Friday, December 04, 2009

On the need for a Tandav list

I don't know about you, but my favourite movie/t.v. moments are when the surly and/or famous character feels compelled to dance.

It's always spontaneous. And the less pretty, the better. The characters never let on that they can or want to dance, but do anyway and it always either lightens a tense moment or builds a relationship, as happens in the Pulp Fiction dance scene or the "ABCs" sequence from Clerks II.

In several mythologies from around the world, dance plays an integral part in moral lessons and characterization. In Hans Christian Andersen's 'Red Shoes', dance is used as a form of punishment & purgatory. Shiva, in Hindu mythology, occasionally gives in to a creative/destructive tandav in his Nataraja avatar.

Hell, spontaneous dance is the only reason my mum watches Ellen. She loves it when celebrity guests bust a move. I still remember when she called right after watching Obama, still a senator then, groove his way onto the set.

I grew up on TCM movies, which meant Gene Kelley at least once every week. That scene from 'Singing in the Rain' is still iconic, not just because of Kelley's skill but because of how spontaneous he makes it look: it's the end of a long day, he's just kissed the girl. Stepping onto the platform, he takes a deep smiling breath, waves the cab away and begins one of the coolest sequences ever filmed.

And it's the let loose feature of these dance moments that get me. It's what happens to all of us: AM Radio clock in the bathroom when we wake up, the drive to work, whenever we have the house or conference room alone to ourselves. We've all had that air guitar-Mrs. Doubtfire-Dude looks like a lady moment. The problem is, those moments are getting rarer and rarer.

We're more social today than ever before: we know people on twitter, we meet them for coffee, there are pictures of us in their Facebook albums and every month, someone gets our number from a contact on LinkedIn and calls about the Next Big Start-Up Idea or a 10th class reunion. All well and good, but it means you and I get less me time.

Admit it: you've thought about getting to work early and dancing around the entire office like Mr. Pitt does in this commercial. If only because it means skipping the polite elevator rituals, the walk-to-desk drill and having to say hello to the co-worker who colour-coordinates his stationery.

We all need our Tandav moment. That sacred time when we shake off the weariness of repeatedly bad news and pet projects put off five years now. The time when we take our failures and successes and break it all down to the basics. No noise, just dance. Like Tom Cruise as Les Grossman does during the credits roll of Tropic Thunder, crumpin' to Ludacris' 'Get Back'.

Hell, yeah.

Incidentally, I have a playlist on my 'pod for this very purpose. Top 10 tracks?

Enur feat. Natasja- Calabria 2007
Khailash Kher- Babam bam
The Doors- Roadhouse Blues
Rage Against the Machine- Killing in the Name of
Clash- rock the casbah
CSNY- Carry On
Daft Punk- Technologic
DJ Unk- Walk it Out
Filter & the Crystal Method- Trip Like I do
Gogol Bordello- Wanderlust King

Who's on your Tandav list?

Saturday, November 14, 2009


Sunday, November 01, 2009

The Middle East, South Asia link

Part of my new job at AIDemocracy involves putting together awareness, advocacy and action events in the context of global peace & security.

Having grown up in Oman and India, I learned early that peace and security go hand in hand, chicken AND egg, both at the same time. I also learned that without development, peace and security measures often died still-born. According to Noeleen Heyzer,

"Peace is the absence of war, but beyond that peace is a commodity unlike any other. Peace is security. Peace is a mindset. Peace is a way of living. Peace is the capacity to transcend past hurts -- to break cycles of violence and forge new pathways that say, “I would like to make sure we live as a community where there is justice, security, and development for all members.” At the end of the day, peace is an investment; it is something you create by investing in a way of life and monitoring where your resources go."
An investment. Something tangible, even. Gandhi once said, "There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread."

I believe the same holds true for human security: how can you worry about democratic processes, the global significance of the war in Iraq or climate change if you don't have access to clean running water, if your government changes every 8 months or if you have to bribe your way into a school or a job?

When it comes to Peace, Security and Development, I can't imagine the Middle East without thinking of South Asia. I think of the similarities in cultures, traditions, recipes, family structures and community values, both positive and negative. I think of shared histories and religions.

I think of how folk from ME/SA are always in shock the first time we get to the U.S. and find out there's no water spray attachment/lota available in loos, just toilet paper: I mean, how do you live with using just toilet paper? How? Why?

Over the past two months, I've spoken with people at all levels about my pet project at AIDemocracy viz. organizing a set of events/performances/discussions that underline moments, both depressing and heroic, that make up the many diverse, current realities in the Middle East and South Asia, the moments that don't necessarily get covered by CNN or Fox, the moments that are often at the heart of key issues of social change.

Many have been ecstatic about the idea. They love stories and situations brought into the limelight that go beyond Bollywood, hummus and ________ (insert your favourite stereotype here).

Some have asked me to reconsider. To "narrow down" my focus, make it "more realistic". The same folk tell me that talking about both the Middle East and South Asia will dilute my ask.

I understand that they are speaking from experience: most grant makers, for instance, ask for a proposal that is dedicated to one specific world region. Bureaucracies like universities, community organizations and yes, even most some non-profits will tell you that their target audience/funder is invested in one or the other region, that current events behooves concentrating on only one region.

I understand that these naysayers mean well. I understand how easy it is to try to do too much with too little resources, and fail. I understand the downside of throwing too much information around in an attention-deficient world. I've spent weeks trying to cut ideas, realign my program.

No dice.

Blame my pigheadedness on the Department of State folks. Yup, it's their fault: they put together funding for the PLUS program, a two year embedded education initiative that I was accepted into. They made me live with kids from all over the Middle East and South Asia. They ensured that for two years my head and heart was filled with information from various ME/SA home towns and life experiences, that we traveled around the U.S. together, sharing stories, battles, kitchens and dorm rooms.

Also, blame folk like those at UC Davis, for investing in Middle East/South Asia studies, setting up a whole separate department dedicated to the study of relationships between these two regions and their relevance to global peace, security and development today.

And don't forget the House of Representatives! It's their fault too! They support the Sub-committee on the Middle East and South Asia, a body of representatives who address issues of foreign assistance, development, security, fledgling democratic processes in the ME/SA.

What would these leaders in education, law and social initiatives know anyway.

Some folk turn around and say that there is sufficient economic growth, exposure to western culture and education levels in the ME/SA to enable people in these regions to deal with their own problems and fight their own battles without bringing in outsiders. After all, there are other countries and communities in far worse conditions.

But what about the minorities in ME/SA fighting for a voice, often silenced by a complacent or hesitant middle class?

What about the sexual and reproductive rights and health of folk in Malaysia and Indonesia who are being persecuted?
What about adivasis in India fighting for social justice and being met with criticism for being revolutionary?
What about farmers across Asia who are at the receiving end of the GMO stick?
What about young people in Nepal, concerned about the staying power of their fledgling government?
What about female education in Afghanistan and the North-Western provinces?
What about illegal settlement building in Gaza and the West Bank?
What about Tamil Refugee camps in Sri Lanka?
What about the lack of competitive employment opportunities in Morocco?
What about censorship and drought in Syria?

What about all these flip-sides, underdogs and undercurrents that don't fall neatly into the "Western world versus Islamic world" dichotomy that so many well-meaning folk urge us to "address" and "dialogue" about?

Till someone finds me an answer, here I go-- writing Middle East AND South Asia. Over, and over again.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The New Age of Non-Profits: a conversation with Ken Banks on development, knowledge sharing and FrontlineSMS

It had started off simple enough.

Two weeks ago as a relatively new employee of AIDemocracy, I spent a few hours trawling through Social Edge and twitter. With an eye on global development and security, my goal was to discover what was being done already in the non-profit world, who was doing it best and who among these folk were the most open to collaboration.

I made a number of new friends: the people at Acumen Fund, Water Charity (not to be confused with charity:water), Be Unreasonable, Sangam India, CORD and Open Society Institute were fantastic right off the bat-- They were engaging, interested and human. It was like a Utopian first day at school.

In the context of my new job and projects I had in mind, I needed to know what was being done in terms of technology support for non-profit outreach and education services. One name that came up regularly was Ken Banks, founder of

I had heard of Kiwanja in passing before, but didn't know much about it's main project FrontlineSMS, otherwise known as \o/(Which, btw, is a design based on this fantastic visual here).

I wasn't sure what to expect. Before this Saturday, I had no idea who Ken Banks is as a person, and was as wary as a product of post-post-colonialism can be of anybody who does "non-profit work" in "Africa". I was afraid I might run into yet another individual who's working to "save Africa" just because that's what Bono, the UN and everyone else is talking about right now.

[And if this is something that bothers you, Aid Watch has a great post on the issue here.]

I sent an email to Ken, one of those self-introduction/basic outline of project/can we chat sometime emails. You must remember that I moonlight as a writer: after all my experiences writing lit mag queries, I was prepared to face rejection or silence.

Imagine my shock then, when I checked mail the next day to find a reply from Ken. Yes, Ken Banks himself! Not an intern, volunteer, automated message or brush-off.

He said he'd love to talk further. Over a couple more emails I discovered he would be in Providence for the Better World By Design conference, and thanks to Barbara Grota, Assistant Dean of the Business School at my uni and a small set of practical miracles, this Saturday afternoon saw Ken, Barbara, two other students and I sit down together for an intimate conversation on change-making, mobile-for-development and non-profit developmental programs.

Ken is that guy you see in TED videos, the ones that go viral the moment they're uploaded on TED's site and Facebook page.

He showed up in a white cotton shirt and no jacket, laughing at how unprepared he was for New England weather, how he should've known better. Over coffee and a banana, he told us about how Kiwanja got started: his love for computers, how he had first traveled to the African continent in '93, how he spent 16 years living and working in countries that included Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Cameroon and Uganda. He spoke about his focus on using mobile tech for conservation and development, and mentioned he was a Liverpool fan.

He was alright.

As part of his presentation, he introduced us first to the role of mobile technology in the daily life of small business owners in African countries:

Ken told us that this picture is of a woman who started off a small business by providing a cell phone connection to her community, at a time when not everyone owned a handset of their own. She then built a small grocery store around this business, and when competition stepped in in terms of wider coverage and other small business owners who had the same idea, she secured her handset with a wire so clients could enjoy a private conversation while making sure no one would make off with her phone at the same time.

Ken pointed out that small, lean-to mobile charging stations and stores just like this one were common all over East and South Africa, making a case for mobile-enabled entrepreneurship among communities that are often labeled as being aid-dependent or in need of immediate charity.

These pictures immediately struck a chord with me-- these shots could have been taken anywhere in any rural or urban area, back home in India.

What Ken's presentation did was to focus our attention on ways in which ordinary people without much skill training or capital have adapted mobile phones and mobile technology to serve as both economic and service delivery solutions-- Not only are individuals across Africa and Asia making a business for themselves out of selling & repairing cell phone hardware and connections, they are also utilizing mobile technology to stay updated on medical services and market prices for agricultural produce. He then introduced us to how FrontlineSMS functions-- Take the tour and see for yourself here.

Ken built the original software and threw it out into the world "dirty", much like how Google first opened up Gmail Beta for public users. He's been generous with both its code and its core idea, a generosity that has enabled other entrepreneurial men and women around the world to up and run with it. One of the immensely successful ideas to come out this sharing is FrontlineSMS:Medic.

FrontlineSMS:Medic (or \+/ for short) has enabled regional hospitals that serve remote, isolated communities and villages to get the word out regarding updates in treatments, schedules for open clinics, and test results. And if that wasn't incredible enough--

Patient View, a module of \+/ enables a health worker to access a patient's records using FrontlineSMS and respond in real-time to complaints from patients many miles away.

CelloPhone, new technology being developed at UCLA that will be supported by \+/

"is a revolutionary diagnostic tool that will be able to perform basic diagnostics such as Complete Blood Count, diagnosis of Malaria and TB, and CD4 T Lymphocyte count on the back of a camera cell phone, for under $1 per test. The device itself is expected to cost as little as $10. The device utilizes a new imaging technique called LUCAS, which circumvents a lens for magnification, instead taking intracellular “holograph” images of cells directly via the CCD chip ubiquitous in most camera phones. A pattern matching algorithm then analyzes cell morphology to automatically produce a diagnostic result. The diagnostic results will be communicated from the device to a central location using FrontlineSMS, and viewed with our Patient View module and/or sent to OpenMRS with our medical records module. The Ozcan lab at UCLA is developing this device, and we aim to pioneer its use in the developing world (\+/, 2009)."
All I could think at this time was, why the hell isn't everyone talking about this? Why aren't the modules of \+/ being utilized all over South Asia, for instance , where we and all our gods know it would be of incredible service?

Maybe it's because of a lack of information. Maybe not enough people know about \0/, and the other activities of Kiwanja. Or maybe some global non-profits, government agencies and contractors are afraid of all the power they might lose once local community members and non-profits start empowering themselves with such technology. Who knows?

I can imagine multiple uses of FrontlineSMS in India alone:
  • In disaster management response and activity coordination.
  • In managing the agricultural crisis by getting out messages on weather patterns, market prices and setting up a communication network for suicide prevention.
  • In responding to health care needs in remote villages up and down the east coast and in state interiors.
While I sat there, taking in how simple and yet beautiful FrontlineSMS' design is, and how accessible its use can be, Ken spoke quietly about some of the ideas that drove him to build \0/

"It's not about building cool-- it's about building appropriate."

FrontlineSMS began with one idea: to build on the existing, burgeoning mobile network in Africa instead of waiting either for some government to buy into fiber optic cables or on some non-profit or country's charity to set up a development-oriented program.

\0/ also builds on local awareness and local ownership, says Ken Banks, and I believe him: you can't read cases of health-workers in the Philippines and Malawi who downloaded \0/ all on their own and used it to improve the quality of care and then not believe in \0/, Kiwanja and Ken. And yet, none of this happened overnight. "Be Patient" is a core principle of this sort of work, according to Ken-- an idea that Acumen Fund founder Jacqueline Novogratz mirrored in her TED talk on Patient Capital.

Ken's dream is that FrontlineSMS will grow to be self-sufficient, that people all over the world will adapt it to solve problems specific to their communities without needing him to be its brand ambassador. Considering the Open Source nature of \0/, this dream may soon become a reality.

Ken Banks' energy, candour and intelligence will infect your brain with good ideas. The thought that timely, measurable change for the better can occur on the ground, on a one to one basis without needing to wait for a grant cycle or government vote to come through is refreshingly now.

I can't wait to speak with people in South Asia about \0/ and discovering whether some of the challenges they are facing in the field can be answered with this suit of mobile technology.

What about you? Know of a non-profit, community or person who can benefit from FrontlineSMS? Direct them here. I can attest to the fact they'll get a personal response almost immediately.

I did bring that up with Ken towards the end of our conversation. He didn't know me from Eve, and I obviously didn't have big money or contacts to throw at his work. Why would such a busy guy spend time on a non-lucrative email exchange and trip to a small liberal arts university?

According to Ken, nurturing conversation around the kind of work Kiwanja supports is what has brought FrontlineSMS and its associated avatars this far. He talks about the individuals who contacted him about \0/ and are responsible for developing \0/ to the level it's at now. He also points out that he knows what it's like to be a newbie in the non-profit field. Says he wouldn't have got where he is now if it wasn't for several key people giving him a break and believing in FrontlineSMS when they didn't have to. And then, he grins.

Ken Banks, myself and Ai Jing, a fellow international student at RWU

I nod in agreement. The sun broke through a gray cloud bank, shining into the conference room we sat in. A good omen: maybe the New Age of Non-Profits is truly upon us, one in which ordinary people everywhere are empowered by need-based technology, where volunteering at a non-profit means coming up with usable ideas, not just filing proposals and where sharing real-time knowledge and experience is rated higher than how many celebrity endorsements a non-profit gets.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Of Holidays, Serendipity & the Green Goddess

If you grew up in those parts of the world that still hold onto trappings of the British Raj, you grew up thinking that a sign of cultured success was the family holiday home up in the hills or by the beach.

Alternatively, if you grew up in said Imperial Angrezi shadow but did your best to moderately protest such faux-pucca behavior, you and your parents shied away from a holiday home and instead returned to your grandparent’s place: an ancestral, mosquito-infested location where huge stainless steel tins of paapad were passed around and your uncles all had stories about every room and every wall, stories that got progressively bawdier as summer evenings wore on till your elder brother kicked you out of the room while he stayed put in a corner, the surreptitious bastard.

However—None of this holds true any longer. Liberalized global economies, stricter leave policies and those nifty mid-week discounts from travel sites mean that Heraclitus (a chap who had an incredibly hard time at school, I suspect) is your daddy; all you can do is get in short bursts of vivid experience every time your two weeks come around (unless you’re a bureaucrat or are French in which case mille pardons, you lucky sot.)

Right now, it’s not how well you know a place, it’s how many places you’ve been to—A night in Belgrade, three days in San Diego with cousins, an afternoon in Cannes, one in Catania and if it’s Tuesday it might as well be Belgium. One is made to feel there's something almost provincial about eternally returning to a single favourite holiday spot nowadays, my friend. Provincial and limiting.

Well then, if to be counter-culture these days is to swim against this tide of short trips and frequent flyer miles, I am the veritable Abbie Hoffman of holiday-making, the Timothy Leary of trip-planning. I’ll even say it--

My name is Priyanka Joseph and I’m an addict. It’s been four years since I first visited New Orleans, and I have been skulking back every summer since.

No one understands it much, except those wasafiri who tumble from all over the globe into New Orleans and have stayed put ever since. Home-grown locals are even more big-hearted than they usually are when they realize you’re in town for more than a photo-op or “material” for your next “piece”. Mid-Westerners and kids on Spring Break anxiously look away when you shoot the Death Stare at their year-round Mardi Gras beads, their Made in China feather boas sold up and down the outer streets of the French Quarter by enterprising second-generation Bengalis and Gujaratis.

And no, that is not a stereotype. All the Indian vendors I’ve run into in New Orleans have proudly attested to their regional identities while discussing mine in the same breath, bless their little hearts. They sit there smiling, the aunties and Uncles, amid the plastic boob necklaces, imitation hash pipes and epithet-tinged T-shirts while they wish you a good day after surreptitiously giving you a 10% discount. Don’t count on it happening often though—An Indian businesswoman will get carried away by that special brand of southern voodoo once or twice, but you must be quick: it is accompanied only by one or two subtle signs. Blink twice and it vanishes.

Most surreal events and places in Nola are accompanied only by one or two subtle signs.

For instance, no good bar in the French Quarter, dive or posh, is well-lit.

If the bar-tender is dressed fancy and you see bright lights, you’re in a tourist spot and unless you wish to invite my Death Stare, get out! This of course, is true only of establishments in the French Quarter. The Garden District, St. Charles and the CBD are where the smart young things of New Orleans go, and where like most smart young things anywhere else in the world, they enjoy the fixings that go with these more refined neighborhoods.

I stick to the French Quarter because visiting it every year is like meeting only the most beloved members of your family at Christmas except it’s summer in June and they’re not your family-- they’re members of an intimate, energetic, human circus who you know all by name and the moment you enter Bourbon Street you’re in it, Second Lining along with everyone else. The French Quarter is the last bastion of the city’s variegated past, and in every crack and courtyard, along every open drain and broken tile-work half-restored, in every old wall and re-painted sign the well-worn familiarity of a grand-parent reaches out to you.

And it’s not some secret club. Like a finely-trained acrobat, courtesan, juggler and the world’s greatest storyteller rolled into one, the Quarter draws you in only as far as you will go. A big hearted city, the biggest hearted in the States.

There, I said it.

The only folk disapproved of are posers and those who don’t know how to have a good time, and even they are tolerated till they try to pay their bill using a library card. Despite all the touristy trappings, besides all the people who show up figuring they’re going to be blessed with boobs, beads, cheap booze and perhaps even a piece of humanity culled from the hunks of Katrina debris, usually made up of narrated memories, water-marks and faded X’s on front doors, little souvenirs they can pack away with their shot glasses to put up on their mantelpiece in Middle Class, Anywhere—Despite all these little clichés, the City and the Quarter still find ways of sneaking into my heart with their secrets, year after year, every year closer still till the imprints they leave are like the toe-marks inside your oldest and most favored pair of chappals.

This year, the most vivid imprint I carried away from the city was of a meal I had at a small, privately run establishment that had only recently opened at the time. A meal that would have never happened if it wasn’t for a little web 2.0 magic.

Late on the Sunday afternoon that was our last day in the city, we sat in a Rue St. Anne hotel room and reviewed our list of Nola restaurants yet-to-be-experienced. Yes, there still was the old guard, the ones we always walked past and nodded a salutation to, the historical origins of fine dining in the city: Arnaud’s, Olivier’s, Brennan’s, Antoine’s, Broussard’s, GW Fins, Galatoire’s, Commander’s Palace. Legends are still told in the street regarding secretly guarded recipes, privately owned smoke-houses and the sort of tidbit goodness of the kind that could redeem your soul with a first-taste and cast you into hell at the exact same time for the lust surging in every fiber of your being at the mere mention of the Crabes mous amandine (Antoine’s) or the Wood Grilled Mississippi Redfish (G.W Fins’). And yes, this particular alchemy is not brought on by food alone.

The Big Easy is a human city. One that’s been torn apart several times in its history, by moral policing, race-oriented government policies, corruption, industry shifts, climate change and hurricane seasons. There’s so much of feeling up and down streets here that the air, especially in the hot, still summer thrums against your skin and you might just find yourself bursting into tears at the sound the old jazz-men of the Preservation Hall band make when they get into When the Saints go Marching in or Swing low, Sweet Chariot , or the insistent notes of the calliope coming off the Steamboat Natchez, for no other reason than this, this particular moment brought everything treasured about your childhood back to you in a single rush of merry-go-round sound. Oh there’s some strong stuff floating about, but that last Sunday didn’t feel like a day for reflecting on the past.

The day before, we had met and struck up an instant friendship with two transplanted locals, one a photographer and the other, a guide for the Haunted History tours. Both fantastic people, and that long afternoon spent in Pirates Alley is one of my happiest memories of New Orleans till date. We wanted more of that: to meet the people who have made this city their home to live and work in because there is no other place like it on earth. I was just about to sign out of Gmail when an email popped up from a dear friend in Madras, who declared that Neil Gaiman had delivered (pardon) an easter egg via Twitter, stating that if one was in New Orleans, one should up and over to the Green Goddess and pronounce the words, ‘Mezze of Destruction’.


Now one suspects that Mr. Gaiman is an honorable man, all things considered. Couldn’t help but wonder what spot that phrase could get me into though. A simple Google search brought up Chef DeBarr's livejournal and the restaurant's website. It didn't take long to realize we'd be dining at the table of chefs who did things with ingredients that Da Vinci did with set squares and a single argyle sock. Strangely, the place was a only street away. No one at the hotel had heard of it but we were far too hungry to be scared off. I put their lack of knowledge down to the fact the website said it had only opened a month previous to our arrival.

In a matter of minutes, there it was: a snug warm place opposite the Pelican Club. Dim lighting, check. No fancy outfits inside, check. In fact, since we were dining late on a Sunday night, no one else but us, either. Two apron-wearing men stood behind a counter, staring at us while we stared at them.

The first thing you notice is that you aren't treated as customers, cash cows or outsiders even, which are types of treatment you can receive elsewhere in the city, especially in the Quarter. And who can blame a body? Tourists truck in with their frozen daiquiris, their cargo shorts and their cranky toddlers and demand ketchup on a po-boy, jambalaya without rabbit and crawfish étouffée without crawfish.

But that hasn't bothered the proprietors of the Green Goddess. The moment we stepped in, we were treated as co-conspirators, as if there was a great game afoot that we could be a part of if we wanted to.

It was hard to whisper anything to a server, let alone a password, because there was Chef DeBarr, standing two feet away and asking what we were in the mood for. Also, there’s no polite way of vocalizing a password days. You can’t sit there with your knees politely together and murmur some rubbish in someone's ear. I laconically blurted out-- “By the way, I was told to say ‘Mezze of Destruction’!" before half-ducking under our table, ready for anything—an explosion, a dancing ferret, a talk-show host, a well-aimed wok. Instead, we were greeted by Chef DeBarr’s warm chuckle.

“Ah, so Neil sent you then? The Mezz! That's great-- Well, for today we have a variation on the Pimm's cup. Why don't you sit down, anywhere you want to.” He then proceeded to tell us that the easter egg was a little agreement Mr. Gaiman and he had going, a personal nod from his side to the Sandman book, Brief Lives. As he moved behind the bar with all the grace of a minuet dancer, he began throwing ingredient names at us, juggling them back and forth as he sliced fresh cucumbers fine, and mixed this most delicious summer concoction: according to Chef DeBarr, their Pimm's Cup is based on the British gin-based liqueur and is a wonderful summertime cocktail which always features a cucumber in the drink:

The Green Goddess at that time hadn’t a liquor license, a smallish hurdle only for the chefs at GG and one that has long since been removed. Chef DeBarr mixed us non-alcoholic cocktail juices the entire evening though, an intrepid taste-bud extravaganza that when savored felt like the best parts of Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss shaken together then served over ice.

From that moment on, we had Chef DeBarr’s undivided attention, which is the sort of exquisite pleasure that comes to you only thrice in your life, usually when you’re too young to understand the significance of what is happening. He brought out a salad to us, that in itself was an invocation to the little GG shrine up on the wall. In a vain attempt to partake of it in a civilized manner, we stared up at the intricate, beautiful patterns on the ceiling and examined the mystic, curly-ended cutlery, quickly realizing why Mr. Gaiman might like this place. Little did I know that this was only the beginning...

While poring over the menu-- rich with local produce and fresh ingredients-- we were told why this heirloom tomato was used, what that sausage tasted like and where it was made, and how the thai basil seed drink could just be the greatest invention, juice-wise, to ever come out of that lovely land.
The whole thing was a play, a musical in four acts from aperitif to dessert, and the wonderful staff at GG were star performers executing complex routines between kitchen, bar and our table, while stories were exchanged across the room: Chef’s admiration for Bengali five spice powder and his awareness of the merits of uthappam, our confused chorus of Indian dishes we love, Coop’s on Decatur and how on earth did you flavour gulf shrimp in this immortal fashion? What powers do you hide?

So we didn’t really say the last two, just mumbled our appreciation while wondering at our luck. Our next course consisted of a plate of beautiful duck and pork sausages served with sweet potatoes, a Southern-style bangers & mash entrée--

-- and a plump, stuffed pupusa:

During the beautiful meal he served us, Chef DeBarr told us in his quiet way about why he felt the city needed a place like GG, why he loved to cook, why he believed menus needed to change with the seasons as well as the current times: he mentioned a special Persian tasting menu he was putting together for July 4th in honor of the brave folk in Iran who were standing up for their basic freedoms and the right to a just political process. Our little way, he said, of standing with them. The man is intense the way only someone who enjoys what he does, where he does it and lives that passion everyday can be.

I wanted to bring him the cinnamon my aunt brought back for my mother from an ancestral tree in Kerala. I wanted to bring him Kalpana aunty’s maami’s sambhar podi. I wanted to say here, see these are all the tastes that have ever meant something to me: what can you make with them?

Came this close to making a blubbering fool of myself. Thankfully, the GG lassi saved the day, a sobering, cooling, cinnamon-salt rimmed reminder that the Green Goddess restaurant is something good that will last a long while, something we can return to again and again.

So don’t look at lists of what to do in New Orleans. If you’re a list person, go to Disney World. They’ll love you there. Once you step out of the shuttle bus or taxi onto cobbled or paved street, breathe in deep. That mix of smells, warm, turgid and inviting, part slow-cooking roux, part day-old underage puke, part unsolved murder, part sweat, part summer garbage, part heavy river, part dust, part dead, part Jazz trio playing till 3am, part Gulf Coast breeze over the Metairie Cemetery and all these people who come here for shelter, inspiration, comfort and carnival, year in and year out—This is what I call my spiritual home, while India’s an ocean away, chasing its tail in an attempt to catch up with the glitz and glamor of what is presumed to be the Good Life as per syndicated media reports, while a beautiful magic thrives in a city that even some natives of this continent will never have the pleasure of knowing as intimately as this mere provincial addict does.

Take it from a doubly Southern girl—Sometimes the best place to holiday in is the one you can come home to with just a single step off a plane.

Monday, July 06, 2009

On Writing

Being a writer terrifies me.

When the words come, they force their way out. Nothing clean about it. Projectile vomit after bad meat, with the sobbing afterward. Fingers chewed down to the bone. Bad digestion, an uncharged phone, unfilled time sheets. And then when the poem or story is written, it sits there like a self-content child, sleek and nourished and confident of its own precocity. You remain the withered host, nothing parental/familial/nutritional about it. You were used, your life blood and time sucked up into its creation.

What the fuck do you do with it now?

It sits there, points at your flab, your worn tooth brush, your cable tv package, your mother's concern and laughs. Chortles when you search the web for submission guidelines and deadlines. Falls over screaming with laughter as you send carefully worded emails to published folk, asking the kind ones if they would be even kinder, even more generous and be your readers. Waiting for months, waiting for months while denying all claims that you are in fact, waiting, that howling bastard laughter in your ear.

And the screaming tears when you take up a day job instead. Like a hungry orphan. Like a bayoneted baby. Like a man crushed under a fallen bridge. Like a pig being slaughtered.

You fall behind soon enough. No paycheck tops the high of getting out a perfectly balanced, well formed sentence. You return in fits. Surreptitious. An addict. The first three days of doing nothing but write are glory days, a paid vacation sur la plage somewhere in Sardinia. And then you run out. Of words, of patience, of time.

Slink back to the job. Whoever's depending on you breathes a sigh of relief. And then frowns. Because the best parts of you all went on those pages. The husk that's left is dry, useless for anything but a shallow container they use to roll around their small hard pebbled regrets in, rolling them around in your head till thoughts go TILT! TILT! TILT!

Silent and sterile and functional for the next few days. The boss even figures you've "found your feet".

Then some old beloved motherfucker shows up. Some dear friend from ages past. They find your vein, tap twice and shoot you full of reminders, of past glories imagined and real. They power up the synapses in your head till electric jumps between letters, phonemes, words, paragraphs turn your head into a giant plasma ball.

You spend the night pouring over a keyboard, typing sentence after sentence in that default Arial 10 never looking up to edit. This makes the page look like it's filled with two dimensional black millipedes copulating in a Madras monsoon, rows upon rows of them till dawn when you stop and drink insta-coffee and smoke and immediately fall asleep.

Bukowski was an ugly drunk, ornery and mad as hell, the kind that folk are uncomfortable around. But he is authentic as all get-out, the kind of authentic that people want to sell, if only they could get their fingers on it. But he is the main man because he figured out my main question, the one that can't be answered by pulling a nine of hearts from the old fortune teller's deck.

I don't mean contract writing. I don't mean the MFA professor who put you onto his agent writing. I don't mean the I have enough media interest in me to sell a book writing.

I mean being past the age of being considered a prodigy writing. I mean not too many friends who want to spend time with you writing. I mean being a failure writing, and then failing again. I mean being a paranoid lover writing, where you check your lines and syntax in the hall mirror even when you know they're watching. I mean questioning, doubting, being ungrateful and apologizing after they're dead writing. The empty room at the book reading, sitting there finishing the booze you brought with you in a pepsi bottle writing. I mean self sabotage writing.

How do you write like that and do anything else in the world? Day jobs? Bank accounts? Families? How do you pour your fucking mind and heart, what you believe into a page and then order lunch from a menu the next minute? How can you teach your kid about wrong and right when your words constantly get you into corners? How can you pray when all you think about when you close your eyes is a story's good ending? How can you love. How can you love.
How can you love?

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Leggo my Eggo, Bitch! or the Terror of the Liberated Pot-Head

So Americans are overweight, they say. Especially Black women, folk in Mississippi, UPS delivery guys, pregger lesbians and kids named Carl. Ever since Moore made that film, every fatty who walks into a Wendy's or Mickey D's needs to move like they're Schwarzenegger hightailing it in the Running man. Except fatties don't high tail. And waddling fast doesn't help, so there they are, desperately counting out change for the Big N' Tasty® meal with BBQ sauce on the side, being stared down by every skinny shit in the place, the ones who sip their vanilla frosty and laugh into their bony little hyperthyroidic hands at fatty's lack of self control.

Screw that.

I blame the Marijuana lobbyists.

Yeah, that's right. Them pot-smoking, Iron Chef Japan watching, bacon and strawberry jam sammie eating lobbyists who dream of being featured in High Times and make jokes about it on the subway. I'm talking to you, Keith Stroup.

Geek pot-heads (the kind who get baked and then draw plans for rebuilding their desktop computer while quoting Star Wars and more recently, episodes of the Big Bang Theory) theorize that the sh*t's better than it ever was, and they aren't the only ones. According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration(SAMHSA), THC levels are five times stronger than they were in the 1970s.

This ain't your gramma's pot. So while gramma only cut a few slices from that pot roast or crumbled a slice of raisin bread at 3am when the munchies kicked in, you go out and slaughter a suckling pig. Then inhale it. With ketchup.

Toked up, we are powerless against the urge to feed our faces: we eat whole cans of sliced pineapple off our fingers like they're yummy Rings of Power, laughing like maniacs all the while. We raid gas stations for Turkey Hill on a Sunday morning. We order Chinese take out. We drive to find a Burger King after watching the first Harold and Kumar for the 32nd time. We ask for extra cheese.

And those food manufacturers know it. The advertising! The all you can eat buffets! The diet pill makers know it too, except only models die from ODing on Hydroxycut so Fatties don't mind it. Much.

Ergo-- watch out, you state health care officials of Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Your citizens have legal munchies. And we're hungry.

You can slap a tax on delicious fizzy drinks. You can intercept Hostess delivery trucks, and make gym visits mandatory.

But you cannot stop us all. There will come a Christmas Eve when you're in the dairy section standing in front of the last carton of egg-nog. And may God Have Mercy on your Lipo-suctioned, Deregulated Soul.

As for the rest of you skinny sots: travel only by daylight. And always keep a bag of Krispy Kremes in your car. You never know when you'll need a decoy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

If you can't beat 'em, Or the ubiquitous Twitter post

It all started with the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).

An online event titled "ONLINE DISCOURSE IN THE ARAB WORLD: Dispelling the Myths" was hosted by the US Institute of Peace Center of Innovation for Science, Technology and Peacebuilding, in partnership with Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society on June 17th.

The discussion began with a presentation of the Berkman's Center mapping report on the "arabic blogosphere".

Download the Berkman Center's report "Mapping the Arabic Blogosphere: Politics, Culture and Dissent" here, if you'd like. An interesting enough idea, but there were limitations on the study that were immediately apparent-- dialects of various arabic languages were not considered for one, and the use of labels such as "arab", "fundamentalist", "radical" and "terrorist", which despite being carefully coded by the Berkman Center, didn't sit well with a large number of the online participants as well as with some of the panelists. The study focused on blogs, leaving out more embedded forms of social media-based interaction such as Facebook, and the still popular use of listservs and mailing groups.

I first logged into the embedded chat applet on the event page, but soon discovered that the real action was on Twitter, with folk using the hashtag #arabblogs to discuss the Eventbrite-based goings on.

In about 3.5 minutes, was born.

Tweeting for the first time was a strangely nostalgic exercise. It reminded me of the good ol' days of downloading music and chatting on WinMx: less words used yes, but the same back-and-forth, the same endorsement, reaction and attribution cycle where multiple players share center stage for short bursts of time.

Those using the chat applet took time developing questions, forged temporary relationships with other users, made introductions and exchanged contact information at the end.

Those tweeting stuck to reacting to the panelists and each other much in the fashion of these lads, and rightly so. There wasn't enough time or a sufficient character limit to establish much more than disapproval or approval of a statement. There were a few points made by folk in their twitter feeds however, which ranged from the angle of the camera used to record and relay the panel discussion to the fact that it was an all-male discussion on blogging in the Arab world, when it is self-evident that a majority of arab bloggers are in fact female. Tweets added biographical information about the panelists and references they made for the edification of others, who then RTed this same information again, and again. The camera angle was righted, but no one got back to the point about the lack of female representation. Perhaps the 140 character limit made it impossible to explain.

On June 21st, Bruce Etling and John Palfrey of the Berkman Center-- speakers at the USIP event-- together with Robert Faris published a WaPo article on the role of twitter in the Iran election protests, stating the following:

... Twitter's own internal architecture puts limits on political activism. There are so many messages streaming through at any moment that any single entry is unlikely to break through the din, and the limit of 140 characters -- part of the service's charm and the secret of its success -- militates against sustained argument and nuance. (Yes, "Give me liberty or give me death" totals just 32 characters, but Patrick Henry's full speech exceeded 1,200 words.) What's most exciting is the aggregate effect of all this speech and what it reveals about the zeitgeist of the moment, but it still reflects a worldwide user population that skews wealthy, English-speaking and well-educated. The same is true of the blogosphere and social networks such as Facebook.

The authors then refer to the USIP event and say--

If dissent is channeled into cyberspace, it can keep protesters off the streets and help state security forces track political activism and new online voices. As Egyptian democracy activist Saad Ibrahim said last week during a
discussion at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, this appears to be part of a long tradition for governments in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, where dissent is channeled into universities and allowed to thrive there, as long as it does not escape the university walls.

It's not a particularly conclusive piece-- All that Etling, Palfrey and Faris say is that revolutions aren't fought online, though attempts at supporting or quelling it can be made online.

Fair enough.

It's interesting to note the roots for the word 'Twitter', etymologically speaking-

to reproach, blame; originally, to observe, see, hence, to observe what is wrong... To vex by bringing to notice, or reminding of, a fault, defect, misfortune, or the like; to revile; to reproach; to upbraid; to taunt; as, he twitted his friend of falsehood.
A whole cyber sky-full of those iconic little blue winged buggers then, worrying and picking at some large issue till even more folk take notice and some "real action" takes place, "on the ground".
Speech has allowed the communication of ideas, enabling human beings to work together to build the impossible. Mankind's greatest achievements have come about by talking, and its greatest failures by not talking. It doesn't have to be like this. Our greatest hopes could become reality in the future. With the technology at our disposal, the possibilities are unbounded. All we need to do is make sure we keep talking - Stephen Hawking. Who also, apparently, tweets.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The answer, Mr. Huntington, is blowin' in the wind

"I've had all I can stands and I can't stands no more"-- Popeye the Sailor-man.

Two articles caught my eye this morning-- the WaPo coverage of the anti-Taliban sentiment and fighting in Pakistan, by Griff Witte, and an op-ed in the NYT regarding the current elections in Iran.

The articles highlight two separate events that till recently, as recently as six months ago, no one saw coming.

No one in their right mind, not even the most sanctimonious or the most optimistic supporter of Islamic Democracy would have put money on Pakistanis rallying to fight and lose their lives in an effort to quell the efforts of the Taliban to "fundamentalize" outlier regions of their country.

Of course, the WaPo article highlights the fact that the Pakistanis in question are from low-income families and regions: is it because these people have more to lose if the Taliban do expand, and consequentially more to gain if the Taliban doesn't? Maybe. Which means that their current action, however lauded by the American government, is rooted more in desperation rather than any higher sense of right and wrong. In fact, Witte's article sheds light on the self-doubt that abounds within households in places like Patalian, where people are questioning who is the real enemy, this time around:
"We used to know who the enemy was, and where he is coming from," said Zulfikar Sajad, his eyes vacant and sad as he sat in a mud-brick hut on a desolate plain. "Now, we don't know from which direction the bullets will come."
The Op-Ed piece in the Times is a positive piece: Camelia Entekhabifard is a respected journalist and spokesperson, and has written from the NYT before (this piece particularly stood out-- I loved the mushroom analogy). Her Op-Ed speaks of the new hope on Iranian streets, where students and women have formed protest marches and lines, wearing green in support of Mousavi, the reformist candidate that an apparent majority in Iran is hoping will change the way the country is perceived globally.

(Photo credits: MAJID/Getty Images, for Preeti Aroon's article in FP)

Entekhabifard writes,

So what makes today’s activists different? First of all, a large swath of this “third wave” of voters includes young people who do not remember the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s and its related traumas. The ordeals that we suffered immediately after the 1979 revolution are just history to them. Today’s voters probably never had to lie to schoolteachers trying to ferret out damaging information about their families. Iranians may be far from free, but they do not endure the fear we experienced daily.

I used to consider myself among the most outspoken critics in Iran. But I would have never dared to stage a loud protest against a sitting president, as Iranian students did in 2007... Now, Iranians form a 12-mile human chain in support of Mr. Moussavi, and women are seeking one million signatures for a petition for gender quality. Thanks to YouTube, Facebook and blogs, it’s easier for young people to organize, express their grievances and learn personal information about top officials.
This is all very interesting, because it provides additional basis for an argument that counters Samuel Huntington's Clash of Civilizations. It shows that even within a tightly knit culture, where complex intermingled structures of society and religion provide the general populace with a code of behavior and cognition, it is possible for new ideas to take root and cause a sea-change in how people react to one another. Not every old traditional fear or belief holds true forever. Not every tie binds just because it did for one's father and his father before him.

In short, the events referred to in these two articles give an elegant bird right in the face of every conservative and every nay-sayer who claim you can't teach an old culture or community new tricks.


But hold up, son. Before you start poppin' them bottles, realize that it is impossible for any movement to be wholly self-sustained. Yes, the people of Patalian, the Swat Valley and nearby regions are fighting and dying for what they believe is a worthy cause. Yes, en masse, people are agreeing that there is more than one interpretation to the role of Islam in a country's political future. But what happens when the last body hits the floor? What happens when aid runs out, or if the Taliban cut a deal or threaten some big-shot in Islamabad?

And what happens if Mousavi doesn't win the Iran elections, or does win and ends up being strong-armed into a hardline stance? What happens if the government in Iran takes over all forms of communication, and controls the use of Youtube, Facebook and blogs?

Citizen groups, bloggers, individuals and media need to let people in Pakistan know that they are supported for their bravery in attempting to choose a better political fate for themselves. The efforts of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent need support. And we're the ones to give it to them.

According to the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF),
"A lack of funds is threatening the humanitarian aid effort in north-west Pakistan.

Save the Children reports that the organisation has received £2.6 million of the £6.6 million needed to assist 168,000 children and 112,000 adults in the region who have become victims of fighting in the Swat valley.

Carolyn Miller, chief executive of humanitarian charity Merlin, commented: "The only reason we haven't faced a massive humanitarian meltdown is the generosity of families and communities of modest means who've looked after the vast majority of those who've fled the fighting. The world's richest nations need to dig much deeper into their pockets to help.""

While this is true, it's not just the world's richest nations; it's the lot of us, and our "families and communities of modest means".

Multiple causes do act as a sort of check and balance on any human attempt at world peace, I suppose. Perhaps peace and development are meant to be elusive and eternally unattainable, like the perfect copper wire, or a responsible, accountable system of governance in India. Perhaps it is the holy grail of the modern age, only meant to be quested after by a rag-tag bunch of don quioxtes with different agendas.

Multiple causes mean that perhaps those who are passionate about a peaceful, thriving civic society in Sri Lanka may not be as passionate about the same in Pakistan. Or Colombia. Or Somalia. Or Nepal. Perhaps multiple causes mean that those who are passionate about open source software or free internet radio are not as concerned about containing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Perhaps those working for LGBT rights are not as concerned with autism, or primary education, or female nutrition in the developing world.

If Huntington was right, and conflicts do result from a number of causes, such as "... discrimination against people from a different civilization... different values and culture... particularly when one civilization attempts to impose its values on people of a different civilization" (2002*), then one way of sending his thesis--with all due respect-- ass over tea-kettle into oblivion, is to spread awareness about these different civilizations, till we learn from each others' conflicts and methods of disaster management, and in the process learn that our values and culture are not that different at all.

Thankfully, this has already begun: apart from the web tools named by Entekhabifard, sites like, New Ideas for Government, Peace X Peace, Social Edge and others have begun breaking down perceived and assumed differences between groups and social causes.

I only hope that this trend continues, and that Ol' Sammy, wherever he is, loses any bet he might have hedged on the world dividing into zones of civilizations reminiscent of pre- Silk Route days.


*Huntington, Samuel P. (2002) [1997]. "Chapter 9: The Global Politics of Civilizations". The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (The Free Press ed.). London: Simon $ Schuster. pp. p 207f

Friday, May 29, 2009

Opeth and the Dionysian Principle

It's a disgusting day outside. Dis-gust-ing.

Late Old French desgouster, to lose one's appetite : des-, dis- + gouster, to eat, taste (from Latin gustre; see geus- in Indo-European roots) [1]

It has been grey for three days, with that miasma of sky-piss and blanketed grey that serves to beat any latent depression into blazing life. So much for the first week of my summer break.

This is the perfect weather for listening to Opeth, though. Even better weather for putting on 'Deliverance' and 'Watershed', and reliving the show at the HOB in Boston on May 2nd.

Access the show's set-list here.

I had meant to review the show here post-haste, but that's the thing with an Opeth show: you're stuck in a sound reverie for about five days after it, every word you write to attempt describing it pales in comparison to the actual experience. It doesn't help that the sound system at the HOB owns. Screw stadium shows: there's nothing like catching a club tour if you are lucky enough to do so. I was standing with my back against the metal chain-links that protected the sound pit from the milling mob. One of the sound techs had on a well-worn crew shirt from a Queen tour-- you just *knew* that this guy was passionate about all the knobs, dials and buttons he was playing with, and had honed his skills to a fine point. The bass and treble played out beautifully, and all that the row of us acting as the sound pit's front guard could do was lean against the metal meshing and give in to the gorgeous onslaught of sonic power.

I personally consider myself lucky enough to have caught Enslaved live, as they opened for Opeth. Not going to go into an in-depth take on their music, when it is obvious this guy already has, and with great authenticity of feeling. Enslaved put on a great live act (the HOB has a no-click rule, but thankfully Jason Sheesley posted gorgeous pics from this tour here). They are not interested in the performance, they are there to play their face-melting Viking metal, with enough power to shake every Scandinavian squirrel out of the ash Yggdrasil. Hadn't heard them before. Have decided though, they sound better live than on myspace, and only dip into the prog metal work that Opeth likes to dive deep in.

Vertebrae is probably a good gateway album for folks like me who haven't heard the older, meaner Enslaved. One track (can't find the set-list anywhere, but will edit this post once I check the album over twice) in particular made me reminisce about the troll that the lads from Metalocalypse invoke: one of my top five favourite dethklok moments. Ever.

Some folks got into it, but you could tell most everyone was there for Åkerfeldt & Co.

N.B.-- Opeth is not limited by the death metal tag. Being at an Opeth show is like listening to King Crimson, Black Sabbath, King Diamond, and Floyd all at once. Being at an Opeth show is to require no other stimulant apart from the music itself. It is to merely stand there and let your body and mind be taken over by the sound. Nothing else matters, truly: Opeth isn't a band of personalities and stage antics. It's a band of ten-minute operatic masterpieces and beautiful, long Swedish man-hair.

There is no single demographic that listens to Opeth, either. There were grubby school boys, older biker chicks, retired insurance agents, genuine metal heads, a group of Assamese gents n' ladies and the few mandatory emo children present, all of 'em adorned in black, for the most part. There were the Opeth forum folk, who knew every lyric and referred to key Opeth tracks by their recognized acronym (TNATSW, for instance). Lots of women, some who began dancing mid-mosh, which was great. Nothing like a metal chick dancing to Opeth. Something about the band's music, or perhaps popped X adds grace to human bodies like nothing else. Opeth was the pied piper, and each one of us moved the way their playing told us to. It helped that Mike Åkerfeldt has a ridiculously good sense of humor. He might just end up being the godfather of heavy metal stand-up, one day.

And the moshing. By all that is powerful in heaven and hell, what moshing. Esp. during Lotus Eater.

Some enterprising dick actually recorded some of it, which is awesome.

Mashallah-- I'm not the first one to comment on the correlation between the Dionysian and Heavy Metal. Weinstein (2000) said it best:

Dionysian experience . . . is embodied in the unholy trinity of sex, drugs and rock and roll. The Dionysian is juxtaposed to a strong emotional involvement in all that challenges the order and hegemony of everyday life: monsters, the underworld and hell, the grotesque and horrifying, disasters, mayhem, carnage, injustice, death and rebellion. Both Dionysus (the Greek god of wine) and Chaos (the most ancient god, who precedes from itself) are empowered by the sonic values of the music to fight a never-ending battle for the soul of the genre and to join together in combat against the smug security and safety of respectable society (35).
[get your hands on Weinstein's 'Heavy metal: the music and its culture' if you can. All the ladies downing vodka bulls will think you infinitely more awesome than you really are, of course. *coughs* ]

Opeth is technically not what you would call a mosher band. But something special happened that night, as people collectively moved into a frenzied zone of interaction which was war/rite of passage/youth/magic/delirium all meshed into one. We could've raised the dead that night, or at least a troll or two. We could've slapped the world into a wide-awakening, without knowing we had done so, not caring that we had, so caught up were we in the beauty and olden-type ritual magic that pervaded the general admission area at the HOB.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Ru-Ba-Ru: a Review

Disclaimer #1: I'm more of an independent movie fan, so if you're looking for in-depth pop references to older films, Hindi or otherwise, or cutesy tid-bits about the costume designer or choice of filming locations, you're at the wrong blog.

Disclaimer #2: I'm not a B-wood fangirl. I have watched exactly seven bollywood films in my 24 years of existence, the choice of which never depended on a particular artist's ability, but more on whose birthday treat was paying for what ticket. Of that list, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, is still my favourite.

Disclaimer #3: I know the director. As a writer and a friend, I count him among the select few who have a standing invitation to my funeral. However, this fact did not compel me to feverishly seek a torrent of his movie Ru-Ba-Ru when he told me about its release in September 2008. Nor did I ask mum to FedEx a copy over, or find a kind soul who would zip a .rar version and upload it on some massive oasis of server space at his/her disposal. In fact, it took me eight months and the collapse of a precariously balanced stack of discounted DVDs-- the one next to the discounted Parle-G biscuit stack-- at a local Indian grocery store to notice that a copy of Ru-Ba-Ru could be mine for what is essentially the cost of a large green tea and a sesame bagel at the Au Bon Pain in downtown Boston.

Things I love about this film?

  1. It's run time. I know many folk who share at least 50% of my ethnicity enjoy the three hour song, dance and tears experience, but I for one would prefer to have my left eyeball dug out with a very blunt spoon (HT to Men in Tights) and eaten by a petulant Moroccan-trying-to-pass-for-French female shop assistant at the pastry wing of Harrods at Knightsbridge who was just told by her vicious little Japanese co-worker that Indian eyeballs were a great cure for the clap. In case you missed my point-- The movie held my attention right till the end.
  2. A lack of item numbers. And item PYTs.
  3. A fresh soundtrack. The track 'a beautiful day' needs special mention. Won't say more-- go read this guy's take for further details. He sounds like he gets paid for doing what he does.
  4. The ballsiness with which it gives the finger to certain ingrained Bollywood tropes: the traditionalist parent is missing, as is the overly sympathetic one. Gone is the angry patriarch, the greater cast/community/family/clan/village to whose whims the lead actors usually give in or die in their attempt to protest. There is no cloyingly cute kid brother, no amusing side-kick, no the group identity portrayed through song, dance and bad costuming.
  5. Corollary to # 4: fresh supporting characters. The mother and step-father of Nikhil are apologetic, understanding; they reach out to their prodigal son despite the distance he has maintained for so many years, and tell his girlfriend to forget about touching their feet-- a glorious eff-off to one of the most sacred cliches of family scenes in Bollywood. Tara's mother echoes the female Indian parent stereotype, but the fact that Tara controls their flow of communication (the mother is never seen, only heard as distant bleating over long distance phone calls) gives a realistic, modern slant to their dynamic.
  6. No extended choreographed song/dance scenes. Though I will say, I don't believe the movie needed Tara's post-play "impromptu" performance-- Her ease with figuring out the intro chords/timing, and the spontaneous entry of costumed dancers (yet another revered trope) was a bit too.. err, promptu, for that particular scene. I would assume that someone integral to the film project must have declared that the life-affirming moment for the female lead had to come through a big finale in front of a 100% appreciative audience. Not sure, but hey, I've sat through worse. Really. I have.
The movie is very, very well made. The segues, the lighting (except for that final red filter in the cab), the establishing shots in the opening sequence... a lot about the camera work made me invest mentally and emotionally in this movie.

There were some things that threw me off-- like the camera treatment of the saxophone scene, and Tara's dialogues in the first half of the movie. Then again, the day I hear realistic female dialogue in a Hindi film of non-gritty subject matter, i.e. where the woman isn't fighting the ills of poverty, drug addiction, prostitution or an unmotivated husband given to arrack-guzzling, I shall spontaneously turn hermaphrodite and take Prince on in a UFC cage match.

I'm also not quite sure about Tara's motivation: until we are told that it's opening night, the character comes across as a poor little rich girl with one and a half daddy issues, striving to please her man. Her clumsy moments don't create comedy, but unease. They evoked in me painful memories of improv moments during Adzap on various inter-college cultural stages; perhaps if Tara's character was given a little more authenticity and grounding, I would have been able to relate to her in a happier light.

The radio bit in the opening scene didn't push my happy button, nor did the camera distance during the stage bits. But these are itty-bitty details, the stuff you come up with when you run a mind-comb through the things you like, such as best friends, favourite lovers and omelets ordered the same way at the same restaurant you've been going to for the past ten years, just because feeling that intimate with a person or thing, relating that closely tricks you into believing you have the delusionary right to do so.

I don't think Nikhil needed as many flash-back moments: those felt laboured, as did some of the foreshadowing bits. We all have a list of favourite movie scenes that have deja vu script treatments. My list for instance, includes (but is not limited to) memento, stranger than fiction, sliding doors, deja vu and of course, the black cat bit from The Matrix. Moments in the second half of Ru-Ba-Ru did stand out and create suspense, but I feel the scripting could have been more graceful here, & thusly could have added to the audience's building anxiety and Nikhil's desperation without necessarily turning it into a faux-action flick.

Googling to see what has been said about the film, I couldn't help but notice the repeatedly parroted statement that Ru-Ba-Ru is lifted from the Love-Hewitt flick, 'If Only'.

Um. So?

I'm sure some die-hard B-wood fan somewhere has blogged a list of Hindi movies that are "adaptations" or "homages" of existing movies, American and otherwise. Ladies n' gentlemen-- that list is long, and still growing. And it's not just scripts alone-- I've seen clips from Hindi films that pull from soundtracks, pop songs, mannerisms of various yank heroes and famous movie moments: the kaante/reservoir dogs walk scene, anyone?

The day I encounter a wholly original, non-derived Hindi movie... well, refer aforementioned statement regarding hermaphrodites and UFC cage matches. Like Jarmusch said, it's not about whether you derive or not-- It's how well you do it.

Additional Dialogue Quibble: The taxi driver's lines were predictable at times ("you already paid me yesterday" [paraphrase], for instance). Part of me did mourn Nikhil's final mini monologue but only because there is such anguish when you put yourself as a writer or person in that moment:

what can you tell the person you love most in the world about death, either yours or theirs? What can you tell them about dealing with a final absence, about all the time you are forced to give up spending with them, about the role of fate/god/chaos theory/luck? Perhaps the best thing to do is shuffle off one's mortal coil in silence-- think of that superb moment with Irfan Khan on the phone, towards the end of Nair's 'Namesake'.

I'm not sure.

What I do know is, the movie made me ask this question. It stirred emotions, and it made me impatient: I now want movies directed by Indians in India that are free of standard devices, every last frikkin bell & whistle of 'em. I want films that can be independently directed, free of any and all market forces. I want films that bitch-slap their marketing agents into telling the truth about a movie, for once, instead of pegging it to appeal to some established demographic. I want human stories: let them be melodramatic, colourful and accompanied by music for we are Indian after all, and some traits should never be changed, but in the name of all that has ever moved you, Ever, let these stories and their characters be real.

Go watch Ru-Ba-Ru. Fuck what the papers have told you, fuck what you heard, fuck your dependency on formulas and you just might allow yourself to be surprised by the degree of honesty in this film. It isn't perfect: it holds all the promise of what can be, instead.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Indie Magazines Unite!

Erm, actually folks, don't. Uniting is going to bring with it a tonne of bother, ranging from opposing political ideologies to disagreements over Chinese take-out.

(Pot stickers, you bastids, POT STICKERS!!)

Instead, leave it to folk like Stack.

Yes ma'am. I am the newest and biggest fan of Stack and its methods-- suitably illustrated in the following screen shot:

If you can afford the subscription fees and have bookshelf space, do it. For now, the website and its blog rich with links to free online editions of indie mags like Little White Lies are going into the top spot on my 'Take that, Andy Warhol' list (scroll down, right ==>)