Sunday, July 31, 2005

jim jarmusch is back

Known for her incredible, tell-all profiles--this woman can get anybody to say anything--Lynn Hirschberg turns her hand to director Jim Jarmusch in this week's NYT Magazine. The maker of gems including Mystery Train and Down by Law is getting ready for the release of what Hirschberg bills as his most commercial film to date, a movie with a clear emotional trajectory that stars mainstream-turned-indie star Bill Murray. The winner of the grand prize (second place after the golden palm) at Cannes, "Broken Flowers" sounds like a flick that's worth watching. And Hirschberg's profile delivers the goods--even though she doesn't catch Jarmusch in any of her trademark revealing/self-humiliating moments. Bill Murray wins for best line: "Unlike Jim, I always prefer that people actually see the movie."

Monday, July 25, 2005

rustic luxury

Who ever said getting back to nature meant roughing it? Now travelers can have their truffles and eat them under the stars, too.

By Carla Power (with reporting by Jason Overdorf)
Newsweek International

July 25-Aug. 1 issue - Travel used to be divided into two basic categories: luxury and no-frills. the former consisted of flying first class, dining at three-star restaurants and staying in decadent comfort; the latter involved backpacking and camping out in some of the world's most beautifully remote spots. Rich holidaymakers never had to go a day without a glass of fine Bordeaux, but they also rarely ventured beyond the confines of their posh resorts. Rugged travelers regularly communed with nature—but ate hot dogs cooked over an open fire. Now tourists can have their wine and see the wildlife, too: communing with nature and living the good life are no longer mutually exclusive.

Go to the Newsweek web site to read on, or pick up the July 25-August 1 issue to see pictues, including a shot of a treetop guesthouse in Kerala.

snap judgment

Newsweek International
July 25-Aug. 1 issue

The City of Tiny Lights by Patrick Neate

Tommy Akhtar, a "Paki-immigrant-Ugandan-Indian-Englishman" and private detective in London, is hired by Melody, a black prostitute who wants him to find her missing Russian flatmate. Tommy's investigation leads him to a fiendish Saudi villain who has sinister plans for London. It's a multiculti homage to Raymond Chandler's 1930s detective Marlowe, without his stylized sophistication. In contrast to Neate's Whitbread Award-winning "Twelve Bar Blues," a bewitching tale spanning three continents, "City of Tiny Lights" is more of a shambling slog.

—Shailaja Neelakantan

© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

another great khan?

In a rare convergence of my various passions, 18-year-old Pakistani-British boxer Amir Khan made his pro debut in his hometown of Bolton last week, stopping tomato can David Bailey inside of a minute. Like (I assume) everybody in India, I rooted for this cat in the Olympics, where he was handled cleverly in the finals by Cuban master Mario Kindelan, and I was waiting for him to turn pro to see if it might FINALLY bring some boxing to Indian television. No such luck so far, but Khan fights again on the undercard of the Joe Calzaghe-TBA fight September 10. Will ESPN India step up and fork out some cash for the South Asia rights? This kid had 4.4 million people tuning in to watch his pro debut--not to shabby for British boxing. Check out Maxboxing for a nice profile of Khan that highlights some of the reasons he might be the next "Prince" Naseem Hamed. Let's just hope he takes a ring monicker that's not too Orientalist--and, please, not "Lion of the Punjab."

Friday, July 22, 2005

mtnl broadband...

We signed up for a new broadband package with MTNL. In addition to ending the neverending saga of wire-cuttings, server errors and phone calls to the local guys who provided us with Sify and then Hathway (they changed us over without asking or informing us that Hathway has a different pay schedule, incidentally, the new scheme promises to offer a faster rate (actual 256 Mps) and unlimited downloads at night for free. I'll keep you posted on how that turns out.

The first trouble was the guy who came to install it didn't know the first thing about configuring the system. In the end, he left (after about 3 minutes of trying) and I used our old connection to get the user manual from the MTNL web site and installed it myself. This does not bode well for future service. Is it possible that the whole thing will be "plug and play" for the duration of our connection? Or will I have to get a PhD in telecommunications and computer networking in order to stay online? Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

reform from within

Michael Ignatieff, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine who teaches about human rights at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, writes an engaging piece about Iran's reform movement in the wake of elections that installed another seemingly repressive Islamist government. As an academic, and not just a journo, Ignatieff actually has something to say, and doesn't hide behind an illusion of objectivity. Thoughts?

Saturday, July 16, 2005

developments re my obsessions

Regular readers will have some idea of my obsessions... Well, some interesting developments this week. First and foremost, young Jermain Taylor edged out longtime middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins (40 years old, ex-convict and the most quotable athlete around) in what promises to be an entertaining bout. Bigger development: I discovered BitTorrent, a scheme like Napster that allows one to download audio and video files. Once I get a package with unlimited downloads, this thing is going to revolutionize my life.

Haven't written much about my geeky scifi, comic books, fantasy obsessions. But here's two discoveries (OK, you all may know about this already). (1) You can get some pretty good graphic novels in India, including Neil Gaiman's Sandman series and Frank Miller's Sin City series, especially if you ask Sanjay at Bhari Sons to find them and stock them for you. (2) An interesting remake of 1970s cult hit Battlestar Galactica has been running for the better part of a year on the Scifi Channel in the US--a sometime programming feeder for AXN and even (gulp) Hallmark. All fellow Scifi freaks, read this week's New York Times Magazine article about the creation of the show, which some have called the best original series made by the channel (meaning it outstrips Dune and Farscape, successes at either end of the serious-camp continuum). Then, begin your letter campaign to AXN. Or just download Bittorrent and do a web search. You can find almost anything you want--US TV shows, cable or broadcast, current and old movies, anime, what have you--via this aggregator of BT links.

Of course, all that said, I would neither illegally download copyrighted material myself, nor advise anyone else to do so.

full marks to b'ray...

for introducing us to the Japanese grocery in Safdarjung Enclave. We made veg sushi last night with reasonable success (the rice was a bit hard, due to user error). The restaurant "It's Greek To Me" was also a decent discovery, though we didn't explore the menu too deeply. (See comment to my Soba Noodles post for addresses).

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

soba noodles?

Where can we buy them in Delhi?

test of party smart deemed inconclusive

July 10--DELHI--A test of an herbal supplement that promises to prevent hangovers was deemed inconclusive this week, as independent observers ruled that it could not be determined for certain whether or not the supplement, PartySmart, saved the test subjects from hangovers.

"They didn't get hangovers, but these characters are such infamous lushes, it very well could have been their high tolerance to alcohol that saved them," said Dr. Rajinder K. Mishra, one of the medical personnel who supervised the test.

Another concern was the well-known placebo effect. The study included a control group of drinkers who did not take PartySmart, as well as a "blind" group who received pills filled with chalk, soap and other innocuous but unpleasant tasting substances. Some members of each group reported hangover-like symptoms, but when asked whether the hangover was "not as bad as usual," "worse than usual" or "I feel like someone is stabbing me in the temples with icepicks frozen to absolute zero (Kelvin)," several respondents were not able to answer coherently. Many responspents ticked the blank marked "other" and failed to elaborate.

Subsequent interviews determined that many of those who marked "other" did not ingest the pills as instructed. "Those capsules freaked me out," a typical respondent said. "They look like horse tranquilizers."

"I am a sick man, I am an angry man, I am an unattractive man," said another. "I think there is something wrong with my liver."

Further tests are scheduled for Friday, July 15.

Monday, July 11, 2005

unclogging india's courts

The Indian justice system is legendary for its delays and diversions. But changes are finally on the way. See the full article in Newsweek International.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

tales out of school

Salman Rushdie compares India and Pakistan, and finds India more backward than its neighbor in regard to violence against women. I always say that India should stop using Pakistan as its measuring stick--the two countries are hardly comparable, and the comparison only gives India reason to pat itself on the back, instead of confronting its slow progress on matters like electricity generation--but in this case Rushdie may have a point. After all, saying India is even worse than Pakistan is about the only way to get people moving over here.

Friday, July 08, 2005

speaking of fat city

I ran across this item when I Googled Leonard Gardner. It turns out not only boxing-fans-who-are-also-masters-of-arts dig his book. Denis Johnson, a wonderful writer in his own right, the author of a terrific story collections "Angels" and "Jesus' Son" (a rather disappointing movie starring Billy Crudup), tells Salon that Gardner was his original hero. One thing's for sure, Johnson is dead-on when he says Gardner can flat out write. This short, poignant, brutal book is far too good to have gone out of print. Luckily it's back, but you'll probably have to get somebody Stateside to send out a used copy for you. I sure as hell ain't selling mine.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

the real million dollar baby

When F.X. Toole (a pen-name for the late LA cutman Jerry Boyd) burst on the scene with Rope Burns, he was perhaps the first quality write to capture the contemporary boxing world in the way writers like Bud Schulberg (The Harder They Fall/On the Waterfront), Leonard Gardner (Fat City) and WC Heinz (The Professional) had done for past eras. What few critics noted, however, was how closely his fiction was rooted in life. Any "member of the fancy" as Toole calls us, will know a good deal of the dirt he dishes in Rope Burns already. That doesn't make the book any less enjoyable. These are great stories, which is why Clint Eastwood was interested in a script drawn from Toole's story "Million Dollar Baby" and several bits from other pieces in the book.

So here's a weird quirk of fate. Hillary Swank's character in MDB was a transparent analogue of real-life women's boxing star Christy Martin, a tough young kayo specialist from West Virginia, predictably nicknamed "the Coal Miner's Daughter." Martin rose to the top of women's boxing as a kind of female Mike Tyson, knocking out all her dubious opponents. (n.b. I almost wrote "through the ranks," but women's boxing is even more unstructured than the men's game, so you can hardly say that anybody battles their way to the top. It's more like they're promoted their way to the top, while many superior boxers, who've won national Golden Gloves competitions and world amateur titles, can't earn a living.) But--get this--she was always ducking Lucia Rijker. Yep, Lucia is the woman who played Swank's evil nemesis in MDB. The true story, if you care to consider it, is that Lucia had much better boxing credentials than Martin and never got her shot.

That may be about to change, thanks to the movie, believe it or not. As David Avila writes in Maxboxing , promoter Bob Arum (best known for building Oscar de la Hoya's career) has realized that MDB created something new in the boxing game: A million dollar payday for women boxers. After Laila Ali wiped out Martin in a mismatch (Ali is a much larger woman, so this was a little like her dad Muhammad facing a tough little brawler like Jake LaMotta), the money fight for Martin is now Rijker, who despite a dull back story has become as close to a "name" as you get in women's boxing by appearing in MDB. Weird serendipity.

study in contrasts

Two days back, I made an interesting discovery at the MTNL office. No, it wasn't the obstructive efforts or the incompetence of the staff--I timed the counter person in charge of setting up new Dolphin mobile accounts, and she was blistering at a rate of 32 new customers per day, if she was indeed working 8 hours. Nope, it was another delicious tidbit of absurdity. You see, ever since the first time our phone was disconnected when we failed to pay our bill while traveling, I've been a bit apprehensive about going to the MTNL office. That's because the first time I went there, a staring-eyed lunatic purposefully bumped me, chest-to-chest, on my way out of the place and began to curse me incomprehensibly. Great, I thought, an hour in fucking line and now it's a dustup with some terribly unwashed drunken xenophobe. But then the parking attendant interceded: Never mind him, he said, he's a madman. He does this stuff all the time. On our way out, his ropy hair flying, the loon manically chucked rocks at our trusty white 800. So here's the punchline: When we sent to set up a Dolphin Mobile account, keen on getting coverage in rural India, regardless of the pain and suffering we had to go through, we were on the lookout for this character. Shailaja even asked the parking attendant: "Is the moon-bayer around" (Anyway, she said something funny in Hindi, I gathered from the attendant's reaction). He one-upped her, though. "He works here," he said, with a certain tone of admiration. "He's a government employee!" I desperately wanted to ask if the fellow was in charge, but my Hindi isn't up to that.

This has somehow become errand week. I don't know how this shit builds up, but I also had to get a new axle boot put on the 800, the result of a stunningly deep pothole near PVR Saket. I can't say enough good things about the treatment I got at Maruti Service Masters in Okhla. It was the first time (ok, apart from the Music Shop in Defence Colony) where people actually acted with alacrity and sense to deal with customers. Best of all, nobody tried to begin dealing with all the customers at the same time, while finishing nobody's work, instead of proceeding through the workload one vehicle/customer at a time. Three cheers, guys. If this keeps up, I'm going to have to buy three or four more cars, or at least tear mine up once in awhile so it needs repairs, just for the moment of sanity it provides.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

the king of the obvious

I think it was Hercule Poirot who noted that some people have an unerring gift for pointing out the obvious. I have to wonder what he'd think about Thomas Friedman, who combines this gift with a similarly remarkable talent for overstatement, ludicrous sloganeering, and shameless self-promotion. This guy is the PT Barnum of political commentary. I use that phrase with full understanding of its pathetic antecedents. (Um, I'm referring to political commentary, not PT Barnum, by the way).


Shekhar Gupta's shameful adulation of Friedman on Walk the Talk was the pinnacle of this clown's absurd rise to become India's favorite foreign hack (how seriously can you take someone who says things like "Those who get left behind will put the walls back and that’s why you cannot be a globaliser without being a social democrat"?) and that's coming from a guy who can sycophant with the best of them. ATTENTION WORLD: Thomas Friedman writes absolute drivel. Read any of his columns or books to confirm this for yourself. Then promptly begin ignoring him. That is the only defence against pundits of absolute worthlessness and unmerited fame, dieticians with improbably successful and intolerably unpleasant eating regimes, and scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses, television evangelists and propagandists of all sorts.

Friedman's success reminds me, as the success of many bad writers does, of the Emperor's New Clothes. (In that fairy tale, a clever tailor tells the emperor that only people who are qualified for their station in life can perceive his beautiful new togs; all goes well until the emperor is strolling naked through the crowd and a child--who of course has no social position--laughs at his nakedness). Please, people, do not be fooled by ridiculous theories with even more ludicrous titles ringing of pseudo scholarship ("The Dell Theory of International Conflict"), do not be fooled by this buoyant, Tom-Cruise-and-I-don't-need-the-same-meds optimistic mania. If any emperor was ever butt-ass naked, this is the guy.

The funniest proof of this point -- self-evident as it is from the Gupta interview, not to mention the books & columns -- comes from Matt Taibbi writing in the New York Press. Folks, Friedman likes India. That means he's friendly. Taking it to mean he's a genius is not only stupid, but also pathetically needy. Do you really need affirmation from this goof?

Worse still, as Jack Schafer writes in Slate, the dude just can't stop talking about himself.

batman begins

I finally saw Batman Begins yesterday morning, and I have to say I was perplexed that the movie received such ambivalent reviews. Contrary to what many said, this one was clearly the closest to the comic book series's dark ethos, and it was the only one of the movies that achieved any kind of dramatic arch to sustain viewers' interest. Even Burton's Batman, though watchable, faltered in its attempt to reconcile the dark, brooding Batman of the comic book series with the campy, moral majority, sliderule nerd of the live action TV series and the old Superfriends cartoon. The others of course, were not possible to watch to completion even while trapped on a Delhi-Detroit marathon flight.

Monday, July 04, 2005

furore fading

The furore over the Shah Bano--er, Imrana case continued this week, but the volume has already been tuned down and the issue looks likely to fade away without causing much political fallout. The most interesting facet of this and similar cases, to my mind, is that they illustrate the difference between the Indian and American ideals of secularism. In India, the secularism promoted by Nehru in the fifties and alive and kicking today is essentially what US ideologues christened multiculturalism in the 1990s, spawning the unpleasant, Orwellian-sounding, much maligned ideology of "political correctness." Across US campuses (I was a student then), debates went long into the night over an apparent conflict between this multiculturalism, which said that each group ought to have the right to make its own rules, and feminism, which advocated a set of inalienable rights for women. The most intelligent solution that I heard came from a Muslim woman and staunch feminist activist from the Middle East. Multiculturalism as it was naively conceived, she proposed, implied that the cultures it sought to protect had uniform, monolithic belief systems, when in fact every culture supports a wide range of different ideals, whether closeted or visible.

This is where Indian politicians--for the selfish reason that their main goal, like all politicians, is winning re-election--have gone wrong. The continued support of the Muslim, Hindu and Christian civil codes, all of which have provisions that deny essential equal rights to women, is predicated on the belief that each of India's three major cultures is static, unyielding, and uniformly committed to its core ideals. There's a very real reason that Muslims may fear the implementation of a Uniform Civil Code. That code is all too likely to read a lot like the Hindu personal law, erasing a valuable symbol of India's tolerance of differing belief systems. However, that doesn't mean there's nothing to be done. There must be limits to "tolerance." Taken to extremes, multiculturalism would accept the racism of the Ku Klux Klan as an intrinsic part of southern American culture, or even allow the Nazi theory of Aryan supremacy to go uncriticized as part of German culture. In both those cases, the force of law and of arms was needed to ensure that a poisonous subset of a culture's core beliefs did not dominate the others. Few reasonable people would deny that action, though extreme, was right.

In contrast, India's politicians and religious leaders need do little that is radical to turn society (at least as governed by the law) away from fundamentalism. First, the Hindu and Christian civil codes must be amended so that they are devoid of those elements of their foundation religions that violate the rights of women or other groups. (The critical point is that Hindus must show that they are willing to accept a legal code based on common assumptions about human rights, rather than ancient religious codes, but because Christians seem to perceive less threat in a uniform civil code than Muslim groups, I'm lumping Hindus and Christians together). Then, greater effort needs to be made to identify leaders who recognize the limitations of a rigid interpretation of rules codified for a society that existed a thousand years ago on a distant continent. Obviously, in democracy, the people must choose their own advocates, but I fear that too little introspection has gone into the ways in which India's current set of rules--along with resentment of the Congress Party's long dominance--actually contrives to make India more fundamentalist. Why do the clerics of the Muslim Law Board have so much say in the fate of India's Muslim women, and someone like Seema Mustafa so little? At the same time, the knickerwallas pay lip service to the idea of a uniform civil code with the intention that India's population should accept a Hindu cultural identity, whatever their religion. That's not what I'm advocating here. Hindu inheritance laws are as aberrant as Muslim divorce laws, as any visit to Varanasi will testify. And even judges in India's "secular" courts have been known to consider marriage a reasonable penance for rape.

Perhaps the problem is that we treat fundamentalists with too much gravity--for their hatred is terrifying--and thus too much respect. Groups like the RSS and VHP, if they cannot be banned (OK, I have to accept they cannot be banned), should be mocked, exposed to the ridicule they have so clearly earned with their ridiculous boy scout uniforms and foam-mouthed insanity. Where are India's great satirists? NDTV's puppet show, neither vicious enough nor funny enough, ain't cutting it.

In America, women burned bras to put an end to this kind of thing, and achieved a bit of success. Perhaps here we all--men included--need to jump into navel-exposing tube tops, dangerously low-rise jeans and dangerously short skirts and band together on Pragati Maidan to shout the slogan most-certain to terrify the country's most avowed opponents of secularism: I want my MTV!