Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Books forever - Fantastic Four

Sacred Waters by Steve Alter

I have yet to read a better account of a spiritual journey. Not that the Char Dham Yatra has not been captured in literature before but the author (brother of the illustrious actor Tom Alter) treads a different path. Rather than meeting all expectations that his readers may have thrust on him, he raises them to a level only apt for a spiritual journey.

Whether it's the physical hardship of the journey or its psychological effect, Alter avoids the popular route employed by many - that of glorifying every event. The rich and varied mythology of India, the nuances of its cultural diversity, the tug of war between environmentalists and the establishment, the sanctified commerce of the temple economy, the demi-gods of the country - Alter's essays on the umpteen aspects of his pilgrimage reflect an unique devotional detachment. And he hints at his own spiritual experience not as any enlightenment, but only as a natural course of the travel - devoid of loud adjectives and heavy jargon. And more importantly, without losing the innocent wonderment of an honest pilgrim.

In doing so, he also raises some fundamental issues - buried under the carpet by vested interests from every sphere. The spirit of adventure travel, he believes, is entwined with a disturbing paradox. For centuries, journeys of this kind have been wrongly labelled as "War against nature" rather than an attempt to find one's roots in the green mysteries. He also exposes some of the ridiculous beliefs of the typical travel freak - like the craze to capture every scene through the view-finder of a camera - more in proof of individual glory rather than an appreciation of nature. Such obsession only proves self-defeating, especially in a journey that's a rare treat to the human eye.

A traveller with his heart and mind in the right places - Steve Alter was destined to go places -Char Dham being four of them- I am absolutely sure of that!


Business Blunders by Geoff Tibballs

For journalist-turned-full time author Geoff Tibballs as he points out in the preface, the biggest business blunder has been choosing the wrong lottery numbers week after week. But his highly entertaining book captures a rich variety of business blunders across the globe spanning different industries. As the beautiful preface by the legendary Sir John Harvey- Jones remarks, the fine balance of business is in making affordable mistakes and avoiding the atomic explosion of the true business blunder. But Sir John’s best compliment to the book is in his hope to make his own contributions to the ensuing volumes. Though Tibballs never makes the claim that this is an educative book, the humorous collection of blunders is indeed a ready reckoner for valuing the spirit of enterprise and innovation. Tibballs divides the blunders under clearly defined categories – that makes for very interesting reading.

Under Flawed concepts, we have the New Coke experiment that failed to click and the ill- famed IBM lethargy that made Microsoft speed away with all the glory in personal computing business. There are also some lesser-known blunders like the AC Gilbert Toy story or the Irish Canal experiment. Under Bankers’ Errors, we have the Barings collapse covered in great detail. The Sting covers tales like the fake Hitler diaries and biography of Hollywood producer Howard Hughes.

Do not miss the Sale of the Eiffel Tower and The Day The Circus didn’t come to Town. Truly hilarious accounts, of course they seem so only in retrospect. Missed opportunities is devoted to stories like that of Dick Rowe who turned down the Beatles and Napolean’s unfulfilled dream due to the sale of Louisiana state. Money Down The Drain is a wonderful collage of stories like The Advanced Passenger Train, The Hoover Flights Fiasco, The Montreal Olympics Ruin, Raise the Titanic movie disaster and a life time holiday – thanks to a computer error.

Throughout the pages, Tibballs’s narrative is rich in humour and precise to the point. And he tells each story with exceptional flair – whether a popular blunder or a lesser known chaos. In the process, he strikes a chord with the reader. This is a great tribute to the spirit of business. As Sir John Harvey- Jones puts it, this book makes for fun reading and yet carries a subliminal message for us all.


The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy, who won the coveted Booker Prize for this book, says it tells a sad story. Indeed it does so but the real beauty of her pen leaves the reader pondering as to whose story it is all about. This is indeed a story of stories –of two unfortunate twins grappling with the pathos of their twisted providence, of social hypocrisy in a male-dominated society; of fake morals of progressive Marxists and religious fundamentalists alike; of a determined woman taking the world by its horns …..

The stories are commonplace but not the pathos.Little events and ordinary things- these are the ingredients that Roy employs with remarkable authority and style – the humour is poignant, the language bears a fresh appeal, the metaphor is strikingly outstanding, and the meticulous detail is at its inventive best. Bit by bit, the story unfolds through the eyes of the hapless twins – Estha and Rahel and yet, Roy makes each character come alive only through their spectacles. In the innocent surveillance of the delightful twins is packed a wealth of human insight, and refreshingly devoid of arid psychology.You can see every character influencing the twins’ lives in true splendor - their nagging grand aunt Baby Kochchmma; their privileged cousin Sophie Mol; her proud father Uncle Chacko; her determined, over-protective mother Margaret Kochamma; the convenient morals of their grand parents Mammachi and Pappachi, their indifferent father Baba far away from their reach; their unfortunate mother Ammu – fighting a losing war on her terms and last but not the least; Velutha – the untouchable rustic lad whose death is clearly one of the most poignant in literature till date and of course, the kids themselves – Rahel, the girl with her devil-may-care adventurous spirit and Esthapen, her brother with his quiet resignation .

Long after you have kept the book aside, the words continue to haunt you in a delightful trance. There have been few before Roy who have seen nights suffused with sloth and sullen expectation; hot brooding months with long humid days; gardens full of whisper and scurry of small lives; the queer compassion of the very poor for the comparatively well-off; religions seeping into places like tea from a teabag; society’s circus in railway stations inviting despair with the rush of commerce; long, oiled hair of the morally upright who lay down laws who should be loved and how. And how much.

Yes, this is a sad book that fills the reader with some innate joy – the elation is clearly beyond words.


Our Films, Their Films by Satyajit Ray

This is Satyajit Ray's first and only book in English on cinema and should be part of every film buff's library. As the title suggests, the author discusses the characteristics of Western films (pre-dominantly Hollywood, and some Italian and British movies) and Indian films to throw light on the art and science of film making, nuances of his own craft, his choice of artists, his thoughts on cinematography and music. Besides, the book also carries excerpts from his personal experience.

The first section is devoted to Indian films where the author highlights the need for developing skill and temperament in creating works of art under conditions of deprivation. Obviously, he found it lacking among Indian film makers who were either busy peddling muddled notions of the so-called indigenous art form or blindly copying the Western style, however out-of-place in the Indian environment.Few diary-like chapters capture moments of ecstacy, tension and hectic schedules while shooting for films like the Apu trilogy and Jalshaghar. He also discusses at length the life and times of three international figures – all masters in their own right – Akira Kurosawa, Charlie Chaplin and Jene Renoir. In elaborating on the Italian neo-realism cinema, he remembers a few Italian movies including the celebrated Bicycle Thieves – a film that inspired Ray to make his first film Pather Panchali. He advises Indian film makers to study Vittorio Desica – the director of the film – to grasp the nuances so very tailored for the Indian scene – where finances and resources are always in scarcity.

Ray beautifully summarizes the commercial characteristics of the bustling Bombay film industry with a special tribute to the innovative spirit of Hindi film numbers in recreating popular Western music into convincing desi versions with amazing regularity. Among the offbeat Indian films, Ray discusses at length four features films including M. S. Sathyu’s Garm Hawa, Shyam Benegal’s Nishant and Mani Kaul’s Duvidha. The book is a great reference book, a travelogue, a collection of essays and film reviews and a diary – all in one- much like the genius of the great director who had his stamp of creativity in every sphere including direction, music, cinematography, screenplay, writing and illustrations.