Category Archives: People

Article: Personal yet universal (screening of Kimberly Reed’s ‘Prodigal Sons’)

Carol McKerrow, Marc McKerrow and Kimberly Reed

It was an evening of sharing and cross-cultural exchange, an evening that showed just how universal the search for identity and acceptance is, whether it’s under the wide Montana sky or in the sultry streets of Chennai.

The event was the screening of ‘Prodigal Sons’, an acclaimed documentary by transgender filmmaker Kimberly Reed, at the U.S. Consulate auditorium as part of the city’s ongoing Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Pride (LGBT) Pride Month celebrations.

Entirely autobiographical, the documentary is a startlingly honest telling of Reed’s own transition and the struggles of her adopted brother Marc, who suffered brain-damage in a severe automobile accident in his 20s. With gorgeous shots of ‘big sky country’ Montana as the backdrop, the story of their sibling rivalry, Marc’s search for his birth parents and the family’s difficulties in dealing with his degenerating mental state unfolds in a powerful, and at times disturbing, tableau.

What begins as a tale of Reed’s return to her hometown (where she was last known as Paul McKerrow, star quarterback of the high school football team) turns into something far more universal – a story of making peace with one’s past, and coming to terms with difficult family relationships.

“This is such a personal story, and it’s wonderfully rewarding to see it connect with people across the world,” said Reed during the video conference interaction with the audience that followed. “There are a lot of unusual things going on, but this is basically a film about love and family, and I hope that message made it across to India!”

Judging by the reception the filmmaker received – a big round of applause, cheers and waves from the packed audience comprised of members of Chennai’s own transgender community, social activists, etc. – it would appear that it did. Warm and immensely likeable, Reed spent the next half an hour answering questions from audience, helped along by coordinators Kalki, transgender activist, and Amy Hirsch of the U.S. Consulate.

The result was a discussion on everything from mental illness (“Sometimes I feel that is the real taboo subject in our society”) to Reed’s own transition (“One of the best things I did was not be afraid to take it slow… it’s more important to get your head right about it rather than get your body right”). In between, Kalki spoke of some of her experiences and those of the transgender community in Tamil Nadu, leading to sharing on the similar difficulties the communities in the U.S. and India face.

“The fight is still going on in the U.S. – poverty is a problem here as well,” Reed said. “About 50 per cent of transgender youth take their own life – it’s absolutely tragic and something needs to be done about that.”

If some of the questions veered more towards rambling commentary, that was a minor issue during an otherwise rewarding evening. It was apparent that ‘Prodigal Sons’ made a deep impression on much of the audience, and what made this event truly meaningful is that they were able to share that with its director –and its subject— living halfway across the world.

DIVYA KUMAR

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Book launch: Capt. Gopinath’s ‘Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey’

It was part rousing motivational speech, part long-winded discourse on the Indian aviation scene, part anecdotes of soul-baring honesty, and part exhaustive dissections of Air Deccan’s past and Deccan 360’s future.

The launch of Captain Gopinath’s heartfelt autobiography, Simply Fly: A Deccan Odyssey, at Landmark recently had its share of ups and downs — much like the author’s own chequered career — but it did serve to underline the amazing connect Gopinath and his story of entrepreneurial glory has with the public at large. Absolutely packed with a cross-section of people, from young students and budding entrepreneurs to old-timers from the aviation industry and the book launch regulars, the launch went on for well over an hour, with the questions coming in an endless stream and a large section staying behind for autographs after.

Gopinath, dressed casually in jeans and a shirt, engaged the audience right from the start, ditching the stodgy desk set up for him to come as far forward as he could (his feet were half off the stage) and talk directly to them. No reading from the book for this maverick.

“I have deliberately written this book as a story — my story and the story of Air Deccan, but also the story of New India, of the India of possibilities,” he said. “This is not a how-to book or a book on Indian aviation — it’s about following you dreams, having a zest for life, about not giving up in the face of overwhelming odds.”

A straightforwardly written, engaging read, the book chronicles Gopinath’s childhood in the little village of Gorur, his experiences as an officer in the Indian army, his days of dabbling in farming, and, of course, his launch of India’s first low-cost airline, Air Deccan.

“Whenever I went to give talks at schools and colleges, people always wanted to know — how did you build an airline after leaving the army with just Rs. 6,500?” he said during a chat afterward. “So, I decided to tell my story. I especially wanted to reach young people who can get disillusioned easily in today’s world.”

That was a recurring theme during the talk — having ‘inextinguishable optimism’ about our country, and ‘perennial enthusiasm’ for trying to make a difference. “We’re all concerned about the state of affairs in this country today, but we need to stay engaged. Cynicism is suicide,” he said earnestly. “My naïve optimism sometimes got me into trouble, but it also got me out of it.”

He may have been given to platitudes (“never give up”, “find happiness in the small things”) and the overuse of inspirational quotes (Gandhi, Napoleon, Einstein…), but it all still carried conviction because of his very enthusiasm, and his anecdotes — how, for instance, he refused to pay bribes for his licenses to start Deccan, but still got them through dogged determination. Or, how he stood for the Lok Sabha elections as an independent in 2009 because of the corruption in our existing political parties.

Things, however, got a little hairy during the long Q and A session that followed, as audience members tended towards long, rambling anecdotes of their own experiences with aviation (“Is there a question?” Gopinath had to ask a couple of times) or highly specific questions on his new undertaking, Deccan 360, or on issues in aviation including, at one point, fuel tax (“Maybe we should get back to the book,” he said, a shade desperately.)

Inspiring moments did come as youngsters asked about taking the entrepreneurial leap, or being afraid of making mistakes (“only when you make mistakes do you create something — wanting to be perfect is a disease”). The detailed dissection of Gopinath’s decision to sell Air Deccan to Vijay Mallya had its moments too, as his honest, tinged-with-regret appraisal gave the audience insight into the high-stakes world of decision-making.

In spite of its duller moments, the launch was, like the book itself, a touchingly idealistic call to action. As Gopinath put it: “An indifferent citizen is worse than the most corrupt politician.”

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Interview with… Ramesh Krishnan

Pic: R. Raghu

Ramesh Krishnan doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t play tennis. Literally.

“I’ve been around tennis courts with a racquet in hand for as long as I can remember,” he laughs. “There was a clay court in our garden, where my father learnt to play, and I’m sure I came out there as a toddler and hit some balls!”

It came from being part of a large tennis-loving family, he says, where there was almost always a tennis game on, and never a dearth of players.

“My grandfather T.K. Ramanathan was very keen on tennis and he made sure we all played,” Ramesh recalls. “Even back in the Sixties, the ladies in our family — my aunt and my mother — used to play, and there was always someone to play with. Our whole lives revolved around a tennis court.”

Of course, it went without saying that the toddler who played in the backyard would eventually follow in the footsteps of his father, tennis legend Ramanathan Krishnan.

“It was my grandfather’s dream, and I never really gave any other career a thought,” he says simply. “By the time I was in high school, I was representing India in the Davis Cup, so my education was geared towards that. I don’t know what I would have ventured into if not tennis!”

And follow he did, chalking up a stellar career in juniors just like his father — he was ranked No. 1 in the world and won both the junior Wimbledon and French Open titles — and then building a solid career on the main tour (he was ranked as high as No. 23 in the world), featuring in some memorable matches at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and, of course, in the Davis Cup.

“The Davis Cup matches always stand out — we reached the final in 1987 and the semi-final in 1993. And, reaching the quarter-finals at the U.S. Open [1981 and 1987] and Wimbledon [1986] is something I look back fondly on,” he says. “Both the Davis Cup and Wimbledon always meant a little extra to me.”

In a career spanning three decades (1977 to 1993), he won a reputation not only for having a beautiful game, all amazing angles and volleys, but also for being a gentleman on and off the court.

“The bulk of players from India were well behaved — I think our society demands that,” he says, deflecting the compliment in his unassuming way. “You were expected to carry yourself a certain way in public.”

When it came time to retire in 1993, Ramesh was quite content to hang up his racquet , professionally speaking. It gave him more time to focus on that other core passion of his life — family.

“My children had started school and they couldn’t travel with me as much,” he says. “Suddenly I wasn’t that excited anymore about boarding a plane and travelling leaving my family behind.”

Fittingly, his family remains tennis-crazy, with both his daughters, Gayatri and Nandita, playing tennis, first in juniors’ tournaments, and now for their respective universities in the U.S.

Travelling with his daughters to juniors’ tournaments as his parents did with him decades ago, Ramesh had come full circle — and discovered it wasn’t easy. “There were times when Gayatri was playing and I knew her opponent was not being fair to her, but I had to detach myself — it’s a whole new experience as a parent,” he says ruefully. “It’s like being on the rollercoaster all over again… but, this time, I had no control over what was happening!”

Today, sitting in the garden that once housed the clay court he played on, Ramesh exudes calm contentment. His days are spent caring for the Krishnan Tennis Centre (“a place to come play tennis and get some exercise”), the Indane Gas supply service his father started in 1963 (“he played in the amateur era and needed a livelihood”) and his daughters (“helping them achieve what they want to.”)

He still plays tennis socially almost every day of the week, but says his role in the future of Indian tennis is just that of ‘cheerleader’ — “I’m happy to root for people who’re doing well,” he smiles.

Tennis has been his life and his education, and that, for Ramesh, is enough: “It gave me a chance to grow as a person. I’ve had all these amazing experiences, and I have tennis to thank for it,” he says.

Box:

Pitted against the best: I consider Bjorn Borg and Pete Sampras the most outstanding players I ever faced – Borg in the early part of my career in the 70s, and Sampras towards the end of my career in the 90s, just as he was starting out.

Toughest opponent: I always found Ivan Lendl very tough to play. His style of play just didn’t suit me – I couldn’t serve big enough to unsettle him and he was a bit too overpowering. He was a nightmare for many players to face, and I was one of them!

On gentlemanly conduct: I think it depends on your upbringing. John McEnroe was from New York and he had a little bit of New York in him. I think we in India certainly wouldn’t have looked kindly upon that kind of behaviour!

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Book launch: Ravi Subramanian’s ‘Devil in Pinstripes’

You don’t often see these many corporate-types at a typical book launch. Pretty much just one guy in the packed audience is wearing a t-shirt, and that one reads ‘Proud to be an IIMB alumnus’. And all around, you hear scattered gossip about how so-and-so, a common colleague, has been featured in the book…

That was the scene at Landmark during the launch of Devil in Pinstripes, Ravi Subramanian’s second novel set in the cutthroat world of banking in India, following his popular debut novel If God was a banker (2007) (his second book,I bought the Monk’s Ferrari (2007) was more of a how-to guide to corporate success, the “antithesis of Robin Sharma’s book”).

Turns out the crowd consisted mostly of ex-colleagues (from his Chennai days of working for Grindlays Bank) and ex-IIMB batchmates (Subramanian graduated in 1993). Mostly, but not entirely — a fair share was curious readers, people who’d enjoyed his earlier books, people who were intrigued by his insider’s view of the high-stakes world of international banking.

And, they all had the same question. “I have 17-18 years of my banking career left, I wouldn’t risk it by writing an autobiographical book,” he laughs. He admits he has written about things that have happened, but not of specific people: “I’ve taken extreme care that no character is recognisable; that would not be right.”

Devil in Pinstripes (launched by D. Murali, deputy editor, The Business Line, and Sundarrajan, managing director, Shriram Capital) centres around a fictional international bank in India, New York International Bank (just like in If God…), and outlines the politics, the power plays, and the Machiavellian manipulations that go on behind the scenes.

“This book was a lot harder to write — If God… had a clear-cut good guy and bad guy. It was all black and white,” says the Tiruchi-born, Ludhiana-brought up author who currently works at HSBC, Mumbai. “But in Devil…, every single character has shades of grey.”

Both books fall unapologetically into the Chetan Bhagat bracket of the New Indian masala novel — fast-paced easy reads, set in contemporary, urban India, with some frankly clunky writing and editing — that nevertheless appear to strike a chord with their readers. That connect was apparent as audience at the launch engaged the author in discussions on corporate fraud, ethics and intra-personal politics during the question-and-answer session.

“I was quite surprised by the audience reaction — by the way, I was interrogated!” he says laughing. Not surprisingly, his next book The Imperfect God will also be on banking. “Banks are one of the largest employers in the country, and have the largest number of job aspirants; they impact everyone’s lives; there’s money, sleaze and power struggle — and no one else is writing on them!”

This one, he says, will be set in the streets of Chennai, Coimbatore and Tanjavur. And, will also, no doubt, feature the basest form of corporate politics. But as Subramanian says: “Corporate politics is a way of life — learn to deal with it.”

***

Other recent book launches (fiction) in the city:

Aatish Taseer’s The Temple Goers

Shreekumar Varma’s Maria’s Room

Daisy Hasan’s The To-Let House

Not a work of fiction, but an excellent collection of poetry by an unlikely poet: G. Kameshwar’s Seahorse in the Sky

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Interview with… M.S. Ananth

Director of IIT-M, M.S. Ananth tells DIVYA KUMAR about his love for academia, the setting up of the Research Park and his future plans for the university

PHOTO: S.R. Raghunathan


The view from M.S. Ananth’s fifth floor office window has to be one of the most beautiful in the city — a sprawling expanse of lush green treetops for as far as you can see below a clear blue sky. It’s enough to make you gasp when you first see it, but Ananth’s reaction is slightly different.

“We found out that a lot of these trees are invasive — there is 70 acres of Prosopisalone,” says the director of IIT-Madras ruefully, looking at the 630-acre campus. “Did you know that South Africa has launched a multi-million dollar project just to get rid of Prosopistrees?”

Of course, IIT-M can’t afford anything of that sort, so they’re working out alternative strategies — like selecting the spots with these rogue trees for future development. That’s just one of the many responsibilities, big and small, this unassuming man has shouldered with grace and a certain philosophical pragmatism during his tenure as director (since 2001).

“You know, I haven’t had too many major surprises in this job,” he says in his no-fuss way. “Conflicts arise, but it’s important to recognise that you’re no more ‘righteous’ than the other party in an argument. I try my best to have my way. But if I don’t, I know that in some larger perspective what happened is for the best. That acceptance is important.”

If all that sounds very philosophical and Zen, it is — Ananth is deeply influenced by the famous lines from the Bhagavad Gita: Karmanye Vaadhika-raste, Maa Phaleshu Kadachana…, perhaps a reflection of the time he spent attending discourses as a child. “It may sound facetious, but I’ve believed in it for a long, long time,” he says.

Academia is another thing this Ph.D. in chemical engineering has believed in for a long time. “I think I made up my mind in the sixth standard,” he laughs. “My maternal grandfather was a professor of English; other men I met were in the civil services, and he was the only one who never seemed to have a boss — so that was my major criterion!”

And he never saw a reason to change his mind while growing up, though if he’d had his way, he tells me, he’d be a doctorate in something else. “My interest initially was in history, of all things,” he recalls with a smile. “My father chose chemical engineering for me.”

He has no regrets — his love for history today finds expression in his interest in scientific history, particularly in the biographies of great scientists. Besides, he’s a firm believer that your discipline of study shouldn’t confine you. That is the basis of his grand ambition for the university — a radical, experimental restructuring of science and engineering departments — that unfortunately hasn’t happened yet.

“This ambition has been unfulfilled for nine years because I can’t get a consensus,” he says.

But another grand plan has finally come to fruition after nine years of pushing by Ananth and other professors — the Research Park that has recently become functional at IIT-M (30 companies have already signed up), the first of its kind in India. “The whole idea is the generation of a large number of ideas by the meeting of unlike minds — of industrialists, professors, and students,” he says. “All that’s required is one idea that clicks. That’s the basis of innovation.”

He experienced this ‘meeting of unlike minds’ as a Ph.D. student at the University of Florida, with innovation occurring due to the meeting of people from different cultures. “I had a lovely time —the American graduate school is an enviable place,” he says. “I’m fighting to try and recreate that atmosphere here — to have 25 per cent post-graduate students and 10 to 15 per cent of faculty from abroad.”

But as much as he loved college life in the U.S., Ananth knew that he wanted to return to India from very early on. “The first time I came back for a vacation, the moment I set foot here again, I knew,” he says simply. “The sense of belonging was here, not there. I’ve gone subsequently to the U.S. as a visiting professor — first to Princeton, then to Boulder, Colorado — and that feeling hasn’t changed.”

His passion for academia has obviously been passed on to both his children — his son is a Ph.D. in theoretical physics, his daughter in theoretical chemistry. His son has even followed in his footsteps and returned from the U.S. to teach at IISER in Pune. And the entire family, especially his late wife Jayashree, has always shared his love for the campus they have lived on since 1972, when he first joined as an assistant professor.

“Jayashree was very involved with the campus — she came up with pocket guides on the animals and birds here, she worked to keep the campus clean, with the Tech Kids crèche and the Atma charity wing,” he recalls fondly.

“As far as we were concerned, living on this campus was always a great boon.”

* * *

Striking a balance

* M.S. Ananth’s vision statement for IIT-Madras reads thus: “The institute should be in dynamic equilibrium with its social, ecological, and economic environment.”

* A biodiversity report of IIT-M’s campus was commissioned, invasive plants identified and poisonous plants removed. Fences were moved closer to buildings to make more space for the deer.

* A new hostel building was delayed by six months because an alternative route was created for black buck in the area.

* At urologist Dr. Ravichandran’s request, IIT-M professor S. Sankararaman created a phosphate binding agent for dialysis patients at one-tenth the original cost. (Other such projects have been undertaken since.)

* As part of IIT-M’s involvement in the ‘ Rural Technology Action Group’ (RuTAG), the Chemical Engineering Department developed a way to solidify vegetable dyes to reduce transport costs for artisans in Gandhigram.

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Interview with… Shreekumar Varma (Uncut version)

Photo: S.S. Kumar

Things can get a bit chess-game like in this writer’s study. Novel A gets cut by Novel B which in turn might get overtaken at any time by Play C or even Children’s Book D…

Welcome to the world of Shreekumar Varma, Writer-Multitasker extraordinaire. His website lists four items under ‘Work in Progress’ (“I actually deleted two others yesterday”) and his output in the last decade includes two published novels, two plays staged by the Madras Players, three children’s books, and contributions to a whole bunch of short story anthologies. And that doesn’t count the columns and articles he’s done for pretty much all the local newspapers or his forays into poetry.

Or, of course, the projects that have fallen behind in the chess game of completion and publication.

“It’s all very exciting,” he says, adding drolly, “But really, what I’m best at is not doing anything at all. I just seem prolific because a lot of things have come out around the same time.”

Nice try but no dice, Mr. Varma. The publishing game may not have always been kind to him (“The problem is that publishers always seem to want me to produce something else first when I approach them with an idea… and they specify exactly what they want too!”), but Shree’s mantra has been ‘Just keep writing.’ And just keep sending works off to various competitions.

“I have a compulsive urge to send entries to contests – I don’t know why,” he laughs. “I started small, with a couple of short stories, but by the time my play The Dark Lord (1986) came second at a British Council competition and Bow of Rama (1993) won the Hindu-Madras Players Playscripts contest, I was safely into contest mode.”

His recently-published second novel, Maria’s Room was longlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize and his recently-staged play Midnight Hotel was longlisted for the Metroplus Playwright Award, leading the author to ruefully refer to himself as the ‘Longlist expert’.

But Shree has a whole lot more than a proclivity to land himself in longlists going for him. The veteran journalist began his career with Indian Express in Mumbai and hung out with the likes of Amjad Khan (who spouted shayari to him), Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand (who invited him to join a political party he was starting) while writing for a film paper, Cinema Today, owned a small press and even started his own magazine at one point. He’s also taught journalism and English Literature at his alma mater Madras Christian College, and for the last 11 years, Creative English at the Chennai Mathematical Institute.

“I do enjoy teaching, and I find that science students often come up with more out-of-the-box thinking than lit students do,” he says, thoughtfully. “I love encouraging people in whom I sense talent for writing – I literally pester them to write, actually!”

Other loves include magic (“I used to do illusions all the time as a kid”) and the spooky and fantastical (“Those are recurring themes in my work, though I never had the courage to put in an actual ghost until Midnight Hotel”), music, especially classical (“I love Shree Raga, it brings tears to my eyes – and I’m not just being self-obsessed!”) and the big one, movies (“Movies have always been a major inspiration… before I die, I want to make a movie.”)

In typical Shree style, he tells me how he’s actually converted a couple of his works into scripts for filmmakers, but nothing panned out (so, naturally, he just went and wrote a couple of novels in the interim.) He jokes light-heartedly about Three Monkeys, the ‘unfortunate’ novel that always ends up being put on hold (checkmated?) while others take over (Maria’s Room, for example), his non-fiction book on Chennai requested by a publisher that he never gets around to writing (“It hangs like a terrible shadow over me,” he says mock-theatrically. “With my last breath I’ll say, ‘That Chennai book…’”) and his up-coming novel on Chennai, The Gayatri Club that Chennaiites will see a lot of familiar characters in (“The eccentric ones won’t be mentioned by name,” he says with a wink).

But he turns serious as we talk about his fascinating lineage – as the grandson of Sethu Lakshmi Bai, Maharani of Travancore State, and great grandson of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma.

“I’m really proud to belong to that family – I believe my cousins and I have all inherited a certain artistic sensibility, and also an entire mythology of stories, some of which went into my first novel, Lament of Mohini,” he says, “But sometimes it’s difficult when that heritage is applauded more than my accomplishments.”

Well then, here’s to Shreekumar Varma, writer, Longlist expert, teacher and bonafide Chennaiite (“Chennai’s my home, Kerala’s my soul”). May your chess game of novels, plays, short stories and poetry continue uninterrupted, and may movies be added to the list very soon.

Factfile

–          Shreekumar is a vocal supporter of the Right to Read campaign, and at his request, two of his works, children’s book Devil’s Garden and novel Maria’s Room are now available in audio format.

–          In 2004, he was the recipient of the Charles Wallace fellowship and spent three months in Scotland. That is the inspiration for one of his many works in progress, the novel Indian Scotch.

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    Interview with… William Barton

    William Barton doesn’t just play the didgeridoo; he makes it sing like the kookaburra, he makes it hop like a kangaroo, he makes it dance like a hip-hop artiste, he makes it scratch like it was a DJ’s turntable.

    The talented young didgeridoo player — considered one of Australia’s finest — was in Chennai recently for a special concert, ‘Songlines of Australia’, as part of his tour of India (including a performance at the Hockey World Cup in Delhi), organised by the Australia-India Council.

    The concert might have been in the plush environs of the Asiana Hotel, but for an all-too-brief half-an-hour, Barton transported the audience to the rugged Australian bush, conjuring a vivid soundscape of its bird songs and of the wind rustling through its trees.

    “The didgeridoo captures the raw resonance of the Australian outback through its deep tones,” he said during an interview earlier in the evening (there was plenty of time to spare since the concert started nearly two hours late). “It’s the branch of a tree that comes alive when you put your breath into it.”

    The instrument has been an integral part of ceremonies of the native tribes of Australia for centuries, accompanying the ‘song man’ as he sang the ‘dream-time story’, the Aboriginal legends of the seasons and rituals. Barton carried on this storytelling tradition of the instrument during the performance, telling tales through the didgeridoo, and of the didgeridoo.

    He told old-world stories by recreating the sounds of dingo dogs and kookaburras and of ‘papa, mama and baby joey kangaroos’ hopping (his free hand ‘animating’ the sounds with lively finger actions). And then, he segued seamlessly into very contemporary stories of hip-hop dancers (his fingers doing a little dance on the side) and an amazingly-creative piece on a ‘Hitchhiker’s Nightmare’, where the didgeridoo mimics the sound of vehicles whizzing by the hapless hitchhiker as he walks on and on and on…

    “Songlines (the song-style of a particular family group) interconnected the different tribes in the old days; in the modern context, these songlines can connect us to the Western world,” said Barton, who has collaborated with jazz, heavy metal, hip hop, rock ‘n roll artistes as well as a number of the world’s leading philharmonic orchestras, and performed at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. “I’m passionate about connecting the world through the universal language of music.”

    His own musical influences growing up in Mount Isa, Queensland, included everything from opera (his mother was a self-taught singer) to AC/DC (like any other head-banging teenage Aussie boy). But the greatest influence was his uncle, an elder of the Waanyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga tribes, who taught him to play the didgeridoo at the age of seven. He died when Barton was just 11, but his legacy lives on with the young man in his music, and in the 60-year-old didgeridoo that he keeps with him.

    “In traditional law, when an elder passes away, his didgeridoo is broken up, but they let me keep it as a special case,” Barton said. “I don’t usually travel with it because it’s getting old, but I take it to special gigs — out on the Australian bush, to Carnegie Hall, the London Philharmonic, and now to India — so the history is captured in it.”

    He told other traditional stories too — of how he learnt to make his own didgeridoo from his father, for instance: “The didgeridoo is hollowed out naturally by termites, so you go out into the bush, find the tree you need, cut it, remove the bark, then make a mouthpiece from beeswax — after tapping out the termites first, of course!”

    And his music said the rest, as he played on the electric guitar (his ‘second musical voice’) and the didgeridoo simultaneously, heavy metal riffs and soulful intros somehow merging perfectly with the deep-throated percussive notes of the didgeridoo. Fusion with Indian music is up next on his to-do list, but we’ll have to wait until next time to hear him tell those stories.

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    Article: To each his own (Interview with Mark Billingham and China Mieville)

    A crime writer who’s also a stand-up comic; a fantasy fiction writer who’s also a left-wing political activist. Put them both together in a room and what do you get? A rapid-fire, roller coaster conversation on everything from avant-garde fiction to rakshasas and assorted monsters, the induction ceremony to Agatha Christie’s Detection Club to falling anvils in Tom & Jerry cartoons.

    Best-selling crime novelist Mark Billingham and fantasy fiction writer China (his parents were hippies and named him after a popular Cockney slang term, in case you were wondering) Mieville from the U.K. were recently in Chennai as part of British Council’s Lit Sutra initiative. Lively, opinionated and articulate, the two quite literally talked up a storm, first during an interview at the British council and then again at the public event at Landmark.

    At first glance, it would appear that they wouldn’t have much in common, but Billingham and Mieville quickly proved that to be untrue. Both exuded self-admittedly geeky enthusiasm for their particular genres of fiction, and a love (and a staunch fight-unto-death loyalty) for genre fiction in general.

    Mark, for instance, said he was a ‘crazy collector’ of first edition American crime fiction, and took to interviewing writers and doing book reviews just so he could get free copies. “Seriously,” he said, straight-faced, “it was costing me a fortune. After a couple of years of that, I decided to try my hand at writing one myself.”

    Giving up on the idea of a ‘comic-crime novel’ (“It’s rubbish”) the TV actor turned stand-up comic turned novelist created what would end up becoming his most famous character  – the country-music loving, world-weary D. I. Tom Thorne – in his very first novel Sleepyhead. “Crime writers use exactly the same tricks as comedians – the way the punchline is revealed is the same way a key piece of information, a clue, for instance, is revealed in a crime novel,” he said. “It’s all about timing.”

    Mieville, on the other hand, quite simply never outgrew his childhood love for monsters, aliens and witches. “People often ask ‘what got you into it?’ and my answer to them is, ‘what got you out of it?’” he said, adding with a laugh, “I’m just more rigorous than they were.”

    The two-time recipient of both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and British Fantasy Award admits to ‘cheerfully philistine piracy’ of mythologies the world over to create his awesome array of weird creatures, such as the half-man half-bird Garuda in Perdido Street Station. “Anglo-American fantasy draws on certain creatures – elves, dwarves and dragons – but what I wanted to do is take creatures from other mythologies, deliberately not concerning myself with their mythic resonance, and do something new with them,” he said.

    At some point, the chat about their work – the filming of Billingham’s Thorne novels for TV, for instance, or how Mieville’s strong political leanings influence his writing – segued into a passionate discussion on how ‘despised’ genre fiction was amongst some readers in the U.S. and the U.K.

    “There’s this general sense of literary fiction being ‘real fiction’ versus all the rest,” said Mieville.

    “The problem is that literary fiction is judged by its very best, while genre fiction is judged by its very worst,” added Billingham. “It just isn’t a fair fight.”

    Mieville, in fact, loves genre fiction so much that he once rashly claimed he wanted to write a book in every genre. “I blame the Internet – you say something once and it’s never forgotten,” he said ruefully. “But I am fascinated by the protocols of the different genres.”

    That’s why for his latest book, a crime novel but set in his fantastical universe, The City and the city, he ensured that he was ‘absolutely faithful’ to the protocols of a police procedural. A crime novel without those protocols, according to Billingham, would be like a Western without a horse, a gun or a cowboy hat.

    “In that sense, crime novels haven’t changed that much since Sherlock Holmes – detectives who have problems with booze, music and can’t seem to form relationships,” said Billingham. “But the protocols have changed in other ways, of course – back in the 1920s there were some preposterous rules such as ‘there can be only one secret passage’ and ‘no Chinamen’!”

    This lively discussion spilled into the Landmark event, ‘Thrill of the Unknown’ with ease. Co-ordinator Shreekumar Varma simply had to sit back and watch as the two took off on another freewheeling –and very funny– chat on novels of the future (“Remixed-novels will become the norm.”— Mieville), the perils of too much research and nitpicking readers (“It’s a novel, not a train timetable.” – Billingham), a running joke on their dislike for Jeffrey Archer’s books, and much more, with plenty of time devoted to audience interaction.

    After all, as they said at the interview, they were here for a conversation with Indian readers. And boy, what a conversation it was.

    BOX:

    You can read excerpts from Mark Billingham’s latest novel From the dead and China Mieville’s latest Kraken on Lit Sutra’s blog: http://www.litsutra.com/

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    Interview with… Madhav Chari

    Pianist Madhav Chari talks about the spirit of jazz, linking his music to Indian philosophy and his experiential workshops. DIVYA KUMAR listens in

    PHOTO: R. RAVINDRAN

    If you go to meet jazz pianist Madhav Chari expecting to discuss just jazz or even just music, think again. With mind-whirling rapidity the conversation flows between cognitive science and colonialism, mathematics and anthropology, Indian philosophy and American academia, not to mention martial arts, dance and the Bhakti movement…

    At one point, I have to ask him to stop briefly, so I can look back to the original list of questions I’d studiously prepared before the interview. But they seem rather limited — and limiting — now, so I decide to let the conversation take its course, just interjecting the odd query now and again.

    “What we’re doing right now is jazz music,” says Madhav, halfway through, during an impassioned (there isn’t any other kind with Madhav) discussion on how jazz is freedom, but with form. “This conversation is not scripted. It’s loosely improvised but you’re still providing direction — that’s jazz music.”

    And with that neat journalistic analogy for jazz, the free-flowing chat suddenly makes sense. After all, the essence of any conversation with Madhav Chari is jazz, the music form that grabbed him when he was a six-year-old in Kolkata and hasn’t let go since.

    “What about it grabbed me I don’t know,” he muses. Maybe it was his father’s knowledge of jazz from the 1940s, when he saw the big bands of the era play while at The Lawrence School, Lovedale. Or, perhaps the family friend whom he used to watch improvising on the piano. “There was just an emotional connect. It’s like asking why the chocolate cake appealed to you… it’s hard to answer.”

    He dismisses his training in Western classical piano as mere calisthenics. “Loosely speaking, yes, I’m trained in Western classical, in the sense that I did the gamut of exams, but it doesn’t mean anything,” he says. “That’s because we learn the music in a context where it wasn’t born, where that form of music isn’t a vibrant, living force, unlike in London, Moscow or Paris.”

    This idea of absorbing music as a ‘living force’, of experiencing its spirit, is of intense importance to Madhav. That’s why he cherishes the time he spent in the U.S. at places such as New York or Chicago, where jazz still lives. There was the time, for instance, that he got to play with a local sax legend in Chicago while he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign (UIUC).

    “The great pianist Tommy Flanagan, who had recorded with John Coltrane, was sitting in the audience… I saw him and my heart just skipped a beat,” he laughs. “But the music took me over and I forgot my stage fright, and in the end, he congratulated me and gave me his number in New York. These experiences were very important in my search as a jazz musician.”

    After his studies, Madhav spent some time as part of the jazz scene in New York and a brief eight months in Toronto before returning to India in 2003 and settling in Chennai, where his parents live. These past seven years have been a period of a spiritual awakening for the pianist, and Indian philosophy has now become an integral part of his musical journey.

    “I want to be a jazz musician who thoroughly understands the tradition of the music, but who’s also alive to the possibilities of his own consciousness and has linked himself with the mystical traditions of India,” he says, adding with a smile, “But I don’t play Hindustani music… I’ll be playing the blues.”

    He’s also developed some very strong opinions (to put it mildly) on the Indian music scene — whether it’s local jazz or fusion. “I will go on record saying that in the last 40 years, not one musician in Mumbai — the leading jazz centre in India — has tapped the spirit of jazz,” he says emphatically. “They’ve tapped the form, but not the spirit. And that’s why I have a problem with fusion as well, because so much of it is technical and theoretical, with very little experiential insight.”

    His own corporate workshops, which he now conducts with martial arts expert George Kurian, focus entirely on just that — the experiential. “We make people do music and martial arts exercises, and allow the gateways of the mind to open up,” Madhav says. “There’s hardly any talking, because I believe that in the modern Indian urban consciousness, language is a tremendous block to understanding. English has blocked our access to our own experiences — it’s a facet of colonialism.”

    These beliefs are part of the reason why Madhav has connected with Chennai the way he has since 2003. “It’s not about it being conservative or liberal; it’s about it being open to experiences while being rooted in tradition,” he says of the city. “I’m not impressed by people telling me Bangalore is more hip or modern; modernity is actually old, based on where I want to go in a cosmic sense.”

    KEYNOTES

    He enjoys the writings of S.N. Balagangadhara, chair of the Comparative Science of Cultures Centre at Ghent University in Belgium, on Hindu philosophy and religion.

    He loves the music of American jazz pianist ‘Bud’ Powell. Madhav’s most recent album ‘Parisian Thoroughfares’ is titled after a Powell composition.

    He likes Mathematics, in which he has a Masters degree from Dartmouth University

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    Interview with… Letika Saran

    DGP (Law and Order) Letika Saran, the girl from the hills, talks about her journey to the peak in the plains. DIVYA KUMAR listens in

    Photo: R. Ravindran

    Trailblazer Letika Saran

    A fan of detective novels. A child of the hills. A dog-lover. A concerned mother.

    The world knows Letika Saran as the super-achieving cop — she became Chennai’s first woman Commissioner of Police in 2006, and now, at the age of 57, has become the first woman Director-General of Police in Tamil Nadu (and only the second woman to hold that post in the country).

    But, half an hour spent with the trim, diminutive lady in her enormous office on Kamarajar Salai, and you get a glimpse into the world of Letika Saran, the woman. You find out that her heart still lies in the hills of Munnar, where she spent her carefree childhood. You find out that she’s currently worried about a mix-up in her daughter Uthara’s return ticket to Perth (she’s a student research scientist there).

    You find out that her favourite way to unwind is with her four dogs (two long-haired dachshunds and two recently-acquired pups). And that she still loves reading the detective novels that were part of the reason why she wanted to join the police force in the first place.

    “I was always fond of detective novels, and I liked the idea of the police,” she says simply, of her decision to join the Indian Police Service (IPS) after her undergraduate degree at the Women’s Christian College. “I’ve worked in investigation for over 15 years and always found it interesting; so, I’ve never looked back on that decision as anything but the correct one.”

    The transition from college girl to cop wasn’t ‘unduly difficult’, she says in her precise way: “Even the physical aspects of training weren’t difficult, as gymnastics was part of our daily routine at my boarding school in Kodaikanal.”

    But the hard road truly began from her first posting. “I was one of only two women in the field at my level, and it was like working in a goldfish bowl, with the eye of the public and the department on you,” she says. “You had to constantly prove yourself — not just as Letika Saran but as a woman police officer. Failure wasn’t an option.”

    And so, the girl from the hills began to blaze a trail in the plains. But even today, when you speak of Munnar, Letika’s eyes soften. “When you’ve lived in the hills, you identify so closely with the place — even if you haven’t had the time to go back in years,” she says in her clear, flute-like voice. “There’s something familiar about the hills which, perhaps, isn’t there in any other place.”

    Still, over the years, Chennai has become home, mostly because, she says ruefully, it’s home for her daughter. “She was born and brought up here and calls it home — so, we don’t have a choice,” she laughs, adding: “As anyone who’s lived here for a long time knows, Chennai is a city that grows on you, and my husband and I really don’t look at living anywhere else.”

    Our interview is interspersed with a series of phone calls over her daughter’s ticket mix-up, and super-cop Letika sounds endearingly like any concerned mom as she hangs up and shakes her head: “Here’s the kid not even prepared to travel today, and she’s being told she’s got to be on the flight…”

    Juggling her job and family hasn’t always been easy on Letika, but in her no-fuss way, she tells me she was fortunate in having postings that allowed her to be with her daughter when she was very young. “It also helped that she knew exactly how things would be; she was independent right from the beginning,” she says, pride evident.

    Today, Letika Saran exudes an air of no-regrets contentment with her life. There isn’t perhaps as much time as she might like for travel — back to the hill stations of her youth, for example — but there are always detective novels to read (“they’re ideal for when you don’t want serious reading”), her dogs which recently doubled in number, and, of course, the passion that has guided her throughout her career.

    “From the time that I joined, I always wanted to prove myself as somebody who is competent and capable, who could do the job and get the job done,” she says. “That’s still remains my goal today.”

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