a Libyan child when, in the eyes of the western media, the whole country is reduced to the delusions of Gaddafi."

Obviously, Viking wasn't taking this too seriously because they did and the book has emerged as one of the hottest reads this year. In the book trade, it is being referred to as the 'Libyan Kite Runner.' The parallels between Khaled Hosseini's and Matar's accounts are hard to miss. Love, loss, longing, betrayal, politics and conflicts cross paths more than once.

Like 'The Kite Runner' this is a book that plays in your head, long after you have flipped the last page. But never before have tales of personal and collective betrayal been so finely narrated. The story is told by Suleiman, a 24-year-old Libyan in exile in Egypt.

Through his eyes you are drawn back to the troubled events that unfolded in Tripoli in the summer of 1979. It was a time of protests of all sorts - political, student with dissent spilling on the streets.

Suleiman shares his life with his unhappy mother while his father travels around the world to keep his business going. That is what he believes till he comes across his father at the city square. Then the secret police comes after them and the narrator later learns his father is part of a network of underground liberals.

On the one hand, he has deal with his mother's illness, something that revolves around drinking something she buys secretly from the baker. Though not once, does Suleiman's love for his mother falter and Matar pens it evocatively:

"Although her urgent stories tormented me, my vigil and what I then could only explain as her illness bound us into an intimacy that since occupied the innermost memory I have of love. If love starts somewhere, if it is a hidden force that is brought out by a person, like light off a mirror, for me that person was her. There was anger, there was pity, even the dark warm embrace of hate, but always love and always the joy that surrounds the beginning of love."

With prose like that, what's not to like about 'The Country of Men.'

There are times when fiction seems to mirror fact. Among other things there are brutal executions, killings, unanswered questions, disappearances and friendships lost.

The descriptions are chilling and while the author maintains that the main events are fictional, some of the gnawing details make it seem all too real. Fact is Matar's family was forced to flee Tripoli for Cairo in 1979 due to his diplomat father's politics. That's just one of the many reasons you would want to treasure this debut that took Matar five long years to finish.

BOOK INFO: 256 pages. July 2006. Publisher: Viking.

Monday, September 11, 2006


Why do they hate us? If the Americans are still looking for answers to that elusive question, then they need to take a closer look at the searing docu-drama 'The Road to Guantanamo'.

I know I'm rather late on this one, but I finally sat down to watch Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross's gripping account of how three young Muslim men from Tipton, in the UK, ended up in the world's most notorious prison - Guantanamo. Though the movie showed us prisons far worse than Guantanamo along the way.

I wasn't entirely convinced about the beginnings of the Afghan misadventure for the friends though. A friend's wedding brings them to Pakistan. If that was the reason why did they end up staying in a mosque? Then was it the Afghan food or the imam's call for men to travel to Afghanistan to give aid to the people that makes them go a road trip that ends up pulling them deeper and deeper into the recesses of a war that has only just begun.

Those key missing dots made it a little hard for me to believe that they simply stumbled into a war. However, haven't we been repeatedly told that one is innocent until found guilty.

Not so in this account. Brilliantly shot and edited, it juxtaposes filmed and archival footage together with interviews of the the Tipton Three. Their fateful journey began in the days after 9/11 when Asif Iqbal (Arfan Usman) sets out for Pakistan to meet the bride his mother has selected for him. His friends from England, Ruhel (Farhad Harun, Shafiq Rasul (Rizwan Ahmed) and Monir Ali (Waqar Siddiqui) fly to Pakistan to be a part of the wedding.

Only to embark on a messy misadventure. They go right into Kunduz, Kandahar - the names that are associated with some of the worst US air strikes. They end up losing one of their friends Monir, never to see him again. The three survivors are rounded up by American forces. The brutal bullying that is to follow defies all norms of the Geneva Convention. Things get no better when they are put on a flight to Camp X-Ray, then to Guantanamo.

The three are repeatedly tortured by American soldiers when they insist they are not terrorists or fighters. When a female interrogator shows them a grainy video insisting she can see the three at a rally led by Osama bin Laden, you wonder about the current state of US intelligence. At the time they were supposed to be rallying behind Osama, two of the three were on parole doing time for minor crimes.

It is that bit that eventually clears them and they are freed in England in March 2004, clearly putting in doubt President Bush's earlier claim "these are people who don't share our value system."

Despite its sketchy start, the film is a must watch if only for understanding in part what the civilizational clash is all about. Beyond the excesses, this is a story about the triumph of the human spirit.

Asif, Ruhel and Shafiq show us all how a bitter past can still pave the way for a better future.


It was a sight straight out of the movies. Five years ago on this day, the twin towers had crumbled. The war on terror in present avataar had begun. Shock, horror, speeches, policies. Five years on, how much has really changed?

In less than two hours, President George W Bush will again urge Americans to stand united in the war against terror. There will be a call to put differences aside, to help establish democracy in countries like Iraq. And the part that we have heard so many times before that "the war is not over."

This will also be Bush's fifth televised prime-time address to the United States from his Oval Office at the White House. The first was on the night of the attacks by al-Qaeda militants who used hijacked airliners as guided missiles to strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

September 11th changed the lives of millions forever. Trouble is there appears to be no closure in sight. Five years on, we are still talking about a civilizational clash, but failing to look at ways to bridge the perceived clashes.


Thanks Gayatri for the link. Finally, some splendid insights into what happens when a salsa banker goes shopping.

In a brilliant commentary, Bloomberg News columnist William Pesek looked beyond the eye-catching headlines to make sense of a story that has had so many folks nod their heads in disgust:
"If there were a museum dedicated to extravagance and excess, Hong Kong banker Mimi Monica Wong might warrant a plaque. The 61-year-old agreed to pay two Latin dance instructors HK$120 million ($15.4 million) for eight years of lessons, and that's not a typographical error. Here's the best part: Wong is the head of HSBC Holdings Plc's Asian private-banking unit.

Granted, Wong won't be paying all that money; this week, a court ordered that a HK$62 million advance she paid be returned (things reportedly unraveled after one of the instructors called Wong a ``lazy cow'' at a practice session in a Hong Kong restaurant). Even so, I wouldn't want anyone willing to pay that kind of cash for cha-cha, samba and rumba lessons telling me where or how to invest my money in Asia."

I can dance to those words, keeping my non-existent millions intact.


Interesting questions on the post 'Your Mike Is On'. For those of you who asked which are the other prominent incidents that come to mind, here are two, together with what usually happens behind the scenes.

For those of us who do LIVE television for a living, few things come as a surprise. After all, beyond what you the viewer see, there's a whole orchestra pulled on a tight string at work.

Right from the producers to the writers, cameramen to the video editors, studio directors to the line producers. It's a medley of sights and sounds, but there is a method to the madness, as they say.

As can only be expected things go wrong sometimes. But when the big names mess up, it certainly is big news. That's partly why two recent goof-ups by two major networks had me more than just amused. Amused not by the sheer nature of the mess, but by the explanations that followed.

A London cabbie suffered a few awkward moments of fame when the BBC mistook him for a computer expert, I think the date was May the 13th 2006 and interviewed him live on the flagship News 24 channel.

The real expert was Guy Kewney, a journalist specialising in computer issues who had been invited to comment on Apple Computer's legal battle with Apple Corps, the Beatles' music publishing company. Awaiting his moment in a green room of the BBC studios, he looked at the TV screen only to find the presenter already interviewing him.

The man who went on air as the 'expert' had actually come to pick Kewney. No sooner had he arrived at the building, an assistant had rushed him to the studio and miked him up before he could even establish his identity and in the ensuing seconds the drama unfolded.

The mistake became evident a couple of seconds later and this apology was subsequently issued:
"The wrong person was interviewed briefly on the air before we cut to our reporter, and we apologise to viewers for any confusion."

Just two days after that incident, it was again a couple of seconds that CNN took to make a false start to US President George W Bush's immigration speech.

Minutes before Mr Bush was to begin speaking from the White House, CNN television aired several seconds of the president sitting behind his desk practising his speech.

CNN quickly cut away and its anchor blamed the incident on a network pool feed which "inadvertently" went on the air while the president was polishing his lines.

For those of us who are in the business of pushing buttons, you do know what it takes for those inadvertent starts.

Friday, September 08, 2006


This bit makes a great start to my weekend. After months or was it years of harking about the potential of Asian literature - yes the made in Asia types - Picador Asia has made a long overdue arrival on a shore near us.

Indeed, Asia's literary scene is set to turn a new page. Picador Asia, backed by its parent company Pan Macmillan aims to be the global voice for Asian writers.

On a mission is its Managing Director Daniel Watts who after Fan's launch is on the look out for Asian writers who can be published in Asia and marketed internationally. A chat with him at the launch and after the studio interview proved how serious he is about the work that lies ahead. It is uncharted territory, but that's where Daniel best swims. He has been lauded with the success of Picador India. I tried studying his bag which appeared to be packed with more than just a manuscript - might even have had a contract or two.

Together with Toby, he is darn serious about the region and he has cast his eyes not just on China but also on Japan, Korea and Indonesia. Singapore is not too far behind. And they are even looking at works that can be translated.

All of which makes fantastic news for some authors writing in Japanese, Bahasa or Korean for that matter. If you already are, keep at it, because if you are good enough there is a publisher near you.

In Hong Kong, if you must know.


I've often been asked:
- Why are you always working so hard?
- Is it a million dollar job?

No clear answers to the first, a definite 'NO' for the second. Substituting the million dollars though is the million dollar chance of bumping into some greats. This week it happened to be the leading literary agent Toby Eady. If you don't already know him, you need some quick lessons in marketing your book. He is the man who among other things is widely credited with taking Jung Chang's wildly successful 'Wild Swans' to sales of 10 million copies and counting. Apart from that, some of the other Chinese authors he has represented - Xinran Xue, Wei Hui have all crossed the magical one million mark with their work.

So how does Toby know a book is going to be that big, the minute he touches the manuscript : "My instinct, that's it" says Toby.

An instinct that has been honed over the years in publishing. But the ride has never been easy. Over dinner at Raffles Hotel's East India Room (a meeting of the East and the West couldn't have been at a more symbolic venue) to mark the launch of Picador Asia, Toby recounted the painstaking journey he made to first bring 'Wild Swans' together, then to get it to print (and here you are thinking writing a book is so darn tough!).

Even after it had been printed, it wasn't exactly flying off the shelves. For months, almost years it sat sadly on book shelves around the world. That was till he decided to head to Australia, with the book and the author in tow. Before I get to the next bit, it was heartening to hear a man with achievements like Toby's admitting so fearlessly that it is only the ability to face the failures that can help eventually get on the road to success.

Having recently attended the Byron Bay Writers Festival, I instantly knew the warmth and attention of the readers that he was talking about. Australia changed the tide for Jung Chang and Wild Swans and the rest they say is history. After readers down under sat up and took notice, the rest of the world suddenly woke up. And a journey that started almost seven years ago came to bear fruit.

A lot has changed for Toby since then, but his passion for literature, for finding the next promising voice and ensuring it is polished enough to make the world sit up and take notice has not.

In Singapore, he was with his newest find Fan Wu and her book 'February Flowers'.

Squeezing time between his packed schedule, Toby took time to dish out some soundbites to treasure:

"Once you've done a book like Wild Swans, every Chinese author comes looking for you and hopes you can repeat the same story."
(It's quite another story that Toby has been great with repeats!)

And if you have been thinking of putting your pen to paper or if your manuscript is already ready, here's what one of the world's top literary agents is in a mood to read:
"I would love to see a book based in Malaysia - a love story."

That's a start....
Happy writing....

Monday, September 04, 2006


It's been a crazy couple of days. After months of talking, we finally got Literatti off the ground. Only to be inundated with questions like:
"Sounds mysterious - is it out of the Da Vinci Code"....

Unfortunately not.

Literatti's story began during a ride in Maniza's car. I remember we had both attended a fashion show by Deepika Gehani at the Arts House. Both of us were lamenting the fact that while there was so much South Asian art, fashion, theatre, dance and other cultural stuff happening in Singapore, we weren't hearing enough from our fantastic writers.

I had been to sessions, even moderated some where there were like 5 authors on the panel and 15 people in the audience including mine and my neighbour's kids.

Then I did this story on Shantaram and the sales figures freaked me out. 6,000 copies sold in Singapore and Malaysia alone (this was a couple of months ago).

So the interesting paradox was emerging. It wasn't as if Singaporeans are not into reading, give them the right book - they would. For those of you who have survived Shantaram, you'd know this is no easy read. Close to 1000 pages, it takes days, weeks even months to finish. The point though is if opportunities were created for authors to interact with their readers, loyal ones would show up, they would spread around and more people in turn would be reading.

Wishful thinking? Not quite. We spent a little over two weeks getting our first talk organised. Right from cards, posters, venue to food. It happened to be a whistle-stop tour by award winning author Romesh Gunesekera.

A call from Penguin's reliable Zhi Wei set things in motion. Next thing we knew, we had turned Maniza's house into a regular meeting haunt. Tripta was pulling all her marketing strings, Maniza was working round the clock getting everything from the venue to the food organised.

So much was happening so quickly that was barely a moment to register it all. I marvelled at everybody's willingness to go the extra mile to get this thing going.

The butterflies were there when we first thought:
a) Is Romesh going to make it?
He had two hours between getting off the plane and making to the Asian Civilisations Museum
b) Are people going to show up?

All's well that ends well, they say. And this one sure did.

Captain Elmo remained grounded for a few hours to help us take off successfully. As a moderator, he was outstanding. Romesh left me stunned with his reading. After all those reports of him being the 'quiet' kinda author, the reading came as a huge surprise, as did his engagement with his readers.

Zafar did a remarkable post on the talk. Since I had my eyes trained on the camera, didn't even realise so much had happened:

The crowning glory though was Romesh's admission the next day in the Off The Shelf interview:
"A talk like this wouldn't have happened anywhere else in the world. They would say why don't you land first and we'll organise something the next day. In Singapore, they were willing to do it just hours after I'd landed."

So as we have been asked so many times - "Are you ready for your next talk?"

You bet we are...
Now to search for the author....