Archive for ‘delhi’

August 30, 2010

Vishwajyoti Ghosh, Delhi Calm

An edited version of the review below appeared in Delhi’s Sunday Guardian a couple of weeks ago. I really liked the look of Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s book. The artwork is fantastic; very intelligent, and full of references to things you can’t not recognise if you’ve grown up in India. In contrast, the prose was merely adequate in most places, and in some was awkward enough to let the book down entirely.


“Nothing like this ever happened. If it did, it doesn’t matter any more, for it was of no interest or relevance even while it was happening. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. This is a work of fiction. Self-censored.”

Vishwajyoti Ghosh’s Delhi Calm opens with the above disclaimer. This is not, it implies, a graphic novel about the historical Emergency. Ghosh’s character “Moon” has no connection whatsoever with Indira Gandhi. The figure of the “Prophet” is not based on Jayaprakash Narayan. But this rather overwrought disclaimer is in a speech bubble, and the speech bubble emerges from an illustration of a megaphone, and the megaphone is inside a larger panel… and therefore part of the (fictional) content of the novel itself. It’s a lot more complex than it at first appears.

Delhi Calm traces the movements of three young men, all former members of a political music group and followers of “the Prophet”, a political figure clearly modelled on JP Narayan. The band eventually drifts apart, but “Master”, “VP” and Parvez find their lives intersecting once more in Delhi during the Emergency. What follows is a series of impressions of life in a city where Prime Minister Moon (along with her sons, the Prince and the Pilot) reigns supreme. There is an element of surrealism in the constant, sinister presence of the masked “Smiling Saviours” (who appear as an interesting visual tribute to Alan Moore, author of that great political graphic novel, V for Vendetta).

The Parvez-VP-Master story is rendered in sepia tones and uses a (mostly) traditional graphic novel format. The unusual colour palette contributes as much to the tone of the novel as the extremely strong artwork. These sections are interleaved with a more traditionally-structured, black-and-white history of Moon’s life that reads as if it were from a newspaper or magazine. Occasional full-page spreads give Ghosh further opportunities to showcase his art. There is also a frequent use of pop-cultural imagery, particularly in the use of signs and posters.

Perhaps the best thing about Delhi Calm is the way in which Ghosh depicts propaganda and the construction of narratives by those in power. The megaphone that speaks the disclaimer is only one of many: the panels of this book are full of words. These may take the form of slogans, of street signs, banners, posters, advertisements. Newspapers are frequently depicted, and the title of the book itself is taken from one newspaper report. Delhi is only “calm”, of course, because it is not allowed to be anything else.

These narratives are created not just by bombarding citizens with posters and banners bearing the message, but also by curtailing what other people are allowed to say. One of the more chilling scenes in the book is an essay competition described by a schoolboy, one of Master’s tuition pupils. The “essay” (extolling the virtues of Mother Moon) is dictated to the students by the teacher, and the students are judged on their handwriting and spelling skills.

Yet the deployment of words as weapons is not entirely one-sided, and Ghosh avoids the pitfall of turning this into a flat tale of state oppression by allowing his characters plenty of agency and showing that there’s a lot going on under the city’s “calm” exterior. At the beginning of his character’s story arc, the importance of Parvez’s linguistic skills is stressed. The Naya Savera band spread their message through song, and VP is a writer of songs as well as a journalist and copywriter.

Strangely, for a text that conveys so strongly the importance of narrative and the power of words, the writing is Delhi Calm’s weakest point. Vishwajyoti Ghosh is both the writer and the artist of the book, and his skills in one area far outweigh his skills in the other. In one large panel, two children sit astride an elephant bearing the slogan “We Are Two, We Have Two”, while below them a woman is fleeing a man who wears a Smiling Saviour mask and carries a giant syringe. It’s a powerful image, but it is ruined by the clumsy dialogue in the speech bubbles:

“Stop running after me. I am 48! That too, a widow… Pleeeease!”
“Who cares? I have targets to meet… One kilo Dalda, I promise, please! Get sterilised, you…”

While few moments in the book are quite this awkward, the prose is never quite as smooth as one would like. It’s unfortunate, because it has the effect of jolting the reader out of what is in most respects a very fine book.

Delhi Calm is a fascinating commentary on the emergency. It has plenty of flaws, but there’s also plenty to admire and to think about, and the familiarity of some of its imagery is distinctly uncomfortable.


April 29, 2010

Delhi Noir

Edited version of a shortish review that appeared in the New Indian Express (here) a few days ago:


For the past few years, Akashic Books have been publishing anthologies of noir writing set in various cities across the world. The selection is diverse and fascinating, with such unusual settings as Trinidad, Istanbul, Richmond and Havana.

Published by Harper Collins in India, Delhi Noir is edited by Hirsh Sawhney, and it is an intriguing collection of short fiction set in the capital city, populated by a diverse cast of characters. Irwin Allen Sealy’s “Last In, First Out”, the story of a vigilante auto-rickshaw driver named Baba Ganoush, is one of the best things about the collection. Baba Ganoush is that classic character of the genre; the decent guy whose attempts to do good are thwarted by an immoral system. In this he has a lot in common with the narrator of Omair Ahmad’s “Yesterday Man”, a private detective investigating a case with links to the 1984 riots. Likewise, Hartosh Singh Bal’s excellent “Just Another Death” features a well-meaning journalist trying to uncover the real story behind a mysterious death in the fact of a number of extremely successful attempts to conceal the truth.

“Hissing Cobras” by Nalinaksha Bhattacharya is a classic, hardboiled story about a policeman who blackmails and rapes a young housewife, while Mohan Sikka’s “Railway Aunty” has an older woman manipulating a young man into performing sexual favours, first for her and then for an increasing network of her acquaintances.

Radhika Jha’s “How I Lost My Clothes” stands out in this collection. It is the bleakly funny tale of a man who finds himself unexpectedly naked and travels through the city attempting to remedy this. “How I Lost My Clothes” straddles the border between the realistic and the bizarre. Jha is not the only writer to introduce elements of non-realistic fiction. The title character of Ahmad’s “Yesterday Man” might easily have popped straight out of a magical realist novel. And though Uday Prakash’s wonderful “The Walls of Delhi”, translated by Jason Grunebaum, at first appears a solid, traditional story of a man tempted by money into making a bad decision, a subtle twist at the end makes one wonder if this story too might fall into that category.

Manjula Padmanabhan’s “Cull”, on the other hand, is outrightly Science Fiction. Set in a dystopic future Delhi where every aspect of human life is regulated, this is the story of a group of stubborn members of the underclass who refuse to be wiped out.

The collection does have its weaker points. Siddharth Chowdhury’s “Hostel” feels incomplete and is too clearly extracted from a larger work. It suffers further from being placed right after Mohan Sikka’s stronger piece. Ruchir Joshi’s “Parking”, set an upper-class South Delhi neighbourhood, is a good story but it’s not really “noir” enough. It and Padmanabhan’s story both fit uncomfortably in this collection. Indeed, the placing of Padmanabhan’s story at the end of the collection rather gives the idea that the editor wasn’t sure what to do with it.

It is also a bit unfortunate that Uday Prakash’s story should be the only translated piece in a collection of fourteen stories.

On the whole, however, Delhi Noir is a good collection which brings to light a few real treasures. I will be seeking out more work by writers like Prakash, Jha and Sikka. Akashic have plans to publish a Mumbai Noir collection in the near future, but it will have a hard time beating the Delhi edition.

April 5, 2010

YfLs6 & 7: Gopi Manjuri with donuts for afters.

I was lazy and failed to post the Yell for Language column last week. As a result, this week you get two whole columns on the subject of spelling.


[Edited versions of the pieces below appeared in the New Indian Express today and last monday.]


A la carte: according to a menu or list that prices items separately

Among the more fascinating sites upon which one can see the English language being used are restaurant menus and signs. Some of these are completely unrelated to the food itself – I recently visited a cafe in Pune where patrons were informed in no uncertain terms, “READING WRITING USE OF LAPTOP STRICTLY PROHIBITED”, conditions that might have led to difficulties where reading the menu and ordering food were concerned. Nissim Ezekiel famously wrote a poem based on the noticeboard at his favourite Irani cafe which had a long list of things that patrons were not supposed to do, including “No bargaining/ No water to outsiders/ No change/ No telephone/ No match sticks/ No discussing gambling/ No newspaper/ No combing/ No beef/ No leg on chair/”. One wonders what patrons were allowed to do.

But signs and menus (or in one case, Meenu) that deal with food are far more exciting. It is amazing to note, for example, the new and wonderful forms that a basic dish like matar-paneer takes on asit travels across the country. One can sample mutter-panir, mater-panner, mottor-paneer, cheese-peas (to attract the foreign clientele, perhaps?), often within two hundred metres of each other. You could also order some toast, or “tost”, accompanied by omelette, omlet, omlit, or even crumbled eggs. Or Garlic Bread with Chesse, which is sadly less about the intellectual stimulation and more about the calories. A venue in Calcutta practically bludgeons you with the perplexing sign “CHICKEN HUNGER TASTE”. Chinese food options include chowmin, chomin, gobi manchurian, and gopi manjuree. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place which serves alcohol, you could even have a Child Bear on the side.

It’s far too easy to mock the dhabas and reasonably inexpensive restaurants though – especially since the food they serve is frequently delicious. It is far more satisfying to visit an expensive place, where the people writing the menu have attempted to make the food sound as wonderful as possible with prose that grows thicker and purpler by the moment. What you thought was a dosai is actually a golden rice pancake, crisped to perfection with coconut chutney offering a transcendent experience. On Valentine’s Day I visited a restaurant in Delhi that had hopefully marked at least half the items on its menu as having aphrodisiac properties (artichokes, who knew?). They had also written flowery and ungrammatical pieces of poetry to describe their cocktails, making me particularly keen to sample something called “First Kiss”:

Kiss is a lovely trick designed by creature to stop speech, two souls but with single thought, two heart but beats as one. Served with a slice of banana.”


Lexicography: The editing or making of a dictionary (Merriam-Webster)

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words. (Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language)

In 1746 Samuel Johnson started his project of creating a definitive English language dictionary. There had been other works before, but none of them had been particularly satisfactory, and Johnson practically had to start out from scratch. When you think about it, it’s mindboggling: that it took Johnson less than a decade to write (it was published in 1755) is amazing.
Three years later, Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, was born.
Noah Webster is the “Webster” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (the “Merriam” part comes from the name of the publisher). Webster had very firm ideas about language and education – he believed that American students ought to learn from American, not British, books.
It was Webster who initiated a number of the differences between American and British spelling that we still see today – dropping the “u” from words like colour and flavour and changing “re” to “er” in centre. I do not know whether he was responsible for changing “doughnut” into “donut” (I will never accept this spelling. It is pointless and makes no sense), but he did apparently try to change “tongue” into “tung”. Fortunately it never caught on.
Webster genuinely believed – and lets face it, he had a point – that the rules of English language spelling were far too convoluted and could do with simplifying. He also seems to have wanted not only to definitely distinguish American English from British English, but to create a standardised language for Americans. In addition, he added new words that were unique to America. When Webster’s dictionary was published in 1928, it was big enough for two volumes and contained seventy thousand words – almost thirty thousand more than Dr. Johnson’s version.
What I find fascinating about Webster’s dictionary is that it was written as a means to an end – the author had these stated goals that he hoped his dictionary could achieve. Dr. Johnson occasionally stuck a few hilariously snarky opinions of his own into his dictionary definitions (see “Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, or “Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman”) but there’s no sustained effort to make the reader subscribe to Dr. Johnson’s opinions – on language or anything else. Which is why, while Johnson’s dictionary is more fun to read (as far as you can call reading a dictionary fun), Webster’s is fascinating for showing clearly that even dictionaries are not ideologically innocent. And once you’ve figured that out, language becomes much more fun to play with.


March 19, 2010

I’m a believer

A couple of weeks ago I was in my car and someone came and tapped on my window and left me this card. I was pleased by it and showed it to people then took it home and promptly lost it. Today I found it again, and I’m feeling much more secure about my life and the world generally.

The back of the card reads as follows:

Person Got Cheated In Love Once Come And Meet 100% Solution only in 10 Hours , As You Wish, Will Be As

Expert In Super Nature Knowledge As:

  • Love Marriage
  • Job Business
  • Marriage Problems
  • Child Birth Problems
  • Various Magic
  • Serious Problems
  • Relief Speciality
  • Get Love of Your Choice

How do I know Guru Sultan Bangali is not a fraud? Besides the fact that he has given me !!!HIS PROMISE!!!, of course. It turns out that he is able to be in multiple places at once – under a different name he has been operating his business in Gurgaon. Only a person of great spiritual fortitude could survive a daily commute from Kalkaji to Gurgaon. Plus, he has business cards, not cheap pink leaflets.

I have great faith in the guru. Trust him with your Serious Problems, and as you wish will be as.

March 11, 2010

Women ka rally

(Enclicken to embiggen)
March 8, 2010

Miéville in India links

As most of the people who read this blog already know, China Miéville was in India last week (I think he’s here for most of this as well) as part of the British Council’s LitSutra programme. I’ve been enjoying the Litsutra blog over the last couple of days – it turns out that the people organizing this thing are also pretty good writers. Krish Raghav has a piece up on the Mint books blog about the Delhi event with Samit Basu. There was also an event at JNU the next day – unfortunately the people at JNU seemed to think they’d be getting a reading from Kraken and an interactive session, while the author had been told he was supposed to be giving them an academic paper. It all resolved itself quite happily; the reading was excellent (though some of us had heard it the night before) and the discussion of SF that followed was reasonably academic – I may refer back to it soon when I read Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia.

For me, though, the highlights of the whole thing were discovering that Miéville had read this blog (he recognised said nice things, I stood and looked horrified and wondered if I’d ever written anything here that I’d be embarrassed to say to his face) and, possibly more significantly, confirming for myself that he really was a Samuel Beckett person. For various reasons this was very important.

Incidentally, judging by the chapter I heard read out twice, Kraken is going to be brilliant.

December 31, 2009


I began this year with a picture of an inflatable giraffe.

Things I did this year:
- Wrote a thesis.
- Obtained a new degree.
- Obtained paid full time employment.
- Visited three countries in one day.
- Accumulated five crates of books (Dublin) and …some more books (Delhi).
I also discovered:
- The romance novel.
- That Dublin is full of amazing people
- …and so is Delhi.
And in conclusion:
Baby donkeys are ridiculously adorable.
(from here)
I hope that everyone reading this has a good time tonight and a wonderful 2010.
December 9, 2009

Little Things

I was perhaps disproportionately pleased this morning to see this story in the Times of India*:

While pronouncing the verdict in the Dhaula Kuan rape case where a 20-year-old girl from Mizoram was gangraped by four men in a moving car the judge extensively criticized the prevalent practice of defence counsels of putting a question mark on the victim’s character to prove that her statement is unreliable. “It cannot be said that a lady who has already lost her virginity is an unreliable lady,” ASJ Gupta said in the judgement. …”Definition of rape is categoric to the effect that sexual intercourse is done without the consent or against the will, meaning thereby that an adult can have sexual intercourse with some other person only with his/her will,” the judge said.

This is the sort of thing we should all be able to take for granted – that if one was raped one would be able to accuse one’s rapist without being put on trial for…what, exactly? And that judges will be familiar with the definition of the term rape, and should be able therefore to apply it. It should be obvious, yet it never happens that way, and I retain the right to be disproportionately elated when it does.

Here’s the Outlook story on the same case.

* Especially since the last thing I’d read in the TOI was also rape related – the Delhi Times coverage a few weeks ago of the Madhur Bhandarkar case that argued that a) Rape can’t be rape if it happens multiple times and b) rape conviction laws are like, totally unfair to men. (Luckily, this evening someone linked me to this, which totally restores my faith in the paper).

July 21, 2009

But not Jesus

July 2, 2009

Two open letters

Dear Mr. R.K Sharma

This was what I woke up to this morning. I thank you for giving me such a wonderful beginning to my day.

I’d be interested to hear how you take pride in “being different from Western countries”. There are things about this country I take great pride in. This isn’t one of them. Nor is sharing a nationality with someone who spouts the sort of poisonous bigotry that has him believe that people I love (and their love) is “unnatural” and “hideous”.

So fuck you, Mr. Sharma.

That is all.


Dear Delhi High Court.

Thank you. Seriously, thank you so much for finally seeing sense over this. Thank you for not being R.K Sharma or the commentors on this article (I’m afraid to go over to Rediff)

Also, what took you so long?

With much love and pride in my city


P.S: 105 pages? You really are quite long winded, aren’t you?