Get Stoned And Watch Test Cricket

Test cricket, for a match that you get immersed in, is a very meditative experience. Any match which I have gotten into, for all the five days the television is always on, through the day, even if I am not watching it, even if I am sleeping through it. It is five days of involvement. It is like a music festival. A concert. A shared moment in time of what a lot of people went through. A culturally shared experience. Those who were there knew what it was. It is not about highlights, but about the long build up of gratification, very difficult to distil for those in a hurry.

And fuck purists, I am someone who is talking about watching test cricket stoned. On television at home.

It is a spectator sport that begs itself  to be considered for st0ned viewing. The long slow build ups, the ebbs, the crests, the mood changes, session play, the extreme of emotions, the boredom of nothing happening, the smell of planned strategies …  geez get stoned already! I have been reading about Flow, something I have been obsessive about after experiencing for a sustained period (that was a rush!!). Now I know they say passive activities don’t count for flow, but wait a minute, listen to this, from the same wikipedia link,

Flow is one of the main reasons that people play video games. This is especially true since the primary goal of games is to create entertainment through intrinsic motivation, which is related to flow. Through the balance of skill and challenge the player’s brain is aroused, with attention engaged and motivation high.Thus,the use of flow in games helps foster an enjoyable experience which in turn increases motivation and draws players to continue playing. In addition, game designers, in particular, benefit from the integration of flow principles into their game designs. Overall, the experience of play is fluid and is intrinsically psychologically rewarding independent of scores or in-game successes in the flow state.

Flow in games has been linked to the Laws of Learning as part of the explanation for why learning games (the use of games to introduce material, improve understanding, or increase retention) have the potential to be effective. In particular, flow is intrinsically motivating, which is part of the Law of Readiness. The condition of feedback, required for flow, is associated with the feedback aspects of the Law of Exercise. This is exhibited in well designed games, in particular, where players perform at the edge of their competency as they are guided by clear goals and feedback. The positive emotions associated with flow are associated with the Law of Effect. The intense experiences of being in a state of flow are directly associated with the Law of Intensity. Thus, the experience of gaming can be so engaging and motivating as it meets many of the Laws of Learning, which are inextricably connected to creating flow.

Now read this piece I wrote in 2008 about Undercurrents in a Cricket Test Match,

How does someone ever read this to understand it, say a year later, unless you have emotions associated with this moment, and you were definitely involved, with either of the sides. And watched this, of course, every ball, every moment of the building tension, every release of a muffled sigh every time the ball missed the bat, felt the curl of the lips in a mocking smile, and felt the bat swing next delivery again, on and on and on and on. I saw the highlights last night, but somehow it just wasn’t quite enough.

It is blissful, a test match in the background. As a discipline to the day, for 5 days. The Sunday that the match falls between is special. More special depending upon which day of the test it falls on.

Read this for example, something I wrote in 2009, Cricket Stories on a Monday Morning, a good day of test cricket adds hope, determination, a dose of stoic, a bit of magic in your step, in your life. Bolsters up an otherwise lackluster week.

And I’m not even talking about India winning.

“What is a crowd?” Excerpt from Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

THESE ARE THE things that are said about crowds.

A crowd is mindless.

A crowd is primitive; it is barbaric; it is childish.

A crowd is fickle, capricious, unpredictable. A crowd is a dirty people without a name (Clarendon). A crowd is a beast without a name (Gabriel Tarde). A crowd is a wild animal (Alexander Hamilton, Hippolyte Taine, Scipio Sighele). A crowd is like a flock of sheep (Plato), like a pack of wolves (Plato), like a horse—tame when in the harness, dangerous when set free. A crowd is like a fire burning out of control, destroying everything in its way, including finally itself (Thomas Carlyle). A crowd is in a fever, in delirium, in a state of hypnosis (Gustave LeBon). A crowd reveals our Darwinian selves, primal hordes suddenly liberated by the sway of the pack. A crowd reveals our Freudian selves, regressing to a state of elemental, primitive urgency. A crowd killed Socrates; a crowd killed Jesus. A crowd kills—in the Bastille, at the Commune, in front of the Winter Palace, in the streets of Vienna, down a dirt road in Mississippi or Soweto.

And who do we find in a crowd? Trouble-makers, riff-raff, vagrants and criminals (Taine). The morbidly nervous, excitable and the half-deranged (LeBon). The scum that boils up to the surface of the cauldron of a city (Gibbon). Both honorary barbarians (Hitler) and the vulgar working class who want nothing more than bread and circuses (Hitler). We find people driven by the impulses of the spinal cord and not the brain (LeBon). We find people who have abandoned intelligence, discrimination, judgement, and, unable to think for themselves, are vulnerable to agitators, outside influences, infiltrators, communists, fascists, racists, nationalists, phalangists and spies. We find people with a thirst for obedience (LeBon), an appetite to serve (Freud). A crowd needs to be ruled. A crowd needs its patriarch—its despotic father, chief, tyrant, emperor, commander. It wants its Hider, its Mussolini. A crowd is like a patient to a doctor, the hypnotized to the hypnotist. A crowd is a rabble—to be manipulated, controlled, roused.

A crowd is not us.

Whose metaphors are these? They come from Freud, Burke, the historians of the French revolution, our nineteenth-century heritage, our newspapers. Who is telling us what a crowd is like? It is not the crowd—the crowd does not tell us its histories; it is the observers of the crowd, listening to each other as much ‘as to the shouting outside their windows: Edmund Burke, removed in London, weighing the gravity of a revolution that he sees only through other people’s eyes. Hippolyte Taine, preparing lectures in Oxford, where he reads in the English papers of the violence of the Commune and fears for his family and his property in Paris. Gustave LeBon, the ‘father of crowd theory’, eleventh-hour sociologist, effortless plagiarist, lifting passages from Scipio Sighele, Gabriel Tarde and (inevitably) Hippolyte Taine (it is possible that the only crowd seen by the father of crowd theory was in Paris on a shopping day). Freud, two years after the great crowd massacres of the Great War, the streets outside his window already alive with the sounds of restless nationalism and anti-Semitism, advancing his own theories about the crowd and its leaders, based (inevitably) on the work of the ‘justly famous’ Gustave LeBon.

The history of the behaviour of crowds is a history of fear: of being a victim, of losing property, of a terror (and of the Terror) so powerful that it needs a name—to be accounted for, distorted into intelligibility, made safe. The history of the behaviour of crowds is one of explanations. It has given us the politics of violence and its sociology. It has provided us with the models of revolution and the ego-ideal. It has shown us cause and effect, the details of oppression, the brutalities, the injustices, the prisons and the torture, the price of bread, the loss of land, the inequities of exploitative taxation, the mechanical contrivances and contraptions of a dehumanizing modernity. Crowd theory makes sense of the crowd and its violence, as if, as in a scientific experiment, the right conditions could and always will produce the same results. Crowd theory tells us why—relentlessly, breathlessly, noisily, as if by shouting the reasons loudly enough the terror can be explained away. But crowd theory rarely tells us what: what happens when it goes off; what the terror is like; what it feels like to participate in it, to be its creator. I have a recent photograph depicting a crowd incident in the seaside city of Split in Yugoslavia. I will describe it.

The crowd, all men, fills the frame. It consists of Croatian nationalists who have surrounded a tank that has been sent in among army troops to restore order. The photographer, uncredited, is positioned above the crowd—perhaps perched atop a vehicle travelling alongside or else crouched on the balcony of a nearby flat. Some of the protesters are pressed up against the tank, so closely that, panicking, they are having to pull themselves out of its way. They are the only ones moving. The others are still. Their stillness is sudden and compelling. In another context, they could be described as onlookers or members of an audience: their faces have the same expressions—expectant, slack-mouthed, not just judgement but the act of judging suspended or deferred—that we are used to seeing in any sporting crowd, waiting for something to happen. Or not. They, too, are waiting for something to happen. Or not.

Five men have just climbed on to the tank. There is a sixth man, out of view, about to leap on board—we see only his arms extended as he reaches out for support—and another, a seventh, still on the street, who is afraid of being left behind and is prepared to climb on from the front. The others are more circumspect and have avoided the gun turret, knowing that, to disarm the tank, they would have to do it from the rear, as though coming up behind a snake and grabbing it below the head. The men are neat and clean-shaven, except for one who has a moustache. He was the first to reach the top of the tank, although he is now being pulled back by his jacket—the seam joining the sleeves is starting to come undone—by a man who is eager to get to what he has in his hands. It is the head of the tank commander. The man with the moustache has reached down into the tank and pulled out the commander by his head: his hands cover the commander’s face—his thumbs are pressed deep into his eyes—and he is yanking him out by his chin. It is possible to complete the metaphor: having taken the snake from behind the head, the man, wanting to disarm it properly, has now reached into its mouth to pull out each one of its fangs.

A brave act? Or a crowd act?

The newspaper reports that one soldier died in Split that day. We can imagine that the fatality was the tank commander. As I write, there are accounts of terrible killings in Yugoslavia—dismemberments, a disembowelment. We are accustomed to the journalist’s scrutinies of the excesses of human conduct; they provide us with the material of our entertainments, the stuff of our newspapers, our television news, our films. We have no illusions about the potential depravities of our nature, except that rarely, despite our modern sophistication, do we admit that these depravities are genuinely our own: yours, mine. We know how the mob behaves, once in a frenzy. But, even today, the mob is not us. It is easy to dismiss an incident of crowd violence in Yugoslavia; it is an unstable state; it is not ours….

…..

It is worth re-examining the photograph from Yugoslavia.

I am intrigued by what I continue to find. I note that the men are well-dressed—two are wearing fashionable leather jackets; one, a suit and tie—and that it is likely that they have jobs, perhaps well-paid jobs in an office or a shop. I note that they are mature adults—with handsome, attractive faces; one has a stylish haircut. I note the high calculation of their act—coming up behind the hatch and pulling out an armed man. It is bold, but thought out, the risks weighed. Studying this scene on the tank, in medias res, I can infer the order of events that led to it: that the crowd, having surrounded the tank, found itself unable to commit the next act—an unequivocally criminal one, antisocial, lawless—and then one man, the man with the moustache, scaled the tank. He was not a leader, or at least not a leader in the sense that we believe crowds to be governed by leaders. He was not there to cajole, persuade, exhort, enjoin, hypnotize or rouse, and it is unlikely that the crowd would have responded to him if he had tried. Although he will be seen by the authorities as responsible—he is there, after all, in view—he has no influence over the crowd. He is merely the first to cross an important boundary of behaviour, a tacit boundary that, recognized by everyone there, separates one kind of conduct from another. He is prepared to commit this ‘threshold’ act—an act which, created by the crowd, would have been impossible without the crowd, even though the crowd itself is not prepared to follow: yet.

Every crowd has a threshold; all crowds are initially held in place by boundaries of some kind. There are rules that say: this much, but no more. A march has a route and a destination. A picket line is precisely itself: an arrangement of points that cannot be crossed. A political rally: there is the politician, the rally’s event, at its centre. A parade, a protest, a procession: there is the police escort, the pavement, the street, the overwhelming fact of the surrounding property. The crowd can be here, but not there. There is form in an experience that tends towards abandon. I have described the relentless physicalness of the terraces and how they concentrate the spectator experience: that of existing so intensely in the present that it is possible for an individual, briefly, to cease being an individual, to disappear into the power of numbers—the strength of them, the emotion of belonging to them. And yet again: it is formlessness in a contrivance of form. Being a spectator is an insistently structured experience: there is a ticket that confers exclusivity; there are gates that govern what is possible here, inside; what is not possible there, outside. The demarcations are reinforced by the architecture itself. The face that a stadium, of uniform concrete or brick, presents to the outside world is blank and unexpressive: nothing is said, nothing admitted. The face that it presents to itself is an enclosure of faces—faces packed as tightly as bodies will allow, design at its most expressive: everything is possible here. Outside, one experience; inside, another; outside again, and the crowd experience, like the match which governs it, is terminated: there is an ending, closure, a point when the crowd can be designated as having ceased to exist. In every crowd, there is something—with form—to contain the inherently formless nature of the crowd itself, to control what is potentially uncontrollable.

And when the threshold is crossed, the form abandoned?

There in the streets of Tottenham I watched the faces, concentrating, as moment by moment everyone tried to build up the confidence or the intensity or simply the strength of feeling that would allow them to step over the high boundary that separated them from where they wanted to be. The idea was, figuratively, literally, historically, an act of transgression: to step (gressare) across (trans) what was forbidden to cross. Everything militated against crossing it. Every act of every day, every law that had been learned, respected and obeyed, enforced and reinforced, every inculcated custom of conduct, was preventing them from finally taking the step.

Again, the photograph in Split. The man with the moustache has been followed up on to the tank by five or six others. These men are not LeBon’s morbidly nervous, half-deranged masses nor are they Gibbon’s urban scum; they are ordinary, ordinarily responsible members of society, except in this one crucial respect: they have now done what is not done and cannot return to the orderly crowd standing round watching them. Having crossed this line, they are now outside the civilization they have left behind. On the face of one, the man pulling at the jacket of the one with the moustache, wanting also to get to the tank commander, is a look of terrible excitement. It is not panic or fear or anger or revenge. It is exhilaration.

There cannot be many moments in a person’s life when what is civilized ceases to be, when the structures of continuity—job, shelter, routine, responsibility, choice, right, wrong, the state of being a citizen—disappear. English, the great mapping language of imperialism, has no verb which is the antithesis of to civilize, no word to describe the act of un-making the rules that citizens have made. Our lives do not admit the prospect, are organized to exclude it. Our day consists of patterns of conduct that hold us intact. My place in a civilized society, my place as a citizen, derives from an arrangement of agreements and routines. My day is heavily patterned: I wake, pee, eat, shit, shower, dress, travel to work, write my letters, make my phone calls, pay my bills, attend to my diary, drink coffee, pee, talk, lunch, run errands, catch my train, arrive home, have dinner, drink, pee, am entertained, fuck, pee, clean teeth, sleep. I have a house, a shelter. I leave it in the morning and return to it in the evening: it is there—a material fact, not simply reassuring but reinforcing in its familiarity. I own it by virtue of an agreement between me, my place of work, the bank and the law of the land. I am a collector, not in a refined sense but a fundamental one—my photographs, my articles of clothing, my pieces of furniture (arranged so), my library of books (arranged so), my friends and loved ones (arranged so), my idea of my life made smooth and comfortable by regular use, my papers, my work, my idea of me. I surround myself with things, prop myself up with property, fill up my space with stuff: I personalize it; I make it intimate, I make it mine.

I have so many images for it—this state of being a citizen, of being civilized. I see it as a net that holds me in place, keeps me from falling. I see it as a fabric—a network of individual threads, intertwined, pulled tight—that keeps me warm, that I can wrap around both me and others. I see it as property, a house, a structure, a made thing, walls to keep out the cold, a door to keep out the unwanted, a roof to protect me from the night and its terrible undifferentiated darkness.

But I see it, too, as a weight. I see it as a barrier, an obstacle between me and something I don’t know or understand. I see it as a mediator, a filter that allows only certain kinds of experience through. And I am attracted to the moments when it disappears, even if briefly, especially if briefly: when the fabric tears, the net breaks, the house burns—the metaphors are arbitrary. This line, again; this boundary: I am compelled, exhilarated, by what I find on the other side. I am excited by it; I know no excitement greater. It is there—on the edge of an experience which is by its nature antisocial, anti-civilized, anti-civilizing—that you find what Susan Sontag describes as our ‘flair’ (the word is so attractively casual) for high temperature visionary obsession: exalted experiences that by their intensity, their risk, their threat of self-immolation exclude the possibility of all other thought except the experience itself, incinerate self-consciousness, transcend (or obliterate?) our sense of the personal, of individuality, of being an individual in any way. What are these experiences? There are so few; they are so intolerable. Religious ecstasy. Sexual excess (insistent, unforgiving). Pain (inflicting it, having it inflicted)—pain so great that it is impossible to experience anything except pain, pain as an absolute of feeling. Arson. Certain drugs. Criminal violence. Being in a crowd. And—greater still—being in a crowd in an act of violence. Nothingness is what you find there. Nothingness in its beauty, its simplicity, its nihilistic purity.

——————————————————————————————

About the Violence

I will not describe the violence because what I want to depict is this precise moment in its complete sensual intensity—before chronology allows the moment to evolve into its consequences. What has occurred? What has happened when a crowd goes over the edge—or the cliff: the metaphors, though hackneyed, are revealing.
This is the way they talk about it.

They talk about the crack, the buzz and the fix. They talk about having to have it, of being unable to forget it when they do, of not wanting to forget it—ever. They talk about being sustained by it, telling and retelling what happened and what it felt like. They talk about it with the pride of the privileged, of those who have had, seen, felt, been through something that other people have not. They talk about it in the way that another generation talked about drugs or drink or both, except that they also use both drugs and drink. One lad, a publican, talks about it as though it were a chemical thing, or a hormonal spray or some kind of intoxicating gas—once it’s in the air, once an act of violence has been committed, other acts will follow inevitably—necessarily.

And how would I talk about it?

I think of consciousness as having to be aware of the present on a multiplicity of levels. The human mind is never at rest in the present; it is always roving, recalling, remembering, selecting, adding, forgetting. Sitting in this room as I write my mind is accommodating so many different activities at once: it encompasses this sentence as I write it; it has already composed the next one; it has completed this book and it has, at the same time, not completed it; it has never completed it. It accommodates the state of the kitchen; the sounds of the birds outside; the quality of the light; the items that I must address later in the day—tonight, this weekend, next month, when I am old. It has, over the time it has taken me to write this paragraph so far, addressed my relationship with the bank, with my family; noted the eye make-up that my sister wears on national holidays, recalled a death; lingered upon a sad memory. Human consciousness exists on far more levels than consciousness itself could represent. This is our reality; our humanness: the thousand million stimulants of the moment, the indiscriminate mass of motion that the mind is constantly engaging, disengaging, abandoning, retrieving.

I am attracted to the moment when consciousness ceases: the moments of survival, of animal intensity, of violence, when there is no multiplicity, no potential for different levels of thought: there is only one—the present in its absoluteness.

Violence is one of the most intensely lived experiences and, for those capable of giving themselves over to it, is one of the most intense pleasures. There on the streets of Fulham, I felt, as the group passed over its metaphorical cliff, that I had literally become weightless. I had abandoned gravity, was greater than it. I felt myself to be hovering above myself, capable of perceiving everything in slow motion and overwhelming detail. I realized later that I was on a druggy high, in a state of adrenalin euphoria. And for the first time I am able to understand the words they use to describe it. That crowd violence was their drug.

What was it like for me? An experience of absolute completeness.

——————————————————————————————

About a Beating

I had run into a trap. The pretence of a police ‘retreat’, the tear-gas, the hill hiding what was on the other side: it had all been a trap.

I looked round, admiring the details. The street was very narrow, and the houses were built alongside each other, without alleys or passageways. Nice touch. There were no side-streets. It was a corridor of punishment. If I carried on, I would run straight into the police waiting at the bottom; I would be killed. They would not intend to kill me—it would be an accident—but they would do so all the same. If I turned round and went the other way, I would, once I emerged out of the tear-gas, run straight into the other mob of police. I did not think they would kill me—for some reason, I was equally confident about that—but I was certain that they would injure me badly. I did not want to be injured badly. I concluded, therefore, that there was no way out. I was trapped. I was impressed, but trapped nevertheless.

Shit, shit, shit.

I looked back down at the policemen. They were still waiting, leaning forward. I recognized one, an older one, with a round face and woolly eyebrows. He was one of the uniformed superintendents, and I had watched him trying to contain the crowd as it surged down the Via Roma. His face had been memorable—it was humane, sympathetic, expressive, warm. It was a different face now; it was hard and full of hate.

…….

I looked back down the hill. Time, in that punishing, familiar way, was starting to slow down, and I felt I was watching every step each policeman took, and, although I knew they were running with great determination, they didn’t seem to be running very fast. They seemed to be running in water. Their faces were vivid and distinct. Most of those faces were looking at me. I found myself reviewing my prospects again: go forward, get killed; go backwards, get injured. Fly? Can’t fly. Damn, I wish I could fly.

What would you do?

What I did was this: I crossed the street. I wanted to get as far away as possible from the Esso station and the thousand or so supporters crushed into its corner. That was where the police would end up; I could see that. So I crossed the street and got between two parked cars. I took one last look at the police—very close—and got down on all fours (bits of gravel pressed against the skin of my knees), covered my head and curled up into a ball on the ground. I surrendered.

I thought: I fooled them.

I thought: I’ve deprived them of the chance to beat me up. You can’t beat up someone who has surrendered and is lying on the ground.

And then I thought: Maybe they’ll truncheon me once en route to the other supporters. I had been truncheoned before; it stings, but the sting soon goes away.

I noticed three things the first time I was hit. One was the effort to ensure that I was hit powerfully. My head was down but I could tell that the policeman, rather than smacking me once on his way to the other supporters, had come to a complete stop: I could see his boots. He then pulled back his truncheon and paused, aiming his blow. I thought: he won’t do it.

And then I thought: OK, OK, so I was wrong.

Second, the target. It was my kidney. The policeman, I infer, had sized up the situation—fat man on the ground, curled into a ball, head covered with hands, cotton T-shirt rising up the back slightly—and concluded that the kidney, thus exposed, was the most obvious target: that was where he could do the greatest damage.

Third, I noticed that the blow did not sting. It hurt. It sent a sharp impulse of energy—like an electric thread—from the point of impact straight to my stomach.

There was a fourth thing. The policeman did not leave. He hit me again. This, I admit, surprised me. I thought I had fooled them. Then he hit me again. This, inevitably, surprised me less. Then he hit me again. This was no surprise at all. By the time he had hit me five times, I realized that he was not going to leave. He was going to stand over me, taking his time, lifting his truncheon, aiming it and then smashing my kidney. Each blow went to the same spot, the kidney. And each one, I found, hurt just as much as the one that came before it.

There was a fifth thing. Not only was this policeman not going to leave, but he was to be joined by a colleague. This did not make sense—why waste another policeman on me, when there were so many people still to beat up?—but the temptation must have been too great: here, on the ground, showing little resistance, was a perfectly adequate specimen, even if a bit fat. He couldn’t pass it up. The second policeman went for my head. My head was covered by my hands, and I remember thinking: although it hurts having my hands smashed up, I am grateful that I thought to cover my head with my hands because I would not want to see my head smashed up. The second policeman really wanted to see my head smashed up. I infer this from the damage he inflicted upon my hands—each knuckle was colourfully bruised, except for one, which was both bruised and broken. I believe his intention was to smash up my fingers so badly that finally I would pull my hands away—thus exposing an expanse of skull—so that he could then smash up my head. After a while, he gave up on the smashing-the-fingers tactic and took to pulling them away, grabbing my fingers with one hand, while pummelling the intermittently exposed bit of skull with his other.

The two policemen were soon joined by a colleague. It was getting pretty crowded, but there were still my shoulders. They became the concern of the third policeman. His real concern, I concluded after examining the bruising, was not the shoulders as such; he was trying to get to the collar-bone. He, too, was trying to move me around with his free hand, so he could get a clear view of his target; it was the snap-crackle-pop sound that he was after, the one the collar-bone makes when it breaks in half.

All of this was exceptionally painful, as would be expected, but my experience of it was different from that of the others who were being beaten up. Their experience was one of simple pain. For me, it was more complicated, because I knew that I would be writing about it. While being beaten up, I was thinking about what it was like being beaten up. I was trying to retain the details, knowing that I would need them later. I thought for instance that this experience was not so different from the one I had witnessed in Turin several years before when a Juventus fan, who had also surrendered, was beaten up by a number of Manchester United supporters. I thought of the fact that I could even think of this coincidence and marvelled at the human mind’s capacity to accommodate so many different things at once. And I thought about that, the fact that, while being beaten up, I could think about the human mind’s capacity to accommodate so many different things at once. I thought about the expenses I had incurred and was grateful that I was going to get something out of this trip after all. But mainly I was thinking about the pain. It was unlike anything I had known and I wanted to remember it.

The beatings went on so long that I was convinced the police would have to stop from exhaustion. But they didn’t let up, and after a while the blows blurred together and became one terribly loud crashing noise. I felt explosions of energy and, up and down my body, a long, protracted sensation of heat. It burned the way a fire burns—hot, hot, hot. I want to say it was a white heat, but only because I was seeing white. My vision was intermittently lost and I saw white flashes. These flashes seemed to emanate from the points where I was hit, as if some network of nerves had become overcharged and was carrying too much sensation.

As the beatings continued, I grew a little worried. I did not think that my kidney could sustain this much punishment and I was resigned to spending the night in an Italian hospital. I noticed that I was breathing very heavily. I was gasping for air but unable to get any. Why did I need more oxygen—what body function, in an experience so inherently passive, was requiring it? The need for air increased; it was imperative; I had to have it. Suddenly I felt that I was going to suffocate, and this made me angry and I stood up and wanted to fight back, but the moment I raised myself up I was hit across the forehead and I blocked one truncheon with my arm but was hit across the forehead again and then on my chin. I was astonished by the intensity of feeling that I saw on the faces of the policemen. It would have been impossible for me to communicate with them, to convey something powerful enough to counter the strength of their hatred. I was not a human being. I was some kind of object, some thing. Strangely, I thought of myself as a fact, one that they wanted to hurt, and I dropped back to the ground and curled up and covered my head, and one policeman went for my kidney, and another went for my head, and another went for my shoulders. I had lost interest in wanting to describe this experience, except that I briefly recall noting that I had lost interest in wanting to describe it. The experience then became something I wanted to end. But it didn’t end. I don’t know how much longer it went on. I don’t know what happened next. I had ceased to be a person writing about it. My next memory is that finally it ended. It was over. It had stopped because there was no one left to beat up.

Afterwards, I noticed little except my pain. I ran round in circles and went from one side of the street to the other. I couldn’t stand still. My body was full of a sharp electric stinging, and I was trying to shake it out but it wouldn’t go away. Slowly I started to take in what had happened.

2012 Stories : Beat Up Life

I wouldn’t say the full-blooded punch to my jaw took me by surprise. In fact, to be fair, I had been closely following it’s trajectory. That was the only thing I could see, my eyes, my entire concentration was stuck. And yet surprise it was. I was in the universal human submissive position, palms up, mewling and protesting Hey, Hey, Hey. The civilized world usually stops here for a talk. The human gorilla brandishing that fist didn’t. I am 6’2″ tall, the guy in-front had at least 3 inches on me, and had a (body) build like a bar bouncer. One glance at him and my brain had decided my course of action for me. There was no sense fighting this guy, I would only succeed in annoying him further, and he could make me hurt. There were others who had swarmed up alongside him, and surrounded me, but my eyes were affixed on the big guy. It was him I thought I needed to reason with.

The fist connected. I was shocked. He had put in his entire running start and all of his shoulder into it. Ameet later told me, after all of it was over, that when someone tries to punch you in the face or in the jaw, you need to duck. At that moment, that just didn’t occur to me. I was shocked that I was punched even when I was not showing any aggression at all. But at the same time, in the back of my mind, I was shocked that I took that belligerent punch right on my jaw and I was still standing. If I had witnessed the scene, seen this happen to someone else (and I thought this at that instant too), I would have thought, “Oh fuck, that was a big punch“. It didn’t stop at the first one either. I had raised my hand, retracted a few steps, loudly apologised again and again, asking him to stop, yet he kept abusing out loud, and kept punching. There were others, around me, behind me, hitting my back, my sides, but I was taller than most of them, so the sensitive bits were supposedly protected. From the corner of my eyes, I could see Ameet being similarly surrounded by about 6-7 people, but my own immediate focus was on the gorilla with the sledge hammer blows aimed at my jaws. I didn’t dodge a single punch. In total, I took about 12-15 punches, all of them really hard, right on my jaw. One of the teeth broke and split, another spliced, my upper lip was later grotesquely swollen. I was later told by someone who knew about shit like that, that the guy must have been an amateur, as professionals really know how to tear into flesh with just a well directed punch or two.

At that moment, after the initial few punches, the emotion that replaced shock was to my further surprise, exhilaration. Here I was being beaten up, publicly humiliated, I wasn’t raising a hand to defend myself, and instead of anger, I was feeling exhilaration. I gather that it must have been adrenaline coursing through me, but it felt good on a lot of different levels. In a way, my anger was being beaten out of me, my pessimisms were being proved right, and I was feeling that I deserved this. But more than that, I was alive to the notion that I was beyond the line, so to say, this is not how notions of civilizations go. I felt good.

Fight club might be the first thing that pops up in your head. But I had just read a book called Among the Thugs, by Bill Buford, and that’s what popped into mine (here, I reproduced an excerpt from the book of what I was thinking about). A gonzo american journalist in England studying football hooliganism and crowd violence, Bill Buford had produced stunning prose describing just what it felt to be inside of a circle of violence, with a crowd beating on you, with a bar fight, and so on. The words from the book, such as the one instance where Bill mentions that the initial overdose of adrenaline/ fear rush that a normal individual experiences at the start of a physical altercation is many times higher than the stupidest/weakest of thugs who have been in a street/bar fight or two. Just by knowing what to expect, the thug performs better. It was weird for me to be thinking coherently words, scenarios, experiences from the book, but I can attest to a stunning clarity at that moment mingled with a certain gladness to be in the situation. A gladness that I had crossed over, at least for that moment, even for that moment, the continued ignominy of taking a humiliation/threat and stepping back because that is what civilized, safe, and impotent people do.

I suppose that if there is a beginning to this story, it would go back to January this year. I had moved my motorcycle, a Royal Enfield Bullet from Bombay to the apartment I am staying in at Bangalore, and I had just bought a new helmet worth Rs.1400 (new city, new beginnings, blah blah, you know the drill). The motorcycle used to be parked at the designated spot in the basement parking of my apartment complex (right next to the lift). I haven’t locked a helmet to my motorcycle for the last four years, through riding in Calcutta and Bombay. Never felt the need to. Always felt it would be cheapness for someone to steal a helmet, and paranoia to worry about it. I didn’t lock it in Bangalore either. After all, it was parked in my own apartment’s basement parking, protected by guards.

Balderdash. One fine day a week later, gone. Poof. I blamed it on myself. I was sheepish about it too. Big bad world. How could any poor motherfucking thief resist the sight of unprotected, shiny new helmet. Told myself I would have done the same thing. Made a little hue with the guards, asked questions, but didn’t expect much. It was my mistake. Then went on to borrow my sister’s old, discarded helmet as self punishment. Let me tell you about this old helmet. It was in tatters, it smelt of rat pee, and it looked so run down that one wouldn’t pick it up from the road. I didn’t lock that one either. Figured no one would bother stealing this. It was really as bad as that. A couple of weeks of riding around Bangalore, leaving the helmet on the motorcycle at very public locations, cinema theatres, public parking spots.

It again vanished from the parking lot of my house. I was definitely angry this time. This was not done for profit, but with an intention to irritate. Accosted the guards, told them there was no way they didn’t know. My building only has a single entrance leading into the parking lot, and the lifts to go higher up to the floors above. It is manned by three security guards at all times, their seats being right in-front of the gate.  They were quick to blame the guy who comes in to wash cars. I circulated this bit of news across my living community (they have a web community – this is Bangalore, after all), and found that such small thieveries had happened before as well, to two other people. No one had complained. I didn’t bother either. It was my mistake. I won’t keep helmets downstairs anymore. I bought a new one, and would whisk it upstairs every time I would ride back (despite having got a chain lock – let’s not provide temptation at all).

A month or so later, I came down to see that someone had inserted a screwdriver at the sides, broken the lock, sat down patiently, cut the wires, and taken away the battery of the motorcycle. I was numb that first evening. What do I do, where do I park my bike, if not at home? And what use spending on the motorcycle, when the assailant could just do it again the next day? It translated into white rage by the next day, and after thoroughly abusing the guards, I went on in search for the mythic administrative office of the apartment complex. Nobody ever picked up the phone at the office, and no-one important was ever seated there. The next day, I created a ruckus loud enough for someone to come down to the office to speak to me, and though initially he was curt and rude, when I insisted calmly that I need to file a police complaint, his tone of voice changed. He requested me to write down the complaint on a piece of paper and that he would discuss it with his Chief of security and get back to me by evening. I did. Duly mentioned that this was the third time robbery from the same vehicle (none of the other parked vehicles were affected, apparently). They blamed the darkness around my parking spot. There was a fused tube light right behind it, but it hadn’t been replaced in a long time. Also, there had been proposals to install security cameras which my petition accelerated. Everyone was promptly asked to deposit Rs. 1000 for the cameras. I tried again and again to mention that it is just an illusion of safety. Under the direct gaze of three guards, someone has calmly come, kneeled down the side of my bike in apparent darkness, and for an undisturbed 20-30 minutes got about breaking locks, cutting wires, taking a heavy bullet battery out of the complex. I enquired at the price anyone could fetch with a second hand battery like that. I was told Rs. 200-300. It cost me Rs. 2200 to replace a new one. I then parked it at a make shift spot directly behind (two steps, literally) the guard seats. I then warned them that if anything gets stolen now, it would just confirm my suspicion that it is one of the guards who is doing it, or getting it done under his supervision. I remember threatening them again with police action. I however, did not make a police complaint.

There was a lull in the proceedings for a couple of months. I didn’t even notice the next bit of sabotage until much later. A friend pointed out that it appeared someone had tried to cut through the steel crash guard in-front of the motorcycle. I was dumbfounded. Again. It appeared that one side of the steel structure had been sliced through and he had been interrupted in the middle of the task (my version). That would have made a hell of a noise. Slicing off a steel pipe would take effort! I didn’t notice the absence of the front number plate until much later.

Same set of arguments with the guards. They had been getting more belligerent with each incident, instead of being abashed, they would ask “Why does this happen only to your bike?”. And me, in my rage, I would ask the same thing back to them. That it is their job. I didn’t complain. Busy time in life, not much of loss of property/ inertia.

Cut to November end. I was out on a Saturday night for drinks and dinner at a friend’s place. Returned back on Sunday morning at 4:00 am. Parked it at the usual place behind the guards. Didn’t go out on Sunday. Didn’t go out on Monday. Came out Tuesday to keep an important appointment, was making general conversation with the guards, asking them for a piece of extra cloth to wipe my bike with (I joked that I had stopped keeping dirty rags near my bike as even they are stolen – true story). While cleaning the motorcycle, I noticed that the silencer, the whole exhaust pipe was missing. Somebody had sliced out and stolen the exhaust pipe! I had never seen something like this.

No anger at all on that Tuesday. I did not remonstrate with the guards either, like every other time. I didn’t even go out. I came back, calmed down. On Wednesday, I reached the administrative office, and got back to the original request of wanting to go to the police station and requesting the security in-charge to accompany me to the police station (because I did not know Kannada, because I wanted him to be able to answer the questions asked by the police, because I wanted the motherfucker to face the music). He went back to his tried and tested answer, wait till 5:30 evening, will discuss with building secretary. I came down at 5:30 with Ameet (who was visiting, and who had heard these stories right from the very start, and was as aghast and pissed as me). The “security in-charge”, just as “guards” are honorary titles given to nincompoops with no special skills for the same. To borrow a phrase from George Carlin, I have long been convinced that they do not provide any security, but the illusion of security, which is far more dangerous. The security in-charge had fetched two active members of the society (who had spear-headed the installation of security cameras). They were opening the set up for the first time, discovering how to play back footage (the scrolling was horrible, you could not choose to start the video at a particular time, there was no option to fast forward – and no body knew shit). The guards were crowded around the computer system, and we spent an hour and a half helping them in accessing the video footage of Sunday morning at 4 am. In the rush (of actually some activity), I helped them get to that point (I was told that I would have to go through all the video footage of the three days if I wanted to see anything), without thinking much about the Why and then when I did realise, I was further dumbfounded. The guards had asked the security in-charge to go back to the footage of me driving my bike into the parking and to see if the silencer/exhaust pipe was still present when I rode in. The implication was that I had got it stolen somewhere else/ had cut and sold it off myself, and was trying to sully the innocent reputation of the low life vermin that were those guards. I lost my temper and abused the shit out of them. Told them they should be beaten by shoes, and if they had any shame about the way they do their jobs and earn their money, they should quit and walk away, because the police would definitely stick a bamboo up their asses. And similar epithets.

Logically speaking, (and I was still using logic with the assholes), the motorcycle will not start without the exhaust pipe (Edit: I was wrong apparently, the mechanic did manage to start the bike without the silencer). Also, if it would start (say, presume), and that I rode it into the building (the video showed me riding in at 4:05 am) was proof enough that it was all good. If it was not, the loud, torn bass of the exhaust would have woken up half the neighbourhood at 4 am. I can’t believe that I had started reasoning with them protesting my innocence in the matter.

I do not see myself as a person with class issues. Au contraire, I think I do a pretty good job of blending with people of all classes. I have worked as a sales guy and I pride myself on this particular ability of mine. I was shocked to my core at hearing of the Wadala lawyer murder by a watchman, but I felt that that could never happen to me. I could scold, I could be rude because my cause was just, because they WERE responsible.

The security in-charge refused to accompany me to the police station (he was shit scared), and I kept insisting that he do. Meanwhile, the two members mentioned that the Chairman of the committee is missing and he should be down here and taking responsibility for this (they took me aside to convey this; apparently there was an undertone of discontent between the committee members towards the performance of the Chairman, who never did shit). Every ten minutes, the security incharge would go up the elevator to the Chairman’s house, get some instructions and parrot it to me. I insisted on being taken to his house (I didn’t know the man, his house, nothing), and I respectfully rang the bell, spoke sweetly, requested him to come out for a little chat. He shooed me away as if I was a dog, “Come tomorrow to the office”. I spoke, loudly this time, that I had spent 2 hours earlier in the day at the administrative office (where I have never heard of him coming down), and anY]other hour and a half in the evening looking at videos, and would he please step out for a few minutes. He was in his underwear, with his wife and kid playing alongside. He asked me to wait downstairs, we did. He came down, and was very rude to start off with. Then he began talking about the security cameras without hearing a word of the fact that we had spent a good bit of time looking at the (useless) footage. Then while Ameet was talking to him, he suddenly turned on him and said, “Who are you ? What the fuck are you doing here? Get lost.” (a lot more rudely. Ameet doesn’t stay in the same apartment complex, he was visiting my house and he had come down to give me company). I gave a loud warning call (“AYYYYYYYYYYYYYYYY”, a sort of don’t go beyond that line, don’t be rude, we have been speaking to you nicely, please reciprocate.)

He pushed me.

It escalated very quickly from there. I grabbed his hair, real hard, banged him up into the wall. Never let go. He grabbed my shirt and tore it (every single fight I have been in my life, every single fucking one of them, someone first tears off my shirt). People (guards) were out trying to protect him, and Ameet took on a few to prevent them from hitting me. I hadn’t yet let go. My glasses had fallen off (half my mind on those). He even tried to grab and squeeze my balls, to no effect. A tumble  here and there, a slamming on the floor, and it ended.

He shook his head, stepped far ahead from both of us, and while brandishing threats, started making phone calls. He “ordered” the guards to lock the gate (to prevent us from getting out, to prevent anyone from getting out in-fact).  He was speaking of police, so I thought might as well push it to that level. I am the fucking aggrieved party here. All this happened in-front of about five of the senior apartment committee members. Nobody had moved a muscle.

We had about ten minutes in between of a thumping adrenaline rush through my ears. We were walking around the immense parking area, with the gate closed. I made a quick call to my sister, detailing the scene (might have to go to the police station), asked Ameet to make a quick call to an acquaintance/friend who could perhaps help (he had done some work for the BJP during the elections). Because of the barred gates, there was a crowd that had developed outside the gate.

This was when the two vehicles stopped outside the gate and about 7-8 people jumped out (apart from the 6-7 guards that had gotten around). I had eyes only for the gorilla. I didn’t raise my hands once (except to protect the back of my head), didn’t duck any punch. Ameet gave them a chase around, but he got a nasty kick in the middle of his chest for his efforts (it still hurts apparently, three weeks after the incident). This public beating spectacle went on for about 15 minutes during which time about 50-60 people from the apartment, women, children, old men, and young breadwinners of course, all watched everything, without making any attempt to stop anything. The two guards who I had taken apart earlier in the evening were out beating me too. One had a stick, the other kept trying to manufacture kicks (“You should be kicked by shoes”), both took pleasure in showing me that they were beating me up. I was surprised at the venom.

I blocked all attempts at aggression. Kept requesting everyone involved to let it be, to let us go. After it all ended, they pulled us roughly in a corner and the Chairman came close to click both of our swollen faces. He also kept saying things like “Outsiders, Saale Bihari, Yahan aa kar gandugiri karte hain” as he lashed with his feet.  While kneeling down, I noticed that two men had gotten into the crowd, and came close to me to speak. The Chairman was excitedly pointing the two of us out, and the cop who started speaking to me was deeply disappointed that I could speak English and was not a gunda (his words). After asking me to change into another shirt (for which they escorted me to my flat), and telling me things like “Gundey log se aap log kyon lad ke aaye hair? Abhi hum kuch nahi kar sakte jab tak wo case wapas nahi lets. Usko jaake sorry bolo.” (Why did you pick up a fight with ruffians? Now we can’t help you unless he takes the case back. Go and apologize to him). My sister had already started hyperventilating and gotten together a couple of her friends, who were all hyperventilating together. Leaving her (and I insisted that she stay back seeing her condition), we were bundled into a car (the same car that the gorilla had driven himself in), and taken to the police station (as a way to “get out of this situation”).

At the police station, we were taken inside to the station in-charge’s cabin who discussed with the cops in Kannada, didn’t speak a word with us, and we were taken out and asked to go sit by the lock up. The crowd that had earlier beaten us had accompanied us in, and the Chairman, along with someone holding his egotistic balls in his hands was adamant on getting us punished. I later learnt that his wife and kid had been downstairs, had seen him getting beat up.

Sitting there at the corner of the lock up, bruised and hurting, and with a sure scene of spending the night in the lock up behind, I looked up to Ameet and in quick succession, first said sorry, and then said “Bahut maza aaya” (I loved it!). He looked at me and nodded. “Mujhe bhi“, he said.

It was a blur sitting there, a lot of commotion around, every word in Kannada, all of this fuss over us, and we were never ever asked to speak once, never once asked for our version of the story. We pieced together much of the story later. Apparently the Chairman and his cronies had sauntered into the station in-charge’s cabin with a swagger and ordered him to take action against us. The station in-charge had had a bad day at work, and he didn’t like the tone of voice. He instructed the cops to slap both the parties with Section 268, for causing public nuisance. That helped us a hell of a lot, in that it implicated the other party too.

Meanwhile, my sister and her friends arrived and they went into the station in-charge’s cabin and started crying. He threw them out. It was 9 pm. The friend we had summoned came over, though he wasn’t allowed to talk to us. We were pushed into the corner, seated on the floor, like convicted criminals, while those that had beaten us up swarmed around the place. For the entire duration that we were at the police station, about 5 hours, no-one was allowed to speak to us. The report was written in Kannada, and I was summoned to just mention my name, my father’s name, and address.

The friend called over a Municipal corporator (who owed him personal favours). He came over to the police station. He spoke to the cops. He spoke to the other party (and confirmed that they were petty gundas from the locality). Everyone’s tone softened. Money changed hands. Cops benefited from both the parties. The Chairman came over to me to say that I should be calm in life, “nahi to zara sa dimaag kharaab ho to kya ho jaata hai, dekho”. I agreed, apologized again.

The matter was dismissed.

We came back to my house, poured a lot of whisky to mask the pain. We decided that we had been lucky. The surrealism of the public beating (that no-one did anything to stop the proceedings), the shame of it was a good thing. If it was not a public spectacle, if it had not been the basement of my own apartment with about 50-60 of my neighbours watching, if it had been an empty waylaid side-road instead, the end result would have been, could have been way more bloodier.

We were lucky. After being a victim of robbery, five times, after being beaten up publicly, after being abused for being an “outsider” in Bangalore while being kicked, after being forced to spend five hours at the local police station with head bowed in a corner, I was lucky.

The motorcycle still stands at it’s usual spot (I haven’t gone to reassess the damage since that day), without the silencer, those guards are still employed. Nothing changed.

I spent three hours on the phone with my mom (trying to calm her down) the next day. My sister had conveyed every juicy bit. I promised I would do nothing anymore, that I was deeply sorry, that I had been beaten for my troubles and that was prize enough for my troubles.

I was (secretly) proud that I had taken each punch and not fallen down. I did split a tooth though.

———————————–

Postscript:

It is remarkable that I finished writing the above yesterday and read this story in today’s newspaper, Woman groped by mob, slapped by constable after incident

The woman, a theatre artiste and playwright, was driving home from work when she stopped at the traffic light at the junction. A speeding motorcycle rear-ended her car, damaging the bumper. When the woman got down to check the damage, the rider started abusing her using vulgar language. Soon a group of passersby joined him and started teasing and abusing her, she told The Hindu .

The terrified woman saw a traffic policeman standing across the road and rushed to him for help. To her utter shock, not only was he indifferent but he grabbed her by her shoulders and pushed her aside.

Encouraged by this, the mob started groping her. The traumatised woman said: “I tried to explain to the policeman that the rider was at fault, but he was rude.” She quoted the policeman as having told her, “You don’t know Kannada. You don’t belong to this place.” Worse still, he then turned to the erring rider and encouraged him to leave the scene. Through all this, the mob that surrounded her continued to humiliate her, the victim said in her complaint.

Not willing to let off the rider so easily, she mustered enough courage to physically stop the man leaving. At this, the policeman dragged her to the side and slapped her. The woman immediately took out her mobile phone and started taking pictures of the motorcycle rider. Her ordeal then turned worse, when the mob started pulling at her clothes and jeering at her.

While one among the crowd removed his shirt, another man, wearing a lungi, exposed himself, she said. Many in the mob made indecent gestures, she said. In the melee, the rider escaped.

Her trauma lasted some 15 minutes till a patrol vehicle reached the spot and the crowd melted away.

2012 Stories : The Reading Flow

This is a delta t post (t is time chunk in life). As in description of a chosen period of life (chosen by self/writer, also specific variables chosen to be talked about, others specifically not delved in) instead of a dt/t post, which is a dip of a random moment in time (the moment at which it is written, a complete check up, so to say of all/some life variables) . The intention of the 2012 Stories bit is to write a few delta t stories. Because come to think of it, everything that I have done in my professional life, it has always been building of a delta t narrative. Why not apply that to a personal narrative once in a while too?

See, I’m an honest story teller. I’ll be out with the hook of this story right away. In a period of 30 consecutive days in this year, starting 20 Oct, I read up ten books. That is it.

That time period has been randomly chosen, as are the figures of 10 and 30 (What? It is not a deca metric system world!). I read a lot of books before that period (yes immediately before too) and have read three more since. There was wilful cheating involved too. I had realised 20 days into the period that I have read 6 books, and I pushed myself to read 4 more in the next 10 (and wilfully chose books with thickness 200-250 pages, not more). Also one of the books is a book of poems that I read in less than half hour. So well why? Because it makes a good delta t narrative. I think.

Two of the books were non-fiction (the second and third) and the rest were fiction. One was a book of poems (the one I was hesitant about including here). The books were chosen randomly (whichever next caught my eye). So what was common in that selection? I read all of them on my 3.7 inch Motorola phone. Yes, take a deep breath. I am not making it a point point. Now is not the time of head-shaking and blah-blah and this or that (there will be time for it later *). This is just the only common variable in the list, I read them all on my phone. Let’s move on.

A small note about me through the month. Dussehra and Diwali fell during that period. I had gone on a ride to Shivanasamudra falls, and onwards to Mysore to see  the festivities at Mysore Dasera (we didn’t, too tired after the ride, we slept through the afternoon and woke up after all the festivities were over). I also went over to Pune for NH7, a five day trip. The point being that reading was not obsessively being pursued over other distractions.

Meanwhile, here’s the list of the books.

  1. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.
  2. Opium Fiend by Steven Martin.
  3. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.
  4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
  5. City of Thieves by David Benioff.
  6. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.
  7. Skios by Michael Frayn.
  8. I could pee on this by Francesco Marciuliano.
  9. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.
  10. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I have read parts of other books through this period too, most notably Lord of the Rings, and Nine Parts of Desire by Geraldine Brooks.  They are still on my Currently Reading list.

1. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil.

This was the book that took the longest to finish, six days, and even before that was involved in two false starts, and the one that incensed me the most. Enough for me to write Narcopolis is a bad trip and Jeet Thayil wants it that way. My reflection on the book,

I feel a bit more kindly towards Narcopolis (very little) after finishing it, in the sense that perhaps I now understand what he was trying to do, also comprehension has dawned as to why the hullaboo off shores about this book. Like the amazing Chinaman last year, which mimics the stages of a cricket test match, even the way in which the writing guides the reader into a certain mind state through the book. One gets it, this is what Jeet Thayil is out to do, this is one long pull off an opium pipe – that is how one gets guided into the book, a prologue of one sentence. A seven page long sentence. And that is the best piece of writing in the book. In that, it sets up everything, your possible reactions, how you should read it (slow, repeated puffs). And that is how the book is constructed. If you took a good, long puff at the prologue, you would be well into the narrative (if you can call it that) before you realize that this isn’t a very good trip after-all. That is why the continued bewilderment of where the narrative is going, continued chapters – pages after pages of disembodied dreams, disconnected from everything, just a vague bloody fog page after page. What the fuck is happening? What am I reading about? Didn’t I just lay down in a khana in Shuklaji Street with an Opium pipe? Why am I reading about this Chinese man? Where the fuck did he come from? And it irritated me. The fact that that is not a random occurence. That the author knows the lay mind’s connection between opium and china. So just like that, that is a major character. Whether you like it or not. You have just taken a puff of opium and you don’t like what is happening to you. You are not supposed to. You don’t like these dreams, and these vague shapes, and this dirtiness, and there’s a whore, and she’s a hijra, and oh fuck the shame, here take a puff, this is so literary and raw.

Excerpt begins from Chapter 4 : Mr. Lee’s Lessons in Living

[Lee dreams] Then he heard drums, jungle drums, and he thought of witch doctors and the image of the great junk faded to violet mist. He heard the sound of surf and he heard someone speaking or cursing in Hindi. Your mother’s cunt, the voice said. Or the voice was saying someone’s name, Marky Chu.”

Excerpt ends.

I understand why to the lay and uninitiated foreign reviewer, the below would seem to be the case. (this sentence is the first thing that google flashes at you if you punch in Narcopolis)

“Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated.”

Subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated. Gulp! Definitely going to be a couple of sessions called that in the next year’s Jaipur Literature Festival.

These are dirty, ugly characters with nothing to flesh them out from each other. Random chapters start with a different “I”, protagonists move from page to page before you can say uh, hello and one doesn’t feel any different in inhabiting a different character from one page to another. One doesn’t really care either. Oh the motherfucker is dreaming again. And yes, he/she/it is high, and the dreams must mean something.

A character in the book gets one another addicted to a new maal called Chemical. It is garad (dusted heroin, brown) that the local dealers mix with rat poison. The strychnine in it is what gives you the real kick. It’s the shit, in that the first sampler just dies, boom.

For the lack of a better word imagery, that is what this book feels like to me. Very artificial. Very Chemical. Not organic. Not felt. But constructed. That is the feeling I get. Of pretense. Of slimy pretense. For aggrandizing and self profiting. It is a carefully constructed book, however it doesn’t take out my initial and continuing distaste with the writing. It is carefully constructed for a reason, to appeal to a certain populist wildness. While one might rightfully argue that fiction has a right to be well, Chemical and they would be right.

I still do not feel empathetic towards the writing, nothing for the characters, not even disgust, just nothing. Immediately after finishing the book this morning (I had a little tenderness in me for the book by then, well constructed that it was), I returned back to the beginning and read the prologue again and skimmed through most of the first half of the book again, now that I knew how the plot went by the end. Still, nothing. Just a bad trip. And Jeet Thayil knows it is a bad trip, and he wants it to be a bad trip because aren’t dirty bad trips set in Bombay literary? Oh my, here, take another puff.

But the primary reason I am pissed about Narcopolis is that it takes the name of Bombay in vain.  More here.

2. Opium Fiend : A 21st century slave to a 19th century addiction by Steven Martin.

I picked this book up as a counter-point to being disgusted with the writing in Narcopolis. At about 430 pages, this was the thickest of the list. With its disaffected narrative, this was also the most brilliant to have been put to words, an awe pervaded towards the author by the end. This was an absolute pleasure to read, the best reading experience amongst this list of ten, even perhaps amongst the top few in the year (and I have read a lot this year). Here is an excerpt from the book, the first chapter that I reproduced on my blog. My reaction to the book:

MIND FUCKED! This is an amazing book, the obsessive and meticulous and honest and intelligent memoirs of a SANE guy. The opium is an ever present backdrop, but this is essentially the author’s story felt and what a bloody story! The writing is masterful and very, very engaging, in that he explains his pleasures, his fascinations, and he builds them up, like he felt them, like he experienced them, down to some specific texture his fingers experienced, it is an enchanting experience reading this book. I very highly recommend it.

This is a FANTASTIC book! I wish if and when I write my own memoirs, I could use a tone as disaffected, engaging and unhurried as the author in here. This is an amazing racy read even without opium fascination. If you are, however, interested in opium, the paraphernalia and the customs and the whole hog, there isn’t a more detailed book written on the subject (so says the author after diligent research.I believe him.)

3. Among the Thugs by Bill Buford.

I had a personal experience in my life, quite recently, inspired by this book (I plan to write another 2012 Story on that, shall link it here after that is done – here it is). While undergoing that experience, and it was pretty painful, all I could think of were words from this book, quite surprising for that moment in time. Here’s an excerpt from the book. Here is what I wrote immediately after finishing the book.

“Among the thugs” is both a very fun and a very funny book, surprising since the premise is football(fan) violence, which quickly moves on to crowd behavior. Buford is a witty writer and his pace is frantic and electric. He spends quite a bit of time expounding his theme and thoughts but without ever sounding preachy or “learned”.

Bill Buford spent about five years (gonzo) researching crowds, their motivations and reasons for sudden spontaneous, meaningless violence and vandalism. By the end of it, he is sickened by the subject as well as the time he wasted (his words) on it. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable book to read. He mentions that all previous literature on crowds is from the perspective of the victims, of a moment delta t in time when “something happened” because of the crowd. What has always been missing is the perspective from inside the crowd, of how it got together, how the adrenaline builds up, the myths about crowd “leadership” (A leader doesn’t make a crowd, a crowd makes a leader). The way Buford writes about the process of a crowd building up to the point where “it will go off” is breathless(and he does it repeatedly, again and again, at different events, different crowds).

I would highly recommend this book if you are looking for something “different” to read. It has certainly aided my understanding of crowd behavior, and in quite an entertaining turn of prose.

4. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.

This was perhaps not a random pick up. I had an eye on the movie that was about to release, and I wanted to read this before I saw the movie. I had started this twice before, but had got lost in the initial meetings and Mamaji and so on. This time however (flow maybe?), I finished it off in one breath (figuratively, dear reader, figuratively). Needless to say, I loved the read, and yes, I felt that the book was better than the movie, more entertaining even (though the movie was visually beautiful). It did not make me believe in God by the end, and I still haven’t got that bit (the improbability of survival attributed to existence of god, perhaps?), but I loved the young Pi Patel bits in the book. My immediate reaction to the book was a succinct

Waah Waah!

5. City of Thieves by David Benioff.

This was one of the most delightfully weird books I have read this year, completely unexpected, and one with an enlightened sense of humor. You could call it black humor, hell.. you could call this book a lot of things, and yet I don’t think it would do justice to this reading experience. Here is what I tried saying.

This is a beautifully weird book! Leningrad is under seige in war torn europe. There is no food in the city, nothing, since September! People melt the gum from book spines and sell/eat for the proteins. In that bleak setting, our protagonists are out searching for a dozen eggs.It would be sad if I used tired cliches to describe this wildly original book, so let me think of a movie that comes close to this mood. The first one that I was reminded of was “Life is beautiful”, but “City of Thieves” is not half as cheesy. Ah, Zombieland! Yes, that would describe the dominant mood and milieu perfectly. This is a buddy book, a journey book, a war book, a coming of age book, weird and beautiful at the same time.
It would make an evocative graphic novel. You (the “I” in the book) are a puny, seventeen year old virgin boy in war sieged St. Pietersburg. Hunger, propaganda and patriotism abound all around, when you meet a suave charmer called Kolva, and get on to a mission to get a dozen eggs for a wedding cake. The city hasn’t seen eggs (or chicken or any other food for that matter) in a long, long time and it is a fool’s errand.

I have never read anything like this. I would heartily recommend it. It’s quite a light read despite the subject.

6. This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.

I didn’t like this much, though I really wanted to (moment in time, right book at the right time?). Alas. This is what I felt when I was done reading it.

This one’s a A Complete History of My Sexual Failures, and not a good one at that (the movie’s better).

The book runs you through nine short stories and nine women (none of who I would ever want to be dating, seriously). In fact, the apathy towards the characters extends to such a level that I felt good every-time one of the girls would take his ass, or vice-versa for that matter, they deserve this shit, you think. The book does showcase the Dominican way of life, in a distracted sort of way, but literary merit? In something that is fun and games and assholery and dear diary? I could choke on some of the reviews written here for this book.

A strictly okay read, on the face interesting only because breakups are the subject.

7. Skios by Michael Frayn.

Read in the moment. Very Wodehousian (stripped down). My reaction after reading the book.

Skios is a farce (right then); a good, old-fashioned potatoes-&-meat kind of dependable old world humor, nothing too exotic (despite this being on a greek island), just mistaken identities, people tripping over this and that, co-incidences, and ex-girlfriends and current crushes meeting, and midnight rendezvous going crazy, two greek taxi drivers (brothers!!) going back and forth, very Wodehousian and everything coming all together in a giant climax.

This is a very easy read, keeps you sniggering and interested through the book and piles on loads of genteel humor, something rare to find these days.

I had not heard of Michael Frayn before Skios (I am gloriously uninformed), but I am definitely looking to read more books/plays by him.

8. I Could Pee on This: And Other Poems by Cats by Francesco Marciuliano.

This is the only one I am guilty about putting here, a sort of making up the numbers. Ideally, Nine Parts of Desire would have been here instead of this, but I haven’t still finished it. My “review”.

Can’t believe I read this all the way (in twenty minutes). The disbelief is not upon reading this quickly, but upon finding me reading

1. A “Cat” book.
2. A “Poems” book.

Ah well.

9. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid.

I wrote a lot after reading this book (twice too, the first time my internet connection ate up the unsaved words), and I was pissed at the book too, part of the reason was certainly being that I expected it to be a breezy, quick read (Stream of consciousness, hello?), and it took every bit of my self resolve to plod through it after a point. Here, just read what I wrote,

I am not the intended target reader of the book, and I speak this not as an Indian, though this monologue is indeed given to an American (and hence to a dumb cliche employed who doesn’t understand cultural diversity). I say that with respect to the story that the author has unloaded on to the reader. The narrator is an author surrogate, down to the Princeton education, the management consultancy job, etc. etc. I would wager to suggest that most of the experiences come from the author’s autobiographical bouquet.

The author frequently tries to shock the reader with simplicities – Look I have a beard, but I can speak flawless English and I am polite, Look I am a Pakistani fundamentalist but I have fucked an American, Look I am a produce of Princeton and million dollar salaries but I am anti-american in my heart – I smiled when the twin towers went down. I can understand why Americans would have a hard-on about this, but this doesn’t work if you are not a Westerner, or if you have been a little been-there or done that (or if you yourself have a beard).

Despite the illusion of it’s thin-ness, it took me about four times longer (than expected) to finish this book. It wouldn’t ever engage long enough, and it’s ranting at times sounded dated and childish. The book is a polemic against American policies in/against Pakistan sandwiched within a thinly veiled “love story”. I put that under quotes because it is a fucked up love story. I can see who it has been aimed at. The guy is smartest in his batch at Princeton (he is hungry for success, you see), but is basically a virgin, and hence his unsure non-threatening ways are seen as gentlemanly by the american girl. The girl is in love with a dead ex-lover and won’t forget him. Every time they meet, she is like Oh Chris (the dead guy), and I am like Chris ki maa ki choot. I have met people with both the above afflictions and both types have been unbearable as company. To have these as main characters in your book only suggests a personal connection, otherwise I cannot imagine voluntarily spending time with such chutiya characters (but nevertheless exotic to western readers).

The protagonist would suck Uncle Sam’s cock as long as it takes to reach the million dollar salary and then feel guilt and angst and self hatred at working the job. This is an oft repeated motif across generations of NRI (or P) kids, everyone feels they are selling their soul for financial gain while not considering personal goals and that is so painful and boo hoo hoo. Oh so brave of you to quit it all.

I am sick of reading this shit and I am sick of the gusto with which the same is lapped up every time. Everyone needs something for their Saturday night (tear) drinking sessions while bitching about their corporate chains and how they are wasting their lives.

I was quite pissed by the end of this book, especially with passages that perpetuate the myth of a victimized and innocent Pakistan instead of providing an insider perspective. The insider perspective is limited to what food is available in Lahore, or how Jasmines smell nice here.

Sample for example this passage (and there are many like this through the book) which in essence state that all Pakistani problems are either due to America or India. What I find amazing is that never for a moment, not for a sentence, not for a whiff of thought is the idea ever presented that Pakistani society/government could also have some role to play in this fucked up charade. And this is the educated view!

Excerpt:
“A common strand appeared to unite these conflicts, and that was the advancement of a small coterie’s concept of American interests in the guise of the fight against terrorism, which was defined to refer only to the organized and politically motivated killing of civilians by killers not wearing the uniforms of soldiers. I recognized that if this was to be the single most important priority of our species, then the lives of those of us who lived in lands in which such killers also lived had no meaning except as collateral damage. This, I reasoned, was why America felt justified in bringing so many deaths to Afghanistan and Iraq, and why America felt justified in risking so many more deaths by tacitly using India to pressure Pakistan.”

No, I do not believe you can opt to stay out of conflict while living in a conflict zone. That is wishful and stupid thinking. You are implicated even if you do nothing; especially if you do nothing as a society.

I am quite the Mohsin Hamid fan, judging from my reaction to his first book Moth Smoke, but this one sorely lacks the poetry of his first effort, and instead chooses to play upon the hackneyed insecurities of the average western reader. Judging by the general reaction to the book, he has succeeded, and that’s a shame.

10. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

I have not written a review of this book yet. This moody, quirky massage of a book was the one that soaked into me. It stayed with me, like a thick atmosphere around me while I was reading it, and I kept talking about it to people, long detailed descriptions that just fucked me up in their laid back style. I haven’t felt like that since The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I have been meaning to see the movie for years now, and I have always put it off for some reason or the other. I downloaded it the night after finishing the book. But still haven’t seen it, because I know it wouldn’t/cannot be as good as the book. These words in your head build up such a sick atmosphere that any amount of visualization would totally kill. I know it.

—————-

*

Notes:

There it is then. The ten books in a month story. Now a few footnotes on equipment, technique, flow and this and that.

Equipment and Technique:

My phone, the one on which these shenanigans have been done, is the 3.7 inch screener Motorola Defy. This is no doubt the device that stays with me the most, almost always, is with me just before I fall asleep, I can read on it when the lights are off (critical score). More importantly, I am not scared of breaking it, or am never too careful with it in the loo/shower.

The tension free Defy.

The tension free Defy.

A Kindle was one of the first purchases I made earlier this year. That purchase, along with discovering Goodreads the website created a spurt in my accumulation/reading. Also, I have been in Bangalore and have access to Blossoms, perhaps the best second hand bookstore in India. So as far as obsession is concerned, it was well stoked and humoured throughout. Sometimes (lot of times), I would buy the paper version of the book, load it up on my kindle and on my phone, and would just move from one to another on whim and want (though I would tend to stick to one version after I was into the book). I have done this for a lot of books this year, and I have not noticed any preference for any particular device. Reading in one form tends to encourage further reading in the same. This is especially true because for me, I think, reading on the phone becomes an everyday seamless thing instead of discrete items as in the case of books.

There have been a few books which would have been impossible to read but on the Kindle. The % of book read feature is a very comforting, essential even for trudging through a few “classics” this year.

The Big Fucking Mobile Library

The Big Fucking Mobile Library

Numbers, Ratios and Flow.

I have read a lot of books this year. Not only more books this year than any other year, but it feels more than all the books I have ever read (I am exaggerating for effect), certainly some of the most important books I have ever read (a lot of those that had been getting pushed endlessly plus the discovery of David Simon). At the wee end of the year, it feels I hadn’t been reading before at all. As a comparison from a previous year – 2005-2006 in this case because I remember the numbers from that year, my first year of earning a salary. I had bought 72 books in  that first year of having my own money. I read 4 in that time.

Goodreads has this self imposed Reading Challenge feature that you can set for yourself. At the start of the year, I had set it at a highly ambitious (for me) 25 for the year. As of today, my count for the year is 37, with me confident of polishing off another 5-6 before the year ends.

This was not something I came out to achieve, reading hasn’t been a target activity for me, nor have I obsessed over it for long. There have been entire months where I haven’t touched a book. I think there are two things responsible for this – the reading flow (the more I read, the more I want to read), and the almost unlimited and immediate ability to get any book in the world at the moment you desire it, online. The latter still feels magical and beats every other advantage of a “real book” for me. But the point is not to diss any particular form over another. The point is that reading has been a pleasure this year, almost as if I have discovered it for the first time.

2012 Stories : Ungrateful Omens

A week back I had found a thousand rupees on the road, unclaimed. That was how Bangalore had welcomed me. I keep looking for omens every-time I move a city/life stage/ relationship blah blah, and despite a snoot nosed exterior and a realistically pessimistic view of life, I have this eagerness and hope for change/ sometimes any change that in hind sight feels stupid. With due trepidation, I had moved to Bangalore, without a job, and more appropriately without a thought, Ameet picked me up from the airport, and we were getting back to his house in the car when on Bannerghatta road, right in the middle of the traffic, I thought I saw what was a Rs. 500 note, there wasn’t much time for explanations, so I just asked Ameet to brake and jumped out. We had just crossed a traffic signal and this was right in the middle of the road, so by the time I got down and ran back, I had little hope. And yet, there it was. I went in to the middle of the road and swooped it up, and that’s when I saw the other one, a couple of steps ahead, closer to the signal. I got back grinning to the car, and declared that this one has to be a good omen. Who finds Rs. 1000 in the middle of Bannerghatta road within two hours of moving to Bangalore?

As a first step into the freedom, we had decided to visit Jaipur for the Literature festival in January, this was still the beginning of the year, it would be a good, long trip, and it sure would be a good refreshment before well, getting into work. Ameet and I had also long talked wistfully about a stoner trip to Haridwar/ Rishikesh (as follow ups to his stories of such a trip made earlier when much younger). I had lived long enough in Delhi and not seen the Taj Mahal. I decided to throw it all  into the same trip. We would go from Bangalore to Agra, take the night train to Jaipur, stay for the Literature festival, then leave to Haridwar, then onwards to Rishikesh, then return to Delhi and then a train back to Bangalore. Yes, phew and all that. That was the idea.

A lot of shopping was done. Some for the trip, some just because it felt good to shop for things I wanted to. I had bought a Kindle first thing in the year, plus a Rs. 1600 fountain pen (for myself). To that was added Canon 60D (some 90k along with all the paraphernalia). Then a lot of clothes, I had sworn off trousers after I quit the job in Bombay, for good this time, I got tee shirts, jeans, shirts, a lot of shit I was not wearing in life. Plus a new sturdy back-pack, plus clothes for the colder north. Ameet did a lot of shopping too. Who buys a lot of stuff immediately after their only source of income is extinguished? A couple of mad-men, that’s who. But the time felt like such a rush. I think that motherfucking Rs. 1000 on the road had a lot to do with it.

The trip went surprisingly good till Jaipur, barring an extremely uncomfortable night spent at the Jaipur waiting room at the railway station. It was rather meditative, the whole experience, long bouts of silences, reading, good conversations, travelling. We had carried little weed with us, knowing that we would be culminating in Haridwar/ Rishikesh and would be indulging in the local speciality. Apart from once in a lifetime experiences like getting stoned before the Richard Dawkins session, it was used sparingly. However, I was told that one must sample the local bhang from government approved shop in Jaipur. The shop was close to the railway station so the rendezvous was fixed for the day we leave Jaipur. I had rolled two extra joints before leaving the hotel (for the evening or the train or the next morning, the possibilities on a vacation like this are limitless). By evening, everything was packed and on our shoulders and we were walking around the railway station trying to find the mythic bridge and the shop nestled below it. We did find it, and though it was rather non-descript, the GOVT. AUTHORIZED SHOP was displayed proudly. The old man mixing the chutney/ dung kind of concoction into ice and roohafza (to mask the bitterness, I presume) had blood red eyes, and was slow and measured in everything he did. Conversation was difficult, and Ameet (who is always wary around Bhang) was still feeling guilty and prosecuted at prominently indulging in THC like this, so publicly exposed. An auto wallah had two golis of bhang mixed up (each goli costing Rs. 4, the concoction with Roohafza cost extra, Rs. 40 for the glass) and I was told that was the normal dosage. A lot of autowallahs and rickshaw wallahs came to this shop first thing in the morning before starting the long day. Ameet kept trying to hurry up things, and I quickly asked the mixer to get one glass done (which Ameet and I would share, he refused to have the whole glass by himself). Alongside, I noticed that the man was selling dried bhang leaves by weight. We quickly drank our half glass each (oh so bitter), and I purchased a half kilo of the stuff to take it back with me.

Bhang usually takes about an hour to hit the system, and we had finished our heavy dinner of parathas and a few snapshots from the camera (to record the moment) by the time before it started numbing the brain. I knew this feeling, anticipated it eagerly, and was quick to realize that this was very heavy stuff. That walk with the heavy backpacks back to the railway station was hard work. Unlike a joint, the high of the bhang doesn’t let up after the initial peak; it is sustained and keeps mounting. We had intended the bhang to be a starter, but immediately decided another joint would be a bad idea. We got to the railway station, to the waiting room (a fifteen minute walk which seemed like an hour), and sat down welcoming well deserved relief. We stowed our luggage in the corner – we had one huge backpack each, and one smaller backpack (which carried the camera, the kindle, and some odds and ends). I took in my surroundings, the waiting room was crowded (it was about 9:30 at night) ; there was a man stretched out on a three seater bench. I stared gleefully as a big, fat rat jumped on to the bench and step by careful step  walked up to the man’s nose. He sneezed so hard that the surprised rat was thrown up to the other side of the room. I have often wondered if such things only happen to me when I am stoned or if I only notice such things when I’m stoned.

It was time for a smoke, and we were both quibbling for a cigarette. Neither of us thought it was a good idea to leave the luggage unattended. Five minutes later, we were both outside lighting up a cigarette after having pushed the luggage in with another passenger who was sleeping. The moon was beautiful that night, and the lights just outside Jaipur station were looking fantastic. I was carrying the smaller backpack, but my mind was on the luggage inside. The big backpacks had all the newly purchased clothes, the half kilo of bhang, and a lot of signed books that I had bought (and got signed) at the JLF. I wanted to click pictures outside the station right then, but I ran back in to check if the luggage was still present. It was. I was back out, outside the railway station premises, with the camera out and clicking. When we were trying to get back in, a couple of policemen accosted us and threatened to book us as terrorists, as we had been clicking pictures of a “restricted area”. No such thing existed of course, and without missing a beat, I told them that we were journalists. I was really high by this time, and Ameet looked at me as if aghast. It worked though, we got back in without paying a bribe. The luggage was safely ensconced, just as we had seen it last. The train got in, we got to our seats with the luggage and breathed a sigh of relief at the adventure so far.

Our seats were the upper seats, an upper berth and the side upper berth. Both of us are safely above 6 feet and the side upper berth is kryptonite for the six footer. We stuffed the backpacks below the lower berths, one below mine, one below his (to distribute our risks). I won the upper berth for myself, and had to sleep with the smaller backpack. It was quite cold by that time, and we were each wearing a warmer, a shirt and a sweat shirt, and a pair of jeans. We both took off our shoes and stowed it inside the bigger backpacks below, and got the slippers out. Better the slippers getting stolen than the new shoes. The train was filled to the gills by kids, apparently a school trip somewhere. In my head, that was automatic security. The train was supposed to reach Haridwar by 9 am. We climbed up to our respective seats and passed out.

I woke up around 4 am, and it took me ten minutes to build up my resolve to get to the loo. It was very cold (this was January after all), and I had somehow gotten comfortable in the circumstances. I got down, but just couldn’t find my slippers anywhere. In the darkness, shivering in the cold, I dipped my feet into every crevice I could find, in vain. Then I tried to find Ameet’s slippers, but no, they were gone too. I swore again and again, took a neighbour’s slippers and went off to the loo. When I got back, I noticed a lot of passengers up and active, getting dressed and so on, the ambience was more like 9 pm than 4:30 am. I said shove it, and climbed up to my seat and was back asleep soon.

The next time my eyes opened, I noticed Ameet across the aisle from me stirring from sleep too. There was comparatively more silence around, and I looked down to see about 5-6 cops playing cards on the seats below. I looked back up to see Ameet straining himself to catch a glimpse of the luggage below. He looked up to me and said that he couldn’t see the luggage. I told him that it was not the luggage but the slippers that were gone. By that time, he had jumped down and confirmed that both our luggage was gone. The slippers were still there, where he had hid them behind another passenger’s bags. I was shell shocked.

I came down and sat next to the cops, and I told them, “Humara saara samaan chori ho gaya” (all our luggage was stolen – that would be a repeated refrain through the day, and that week. I was screaming it out to random strangers later). The cops heard the whole story, and sympathised with us, but said there is no sense complaining. They all got down by the next station (they didn’t have tickets). By then I had pieced together the rest of the story. The whole train compartment was empty. Apart from the two of us, there were two other people at the end of the 70 seat compartment. Everyone seemingly had gotten down at Delhi station, at 5 am. That is where, amidst all the noise and confusion, the coolies must have got our luggage out.

We both sat shocked, without anger, without any of it hitting me. I was glad I had slept with the smaller backpack, had saved the camera and the rest of the odds and ends. I was quite thankful about it. At that moment, neither of us even remembered just how much stuff got taken (it would take another week for an inventory of everything that was stolen). At that moment however, we just sat in silence. We lit a cigarette, then one of the two (remaining) joints right on our seats. Smoked in silence, still not believing the ordeal. A beggar came up, sweeping floors and asking for money. I told him “Humara saara samaan chori ho gaya”, he wouldn’t believe me. Made me tell him the whole story, after which he tut-tuted and moved away.

We had a two day stay in Haridwar and a two day stay in Rishikesh (all pre-booked, and paid for). We had no clothes (apart from the ones we were wearing), no shoes, and no weed. We still decided to go ahead with the vacation. I updated the story on twitter, and someone mentioned “Haridwar, the lord has taken everything extraneous to the experience, and asked you to come, as you are”. It sounded stupid, but suitably enlightened, so I grabbed it, and ran with it inside my head. If it was an experience I had been meaning to have, I’m gung-ho. That is what I told myself.

The Haridwar-Rishikesh trip was shit. Haridwar was one large garbage pail, Rishikesh screeching cold. Moreover, weed wasn’t available anywhere. The sadhus that Ameet had smoked with in a previous experience years ago were smoking some shit called Patti (literal translation – leaves). It was so bad and ungainly, I almost vomited on the after taste. It was horrible, the lingering after-taste of our epic travelogue.

And so I was back in Bangalore, the second time in that month, with nothing. I have often wondered, as I did that fateful morning on the empty train; about the unsuspecting thieves who would open my bag to find among others, books by Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of our Nature) and Gurcharan Das (The Difficulty Of Being Good) along with a half kilo of the choicest bhang.

Excerpt from Opium Fiend : A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction

Steven Martin has written a masterful book called Opium Fiend of which the first chapter is being reproduced below.

Two excellent interviews with the author, the first one about opium, Odyssey of an American Opium Addict, and the loving second one about his obsessive compulsion towards collecting Opium parahernalia, Journey into the Opium Underworld. He also did give up his entire collection. Back to the book. Enjoy.

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore …
—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” (1845)

Halloween, that day of symbolic horrors, seemed an appropriate time to stop. I had already stocked the refrigerator of my apartment in Bangkok’s Chinatown with nutritious, easy-to-digest food such as goat’s milk and yogurt, even though I knew it would be days before I could eat again. The flush lever on my toilet had long before rusted tight, and I’d become accustomed to lifting the lid of the water tank and pulling up on the little chain. Within a day or so that porcelain lid would be too heavy for me to lift, so I took it off and put it behind the toilet where I wouldn’t trip over it.

The door to my ninth-floor flat was situated down a dark corridor and next to a little-used stairwell that was marked as a fire escape. Like most doors in Chinatown, mine was barred against intruders with a wrought iron outer door. From inside the apartment it was possible to reach out through the bars of the outer door and fasten a large padlock on its latch, giving the impression that nobody was home. My bedroom window looked out on the corridor, and it, too, was barred. In addition to the bars, this window had layers of opacity to ensure privacy: on the inside heavy drapes, and on the outside a tinted windowpane completely obscured by a screen covered with dust so thick it might have been mistaken for a curtain of ash-colored velvet. From outside my apartment it was all but impossible to tell that I was inside.

For months I had been a recluse to the extent that my face-to-face social obligations were almost nil. But this situation was masked by the fact that I worked from home—people rarely saw me in person anyway. Communications didn’t worry me. Everybody knew that email had become my preferred method of keeping in touch. What they didn’t know was that I’d discovered email was perfect for preserving a facade of normalcy no matter how crazy things got. I could take as long as I needed to reply while fabricating plausible excuses as to why I couldn’t leave my apartment. If I became too addled to talk coherently, I could dodge telephone calls by simply ignoring them. Roxanna was the one person whose calls would be difficult to ignore, but her invitations had fallen off as my downward spiral had become more and more apparent.

As I waited for the symptoms to start, I began to think of ways to occupy my mind. I was no stranger to this scenario: I had twice tried to put a halt to my daily smoking. My first attempt might have succeeded if only I’d been more disciplined. Backing off from the habit wasn’t as difficult as I’d thought it would be, and this had made me confident that I was still my own master. But then I lost control. Two months of restrained dabbling on weekends had descended into a daily orgy of indulgence.

A second attempt at cutting back was harder, but I’d managed to abstain for a whole month before finding the perfect excuse for a relapse. And thus began my free fall.

Subsequent attempts to quit were painful ordeals that lasted a single harrowing night and ended at dawn, when I would crawl back to the mat, light the lamp, and smoke with a voraciousness that shocked me. I watched as my own hands prepared pipe after pipe, both thrilled and terrified to know that a line I’d memorized from a Victorian-era book now applied to me: I had “succumbed to the fascinations of opium.”

By Halloween 2007, I had been smoking opium continuously for months—as much as thirty pipes a day. I decided to try to quit again. This time, I told myself, I would not fail. I knew I would be in for a rougher ride; I had let my habit get so out of hand that the withdrawal would be many times worse than my previous ordeals. I recalled those days of soul-piercing pain, the nights of sweat-soaked insomnia, and I tried to imagine how anything might be worse.

To steel myself for the storm, I pretended that I was going to suffer a bout of malaria in the days before quinine. The idea appealed to my sense of the romantic—here was another age-old affliction that had to be weathered stoically. But I knew very well that malarial fevers were never as ugly as what I would soon experience. Among my small library of century-old books with gilt leather bindings I had discovered a paragraph or two that described in clinical prose what I was about to endure.

I had read about the all-encompassing pain that drove opium addicts to beg for the relief that could be had only via a few draws on the pipe. I had read of people tightly trussed to their beds and locked in rooms by loved ones who then stopped their ears with raw cotton to block out the tortured screams. There were tales of prayers shrieked through the night; pleas for a hasty death that were sometimes answered by a body too shocked to function beyond a few days without opium. The morning after would be no scene of poignant demise; no Death of Chatterton angelically sprawled across his bed high above London. It would more resemble the aftermath of a cholera victim’s death throes—a room defiled by the performance of a macabre, bone-twisting Watusi to the rhythms of explosive farts and geysers of liquid shit.

And if I survived the physical pain, once it began to diminish, the mental anguish would take over: a dense boom of depression lowered onto a brain already exhausted by long nights of sleeplessness. This desperate funk manifests itself in many ways and is seemingly tailor-made to suit the fears and phobias of each and every addict. Just as your body turns against you during the days of physical withdrawal, so, too, your mind will conspire with opium to unleash mental torment at its most intolerable. Whatever is most likely to unhinge you, that is what you will experience. Imagine the sound of a thousand babies crying inconsolably for hours and hours on end. If I survived the physical pain, for how much longer would my opium-deprived brain persecute me? A month? A year?

The very thought of this had in the past been enough to make me give in before even starting. But this time I was determined. Savor what Halloween was meant to be, I told myself. Savor your nightmare. When it is all over you will be free of opium … forever.

My provisions were stocked, and the most important preparation was in place: my opium-smoking layout. Should I need it, the hardwood tray with all the necessary accouterments meticulously arranged upon it was waiting under my coffee table in the living room, together with a bottle of the finest liquid opium. Some might think it self-defeating to have a quick fix at hand, but I was unsure of whether the accounts in those old books were exaggerated. If they weren’t  and if death was as real a possibility as the books suggested, I needed to have the antidote at the ready.

It was late evening, nearly twenty-four hours since my last pipe, when the “opium cold” began, an array of flu-like symptoms—sneezing, watery eyes, and runny nose—that announces the body’s first signs of falling to pieces. This is a common event for opium addicts, something I had many times experienced whenever I got too busy to recline and prepare some pipes—a simple reminder that opium was needed to tighten things back up. This time, the arrival of these symptoms caused me to retreat to my bedroom with its single blacked-out window. I wanted no part of the outside world. The bustling sounds of nighttime in Chinatown floated up to my flat on waves of heat emanating from the sunbaked concrete, but I had no desire to stand at a window and look at the city below. I had long before become too detached to enjoy something as worldly as a room with a view, and had hung blankets over the windows to promote the illusion of perpetual twilight.

In order to keep my mind off the steadily intensifying symptoms, I got online—YouTube—and did some searches. I looked up an old cartoon that I’d stumbled across days before while looking for Halloween fare, a Fleischer Studios gem from 1930 called Swing You Sinners! I watched the clip over and over that night until the manic jazz and snatches of menacing dialogue became imbedded deep in a part of my brain that specializes in turning catchy songs into maddening little ditties.

Spook #1: “Where you want your body sent?”
Spook #2: “Body? Ha! There ain’t gonna be no body!”

Oh, yes there would. I began to dwell on morbid visions of my corpse being discovered, the centerpiece of a room that looked as though it had been ransacked by a madman. Whoever found me would also find my collection of antique opium-smoking paraphernalia—those pieces that had survived my thrashing about like a headless chicken. There was a time when I would have died before putting my collection in peril—no exaggeration—but of late it had become just another source of convenient income: a way to pay for more opium.

At some point I lay down on my bed and fell into a fitful sleep. I woke up just before dawn on November 1—All Saints Day—with a loud buzzing in my ears and a dull headache. My immediate thoughts were recollections of nightmares: vague scenes based on long-buried memories of celebrating Todos Los Santos as a young man in Manila; images of crowds among concrete crypts in candlelit cemeteries. Those real-life events had been joyous occasions, but my dreamed version was suffused with loss and a bitter longing.

That first night without the pipe was a taste of what I was to lose: Never again would sleep be so delicious; never again would dreams be so real. The scene in the cemetery felt as though the dreams themselves were aware of their imminent demise, that without opium my dreamed events would never again enjoy as much importance as my predictable waking life. That overlap—the blurring of lines between sleep and wakefulness that I experienced with daily opium use—would soon cease to exist. I couldn’t help but feel I was giving up half my life.

Those first waking thoughts set the tone for the morning of that second day. Feelings of impending loss kept resurfacing, and all thoughts led to opium. I tried to watch movies on my laptop, but they served only to anger me. Who were these people and what did they know about life? My principal feeling toward nonsmokers was scorn. Opium arrogance kept me engaged, but just barely. I stared at the performances meant to evoke emotions such as love and loneliness but I could not relate. Watching people interact was like being forced to watch a mime—I felt as though I lacked the patience to understand the message. I had lost interest in the activities of everyone but a couple of opium-smoking friends. The rest of humanity I could ignore in the same way that one tunes out the speakers of a foreign language.

When I could no longer look at the images on my computer screen I tried to read, but this was equally difficult for my opium-starved brain. I found uniquely silly the articles in the many back issues of The New Yorker that littered my apartment. Focusing on unread pieces was impossible, and when I tried to reread articles that I’d enjoyed in the past, they now seemed insultingly dull. I could read no more than a paragraph or two before launching the magazine at the wall like a fluttering missile. If only The New Yorker were heavier, I thought to myself, I could break its spine.

As the day wore on these feelings of anger and alienation were usurped by a riotous fever. Around me the tropical city sweltered while I wrapped myself in blankets and shivered with exaggerated spasms that might have looked comical had anyone been there to witness them. Time seemed suspended, and I had unplugged the clock so I wouldn’t be tempted to look and gauge time’s progress. I do not know how long I shuddered with cold before a rising heat replaced it, drenching me with sweat and compelling me to throw the blankets to the floor. After some time had passed I frantically gathered them up again to shield myself against a bracing cold that was all in my mind. My skin was studded with pebbly goose bumps—the inspiration behind the term “cold turkey.” Despite the chill, blankets felt loathsome against my body, and when I was broiling with fever even the breeze from the electric fan made my skin crawl. I seemed to have lost the ability to enjoy even the slightest bit of comfort.

Several times that night I was visited by these brutal seasons, and then sometime before dawn I actually prayed—doubled up like some slave waiting to be fetched a cruel kick. I had never before in my life felt desperate enough to pray, but that night I did so with a fluency and sincerity that surprised me.

It must have worked. When I awoke a few hours later my pillow and bedclothes were sticky with opium-laced sweat, but the fever had mostly subsided. Feelings of celebratory relief were premature, however. What had woken me up were cramps in my stomach—gut-wrenching pains that brought me to my feet almost involuntarily and propelled me toward the bathroom. Depth bombs of shit began exploding out of me, punctuated by gas bursting into the toilet bowl. The force and noise were such that it seemed as though my bowels were bellowing angry obscenities, and I found myself answering each anal exclamation with an oral one of protest and awe: “Whoa! What the fuck?!”

So frequent were these violent purges that my strength was quickly drained, flowing down the toilet with torrents so copious that I thought my insides had liquefied. I would have sat there and waited out the waves of diarrhea had my legs and arms not become racked with cramps that demanded movement. Here it comes, I thought to myself, the beginnings of the uncontrollable thrashing that was described in old accounts—this was what might kill me. From the bathroom into the bedroom and back. How many trips had there been? Enough so that raw skin could no longer be wiped with toilet paper. I used a handheld showerhead to rinse myself clean, but the taxing cycle of constantly disrobing, washing, drying off, and getting dressed soon became too much, and so I paced my bedroom wet and naked, waiting for the return of stomach pains that again and again sent me running back to the toilet.

Then all hell broke loose. My arms and legs felt as though they were being pulled from their sockets. My guts bloated inside me, forcing up vomit followed by gobs of greenish bile. Even my testicles ached with nauseating pain. Mentally I was reduced to directing the most basic actions, trying to steer clear of walls and furniture while flailing my arms and legs about as if I were on fire.

However, there was one task at which my brain functioned as usual—that frantic tune from the old cartoon on YouTube played in my head in an endless loop. Naked, I jumped around the room to the private strains of a Harlem jazz band. Like a human pogo stick I bounced. Completely exhausted, I aimed for the bed and tried to rest and catch my breath, but I could not stay still. The opium was working its way out of my system, squeezing through the walls of every one of my cells, causing me to howl in agony and leap to my feet after lying motionless for mere seconds.

I don’t know how long I was in this state, but at some point I decided that I could go no further—and by my simply having made up my mind to give in, some of the pain instantly began to subside. But I did not renege on my decision. I heard Jean Cocteau’s advice from 1930 above the ringing in my ears: “Do not persist. Your courage is to no purpose. If you delay too long, you will no longer be able to take your equipment and roll your pipe. Smoke. Your body is waiting only for a sign.”

Hobbling to the living room on legs bruised from countless barks against furniture, I dropped to my knees and crawled toward the woven-cane mat. With hands that seemed to belong to someone else, I jerked the layout tray from under the coffee table. I scratched through several wooden matches before one lit, burning myself in the process, and needed both hands to steady the flame in order to light the opium lamp. Once that was done, I gathered all my remaining concentration to prepare a pipe.

My brain and body were on my side at this point. I felt strength return and a sharpening of mind at the mere thought of getting some opium vapors into my lungs. While preparing that first pipe I overcooked the pill—a botched job that normally I would never have carried through with, but on that day I sucked greedily at the thick white smoke and held it in my lungs while shakily beginning the preparations for my second pipe. This next one was better—the opium vaporized as it was supposed to, and the sweet vapors swirled about me as I exhaled gratefully. I rolled the third pipe with much less urgency. I even remembered to exhale through my nose to let the vapors pass along moist membranes, absorbing just a trace more opium. Every little bit counted.

“Yah dee,” I whispered to myself in Lao, repeating the words that Madame Tui used to pronounce over my supine body after her pipes had done their work. “Good medicine.”
Indeed. Closing my eyes for a moment I savored a miracle: the total banishment of pain. The vacuum was instantly replaced by a deliciously tingling wave that crept up the base of my neck and caressed my head with something akin to a divine massage. Whereas moments before my muscles had felt like they were being pinched by countless angry crabs, there now was a soothing sensation of calm and well-being. I prepared one more pipe—this time with almost no shakiness—and held the vapors deep in my lungs before exhaling slowly through my nose.

With the torment quickly fading from memory, I noticed my naked and disheveled state. I rose from the mat with restored agility and calmly went into the bathroom to take a leisurely, hot shower, washing away the oily sweat and traces of vomit, mucus, and feces that covered my skin and clotted my hair. Refreshed, I dried and dressed for comfort in a clean cotton sarong and a linen guayabera before returning to the mat and reclining once more.

I took a moment to admire my opium-smoking layout, a collection of rare and elegant paraphernalia that took years to gather and was worth thousands of dollars. Equal parts Asian artistry and steampunk science, like props from a scene concocted by a Chinese Jules Verne, the heavy nickel accoutrements waited on the wooden tray before me. There were picks and awls of obscure provenance, reminiscent of antiquated dentists’ tools; odd brass receptacles resembling miniature spittoons; pewter containers lidded with delicate brass openwork; tiny scissors with gracefully looping handles; dainty tweezers adorned with ancient symbolism denoting luck and wealth and longevity; strange implements with handles of ivory and blades of iron resting on a small brass tray etched with a detailed depiction of a young scribe offering tea to a robed mandarin. There was a tiny nickel-handled horsehair brush and a matching pan for sweeping up bits of ash. Enveloping everything was the warm glow of the opium lamp, the shining centerpiece of the layout tray. Second only to the pipe in importance, my oil lamp had a bubble-flecked glass chimney shaped like a fluted dome.

The crowning glory of my entire layout was perched lightly upon the chimney of the lamp: a hammered silver lamp shade in the form of a cicada. Slivers of lamplight shone through filigree work in the insect’s abdomen and—most magically—illuminated its red ruby eyes.

Lying on my back with my head propped upon a porcelain pillow, I hefted the opium pipe in my left hand like a gun, my index finger curled around its silver fittings as though on a trigger. The Chinese word for opium pipe translates to “smoking-gun,” and this one had just killed all my pain. With my right hand I lifted a tiny copper wok by its ivory handle and placed it upon the opium lamp. I measured five drops of opium into it. Within seconds the small pool of liquor began to boil and its heady sizzling was all I could hear.

Once again I was the alchemist, the one who had rediscovered how to work these long-forgotten implements. I was one of just a handful alive who could manipulate the elixir in the old Chinese manner and create bliss-inducing vapors. I was a high priest, one of the last still vested with the powers to perform these mysterious rites. After years of patience and persistence I had relearned the ancient craft and brought these hallowed rituals back from near extinction. This exclusivity of knowledge—watching my own deft hands use esoteric accoutrements to work a rare vintage of opium—gave me as much joy as the narcotic itself.

Complete layout of paraphernalia for opium smoking, the author’s own layout

As I began cooking and rolling another pill for the pipe, I smiled to myself as though amused by the foolish antics of a young child. “Why on earth did you put yourself through all that?” I said aloud.

It had been barely thirty-six hours since I had begun my last attempt to quit on my own. Of course opium had won. Opium always won.

 

Steven Martin, Bangkok 2007. At this time, he was nursing a 20 pipes a day habit. From a shot appearing in the book Opium Fiend

Narcopolis is a bad trip and Jeet Thayil wants it that way

Isn’t the cover gorgeous though? by Jimmy Zombie (http://www.synergyart.co.uk/2011/08/jimmy-zombie-narcopolis.html)

I feel a bit more kindly towards Narcopolis (very little) after finishing it, in the sense that perhaps I now understand what he was trying to do, also comprehension has dawned as to why the hullaboo off shores about this book. Like the amazing Chinaman last year, which mimics the stages of a cricket test match, even the way in which the writing guides the reader into a certain mind state through the book. One gets it, this is what Jeet Thayil is out to do, this is one long pull off an opium pipe – that is how one gets guided into the book, a prologue of one sentence. A seven page long sentence. And that is the best piece of writing in the book. In that, it sets up everything, your possible reactions, how you should read it (slow, repeated puffs). And that is how the book is constructed. If you took a good, long puff at the prologue, you would be well into the narrative (if you can call it that) before you realize that this isn’t a very good trip after-all. That is why the continued bewilderment of where the narrative is going, continued chapters – pages after pages of disembodied dreams, disconnected from everything, just a vague bloody fog page after page. What the fuck is happening? What am I reading about? Didn’t I just lay down in a khana in Shuklaji Street with an Opium pipe? Why am I reading about this Chinese man? Where the fuck did he come from? And it irritated me. The fact that that is not a random occurence. That the author knows the lay mind’s connection between opium and china. So just like that, that is a major character. Whether you like it or not. You have just taken a puff of opium and you don’t like what is happening to you. You are not supposed to. You don’t like these dreams, and these vague shapes, and this dirtiness, and there’s a whore, and she’s a hijra, and oh fuck the shame, here take a puff, this is so literary and raw.

Excerpt from Chapter 4 : Mr. Lee’s Lessons in Living

[Lee dreams]  Then he heard drums, jungle drums, and he thought of witch doctors and the image of the great junk faded to violet mist. He heard the sound of surf and he heard someone speaking or cursing in Hindi. Your mother’s cunt, the voice said. Or the voice was saying someone’s name, Marky Chu.

I understand why to the lay and uninitiated foreign  reviewer, the below would seem to be the case. (this sentence is the first thing that google flashes at you if you punch in Narcopolis)

Jeet Thayil’s luminous debut novel completely subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebrated.

Subverts and challenges the literary traditions for which the Indian novel is celebratedGulp! Definitely going to be a couple of sessions called that in the next year’s Jaipur Literature Festival.

These are dirty, ugly characters with nothing to flesh them out from each other. Random chapters start with a different “I”, protagonists move from page to page before you can say uh, hello and one doesn’t feel any different in inhabiting a different character from one page to another. One doesn’t really care either. Oh the motherfucker is dreaming again. And yes, he/she/it is high, and the dreams must mean something.

A character in the book gets one another addicted to a new maal called Chemical. It is garad (dusted heroin, brown) that the local dealers mix with rat poison. The strychnine in it is what gives you the real kick. It’s the shit, in that the first sampler just dies, boom.

For the lack of a better word imagery, that is what this book feels like to me. Very artificial. Very Chemical. Not organic. Not felt. But constructed. That is the feeling I get. Of pretense. Of slimy pretense. For aggrandizing and self profiting.

It is a carefully constructed book, however it doesn’t take out my initial and continuing distaste with the writing. It is carefully constructed for a reason, to appeal to a certain populist wildness. While one might rightfully argue that fiction has a right to be well, Chemical and they would be right.

I still do not feel empathetic towards the writing, nothing for the characters, not even disgust, just nothing. Immediately after finishing the book this morning (I had a little tenderness in me for the book by then, well constructed that it was), I returned back to the beginning and read the prologue again and skimmed through most of the first half of the book again, now that I knew how the plot went by the end. Still, nothing.

Just a bad trip. And Jeet Thayil knows it is a bad trip, and he wants it to be a bad trip because aren’t dirty bad trips set in Bombay literary? Oh my, here, take another puff.

The primary reason I am pissed about Narcopolis is that it takes the name of Bombay in vain. It has been common in the past few years to read a stellar few Bombay books where Bombay is an essential part of the book, think Love and Longing in Bombay or Maximum City or even the sublime Death in Mumbai, where the book is what it is because it is Bombay, and you feel it pulsating as a background. In Narcopolis, he names the book after Bombay (as if invoking Shiva and Bombay together!!!), starts and ends it with the word

Excerpt from book, ending last line

Late that night, after my neighbours had gone to bed, I cleared a space in the small room and set up an oil lamp and the pipe. This is the story the pipe told me. All I did was write it down, one word after the other, beginning and ending with the same one, Bombay.

From this review on the Independent, by Salil Tripathi

If you were to write a story set in Bombay, as the poet Jeet Thayil prefers to call the city now known as Mumbai in his outstanding debut novel, you don’t have to work too hard. Much of it can write itself if you connect the dots of history: a city made of islands reclaimed by the British, a polyglot culture where all of India’s languages, faiths and castes mingle, where the prevailing currency is money and its dreams are told, nay, sung, in those schmaltzy, kitschy Bollywood movies, and which lives on an edge, periodically blown up when terrorists set explosives, but returning to life the next day, resilient and resigned.

The ingenuity of Thayil’s novel lies in how he has squeezed this entire universe into an opium pipe. And when the narrative dissipates into smoke, it leaves a deceptively addictive odour, with memorable characters at the margins of society.

Ahem. Jeet Thayil is also quite aware of this tendency of the literary world to romanticize Bombay. From this interview here in The Hindu,

Bombay seems to be the sure shot way to make a best-seller these days. There is something vicarious about juxtaposing a thousand squalid slums with a thousand big dreams and it sells. “When you walk around Bombay, especially around Colaba, Victoria Terminus, Fort and Flora Fountain areas, the buildings there reek of history. There is so much beauty, that the feeling you experience is a kind of love. It is a terrible city as well in many ways, there are too many people, the weather is awful, but there is something about it,” he says.

Narcopolis has all the makings of a best-seller, with maybe even an award in the pipeline. Eye-catching, retro cover art by Jimmy Zombie, long, poetic sentences, with just the right number of pages and a sordid story that comes around in a full circle leaving no loose ends. “An award was not on my mind when I was writing it. I have been working on the book for a while now. When I started out in 2004 it was non-fiction, but soon the story started to grow heads, limbs and declared itself a novel. This was a 600-page book that I put everything I had into, and then had to go back and change and cut for a leaner, meaner version.”

Leaner, meaner version? Admittedly the book turns in at about 300 pages, but how laborious are those pages. I couldn’t quite understand it at times. This was a Bombay story, a drugs and Bombay story, how could this be hard work, how could this be slow plodding? I have read quite a few landmark drug books this year, TrainspottingMoth Smoke, and the sublime The Corner amongst them. This must count as tough company to compete amongst, yet Narcopolis doesn’t even begin to try and feels all the more smug for being that way.

I must confess to having sat across Jeet Thayil in poetry reading sessions long back and not liking him or his poetry. I must confess to a prior distaste to the book before picking it up, but decided to give it a fair read nevertheless. It didn’t help. And then I have been thinking, perhaps I am being too harsh?

And then I read Jeet Thayil’s interview on PublishingPerspectives, and he’s still at it. Sample this.

PP: Because of the subject matter, some readers have compared your book to Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eateror William Burrough’s Naked Lunch. Who would you cite as your influences as a writer, including both Indian and non-Indian authors?

Like everybody else, I’ve had different influences at different stages. During the writing of Narcopolis it wasn’t drug literature I was reading, I finished with that in my teens and early twenties. I was reading the Russians, particularly Dostoyevsky, and most particularly The Brothers Karamazov. In some ways,Narcopolis is a Russian novel, in other ways it is American. But only an Indian could have written it.

When you say only an Indian could have written it, are you referring to some aspect of “Indianness” that goes beyond the novel’s placement in an opium den in Bombay?

I mean the insider information about Indian society that comes from observation and participation. Also, I think there’s a kind of familiarity bordering on contempt that only Indians seem to feel about their own culture.

There are many characters and elements in Narcopolis that I could see as being controversial to Indian readers, though probably not many Western ones. Has Narcopolis been well received by readers and critics in Bombay and India more broadly?

I knew Narcopolis would not find its readers immediately. I expected an adverse reaction in India, but I didn’t expect it to be quite as adverse as it has been. There’s a new prosperity and a new jingoism here that doesn’t account for dissenting views. The rich have become richer and the middle class has expanded, but the poor, who outnumber everybody else, have stayed poor. This is something the middle class prefers not to think about. And they certainly don’t want it written about in a book that might be read by people in other countries.Outlook magazine said: “Sleaze sells India like nothing else can. So Narcopolistries.” A newspaper called DNA said it was “one of the worst novels written in the English language anywhere.” And Tehelka said the book was “like waiting for a really long goods-train to trundle by.” Interestingly, the bad reviews were only in India, even the Pakistanis have been more generous.

Do you feel your book fits into the large body of Indian novels that have also been published successfully in the United States over the past two decades by authors like Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth or Arundhati Roy? How so?

I don’t think Narcopolis belongs to a school of Indian fiction. There are superficial points of commonality, but the milieu in my novel is as far from the world of middle-class Indian writing in English as it is possible to get. Which explains the apoplectic response of reviewers.

Do you feel there is any precedent for the publishing of a book likeNarcopolis?

Plenty of precedent in the United States and in Europe, but none at all in India.

Wow. Just wow. Perhaps there is a reason to the volatility he is inspiring.

From Ashley Tellis who has spared no imagery in the DNA review,

After consolidating his reputation as an arch and bloodless poet, a singularly untalented musician and performer, and a wayward anthologiser, the indefatigable Jeet Thayil turns his hand to fiction and produces (surprise, surprise) one of the worst novels written in the English language anywhere.

—–

If the opium pipe speaks and dictates the novel, that justifies the wayward narrative, the characters picked and dropped summarily, the piling up of non-sequitur non-stories, the gratuitous violence, the sexist absence of even one developed woman character, the lack of any continuity and building of narrative depth.

While perhaps all of this makes perfect sense to the narrator, it certainly does not to the reader, and the prose does not emanate from the irrational or the hallucinatory or the surreal. This is not just because it is incredibly difficult to write about induced states in a way that makes them interesting to a non-induced reader.

It is primarily because Jeet Thayil’s shallow, pretentious, pseudo-erudite, gratuitously arcane authorial persona invades the narrative and never lets it go. 

From this comment here,

Narcopolis starts off wonderfully, with the 6 page stream of conciousness. The first half of the novel follows the lead with memorable charcters [Dimple, Mr Lee, the painter], wonderful writing and seems to be raising it’s game towards the ‘bigger picture’. But after Mr Lee’s story finishes about half through the book and the Hubert Selby Jr-esque downfall begins, the book loses ideas and, unfortunately, is is ultimately disappointing. It could be said that that is the point – any drug novel needs a downfall/ comedown to reflect the drug experience. Opium is replaced by Heroin and Cocaine, the culture diminishes, the lives crumble and this is reflected in the story. I feel this is cliched, and in the early parts of the book the writer shows evidence that he could have circumnavigated the obvious and gone towards a more original conclusion.

Thayil mentions at one place that there is no message to the book, at another that he wrote the book “to honour people and places I knew”. If it is true that the book is partly autobiographical, and this is his unintended homage to those years, it is a very cheap one to their memory.

However, that is my perception, and decidedly colored as they exist. I will link to three things that refute mine, the first two reviews that have spent sometime underlining what they liked about the book.

First, in the Guardian (this is the review that has been comparing the book to William Burroughs’s Junky, or Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater),

Thayil is right on the money to his intended audience

We move onward with the years. Hippies arrive and begin to appreciate the quality of Rashid’s opium, the attention to detail in pipe preparation, the warm cocooning charm of it all. This is an India that itself was dreaming, wrapped up in Gandhian ideals of self-sufficiency and simplicity, ignoring the tsunami of change that would not strike until the 1991 economic liberalisation. I was in Mumbai in those days, on my first trip to India, sleeping in shoddy dives and living on cheap street food. He pins down that world perfectly; he even pins down us shabby western travellers with a few painfully precise words: “interloper[s] from the future come to gawk at the poor and unfortunate who lived in a time before antibiotics and television and aeroplanes”.

The second review is a patient, literary review of Narcopolis in the South Asia journal, Sarah Van Bonn has lovingly put it together.

The third thing I want to do is excerpt the opening prologue of the book here, which is without doubt the best thing about the book. It has already excerpted online here, so I do not feel bad about reproducing it here.

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prologue

Something for the Mouth

Bombay, which obliterated its own history by changing its name and surgically altering its face, is the hero or heroin of this story, and since I’m the one who’s telling it and you don’t know who I am, let me say that we’ll get to the who of it but not right now, because now there’s time enough not to hurry, to light the lamp and open the window to the moon and take a moment to dream of a great and broken city, because when the day starts its business I’ll have to stop, these are night-time tales that vanish in sunlight like vampire dust – wait now, light me up so we do this right, yes, hold me steady to the lamp, hold it, hold, good, a slow pull to start with, to draw the smoke low into the lungs, yes, oh my, and another for the nostrils, and a little something sweet for the mouth, and now we can begin at the beginning with the first time at Rashid’s when I stitched the blue smoke from pipe to blood to eye to I and out into the blue world – and now we’re getting to the who of it and I can tell you that I, the I you’re imagining at this moment, a thinking someone who’s writing these words, who’s arranging time in a logical chronological sequence, someone with an overall plan, an engineer-god in the machine, well, that isn’t the I who’s telling this story, that’s the I who’s being told, thinking of my first pipe at Rashid’s, trawling my head for images, a face, a bit of music, or the sound of someone’s voice, trying to remember what it was like, the past, recall it as I would the landscape and light of a foreign country, because that’s what it is, not fiction or dead history but a place you lived in once and cannot return to, which is why I’m trying to remember how it was that I got into trouble in New York and they sent me back to Bombay to get straight, how I found Rashid’s, and how, one afternoon, I took a taxi through roads mined with garbage, with human and animal debris, and the poor, everywhere the poor and deranged stumbled in their rags or stood and stared, and I saw nothing out of the ordinary in their bare feet and air of abandonment, I smoked a pipe and I was sick all day, hearing whispers in my stone sleep about the Pathar Maar, the stone killer, who worked the city at night, whispers that leaked upward from the poor, how he patrolled the working-class suburbs of Sion and Koliwada and killed them while they slept, approached those who slept alone, crept up to them in the night and killed them, but no one noticed because his victims were more than poor, they were invisible entities without names or papers or families, and he killed them carefully, a half-dozen murdered men and women, pavement people of the north-central suburbs, where the streets are bordered by effluents and sludge and oily green shimmer, and all that year he was an underworld whisper, unknown to the city’s upper classes until he became a headline, and in my delusion I thought I understood his pity and terror, I thought I knew him as a Samaritan, a pure saviour of the victims of a failed experiment, the Planned Socialist State of India, he was trying to end their misery, the Pathar Maar, he was on a mission to wipe out poverty, or so I thought, sunk in my own poverty in the back of the taxi, slumped against upholstery stained a Bombay shade of brown, telling the driver to slow down as we drove past the women, and I saw, I swear I did, the face of a maid who looked after me when I was a small child, a dark woman who smiled sweetly when I hit her, and I knew it was her, washed up in the dead-end district where the women were graded, were priced and displayed in every street and gully and house, women from the far north, from the south, from all over, bought new and used, sold or given away, bartered, almost free, I knew it was her but I didn’t stop and the taxi slowed to a crawl behind a jeep with a printed sign, GOVERNAMENT OF INDIA, and when the driver found the address I’d given him for Rashid’s he assumed I was going to the cages, the cheapest rooms on the street, where the women were five rupees and upwards, and he pointed to the houses with numbers printed on the window boxes and said, ‘Number houses better,’ nodding at the streetwalkers and the women in the cages, ‘these girls dirty,’ as I stepped out of the cab and into chaos because a buffalo cart had broken down and a crowd was quickly gathering to watch the animal kneel in the narrow road as the carter whipped it in sharp methodical bursts of fury, though otherwise he was calm, he didn’t curse or sweat as his whip hand rose and fell, rose and fell, slabs of ice packed in sawdust melting in orderly rows on the back of the cart, and everywhere the poor and deranged waited and watched, as I did before climbing the stairs to the first-floor address I’d been given, to stand at the doorway and take it in, a smell of molasses and sleep and illness, a woman tending the pipe, using a long needle to cook the opium, her hand moving as if she was knitting, a couple of smokers lying on pallets, an old man hunched over a stove, inhaling as the opium bubbled, everything in the room happening on the floor, sleeping mats and pillows folded or spread, a calendar on the wall with a photograph of a mosque – listen, stop there and light me again, or let me do it, yes, ah yes, now that’s it, lovely, such a sweet meditation, no, more than meditation, it’s the bliss that allows calm to settle on the spirit and renders velocity manageable, yes, lovely – and now, in the same city, though it’s a lifetime later and here we are, I and I, which isn’t said in the Rastafari way to indicate we, but to separate the two I machines, the man and the pipe, the who and the who, telling this story about a long-ago time, when I smoked a pyali and I was sick all day, my first time on Shuklaji Street, new to the street and the city, separated by my lack of knowingness, by the pace of human business on the sidewalks and shops, knowing I didn’t have the skills, my gait too slow, paying too much attention to the wrong things, because in my head I wasn’t all there and the partialness, the half-there distractedness, was apparent in my face, people looking at me and seeing jet lag, recognizing it as a spiritual deficiency, and I went into Rashid’s room, placed my head on a wooden pillow and stretched out, trying to get comfortable, realizing with some surprise that the old man who was nodding over the cookpot was speaking English, speaking to me in the language of a death-mad, religion-obsessed country of living saints, asking if I was Syrian Christian, because he’d noticed the Coptic cross around my neck and he knew Roman Catholics wouldn’t wear that kind of cross, and of course he was right, I was Syrian Christian, a Jacobite, if you want the subsect of the subsect – so good, this good smoke, the last smoke from the last pipe on the last night of the world – the old man, whose name was Bengali, saying, ‘Ah, in that case, perhaps you can answer a question that has been troubling me, I mean the particular way Christianity caught on in Kerala and how Kerala’s Hindus, instead of adjusting themselves to Christianity, adjusted Christianity to themselves, to the old caste divisions, and, this is my question, would Jesus have approved of caste-conscious Christianity when his entire project was the removal of it, a man who fraternized with the poor, with fishermen, lepers and prostitutes, the sick and dying, women, his pathology and compulsion to espouse the lowest of the low, his message being God’s unconditional love, whatever one’s social standing?’ and what reply could I have made when he wasn’t expecting one, was already nodding as I watched the woman, watched Dimple, and something calmed me in the unhurried way she made the pipe, the way she dipped the cooking needle into a tiny brass pyali with a flat raised edge, the pyali the size of a thimble, filled to the brim with treacle, a liquid with the colour and consistency of oil, and she was rolling the tip of the needle in the opium, then lifting it to the lamp where it sputtered and hardened, repeating the procedure until she had a lump the size and colour of a walnut, which she mixed against the bowl until it was done, then tapped the needle against the pipe’s stem, indicating to me that my smoke was ready, it was, but the pipe was too long, I couldn’t manage the heaviness of it, and though I sucked when she held the bowl to the flame, the mouthpiece was too large, the taste too harsh, and when the pipe clogged she took it briskly away to apply the needle once more, saying in English, ‘Smoke, pull hard,’ Rashid saying, ‘Watch Dimple, she’ll show you,’ and she did, shaking the hair out of her eyes, expertly and elegantly fitting the pipe to her mouth, taking a long clean drag, the smoke seeming to disappear, so when she gave me the pipe I was very conscious that it had been in her mouth, and she said, ‘Pull deep and keep pulling, don’t stop, because if you stop, the opium will burn and there’s nothing you can do with burned opium but throw it away, so pull until you can’t pull any more,’ and me, in my ignorance, saying, ‘Do I take a single continuous drag?’ ‘You can, but then you have to recycle it inside your lungs, better to take short pulls,’ ‘How long should I hold it in?’ ‘So many questions, it depends how much nasha you want, hold it as long as you like, but don’t put the whole pipe in your mouth, not polite,’ and I said, ‘Sorry,’ and quickly moved the pipe away and brought it back to my lips with care, fitting it carefully, taking my time, understanding that opium was all etiquette, a sense rhythm that centred on the mouth and the way you held the pipe in relation to your body, a lunar ebb and pull of smoke that filled first the lungs and then the veins, and when I looked up she was smiling and so was Bengali, and Rashid said, ‘Here people say you should introduce only your worst enemy to opium, maybe Dimple is your worst enemy,’ and I was thinking maybe she isn’t, maybe I is, maybe the O is the I and I is unreliable, my memory like blotting paper, my full-of-holes, porous, shreddable non-memory, remembering details from thirty years ago but this morning a blank, and if memory = pain = being human, I’m not human, I’m a pipe of O telling this story over the course of a single night, and all I’m doing, the other I that is, I’m writing it down straight from the pipe’s mouth, the same pipe Dimple made the first time, but that story’s for later – okay, here we go, we’re coming to the best part now, the dreams which aren’t dreams but conversations, visitations from absent friends, a raucous procession behind your closed eyelids, your awake and dreaming eyes, and sometimes a voice wakes you, your own voice talking to someone who isn’t there, because you’re alone, on your back, sailing the opiate sea, no, I’ll pass this time, I’m fine, oh yes, beautiful even – the same I who, when they put me in jail, noticed the cell wasn’t much smaller than the room I was living in at the time on the Upper East Side, when they caught me buying dope, stoned on downers, and the white cop pulled his gun and chased me down the alley and I saw the dead end and turned, reaching in my pocket to give him the baggies, and the cop didn’t shoot, for some reason he didn’t shoot, he put me in a van and took me to jail, where, as I say, the cell was the size of the room I was living in and I was happy enough to be there and alive, and later I was sent back to India and I found Bombay and opium, the drug and the city, the city of opium and the drug Bombay – okay, time now for a short one, the night’s almost over, a short one to keep the O boat sailing on its treacle tide, and this time all I’m going to do, I’m turning my head and inhaling, you do the rest – and ever since I’ve tried to separate the one from the other, or not, because now I’m giving in, I’m not separating but connecting, I’m giving in to the lovely stories, I’m lighting the bowl, one for me and one for me, I’m tasting it one last time, savouring the colour and the bouquet, the nose of it, yes, like that, so good, and then I’m stopping, because it’s time now to subside into silence and let the other I speak.

The Wasseypur Romp

Anurag Kashyap features centre-stage in an all important friendship ritual in my adult life. Every Anurag film is watched with due reverence, after a satisfactory build-up and is awaited as an event in life.

That is to say, a couple of us friends get high before the movie, watch the film, get fucked in the head, come out (sometimes in tears, sometimes in anger), get (super) drunk, and then discuss., dissect and write about the movie for weeks after. Some of the writing legible, most buried inside emotional scribbles.

It is not a secret club where we wear Anurag Kashyap friendship bands, but it’s close. It is a shared love and adulation for Anurag and his forays into cinema. Among us, we talk about him like a friend; anytime we get blown away by a nuance in his films (like a goat munching on leaves next to Faizal and Mohsina in the Parmissan scene), we attribute it to his deliberation, his innate, indulgent haraminess (said in a nice way); we genuinely believe he is constantly pushing the envelope; and we were much happy (for him) and disappointed (for us) when he got it going with Kalki. No, we’re not gay for Anurag, unhein kabhi aisey dekha nahi, but as fanboy slackers, we found much to cheer in Anurag’s angst. And we were afraid that regular fucking would kill that angst. As I said, we talked about him like a friend.

For me personally, Anurag has been the angry young man that I looked up to, the Amitabh Bachchan of my generation. I am part of a larger reality of a country where specific movie experiences are life events, where there’s a symbiosis between characters on the screen and reality, both seamlessly affected by each other. It would be fair to say that I started watching foreign language films because of Anurag. When Anurag asked people to watch a film, I watched it. I have been reading Anurag’s writing for a long time. When Anurag had been related to any movie in any which way, I watched it. When people I knew by association with Anurag, when they made movies, I watched them too. And this simple philosophy has held me in good stead, in my own perspective expansion. Anurag wouldn’t lead you to a bad movie, period. I have discovered a lot of good cinema on Anurag’s recommendations, and not only content but the desire to watch more good content.

I have looked at him as an idol, not only because of the movies that he made, but because of his long and inspiring struggle, and the manner of his rebuttal through that struggle.

I am the kind who writes posts about Anurag Kashyap like these. If I had a good picture of Anurag as a poster, I would put it up in my room.

Jo bhi wrongva hai ussey set rightva karo ji; nahi lojiye ji hope, thoda fightva karo ji

This ritual actually didn’t even start with Anurag’s films, but with Johnny Gaddaar which released a month before No Smoking, in 2007. Johnny had blown our collective minds, right from the opening credits. Anurag’s earnest crowing had led me to the first day first show. I had seen Black Friday much before, in a scratchy 320*240 pixel video in early 2005. No movie of his henceforth has been missed.  Even Black Friday has got it’s ritual due posthumously, with repeat DVD home screenings.

Of the many build up conversations about Gangs of Wasseypur, a specific one had caught my eye while Anurag and the crew had been taking the movie to Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight.

From The leader of the pack,

“The big need in Indian cinema is to look within. Dibakar Banerjee and Vishal Bhardwaj stuck to the roots. I was the one who strayed. It is Tamil cinema which inspired me to return to my roots,” says Anurag, all set to display his gangs in Cannes. He clarifies it is not the mainstream masala fair from the South, which is inspiring Bollywood these days, that hooked him. “I got hooked to films like ‘Subramaniapuram’, ‘Adukulam’, ‘Paruthiveeran’…works of directors like Bala, Ameer Sultan and Vetrimaran. Watching these films, I realised I come from North India where many such stories exist in small towns and villages and I am stuck in cities.”

I had nodded that same evening to the ‘club’, “Saala Anurag ne zaroor koi gand-masti kari hai”.

It is foreboding and excitement both being an Anurag Kashyap fan. We are fond of thinking of Anurag as a rather extremist sabki lega guy. His characters, his actors, his fans, koi nahi bachega. His angst burns through everything, even “himself”. The character K in No Smoking represents Anurag’s creative force (or something such), and we all know how that turns out.

Oh, we were talking about my trepidation for Gangs of Wasseypur when I heard that Anurag has gone to his roots in the movie. Disclosure: I am a Bihari. A reluctant Bihari nevertheless, not proud of it at all. I had seen a national award winning “Bihari” film, Antardwand a little while back, and it had shook me. I imagined a far worse fate at the hands of Anurag. By invoking those two names – Vishal Bharadwaj and Dibakar Banerjee, he had stated something majestic.

I’m all in.

I have been suggesting (and gifting) Maqbool, Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (and Black Friday) DVDs as the first names I can think of when introducing new age indian cinema as world cinema. I got exactly what Anurag was saying when he said these film-makers have never struggled while creating characters because they come from that milieu.

No matter how global the story, or unfamiliar, if you describe it as truly as you see it, it becomes something people can understand. The Gonzo oath!

If a person writes about a scenario from an honest, personal view underlining his own contextual position, then the scenario being described - no matter how radical becomes understandable and relatable to the reader. The writing becomes independent of the person writing it, even though it is extremely personal writing. The reader’s brain decodes the context automatically if it has been honestly put in by the author, and eventually sees the scenario from the eyes of the observer, devoid of judgements.

From Raw appeal,

 “The international audience wants to see a country through its cinema. For them it is an aspect of our country,” says Kashyap. “Ninety per cent of the happy-go-lucky films that the overseas audiences have been exposed to are so unreal. When they see the strife and rural India, it is real India for them.”

On an aside, in the Hindu article quoted above, Anurag says this about Dibakar Banerjee,

“To me he is Hindi cinema biggest filmmaker. I don’t take the kind of responsibilities that Dibakar takes. I get very personal, at times indulgent. Mera cinema is pyaar zyada hai. I am a big cinephile. I remain limited to cinema. He is boundless. I am a researched filmmaker, he is an organic filmmaker. His observation of little-little things is marvellous. I don’t know what to do and how to do. I know what not to do. I negate things to make my way. Dibakar knows where he has to go. His music sense is very strong. I don’t know music. I have to scrape a lot. He is natural. Yes my destiny is perhaps better than Dibakar. He should be given the space that he deserves at the international level,”

But then Anurag is taking a film with 25 songs to Cannes!

So like earnest school boys couple of months back, we went into Gangs of Wasseypur -1. I mean, with the mood that the economy is fucked, future is black board, and even if apni to naiyya hai ram ke bharose re, chalo Anurag to film bana raha hai. The idea that if Anurag is making a film, he would be making a movie that he wants to make, no compromises; and that notion, even as a fan, is very liberating. It was good to hear the 5 hour film being received well at Cannes.

We sat through the film, and of the final scene, the stylistic shot of Sardar Khan’s demise in the middle of the road, Ameet exclaimed, “Ye to Godfather hai!” 

He had just started reading The Godfather a couple of days ago. By complete coincidence and sheer force of my will.

I scoffed, “Aisey to har gangster movie Godfather hai”. Then I saw Raja Sen’s comment that the final scene reminded him of the shooting down of Sunny Corleone. I could see how the lusty, easy to anger Sardar Khan could be a red herring for Sunny. Nevertheless, I was adamant that if the final scene of GoW part 1 had to remind someone of something in The Godfather, it had to be Vito Corleone’s death (well yes, The Godfather didn’t die then, in the book, the one in GoW did. Inspired from real life events.)

Long conversations about the choice of background music for the death scene were had, and the camera angles from down below, tracing the gun in the hand and sunlight gleaming off in the wide frame. The former discussion concluded, “Godfather mein Don is sicilian isliye sicilian music, yahan par Don is bihari, so bihari music.” The latter with the thought that in the whole movie as one five hour twenty minute entity, this would be a generational shift, shown so dramatically to underline something beyond the year printing on the side.

Then yesterday, I saw this video, a making of short for Jiya ho bihar ke lala, a song sung by Manoj Tiwari (a real world bihari superstar and bhojpuri singer) which plays as the background to the final scene. I have always loved these making of videos from Anurag’s films, and this one doesn’t disappoint. Check out Anurag’s reasoning for the song 20 seconds into the video. Bihari pride. Something that is playing on even as the person dies. The pain is not experienced by that who is singing but by that who is listening. Also see what he tells Manoj Tiwari after he gets out of the 20 min loop, “Ekdum end hone tak bajate rahenge isko theatre mein”

Overall, I had a lost feeling with Part 1. It was evident that Anurag ghus gaya hai and the coal mafia, and the politics were just the context (an excellent excuse for his story). Anurag had gone all out in Bihar.

Manoj Bajpayee was definitely playing Amitabh Bachchan, and Part 1 played out like an 80s action flick. Details in place. Everything pat. The acting fantastic.

But cui bono?

Why was Anurag making this movie? Why this story?

Sardar Khan is a fascinating character to be put on screen, a complete Bihari character, not a caricature of a bihari. I grew up seeing such characters. I grew up hating such characters.

Sardar Khan is guided by his baser instincts. For lust and for violence.

This was how gundagardi was in Bihar in the 70s-90s. And by a casting coup, Anurag got Manoj Bajpayee to play the lead. As Manoj says again and again over interviews, that their relationship is from the time Anurag was 25 (the latter quips in an interview, “Our wives still don’t know about it“), over three scripts that Anurag wrote for three landmark films, Satya, Kaun and Shool.

From here,

Filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, whose “Gangs Of Wasseypur” will be premiered at the ongoing 65th Cannes International Film Festival, says he is still unsure what convinced Manoj Bajpayee to say yes for the film.

“This film is based in North India and required actors who understood the language and the region. I have worked a lot with Manoj and his name cropped up in my mind first. I was sure that only Manoj can essay this role of Sardar Khan but we had not talked to each other for a long time,” the 39-year-old said.

“So, I took the lead and called him and said that I have a script. He immediately came at 11:30 in the night. He asked for red wine, finished the entire bottle, heard the script and gave his nod. I still don’t know whether it was the script or the bottle that made him say yes,” he added.

Kasam Paida Karney Wale Ki

Listen to Manoj describe his role,

Compelling character, pat context, but I felt the first part kept things hanging too much in the air. There was too much packed into it. The maniacal efficiency to endless details felt grating after a while, and I fell prey to the most ridiculous of all critic complaints, Why did you choose to tell this story? Why didn’t you lop this part? (that is of course, the film-maker’s prerogative, he made the story he wanted to make. It’s stupid asking why. Like why is the sky blue at this time of the day? Uska mann!)

I felt the grandfather Shahid Khan section had been included only in trying to maintain a long narrative attached with the coal bazari context. About the first bahubali, I didn’t see the sense in it, except for adding a first chapter, in how it added to the story.

Too much?

We were the ones who walked out of the theater before seeing the trailer for the second film. We didn’t know.

Na jaane ban mein kitne phool khile hain, har phool khussbudar nahi hota

Anurag reacted to a lot of such sentiments on twitter with “Arrey aisey kaisey? How can you make your opinion without seeing the whole movie?”

That was fair. I stopped reading reactions and reviews (even after watching the first part). Meanwhile, my mom was in Bangalore and I went for a second viewing with her. She was blown away, and raved about it enough to dad back home in Patna, raved so much that he went alone to watch the movie a couple of days later. For the first time in his life, my dad went to watch a movie alone in a theater. He was much perturbed by the first part, an expected reaction (over which mom and I had howled over earlier). He also managed to lose his mobile phone while getting back home from the theater, an eventuality that both mom and I see as an effect arising from the film.

My dad has grown up, studied, and worked all his life around Dhanbad. His engineering college was right in the middle of the coal belt, he worked his years in a government department overseeing industry in Bihar and Jharkhand all his life. He would have quite identified with Srivastav ji, “Aap to soche ki Srivastav saheb to khali kalam ghiste hain, koyla bajari ke baare mein inko kya pata hoga”.

Maartey hain kasayi mohalla, jaata hai kalkutta – Making of the Gun making scene

For two weeks sometime between the first movie and the second, Ameet vanished. He came out of it with a gleeful “Maine Godfather khatam kar di”. He beamed about it so much that I re-read it. The 6th or 7th time, I think. My first time was in Class 8th (from an old copy stuffed into a book rack about 9 feet from the floor. The book had belonged to my oldest uncle and had passed on to three of his younger brothers, judging by the signatures and dates affixed on the front page. I wasn’t supposed to reach it (and another book called Everything you always wanted to know about sex, but didn’t know who to ask) but reach it, I did, and devoured it, I did. Yessir. So this time around hearing him gasp like I did about Luca Brasi, and Sunny, and Michael, and Solazzo and all that first gladness of world you experience when you first read  that book, I desperately wanted to re-read the Michael in the restaurant scene or Michael in the hospital scene. So I read the whole thing.

Kab khoon khaulega re tera?

By the time the second movie rolled in, and we got to watching it (no first day first show this time around), we were like two excited school boys who had just read the Godfather. Let me clarify though, the part of the mind that had read the Godfather and the part of the mind that was excited about Wasseypur 2 were theoretically separate parts of the brain. We weren’t thinking of Wasseypur as a Godfather movie, no, Anurag hadn’t done anything simple like that. It was NOT a Spot-the-character movie either, though as fanboys we did spend much of the movie doing it. Just like in every Anurag Kashyap film, or with any bloody good film trying to give homage or tip the hat, it didn’t matter if you knew the original reference. Because, in a good movie, and in an Anurag Kashyap movie, the scene, the hat tip works just as well as it did originally, even in the far new different context it is placed in, without necessarily having an emotional connect with the inspiration.

To rephrase, we weren’t seeking out Godfather cues, just seeing out things from a bright just read Godfatherly light.

Too much disclaimer.

But it wasn’t until halfway through the second film watching Yashpal Sharma croon yet again through another wedding or burial that we honestly thought about the Godfather again. Ameet pointed and said, “Arrey, Ye to saala Johnny hai”Johnny in our lingo has always been that iconic character from the Sriram Raghavan film, so I was initially confused. I looked at Yashpal Sharma again and back again. Johnny?

Johnny Fontane!

Salaam-e-ishq meri jaan zara kabool kar lo

Mind blown instantly. The usual how the fuck did Anurag think this. Yashpal Sharma plays an item boy.

Got his part while sharing a flight with Anurag and getting bowled over by GoW’s music

Even at the end of GoW1, I couldn’t believe that Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character Faizal Khan would be playing the pivotal part in the second part of the movie. Not because Nawaz is not a great actor, but because Faizal, as he was introduced was such an unlikely hero

Who knew Tony Montana could wear a suave lungi?

The character feels so complete, so rich because in aforementioned Anurag fashion, while giving Nawaz the biggest role of his career, and an iconic character to burn the screen, he has put scenes like the Parmissan scene, picked from Nawaz’s real life.

Faizal Khan is a blister of a character, a Michael Corleone for the ages, a local mobster obsessed with Amitabh Bachchan, both in turn and independently inspired from Al Pacino. However, Nawaz chooses Scarface over Godfather, a Tony Montana in his lungi, amidst deep intakes of ganja smoke. The character song defining Faizal is the demonic Kaala Rey, a magnificent song reminiscent of Ganda hai par dhandha hai ye from Company.

Kaala re, Saiyyan kaala re,

Tan kaala re, mann kaala re,

Kaali zubaan ki kaali gaari,

Kaali din ki kaali shaamein,

Saiyyan karte ji coal bazari

He’s all black, body and soul and tongue, but it’s all business. A succinct sum up of the character. A marked difference from Sardar Khan, who is all Keh ke loonga. There is no angst, at least none that stays unresolved at the end.

Listen to Nawaz talk about his character,

From Baradwaj Rangan’s review of GoW2,

In the film’s finest sequence, which expands on the attack on Faizal’s home that began Part I, Faizal doesn’t confront his attackers. He, instead, climbs up to the terrace and jumps to the adjacent terrace and shimmies down a wall and breaks his foot and winces with pain and enlists the help of a neighbour to return home. And instantly, a hero, a protagonist, is reduced to a mere man, who has to visit the doctor to treat this broken bone and walk around in a plaster cast afterwards. This, Kashyap tells us, is what avengers are like – fools, sidetracked by love stories (Faizal is as much a fool for Mohsina as his father was for Durga), men with vague aims but without concrete plans. And this could be the reason for beginning Part I with this shootout – perhaps Kashyap was pointing to his intentions of myth-busting, as opposed to all those films where a revenge-oriented plot enabled heroic myth-making.

Even his hero is not the traditionally manly Danish (Vineet Kumar), who asserts his traditional manliness by stuffing his gun down the front of his pants, but the ganja-loving second son, whose smoking isn’t coy, like we’ve seen in the movies, with characters cupping their hands around their mouth – he sucks in the fumes like a vampire feasting on a long-denied infusion of lifeblood. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s performance is remarkable. He draws on this character trait and plays his part with an addict’s remoteness and cluelessness. (The scene where he demands to know what a pager does is a beauty.) At first, when Sardar Khan’s news reaches home and we see Danish so emotionally overwrought and Faizal in a stupor, we think it’s because he’s in shock. But soon we see that that’s how he is – he walks through life in a drugged-out daze. Kashyap’s two-part saga is, for the first time in our cinema, an acknowledgement of the accidental hero.

Gangs of Wasseypur 2 made it all very clear. Why the motivation for making the movie was telling the whole story? (After watching The Wire, my mind’s horizon has expanded, if ever so slightly. I now understand what Anurag means when he says the primary motivation was the chance to be able to tell the whole story). The movie was year stamped through out because there was an attempt at a parallel social, political and bollywood timeline. A generational shift was being described.

From the time one could hold hundreds of labourers in pouring rain inside a coal mine using just one pehelwan to now where everyone is a hero in his own film in his own head. I was overwhelmed with the spectrum of characters over the years. A daze when seen in part one, a buzz by the time part two ended.

Fan_poster_by_shitb-d4w3mi7

I understood why the first film had made me uncomfortable, whereas my parents loved it to bits. That was the 70s-80s. About that generation in Bihar. My father worked through the division of erstwhile Bihar into two states, first in Bihar, then in Jharkhand. We saw the moments, in the film which say that the people who were earlier looting the treasury were given the keys to it post the state division.

As for the conscience, Anurag says those who indulged in pilferage explained to themselves that when everybody is taking it why not they. “It was like bandarbat, everybody wanted his share. The film captures the changing nature of the business, the vengeance and the politics of it all through three generations of one family.”

This below is a beautiful interview with Anurag Kashyap by Anupama Chopra in NDTV’s Front Row. She confronts him with viewers’ reactions to the first movie, and it is enlightening to hear the things Anurag says.

I got the milieu of GoW2 perfectly. It was the bihari cool I had grown up with. The joke that Definite played on Perpendicular, involving the bike jump; I almost died laughing right there in the theater. It was the kind of jokes kids around me played, with no respect for life or limb, least of all for one’s own. Survival, for it’s own sake, wasn’t considered a big deal, like in the previous generation.

I noticed that I have had a very low gag reflex through the two movies. At absolutely unexpected moments, some inner chord gets tickled (embarrassment, presumably), and I burst out laughing and giggling through the entire scene. If you have one Bihari in a story, you could have a stereotype, if you have two, one could have two facets, more characters –  a more honest insistent exploration. This was a whole universe of Biharis. Over three generation of characters, I was overwhelmed! This is so far ahead of scratchy caricatures that it is futile counting milestones.

Anurag bhai has gone far ahead of the angry, frustrated young man that me and so many other slackers started identifying him with. Now he’s happy, he’s married, he’s making prideful statements about his roots. It shows in the movie.
Gangs of Wasseypur is a very mature world cinema statement. And it is not about angst. Unlike every other Anurag Kashyap film.
My favourite character in the film has my favorite dialogue too. Tigmanshu Dhulia, effortlessly playing Ramadhir Singh, the Bill of this Kill Bill is discussing reasons for his longevity with his cronies. He asks, “Humne isko maara, usko maara. Why do you think I have outlasted all of them?” A helpful bahubali says, “Kyonki Babu saheb sabse bade bahubali hain”. Ramadhir Singh bashfully blushes but shakes his head. He then says “Kyonki hum cinema (pronounced sanima) nahi dekhte hain”.
He goes on to describe fascination among the laundas for Dileep Kumar, Bachchan Amitabh (the laundiyas liked Dev Anand on to Rajesh Khanna), aur wo bada achha sa naam hai Salman Khan. Yahan sabke sar mein alag picture chal rahi hai.
Jab tak hindustan mein sanima hai, log chutiye bante rahenge
That is some statement! In a cinema obsessed country, delivered by cinema.

Ramadhir Singh hasn’t changed. He says, in all seriousness, “Hindustan mein jab tak cinema hai, log chutiya bante jayenge.”

But we don’t take this statement seriously. We laugh at it because if cinema didn’t exist, Kashyap wouldn’t exist. It’s like the anti-smoking warning on a pack of cigarettes – it means nothing to the addict. Gangs of Wasseypur would not have been possible if Kashyap hadn’t been so drunk on cinema – like Quentin Tarantino, the universe he creates is drawn less from life around us than how the movies have depicted life around us. And his peculiar achievement – and, finally, a praiseworthy one – is that he draws from our cinema and, at the same time, denounces it.

I realize I haven’t talked at all about the women in the movie, or Sneha Khanwalkar, whose music makes this saga pulsate with life. I wouldn’t be able to do justice to either. Instead, I am linking to behind the scene, making of the songs, watch how they came together.
Making of songs – Sneha Khanwalkar and Varun Grover
English translation of some song lyrics by Renuka Kunzru, Neeraj Ghaywan, and Varun Grover.
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Up, close and personal with Characters and Actors
1. Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee)
2. Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui)
3. Nasir Ahmed (Piyush Mishra)
4. Definite (Zeishan Quadri)
5. Perpendicular (Aditya Kumar)
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Making of:

Gangs of Wasseypur = Some 30 Crores. Ek Tha Tiger = 200 crores and counting

Damn who’s a sexy bitch? (Excerpt from Money by Martin Amis)

Excerpt from Money, by Martin Amis

Vintage misogyny

(John Self has just found out that his girlfriend Selina has been fucking around his back. All now to the tune of Sexy Bitch by David Guetta, Akon, and apparently Pitbull too)

I’d better give you the lowdown on Selina — and quick. That hot bitch, what am I letting her do to me?

Like many girls (I reckon), and especially those of the small, supple, swervy, bendy, bed-smart variety, Selina lives her life in hardened fear of assault, molestation and rape. The world has ravished her often enough in the past, and she thinks the world wants to ravish her again. Lying between the sheets, or propped at my side during long and anxious journeys in the Fiasco, or seated across the table in the deep lees of high-tab dinners, Selina has frequently refreshed me with tales of insult and violation from her childhood and teenage years — a musk-breathing, toffee-offering sicko on the common, the toolshed interrogations of sweat-soaked parkies, some lumbering retard in the alley or the lane, right up to the narcissist photographers and priapic prop-boys who used to cruise her at work, and now the scowling punks, soccer trogs and bus-stop boogies malevolently lining the streets and more or less constantly pinching her ass or flicking her tits and generally making no bones about the things they need to do… It must be tiring knowledge, the realization that half the members of the planet, one on one, can do what the hell they like with you.

And it must be extra tough on a girl like Selina, whose appearance, after many hours at the mirror, is a fifty—fifty compromise between the primly juvenile and the grossly provocative. Her tastes are strictly High Street too, with frank promise of brothelly knowhow and top-dollar underwear. I’ve followed Selina down the strip, when we’re shopping, say, and she strolls on ahead, wearing sawn-off jeans and a wash-withered T-shirt, or a frilly frock measuring the brink of her russety thighs, or a transparent coating of gossamer, like a condom, or an abbreviated school uniform … The men wince and watch, wince and watch. They buckle and half turn away. They shut their eyes and clutch their nuts. And sometimes, when they see me cruise up behind my little friend and slip an arm around her trim and muscular waist, they look at me as if to say — Do something about it, will you ? Don’t let her go about the place looking like that. Come on, it’s your responsibility.

I have talked to Selina about the way she looks. I have brought to her notice the intimate connections between rape and her summer wardrobe. She laughs about it. She seems flushed, pleased. I keep on having to fight for her honour in pubs and at parties. She gets groped or goosed or propositioned — and there I am once again, wearily raising my scarred dukes. I tell her it’s because she goes around the place looking like a nude magazine. She finds this funny too. I don’t understand. I sometimes think that Selina would stand stock still in front of an advancing juggernaut, so long as the driver never once took his eyes off her tits.

In addition to rape, Selina is frightened of mice, spiders, dogs, toadstools, cancer, mastectomy, chipped mugs, ghost stories, visions, portents, fortune tellers, astrology columns, deep water, fires, floods, thrush, poverty, lightning, ectopic pregnancy, rust, hospitals, driving, swimming, flying and ageing. Like her fat pale lover, she never reads a book. She has no job any more: she has no money. She is either twenty-nine or thirty-one or just possibly thirty-three. She is leaving it all very late, and she knows it. She will have to make her move, and she will have to make it soon.

I don’t believe Alec, necessarily, but I won’t believe Selina, that’s for sure. In my experience, the thing about girls is—you never know. No, you never do. Even if you actually catch them, redhanded—bent triple upside down in mid-air over the headboard, say, and brushing their teeth with your best friend’s dick—you never know. She’ll deny it, indignantly. She’ll believe it, too. She’ll hold the dick there, like a mike, and tell you that it isn’t so, I have been faithful to Selina Street for over a year, God damn it. Yes I have. I keep trying not to be, but it never works out. I can’t find anyone to be unfaithful to her with. They don’t want what I have to offer. They want commitment and candour and sympathy and trust and all the other things I seem to be really short of. They are past the point where they’ll go to bed with somebody just for the hell of it. Selina is past that point also, long past. She used to be a well-known goer, true, but now she has her future security to think about. She has money to think about. Ah, Selina, come on. Tell me it isn’t so.