Tuesday, 28 August 2012

edstartup 101: Intro!

So I've just signed up for the edstartup 101 course, and my first assignment was to record and post a short video on my YouTube channel introducing myself. Here's the video:




As I've said in the video, I'm very curious to see how the course uses a distributed platform - there's been a lot of talk about how the conventional approach that MOOCs and most other online courses use may not be the best way to teach a course on the Internet, and this seems like an interesting approach!

Since most future assignments will probably require course candidates to post blog entries, you should (finally) see some activity around here!

More soon!

-B

Monday, 7 July 2008

Signs of Life

Met a few of you over the past week who still remember this corner of the 'net...

Thank you for remembering... and for kicking me up the backside and telling me to jump-start this menagerie of alphabets again.

I will - if you promise to read this, comment, and never remind me of this travesty in public again!

Love and keyboard longing,
B

Friday, 2 November 2007

Pre-Flight Entertainment

They say we Indians are a patient race, always willing to accommodate others, always willing to wait our turn.

Hogwash, horsefeathers, and bullshit. (Well, you can leave the water, feathers, and stinky poop out of this, but otherwise, it’s a perfect analogy. Read on.)

If you’ve suffered the misfortune of having to take a domestic flight in the last couple of years, you would know exactly what I’m talking about: airports more closely resemble farms nowadays, places where you see the most uncivil, rude, uncouth, and yes, animal-like behaviour from a supposedly civilized race.

Try the check-in queue at a Deccan or a SpiceJet counter (don’t ask me why I still fly those airlines. It isn’t nice to poke fun at other people’s poverty.) People around you will behave like pigs at a trough, pushing and poking and elbowing their way to get to the hapless attendant behind the flimsy counter. In their case, however, they don’t even have the excuse of wanting to access food. It’s as if a catastrophe will erupt unless they check-in before everyone else. More likely as not, someone or the other will:

(a) whack you in the back of the shin with their luggage trolley;

(b) slip ahead and thrust their crotch against the check-in counter while you’re putting your luggage on the weigh-in scales; or

(c) (and this is a morning flight special) just not bother to stand in line at all, jump to the head of the line, waggle their head from side to side and say in the world’s most innocent tone “But my flight takes off in fifteen minutes! The airline people asked me to move ahead!” (As if that’s my fault, you fat fart: why didn’t you wake up in time like the rest of us?)

Pigs. Hence the hogwash.

Next, the security check. A lot of flyers from Indian airports nowadays are middle-level managers from middle-level companies (no, I don’t fall under this category, if you were wondering. I don’t. Seriously. They told me that when I threatened to quit. They told me I was a ‘valuable resource,’ and all that.)

Now, these middle-level managers are only part of the assorted sundry of flyers from Indian airports, and we’re all happy and shiny about the fact that so many people such as them, who have never flown before are now taking to the skies with such gay abandon. Praful Patel liberalised the skies, and we instantly filled them with vast masses of people, much like office-goers stampeding into an 8:15 Virar local at Churchgate Station.

Which is all very well, but didn’t somebody teach these people to read first? If you are genuinely illiterate, you obviously aren’t reading this, and even if you have somehow managed the impossible and gotten this far, my apologies to you: you’re excluded from what’s about to come.

But even those about to fly, those who are supposedly literate, educated, mature folk, act like horses with chilli powder up their arses, rushing through the security check lines as if a cool pond of water to diffuse the flames in their posterior lay on the other side. There’s a line there, folks. It says: “Wait your turn”. In two languages. In big, black letters. On a nice, fat shiny yellow tape. Read it.

But no: these people will push you aside, and run up to the checking station. Then the guard will tell them to go back and wait their turn. Then they’ll ask the guard why. Then the guard will explain why. Then they will come back to the line and grin widely, showing off their teeth, releasing a wave of halitosis that would stun the most steadfast soul into oblivion. By this time, everyone has had to stand at least three minutes longer in line. (Some, of course, have fainted from the stench.)

Running ahead to fly first, like mad horses frothing at the mouth. Hence the horsefeathers.

(I know this wasn’t that good an analogy, but you’ve read this far, and there’s only one more to go, and you like me, so shut up and read on.)

(Thanks.)

Once you’re past the rugby scrum that is the security check, and the armpit-stench-Mardi gras that is the bus ride to the plane, and have finally sighed back into your cramped seat, hopeful of an hour or two’s flight, the real crap starts.

For some strange and unknown reason, people think that their suggestions on quality control and how to improve all-round airline services are of interest to the airhostesses. Which is all very well, but these same clowns also think that this claptrap is also of interest to everyone else on the flight. It’s a metal tube full of people, folks, and ninety-nine percent of those folks love holding forth at the top of their voices throughout the torrid trip. Suddenly, everyone’s an expert. Suddenly, everyone qualifies as a world-traveller (and yes, you even qualify even if you just live next door to an airhostesss (“My friend was telling me the other day that they do it this way on flights in Togo…”))

And what’s most irritating about all this nonsense is that these armchair aviation experts all expect to be treated like first-class passengers on a bleeding budget airline. You paid less, you cheapskate, don’t expect to get your ass wiped with a silk scarf when you only paid for last week’s newspapers!

Obviously, therefore, the bullshit.

Take my advice: take the train next time. That way, at least, you’ll get what you expected.

(Yes, my flight is late, and I’m writing this at a crowded departure lounge in an airport.)

(Good guess. Pat yourself on the back.)

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Home for the Holidays

Everything looked normal – or probably, as normal as a place like that could look.
As Rajeev stepped off the train and onto the dusty platform at Anand Junction, he looked around, and that sudden feeling of mild depression that always gripped him when he reached this place settled firmly in his heart and lower intestine, forcing an unsettling increase of pace in the one, and a nervous little release of digestive gases from the other.
Not a word was spoken on the fifteen-minute drive back home. Rajeev’s dad spent the time racing across the highway, a ribbon of almost-melting tarmac set amidst tobacco plant and banana fields, while Rajeev himself observed the passing landscape, studiously avoiding any conversation.
It hadn’t always been like this: Rajeev’s parents had moved to Gujarat while he was in his second year at college in Bangalore. He had no idea why they decided to leave Bombay for the godforsaken village of Shivri, twenty kilometres from Anand in Central Gujarat. His parents, on the other hand, had no idea why Rajeev didn’t like their decision.
Over many an anguished phone call, his parents had explained that they had had it with city life: with the pace and the bustle, and now that his father had retired, they would rather spend their time in peace and quiet, amongst whom Rajeev’s dad was fond of calling ‘their’ people. More than anything else, they said, it was important that the entire family (Rajeev included) get back in touch with their ‘roots’. Bombay had been a generational stopover in their family’s journey, they said, and it was time to go back home.
For Rajeev, however, a muddy little village that was more extensively populated by cows than people was not nearly home. It had no cell phone signal coverage, no cinema theatres, and aside from his parents, no people who spoke English at all. As far as Rajeev was concerned, Shivri was the stopover, an unreal hell of boredom that regularly sucked his holidays away.
Moreover, it was full of Gujjus.
Rajeev had never really thought of himself as a Gujarati before he went to college. Once he started simmering in that little melting pot of an academic institution, however, he found himself answering questions about his ethnic identity far more often than he was used to.
Before college, the only major identity brackets that he was used to categorising people in were ‘townies’ and ‘burbies’. Aside from where a person lived, everyone was a Bombayite. At most, your school or college was the finest division of identity.
In college in Bangalore, however, you could be no more nor less than a Bong, Chom, Mal, Gult, Tam, Digga, or Gujju. The more imaginative labels included Mal-Chom (a Keralite from Delhi), Bong-Tam (a Bengali from Madras), and the freakiest among them all, Ding-Dong (a Bengali Christian from Delhi.)
The Mals were always forming Mal mafias, the Choms acting aggressive and beating up juniors, and the Bongs furiously debating the relevance of Communism in today’s world - or so the story went, and so you were meant to do. People who until then had not even known three words in their mother tongue were now strenuously asserting their identities as doyens of their inherited cultures. In all this, Rajeev felt more than a little isolated – there were hardly any other Gujjus in college, and those that were, were either freaks of nature or final-years that Rajeev could hardly even look straight in the eye, leave alone speak with. In any event, whenever conversation turned in such a direction and Rajeev’s Tam roommates started waxing eloquent on the supremacy of Tamil literature, music, dance, and culture, all that Rajeev could weakly come up with was the supremacy of Gujju Rummy games on local trains.
He hated having to carry that label.
He hated coming to his ancestral house in Shivri even more.
A trip such as this was a total waste of the holidays, in Rajeev’s opinion. Mind made up firmly to sulk the coming week away, Rajeev stomped up the steps to what was once his Grandfather’s room, and had now been converted for his use. Prospects for entertainment looked bleak: he had managed to carry back only three books from college (having spent the money budgeted to buy books for the holidays on a drinking binge with friends the night of the last exam), the computer at home was on the blink (again!) and his mother was visiting relatives in Rajasthan.
At least he would have the house to himself while his father was on the farm all day.
After enquiring solicitously into Rajeev’s comfort, his father left for the farm. Rajeev bathed, and went downstairs to the hall and the T.V., his only link with the real world. He flipped through the movie channels, each of which was showing films he had already seen. Rajeev knew that before the holidays were over, he would watch any old drivel, even films that he already seen thrice before, and hated the first time, but he wasn’t about to give in to that kind of desperation just yet.
He flipped to the news channels, and that earlier small feeling of depression now changed into a cold, hard fist that clenched his heart, and almost stopped his breathing.
Somebody had set fire to a train compartment full of Hindu karsevaks at Godhra station, no more than three hours ago. The first footage of charred bodies being dragged out of the train, some still fused with scraps of half-burnt saffron clothing, was now being splattered onto television screens across the world. As reporters went into adjectival hysterics, Rajeev slowly turned and looked out the large windows onto the dusty village lane.
Not a soul stirred there, but the sound from various television sets, all tuned into news channels covering the same story, seeped out from the neighbouring houses, thickening the air into a clogging poison of panic and fear.
Rajeev ran up four floors to the terrace of the old house, and looked out across the village. The house had been built off the main road of the village, and was the highest in Shivri, so Rajeev had a good view from here. The road itself began as a dusty turnoff from the highway, bloated into a bus stop and a small traffic circle around which people usually sat in the evenings, and then took a ninety-degree turn into Shivri proper. The back of Rajeev’s family house faced this part of the road, just after Ismail bhai’s tailor shop and the Cooperative Bank, and across the road from the tiny village mosque. A lane led off from the main road where it turned into the heart of the village, and the village Police Station stood ten metres from the mouth of this lane. Rajeev could see the entire T-shape of this tableau from his terrace, bereft of people, settling slowly into what could have been just another dusty March evening. The turn in the road and the Police Station were on Rajeev’s right when he faced the mosque, and houses cluttered the road towards his left.
Three hours. And already nobody on the streets. Three hours! Rajeev could very well still have been on the train from Bangalore! Small beads of sweat slowly caked the dust that rose from the road and was now settling upon Rajeev’s face.
Rajeev’s father came back home, and they talked more that evening than they had in the past two years. Rajeev was, not to put too fine a point upon it, shitting bricks. His father saw that, and tried to assure him that nothing would happen. These were ‘our’ people, after all. Shivri had had no communal riots, ever, and all this kind of thing only ever happened in other places. There was nothing to worry about.
His father’s friends came over after dinner, as they usually did, and to his own surprise, Rajeev found himself staying behind to hear them talk. They usually spent their time talking about people from the village who had emigrated to the U.S., and were now doing very well for themselves, thank you, or about such-and-such a person’s daughter running away with such-and-such another’s son. Today, however, the talk was grim, and the tone much heavier.
Riots had already broken out in villages not more than ten or twenty kilometres away. Fifteen Muslims killed in Vadodara. A mosque set ablaze in Ahmedabad. A madrasa sheltering women and children ravaged in Surat. There was talk of how people already had lists with the names and addresses of Muslims in Ahmedabad, and Ramesh uncle spoke about his cousin in Rajkot, who had told him about the little stockade of swords, knives and cutters they were piling up there.
To Rajeev’s surprise, not everyone sounded shocked. Suresh uncle almost smiled when he talked about houses being set afire in the next district.
The next morning, Rajeev’s father got ready to go to the farm, as he usually did. Despite Rajeev’s entreaties not to step out of the house, he left at nine, as he always did.
Rajeev spent the next two hours staring at the news. Things were rapidly worsening. The riots had spread across almost all of Gujarat now, and some of the worst-hit areas were in the same district as Shivri.
He pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his suitcase and went up to the terrace. After looking around at a street as deserted as it was the evening before, Rajeev sat down on the ground, keeping his head below the parapet so that no one would be able to see him from the other houses, and lit up. The nicotine sped into his bloodstream, calming his frayed nerves somewhat.
Halfway through the cigarette, he heard the first bloodcurdling yell. That “Jai Shree Ram!” was followed by a spate of other, enthusiastic bellows.
Rajeev froze; he stared bug-eyed at the sky, the cigarette forgotten halfway to his mouth. The noise slowly escalated, and now the cries came more regularly. Rajeev threw the cigarette away, and rose inch by inch, until his eyes were just above the parapet.
A ragged crowd of fifteen was marching slowly up the road from the left, yelling slogans all the way. They didn’t look like they were carrying any weapons, but they were shouting loud enough to raise the dead.
In the next two minutes, the stretch of road behind the house turned into a seething mass of shouting, yelling men, none of whom were older than thirty-five, and the youngest of whom was clearly still in high school. The mob yelled and yelled, and with every cry of “Jai Shree Ram!” or “Maaro haaramiyo ko!” Rajeev’s pulse quickened just that little bit more. They pelted stones at the mosque, then, and the sound of shattering glass added to the cacophony.
Ten minutes later, Rajeev saw a jeep leaving the Police Station, siren blaring, slowly trundling down the road towards the mob.
They ran. Nothing else happened that day.
The talk that night was even more morbid.
Rajeev’s father had told him not to worry too much earlier that day. The police would do their job, he said. That’s what they were for. All the Muslim families had already left the village, locking their houses behind. An unnecessary precaution, he said: nobody would be killed in Shivri.
That evening, however, Ramesh uncle told them what he had overheard at the hardware merchant’s shop earlier in the day. The Sarpanch and the merchant were conspiring furiously when he stepped into the shop. Not noticing him, they continued for a minute or so more, and Ramesh uncle had listened quietly.
The few Muslim houses in Shivri were in a tight little knot just behind the mosque. If these, and the mosque, were to be erased you would have a largish block of land, just off the main road. Prime property. You could build a market there, one said, and make loads of what people would pay you for shop permits. You could sell more cement and construction goods than you have in the last decade to people who want to build shops there, the other told the first. Fine, then, let’s talk to our people.
The next morning, two havaldars settled upon a pair of rickety chairs opposite the mosque, and yawned the day away. Rajeev spent the day between the news on television and sneaking smokes on the terrace, comparing the seeming calm in Shivri to the insanity on the news.
At exactly six in the evening, the two havaldars got up, kicked the chairs to the side of the road, and started waddling back to the Police Station in the slowly gathering dusk.
Bloody hell…” Rajeev muttered. Why in the name of fuck were they leaving now? In five minutes, they were at the Police Station, where Rajeev saw them, two other havaldars, and a couple of more senior officers sitting at a bench drawn up at the mouth of the lane, facing the main road. They’re going to keep an eye on things from there, then, Rajeev reassured himself. No cause to panic, not just yet.
Rajeev had brought his father’s Handycam up to the terrace that evening, and he decided to shoot a little video of the deserted road and the mosque, and the entire spooky spread of the village so he could show it to friends when he got back to college. He brought the camera up to one eye, shut the other, and the world was now a black-framed image.
He panned the camera slowly across the main road, starting from the highway and the bus stop in the distance, with a little detour to the Police Station and then finally down the road to the mosque.
The shouting began again then. Forgetting to move the Handycam away from his eye, Rajeev turned towards the stretch of road on his left. A larger crowd than the day before was making its way down the road. Some of them held flaming torches, and their burning reds and oranges were scarier against the twilight than they might have been in the dark.
Forty men, vermilion smeared across their foreheads, reached the stretch of road behind Rajeev’s house. There were more shouts of “Maaro kutto ko!” and “Saale Pakistaaniyon baahar niklo!” today than the “Jai Shree Rams!” of yesterday.
Focusing on one particular face that seemed a little familiar, Rajeev realised that it was Manish, Suresh uncle’s son. He seemed one of the more enthusiastic stone-throwers, and joined the group of men who were now breaking down the wooden door of the mosque with iron rods. A small ball of disgust came into his mouth, and Rajeev spat the acid-tasting bile out. Manish! This was no uneducated hooligan – at least he hadn’t thought so, until now!
Moving the frame across the crowd, Rajeev realised that most of the rioters looked like they came from any ordinary, middle-class family in the village. They didn’t look like ruffians or petty criminals – these were everyday folk!
By this time, small knots of rioters had broken away from the main crowd, and were attacking the houses behind it. Rajeev watched, shocked, as a group of three smashed a door down and ran in. In another minute or so, furniture and small household goods came crashing out of the first floor window. Soon enough, he saw the three of them pushing an entire cupboard off the first floor balcony. The cupboard crashed down into the narrow lane and clothes came spilling out. That sight somehow frightened Rajeev more than anything he had seen so far: that cupboard spilling its contents out onto the dust of the lane was somehow like seeing a dying man, his stomach slashed open, spilling his intestines out into the world.
It wasn’t all about destroying things, however: Rajeev saw men running out of those houses with a pressure cooker here or a radio set there and putting them safely at the side of the road, to be taken away home later, and in one case, two men carefully cradling a television set away.
Rajeev panned to the right, where the policemen calmly watched this menagerie of madness from their spot outside the Police Station. They moved nary a muscle.
Sickened, Rajeev took his eye away from the viewfinder, and looked around. He realised that he wasn’t the only one looking at this carnage: there were watchers on every terrace. He saw that he was the only one crouching and hiding, and slowly stood up. He caught Ramesh uncle’s eye then. His house was next door, and he was standing on the terrace with his two young sons.
Ramesh uncle looked across to Rajeev, and shook his head furiously. Not understanding, Rajeev looked perplexed, then looked down in the direction that Ramesh uncle was now pointing at. The red power indicator light on the Handycam! Rajeev quickly switched it off.
He turned again to the horrible drama being played out on the street. Two men were rolling two LPG cylinders through the gaping hole where the door of the mosque had once been. They came running out in a few seconds, and then, a blast shook the walls of the mosque. The cylinders had burst, and the first cracks appeared in the wall of the mosque.
The riots continued, on and off, for a week and more. Despite his protestations, his father drove him to the station on the day Rajeev was supposed to head back to college. He didn’t want to leave his father there alone, and his father didn’t want him to spend a minute more than was necessary there.
Things had quietened down by then; trains were running smoothly once more, and no more riots had been reported in the past two days. In any event, the train would be outside Gujarat in six hours time. There were very few other vehicles on the highway, however, and in more than place, they passed the charred remains of cars, handcarts, and some things that Rajeev didn’t want to identify, or even look close enough at.
In college that semester, and in all the semesters after, Rajeev refused to answer to the name ‘Gujju’, something that he had grudgingly done before. He talked to his parents more often, and they studiously avoided any talk about returning to roots or mingling with ‘our’ people. As summer placements and trips with friends took over his holidays over the years, Rajeev visited less often.
In the short break he had taken between the end of term and beginning work with the Bombay branch of an MNC, Rajeev visited Shivri for the last time.
The village was a miniature of the State: polarized between the overwhelming majority of Hindus, and the few Muslims who had come back to Shivri after the riots, their houses, possessions, and dignity all snatched away from them.
He found the place even more stifling than he usually did. The bearded and bespectacled mass murderer won term after term in the elections; and you still couldn’t say the word ‘Muslim’ out aloud even at home: everyone just looked down and away, and called them ‘Ms’, some out of shame, and more out of disgust.
Rajeev piled his bags into the boot and climbed into the driver’s seat. His father sat shotgun, and his mom in the backseat. They were dropping him to the station, but unlike earlier, his father let him drive his car now. He turned out on to the main road, and as they passed the place where the mosque once stood, Rajeev stole a quick glance out of the corner of his eye.
The new vegetable market was bustling with activity.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

In-Flight Entertainment

Vivek was the last passenger to board the flight. When they announced the Security Check, he was checking out of his hotel. When they commenced boarding, he was still getting his luggage scanned, and when they made the ‘last and final’ boarding announcement, Vivek was talking to a client in Delhi while holding off the CRPF guard, who wanted him to put his cell phone in his bag before passing through the security check.

Finally, one cigarette in the smoking zone, three minutes in the washroom to make sure his hair was intact, and two paging announcements later, Vivek deigned to walk up to the boarding gate. They had had to drive him up to the flight in a separate car, just by himself.

Vivek was looking forward to the flight: he’d spent the last seven days on the road, covering eight cities. He had just about managed to run through his last set of meetings on nicotine and caffeine, and was really looking forward to two-and-a-half hours of solid sleep on the flight back home. In violation of all company policies, he’d wrangled a premium full-service airline ticket out of Mrs. Rao, the Admin Manager, who he fervently believed was actually a gargoyle.

Ignoring the glares from whom he considered petulant passengers, he found his emergency row window seat (Ah! The joys of tele-check-in!) and sank into the semi-soft seat. A middle-aged man dressed in a kurta, jeans, and mildly bemused expression sat in the aisle seat, and Vivek returned his smile with a polite grimace before pointedly clamping his eyelids shut.

And that’s when the first wail tore through the pressurised cabin air.

Irritated, Vivek opened his blood-shot eyes to see a pair of teary ones staring back at him from above the seat in front of him. The eyes belonged to a small child, around ten months of age, (Vivek could never really tell, preferring to watch kids from a distance. On T.V. In thirty-second advertisement spots, rather than spend any time within a twenty-kilometre radius of them) which in turn belonged to a marginally distraught young woman, trying her best to hush the child into silence.

Vivek grunted. And closed his eyes tighter than ever before, hoping that the baby either shut up or magically disappeared. He finally managed to fall asleep after the safety announcements (which he thought were a waste of time, since he heard mildly different versions three times a week, and who cared about first-time flyers anyway?) and was snoring softly when the airplane rumbled into the skies.

And that’s when the child really decided to let loose. Spanning all the higher frequencies of sound that the human ear can endure, and some that only dogs can, the child bellowed frantically, fearful of her first flight.

Vivek grew livid. He let out an exasperated “Goddamit”, leaned over and snarled viciously at the mother “Can’t you please shut up your child? Give her a toy or a feeding bottle or something, dammit!

The poor lady shrivelled visibly out of a mixture of embarrassment, frustration, and helplessness. She mumbled a “Sorry!” and held the child closer, patting it periodically on the back. All that this achieved was a slight lull in the bellowing to let out a little baby burp and a small dribble of baby puke, a miniscule drop of which splattered down on Vivek’s best suit.

Oh for Chrissakes!” Vivek pulled out his handkerchief and rubbed furiously at the spot, making it three times larger and ten times worse, stuffed his handkerchief away, and turned to look at the man in the aisle seat, shaking his head in exasperation, thinking that he would get an understanding nod from him.

Instead the old man only smiled gently at him, and said, “Be patient – she’s a small child.

Well, then, it shouldn’t be on the bleeding flight, should it? In my opinion, people below twenty-one should just be banned from flights. Or they should have special ear-shatter specials for them, just like they have those red-eyes!

Vivek pitched this just loud enough for the now beetroot-complexioned lady to hear, and smugly smiled at the old man, expecting him to be floored with what he thought was perfectly reasonable and clear logic.

Instead, he said “Why? Were you born ready-made, all grown-up?

As soon as Vivek picked his jaw up off the floor, he turned his head to look out of the window, putting an end to the conversation. He consoled himself into believing that he had a number of witty replies to offer, but since all of them involved words not usually used in polite company, and since he wanted to show respect for the old man’s age, he was being the bigger man by keeping quiet.

The baby bellowed on, occasionally softening to a simper.

Vivek gave up on the idea of sleep, and decided to try the in-flight entertainment system instead. They usually had some business interviews on one of the channels, and Vivek plugged in the plastic headphones, pulled the earpieces snugly close as a shield from the child’s cries, and flipped through the channels till he found the one he wanted.

He’d already seen this one. Just his luck. But he decided to watch it again, hoping that the sheer boredom would lull him into sleep.

In about ten minutes time, Vivek drifted into that steady state of semi-sleep that you can only ever achieve in an airplane – the kind where you think you’re really awake, but then again, maybe not, and it’s really too much of a bother stirring yourself to find out for sure.

As he drifted in this state, Vivek realised that he was no longer watching that business interview anymore. Perhaps his hand had slipped and switched the channel, or maybe this was some sort of ad break, but the screen now showed a petulant little child in the middle of a movie theatre, wailing away as loud as can be, while its parents tried desperately to quieten it down as the other patrons hissed curses at them. He sympathised with the crowd.

The scene changed, and now a slightly older child, or rather, a slightly older version of the same child screamed blue murder at its mother in front of a school gate, swearing for all the world that she was a witch for forcing him to go to school. Vivek smirked.

The next scene in what Vivek now thought must clearly be a condom ad showed the same child, now a ten-year-old, yelling at his dad, telling him to not embarrass him by speaking to his friends when they called for him and asking about their health and studies. Vivek would have nodded in heartfelt agreement at this stage, only the child looked disturbingly familiar. Vivek closed his eyes and tried to sleep.

The flight landed close enough to the scheduled time, and as Vivek stood by the conveyor belt to pick up his luggage, he noticed the lady from the seat in front struggling to hold her child and a bag full of child-management-supplies, while trying to drag a heavy suitcase off the belt. The old man from the aisle seat stepped up to help her, but the suitcase was obviously too heavy for him, and would have moved away on the clacking conveyor, but something prompted Vivek to walk up, and say very politely, “Can I help?

The lady looked scared for a fleeting moment, surprised for a slightly longer one, and then nodded. Vivek lifted the suitcase up and put it down gently on her trolley.

His own bag drifted along soon, and as Vivek picked it up and started walking out of the terminal, he thought he heard the old man say “These in-flight videos are really marvellous, aren’t they?

He stopped and turned to look, but the man was in the middle of a conversation with the lady, seemingly oblivious to Vivek’s stare. He only looked up briefly a second later, smiled innocently at Vivek, and went back to the conversation.

Vivek walked out and caught an auto home.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Bhool Bhulaiyaa - Flick Review

Flick Review – Bhool Bhulaiyaa

Random, random, random.

Rating: -39 (yes, that's right, that's negative 39) stars on 5.

A few years ago, when my then roommate and I discovered the joys of a DVD player and cheap, pirated DVDs from Palika Bazaar in short succession, we spent many nights and weekends watching crazy, psycho Korean and Japanese movies together.

Part of the appeal of those mad Korean movies was the fact that they were so insanely random – you never knew what part of the story was connected to what other, or why a particular character was hanging around in the background, in a seemingly pointless waste of celluloid, until around three hours after you finished watching the movie, when it all finally started to make startling sense.

Well, I thought I would extend Priyadarshan the same courtesy, and I’ve waited three hours before writing this review, but I still can’t seem to make any sense whatsoever of his latest celluloid travesty, Bhool Bhulaiyaa.

Bhool Bhulaiyaa is easily the most random movie made in a long, long time. There is simply no other way to describe this waste of three hours of my life other than a ‘Visit India’ tourism documentary in a very shabby disguise. The only reason I didn’t walk up to the counter and ask for my money back was the fact that I did think I got value for my money – the lazyboy chairs at Cinemax are quite nice, the popcorn decent, and the company I was in, excellent, all of which combined for a very nice outing to the cinema – the only irritating thing in this entire evening at the movies, of course, was the movie.

Predictably, this latest Priyadarshan offering is based on a Malayalam movie, Manichitrathazhu, which, I am told by those who’ve seen it, is a really, really good movie. Shobhana, who played the female lead in the Mallu movie, even won the National Award for the film. Vidya Balan, who played the lead in the Hindi movie, would be lucky if she got an invite to even attend the National Awards for this performance.

If you’re among those poor sods who have read this far, and still intend to waste their money on the movie, stop reading right here, because here’s a big, fat

SPOILER WARNING

for you! For the rest of you, who have more sense, read on and weep!

The cinematography is excellent: Bhool Bhulaiyaa is visually appealing, as, indeed, all of Priyadarshan’s movies are, and his Thiruvananthapuram roots are more than evident in the costumes, which look like the silk- and jewellery-showroom-hoarding bedecked market roads of that beautiful city. Other than that, the only minor saving grace (read: non-yawn inducing characteristic) of the movie is the rediscovery of Akshay Kumar’s increasingly adept comic timing, under wraps since Hera Pheri.

Aside from that, this is a remake that would have been better never made.

The storyline not only demands a temporary suspension of disbelief from the viewer, it sits on your chest and throttles it out of you at a level only ever seen last when Anil Kapoor played a ‘college boy’ role.

The script compares to a good film script, but only in the sense that a mad child’s misadventure with Lego blocks compares to an architectural marvel like, say, the Sydney Opera House. If you can sit through three hours of mindless babble and one particular scene where Shiney Ahuja and Akshay Kumar giggle like the proverbial saas-bahu pair from an Ektaa Kapoor sud-show, this is definitely the movie for you.

Just when you think you could spend a few peaceful minutes in the theatre bitching about the movie with your friends, the songs leap up at you unexpectedly, like muggers in a dark alley, with about the same degree of subtlety. To make matters worse, the partially palatable title track doesn’t even make it to the main body of the movie, relegated instead to an absurdly irrelevant video starring Akshay Kumar as a wannabe gangsta rapper when the closing credits roll.

Shiney Ahuja spends the mercifully few scenes he’s been allotted looking like he’s been interrupted in the middle of a frantic search for the toilet – he looks uncomfortable, pained, and constipated in various degrees throughout the film. He lives in the same apartment complex as I do, and I saw him a few days ago in the parking lot, having a heated conversation with someone else, excitedly waving his arms around all over the place, probably trying to convince the other person that he had been forced to act in the movie at gunpoint – which would easily explain the quality of his acting in it.

Paresh Rawal has proved the time-old adage that too many movies playing the same hackneyed role over and over again is really, really bad for you. In this case, he didn’t have a good script and funny jokes supporting him. I strongly recommend that Paresh bhai leave for the Himalayas for a few years, say around three hundred and fifty, and act in a Hindi movie only after that.

Rajpal Yadav should do the same.

Amisha Patel pulled off quite a good job of being quite unnoticeable throughout the film, except for the few really painful moments when you have to endure her shrill shrieking.

Vidya Balan should be really, really thankful that I didn’t watch this movie in a theatre in Calcutta – else I would have had so much more fodder for the guns I want to aim at her for her mangling of the Bengali language. She plays a woman suffering from some strange disease called ‘Dissociative Identity Disorder’ known only to the makers of Bhool Bhulaiyaa, and for large parts of the three-hour epic tragedy that is this movie, pretends she’s actually the ghost of Manjulika, a Bengali courtesan who was killed by the Raja of some make-believe principality near Jaipur, who is, in turn the not-so-distant ancestor of Shiney Ahuja, who plays Vidya Balan’s husband in the movie. Now, this is a role that any actor would love – it gives you scope to go all out, to let yourself go, to go ballistic, but after seeing what Vidya Balan did to the role, all I can tell her is that she should just go. Far away. To the Kali temples in Calcutta, and see how Bengali women really kick it up with the spirit world. And then, quietly fade into oblivion, and stop acting forever.

Akshay Kumar displays superb comic timing and a new-found love for pink shirts in the movie, and will walk away from this film as the only actor in the cast with minor fig leaves from his dignity intact. He should, however, remember that he just cannot play the role of an intelligent doctor at all – the scenes where he talks seriously about theories of psychoanalysis look really, really bad – he is, after all, a Jat, and I would have been better inclined to believe his character if he were talking instead about diseases of cows. In Haryanvi. For thirty seconds at the most.

Not only is the acting bad, the script and plot are atrocious beyond belief.

Akshay Kumar twiddles his fingers in front of Vidya Balan’s face in what is supposed to be hypnosis, and convinces her that she is a happy person. She emerges from the session all smiley and shiny. Really? That’s all it takes? And here I was, poor fool, thinking that to be happy involved more, like money, and fame, and love, and all that.

In the middle of what is intended as one of the scariest scenes of the movie, with the proverbial damsel in distress huffing and puffing all around the equally proverbial haunted mansion, being chased by the more proverbial ghungroo-sporting ghost, you see an even more proverbial Indian home guard, with blue beret and lathi, calmly walking across the gardens in the background. Spending this much money on a movie and not noticing production bloopers like that is akin to buying a nice, shiny Rolls Royce, and then painting fluorescent pink polka dots all over it.

In one particular scene, Shiney Ahuja rants and raves at Akshay Kumar for not being able to cure his wife, Vidya Balan, of her Manjulika (the aforementioned Bengali courtesan) obsession, and stomps off shouting that he would take her to the best doctors in America and London instead. All Akshay Kumar does is tell Shiney Ahuja that he can do whatever the best doctors can do, and that’s all it takes. Shiney Ahuja scampers back to Akshay Kumar and consigns his wife to his care again, as teary-eyed and trustful as he was angry and upset three-and-a-half seconds ago.

Random, random, random. Priyan go home!

Take my advice: if you’re looking for a good, entertaining way to spend some time on the weekend, don’t watch this movie – stay at home and watch paint drying instead. Even that would make more sense than this movie can ever hope to.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Trimester 2, Day -1, Flashback

For all you mad fans (yes, all two of you!) who made my life miserable with your letters written in blood and dharnas outside my house (ok fine, I know it was only three SMSes from one of you, and a bunch of emails from the other), begging me to kick this little story awake from its slumber: thank you!

Let me know what you think! Comment, comment, comment!

Trimester 2, Day -1, Flashback

Hey whassup, man! Good to see you again!

I’d come back to hostel a day before the second trimester began, hoping to find the place to myself. I guess I realised even then that what had happened those holidays, and the trimester to come, would both be albatrosses around my neck for many years to come, quibbling between themselves for pecks at my conscience.

Instead, I’d found Jack, my next-dorm neighbour, already in his room, doodling away in his notebooks, pretending to study for the first of his many second-attempt examinations. I hadn’t spoken much with Jack in the first trimester, and as things turned out, that day before the second trimester would be the only real time we would speak with each other until two years after college, when we both spent a very, very drunken day in Calcutta together, and I almost ended up missing Meatball’s wedding in Bombay. But that, as I have said so often before in these pages, is another story, for a later day.

Jack had already shown signs of how he intended to spend his years at Law School: if the rest of us were stars’ tennis balls, being bandied about hither, thither, and whither-have-thou, Jack was the streaker on the tennis court, running towards the Royal Box at Wimbledon with ‘Marry me, Queenie!!!’ emblazoned across his chest!

Not the sort of person I wanted to share my miseries with, I thought. But as we started talking, I realised I wasn’t the only one who’d had a wonderful holiday: he’d broken up with his first girlfriend, too.

A little pause here, for those of you who’ve bothered to keep a track of happenings on these pages. I’ve spoken about those six mad months chasing S, and hoping for something that I didn’t even understand. As things turned out, the lady decided to push me to the very edge, and then said ‘yes’ to going around with me the very night before I left Calcutta for Law School.

Three months of letters everyday (yes, every single day!) back and forth, skipping meals to pay for long-distance phone calls, and longing to meet again resulted in awkward meetings and tight hugs in the holidays. You see, when you’ve known a person only through letters and phone calls for so long, someone you’re supposed to be in love with, then when you actually meet that person, you have no idea what to do with yourself.

You stutter. Stammer. Shuffle your feet awkwardly, and then, just to make up for all of that nonsense, hold that person in a hug tighter than is known to have been used by many a grizzly to crush many a lumberjack’s back.

I did that, all that stuttering and stammering, shuffling and holding, and by about the ten millionth repetition, had finally managed to mumble a ‘I missed you’ into the whole shebang of an affair as well. Things were looking good, and in my mind, I was almost already a smooth-talking love machine.

And then, a week into the holidays, I realised that two things seemed really strange: first, S and I had already started speaking of spending our lives together, but I was just a crazy kid in a place I didn’t understand, with no idea what the rest of my life meant, and second, the three other people I had wanted meet most in the holidays after Mom, Dad, and S, just didn’t seem to want to talk to me anymore.

The first resulted in a teary break-up that I still regret, and the second, in shattering my confidence in my ability to make good friends for a long, long time.

I’ll skip the first set of happenings, since you and I didn’t really come here to talk about teenage romances and possible loves.

The second incident is more bizarre, and therefore, more fun to write about in any case.

Imagine waking up one morning, only to find you are invisible.

Not in the ‘You can’t see me, ha, ha! I’m going to spend all my time looking at naked ladies in girls’ washrooms!’ kind of sense, but a stranger to everyone you meet, and who should have known you. Everyone sees you well enough, but they’re strangers on the bus, hoping you’ll get off at the next stop so they can stop having to smell your armpit.

That’s how I felt when seventeen phone calls to V, Dumass, and Perks resulted in seventeen different excuses not to meet. These phone calls also resulted in another set of seventeen excuses for having to put the phone down quickly, and seventeen broken promises of calling me back sometime soon.

By about the fifteen time this sequence occurred, I’d begun to get a little suspicious – yes, I know I sound as credulous as a Bengali mother who believes her son is a virgin even after she has herself has become a granny thrice over, but that’s just the way I was. One evening, however, as I was walking down Park Street, avoiding the pimps and their promises of ‘kollej guls’, I bumped into Perks walking with another classmate from school.

I jumped up and down, and grinned from ear to ear, and stepped forward to hug the man, but he stepped an equal distance back, thrust his hand out, mumbled something about having to reach somewhere soon, and walked away.

And this was one of those guys I’d spent some of my most embarrassing teenage years with. You remember – the car, the beer, the place near the airport, watching planes take off; the chits passed in school, the raids on juniors’ tiffin-boxes at break time, the shared preps for exams; the racing around deserted roads on bikes, the discovering small momo joints that fit both, a hole in the wall, and our frugal budgets equally well; the elaborate plans to get a girl’s phone number, saving money to buy her flowers, not having the courage to give them to her in person, and so leaving them at her doorstep, only to have her father find them there when he came home from work, prompting the world’s most quizzical look to slither around all over his face…

All of that. Gone.

When I reached home that night, I cried louder and longer than an eighteen-year-old boy ever should for anything, other than being told that his carefully collected porn collection was now a baby turd in his pet dog’s lower intestine.

Mom and Dad were at a friend’s place for dinner. I called, and told them to just get home as soon as they could. And they did something for which I thank them until this very day: they didn’t ask me a single question all through that manic, muddled mumbling on the phone, telling them to get home NOW, and the soaking of shoulders with briny sorrow when they finally did. I guess they realised how much it took from a boy to weep on his parents’ shoulders, and, more importantly, that this was a maze I would just have to blunder out of on my own.

All of which melodramatic bullcrappy resulted in my returning to hostel a day early, and yapping with Jack about how our lives had really ended for all intents and purposes the day we broke up with our respective girlfriends, and possibly the stupidest trimester I have ever spent in law school.

More on that soon!