Monthly Archives: August 2010

Book Launch: ‘Aftertaste’ by Namita Devidayal

The Hindu

It’s about food, family, money, mithai and manipulation… Namita Devidayal’s second novel, “Aftertaste”, the deliciously wicked saga of a Baniya family, is very different from her much-acclaimed debut novel “The Music Room”, set in the stately world of Hindustani classical music.

And not everyone is happy about that.

“It’s a problem in our country with slotting — either you’re a ‘serious writer’ writing about classical music, or you’re a ‘light writer’ in the mould of Chetan Bhagat,” she said at the launch of “Aftertaste” in Landmark recently. “Now people expect me to write another book on the classical arts, but I just wanted to have fun with this book, and wanted readers to have fun as well.”

“Aftertaste” takes you into the fascinating world of the Marwari business community, where money is king. “This is a unique world one has no access to, a world where the currency of all emotion and exchange is money,” said Namita, a Mumbai-based journalist. “To me it’s as amazing as the world of Indian classical music.”

It tells the story of the dysfunctional Todarmal family, owners of a successful mithai shop in Mumbai’s Kalbadevi district, its formidable matriarch Mummyji, her emasculated sons, conniving daughters and their resentful spouses.

“Mummyji is based on a lot of grandmothers in the community, semi-destructive towards her own children without meaning to be,” she said, in conversation with Ranvir Shah. “One of the themes I wanted to explore is how Indian families can be both nurturing and destructive, and yet, they’re the place of last resort, where we turn to for support.”

Unlike “The Music Room”, which was semi-autobiographical, “Aftertaste” is all fiction, though Namita did get some help from family and others in the community. “I’ve drawn on anecdotes from many extended Baniya uncles,” she said, “And I went around tasting a lot of the mithai!”

You can almost smell the ghee and taste the sweets as you read the book; they’re virtually like characters in the novel, colourful, seductive and powerful. “The mithai is a metaphor. Food is a very big part of Indian families and for Mummyji, it’s a means of control over her family,” she said.

Naturally, the conversation at the launch turned toward what her third book is likely to be about. “I’m fascinated with the subject of marriage, but I don’t know what form the book will take,” she said.

One thing’s for sure; we can’t predict what it’ll be like from her first two novels. “I’m proud to be a multi-faceted person and I’d like to explore those different facets,” she said. “The third book will be as different as this one is from the first.”

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Book launch: ‘The Pleasure Seekers’ by Tishani Doshi

Photo: S.S. Kumar

This might have been the toughest book launch event Tishani Doshi has had to attend.

“It’s very unnerving to be in a position where I know so many people in the audience,” she said with a laugh during the launch of her debut novel,The Pleasure Seekers at Taj Connemara. “I feel you already know so much about me — it’s almost better to have anonymity to start with and have the audience get to know you!”

It was a little unnerving for a couple of other people in the audience as well — her parents, since the book for the most part is inspired by their Gujarati-Welsh marriage and the ‘hybrid’ family that resulted.

“My parents are here and I know they’re squirming in their seats,” she said with a smile. “But it’s an amazing story — I know I’ve never met any other Welsh-Gujaratis!”

Launched earlier in the U.K. to considerable acclaim, The Pleasure Seekers tells the story of Babo, a Gujarati boy who leaves his traditional family behind in Madras to study in London only to fall completely and irrevocably in love with Sian, a Welsh girl from an equally traditional family. How Sian comes all the way to Madras to make her life with him (and his family), and how they create their own little world with their daughters Mayuri and Bean in the “house of orange and black gates” forms the rest of this warm and heartfelt novel.

“This is not a memoir — it’s a re-inventing of their story,” said Tishani, in conversation with musician Susheela Raman. “I took the bits I found interesting and layered and added to it until, over time, the real people faded away and I was left with the characters of my own making.”

The book has been nearly a decade in the making, during which time Tishani has, of course, done a number of other things, including journalism, dancing with the iconic Chandralekha and writing poetry. Naturally, some influences from these other experiences have seeped into the novel — particularly, it appears, in the central character of Ba, Babo’s grandmother, a wise and almost mystical figure in the book.

“I’ve always maintained that Chandralekha was the biggest influence in my life,” she said. “Ba isn’t a portrait of Chandralekha, but does have elements of her. Her house, especially, was my inspiration for Ba’s home in Ganga Bazaar — a place to discover stuff, to heal.”

The book is also an exploration of Tishani’s own experiences of growing up as a ‘hybrid’. “It came out of my own need to answer the question — where do I come from?” she said. “Now, being from many places is much more accepted, but growing up, I was quite perplexed by it.”

Unsurprisingly, the question and answer session that followed focussed quite a bit on the blurring of lines between fact and fiction.

“As a writer, you’re interested in telling stories, and real life has great stories,” said Tishani. “You’re a magpie, stealing all these memories, yours and other people’s, for your nest… the blurring happens quite organically.”

So what’s next for the writer, dancer and poet? More multi-tasking, it appears. “I find wearing multiple hats liberating,” she laughed. “Writing a novel can feel like you’re teetering on the edge of despair, so I’m happy to be writing poetry again, and to be doing a dance performance at the end of the year!”

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Movie Review: Grown Ups

Here’s the thing about ‘Grown Ups.’ Yes, it’s poorly crafted — hardly any plot to speak of — and is quite silly and gross in parts (as expected, several done-to-death gags on various bodily functions, plus a running joke on breast-feeding). But it’s just so good-natured and its leads are just having so much fun together that it’s impossible to actively dislike it.

It’s really not worth going into the story (such as it is). Suffice to say that five friends reunite after 30 years at their high school basketball coach’s funeral and spend the weekend of July 4 at a lake house with their families. None of the rest matters. Because this flick is just about putting together the ex-Saturday Night Live gang of Adam Sandler, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider and David Spade — with the addition of the loveably goofy Kevin James — and letting them have a ball.

The camaraderie between the guys is obvious. From the moment the five meet up on screen, they basically pick on each other mercilessly. The jokes are sometimes mean, sometimes lame, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, and most often seem like they were ad-libbed on the spot or are in-jokes among the guys. You can just see they’re enjoying themselves, and that’s infectious.

It also has some genuinely hilarious bits — Rock as a tantrum-throwing house husband, and Schneider as a super-sensitive new age sop with a flapping toupee are just inspired choices. And like most Sandler comedies, the movie has at its core a sweet message. This time it’s about those good old-fashioned childhood pastimes — playing out there in the sun and splashing about in a lake — that are being forgotten in our world of video games and designer clothes for 12 year olds.

Amazingly, the ladies aren’t completely forgotten in this boys’ reunion — they do tend to take second place and disappear off screen for long bits, but we actually get to see them having fun together. Sandler’s super-successful fashion designer wife, played by Salma Hayek, is possibly the most real character in the movie. Hayek brings depth to her role (not to mention oomph); she almost seems too good to be part of this crew.

Of course, all the ‘issues’ in each family (never particularly well-explored except in Hayek and Sandler’s case) are simplistically resolved in a single scene. And then the movie limps to its good-natured end. But with its beautiful backdrop of Maine and its essential harmlessness, it’s hard to be mad at this breezy summer flick.

Genre: Comedy
Director: Dennis Dugan
Cast: Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, David Spade and Salma Hayek.
Storyline: Five friends reunite for the 4th of July weekend after their high school coach passes away.
Bottomline: A feel-good flick that’s good for a few laughs.

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Article: Memories of Maria

A photograph published in MetroPlus results in the coming together of nine surviving students of Italian educationist Maria Montessori for a unique reunion after seven decades.

Photo: N. Sridharan

It’s a hot, sunny afternoon, and a group of elderly gentlemen and women sits patiently under the trees at Kalakshetra Foundation, waiting for the event to begin.

It seems like any ordinary meeting, except it’s not — it’s a reunion of a most remarkable sort.

These nine men and women are the surviving students of the great Italian educationist Maria Montessori herself, and they’ve come together for a reunion — for the first time — nearly 70 years after they were classmates in her schoolroom.

When a group of adorable current-day Montessori students joins us the for the prayer song, the mood is truly set, and we rewind to the time when these septuagenarians were four or five years old themselves — memories of Maria and her adopted son Mario, of Easter eggs and biscuits, and all those things one tends to treasure as a child.

“I still remember the party Maria gave soon after the school was inaugurated — there were cakes, sweets, candles and gifts to be given to us kids,” says K.V.S. Krishna, who was instrumental in putting together the event after the idea was sparked off by a photograph that appeared in The Hindu (see box). “I was always hungry, and I grabbed as much as I could!”

The year was 1939, and Maria had fled to India with Mario, after being exiled by Mussolini during the Second World War. Invited to Madras by G.S. Arundale, she arrived that November, and set up her school at the beautiful old Olcott Garden bungalow on the Theosophical Society grounds.

“Our classes would be held in the ground floor of the bungalow, and we’d have a session of biscuits afterwards,” recalls A.Y. Nithiananda. “I remember, Madam Montessori would be wearing a kunguma pottu just like I am now.”

Some of the memories that surface at the reunion are poignant, such as P.K. Prabhakar’s recollection of the only time he ever saw Madam Maria cry — when she went to see Mario at Pallavaram, where he was interned as a prisoner of war.

When Maria wept

“By the good graces of Mr. Arundale, she could go visit him twice a year, and one of those times, Mario asked her to bring me along — he used to be very fond of me and would call me ‘Paiyya’,” says Prabhakar, the senior-most at the reunion. “When I saw Mario, I rushed to him, and extended my hand, and the sergeant in charge hit me with a baton. And, Maria started crying, saying: ‘No one should hit a child’.”

When they returned to the bungalow, Prabhakar says, she gave him chocolate and made him a promise — she would ensure no one hurt him like that again. “She taught me that one’s love for others is more important than all the education in the world,” he says.

Other anecdotes are in a lighter vein, such as R. Sivakami’s, at being asked to garland Maria on her birthday (“I was so proud to be chosen out of the 22!” she laughs), and a touching email from Sivakami’s brother S. Padmanabhan in Germany, whose aptitude for engineering Maria predicted back then (he ended up becoming one of the earliest staff members of the IIT Madras mechanical engineering department).

Plenty of chocolates

“She would always ruffle my hair and call me ‘bambino’,” writes Padmanabhan. “And, around Easter, there were always plenty of chocolate eggs!”

The picture that emerges is one of a remarkably warm woman who loved children and loved being with them. Sivakami remembers how Maria would often just sit and watch them at work: “Some days she would be on a dais, watching what we were doing, and some days, she would come and sit right by us and observe us.”

As the afternoon wears on, it also becomes obvious that there’s a strong sense of kinship amongst the people present. They’re more than just old classmates — they all seem to know each other’s relatives and friends, and they tease each other and squabble as if they’re family. Which is what they are, says Prabhakar. “Most of us come from a Theosophical Society background, so we, virtually, are all one family,” he laughs.

The sultry afternoon turns into a rain-splattered evening, and the remarkable reunion is at an end. The group disperses and slowly shuffles away, but Maria’s legacy remains, in the hearts and memories of her former students, the ones who could make it to the meet and the ones who couldn’t.

Box: How it all happened

It all began with a photograph. In the MetroPlus column Memories of Madras of September 9, 2009, titled ‘A Bridge with a View’ we carried a black-and-white picture of six students with Maria Montessori at Olcott bungalow.

When Gabriele Binder, executive director of the Montessori Society, Baden Württemberg, Germany, who has been studying Maria’s days in India for the last six years saw the picture, she immediately contacted K.V.S. Krishna, a former student of Maria’s whom she was told could help her.

“I was already in touch with 12 or 13 of the former students who were in Chennai,” says Krishna. “After Gabriele contacted me, we traced 16 of them, and then 19 all over India and abroad. Best of all, we’ve now identified four of the six children in the picture!”

Soon, plans were made for the grand reunion. Naturally, Binder was present, recording the interviews of the students. She had just one thing left to say at the end: “I’m glad you published that article!”

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How to… be a gadget guru

1. Research. You spend sleepless nights on intense online research. You visit every techie site; you memorise every spec of the gadget down to the last byte or circuit or megapixel. You spend every weekend glued to your computer screen obsessing over which version of the gadget you need (putting up colour-coded charts mapping out the pros and cons of each is optional). For a true-blue gadget geek, this is possibly the most important step of the process; even more than the actual acquisition.

2. Acquisition. This one is obvious, of course. There is no question of not buying it. Whether you have to repeatedly outbid a fellow bloodshot-eyed geek for it on eBay or you have to have it shipped at five times the cost of the gadget itself from some obscure corner of Japan or Germany; whether you need to pitch a tent outside the store overnight to be The First to own one or you have to trawl the grey market to get hold of it from a one-eyed Burmese pirate. The bottom line is, you must own the gadget.

3. Give gyan. Once you own it, the job of the gadget guru is spread the word. Constantly. Loudly. And in exhaustive detail. Whether people around you want to hear it or not. All those weeks of research have made you a walking, talking fount of wisdom on the subject and you can’t contain yourself. Whether you’re at a la-di-da cocktail party or at a stodgy office meeting, your mission is clear — inform the poor, technologically Stone Age masses around you just what they’re missing out on.

4. Online gyan. Let’s face it. Sometimes there just aren’t enough ‘real people’ around to enlighten. And for some strange reason, they don’t seem to appreciate being lectured to by you. So, once again, you take recourse to the Internet, that haven for geeks of all sorts. Now that you know it all and own it all, you get to be the one writing those long, supercilious reviews on techie websites. You get to put newbies and trolls alike in their place, and smack down pretenders to guru-dom online. Ah yes, being a gadget guru was never so sweet.

5. Rinse and repeat. Unfortunately, the cruel truth is that there is no rest for the gadget geek. Because that next and improved gadget is always just around the corner, and if you stand around gloating for too long, the snotty-nosed kid down the street will end up owning it before you do. And there’s nothing sadder than a gadget guru with (gasp) an outdated toy. So it must begin again — research, acquisition, gyan… and you wouldn’t want it any other way.

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Enthiran music review

It’s finally here — the music of the much-awaited Rajinikanth-Aishwarya Rai starrer “Enthiran — The Robot”. Chennai may have lost out on hosting the formal music launch event (it was held in Malaysia), but the album has hit the stands in stores across the city, and it’s time to check out what the maestro A.R. Rahman has to offer the Superstar this time, after their super-successful last outing in “Sivaji — The Boss”.

The first track of the album, Pudhiya Manidha, truly sets the mood. A futuristic trance number, the song is all robotic voices and hypnotic rhythms, and captures your imagination right away. In typical Rahman style, it’s more than just another trance track — it also has a haunting, invocatory tone, both in the lyrics by Vairamuthu (the recurring refrain is “Pudhiya manidha boomiku vaa”) and in the music itself, which can be goose-bump inducing. A terrific opening for an otherworldly sci-fic epic’s soundtrack, for sure.

Kadhal Anukkal, the second number, is the perfect contrast to the first, and opens with a gorgeous guitar intro. A lilting romantic duet, sung with style by Vijay Prakash (and ably supported by the sweet-voiced Shreya Ghosal), this song comes as a breath of fresh air, infused as it is with pretty harmonies and dreamy musical interludes. In an album filled with thumping beats and futuristic robotic voices, it provides welcome respite (even if its lyrics are liberally sprinkled with words such as ‘neutron’ and ‘electron’ and ‘Newton’). An instantly appealing number, with Rahman at his melodic best.

And then, it’s back to future with Irumbile Oru Irudhaiyam (featuring Rahman and Kash n’ Krissy), a purely techno track with pounding breakbeats, a mix of English and Tamil lyrics, and more of the computerised voices and sound effects and such. It’s almost certain to become all the rage at clubs around the city, along with the next track, Chitti Dance Showcase, which, as the name suggests, is a hardcore dance number, with virtually no lyrics. Chitti…has such an eclectic mix of rhythms and styles that only Rahman could have carried it off — some hip-hop, some heavy metal guitar riffs, and even some symphony orchestra and konnakol mixed in for good measure, all set to frenetic beats. It’s a short piece, but boy, does it pack a punch.

There are some things you expect from every album of a Superstar movie, and one of them is His Song. You know, that wonderfully celebratory number to which Rajini will fill the screen in his inimitable style. For “Enthiran” , Arima Arima is that song. It has the triumphant trumpet calls and the majestic drums, the chorus singing praises; just a dramatic piece overall to which you can picture Rajini striding forward, jacket flying regally behind him.

Kilimanjaro, the penultimate number in the album, is quintessentially Rahman. A playful and quirky song with an infectious refrain and a thumping beat, it features some lively vocals by Javed Ali and Chinmayi. It has tribal-sounding interludes, but manages to be super-modern at the same time, and grows on you with every listen. Quite likely to become one of the immediately popular numbers from the album. The final number, Boom Boom Robo Da with a rap track by Yogi B, is one of the slightly more forgettable songs in the album, though has its moments too, with its multiple elements, including a softly Latin interlude, and a title refrain that’s likely to keep looping your head.

The album is classic Rajnikanth in parts, classic Rahman in others, with a heavy-duty dash of the futuristic thrown in.The emphasis on techno and dance might mean it isn’t to everyone‘s tastes, but overall, it’s unlikely to disappoint fans of either the Superstar or the Mozart of Madras.

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