Tuesday, October 10, 2017

'Impossible crime' and rational explanation: on Paul Halter's The Demon of Dartmoor

[This is the first of a few pieces I will be writing for Scroll.in about the workings of crime fiction, with an emphasis on neglected or under-read classics]


A spirited, self-absorbed young actor sits on a window-ledge posing for a photograph, and is then seemingly pushed to his death… with more than one witness independently swearing there was no one there to push him; that he appeared to have been “propelled forward”. The sense of menace builds when investigators realise that a very similar death had occurred 50 years earlier in the same old house, and that – more recently – a young girl fell off a nearby cliff after being pushed by an “invisible man”.

All this is happening in the misty Devon moors in the 1930s, and there is much talk of ancient legends, including a story about the Devil’s playing cards being scattered around a crime scene, and a headless horseman who may have been seen on one of the murder nights.

With such a premise and setting, it’s easy to think that Paul Halter’s 1993 novel Le Diable de Dartmoor – translated into English by John Pugmire as The Demon of Dartmoor – has supernatural underpinnings. Reading the story, we find that even the more level-headed residents of Stapleford village – among them a doctor and a teacher – think mystical forces could be at work.

But as it turns out, the solution to these mysteries is a wholly rational one, rooted in the human capacity for crime. And by the time the novel ends, most aficionados of the “locked-room” or “impossible-crime” tale will agree that the Frenchman Halter (not all of whose books are available in translation) merits his reputation as a successor to the celebrated John Dickson Carr, who specialized in this tricky subgenre of crime fiction.


The term “locked-room mystery” was once used in its most literal sense, to describe a crime – usually a murder – that takes place in a room bolted from the inside, so that there is no way for the killer to have got out, or even to have been there at all: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is usually seen as the first major example of this form. Over time, though, the term has become a more general descriptor for any sort of seemingly impossible crime where “howdunnit” is more important than “whodunit”. Take Agatha Christie’s widely read classic And Then There Were None (or Ten Little Niggers) – here, the “locked room” is a whole island cut off from the shore, where ten people die one by one, leaving the baffled police with multiple victims and no killer. Another favourite premise involves an open field where footprints can be seen in the snow, or sand, leading up to a crime scene, but none leading away. (One of my very favourite short stories in this vein is Fredric Brown’s “The Laughing Butcher”, about which another time.)

Naturally, plotting and executing such stories with any success requires an author to be highly skilled at the art of misdirection: at strewing red herrings about for us to slip on, using intriguing but ultimately irrelevant details to divert us while crucial information is consigned to the background or falls out of sight.

There are countless examples of such misdirection – almost as many as there are such novels or stories – and it’s fascinating to see how many different tricks the genre’s most prolific and inventive writers have up their sleeve. But one widely used technique is to use the possibility of the supernatural to confuse the reader, so that you’re not sure if what you’re reading is a ghost story – belonging to the realm of fantasy – or a mystery with a plausible, real-world explanation.

Take the oeuvre of Carr, who wrote so many novels and short stories both under his own name and as “Carter Dickson” that it won’t hurt to give away the denouement of just one of his stories (without naming it). This one centres on a young woman who dies after being savagely blinded – her eyes torn out – even though she is alone in a room with only one entrance and a single barred window set in the wall.

The final explanation lies in a pair of diabolically engineered binoculars which “stab” anyone who puts them to their eyes and tries to bring the lens into focus. Yet, throughout the story, Carr builds atmosphere by creating an almost gothic world of family curses, sooty stone towers, gallant swains and headstrong (or vulnerable) women; there are references to sinister black ravens, which signal death for someone who has transgressed. All this combines to create an effect that could easily have come from one of the great haunted-house tales.

In The Demon of Dartmoor (don’t worry, no spoilers here), Halter does something similar by mining our uncertainty about the nature of the mystery. Part of the trick is this: the multiple murders seem confounding when we look at them as a whole. If an apparently invisible antagonist is responsible for the deaths of three girls and one man in the present day, as well as another murder half a century earlier, surely something otherworldly must be afoot. But when you break the crimes down, treat them on individual terms, and allow for the possibility that just one of the witnesses might be mistaken (or lying) about a specific detail, a different picture emerges.

This is not to say that Halter cheats the reader – he is scrupulous throughout. The method by which Nigel the actor is killed while posing for a photo is clever and plausible, and also so obvious – after it has been explained – that you might want to smack yourself on the head. And we are given one important clue. But to figure out the solution, it is important for the reader to focus on the details of this one incident – including the witnesses’ description of the victim’s body language at the crucial moment – rather than get lost in a tangled forest where we are constantly thinking about invisible men, misty moorlands and ancient spells.

Halter’s prose, at least as one experiences it in translation, is only functional – nothing polished or literary about it – but there are a few clever decisions he makes at the level of sentence-phrasing. Consider the end of the chapter leading up to the actor’s death, after he has jumped up on the window sill for the picture, for an example of how an author can hoodwink a reader even while playing completely fair. (And I won’t say more.)


If supernatural allusions can be used to give a reader the chills, or create uncertainty about what direction the story is going in, occasionally they can provide a light touch too. In the delightful
short story “The Problem of the Old Oak Tree”, written by Edward D Hoch (another astonishingly prolific master of the impossible-mystery form), a country doctor named Sam Hawthorne relates a stumper he became involved with in 1927. During the shooting of one of the first sound films, a stuntman parachuting off a small biplane landed in an oak tree – with a reputation for being haunted – and was then found to have been strangled to death. How could this have happened?

In this case, the oak tree adds colour to the story – it certainly makes a visual picture of the death more striking and vivid – and some humour too. (“Even a haunted tree doesn’t strangle people with a piece of wire!”) But Hoch never encourages us to think that the tree might really have something to do with the killing: the story unfolds like a regular investigation, with little clues and conjectures piling up slowly, until Dr Hawthorne solves the murder.

And then, at the very end, having completed his narrative, he casually informs his listeners that the oak tree was around only for another year or so – it toppled over after struck by lightning. Much the same way that a supernatural-seeming tale might be felled by the thunderbolt of cold reason.


[If that sounds like I am coming down too heavily on the side of rationality, my next piece will centre on a terrific 1949 thriller that contains a practical explanation – and is full of characters who are sceptical and well-educated – but still doesn’t allow its smugly rationalist detective the final word]

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Kundan Shah, in memoriam

[Did this little tribute to Kundan Shah – whom I met just last week at the FTII – for Film Companion. More about Kundan in my book Jaane bhi do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983]


“I’m doing well,” Kundan Shah said when I asked about his health at the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune just last week. “There are ups and downs, of course. But I walk a lot, and as long as I can do that, I’ll be okay.” We were at the FTII to participate in a Hrishikesh Mukherjee tribute, and when I heard the shocking news yesterday about Kundan passing away in his sleep, my first reaction was to be grateful that I had those few minutes with him in Pune.

It was our last, and warmest, meeting. When I came down from the stage after a session, he was kind enough to greet me from the front row and say he enjoyed the talk. I played fly on the wall during a tea session as he chatted with old friends and colleagues about their institute days, discussing the difference between Bimal Roy’s and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s approach to shot-taking, or Guru Dutt’s and Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s use of melodrama. And beneath the FTII’s famous Wisdom Tree, we posed for this photo alongside Amit Tyagi, the dean of films who had, in another lifetime, played the small part of the bearded reporter asking Tarneja hard questions in Jaane bhi do Yaaro’s press conference scene.

Posting the picture on Facebook last week, I was presumptuous enough to call it “a mini-gathering of Jaane bhi do Yaaro people”. But then Kundan himself had told me, after my book about his film came out in 2010, that I was now officially “part of the team” – among the sweetest words I have heard as a writer-journalist, and it was unsurprising that they came from a lovely, down-to-earth man. A man whom I had come to think of as a friend, despite the 30-year age gap between us.

It hadn’t been like this in March 2009, when I rang the bell of his Bandra office for the first time. If I wanted his inputs for a book about Jaane bhi do Yaaro, he had said curtly on the phone, I must come to Bombay and meet him so he could gauge firsthand if I was the right person to do this. The initial few exchanges (“Arre, why do you want to write about this film? Who will read such a book?”) made me feel like I was in a job interview and had to speak in platitudes to prove my worth. But gradually, the ice melted. We began talking, and kept talking for another week – followed by another long series of conversations two months later.

Even once a rapport was struck, there was quite a bit of parrying: with him as the artist who could get evasive about his work, or just be uncomfortable about discussing it in too much detail; and me, the chronicler who probed, speculated, asked inconvenient questions or even said uneducated things. At the time, my experience of old Hindi cinema was limited, and Kundan sometimes got annoyed when I didn’t get one of his specific references, or when it turned out I hadn’t seen a film like Teen Bahuraniyan or Paigham, which had been a formative influence on his sense of comedy. You should have researched much better before coming here and trying to write a book about JBDY, he said in one of his sourer moments – though the crankiness never lasted more than a couple of minutes, and he lightened up on realizing that I knew Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

The overriding impression was of a very regular-looking man – a civil servant in a checked shirt, diligently keeping 9 to 5 hours (much like the Common Man Wagle from the TV show he directed in the 1980s) – whose head was full of zany ideas. So full of them that I have wondered at times if this didn’t become a kind of roadblock for him: he seemed to flit from one thought process to the next, he was constantly revising and tweaking, and this can sometimes prevent you from concentrating on one thing and getting it finished. I have a draft – one of many he wrote – of the mythical JBDY sequel which never got made, and it’s great fun to read (emerging after 25 years in jail, Vinod and Sudhir now find themselves in such an unapologetically corrupt India that they can only cope by growing little devils’ horns on their heads!) – but it is also all over the place, uneven and fragmentary, often incoherent and non-sequiturish.

But then, this would have been just as true for the original JBDY script, and look how that turned out.

We watched Jaane bhi do Yaaro together on his laptop. He laughed quite a bit, but more AT the film than WITH it – pointing out lapses in editing or an awkward moment in the acting or writing, shaking his head at continuity errors such as in the scene where Ahuja’s henchman becomes a different actor from one shot to the next. “If this film is being seen as the ultimate satire in Hindi cinema, all it tells me is that Hindi cinema hasn’t achieved much.” At other times, he remembered the background to each scene, or the many trials that the crew had undergone.

He was often self-effacing, talking about how he made his diploma film Bonga as a tribute to Godard’s Bande Part even though he hadn’t seen the latter at the time. “But I vaguely knew what it was about, and I had seen the famous dance scene.” And he used the word “fluke” a great deal, whether discussing his life or his professional arc. He always emphasized the randomness of things … all of it leading up to the observation about how his iconic film “just happened somehow, nobody could have planned for something like this to be a success”.


What happened to his career after JBDY? Many who knew him feel that the set of factors that came together for him in 1982 – a youthful crew with just the right sensibility, their expectations for success set to zero but still hungry to do something they believed in; the NFDC financing a bizarre script and keeping an eye on things without interfering too much – never came together in the same way again. That he wasn’t temperamentally suited to the demands of a commercial industry, he was too much his own person.

He certainly experienced his share of disappointments (and it can’t be pleasant for a creative person to repeatedly hear himself described, in semi-pitying terms, as someone who did something brilliant 30-odd years earlier and then never achieved on a comparable level again), but my gut feeling is that he wasn’t the stereotype of the depressed artist who brooded for days about the things that hadn’t worked out. Coincidentally, the last time I met him, he was discussing the “cliché of the misunderstood poet” and how Guru Dutt had handled it in Pyaasa. But he was smiling and gesticulating and speaking excitedly, like a film student, not like someone who felt the theme could in any way apply to his own career. My dominant memory of him is of someone who was always alert and active and curious, even when simply working by himself in his office.

I have a few recordings of our 2009 conversations. I’ll be listening to them again soon, listening in particular for the traces of irritability in an otherwise genial, inclusive voice. I also look forward to watching the video of his last public talk – a session about film comedy at the FTII, which I am told went wonderfully well. And then there is the last, forever-to-be-treasured email, which he sent me on October 3. “Many thanks for the photos. Really enjoyed meeting you. Next time you’re in Mumbai, please call. Love and regards, Kundan.”

[Scroll.in has an excerpt about Kundan from my book here. And here's a little more in The Hindu]

Tuesday, October 03, 2017

On scary clowns, It, and the importance of not being expressive

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

“What kind of scary-ass clowns came to YOUR birthday parties?” Chandler caustically asks Joey in a Friends episode, as the live audience guffaws. It’s the punchline for a scene where the dim-witted Joey seems to be under the impression that clowns don’t have heads. But it’s also one of the rare times when I haven’t found one of Chandler’s ripostes funny.

Because, well, what’s so odd about suggesting that a clown might be scary? As a child I was terrified by a man in baggy pants and whiteface, holding out a balloon at a party – and this was years before I had encountered any horror films or books about predatory clowns. (On that occasion, I stayed convinced that the clown was meant to be part of a fright-game, like a haunted-house ride at an entertainment park.) Later, the cover illustrations on Enid Blyton’s circus books gave me the chills, and so did the mysterious clown in the classic DeMille film The Greatest Show on Earth – never mind that one of the most genial of actors, James Stewart, was under the costume.

Given all this, it was a surprise that I was underwhelmed by the new adaptation of Stephen King’s mammoth novel It. The film is wonderfully well-performed by a cast of young adolescents – as small-town kids in the late 1980s, confronting unthinkable evil – but I just didn’t find its main antagonist, Pennywise the clown, scary. Even though plenty of menace and atmosphere is injected into his first appearance: he peers out of a sewer on a rainy day, speaks cajolingly to a little boy who has lost his paper boat – and then, baring multiple rows of serrated teeth, chomps the kid’s arm off before pulling him into the drain.

That scene is gruesome all right, in the best King style, and it has a visceral effect, but for me the film’s creepiest moment didn’t involve the hyper-active Pennywise; it came when one of the kids finds himself alone in a room, surrounded by regular clown figures – plastic toys, stuffed dolls with faces frozen into immobile grins.

At this point the penny, so to speak, dropped. The problem wasn’t that I had suddenly lost my fear of clowns. It was that Pennywise was too expressive, too talkative – and therefore, too close to seeming human, the grotesque makeup notwithstanding. His lips move, he snarls and dances and chortles, and even if he does these things exaggeratedly, at least he seems relatable.

In a recent article titled “A Theory of Creepiness”, David Livingstone Smith refers to the hypothesis of the Uncanny Valley – put in very simple terms, this is the idea that close replicas of human beings can produce intense feelings of discomfort in us, because they stand on the border between familiarity and weirdness; our brains aren’t quite sure what to make of them.

Any horror-movie buff would understand. Throughout its history, the genre has made extensive use of both the replica and the human-like creature whose behaviour is somewhat off – from the sallow-faced sleepwalker in the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr Caligari to the ventriloquist’s sinister dummy in the chilling anthology film Dead of Night to the countless slasher movies about possessed dolls. Not to mention the antagonistic clowns and jokers with painted smiles (the new It film even makes a fleeting reference to the 1989 Batman, in which Jack Nicholson played The Joker).

But as Smith also observes, one of the most terrifying uncertainties involves the question of whether something is animate or inanimate. This put me in mind of the creepy waxworks in the 1933 film The Mystery of the Wax Museum and its 1953 remake House of Wax, about sculptors who create wax statues out of murdered people. The madmen played in those films by Lionel Atwill and Vincent Price (not to mention a similar character played by Sunil Dutt, of all people, in the 1974 Geeta Mera Naam!) could glower or psycho-laugh all they wanted, but there was no ambiguity about their nature. On the other hand, the blank-faced wax figures were truly unsettling – a case of the victims being creepier than the villains who had knocked them off.

Thinking further, could the animate-inanimate phenomenon be linked to actors who are so inept that they barely seem like real people? Might every Suniel Shetty film be subtextually a horror film too? Less flippantly, there certainly have been cases in very low-budget horror movies where terrible acting has made the project more otherworldly – and therefore creepier – than anyone could have intended it to be. For one among many examples, check out the underground classic Shaitani Dracula on YouTube, especially the scene where the portly and harmless-looking actor-director Harinam Singh looks straight at the camera and introduces himself as the titular villain.

While leaving these matters for you to ponder, I should mention my one truly creepy experience on the night I watched It. Returning
from the multiplex very late, I had to pass a McDonald’s in a deserted community centre. Watching old Ronald sitting there on his bench out of a corner of my eye, I thought again for the umpteenth time how odd it is that children line up to have photos taken with this silent fiend. And how I’d rather have the gregarious Pennywise walking and chattering alongside me than a clown just sitting a distance away, regarding me with an unblinking, plastic grin.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Hindi Medium, Bareilly ki Barfi, becoming other people (and finding yourself)

[my latest Mint Lounge column. More thoughts on the role-playing theme and the Forest of Arden can be found in my book The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee]

Watching two recent films – both somewhat uneven and protracted, but also full of inspired little moments and good performances – I was reminded that role-playing and masquerade have been vital themes throughout the history of screen comedy. In Hindi Medium, the well-off Raj (Irrfan Khan) and Meeta (Saba Qamar) pretend to be poor and live in a lower-middle-class district for a few days so they can exploit a school quota system for their child. And in Bareilly ki Barfi, the simpleton Pritam (Rajkummar Rao) is forced to pose as the self-important author of a book written by his friend.

In both cases, minor deceptions are set against, or foreshadow, major ones. For instance, a hilarious little scene in Bareilly ki Barfi shows that Pritam has led his mother to believe he is a high-flying car salesman. The film lets us think this too for a few seconds – we see him in a fancy showroom speaking carefully rehearsed English sentences in an urbane patter. But when a customer says he’ll take the blue car, a close-up has Pritam reverting to his small-town dialect, hollering for the blue one to be wrapped (“lapet lo!”), and the setting changes; it turns out he is a sari-seller.

For all the breezy fun – or slapstick – in such stories, they often serve as parables too: disguise or pretence are shown as having a liberating function. Midway through Bareilly ki Barfi, it seems like Pritam has turned into a Frankenstein monster, shrugging off his chains, relishing his new life a little too much. This turns out to be a red herring: in the end he goes back to being the sweet, shy boy who wanted to help his friend all along. But there are also telling moments such as the one where, having parked his bike in the middle of the road in heavy traffic, he puts on a bit of “swag” for the furiously honking motorists around him – and one senses that this isn’t just a performance, that he is enjoying this opportunity to be someone else. Or to tap into a latent side of his personality.

Hindi Medium makes it clear that Raj and Meeta were once lower-middle-class themselves, but having moved up the social ladder, they now have the aspirational pretentiousness of the nouveau riche. (For a school meeting, they dress in what they think are classy clothes, but end up looking like the flamboyant “godman” Gurmeet Ram Rahim.) And though the film never stops being lighthearted, they must face the repercussions of their game. A slapstick scene becomes somber when a genuinely poor man, Shyam (the always wonderful Deepak Dobriyal), who had befriended Raj, discovers that the latter is a “sahab”. And for all the self-serving superficiality of the protagonists’ journey when it began, by the time it ends they have new reserves of empathy – it is possible to hope they will be better people (and more responsible parents) in future.

There are obvious moral lessons on offer in a story about privileged people temporarily experiencing the unprivileged life (Preston Sturges’s superb 1941 comedy Sullivan’s Travels may have provided the cinematic template for this sort of thing), but it can work in the other direction too. One of my favourite films, the
dialogue-less 1987 Pushpak, has an out-of-work man played by Kamal Haasan getting the chance to fill a rich man’s shoes and live in a plush hotel suite for a few days; but he also debases himself in the process, and the not-so-desirable side of the moneyed life comes to haunt him in the form of a hired assassin. Decades before that, in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most unusual early films Rich and Strange, a working-class married couple come into a sudden inheritance, go on a long cruise, get to indulge themselves, but also become bored and corrupted as a result.

But coming back to this matter of so many films being about people pretending to be other people and often discovering alternate personalities within themselves – isn’t this what many actors do too? There are countless instances, but consider Cary Grant, one of the finest movie performers ever in my view. Grant belonged to a generation of Hollywood personality actors who were often seen as playing “themselves” in film after film. Yet, as many biographers have noted, his suave man-about-town personality was a carefully constructed one, miles removed from that of his “real” self, Archie Leach, who was born in a poor family and worked as a circus performer before trying his luck in the movies.

Little wonder one of the darkest, most self-referential moments in a 1940s Hollywood film came not in a noir but in a great screwball comedy, His Girl Friday: during one of the many exchanges of rapid-fire banter in that film, Grant, playing a newspaper editor, looks off-screen and says “The last man who said that to me was Archie Leach…just a week before he cut his throat.”

As the writer Thomson put it in an essay titled “Educated Archie”, the line is “a tremor in the great satin shroud of Hollywood illusion”. But it is also a reminder of how closely linked illusion and reality can be; and that not just movie characters but also the actors who play them – and the viewers who watch it all – can have different personalities jostling for dominance.

As a shy child, I used to be disbelieving when I read pieces claiming that some high-profile stars – from Robert De Niro to Amitabh Bachchan – were very reserved in real life. Over time, though, I realised that it is possible to be deeply private or even unsocial while also having a secret self that relishes the spotlight; that introversion and extroversion are not airtight categories, and shy people might have a showman side that can be a revelation even to themselves. Bareilly’s Pritam would probably agree.

[Earlier Lounge columns here, and here's an old post about Pushpak]

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Fathers, sons, storytellers: on Orhan Pamuk's The Red-Haired Woman

[Did this review for Scroll]

“I want to be a writer,” the young Orhan Pamuk tells his mother at the end of the 2005 coming-of-age memoir Istanbul. It is possible to view this statement of intent as a soaring moment of modern literature – one that deserves to be filmed on 70mm, accompanied by a Hans Zimmer score, the scene building to a freeze-frame on the face of the resolute young man who will go on to become a globally celebrated Nobel Laureate.

Such triumphalism would be reductive, though, given that Istanbul is a book about boredom, inertia, and huzun, the Turkish word for melancholy, which Pamuk presents as a key characteristic of his city, infecting all its residents; and also, that a running theme of his work is the frustration inherent in being a serious writer – the obsessive need to transform experiences into words, set against the impossibility of doing this to full satisfaction.

One way in which he has dealt with this theme is to scrape away at the nature of storytelling, often using sly, self-referential devices to make the reader wonder how much a story can be trusted. You see this, to varying degrees, in the multi-narrator technique of the early novel The Silent House, the much more complex shifting perspectives of the star-making My Name is Red (where even a corpse, a tree and a much-used coin are given voice), the dense meta-narrative of The New Life, and the use of a theatre setting in the wonderfully absurdist Snow.

If the young man in Istanbul is the “real” Pamuk, there are other versions, with other destinies, to be found in his fiction. Compare the closing sentence mentioned above with the opening sentence of his new novel, translated (by Ekin Oklap) into English as The Red-Haired Woman. “I had wanted to be a writer,” the narrator-protagonist Cem tells us. “But after the events I am about to describe, I studied engineering geology and became a building contractor.”

This coming from someone who once worked in a bookstore, wanted to do little more than read and write, and even imagined that he and the woman he married would read a book together before making love. But if Cem doesn’t ever become a storyteller himself (at least in the sense that he hoped to be), he never stops being an absorber of stories, or understanding his life through the things he has read. Over the course of this narrative, he will have special reason to become obsessed with tragic father-son relationships in literature: with Sophocles’s play Oedipus the King, in which the hero inadvertently commits patricide; and its complement, the story from the Shahnameh in which Rostom unknowingly slays his son Sohrab.

Cem himself will have troubled relationships with two “fathers”, and much later a confrontation with a “son”. The question arises: is art reflecting life, or is life walking obediently in art’s footprints?


The Red-Haired Woman opens in the mid-1980s with the teenage Cem – whose father has been arrested because of his Leftist politics – taking up a job as an orchard watchman (he hopes this will be a temporary detour before completing his education) and then becoming apprentice to a veteran well-digger. On a deserted plateau around 30 kilometres from Istanbul, he and Master Mahmut sleep in a tent, under the stars, at night – with the city’s lights “reflecting off the clouds like a yellow fog” in the distance – but for much of the day their gaze is downward, as they move ever deeper into the ground. The literary-minded Cem thinks of Jules Verne’s novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth, but we see that Master Mahmut is, in his own way, a creative person – obsessive about his work, refusing to compromise as he assails the layers of rock that stand between him and the water he believes is waiting to gush to the surface.

Meanwhile, during their occasional visits to the nearby town of Ongoren, Cem sees and slowly becomes obsessed with a red-haired woman; is this purely a sexual attraction, the reader might wonder, or as a member of a theatre group, does she also represent the artistic aspirations he has temporarily put aside? As he and Master Mahmut dig on and the prospect of finding water seems ever more remote, Cem’s newfound distraction becomes all-consuming and leads to a tragedy whose implications even he doesn’t fully understand.

This first section of the book – which takes up close to half the narrative – is gently reflective, focused and mainly deals with the events of a few weeks: Cem learning about the nuances of well-digging, the forays into the town, his long-awaited meeting with the Red-Haired Woman, his conversations with Master Mahmut, the stories they exchange – from Mahmut’s religious parables to Cem’s summary of the Oedipus tale.

The second section, after Cem leaves the well and the town, is looser, more diffused. The next decade or two of his life flies by in a few pages. He courts a girl named Ayse, they marry, are unable to have children but find ways to fill this gap, including traveling and making plans for the expansion of their own construction company. Privately, he remains tormented about the possibility that he had betrayed Master Mahmut. And then, a summons from the past draws him back to that defining phase of his life, and back to Ongoren.

The quickening of the narrative in these sections also seems to reflect the pace of development around Istanbul: we learn that the areas surrounding the city of the 1980s have expanded and urbanized so much that Ongoren has become essentially an extension of the capital. (Old-time Delhiites who remember what it was like to travel on the scrubby road towards Gurgaon 30 years ago might be able to relate to Cem’s feeling of disorientation when, looking down from an airplane, he is unable to identify the once-barren landscape where he and his master dug their well in 1986.) And yet, throughout all this, Pamuk never lets us forget Master Mahmut, the role people like him play in facilitating such development, and the patience that is integral to their work: there is a brilliant, recurring dream-image of the well-digger toiling away all by himself, as if on an alternate plane of reality, determined to reach the earth’s core if he must.


This may be the “easiest” Pamuk book I have read so far, but even his most accessible, plot-driven novels (Snow and The Silent House are among the others that come to mind) tend to have surreal passages or philosophical musings that steer close to pedantry – and I don’t mean that as criticism; it feels almost necessary in stories about self-reflective characters whose lives have been influenced by literature and who are often forced to confront the relevance (or irrelevance) of what they are reading, in a confused and torn world. For instance, one question briefly raised here is: what do the differences between the Oedipus story and the Rostom-Sohrab story tell us about the differences in Western and Eastern culture and attitudes? But there is also this counterpoint: in a situation where we are concerned with the life and emotions of a specific individual, does that larger picture matter all that much?

Since there is so much going on in this relatively slim book, the narrative can feel a bit uneven or unbalanced, especially in the second half. Near the end there is a revelation that can be seen as either an implausible coincidence (if you take the plot purely at face value) or as Pamuk trying too hard to make a symbolic point about fathers and sons treading similar paths. But as always, he is more concerned with raising questions than with answering them. And without revealing any specifics, many of the reader’s assumptions about this story and its storyteller are overturned by a final, short section, where we get a different narrator and the ground shifts a little beneath our feet.

The Red-Haired Woman is about many things, but I saw it principally as being about the many ways in which we are shaped by what has gone before us: from the lives of our parents (whose shadows we might not be able to escape even if – or especially if – we are rebelling against them) to the stories we read and love. And how these influences can, over time, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A bit like the story Master Mahmut tells about a prince who, in making a carefully worked out effort to escape an encounter with Azrael the angel of death, ends up in the pre-ordained meeting place.


[Some earlier posts about Pamuk are here]

Saturday, September 02, 2017

A book about a young liar and his tangled webs

[Did this short review for Open magazine]

Tashan Mehta’s debut novel The Liar’s Weave is set in a world much like ours, with one key difference: at age 18, people are given their birth-charts, which accurately reveal their futures. Understandably, this creates a division between the “fortunates” and the “ill-fated”. But which, if either, category does the book’s protagonist Zahan Merchant belong to?

Born into a Parsi family in 1904, Zahan realizes as a child that he has the gift (if that’s what it is) of creating alternate realities simply by lying about things: for instance, when he accidentally breaks a pot and doesn’t tell anyone, others still see the object intact. Naturally, this sort of thing throws a spanner into the idea of predestination. Perplexed by Zahan’s indecipherable birth-chart, an astrologer named Narayan Tarachand –founder of an Association which is in an uneasy relationship with the dominant Sapta Puri universities – keeps an eye on the boy from a distance.

Another narrative thread involves a carnivorous jungle called Vidroha – described as being in Bombay, though really a parallel realm – where the hatadaiva or ill-fated dwell. When Zahan and his friend Porthos gain access to this dizzying space –  with its overseers allow them access even to its great “nerve centre” – the stage is set for chapters where Mehta seems to be having the most fun as a writer. The teenagers slowly begin to understand the rules – how to negotiate an intricate thread castle, for instance, or how to behave at a death feast – and Zahan wonders if he should exercise some of his own powers.

There are many reasons to admire The Liar’s Weave, starting with the fact that a first-time novelist has even attempted something this bold and ambitious. Mehta blends genres, taking the familiar fantasy trope of the young hero with a nebulous destiny, and setting it in an India of religious leaders with Godlike status, who play power games even as the country’s freedom movement builds in the background. And the basic premise echoes our own world, where many people find themselves defined or limited at birth – by religion, caste, gender, parental expectations – and then set along what seems a pre-ordained path: do this, don’t do that, become this.

I had two main issues with the book, though. The first is a very good problem for a young writer to have, since it is rooted in an abundance of imagination and nervous energy: too many characters and subplots come at us too quickly. You might find yourself going back to earlier pages to get your bearings – what exactly is Jia’s function in the mystical forest? Does Krishna work for the Association or the Universities? Mehta mentions in her Acknowledgements that this story “has lived in my head for several years”. One possible fallout of carrying a story with you for a long time, knowing every contour and setting inside out, is that you may take the reader’s capacity to process information for granted – inundate him with too much information, and not enough time to acclimatize.

Besides, on at least one occasion, careless copy-editing complicates things for a reader who pays attention to details: a meeting that takes place in October 1920 (and is a direct continuation of events from an earlier passage) is dated “March 1920” – an avoidable lapse in a story where you can’t take chronology for granted.

The second, and bigger, issue is that the writing gets ponderous at times. The characters – Tarachand and his associates, or the denizens of Vidroha – solemnly say things that seem Imbued with Meaning. (“A birth chart ambers the sky in a single moment and interprets your life from the residue. This is all you get with the sky. But the nerve reads you at any point. It recognizes you; you are both of the same clay.”) The narrative seems forever building up to something very important, without quite getting there. The occasional mentions of real-life events such as the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre and the Swaraj movement are interesting at first, but eventually come to seem like token efforts to make period references rather than as being intrinsic to this narrative.

The pace does pick up in the final stretch, with a surprise disclosure, as Zahan must fully face up to something he has done – but this only made me realise that there wasn’t enough of Zahan in the book; that his unusual gift and its practical applications could have been explored more fully. Still, the ending suggests that a sequel or series might be on the way; if so, there’s time yet for Mehta to make things more focused.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Funny pomegranates: on glamorous actresses who did humour well

[from my Mint Lounge series on song sequences]

It’s hard to shrug off the ideas you form as a child. When I first watched the classic “Ek Chatur Naar” sequence from Padosan, I remained convinced for a time that the words were “ek chatur anaar”, and that Saira Banu was indeed a clever pomegranate. She was sharp and knowing in the song, she looked great (even if the heavy eye-liner threatened to breach the Fourth Wall during her close-ups), and watching her may have been as good for one’s health as drinking anaar juice each day.

Without overlooking the splendid performances of Mehmood, Sunil Dutt and Kishore Kumar in that scene, Banu is vital to its effect: swaying unselfconsciously to the music; elbowing her music teacher when he is in danger of losing the jugalbandi against their competitors; preening in semi-comical fashion when the lyrics describe her beauty. How refreshing it was to see a glamorous 1960s leading lady (as opposed to a sidekick-comedienne) participating wholeheartedly in such a scene with a group of bumbling men.

But then Banu was one of those performers who could be impish even in a more formulaic song situation, such as the one where lovers make up after a spat: watch her perform the opening lines of “Woh Hain Zara Khafa Khafa” in Shagird. Though credible within the narrative context, she gives the impression that she knows how silly this whole premise is. (Why sing for five minutes to woo Joy Mukherjee, when an eyelash-flutter should be enough to get him cartwheeling back?)

If she seems in on the joke in “Ek Chatur Naar”, an example of an actress playing the part of the Muse dead straight – so that it becomes unintentionally funny – is Mala Sinha, rapt in self-worship, in the fantasy interludes of “Chaand Aahein Bharega” (from Phool Bane Angaarey). You have to sympathize with Sinha here. She is basically the statue to whom Pygmalion sings hosannas, and Pygmalion is Raaj Kumar! As if that weren’t enough of a test for any woman, she is also made a guinea pig in the gruesome laboratory of Cinematic Inventiveness. The lyric “Aankh
naajuk si kaliyan” (“eyes like delicate flower-buds”) comes with a terrifying visual – an extreme close-up of Sinha’s eyes with white flowers superimposed on the pupils, making her look not at all alluring but like something out of a Kaneto Shindo horror film.

To give Sinha some credit, at least she does something in this scene. (As a sage pointed out once, if you’re overacting, it means you know how to act.) In too many other song sequences of this type, actresses simply glide around in chiffon saris, looking like they hope the director will yell “Cut!” very soon.

Heroines in old mainstream films were required to be beautiful, aloof and dignified all at once, and such expectations can become a prison – in much the same way that women in a conservative society are expected not to laugh openly at men’s jokes (“hasee toh phasee”), the heroine had to be careful not to express much emotion. Leave the comedy to the supporting staff (from Shubha Khote to Farida Jalal), and the open expression of desire to the vamps; content yourself with pursing your lips, twitching your nose, refusing to make eye contact with the hero, or going “Nahin, Nahin, Nahin”.

Which is why I’m a big fan of the well-done song sequence where a charming actress gets to be (intentionally) funny. This sometimes happens when you don’t expect it. Look at Waheeda Rehman – a superb dramatic actress but no one’s idea of a great comedienne – perform “Bhawra Bada Nadaan Hai” in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam, her sardonic expressions and exaggerated gestures perfectly in tune with Asha Bhosle’s rendition of the song. Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics take a familiar metaphor – the hero as the bee buzzing around the flower-like heroine – but the roles are flipped, with the “flower” slyly singing about the “bee” being tongue-tied in her presence (“Saamne aaye, Nain milaaye, Mukh dekhe, Kuch bole na”). While Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) scurries about, watching Jaba (Rehman), she comments on him watching her – it’s a wonderfully executed reversal of the Gaze, and very apt in a film that is about the conflict between old and new ways of life. Jaba is the forward-looking character here, leading the reticent Bhootnath into the modern world.

The scene makes me wonder if this avatar of Rehman would have emerged more often if she had worked frequently with actors like Kishore Kumar or Shammi Kapoor. It sometimes took a madcap co-star to get an elegant actress into the swing of things – as you can see when you watch Nutan in “Cat Maane Billi” (Dilli ka Thug) or Madhubala in “Paanch Rupaiya Baarah Aana” (Chalti ka Naam Gaadi).

All rules governing filmi boy-girl behaviour fly quickly out the window in these songs. In both, it can seem like the women are playing second fiddle to Kumar; he is the one who defines the tone of the scene and does the craziest things (yowling “Cat Maane MEEOW!”, for instance, in a moment that could only have been improvised). Yet his craziness frees them to explore new dimensions too, and the results are among the most magical in our films: an ethereal beauty and a jester occupy the same frame, parrying and playing off each other until you’re no longer sure who is the clown and who the foil.

[More on that Chalti ka Naam Gaadi scene here. And earlier posts about song sequences on this page]

Friday, August 18, 2017

The woman who minded the heavens and hunted comets (while also keeping house)

[Did a version of this piece – about one of my favourite literary and scientific heroines – for Mint Lounge]

Early one morning in August 1797, a shy, middle-aged woman named Caroline Herschel did something very uncharacteristic, saddling a horse and riding twenty-odd miles from Slough to share information with the Astronomer Royal in London. She had discovered a new comet, her eighth. Later she wrote to the President of the Royal Society, Sir Joseph Banks, apologizing for not having visited him too – “I thought a woman who knows so little of the world ought not to aim at such an honour; but go home, where she ought to be, as soon as possible.”

Herschel was probably combining humility with knowingness. Regardless of how much she knew of the world, the scientific world was getting to know her well, her fame having transcended her original role in this arena: as housekeeper and dutiful assistant to her astronomer brother William. By 1797 her work had been chronicled in journals and she had even appeared in a mildly scatological cartoon, “smelling out” a comet depicted as a flatulent child soaring across the sky.

The publication of Angela Saini’s new book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the subsequent discussion about the overlooking of women’s contributions to science – got me thinking again about Herschel, whom I first met in Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. This superb biography of a scientific epoch is about the work of many great men – including Banks, William Herschel and Humphrey Davy – with one major exception: Caroline Herschel is one of the most fascinating characters in a book filled with them.

I say “character” advisedly. The Age of Wonder isn’t a dry, academic work. As a colourful narrative history dealing with 200-year-old lives (and inner lives), it involves the weaving together of different source materials and a degree of conjecture. And the chapters about William and Caroline Herschel are so compelling in part because much of the information comes from Caroline’s journals, which were personal and expansive in ways that her brother’s writings were not.

What emerges is a marvelous, often contradictory account of a woman who was self-sacrificing and compliant, but also had reserves of pride and ambition. And she was indefatigable. (You might get tired just reading about her daily routines.) She moved from Germany to Bath to live with William, under the pretext of pursuing a singing career, but really to be his apprentice. If she had stayed content with this, no one could have faulted her. It was a demanding, more than full-time job: apart from running the house – and negotiating the business of being a foreigner in an insular British town, gradually improving her English during forays to the market – she aided William in arduous tasks such as marathon lens-polishing sessions, as he constructed his giant telescopes.

Remarkably, she then made the time to pursue a parallel astronomical career. While William made big discoveries like a new planet (soon to be called Uranus), she used the smaller telescopes and reflectors available to her for “comet-hunting”, an ostensibly lesser pursuit but one that would provide vital information about bodies that came from beyond the known solar system.

From a modern feminist perspective, Caroline’s story might not always seem triumphant. She was a product of her time, her bursts of self-expression were achieved within a social bubble, and she must sometimes have felt underappreciated. In one of her more self-effacing (or bitter?) moments, she wrote “I did nothing for my brother but what a well-trained puppy dog would have done.” And she perhaps – justifiably, given her many sacrifices – resented the decline in her household status after William got married: The Age of Wonder mentions that she destroyed a decade’s worth of personal journals written during this period.

Despite all this, she cracked a glass ceiling, getting the first ever royal stipend given to a woman scientist in Britain, becoming the first honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and setting benchmarks for what women might achieve in a field they had previously not been welcomed into. No wonder she blazes like a meteor across the pages of Holmes’s capacious book.

A last, possibly whimsical observation. Since Caroline lived to a very old age, almost 98, her life-span stretched beyond the Romantic era covered by The Age of Wonder, and this has an unintentional consequence for the reader. The book describes the physical decline and deaths of all the other protagonists, but as the
narrative winds up, the octogenarian Caroline is very much around: still mentally agile, keeping late nights out of lifelong habit, counselling her nephew John Herschel (a major figure among the next generation of scientists), ruefully wishing she could “shake off some 30 years from my shoulders” to aid him in his work and travels.

And because there is no real closure when it comes to her, the mental picture we are left with is of a small, sprightly woman still on the roof of a house, peering through a 40-foot telescope – “minding the heavens”, as she eloquently put it in one of her diaries – while also keeping an eye on the many things to be done on terra firma. One can imagine her tut-tutting if a passing time-traveler – perhaps an infant riding a comet – were to tell her that two centuries later, the role of women in science was still being undermined. 

[An earlier post about some of my other favourite popular-science books is here]

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Narrative or anti-narrative? Thoughts on Gurgaon, a film of ellipses

[Did this for Daily O]

Shanker Raman’s intense film Gurgaon accomplishes something very strange, something I can’t completely put my finger on after just one viewing, but here’s an attempt. This could have been a strictly plot-oriented film, and it starts off seeming that way; and yet, almost without the viewer realizing it (and without any identifiable shift in tone), it segues into something much more existential and dreamlike – less concerned with how its story unfolds than with observing the characters and their private motivations and impulses.

All the elements of a narrative film (and a fast-paced thriller to boot) are established early on. There is a well-defined set of characters, mostly members of a nouveau-riche family living in Gurgaon: the patriarch Kehri Singh (Pankaj Tripathi), who has worked his way up from grimy beginnings to become a real-estate magnate, yet seems a little melancholy about the road he took to get here; his favoured child Preet (Ragini Khanna), who has studied architecture abroad and is stressed about her father’s property being in her name (and the fact that she is beholden to him as a result); and her jealous and resentful brother Nikki (the glaze-eyed Akshay Oberoi, holding the screen in almost every scene he is in). 

So: emotions run high, though they aren’t always expressed. Gurgaon kids behave like brats, placing obscene sums of money on a cricketing result and incurring debts they can’t repay. An uneducated but astute woman holds up a mirror to her husband, and he can’t always face it. A minor-league abduction – partly played for laughs – foreshadows a carefully plotted kidnapping that will occur later. A criminal plan spins out of control.

Which, you might, say, is enough “story” for a 105-minute film. And yet, as Gurgaon proceeds, it becomes obvious that this isn’t so much a “this happened. Then this happened” narrative as a collection of poetic vignettes. You wouldn’t exactly call it an avant-garde or experimental film (like some of the “art cinema” of the 1950s and 1960s, when New Waves exploded around the world – or even something like Ashim Ahluwalia’s freewheeling Miss Lovely), but it is unconcerned with providing clear-cut resolutions or explanations.

Consider its very last scene (no spoilers - I won’t be too specific), which manages to be both predictable (at the level of what we expect to happen) and startling (in the way that it happens); shocking and hilarious at the same time. It involves a character being cut off right in the middle of a monologue – in fact, right as he begins a pedantic-sounding sentence (the opening words of that sentence are “Itihaas gava si…” “or “History is witness that…” and those are also the last words of the film).

Abrupt as that ending is, it makes perfect sense, because Gurgaon has little patience with characters who speechify. And because this is a film of ellipses. You see this at different levels: at the level of the terse dialogues, or the way in which little things are deliberately left un-spelled out. (For instance, what precisely is the nature of Preet’s relationship with her French friend, who comes to stay with her for a few days?) But the effect is achieved visually too, through some very elegant dissolves, where it feels like scenes aren’t so much following each other in linear fashion but flowing into each other, making the passage of time a vague, ambiguous thing. (Watching Gurgaon, one of the things that struck me was how long it has been since I have seen a Hindi film that uses dissolves often and well.)

Some of the establishing scenes and long shots reminded me of passages from Terrence Malick’s early work (Badlands, Days of Heaven). But the way in which the film appeared set up to be a straight thriller but then moved towards a “aw heck, none of this really matters that much” tone was a bit like Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up or Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation or Robert Altman’s 3 Women – all of which at various points appear to be very concerned with storytelling but gradually slacken the pace and become much more about simply watching, or straining to listen.

And you DO have to strain to hear in some of Gurgaon’s scenes, because it is all so quiet. Sentences trail off, people talk languidly, even when they are speaking in rough-sounding Haryanvi accents, and even when they are saying not very nice things, or planning crime. The term “noir” is associated with night and the darkness that accompanies it – a visual darkness that, in literary or film noir, also becomes a symbol for the darkness in people’s hearts – but here is a noir film that made me think of another “night” association: these characters come across as indolent and sleepy; they speak as if afraid to wake up someone in the next room (even when there is no one in earshot).

At first I thought Pankaj Tripathi’s mumble was purely an affectation, an actor’s nod to Marlon Brando as Vito Corleone. But as we learn more about Kehri Singh’s past – including some terrible things he did many years earlier – and see him speaking in a more normal voice in the flashback scenes, I developed the theory that over time, he has been suffocated from the inside by the world he has built; his throat is constricted, he is so bloated by his own misdemeanors that he is now physically incapable of speaking loudly or for long stretches.

Or maybe it’s just that the concrete-and-glass world he now inhabits – the New Gurgaon – doesn’t afford the sort of acoustic encouragement that the wilder, more open Gurgaon does. Perhaps these people are just constrained by their setting, by the need to appear “sophisticated” or “civilized”.

There are many things that Gurgaon is “about”, if you need to look at movies in those terms. The talking points can be easily ticked off: it is about a place that is straining hard to be modern and developed even though it barely has enough water to meet its basic needs (much less sustain huge green parks and swimming pools); about a family that doesn’t know what to do with the wealth that has come its way, and is mildly suspicious that it doesn’t have enough “culture” to go with its lifestyle; about youngsters who move between the world of their rustic upbringing and international education, even moving between accents. It is about female infanticide and parental guilt that manifests itself in unusual ways; it is about young people who bury their insecurities beneath a surface of swagger and entitlement.

These are all “relevant” subjects in today’s cinema, and many other films have confronted them head-on in recent years. The charm and mystery of Gurgaon for me was that it understands all those things, but rarely seems to be about them in any overt sense. It is more about the slow creation of a very particular, very menacing mood.

Friday, August 04, 2017

In which Devdutt Pattanaik gets mad as hell and won't take it anymore

As a follow-up to my profile of Devdutt Pattanaik – and to provide added context – here's a rough chronology of what happened during our second phone conversation, when Pattanaik got irritated with me. (Some of this was hurriedly scribbled out after the conversation, and I have probably forgotten a few details - in addition to setting out things in a way that makes me look like the tragic hero - but even so…)

It began with my making a reference to our earlier chat. I asked DP: further to what you said the other day (about Dalit and feminist narratives never acknowledging other perspectives), what about a perspective telling of the Mahabharata through the eyes of (to take a very clichéd example) Ekalavya? Why in that case would the author have an obligation to be “fair” or “balanced” or accommodating of other viewpoints? Wouldn’t he use a single lens throughout, that of the protagonist? 

DP: but that is fiction. You’re talking about novelized versions now. 

J (more or less expecting this answer, but still a little confused about DP’s exact position on the texts he deals with): I’m a huge Mahabharata obsessive, but to my mind it is a great work of literature, which reveals so much about people, their relationship with the world, and how they respond to situations. Could you let me know how you distinguish myths from fiction?

At this point, DP starts to lose it. Says things like “fiction is entertainment, it is authors telling stories. Would you compare Harry Potter to the Bible?"

Pointedly asks me a series of questions, starting with: “Would you say the Bible is a work of fiction?”

I say: yes, it certainly can be viewed that way. As a very old work that was a product of its place and time, put together by different people at different times, with both interesting and problematic things in it. 

“How about the Quran? Would you say that is fiction?”

“Sure. I don’t know very much about it, but if it is made up of stories about prophets and people who lived a thousand years ago, with references to a Supreme Being, yes, I would treat it as literature.” 

“Would you say that to a religious Muslim?” 

“No. But only because self-preservation is a little more important to me than honesty, and I wouldn’t want to risk getting my head lopped off.”

“If Ram Guha writes about India after Gandhi, would you call that history or fiction?”

“I would think of it as a useful history, dealing with events that can be verified or questioned through many other sources – with the proviso that any such history is always filtered through the writer’s lenses: biases, life experience, education, nature of research, etc. So it doesn’t have to be viewed as undisputed truth.”

At this point I also try to clarify to DP that when I refer to something as great fiction (or great literature), it is just about the highest compliment I can pay that thing. I don’t see fiction in the terms that he does, as “just entertainment”. But he is fuming by now, and launches into a monologue that includes mild forms of personal attack – mentioning that he is surprised that I am arguing with him about these things, that he was under the impression that I was trying to interview HIM, that this was about the things HE has to say, not about my views. More than once, speaking with some annoyance, he says versions of the phrase “Jai, I am NOT interested in what you think.” 

On one occasion, he tempers this by adding that he gets that we disagree about some things, which is okay – but that he thought this was an interview where he was the interviewee.

Which is a fair point – and, partly to placate him, I apologised for being a little more long-winded than I should have been. At the same time, I tried to explain – when I could get a word in edgewise, for he was quite angry – that my putting forth my position was a way of trying to understand exactly how his differed (on the myth-vs-fiction subject). And also that I had hoped to have a conversation – that I look at indepth interviews as conversations; I wasn’t a 20-year-old kid sent off on a brief assignment with a boiler-plate list of questions on a subject that he knew very little about.

[This is conjecture, but my feeling is that one reason why he initially got so annoyed and frustrated was that when he asked those questions about the Bible and the Quran, I didn’t provide the answers that would slot me in with the Evil Pseudo-Secularist who finds it easy to mock Hinduism while being cautious or respectful of other faiths.]

The overall impression from his tirade was that of someone who was expecting a young journalist to play supplicant and obediently note down everything he was saying (which I actually did do for large parts of the main interview two days earlier), rather than raise any points of his own or express even a mild difference of opinion. And he definitely wasn’t expecting to be in a two-way discussion with someone who was invested in mythology, knew a few things about it, and had a perspective that didn’t match his own.

He kept repeating “It is deeply disrespectful to call other people’s beliefs fiction”, even after I had tried to clarify what I meant by fiction. And he used the words “respect” and “disrespect” in a way that implied that the only possible way I could be “respectful” of religious beliefs was by holding those beliefs myself! Anything less would automatically be “disrespectful”. This is, to say the least, a bizarre usage of an already problematic and ambiguous word.

If I were thinking more clearly at the time, I would have asked him, “Well, what about MY atheistic beliefs? Shouldn’t you be respectful of those as well? How does respect flow only in one direction?” This isn’t a flippant question: it is pertinent given that DP often sardonically writes things like “Atheism is just another religion” on Twitter. Even Harry Potterheads and Star Trek convention-attendees can be deeply wounded and offended if you mock their myths (and one of the ways in which Pattanaik defines myths is "a set of beliefs that get accepted by a community").

He also peremptorily referred to an email I sent him the previous day as “that long essay you wrote to me, when I thought I had made everything clear”. As it happens, that “essay” was written as a prelude to a specific question I asked DP about the growth of chauvinistic Hindutva in the currently climate, and whether that concerns him. A question he never got around to answering, by the way, though he always seems to find it very easy to take potshots at Dawkins and other “atheist fundamentalists” or “secularists”.

Here, for the record, is the full text of the “essay” I had sent him, and his response:

J: To take off from something you said earlier, and which you have also touched on in your Twitter feeds: I politely disagree with this idea that “militant” or “hardline” atheism can be equated (in terms of the damage it can do) with religious fundamentalism. Of course, we all know that non-religious people are capable of violence or savagery (any human being is – and one doesn’t need to look further than the Communist atrocities), but surely history shows us that religion-driven extremism drives people towards barbarism and intolerance more surely than any other force. In today’s context, it would be problematic to draw an equivalence between what the ISIS does (or what the RSS endorses in some contexts) with the mocking invective of Dawkins, Hitchens etc, as if they were a similar magnitude of violent behaviour.

I admire people who manage to be “moderate” about these burning issues (you, for instance, have been trolled by both the Left and the Right – which perhaps indicates that you are doing something right!), but in the current climate I wonder how you feel about the more hardline manifestations of Hindutva we are seeing around us – especially this triumphal narrative that aims to build a Hindu rashtra by harking on the supposed glories of the past. Is this something that goes against the spirit of the benevolent Hinduism that you prefer to engage with?

DP: I feel men like Dawkins in mocking religion just fuel fundamentalism. In their obsession with being 'right', they end up fermenting the 'wrong'. They do not know the function of religion: "meaning"

So they end up destroying sacred knowledge and transforming 'Buddha' into a prop for a spa. Its rational, therefore ok. They do not see that humans are emotional creatures who rationalise the world, not rational creatures who are emotional.

Very easy to attack ISIS and RSS, but they are engendered by atheists and secularists who deny the role of the sacred and the transcendental in the world. They create the monsters we fear and claim innocence.

I guess because they have no understanding of karma, and absolutely no understanding of Indian philosophy. 

I won’t soft-pedal this: while I appreciate what DP says about humans being emotional creatures who try to rationalize the world, I am appalled by the statement (which I have put in bold above) that atheists and secularists bear responsibility for the worst extremes of religion-driven violence. It comes across as another version of the equivocating, the “but…but…butting” we saw from so many “liberals” when the Charlie Hebdo murders happened. And as I mentioned, there was no answer to the actual question I asked DP, about militant Hindutva.

More than anything, I was surprised when he lost his temper, because I had had him pegged as someone who was so secure and thick-skinned and Buddha-like that he simply wouldn’t respond in this way, even if he found me a pest. (Maybe he would just beg off, say he was busy or that the interview had gone on long enough.) But what came across in those 3-4 minutes was the slipping of a mask to reveal an insecure, slightly childlike persona that couldn’t deal with measured counter-argument. And there was a very telling moment when he sulked “Please go ahead now and write for your magazine that Devdutt Pattanaik is an evil person!”

He somewhat calmed down after I assured him that I had no intention of doing any such thing, that I respected a lot of his work, and only that morning I had read his wonderfully generous 2014 piece where he defended Wendy Doniger after the pulping of The Hindus, despite having strong disagreements with her about Hinduism.

When I mentioned this, he said something like “see, that’s exactly what I mean by having respect for different views.” But where was his respect and consideration for MY views – not that I had even got to express them at any length before he lost his cool.

“Fiction is nobody’s truth,” he says. How reductive this is.

When I told him that some of the people closest to me, whom I care for and respect, were religious believers, he went: “So would you go to your grandmother’s prayer room and say, oh, all these God figures are like Barbie dolls?”

I didn’t mention it to him at the time, only later on WhatsApp, but my nani – a very devout lady, so devout that she clapped her hands and cheered loudly when she saw TV footage of the Babri Masjid being demolished in 1992 – used to refer to her Krishna murtis as her “dolls”, which she could play with and arrange in different positions. Other friends, whose grandparents were just as religious but perhaps had a more open-minded and inclusive upbringing than my nani did, tell me that it was possible for them to have frank, long-drawn conversations about faith and lack of faith with these pious grandparents. Pattanaik may be doing religious believers (especially believers within a traditionally fluid religion like Hinduism) a disservice when he treats them as one homogenous group of children whose feelings must absolutely not be “hurt” in any way.

The mythologist's many heads: an encounter with Devdutt Pattanaik

[Here is a longer version of a profile-interview I did of mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik for Open magazine. I admire a lot of Pattanaik’s work, but I also feel there are a few blind spots - including the disproportionate amount of scorn he directs at atheists and “secularists” - and have tried to mention them in this piece. Along with a brief account of a phone conversation where he lost his temper at me.

There wasn’t enough space here to get into details about that conversation (and it would have been too self-indulgent for this magazine piece anyway), but I’ll soon put up a rough account of what happened


Early in his new book My Hanuman Chalisa – a verse-by-verse discussion of one of Hinduism’s most popular devotional hymns – mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik offers an insight about “north” and “south” in the Ramayana. These are not literal references to north and south India, he says, but metaphors that reflect attitudes or states of mind: the north is an empathetic, caring world while the south stands for fear, insecurity and covetousness. And in between them “is the land of the monkeys, our animal core, that can move either way, towards Rama or towards Ravana”. Hanuman, he writes a little later, “stands on the frontier between wilderness and settlement, between the animal and the human world”.

Speaking to Pattanaik on the phone, I tell him that on reading this sort of analysis – and there is plenty else like it in his books – I think of him as a version of the literary or film critic who offers subtextual interpretations and new ways of looking.

He chuckles softly, doesn’t say what he thinks of the comparison (later I will have reason to reflect that he probably didn’t approve), but affirms the importance of subjectivity and open-mindedness. The “my” in the title of the new book is essential, as it was in his earlier My Gita. “When you deny the possessive pronoun, you are propagating the idea that your view is the single, objective one. But in the same way that we might read the same poetry and see different things in it – or get different things out of Shakespeare’s plays – we can respond differently to myths too. There are so many diverse ways of looking at the same things.” In his Introduction to My Hanuman Chalisa, he states that he isn’t interested in locating a definitive truth but in “expanding ‘my’ truth and the truth of my readers”.

He wanted to analyse and decode these hymns – composed by Tulsidas more than four centuries ago – because “we have all read and heard and played them, they are ubiquitous, but I wondered: do we actually listen to the words and pay attention to their meaning? I wanted to make it accessible to a younger generation.”

“The worldview it expresses is very Indian, and can be hard to explain to a Western reader or someone who has been trained to look at things through a Western lens. It’s difficult to explain, for instance, why Hanuman is even there – and treated as a God in his own right – when the god Rama is already the centre of the epic. Many people don’t understand this tradition of multiple Gods or demi-Gods, and Indians tend to go on the defensive too: if a friend comes and asks ‘why do you worship a monkey’, we don’t know what to say, we can’t explain.”

These are running themes of his prolific career as a writer and lecturer: that Indian myths are so fluid, wide-ranging and ambiguous that they can confuse or daunt even devout readers, who don’t always know how to make sense of them; that because Hinduism, compared to the other major faiths, doesn’t have a single canonical or prescriptive text, it is often decried by those who hanker after certainties. This is where Pattanaik sees himself coming in, to “join the dots”. To distill or synthesize myths, make sense of them for modern readers.

He has been doing this for over twenty years now, a period that has seen the publication of thirty books and hundreds of articles, all dealing broadly with myths and what they may teach us. The output includes lucid retellings of the epics (Jaya and Sita, about the Mahabharata and Ramayana respectively), examinations of the many legends surrounding a specific deity (99 Thoughts on Ganesha), books for children (Pashu: Animal Tales from Indian Mythology) and guides for management students and entrepreneurs (Business Sutra).

He has also written about non-Indian mythology, notably in Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths, published last year. “I wanted to reverse the gaze. When Roberto Calasso and Wendy Doniger write about Indian myths, they are eagerly published and their work is seen as more valid somehow. Which would probably not have been the case if Doniger had been African-American or Calasso had been from Beijing University! We have to study other cultures too, to understand what is special about ours. My intention was to bring my perspective to these non-Indian myths and say, let’s have a conversation.”

Through all these books, one constant is Pattanaik’s delightful illustrations, which are minimalist yet detailed, affectionate and drolly funny at the same time. “I have been drawing from a very early age,” he says, “and I often find that I can’t properly explain something unless I draw it – this helps me achieve clarity in my own mind.”


One of my favourites among those hundreds of drawings is a seated Ravana as a “strategic” figure, a CEO of his era, with the ten heads depicted as blank square boxes, spread out in a pyramidal pattern that evokes flowchart boxes in computer-science classes of 20 years ago; this image is in the just-published Leader: 50 Insights from Mythology. I was looking at it in the company of a friend when the latter said “Pattanaik has ten heads himself.”

This was an admiring reference to the many sides of the mythologist’s personality: from the well-travelled motivational speaker to the disciplined author who maintains a solitary writing schedule each morning to the management guru who serves as consultant to high-profile businessmen. And someone who subtly tailors his work to the demands of many readerships and publishing
houses. One of his finest books, Shikhandi and Other Tales They Didn’t Tell You – an exploration of gender roles and alternate sexuality in myths – was done for the feminist publishing house Zubaan. Another, The Girl Who Chose: A New Way of Narrating the Ramayana, is with the children’s publisher Puffin. In a charming video introduction to this book, he relates how a schoolteacher asked him to use the Ramayana to impart good values to children, and he raised an eyebrow and said “A book that begins ‘There was a king who had three wives’ – you think children will get good values from that?!” (Of course, this little joke didn’t prevent him from doing the book, and reframing the story to make it appeal to youngsters.)

“I enjoy writing for different sorts of readers,” he says. “There is a lot of adapting: for business people, outcomes tend to be important; when writing for children, you have to be more linear. I like all these modes – it forces me to think about what I’m saying, and how best to say it.”

Apart from the many Pattanaiks on view in his books, there are also the avatars that show up in television shows, interviews, video-blogs – and of course, on social media, where he often comes up against people who disagree with or attack him. Including the “trolls” to whom he has dedicated My Hanuman Chalisa.

It isn’t easy being a moderate – and a very high-profile one – in a field where emotions are easily inflamed, and at a time when the growth of a virulent, chauvinistic Hindutva can lead the softer, more reflective aspects of the religion to become tainted by association. In such a climate, someone like Pattanaik draws fire from both religious literalists – who take offence to the mildest observation that doesn’t chime with their rigid beliefs – and from those secular-liberals who find any close engagement with old texts problematic.

To the irreligious mind, some of the things he writes can sound like sophistry, faux-philosophy or even mumbo-jumbo; to a religious Hindu, the very same things can seem inappropriate or upsetting. And so, it isn’t uncommon to see him being assailed, at the same time, as a Hindutva apologist AND as a betrayer of sacrosanct texts. “The Ramayana is the Ramayana – it doesn’t change” someone scolds him on Twitter when he mentions that there are many versions of the epic apart from the mainstream one favoured by the Hindi-speaking belt. When he posts a tweet that goes “Did Ram live 7000 years ago and Krishna live 5000 years ago? No way to verify it”, there are angry comments about “scientific dating” through the Ram Setu bridge.

“Everyone who has an agenda will hate you when you write something that discomfits them, and love you when you affirm their point of view,” he tells me. “I have no agenda – I don’t want to save the world, only understand it.”

It does seem, though – and this could be my own bias at work now – that Pattanaik finds it easier to sympathize with and engage with the religious mind than the non-religious one; that he is more willing to hit out at the “secularists”, the “atheist fundamentalists” as he sees them, than at religious hardliners.

At one point, instead of answering a question I ask about his views on hardline Hindutva – including the triumphal narrative about building a Hindu rashtra by harking on the supposed glories of the past – he chooses to lash out, again, at atheists – as if villains like Richard Dawkins were running around killing people in the name of their “militant un-beliefs”. The ISIS and RSS, he says, very perplexingly, “are engendered by atheists and secularists who deny the role of the sacred and the transcendental in the world. They create the monsters we fear and claim innocence.”


But if liberals can be described as fundamentalist, it is just as possible for a mythologist – even a moderate one – to become inflexible. Beneath the soft-spoken, genial man who values subjectivity and discussion – and prefaces much of what he writes with a humble-sounding epigraph about how the Gods may have a thousand or a hundred eyes, but “you and I, only two” – there may be another, more complex Pattanaik: someone who is very conscious of his reputation as a guru, and can get riled when his definitions are questioned.

I sense this during a second phone conversation, when I mention that as a Mahabharata-obsessive, I see the epic primarily as a great work of literature, and ask if Pattanaik can clarify the distinction – as he sees it – between myths and fiction. At this point, he becomes very annoyed, as if the difference is a clear-cut one that should be obvious to anyone, and says reductive things about fiction being just entertainment. “Would you compare Harry Potter to the Bible?”

“Myth = somebody's truth,” he writes in a tweet. “Fiction = nobody's truth.” But isn’t this a very limited view of what good fiction – or literature – can be? Any such writing – regardless of genre or the many other labels critics stick on literature – can contain deep poetic truths and can teach us a great deal about people and their lives.

When I suggest that the line between myth and fiction may not be so clear, the conversation takes a southward turn and Pattanaik loses his composure, accuses me of disrespecting the dearly held beliefs of others by calling them “just fiction”, and wonders if I would tell my grandmother that her Krishna murtis were like Barbie dolls. Notably, he frames the concept of disrespect in a way that is common among those who believe religious sentiments are automatically more important and respect-worthy than any other sort; in such a framing, non-believers are better off keeping their mouths shut all the time! But Pattanaik may be doing religious people (especially those within a traditionally open-ended faith like Hinduism) a disservice by treating them as a homogenous group of infants whose feelings must never be hurt, nor their views challenged – and as being incapable of having nuanced conversations about faith and lack of faith.

He apologizes subsequently for having lost his cool, soon returns to his usual gracious, soft-spoken self – but just for a few minutes it was as if a Ravana had lost one of his heads.


As a writer, Pattanaik has a sense of humour, the ability to make interesting connections between ancient and modern life, and can be very frank and inclusive when it comes to topics like sexuality –or when providing information about the many regional interpolations of the epics, as he scrupulously does in Jaya’s chapter endnotes. But there are little blind-spots too, such as a deep suspicion of retellings or analyses that stress certain viewpoints or political positions. “Nowadays,” he says, “there are these bizarre writings that look at myths purely through the lens of Dalit oppression, or present them as misogynistic from the feminist point of view, or try to further the RSS agenda.”

Since you champion subjectivity, I ask him, why are those readings any less valid than the benevolent, comforting ones? Why would the perspective of a marginalized, underprivileged character not be just as important?

“But how many of these writers stay open-minded about alternate interpretations?” Pattanaik responds. “They market their version as the only possible one. Words like ‘privilege’ are political words, used with an agenda, and these writers don’t recognize their own agendas. Literature is politicized, academia is confused with activism. I have never heard a proponent of the feminist or Dalit view say ‘here is one possible point of view’ – it is always more rigid than that.”

There is a sliver of truth in this. The use of a purely political or ideological lens to look at creative works – at the cost of closely engaging with the human complexities in those works – is a familiar one, and it often tars literary and film criticism too. Personally, I have plenty of experience of people who, without having closely read the Ramayana, will reflexively make sweeping statements about Rama being a bad husband (in much the same way that rigidly religious people will refuse to see Rama as anything other than a God whose actions mustn’t be questioned).

However, it is problematic to say that privilege and under-privilege are just political terms – they are real things and take many forms, including more complex, intersecting, context-dependent ones than caste or gender inequality. To take one instance, the mighty Pandava prince Bhima would not be deemed unprivileged in any conventional sense of the word – yet, in MT Vasudevan Nair’s excellent Randaamoozham, Bhima – the narrator-protagonist – is decidedly the underdog, forever in the shadows of his siblings Arjuna and Yudhisthira. He sees himself as hard done by, and this is necessarily the lens through which the whole of that book unfolds; it would be silly to expect the author to provide a “balanced” viewpoint.

And yes, there is something either disingenuous or deluded about any position that goes: “Other people have agendas. I do not.” To some degree or other, everyone has biases, born of countless unquantifiable life experiences. The impulse to be seen as an authority figure, a conduit who provides wisdom, can be a sort of agenda too – a non-malicious one, but one that might grow over time as you become a bestselling author and protective of your own image.


[I have written way too many posts on the Mahabharata and other mythological works to link to individually, but you'll find a few dozen of them here. Also, here is a piece about Randaamoozham. And a piece about so-called liberal "extremism" here - with a comments section that's more invigorating than the post]