Trivial Pursuits?

The Casual Vacancy

Whatever else you might say, whether you love her as someone who made reading sexy for kids or hate her for – okay, I can’t think why anyone would hate her even if they didn’t like her books (!)-  J.K.  Rowling has an amazing way with words. Okay, not words really. She has an amazing way of thinking like you think. (I’m being a little presumptive here, when I say you stands for everyone, but..) Yes, that’s it, that’s the secret of her success for me – she thinks like me! Her characters have the same deep, dark thoughts or warm fuzzy thoughts inside them when they talk to themselves that I have, but I’m just too embarrassed or scared to admit them to myself. They think about worming their ways out of situations just like I do and share similar guilty pleasures. They have the same justifications and rationalizations that I do. I can see a little bit of myself in her characters- whether wizards or elves or a more simple old doddering housewife.

In The Casual Vacancy, the focus is quite unabashedly on the darker side of these thoughts and feelings, the ones which you’re not really proud about. Had anyone else written this book, I’m quite sure there would’ve been a lot more attention paid to the fact about how negative and cynical a book this is. Just as much as Harry Potter was about the triumph of positivity: love, loyalty, friendship, truth, the Casual Vacancy gives you the other side of the story – how none of this works in real life. It’s almost like there is a statement to be made – you’ve had enough goodness and sugar from me for the last decade and a bit, so I’m now going to overcompensate just to show that I have another side to me as well.

If there’s a theme to The Casual Vacancy, it’s hope. How no matter how bad things are, how little there is to look forward to, whichever rut you are stuck in to – it is hope that makes living worthwhile, that helps us pull ahead. Every character trudges through life’s miseries looking for something on the horizon which gives the daily monotony some semblance of meaning. It’s that magic number on the treadmill that we run towards, which we keep telling ourselves that once we reach there we can stop and we’ll be happy.

But the book is really more about how easily, cruelly, quickly and often completely unknowingly and despite all of our best intentions, that hope is snatched away. Just like that. And then we’re left fumbling in the dark, grappling, desperately trying to hold on to something, looking for that new number on the treadmill. And hoping – in an Inception kind of way – that this hope does not give away.

More than once you wonder where the story is is going, for there seems to be no conceivable finale that we’re moving towards. But I loved the poetic justice at the end, that the one character who seemed to have no hope at all – who had basically given up looking at a number and was prepared to fall face-flat on the treadmill once keeping up was not an possible – did find it towards the end. And therein lies another lesson perhaps, that do the right thing, keep walking along the right path and perhaps hope will find you itself?

The now famous dry wit is there, there are Family Guy inspired flashback scenes as well and there’s a nice flow to the whole story. But most importantly for a large tome, about drab people (in the larger scheme of things, certainly) who are engrossed in mundane self-obsessed thoughts, there’s enough in there to make you think, but without interrupting you while you’re reading. And that is what toes the line between literature and bestseller fiction quite perfectly IMO 🙂

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Aiyyaa

3 people politely refused to accompany me. One guy who ‘thoroughly enjoyed’ Houseful 2 in his own words, included. Signaling mechanism? Nonetheless, I had been impressed by the slight touch of out-of-the-boxness yet, classiness in the trailers for Aiyyaa. And I find weekends remarkably vacuous (delightfully so, I’m not complaining!). And the songs were stuck in my head. Anndd (despite not wanting to accept this) I realise my marathi asmita has come alive ever since I’ve left Mumbai to boot 🙂

So when I managed to find someone who wanted to watch it but was slightly embarrassed to ask anyone about it, little time was wasted.

Aiyyaa is a terribly indulgent film. Let’s get that out of the way to start off with. It’s the director’s fantasy, and I’m guessing here that he’s done everything that he wanted to do with it without anyone breathing down his neck or any constraints. In fact I’m surprised that Viacom (the production house) didn’t get an external editor to bring some order to proceedings.

It’s Bollywood’s answer to all those Tim Burton- Johnny Depp combines. Just that the director doesn’t venture completely into fantasy, but bases the characters fantasies in a world of reality. Which from the little Tim Burton I have seen, I think he could do with as well.

It’s also what I felt is the Gaja Gamini equivalent for Rani Mukherji. The director is clearly in love with her, or as they put it more euphemistically these days- has chosen to make her his muse. And what a fine muse she does make. It’s a wonderful platform to show off every bit of acting nous (and the not-so-subtle acting that a Bollywood movie entails as well) that she has and to allow the camera to caress every part of her anatomy – from her doe eyed irises to her navel – in great detail. And she’s dealt with an over-the-top character, richly stereotyped and present in almost every frame with elan. I found it a fine exhibition of acting, with a delightful lack of inhibitions.

A lot I did not agree with. Actually I’ll be humble and sarcastic at the same time, and say that there’s a lot I’m probably not arty enough to ‘get’. The OTT brother, the Lady Gaga-ish colleague/friend, the intended to be funny grandmother who gets closer and closer to obnoxious on the continuum as the movie proceeds. The drug peddler storyline, the other marriage angle, the excessive slow motion shots which give you a feel of déjà-vu after the first 30 minutes. The complete brain-freeze way and subsequent aakashwani towards the end. Plus there are too many songs which make no sense. They were certainly missing a good sharp pair of scissors during post production.

But it’s still a good fresh ATTEMPT which is heartening. The direction, the little bits at least, were intelligent and classy, the Maharashtrian stereotyping was obvious enough for everyone to recognize but not jarring, multiple references were spiced nicely throughout as well. The camera-work was fabulous, the colours really stood out, the fantasy sequences were fresh enough even while paying homage. And I understand little about dance, but the choreography certainly deserves a special mention. I’m penciling in Sachin Kundalkar as a director I intend to see more of.

Don’t know what Rani Mukherji was thinking if she chose this as her comeback vehicle or how it was pitched to her. I doubt it was the kind of movie which was ever going to be a big money churner. But it’s a fine showcase for her, so I guess she should be happy. (Heroine and Madhur Bhandarkar teach you that our heroines veer between movies where you’re a star and movies where you’re an actress. Kind of like subjects in college. You can either study for learning or study for marks. Not both. That never happens.)

Above all, Aiyyaa is a classic example of why movies need tough producers and authors need harsh editors. Because artists – and this term is broadly used – tend to get myopic and lose perspective with regards to their own work!

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Travelling teaches you….

Imagine this. You’re going for one of those holidays with your family or friends, a road trip of sorts. You’ve been in that vehicle since really early in the morning, everyone’s half asleep and hungry and feeling kinda car-sick. And then you see this nice looking hotel on the side of the road and someone pipes up with a ‘Yahaan ruk jaate hai yaar, kuch kha lete hai’. It’s a decently urbane place in the middle of nowhere; you can have some food, stretch your legs, click some photographs of the scenic things you don’t generally see in the city all around. By now you’ve realised, it’s quite late now and you’d better be on your way otherwise you wouldn’t reach your eventual destination in time. And so you rush back, pile up into your vehicle and speed off without as much as looking back.

You get the kind of place which I’m talking about I hope? One of those millions of places dotting the highways, where you spend a couple of hours and never come back to again. Which a couple of months down the road you can’t even distinguish between two such places you visited on your journey. Well, I got to stay at a place like that for over a month.

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It’s interesting when you’re travelling with a group of people whom you don’t know for a day or two. Where you end up listening to conversations more than you participate in them. It’s like peeping through a window into someone else’s lives. And you know what? They’re full of pretty much the same banalities as yours 🙂

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One of the more difficult things to do, when you meet people for the first time- not exactly of your age and from ‘comfortably you-like’ demographic backgrounds- is make small talk. Especially when you know there’s a strong possibility that you may never meet them again in your life.

Men in Himachal Pradesh do not wear a wedding ring on their finger. Not sure about the women, but then they have other give-aways as indicators to their marital status.

The above two things are surprisingly connected. Allow me! *with a touch of theatrical flourish* It’s always a touch awkward when you begin the process of small talk. I mean where exactly do you start? So through trial and error mostly, I’ve found that family is a nice topic to do so. Which makes a wedding ring a very important signalling mechanism, especially when the other person is a male who’s lying in that difficult-to-place age bracket of 25 to 35. When someone opens his lunch, you establish ‘ki aap phamily ke saath rehte ho’. Now the tricky part, what exactly is your family? The first time around, I saw no ring and thought it must mean mummy-pappa-bhaiyya etc. So I said praised his mummy-jee’s cooking. A stare. ‘Yeh toh mere wife ne banaya hai, mummy-pappa toh hamaare gaaon mein rehte hai’. Oops. Okay, now cue questions on kids, schooling and the lot.

Next time, similar situation…slightly older fellow if anything. I smile inwardly, I know better now. Cue nice things about his wife’s culinary skills and ask if she’s a housewife. A guffaw followed by a ‘yeh toh mere ammi ke haath ka khaana hai, abhi shaadi ko time hai!’ followed by a curious look as to why would anyone make that presumption. Oh dear. Just wear the damn ring like the rest of the world will you guys?

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Nothing explains generation gap for me better than the perception of cell phones.

I was in this program where I was supposed to observe daily activities, take notes and discuss & understand them regularly with my boss. Yes I know, tailor-made for MBA’s. Now when you’re outdoors and are walking around, making notes/writing in a notebook is not easy. Yes, we’ve all seen journalists in the movies who scribble around in little notebooks while interviewing people and manage to make it look sexy, but I’m sorry – writing while walking around listening to someone is not as easy as it appears and does not improve my legibility!

So I did what seemed very natural to me, and started making notes in the notes feature of my cell phone. It’s easier to type on the move, much more difficult to forget somewhere compared to a notepad, easy to edit blah blah blah….one could go on. And I don’t even have a very ‘smart’ phone.

However, if a senior person is accompanying you on your beat and he’s sees you tapping into your cell phone, the general reaction is that it can have nothing to do with work. And you’re shot a dirty ‘stop-texting-all-those-girls-and-pay-some-attention’ look. And any question (doubt!) you ask is met with a short retort which says ‘aur-timepass-kar-naa-mobile-pe’ without saying so in as many words.

You get to a stage where you know what they’re thinking but you can’t even go up to them and explain that it’s not what it is! I thought of extolling the advantages of cellular phones and how they can be used for multiple purposes but the damage seemed to have already been done. It would have been nice to say ‘Well balls to you, I know what I’m doing’ but the long term relationship damage does not seem worth it, especially when you ‘re in a reporting relationship with that person. So I ended up trudging off to the nearest stationary store and buying a couple of spiral bound notepads. Oh well, at least at the end of the month I am more legible in writing while standing up and without any ‘support’.

But smart phones are the greatest invention in mankind’s war against boredom. They take a lot of frustration and pointlessness out of the process of waiting!

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One thing which you wonder about when you see really smart people doing what a lot of us would classify as mundane jobs in remote places is how much a prisoner of our birth are we? I wonder on, had I not been born in relative privilege, to educated parents, in a place where I had access to every need if not luxury, would I have fought it out to do something? Or would it have been good enough to be a fish who’s surviving in a small pond. Then I realised how ridiculously stereotyped and biased that very thought is. What exactly is doing something or being someone? Making a difference, a change? And surely that is relative, based upon perspective, and we have no right to fit our definitions to anyone else.

You need small ponds and you need them to be just as clean as the big ones.

Nonetheless, just a thought, had Bill Gates been born in Somalia (and assuming he’s made a positive impact on the world today 🙂 ), would we – as the human race – have been any worse off?

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Some more laments from the world of sales and views from the perspective of city dwellers:

Don’t quite know what was the tipping point, but Indian mythology is very popular these days. Whether it was Amish with Meluha or Devdutta Patnaik , but the Flipkart bestseller list should be enough to convince any doubters. It was in this vein that I recall a conversation about Kings who always lead from the front and fought on the battlefield. (Or perhaps it came from Game of Thrones. Anyways.) And you would wonder if having the Big Guy (who if Age of Empires taught us well, the moment he’s dead the battle’s over) right there in the middle? It’s a trade-off. Does he inspire all the other soldiers? Or is it at the back of everyone’s mind, that they need to protect him first and foremost. He may be worth more than the average infantry in terms of skill, but is there any ROI in it?

So in the little zonal office, when the big bad boss says, enough is enough – vents out at all the young-lings in the morning, he knows he has to show ‘em how things are done. Let me set an example is probably what’s on his mind. But it’s like an elephant lumbering out to battle. Yes, he tramples through more of the enemy lines with greater ease but he lumbers along so slowly thanks to his automobile and his dozen conference calls and other excesses, that he (and thanks to him his entourage as well) can’t even cover half of the Kurukshetra leaving it open fodder for everyone else. Everyone knows this, and is privately muttering away about why he can’t stay in his ivory tower. Perhaps even the King knew this when he was a foot-soldier. But delusion has set in and no one dares to bell the cat now, and hence the same old story continues.

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If anyone higher in the hierarchy calls you, you pick up instantly. Never mind however important what you’re doing is, however much re-work picking up that call would entail. You pick up, because saying you were busy is just not an option.

Someone lower down in the hierarchy calls, you think twice before picking up on the first call. Can’t let him think you’re not too busy now can you?

Conference calls are decided the same way. The guy on top of the guy on top, the one who sits in the air conditioned office in the big metropolis chooses a time. And everyone else drops whatever they’re doing in the middle of the day when he calls (if you had an appointment, a schedule to maintain – hey, tough luck!).

What a hugely inefficient system.

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You don’t eat all day. Respect for your endurance. You don’t get tired despite walking around all day. Respect your stamina. Par aapko pure din mein kabhi peshaab bhi nahi karna padta? 😮

I don’t care which culture you’re from and how hungry you are. You shouldn’t open your subordinate’s tiffin box. That’s just plain rude.

How, how did they do sales before cellular phones and conference calls? I would give anything to take a look at that era! The word indispensible does not convey the intensity of the situation here at all.

More importantly, how did they do sales before cigarettes? Or did they just invent cigarettes just for salespeople or did the cigarette manufacturers introduce sales to get customers or … anyways, I think point conveyed.

The thali is something I used to hate when I was a kid. ‘Why would you go to a restaurant and order a thali?’ was a frequent lament.  I realise its awesomeness today. When you dine alone, there’s nothing you want to eat more than a thali.

The audio-cassette and the video-game-cassette(remember that!) industry is not completely dead yet! Neither is the industry for camera filims! They’re alive, if not kicking, in parts of our country..

No one in Himachal calls it ‘xerox-copy’. It’s always photo-state (with a multitude of available spellings) but then they know their basics pretty well.

Those pigs that you see in movies? Pink and cute and roly-poly? They exist, yes…I have finally seen them!