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

Thursday, November 29, 2007


Haven't stopped thinking of Charles Bukowski's verse since I read this post on Zafar's blog followed by Tina Brown's interview in Tehelka:

....if it doesn't come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don't do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don't do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don't do it.
if you're doing it for money or
don't do it.

Read on....


One of those days, when I'm feeling a little silly. Perhaps it's the season or could it be the day?

- When two egotists meet, it's an I for an I.
- A pessimist's blood type is always B-negative.
- A Freudian slip is when you say one thing but mean your mother.
- A hangover is the wrath of grapes.
- A successful diet is the triumph of mind over platter.

Last month, a survey was conducted by the U.N. worldwide.
The only question asked was:
Would you please give your honest opinion about solutions to the food shortage in the rest of the world?

The survey was a HUGE failure.
Here's why:
In Africa they did not know what "food" meant.
In Western Europe they did not know what "shortage" meant.
In Eastern Europe they did not know what "opinion" meant.
In the Middle East they did not know what "solution" meant.
In South America they did not know what "please" meant.
In Asia they did not know what "honest" meant.
And in the USA they did not know what "the rest of the world" meant.

- If you look like your passport picture, you probably need the trip.
- By the time you can make ends meet, they move the ends.
- Bills travel through mail at twice the speed of checks.
- Age is a very high price to pay for maturity.
- Artificial Intelligence is no match for natural stupidity.
- Middle age is when broadness of the mind and narrowness of the waist change places.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


It's a performance of literature weaving together poetry and sound architecture. This journey from a poem to a play promises to take you globe-trotting, without leaving the comfort of your seat.

Beyond all of that, it's about differing perspectives, a different take on the things we see. One sees beauty in the corner of the street, the other sees things as we see them everyday.

Think about it. How many times have you disagreed about the food, the clothes, the places you see.

"Good food."
"Hmmm, alrite."

"Great shirt."
"A brighter shade perhaps?"

"Perfect holiday."
"Could have been better."

I could go on, but I haven't exactly put pen to paper. Madeleine Lee and and Eleanor Wong have and put together 'Y Grec'. It's a collection of poems that came together as an "accidental book," in Madeleine's words:
"A few of us travelled to Greece in 2004. Some of us were writers and, apparently, were scribbling away, unbeknownst to each other, Eleanor came home with a dozen poems, and I with 26. Funny thing is we never saw each other’s writings during the writing, only after. And it was Enoch, our publisher from Firstfruits who told us that together we ‘had a book’. I call it the ‘accidental book’. Turns out we have 2 different views on where we went and what we saw. The 2 voices become quite apparent one-third way into the book."

I first heard about it when I bumped into Madeleine at one of the initial Singapore Writers Festival meetings, one marked by a couple of civilisational shifts, a couple of authors announcing their next big thing, others sounding out the perfect ideas for the festival.

Madeleine wasn't into big pronouncements, she'd rather let her work do the talking. We got talking and soon I was getting much needed lessons in "performed literature" and Second Link:
"I had been on the Singapore Writers Festival 2005 Committee and had then introduced the notion of ‘performed literature’ to them by conceiving the idea of “Second Link”, which was a 2 hour long presentation of Singapore and Malaysian literature curated and directed in a theatrical setting. This time, I pitched the idea of turning a whole book of poems into a hour theatre presentation. They liked the idea, I approached Cake Theatre and here we are."

And it's the perfect place to be. The slick promos showcase what you can expect to see in the 75 minute production.
"It will literally be 2 voices, spoken by 2 different actresses Karen Tan and Noorlinah Mohamed. Together with overlays of music, sound and multimedia, the entire piece will unfold in a most mind-blowing way."

Knowing Madeleine, this is spoken like the absolute truth. Would have loved to catch the opening on the 6th, but I'll only be able to make it on the 9th. You could head to to book your choice seats.

'Y Grec' - A Theatrical Performance takes place at the Arts House in conjunction with the Singapore Writers Festival from 6th-9th December.

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The experts, even those who'd spelt the demise of the e-book, certainly think so. Newsweek considers it revolutionary enough and features it as its cover story.

Amazon's Kindle gets Steven Levy's nod. And for good reason.

It allows you to change the font size, holds several books in a go, it even allows you to search within a book. Could this be the google of reading?
You bet. The search engines are high powered, you can subscribe to newspapers, even blogs. Its reading at your finger-tip.

Will that ease and the book on a click take away the joy of being lost in a book? The purists certainly think so. That certainly didn't happen when Levy entered the Kindle world.

The video demonstration gives an indication why. It's funky look will hopefully draw young readers to it. Perhaps it will even tempt them away from their gameboys and nintendo. Perhaps one day I'll embrace it too. Deep down I know when that happens I'll miss my paperback as much as my hardback.

A special thanks to David Parrish of Random House who drew me to the whole Kindle story. We'll be discussing this at length in our session on Online Publishing at the Singapore Writers Festival. It's happening on the 7th of December.

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One moved from Delhi to London and discovered her love for food.

The other moved from Melbourne to Ubud and embraced the spices.

In their own special way, they have served as more than culinary ambassadors. They have brought two different worlds together through the universal language of food. And what better place to get them to share a platform than Singapore.

If I could, I'd be eating my words on Saturday, the 8th of December. But panels, discussions, book launches await. If you can tear yourself from those, don't miss out on the double treat with Madhur Jaffrey who will be in conversation with Janet de Neefe.

Get ready to climb the mango trees, hear all about culinary disasters, fusion-confusion, their books in progress(hush!) and don't leave without asking them how cooking divas stay looking as good as the two of them. It's got to be more than the exercise, you and I occasionally indulge in.

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The Man Asian Literary Prize has lived through its share of controversy. When the award was announced, Nury Vittachi rightly questioned the decision. This morning while researching an interview for Off The Shelf, I came across this story that I'd run way back in 2005, September 23rd to be precise:

The Penguin Group has purchased the English-language rights to China's best-selling novel, 'The Wolf Totem,' for a record US$100,000.

First-time author Jiang Rong's 2004 Chinese-language novel life on the Mongolian grasslands will be published in English in 2007. 'The Wolf Totem,' has already sold more than 1 million copies and topped best-seller lists for months.

Apart from critics, the meticulously researched, semi-autobiographical tale has been widely hailed by Chinese businessmen as well. They see in its accounts of the wolf pack's hunting, stalking and killing, a metaphor for survival and success in the corporate world.

A million and counting, you can carry on counting the number of times Nury's been right.

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Friday, November 23, 2007


"I wasn’t sure I was going to make this. It’s only in Singapore that someone is going to say, we’ll set up an event for you an hour after you land. Everywhere else in the world, people will say we’ll set up an event for you a day after you land. Given the security issues at Heathrow and all of that, I thought the chances of this plane taking off on time are pretty remote. But I thought, we’ll see how it goes. The plane arrived on time, things went smoothly, I turned up, people showed up to listen to me and we had a fabulous evening."

That mad bunch of folks who put the talk together was a bunch of friends who love their books, they wouldn't mind a world without Kindle, the written would do. They lovingly called their book struck trio - Literatti and took their chances with this author. The critics were divided, yet Maniza Jumabhoy, Tripta Singh and yours truly had enjoyed the ride through Romesh Gunesekera's 'The Match.' Prior to that, there was the love story set in a spoiled paradise. In 'Reef', 11 year old Triton, goes to work as a houseboy. His master Mister Salgado, a marine biologist obsessed by sea, swamp and the island's disappearing reef. It is here that Triton learns to polish silver, to mix a love cake with ten eggs, and to steam the exotic parrot fish for his master's lover. As the book unfolds you meet the boy becoming a man in a world on the brink of chaos. In the closing page, of the Booker short-listed Reef, Mister Salgado warns Triton that "we are only what we remember, nothing more....all we have is the memory of what we have done or not done."

The subtle deceptions were explored in 'The Sandglass' and 'Heaven's Edge' as well. In his latest book though he moved away from the mystical, magical settings. We'd been intrigued by it. That's partly why in a moment of heaven knows what, we said yes to putting the reading together. It's only when we went over the fine print of the flight schedule that we realised that we had only an hour between Romesh's landing and reading. For the longest time, we kept more than our fingers crossed. it all fell into place, Romesh showed up, Loi Zhi Wei of Penguin Books breathed easy and
we found our perfect match.

Q : Your book ‘The Match’ is bookended with two cricket matches, but you aren’t known to be a cricket buff, are you?
A :
Don’t say that. Yes, I am a cricket fan. But I never thought I’d ever write a book that had a sport in it because I’m not a sporty sort of a person. I like cricket, I’ve played cricket when I was young. I never thought I’d end up writing a book about the sport. It’s partly because a lot of the books I’ve written had a lot to do with Sri Lanka. Some of those books have had to deal with the some of the sad aspects of Sri Lanka – the war, the violence, but amidst all of that, there has been this upbeat story and that is about Sri Lankan cricket. I’ve often wondered how I could capture that, so I tried and it worked for me. You can definitely call me a cricket enthusiast now.

Q : Cricket is huge in South Asia, during the matches it almost becomes the reason of your being. Did you sense that when you were working on the book?
A :
I’ve found it a fascinating subject. It opened a lot of things for me, a new way of looking at history, a way of looking at what has happened in the past and the way in which groups of people identify themselves. No one quite knows where it started, some would say England, others would argue strongly against it. But it is a very artistic game in many ways. What I liked about that aspect is when you look at old photographs of the sport, they are very beautifully composed photographs. They shape of people, the body language when they play a stroke, the way people watch the sport. Obviously there are great divides when a match is on. But when somebody plays a splendid shot, everybody acknowledges it. It doesn’t matter which team you are off. When a batsman makes a century, the spectators pause for the applause and for a moment, even if it is a brief the differences between the teams as is reflected in a stadium is forgotten. Those sorts of things were really interesting. It was about capturing those moments which often become bigger than the game.

Q : When you look at test cricket, it’s a long drawn game, people take their breaks, possibly even read in between?
A :
That’s what I thought as well. I remember writing a couple of stories. I tried writing some stories to try out and see if someone who isn’t interested in the sport could be drawn to it through a short story. It worked really well. I remember talking to one of the actors who acted in Lagaan. He told me its like making movies, there’s a lot of hanging around when you are watching cricket and he mentioned it, obviously in jest, ‘why don’t you write a book?’ And I thought, why not. I tried to persuade my publishers that there are lots of people who watch cricket who want to read books.

Q : Was that a tough sell?
A :
Initially, yes, but they came around and here we are.

Q : You actually drew certain parallels between writing and international level cricket.
A :
Yes, there are two things in this book. Basically, there is this boy who doesn’t know much about cricket but as a young boy he plays the sport with his friends. He is attempting to work out what this game is all about. Another mention in the book, is about the series of matches between the Sri Lankan team, the English team and the Indian team, so the other aspect of the book is that the main character of the book, Sunny, becomes a photographer in the book. There are parallels between all three actually – cricket, photography and writing because on the simplest level, I suppose a lot of people are interested in all of this. Almost everybody takes pictures, they take lots of them. Lots of people watch cricket, lots of people read books. And in all of the three, there are lots of people who would like to do it better. There are people who would like to be professional photographers, amateur cricketers who’d like to play for a team, those who are playing for a state team would like to play for a national team, and there are readers who’d like to be writers. At each level you are talking about only a tiny group of people who actually end up doing that. 11 people end up playing for Sri Lanka, for India, for Australia or any other national team. There’s only a handful of people who become professional photographers and there’s only a handful of people who end up writing books. I think it’s just very interesting to understand the number of people who are involved in this whole process.

Q : What about ‘Heaven’s Edge’? You set in the future, why’s that?
A :
‘Heaven’s Edge’ is very different because the stories are set in a different time. When it came to ‘Heaven’s Edge’ I wanted to write a book about the future, set somewhere where no one had been before. It was quite a big adventure for me. I had to invent a country, I had to invent a place, I had to invent a time as well as a landscape.

Q : Imagining that landscape – was that difficult?
A :
I don’t know, I think for me writing any book is quite difficult. It’s quite a miracle for me at the end of it that I’ve actually managed to get it the way I want it. Inventing that world was difficult but I wanted to make it as real as possible. Many people read the book, only half way through they realize that it isn’t set where they thought it was set. This is a completely new place. I wanted to make it feel like a place everybody knows.

Q : ‘Reef’ was dominated by colourful and memorable characters. Was it tough considering it was your first book?
A :
A writer’s job is to somehow get into somebody else’s world. ‘Reef’ was the first novel and I did want a book populated with memorable characters. To me part of the thing about writing a book is to create characters that will have an independent existence. As long as someone opens a book and reads it, they’ll come to life. It can happen in a novel, it’s the sort of dream that everybody is sort of following. You know when you make a movie, write science fiction or fantasy, it’s all about creating that fantasy. All of that actually happens in a novel. It’s all about creating the right words, place and somebody to read them and then something happens.

Q : You make it all sound very easy, but what’s the writing process like for you. Do you tend to re-visit your work or once its written, its out there for others to decide?
A :
I’m not the kind of writer who says I’m going to write this book, in this way, in this period of time and just do it. I kind of have a general idea, a bit of an idea and then it has to grow organically. I spend a lot of time exploring what it is, who are these characters and it’s a little bit like sculpting something. You start with nothing. In fact, if you are sculptor, you are lucky because you at least have a bit of something to start with. I also re-write my books a lot, so each book is re-written many, many, many times over before it actually goes to print. What you see in the end isn’t quite what I would have started off with.

Q : I guess all of that work showed in your first novel itself. ‘Reef’ was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, did that mean a lot to you?
A :
It was great. For a first novel, I couldn’t ask for anything more really.

Q : Is there already another story playing in your head as we speak?
A :
Oh yes, there is always another story. In fact, every book I write also tells more than more than just a story. ‘The Match’ for instance, is not just a story about cricket, it’s a story about families and how people adjust to their children and how children adjust to their parents. It’s very about that relationship and about idealism, the idealism of youth. In Britain, quite often young people go through a very hard time, there is a lot of youth bashing. They are told they are useless, they don’t have strong ideals and I don’t think any of that is true. I think young people have a lot of idealism and they deserve a lot of respect. So many of them do things that a lot of young people never did in the past. This book explores that and I think in a way it questions if we do in fact get wiser as we get older. Do we sort lose the idealism over the years? I think the readers have to decide for themselves whether the son is learning from the father or the father from the son.

Q : They do say there is no one teacher in life. You learn from so many people in so many different ways?
A :
Yah, that’s absolutely true. Understanding and appreciating that, I feel is very important.

More from Romesh on writing:
"The world being what it is I write to redress the balance, at least in my own mind. I want to keep an inner life alive and, with luck, somebody else's too. Imaginative writing, to me, is a way of discovering who we are, and what we have to contend with; discovering what is out there, and also what is not there. It enables me to think and explore and make something new with language, while trying to make sense of our lives."

"I'm always trying to write a story. I never really talk about what I'm writing because I find that impossible to do. Writing, to me, is actually a way of living, it's a way of thinking, it's a way of discovering, it's a way of actually getting from today to tomorrow, and therefore I can't sort of preview it and quite often I really don't know where I'm going until I get there. It's a bit like getting into a car and driving and if someone asks you "Where are you going?", you say, "I'm just going somewhere over there." [laughs], but once you get there, you know that that was where you were going, actually. And you know perfectly well what's in front of you, every inch of the way, but you don't know the whole thing. It's a process of exploration, it's a process of understanding and thinking and trying to understand where you are, where the world is, where we're all going."

"Publishers get mad with me because I tend to meddle with books quite a lot."

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It's one packed literary Saturday in Kuala Lumpur. Just take a look at this post by Sharon, almost feels like a mini-lit fest. I'm tempted to get there myself. Would love to hear everyone, though for this post I want to single out Max Lane who will be launching his book Arok of Java at Silverfish Books.

Max Lane is the translator of Pramoedya Ananta Toer's work. His is a literary journey that started almost by accident:
"It’s a long story with a short beginning. Basically I failed the subject of science in High School and the Headmaster said you have to have an additional subject and the only one that was available for me to take at that time was Bahasa Indonesia. Combined with the fact that I loved watching movies set in the exotic Orient, I started studying Bahasa. And the first opportunity I got, I packed my bags and started traveling. In fact, the first countries I visited were Indonesia and Singapore way back in 1969. Then I just got more and more involved in Indonesia and I haven’t quite been able to break that connection which started with learning a language and I don’t want to break that connection either."

Lane's long association with Pramoedya began in 1981 with the translation of 'This Earth of Mankind.' And that association has continued even after his death. 'Arok of Java' - the fifth book translated by him is based on an Indonesian folk tale about a rebellion against a 13th-century Javanese king, but it's a story that is bound to connect readers across the world, Max believes:
"It is a story about Indonesia 500-600 years ago. But it is also very much a story about power and about how human beings can become either victims of power or wielders of power and how their personalities can then change as a result of wielding that power and I think that’s something of universal interest."

Also of universal interest is the writer Pramoedya himself and one couldn't ask for a better narrator of the truth than Lane himself:
"Despite all the things he had suffered, Pramoedya was absolutely in love with his country and absolutely obsessed with getting its real history out. So every time you sat with him, you’d have a treasure trove of information and stories, which you would never hear or getting from anyone else."

Lane could be speaking for himself, he's got stories stacked and I want to hear more of them:
"You know, once he’d written his own manuscript, he’d never read it again. That was quite amazing. I saw some of the manuscripts Pramoedya wrote while he was in prison. He typed on a really old, dilapidated type-writer. The papers had no left hand margin, no right hand margin because paper was so difficult to get in prison. He typed the whole 800 page novel without a single typing mistake, without making an editorial correction to it, before it went to publication and never read the manuscript the second time. He’d say, “I can’t read it, I can’t read it.” He’d say once he’d written it, it was a being of its own, it had its own life. He never quite gave a convincing reason why he never re-visited his work but he created something that was perfect the first time round. I think that was one of the many things that was totally amazing about him. I think South-East Asia should be enormously proud to have such a genius author amongst its ranks."

And what touched me even more was Lane's frank admission about issues of loss in translation:
"I don’t think any translation can live up to the original, particularly when it’s written by a true master."

It sure makes me want to hear more of Max Lane and I'm pretty sure we all will. He'll be appearing at the Ubud Writers Festival next year. I can already hear the conversations.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007


It was in February 2006 that I first heard of Kunal Basu. It was thanks to a review copy of Racists. The book kept me up all night. Could something like this have happened? The intensity of the rivalry between the two scientists was almost too real. What about the infants left with a mute nurse on a remote island in Africa? This story was taking me places, just as great stories are meant to. The next morning it was down to googling the name Kunal Basu. No, this couldn't be an Oxford don, teaching Management by day and writing such gripping stuff by night or perhaps the other way round. After 'Racists', I quickly got down to reading 'The Miniaturist' which took me from the 19th century to the 16th century into Akbar's court, completing the journey with 'The Opium Clerk.'

Kunal happened to be passing through Singapore and we finally got a chance to meet on 16th March 2006. I wished the conversation could have lasted longer. There was so much more I wanted to know about his writing. As I always do with authors whose writing stirs me, I mentioned the Ubud Writers Festival, the invite from Janet followed and he was there. There were no promises of an airfare (he paid for his ticket), when his books didn't show up on time, he made no noise. Here was someone, fired by the conviction that his work would speak and it did. Readers loved the sessions, festival organisers wanted him at their next fest and Kunal stayed himself. Feet firmly on the ground, unaffected by the adulation.

Could it perhaps have something to do with the parallel life he led? Just like my other good friend Captain Elmo Jayawardena. There was something about their approach to life, their optimism, their drive to change things, the way they talked about the issues of our times, the way they wanted to live more than just this lifetime to continue doing all the things they were already doing..... In their midst, talk of the number of books sold, royalties, advances lost its sheen. There was so much to them, so much I could learn, perhaps we all could - but I'm not in the business of speaking for everyone.

All I can do is share some thoughts, some snippets stored on tapes that I'm in the habit of rolling at literary festivals, during interviews, tapes that definitely don't deserve the solo space on my recording shelf....

Q : Kunal, ‘Racists’ is a book I’ve found hard to put down. What inspired you to write it?
A : To be honest, how I thought of the story of ‘Racists’ is a complete mystery to me. I’m not the type of person who spends a lot of time thinking about race or racial matters. I would like to say I’m race blind really. I’m not a biologist or a scientist, so I don’t think about the history of evolution, the biological thinking about race. So why on earth did I think of a story which has one child from one race and another child from another race marooned in an African island with scientists studying them remains an utter mystery to me. But once I did think of the story, I went back and started doing research into it. I went to libraries to find out about 19th century racial science and a whole world opened up in front of me. This turned out to be a world where scientists were really passionately engaged in trying to solve the puzzle of human variation.

Q : The story is set in the world of 19th century racial science. What made you pick this setting?
A : This world had as its grand ambition the hope that science would be able to solve the puzzle of human variation, the difference among the races, among the Europeans, the Africans, the Chinese, the Indians and so on. It’s a story of an imaginary experiment with two scientists, a British craniologist Samuel Bates and his French rival Belavoix who maroon two infants a black boy and a white girl on an African island. Now, the two children are raised by a young nurse, who is very pretty who is mute. They’ve deliberately selected a mute nurse because she would otherwise influence the children in terms of the races they come from. So the children grow up for a whole decade on this deserted island without speech, without any connection with civilization, punishment or play. The scientists come to visit them twice a year, they bring their fancy instruments, observe their behaviour as if they were two rats in a laboratory. But what they are really after is to determine whether one child is superior in intelligence and morality than the other. They are doing this to determine which race of the two is superior to the other.

Q : Kunal, you say this is fiction, a story fired by your imagination. But how important is research when it comes to developing a story like this?
A : You know this was a very fertile field of research in the 19th century. Lots has been written on this. For instance, what is the logical measure that would show one race is superior to the other? Thankfully, no such experiment, the one you read about in my novel was ever performed, although scientists came pretty close with something called the ‘forbidden experiment’. Scientists flirted with the notion of the forbidden experiment. Why forbidden you may ask? Forbidden because the planned neglect of children is really unethical.

Q : But your characters very well fleshed out, there’s a lot of attention to detail. Samuel Bates seems almost too real as does his French rival. Did you have a real person in mind when you were writing about them and their intense rivalry?
A : I did not model either of the two scientists around a historical figure of that time. I’m sure there are perhaps figments from here and there, but they were not modeled around actual human beings.

Q : You seem to have a passion for going back in time. In ‘The Miniaturist’ you take us back to the 16th century....
A : Yes, its sets in the 16th century and is the story of a child prodigy, an artist who is enormously talented and he is the son of the chief artist of Akbar – the great Mughal Emperor. The protagonist of this novel has everything going for him, he is talented, he is the son of the boss and everybody expects that he will grow up to be the chief artist and that everything will be great for him, except that it doesn’t. Things change when he commits an unpardonable crime – a crime that I won’t reveal for the benefit of those who haven’t read the book. It results in his exile from Akbar’s kingdom and he then goes around the inhospitable terrains of Central Asia, as far as Turkey. What he is looking for is an answer to the question – what is the real value of art, the real purpose of art and what constitutes artistic success?

Q : Kunal, as you tell me this, its hard for me to imagine that another part of your life sees you teach Strategic Marketing at Oxford. How do you create these creative spaces to write about the fascinating stories you present to your readers?
A : The most difficult question to answer in any interview is – where do I get my stories. The best explanation and its perhaps the right explanation is that I’m a great day-dreamer. I’m constantly thinking about things, listening to conversations, finding out about people’s lives, picking up bits and pieces from here and there and then the stories starting shaping in my mind. Once I’ve got an idea and am fired by it, then comes the research into the subject to bring the story to life, to do it full justice. In terms of my professional life, yes I am a Professor of Management, but it’s a life which is quite distinct and different from my life as a writer so there is no secret corridor that connects the two.

Q : Speaking of secrets and corridors, lets track back a little bit to your first book. ‘The Opium Clerk’ which is a journey from Calcutta to Canton tracks the lives of young men whose lives get linked to the fortunes of the opium trade. How did you stumble upon this story?
A : I was trekking in Thailand some years ago, I was near the border of Burma and I came across this dog-eared paperback which was describing the Golden Triangle and the whole opium trade. I was never interested in the drug trade. Intellectually, it doesn’t hold my curiosity, but there was a phrase in that book which leapt out and fired my imagination. It said, “In the 19th century Calcutta was the world’s capital of the drug trade and the drug of choice was opium.” I thought to myself that this can’t be right. I’m born and raised in Calcutta and I thought I knew everything about Calcutta. But in my history books, I hadn’t found any references to that. At that time I was living in Canada, so I went back to my University library and started reading up just about everything I could find on the opium trade and the whole story revealed itself to me. I learnt all about this enterprise that spanned from Europe to Asia, India, China, Malaya and all the different parts of the world and the book came together.

Q : As a writer, should you be a better observer of things around you, should you be one who is interested in the past or should you just let your creativity speak for itself?
A : I think all of the above. I think its important for me to lead a full life and leading a full life means to engage with the world around me. Also the memories and nostalgia of the world that has gone by resonates with me and my books do capture that. Talking to people from different parts of the world helps enormously when it comes to writing. And my professional life, helps me engage with so many different and fascinating minds everyday. Apart from that, I’m constantly observing people, whether it is on the road, in the supermarket, the way they walk, the way the talk to each other, the way they converse with you. Then, of course there is reading, almost all kinds of stuff from the popular press to the more serious literary works. All of that creates the crucible from within which dreams are formed and ideas take shape.

Q : Apart from writing books, you have also written plays, documentaries, acted. How do you balance so many things?
A : I balance a variety of different things by not trying to think about too much about the differences. I think I’m guided by my passion, guided by what I’m excited about and if something keeps me awake at night and says this is something I ought to do, then I do it. I think I’ll do myself a lot of disfavour if I said to myself that - Oh my God, I do management writing, I write fiction, poetry, screenplays – how does it all fit together? I don’t think all the pieces of my life need to fit together as long as they make sense as individual bits and as long as people appreciate them, I’m happy to lead a disjuncted life.

You'll be hearing a lot more of Kunal in the days ahead. The Japanese Wife, a short story written by him is being made into a film by acclaimed film director, Aparna Sen. In an interview with Tehelka, she said she was smitten by it. "The improbability of it attracted me, I found it haunting - a love poem in celluloid. Mainstream cinema is peopled by people who have buying power. This is completely different, it's about people who are essentially good and innocent and yet all of it is not in earnest, there is gentle humour. It's funny, really."

If you happen to be in Singapore in December, you can hear Kunal talk more about this and his work at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival. He'll be appearing on several panels, though for purely vested reasons I'll extend the invite for the one on:
Saturday, 8th December, 1pm
A Tale of Two Cities features David Davidar and Kunal Basu
At the Chamber, The Arts House

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Wednesday, November 21, 2007


It's funny how exams or the thought of the ones that are looming large can set you off in different tangents. Last night, we were journeying through India, narrowing down parts of the country when we reached West Bengal. "Didn't Amitav Ghosh write about a jungle here, Mamma?" Aneesha asked. I don't want to run the risk of creating an impression. Aneesha hasn't read any of Amitav Ghosh, I'd be happy if she got by her text books for the moment but Amitav has a special connect for her. She remembers him from the first time we were at Ubud, she remembers him because he stayed "downstairs" at the Honeymoon Guesthouse, she remembers him because an Amitav Ghosh question is her trump card in her home-grown quiz contests. If that's the way words are meant to connect, I'm not complaining. I'm pretty certain the reading too shall follow.

And it is Aneesha's words that have set me off on a journey to recount some of the things that Amitav has shared right from the writing process, to the way he's picked some of the issues he's written about. From 'The Hungry Tide', to 'The Glass Palace' to 'In An Antique Land' to 'The Shadow Lines' Amitav has shown his eye for detail. It's something that's evident in his spoken word as well:

Q : Your book ‘The Hungry Tide’ has been called “a whirlwind work of the imagination”. You’ve set it in the largest mangrove forests in the world – The Sunderbans. What took you there and what did you hope to achieve through the setting?
A : I’ve been going there since I was a child because I’ve had a family connection with that area and they’ve always kind of haunted my imagination and I always wanted to write about them. If I wanted to achieve anything at all, it was to let people know about this astonishing place and this astonishing landscape.

Q : What did it take to bind ordinary people in an exotic place than can possibly consume them all?
A : It’s a place where you have man-eating tigers. I went back there, spent a lot of time with the local fishermen, did a lot of research, spent time looking at tiger prints. It was a very long journey, it was an intense journey, I suppose what I really wanted to do was to know it myself, to understand the depth of its history, the depth of its ecology, the way people relate to it, the way people come together, their life in the midst of this intriguing setting.

Q : You mentioned going back there as a child, revisiting the place after so many years, what was going back there like?
A : I think The Sunderbans is one of those places that changes very very little. It’s really a place that’s very persistent in a kind of timeless way.

Q : You bring a lot of your personal experiences in your books. Did that happen in ‘The Hungry Tide’?
A : Yes, very much so. For example, the book culminates in this enormous cyclone and for all of us who live in that area in the Bay of Bengal area, for us cyclones and these other cataclysms are a fact of life. It’s such a strange thing, that I wrote this book which came out in June. I was back in December and there was this enormous tsunami. It’s an extraordinary thing because after the tsunami so many people called me, including the Governor of West Bengal who asked me if I had an intuition about this, that such a thing would happen. It was nothing like that, there was no intuition but anyone from that region or anyone who is familiar with that region will tell you about living in the shadow of these enormous kind of geological upheavals and cataclysms.

Q : It’s interesting that in each of your books you talk about areas, places, countries, perhaps even people you’ve known, traveled to. Some of these places aren’t really talked about everyday. In fact, in ‘The Glass Palace’ your characters seem to flit effortlessly between the boundaries of both geography and class. What was it like to string it all together?
A : It’s interesting you ask me that. When we look at Asia we tend to think of all these great numbers of people leading very settled lives in China, in India, in various other parts. In fact, the reality is that people’s lives intersect in these interesting, interesting ways.

Q : I guess what you’ve been able to do is to put all of this into words. A lot of us end up going through life losing a bit of it along the way, then when you read it in a book, you are instantly transported by that experience, or incident….
A : Absolutely, you know this is exactly the case. I was in Mauritius where I met some Chinese families who had been settled there for two or three generations. Just to hear the stories of their lives was a fascinating experience. How they would go back to China to be educated, how they would come back, how their families co-existed in two different places, just these astonishing connections between peoples, their lives, the places they live in, their countries. All of this fascinates me.

Q : Do you think we are losing our oral traditions as we go from one generation to the next as we travel from one place to the next?
A : In a sense we are losing our direct connection with it, but one thing that is noticeable to me is that people are actually more and more interested in their particular past, in their family histories, so yes and no is the answer to that.

Q : War and the collision between history and individual lives. You have addressed this in your work. Personally, how have you been affected by it?
A : Somehow my life has been intersected by all these strange upheavals. I was in New Delhi during the riots in 1984. I was in New York on 9/11. In one way or another, I’ve witnessed it, I don’t know how to account for it. But I feel that in some ways my writing has also been a process to bearing witness to all these unfortunate upheavals.

Q : Do you think all writing should do that?
A : I feel its impossible to lay down prescriptions for all writers and I do hesitate to do that. I can only talk about what works me. I feel a need to bear witness to what I’ve seen and to express it through words.

Q : Another interesting term that I’ve come across in your work is the “aesthetics of violence.” What do you mean by that?
A : When I used that term it was essentially to oppose aestheicizing violence. I come from India which has been a witness to a great deal of violence in the last 30-40 years. The lesson that I’ve learnt from reading Mahatma Gandhi is how do you create non-violence in a very violent world. I think that’s a moral as well as an ethical necessity for writers too. Often as a writer, particularly one who has been witness to a lot of violence, you are tempted to re-create that violence in your work. I feel that it is very, very important for writers to try and distance themselves from it, to try and reflect upon it and to try and create circumstances where you can write about in a non-violent way about non-violence.

Q : You live in New York but go back to India almost every year. Does India always surprise you?
A : Oh, yes. India never ceases to amaze me. The changes you see in India even within a couple of months are simply unbelievable. India is a very different place from the India in the 1980s though. The sense of governance is much greater. In my own city, Calcutta, the improvements in the last 10 years have been staggering.

Q : Going back to your work. In ‘The Shadow Lines’ you wrote – “every word I write is the product of a struggle with silence.” It’s something that’s stayed in my head ever since I read the book. Word, writing and silence, what is the struggle about?
A : It is in two senses that I said that. I’ve often been writing about places, situations and people which are normally not written about. Burma, for instance. In the past very few people have written about Burma or noticed its existence for that matter. For me, in some sense writing about Burma, writing about Burmese history was a process of discovering a silenced aspect of our past and that was really interesting. But I think writing in general is often about battling our own resistances. I think, in some way we all experience a sense of resistance to writing about just writing.

Q : Would you then say that putting all these thoughts down on paper is a process of self-discovery for you?
A : It is in a sense. For me often it’s a process of the discovery of not just the historical aspects of the place I choose to write about, but also a process of discovery of the people who make up that place.

Q : Speaking of discovery through words, through books, your critically acclaimed work ‘In An Antique Land’ is widely recognized as being authentic even by Egyptians. What took you on this journey? It wasn’t just the pyramids?
A : (Laughs) That was over 25 years ago. I lived in a small village in Northern Egypt with the villagers. I learnt to speak Arabic. I wrote very truthfully about what I saw and you know life in a village is like life in a village anywhere. I was there for a year to start with and after that I’ve been back several times. I was at Oxford and was supposed to be doing a PhD in Anthropology and someone said to me: “where do you really want to go?” and I thought, “Why not Egypt?” That’s pretty much how I landed there and how the book happened.

Q : You have also captured some of your experiences in Egypt in ‘The Imam and The Indian’ – which includes 18 essays written over a 16-year time period – from 1986 to 2002. What changed and what impacted you the most during those years?
A : A number of things. I write non-fiction, essays and journalism from time to time. That collection was actually published in India. It’s now going to be published worldwide under a different title called ‘Incendiary Circumstances.’ One of the first of the essays in that book was about Cambodia. The war was still going on when I went there. When I went to Angkor Vat, the Khmer Rouge opened fire. There was bombing around the temple. It was something I just had to write about. It was some of those experiences that have been put together in this book and I hope people can take something back from it.

Q : How does your background and training as an anthropologist, a historian and a journalist impact your work?
A : I don’t think of any of these fields as being any different from the other. I think they are all ways of writing. I think they have all different times fed my curiosity to know more about the world, the circumstances we live in. And my curiosity is what made me a journalist, an anthropologist, a writer, it’s just a kind of habit. Usually I’m on the other side talking to people. I always have my little note book with me. You can see me busy taking notes. It just interests me to know about other people’s lives.

Q : Do you have your ‘Blink’ moments. You are talking to this person, you are drawn to the story and you know this what you definitely want to write about?
A : Absolutely. When I was in Cambodia, I went looking for Pol Pot’s family. I travelled a lot and reached a central Cambodian province where I met his brother. It was an astonishing experience. I went to his house, he was an ordinary peasant and as he told me the story of his life, I knew in that instant that here is someone I must write about.

Q : I know you’re not into giving advice to other authors, but if you were asked to say something to encourage budding authors, what would you say?
A : I would repeat what Honoré de Balzac said, which is, "ceaseless work is a law of art."

Q : In addition to writing a lot, you also read a lot. Who or what do you normally read?
A : Oh, my reading is very eclectic. I read whatever I can find. There’s absolutely no normalcy in my reading but I stumble upon things all the time.

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Tuesday, November 20, 2007


The other night Janet and I ended up at the Pan Pacific Hotel. We were to pick up Kunal Basu. The minute we were there, I realised this was like a karma play. "It all started here, Janet," I said.

"Yeah, it seems like yesterday," she responded.

Pan Pacific it was. Almost three years ago. Over a cup of coffee that lingered too long. Words had already transformed Janet's life and they were destined to chart mine too. Little did I know. The next morning, I thought of so many things, our friendship, our early morning conversations and the interview that had started it all.

This was done some time ago, yet when I re-visited it, a lot of things Janet said then, still hold good. If you missed this year's Ubud Writers Festival, you can catch her at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival. Among other discussions, two culinary greats will be sharing the stage at the festival. I'm talking about Madhur Jaffrey and Janet. Food is their shared passion and it shows in almost everything they touch.

Interestingly enough, while Madhur's culinary journey took off when she moved from Delhi to London, Janet's started after her move from Melbourne to Ubud. And it was love that drew her to Bali:

I first visited in 1974 and then when I went back in 1984, I met my husband on the second day and after that I was spending most of my time in Ubud. I was open to learning and found the culture and the people there fascinating. When you are willing and when you are younger, it’s a lot easier to adapt and adjust to something that seems tougher once you’re older.

How her book ‘Fragrant Rice’ happened:The book was originally meant to be a cookbook. That was my idea, that was my passion. I love Balinese food. But once I started living there, had my children, I started seeing this other side of life in Bali, the cultural aspects too. I started jotting down stories, details of the ceremonies – each of which had so much history behind them. I would talk about them in my cooking class and people would always ask – ‘are you writing a book?’ To which I’d respond, yes, I’m writing a cookbook. They’d all tell me that I needed to put in all the other stories in the book too. That’s how it started. The collection of recipes slowly transformed into this book about my life in Bali.

What she hopes to achieve through her book and on being crowned the ‘cultural ambassador of Bali’:
I feel uncomfortable about that. I don’t think I’m quite an ambassador, I’m only doing my bit to help people better understand and appreciate Balinese culture. If the book is helping in a small way, then I’m grateful for that. When I go back to Australia, people often tell me that they’ve almost always seen it as a beach resort. But it’s so much more than that.

On the Ubud Writers Festival:
The festival was born out of tragedy, sadly enough. There was a lot negative press that we got to see and read after the bombings. ‘Fragrant Rice’ was out, I was doing the rounds of literary festivals and I thought that literature and the written word is a way of understanding things and moving ahead. It’s just such a great connect. Also Ubud and the Balinese are known for their hospitality, so I thought why not enhance their own rich culture through something like a literary festival. We were also looking at something that would be targeted at young readers, aspiring writers who were hoping to meet authors they wouldn’t always get to meet. We were also very clear that Indonesian voices should always be heard at the festival. And we’ve tried our very best to get a diversity of voices at the festival. We’ve had writers like Michael Ondaatje, Amitav Ghosh, Kiran Desai share the stage with Ayu Utami, Luxmi Pamuntjak, Putu Wijaya, so its been a fascinating cross-cultural exchange.

For children, we’ve made the events fun. When you speak to writers you realize, something magical or special happened to them when they were children. That’s when they started reading and moved on to writing. We focus on children because in addition to being our future audience they are quite literally our future.

What she hopes people take back from her book:
I suppose I want to make people understand that different cultures have different ways of doing things. It doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. It’s important to not only understand but value those differences too. It’s important to appreciate, embrace and enjoy different ways of living. Living in a different culture has certainly made my life more exciting and has hopefully made me a better person – but I’ll leave that for others to decide.

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Will feature over authors from 13 countries with a distinct focus on emerging Asian writing. There's Tan Twan Eng, Madeleine Thein, Tash Aw, Su Tong showcasing writing from East Asia and China.

Writers from South Asia include David Davidar, Kunal Basu, Elmo Jayawardena, Madhur Jaffrey.

'Wild Swan' lovers, don't miss out on the chance to hear Jung Chang.

Other festival highlights include an exhibition to mark the 150th anniversary of the birth of Polish writer Joseph Conrad', a tribute to poet Arthur Yap and a theatrical performance based on the poetry of Madeleine Lee and Eleanor Wong.

Comic book enthusiasts can get their superhero or wonder woman fixes through Gail Simone and Kurt Busiek. There are professional symposiums on various aspects of publishing as well.

A bit of everything at the upcoming Singapore Writers Festival. Lots I want to see and hear, though given the length of the festival (1st-9th December), I'm not sure how much I'll be able to squeeze in.

I'm not a lit fest veteran, though after three years on the circuit, I get the sense that 3-4 days is the right duration for a festival. It's a good idea to book end the festival proper with workshops because by day 4, you get a palpable sense of audience fatigue. Panels, discussions, conversations, even great ones see numbers dip. I just hope that given the effort, the line-up and the engaging discussions that await, this is something that doesn't happen at the Singapore Writers Festival. Your presence can definitely alter the scheme of things.


Monday, November 19, 2007


Time to read up. The Singapore Writers Festival is round the bend. The action begins end November. If you have the time, make it for all the sessions. If you don't study the sked carefully and do make the time for these two sessions, happening on Saturday, the 8th December. Would love to see you there:

A Tale of Two Cities
Featuring: David Davidar, Kunal Basu and Deepika Shetty (Moderator)
1.00pm – 2.00pm
Writing from opposite ends of the world; join these two acclaimed and
talented writers as they share their love for writing, literature and life.

Also on Saturday, Elmo Jayawardena launches his collection of short stories. You definitely don't want to miss this. We've got plenty of surprises and they aren't your scripted speeches.

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Is taking on Hollywood.

And that sure is good news.

According to Variety, Om Shanti Om raked in £8.2 million while Saawariya cashed in £6.9 million -beating Tom Cruise's Lions for Lambs at which chalked up just £4.9m from 45 countries and a whopping 404 prints compared to just 52 prints of Om Shanti Om.

I'll raise a toast to the Khans and reserve my judgment on a movie that still makes me see blue.

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It is the dhak-dhak girl's comeback film. It will soon be a whistling tune - if it hasn't become one already in India. It is also backed by Kailash Kher's powerful vocals. Aaja Nachle may only be releasing on November 30th, but you've got yet another chance to air your dancing shoes way before that. Will get to that, in just a bit.

Before that, the little backgrounder, as we like to say. I first saw him at the A R Rahman concert a couple of years ago. When he first walked up on stage, people only had ears for Rahman. Then he held the mike, restored order in a minute and soon had the crowd dancing to his tunes.

Post show, there was plenty of talk of that "little dynamo." While I'd heard his music, watching him perform was a totally different experience. Since then I've lobbied (mildly), urging various event organisers to bring Kailash back for a solo concert.

And I'm pleased to report (no, I don't have anything to with it, please forward all congratulatory notes to Shweta of Teamworks) that Kailash Kher will be performing in Singapore:
On Saturday, 24th November
As part of the Kalaa Utsavam

All the fun is at The Esplanade

His has been the proverbial rags to riches story . He's gone from living on a railway station in Mumbai to belting out some memorable numbers. Even critics who once dismissed his "high pitched voice" have embraced him. While not all the movies he's lent his vocals to have been box office successes, his numbers have survived the test.

And post Khosla ka Ghosla, I've not been able to get Chak de Phatte out of my head. Pretty certain, post concert it will be ringing louder than ever before.

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Monday, November 12, 2007


The trouble with going head to head in terms of release dates is the spin the stories get. Even media that has traditionally ignored Bollywood, they'd rather review some of the unwatchable Hollywood movies instead of picking the best of Bollywood. That's another story and it'll take me on a rant like never before. As I was saying, the thing about two of Bollywood's biggest releases has been the talk of the rivalry. With the information overload, the phones calls missed, the invites ignored, no comments from either side, one will never quite fathom what the intensity of the rivalry is - if there is one.

As far as cinema goes, Saawariya and Om Shanti Om are as different as chalk and cheese. Or as Bala would say they are like fish and mutton - both are good, you need to learn to savour them differently. Yet, over the Diwali weekend as we mentioned our movie plans, everyone we bumped into gave us their two cents worth anyways.

"Our friends watched it and said blah, blah, blah...."

Not one to let anyone colour our judgment blue, we made it for Sanjay Leela Bhansali's eagerly anticipated and much talked about Saawariya last night. The sets are grand, often you get confused guessing whether this bit was in Moulin Rouge or perhaps that train bit from The Polar Express. It almost seems like something you have seen before. The surreal sets come alive with the sound of music as star-crossed lovers collide on one rainy day, on another snowy day and then a moon lit day.

Seasons may be colliding, the story doesn't. Three days of waiting, walking, watching, talking, Raj (Ranbir Kapoor) finds himself falling madly in love with Sakina (Sonam Kapoor). No prizes for guessing the twist in this tale.

Love is put to the test, though the palpable excitement in the theatre revolves around the towel scene.

"Aiyoh, why you getting so excited?" boy seated behind us tells the girl.
"Haven't you seen this in other movies?"
"Never in Bollywood," she chokes on her laughs.

The towel scene notwithstanding, both Raj and Sonam, who are making their debuts are fairly impressive. As is Rani Mukherji who pulls off the role of the hooker - Gulabji with elan. Zohra Sehgal manages to pull out a couple of laughs as the endearing landlady 'Lilly-pop.'

The songs are beautifully choreographed, the costumes designed by Anuradha Vakil make you want to get on to the next flight to Ahmedabad. Somehow, its the story that fails to make the leap into the realm of a grand narrative.

After Devdas, I was ready to be shaken and stirred again. Sadly, nothing quite tugged at the heart-strings this time round. The Kleenex packet remained unopened.

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Sunday, November 11, 2007


They laughed the minute SRK arrived on screen. They laughed some more when he flicked his fingers through his hair. They laughed when his 'filmi Ma' (Kirron Kher) rattled off one over the top dialogue after another. One of them laughed till he rolled off the chair. Even after the Happy's Thee End, they laughed all the way back home.

The audience in question was our four and eight year old, our helper who is Indonesian and knows very little Hindi and only understood half of the dialogues or the characters that were emerging larger than life. They might not have recognised the Dev Anand or the Rajesh Khanna or Govinda or Subhash Ghai or Manoj Kumar or anyone else for that matter. Yet that didn't come in the way of the laughs unlimited. If you are looking for something that effortlessly cuts across the age, language, race and every other conceivable barrier, then Farah Khan's latest offering Om Shanti Om has got to be it.

The movie starts in the 70s presenting King Khan as a struggling junior artiste - Om Prakash Makhija, who hangs around movie sets with his best pal Pappu Master, played to perfection by Shreyas Talpade. They dream of making it big in the movies, they dream of awards, ceremonies, speeches, recognition. They also dream of love. Om is in madly in love with superstar Shantipriya. Hold your breath for the stunning Deepika Padukone.

As the movie poster tells you "for some dreams, one lifetime isn't enough."
That's where the twist is. The villian (Arjun Rampal) emerges, love takes a beating, the story leaps know no bounds, though the fun continues as the dramatic story progresses. It's a rocking rollicking ride through some of the fascinating aspects and periods of filmmaking.

Remember those car scenes, where the scenery changes all the time or the superhero stuff brought alive through outrageous costumes and death-defying stunts. The mock tiger fights, the PR speak in the film industry - "we are just good friends." Blink, blink Rani, blink blink Preity.

Nothing is spared along the way. Script writers, actors, producers, directors, stunt men. And the industry joins in to make the laughs all the more real.

"Om who?" Amitabh Bachchan asks at the awards ceremony, that pits the acting talents of Abhishek Bachchan, Hrithik Roshan, Akshay Kumar and Shah Rukh Khan.

Then there are the foot tapping numbers that make you want to put your hands in the air, never mind if you are hot or not.

Often when a project of such scale is put together, no one even thinks of the entire industry of people working behind the scenes to pull it all together. Full marks to Farah for making all the spot boys, ADs, junior artistes and all the assistants look so good on screen.

This is the stuff dreams should be made of. Thank you all at OSO, for making them seem so within reach.

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Friday, November 09, 2007


Since it's Diwali and the better part of the weekend will see us partying and catching up on the two big Bollywood releases, thought I might leave you with an interview that I did recently.

She's gorgeous, smart and successful. She's sustained an injury on the sets of Drona. Though her mega-watt smile gives no indication of the pain she's been through. 12 noon is 12 noon for her. She arrives on the dot, takes the mike collar in her hand. When the sound man gets up to help her, she gently says, "it's alright, I'm used to this." When her make-up guy walks in, she's polite. After checking if everything is alright, she's back to chatting. Having had my brushes with stars who only light up when the cameras are rolling, this one is a real surprise. I tell her about witnessing some of her back-stage action at Genting during the Zee Cine Awards. She had to do her descent several times because the choreographer wasn't happy with the way she was landing on stage and not once did she complain. If this is the stuff of stars, I want to keep seeing more of them. For now, let's get to Priyanka Chopra. Winning the Miss World title in 2000 changed a lot of things for her. She chose a career in films. The awards, the roles, the films Andaaz, Krrish, Don, prove it's been the perfect choice.

In a wide ranging conversation, she talks about how she picks her celluloid roles, the things that inspire her and what keeps her working 15 hours a day:

Q : Priyanka, you are an amazing actress. You injured yourself while shooting for your recent film ‘Drona’ and ignoring your doctor’s advice you were back at work the very next day. What drives you and makes you take on the roles that you do?
A :
I like doing films and cinema that intrigues me and movies that I’d like to go and see myself as an audience. If the script touches me and I feel I’d like to pay and watch this film, then I say yes. That’s how I pick my films and it seems to have worked. So far, so good.

Q : And you believe in doing extensive training for your films. For your latest film its in Sikh martial arts?
A :
I learnt gatka for a little while. Besides that my character in Drona is completely action oriented. It’s something you don’t see leading ladies, at least in Indian cinema, do too often. I haven’t seen actresses do as much action stuff as I have done in Drona.

Q : Do you think actresses today have to work a lot harder?
A :
The generation of today is putting in a lot of effort to make sure that the characters we play are a lot more fleshed out. They are not just stereotypical running around trees and singing. Yes, we do have singing and dancing and I love that, but Indian movies today are a lot more than that. They are pushing boundaries, they are trying new stuff, they are integrating technology. I’m not just talking about actors, I’m talking about film makers and directors and producers who are making different films where the roles of leading ladies are a lot more fleshed out.

Q : In Don, you played Roma’s role, which is almost immortalised by Zeenat Aman? How did you approach it considering there was someone the audience was always associating your character with?
A :
When you try and fill someone’s shoes, it’s always difficult and you have a lot more responsibility especially if those shoes are as big as Zeenat Aman’s. So I tried to make Roma’s role as different as I could and I’m glad that it worked.

Q : Indian cinema has grown so much over the years, in terms of eyeballs, revenue, fans, recognition and also in the ways movies are being made today. How does it feel to represent one of the world’s fastest growth industries?
A :
I’ve been in the film industry for four years now. My first film released in 2003. Before that I was a student, I was studying engineering in fact. It’s quite a short span for me to understand this industry. I saw film as entertainment. I never really saw the business of Bollywood. But having become a part of it, I take a lot of pride that Indians all over the world unite through Indian cinema and I feel a huge sense of responsibility and am honoured to represent Indian cinema today.

Q : Priyanka, the first time I saw you in person was when you were rehearsing for the Zee Cine Awards in Genting. I still recall you being pulled up by those ropes, every time your choreographer felt your touch down on stage wasn’t perfect. It must have gone on like 10 times and I was thinking, that’s what true superstars are like. It’s not easy, we don’t get to see this stuff. Do you feel people just don’t get what goes on behind the scenes?
A :
You are right, so much happens, so many cuts, re-takes, the sheer number of people who make things happen and the audience never really realize it. Such is the magic of cinema that you often can’t even fathom the effort that goes into the making of each film. There’s so much at stake. I’m not just talking about the economy or the monies part of it. I’m talking about the sheer effort it takes to make a film and sometimes, you wish there was a little more appreciation of what it took to put all of it together.

Q : You’ve actually been spoilt for choice. I know a lot of actors would have jumped at the opportunity, but you’ve said no to a Hollywood film. Why’s that?
A :
It wasn’t the kind of film I was looking at doing. If I do something outside of India, it has to be something that really excites me. I wouldn’t do something just because it’s Hollywood. I think Indian cinema has reached a point where we stand at another level altogether. I’m not taking about the budgets and business, that would take some time, but in terms of popularity, I think Indian cinema has reached another level altogether. As an actor if I go out there and do a film it has to be at a certain level, it has to meet my expectations and that of the people who would be watching it.

Q : Does Hollywood still remain an option for you?
A :
Not just Hollywood, even Tamil cinema, regional cinema, any cinema that touches me, moves me and inspires me.

Q : Speaking of Tamil cinema, you in fact launched your career with a Tamil film. What’s the journey to superstardom been like?
A :
That’s right, my debut was in a Tamil film. Well, I’ve learnt a lot in the 4-5 years I’ve been in the industry. I never thought I’d be here or that I’d come so far. I’m extremely grateful to all the people who have forgiven my errors and all my fans who have come out to support me by watching me on and off screen. You know I’ve never really trained as an actor, it’s been a lot of trial and error, portraying the kind of characters I have on screen. It takes a lot for people to love an artiste and I’m enormously grateful for their support.

Q : What about the media and the way they treat film stars. I find the treatment of Indian film stars is a lot like that of the Indian cricketers. The minute you have a hit, everyone’s waxing lyrical, one flop and loyalties shift quick time. Do you think the media has been fair to you?
A :
Brickbats and bouquets are part of the game and you have to be accepting of that. But I think you’ve got that spot on. In India, cricket and films are the two biggest religions after religion. We have a tremendous responsibility when we are making films. Yes, the media can be a bit unforgiving at times but one has to be understanding that they are reaching out to an ever hungry public, who constantly want more news, more information. While I understand their need to keep writing to meet the demand, I think sourcing has to be more authentic, that doesn’t really happen now.

Q : Getting back to your films, apart from Drona, which your fans are very excited about, which other films are you excited about?
A :
I have Love Story 2050 coming up which is another really exciting film. It’s a science fiction drama traveling across two time zones. It’s something that’s not been seen in India before and I’m looking forward to it. Then there is God Tussi Great Hon.

Q : When you aren’t shooting, when you aren’t criss-crossing the globe and when you have more than a minute to yourself, what do you like to do?
A :
I love to read. I’m a voracious reader. I like reading any kind of book. Thrillers, science fiction, fiction. And I love watching movies too – not mine of course.

Q : And how does it feel to be back in Singapore?
A :
It feels great. Singapore is one my favourite places in the world. I have some really nice memories attached to the city and it’s always great to be back.

Q : Speaking of Singapore, Krrish was a blockbuster all over the world and keenly watched in Singapore. What was shooting for it like, were your expectations pretty much what came out in the film?
A :
Actually it looked much better than I thought it would. We shot all over Singapore. We got a lot of support from the Singapore Tourism Board. We were allowed to shoot pretty much where we wanted to and Singapore came out looking even more spectacular than I thought it would. And coming back to the city, it’s a beautiful city, there’s so much do here, it’s a great life here and I was really looking forward to coming back.

Q : You are an Army kid, or 'Army brat' as the term often goes. We spend the better part of our childhood packing boxes, moving cities, making new friends. Do you think your Army background has helped you in your career?
A :
Absolutely. We, as Army children are like water. We can fit in anywhere. Our parents keep us on the move but at the same time they instill in us the values of discipline, punctuality, conducting ourselves in public. I have absolutely no problems working 15 hours a day. And I think a lot of this has to with my childhood. In fact, I am very grateful to the Indian Army for instilling all these qualities in me.

With that, its time for her to make the first of many public appearances. Like a true fauji she doesn't want to be a second too late. She unclips her mike, is game enough to give us some pictures to remember her by and then she's off to meet and greet her fans.

Pictures courtesy Zee TV

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Light those candles....
Colour the floor....
Add rang to your life....
And burst some of those crackers for me too.
Happy Diwali.


Monday, November 05, 2007


The Three Gorges
One dam thing after another

Future Tense



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Apology: Augustus Caesar. In our review last week of Lucien Polastran's book on libraries we said that Augustus had destroyed the Alexandrian library in 48BC. Since the lad, then called Octavian, was only 15 at the time, he obviously didn't. And Julius Caesar who did, hadn't actually meant to. We apologise to Mr Polastran, the many well-educated readers who have complained, and to Augustus, now divine.

Page 92: Books and Arts
The Economist

What lessons it holds for others in the business of apologising.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007


It may not always show but I'm a stressed wreck before every session. I need aqua pura - lots of it. The throat feels parched all the time, the thoughts seem like a steady stream of unconsciousness, the hour always seems 60 minutes too long. Then the session starts, time flies, so much is said and when it's all over, I realise I've barely got past 5 of my 20 prepared questions - the rest of it has developed through the discussion. All of this happens at lit fests organised by experienced folks and festival directors.

A couple of months ago, in a fit of fool-hardiness, three good friends got together. They talked books. They talked authors, the ones they met, the ones who never got heard, the way they should be - for various reasons and on a whim they started something called Literatti. One of the friends happened to yours truly. The minute we thought we had the perfect thing going, our Marketing brain - Tripta Singh moved to Hong Kong, Maniza ended up with too much on her plate. That left me - the last woman standing, that's till Jayapriya of Jacaranda walked right in. Her confidence inspired me, we could get the author readings back on track.

That's how 'A Reading by Rana Dasgupta' happened. Rana was one of my first guests on Off The Shelf. I'd loved the book, the fairy-tale take on globalisation. We'd ended that phone conversation, so many moons ago with hope of meeting somewhere in the world. That meeting happened this year at the Ubud Writers Fest. Rana mentioned a visit to Singapore, something that had me enormously exicted. Let's do a reading, I suggested. He agreed and that was the start.

As an author, Rana is brilliant. He's also a publicist's dream. And if I may add tech savvy, his website is proof. Send him an email and you get a response quick time.

Why was I nervous then? We'd discussed how we'd do the reading. Rough formats always help. People had RSVP-ed. But by 2:45pm, only five bright students from the Global Indian International School had arrived. Then Zafar got there and it was a relief. When I asked him if everyone who'd said yes, would show, he calmly assured me, they would. After all, it was a Saturday afternoon and timing's do tend to fluctuate.

Rana was wrapping up the last of his interviews downstairs and true to Zafar's word, the room was filling up. Having moderated authors sessions across continents, I know there's nothing like a room filled up, an audience is what everyone needs. A couple of thoughts were playing in my head, though there wasn't much time to engage in it, the school students had questions for me.

"What shall we call you, Mam or Aunty?"
"You can call me, Deepika."

"No, that would be disrespectful," they reminded me.
"Then, whatever you wish."

"Aunty, we haven't read the book, can we still ask questions?"
"Of course."
"Is he a nice author?"
"You'll find out in less than 10 minutes."

The students from 6th and 7th standard and their questions were the biggest assurance that we'd got something to remember on our hands.

The reading was part of the lead-up to the Singapore Writers Festival. And Phan Ming Yen, Director, Artistic Development, The Arts House gave us a short and sweet trail of Crossings.

With that, it was time to know Rana and his writing better.

Singapore turned out to be the perfect talking point. One of the stories in 'Tokyo Cancelled' was inspired by the time he spent in Malaysia, his visit to Singapore and the contrasts between the world. A short reading followed. Then it was thoughts fast and furious. Globalisation and literature, the significance of fairy tales for writing about the contemporary world, the places he picked. Why writing? Was it fool-hardy to plunge into writing full-time? Like many others before him, Rana's debut was also written while he had a full-time job that helped him criss-cross the globe, with some places inspiring some of the stories that made it to the book. Then his move to Delhi - something that was meant to be a three month experiment. "It was love," he said of his journey to the Indian capital. Three months has turned into a couple of years and the energy of the city, the people around him continue to inspire him as much as they did, the first time he got there. Then the 13 stories - not a story less, not a story more. It was nothing to do with luck or numbers, it was more a case of the number of stories that fell in place. Sharing his writing. Rana had no qualms on that front or taking the criticism or comments that follow.

The conversation was interspersed with sharing of stories of flights cancelled. The students in our midst turned out to be the perfect story-tellers. One of them was too young to remember, she told us, but she did remember where she was when the flight was cancelled, another one made a will leaving everything to her friends, one delightful boy spoke of his life in transit, a long-distance flight cancelled and how gameboy came to the rescue. There were some stunning tales in a perfectly global landscape.

We sat between worlds, inspired by works of art, thoughts, questions, the title of the book questioned:
"Why 'Tokyo Cancelled' why not Singapore cancelled or KL cancelled?"
"Was 'Tokyo Cancelled' your title?"

"No, I had over 100 possible titles, scribbled in my note pad and I can't imagine I ever thought of them."

"Who is your favourite author?"
Rana picked Roald Dahl and left us with this gripping reading from his forthcoming book, currently titled 'Half Life'. It's set in Bulgaria, look out for it in 2009....

With the exception of his back, which tortures him every morning, the man's health is still passable, and yet, by the sheer force of numbers, his death cannot be so far away.

As a child, the man watched his grandmother stick up biographies of the dead on the trees outside their house. She had come from a village near the Black Sea - cut off, now, by the border - and it was the dead from this distant village whose accomplishments were memorialised on the trunks of the plane trees planted equidistantly along their street. Every day, it seemed, was the death-day of someone or other from that remote place, and his grandmother told him the stories over morning tea as she wrote out her obituaries. She tied them with string to the trees, where they decomposed gradually in the rain, to be renewed the following year.

"How do you remember?" he asked her again and again, for it seemed marvellous that the entire history of that lost dynasty could be preserved in her mind. But his father disapproved of the rural practice, and her own life was never written up on a tree.

Sensitive, like all infants, to the beyond, the man had in those years a powerful sense of the infinitude of generations.

P.S. A special thank you Robin Greatbatch for sparing the venue, the helpful staff who gave 'service with a smile', a new meaning. To everyone from the SWF, the Arts House, Alina from MPH Books, to Jayapriya, Zafar, Bala and everyone of you who showed up. Saturday afternoons are never easy and I'm truly appreciative of the time you spared. And to Rana, for leaving us with so many thoughts. As Ron, rightly mentions on his website: "it takes 20 mins to read a story of the 13 and the whole day to analyse it." In my case, its longer than a day for sure. Don't know about my 8 year old, who has set herself the target of finishing it before her brush with David Davidar. Yes, more readings are on their way. Watch this space.

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