Harry Potter Epilogue Day

September 1 2017 was the day the epilogue in the last Harry Potter book took place, where everyone is grown and has children.

I used to be a huge, huge Harry Potter fan. More so since, initially, when Harry, Ron and Hermione were 11, I was, when they were 12, so was I, and so on, until the fifth book got delayed by a year. Harry Potter was so much of my identity. I could (and did, often,) discuss the books for hours. Now though, you’d find me hard-pressed to remember anything beyond The Goblet of Fire, the last great Harry Potter book, according to me. And I remember every line from Goblet, only because I was stuck for a week at my uncle’s, without TV or any other entertainment, and this book was all I had with me.

Until not that long ago, I wanted to write this novel called The Harry Potter Fan Club of New Bangalore High School, or something. It would be a saga chronicling a group of friends, with each chapter being about the friends meeting to buy, read and discuss each book. They would be introduced to the book in the 6th standard, and we would watch them grow up as they met for the book releases. It would be a tale of friendship, love, and loss. Of growing up, coming of age, and discovering yourself.

Now I think I could write a novella with this theme, but the passionate fire I felt in me for the theme is long gone. None of what I’d expected to happen with my friends after high school happened, and most of our group didn’t keep in touch after school, so my Order of the Phoenix discussion was with two friends, one of whom was a new friend I’d made, and nearly as much of a fangirl as I was.

Also, I dislike Harry as a character now, stupid poor little rich boy punk with exactly one spell he’s good at, and inordinately trusted by his teachers. So rereading the books makes me rather annoyed.

But if you’d asked me when Goblet came out, I would tell you I would be a fan of Harry Potter for the rest of my life and that I would listen to everything JK Rowling said ever. That didn’t quite pan out. Here’s some other things I would totally not believe if you told me when Goblet came out when I was fourteen:

  • JK Rowling will one day block you because you would reply to her announcement of Fantastic Beasts with Fantastic Revenue Streams And How To Mine Them. And you won’t hate yourself for it.
  • You will have a crush on a writer called Shashi Tharoor. He will break your heart by joining the Congress, and then make you question your taste in men when it comes to light that he may have killed his third wife.
  • The boy you currently have a crush on will seem gross three years later.
  • The first time you’re published in a real book, it won’t be fiction. Or personal essays. It’ll be a grad-level textbook. In Computer Science.
  • Your political activities will resemble your grandfather’s more than you think.
  • All the people whose opinions you take seriously, you’ll be dissing them because they ‘don’t have enough depth of knowledge or perspective on anything’.
  • You’ll be married to someone who hasn’t read any of the Harry Potter books, or watched any of the movies.
  • There will come a period in your life when you read three books a week and a good movie every day. You’ll also be able to listen to all the best music from everywhere without having to wait for it to play on the radio and then record it on a cassette tape. It will be thanks to piracy.
  • You won’t have your entire book collection with you for nearly ten years. And you won’t attempt to recreate it, either.
  • There will be a few years when you don’t read any new novels.
  • You’ll live in cities which don’t even have one bookstore you like for ten years.
  • Oh, and you’ll despise Derek O’Brien one day. And it won’t have anything to do with how lame his quiz questions are.
  • You will one day end up despising chitranna and puliyogre after eating them at least once a week for two whole years.
  • Remember the disturbing movie you watched, called Mahanadi? One day, you’ll hear the real story behind it. It will upset you even more than the movie.
  • You’ll grow to despise Harry Potter.
  • But it’s okay, because you’ll discover Percy Jackson and Artemis Fowl.
  • Everything will turn out okay.
  • Except one of your pet squirrels. But you kind of expect that, don’t you?
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Kaatru Veliyidai…. again.

I had a pretty emotional reaction to Kaatru Veliyidai fresh off of watching it. Now though, Aditi Rao Hydari’s beautiful face has grown on me, and the soundtrack is rather a earworm. I can’t stop thinking about some little moments in the movie that struck a chord.

I wish Mani Ratnam wrote novels, instead of making movies. That way, he doesn’t have the constraint of two and a half hours or the movie format, and he can explore his characters deeply with small little scenes that add up. I could read pages and pages of stuff illustrating and explaining why Leela loves VC.

That scene where she’s singing and doing her chores, when she hears an aircraft, and steps out to look at it…. and then comes back in, singing and doing her chores right where she left. So silly, so childish. And so real.

The Heroine’s Friend is such an abused and under-acted role usually. The director usually takes great pains to make the Heroine’s Friend as generic and unattractive in comparison to the heroine as possible. If she stands out in any way, it’s usually played for laughs. Even Swarnamallya in Alaipayuthey was bland.

But Rukmini Vijaykumar as Nidhi is delectably three-dimensional. She has a crush on RJ Balaji, but doesn’t let that get in the way of enjoying male attention, and on top of everything, dances like a dream. I particularly loved when she accompanies Leela to Leh, Leela gets busy doing her own thing with VC, and Nidhi is just having a blast dancing with the rest of the regiment.

I love how the scene cuts from Leela and Nidhi hearing that VC is in Leh, to Nidhi and Leela on a bus to Leh. Everyone can do with at least one friend who partakes in all their crazy schemes.

More than all of that though, what stood out for me is how Leela always has a legit reason to be around wherever VC is. She came to Srinagar because she ‘wanted to go as far from home as possible’.  She shows up at the flying club because she is meeting her late brother’s commanding officer. She shows up at Leh saying she wants to see her brother’s last resting place. But we know those things aren’t really the reason why.

Finally, what I find most remarkable is how Leela has an image of VC from her brother’s letters in her high school days, and how that, and her brother dying, has such a strong impact on her that the image stays with her for years despite the universe working actively to destroy it. It’s a sobering thought to know how vulnerable the best and most loved among us can be to demons from our past, especially because of familiar and satiating they feel.

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Ticket To Ride

“I’m sorry ma’am, we’re overbooked, you’re just too late”.
“But I have a ticket!”, I said. “Why do you issue tickets if you’re just going to kick me off the plane? I have an AirBNB and everything”.
“Sorry ma’am, there’s no more room. Do you really want us to drag someone else off the plane? Violently?”, her eyes glinted, like she desperately wanted me to say “YES”, and she could finally use her strong arms and shoulders for what they were really meant for.
“What are my options?”, I said. “I just spent $200 on tickets and more on hotels, it gets expensive in Vegas this time of the year. I need fair compensation”.
“I can book you a hotel here. Two nights. Free”.
“I live here!”.
“Well, then we’ll have to go for Option B. A free round-trip flight to a random location chosen by our Smart Assistant”.
“Try it. It’s fun! This lady last week got to go to Chicago. She’d never been.”
And she hated it, and cursed you with every atom of her being?
As if sensing my thoughts, she added “She loved it. Sent me pictures”.
“Fine, I’ll try it. But can I just get a cheque if it comes up Gary, Indiana or something?”.

She was already talking to her device. “Siri, what’s a fun airport to go to this weekend on a United flight?”.
“A great destination for Memorial Day Weekend is, Homey Airport, Nevada.”
I froze. I recognized that name from all the hours of reading conspiracy theories online during a bad patch. And Siri knew! I shouldn’t have been surprised, I coded that people-recognition module when I worked at Apple last year.
“Can… can I just take the cheque?”
“Fine, if you want it that way”, she said stiffly, and began shuffling her papers and rummaging through her desk.

I’d have $500 for this weekend. And then I’d go back home. The streets would be empty. No one I knew would be in town. My friends would be in Vegas. Everything would be closed. I’d eat ramen and watch Netflix….

“Actually, I’d like to go. It’s a return ticket, right?”
“Yes, guaranteed return”.
“Great, gimme the ticket”.

I ended up having the time of my life. Mingling with a new people, learning bits of a new language, crazy rides. They loved how different the color of my skin was from theirs, and the little ones asked to touch my hair. When I told them I’d worked on Siri, they wanted to hear all about talking computers. I loved playing with the local critters, and this one little cuddly bunny that glowed in the dark wanted to come back with me.

I really enjoyed my weekend with the aliens of Area 51.

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“Engineer-ku abuse thaangaada?” Kaatru Veliyidai and abusive relationships

I watched Kaatru Veliyidai with my husband last night. He, being from the opposite end of the world from Mani Ratnam, wasn’t very familiar with Mani-saar movies, and wondered why this was something I would watch with such excitement, much less drag him along. He also wondered why our wedding didn’t have a rave like in Sarattu Vandiyile. Because, I said, he didn’t make a music video for me with ten of his friends, like Jugni.

We laughed incredulously at the Escape from Pakistan bits. I mean, come on, you can’t swat a fly in Pakistan without the ISI knowing.

And when the movie moved on to the VC-Leela relationship complexities, we stopped laughing. It got too real.

Both of us had nearly been Leela at one point or another in the years before we met. And I don’t mean we wore chiffons in the cold, or spoke to people while referring to them in the third person (“VC-ku enna pudikum?”, she asks VC).

Here’s the thing about abusive relationships. They sneak up on you without warning. Often, the abusive bits are so far apart and interspersed by good times, that by the time it all gets totally abusive, it’s all normalized in your mind.

Take Leela in the movie. She is breathtakingly beautiful, raised to be willful, is completely aware of when a man is being abusive, and yet, is powerless against the abusive relationship she is in. The love she feels for this man, the closest she can get to her dead brother, keeps her coming back. Also, the abusive episodes are separated by eloquent poetry, thrilling adventures, charming conversation, and love.

It also helps that the man in question is an IAF pilot, a profession for which you totally need a cocky confidence, and which almost always ensures you get your way – we see in the first few scenes of the movie VC’s CO telling him he insulted the Brigadier for not raising his daughter well – there’s enough people who will make sure nothing comes in your way.  When you’re faced with someone who has never been told no, the rules of engagement are completely different.

There’s another class of people who are cocky and have always had their way.

Indian men with IIT and/or PhD on their resume.

And being from the background I am, I regularly got set up with men like this.

It would start off well enough, with mutual interest and engaging conversation. Lots of humor, lots of obscure pop culture references I appreciated. And the shining approval of friends who were happy I found someone who ticked all the boxes, and was the ‘right’ sort of person. Some who even went on to tell me how lucky I was.

But as it went on, that shiny image would show blemishes. Dismissiveness. Dismissiveness and demeaning jokes while in a group of friends. Attempts at controlling my career choices. Attempts at controlling my wearing makeup. Demeaning references to my past life. Annoyance at how I didn’t like chores.

It would go on. Jokes about beating and other abuse. Arguments about how I called myself a comedian but couldn’t even take those ‘jokes’.

I would begin to disengage. At this point, there would be snide remarks at how I would never find anyone else, and I’d come back crawling to them. The stern confidence that they would definitely wear me down, and this was just a temporary setback. I once said “I don’t think I could love you”, and the response was “But how important is that when it comes to marriage?”.

At this point, I would know I couldn’t get into a confrontation, because that would only draw me in more. I couldn’t express my concerns about the relationship to them, because it would be met with, at best, dismissiveness, or worse, the ‘happy’ facade would come on and I would be convinced against leaving.

And I would know I wanted to leave, because I found myself becoming a circus lion. My opinionated talkativeness would be turning into a prop by then, as would my degree. I would feel like I wasn’t me, growing and learning and changing, but an actor hired to play a specific role. And like I’d be handed demerits if I veered from the script.

But I couldn’t do the breakup conversation. Because then I’d become the bad person for breaking the heart of such a kind and genuine person. Or worse, I’d become the stupid girl for walking away from someone who was so clearly a meal ticket. I remember one of these things devolving into some rather intense online stalking, and a friend saying “See? He loves you so much. What more do you want? Where else are you going to find anyone who cares this much? You aren’t getting any younger”.

So I had to improvise. I’d become Me. You know like how Hanuman grows to ten times his size? I’d amplify my personality similarly.

I like a little back-and-forth? I’d go full on argumentative. I like jokes? I’d make them rude and cutting. I have issues? I’d make myself all about the issues.

And that would be the end. Without my having done much at all.

It scares me how easily women I’m scared of get into abusive relationships. There was this girl I found particularly domineering at NITK. Imagine my shock at seeing her get slapped and called names in public by the boy she was dating. Imagine my further shock at her not saying a word in response.

After witnessing that and similar incidents, I came up with a set of rules to abide by:

  • Don’t be afraid of making a scene, when it comes to calling someone out for being disrespectful to you. Even if it seems petty. It’s okay if you lose respect in public. It’s better than losing your mind in private.
  • Don’t stop knocking on doors for help if you have started. There is going to be at least one person to help you.
  • A relationship that involves losing your financial independence is probably not worth it.
  • Don’t hide signs of abuse. Tell everyone about it, including the cops. Trevor Noah’s mother got shot at by her ex-husband. He got away scot free because she survived, and because every time she had tried to complain to the cops about his abuse, they wouldn’t register a complaint.
  • There’s women out there who started afresh with no friends, family or money, and they manage to be healthy and happy.
  • Be very clear about your boundaries always. Don’t be hesitant to discuss boundaries, even if it seems like a buzzkill. That way, if someone crosses a line, there is an unambiguous reason in your mind to stay away from them.
  • 99% of the time, there is a valid reason why you feel the way you feel. Talk it through in your mind and verbalize it. It will be difficult at first, but it gets better. This is how you prevent being shut down in arguments and being gaslighted.
  • If someone doesn’t brook any discussion on some topics important to you, especially by virtue of being loud and/or big and/or intimidating, run very far away.
  • Give in to your fear. It is a gift. Listen to your instincts. Think them through slowly and patiently with self-love. You get scared for a good reason usually. Ponder through it and let it inform your next steps. Do not be dismissive of yourself.
  • Being single isn’t the punishment your mind makes it out to be. It is always better than being in a relationship that makes you lose your sense of self and happiness.
  • Above all, never blame yourself for being in a relationship you don’t like. Mistakes happen. It happens to the best of us. Heck, Hillary Clinton remains stuck in a marriage where she is cheated on repeatedly. The difference is, once you realize it, you can always take appropriate steps to get away from it. Half the battle is in your mind. Once you convince yourself you must leave, it becomes a matter of logistics.

And believe you me, these rules are gender-neutral. Men can be stuck in as scary a relationship as women. Everyone deserves love and respect. And everyone can obtain love and respect. The first step though, as both of us will say, is moving away from places and people where you aren’t able to get love and respect.

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An update on Boyhood OR When Ethan Hawke locked eyes with me from across a room

I had blogged about Boyhood when I watched it a couple of years ago. In it, I had said

Boyhood makes me think of a larger point. The way we remember things doesn’t have to be coherent, neat sequences of events. But, at least in my head, the way I remember things is like a story ready to be narrated to someone else. So there’s this beginning and middle and end and I make them tie together. It might be because I blog and write a diary, it might be because that’s the only sort of narrative I come across. It makes me wonder how much of how we think is shaped by how we see others narrate stories. It is oddly freeing, after watching this movie, to know that patterns of my thoughts don’t have to have a point or a narrative.

Yesterday, I had the luck to attend this session at SFIFF which was a tribute to Ethan Hawke. There was a conversation with Ethan Hawke, before a screening of Maudie.

While I’ll write more about that in another post, I want to focus on the fact that I GOT TO ASK ETHAN HAWKE A QUESTION ABOUT THIS VERY THING, and that his response was inspiring and satisfying.

Towards the end of that conversation, Michael Almereyda (who had directed Hawke in Hamlet) said they would open it up to the audience for questions. Immediately, I knew what I wanted to ask. As I walked to the mic, and as I waited my turn, my heart was in my mouth.

I said, all stories seem to have a structure to their narrative. There’s a setup, a reveal, a twist, a conclusion tying it all up. There’s Chekov’s Gun. But Boyhood doesn’t do that. Like there’s an axe in a scene, and no one gets hurt. There isn’t a satisfying conclusion that ties it all up. The only callback to a past scene is the guy working on the yard running into them at the restaurant. Which is more like real life, a collection of memories and incidents and nothing necessarily tying it all up neatly. To me personally, it challenged my notions of how my own thoughts are organized. What was the thinking behind this choice, and do you think there’s other ways to challenge narrative structure?

Now, I don’t recall the response Mr. Hawke gave me exactly, but this is what I got from it.

“Plot is an adornment on which you display emotion. You need plot to keep people focused and not get bored. You need plot to get to the point where you get across to your audience the emotion you wished to convey. No one remembers whether Lawrence of Arabia lived or died at the end of the movie, but everyone remembers him atop the train, being cocky.

“It’s possible to use time as a structure – Boyhood does have a structure – it shows the life of a boy from first grade to twelfth grade (How did I never see that!). It’s possible to make the structure something less conventional, hence having the emotion and plot sneak up on the audience.

“Guys like Kerouac are responsible for a lot of bad art, because they make that look so easy. People read On the Road and think “I could do that, I can write a story about my friends”. People watch scenes all about burping, and think “I could do that”. But they can’t, because it isn’t about just your friends or burping. ”

Previously in the conversation, he also talked about how Linklater approached writing his scripts. While his life may be boring when compared to most movies, with dead bodies, chase scenes and choppers, he still thinks his life is interesting, and the most interesting parts involve the moments he connects with someone else.

Given all this, it seems like there’s a third approach to scripts. So far, I’ve seen screenplays and stories be plot-driven, or character-driven. These stories though, seem ’emotion-driven’. Hence, Linklater is okay with his actors coming up with their own three-dimensional characters, and operates on a wafer-thin plotline. Because the magic is in the connections, and it matters little how we get there.

That also puts in context this interview of Norah Jones where she talks about her experience filming My Blueberry Nights with Wong Kar-Wai. He was okay with changing the script to suit her. If she had difficulty with anything, he didn’t mind switching it over to something that came to her more naturally. The interviewer said “What if you had an accent issue, or you were bad at dialogue?”. She said “Then he would have made my character mute, or something”. At that point, I wondered what was up with that, and how did a renowned director want Norah Jones so much for a role, when she wasn’t even an actress, that he was willing to do whatever it took to have her do the role?

Now it makes sense. My Blueberry Nights wasn’t about the characters, or a plot. It, like all other movies of his, was about capturing a certain connection, or a certain emotion. So it didn’t matter what Norah could do or couldn’t. There was enough flexibility to be able to arrive at a certain moment or a certain connection.

Now that I have the vocabulary to talk about, and think about movies in this way, I expect to be able to frame better stories, focus on the right things, and get less carried away by the vagaries of plot and character. A lot of what confuses me about writing fiction is how to decide what choice is fun, what parts don’t matter, and what parts do. If I fix on the emotion, then location, people, and other things end up mattering less, and there’s less to be confused about.


I returned to my seat grinning ear to ear, and looking back and smiling at Mr. Hawke. I couldn’t hear the next couple of questions, because my heart was beating so loud. I barely managed an intelligible response to the couple sitting next to me, who said “Good question”.

Heady stuff.

Maybe I’ll put that in a movie 😀


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Return of the Writing Bug

I stopped writing here nearly two years ago. That was around the same time as I’d moved to the Bay Area.

My life began revolving around work. And the rest of what constituted my life had little to do with music or art or movies, or even writing. There was little to no material to distill the emotions from.

At least, material that I wanted to share with everyone online.  I became overly concerned with privacy and didn’t anymore like sharing much of my activities or interests online. In college, I could talk about things my roommate did or events I went to, and it didn’t matter. I was just being a college student. As a grownup though, everything you do becomes imbued with meaning and becomes open to interpretation.

And interpretation not just from the small set of people who beg and plead to read your blogposts. From employers past present and future, colleagues who don’t necessarily share your view of the world, people you run into at events, people who don’t know you at all, but are curious about you, and people who are looking hard to find something wrong with you.

It didn’t seem worth it anymore to put a piece of myself out into the world. Especially since I went into a period of introspection and trying new things, and it isn’t always fun to share work in progress.

Over time though, I realized I had no avenue to express myself with words. It eventually began hurting my soul, not having an outlet. There is something cathartic about just putting out your feelings into the ether of the Internet and watching what it brings back. Because then, you don’t have to tailor your words for a certain audience.

I thought I could take refuge in fiction, but it doesn’t come as naturally to me as journaling this way, due to which I became more of a reluctant writer. Watching my way with words atrophy has been hard.

So. I’ll try maintaining a balance. I’ll try writing as much as I can here, without compromising on my need for privacy. Let’s see how that goes.

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I love writing.

I recently had the opportunity to spend whole blocks of time just writing. It was glorious. I’m quite annoyed I hadn’t tried that before at all.

It was too good to last though. I haven’t had the opportunity to do any writing over the past couple of months. But I’m rather glad I had the opportunity for at least a couple of months. I now know I can spend days writing, and it is actually good for me, and any fears I might have had about getting jaded or burning out, or growing to hate writing, are unfounded at this point… I think I’ll have to output a novel-sized body of writing to get there. And there’s no danger of that happening anytime soon.

I found I don’t like the kind of writing I originally aimed for – I am possibly not a novelist. Years of blogging has made me comfortable with the idea of writing memoirs, but I am by no means good at it right now. I like being given prompts that make me reminisce and write about things I’ve experienced and done. But coherence isn’t a defining trait of that writing, and if I actually decide to write a memoir, that’s something I’ll have to work hard on.

The other issue with writing memoirs is, I lack the ease with which several other bloggers rivet their readers. Their leaps of logic and faith and succinctness doesn’t come naturally to me. Most writers seem to jump to the kind of writing style that works for Hussain Zaidi, and I personally get rather annoyed with that kind of writing, and instead aim for an Agni Sridhar-ish style. I lack his erudition and am not a born raconteur as he was.

Novels are just not my thing. I don’t like the long gestation period, and stories of that size feel too heavy for me to think about. I don’t like how I have showing is much, much harder than telling in that medium. Novels don’t lend themselves to crispness and snappiness easily.

Besides, writing something of that size is incredibly lonely. It is easy to keep writing, but it’s hard to write on point. It feels like it’s a billion tiny pieces of an incredibly large jigsaw puzzle that doesn’t fit in my mind. And it’s hard to keep receiving feedback, if you don’t have an editor.

I do rather like coming up with short stories, but again, I dislike how hard it is to communicate mood while showing and not telling.

What I really like is screenplays and sketches. Some people do it so easily, especially those who are also performers. I don’t have the luxury of being part of a group of performers yet, so in the absence of the kind of environment where I can collaborate, discuss, perform and have it all feed into my writing, I like going for shorter length on those things, which can fit quite comfortably in my head. I like writing ads and other kinds of sketches that last under four minutes.

I would ideally like to write longer, layered sketches that have interlinked jokes and callbacks and that wrap themselves up better. That requires collaborators, because things like that won’t come easily without someone else to hash things out with.

I rather like the idea of screenplays. They feel like novels with more show than tell. I find it easier to write scenes with screenplay-like directions because I can just write it as I see it in my head. With a novel, there’s this translation of a scene playing out in your head to words, and there’s quite a bit that gets lost in transit. There are different challenges with a screenplay, but the format makes it so much easier to get started and go somewhere with a story than when you’re limited to just prose.

A good compromise seems to be a graphic novel. It’s much less effort to actually get things going, provided you have someone to illustrate your panel ideas. The format also comes intuitively given I’ve been raised on a diet of Tinkle anyway.

I also like writing standup bits. Desk jokes and one-liners come easily. I’d ideally like to write for Weekend Update or something like that, though that’s a little more boring than an action-packed sketch where things happen.

I really need to improve how I write dialogue. I try to listen to how people talk and I’m constantly surprised by how different it is from how people in movies talk.

So… yeah, I need to religiously spend time on writing, because I’ve kind of figured out what I want out of it. Now it’s all about gaining enough confidence to write longer and longer stuff. Hopefully something good will come out of it!

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Perfect Ten

It’s actually a month since my blog turned ten. That’s a huge milestone, and like the busy father who is off flying for meetings in London, Paris and Rome and doesn’t make it to his child’s tenth birthday, I’ve been moving cities, signing leases, starting new jobs, meeting family and friends, and had no Internet at home until yesterday. And thus kept putting off writing my anniversary blog post.

I don’t know, who do I keep writing here for, I wonder sometimes. The two-three people who read this space actually have better channels of communication with me elsewhere. Or am I just doing this like an old Brit, in the name of tradition?

The ten years I’ve been blogging here have coincidentally been the ten hardest years of my life. It kind of feels like the worst is over now, but what do I know about the next thirty. Still, it’s hard to imagine the rest of my life going worse than my late teens and twenties.

While I’ve experienced big wins, great joy and learnt a lot, it’s hard to deny that the past decade has been an exercise in uncertainty, powerlessness, and enough crazy to fulfill a lifetime’s quota. And through all this, one source of stability and strength has been to write here. Soapbox, pensieve, personal diary, editorial… this blog has been all of that and more.

I started blogging here shortly after I’d turned eighteen. At eighteen, I’d just about quit being cocky, was obsessed with English, August, was drifting around trying to find my niche, and was wondering if I’d made a big mistake choosing to study information technology. I knew I liked to write, but wasn’t sure if I really could. Now, I’m just back to being cocky, have given up on reading anything that doesn’t have action and snappy narrative, know enough to know that I can find my crowd anywhere I go. I’ve never been able to be thankful enough for my choice of major, because of the interesting directions it has led me into. I’ve just gotten done making major changes to how I think about my career. I’ve come to the realization that I do actually enjoy writing a real lot, and want to do it a lot more than I do now. Of course, what would surprise my eighteen year old self is that I don’t anymore like the idea of writing a novel, and sketches and screenplays seem more up my street.

I’ve recapped multiple times all the wonderful things this blog has led me into – people recognizing me on the street, celebrities commenting, several career and hobby opportunities, getting to meet a whole crowd of people I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and reconnecting with old friends in a completely new way. I however don’t think I’ve talked enough about the kind of confidence writing here has given me. I don’t hesitate to put pen to paper, and the kind of writer’s block that plagues too many people has kind of always managed a healthy distance from me. It’s a special kind of pleasure to know that when some art inspires you, you have a way of channeling that feeling.

As the years have passed, I’ve censured myself here more and more. Originally it felt like I overshared here. Now I’m way too circumspect, and don’t anymore treat this like my personal fiefdom where I can say and do as I please. It is freeing and constrictive at the same time. Freeing because it actually feels like I’m asserting to myself that this part of my life is private and important. Constrictive because it feels like I can’t spill in my own kitchen.

Which leads me to think about how online anonymity has been slowly and systematically killed on the Internet in the past decade. I don’t think you can anymore just rant randomly and have complete strangers stumble across and sympathize with you. You need that initial social network to get started. No strangers are going to read you unless you’ve written something they are explicitly looking for, or promote yourself to help people stumble upon your stuff. It feels quite sad, but I’m sure there are other ways people are getting heard, that I am not yet familiar with.

I completely detest how we have all been forced into making our online personalities as bland as our offline ones, thanks to just about anyone being able to find different sides of you online. Back in the day, you came online to escape your classmates and colleagues. Now, they badger you to let them follow your presence on a variety of sites, so much that I’m actually contemplating having two profiles for everything.

In any case. Ten years is a significant duration to keep something going. I’m proud of this place, and hope to keep it going for as long as I can.

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How the new Internet usage paradigm has affected my mind.

It’s what we all used to laugh about. “I close a Facebook/Reddit/Twitter tab, and then open another”. “I can’t stop refreshing my GMail app”. “I open Reddit and all the links are purple”.

And then I thought I got over it. I wasn’t in grad school anymore. Social media had gotten a little old, and I didn’t really enjoy looking at people’s Facebook and I lurked more than I updated. I did tweet often, but my timeline wasn’t anymore some small tiny in-joke niche thing that each tweet merited importance. Google Reader had died, and though I love Prismatic, it didn’t quite replace it. I did Reddit more than I used to, but it wasn’t a big deal.

It came back though. In a form more insidious and hard to get away from than before.

See, frivolity on the Internet was more an escape from reality, kind of like Kimmy Schmidt chanting “I’m not really here”. So to disentangle from it, all you had to do was commit to work.

But now the Internet isn’t just for fun and games.

Sometimes you’re waiting for important updates to come in the email and you want to be alert to answer them immediately. Say, when you’re on a job hunt. Or when you have paperwork that needs processing. Or when you’re awaiting something to be shipped. Or your work email.

And then your serious hobbies go online. It takes only one time you miss responding to an email from your editor within an hour of receiving it for a news story to run cold and your viewpoint to get old, to be on tenterhooks the next time you send out an article for publishing. You can’t seem to get Tesseract to work, and post about it on StackOverflow. You keep checking back every few minutes to see if someone’s responded because you’d like to catch them online just in case you have follow up questions. You’re part-time activisting about some cause dear to you and trying to entice more people to join you. You post on some public forum about that. You keep refreshing your notifications relentlessly because you want to respond asap and keep the conversation going. You organize an improv meetup and want to make sure you don’t fail to respond to anyone who’s RSVPing with questions, because the location is tricky and you don’t want to be delayed because someone got lost.

And then the personal stuff. Your sister is in class and you can’t buy that blue jade necklace without her input, so you text her an image and wait. Your editor asked for a display picture to go with your article, so you text five of your friends ten different selfies and ask them to pick. Finalizing weekend plans with two different Whatsapp groups. Also you want to be prompt in case those Craigslist ads for vintage lamps you responded to get back to you.

Let’s not even get started on our contacts. Your friends understand if you don’t respond to their hilarious pun in a timely manner, but acquaintances just don’t. Especially not people you’re hoping to know better.

There’s just too many things that don’t have a schedule but demand our immediate attention. They all seem small and insignificant and doable in two minutes or less. Either that or important enough to merit an immediate response. Or kind of important but not so important that you’ll actually bother to respond later, so it’s better to respond now before you forget or stop caring or lose context. So it’s not even like we want to put off responding to them. It feels so easy to make the person on the other end happy, or to give yourself a feeling of accomplishment, by providing an immediate response. It doesn’t feel natural to restrict checking your notifications to very specific timeslots.

Unless the task at hand is pretty damn important, it doesn’t feel natural to switch off on all notifications. If you’re in an important meeting, or trying to get something done, or hanging out with someone, then yes, without question you don’t bother checking your phone. But when we’re doing things that don’t merit that much attention, we end up getting into waiting-for-notification mode.

Like doing a Coursera course. Or watching a movie on Netflix. Or when you’re unwinding after work. I suppose things get easier to compartmentalize once you have a spouse and children, but for the rest of us, there aren’t any clear demarcations. Especially if you access your hobbies and friends via the Internet.

The other problem is, there isn’t anything that prioritizes your notifications. Your phone makes the same sound when you get an email from some spammy entity, or from a prospective new employer (GMail Priority inbox doesn’t make things all that much better). Your sister could be texting you something important, like “I’m talking to Arundati Roy’s ex-boyfriend, anything you want me to ask him?” (sorta true story), or something like “Check out this transcript of my chat with our crazy third cousin twice removed”. So when there’s something important you’re waiting for, it’s easy to become a notification fiend.

Sometimes you aren’t even ‘waiting’ for anything. Your apartment complex texted you about a noxious fumes thing after which you were able to quickly make plans to stay out the rest of the evening. Or you got notified by local government alerts that warned of protests around your workplace getting violent after which you changed your commute plans quickly to a route not as plagued by protesters. You don’t want to miss out on these things.

If you end up doing this for a long enough period, it starts to feel weird to switch your mind off of notifications. For a while, I couldn’t watch even the most riveting flick on Netflix without doing something else, so to stop getting the heebie-jeebies, I began knitting, and I can say things like “This scarf lasted Kimmy Schmidt” or “That’s my Parks and Rec beret”.

Fear of Missing Out is bad enough already. But when you actually throw in real things you greatly fear missing out on, like job opportunities, short windows of time to book tickets in, free book deals that last only for a couple of hours, chances of publishing the next viral article, or important updates from your family seven oceans away, it becomes even harder to get away from or have rules about.

This kind of mentality ends up corroding other things unless you’re strict with yourself. If you’re fixated on a Whatsapp text from one sender, you might as well look at the notifications that are coming in by the minute from the Whatsapp group of your high school friends. If you’re refreshing Reddit anyway in hopes of getting good advice on whether or not you should attend the Ball Drop (short answer: don’t), it’s easy to get suckered into some insane back and forth that gets you riled up.

Sometimes it’s even crazier. During Hurricane Sandy, I couldn’t stop refreshing my Twitter because I wanted to know how bad things were (short answer: not so bad if you weren’t living in the Rockaways or below 42nd Street) and if I needed to act quickly. And I ended up not doing anything all day except knowing every single incident of damage Sandy had caused, and terrible jokes about hurricanes. Which doesn’t sound like a bad thing, but imagine every day being like that, only, instead of a hurricane, it’s some combination of plans with friends, professional development stuff and daily deals.

It feels often like I’d like a personal assistant who takes care of prioritizing my communication and notifications and interrupts me only when it is absolutely necessary. I just want to repose my trust in some entity that interrupts me only when I absolutely need it.

You know the problem? There’s an app for that. And it isn’t very good.

So instead of ten annoying things that might interrupt me, now there’s eleven annoying things that might interrupt me.

Posted in analysis, Rants | 2 Comments

Published in a real magazine!

Well, just the online version. But here it is: English Gave My Generation A Voice  in Swarajya Magazine. It’s where I respond to a piece in New York Times by Aatish Taseer, titled How English Ruined Indian Literature.

I like how it turned out, but I also felt 1500 words was too short for any real nuance on a very emotive topic, but heck, people get famous publishing things way less nuanced. At the very least, if the comments section is anything to go by, it’s started a conversation.

Finally I have gotten published of my own free will, and not as usual where two-bit newspapers lift my blogposts without my permission 🙂


Posted in analysis, Rants, Writing | 2 Comments

Wonderful Mr. Watterson

I write this post for no reason other than that I read this post about Calvin and Hobbes in Open Magazine  and was annoyed it was yet another summary of things we’ve only heard about a thousand times. When reading about personalities everyone writes about, I wish people brought in a more original, possibly more personal take.

I imagine it must be very annoying to be Bill Watterson. Probably something like Chubby Checker after he pioneered The Twist. Or like having an overachieving older sibling. No matter what you do, there’s this overarching standard everyone’s going to compare you against. It offers you little room to grow or make mistakes.

I have this friend who I imagine what Mr. Watterson is like. This friend happens to also look a little like a clean-shaven Mr. Watterson. My friend has an online persona where he is creative, funny, sarcastic, biting, and wildly original. However, in real life, he doesn’t engage as easily as far as I’ve known him. He is still all of those things, and if anything, even more talented, even more creative, and has a childlike honesty in emotion and behavior. But there’s this additional streak that makes him shy, quiet, careful to not say the wrong things, sensitive, and at the same time, wildly confident, somewhat lacking empathy, and militantly private. All those qualities in him you end up going ‘oh you poor thing for’ – the sensitivity, the childlike honesty, the kindness, the shyness, the quietness – they don’t come from a place of fear or want or defensiveness, they come from a position of strength.

And I sure hope my friend never reads this. He doesn’t like to think so much about things. Everything to him is simple. If it isn’t, he fills in the gaps with the simplest possible explanations and moves on, because he is confident that’ll work well enough.

Somehow, to me, this model explains all of Mr. Watterson’s actions. The badass quitting a job to become a cartoonist. The battle to work on his own terms only. The extremely few interviews given. The quitting C&H when it was at its peak. The slipping in autographs into his books at a local bookstore. Stopping it when he found people were selling it as merchandise. The media-shy behavior. Suddenly resurfacing to do a bunch of comics with Pearls Before Swine. Carefully guarding his privacy even then.

It seems to me like Mr. Watterson shuns attention not because he’s afraid of consequences or the wrong sort of attention, but because he doesn’t see the need for it, or wants to be spared the trouble of having to learn to deal with it. He seems to be among that rare breed of people who are content with what they have and don’t desire for more, not because they feel like any more will be too much to handle, or because they want their life to stay just so, or because they have achieved what they’ve aimed for, but because they aren’t the sort to have shifting goalposts, or who live their life by external metrics and goals.

And if you venerate or judge him for that, he’ll probably smile an amused smile. Because he knows there isn’t anything inherently good or bad in his choices, he picked them not out of principle, but because that’s what works well for him. Or maybe it doesn’t work as he thought, but he sticks with those things anyway, because it works acceptably enough.

I can see how he would have come up with his cartoons. He did something that gave him joy, and its giving joy to so many others was a very welcome side-effect. When he suspected it was close to not giving him joy anymore, he decided to move on.

Oh and his work. People have written reams about what makes Calvin and Hobbes tick, so I won’t go into its broad appeal. Why I like Calvin and Hobbes is, the setups and jokes bring out things about human interactions and relationships so much more organically, so much more easily. And, of course, the fabulous Sunday art. It makes me laugh when people try to find clues about if Calvin says age-appropriate things, or if Hobbes is real or imaginary. Those things don’t matter. Calvin acts like a kid when Mr. Watterson thinks that would be a fun choice for this cartoon idea, and Calvin can just easily be the voice of the cartoonist when Mr. Watterson wants him to be. Hobbes is a stuffed toy when the idea makes sense in the context of the cartoon Mr. Watterson wants to draw. Hobbes is a real tiger when Mr. Watterson thinks that’d be a more appropriate choice. I don’t suppose those things are set in stone, and it feels like a pointless argument, much like about which Hogwarts house you belong to.

Continuing to rave about Calvin and Hobbes feels much like holding on to high school memories, to me. Reading the comics all at once at nineteen blew my mind, but revisiting it or talking about it or sharing the comics more than once in a blue moon feels like you have very little else going on. Besides, what I took away from Calvin and Hobbes feels incredibly personal. I suppose everyone who anthropomorphized their toys as a child feels that.

It feels a little wrong to own any Calvin and Hobbes memorabilia. I actually thought long and hard before deciding not to adorn my walls with a Calvin and Hobbes poster. It feels like an affront to Mr. Watterson.

I occasionally wonder what would be appropriate to say to Mr. Watterson, should I run into him somewhere. I should probably like to say something like ‘Hey, so you know that thing you used to do? It kinda changed my life and touched me a whole lot. Thanks, and I won’t bother you anymore’.

I also occasionally wonder what kind of an interview of Mr. Watterson would feel least like an affront. Or, more specifically, if I got a chance to talk with him for an hour, what I’d talk about. Two or three years ago, I would have probably bombarded him with leading questions and try real hard to pick his brain. Now though, I’d just like to chill with the man. Ask him about how his days go. If he plays with his grandkids, if he has any. What he watches on TV. If he thinks much at all about politics. What he thinks about college costs going insane.

Or, I don’t know, maybe I give Mr. Watterson’s privacy and RonSwanson-ness way more importance than Mr. Watterson himself does, and maybe in a decade or less, he’ll start blogging about landscapes or woodworking or Cleveland politics. Or maybe become a champion of DRM and self-publish on Amazon.

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Sustainable writing.

A month back, I tried to create a Writing Packet. The Desk Jokes came quick and hard. It took me all of fortyfive minutes to fill up two pages with mostly-good jokes about current events. And then I got really nice ideas for two sketches. I started watching videos of Jehova’s Witnesses in action, as my sketch was about that. And then it got too late, and I went to sleep.

The following morning, my two sketch ideas seemed lame. I was loath to touch them again. Thinking about them makes me physically ill.

It’s not because those were terrible ideas. Even if they were, it shouldn’t hurt to just write them out. Usually we are bad judges of our own writing ideas, and the important thing is to be plodding along and cranking out as much as possible. But if I can’t seem to write something in one session, it’s done.

Which means I have tons of half-baked ideas that haven’t reached their full potential. I don’t incorporate feedback into my work because I don’t want to look at it again. I don’t do second drafts. And that way of working is terrible, terrible, terrible.

Rome was not built in a day. My subconscious doesn’t want to accept that.

I read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please recently. The first chapter is all about how writing is really hard. We don’t hear that enough. There isn’t enough that we are taught about how to be satisfied with a terrible first draft and work on a better second and third and subsequent drafts. I suppose my blogging is one of the reasons I never grasped that – when I blog, it is just the first draft. I don’t edit, I don’t review, I don’t even read again. That’s why there are so many 3000+ word posts which should ideally all be 1000 word posts.

I deal badly with criticism of my work as well. I don’t mean badly in the ‘GTFO, there’s nothing wrong with my writing’ way. It’s more like ‘Ugh, but if I change that, I’ll have to change everything’. Partly it is because I don’t know how to receive and filter feedback. I don’t know which ideas to incorporate and which to discard. There isn’t a clear map on how to go from disconnected thoughts of people who might not be the best judge of writing, to a clear roadmap of what to change and how much.The other part is, my mind seems to consider writing as an arduous task and groans at learning I’ll have to do it all over again.

I finally got the idea for a nice long screenplay, an idea that’ll be good enough for Amazon Studios. I have it mapped right down to the scenes, and I’m too paralyzed to even write Act 1 Scene 1. I can’t seem to get it out of my head that I don’t yet have good ideas on how to make my characters stand out and not just be badly-researched archetypes. I am annoyed at knowing my first draft will be imperfect, nay, terrible.

I can’t get behind the fact that it’s not going to go like the time I discovered stick figure cartooning and spent a whole weekend feverishly drawing. It’s going to take time. Multiple sessions. And I’ll have to sustain my enthusiasm through all of it. I’ll have to spend time daily trying to write.

Which brings me to the big question. How do you keep yourself constantly inspired? So far, anything creative I’ve attempted has been on impulse. I go through an experience, I listen to a shred of music, I watch five minutes of a movie, and I get this feeling, this itch, and I need to channel that itch in a creative way. And I have to quickly put that feeling in words or some other tangible form to keep referring back to it. Usually if I write down how I feel about a sunset and where it’s leading me, if I come back to it two hours later, it’ll read lame to me, and won’t inspire me the same way as before to write down whatever it was the sunset inspired me to originally. It’s annoying.

I guess the trick lies there. To make these ideas bulletproof. To make them sustainable. Even if there’s just a shred of feeling, I should be able to preserve that to be able to come back to it. Right now, I operate on anxiety that I won’t be able to come back to this feeling, so if it’s something that’ll require more than a session to complete, I give up even before I start. That’s what I need to start fighting.

With me, it’s usually art begetting art. And when I say Art, I just mean whatever way I express myself. I listen to a different kind of song than I’m used to and it takes me to a different world and that word leads to something I need to nail down. Or I watch a movie which starts off with excellent characters and then the director ruins it, and I get annoyed and want to rework it the way I saw it in my head. The difficult part is to sustain those raw emotions. Like, the second time you watch a bad movie, it doesn’t irritate you as much.

Like anything, this process requires sustained practice to become better at. I need to set aside time regularly and TRY. Even if I do nothing, I should spend the time doing nothing else if not writing.

That sounds crazy. But that might just work.

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The Brothers RK

I know the work of RK Narayan more intimately than RK Laxman’s, even though the latter’s is more ubiquitous. Political cartoons, at the dose of one a day becomes so routine that you tend to take them for granted.

Besides, I never had an idea of RK Laxman’s persona. It is easier, I suppose, with writers, to put some part of them into their work, and RK Narayan’s first three books seemed quite autobiographical. His memoir gave a lot of insight into his personality, and that of people around him, but his youngest brother Laxman is hardly mentioned. His older brother Pattabhi and younger brother Seenu are mentioned as part of the many experiences he narrates, but Laxman is only mentioned as being ‘ready with one foot on the pedal of his bicycle to drop off my piece in time for the evening Mail’, and maybe a couple of more mentions.

And when you keep commenting about the nation in the voice of the common man, it is easy to get this idea of RK Laxman as being this old gentleman who’d fit right in with your grandfather’s friends circle, who all went to the bank in the morning, and spent evenings endlessly discussing politics over endless cups of coffee brought dutifully by a wife with whom he wasn’t overtly affectionate.

Oh well what did I know.

I think I read his book The Hotel Riviera when I was fifteen or sixteen. It felt scandalous to my young-adult-literature-reading mind. Not that I wasn’t by then used to reading saucy stuff, but that was not from people who drew cartoons and who your entire family loved. That was reserved for Khushwant Singh and Kamla Suraiya to write erotic stories and poetry. And even their work had a faraway tinge to it, because it was based on people you’d never run into in situations you couldn’t comprehend. But here was this icon of South Indianness, this beacon of Brahminism, writing about hotel managers who stared more than you’d like at women’s bosoms, and about kept women and sexually frustrated men. It’s kind of like you’re totally fine with seeing people kiss on the subway in NYC, but when a couple do it on the Bangalore metro, a small part of you squirms. I put the book away.

It didn’t end there.

When you read The English Teacher and My Days, you are struck by the relationship between RK Narayan and his wife, so much that he pines for her decades after she dies, even having sessions with a medium to communicate with her. You come to expect the same of his brother.

But RK Laxman’s first wife was a dancer named Kamala. I suppose back then that was kind of like marrying a filmstar. They actually separated and divorced. In my teens, it was incomprehensible that someone from that generation and that kind of a family background could ever be capable of divorce. Of course, since then, I’ve wised up and heard more scandalous stories from the extended family history that were earlier deemed too saucy for my delicate ears, so it doesn’t seem like a big deal to me now. And then he married again, this time an author, also named Kamala.

Apart from the famous Common Man, I really enjoyed the illustrations he had made for RK Narayan’s works. I loved how he drew the characters in Grandmother’s Tale, which is actually the story of his great-grandmother. The granny in her nine-yard saree with her head covered as was typical for widows back then, the eighteen year old Bala looking nothing like I imagined an eighteen year old to look like, the ageing Vishwa looking like every grandfather ever. I don’t like my favorite books to ever be made into picture books or movies because it’s always better in my head, but here, the caricatures augmented the story so well and brought subtle mundane aspects to the characters’ life alive because of so much attention to detail.

And I distinctly remember an illustration for RK Narayan’s Ramayana which depicted Rama as bearded. We are so used to Raja Ravi Varma’s depictions of what Indian gods should look like, and it shook things up for me a little bit. Why not a bearded Rama? Why not a simply-dressed Sita with curves and her hair worn low? Why not a fat and hairy Dasharatha? It was empowering, freeing, to think this way.

I suppose RK Laxman was a private person, who didn’t like to talk about his family or his life or experiences much. I know there’s his autobiography titled The Tunnel of Time, but I don’t know if he actually talks much about his life in that, because otherwise you’d have it plastered all over the newspapers instead of homilies about The Common Man.

I’d love to have picked his brain. He seems an infinitely more interesting person. His life seems more colorful. He seems to have been more in the moment than his reflective writer brother. I wonder about his perspective as a Youngest Child. Most writers seem to be tortured Oldest Siblings. How did he spend his younger days? What sort of conflicts does he face personally? Who are his friends? Does he draw lewd stuff in his spare time? Does he find The Common Man as just a day job or does he have a strong bond with the character? Does he have any regrets?

I understand the impact The Common Man has had on Indian cartooning. However it feels plain wrong and restrictive to focus on only that aspect of RK Laxman. He didn’t flinch while taking down our holy cows. Let’s not make him one.

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High School

The issue of the NPS student being suspended and subsequently committing suicide has caused some discussion about how high school was back in our day.

When I think back to my high school days, I hardly remember much about it. I find this strange because I used to be the sort who remembered a lot of random details about things no one else cared about.

But yeah, I did like my 8th 9th and 10th better than PU. I went to a CBSE school and there’s a kind of snobbery that comes with it. Switching to PU was a wholly different world.

For starters, my class in school had been pretty diverse. Muslims, Christians, people from various other states, people who’d just moved back from the Gulf. PU on the other hand was remarkably unicultural. Everyone was from the same neighborhoods. Nearly everyone was Kannadiga and those who weren’t spoke Telugu. Everyone was remarkably fluent in Kannada. Including the teachers. English as a medium of instruction was seen as a mere suggestion. Teachers freely lapsed into Kannada to explain their points better. It didn’t do a jot of good for me.

And the teachers were more pally with students after class in PU. I wasn’t used to that. I somehow can never get used to that. Especially when teachers tease you about being romantically involved with your classmates when you’re not. And they often said a lot of insensitive things in the guise of ‘teasing’. It wasn’t out of place for them to comment on your clothes or hair or manner of speaking. They tried so hard to be ‘cool’ and ‘with it’ and ‘understanding’, thinking back now, it feels kind of pathetic.

In school however, there was that respectable distance between the teacher and you. My teachers in school told us about safe sex, counseled us when they felt we were going astray, were often the first responders when any of us had lady issues. And they regularly teased us, played favorites, said insensitive things….. but there was always that healthy distance. Like if someone was facing issues, like being bullied, or in a seemingly inappropriate relationship, they wouldn’t make it apparent to the whole class they were talking to you about your issues. They had a nice subtle way of helping you, such that no one else would be aware what was going on. So, no, it’s not like your teachers being pally was better for you or anything.

And this distance mattered. We respected the teachers. We weren’t openly disruptive in class. In PU, being openly disruptive seemed like the norm. No one listened to the teacher, because everyone was going to tuitions anyway. And the teachers themselves weren’t paragons of diligence. Some were. But the majority just read out from the textbook. You can’t do that in CBSE schools. Literally no one would understand the subject if you did that. There was no dearth of trouble makers in school. I too was rude, arrogant, and all that for a period, but there were lines you didn’t cross.

And in PU you were still subject to being treated like you didn’t know anything and were disruptive, but no one cared about your well-being. I think the only ones who did care were the librarian (because I spent a lot of time reading fiction) and my English teacher. And my Hindi teacher as well, but she lived near my house and we were more informal with each other.

What cements this for me is an External examiner in the lab exams of PU openly extorted bribes from my classmates (some of whom were freaked out enough to pay it), before a teacher was informed and she called the cops on him. That was a fun day, except I was stuck in a different lab with a different examiner and missed out on the fun.

Overall, it seems like my days there were inconsequential in terms of career choices. My teachers from back then write blogs with spelling mistakes now, and send me Candy Crush invites. That makes them all so much more human, I guess. Feels like they were learning to deal with people and life as much as we were. And it feels like they don’t realize just how much influence they wield on impressionable children.

I mean, if I went to a different school, I might not even be writing this blog for nearly ten years now.

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KB, TV, women and character-driven screenplay.

I know K Balachander more by his TV series than his movies. That’s mainly because when I was in my preteens and teens, KB sir had all but stopped making movies, and instead concentrated on the small screen. K Balachandar-in Chinna thirai as it was called.

To appreciate the full impact of his making TV series, you need to understand the context where they came about. Cable TV wasn’t really a thing until the ’90s, I suppose. Heck, TV wasn’t quite a thing until the late ’80s either.

Tamil television was very sparse. I only got cable in 1995 or thereabouts. There were a lot of western channels, including Cartoon Network which ran only until 5pm after which it switched to another channel called TCM or something. Zee TV was a thing. And I think once or twice a week, they would show Tamil programs.

And then there was Sun TV. I watched a lot of TV back then. The shows on Sun TV were, as I recall, mostly cringeworthy. They weren’t yet in saas-bahu zone, at least not the prime time shows, but the sort of drama they portrayed were unrealistic, moralistic, and mostly bad quality.

I think KB got in the game early on. He started with Raghuvamsam, which I don’t remember watching all that much. It was a family drama if I remember right.

What got me hooked was his Kai-alavu Manassu. It was a very poignant story of a young widow (Geetha) with three children, who faces a heart condition, and ends up giving her children up for adoption. And years later, she’s become reasonably successful and all, and tries to hunt down her children, but they don’t remember her. This series was notable for introducing Prakash Raj to us. He played a businessman from Bangalore, and his catchphrase was ‘chindi chitranna’ (said while rubbing his hands). He would go on to be the villain in KB sir’s Duet, which was also, I suppose, another Kannada star Ramesh Arvind’s big Tamil hit. Ramesh Arvind later played a guest role in Kai-alavu Manassu as Geetha’s son who’s become a successful actor.

The difference between this soap and all the others on TV at that particular time, was this had story, this had direction. It had engaging characters. It had strong actors giving performances of a lifetime. And since it was a mega-serial, it could go in any direction, and you were treated to a lot of interesting sub-plots even if they didn’t really have anything much with the main plot.

One scene that sticks in the mind is with Kavignar Vaali. Vaali has a wife who suffers from a delicate heart condition. They have a very loving relationship, and she makes a sweet, and he composes a very funny poem about it. Then he gets the news that their son has just died. He can’t tell her that. And people keep dropping by to offer their condolences. And she keeps laughing and asking him to repeat his funny poem, and offering everyone sweets. He complies, with pain in his eyes, and pain in his heart. I haven’t quite seen anything like that in a long time.

The other notable thing was how KB portrayed women in his serials. Serials with a female protagonist didn’t start with him, of course. TV’s main demographic is women and they always cater to women by having women-centric serials. While others liked to go the woman-against-the-rest-of-the-world trope, KB introduced some depth into this.

This was seen very prominently in his serial Premi, with Renuka in the lead. Renuka always played the comic relief in anything before that, as the talkative, nosy neighbor. But in this, she came alive as a serious woman who was taking charge of her family which was pretty much out of control, and how she navigated across the many men who desired her (rewatching this a year ago made me wonder how and why every single man in the show wanted to marry her).

You’d see this in his movies as well. You don’t need to go as far as AvargaL. Even in Azhagan, the three leading women are all so different, have different motivations for fancying Mammooty, and each is so well-defined that you would understand them and identify with them. Or Parthale Paravasam, which was really cheesy in its execution, but it was actually trying to make a movie with Simran and Madhavan as complex characters.

One tool I notice KB sir reuses over and over again is to put his lead characters in a scene where they are expected to speak impromptu on stage. He’s done this in Azhagan, Premi, Parthale Paravasam, and so many others. Usually this is how a love interest gets introduced to the lead character, so when they meet later, it isn’t quite love-at-first-sight.

I can’t help but marvel at how KB sir deals with conjugal relationships in his movies and serials. He’d made two series, Ramany vs Ramany parts and 2. The first one dealt with a modern (for the ’90s) newlywed couple, and the second one with a couple who’ve been married awhile and have a young child. When  I watched it as a child, it was because it was slapstick. I took to watching this series again a few months ago, and I was struck by how on the mark it is.

Most dramas about newlyweds all deal with the big stuff, case in point, Alaipayuthey. This one was about the mundane, the everyday stuff. The easily mollified insecurities. The annoyance at your spouse’s flirty colleague. Discovering your spouse’s fanmail to Juhi Chawla. How annoying your husband gets when he’s sick. Pointless arguments about whose turn it is to make dinner. Or, in the case of the second series, the little reminders that your marriage has lost its sense of romance. Maintaining your me-time. Getting annoyed with how your mother messes your kitchen up when she comes by to help. Learning your spouse is actually cooler than you thought.

And then there was Jannal, with two parts again, where he explored the dynamics of an older couple’s friendship, and in the second part, how a boy tries to reconcile his parents’ divorce.

It’s amazing how he brings out these little nuances in a family, the small things that make you identify with the characters that much more. A serious drama, or a film doesn’t really give you much time to explore these things. I think it would be fascinating if you had a long running serial where you got top directors to work on six or seven episodes at a time.

What makes KB sir’s work be so memorable is that his screenplays are character-driven. Not necessarily plot driven. He gives you fascinating true-to-life characters. You don’t remember what the ending of Azhagan is, you remember Madhoo’s antics and dialogues. The ending of Duet doesn’t give you sleepless nights, you only remember how Prabhu’s character is for the most part selfless, and how Meenakshi Seshadri disdainfully makes jokes about Prakash Raj’s moves on her.

It doesn’t matter if Kamal Haasan and Revathi die at the end of Punnagai Mannan. What matters is Chaplin Chellappa, how Srividya stays the voice of reason, and how intense Kamal Haasan gets. And I only vaguely remember how AvargaL ends, but the sadism of Rajinikanth in that one movie is enough to shock the living daylights out of you. KB Sir pretty much takes a bunch of interesting, well-etched-out characters and puts them in fascinating situations, and watches them react.

When I contrast this with Mani Ratnam’s style of making a movie, he starts off with an idea for a plot, say, ‘three men get into an accident, it changes all their lives’. and in the process ends up creating fascinating characters, but then he’s thinking about advancing the plot, so he ignores exploring them fully, and then realizes it’s time to end the movie, but he can’t resolve the interestingness of the characters with the interestingness of the plot, so he ends things abruptly. That is also why in movies like Raavan or Kadal, his characters are walking metaphors or otherwise one-dimensional characters.

As someone fresh on ideas of how women aren’t represented accurately in TV and film, it has been refreshing to go back to Balachandar-in Chinnathirai as an adult, and pleasantly discover my formative years were all full of well-etched characters in the media and it is a lack of imagination and freedom, more than any sinister plot, that there aren’t that many fascinating women in TV and film today.

Everyone knows without KB sir we wouldn’t have Rajinikanth, Kamal Haasan or Prakash Raj, apart from innumerable others now-famous actors and writers, but it also bears mention that so many stars of TV, like Renuka, Devadarshini, Chetan, Deepa Venkat, Mohan Ram, Ramji, Venu Arvind, owe their fame to Balachander.

And you totally wouldn’t have this gem from Revathi Sankaran either 🙂

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Feeling is Easy

I have said it over and over. And I’ll say it again. Properly this time. I love the music of Norah Jones.

I don’t know what about it appeals to me (and a few million others worldwide). It’s the sheer quality, for sure. And the quantity – she is pretty prolific.

Maybe it is how she really works on channeling her feelings into writing her songs.

Maybe it’s how simple she keeps the tune and the lyrics. Just easy enough to think I can sing it, or write similar lyrics, but actually not that easy, because if it were, everyone would be doing it.

Maybe it’s how she channels all the jazz she’s learnt and country she’s grown up hearing into simple, accessible music.

Maybe she’s just a nice sweet fun person and that shows in her music.

All I can say is what Wordsworth said

Whate’er the theme the maiden sang

As if her song could have no ending

I saw her singing at her work

And o’er the sickle bending

I listened motionless and still.

And, as I mounted up the hill,

The music in my heart I bore

Long after it was heard no more.

Sigh. She’s brilliant.

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Talent and Bad Behaviour

Growing up, I was subjected to Carnatic music classes, like most children in my neighborhood. I grew up resenting it all.

I don’t as such hate the music part of it. I love what I’ve got from Carnatic music… the ability to keep a tune, to not be tone-deaf and to be able to understand and appreciate all genres of music. But when it came to the teachers, most if not all of them weren’t very nice people. And I noticed that the more qualified they were, the more crazy they got.

After years with this neighbor of mine, who was just a nice lady who taught music for extra income, and didn’t push us much, the time came to shop for a new teacher when this nice lady found love and happiness and moved to the other end of town. The proper music school in my neighborhood had an intimidating man who took my interview, made me sing and said to my doting grandmother ‘She is very weak, but I’ll see what I can do’. In hindsight, I likely was, but that’s kind of not what you say to an eleven-year-old. And I was a sensitive child. A few years ago, my nice-neighbor’s music teacher sat in on the class. He was this sixty year old man. And he lectured me on how terrible I was or something, and I left in tears. No one understood why a crotchety old man got to me so much. I don’t know, you tell me why an obedient eight year old might react adversely to a sharp rebuke by a sixty year old.

Anyway, so we found another lady, who sang in Kannada films. She cheerfully accepted me as a student. She never made it on time to teach us. I found myself running away because I was getting late for maths tuitions or swimming. She wasn’t very nice either. She would get irritated to no end if her students made mistakes. Besides, the teacher’s pets were all crotchety little girls who wore flowers in their hair and considered Bollywood music with the regard and coolness I reserved for hard rock. I didn’t stand a chance. Besides, being a Tamilian who went to a CBSE school, my Kannada wasn’t that great and for some reason, that irritated her a lot more.

I had enough. I began playing hooky. It’s another fun story when my mother ran into the teacher and they talked.

So… what am I saying… these people were mentally ill? No, not exactly. It’s just that this eccentric behaviour that would be shut down in no time in other circumstances was considered okay because they were ‘artists’. And ‘teachers’. You could literally throw dark looks at a student because she didn’t speak your language, and no one would bat an eyelid. Your meekness was directly proportional to how much your snotty behaviour was indulged. Being any kind of ‘different’ was license enough to be given step-motherly treatment. And oh, it was totally fine to hit a student for making mistakes in singing.

Also, you didn’t have to have any level of competence to exhibit such behaviour. In fact, if you threw your weight around, people would assume somehow that you must be talented.

This is more South Bangalore ’90s things than Music Teacher things, but the point is, none of them made their art any more appealing or fun to me. And I guarantee it, 90% of the responses I get will be of the nature of ‘Oh, you’re too sensitive’, or ‘They didn’t mean it like that’, or ‘You generalize, and incorrectly’, or ‘My teacher slapped me and I am the better for it’. My problem is, such behaviour is considered acceptable.

When I began considering comedy for a hobby, I faced similar issues. Standup was such a hostile, painful environment of one-upmanship and shockjockery. It especially isn’t easy on women and non-whites. Most standup comedians seemed like people with serious issues. Which would be fine, but it showed a lot in their social interactions and general lack of regard.

Thankfully, I found improv.

What I like about improv is, it is an ideal hobby. No one is giving you a hard time for not practicing. No one is telling you you’re wrong. You just watch and learn and get better. The whole teaching culture seems to be geared towards making people comfortable on stage and offering a lot of positive reinforcement. If you mess up, which is hard in improv because ‘there are no mistakes in improv’, people usually show you a better, easier, more comfortable choice instead of telling you you’re wrong. Besides, you never know who you’ll be improvising with next, so you’d better be nice to everyone you play with.

It might also have to do with the fact that I learnt improv at Magnet. It is such a friendly, welcoming, accepting environment with so little room for negativity, that I fell in love with it the first time I watched a show there. It isn’t full of snooty competitive people, but with regular folk who like doing comedy. The ‘great’ people immediately distinguished themselves from the ‘good’ people with the sort of comedic choices they made while performing. Not by being smartass in class.

It was a huge thing for me to accept as well. Often I found people making such terrible comedic choices. Like subverting the point of a scene for momentary giggles (Like you point your finger and say ‘stop or I’ll shoot’, and your scene partner responds with ‘that’s not a gun, that’s your finger’. It throws you off your game, and after that little laugh, you have to start fresh again). Or when they got too serious. Or said something abnormal and dark. Or stuck to the same, comfortable choices over and over….. there was one guy who would keep lapsing into a faux posh old lady accent; I found it unfunny after the second or third time.

My improv teachers didn’t question or correct those choices. They stuck to their plan and kept it going, while making sure everyone got a fair chance to try. And by the fourth week of classes, people began falling in line no matter how they were before. They felt empowered enough to try new things and challenge themselves.

So why does this come up?

I’ve been trying to teach improv in Seattle. I found very few avenues for long form improv in this city, and instead of cursing the darkness, I decided to light a candle. I haven’t been doing most of the teaching until now. And I notice how different teaching styles can get.

I’m a leader-by-consensus. I don’t believe I know everything, so I leave wiggle room for feedback and others stepping in to share what they know. I can’t stand cutting someone’s creativity off. I can never think of admonishing someone’s comedic choices. I won’t ever tell someone how exactly to do a scene. At best, I’ll establish the rules of an activity before I start, and then stick to those rules, not micromanage the scene. I like to be sensitive to my students and don’t mind flexing the class around to benefit everyone, because everyone must and should feel comfortable enough to contribute and never once think their idea is nonsense. And anytime I’m in doubt, I hark back to all the people who taught me at Magnet, and do as they would have done. Not once do I remember anyone outright dissing someone’s choices on stage.

Turns out, there are other styles. There exist people who take improv so seriously that they actually believe there are wrong choices and go out of their way to point that out. People actually say ‘should’ and ‘should not’ instead of ‘try to’ and ‘try not to’. There are others who are so very dogmatic about the Harold as a form that they forget about what makes it fun, and will go to any extent to cut any deviations off.

And that just because they are fastidious about these self-made rules, people will think they know more, and are better.

Seriously, improv is an art form and all that, but I don’t find that much of a difference between someone who’s finished Improv 201 and someone who’s finished Improv 401. You can see vast levels of skill differences between someone who does improv more regularly and someone who doesn’t, but that doesn’t give anyone the license to shoot someone else down. This is true for all forms of art and science, but it is quite stark in improv because here, you explicitly state that there are ‘no mistakes’.

I understand a lot of people develop terrible improv routines and crutches, but when you’re in a position to do something about it, approach with love and understanding and work with them, not tearing down everything they stand for.

I find a lot of people revelling in abuse they get from those they consider pros and maestros. A senior programmer roasting your design on a public forum is met with admiration, never mind that under different circumstances, they might have praised the same design. An experienced standup taking nasty digs at a younger standup and it gets brushed off as ‘ribbing’ and ‘more publicity’. A famous guitar teacher hitting the knuckles of his students when they make mistakes is something they talk about proudly in interviews. Why, there was this famous ICSE tuition teacher in Basavanagudi who was famous for his abuse and thrashing, and someone everyone just went with it as a feature and not a bug. There are famous quizzers on the Indian quizzing circuits who are more famous and admired for their insults than for their breadth and depth of knowledge.

It somehow feels okay to give talented people leeway to be nasty, because they are talented.

That’s how you get a Roman Polanski and a Woody Allen.

The point is, talent doesn’t usually make you any nastier, unless you have others enabling that behaviour. Talent doesn’t suddenly give you a license for eccentric behaviour either. Eccentric behaviour usually doesn’t help with talent. I watched Michale Fassbender’s Frank recently, and there’s a line where the lead character’s parents say ‘He was always musical, the mental illness didn’t make it any better… if anything, it’s slowed him down’. That’s how it usually is. You can’t and shouldn’t conclude from Robin Williams’ suicide that all comedy comes from a sad, dark place.

Perpetuating those stereotypes usually just serves to keep people out. It also reinforces and enables bad behaviour and a cycle of abuse. And the thing is, you don’t have to tolerate that.

Everyone has the right to be respected and treated like a human being. If someone is being nasty to you, it’s just that, they are being nasty to you. Their talent has little to do with it. If anything, the most talented people are also the nicest and more humble, because they recognize that they got to where they are not just by ability and effort, but also with a lot of luck and mentoring.

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How we remember things – A few thoughts on Boyhood

I watched the much-hyped Boyhood a few weeks ago. It’s a brilliant, brilliant experiment.

Boyhood is made by Richard Linklater of Before Sunrise fame. The fun bit is, it’s shot over a period of twelve years, from 2002 to 2014. The main reason Mr. Linklater says he did this was because he wanted to shoot a movie about childhood, but realized nothing good could be done over a span of a year or so… it was always incidents over a period of time, and obviously, if you have a child actor, you can’t cast multiple people to play him at different ages and also keep the coentinuity in the mind of the viewer.

So he took this kid, Ellar Coltrane, aged six then, and shot about ten-fifteen minutes every year for twelve years. Ellar plays the main character, Mason. There are other characters, most notably Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Lorelai Linklater, his mother, Ethan Hawke playing his biological father. There are men his mother marries and divorces over the years, a ‘parade of drunks’ as he calls them toward the end, friends, a girlfriend, a teacher or two, and his grandmother. It’s wonderful watching everyone grow older together.

Given no one else might be releasing stuff with this level of time-commitment in the near future, this is pretty much all we have for a while to learn what happens when you shoot stuff over a long period of time. The stuff we can draw from this is notable, mainly because the sort of script and scenes and stuff are different from what you’ve seen otherwise.

The movie starts in first grade and ends when Mason goes off to UT Austin to study photography. Mr. Linklater’s approach throughout was to think of it all as a series of memories, not as a story to tell. The approach itself is not the brilliant bit. It’s easy to go wrong with this, have something that’s all totally disconnected and completely pointless, or have an agenda no matter how much you try not to. Mr. Linklater succeeds in not falling into either trap.

Some of the important events in his life are shown, like the time his biological father reenters his life, when he first notices his mother’s interest in her subsequent husbands, his fifteenth birthday, winning a medal, going off to college.

But you also see a lot of stuff you don’t know the point of – like when his mother’s student checks out his room, or when his girlfriend and wake up in his sister’s roommate’s bed and see that the roommate’s back earlier than expected, going camping with his father, his job washing dishes at a restaurant…

And a lot of the big things are missed. You never see any of his mother’s weddings. Not his first kiss, not his first time having sex. You do see references he comes across to sex and porn through his childhood, but you never see any of that having a real point…. like you do see his father educating his sister and him about condoms, but you don’t see him experimenting subsequently. Not even when his girlfriend cheats on him… you only get to see the conversation they have later, and even that is pretty drama-free.

Nothing really leads into something else, you don’t revisit things that much, the threads don’t necessarily connect. And that’s kind of how you remember some things in life. Some things, not everything. I have a few big loud memories, but also a lot of random moments where I remember irrelevant things everyone else has forgotten.

Which is why that conversation he has after school with a girl inviting him to a party stuck with me. The girl is talkative, and really deep in the way only fourteen-year-olds can be (she doesn’t like Twilight), and really interested in him, while he is standoffish and not saying much, though he is quite obviously enjoying the conversation and likes her… it sounded way too familiar, way too close to home.

You also get to see the ugly manifestations of alcoholism and abuse in ways you haven’t seen before. You see his stepfather getting more and more controlling. You see him lose it, but not in the dramatic way you’ve seen a million times before. The kids are scared, but not scared that they are going to die. You feel the confusion, the faux-normalcy, until his mother takes the children and goes away. You see his other stepfather seeming like an idealistic veteran and father figure, before he begins drinking more and more, growing in despair and anger. I haven’t quite seen anything like that.

The other thing that happens when you shoot over a period of time is the throwbacks to a past era are more subtle. It is the polar opposite of the opening sequence of The To Do List, which is insanely ’90s. You see an old Apple computer in the library, the videogames the children play, and you see him making a video call on his IPhone… some people found that in-your-face, but I found that a little more subtle than other references.

Boyhood makes me think of a larger point. The way we remember things doesn’t have to be coherent, neat sequences of events. But, at least in my head, the way I remember things is like a story ready to be narrated to someone else. So there’s this beginning and middle and end and I make them tie together. It might be because I blog and write a diary, it might be because that’s the only sort of narrative I come across. It makes me wonder how much of how we think is shaped by how we see others narrate stories. It is oddly freeing, after watching this movie, to know that patterns of my thoughts don’t have to have a point or a narrative.

That said, it takes a lot of talent to do this sort of an experiment and have the result be even half-coherent. It takes a lot of vision to even decide to do something like this. It takes an infinite amount of patience, self-awareness and commitment to decide to have it look like a series of memories and not a complete story by any means. As an improviser, I find it very interesting to see how just natural conversation and reacting to each other can be so powerful.

I wonder what my Girlhood would look like. Off the top of my head, there would be the time I argued with my mother to wear this white dress at age twelve and she wouldn’t let me. The FRIENDS marathon that was on TV the day I was joining NITK. Suffering from typhoid in a hospital, and the nurses smiling at my colouring books. Going off the rails in third standard when the teachers put me in the back row with the rest of the troublemakers. A week of headache after the first time I dove into the pool from the springboards. Missing catches in throwball because I couldn’t stop catching with my fingertips instead of my palm. Visiting five different relatives in one day and my mother having the exact same bitch session with each of them. A whole crowd of distant nieces of my uncle’s new bride visiting us, and their playing havoc with the toys I carefully arranged in the living room and never played with because I considered myself too grown up to do so. Shivering by a campfire and falling asleep at age 10, and waking up wrapped in the jacket of this twelve year old boy who seemed like such a grown man back then that I looked up to him for weeks after that. Running into the same boy eight years later, and he was such a snob that though I recognized him, I decided I wouldn’t bring it up. Guess the last scene would be waiting desperately for the crowd gathered in my room at 2am on my first week at NITK to leave, and after they left, tucking myself in my serene blue blanket and reading English, August. 

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School For Girls

Everything I read or write these days seems to be Heavy. It’s almost like everyone’s lost the ability to just muse about small things. Everything has to be about ebola or Hamas or ISIS or something. So here’s a lightweight ‘It Happened To Me’.

One of the things appealing about Seattle to me was that I have family here. Among the clan is my little cousin, who just turned thirteen. She’s been born and raised in Seattle. She’s incredibly social and can talk to anyone on their level, be they nerdy like me or chatty like my mother or with her very young cousins or her old grandparents.

While walking around, I came across this small one-storey building, with bright yellow walls and ‘Wexley School For Girls’ on it in ornate calligraphy. There was also a whole bunch of graffiti on one of the yellow walls. It seemed like a cool school, and I assumed in this city that was home to grunge, this school was supposed to exemplify it or something. I was intrigued, and snapped a picture on my tablet.

Later that day, I was with my cousin, and she was telling me about school. “I saw this school today”, I interrupted. “It’s called Wexley School For Girls. What kind of a school is it?”. She said she didn’t know, and had never heard of it. She didn’t even know there was a school in downtown Seattle. “It seemed like a cool kinda school, the one where you didn’t have rules or something”. “What kind of a school doesn’t have rules?” she asked. I put it down to her going to a strict Catholic school. Besides, American kids don’t know freedom like we did or something.

I pulled my tablet out and showed her the picture I’d taken of it. “Oh. Looks cool…”, she said, looking at the graffiti. Then suddenly “Hey, why is there a naked woman there?”.

I got shocked and pulled the tablet away. Given how sheltered American kids in my experience were, I freaked out. And sure there was graffiti of the naked woman there, among all the other scrawls and drawings.

“What sort of a school for girls is this place?”. I was angry by now, waiting for my tablet to connect to the WiFi. “How is this place even allowed to exist?”. I was pissed not only at the school, but also myself for subjecting the little girl to this.

And then I googled for Wexley School For Girls.

Turns out, it’s an ad agency.

Not a school.


Posted in Attempts at Humour, Priya's Travails, Seattle, travel | Leave a comment

Bombay to Bangalore – A comparative study of the writings of Hussain Zaidi and Agni Sridhar

The movie Aa Dinagalu  came highly recommended. Saw it on a list on Reddit, and it had been coming up in conversation every now and then.

I watched it, and loved it.

The title, literally Those Days, seems like one of a mellow tale of student days. Instead, you’re treated to the film version of two of the most landmark events in the history of Bangalore crime. The best part? None of it was even made up. Not the industrialist who hires rowdies to keep his son off of a girl of another caste, not the rich kid who takes it as a personal affront and decides to off the city’s biggest don.

I couldn’t get enough.

I watched the ‘sequel’, Edegarike. It has the same people. But a different story. More intense on the mindblerg.

I decided to read the book it was all based on. Agni Sridhar’s My Days in the Underworld – Rise of the Bangalore Mafia. I devoured all six hundred pages of it in a day and a half. I had never, ever read such a juicy, fast-paced, erudite book before.

The closest anyone’s come to to writing about organized crime in India other than this has to be Hussain Zaidi, who has written extensively on the Mumbai underworld. Those books are infinitely more famous than Agni Sridhar’s, given they have been the basis for movies like D, Company and Shootout at Lokhandwala and its sequel, Shootout at Wadala. I devoured those books too. But it felt like there was something missing, something not quite up my street.

And Agni Sridhar hit that spot.

Think about the Bollywood depiction of the Underworld, and Dons. Gangmembers are always introduced in a cloud of smoke. They are always nuzzling the muzzle of a gun. Cussing. There are cool camera angles, and music. Oh and some vamps, who almost always dress like fisherwomen and have paan-reddened lips. And they call each other Bhai all the time. And even the songs aren’t complete without bhai dialogue in them.

That’s the gangmembers. Then there’s the policemen. Poverty-stricken, with families, and corrupt. The one honest cop is either as evil as the gangs or he is off’d in the first thirty minutes.

And the Don. They are all based off of someone’s impression of Dawood. The Don is usually Quiet. Not quiet, but Quiet. All you see of him is one look, one nod, one wave of the hand. And maybe a nasal voice. They mess this up with Don Corleone sometimes, and you get Sarkaar. In that, the Don does everything silently. He manages to communicate everything from an execution order to intense desire in one look. It was fascinating when Brando did it, but when Amitabh Bachchan does it, it is plain overdone.

When bad guys were the protagonists in Satya, it was new and refreshing. Now it’s the same old grind, same old glorification of gore and violence. It feels fake after the third or fourth time. The roles get written as chores, not as a genuine feeling in someone’s heart.

The books are insightful. You’ve never heard of half the crazy things that happened. The stories are exciting. They touch on politics, history, social dynamics, and are just plain fun. But it’s obvious they aren’t Hussain Zaidi’s own perspective. They are dramatized versions of stories someone tells him, and they seem to tell him the Bollywood masala versions of those stories. And you kind of empathize with him putting those stories out there – he’ll be bumped off if he doesn’t, it feels like. After all, in Mafia Queens of Mumbai, he very conveniently skips Dawood’s sister Haseena Parkar who died only recently.

Contrast with the Kannada versions. The movies are based each on one incident in the book. And they get as de-glam as they get. No convenient camera angles, minimal swearing, no women showing tons of skin. No flashy gangsters. And best of all,  the most it goes to ‘silent don’ is Atul Kulkarni gently telling the hotheaded male protagonist, ‘Anger must always be a positive emotion’.

And yet, at something as benign as ‘I’m Sridhar Murthy, Advocate’, you find your hair stand on end.

The book…. the book is something else. I don’t have enough words for it, but I’ll try. First of all, hardly anyone gets into crime solely because of poverty. Rowdyism is not glorified, but at the same time not vilified either. The tone is very matter-of-fact. You hear shady stuff about everyone in Karnataka public life and politics. Most of the rowdies even have day jobs. And cult nicknames as well.

Various con schemes are elaborated on. Violence is not the first resort, and killing is certainly more plotted than actually carried out. And, heck, the police even keep their integrity and power for the most part.

And that, everybody, is the difference between a crime novel written by the fanboys of a Don, and one written by the Don himself.

Agni Sridhar survived the rule of two dons of Bangalore, Kotwal Ramachandra and Jayaraj, and was second-in-command to Muthappa Rai, before couping him out of town and pretty much being the Don. Until finally he decides he has enough and reforms. And starts the tabloid Agni.

The other difference between Agni Sridhar and Hussain Zaidi? Sridhar studied Law. His bag on stakeouts had two ‘long’ swords and two books. He read extensively. He moved in the same circles as Lankesh (one of his first arrests was for beating up Gowri Lankesh’s stalker) and counted among his friends professors at Bangalore University. Hussain Zaidi… in a talk he gave once, he said reportage is not about the writing ability, and that he didn’t know to write in English when he first came to Mumbai. As much as we like to think that doesn’t make a difference, it does.

It’s not about the language. Agni Sridhar’s book was translated from Kannada. But he is a born raconteur. The tales are told matter-of-factly. Each bit is narrated with so much insight and understanding. Though it is a first-person account, it has a third-person detachment to it, none of the dramatization or strong emotion.

It’s a good read, a fun read. More so if you are from South Bangalore. The nooks and corners I grew up around, they were used for shady meetings upon shady meetings. A restaurant a stone’s throw from where I lived was planned by Muthappa Rai to be the scene of Sridhar’s murder.

He speaks out against Kannada tabloids glamorizing rowdyism when in reality it wasn’t anything like that. And how it led to him eventually starting his own. There’s tidbits on famous journalists like Tejsaswini Gowda and HR Ranganath. And pages about Ravi Belagere. And about how he tried convincing BC Patil to stick to policing and not do movies. A ‘senior’ Swamiji at Siddaganga Mutt paying him to ‘off’ the ‘junior’ Swamiji.

Preying on and extorting homosexuals in Krishna Rao park in the ’80s. Roughing up couples around Bugle Rock and robbing them. Using a fake currency racket as a front and conning people.

And the best ever twist? Sridhar gets into a life of crime because Kotwal’s men broke his brother’s leg for no reason. The brother on the other hand studies well and becomes a cop. Such a successful cop that even in 2012, there were issues about posting him to Kumaraswamy Layout police station as his ex-don brother was living in the same area and was involved in several land deals.

The movies are made by Sumana Kittur, who seems an out and out bold village girl, the sort that Sridhar seems to respect a lot (He says that glowingly about Tejaswini Gowda). Given her background and how quickly she got taken under Sridhar’s wing when she gets to Bangalore, it feels like he’s been ghost-directing the movies anyway. And doing a better job than RGV and Mahesh Bhatt put together.

True crime fiction’s got a long way to go in India. For now, the ones that are going to be popular as hell are going to be Hussain Zaidi’s, because they are so influential, and about Mumbai. But Agni Sridhar’s account is better than any I’ve ever come across, a true first-hand account. Zaidi says he’s the first one to put together an account of the Mumbai underworld, and I still wish there had been someone as sharp as Sridhar to write about it than Zaidi who simply compiles accounts.

Read them all. But start with Zaidi and move on to Sridhar. Start with the movies and move on to the books. You’ll appreciate them all well that way.

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