Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dissenting Diagnosis, a new book about devious doctors and malpractices in healthcare

[Did this for Scroll. More soon on other medical books]

When you spend a lot of time in hospitals as a caregiver, you can go through many emotional phases simultaneously. In the past few years, dealing first with my grandmother’s medical condition and now with my mother’s, there have been days where I have felt like superman one minute – marveling at my own energy reserves, patting myself on the back for having been in six different places at the same time and juggled small and big problems – and then, the very next moment, like an enfeebled old man, wanting to be free of all responsibilities, unconvinced that I’ll ever be able to get up from the chair I have just sunk into.

And then something new comes up and you’re smoothening your cape again and rushing to stop a wily doctor in the MRI room from repeating a procedure that had been done the previous day, while nurses and ward-boys giggle on the periphery of your super-vision.

One source of entertainment in these situations is to record stories (always through gritted teeth) about the goof-ups, which can make Catch-22 and M*A*S*H* seem like documentary realism in comparison: the miscommunications between teams of physicians, the exhaustion that comes with having to repeat all the details of your patient’s history to a new and oblivious doctor every couple of hours, the many little instances of apathy or insensitivity that can rise to depression-causing levels over a few days. I remember my dadi’s exasperated cackle when she was being sent home following a stint in Max Saket in late 2014: after five days in the hospital where a doctor would drop by once or twice a day, give a curt instruction and swish out in 30 seconds (having added Rs 900 to our already-sizable bill for each such “consultation”), she was discharged with a diagnosis of piles when, even in her groggy state, she knew it was no such thing; that her gastric problems were an effect of the blood-thinners she had been taking since her angioplasty. How she rolled her eyes and muttered as we put her on the stretcher for the ambulance. (Sure enough, after she spent a very uncomfortable month at home, we were back in the hospital explaining her case all over again to a new set of smiling doctors who made the correct diagnosis this time – not so much because of competence, I suspect, but because there were only so many available possibilities.)

With many such adventures having accrued over the years, the new book Dissenting Diagnosis: Voices of Conscience from the Medical Profession – co-written by doctors Arun Gadre and Abhay Shukla as an attempt to record some of the ugly truths about medical practice in India – contained much that was familiar, giving me the shudders as well as the jollies.

That malpractices in corporate healthcare have escalated in recent times will come as no surprise to anyone who has dealt firsthand with the beast; the subject has also been covered in investigative journalism and in books such as Rana Dasgupta’s Capital: A Portrait of Twenty-First Century Delhi, one chapter of which has the author in conversation with three caregivers about dehumanization in medicine. Dissenting Diagnosis, on the other hand, is an inside account, organised around the testimonies of 78 disillusioned doctors (nearly half of whom consented to have their names published) from across the country. It’s a well-organised book with predictable but to-the-point section heads such as “Diagnosing the Malady” and “Initiating the Cure”. You won’t read it for riveting prose or for a cleverly crafted narrative – many passages are simply made up of quotes by the participating doctors, placed next to each other, held together by some basic commentary, and some of this material is repetitive – but it has a raw, urgent directness that you might not find in a more polished work.

The initial chapters contain information about things that most educated people have an inkling of: the nexus between pharmaceutical companies and corporate hospitals; the pressure on doctors to prescribe as many costly investigations and tests as possible, to earn a pre-specified revenue for their hospitals; the lack of transparency and the emotional exploitation of patients’ families in situations where every second counts and composed reflection isn’t possible. Included here are many little stories that should startle anyone who still holds a worshipful view of the medical profession. The one about a speed-obsessed senior surgeon, for instance, who accidentally cut a major artery during a routine kidney operation, consequently had to remove the entire organ instead of just the stones – and later told the patient’s family that he had executed a heroic last-minute turnaround because the kidney was damaged beforehand. Or the one about a hospital that hid a deceased patient’s body to put pressure on the family since they hadn’t been able to pay the full bill.

There are also pointers to how advancements in technology and knowledge, welcome though they are, have had downsides, as all technology potentially does. The amount of material now available online – for patients and caregivers keen to do their own research – can be a double-edged sword (increased information about things like platelet counts, the authors say, can make people unduly alarmed about variations on test results, and thus vulnerable to avoidable prescriptions). The rise of pharmaceutical companies, which should be a good thing in principle, has resulted in excessive commercialization, competition and questionable promotional measures such as taking doctors on sponsored overseas trips.

One minor problem with the book is that some of its observations are too abstract: vague-sounding statements about “cuts” or “commissions”, sentences that begin “A practitioner from a small town observes…” or “A big-city physician explains…” (The passages where doctors are named naturally feel more substantial.) At times, chatty stories pile up one atop another, and some of these can read like stray gossip which, even if true, adds little to our understanding of the big picture. I found it hard to swallow the idea that senior doctors mingling at parties would chortle about a new lamb being led to the slaughter – not because I think doctors are incapable of being malicious or greedy, but because in cases where individuals are mostly looking out for themselves and keeping their cards close to their chest, it is unlikely that dark plots would be discussed so openly or that they would mwa-ha-ha like 1970s Hindi-film villains.

Also, despite the candour running through the project, an attempt has clearly been made to avoid naming offending hospitals, individuals or corporates. There could be legal reasons for this, or it could simply be that the authors believe the problems are so deeply ingrained in the system that it would be gratuitous to single out specific individuals or companies. However, this might lead a suspicious reader to wonder if some of the book’s content reflects the disgruntlement of those who are on the outside of the corporate healthcare world, unable to get a share of the pie. (I am not one of those suspicious readers: I had no trouble believing in the authors’ sincerity or the honesty of their respondents. But again, this could be a result of my own medical experiences.)


While much of the book’s first half reads like a litany of everything that is wrong, the second section discusses possible remedies, including the potential for measures such as the impossibly idealistic-sounding Universal Health Care, aimed at ending the commodification of healthcare.

As the doctors themselves admit, there are many layers of problems and no easy answers. For example, it is undoubtedly true that some of the current ills of Indian medicine stem from the way in which a soft-socialist country made a (relatively) rapid leap towards privatization post-1991, and how the upheavals involved affected both medical education and practice, especially in cities and big towns. The authors are probably right that some aspects of healthcare (such as the proliferation of donation-based private medical colleges that produce young doctors who then need to “recover” their “investment” by falling in with corporate pressures) have not been well-monitored, and that the promises of self-regulation made by doctors in private practice have proved less than reliable over the years.

However, it would be naïve to think that economic liberalisation abruptly opened a large Pandora’s box of misdemeanors 25 years ago – that would mean subscribing to a dewy-eyed vision of the past as a place where all doctors behaved like benevolent Gods and the state was the nicest big brother imaginable. It is more likely that a degree of rot in the profession has existed as long as men have been driven by self-interest. (While on the idea of the past as utopia, look at some of the less than scrupulous doctors and pharmacists in old Hindi cinema. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir, made six decades ago, has this line, a version of which you might overhear in a private hospital in 2016: “Aaj kal toh milavat ka zamaana hai. Dava-daaru mein bhi milavat hoti hai.” “Everything is diluted these days – even medicine.”)

Which raises the question: is increased government interference in private healthcare – one of the proposals made in the book – an unambiguously good solution? Well-intentioned though the idea may be, it can set off alarm bells in even those of us who aren’t fans of unbridled capitalism: it would mean moving down a very slippery slope – and in any case, who can ensure that a state-regulated system would be free from corruptibility?

Given these difficulties, the solutions that I thought most persuasive weren’t the sweeping measures but the softer ones, such as the increase in and dedicated maintenance of doctor-consumer forums, and the spread of awareness through education and social action – and of course, through books like this one. Its closing passages provide many useful tips for concerned citizens, including lists of websites and information about organisations such as the policy-advocacy NGO SATHI, which the authors are associated with. A favourable prognosis may be a long time coming, but such initiatives should help make a dent in a hardened, often-impersonal system.

[An earlier rant about caregiving and associated matters is here]

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Sartaj Singh and Ganesh Gaitonde on Netflix: thoughts on the Sacred Games TV series

[Vikram Chandra’s Mumbai-underworld epic Sacred Games is being adapted into a Netflix series. Did this speculative piece for Mint Lounge]

“We are debris,” muses Sartaj Singh, the policeman-protagonist of Vikram Chandra’s mammoth 2006 novel Sacred Games, during an investigation into the Mumbai underworld, “randomly tossed about and nudging into each other, splitting each other’s lives apart.” The last few words find visual representation on the book’s original, pulp-fiction-inspired cover, where two faces merge into one, even sharing an eye. On the right is the turbaned Sartaj; on the left his nemesis, the gangster Ganesh Gaitonde, a red tilak on his forehead. Sacred Games is about many lives that intersect in countless ways, but at its heart are these two men, two sides of the same coin, who are linked by the narrative’s cross-cutting structure.

Between them, they stand for a murky world populated by criminals and law-enforcers, all doing what they can to survive in a heaving metropolis. But Singh and Gaitonde are philosophers too, constantly analysing the quirks of fate and how things might have gone very differently. “Nothing is given to us without something larger being taken away,” thinks the gangster, “Becoming Ganesh Gaitonde the Hindu bhai was an act of murder, it was the murder of a thousand and one other selves.”

A fast-paced thriller as well as a meditation on forked paths, the book quickly developed a cult following. Now, 10 years later, its fans have been thrilled by the announcement that it is being adapted into an original series by Netflix. The online TV network is being tight-lipped about details, but one thing is certain: the scale will be more elaborate than that provided by a feature-length film. And given that this is such an exciting time for narrative television, online and offline – with Netflix shows such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black being part of the renaissance – Sacred Games buffs are likely to be in for a treat.

Chandra’s epic lends itself very well to a long-form series. It is (just about) possible to imagine a good two-hour movie version, but this would involve paring the book down to its main plot and removing much of what makes it special. Sacred Games is intricate and multilayered: it keeps making detours; it moves about in space and time, even going back to the Partition riots to examine what effect that violence had on the family histories of the contemporary characters. When I first read it, even as I reveled in Chandra’s elegant storytelling and the audacity of a narrative that mixed genre tropes with the rigour of literary fiction, I felt a little stymied by the accumulation of detail. One long “Inset” near the end – an apparently random account of an old woman dying anonymously in the US, her granddaughter curious about her distant past but then getting back to writing about her favourite filmstar Aamir Khan in her diary – is rich and moving when you reread it. But when you’re encountering the book for the first time, as a thriller about Sartaj and Gaitonde, it can feel like a distraction.

In this 2006 interview, Chandra told me his intention had been to create an intricate mosaic, where none of the characters was fully aware of everything that was happening. (“Each action flew down a tangled net of links, reverberating and amplifying itself and disappearing only to reappear again,” Sartaj reflects.) The TV-series format, with its ability to handle multiple narratives, can do great things with such a design.

However, even serious fans might be willing to accept some changes in the narrative structure (and at this point, one can only speculate). In the book, Sartaj and Gaitonde converse once, very early in the story: the gangster has, for reasons unclear, barricaded himself inside a strange, cube-shaped building, and the cop is outside, trying to persuade him to surrender. The cross-cutting begins after Gaitonde dies: he tells Sartaj (and us) his story from beyond the grave; meanwhile Sartaj, who is very much on a corporeal plane, continues probing mysteries related to Gaitonde’s demise.

Depending on the planned length of the series, it might be tempting to tweak this format so that Sartaj and Gaitonde become antagonists or doppelgangers in a more immediate sense. By that, I don’t mean lots of dramatic confrontations or cliffhangers, just a sense of a psychological cat-and-mouse game between two people who know each other’s minds. One of the fascinating things about Chandra’s book – which is full of imagery that would lend itself to a good screenplay – is how it emphasizes the links between Sartaj and Gaitonde, in big and small ways. They visit the same places in unrelated contexts; each man is sleep-deprived and haunted by apocalyptic visions; Sartaj hums “Mehbooba Mehbooba” to himself while driving, and a few pages later Gaitonde is watching Sholay.

A series that kept Gaitonde alive a little longer than the book did might find intriguing ways of dealing with this subtext. By way of reference, I’m thinking of the creepy relationship between serial killer Hannibal Lecter and disturbed cop Will Graham in the fabulously atmospheric series Hannibal, another milestone of narrative television. But there are also recent Hindi films which have dealt with the “doubles” motif. Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0, for instance – produced by Phantom Films, which is also co-producing the Sacred Games adaptation – has a poster reminiscent of the original Sacred Games cover, blending the faces of a murderer and a potentially psychotic cop.
There are other ways of linking Chandra’s novel with gritty crime movies. Vidhu Vinod Chopra, the author’s brother-in-law, made the 1989 Parinda, which was a landmark of the modern gangster film. The writer S Hussain Zaidi, to whom Sacred Games is co-dedicated, wrote Black Friday, which was filmed by Kashyap and featured a funny little moment of camaraderie where a cop, near the end of an exhausting chase, calls out “Ruk ja, yaar” to his quarry – a scene that reminds me of the one in Sacred Games where Sartaj, trying to persuade Gaitonde to come out of his cube, says "Come on, yaar. This is stupid."

Even at a broader level, to read Sacred Games is to be swamped by movie references, from Prithviraj Kapoor (whose booming, paternalistic voice Sartaj thinks Gaitonde has been influenced by) and the young Dev Anand to contemporary cinema. The relationship between the characters’ lives and the films they watch is like the dizzying hall-of-mirrors scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai, where one can no longer separate reality from reflection, or tell what exists in two dimensions and what in three.
Young thugs watching Deewaar and Nayakan weep because they identify with the lead characters’ journeys. Gaitonde becomes fatally seduced by tinsel town when he finances a film (which gets trashed by a critic on the grounds that the people who made it seem to know nothing about gangsters’ lives!). Sacred Games knows well how escapist melodrama can help people tap into their emotional selves and make sense of the world around them. As Gaitonde says when a friend tells him something is too “filmi” to be believable, “I knew better. I had seen scenes from my own life in two dozen films […] I was filmi, and I was real.” Chandra echoed these words while discussing the book, telling me he gets put off by pat judgements on Hindi cinema. “Often, what we think of as melodramatic films reach deeper truths while seeming artificial on the surface. And what is overly emotional/melodramatic anyway? I look around me at Indian families and by God, we're so melodramatic in real life!”

Yet there is also this paradox: despite Chandra’s own identification with the tropes of mainstream Hindi film, his book is written in cool, polished English with smatterings of street jargon (“The screenplay of my life had arced upwards in a single continuous movement, and I had left lovers and yaars and enemies behind”) – a language that is a world away from the everyday speech of Gaitonde and the other characters. This is acceptable as literary licence in a novel, but I’m unsure how it would translate into a TV series where we actually see and hear these characters. The Netflix press release uses the word “bilingual”, but it isn’t clear how much of the series will be in English and how much in Hindi. The answer to this question will determine many things about its tone and how closely it captures the daily realities of people like Gaitonde and Sartaj, as well as the nature of the cinema that provides reference points for them.

Either way, the show should have plenty of stimulating things in it. If successful, it could even acquire a life of its own, moving beyond the book’s ambit. The novel’s last line is “He went in and began another day”, a reference to Sartaj getting back to his work after the Gaitonde adventure is over. Sartaj could certainly make a compelling protagonist for a police procedural. A Sikh hero in an internationally watched show with a dead gangster, a modern-day Betaal, hovering over him, whispering wisdom into his ear? The possibilities are endless, and most of them come from the nature of this enthralling book, which is a very Indian story rooted in our narrative traditions and in the character of our most dynamic metropolis, while also being universal enough to appeal to a global audience. 

[Related pieces: a conversation with Vikram Chandra; the chase in Black Friday]

Thursday, August 04, 2016

How to stop worrying and film the Bomb

[a slightly extended version of my Mint Lounge column, which appears in print on August 6/Hiroshima Day]

How many ways are there of making a good movie about something as unthinkable as nuclear holocaust? Glancing through film history, I’d say there have been (at least) these modes: savage comedy; earnest message-mongering; fantasy involving primordial monsters; horror; B-movie hysteria; and 94-year-old Bertrand Russell in bright red shoes, giving his “blessings” to Rajendra Kumar (but more on this anon).

To appreciate the variety, consider two films released in 1964, with two endings that summarize their general tones. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove, a jet-black satire about the Cold War jugalbandhi leading to mutually assured destruction, closes with a visual symphony of mushroom clouds – eerily beautiful, like those NASA photos of galaxies in cloud formation – drifting across a desolate, sterilized earth. On the soundtrack, Vera Lynn’s mellifluous voice sings “We’ll Meet Again”; a film that has consistently shown us the very worst of humankind – hubristic politicians, mad scientists – ends with a snatch of lovely music that only our doomed species could have produced.

That same year, Sidney Lumet’s Fail-Safe covered similar ground – an unauthorized first strike causes events to spiral out of control – but did so much more solemnly. In contrast to the mordant irony of Kubrick’s film, Fail-Safe ends with a rapid burst of freeze frames, images of New Yorkers caught in the everyday bustle of life – chatting, playing, jigging, unaware of what is about to rain down from the sky. (I wonder if Alan Moore had that closing scene in mind when he conceived the climactic panels of his great graphic novel Watchmen, in which a cataclysm – not a nuclear bomb but something comparable in its citywide devastation – strikes, a young boy and an old man reflexively reach out to hug each other, and then seem to fuse in an image of blinding white.)

As a teenager, I had little doubt that Dr Strangelove was the far superior film: surely, absurdist comedy was the best approach to this subject. Though I was a big Henry Fonda fan, it was almost amusing to see him playing the US president with po-faced sincerity in Fail-Safe when Peter Sellers had brilliantly (and with a similar deadpan expression) sent up the same position in Kubrick’s film.

Today, while I still think Dr Strangelove is better, I am more tolerant of grim, verging-on-pedantic art about tragic events. And I can certainly understand why another great director, Akira Kurosawa, said this about one of his least-seen films, I Live in Fear (1955): “We set out to make a satire, but how do you make a satire about the H-bomb? It was very difficult for us to keep a distance from the subject.”

Kurosawa and his crew were, of course, Japanese, and one can see why they would view Hiroshima and its aftermath through a different prism from the Americans. I Live in Fear (also known by the more austere title Record of a Living Being) is about crippling paranoia – an old businessman, played by Toshiro Mifune, is so haunted by the possibility of another atom-bomb attack that he wants to move his family to South America – and this is emphasized by the film’s visual language. A few years earlier, in Rashomon, Kurosawa had offered poetic, dreamlike shots of the sun glimpsed through a forest canopy. In I Live in Fear, the sun has its gloves off, so to speak: there are harsh shots set in the blazing outdoors, the heat and light seeming to beat down at the characters; it’s as if the narrative is infected by all those Hiroshima survivors’ memories of a blinding white flash.

For viewers familiar with Kurosawa’s work, the film works on another plane too. We know Mifune as the swaggering, indomitable Samurai hero of such films as The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo (and the pretender who becomes a hero in The Seven Samurai), the alpha male who can mow down everything in his path with panache – but here he is, playing a character twice his age, a man depressed and frightened. It makes the horror even more palpable: the mere thought of the Bomb can turn the best of us into quivering jelly.

Incidentally the veteran Takashi Shimura, who plays a doctor in this film, had played a similarly oracular part in another, very different sort of movie with an atomic-age resonance: the 1954 Godzilla, about a giant monster – a product of nuclear testing – that wreaks havoc on Tokyo. Any fan of fantasy and horror knows that these genres often address real-world troubles, moulding them into new shapes. One of my favourite films, Kaneto Shindo’s Onibaba, is set in medieval Japan but invokes the memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in scenes where a face beneath a demon mask is shown to be similar to the disfigured visages of 1945’s victims. Within the
context of Onibaba’s story (about two women killing wounded Samurai and selling their armour for food) there is no reason for such an allusion, except for this: a filmmaker is admitting that he can’t tell a horror story without at least one homage-reference to the greatest real-life horror his country has experienced.

Speaking of which, Saira Banu once played a Japanese woman named Meloda in a Hindi film. Sorry, I know that’s an inappropriate quip, especially since the 1967 Aman is for much of its duration a dignified film. Rajendra Kumar plays Dr Gautamdas, who goes to Japan to work with the victims of nuclear radiation and spread the message of world peace. Before doing this, though, he is
granted an appointment with his idol, the “mahapurush” Bertrand Russell, who delivers a brief monologue and sends Gautamdas on his way. It’s one of the most unexpected cameos ever, and you’ll find it these days on online lists of gobsmacking moments from old Hindi cinema, but it shouldn’t detract from Aman’s mournful and conscientious approach to its subject. I’m not sure that a mainstream Hindi film made in today’s increasingly jingoistic climate would be so strongly pacifist, or treat the Bomb with as much dread – especially now that we are nuclear-empowered ourselves.

[Some related posts: Onibaba; Aman; Dr Strangelove; Mifune in Yojimbo]

Monday, August 01, 2016

On Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, and other books about cultural heritage

[From my Forbes Life column]

As a film buff, I am often appalled by how much neglect or apathy there is when it comes to India’s cinematic heritage. Important material isn’t archived, movie prints degrade over the years, and there are farcical cases such as the one where an invaluable Satyajit Ray-Marlon Brando interview from the 1960s was accidentally taped over – by our state-run TV channel, no less. When I have contacted family members of deceased directors, cinematographers or scriptwriters, it often transpires that there are no extant documents about their work, or that the family has little information or insights to share.

Things are not much better when it comes to chronicling other aspects of our cultural past, including the events and movements that continue to shape our thoughts today. Which is why one of the more heartening byproducts of the Indian-English publishing boom has been the arrival of such books, which are well-researched but also written for a general – as opposed to an academic – readership.

A recent example is Akshaya Mukul’s Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India, an excellent history of one of the country’s most influential publishing ventures, Gita Press, which was founded in 1923 by the Marwari businessmen Hanuman Poddar and Jaydayal Goyandka. Through its bestselling publications – including the monthly journal Kalyan, which has a circulation of 200,000 – Gita Press has for decades propagated an idea of India that is based on Hindu supremacy and a rigid interpretation of sanatan dharma. Mukul’s book traces how this came to be, the personalities and philosophies involved, and the complex ways in which the project intersected with the ideologies of such prominent people as Mahatma Gandhi, who had a cordial relationship with Poddar but who also decried the latter’s views on the caste system and other social ills.

So much ground is covered here – in the fields of historical research as well as analysis – that this book deserves multiple readings. One of its most stimulating chapters centres on the Gita Press’s obsession with preserving the purity of the Hindu woman and in laying out her duties and proscriptions, notably through a 46-page monograph titled Stri Dharma Prashnottari (Questions and Answers on Women’s Dharma), which took the form of a conversation between two women. In this dialogue, Sarala is the simpleton who asks questions about women’s rights and responsibilities, while Savitri – a stand-in for the “ideal woman” – gives her the answers. For instance, on the question of education, Savitri states that Western education – which can have the effect of making women question traditions – is a no-no; they should read only religious epics and texts. On the few occasions that Sarala asks a provocative question or adopts a challenging position, she is met with sophistry: when she cites cases of physical abuse towards women and wonders if husbands don’t have any responsibilities, Savitri replies that what women should be concerned with is their own dharma (stri dharma), irrespective of what men do.

All this makes for absorbing reading, but Mukul’s book reminds us that it would be a big mistake to see the monograph as an antiquated product of its time. Though first published in 1926, it is still in print, having sold over a million copies, and continues to provide “moral guidance” to generations of people – women and men – who haven’t had the benefits of modern education.

I didn’t know much about Gita Press before I read this book, but Nandini Chandra’s The Classic Popular deals with publications that I savoured as a child and still sometimes turn to for comfort reading: the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) comics started by Anant Pai in 1967. Chandra’s book, which began life as a dissertation, is notable for its analyses of the visual iconography of ACK. It includes plenty of artwork from fondly remembered old comics, but
the ACK fan will feel some discomfort too, since Chandra often uses those images to demonstrate how they have subtly manipulated readers’ perceptions of mythological and historical characters, or affirmed stereotypes. Thus, the dominant male gaze is pandered to in such scenes as the one where Arjuna abducts Subhadra and her skirt is shown rising up to reveal her legs; a bullying schoolteacher – whose background we know nothing about – is drawn with a moustache-less beard, thus subliminally identifying him with Muslims (who usually figure as the “others” in these comics); Rajput women who are about to immolate themselves rather than submit their honour to invaders are drawn in a way that accentuates their voluptuousness and potential for ravishment.

If Chandra’s book made me feel ambivalent about a key aspect of my childhood, Ambi Parameswaran’s Nawabs, Nudes and Noodles: India Through Fifty Years of Advertising was a much less complicated source of nostalgia. For a boy who grew up in the Doordarshan era, the very chapter titles make the heart sing – “Ab main bilkul boodha hoon, goli kha ke jeeta hoon” and “I am a Complan girl! I am a Complan boy!” being just two of them. This book chronicles some of India’s major advertising campaigns, using them as prisms to look at the country’s sociological history:
what do these ads tell us about the changing roles of women, children and elderly people, for instance? Or the ways in which we have consumed various categories of products and services, ranging from milk to junk food to wedding jewellery. Parameswaran adds the necessary personal touch by drawing on many of his own experiences from a long career in advertising.

But to return now to my preferred subject, film literature. Many books in recent months have covered aspects of cinematic history that are in danger of being forgotten – these include biographies of old-time stars (such as Mekhala Sengupta’s Kanan Devi: The First Superstar of Indian Cinema) or exercises in documentation, notably The Pather Panchali Sketchbook, which brings together all the sketches Satyajit Ray had drawn for his seminal 1955 film (the drawings were once thought to have been lost by Paris’s Cinematheque Francaise museum) and Sidharth Bhatia’s The Patels of FilmIndia, about the caustic film-magazine editor Baburao Patel, bane of many moviemakers and stars of the 1940s and 1950s.

And then there is Ziya Us Salam’s Delhi 4 Shows: Talkies of Yesterday, an affectionate collection of pieces about what it was like to be a movie-watcher in Delhi in the pre-multiplex era. There are many entertaining stories here that will leave today’s youngsters wide-eyed even though they involve relatively recent history. Such as the ones about theatres that had private boxes for burqa-wearing ladies, or the shrewd promotional strategies followed by hall-owners, who even hired special buses to fetch viewers from the railway station. This book brings alive memories of single-screen halls – or “talkies” – of the past, many of which continue to be landmarks and monuments of the city long after they ceased to be functional. Like the other histories mentioned above, it is reminder of how the past constantly interacts with and informs the present. 

[A longer piece about Delhi 4 Shows is here]

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A love story about corpses: on KR Meera's The Gospel of Yudas

[Did this review for Scroll]

“I had heard that the blood-red, gooey mud at the bottom of the lake had magnetic power. Once you were trapped in its field, you couldn’t escape. There was another lake boiling underneath the bed of this one. I wanted to get there. The upper lake tried to stop me.”

Being mesmerized, so that you don’t want to escape, and constantly aware of other layers beyond the one you’re engaged with… such can also be the effect of reading KR Meera’s strange, compelling novel The Gospel of Yudas. On the face of it, this is a story about a woman pursuing an enigmatic man for half a lifetime – the words quoted above come from Prema, who is 15 years old when her narrative begins in 1985 – but there are other, ghostly currents flowing below that plot synopsis.

The man whom Prema is besotted with is Yudas, who spends most of his time retrieving corpses from the village lake. The bodies are mainly those of revolutionaries, including people who may have died after being tortured by the state (of which Prema’s father, an ex-cop, was an instrument), and Yudas is probably a Naxalite or one-time Naxalite himself.

For Prema, he is also “the champion of my liberation struggle”, who “carried the burden of human sins to redeem this world”. She asks him to teach her how to swim, but what she really wants is to sink, to achieve full immersion (in the lake, or in a cause?). She seems fated her entire life to fantasise about being a revolutionary without quite getting to be one, and Yudas is her ever-receding window to that world.

This is a disquieting book, its off-kilter quality coming from its mixing of conventional narrative with allegory, hard politics with abstractions about human lives and desires. At times it behaves like a story with a straightforward arc and identifiable plot strands (such as Yudas’s tragic love for a woman named Sunanda, or Prema’s meeting with her father’s superior officer, once known as the Beast but now a fragile old man), but it isn’t interested in a clear resolution. Instead it works throughout on a symbolic plane, where a reader, simultaneously fascinated and frustrated, is invited to make conjectures and ask questions like: what does the lake stand for?

Here is one possible answer (and this isn’t necessarily what the author intended): the lake’s depths represent the tug of idealism and the activist spirit; the desire to rebel against crushing, unfeeling authority. But beyond this village lake, there are – as Yudas reminds Prema at one point – bigger water bodies, markers of a larger world. As human experience broadens, as people grow older and more world-weary, they also let go of ideas that were once important to them. Except for a chosen few like the brave Sunanda and the other bodies claimed by the lake – people who never got the chance to become jaded or complacent.

It is tempting to see The Gospel of Yudas – with its many references to Naxalism and to real-world events such as the 1970s Emergency (and other possible dictatorships lurking in the future) – as a purely political story. But in its gentler, more reflective passages it is also about more general things. It is about mad love, and about what we lose and gain over time. (“I am an old man now,” Yudas tells Prema in one of the book’s starkest, most moving passages, “Time to let go of everything.”) It is about the all-consuming nature of power. And one of the most pressing questions of all: is it better to plunge full-heartedly into a cause, sacrifice yourself to it so completely that you might never surface, or to grapple with the smaller, more quotidian challenges posed by a long life? “I was alive,” Prema says near the end, “In this world, for poor people like us, oughtn’t the sheer act of being alive be counted as a revolution in itself?”

“Revolutions do not cease. Little people persist.”

In the beginning, though, she had warned us that this was going to be a story about cadavers. She is talking about the dredged-up corpses, but she could also mean the living dead who watched their opportunities slip by, constantly doomed to wonder if they made the right decisions, if they were too cowardly when it mattered. This book is an elegy for both sorts of people.


The Gospel of Yudas was first published in Malayalam as Yudasinte Suvisesham, and has been translated into English by Rajesh Rajamohan. Speaking with the disadvantage of having no knowledge of the original, I felt it didn’t read as fluidly as Hangwoman, J Devika’s translation of Meera’s wonderful Aarachaar. There is some casualness in the prose, which is fine – it could be an attempt to relay the earthy, conversational timbre of the original – but there is some awkward phrasing too, some moments that felt off-key or jarring – sentences like “My father’s generation rolled up and down to rid themselves of my generation’s bravery and grit to love, trust and fight”, or “Come inside, he invited.”

There are a few outright mistakes too: “She had a flowing long hair.” And surely the line “he seemed to recall the name from his memory” could have dropped the final three words without losing any fealty to the original text.

This sort of thing took me out of the story at times, but it is compensated for by the fact that the content itself is so evocative, and the dilemmas of Prema and Yudas so easy to empathise with as we move back and forth between them. Reading this book, I was occasionally reminded of Max Ophuls’ beautiful 1948 film Letter from an Unknown Woman, another story about a young girl – who
grows before our eyes into a woman – being obsessed with a man and encountering him at intervals in her life. As the years roll past in that narrative, the two characters change in different ways, and though the woman is our point of entry into the story while the man is a cipher, we eventually come to wonder about his inner life as well. Something similar happens in Meera’s book, which is a big story about political struggle, about history’s forgotten heroes and footnotes, but also an intimate account of two people repeatedly passing each other like boats in the night, buffeted along by the undercurrents of a deep and dark lake.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Why you mustn't trust anything (least of all the human mind) - plus 2 encounters with Gulzar

[My Mint Lounge column for this week]

One of the most fun things I did last year was sit down with a group of critics and filmmakers to draw up lists of must-watch films for a magazine. Over a freewheeling conversation that spanned everything from Orson Welles’s distinguished Citizen Kane to Kanti Shah’s disreputable Gunda, from Akira Kurosawa to Manmohan Desai, we were clear that this was a purely-in-the-moment exercise – we weren’t aiming for a definitive collection of Greatest Films.

Actually, we weren’t even aiming for a signed-and-sealed list of our own favourite films, because we knew how easily one’s feelings and prisms can shift; how, as we gather new life experiences and change as people, our reaction to a film (or book) can alter dramatically. For instance, you probably know what it’s like to feel a strong sentimental connect with a movie at first viewing, but to find it manipulative on a subsequent watch (whereupon you feel sheepish about your earlier reaction). This can run in the other direction too – I often find that I am a more “emotional” viewer today, more open to films and scenes that I might once have thought mawkish or over-the-top. And perceptions can change in other ways: after watching news coverage of an aged Dharmendra weeping like a baby at his brother’s funeral last year, I doubt I will be able to see the actor’s emotional scenes in old films (some of which came across as amusingly hammy) through the same lenses that I once did.

Some might feel that this admission to subjectivity makes all criticism pointless. But that’s only if you believe the main purpose of reviewing is to supply a final assessment or stamp – the equivalent of the star rating, so loathed by most serious film buffs. Good criticism is a lot more than that: it should be good, engaged writing on its own terms, containing the rigour that an essay on any other subject should have, and not intended to tell the reader “Watch this” or “Don’t watch this” but to provide a sensitive, informed, well-articulated perspective, and possibly to say: “Here is one way of responding to this work. What do you think?”

What about reportage – isn’t that more objective and reliable? I know people who think a research-driven biography has more inherent value than a critical study (“mere opinion”) does. But memories are more fluid and unreliable than we realise. Here is a firsthand experience that was both startling and a little demoralizing for me. Three years ago, while collecting material for a book about Hrishikesh Mukherjee, I had a very pleasant phone conversation with Gulzar, who had worked closely with Mukherjee – as lyricist
and later as dialogue-writer – on many well-loved films. One of those films was the 1973 Jaya Bhaduri-Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Abhimaan. Gulzar-saab told me about how he had worked day and night to produce a screenplay on a short deadline, but eventually, after the script underwent minor revisions, his name wasn’t included in the credits.

And this, he said, was not unusual for the “middle cinema” of the time, though it might sound strange to us today. Mukherjee was helming many projects simultaneously, with different teams of writers contributing bits and pieces to various screenplays. Since his producers weren’t willing to shell out full salaries to a large number of writers for each film, the opening credits were sometimes “manipulated” – writers’ names were distributed across films to ensure that everyone got fair treatment. “We understood the reasoning and were fine with it,” Gulzar-saab told me on the phone then, “it was a genial family atmosphere and we were all learning – there was no unhealthy competition.”

This information, along with his quote, went into my book as a testament to the communal spirit in which those movies were made. No wonder then that I was a little shaken when I met Gulzar-saab at an event a few months ago and found that his memories of those days were no longer so cheery. He had been under the weather, or maybe he was just in a bad mood – whatever the case, when our conversation turned to Abhimaan, his face darkened. “Itna bura lagta thha,” he muttered, “itna kaam kiya uss film ke liye.” (“I worked so hard on that film, and felt so bad.”) Speaking as much to himself, sotto voce, as to me, he mentioned an older writer who had been in financial distress at the time the film was made, and who was given writing credit as an act of compassion.

By the end of our little exchange, the veteran writer was sounding more like a raving Lear than the kindly man I had spoken with earlier, remembering warm old days spent in the company of a mentor. It was a reminder that if a critic or researcher has biases or blind spots, the same can be true for his subject. Keep that in mind the next time you read a quote in a biographical work, even when you have full faith in the author’s integrity.

[Some earlier posts on reviewing and criticism are here. And a post about Gulzar-saab here]

Thursday, July 21, 2016

ISIS brides in a spiritual wasteland: on Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane

[Wrote a version of this review for Open magazine]

Read a novel about religious terrorism these days, and chances are that there will be an unintended resonance with a real-life incident. A few days after last month’s terror attack at Istanbul airport, I was a third of the way through Tabish Khair’s Jihadi Jane, reading a brief passage set in the same location. Nothing dramatic happens, but this is in a way the story’s transitional moment, the point of no return for its two young protagonists. The narrator Jamilla and her friend Ameena have just arrived in Istanbul from England, with the intention of travelling on to Syria, becoming “jihadi brides” and joining the Daesh movement that will soon be more widely known as ISIS. The airport – a sterile, homogenous space, as airports tend to be – is their last contact with the world they have left behind, as well as a pathway to the possibilities ahead. Imagining a fusion of  life and fiction, I thought: what if the terrorists had launched their attack while Ameena and Jamilla had been here, thus inadvertently killing two of their own future recruits?

The book’s first few chapters have already given us the bare bones of the friendship between the two girls as they go to school together in Yorkshire. Ameena, a child of divorced parents, leads a relatively liberal life – she smokes cigarettes, she has boyfriends – compared to Jamilla, who is from a conservative family, headed by a father who mocks “convent-educated Indian Muslims” and laments that he has to live and work in a godless country, an “island of impurity”. But soon Ameena’s circumstances change, her views about faith become hardline – more than Jamilla’s – and the two friends are seduced by the idea of joining the Islamic State. Their point person is a vibrant, seemingly good-hearted woman named Hejiye, whom they meet on the internet, and who runs an orphanage in the Syrian heartland.

These early sections set up the story by reminding us what religion can mean to different people, and the many possible reasons for turning to it. It can be an extension of the loyalties you feel towards your parents and their histories; a source of personal solace when you suffer heartbreak; something that binds you to a larger group or community; or even just a way of passing the time. And each of these imperatives can lead to something very intense before one realizes it. What combination of factors, personal and political, led Ameena to become so radicalized that she lectures other devout Muslims on the proper way to break the fast? How is fanaticism born? One chapter ends on a chilling note, with Ameena disapprovingly saying “We Muslims get more fussed about what’s proper than about faith” – a variant on the idea that the strictures of “divine revelation” from hundreds of years ago should take precedence over everything else, even commonsense humanity.

Khair has always been a sensitive storyteller, even when dealing with very dark subject matter. Jihadi Jane doesn’t have the formal experimentation – the jigsaw puzzle-like narrative structures – of his early novels The Thing about Thugs or Filming. Nor does it have the humour of How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position, a book that also touched, more obliquely, on religious fundamentalism. But that was a story located in a safer setting and was largely about toying with readers’ expectations, sweeping the prayer rug out from under our feet; Jihadi Jane, on the other hand, takes us straight into the heart of darkness with two young women who are barely prepared for what is to come.

What they know, or think they know, is how difficult it is to live as a Muslim woman in the West, feeling constantly judged by those who assume that you are oppressed; and how this can make you more rigid and defensive about your culture, including the less savoury aspects of it. As Jamilla puts it, they are two girls freshly out of school, looking for “a life that made sense”.

What they find is a physical as well as a spiritual wasteland. In one of the novel’s most affecting little moments, Jamilla, meeting Hejiye for the first time, asks about the cat whose photo she saw on Hejiye’s Facebook account. We can tell that, having made this journey to a new life in the name of ideology, she is still searching for a familiar, anchoring experience. Instead there is desolation (the words “meagre” and “meagerness” occur more than once in her descriptions of the landscape around the orphanage), there are people who have little time for the seemingly trivial but necessary minutiae of life, because they always have their eye on the large picture; on what was revealed to their people by God, and what their duties to this revelation are today. Hejiye’s reaction is interesting too: she doesn’t at first understand what Jamilla is referring to, then tells her the cat had vanished the previous year. We are left to consider the possibility that cute photos on social media might be one of the little snares that can help draw people into the fundamentalist fold.

Jamilla’s desire to connect with the cat – to perhaps care for it – finds an echo in an important subplot later in the story. After Ameena, fortified with a packet of fake China-made hymens so she can pretend to be a virgin, marries a jihadi named Hassan, she becomes protective towards a ten-year-old servant boy. The boy, being from a tribe of “devil-worshipping” Yazidis, is regularly mocked and bullied by her husband. There is some obvious symbolism here – the child as the innocent who must be saved from evil, Ameena as the saviour putting her own life in peril – but this plot strand adds heft and immediacy to her actions in the book’s final, breathless passages.


It’s fun to imagine what Jihadi Jane might have read like had it been in the voice – complete with Yorkshire dialect – of the volatile Ameena, whose experiences are also more dramatic. But the book’s tone is shaped by Khair’s decision to make the moderate, grounded Jamilla the narrator. Her voice combines gullibility and pedantry, especially as she starts to grasp the implications of her new life. “It did not make sense any more, this intense hatred and violence being practiced in the name of a religion that stood for peace.” (But what had she expected, exactly, when she signed up to become a “militant bride”?) In some passages – such as the one where she admits that the secular world, for all its flaws, at least afforded one the chance to be exposed to a variety of views – it feels like Khair is using a naïve narrator as a convenient tool to spell things out for the naïve reader.

However, Jamilla is also disarmingly hesitant and self-questioning, often using phrases like “Looking back, I wonder why I…” and marveling at her own past innocence. It is indicated that she is telling her story to a novelist who, in a public speech, cuttingly suggested that people who ran off to join terrorist groups should never be allowed to return to civilization. Her story, then, can be seen as both a self-lacerating confession and a plea for understanding.

A minor problem I had with the narrative was that it becomes a little dry and static once the girls begin their journey from Istanbul to Syria: the conversational passages in the early chapters yield to pages and pages of almost journalistic description, and some of it reads like a pat primer to the Islamic and Islamist worlds. Also, I felt that by offering us two easy targets for our loathing – Hassan the glowering villain whose blood-thirst flows from some dark well in himself rather than from genuine belief; Hejiye the manipulative authority figure who lets others perform sacrifices – Khair was being a little soft on religion itself, on its millennia-old capacity to provide a conduit for the blackest impulses in human nature. But perhaps one should make the necessary distinction between author and narrator. The words we read are Jamilla’s, after all, and while she gains in wisdom over the course of the story, she won’t relinquish her own version of faith.

Speaking of the world she left behind for ISIS, she says: “I had so often rejected that world for being imperfect and thus an affront to the perfection of my God, but its human imperfection was exactly what I had grown to respect in this place where all talk of perfection and purity led, by a straight and narrow road, directly to suffering, mistrust, destruction and death.”

Reading this, a part of me wished Jamilla’s epiphanies had taken her one step further: to seeing that religion by its very nature (not just its supposedly "corrupted" or "misinterpreted" variants) lays the bricks for that narrow road. But of course, she is under no obligation to share my (possibly hardline) atheist feelings on the subject. And eventually, it is a testament to Khair’s storytelling skills that a reader who feels very differently about faith than Jamilla does should find things to be stimulated and moved by in this story about one woman who finds dramatic redemption and another who is destined to a lifetime of soul-searching.


[Also see: this piece about Anees Salim, whose novel Tales from a Vending Machine is a much funnier story about a young Muslim girl who sometimes empathises with terrorists. And earlier posts about Khair's work are here: How to Fight Islamist Terror from the Missionary Position; Filming; The Thing about Thugs]

Thursday, July 07, 2016

Nawazuddin, child-killer: on film and the suffering of innocents

[from my Mint Lounge column]

At a time when much of our public discourse centres on how to deal with humour that is jet-black, offensive or tasteless – or some combination of the three – I think about the scene in the 2010 film Blue Valentine where Dean (Ryan Gosling) asks Cindy (Michelle Williams) to tell him a joke. Without missing a beat, she begins: “So, there’s a child molester and a little boy walking into the woods…”

By the time she ends her monologue (with the punchline “You think you’re scared, kid? I have to walk out of here alone!”), Dean is shaking his head in disbelief – but he is also smiling.

I thought the scene was very funny, and I’m hoping that doesn’t brand me as someone who covertly approves of the rape or murder of children. Maybe it was the context: Williams’s dry, droning recital of the joke; our knowledge that Cindy is a depressive who has been on the receiving end of abuse herself; the fact that Dean is a stand-in for the viewer who is simultaneously repulsed, amused, and gobsmacked by his own response. Or maybe it’s just a reminder that the synapses in our brains which respond to nasty, morbid humour live in separate compartments from the synapses that handle morality or empathy – and that both sets of things combine to make us the enormously complex clockwork oranges we are.

It’s easy to see why child-victimization is a taboo subject in situations that might be perceived as flippant. In the last century, images of ravaged children have typically been used as conscience-shakers: in documentaries about the Holocaust, for example, or those unforgettable photos of a baby being buried after the Bhopal gas tragedy and a scalded Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. But what if such images occur in a fiction film, as part of what is essentially a thrill-creating venture (even if it is mixed with compassion)? “Making a child die in a picture is a rather ticklish matter,” Francois Truffaut said, alluding to the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage, in which the heroine’s adolescent brother is killed by a bomb he is unwittingly carrying around, “It comes close to an abuse of cinematic power.”

One could say that the rules were different 80 years ago, and less was permissible on screen (in much the same way that the brute gangsters played by James Cagney and Paul Muni in 1930s films could never be shown using the F-word). But the type of film, the
intended impact, and the audience and culture it is made for, matters too: five years before Sabotage, in 1931, two iconic films – Fritz Lang’s M and James Whale’s Frankenstein – contained very effective child-killings, one brutal and premeditated, the other accidental**. And even today, such scenes can be provocative and can reveal a lot about cinema and its viewers.

Consider two manifestations of the theme in recent Anurag Kashyap films. Ugly ends with one of the starkest scenes you’ll see in a mainstream movie, one that includes an unblinking shot of the long-dead body of a little girl. Unpleasant though it is, the scene serves what most viewers would consider a moral function: over the course of the film’s narrative, the adults who were searching for the kidnapped girl repeatedly got sidetracked by games of one-upmanship and petty ego battles; now, at the very end, comes a reminder of what was at stake all along, and what the price of the distraction was. Innocence has been lost and sidelined, and our sympathies are entirely with the child.

Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 is a very different matter, an amoral work that employs the killer’s perspective – not to “justify” what he does but to show us what the world might look like to a warped or nihilistic mind, how his actions might flow organically from his basic nature. In the scene in question the psychotic Raman (an outstanding Nawazuddin Siddiqui) massacres a family; the little boy, tied to a chair while his parents are killed, is dispensed with last. We don’t see this murder being committed (a reminder that some taboos still exist), but in the next scene, as policemen clasping handkerchiefs to their mouths discover the carnage days later, we see brief glimpses of the decomposing bodies – including a long-shot of the child’s browning legs bent over the overturned chair.

As Uday Bhatia pointed out in his Mint review, Raman ultimately comes across as the less detestable of the film’s two villains (the other being the cop Raghavan) and this is remarkable, considering what we have seen him do to the family. Our growing fascination with Raman partly derives from the script, but in my view it also has to do with Siddiqui’s charisma and talent (and, to a degree, with the informed viewer’s subconscious rooting for this short-statured, dark-complexioned underdog who has made it big against all odds in an often non-meritocratic industry).

Weirdly, this is at least the third time in a recent film that Siddiqui has played someone who is involved in a child’s death. (I’m not counting Aatma, in which he plays a ghost who tries to persuade his little daughter to jump from the balcony so she can join him in the sweet hereafter!) In Te3n, his involvement was indirect and he wasn’t the bad guy. In Badlapur (directed by Sriram Raghavan, whose style and sensibility Raman Raghav 2.0 is a part-tribute to) the Nawaz character didn’t murder cold-bloodedly but he was responsible for the death. And now, as if to take things to their logical crescendo, we have this grisly scene in Kashyap’s film.

Ugly, though full of solid performances, has no one actor or character who takes over the screen and holds us spellbound – which is one reason why it’s so easy for us to return our attention to the little girl. But when I think of the most compelling moments in Raman Raghav 2.0, the image of the tearful boy is quickly overridden by the memory of Siddiqui’s hypnotic gaze, his wisecracking and his wild-eyed storytelling. It’s a testament to how a great performance or sharp writing can temporarily suspend our ethical faculties, and a reminder of why cinema can be such a seductive and terrifying engine at the same time.


** If you can think of a scene where a child dies as being tender, then the one in Frankenstein would be it – Karloff’s monster, so much gentler and more human than most of the people around him, is just trying to join the little girl in a game. Even so, the shot of the girl actually being thrown into the water was censored. And 40 years later, Victor Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive centred on another little girl being traumatized just by watching the Frankenstein scene.

[Related posts: Nawazuddin the pahaar-katva; Aatma; Ugly; an essential moment in The Spirit of a Beehive

Sunday, July 03, 2016

A French adventurer and his tiger in 1850s India: Captain Corcoran, translated

[Did this review for Scroll]

“You are knowledgeable, and you have proved it by speaking to us in fluent Hindustani, which none of us can understand. But, let’s see, are you…how should I put it…sly and cunning? Because you’ll have to be to travel in that country of cruel and perfidious people.”

The setting is the Academy of Sciences in Lyon, France, the time an autumn afternoon in 1856, and the country of “cruel and perfidious people” being referred to is faraway India – a land that, in the speaker’s imagination, is populated largely by dark-skinned savages and thugs. This speaker is the Academy’s presiding officer, a man of undoubted learning, but not quite a traveler: one imagines he rarely has a chance to interact with people from other cultures in their own environments.

The person he is talking to, on the other hand, is the intrepid adventure-seeker Captain Corcoran, who has volunteered to travel to India to search for a sacred text. Accompanying Corcoran on this journey will be his pet tigress Louison; she has come with him to the academy too, causing much disquiet among the scholars, who are not constitutionally suited to such activities as bounding from one end of a room to another to escape what they think is a man-eating beast.

On this note of broad comedy, and with promises of dangers to come, begins Alfred Assollant’s novel Aventures merveilleuses mais authentiques du Capitaine Corcoran, which was first published in France in 1867 and has only now been translated into English for the first time, under the title Once Upon a Time in India: The Marvellous Adventures of Captain Corcoran. The translator, the journalist-writer Sam Miller, suggests that the reason an English version was never published, despite the book’s popularity for decades in Europe, was its “overt Anglophobia”. This seems plausible enough. Corcoran, a dashing but quirky hero, enjoys taunting the British, and he gets plenty of opportunity to do so here, given that the narrative is set during a very delicate period – on the cusp of the 1857 War of Independence (or, from the British perspective, the Sepoy Mutiny).

This is a fast-paced, exciting book; you won’t need more than a few pages to sink into its narrative, which once had such luminaries as Jean-Paul Sartre in thrall. After that humorous beginning in Lyon (with academicians falling asleep while listening to a lecture, but presumably wide awake by the time they make Louison’s acquaintance), there is a shift of setting to a central Indian city named Bhagavpur, on the banks of the Narmada. Here, Corcoran and the tigress become caught in the affairs of the Maratha king Holkar, who is being besieged by both the East India Company and by traitors among his own people.

Encounters with British soldiers follow, including a tense attack in a temple inside a jungle. As the adventure reaches high tide, the chapter heads go from being long and descriptive to simply proclaiming “Charge! Charge!” and “At the Gallop! Hurrah!”, and Corcoran, composed though he usually is, finds himself in situations that call for wry exclamations (in Miller’s translation, he frequently says “Gadzooks!” and “By Jove!”). He still has enough time to fall in love with the king’s beautiful daughter Sita, though.

Much humour comes from the recurring scenario of Corcoran’s antagonists not realizing that his companion is a tiger, but there are other droll asides and commentary (When the chief does something stupid, his subordinates must be silent. It is always dangerous to have more sense than one’s chief), and delicious little moments such as the one where a group of British soldiers, mistaking Corcoran for a compatriot, press him for the latest West End gossip. Is Lady Susan Carpeth still the most eligible young woman of Belgrave Square, or has Lady Margaret Cranmouth replaced her?


Though this book was by all accounts a treasured comfort read for generations of Frenchmen (its popularity began to fade sometime around the Second World War), the writing process may have been a form of escapism for the author too – Assollant himself never visited India. This may explain the occasional anomalies and errors in the text (a Parsi is named Rao, for instance), as well as the snatches of wide-eyed exoticising: there are no snake charmers or rope tricks, but we do meet a much too grand and powerful elephant named Scindia, who carries both princess and tigress on his back while nimbly battling hordes of enemy soldiers.

Despite the occasional flight of fancy, or the presence of a few unsavoury or indolent natives, there is warmth in Assollant’s depiction of the Indians, particularly in the friendship Corcoran develops with the king. And there are other points of interest for the contemporary reader. At risk of sounding like one of those unbearable “patriots” who bristle with pride at any favourable mention of their country in a Western publication, it was weirdly pleasing to find, in a French action novel written in the mid-19th century, a familiar excerpt from the Ramayana, of all things. (The princess reads out the story about King Dasharath’s accidental killing of Shravan.) Or references to the 1857 rebellion that show a measure of sympathy for the freedom-fighters. “Within three months there will not be a single Englishman in India,” a character says in one poignant scene.

Of course, this book should, first and foremost, be enjoyed at the level of a fast-paced adventure story – you wouldn’t pick it up for nuanced observations about international relations, culture and imperialism. But it does have traces of those themes. Even with the knowledge that France had its own problematic colonial history, an Indian reader can take some vicarious pleasure in Corcoran’s very French disdain for the British “goddams”. Some of these passages are very entertaining (“If the English were in my dear Brittany as they are here in India, I would pick them up one by one, by the collar and the waistband, and throw them into the sea to fatten the porpoises”) – and yet, if you look closer, you’ll find that this story doesn’t so much set up French people as heroes and the English as villains; it mocks arrogance and privilege all round.

Corcoran, though sometimes presented as a superhero in terms of his strategic skills, is throughout a representation of the common man with simple needs and pleasures, who doesn’t hanker after power but is happiest when out exploring the world on his ship. In fact, when he does come into fortune late in the story, he is uneasy about it, and there is a remarkable conversation between him and a mutineer named Sugriva. “Who can we believe in?” Corcoran asks in response to a series of cynical observations by Sugriva, who has just likened all kings, even the ostensibly good ones, to bubonic plague. “No one,” replies the rebel leader, “because there is only one man in a hundred who would not be ready to commit crimes if he had absolute power […] everyone slides down that slope, without noticing.”

So here, in a genre novel of the 1860s – which we think of as a time of unbridled, unapologetic imperialism – is an exchange about how power can taint anyone, be he French, English or Indian. The passage also has an allusion to the caste system (we realize that Sugriva – a wise man in many contexts – is probably a Brahminnical bully in his dealings with low-caste people), and even Corcoran the hero must introspect about the possibility that he may be corrupted.

Arguably the only creature in this novel who is impervious to that sort of thing is the loyal Louison, and so in a sense it is fitting that she gets the last word, or snarl. I hope Miller translates the second volume of Corcoran’s adventures – even if it has nothing to do with India – so that we can rejoin the Frenchman and his cat friend on their travels.

[An excerpt from the book is here. This edition also includes a series of wonderful illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville, two of which you can see on the Juggernaut page]