Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Art of Shelle

Mustajab Ahmed Siddiqui, better known as Shelle, has been painting book covers for Hindi pulp fiction for many years now. The style is distinctive and has been copied by many imitators - you'll have seen it if you've ever glanced over a railway station bookstall at all the hindi books.

Here's a photo set of his covers. This contains about 50 of them - will add to the set as I scan books from my collection:

Blaft publications brought out a post card book of his covers, titled Heroes, Gundas, Vamps, and Good Girls: Hindi Pulp Cover Art. This contains 25 covers, and also a short blurb providing a translation and some context around the cover. The collage cover of this one's a piece of art in itself:

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Anchored to the Past

[The following book review of Farewell Red Mansion, by Sharat Kumar, appeared, with some edits, in the Deccan Herald a while ago]

One problem with reading a translated book is not knowing whether the negatives you find in the book were there in the original or whether they crept in during the translation and editing. It’s a bit like watching a ‘theater-print’ of a movie on a pirated DVD and wondering whether the colours were faded in the original or in the DVD.

The source of some problems in this book, though, is clear. The grammar has typically Indian mistakes – ‘the’s are missing where needed; odd usages of words come in sometimes – ‘would’ instead of ‘will’. There are also places where words that are ‘not quite right’ are used – for example, “it is too late to retrieve your steps”, where ‘retrace’ was the right word. The editing and translation definitely needed to be tighter.

But at points when the storyline goes off track, it isn’t obvious whether the Hindi version had the same issues. Towards the end, an unlikeable character suddenly turns desirable with no reason or rationale – this could have been an issue in the original Hindi as well. The way the climax is presented is a surprise and a letdown. All the little problems leave you wondering what a better-done version of this story would have been like.

The core plot itself is passable. The book opens with Samar coming back to Meerut, to meet his dying father for the last time. Afterwards, he decides to sell off the family house, the 'Lal Kothi' or Red Mansion, and starts looking around for a buyer. The house is on prime property, however, and there are many buyers, each trying their own methods to get their hands on the house. Samar and one other relative, Virendra, are the only morally upright characters here, and both are depicted as being anchored to the past. The story takes you through the corruption and hook-or-crook politics rife in small-town India. The events leave you feeling squeamish, like watching a saas-bahu serial or an accident waiting to happen, and yet wanting to know what happens next.

In parallel is the story of Samar’s father, Samarendra, and his wife Rukmini, set in pre-independence India. Samarendra is a college professor and Rukmini is an activist with the Congress party. The story follows them through three or four years as Rukmini makes fiery speeches, saves prostitutes, goes to jail, praises Gandhiji, and gives birth to Samar. All the characters in this segment are idealistic, good-looking, deeply philosophical, and so on, a complete contrast to Samar’s segment of the story.

The two parallel threads serve to underline the author’s viewpoint that values in India society have degenerated in the past few decades. However, with real people having an annoying tendency of being shades of grey instead of black and white, the corruption described in the book probably existed in all eras, so the pre-independence section seems painfully na├»ve. Looking at the book from this angle turns it into a literary version of "In our days, things were so much better…!"

One of the annoying things about the book is that every so often, characters launch into unrelated philosophical and historical discussions. This works if it’s well done (such passages are popular in Hindi literature), but in this case the language suddenly turns preachy and the reader is put off.

The original Hindi book, Lal Kothi Alvida, has been the subject of a TV serial, broadcast on Doordarshan. Sharat Kumar himself also directed a film, Duvidha, based on the novel. Besides this book, he has written two management related books, and novels and short story collections in Hindi.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Frodo is still around"

[This essay of mine appeared, slightly edited, in the Deccan Herald a couple of weeks back. In case you clicked on that link, the essay is in the second half of the page]

Frodo is still around

In the 60s, a strange bit of graffiti began appearing on walls in the US. “Frodo Lives!” it said. Frodo was Frodo Baggins, the diminutive hero of The Lord of the Rings, a fantasy novel by J.R.R. Tolkien, which had only just become available in a paperback edition, and so was beginning to reach millions of readers. The characters, the story, and the setting of the novel rapidly won over the hearts of the reading population, and brought Fantasy back into the mainstream. Rings had became a symbol of the times, sometimes identified with the hippie movement and sometimes interpreted as a pro-establishment story.
Rings also gave birth to a whole new subgenre: Tolkienesque Fantasy, with its wizards, elves, dragons, muscular heroes and medieval setting. More properly called Medievalist Fantasy, this has been the most common avatar of Fantasy until recently. Some of the most iconic Medievalist Fantasy books are: The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan, the lesser known but much richer Gormenghast series by Mervyn Peake, and the Conan the Barbarian stories by Robert E. Howard. Go to the Fantasy section of your favourite bookstore, and the Medievalist Fantasy titles are easily identified by their fantastic (pardon the pun) covers.
In 1997, the dominance of Medieval Fantasy was seriously challenged by a new book about a schoolboy who finds out he’s a wizard. The Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling, were set in London and around, and in a time period that was close to the current day, breaking the expectations from Fantasy books. There have been other such books before – the books of Charles de Lint come to mind – but the Harry Potter books have a magic all their own. They’re an endearing combination of kids’ school stories, adventure, and magic. Harry is neither superhuman, nor extraordinarily intelligent – in fact, some of his friends are smarter and stronger than him – but he’s braver and more determined than the rest. And, Rowling seems to say, that is what really make you a hero. The Harry Potter books were made into hit movies and video games as well, and even today, two years after the series ended, its popularity shows no signs of waning.
The success of the Potter books brought the focus back on two subgenres of Fantasy – Urban Fantasy, which is set in cities and towns similar to the ones we live in, and Coming-of-Age Fantasy, where the protagonists are young folks. There have since been dozens of books in these genres, more so in the latter. The Artemis Fowl series, a more action-oriented series with magical elements, is a good example.
Besides prose fiction, comics and movies have had their own high points in the Fantasy genre. Neil Gaiman, now better known as a prose writer, hit the big time with his comic series, Sandman, which was about the King of Dreams and his dark, quirky, world populated by beings from mythology and overlapping with our own. Unlike most other comics, this series had a proper beginning and end, and the characters were better etched than in most novels. In Hollywood movies, most fantasy films are based on books or existing concepts – The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings being good examples. But Japanese cinema, and especially Anime, has had a long tradition of original fantasy films, with Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, both by Hayao Miyazaki, being well known examples. Indian movies have had their own share of Fantasy, with movies ranging from Hatim Tai and Ali Baba aur Chalis Chor, to Ajooba and Jajantaram Mamantaram.
In India, the development of Fantasy writing as a genre has taken a different path, with different milestones. The first recognized prose work in modern Hindi, Chandrakanta, by Babu Devkinandan Khatri, was a fantasy. It was written in short chapters, called bayaan, which were published individually and distributed to waiting fans. Such was its influence that people learnt Hindi just to be able to read this book. After completing Chandrakanta, Khatri wrote several sequels, starting with the multi-volume Chandrakanta Santati.
Chandrakanta was set in a world of kings and princesses, and featured concepts that were borrowed both from Indian tales and Persian folklore. For example, it talked of a magical spell called Tilism, which was a kind of trap door world. Once it is entered, there is no exit until a puzzle or trick is solved, or else, until a specific person comes into the Tilism. Interestingly, one of the most popular Urdu fantasy books is the Tilism-e-Hoshruba, which was a sprawling multi-volume opus originally written by Muhammad Husain ‘Jah’ and Ahmed Husain Qamar in the late 1870s and 1880s.
Of late, there have been several writers in India writing in the Fantasy tradition. Samit Basu, with his Gameworld Trilogy, is probably the best known. But there are many others too, such as Appupen, who’s ready to release a fantasy graphic novel named Moonward in next month. Writers who are reinterpreting mythical tales, such as Devdutt Pattanaik, with his The Pregnant King, could also be said to be using Fantasy tropes, although in India, this is a thin distinction.
In many forms, in many media, Fantasy has been with us for a long time. Going by the way it has always reinvented itself to remain fresh, it probably will remain with us in the future as well.


Five must-read Fantasy series:
1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien. What, you haven’t read it yet?
2. The Harry Potter series, by J. K. Rowling. The series that brought children to books again.
3. The Sandman series, by Neil Gaiman. They’re graphic novels, sure. But the depth of Gaiman’s writing makes this one of the richest fantasy worlds ever.
4. Chandrakanta and its sequels, by Babu Devkinandan Khatri. It isn’t just one book, there are three multi-volume sequels as well. Ignore the soap-operatic Doordarshan serial, and read this amazing series in the original Hindi.
5. Discworld, by Terry Pratchett. A twenty-plus volume comic fantasy series set on a flat world that’s mounted on the back of a turtle. Oh, and Death himself is a major character in this series– he rides a horse named Binkie.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Just not in the order you wanted

Last weekend was bracketed by a very fun Friday evening and Monday evening, getting together with a bunch of great folks and talking. [Thanks, guys!] Reminded me of how few times I've had such conversations, ranging from books to music to plays, since I came to Bangalore. Discussions with colleagues have mostly been around office stuff, buying houses, or whatever the ToI got paid to print that day.

I also watched a movie called Bolt, which is nice if you like cartoons and/or have ever had a dog.

Got me thinking about how life tends to note down whatever you wish for, at random times, and then scramble up the order when it grants those wishes.

A long time back, when I was still in Pune, there was this evening when I stood at the main gate of my home, and looked around. The mango tree was dropping tiny raw mangoes every few minutes, and the fragrance was all around. The old family car was parked in the front yard, and I glanced towards the tall window next to the front door. The window extended all the way down to the floor, and as always, our dog was standing behind that window, barking happily at me and wagging his tail.

The thought came to mind that one day, all these things - the tree, the car, the window with my dog on the other side would remain as they were, and I'd wind up leaving Pune forever - perhaps with a change of job, perhaps with some change in mood or something else out of control. Then when I came back to visit, I'd see everything and remember the last time I stood here, like this. And then I'd get messages from my family - we've changed the car, the tree has grown, the dog is getting old, someone broke the windowpane and we changed it.

It didn't work out that way. A few months after that day, a crack appeared in the front wall of the house. To repair it, the workmen said, we must rebuild that wall. The window disappeared, and was replaced by a smaller one that didn't reach down to the floor. The mango tree got infected by some sort of worms, and began to dry up. The car got sold and replaced by another one.

And one night, after I'd gone with my dog to the vet, and been assured that he would be all right now, he died. We buried him at a spot he'd liked to go to when he was young.

Through all this, I remained there in Pune.

By the time I finally got a job offer worth looking at, and came to Bangalore, all the things I'd noted that long ago evening had disappeared. Life had gotten the order of my thoughts wrong.

Something tells me that by the time all the things I wish for right now are granted, they won't matter to me, or, Monkey's Paw style, will come true in such a way that I won't want them.

Excuse the melancholy mood, folks. Happens sometimes.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Backyard Bestsellers, or, Making it to the front page

As mentioned in my last post, I got asked to write an article on pulp fiction for the Deccan Herald, and the article was published in it's Sunday edition. First page. Lead story. Phew! :)

Here's the article as I sent it, with one minor correction that a couple of readers pointed out.

Gems in the Backyard

U.R. Ananthamurthy said, “Every language in India has a front yard and a back yard – except for English and Sanskrit, which only have front yards.” While the front yard of language grows serious literature and official grammar, back yards are where the fun parts bloom - stories written for entertainment, jokes, cartoons, ever-evolving slang, experiments. In the wildest, most uncontrolled, part of the backyard grows pulp fiction. It consists of tales written purely for entertainment, with literary merit being secondary. Pulp’s customers are the most demanding of all – they want their money’s worth of entertainment for every paisa they spend. Pulp is printed on the cheapest possible paper, produced in huge quantities, sold at the rock-bottom prices at places where people want something to pass time with on journeys– railway stations and bus stands.

A few decades back, pulp fiction used to be a major force in English-language publishing in the west. But English language pulp has gone through a selection process in the US and England. Of the hundreds of writers churning out pulp stories by the dozen in those years, the best have been chosen as favourites by readers, and are today considered classic. Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James Hadley Chase once started out getting published in the pulp format. Today they’re considered prose stylists and are held up as examples of how to write good, gripping stories.

This filtration process has only just started in India. It is held back by the peculiar contempt that the English media has for other Indian languages, and beyond that, by the contempt that the literary world in each language has for its pulp tradition.

Yet, the best of pulp writing in each language has its own fan base. Surender Mohan Pathak is one such writer who has developed a cult following in Hindi. He’s been writing detective and thriller novels for over 50 years, and has 269 books to his credit. Conservative estimates put his total sales at 2.5 crore copies sold – no mean feat. Most of his books have had an initial print run of 1 lakh copies. Ved Prakash Sharma is considered the largest selling writer in India, and his Vardi Wala Gunda alone is reputed to have sold over a crore copies. Numbers like this are par for the course in most Indian languages – Rajesh Kumar, who’s written over 1,500 Tamil pulp novels, writes 5 short novels a month, and in the 80s, sold over 1 lakh copies of each of his books in the first print run. Ibn-e-Safi is considered an iconic writer in Urdu, so much so that Agatha Christie considered him the only original writer of detective novels in the subcontinent. His books are still in print and selling well in India and Pakistan, 60 years after they were first published.

Like most other English-educated Indians, I was only vaguely aware of the size of this industry, until I noticed and bought a book titled The Blaft Anthology of Tamil Pulp Fiction one day. It was an excellently produced work, with a great range of translated stories from Tamil, and a section reprinting the original lurid covers. I wrote a review of it on my blog, and wondered when someone would give a similar treatment to Hindi pulp.

The next day, there was a comment from Blaft, asking me whether I would be interested in doing a translation from Hindi to English myself. After the initial hesitation, I was only too glad to take up the offer. Together, we zeroed in on a book called Painsath Lakh ki Dakaiti by Surender Mohan Pathak, which has sold over 3 lakh copies and has been reprinted 15 times, and decided to go to Delhi to talk to Pathak himself.

The trip was a revelation. Pathakji turned out to be a genial old Delhi gentleman who took the translation project as a lark – he gets 4 lakhs for the first print run of every Hindi book he writes, and the amounts involved in English publishing looked tiny to him. Besides him, we also met Mr. Rajkumar Gupta, who runs Raja Pocket Books, Pathak ji’s publisher. He wondered what the hullabaloo was over Chetan Bhagat – was a few lakh copies sold such a large sum in English? We also met Shelle, the cover artist for thousands of Hindi pulp books – he has been in the business since 1971 and takes just two days per cover painting.

Though I was awed by the numbers involved, all of these people said that the Hindi pulp industry has actually reduced in size. In its heyday in the 80s, there were five times as many publishers and writers. This was an era before the advent of cable TV and the new, slick Bollywood, when fans flocked to bookshops to buy the newest book of their favourite writer. At the time, English writing in India hadn’t yet turned into the official representative of India to the world. The world of Hindi pulp has since retreated into the background. It’s still huge and self-sufficient, but it’s unnoticed today by any but its fans.

The 65 Lakh Heist, the English translation of Painsath Lakh ki Dakaiti was published in April, 2009, by Blaft, and it’s one step towards showcasing the Hindi language backyard. While it may be the first time Pathak ji has been translated into English, it’s not the only project of its kind. Ibn-e-Safi’s books are being translated as well (by Blaft as well as Random House), and there is a sequel to Tamil Pulp Fiction in the works. Several other publishers are now considering going along a similar path.

Indian Pulp fiction has made in mark on other media as well. Agent Vinod, hero of several 60s pulp books, not only featured in an eponymous 1977 movie, but is also the topic of Sriram Raghavan’s newest movie project, starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor. Several of Ved Prakash Sharma’s books have been made into Bollywood movies, and Gulshan Nanda (though his work lived in the area between pulp and popular fiction) even scripted several movies himself – including Kati Patang and Neelkamal. Several Tamil pulp writers moonlight as scriptwriters for movies. And Parshuram Sharma and S.C. Bedi, who specialized in horror and Young Adult books, respectively, also did many Hindi comics.

Theodore Sturgeon famously said, “99% of everything is crap.” The rule applies to every kind of media and entertainment. But a corollary would be, “About 1% of any media is good.” Dashiell Hammett and James Hadley Chase rose into that 1% of English pulp, and are now immortalized. Are we making any effort to find the 1%, the gems, in our own languages’ backyards?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Press Coverage part 3, and some random thoughts

As you'd expect from a nerd like me, I've been googling for "65 lakh heist" three times a day for the past month. Which has shown me a few interesting things. First, that the number of results changes every hour or so. Doesn't necessarily go up, though. There seem to be websites that just aggregate all possible search terms and populate junk pages with them, and Google finds them a couple of times and then somehow removes them from search results. So you see 712 results now, and 715 results in an hour, and back to 690 the next morning. Fortunately, Google removes most of these dummy results so you don't have to wade through them.

The same sort of situation happens for book sales in the real world. My info on whether the book is doing well comes from Blaft, who get it from their distributors, who get it from... dunno, bookshops and regional offices and whatnot. So I still don't know whether or not the book's doing well enough. Oh well. At least all the reviews so far have been positive.

Speaking of which:

Chandrahas Choudhary wrote a glowing review of the book for Mint, and also posted it on his blog, The Middle Stage. The same post also became the first syndicated column of his that featured on Ultrabrown. Going by Google results, this dude is (justly) awesomely popular - more than half of the genuine results of my daily search are folks who list him on their blogroll, and so have a link to his review on one side of their blog.

Ullah Faiz, over at the UTVi site, writes a post in which he reviews both Daniyal Mueenuddin and 65 Lakh Heist. Good to hear 65 Lakh Heist get mentioned in the same breath as the newest literary sensation :).

The Global Post is an American agency that runs a website featuring articles by independent reporters. Several of these articles get syndicated by mainstream media. Mark Scheffler posts a video interview and short article on Global Post featuring Pathak ji reading from the book, and also comparing his writing to toothbrushes and pizzas (?).

The Global Post article makes its way to the blog of The Complete Review, a world literature site.

Besides all these, Blaft takes an interview of Surender Mohan Pathak himself, recording a long video, and turning it into a proper interview on YouTube. Watch this one!

Sridhar Raghavan, yes, *the* Sridhar Raghavan, mentions The 65 Lakh Heist as his most recently read book in an interview with Tehelka magazine. Hope he passes it on to Anurag Kashyap too...

There's one more interesting development. Deccan Herald asked me to write something about pulp fiction last week, which got published in their Sunday edition. Will post the text of that article in a separate post.

Now if only I could figure out how the book itself is doing!

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Eating Kulfi in Delhi

A couple of weeks back I was in Delhi, attending a launch party for the book (will write in more detail about that in the next post). The day after the party, I and my wife and father had some time on our hands, and we did some sightseeing.

Before pushing off to the Qutub Minar and so on, Dad told us about a nice place in Karol Bagh which served good snacks - we could have a good brunch there. And so we set off. We had chat, lassi, pakodas, and then I thought of having a plate of kulfi to end things.

The menu for kulfi had some six items on it: Apple Kulfi, Orange Kulfi, Muskmelon Kulfi, Malai Kulfi, and some other stuff. I chose Orange Kulfi, to see what it was like. After taking the money, they said they were out of Orange, would I like Muskmelon, since it was the same price?

Okay, I said.

Behind the counter, two guys set to making the kulfi plate. Now I don't know what sort of kulfi you've had, but from what I know of it, a plate of kulfi usually involves one stick of kulfi, sliced into four or eight pieces, with some toppings. Since this was Muskmelon kulfi, I expected that they would either put bits of melon on top, or have it mixed into the milk while making the kulfi.

About 10 minutes went by. They were still readying the plate. At one point, I noticed them put a large pile of kulfi-coloured pieces in a plastic plate, push the plate to one side, and continue cutting. Ah, I said to my wife. They seem to be cutting the entire day's supply right now since we're the first folks to order Muskmelon Kulfi.

Finally, the two guys turned towards us, each holding a plate piled high, and put them on the counter. One of them called to me and said, "Leejiye sir."

I must have looked confused, because the guy continued, "Aapki Kharbooja kulfi."

I said, "I only ordered one kulfi." From the size of the plates, it looked like half a dozen kulfi sticks had been cut up.

"No, this is one plate. It's one muskmelon stuffed with kulfi."

I stared at the plates. It was indeed one complete muskmelon, opened out, filled with kulfi ingredients, and then closed and frozen, and finally cut into chunks. There was no way I could eat all that.

I carried the plates back to our table. Dad and my wife stared at them, then up at me. "How many plates did you order?" my wife says.
To make a stomach-churning story short, we finally picked out the kulfi parts, left all of the melon parts, and made sure to eat very light meals through the rest of the day.

When we'd finally finished the plates, my dad said, "Thank goodness they didn't have a watermelon kulfi option."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Invitation to a Reading

Here's where I'll be this Friday:

From 65lh

If you'd like to come, let me know. It should be interesting!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

The 65 Lakh Heist: Press Coverage, Part 2

A few more newspapers/mags have mentioned The 65 Lakh Heist over the past month. Here's a summary.

First, a couple of online-only links: BusinessWorld has a nice long review of the book on their web site. The reason they gave for not printing it in the mag itself is that we sent the book to them too late (?).

My friend George Thomas has talked about the book on his blog, here. Thanks, dude!

On to print mentions: Indian Express and Screen both carried the same story about Blaft, with some mentions of the book. The Screen story is here.

Timeout, all three Indian editions of it, carry a review of the book in their 3rd April edition. Here's the link to the Bangalore site.

For some reason, The Hindu's Trivandrum edition features the book in it's weekly reading list in its 12th March edition. Waiting for the remaining editions of the paper to pick it up.

Finally, one offline-only mention: Time Asia, THE Time Asia, has mentioned The 65 Lakh Heist as one of '5 Picks of the Week' in it's March 23 edition. Other picks are a Wong-Kar Wai movie and Eminem's newest album. Interesting company! :)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

What Delhi-6 made me feel like

People are still talking about how bad Delhi-6 was, so I thought of putting down my own experience here. I was reminded of this story after watching the movie:

[Close up of my face, narrating, as the screen dissolves into the past, and sitar-type music plays]

When I lived in Trivandrum, my parents joined up this organization of North Indians, called Sangam. We'd all meet every Holi and Diwali, some folks would put up a cultural show, and everyone would eat chewy puris and aloo subzi and other 'North Indian' food, then go home.

One year, the Cultural Secretary was this irritating guy who could turn any conversation into a sermon. He turned himself into the emcee of the evening. After the mandatory Ganpati prayer, he strode onto stage and announced a 'surprise contest'. The winner, he said, would get an 'interesting prize'.

A few naive folks perked up at this. Irritating Guy (I.G. for short), ushered a little girl into stage, and said, "This young lady has recently joined Sangam. I invite her to sing a song for you." The kid began singing - in Bengali.

After it was over, I.G. continued, "Now, I would like to challenge you all to guess where this young lady comes from. She just sang a Bengali song - she will sing some more songs soon."
After a couple of other skits, the girl came back, and sang a Marathi song. Then, later on, a Gujarati song.

I.G. carried a big box wrapped in shiny gift-wrap onto the stage, and said, "Please put in your name, and your guess as to what this lady is, onto a chit and put it into this box. The winner will get an interesting prize."

I was already annnoyed with the whole thing by this time, so I slipped off with my friends and played at cops-and-robbers in the parking lot. We could hear the sound from the hall from here, though.

The girl came once or twice more, to sing in two other languages. Then I.G. was back, "Only ten minutes more, friends! Please put in your guesses as to whether she is Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, or something else, and win a prize!"

One of my friends wanted to put in a chit. The rest of us were already finding something fishy about it, and didn't go.

Half an hour later, after the mandatory satiric Hindi skit and the folk dance, I.G. began again. "I have looked through your entries, friends! And I am sad to say, NONE of you got it right! You have all written Gujarati or Marathi. You have all turned this poor girl into a local person! She is not any of those, she is only an Indian, a Hindustani! It is this kind of thinking that is dividing our country! we must be together, friends, and not let these petty things divide us! We must consider ourselves Indians first and foremost! Repeat after me: JAI HIND!"

The response that followed was rather more muted than expected. But a few second later, an angry buzzing broke out from the audience. They had expected something stupid, but this was clearly even worse. I.G. got dozens of angry looks that evening during the puri-aloo-sabzi party. I overheard several people promise to each other that they wouldn't be voting for this guy to organize anything, ever again. I.G. probably never knew what he'd done wrong.


And that, ladies and gents, is the exact same feeling I had when I watched Delhi-6.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Holi in Bangalore

Our society secretary sent out a mail a couple of days back, informing us that the Holi bonfire would be burned last evening, and the celebration with colours on the morning thereafter, i.e. today. Not knowing quite what to expect, my wife and I decided to go to the bonfire.

There was a big crowd of folks all around the fire. When we'd started, my wife called up her mother and asked her what we were supposed to do at a Holi celebration. "Offer some money at the pooja," she said. "Take some mamraa, and sindoor, and..." but my wife had forgotten everything except the money part by the time the conversation was over. So I had some money in my pocket.

As we got closer, it became obvious that the crowd was almost entirely composed of North Indians. All young couples, some with little kids - the typical profile of the new Bangalore citizen. Our society is a pretty posh place, so lots of folks in Bermudas, cargoes, snazzy clothes, babies in prams, et al. I looked around for the Pooja thali, where I've usually been instructed to put money in, during previous religious functions.

There wasn't one. A couple of sari-clad ladies had their pooja thalis, and were just walking away from the fire having completed their ritual, but these were obviously not society-wide poojas. The noise level was lower than usual in crowds this size. A few folks were capturing the fire and the crowds on their handycams.

Someone began to walk around the fire, hands in a namaskar, lips mumbling a prayer. Three more people followed him. Many, many others looked at each other, unsure of whether they were supposed to do that. The girl next to me asked her husband if he wanted to do it. He replied with a laugh, "I could, but don't expect me to do this seven times." They finally stayed put.

There was an awkward silence, when all the conversations in a room stop suddenly. It struck me that no one here really knew what they were supposed to do for the Holi pooja. They'd seen their parents do something, and were gathered here hoping that someone would do it all and they would follow the lead. But here they were the parents. Worse, everyone was from a different state, so probably there was no common thing, no ritual, no comforting pattern, that everyone could fall back on. It was probably like this in every big society in Bangalore, this evening. The fire burned on, the only one here who knew what its job was.

A mobile phone began to ring, somewhere behind me. A voice answered it with a palpable sense of relief. "Hello? Yes, Happy Holi to you, too!... Yes, we're just celebrating Holi here... yes, all of our society, all together..." Technology had saved us all from a bad moment.

The next day would be easier, we said to ourselves. All we have to do is smear colours on each other and shout Holi Hai! And we headed back to our houses recently turned to homes.

I'd forgotten all about the money I'd taken along. I'll use it at Diwali, I thought.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Hey, I did that! has a post today about "Nature's Great Events", this amazing BBC nature program. There's a video clip there, too, from an episode where a giant school of sardines is attacked simultaneously by birds, seals, dolphins and sharks.

You know something? I've seen that episode. Very very carefully. Because my Mom and I subtitled it in Hindi! We were working as freelance subtitlers for C-DAC's subtitling cell a few years back and we got this particular episode to do. I don't know whether the BBC finally used those subtitles. Was an interesting experience, though. Later on, my Mom got another episode about polar bears, too, but I hadn't helped her with that one.

If I'd known then that the subtitling experience would come in handy in translation, I'd probably have been more enthusiastic about helping out :).

Sunday, March 01, 2009

The 65 Lakh Heist: Press Coverage

I woke up yesterday, the 1st of March, at 7 AM, and bounded to the front door to check out the newspaper. Rifled through it, didn't find what I was looking for. Tried to go back to sleep, but couldn't. Decided to check my mail.
There it was - a mail from a friend with links. The articles had been published in the Indian Express (which doesn't get to Bangalore), and the Delhi edition of Times of India (and not any other edition). So, one way or another, no one in Bangalore knew of any of this. Oh well.

But the Indian Express had a nice huge article, in all its editions. The link I got: . Scroll down about halfway through the right-hand list of pages, click on the page labelled "The Word". There you go. And in case you want to read the actual text: .

The Delhi ToI had a smaller article, more focused on Pathak himself, and on the experience of reading Hindi pulp. The epaper version is at . Select the date as March 01, and go to page 10. The article is on the lower right side. If you just want the text :,prtpage-1.cms .

Stay tuned for more self-congratulatory lists of links :).

Friday, February 06, 2009

At Kala Ghoda

The Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is, I'm told, a great place to hang out, see stuff and meet people. As a direct consequence of The Sixty-five Lakh Heist, and the discussions around it, I've been invited to participate in a panel discussion there. Yes, me, of all people. There are some very interesting folks on the panel, and Jerry Pinto is moderating.

One thing that should interest folks is that we'll be playing a short set of excerpts from an interview with Surender Mohan Pathak during this panel. There'll also be some talk about pulp covers in Hindi, Tamil and others.

In short, if you're in Mumbai on the 9th Feb, make sure you make it to the David Sassoon Library, by 8:30 PM. Would be nice to have someone in the audience who knows me, too ;).

Monday, February 02, 2009

Though it's not final and requires a bit of touch up, here's the cover page of the most important book of the year (as far as I'm concerned, anyway):

Painsath Lakh ki Dakaiti was a landmark in Hindi pulp fiction, when it first appeared several decades ago. It's been reprinted 15 times by 7 different publishers, and has sold more than 3 Lakh copies. It kickstarted a new genre in Hindi pulp thrillers - a hero who is a wanted felon, who's broken out of jail and continues to commit crimes.

And the cover above is of the translated English version, published by Blaft, coming out by the end of Feb.

Okay, so why is this the most important book of the year for me?

Forunately for me, the folks at Tehelka magazine have published the answer on their site, saving me the trouble. See for yourself.

So now I'm famous, apparently :)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Have you heard of Surender Mohan Pathak? Perhaps you've seen his name at Railway Station book stalls, the way I've been seeing since childhood. But here are ten things I hadn't known about him until a few months ago.

1. He writes about 4 novels a year. For each of these, he gets about 4 lakh rupees for the initial print run.

2. He's been writing since 1959. His first story, 57 Saal Purana Aadmi (The 57-year-old man), was published then. And his first novel, Operation Budapest, was published in 1969.

3. So far he's written 268 novels. The last was a murder mystery named Jaal, starring his popular press reporter character, Sunil Chakraborti. The book had the current economic downturn as a backdrop element.

4. The average print run of the first editions of his books is one lakh. That is, one lakh copies of each of his books are printed on first release.

5. Though Pathak had written about 50 books before he hit big time, his first claim to fame were translated versions of James Hadley Chase novels. Pathak's writing style - crisp, detail-oriented, and fast-paced - suited these books so well that other publishers began marketing their own versions of Chase in Hindi with his name on the cover as translator. Pathak took about 3 or 4 days to do each book during his free time in his office at a Telephone company.

6. Along with translating the Chase books, Pathak also translated Ian Fleming's James Bond books. Having done that, he wrote his own series of James Bond novels!

7. His 'Vimal' series of books, beginning in the 70s, was the first in Hindi pulp to feature a Sikh hero. The success of this series prompted many imitations, none of which did as well. Many fans consider this series, which has 38 books so far, as his best so far.

8. Pathak was the inventor of the word 'Company', as used to describe an underworld organization, in his Vimal series of books. So, the 'D Company' owes it's name to him.

9. Looking for a closure to the Vimal series, Pathak at one point killed off his wife to trigger a final confrontation. The public outcry at this was so huge that Pathak was forced to resurrect her. The method he used to do so was suggested by a fan in an impassioned letter to him - a double role. :)

10. Hindi pulp books get published on cheapo, thick, newsprint paper. Considering Pathak's popularity, his publisher, in 2008, decided to print his works on good quality white paper, with a higher price for the book. Popular opinion in the publishing industry was against this move since the market is deemed to be very price sensitive. However, Pathak's first book on white paper, Midnight Club , sold as well as if not better than the older versions. The plan now is to reprint the best of his work on white paper as collector's editions.

11. Yes, a bonus fact : In 2006, a young man named Sandeep Bhatnagar pretended to be a human bomb in order to loot a branch of UTI Bank. He was caught, and confessed that he'd picked up the plan from Zameer ka Qaidi, a book by Surender Mohan Pathak. "He probably hadn't read the whole book," Pathak told us(*) later, "Or he'd have known that the guy trying it gets caught in the book too."

(*) Who's us? Wait for the next post!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

[Part 1 of the Whole Story of how I came to doing this.

A few months back, I wrote this post on my blog, describing a book I picked up on impulse and loved. Towards the end, I wondered why no one tried a similar project for Hindi pulp. The question was prompted by a rather selfish motive - I'd seen these pulp books since childhood, and even read one or two by Colonel Ranjit - but had never had the courage to jump in. My reading speed in Hindi, anyway, was much less than English, and my vocabulary wasn't that great. It would nice to have someone find out about the Hindi pulps, especially the ones that had attracted my attention from the beginning - the detective novels and the horror and fantasy books, choose the best of the lot and translate them for me to read.

Rakesh Khanna of Blaft responded to my post almost immediately (see the comments on that old post). Was I interested in taking up such a translation project?

I was really taken aback. But thinking over it, it seemed like a god sent opportunity. I'd done some translation from Hindi to English for movie subtitles before, and had even helped my mother with Gujarati to Hindi translations. If interest in the books counted as a criterion, I was definitely the best guy for the job. I said yes.

The first chance I got, I went down to the Bangalore Railway station, and the bus stand next to it, to try and find some Hindi pulp to look over. Would you believe there's not a single shop in all of Bangalore that sells the stuff? It's either Kannada or English. Not enough readers to justify selling Hindi, apparently, though there are a couple of shops that sell serious Hindi literature.
I called up my relatives in Pune, Mumbai, Indore, Delhi to see if they could look up and send me some books. At the same time, I made another discovery - Surender Mohan Pathak has a fan club on Orkut! I joined the club and asked folks about which of his books were good and so on.

By then, I'd gotten a few books from folks in better-placed cities - one each of Surender Mohan Pathak, Ved Prakash Sharma, and Raj Bharati. Reading them through convinced me that Surender Mohan Pathak was the best of the three for a translation project. I also managed to get 'best-of' book lists from the Orkut group, from which I selected one good candidate to start with.

This was 'Painsath Lakh ki Dakaiti'.

Deciding that this would make a good translation was one thing. Actually figuring out what to do next, and how to start, was another thing entirely. How do I know whether I can do this? How do publishing rights for translations work? Would Pathak be interested in letting me do this? How do I get to him?

[The saga continues... wait for the next part, to be posted whenever my boss isn't around the office :) ]

Monday, January 19, 2009

Like most other things, it takes a while to polish one's responses to the standard questions: What do you do? Where are you from? What are your hobbies? Moving to a new company in Bangalore has forced me into creating simple, one-liner answers to these questions, even if not totally accurate.

For instance, when someone asks me what my hobbies are, my standard reply is, "I'm interested in everything except sports and politics."

I had someone ask me last week about it: It's a good thing, isn't it, to be so enthu about everything? Must be fun!

After thinking over it for a while, I have an answer to that: I don't know. At least, it isn't fun in the way you think it is. Here's what I went through when I was reading the newspaper - the leisure section - yesterday morning. My thoughts are in italics.

The back page has an article about Prince... they talk about his new album being a worthy successor to When Doves Cry and among his good stuff. Haven't heard Doves properly - I need to hear it. There's an article about Van Morrison performing Astral Weeks live somewhere. Aargh, haven't heard that either - I've heard nothing but Brown Eyed Girl.... The books page talks of a new collection by Arun Kolatkar. I need to get Jejuri soon and read it. Also this new one, The Boatride. And he mentions Nissim Ezekiel.. When am I going to start reading that collected poems set of his?

On to the movies section, and I go nuts. Wong Kar-Wai! I need to watch more of his stuff. Oh boy, how can I miss The Eiger Sanction? Clint Eastwood! Oh, Yojimbo's based on Red Harvest... I need to read more Hammett. Apparently, N.N. Kakkad was a big poet in Malayalam who combined tantric tradition and a modern sensibility. I need to find out about this guy.

On to the next page. Chettinad looks like a lovely place to visit. So does Mangalore. Wow, Skiiing at Auli. When can we go? Man, they're doing amazing stuff with resorts in Rajasthan - more heritage resorts! Do they serve Daal-Baati as well?

Wow, two new restaurants in Bangalore! Oh, one is all kebabs, so no point in going. But this other place serves stuff I don't know about! What are we doing next weekend?

And on and on - All that was only from one newspaper. It goes on all the time. The more you're interested in, the more you have left to do. There's no way to catch up and all you can do it to keep running, keep experiencing.

Doesn't mean I'd give any of this up, of course :).