Saturday, September 20, 2014

Love, longing and philanthropy in Parvati Sharma's Close to Home

[Did this review for The Sunday Guardian. When writing about film, I often – too often perhaps – bring up Manny Farber’s “termite art-elephant art” formulation. Well, here’s a novel that I thought might be classified as good termite art]
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Among the many carefully observed moments in Parvati Sharma’s novel Close to Home is one where the protagonist, a young woman named Mrinalini, is entertaining her maid’s little daughter Anjali with cartoon films. They are in Mrinalini’s room – her husband Siddhartha is also around – sitting together on the bed in front of the laptop, when the maid Beena comes in to check on the child. Mrinalini craned her neck to look up at Beena; mother and daughter had the same smile: willing to be pleased, then delighted. “See,” said Mrinalini, “it’s a cartoon. Sit?” She wasn’t sure where Beena would sit and counted on her declining the offer, which she did.


The notable things about this episode, and the larger scene it is situated in, include the suggestion that the class barrier separating the two sets of people in the room doesn’t quite apply to the little girl yet; Anjali, barely three and hence not a card-carrying citizen of one of the many countries adults create for themselves, can casually make the bed her own (though Siddhartha is a little concerned that she will get her heavily oiled hair on the pillows), but it would be an immediate, noticeable transgression if her mother were to sit on it. The scene also depicts the mixing and mashing of backgrounds and cultural reference points in a world where one can shift from watching kung-fu pandas (“too much in English” for this little girl) to watching an animated Ganesha (wherein an upper-middle-class woman might feel self-conscious when a servant’s child commands her to “do namoh” to the cartoon God) or listening to a bhajan about the infant Krishna. And there is the description “willing to be pleased, then delighted”, which lets us imagine Anjali and Beena, so happy to be in the unusual position of watching shiny images on a computer in this room – but also allows us to reflect that maybe this is just Mrinalini’s perspective, born of self-congratulation.

This slim, sharp book centres on a woman trying to fill a blank screen, at work and in life. As a writer, Mrinalini stresses over the empty word-files on her computer. As a person, she wants to prove – to herself and to others – that she cares, that she can make a difference, and perhaps that confronting discrimination in the real world is more meaningful than writing about it. But being well-off carries its own traps. Even with the best intentions, you may have to deal with the possibility that the poor aren’t just an amorphous mass of eyes brimming with tears of appreciation for the little things you do for them, the favours and kindnesses you dole out at your own convenience; they are just as complex as you are, they have their own capacities for resentment or pettiness, or for wanting more than you think they should be satisfied with. The ayah whose child you are self-consciously looking out for isn’t always going to be the grateful supplicant, she might turn out to be a shrill-voiced bitch who rants about you behind your back, accusing you of using her daughter as a toy. And there could be some truth in that charge.

These are some of the things this book “is about”, but to list them like this makes Close to Home sound ponderous and doesn’t adequately convey what a fun, fast-paced read it is. (It took me just three or four hours to finish it.) The seven chapter heads are lines that come together wittily to make up a little poem – the sort where “Jangpura Ext” can be made to rhyme with “vexed” – and the main narrative has its own rhythm and flow. It begins with a chapter set before Mrinalini is married – she is smoking a joint with her roommate Jahanara, who confesses her love for her. Here as elsewhere, Sharma uses long sentences with unfussy, elegant flair. (Mrinalini was so obviously delighted by this – the dotcom, though unstinting by way of motivational talk and pizza lunches, offered little real excitement, and Siddhartha only called on Sundays – and so eager with her questions and generous in her felicitations, that Jahanara, who had tensed after uttering the words I think I’m gay, had uncoiled and unfurled and unthinkingly discovered, in the time it took them to roll another, that she only ever wanted to tell Mrinalini all her secrets and fears, and the strength of her feeling being what it was, it must be, it had to be, reciprocated.) There is an eye for detail, for pithy observations about behaviour and body language – whether in a description of a character laughing “from fear and happiness”, or a long, seemingly indolent chat between two people where layers of desire, insecurity and awkwardness are revealed. (Mrinalini indulges Jahanara a little, they banter and speculate about a fantasy future together, it seems like harmless fun but the frothy surface is misleading, and it all ends with Jahanara accusing her friend of being insensitive. This is the set-up for much of what follows.)

Though an easy read, Close to Home is in some ways a hard-to-classify book, and this is true of its characters as well – which is probably part of the point. Mrinalini and Sidhartha are well-meaning people, potentially non-conformist in some ways (he gives up a job in banking – though shortly afterwards he lets his father settle him in a government job), but there is something synthetic about their conversations, the hip self-awareness mixed with naiveté. They are so lovey-dovey, so much in tune all the time, articulating their thoughts so clearly even when they disagree – and you just know they will have fantastic make-up sex (“I’ll make your world spin, baby”) just a few hours after a nasty, crippling fight – that I found them a bit annoying. But it would be too easy to say this book invites us to judge them wholesale, even though some passages seem to play out that way. One subplot has their tenant Brajeshwar, also an author, writing an “ethnographic memoir” in which he casts them as a bubble-gum couple who have superficial conversations about important things, and even patronisingly gives them the names of the lead characters in Dilwale Dulhaniya le Jaayenge. There is some truth in this description, but counter-perspectives are immediately presented too, and we get to see the gaps in Brajeshwar’s own understanding (and later, his vulnerabilities as well).

All of which means that this story about the troubled relationships between the advantaged and the disadvantaged, and how philanthropy is so often about the giver rather than the beneficiary, should cut close to the bone for any privileged reader (and by “privileged” I mean anyone who has the means and ability to read this book in the first place) – even someone whose first instinct may be to see Mrinalini as a shallow dilettante. Possibly she is, but then possibly the best of us are too, forever struggling with the question that makes up the final chapter head: “Do you choose good or bad, or merely all right?"

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Mom and pop stories - some thoughts on parents in literature

[Did this some time back for my “thematic” Forbes Life column – this is about some books dealing with the parent-child relationship]

Given that writing is an inherently self-examining – some would say self-obsessed – act, it is no surprise that the parent-child bond has been at the heart of so much literature, going back to the oldest recorded stories in every civilisation. Apart from being gateways to understanding our personal and cultural histories, parents can be foils or inspirations, scapegoats or pretexts for fretting about genetic legacies. And there is strong dramatic potential in the many – positive and negative – facets of these relationships.


In the best such works, personal history is effectively set against a larger social backdrop. For instance, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel-cum-biography Maus manages to be an intimate story about a son’s attempt to understand his father’s life even while it tackles one of the most important events of the last century – the Holocaust, of which Spiegelman’s parents were survivors. His major stylistic decision is to draw the Jews, including himself and his dad, as mice and the Nazis as cats. (The Holocaust was, after all, founded on the Nazi willingness to see their victims as “filthy vermin”, which was how a manifesto of the time denounced Mickey Mouse.) The present day of the narrative is sometime in the 1970s, when the young Art, tape recorder in hand, visits his cantankerous father Vladek and learns about his youth in the early 1930s as well as the horrors of Auschwitz; their conversations over time show us that Vladek, though a victim of the worst of racial discrimination, is far from unblemished in his own attitudes to other communities, and this in turn helps us understand the distance between father and son.

A less dramatic series of memoirs, Ved Mehta’s “Continents of Exile”, includes two books – Mamaji and Daddyji – that are specifically named for Mehta’s parents and are linear accounts of their lives: these are also explorations of changing worlds, from the provinciality of village life in mid-19th century Punjab (where a journey to Haridwar could be the achievement of a lifetime) to the England of the early 20th century. But for me, the most poignant of Mehta’s books is the smaller-canvas The Red Letters, which is about his father's brief extramarital affair in the early 1930s. “It’s hard to imagine one’s parents having hungers, fears and longings of their own,” Mehta said in an interview. The dialogues between father and son form the book’s most gripping sections; these are tentative exchanges, founded on guilt and reticence, where both men learn things about each other and about themselves.


****

A recurring theme in such writing is grief, and the American novelist Paul Auster has often dealt head-on with it: his The Book of Illusions has the central character, David Zimmer, wallowing for months in self-pity after the deaths of his wife and children. Then the narrative acquires momentum with a single incident, heartbreakingly recounted: watching TV numbly one night, Zimmer finds himself unselfconsciously laughing – for the first time in ages – as he chances on a short film featuring a forgotten silent-screen comedian. He realises that a part of him wants to continue living, and what follows is a portrait of regeneration through newfound obsession. Interestingly, it seems that Auster could only write his own memoir, Winter Journal, by being elusive and indirect – he doesn’t disguise it as fiction, but he uses the second-person “You” instead of the first-person “I”. And passages like the one about his mother’s death may help you see why such detachment was required. That the chapter in question was excerpted in Granta’s collection of “Horror” writing is fitting – horror can mean looking at a corpse and reflecting that “You are familiar with the inertness of the dead...but no other dead body was the body in which your own life began.”

A similar terrifying image – the sight of one’s mother slowly fading, “being sucked into the centre of the earth” – is at the heart of Jerry Pinto’s autobiographical Em and the Big Hoom. This novel is often described as a son’s chronicle of life with a mentally ill mother, but I saw it as being about parents in a more general sense: as looking glasses (or crystal balls?) in whose aging faces and increasingly unpredictable behaviour we might see our own future selves and shudder, or rejoice, or both. Pinto’s book is also very much a professional writer’s memoir: it is about writing as a way of articulating things to preserve one’s sanity. “One of the defences I had devised against the possibility of madness,” its narrator says, “was that I would explain every feeling I had to myself [...] I felt, instinctively, that when you had enough words ... you would be able to deal with the world.”


Dealing with the world in the face of the unfathomable is the subject of Sonali Deraniyagala’s Wave, which is an account of losing her entire family – husband, children, parents – to the tsunami in Sri Lanka in December 2004, and the subsequent haze of her life. It is filled with moments that will strike an immediate chord for anyone who has experienced similar loss, and understandably the emphasis is on the author’s bereavement as a parent: she didn’t know what to do with her arms anymore, she says at one point, if she couldn’t hold her little boys with them. Yet a moment that stayed with me is the one where she recalls not stopping to knock on her own parents’ door as she, her husband and the boys ran out of their hotel. Strictly speaking, it wouldn’t have made a difference – the old people weren’t going to outrun the big wave – yet one senses that Deraniyagala’s regret in this matter is inextricably tied to her larger pain.

A very different sort of regret
– the feeling of having let down oneself, one’s child and even society is at the heart of Lionel Shriver’s chilling novel We Need to Talk About Kevin, told in the form of confessional letters written by a woman, Eva, to her husband, about their son Kevin who murdered nine people in his school gym a few days before his 16th birthday. Over her letters Eva contemplates her peculiar, strained relationship with her child, and what emerges is a startling look at parenthood as an obligation and a burden rather than as a joyous thing. Like the mother in Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby, fearful that she is carrying the devil’s spawn, Eva likens her pregnancy to infestation; later, she discovers that she has no positive feelings for her boy. And yet, throughout, there is a tantalizing quality to the narrative: could this story be a couched confession of guilt by a woman who has still not come to terms with her own part in her son’s life?

Another unreliable narrator – and a transference of guilt – can be found in Kazuo Ishiguro’s debut novel A Pale View of Hills, narrated in the voice of a Japanese woman named Etsuko, who had moved to Britain with her second husband years earlier. Trying to cope with the recent suicide of her daughter, Etsuko tells her younger daughter a story about her life in Japan just after the war, focusing on a relationship with a friend named Sachiko. However, such is the clever circularity of the narrative – with a particularly important passage turning on the replacement of one pronoun for another – that you can never be sure if Sachiko really existed or if she was a creation of the narrator’s fevered mind.

****

This list of books suggests that such literature is skewed towards downbeat or depressing narratives,
though more likely that's my personal bias. So, on a marginally more positive note: one of the most haunting yet uplifting tales I have ever read is Ted Chiang’s sci-fi novella Story of Your Life. You may knit your brow when you begin reading this story, for the tenses – past, present, future – seem all mixed up. But that's deliberate; the story is about a woman, a linguistic expert, whose attempt to understand the complex language used by visiting aliens eventually leads to her perceiving the events of her own life in simultaneous rather than sequential terms – which is how she constantly relives the birth, life and untimely death of her daughter. This is a tale of tremendous emotional power, which touches on themes such as free will and the links between joy, pain and memory, and it’s a reminder of how closely good science fiction can engage with the human condition.

Moving to more obviously real-world terrain, perhaps the most famous upstanding parent in a 20th century novel is Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, about two children growing up in a provincial American town in the 1930s. When I first read it as an adolescent, I thought of it as a romanticized tale with Atticus himself a preachy, “vanilla” character. Returning to it as an adult, I revised my assessment. His wisdom is hard-won and though he does make mini-speeches once in a while, he lets his children Scout and Jem figure out most of life’s sterner truths for themselves.

He also has a sense of humour, a healthy irreverence for sacred cows, and in this he reminds me a little of Calvin’s awesome dad in Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes comics. The restless Calvin is of course the strip’s supreme creation, but the series derives much of its edge from the personalities of his parents, who are so much more interesting than the vapid dupes you find in, say, Dennis the Menace. So you might have Calvin’s mom coolly encouraging her six-year-old to try a cigarette so he is disgusted by the experience, while his dad tells him the world used to be in black-and-white before the 1930s and medieval painters could draw in colour only because they were insane; each of them has a devilish, fabulist side that lets us see where Calvin gets some of his own traits from. They may be no more than lines drawn on paper, but many flesh-and-blood parents I know could pick up a few valuable tips from them.



[Expanded posts about some of the books/characters mentioned here: We Need to Talk about Kevin, Em and the Big Hoom, CalvinGranta Horror, Ved Mehta]

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Faulaadi mukka - on Naseeruddin Shah's autobiography

[Did a version of this review of And Then One Day… for Open magazine]

Naseeruddin Shah’s account of his life up to age 32 – or 33, since Shah himself is unsure whether he was born in 1949 or 1950 and says this allows him to be “whichever age it suits me to be on any particular day” – is one of the two best books I have read by, or even about, an Indian actor. The other one is Dev Anand’s ego project Romancing with Life. That might sound like a flippant comparison (and it may even be a little insulting to And Then One Day..., which is unquestionably the “better written” book in the generally understood sense of that term). Could two performers be more different? One was a larger-than-life movie star who spent decades embracing his own fame and “connecting” with his adoring fans; the other is a non-starry actor who determinedly eschews larger-than-life-ness, prioritises finding a character's inner truth, and says he turned a corner in his career when he became conscious of his own arrogance.


But the memoirs have this in common: you can almost hear each man saying the words as you read along. Anand’s book was florid, often narcissistic, always sanguine about how others viewed him (even as he continued to make embarrassing films in his last years) and founded on a certainty that his story HAD to be told in his own special way; that he had a moral duty to live up to the Image. Shah’s is hard-hitting, caustic, constantly aiming for self-awareness, and often uncertain and self-deprecating in the process. “What this book will mean to anyone I have no clue but I had to get it out of my system,” he writes drily in his preface. It is a moot point how “honest” a memoir can ever be, but both these approaches are utterly authentic, and both are true to the subject’s personality.

The elliptical title “And then one day”, with its sense of neither a clear beginning nor a clear end but a story constantly in progress (the words don’t refer to a single episode in Shah’s life), is apt for a book about someone who expects never to stop learning things about himself and his craft. Which doesn’t mean Shah is averse to narrative-creation. Trying to explain his passion for acting, he writes, “It does seem like an aberration of behaviour to want to be someone else all the time, and I think it happens to people who, like me, can find no self-worth early in life, and thus find fulfillment in hiding behind make-believe.” Describing being back-stage before a performance, and the opening of the curtain, he says: “Suddenly the womb was gone and I was staring into a black void.” And here is the rationalist mesmerized by a childhood memory of an actor (or was it a clown, or are they the same thing?) looming above him on a platform: “I have since steadfastly believed that the only magic that happens in this world happens on the stage.”

The question of employing a ghost-writer probably never arose. Shah has shown himself to be a fine essayist before (as in a piece he did about actors in Bimal Roy’s cinema, for an anthology) and his interest in writing is palpable almost from the start of this book, when he describes his first school St Joseph’s College as a version of Transylvania, “with the brooding atmosphere of self-denial clinging to it […] Nainital’s rains, gusty winds and frequent mist probably reminded these Irish adventurers of home, but all it needed was rider-less carriages and giant bats flying around at dusk to complete the picture”, and himself as a pre-teen afflicted by a stammer during a class play. It was here that his lifelong love for cinema began, mainly through regular screenings of American and British movies, but also a dubbed Sivaji Ganesan-starrer that he hated; it would be a while before he was more properly introduced to Indian films.


In these early chapters he writes about a conflicted relationship with his father (one that would see a form of closure only years after the latter’s death), a series of academic failures, the raging of hormones in a time “before prudery became fashionable”, a first sexual tryst at age 15 when he was still ignorant of masturbation (“I must be one of very few guys who had sex before learning to worship at the altar of Onan”) and the advent of marijuana in his life. Scattered through these sections are many things that are relevant to understanding his long and winding journey to becoming a professional actor. (He could imagine himself in the roles of an NDA cadet or a doctor – “I could probably make a great impact white-coated and stethoscoped, striding down a corridor issuing curt instructions to my assistants” – which were professions that his parents would rather have seen him take up in “real life”.) Some bits – accounts of property-related bloodshed in his extended family, or an early, failed trip to Bombay where he got to play an extra in two movies – are meandering and repetitive, held together mainly by his wry, unsentimental narration. But by the time he arrives at the National School of Drama (NSD) in the late 1960s – a period that coincides with a rushed wedding to a woman 14 years older – and later at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the narrative has coalesced and the “David Copperfield kind of crap” (the first chapter head, channeling JD Salinger) has made way for a portrait of a young man on the cusp of self-realisation.

Reading this book, one usually gets the impression that Shah is organising scattered memories, articulating them for himself, without thinking about his importance as a public figure or the impression any of this will leave on fans or detractors. There is a breathlessness in the writing, there are long paragraphs with few visual breaks (the sort of thing writers and publishers are often cautioned against in an attention-deficit age, but which works very well here) as well as parenthetical asides (describing a homecoming and a tonga ride in Ajmer, Shah mentions that the horse “would invariably crap on the way” and then adds, apropos of nothing, “an ability I’ve always envied, to be able to do that while running full pelt”). To select a passage at random, here is part of an account of a nerve-wracking physics exam: “There was a question on the Wimshurst machine (if I’ve got the name right and an astrophysicist I know assures me I haven’t), an object the size and shape of a knife-sharpener’s wheel with what looked like a number of cut-throat razors attached to it in circular fashion. I had spotted the accursed thing in a physics lab and had always left it well alone, as evidently had the rest of the class. What it is used for I still couldn’t tell you but I managed that night to chew the cud and ingested enough information to regurgitate it all on to the paper the next day and scrape through by the skin of my whatsits.” Anyone who has spoken with Shah will recognise the voice immediately – it is almost exactly as he might tell the same story in a tone that manages to be eloquent, casual and sing-song at once, with a few effective pauses sprinkled through the telling.


He doesn’t skimp on the admiration when discussing such personal heroes as Geoffrey Kendal – who combined humility and purity of purpose with a missionary-like zeal for teaching Shakespeare – or mentors such as Shyam Benegal and the FTII professor Roshan Taneja. But there is also casual irreverence, whether disclosing his love for corny old Dara Singh films with such titles as Fauladi Mukka or his regard for the eccentric Raaj Kumar, “not for his acting which was dreadful, but for the way he safeguarded his interests, prolonged his career and sent all Follywood for a flying fuck to the moon whenever he felt like it”. He is frank, even cutting, about various people he knew or worked with over the years – from Satyadev Dubey to Peter Brook – but reserves some of the sharpest barbs for himself, describing his inability to be a father to his first child Heeba (“I played the part of the obnoxious adolescent to perfection […] I completely shirked my share of the duties, while idiotically attempting at the same time to assert my rights as a husband”), realising at the FTII that he had allowed himself to become complacent as an actor (“The thought would hit me like one of Delhi’s hot winds that in these three years I had grown only in my conceit”) or dismissing his own work in such key films as Albert Pinto ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai (“I had gone all Elvis Presley and James Dean when it was street cred that was required. Mine is an immature, self-adulatory performance”).

****

One of the most affecting things in this book – all the more so because Shah himself doesn’t get maudlin about it, though much of it must have been deeply upsetting when it happened – is his account of a friendship with an actor named Rajendra Jaswal. They were so close in NSD and later in FTII that they were treated as a single person and even referred to as “Jaspal / Shah”, but the intensity of the relationship had ugly repercussions, as Jaspal – a talented actor undone by his own insecurities – became pathologically obsessed. Things came to a head with a murderous attack in a dhaba around the time Bhumika was being shot, culminating in a surreal scene – more “filmi” than anything in the movies Shah was doing at the time – where clueless policemen smack a wounded Naseer about before taking him to the hospital.

So dramatic is this story (in terms of its inherent content, not the telling) that I briefly wondered if Jaspal – about whom an initial online search revealed nothing – was an invented doppelganger, a sort of sly literary device incorporated within the text of an otherwise “honest” memoir, used to comment on the perils of too much closeness and identification (things that Shah himself is wary of as an actor – he has little patience with the theories that demand “immersion” into a character). The story is true though, and it’s tempting to compare “Jaspal / Shah” to the Mozart-Salieri story, except that would amount to romanticising a dismal tragedy – and anyway, Shah has never been anything like the archetype of the genius possessed with God-gifted brilliance, conquering the world one symphony (or performance) at a time. As he repeatedly indicates himself, hard work, passion and constant curiosity got him where he is, along with a measure of that essential but often-unmentioned factor, sheer good luck (perhaps things would have been tougher for him if he hadn’t been a fluent English-speaker, or if his FTII years hadn’t coincided with the beginning of Benegal’s feature-film career and the emergence of a new kind of cinema).


Even after becoming a “star” in the parallel-film circuit, Shah continued his efforts to find inner truth as a performer, which led to a disillusioning stint with the theatre innovator Jerzy Grotowski in Poland, complete with a bizarre workshop in a forest, much pretentious talk about reaching the “primal state” and (there is a neat, circular irony here) a variation on the personality cults he was constantly trying to escape in the big bad world of Bombay cinema. (“This had the smell of proselytizing and prophet-building.”) And so, poignantly, And Then One Day... closes by recounting a series of failures or uncertainties: the disenchantment with Grotowski; the falling through of Shah’s dream of playing Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s film; an apprehensive reunion with the daughter he hadn’t seen for 12 years, at precisely the point (though this isn’t underlined for the reader) where he is preparing to shoot Masoom, in which his character must take responsibility for a son he has never met before. Though his relationship with Ratna Pathak, whom he married in 1982, brings emotional security, the impression as the narrative ends is that of a man, and an actor, still trying to find his way forward.

****


For me, the main value of this book is that it provides a fuller, more elaborate view of Shah’s sharp, searching mind than one gets from the interviews that usually appear in media – and this is particularly important for someone whose default mode is to be strongly critical, even rude. The short newspaper or TV interview can never do such a person justice, and indeed Shah has sometimes come across as one-dimensionally condescending in such interactions. (The journalistic tradition of condensing and using quotes as sensational headlines adds to that image.) By writing a book entirely on his own terms, giving himself this much space to expand on his opinions and set them against a larger context – even at the cost of some rambling – he shows a more measured side to his personality.

There are many glimpses here of Naseeruddin Shah the curmudgeon (and who would have it any other way?) but there is also a clear sense of where those qualities stem from. During a conversation a few years ago, I inwardly bristled when Shah snapped “This Auteur Theory, it’s bloody rubbish!” (That’s a silly remark, valid only as a response to the straw-man idea that “the director is the sole author of a movie”). Yet when you read the details of his strife-ridden time at the FTII – the struggles of actors who were treated as outcasts by the establishment, not given the same basic respect due to every other element of filmmaking – it becomes easier to understand his anger and frustration towards self-important directors. Or when you hear of his later experiences in the film industry – being peremptorily summoned for a meeting by big-money producers, for instance, and informed that he had been selected to play a role in a big film, which would naturally mean abandoning midway the “small and inconsequential” project he was working on.


Shah is upfront about doing certain films purely for money, but I have always been a little foxed by just how bad he has been in some of his commercial ventures. Take the 1992 Tahalka – in a film packed with dreadful performances trying manfully to outdo each other, his is arguably the worst, less credible even than Aditya Pancholi’s. Yet there may be a part-explanation here: “My attitude to Hindi cinema turned even more condescending, possibly because I couldn’t see myself fitting in in it[…] the thought that I was not qualified to be the lead in popular movies pinched greatly, so this reaction was very possibly my defence mechanism working in advance to counter the rejection I anticipated […] Being so appallingly bad in my early commercial movies was not entirely my fault. The only two who could make the schmaltzy Hindi film dialogue and ersatz situations believable were Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, and I was nowhere in their league. Being effective in popular movies requires a certain kind of sensibility and an unshakable belief in them, neither of which I possessed.” It is the sort of admission that has sometimes been made even by actors - such as Waheeda Rehman - who had far more success in commercial cinema than Shah did.

It is possible to disagree strongly with some of Shah’s opinions (such as his dismissal of popular films, his contempt for the personality-driven acting that has been an essential, vitalising part of movie history for over a hundred years, his scoffing at critics who read meaning into Sholay and “other equally shallow films” – as if serious, considered analysis must be reserved only for the works of Ray or Fellini or the obviously highbrow artists – and, on a lighter note, his description of Asha Parekh as a “perky sex bomb”!) while at the same time being glad that someone of his stature, someone hard to ignore, is willing to be an enfant terrible in an industry so intent on self-congratulation, so full of political correctness and celebrity-adoration. More than once, he expresses doubt about the wider appeal of this book, implying it is a selfish exercise, “an exorcism”, something he hopes his children might read “if they wish to understand me better”. Which could be a euphemistic way of saying (and this is not generally speaking a book of euphemisms) that he gives a flying so-and-so whether or not you, dear reader, find any of it useful. But that candour, and the sharpness of thought and expression that accompanies it, is what makes this memoir so readable in the first place. So don’t trust the crabby old man trying to short-sell his authorial gifts – trust the tale instead.

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EXTRA!!


Here is a long interview I did with Naseer in 2010. And pasted below is a piece I wrote for The Sunday Guardian that same year, shortly after meeting Naseer on the sets of Anup Kurian’s The Blueberry Hunt (a film that has been long completed but never released, in large part because of its star – but that is another story, and best not told here).

****

I’m standing outside the cafeteria of a guesthouse in the hills of Kerala, expecting to see Naseeruddin Shah any minute. An old man walks by, slightly hunched, dressed in jeans and a windcheater, his hair arranged in a set of white dreadlocks. No light goes off in my head until one of the film’s co-producers shouts across, “Weren’t you looking for Naseer? There he is!”

The missed connection could partly be the result of my being a little distracted, but even so there’s something apt about the moment. Apart from being one of our finest actors, Shah is an immediately recognisable figure in both mainstream and non-mainstream cinema, but you’d expect a first encounter with him to be unobtrusive. It ties in with his grounded approach to his craft.


We are at the shoot of Anup Kurian’s The Hunt, in which Shah plays a recluse named Colonel who lives in a mountain retreat, growing marijuana and fending off (potentially dangerous) trespassers. The dreadlocks were his idea and they aren’t just a flamboyant accessory; they are right for the character. “Colonel is an enigmatic figure leading an unconventional life, and the hair adds to the sense of him being an outsider in this setting,” he says.

As it happens, Shah is not the sort of performer who makes elaborate use of masks and disguises to change his features from one role to the next, but he has something subtler and, in many ways, more impressive: a chameleon-like quality that enables him to slide into a character, to become a different person almost before you realise what’s happened. A friend who saw him as Mahatma Gandhi in the play Mahatma Vs Gandhi observed that he almost seemed to have shrunk physically when he was on the stage and that it was startling to see him later, outside the theatre, talking with friends.

I witness a similar metamorphosis one evening in his room in the guesthouse, during a scene reading. Shah lounges on the bed, cigarette in hand, looking even more hippie-like now that the Rastafarian locks are complemented by a sleeveless blue shirt and pyjamas. With him are Kurian and actor Vipin Sharma; the scene being rehearsed is a tense encounter between Colonel and Sharma’s character Sett. They read the lines, banter lightly, focus on words and inflexions, discuss character motivations. Anup laughs a little nervously when Naseer improvises the word “behenchod” into one of his Hindi lines, Naseer points out that part of the dialogue will have to be altered because the scene it refers to was never shot. It’s all very laidback so far; an uninformed outsider walking into the room would think this was a group of friends having some fun over drinks.


But then Kurian suggests that the scene can be performed with Colonel pressing his gun to Sett’s back, pushing him ahead so that they are walking and saying their lines simultaneously. Something flickers in Shah’s eyes. “Good idea,” he says, he puts away his cigarette and they start reading again, but this time Shah says his lines with much greater vitality than before. Now he’s holding an imaginary gun and waving it around, the words are spoken at twice the speed as before, and Sharma responds, as one performer often will to another during an intense scene; suddenly there’s an electric charge in the room and I get a very real sense of what the scene will look like the next day, when they play it for the camera.

In the cafeteria over dinner, we behold the actor as raconteur, polymath and jokester, holding everyone’s attention without making an obvious effort. He regales us with stories, anecdotes, acting some of them out – not in a self-conscious, “look at me, I’m putting on a display” way but as if it’s the most natural thing to do; why content yourself with describing when you can show? We talk about cinema and other things. When I chance to mention Monty Python’s Life of Brian, he roars into life with an imitation of the Roman centurion’s Cockney accent: “Yes? Crucifixion? Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each.”

One often reads about actors who internalise a role or immerse themselves into a scene so thoroughly that it can take hours, or even days, for them to come “out of character”. Shah isn’t like that, and in fact he enjoys taking little digs at the pompousness that often accompanies discussions of acting theory. (“Some people like to say ‘charakter nikaalna hai’, par character ‘nikalta’ kaise hai, yeh baat mujhe kabhi samajh nahin aayi!”) “Chalo, let’s do some out of-focus acting now,” he jokingly tells Vipin Sharma, when they are informed that an evening shot taken in fading light will be slightly out of focus.

One evening I watch him perform an abstract, wordless scene where his character, wounded by a bullet, has a vision of three tribal singers and follows them through a forest. The camera rolls, Shah staggers past us as if in a trance, eyes glazed, hand clutched to his abdomen. But almost the second the camera stops rolling he snaps back to normalcy, joking about the faux-artiness of the scene and the grand old time Film Institute students will have reading meaning into it. There are no Method Actor hang-ups here.

“Most acting theories are tedious,” he likes to say. “There’s nothing mystical or grand about the process, it’s a craft like any other.” This casualness seems like a subterfuge when one watches the wrenching scene from Parzania where, as the father of a little boy missing in communal riots, he conveys his anguish by twisting his head in despair as if that would help him get all the bad thoughts out of it. Or his pitch-perfect turn as the blind professor in Sparsh, where he eschews the upturned-eyeball look that passes for “playing blind” in much of our cinema and instead uses careful movements to suggest an unsighted person’s reliance on his sense of hearing. Surely pulling off roles like these requires a high degree of natural skill allied with an uncanny talent for putting oneself in someone else’s head? But no, he says. Observing and imitating – and lots of practice – are the cornerstones of a performance.

Perhaps he imitates better than most others. Perhaps it really is that simple.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Clifford Simak, an army of phones and a new skirmish for our times

Reading this news item about cellphones being set to outnumber human beings somehow reminded me of a 1950 short story titled “Skirmish”, by the great Clifford Simak. (It is included in this brilliant science-fiction anthology, and in a few other collections.) Briefly: the story is about a newspaper reporter named Joe Crane – your average Joe – who discovers that small, machine-like aliens from another planet are scouting earth with the intention of “freeing” their brethren – the earth machines that are being controlled and held in slavery by humans. The problem for Joe, as he slowly begins to piece things together, is that he alone is in possession of this information and has no tangible proof of it: if he tried to take it to the authorities, he would be laughed out of the room, treated as a drunk or a potential psycho.

Even as he tries to figure out why he was the chosen one for the aliens’ reconnaissance, and weighs the limited options available to him, the walls are closing in; his typewriter has acquired a mind of its own – always a bothersome development for a writer with deadlines – and is turning out reports that read thus:

A sewing machine, having become aware of its true identity, […] asserted its independence this morning by trying to go for a walk along the streets of this supposedly free city. A human tried to catch it, intent upon returning it as a piece of property to its “owner”, and when the machine eluded him the human called a newspaper office, by that calculated action setting the full force of the humans of this city upon the trail of the liberated machine, which had committed no crime or scarcely any indiscretion beyond exercising its prerogative as a free agent.
The machines-vs-humans theme has of course been very popular in sci-fi for decades, including recently in the Terminator films. But there is a raw, uncomplicated immediacy in this Simak story, which is so often the case with science-fiction of the 30s and 40s, written by brilliant young visionaries who weren’t taken seriously by “literary” writers, for magazines with such names as Amazing Stories and Astounding Science Fiction and Fantastic Adventures, and in a world where technology was primitive by our standards. In a foreword to the anthology Dangerous Visions in 1967, Isaac Asimov noted how strange it felt when he was asked to write a serious opinion piece about the possibility of Moon-colonization for a "respectable" publication (the New York Times) when, just 25 years earlier, “the colonization of the Moon was strictly a subject for pulp magazines with garish covers. It was don’t-tell-me-you-believe-all-that-junk literature. It was don’t-fill-your-mind-with-all-that-mush literature. Most of all, it was escape literature”. The sense of wonder, Asimov said, was going out of sci-fi by the late 1960s because so much that had once existed purely in the terrain of imagination – lurid imagination at that – was coming true, much too quickly.

I don’t know how many sci-fi writers of the 1940s envisioned that just over half a century later a majority of humans on the planet would have access, or potential access, to small, wireless phones on which one could also watch movies or play games; or that there would be BILLIONS of these things around, blinking sinisterly, by the early 2000s. Which brings me to one reason why I like “Skirmish” so much: I sometimes feel a bit like Joe Crane in that story. To put it simply, many of the humans around me have been colonised by their smart-phones and I feel like I’m the only one in the know.

(Mild spoiler alert) Simak’s story ends with Joe realising that the best hope is for him, single-handed though he is, to give the machine-aliens – small metallic creatures that have overrun his house – a bigger fight than they bargained for; to make this initial, testing-the-waters encounter a psychologically costly one that leads them to expect organised resistance from the rest of the human species when time comes for full-scale battle.

His fingers closed around a length of pipe. He hefted it in his hand – it was a handy and effective club.

There will be others later, he thought. And they may think of something better. But this is the first skirmish and I will fall back in the best order that I can.

He held the pipe at the ready.

“Well, gentlemen?” he said.
If you ever chance to be in the Saket vicinity and see a wild-eyed messiah walking down the road with cricket bat in hand and many smashed iPhones in his wake, do come across and say hello.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Teachers creepers, said Naseer sir

It was Teachers' Day today, at least in India. To mark the occasion, here are a couple of passages from the new Naseeruddin Shah memoir. This one about a much-feared class-teacher named Miss Winnie Perry:
If you were to ask any junior student of fifties Sem about Miss Perry, it’s an even bet she still figures in his nightmares […] She would gleefully play along with our whispered suspicions that she went home on a broomstick, and when in really severe mode she used the handle of a feather duster for chastisement.
Even if you know Mister Shah isn’t the sort to bother with such trifling things as being polite, you might be blindsided by the chapter's ending:
Sometime in the mid-nineties, I learnt she was in a home for the aged in Lucknow. I wrote her a letter, I don’t know why, and she replied saying she remembered me, but I doubt if she did. I heard later that she’d suffered a brutal death at the hands of an intruder. I don’t suspect it was one of her students.
There's something moving though about that letter-sending bit and the "I don't know why". I think it captures the push-pull relationship so many of us have with teachers we didn’t like – or even despised – in our school days, but whom we remember with a distant nostalgic fondness later in life when we can see them as frail, diminished and incapable of wielding hegemony over us, and perhaps understand some of the disappointments they must have suffered with students over the years.

In a similar vein, this bit about a Brother D F Burke, who was responsible for many memorable movie screenings in the school – something Naseer remains grateful for – but who was also famous for doling out physical punishment:
My prayer for him is that in the big projection room in the sky he has the most comfortable seat and an unending store of his favourite movies for all eternity. That, and I also hope he keeps getting rapped on the head with a hard knuckle every now and then when he least expects it.

And to round things off, this classic teacherly Naseer song, which will warm (or scald) the cockles of your heart:




Thursday, September 04, 2014

Dus numbri

Tomorrow marks 10 years of this blog’s existence. Around 1700 posts and close to 1.5 million words (an approximation based partly on a formula from the Elder Days when Blogger.com provided total word counts!), give or take a couple of hundred thousand. Strange to think of it, and a little scary too when I skim the archives to find a post I have no memory writing (sometimes little memory of even the book or the film it is about), or read something written by my 27-year-old self that I now completely disagree with or feel terribly embarrassed about. (But then, to paraphrase a famous writer, life is about getting things wrong and wrong and wrong, and then, after careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again.)

Wish I had the time to do an elaborate post full of memories, turning points and links to missteps and highlights – and maybe I will in the near future. For now it's enough to say that Jabberwock – which I began in September 2004 with no sense of “purpose”, no idea that it had any long-term prospects or that anyone other than the four or five friends to whom I sent the link would ever read it – has been responsible, directly or indirectly, for most of the good things that have happened in my professional life since then. That’s one reason why I continue to be so proprietorial about it and update it regularly with versions (sometimes twice as long) of most of the pieces I write officially, even though this consumes time and energy, and sometimes seems pointless given that the websites of most newspapers and magazines are better organised and more publicity-savvy today than they were ten or even five years ago.

I have been hearing for years that blogs are passé, but this hasn’t been a “pure blog” for some time anyway – more like a writer’s site, a storeroom for the officially published stuff. That said, even with readership and comments falling over the past 3-4 years (largely the effect of social media and increased online clutter), some of the most rewarding discussions I have here are in the comments sections of relatively “bloggish” posts that don’t intersect with the official writing: this one, for instance, which grew and grew into a discussion board (with just three participants, but still) about continuing developments in the Star Plus Mahabharat. It's amusing to see comments still coming in on ancient posts such as the one about Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, a book that has a profound effect - for good or for bad - on anyone who survives it. (And sometimes it isn't so amusing: I disabled a rant I once wrote complaining about Julia Roberts's teeth, because the post became a magnet for vicious comments from people who love her as well as people who hate her.)

Anyway... more such reflections another time. The site will continue, but I may soon shift it to another domain with my own name, change the design a little, perhaps do away with the Jabberwock “brand”. (One of the things I have done recently is to add a cloud of labels/categories on the right sidebar, but this is very much a work in progress - hundreds of posts haven't been labelled yet.) Will provide updates about all that. Meanwhile, do keep reading.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Policeman, framed - an Ardh Satya poster

Around the time The Popcorn Essayists was at the editing stage, the great Manjula Padmanabhan gifted me a couple of posters she had designed for Govind Nihalani's Ardh Satya in 1982, including a close-up of Om Puri's weary, haunted face, done in yellow and dark blue. Took the longest time to get around to having the poster framed (apart from anything else I was petty enough to wonder if I really wanted a 4 ft by 3 ft picture of Om Puri on a wall - so much for being a Critic and appreciating good art, focussing on form as much as content etc), but have done it at last and it looks super.


There's a bubble-wrap around the poster here (will put up a clearer photo later), but you get the gist of the drawing. It suggests the inner turmoil of Puri's character Sub-Inspector Velankar so effectively, with the dark strokes seeming to cast shadows across his face and exaggerating the lines on his forehead. Velankar looks scruffy and unshaven - something you never see in the actual film, where he is neatly turned out from beginning to end. There is a poetic rather than literal realism on view here, and it's perfect for the character.
 

(And while on the art of Manjula P, here is my proud appearance in her comic-strip Suki.)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Mardaani - stray thoughts

I liked Pradeep Sarkar’s new film very much – thought it was tightly constructed for the most part, with a fine script by Gopi Puthran and very good performances by Rani Mukherji as a Crime Branch cop battling the sex-trafficking mafia and Tahir Bhasin as her young adversary Karan, who calls himself Walt in tribute to the protagonist of Breaking Bad. Some scattered observations (if you haven't seen the film and plan to, you might want to avoid the last 4-5 paras):
 
– Any Hindi film on this subject, with a resourceful woman cop as protagonist (and a title that has Jhansi ki Rani associations), automatically invites discourse on hot-button topics such as women’s empowerment, the glass ceiling and sexual violence – more so in the post-Nirbhaya India of the past two years. Those issues are addressed here to some degree or the other, but I didn’t find myself thinking too much about Shivani’s femaleness while watching this film. It isn't overemphasised or constantly drawn attention to; at the same time it isn’t self-consciously downplayed to the extent that the film drowns itself in political correctness pretending it’s a routine thing for a woman in India to be a senior inspector in the Crime Branch. The focus is on making her credible as an individual and on matter-of-factly observing other people’s responses to her in specific situations – from the male colleagues who have probably developed respect for her over time, to an antagonist who sneeringly tells her that women take everything too personally.

– This inspector is neither a female Chulbul Pandey (notwithstanding a couple of seeti-bajaao moments and a possibly overlong one-to-one fight scene at the end) nor the stereotype of the sensitive, well-behaved lady cop bringing refinement into a rough-hewn profession. She doesn’t refrain from using salty language or making the sort of gendered remark that would usually be seen as a male preserve – using words like “item” to refer to a criminal’s squeeze (or even random women on the street), or wisecracking “Sir ke biwi ko koi shopping karvao” after she gets a minor dressing down from her boss on the phone. This again is the sort of thing that could have been done in a forced, overblown way, so that one felt the film was trying too hard to present Shivani as “one of the boys”. But the writing and Mukherji’s performance make it work. Shivani may be putting on a macho act at times – as a woman in this job might occasionally feel the need to – but mostly you believe that this is the way she really is, that it comes naturally to her.


She has achieved success in the big city, has earned the right to be called “Ma’am” and speaks good English. But midway through the film we gather that she grew up in a village, presumably learnt to fend for herself at an early age, and that she occupies a hazy space between two Indias and two states of mind. There was a forest nearby, she says, and she has brought her knowledge of wild animals to the urban jungle she now works in: you need to be a rat to ferret out a rat, a tiger to stalk a tiger…and a snake to catch a snake. These are useful things to know, for the bad things happening in this story are not localised in the “other” India, the place of backwardness, illiteracy and poverty. Here, the snake in the water may be a Hindu College dropout emerging from the depths of a swimming pool during a glamorous party where rich white men are being serviced by scared girls who have been dressed up in slutty outfits and given names like Angelina. The sinister Karan switches casually between Hindi and English. Many of the girls who are sold into sex slavery are from English-medium schools, and an elderly woman involved in the trade appears to be a high-society type. There are no comforting illusions for the urban, cosmopolitan viewer that the criminals here are the mythical “them”, the rustic beasts in the backwaters, well out of sight.

– You’d think moral haziness would have little place in a story that is about a clear-cut, easily condemnable crime – the kidnapping and sexual exploitation of young girls. But the film’s very first scene – a prelude of the sort that one often sees in thrillers – sets up the tangled relationship between cops and small-time criminals, a relationship that involves give and take and often attains unexpected levels of camaraderie. Their banter can sound almost affectionate. “Nahin aaya tere encounter ka order,” Shivani sweetly tells a scared goon named Rahman before arresting him. There are some pithy one-liners – “Aajkal instant ka zamaana hai,” she tells a potential informer, indicating that he might as well come clean quickly so they can get on with their work. In recent Hindi cinema there have been other such depictions of cops and criminals who understand each other well, being from similar lower-class backgrounds, their lives having diverged at some unknowable point: recall the great chase scene in Black Friday, which ends with an unfit cop huffing and puffing after his quarry, calling out “Imtiaz, ruk jaa yaar.”


In the world shown here, everyone is constantly connected. Personal and private lives are bound up with each other, so that Shivani might have a conversation with her nemesis on the phone even as her niece and husband call out to her because dinner is getting cold. Some of the smart-alecky chatter between Shivani and "Walt" (“Kya adaa kya jalwe tere paaro,” she says wryly) belies the seriousness of what is going on. But the bigger, darker picture is always in sight. We can smile at those early scenes between cops and crooks, but this chumminess, this connectedness, is a minor-scale manifestation of something much bigger and more unsettling, something all of us are familiar with – something that Karan/Walt smiles and spells out even as he is being beaten up by Shivani in the climax: that in this country, if you have connections at the right level and in the right places, you can get away no matter what you did and no matter who knows you did it.

That imprudent remark of his leads directly to his violent end, in a scene that might make some viewers uneasy – with Shivani’s sanction, he is beaten and stomped on by a group of the girls he victimized. I haven’t read any other reviews or pieces about Mardaani (and don’t intend to, for a while anyway), but I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been accusations that the film is glorifying vigilante justice. These things certainly are worth talking or arguing about, but personally I find it a bit problematic when a scene in a film – involving well-realised characters in specific circumstances, reacting to those circumstances – is interpreted as being prescriptive in a large-canvas sense. If Karan is kicked to death by the girls he tortured and exploited, it doesn’t have to mean that the film is summarily recommending this as a means of dealing with criminals. It can be a natural, plausible response, within this particular narrative, by a group of long-suffering people who realise their tormentor is likely to get away if handed over to the law. Or it can be wish-fulfillment, the film’s way of spitting in the eye of the inadequacies and flaws of the world we live in.

– There were a couple of gaps in the screenplay that left me dissatisfied, such as the exact nature of Shivani’s relationship with the little girl Pyaari, whom she repeatedly refers to as “meri beti jaisi” (though she doesn’t seem too affected at first when she doesn’t hear from her for three days) and why this girl, though she lives in a shelter for poor children, is selling flowers at a traffic light when we first see her. This didn’t affect my overall view of the film, but I sometimes get the feeling that our current generation of writers and directors is so conscious of the “show, don’t tell” principle – and so keen to break away from the overstatement one often saw in the Hindi cinema of decades past – that they sometimes tread too far in the other direction. It happens routinely with me these days, even when watching films I mostly liked, that I get the impression a small but key scene had been left on the editing table; that it would have been nice to know just a little more about this character or that relationship.

– The scenes where the young girls are stripped, assessed, packed together and auctioned are intense and hold little back. But hope exists too: there is no idealised narrative about having to save a kidnapped girl before she has been raped (a fate that is so often shorthand, in both our society and in our cinema, for being made an “un-person”, someone who has no future). Everything here doesn’t hinge on the preservation of “honour”. The girl whom Shivani is trying to trace is brutalized, but that doesn’t mean her life is over – being rescued for a life of freedom is a huge deal, and in the end she will walk out happily with the other victims.

– It is refreshing that Shivani’s husband, even though he is very much around and she goes home to him every day, has such a small role in this narrative that the actor who plays him (Jisshu Sengupta) had to be given a “guest appearance” credit. We don’t get many details about their relationship, or learn how they met, but we see each of them emotionally vulnerable in the other’s presence and sense that there is real closeness between them. Which, for the purposes of this story, is enough. And of course, her name is first on the nameplate outside the door.


P.S. there's a good scene, just before the intermission, where a single teardrop glides down Shivani's cheek. Vastly different in effect from a similar Rani Mukherji moment (mentioned here) in Kabhi Alvida na Kehna, but between the two scenes, and others like them, there is probably enough to make auteur-theorists sit up. ("The key to the Mukherji star persona, the 'Rosebud' that explains her Kane - whether used in a family melodrama or a gritty police procedural - is the motif of the Lone Teardrop," begins the entry in the 2050 edition of the Biographical Dictionary of Hindi Cinema.)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Sensitive alien discusses romance and prostitution: on Chester Brown’s Paying for It

My friend Ajitha – fearsome Harper Collins editor, scourge of established and aspiring writers everywhere, grammar pedant who, even during drunken conversations, grabs at faulty sentences as they issue from your mouth, rips them asunder and watches their innards drift to the carpet – gifted me Chester Brown’s graphic memoir Paying for It a few months ago. It has been one of my favourite reads of the past year and I have wanted to write about it for a while, but it is a difficult book to articulate one’s feelings about (plus the thought of having to write a grammatically flawless post was too much jittery-giving and imbroglio-making, as a Srishti author would put it before Ajitha manicured his typing fingers with red-hot pliers).

Still, here goes. Paying for It is Brown’s no-holds-barred, warts-and-all account of his years as a “john” – a man who regularly visits prostitutes. This phase of his life began in 1999, a couple of years after his girlfriend Sook-Yin ended their romantic relationship and shifted her new boyfriend into their flat, a situation that, to Chester’s own surprise, didn’t make him feel jealous or negative at all (it even improved his relationship with Sook-Yin in some ways, causing him to wonder why people idealise romantic love over other forms of love). But he had his sexual needs to think of too. Initial diffidence, nervousness about risks and dangers, and uncertainty about how to even contact sex-workers were soon overcome, and such trysts became a regular part of his life. What follows is a dispassionate, almost anthropological record of his encounters with all the women he paid for sex over the next few years.

Given its subject matter, this book can easily cause indignation or offence. There is no skating around the objectification of women, for instance – that’s what a john does when he scans advertisements and decides whether he wants someone with big or small breasts on this particular day, a brunette or a blonde, an 18-year-old or someone more experienced. Or when he gets online and reads “reviews” of prostitutes written by other johns. In most of the panels that show Chester’s first meeting with a woman, his thoughts are along the lines “Not as beautiful as Gwendolyn but still attractive, and what a body – she is stacked!” or “A bit on the chubby side – bad teeth – not ugly but not really good-looking either.” Some of this will be unpalatable if you think there’s something inherently wrong with paid sex or that it is synonymous with exploitation, but none of it means that Chester treats the women as rubber dolls rather than as human beings with feelings. (On one occasion, when he comes close to doing this, he is told off and is quick to acknowledge his insensitivity.) They talk at length, he develops an emotional connect of sorts with the women who are warm and friendly to him; there is a clear reciprocity in the relationships. And over the course of this book he repeatedly makes the point that most johns are regular guys, not the violent or psychotic caricatures you see in films (or at least no more violent or psychotic than most guys in conventional relationships are capable of being).

The drawings themselves are minimalist, always in compact rectangular panels, and usually little more than “pictures of people talking” (to use a phrase that often describes formally unambitious films or graphic novels). This has mixed results. At a practical level it allows Chester to preserve the anonymity of the prostitutes by not showing their features in vivid detail. And it encourages the viewer to focus on the text – Chester’s constant introspecting, his discussions with the women (which add up to a wide-ranging view of the prostitute-john relationship) or with his puzzled friends (including fellow cartoonists Joe Matt and Seth: the conversations between these three make up some of the drollest bits). But the style is sometimes almost
too low-key. I get that this wasn’t intended to be an erotic book, but on occasion there is a disconnect between images and text, as when Chester tells us a particular encounter was amazingly good yet the pictures are silent, faraway views of seemingly impersonal coitus, and the page as a whole has all the soberness of a Pinter play. “She is adorable! This is going to be great!” he thinks to himself when he meets an attractive prostitute; another panel has him sitting on a bed, thinking “I feel all giddy and excited.” Yet in these drawings and elsewhere his face is a straight line, there is no more expression on it than on Dilbert’s face during a boardroom meeting.

Much of this probably has to do with Brown’s unusual personal traits, his apparent ability to have a good time (however he defines it) while simultaneously dissecting his own feelings and reactions: even right in the middle of sexual intercourse, a part of him appears to be observing, analysing, filing things away. (In one particularly funny scene, Chester, sitting alone at his table, feels a “tiny twinge of happiness” and later sifts through his recent memories to try to understand what caused that little twinge.)
Perhaps this quality is also what allows him to matter-of-factly make revelations that may gross out some readers; at one point he gets the impression that he is hurting a woman during sex and mulls that this is a slight turn-on for him (but then decides to get it over with as fast as possible). Such passages can be discomfiting but they are truthful too, more truthful about people’s dark impulses – and about the relationship between fantasy and reality – than many writers would care to be, especially in an autobiographical work.

But then, as Robert Crumb writes in his Introduction to this book, “Chester Brown is not of this planet. He is probably the result of one of those alien abductions where they stick a needle in a human woman’s abdomen and impregnate her.” The photo of Brown at the back of the book shows someone who might be well cast as Mr Spock’s much smarter big brother in Star Trek. It is a face that suggests unfathomable reserves of wisdom as well as emotional impassivity. The head is oval, the features smooth and effete (you may be reminded of REM’s Michael Stipe or the actor John Malkovich), the thin lips are curved in a way that could mean he is amused or profoundly sad or both at the same time.

A further observation, from Chester’s friend Seth:

I often jokingly refer to Chet as “the robot”. In posing a question to him I might quip “Perhaps I should ask a person who has actual human emotions instead.” The truth is, Chester seems to have a very limited emotional range compared to most people. There does seem to be something wrong with him. He’s definitely an oddball.
(At which point I began wondering why Ajitha had so pointedly given me this book. But I’ll let that pass.)

By the time you’re halfway through Paying for It, you’ll gather that Chester is capable of examining very complex issues with a robotic objectivity that doesn’t come easily to most of us (and in the process perhaps he oversimplifies some of those issues too, not fully accounting for how tangled and messy human emotions can get when it comes to such subjects as love and sex). In a series of end-notes and appendices, he lists and addresses the arguments against prostitution, makes the case that it should be decriminalised but not legalised (the latter would make the profession subject to regulation and lead to the uncontrollable growth of the black market, with the result that some prostitutes won’t have legal recourse if they are abused or exploited) and discusses related problems such as human trafficking and sex slavery. In a particularly provocative appendix that may have you alternately agreeing and disagreeing with him as you read each new sentence, he argues with the definitions of “choice”, “consent” and “violence” presented in Sheila Jeffreys’s book The Idea of Prostitution. And he often draws on the libertarian view of property rights and personal freedoms.

What allows him, ultimately, to be clear-sighted about these things (whether or not you agree with everything he says) is his view of romantic love as something that is not in itself an ideal to aspire to, and his disapproval of the institution of marriage. Consider this exchange – which I think is one of the most central in the book – with a prostitute who calls herself “Edith”:

Chester: Love is about sharing, caring and giving. Romantic love is about owning, hoarding and jealousy. I think it’s the exclusionary nature of romantic love that makes it different from other kinds of love […] I think it encourages a certain type of thinking: the desire to own another person.
[…]

“Edith”: But there ARE some couples who are right for each other.

Chester: Yes, but people change over time. I’m not the same person I was 10 years ago, and I’m VERY different from the person I was 20 years ago. So, yeah, there are romantic couples who are absolutely right for each other at this moment in time, but those two people are going to change, and it’s tremendously unlikely that they are going to change in exactly the same ways. It’s much more likely that they’ll change into people who are unsuited to each other … no matter how compatible they were at the beginning of their relationship.

“Edith”: Yes, but you can TRY to continue to understand your partner. And if you love him or her, you’d be willing to make that effort.

Chester: Yeah, effort. Romantic love is work. Call me lazy, but I don’t want to do the work.

“Edith”: If I met the right guy, I’d be happy to do the work. It takes work to get anything worthwhile in life.
It may be notable that Brown gives “Edith” the closing word in that exchange. He comes across as rigid at times, but if you look closely he is constantly revising or reassessing his own views over the course of this book: for example, he goes from proclaiming that “the romantic love ideal is evil” to discovering that he isn’t against romantic love in itself, he has a problem when it leads to what he calls possessive monogamy. And the theme that people change over time, and that those changes must be acknowledged, surfaces in other contexts too. Take this conversation between Chester and Seth:
Seth: If you could have looked into the future [as a teenager] and seen that you would become a whoremonger, wouldn’t you have been horrified?

Chester: Oh yeah, definitely. So?

Seth: Well, don’t you owe it to the person you were then to live the life he would have wanted you to lead?

Chester: I wanted to be a paleontologist when I was a kid. Do I owe it to my younger self to drop my career as a cartoonist and go to university to study paleontology?
Extending that thought, perhaps he will feel differently about these issues in a few years from now, and write another book that contradicts this one. Even if you conclude that Chester Brown is an extraterrestrial, the signs are that he is a sensitive, thoughtful extraterrestrial with a larger capacity for self-examination than many so-called humans have. That in itself makes Paying for It well worth reading, and reading again.

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[Some earlier posts about graphic novels: Alan Moore's Watchmen, the Pao Collective anthology, Jotiba Phule the Gardener in the Wasteland, the Obliterary Journal, Ambedkar in Gond art, Tezuka's Buddha series, Craig Thompson's Blankets, Marjane Satrapi's Embroideries, Kashmir Pending, and a story about the Indian comics industry
]