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What Ho!: A tribute to PG Wodehouse

What Ho!: A tribute to PG Wodehouse

In a Wodehouse novel, a character doesn’t just leap, he “leaps about like a lamb in the springtime,” a girl will not tremble in fear, she’ll “quiver like a badly set blancmange” and when someone chokes on a word, he does it “like a Pekingese on a chump chop too large for its frail strength.” If there’s anyone who uses words with style, it’s PG Wodehouse and that’s only one out of a million reasons why I love him.

I can read a Wodehouse novel anytime. Anytime. There is never a wrong mood and there’s never a bad place. Liking Wodehouse is also a great judge of character. If you’ve read him, you’ve scored brownie points with me. If you like him, I’ll hate you a little less on sight. It’s true. I once met a boy who said casually, “I’m more of a Blandings Castle fan than a Jeeves one.” I’m now dating him.

Speaking of Jeeves, if you’ve read one novel you’ve practically read them all. In that respect, he’s the Aaron Sorkin of literature. You know the plot before you’ve started but it’s all so fresh and new that you enjoy it heartily anyway. When a critic pointed this out, Wodehouse apparently felt very peeved. “I was trying to hide it.”


That’s another thing about Wodehouse. He doesn’t take himself seriously at all, and much like his books he has no clue about the outside world. I devoured this interview in The Paris Review where he couldn’t give the journalist directions to his own house because he had no idea where his house was. Things like directions, are codes, correspondence, even basic current affairs (Jack Kerouac died? Did he? Oh dear they do die off, don’t they?”) he couldn’t be bothered with them. He was just content to sit back and write literature that shines with the brilliance of a sun. And he did it so well; I imagine no one who managed the hum drum stuff for him would mind.

I was reading his Berlin broadcasts the other day and I couldn’t help but wonder. You have to be really positive to see the funny side of a prison camp, I mean geez. The broadcasts make it clear that PG Wodehouse wasn’t made to paint grim pictures. Like his books, everything is sunny and bright and they all live happily ever after. His is the best kind of escapist fiction there is. And when he found out that the broadcasts had ruffled a lot of feathers back home, he was dismayed. “I see now, of course that I was tricked into making these talks and I naturally feel a damned fool.” Dear old soul. Just like one of his well-meaning but errant characters!

I’m only 24 years old and I’ve met at least three staple Wodehouse characters in my life. In my college hostel alone, there was a Madeline Basset who famously thought the stars were gods daisy chain, there was a Bobbie Wickham, a beauty who would always get into trouble and get boys to help her out and there was a pseudo-intellectual Florence Craye (people tell me I’m Florence Craye sometimes, but I don’t believe them and just carry on with my daily life). Without Wodehouse, these characters would have been near unbearable. Because of him, I just find them funny.

Stephen Fry, who along with Laurie, brought faces to well-loved characters said of Wodehouse “You don’t analyse such sunlit perfection. You just bask in its warmth and splendour.” Word.

– Sheena

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The greatest storyteller: A tribute to Amitav Ghosh

The greatest storyteller: A tribute to Amitav Ghosh

“You cannot force your character to do something that isn’t them. They simply won’t let you”

I sat in the back, at the book launch of Amitav Ghosh’s River of Smoke, amazed. Mostly because I was in the same vicinity as Amitav Ghosh but also because it dawned on me again, how brilliantly he had crafted his characters. I thought of Deeti and Fokir and Rajkumar and Tridib and Zachary. Characters that I feel I have met and know very well, Characters who stopped being characters and became breathing, living, walking bags of flesh and meat and bones.

The Hungry Tide, a book I had borrowed, introduced me to Amitav Ghosh. While I loved that book, it left me with an incomplete feeling. You know that feeling you get when you snap a book shut and process what just happened from outside because you aren’t a part of the story anymore? Didn’t happen. I read The Glass palace, Shadow Lines, Circle of reason; they were beautiful stories but I was uneasy. Usually, when I like something, I can tell you in great detail and with many examples, why. This time I couldn’t.  But there was still a solid somethingness about Ghosh’s writing that appealed to me.

And then I read Sea of Poppies and suddenly, as the song goes, I saw.

The first of his Ibis trilogy, the book is set is 1838 during the opium war. His stories exist in that wonderful space where history meets fiction, where real events meet fictional people and run about through decades and centuries, changing as time changes. All the characters, big or small, and there are so many of them, have a story, they bring with them their past, through their accents and language or their behaviour. They characters do and speak (whether you understand pidgin and laskari or not) as they must, and Ghosh won’t so much as put in a footnote. Every description, including the women’s saree, the cityscape or the food served is extremely detailed.

In River of Smoke, Ghosh describes life in Canton, the way it was in 1856, using the information he gleaned from mad levels of research. You think you want to write a book and you reckon a year or two of back reading in libraries should do it? NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Ghosh pored over the menus from the banquets described in the memoirs of people who went to them. He read back issues of the Canton Register, the newspaper of the time, to find what the weather was like on any given day. The weather. The damn weather!

He studied anthropology from St Edmund Hall, Oxford but he grew up in Calcutta, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and you can see why displacement, despair and determination set the tone for most of his stories. They leave you feeling that way too. Things won’t be tied up in a little bow at the end; they’ll be as they are.

For two hours at that book launch, Amitav Ghosh answered questions (even stupid ones) in his mild-mannered, unassuming way and then it was finally time for the book signing. I reached the front of the line, I told (stammered at) him about how I was worried because I had read 200 pages and there was no mention of Kalua. He looked up and smiled and said, “You might have to wait a little more time, unfortunately.” And then told me I had a beautiful name. AMITAV GHOSH SAID MY NAME IS BEAUTIFUL.

I still don’t know what happened to Kalua. But I can’t wait for the next book.

 

– Sharanya

This side of awesome: A tribute to F Scott Fitzgerald

This side of awesome: A tribute to F Scott Fitzgerald

These tributes we write week on week can be quite tiresome. Often, we aren’t saying anything that hasn’t already been said. As for the writing we have to find the right balance between admiration and restraint. This means we can never do the written word equivalent of taking our T-shirts off and throwing them onto a metaphorical stage. Okay, we’d never do that. But with heroes like Fitzgerald, it can get pretty touch and go.

If you haven’t read any Fitzgerald or worse, are undecided about his awesomeness, (All sorts to make this world, I tell you), read on. First order of the business of being a legend – the writing. Fitzgerald is the author you read if you want to fall in love with language. He uses words to make shapes and sounds and he paints scenes so vivid, you wonder whether you were actually there. His stories are so damn visual that the written word becomes a captivating technicolour action film. And that’s me speaking as a representative of my generation,with its short attention spans and impatience. Dialogue is never just dialogue – it’s sharp insight into a characters soul.

And the characters, they’re so terribly lovely. His protagonists shimmer. Wholesome people are staid and boring; for Fitzgerald, only the fabulous will do. There is only room for the deeply beautiful, the deeply damaged. A Fitzgerald’s character is the last glass of heady wine that you probably shouldn’t have had and which you will definitely regret in the morning. He’s the comely, flirtatious, too smooth-to-be-true guy at the bar. Larger than life. Fantastic. Adventurous.

Fitzgerald has been hailed for chronicling the jazz age.  I wasn’t alive then so I couldn’t say that he did or didn’t but if the jazz age was anything like the world he portrays in his books then gimme some of that. Pulsing hot music, massive lawn parties, swing dances, beaded fringed dresses, flappers, cigarette holders, women who throw their heads back when they laugh, suave men who light your cigarette, refill your martini glass and open the car door for you. Still, despite the thrill of the world he paints, he manages to show the hollowness of its core. As a writer, he skilfully builds us up, to dash us cruelly down. Just like his characters, we revel at the height of good fortune and then we cry when we fall from grace. If like me, you enjoy books and films that make you cry with their portrayal of poignancy, truth and beauty, then you’ll be a sucker for Fitzgerald.

You know how at some point all of us have said some version of, “Well, wait till I’m rich and famous. Then you guys can suck it.”? Fitzgerald actually accomplished this. Except, in his case he did it for a chick. That’s right. This side of paradise, happened because the beautiful Zelda Sayre turned him down. He wrote it in the three years he was enlisted, and surprise, surprise, it was genius. He shot to fame. Zelda agreed to get with him. Boom. And now that we’ve raked out the trivia, key plot points and some fantastic dialogue was taken word for word from the writers life, so much so that he said once, “Sometimes I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we’re characters from one of my books.” Which means, if we were ever to meet him in real life, he’d be every bit as awesome as his work.

Martin Amis said that when we say that we love a writer’s work, we are always stretching the truth: what we really mean is that we love about half of it. That much is true. I’ve read The great Gatsby, the Beautiful and the Damned and Tender is the night. I loved the first two enough to want to have their babies. Tender is the night, on the other hand, was a disappointment. Sure, there were a couple of classic moments, (A Fitzgerald bad is still pretty good,) but it sounded like he was trying too hard. The narrative tone is defeatist, tired before its characters tire, disillusioned, discontent, despairing. And if you think about it, he was all of these things when he was writing the book. Somehow, this makes me like him even more. He is his characters. He’s beautiful, he’s flawed. He’s Dick Diver, brilliant but tired of it all too soon, he’s the arrogant Gloria Patch and her cowardly husband Anthony. His life reflects itself vividly in his art. Beautiful and crushing. Grand but terribly sad and hopeless.

– Sheena

“The King stay the King”- D’Angelo Barksdale: A tribute to David Simon

“The King stay the King”- D’Angelo Barksdale: A tribute to David Simon

If you haven’t watched The Wire, a series that first aired on HBO in 2002, here’s some advice. Don’t. If you do, television will be ruined for you forever. The Wire created by David Simon and Ed Burns is indisputably the most intelligently written, insightful, brilliant television series in the world. Think I’m being gushy? Tell that to the academics who are responsible for having the show used as a legit college course in over four American universities.

Behind the genius of the show, which deals with different faces of the city of Baltimore through a complex web of unforgettable characters, is David Simon, a crusty, opinionated, mouthy journalist turned writer. (Side note: Journalist turned writers are the best. They make me dream of the days when people will say, “Sheena? Yes she had a pretty good byline. Damned if I knew she’d be getting the Pulitzer some day.)

The show ran for five seasons on HBO. Of course it had a strong plot, great characters and unbelievable dialogue, but lots of television has that. What makes this one stand out? It is really the story of a city, the story of terribly flawed post-modern institutions in every civilised democratic society. It explores what these flaws mean to you – no matter which team you play for – the police force, government, education, the drug racket, even the media- you’re doomed before you start out. The Wire was created, by Simon’s own admission, along the lines of a Greek tragedy. Only the vengeful Olympians were the government, the media, your high school, and the helpless mortals were protagonists who were “confronted with a rigged game and their own mortality.”

This is why I admire David Simon, based on what I’ve seen in countless viewings of The Wire.

First of all, he has something to say and he found a way to say it so that people would listen. A story is just a story but the stories that stay with you are the stories with subtext. The Wire is a great story with incredible subtext but as powerful as you find the subtext now, if Simon had to sit you down and start a five part lecture on the pitfalls of government and failings of capitalism, you’d be yawning your head off in a minute.

Second, the characters. Not only are they a million of them but each of them is painstakingly sketched out, down to the way they speak, act and think. In this interview with Nick Hornby, Simon explained how he spent years “gathering string” on politicians, drug dealers, cops and school level kids. Details are everything. Oh and here’s the other thing about his characters. None of them, not the incredible Stringer Bell, whistling Omar or the cheery Bubbles, take precedence over the plot. Characters, well loved ones, are killed sometimes, because if they had to be in a similar situation in real life, they’d die. We deal with it as viewers because we’re so drawn in by the plot, we say, “Well, he had to die. There’s no way he could have survived.”  And that’s good writing.

He also takes time with his narrative. The shape of Simons writing for the show unfolds like a novel in that he’s in no particular hurry to rush through the facts and get you from point A to B. I can’t help but compare this to what he said in his lecture on the Audacity of Denial, about the four ws and one h of newspaper reporting. “A four year old can tell you when, how, where and when. It’s the why that’s important.” In his storytelling, it’s the why that takes centre stage.

But all this is neither here nor there. The point is, David Simon wrote about a world I knew nothing about, a world that never touches any part of my life, stays outside my social, professional and personal life, never reaches my news papers or my computer, and he still drew me in and forced me to stay.

– Sheena 

From Everybody lies to Everybody dies: A tribute to Hugh Laurie

From Everybody lies to Everybody dies: A tribute to Hugh Laurie

But mostly just to House.

I’m still reeling from the fact that House MD, a show I have followed for the past eight years, has ended. Show finales are tricky; they have to be so many things. Keeping aside the fact that the series finale of House wasn’t the greatest (the best finale I have ever seen is Scrubs; perfect amount of tears and laughter. But then they decided to start season 9 with a new cast and completely screwed everything up. But that’s a whole new column), I have to admit; I will miss Hugh Laurie immensely.

No one could have played Gregory House MD better than Hugh Laurie.  He gets the accent right, his hand gestures are perfect, his pain is believable and his sarcasm is spot on. From the character of Gregory House I have learned that you’d be surprised what you can live with, Humanity is overrated, everybody lies and it’s never lupus. All important life lessons, imbibed in my most formative years and all because Hugh Laurie gave his everything to a character that became a phenomenon in television history.

But enough about House. Laurie was incredibly funny in Fry and Laurie, in real life, his songs are genius, he’s also an expert oarsman, he cooks like an angel and he looks great in a bow tie. What more could you want from a man!

Wait, I can’t say ‘enough about House’, what was I thinking. (It’s still too soon. ) House MD is a show written by David Shore and usually follows a pretty simple format. Patient comes in. House is disinterested. Patient develops an outrageous symptom. House is back in. A parallel story with an other character, mostly Wilson, usually gives him an idea. And bam, case solved. With a purposeful walk down the hospital corridors thrown in. Of course there are small twists and a bunch of great characters like Eric Foreman (what?), Lisa Cuddy, 13, Darryl Nolan and Chi Park.  My favorite episode by far has been season six, episode 1, Broken. I kept an hour aside on the morning of my first BMM board exam to watch it. I didn’t know it was an extended episode but it was so brilliant, I had to watch the whole thing. And I got late for my board exam.  (I’m super punctual, so instead of reaching my center an hour before the exam as I like to, I reached 10 minutes before. But it was still quite badass, ok?)

The point of all this is that as an actor, Hugh Laurie has done his bit. He has effectively brought a character to life in a way that no one else could.

While I will mourn the end of House for a while, here is some good news. Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie will reunite to work on a mystery project.

– Sharanya

Nitwit. Blubber. Oddment. Tweak: A tribute to JK Rowling

Nitwit. Blubber. Oddment. Tweak: A tribute to JK Rowling

1998. My mother, back from her trip to Flora Fountain handed me a bag of books. It had two Five Find-outers, one Hardy Boys and one book called Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone.

The synopsis read “Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy until he is rescued by a beetle-eyed giant of a man, enrolls at Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry, learns to play quidditch and even does battle in a deadly duel. The reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!”

I rolled my eyes at my mother. I was 9, I wasn’t going to read a book about magic and wizards. Geez.

My grandmum, who, when she visits us reads everything she can get her hands on, read it and used it as a bedtime story for my sister one night. I woke up early the next morning, because I had to know what happens to the boy who lived under the stairs.

Harry Potter is funny, intriguing, exciting, smart, dramatic, sweet, detailed and did, I mention funny? Rowling has a narrative that holds you and won’t let go.

Nothing in recent years has compared to the brilliance of the Potter series. This is an actual conversation .

Me: Oh, you should read The hunger games.

Sheena: Is it as good as Harry Potter?

Me: No.

Me: Read that book..

Sheena:Is it as good as..

Me: No.

Me: Read…

Sheena: Is it…

Me:  No.

Here are 50 things, concepts and people I love about Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling.

  1. Ronald Weasley
  2. Draco Malfoy
  3. Severus Snape
  4. Butterbeer (Butter + Beer. For real)
  5. Moving chess pieces
  6. Rowling is the first person in the world to become a billionaire by writing books.
  7. The clock in the Weasley’s kitchen
  8. The marauder’s map
  9. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore and his words of wisdom (After all to the well-organised mind, death is but the next great adventure.  Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light. It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live)
  10. Rowling’s amazing commencement speech
  11. Luna Lovegood
  12. A Snitch
  13. Fang
  14. The fans (I love Harry Potter fans. There is always conversation. I may not know your full name but we could have long conversations on why I was always on Snape’s side or why no one could be a better Bellatrix Lestrange than Helena Bonham Carter)
  15. Hagrid
  16. Felix Felicis
  17. “I’m going to bed before either of you come up with another clever idea to get us killed – or worse, expelled.”  – Hermione Granger
  18. Cedric Diggory
  19. Professor McGonagall
  20. Books by Gilderoy Lockhart (Break With A Banshee, Gadding With Ghouls, Holidays With Hags, Magical Me, Travel With Trolls, Voyages With Vampires, Wandering With Werewolves, Year With The Yeti)
  21. Peeves (We did it, we bashed them, wee Potter’s the one and Voldy’s gone moldy, so now let’s have fun!)
  22. The Firebolt
  23. Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour
  24. Flourish & Blotts
  25. Fred and George Weasley (I think I wept when they leave Hogwarts to a shower of fireworks)
  26. St. Mungo’s
  27. The deathly hallows
  28. The Knight Bus
  29. The Floo network
  30. Gryffindor common room passwords (abstinence, 
balderdash, banana fritters, caput draconis, dilligrout, fairy lights, flibbertigibbet, fortuna major, Mimbulus mimbletonia, oddsbodikins, quid agis, scurvy cur)
  31. Dobby
  32. Crookshanks
  33. Animagus
  34. Sirius Black (And the tiny detail, that “Sirius Black” is a pun on his Animagus form of a black dog, as the star Sirius is known as the Dog Star, and is the brightest star in Canis Major.)
  35. Daily Prophet
  36. Horcruxes
  37.  Gellert Grindelwald
  38. Dumbledore’s Army
  39. The Sorting hat and the House system (I’d definitely be a Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff. That’s kind of sad)
  40. Marvolo Gaunt
  41. Ginny’s song (His eyes are as green as a fresh pickled toad, His hair is as dark as a blackboard. I wish he was mine, he’s really divine, the hero who conquered the Dark Lord.)
  42. Arabella  Doreen Figg (Oh, god she was squib! Whaaat! The cat lady with the house that smelled of cabbage)
  43. Hogsmeade
  44. Honeydukes Sweetshop
  45. Weasleys’ Wizarding Wheezes (“Why are you worrying about you-know-who? you should be worrying about u-no-poo. the constipation sensation that’s gripping the nation!”)
  46. Mad-eye Moody
  47. Kingsley Shacklebolt
  48. Polyjuice potion
  49. Patronus
  50. The Goblet of Fire (Best tournament in the history of everything)

– Sharanya

“The best writer of his generation”- The Times : A tribute to Vikram Seth

“The best writer of his generation”- The Times : A tribute to Vikram Seth

It was the 4th of November 2011 and I was hopping onto a south-bound Mumbai Local clutching all 1,349 pages of my copy of A suitable boy. Somewhere else in Bombay, the writer of the tome in my hands, was making his way to the same destination- the National Centre for Performing Arts( NCPA) where he was going to talk about his latest release – The Rivered Earth. I highly doubt that he was as excited as I was. If you’re a Vikram Seth fan, occasions such as these, where you can breathe the same air as a legend, are excuse enough to behave like a fevered bunny on good quality cocaine.

How much do I love Vikram Seth? Let me count the ways.

He’s a genius, for one. It’s not everyone who can learn German from scratch in six months flat. I moved to India at the malleable age of eight. I’m twenty four now and friends still laugh openly (and rather cruelly) at my Hindi and Gujarati. He’s well-read and knowledgeable. Which other Economics Major speaks with such ease and familiarity of the poet George Herbert? He’s also a man of wide interests, Schubertian Music, of all things, being one of them.

Braininess aside, he’s ridiculously brisk and lovely in demeanour and bearing. When he strode out from the wings at the NCPA that day, he looked more enthusiastic maths professor less writer and I mean that in a good way, which says a lot, considering I hate math. Through his address, he made himself more endearing with every word. He wagged his finger at the audience; he read out loud in a terrific booming voice, he sprang up from his seat more than once to point things out on the projector, his bald head shone with intelligence. He used delightfully English-sounding phrases like “you lot,” and “oh dear” and my desi soul, reared on a steadfast diet of Enid Blyton revelled in it.

Next, (here, I reference A Suitable Boy) he can flesh out characters from four family trees plus some, cover three Indian cities and countless towns, weave a narrative that is as easy as the circumstances it describes are not and still write a novel that doesn’t lose pace for a single second. It’s testimony to the genius of the book that I cry bitterly all through Mrs Mahesh Kapoors funeral just after I’ve laughed out loud at the antics of the Chatterjee clan. His other work has moved me too. When pangs of homesickness came to my hostel bed at the age of 19, I’d call on from memory, All you who sleep tonight to stop me from missing my mother.

But the reason du jour? As a writer, he doesn’t take the easy way out. It took me a summer holiday to finish A suitable boy which is a ridiculously short time compared to the seven years it took to get written. And why?

“I wanted, of course to tell a good story, but I also wanted to get things right. No matter how well a novel is received by readers and critics in general, if it does not ring true with those people who knew from the inside the world it describes, it is in the final analysis, an artistic failure.”- Vikram Seth, Two Lives.

And so it was that everything in A suitable boy was researched to death, from whether St. Stephens, Delhi had female students in the 1940s to how the credit market for a small shoemaker in Agra would work. All this for fiction.

I stood in line to get my book signed at the NCPA that day and I watched as Seth handled everything like a boss. With the energy of a very young man, he smiled at cameras, talked to the press, made small jokes and signed books all in a blur. My A suitable boy now has an inscription on the front page. “To Sheena, Vikram Seth.” And he meant every word.

–       Sheena

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