Friday, 22 August 2008

Not The India Of Your Lonely Planet Dreams

Have I ever felt divided about a book as this? I had nothing against the writing. In most aspects it's a pretty good story: detailed (often, too detailed for my taste), visceral and well thought out. A good debut effort. But it's the things that the author made some of the characters do that really got to me. I think I'll leave the last verdict to readers.

And they left the "curry powder" reference in! Am I in trouble?

Stark vision of India

first published in The Star, 22 August 2008

What's with the explosion of novels from Indian writers? Could it have something to do with Kiran Desai's Man Booker Prize? Or the buzz surrounding Monica Ali's Brick Lane?

Names I would normally associate with silks, embroidery and curry powder are showing up in bookstore shelves and best-seller lists. Now, waves of hopefuls from the subcontinent are on the horizon. And many of these Indian-sounding authors don't even live in India.

One of them happens to be Sujit Saraf, who made his debut with The Peacock Throne, an impressive novel that celebrates India's turbulent socio-political climate in the dying throes of the last millennium.

We are taken on a whirlwind tour of the period between 1984 and 1998, seen through the eyes of some colourful characters. The author weaves his settings and characters into actual events, going so far as to providing a map for key areas of the story and a glossary of terms. No effort is spared in his quest to make it "real".

The curtain rises from the calm of daily life in Chandni Chowk, the neighbourhood that much of the novel revolves around. Tea seller Gopal Pandey is minding his own business when all hell breaks loose after Indira Gandhi's assassination. He hides a Sikh trader from rioting Hindus, and is later sent by the trader on a rescue mission. Our humble tea seller will eventually be lifted from the ruins of his demolished tea stall and plunged into a storm in a political teacup, but that comes much later.

Meanwhile, the story continues through the vantage point of the other characters: Ibrahim, Gopal's Muslim buddy; the Sikh trader Kartar Singh; Gopal's ne'er-do-well son; old-fashioned shopkeeper Sohan Lal; the fawning, ambitious and scheming clerk Ramvilas; prostitute-turned-activist Gita Didi; corrupt cop Inderlal Jha; Western-educated female journalist Chitra Ghosh; and a thieving Bangladeshi scamp called Gauhar.

The overly romanticised India of yesteryears is pulverised and replaced by the stark, in-your-face grimness of Saraf's vision, which exposes the underbelly of life in contemporary India, complete with lurid tales of murder, politics, sex and other bodily functions. Readers are unceremoniously ushered into various venues where all the action takes place in such gritty, blood-curdling detail, the word "explicit" barely scratches the surface. Welcome to 21st century Indian drama.

This corner of Saraf's India has no heroes - or heroines. All the key players are disappointingly human. In the novel's troubled times their virtues are downplayed and we often see them in their selfish, arrogant, cynical and megalomaniacal worst. Even the goofy, affable Gopal has weaknesses and bad habits that make me want to throttle him.

The cast's purpose, it seems, is just to move the story along, like the cogs of some huge clockwork machinery. It's not about the people as much as it is about this slice of India's history, the one we always knew existed, but wouldn't dare bring up.

By keeping our emotions at arm's length, Saraf manages to enforce the psychological barrier that allows him to do nasty things with some cast members. There are a couple of bombs. Desecration of a national monument. Forced immolation. And of course, plenty of swearing, racist epithets, political double-speak and the usual "us versus them" rhetoric.

I am in two minds about The Peacock Throne. Like its namesake, it looks pretty, but behind it lies a tumultuous, bloody history. On one hand, it's well-written and the narrative flows naturally. The backdrops and scenes are rich in detail, though not necessarily pleasing.

The human drama it showcases, however, is like a dark, bottomless pit. There are a few parts that I found repulsive, particularly chapters featuring Gauhar. Delving too deeply into the pages will erode your faith in humanity - and maybe scupper your plans to backpack around India.

In the end, Saraf does the right thing by not making the characters too likeable. Given the heavy subject matter it's amazing how he managed to complete this book. How did he manage to keep himself going?

Someone once wrote that India will either capture your heart, or repel you. It certainly is true in the case of The Peacock Throne, a heady, eye-opening adventure for those who can stomach the repulsive bits. It's not a perfect novel, but really, how many adventurers expect things to go their way from start to finish?

Peacock Throne
Sujit Saraf
754 pages
ISBN: 978-0-340-89972-4

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Palestine In A Nutshell

The structure. The added content. And the ending, too. More than half of this was changed. This was one of my worst fears come true. Has writing full-time blunted my ...edge?

Primer on a political mess

first published in The Star, 17 August 2008

The history of the modern Middle-Eastern conflict is a babble of dissenting voices, each claiming veracity over the other. Many have tried in vain to seek the heart of the problem, and come up with its solution.

Among those seeking this Holy Grail is former US President Jimmy Carter, author of Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, a memoir-slash-analysis of the Middle East conflict and his involvement in it throughout his political career. First published in 2006, another edition was released recently with a new afterword from the author.

Carter might have been an unglamorous peanut farmer before being elected president in 1977 but he was among the more intellectual of American presidents, many – including critics – agree. However, a host of hot button issues that cropped up in untimely fashion, especially the Iranian hostage crisis, cost him a second term.

(Almost 70 people were kidnapped from the US embassy in Teheran in 1979; the last 53 remained captive for 444 days – and, in fact, were released just after Carter had lost the re-election to Ronald Reagan.)

Carter is now the head of the Carter Center, a think-tank dedicated to peace, freedom, and human rights, and he's apparently giving the Middle East another go.

Before I get into the book, here's a quick (very quick, not to mention necessarily simplified) brief on the area's recent history culled from various widely available sources.

Modern Israel's story began with the British-engineered Balfour Declaration that promised Jews they could carve up a chunk of Arab land for their own state, which was born after World War II.

Hostilities between Jews and Arabs soon followed, of course; it got too hot for the British troops overseeing the new nation so they packed up and left.

Over the years, mediation (or should that be “meddling”?) by external political factions only complicated matters, resulting in the roiling cauldron of Tom Yam Goong that is today's Chez Middle East, a kitchen with two executive chefs – two colossal egos, each unwilling to yield to the other.

Today, the region is the fulcrum for a restless ideological see-saw that has the world on tenterhooks.

Throughout this book, Carter tries his best not to lean towards either side, stressing that ending the conflict requires both sides to pull together. He notes two major obstacles to peace: the extremist factions within both countries.

Palestine supplies a lot of information to help the reader understand the complex issues. Maps of the region showing shifts in territorial control over the years are scattered liberally throughout the book, along with key extracts of diplomatic agreements. The text of United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338, and details of the Camp David Accords have been included in the appendices.

Okay, so Palestine is not light reading, obviously. The language is serious – dead serious at times – because the issues are serious. Carter may not be an official diplomat, but he still writes like one.

If all UN speeches sound this serious and dry, small wonder many delegates look like they'd rather be somewhere else every time sessions are televised.

It is kind of him, however, to provide so much information (all seemingly meticulously researched) and so objectively, too. By not taking sides, he demonstrates Palestine's integrity, which makes it a good primer on the Great Middle East Mess.

This has earned Carter the ire of some Americans, while earning the respect of many people around the world.

And it should earn the general reader's gratitude, because we – yes, you too – need to keep an eye on this Mess. It's bound to boil over and involve the whole world one day if it hasn't already done so indirectly....

Peace Not Apartheid

Jimmy Carter
Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
270 pages
ISBN: 978-0-7432-8503-2

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Do They Still Draw Cartoons?

"Legends tell of a legendary warrior, whose kung fu skills were the stuff of legend...!"

So goes the opening narrative for Dreamworks' latest offering, Kung Fu Panda. If I could raise an eyebrow, I would. However, it took several viewings before I got it; I secured a bootleg copy because I couldn't wait for the original. And this was after watching it at a cinema. Despite a few iCringe moments, it's just brimming with Fun™. What the hell was Zhao Bandi complaining about? The panda isn't even copyrighted by China.

And I swear, they're getting more and more quotable. A far cry from Yogi Bear's word-mangling and bad grammar, "zoiks", "jinkies" and "Heavens to Murgatroid!" Chalk it up to the scriptwriters. "Cartoons" ain't just for kids any more.

"He was so deadly, in fact, that his enemies would go blind from overexposure to pure awesomeness!"

Animated features have come a long way. I grew up watching the 2-D ones, admiring the artwork and the lengths they went to in making them. Then came the digital age, and the advent of not-so-cartoonish cartoons. However, the day when 2-D went 3-D was probably when Who Framed Roger Rabbit was released. Since then, PC processors got faster, hardware more sophisticated. Have you seen today's graphic cards? They look like miniature motherboards - complete with their own processors and cooling fans. Some cards run so hot they need their equivalent of a radiator.

But I wouldn't pack cel animation to the nearest retirement home just yet. The Japs are still at it, even though more and more of cel-CGI marriages are happening (Ghost In The Shell, Appleseed, Vandread, Vexille, etc). With so much history behind cel, it should be preserved as a heritage in case it is eclipsed by newer animation techniques. Hell, it might even be taught as an esoteric skill one day, like the erhu or didgeridoo.

"One often meets his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it."

But I'm also thinking: With Moore's Law running rampant like a flock of rabid Road Runners, it won't be long before anybody could make their own animated features on devices as small as a cellphone. Will we be networking using our own custom-made CGI avatars someday? To the point where we won't have to leave our chairs? The producers of WALL-E think so.

Great. Not only are they packing cinemas and driving CPU evolution, but predicting the future as well.

"There's no charge for awesomeness - or attractiveness."

I still think they put that into Jack Black's mouth just to rub it into our noses.

"There are no accidents."

Brought To You By Canon®

Sometimes I wonder why I started this in the first place.

With the exception of a few bad Photoshopped graphics, Bites has been mainly text. But I just can't be assed to update nowadays - at least, if I don't have anything substantial to write about.

I've sneered at blogs that are mostly pictures because, well, their photographs usually sucked. And they don't bother to shrink them to the proper dimensions and file size. But with so many now incorporating videos I feel like a Johnny-come-lately in the media explosion craze.

Pretty soon, they say, video will be the norm.

These photos (borked now due to file hosting hiccups) were taken during the last Readings at Seksan, but I could write little about it that hasn't been written before. Sharon Bakar does a good job of chronicling each session she attends. I didn't take any pictures of the Wayang Buku performance because there was too much movement - from the act and my shaky hands.

Dr Shih the historian talked about how the town of Sitiawan in Perak got its name, and shared some tidbits about Sitiawan-born persona non grata Chin Peng. Why is it often the spoiled rich kids who find their life's purpose by sponsoring anarchy?

He had approached me first and introduced himself. He's never attended a reading before. But once he started, it was smooth sailing. Reading is a lot like storytelling, after all.

The wine bottle-uncorking antics of Shahril and I were applauded by an appreciative audience which included Robert Raymer, an American expat who's living in Sarawak and author of Lovers and Strangers Revisited. Turns out he lectured Funnybunny when she was studying English. Much has been said about his writing and generosity.

Nic Wong's first foray into the big big world was to grow big big hair - and lots of it. We are grateful he decided to lop it all off for us before reading here. His art is growing (no pun intended - maybe) from strength to strength; let's just hope it doesn't come with (too many) eccentricities. Poets. You know how they are.

Speaking of which...

Was Sheena Baharudin on the readers' list? I think so (too lazy to check). She apparently came with a few comrades from Poetry Underground to cheer Nic and Kat. She only read one poem about racial discrimination. Has she been mistaken for an Indian before?

She obligingly posed when Sharon whipped out the digicam. It happened so quickly I couldn't catch it.

Soon-to-Be-Dr Jason Leong, author of the funny and honest Twisted Stethoscope, who almost couldn't make it. He had another reading to do at the Mid Valley Megamall. Looking closely, he sort of resembles my former managing director (also abbreviated, interestingly enough, as MD).

Don't you just want to pinch those cheeks?

When I first met Kathleen Choo, I had little idea of just how feisty she was, or how well she carries of her "slams". A suggested second career and a rap lyricist was politely brushed off. Are "all the great poets are male, white and dead"?

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Bond Lives... Again

"Bond lives... again",
Off The Edge, August 2008
Besides the usual press kits, invites and all, there were books, books and more books. This was my first book review piece for the magazine - that much-hyped post-Fleming Bond novel, Devil May Care.

I thought it would be easy, until I got stumped by the additional requirements. Number of Bond books sold, or annual total sales; value of the Bond franchise, and all that. I was swamped with whatever I had found - how was I going to work it all in?

Then one midnight, nearly all of the pieces just fell into place. Two hours later, a serviceable piece that didn't need a lot of edits. I was beginning to feel that book reviews will always be the brightest feather in my cap - next to restaurant reviews.

Apologies for the poor image quality. I'm still struggling with balancing (image) beauty, bytes and bandwidth.

Inkvestment, Ping Pong

Every now and then, we would get press kits and e-mails from various advertisers about their products. It's nothing new, but one wonders just how fast some of these items would go, with or without our help.

Consumer Price Index: "Inkvestment" (left), and "Ping Pong",
Off The Edge, August 2008

My eyes bulged at the figures for the above items. RM18,000 for a ping-pong table and accessories? A RM36,000 fountain pen? I would later learn that not only are the prices justified (in most cases), but there are people who can more than afford these things, and that it's more than just the brand.

But the nature of the magazine is such that it's not just item, price, and where-to-find, but the whats and whys as well: why is it so expensive, what goes into the product, sales pitch and packaging, etc. I haven't seen a lot of publications that do that. I've never looked at "luxury items" the same way again.