Daily Archives: July 21, 2011

Book Launch: Amitav Ghosh’s ‘River of Smoke’

Photo: K.V. Srinivasan

Details of Napoleon Bonaparte’s exile at St. Helena, the intricacies of Parsi-Gujarati slang, and the wonders of the ancient Guangdong province of China.

The recent launch of Amitav Ghosh’s “River of Smoke,” the sequel to his bestselling “Sea of Poppies,” covered almost as much ground as the epic seafaring tale itself. Anyone in the packed audience at the Ballroom in Taj Coromandel who’d not already read the book was left in no doubt of the sheer scale of the story, which travels from Mauritius to China and from India to Europe, and the remarkable breadth of Ghosh’s research in recreating an all but forgotten time.

Former Governor of West Bengal Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who was in conversation with the author, opened the evening by saying in his lyrical way that this was a book that could be read over and over again, and analysed for its language, characters and plot, but “couldn’t be mastered.” “Not because it’s heavy or because it’s long, but because it makes you encounter, hold and behold, and witness the enormous canvas that goes beyond the book,” he said.

Set in the 19th Century, “River of Smoke” tells the story of Bahram Modi, a wealthy Parsi opium merchant from Bombay, his half-Chinese son Ah Fatt and others, and traces the period immediately preceding The Opium Wars, an event which Ghosh believes is of far greater historical significance than previously realised. “In the future, I believe people will be taught that their modern world began with The Opium Wars, and not the French Revolution, as we were told,” he said.

It is a time about which very little is known today, which is why Ghosh had to reconstruct it “brick by brick”, unearthing fascinating old documents such as the Laskari dictionary, outlining the forgotten pidgin language used by the seafaring Laskars and their European commanding officers (“I combed through the Harvard library and hey presto! There it was, written in 1812 and published in Calcutta!”). Then there’s the 1940s treatise on Parsi-Gujarati that he found, and the time he spent travelling around the “miraculous” 2000-year-old province of Guangdong…

How did he do it? That was the question posed to him by Gandhi and by the members of the audience. Did he feel weighed down by all that research? “Not at all,” Ghosh said. “The work is endlessly rewarding, whether it’s the pleasure of finding out new things or travelling to new places. I don’t know what I’d do without it!”

“Young authors are told to write about what they know,” he added, “but I feel one should write about what nobody knows. These are vanished, evanescent worlds that you have to rebuild, and to me, that’s very exciting.”

His long, detailed reading from the book gave the audience a feel of the world of “River of Smoke”, as he took them onboard a sailing vessel with Bahram, then into Bonaparte’s home when in exile at St. Helena, all the while making them chuckle at the engaging dialogue marked by his unique use of language.

Not surprisingly, Kamini Mahadevan of Penguin India called “River of Smoke” Penguin’s biggest fiction book of the year. “It’s been launched to wide acclaim in the U.K. and is already topping the charts in India — all in just three weeks,” she said, speaking at the launch.

It couldn’t happen at a more meaningful time, as general manager of Taj Coromandel, N. Prakash noted: “This is the 25th year since Amitav’s first book, ‘Circle of Reason,’ was published, which makes this evening all the more special.”

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Book Launch – ‘R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music’

The smiles came instantly, the feet started tapping of their own accord, and heads swayed to the lively tunes. The enduring magic of Pancham da’s music was on ample display as a medley of some of his best-loved hits played before the launch of the book,R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music at Crossword recently.

Clips of songs such as ‘Aaja Aaja’, ‘Kaanta Laga’, ‘Chura liya’, ‘Chingari koi bhadke’, ‘Aaja piya tohe pyar du’ and ‘Oh majhi re’ played for mere seconds, but it was enough to set the mood for an event that was all about remembering R.D. Burman’s remarkable contribution to Hindi film music.

The walk down memory lane was lead by none other than the evergreen singer S.P. Balasubrahmanyam, who talked about his decade-long acquaintance with the music director.

“We first met in the mid-1970s, when he’d come to perform in Chennai, along with Asha Bhonsle and Bhupinder, at the University auditorium,” recalled SPB. “Unfortunately, the sound system there was miserable on the first day, so I gave him my own sound system for the second show, and met him afterwards. I was literally just a ‘chhota-mota’ singer back then!”

The first song they did together was ‘Baaghon mein khile hain’ for “Shubhkamna” (1983), and their musical association lasted until SPB recorded ‘Aaja Meri Jaan’ in 1993. “It was the last song I did for him, and it’s a number that is still talked about in musical circles,” said the singer. “I get very sentimental when I sing it; I always keep it for the end of any stage performance.”

The packed audience was treated to a mini-musical biography of the great composer, as SPB talked about Pancham da’s struggles to emerge from his father’s shadow, his genius with syncopation (“he was the human embodiment of rhythm”), his punctuality during recordings (“I once came 15 minutes late and really got it from him!”), and later, Pancham’s regrets over the way he was treated by some filmmakers during the low phase of his career.

The evening ended as it began — with music — as SPB fans in the audience requested him to sing for them. He obliged with ‘Khoya khoya chand’ and ‘Sach mere yaar hai’ (his duet with Kishore Kumar for R.D. Burman in “Saagar”), his voice soaring effortlessly over the hubbub at the bookstore (he drew the line at a request for his ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ songs, though, saying in his gentle way, “that’s not relevant”).

“My acquaintance with Pancham was not, perhaps, as much as that of some senior singers,” he said later, “but I grabbed this opportunity to speak about him because I still live with his music every day.”

 

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How to… be house proud

1.    The first step is doing up said house or flat to your absolute satisfaction. This means obsessing over every little change you make, whether it’s finding that exact shade of yellow paint for your bedroom walls (Daffodil Delight or Mango Madness?), or the perfect curtains to go with the oh-so-classy raw-silk cushions and art-deco lamps in the living room.

2.    This, of course, requires exhaustive research. Trawl through every home décor website for ideas, and then stalk sellers on eBay or Amazon so you can finally own that antique-finish Colonial-style oak desk (that’s ‘distressed’ just so). Make repeated trips to every local furniture/furnishings store, and collect catalogues and fabric swatches like they’re going out of style. Bring them home with you and obsess over which rug pattern goes with which embroidered bedspread etc. to your long-suffering family late into the night.

3.    Once the essentials – paint, furniture, carpets and so on – are in place, dedicate every free afternoon or weekend to ‘home improvements’. Hunt for the perfect plants (and by extension, the perfect planters and pots – nothing too earthy or too funky) for your entryway. Haunt every gallery in the city for that dream piece of art for your living room. Dog the footsteps of your carpenter until he creates that dream bookshelf for your study. And in any time left over, take on hopelessly ambitious do-it-yourself projects – there can be joy in suffering.

4.    Once the home is ready, have guests over regularly so you can show it off to as many people as possible. Clean and polish it from top to bottom before each ‘showing’, and then insist on conducting a guided tour of each room (going over every design decision you made in exhaustive detail) whether the guests are interested or not (pointedly ignore yawns or any attempts to change the subject). Once the guests settle down, make sure you hand out napkins, coasters, etc. and make loud hissing noises at the slightest sign of a food/drink spill; remember, prevention is better than cure.

5.    When you feel the house is truly ‘done’, every available space bulging with knick-knacks, curios and potted plants, and more importantly, it has been satisfactorily shown off to every single one of your acquaintances, it’s time to strip it down and start all over again. Pick a new colour scheme, or a new design concept (Persian passion or postmodern pastiche), and go back to Tip No. 1. After all, the house proud are happiest only when working on a new home project.

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How to… beat Monday morning blues

1.    Don’t do a Google search on ‘How to beat Monday morning blues’. You’ll just end up gagging on annoyingly upbeat advice such as ‘go for a brisk run’ or ‘take a cold shower’ or (shudder) ‘go to bed earlier on Sunday night’. All perfectly sensible suggestions, of course, but not really what you want to hear when you’re suffering from a bad case of the Monday-morning grumps.

2.    For the same reasons, make sure you stay away from chronically cheerful people at home or in the workplace (our condolences if your significant other is the sort who leaps out of bed in the morning singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ at the top of his or her voice). Nothing makes a bad mood worse than being faced with excessive positivity and bouncy happiness, especially before you’ve had your second (or fourth or fifth) cup of coffee.

3.    Caffeine is your best friend. Load up on coffee – black, café latte, frappe, it doesn’t matter. Tea is okay at a pinch, but none of that wimpy green tea stuff. You want your caffeine strong and potent so that you’re too wired to sit still and are forced to be functional, even if work of any sort is the last thing you want to be doing. Note: sugary, chocolaty doughnuts, muffins, and other such junk food are always a plus (sugar rush!).

4.    Allow yourself to wallow. Sometimes you just need to let a bad mood be. Listen to mope-y music (emo music or sad-sack love songs, whatever works for you). Post depressing messages on Facebook or Twitter, and whine and grouse along with fellow mopers. Remember, you’ll feel a whole lot better if you can spread some of the gloom around – ‘misery loves company’ is never truer than on a Monday morning.

5.    Just stay in bed. This is, of course, the final recourse, for that Monday when absolutely nothing else works. Cash in on that sick day you were saving up, crank up the air-conditioner, snuggle down deeper into your duvet and go right back to sleep. If there’s a better cure for the blues, it’s yet to be discovered by man. (Warning: this particular remedy may cause unpleasant side-effects such as ‘No-job-itis’, so use sparingly).

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How to… be an online lurker

1.    They say that lurkers comprise about 90 per cent of the online population, so you probably think being one couldn’t be that hard. But it takes some serious dedication to spend hours and hours hanging about on various websites, forums, social networking sites, etc. without contributing a thing. Keep eye-drops handy to help those tired, strained eyes; flex that mouse-holding hand often, and invest in a comfy computer chair. You’re not going to be moving from that spot for a while.

2.    Remember – however moving the blog entry, however much you enjoyed the Youtube video, however exciting the conversation on the forum, the first commandment of lurker-hood is ‘Thou Shalt Not Comment.’ You can register on the forums/blogs, etc. In fact, you should – how else can you get access to everything and lurk properly? You can dream up comments in your head. You can even compose them on the page, but you never actually hit enter and post.

3.    Of course, just because you don’t participate, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get deeply involved in the flame wars / discussions on these websites. Drop by the site every few hours. Follow conversation threads obsessively and hit refresh repeatedly to see how the drama unfolds. Know all the regulars by their usernames, and have the ‘history’ of the online community down pat. In other words, treat it all like a soap opera that’s happening in real-time, and follow all developments with bated breath.

4.    As a lurker, you should be aware that your kind tends to get a bad rap from the average self-righteous net denizen. You might get called a ‘moocher’ who just consumes content and doesn’t contribute, or be painted as the sloth of the online universe, who can’t be bothered to do any thing more than stare at the screen slack-jawed. To this, dear lurker, you must just turn deaf ears. Only you know how much effort goes into lurking. And your (very frequent) visits still register loudly on page-view hit counters –they don’t just go up to the thousands by themselves!

5.    Finally, every lurker has that moment when he’s seized by a strong desire to ‘de-lurk’ and post something after months of silent snooping. Your heart starts pounding and your palms get all sweaty at the thought of revealing yourself to the regulars, but you can’t fight the temptation. So stick to the following rules: make sure you have a username like ‘Anon123’ (so it’s obvious that you’re a lurker at heart), restrict your comment to something inane like ‘lol’, and then return gratefully to your natural state – lurking.

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