Posts Tagged With: Non-Fiction

A chronicle of a musical life

Ocean to OceanTitle: Ocean to Ocean
Author: Susmit Sen and Sehba Imam
Publisher: HarperCollins
Published: September 2014
Pages: 160
ISBN: 9789351362012
Genre: Memoir, Nonfiction, Music
Rating: 3.5/5

Jimi Hendrix, the American singer and guitar virtuoso, when talking about how he was a source of inspiration for many musicians, famously said, “I’ve been imitated so well, I’ve heard people copy my mistakes.” But Susmit Sen, instead of walking in the footsteps of the likes of Hendrix, read the writing on the wall: “This is not for me.” If there’s one thing that a lifetime in music has taught Sen, the frontrunner of the iconic band Indian Ocean, is how ‘originality’ is not only a test of your integrity but also a yardstick to measure your musical genius. And this instinct was what got the band through. In his memoir, Ocean to Ocean, Sen writes, “If I am asked to name only one thing that guided the music of Indian Ocean, I will say originality.”

When Indian Ocean, one of the most creative bands in India, started to lose this very quality, when the band was merely working to a formula, he felt the first tinges of creative dissatisfaction. He rues, “Had we exhausted our originality and lost our ability to come up with new compositions? Or were we losing courage? On the one hand, success encourages you to create new fare, but as you go along, it sometimes terrifies you into staying with the tried and tested.” Finally, on the day the band performed Nani teri morni ko mor le gaye and Old Macdonald had a farm, Sen took a decision to part ways with the band. He recalls, “There is a fine line between expression and circus and I could see it clearly now.”

As you read Sen’s account of his life with Indian Ocean, you gradually begin to notice a few loose ends. Maybe a take from the other band members would have helped clarify a few things. But this is Sen’s memoir after all, and the beauty of it lies in the honest and unarmed manner he recounts it. Divided into 16 chapters, the narrative is dotted with anecdotes from Sen’s life, weaving in and out of his personal life and his musical journey.

You learn about his first brush with Hindustani classical music as he wistfully recalls, “In my attempts to hand around her (the girl he had a crush on), I discovered that her father was a classical music aficionado and a regular at Hindustani music concerts. I figured this was the best way to get close to her, so I tagged along.”

In another chapter, he talks about how Indian Ocean first took shape. “By 1990 we had three bass players, Aseem on vocals, Shaleen on drums and me, finally doing what I loved the most — exploring how my guitar could express sounds that emerged from nowhere and asked to be expressed,” he writes. One chapter in particular, titled Aseem will leave you teary-eyed as Sen recounts Aseem’s harrowing demise due to diabetes.

The hardbound book, co-authored by Sehba Imam, also comes with a copy of the eponymous debut album from Sen’s latest music ensemble, Susmit Sen Chronicles. This album, which will take you back in time to the alluring sound and style of ‘Indian Ocean,’ together with the book offers a captivating look at how Sen had to “swim out of the ocean, only to re enter it once again — this time not for its vastness, but for its depth.”

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Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Harper Collins, Memoir, Nonfiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Blend of Science and Humour

What if

Title: What if?
Author: Randall Munroe
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Pages: 336
ISBN: 9781848549586
Genre: Nonfiction, Humour, Sciences, Technology & Medicine
Rating: 4/5

Former NASA roboticist Randall Munroe has gained quite a fan following for regularly churning out hilarious and sometimes absurd cartoons on XKCD, “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.” In tandem with this endeavour, he had launched his blog, ‘What if?’ where he provided “serious scientific answers” to “absurd hypothetical questions” asked by readers, his responses often dotted with his trademark brand of funny caricatures.

Now, he has collated the blog’s most popular answers in a book called What if?, published in India by Hachette. Munroe, who undoubtedly receives a dozens of questions everyday, has included in the book only those “particularly neat questions” which he wanted to “spend a little more time on.” The book also features updated versions of some of his favorite articles from the site and a few brand new questions which he has answered for the first time in the book.

Some of the questions that Munroe tackles are seemingly bizarre but peculiarly enough, as one finds out after reading the book, they can be explained using rational thought. ‘What would happen if you tried to fly a normal Earth airplane above different solar system bodies? How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live? How hard would a puck have to be shot to be able to knock the goalie himself backward into the net? How close would you have to be to a supernova to get a lethal dose of neutrino radiation? Then there are questions that Munroe has set aside as ‘Weird (and worrying)’ which he deems unworthy of an explanation, but doesn’t ignore them altogether: Questions like ‘Given humanity’s current knowledge and capabilities, is it possible to build a new star? How fast would a human have to run in order to cut in half at the bellybutton by a cheese-cutting wire? Would Thor, with a spinning hammer, be able to create a tornado like in the movie, in real life?’ are accompanied by rib-tickling comments often put forth through cartoons.

What makes Munroe’s work worthwhile is the way he blends esoteric scientific analogies and logical reasoning with an unfaltering comic commentary. His dedication to answer one weird question after another using these facts (complemented with diagrams, equations, graphs) in the most imaginative and simplest way possible, underscores Munroe’s sound understanding of the subject.

What if? is like a textbook for the curious minds who at some point of their lives would have wondered if there is enough energy to move the entire current human population off the planet or while watching Star Wars, if Yoda can produce sustainable energy to power the entire planet. Having said that, even the not-so-scientifically inclined ones among the crowd can devour it.

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First published in The New Indian Express on October 21, 2014

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Hachette, Humour, Nonfiction, Science and technology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What it means to be a girl in Afghanistan?

KabulTitle: The Underground Girls of Kabul: In Search of a Hidden Resistance in Afghanistan
Author: Jenny Nordberg
Publisher: Crown
Published on: September 16, 2014
Genre: Non-fiction, Politics, Social Sciences
Pages: 368
ISBN: 978-0307952493
Rating: 5/5

Life, for a woman in Afghanistan, is unlivable. Here, as is commonly known to the rest of the world, women are confined to their homes, with little or no interaction with the outside world, often illiterate and under the spell of demonising husbands who do not allow them an iota of daylight. What’s frightening is that nearly three-fourth of the woman population live this way: forced into marriage at a young age, subjected to domestic violence at the hands of their husbands who see it as their duty to beat their wives up and pushed to accept the role only that of a child bearer — even the child is the father’s and the woman has no rights on its future whatsoever.

Through The Underground Girls of Kabul, Swedish journalist Jenny Nordberg offers an altogether different point of view on what it means to be a girl in Afghanistan: a rare glimpse into a distinct life many girls are forced to lead, not as the oppressed sex, but as one who resists the patriarchal norms set by the society.

At the centre of the book is the rise of ‘bacha posh’ — where girls are made to dress like boys — grown as much out of the need for women to be included in the fabric of the society, as of the circumstance where a family is unable to conceive a male offspring. In such families, a girl is ‘designated’ to act like a son of the household, even allowing them freedom to study, work, roam around and mingle with other boys. When they reach puberty, unequivocally most of them are made to revert to their innate girl-status, which for many Afghans is an innocuous process.

But as Nordberg points out, it can have serious repercussions. Through the transformation of Shukur, a bacha posh to Shukria, a married woman, Nordberg reveals how traumatic it is to switch roles all of a sudden. After years of being liberated, not many are prepared for the docile role of housekeeping or child bearing and hence face a bitter future. As Shukria herself puts it, after her failed attempt at getting into the shoes of a woman: Her parents should never have made her a boy, since she ultimately had to become a woman. Nevertheless, there are other contrasting cases. Many families, eschewing societal norms, are much more open to continuing the charade for an indefinite period. For instance, Shahed (Shaheda) and Nader (Nadia), who have revelled in their bacha posh status, hope to continue as a male member of the family and “be out of the marriage market for good.”

Through her portraits of women from various strata of the society in Kabul and the less popular and underdeveloped Badghis province, Nordberg proffers a gripping take on the politics of gender identity in Afghanistan against the backdrop of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (the ‘Russian times,’ as one former bacha posh and parliamentarian Azita puts it), the Taliban era and more recently, the US ‘war against terrorism.’ These are tales of determination and grit, of struggle, of rise against oppression, which, in a pertinent manner, offer a glimpse into the never-ending struggle of a woman in the country.

In the course of the book, Nordberg highlights that the practice of bacha posh is not specific to Afghanistan alone. While in the present day, it has risen out of the idea of maintaining a social status, she alludes to similar practices elsewhere in the world — of women masquerading as warriors in Europe and many other places. But is it a violation of human rights? Will it lead to a dysfunctional society, more than it already is? Will the concept of bacha posh perish if the Taliban comes back to ruling? As long as a strict patriarchal society prevails, Nordberg states, there will be resistance. She adds, “Perhaps someday in our future it will be possible for women everywhere not to be restricted to those roles society deems natural, God-given or appropriately feminine. A woman will not need to make an effort to resemble a man, or to think like one. Instead she can speak a language that men will want to understand.”

Categories: Books, Gender, Nonfiction, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Revisiting War Through Letters

Great War

Title: Indian Voices of the Great War
Edited by: David Omissi
Publisher: Penguin Books India
Published: July 15, 2014
Pages: 382
ISBN: 9780670087112
Genre: Non-fiction, History, Letters
Rating: 5/5

There were about one million Indian soldiers who served in the First World War as a part of the British army. Of them, about 60,000 died and 9,000 were decorated for their valour. Yet, they remain unsung heroes, their sacrifices are not acknowledged in the post-colonial world. Their struggles and stories don’t find a place in history. The book Indian Voices of the Great War (Penguin India) aims to recount the stories of these forgotten heroes by opening a window onto the tremendous role that India played in Britain’s win in the Great War.

The 300-odd page book, edited by eminent historian David Omissi, is a collection of correspondence between Indian soldiers in Europe and their families and friends in the subcontinent, between the years 1914 and 1919. The letters, written in various Indian languages but translated for the purposes of the book, are powerful reminders of the different battles, raids and large-scale attacks upon the German lines and the weather conditions in various theatres of war.

Through the various letters we find out how some soldiers detested the war, likening the scale of it to the Mahabharata and the battle of Karbala. On the other hand, the manner in which some of the Indians resigned themselves to the inevitability of death, how stoically they reported stories of horror and carnage not wishing to cause distress to their families and friends, is moving. These letters also reveal the soldiers’ unflinching loyalty to the King and how the Rajputs, Pathans and others fought not for mercenary motives but to preserve their izzat. Importance was also placed on receiving decorations — especially of the Victoria Cross.

But their letters also prominently dwell on things other than the war. Several interesting stories about their day-to-day life in the faraway land stand out in this aspect: a soldier recalling his encounter with a friendly child who didn’t shy away from talking to him, another narrating to his father how ‘pleasant and beautiful’ the country of France was, how the fruits there were tastier than what you got in India, are wonderful reminders of ordinary things in face of the looming war. One soldier, towards the fag end of the war, expressed the benefits of educating a girl child, saying, “The advancement of India lies in the hands of the women; until they act, India can never awake from her hare’s dream.”

Talking about the book, a friend recently remarked, “This book will teach us more about the First World War than our textbooks did.” And this is not an exaggerated claim. The book is a unique and compelling account of the Great War by those who experienced it first hand.

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First published in The New Indian Express on September 23, 2014

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A witty testament to a journalistic life

Off the Record

Title: Off the record: Untold stories from a reporter’s diary
Author: Ajith Pillai
Publisher: Hachette India
Published: July 2014
Pages: 384
ISBN: 9789350097847
Genre: Non-fiction
Rating: 5/5

There are news stories that we read in the papers and the magazines everyday — and then there are those stories that are off-the-record testaments, stories that fall through the gaps of daily reporting, or are too incendiary to be printed. Told with intensity, brevity and candour, these are the stories that form the subject of veteran journalist Ajith Pillai’s new book, Off the Record.  He presents first-hand accounts of his adventures as a  journalist for over twenty years in an India that saw dramatic changes and transformed completely into the 21st century new India.

Written with eloquent simplicity and filled with allusions to the country’s socio-political and cultural fabric, this memoir traces Pillai’s sojourn from a young copywriter in an ad agency to a journalist who learnt how to call a spade a spade. Flipping through the pages, we are taken on a memorable journey with Pillai; as each chapter segues into the next, his writing evokes compelling instances. From a standoff with Dawood Ibrahim’s henchman in Dubai, Chota Shakeel to a tense encounter between V S Naipaul and the underworld; from a face-to-face interview with Mumbai mafia don Varadarajan Mudaliar to a concert by Silk Smitha (or her lookalike) on New Year’s Eve; from being witness to the auctioning of Pooja Bedi’s bikini to a Rs. 10,000 imaginary dinner at the uber La Rotisserie, these stories capture the behind-the-scenes action, at times measured, often cynical and  humorous, giving the reader a ringside view of a journalist’s life. Pillai also digs into his bag of tales from Kashmir demonstrating all that formed the political underpinnings of the state and the issues that continue to eat away at its base fabric.

Pillai also throws the spotlight on the role of the media as the fourth estate, with the spectre of the nexus of news and corruption looming large. In the first chapter of the book, he informs the reader that the utopian concept of a perfect newspaper, editor or reporter doesn’t exist, except in the mind of an aspiring journalist who has not yet seen the machinations that govern the industry. He goes on to highlight the malady plaguing most newspaper organisations. “Commercial considerations can often weigh on editorial decisions and a good story can be rejected or cut to size,” he writes.

At the same time, he also notes that despite all its flaws, the Indian media is still largely vibrant and free. A journalist in today’s world has to be far more vigilant. Journalism, like any other profession, requires persistence, disciplined practice and above all, an open mind. Off the record teaches a good deal about this.

Jeremy Seabrook, the British author and columnist, says of the book, “This ought to be a handbook for all aspiring journalists, since Pillai is an enemy of sycophantic corporate ideology and craven submissiveness to wealth and power which characterise most of today’s celebrity-writers.” We agree. This book is a true reporter’s diary.

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A version of this has appeared in The New Indian Express on September 16, 2014

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A tribute to the Hindi film industry

Decoding Bollywood

Title: Decoding Bollywood: Stories of 15 Film Directors
Author: Sonia Golani
Publisher: Westland
ISBN: 978-9384030308
Genre: Non-Fiction, Films, Biographies & Autobiographies
Pages: 202

For people who have grown up watching Hindi movies, Sonia Golani’s new book, Decoding Bollywood: Stories of 15 Film Directors (Westland), is like hitting a pot of gold. As the name suggests, the book traces the lives of 15 filmmakers in the film industry from greats like Prakash Jha, Sudhir Mishra and Mahesh Bhatt to youngsters like Anurag Basu, Kunal Kohli and Zoya Akhtar.

We wonder, how did she draw up the list of the directors to profile? Sonia responds, “I wanted to keep the book very contemporary and include all the people who had tremendous achievements to their credit.”

So in the book, Sonia has picked filmmakers across different genres and age groups. She covers stories of those who came from film families like Farah Khan, Rohit Shetty, Mahesh Bhatt and Zoya Akhtar to those who were armed with film training like Prakash Jha and Sudhir Mishra. Sonia has interviewed advertising professionals like Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and R Balki, who used their experience as a springboard to gain a toehold in the industry, and documentary filmmakers like Kabir Khan and Nandita Das. The book also includes chapters on how television helped directors like Anurag Basu, Kunal Kohli, Vipul Shah and Ashutosh Gowariker to make outstanding films.

Not attempting to critique the directors’ films or get into the technical aspects of filmmaking, Sonia takes a journalistic approach to delve into the personal lives of the directors. For instance, Mahesh Bhatt opens up to her as he recounts his early days in the industry, navigating his personal traumas and using cinema to give expression to his thoughts. Endearing stories of directors like Kunal Kohli, who in a leap of faith, joined the Yash Raj conglomerate also find their place in the book. Sonia has also managed to get the directors’ views on Bollywood’s futile dream of the Oscars. As Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, scoffing at this, says, “We can make the best films in the world and should demand respect from the world. The idea is not to chase the Oscars but to take our stories to the world.”

In the preface, Sonia writes that Bollywood was an integral part of her growing up years having watching iconic movies like Sholay, Satte pe Satta, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, Arth, etc. She affirms, “I have lived in Mumbai all my life. So I wanted to know how the industry functions and its finer intricacies.” That last year Indian cinema completed 100 years gave her another compelling reason to write a book on films. “It is my tribute to the Hindi film industry and also to my city, Mumbai,” she proclaims.

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First published in The New Indian Express on September 9, 2014

Categories: Articles- New Indian Express, Books, Interviews | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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