Rage Productions' poster for the play

From Judging… to Understanding

If you are called upon to decide on a matter of grave import, especially one in the public domain, how do you ensure you are judging well rather than being judgmental?

A scene from the 1957 Hollywood version of 12 Angry MenThis compelling thought lies at the heart of the all-time classic 12 Angry Men. Penned by Reginald Rose in 1954, the play has been adapted into several formats and languages across the world, and continues to do so 60 years on. I myself have seen a Hollywood movie (the legendary Sidney Lumet’s 1957 version, starring luminaries such as Henry Fonda and Lee Cobb), a Bollywood film (1986’s Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, featuring a who’s-who of theatre and cinema stalwarts – Pankaj Kapur, Annu Kapoor, KK Raina – and directed by another great, Basu Chatterjee), a school play (performed by Standard XII students), and most recently, a contemporised version (by as-if-presciently-named-for-this-play Rage Productions of Mumbai). ‘Contemporised’ because, conscious of the need to be inclusive, the play is now named 12 Angry Jurors and features an almost equal number of women (five) in the cast.

The story though remains the same. An 18-year boy (technically, some would say a man) is accused of murdering his abusive father. The court proceedings over, the 12-member jury (the 12 in the title) now moves to the inner room to decide – and if needed, deliberate – on the boy’s fate. However, there seems to be no need for deliberation, as 11 have decided ‘Guilty’. But wait, as one has decided ‘Not Guilty’, there seems to be need for some discussion. The 11 though are flummoxed: how can one person not believe the boy is guilty when all evidence, witnesses, and as damningly, an overwhelming majority of them are saying so? What starts off as a tiny spark ignited by Juror 8 (the one believing the boy is innocent) leads slowly but surely toward an incendiary climax, as not just thoughts and arguments but accusations and threats are exchanged (the anger in the title). So, do the jurors remain enraged till the end, or do they become placative and reach a unanimous decision one way or the other (the requirement of the court)? In case you haven’t seen the play or any of its avatars, will leave you to discover the denouement for yourself.

An angered Lee Cobb in the 1957 Hollywood version of 12 Angry MenWhat is worth deliberating on however are the themes the play / movie explores. The tendency to evaluate something or someone only through one’s own (coloured) lenses. Juror 10 is unrelenting: the boy is guilty and needs to hang simply because he’s from the slums and “those people” are always like that. Prejudices, it is clear, run deep. And it appears, so do bad experiences, especially if they are close to home. Juror 3 wages the toughest, and roughest, battle against Juror 8. The reason? Juror 3 has had a strained relationship with his son, and having failed to resolve matters with his own kid, wants the accused kid to suffer in a vicious, vicarious form of retribution. And one juror, No. 7, has the flimsiest, whimsiest reason for sticking to his stance: he has tickets for a game and so wants the discussion to wind up asap, especially as all but one of them hold the boy guilty.

Bias, negativity, slapdash judgment… All themes as relevant in today’s social media-fuelled times, when people are quick to ascribe fault and guilt to a situation or a person without bothering to get to the truth. Because that takes time, effort and intellect. All of which seem to be in short supply these days.

A poster for the 1957 Hollywood version of 12 Angry Men, showing a lone white silhouette on one balance and 11 black silhouettes on the otherIt’s not all despairing though. The play urges you to stand up for what you believe is right, even when the world stands against you. Juror 8 fights alone for the longest time. When asked if the boy could really be innocent when the evidence, witness statements, and presently, most jurors are disfavoured to him, his constant response is a simple “It’s possible.” He merely wants to explore the possibility that the boy is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Surely, that’s not too much to ask for, given that his life is at stake? The play also holds that it’s alright to waver, to not be sure. Juror 12 does what looks like a flip-flop in the eyes of the others: now she believes he’s guilty, now she believes he’s not. It’s ok, the play seems to say, to change your viewpoint as you receive more information. After all, it shows you are willing to be flexible, and more importantly, to think.

Not surprisingly, six decades on, 12 Angry Men (Jurors) remains a telling commentary on the way most people think and believe when it comes to others. And the way they truly ought to.

Cover pic for this post with the calling card of the play and my comment

Irficionado | Play | ‘Amrapali’

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The Theatre Nisha logoIt seems Theatre Nisha read my review of their last staged play, Gallantly Fought the Queen, based on the life of Rani Lakshmibai. For they seem to have incorporated the suggestions I made there into one of their latest staged plays, Amrapali. Well, technically, Amrapali has been on for some time. But it was finally satisfying to watch a rather rich production (content-wise) from Theatre Nisha, after two somewhat let-down productions (Gallantly and, before that, Flowers).

Amrapali, also in contrast to the previous two plays I had watched, was staged free. (And no, that isn’t the reason I liked it. In fact, because it was good, I felt they should have charged a nominal fee out of respect for the effort put in.) Also, watching the third straight monologue play from Theatre Nisha, I was able to possibly get the group’s strategy. I think they come out with these monologues as experiments, and the ones that click (Flowers and this one seem to have done well so far), they keep adding to, embellishing and enriching. The first shows seem less slick (I think Gallantly was in the initial stages of, well, being staged, but Flowers and Amrapali have had good runs by the time I caught them), and therefore a bit disappointing, but if the group feels they’re onto something, they don’t let go and keep chipping away until they get at least half a gem.

A calling card for Theatre Nisha's play, Amrapali

Anyway, enough theorizing and back to Amrapali. So, Amrapali seems to have woven in the suggestion I made of the one actor playing all the different characters. Janani Narasimhan, who played the courtesan, did so, and with aplomb, modulating her voice very effectively and perceptibly for the multiple characters, right down to the body language. Janani also moved around the four-sided venue, calibrating her movements, so that no one part of the audience felt tuned out. (Though I did catch one guy on the opposite side nodding off for the first part of the play, but that could be because he was done with his weekend. The venue, Spaces, is right next to the immensely popular and populated Besant Nagar Beach, or more fondly, Bessie, which has tons of eateries, hang-outs, activities, or in short, distractions.)

Actor Janani Narasimhan in and as AmrapaliJanani was also a very stoic performer, acting her solo part through the heat and sweat. I saw first sweat-beads form and then turn into rivulets and stream down her face, but she battled through them. (I’m guessing also the make-up was smudge-proof.) Compare this with most folk in the audience making fans out of anything they could get their hands on: the play flyer, newspapers, face towels, their hands; plus, the prescient had got actual hand-fans.

On the flip side, Janani did get some of her pronunciations wrong, and I also thought she was a bit of a miscast, as Amrapali – according to the writer of the play itself, V Balakrishnan, the director and force behind Nisha – was supposed to be a woman of extraordinary beauty. Which is why she was designated the courtesan in the republic of Vaishali. Nevertheless, matching the looks to the role is more of a movie necessity; in theatre, talent reigns supreme. So, nothing really to take away from Janani.

V Balakrishnan, founder and director of Theatre NishaBut even better than Janani’s performance, and which is why I loved the play so much, was the writing. Bala has invested a lot into the script; it’s easy to see that he wrote it with love and care and kept perfecting with each staging. I especially loved the piece on how an apsara’s breasts are useless, “mere ornaments, for decoration”, as they are not able to produce milk, and therefore any kid they beget, they can’t nurture. Amrapali, in fact, is one such child.

The skillful writing also shows in the symmetry of the play, though this could very well be the same in most accounts of the courtesan’s life: Amrapali, toward the end of her life, on relinquishing her erstwhile duties and taking to the teaching and principles of the Buddha, takes up habitat just where her earthly father had found her – under the mango tree. (That’s why she’s given her name, the sprouts of a mango tree.) The symmetry is sealed with Janani / Amrapali reciting the same Sanskrit lines at the end of the play as at the beginning; only, at the end, it’s with their meaning.

Kudos to Janani, Bala and everyone at Theatre Nisha for this fine endeavour. Would have loved it even more if the heat wasn’t such a sapper and as someone for the previous play had suggested, “there had been an AC at the (open) venue”. But then, as a member of Nisha had responded, “Spaces wouldn’t be the same that way”.

Chandramandapa at Spaces, where the play was staged

Chandramandapa at Spaces, where the play was staged

You can find out more about Theatre Nisha on their website: Theatre Nisha

Cover pic for this post with a composite image of the brothers from 'Kapoor and Sons' and the post title

Irficionado | Writing and Creativity (Since 1921… and Way Earlier)

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Wrote this piece for The Hindu’s thREAD. It got published today, the perfect day, Friday, as it’s about movies, and the arts in general. Here’s the link: This Piece on thREAD. And below’s the original piece.


There are about three conversations happening around the super-loved, superhit Kapoor and Sons (Since 1921) right now.

First, it’s a delectable easy-charm, slice-of-life movie that takes the protagonists and the viewers not from A through Z, but to, let’s say, a T. Also, it’s a liner and not a submarine – it cruises along without diving deep. I agree with most of that, but wish it could have gone just a bit deeper; it would have been a “truer” film, like the director, Shakun Batra’s debut Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, which does the opposite of Kapoor and Sons – it goes from A to T and then back to A: the protagonists don’t end up being together at the end, nor seem very likely to.

Next, how insanely good-looking Fawad Khan is, especially shorn of the stubble from his Bollywood debut, Khoobsurat – and people thought that was hot. Fawad has got most girls, and some guys, weak in their knees and other body parts. And there’s talk that just for this delightful import from across the border, we might finally let their cricket team win a World Cup match.

Fawad Khan in a scene from 'Kapoor and Sons'Finally, people are going to town about how sensitively the film-makers have dealt with Fawad’s character, Rahul, being gay. (Did we hear those girls weeping and those guys whooping? Chill, that’s just his character – although he is married in real life.) The LGBT community especially seems ecstatic that the makers have said ‘gay’ without saying ‘gay’ – there’s no mention of the word, not even an indication (even the fuchsia feather boa in the family belongs to his dad) and Rahul isn’t portrayed as disco/Cher-loving or shirt-chasing. I think the makers could have gone better here too – while no one uses the G word, Rahul’s mom treats him, at least as soon as she comes to know of his “truth”, with the same disgust most queer people find themselves at the receiving end of. But portrayals of LGBT characters in our movies rarely go beyond those effete, pink-loving stereotypes, so this is at least two-steps-forward, one-step-back.

But I’d like to bring a fourth, and perhaps more discussion-worthy, conversation to the Burma-teak table. Before that, the context-setting.

Rahul and his younger bro, Arjun, are both writers. However, Rahul is the successful one and Arjun the struggler. Rahul’s second book has been a huge success – although his first tanked – and he’s presently working on the third. In fact, he seems to be doing well enough to come to his home-town, Coonoor, to scout for a bungalow to turn into an artists’ retreat. Arjun, in contrast, is struggling with more than just his writing. He’s recently given up, after a short stint, his gig of blogging about Bollywood and is presently making ends meet as a part-time bartender. In his spare time, he is working on a book, his second one, after having given up the first because it “somehow” proved to be very similar to Rahul’s second/successful book. (Did Rahul sneak a peek and get “inspired”? For that, you’ll have to watch the movie.)

Sidharth Malhotra and Fawad Khan in a scene from 'Kapoor and Sons'

Setting aside their differences for a while, in the second half, the brothers begin talking about Arjun’s manuscript. Arjun shares that the publisher has asked him to change the ending as it’s a not happy one, but he is, um, not happy with doing that. Why? Because he believes “books, or literature, should reflect real life – and real life is never happy.”

However, toward the end, as the movie moves toward its T point, we see Arjun reneging: he makes the book end positively. At the publishers’, when asked how he finally relented, warmly recalling Rahul’s reflections to him (more about this later), he offers, “Based on someone’s suggestion…”

As a writer and creative individual (or so the hope), this seemed a more primal point for discussion than how deep a movie should go, how lovely a lad looks, or how a gay guy can love other colours in the rainbow flag.

A quote about happy endingsThe great books, even the good ones – and by this I mean literature and not “racy, pacy reads” – have almost always ended sad. From Homer to Shakespeare to Hardy to living authors, it’s like a defining trait of literature that it shouldn’t end joyous. And I believe this is for the good: people read these books, not so much to escape their pain, but to empathize with others in a parallel universe somewhere dealing with the same kinds of pathos. As we see our troubles equalled, or even surpassed, in literary characters, we are assuaged – kind of like a therapy session right at home, or wherever you choose to read. And while these characters are fictional, lit-lovers know that somewhere these are either alter egos of the writers or amalgamated versions of people the writer has met or observed.

While I haven’t read Iliad and very little of Shakespeare and Hardy, let me talk of the ones I have, right from my favourite authors and books to more recent literature.

Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, while mesmerizing to read right from the first Buendian (the family in the story) to the last, eventually ends up in loss for the family. As the second-last Buendian loses himself more and more in academia, the last Buendian, the baby, loses his little life, Second-Last failing to pay attention to Last’s precarious situation. A century on, the family is back to solitude.

Cover of V S Naipaul's sublime 'A House for Mr Biswas'In Naipaul’s tender, tearful A House for Mr Biswas, there is almost no relief for Mr B through the expansive tome. As he sees his third and final house slowly disintegrating, his life too seeps away, at the ripe old age of… 46.

Even in Marquez’s ultimately-happy Love in the Time of Cholera, the lovers meet only after “51 years, 9 months and 4 days.” Many would say, where’s the joy in that?

Cover of Cyrus Mistry's 'Chronicle of A Corpse Bearer'Or take the recent DSC winners (an award given for South Asian writing, which seems to be going India’s way over the last few years, just like the Ms Worlds/Ms Universes were once upon a time). Cyrus Mistry’s Chronicle of A Corpse Bearer deals with the many tragedies in the life of the titular khandhia, from his excommunication from his caste on marrying a woman “below” him to the death of his wife at a very young age. Even the most recent winner that I’m in the middle of now, Anuradha Roy’s Sleeping on Jupiter, deals with many dark and heavy themes: the not-so-holy doings of some (all?) godmen, the frustration inherent in most gay romances (the flavour of the season?), and the spirit-leeching deterioration of the faculties in old age. I’m yet to know how it ends, but it surely doesn’t augur well.

So, if literature ends up being tragic yet triumphant, and he isn’t writing a book with a number in its title or a Hindu mythological figure as its hero, why does Arjun end up modifiying its ending?

The answer perhaps lies where it started – in our movies. Many Bollywood directors (no doubt, there are examples in other Indian cinemas too, but I am a Big Bolly Buff) make a great first movie – a movie from their heart and soul – but which doesn’t do ting at the tills as it’s too “real”, and so change tack and make a more “commercially viable” movie henceforth, which not surprisingly works.

Ayan Mukerji made the wondrous Wake Up Sid, which despite all its acclaim at best only woke up, rather than shook up, the box office. So, he moved to more commercial elements, such as a more saleable leading lady and foreign locales, and delivered the blockbuster Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani.

Poster of Zoya Akhtar's debut movie 'Luck by Chance'Zoya Akhtar first gave us, or me (as it’s my favourite film of all time), the rich, deep, involving Luck By Chance, which had layers upon layers of psychology, nuance, complexity, and then some. But apart from folk like me who watched it 15 times, it had little luck. So, she swerved to the big, vapid Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and then the bigger and only less vacuous Dil Dhadakne Do.

Director Shakun Batra leaning over a cut-out of his debut movie 'Ek Main aur Ekk Tu'Finally, and ironically, Shakun Batra himself. He debuted with, as I already wrote, the ruminative Ek Main aur Ekk Tu, where the hero-heroine remain ek main aur ekk tu, but never ek hum (one you, one me, but never one us): the heroine, Kareena Kapoor, feels they are nice individuals in their own place but can’t be together, at least she doesn’t see it that way. Not surprisingly, the movie was seen by ek-do (one-two) folk. And so, in Kapoor and Sons, Shakun had Arjun and Tia (Alia Bhatt) hooking up by the end. And perhaps, to be doubly sure, he made Rahul prefer men. (Oh, was that the real reason for the character being gay?)

Cover of the book 'Creativity, Inc.To be fair, these directors might be attempting a golden middle. In a mini-interview to a different part of The Hindu, about which book he’s reading presently (Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull with Amy Wallace), Shakun had this to say: “The book talks about finding the balance between telling the stories you have to tell and fighting the battle you have to fight… It gives a lot of perspective and also makes me feel that it is possible to not sell your soul and make a film that connects with people.”

Your first creative endeavour goes under. You don’t want the next to suffer the same fate. Any wonder then that in making its ending a happy one, Arjun makes a practical decision. He wants to be successful – and if this is the only thing stopping him – why not, in a manner of speaking, lower your ideals?

Now, to all the writers/creative souls out there: what would you do? Write (pen/direct) a real but less saleable story? Or a happy and more successful one? That is, write for the self – or to sell? Or is there a golden middle?

As you begin writhing over that, let me finally share the suggestion Rahul gives Arjun, which leads to the modified ending, “Because people find real life tough, they look for happiness in stories…”

Now what would you do?

Agonizing, huh? Well, such is life. And I guess, literature.

Composite image featuring the poster and actor of Theatre Nisha's one-person play, 'Gallantly Fought the Queen'

Irficionado | Play Review | ‘Gallantly Fought the Queen’

Logo for Irficionado seriesThis was the second Theatre Nisha play I attended this year, and as it turned out, both had the same format. Both were around an hour long, both were monologues, both had two artistes accompanying, one a singer, the other an instrumentalist. To continue the similarity, both were conducted in small spaces (the first one in a yoga studio, yes, and this one in the Alliance Francaise auditorium) and both had similarly priced tickets. Just that the first one, ‘Flowers’, about a married Hindu priest from ancient times succumbing to the charms of a newly-arrived courtesan, proved to be better than this one.

Poster of Theatre Nisha's 'Gallantly Fought the Queen'This one, ‘Gallantly Fought the Queen’, was about a historical person again, but this time a real one, Rani of Jhansi, Laxmibai. It was based on Hindi poet, Subhadra Kumari Chauhan’s eulogy to the queen, ‘Khoob Ladi Mardaani’. The play’s title was a very astute translation of the poem’s title. Unfortunately, the goodness ends there. Ok, credit too to Meera Sitaraman, who played the queen. She put in a lot of zeal and effort, effortlessly switching from the Hindi stanzas of the poem to the English narration. Yes, the monologue was basically a narration of the events in the rani’s life from when the British begin laying siege to Jhansi to her eventual death. Interspersed with that, as just mentioned, was the recitation of parts of the poem, I’m guessing, in the order they are written.

Poster of Theatre Nisha's one-person play, 'Flowers'Watching this unfold, I felt either of two things. That this was an experimental play, like a test run before a bigger, more lavish mounting (and by god, would this subject look grand on a grander scale – the rani in her majestic attire, thundering her lines, tearing through the enemy; any wonder then Bollywood has been toying with making a movie on her for the longest time, and I’m already picturing Alia Bhatt or Kareena Kapoor). Alternatively, this was repeating the formula from the earlier ‘Flowers’. When something has worked, why tinker? (Though ‘Flowers’ itself was modest at best. Also, ‘Flowers’ had a more riveting tale.) In both cases, the reason seemed the desire to keep the budget low, or rather, work within the low budget. For ‘Flowers’, the only thing on stage was a big lingam; here, it was six black boxes (the same lingam dismantled?) stacked like a pyramid, perhaps to resemble stones or a fortress.

Meera Sitaraman in the titular role of Theatre Nisha's 'Gallantly Fought the Queen'

Meera Sitaraman in and as Rani Laxmibai in the play

If budget was really the issue, I have a suggestion (like I always do when I feel something has a decent premise, but seems to lack something in the final execution). This may also solve the problem of finding it boring to watch one person, that too just narrate a timeline of events. (I found many others, along with myself, trying hard to suppress many a yawn, during the 60-odd-minute runtime.) Perhaps the actor could have switched roles from time to time, with a modification of attire during each switch if possible. So, she could have been Tantia Tope when chastising his ineffectuality, about Lord Dalhousie when sneering at his haughtiness, or even her subjects when empathizing with their collective fears and mobilized courage. Like one actor playing multiple roles, as has been seen in some films too (Bollywood’s most famous example being Sanjeev Kumar’s ‘Nayi Din, Nayi Raat’). Would have definitely made for more interesting viewing, would have pushed the eager actor more, and most importantly, if they decided to do away with the accompanying artistes, would have made the most of the budget. In short, Creatively Should Have Thought the Team. Lacking which, the only thing gallant here proved to be the decision to produce a play within a seemingly small budget.


Indian mythology fiction writer, Amish, in his study

Irficionado | Books | Something’s Amish

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Cover of Amish's first book, 'The Immortals of Meluha'I read Amish’s first book in the Shiva trilogy (‘The Immortals of Meluha’, his first book ever, which also shot him to spectacular, overnight fame), soon after it released and on taking in all the buzz, up to page 100, that too with a lot of self-pushing, and gave up. The writing was too every day.

I like mythology, especially Hindu mythology, which almost blends into the religious domain. And I like Shiva – his wild appearance, his yin-yang forces of masculinity-femininity, the anger he harnesses within, which when provoked, manifests through his taandav dance or, in rare cases, through the opening of his third eye, and eventually his power to destroy (which is actually aimed at restoring balance in the world). But I need my writing (that is, the writing in the books I read) to be as engaging as the story itself. Which is why I gave up on Amitav Ghosh too (many of his fans themselves say his books are tremendous… from a research perspective, and therefore a delight… for academics).

Vaishna Roy, Associate Editor, The HinduNow, why would somebody who had an interesting subject (to the best of my memory, no Indian writer had written fiction around Shiva before this; they have on Ram – through the Ramayana – and on the Mahabharata, but not the Destroyer God) not write mesmerizingly on it too? The session with Amish at the recently concluded The Hindu Lit for Life litfest provided some answers, or better still, some insights. (Interviewing Amish was Vaishna Roy, Associate Editor, The Hindu, who I’ve met and corresponded with a couple of times.)

Indian mythology fiction writer, AmishOne of the first questions to Amish was about something he himself has stated earlier: he gets the plot of his books and its details through some “divine inspiration”. He just sits at his laptop and sees clearly the pictures he’s going to paint, and the writing just flows. Amish has also said how he’s a Shiva bhakt and believes Shiva, and the other gods (or people), did exist. (He also reveals how he was atheist for a long time before he turned believer.) If you want to read “divine inspiration” in another way, it can mean pure talent. So, Amish has the innate talent for this; it’s, well, God-given. But now, if his books seem more like recordings than narrations, that means… he does nothing more with his talent. No developing it, no growing it, no interfering with it. Stasis. (Which also means that if one day, the talent deserts or subsides within him, then what? No worries. The author is also a good speaker and businessman – he kept goading attendees to buy and read his books – and can rely on these other talents to see him through. Plus, in India, there are enough takers for mythology/religion.)

Indian mythology non-fiction writer, Devdutt PattanaikThat however was only one part of the story. The tale unraveled further when Amish answered another question (and the most exacting one of the interview, in my opinion). “Your writing seems a bit utilitarian.” A euphemism for “functional”, or worse, banal. (Good one, Vaishna.) Amish fielded this one as well as he did the other questions (he came across as being as diplomatic as the other hugely successful writer on Hindu mythology, though in non-fiction, in India, Devdutt Pattanaik), saying that each style (pedestrian vs poetic) has its merits and serves a function, and in a very cloistered way, agreed that his writing is not, to use another euphemism, ambitious.

The decider though was yet to come. When asked about the kind of books he reads, Amish answered that while he reads a lot, and has been doing so for a long time (4-5 books per month), only 15%, at the most, 20% of it is fiction; 80-85% is non-fiction. Based on the kind of writing he produces, I dare say this non-fiction is more detail-based than narrative. And there I guess you have it. Why Amish writes the way he does.

Composite image featuring, from top to bottom, Arundhathi Subramaniam, Bishwanath Ghosh and Siddharth ChowdhuryIf I had to read interesting mythology, I’d go to Arundhathi Subramaniam, author/poet on spirituality and culture, who has written a book on Buddha and who chaired a session on female Indian mystic poets at the litfest. I still wouldn’t go to Devdutt, who I believe merely presents (or worse, packages) mythology (though he knows a lot about it, and well, packages even better when speaking). For non-fiction (non-fiction that actually reads like fiction), I’d go to someone like Bishwanath Ghosh, also Associate Editor, The Hindu, who I met at the fest too. And for fiction that reads like narrative non-fiction – it’s that easy and simple and warm – I’d go to someone like Siddharth Chowdhury, who too I met at the fest. And about who I’d be blogging about next.

Really, Amish, I’m more than happy to give you A-miss. And now, I know just why.

Janhavi Acharekar at the time of the launch of her book, Wanderers, All

Irficionado | Author Interview | Janhavi Acharekar

“I want to write”. At about the turn of the millennium, when Janhavi Acharekar was quitting her copywriting job in the ad agency we both were in, and I asked her why, this, in perhaps true Janhavi style, was her simple response. Janhavi has managed to achieve that dream, beginning with pieces in papers and going on to a collection of her stories (Window Seat: Rush-Hour Stories from the City), to travel guides (on Mumbai and Goa), to recently, her first novel, Wanderers, All. In between, among her other literary pursuits like readings, lit-fest curations, and interviews, she was also recognised as a Mumbaikar of the Year, 2009, the same year in which her first book, Window Seat, came out.

Inspired by Janhavi’s ancestral history, Wanderers, All (published by Harper Collins) is the story of two people, separated by time. Murlidhar Khedekar, who moves with his dad from Konkan to old Bombay, begins with dreams of being in Marathi theatre, then moves on to wrestling (kushti), before setting down and growing as a policeman. The other, shorter narrative that punctuates Murli and his kith and kin’s story is that of Kinara, a newly single, seemingly directionless woman of today. The starting point is Kinara’s father giving her Murli and his ancestors’ maps. Kinara and Murli, separated by time, are related by blood: she is his great-granddaughter.

Cover of Janhavi Acharekar's new book, Wanderers, All

In this email interview, Janhavi talks about the book, her writing motivations and motifs, and the under-appreciated choice/chance of being a wanderer.

IS: I read in one of your other interviews that the idea for Wanderers, All came from a story in Window Seat. Which story is this, and how did that short story lead to this bigger story?

Cover of Window Seat: Rush-Hour Stories from the City, a collection of short stories by Janhavi AcharekarJA: I had a vague idea of the novel I wanted to write, but the story ‘Freedom at Midnight’ in Window Seat was a test run. I was clear about having the Independence movement as the historical setting and began to seriously think of writing Wanderers, All only after I wrote this story. The characters too made their way into the novel. Sudhakar Vernekar, the young, idealistic journalist and freedom fighter in Wanderers, All is the old pensioner in 21st century Mumbai in ‘Freedom at Midnight’. The chief protagonist of the story ‘Birthday Party’ in Window Seat also appears as a younger version of himself in the novel. The book began as an exploration of the lives and times of these characters.

IS: I also read somewhere that the full novel took shape somewhere in the middle of writing it. By this, do you mean the idea of having the parallel story of Kinara, or were you referring to something else?

An old photo of a Bombay policeman, from Janhavi Acharekar's research files for her book, Wanderers, AllJA: No, the story of Kinara was the starting point of Wanderers, All – the beginning of the book as you see it today. It was the historical narrative that took shape slowly because I wasn’t entirely sure about how it would progress. Also, the research on Marathi theatre as well as the history of the Bombay City Police slowed me down and then contributed to turns in the narrative. There were times when I didn’t know how Murli’s life would progress. And there was the question of two timelines without making one or the other seem incongruous. Nor did I anticipate the length of the novel. That said, I enjoyed the process of not knowing. I’m not a structured writer who has a clear plot in mind before I begin writing. It evolves as I go along.

IS: Many authors begin their novel-writing journeys with family/ancestral history. There are Marquez, Naipaul, and Rushdie (among my favourites). So, is it an easy starting ground, or was there some other motivation?

JA: Actually, it was our colonial history that was the starting ground for me. That my family had, unwittingly and marginally, been a part of this history made it more enticing. I used familiar terrain to make characters and situations more real. I also added oral history – something that we are losing rapidly in this era.

IS: How was the feeling and experience of retracing your ancestors’ paths? I know you took a road trip in Goa and went on several heritage walks in Bombay…

Cover of Mumbai & Goa by Moon Books, a travel guide by Janhavi AcharekarJA: Thanks to my father’s enthusiasm for travel, I’ve been on several road trips through the Konkan and Goa as a child and then later, on my own as an adult (my familiarity with Goa also comes from the time I wrote the travel guide Moon Mumbai & Goa for Moon Handbooks), so it wasn’t entirely new. Also, I didn’t have the maps and details that Kinara does in the book, so the retracing was both imagined and real, but exciting all the same.

Retracing the history of Bombay was equally interesting. My research led me to fun facts and incidents like the criminal case filed by a British employer against his trusted Parsi clerk for gambling away at the races all the money given to him for safekeeping during the former’s trip to England. Or that the police, for lack of a crowd to line the streets to greet a visiting British official, rounded up beggars and petty criminals from the area, gave them new clothes to wear and had them cheer and clap for a small fee.

But more than anything, it was imagining the era, creating characters and situations around the things I had heard and read about, linking the lives of characters with the story of Bombay (and I see the city as a character in itself) that was for me the most enjoyable part.

IS: Is the book also an attempt to bring Marathi culture, which often loses out to the pop culture and sheen of Bollywood/Bombay, to the foreground?

JA: Not really. I wouldn’t consider myself the flagbearer of any culture. Here, it was integral to my plot and the historical setting. I had a certain level of familiarity with it.

IS: You intend a very thought-instigating, possibly empowering message through the book, that no matter how sorted or scattered we seem, we are all wanderers. Is that even possible in today’s time, when everyone seems so focussed or at least is told/expected to be focussed?

JA: The journeys in Wanderers, All are both physical and metaphorical. The book is more about fluidity of identity and openness in belief and experience. An acknowledgement of the fact that your origins are likely to very different from what you imagine them to be and that nation, religion, community are all human constructs; boundaries, both geographical and cultural, can change in one’s lifetime. Those who hang on to these constructs or derive their sense of self from them will do well to remember that the only thing that binds us is the wandering. But history only proves time and again that there will be those who choose to appropriate rather than embrace, to trespass rather than wander.

Janhavi Acharekar answering questions during a reading of her book, Wanderers, AllWe see it all around us today whether in the form of jingoism, religious or cultural chauvinism; the hatred being spewed by various groups against each other comes from their own need for belonging and justification of their prejudices. It’s ironical when local parties in Bombay take an anti-immigrant stance considering that the city was a creation of the British and they are, most likely, descendants of migrants themselves. It’s strange when European nations take pride in their support of freedom or equality given their own history of colonization, or when Americans speak out against the Holocaust given the near-wiping out of the Native Americans and their very recent and continuing history of racism. It’s also easy in the wake of Islamic terrorism to forget the brutalities of the Christian Inquisitions; as for Hindus, they’ve oppressed their own for centuries with the caste system. Let’s not even get into the male-female equation.

So, possible or not in this day and age? It can’t be that hard to be peaceful travel companions. As Kinara’s father tells her when she’s setting out on her solo trip, we’re all on the same journey.

IS: While on that, how much of a wanderer are you?

JA: Considering that I’m late in sending you my response because I was wandering…

IS: Continuing the wanderer bit, you love traveling and photography. How do these feed into your writing, apart from in the obvious ways?

Janhavi Acharekar with her camera, during one of her travelsJA: Each lends to the other and everything feeds into writing in some way or the other. This applies to all of us, I think. I write both fiction and travel – travel always brings new experiences and perspectives to the writing table, especially where fiction is concerned, and there’s always storytelling involved in good travel writing, so the two intersect at some point. Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia is both travel narrative and engaging storytelling (some say, even fictional in parts), while you find a lot of Hemingway’s travel experiences in his fiction. While Kinara’s story is fictional, her travels are based on my own road trips.

IS: Your style is very simple and soft-spoken, or at least, not loud. Is this a natural trait, or something you’ve cultivated?

A promo photo of Janhavi Acharekar at the time of the launch of her book, Wanderers, AllJA: I prefer a subdued, matter-of-fact style so as to let the story emerge and provoke readers into drawing their own conclusions. Cultivating a style is tricky because it could get self-conscious and might not ring true. (Although one’s tone, or voice, could change depending on the character or story being told, which is bound to affect the style in some way. Kinara’s is a younger, contemporary voice different from the traditional historical narrative.)

IS: The name pun seems to be an emerging motif in your writing. There was the lovely ‘China’ in Window Seat and now ‘Raj/Swaraj’ in Wanderers. Is this perhaps due to the copywriter in you?

JA: And there’s ‘Play it again, Sam!’ too in Window Seat. Yes, advertising is great training ground for a writer simply because it teaches you to play around with words and not to take yourself too seriously. It loosened me up, apart from teaching me to write to insane deadlines and create an unbelievable amount of excitement around mundane things like automotive lubricants and office storage cabinets. And, of course, to pun. Ad people keep showing up in my work, whether in Kinara’s travels or in my short stories. An agency is (or at least used to be) a lively place filled with people with a great sense of humour. I would like to believe that it has rubbed off on my writing somehow, if ever so slightly.

IS: Kinara’s arc is as absorbing as Murlidhar’s. Was there a thought to extend it beyond the space it occupies now? Is there, for instance, a novella about her waiting in the wings?

JA: Thank you. Kinara’s is just a hint of a character in that sense because the historical is the dominant narrative. A woman who is independent, in search of nothing in particular, and who finds friends, parties, new places and experiences along the way.

Like I said, I’m never sure about the direction my work is going to take. Sometimes, I feel that I’m done with a story but not with the characters, so to answer your question, yes, it’s a possibility.

IS: Finally, what next, apart from the continuing promotion of the book?

JA: Writing 🙂

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Composite image of the book cover and the inside pic of Arbit 26

Irficionado | (e)Book Review | ‘Arbit 26’

I am a recent Kindler. Became one just two days ago when I asked one of my friends/ex-colleagues about the book I had heard he had written. He told me he had self-published it (although he would still be eager to find an offline publisher) and that it was available on Kindle. I searched it out, and after getting to understand the mechanics of Kindle, downloaded it. No, I don’t have a device; got it on my PC. (I’m still a good ole paper-book reader.)

But this post is about a book by another friend/ex-colleague, which I too I got to know about recently. (Friends/Acquaintances writing books. Now, when am I going to get around to it?) As it’s a book of verse/poetry, and shorter than the first friend’s tome (that is an adventure thriller), decided to start my e-book journey with this. Having finished it, here’s the review, or rather, my thoughts on it…

Arbit 26, almost as the name suggests, is a collection of 26 poems/pieces of verse by Debarshi Kanjilal. Debarshi, or Deboo, as I call him, is from Calcutta/Kolkata and works (at least, last I knew) in Accenture Content Development Centre (CDC) as a senior instructional designer. (Very simply, that involves writing and being creative.)

Debarshi Kanjilal during a Durga Puja

And why “almost as the name suggests”? Well, they are 26 alright, but they don’t seem that arbit to me. For one, he’s organised them into four sections, each roughly around a theme, such as love/heartbreak, observations, and songs. (Yes, Deboo seems to have lyricist aspirations.) Also, there’s good organisation of thought in them. (But then, that’s what instructional design, ID, teaches you.)

Most of the poems flow very well, and they don’t seem stiff or forced. For instance, he doesn’t use inversions to bring up a rhyme. The language and concepts are mostly simple too, except perhaps for one or two toward the end (All About You), and I found myself glossing over these. Some others are copy-book school-poetry-book (Deboo does mention that he wrote these between 10 and 21; he’s 28 now). But a couple really strike a chord: Via Antarctica (about found-and-lost adolescent/young adult love) and Time Ticks On (a lament on today’s, well, times). And I just love this couplet from You Don’t Love Me Anymore: ‘And the struggles we went through / And how I lost me and you lost you’.

There were a couple of typos here and there, but given this is his first attempt at self-publishing (I believe), that’s okay, I guess. Also, given our shared love for Calcutta and dogs, I would have expected to see some or more poems on the two (there is one on Calcutta by the same name, about harsh sights and sounds in the city), but maybe next time.

Debarshi Kanjilal giving a street dog a helping pat at the beach

All in all, a rather satisfying read. If you give me simple poetry with simple ideas (read, Vikram Seth), I’m game.

Finally, a note about the cover (how can visual-lover me not comment on stuff like this?). Nice, simple, clean, mellow, soft; very “Icelandic”. The lone visual inside, repeated, that of a stream, is in the same vein, and works too: I guess it indicates clarity and flow of thoughts.

Nice start, Deboo. And good job too.

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