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July 2005
Coming Together For Art

We’re meeting here to look at passing people who, like trains on a platform, stop for a moment and then continue on their way.  But they aren’t stopping simply for the fun of it. They’ve got plenty of stuff to deliver at each Platform.
And we’ll be bringing together some pretty interesting people and places on one stage. In spite of it being a rather ritzy platform, we hope to be running into all sorts of people, with the sole condition that they are interesting.
Years ago, when I was a journalist in Bombay, I was told that the poet Kamala Das (who used to live in the city those days) held weekly terrace assemblies that went on late into the night, and brought together some interesting creative people. Each week I planned to attend one of them, but as it sometimes happens in such cases, I finally left Bombay without ever doing so. After that, I started my own magazine here in Chennai, and it gave me the opportunity of collecting creative people myself. Artists, cinematographers, writers, poets---they all came to write, and stayed to talk. We’d go deep into the night, exchanging ideas and goals, and the magazine remained a convenient platform for coming together till it gracefully folded one fine day.
An eager young poet who used to write for me is now a known, published poet in Mumbai. Another friend, a cinematographer who showed me his script and wished wistfully that he could make his own film, went on to win the President’s Gold Medal for his camerawork, and then at long last made his dream film last year.
But it isn’t smooth sailing for everyone.
One gentleman, who said goodbye to a lucrative Government job and entered the creative arena with his novels, meandered into films by sheer accident. Earlier, we used to sit up late and discuss story ideas, and compare regional and English writing. But one day, he came up with a different problem. He came to me to ask if I could suggest a good lawyer who would help him take over a film project that had gone haywire. It had great potential but had been lying incomplete in the cans for years. No producer would touch it.
He finally made the film and invited me to its premiere. I sat aghast as I watched the film. The hero looked twenty-five in some scenes and thirty-five in others. The heroine grew fat within the space of two seconds. Her clothes changed even as the camera went from one shot to another. In the same scene. The sound track went haywire, going from soft to screaming with no apparent reason. It would still have been a worthwhile exercise had there been a solid enough story linking all these discrepancies. But the story too seemed to have been eaten up by the moths hiding in the cans where the film had been all these years.
The proud producer of this film (at least he’d produced half the film) was staying in my house that night. As I drove him back, he paused modestly for a moment before putting the inevitable question: “Well, how was it?”
I don’t know what got into me that night. I said: “You really want to know?” He smiled and nodded, bracing himself for some praise. “It was,” I said, “well, frankly, if you want the truth, my honest opinion, that is---”
The man chuckled. “Don’t worry! We’re old friends. Say it like it is. What I want is an honest opinion. Who’ll give it if not you?” Put like that, it did sound as if the man was either looking for some honest criticism so that he could improve upon his next film---or he was a sucker for punishment.
Without wasting more time, I said: “The film was insufferable!” I’d never confessed something like this so brutally in all the years before, and I haven’t since. The man took one sad look at me and he didn’t speak a word after that. Except to say in a rather small voice; “You can drop me at the hotel, actually.”
He never came home after that, and I’ve regretted my midnight honesty all my life. Whenever we met after that, we exchanged pleasantries, but avoided talking about cinema.
It was the magazine that had given me the forum to meet all these people. Now, as I was wishing that there was a similar forum available today where I could meet and share ideas with artistic people, here comes Sathyam cinema with its tremendously welcome creative interface: Lights On.
An old friend, and a formidable creative talent in theatre and the folk arts, Prasanna Ramaswamy, is the switch behind Lights On. Actress Rohini is the compere. Savera Hotel manages hospitality. It is a confluence of creativity and appreciation. And the significant thing is, these are premieres---being shown for the first time ever. At a time when significant films are denied screens, here’s someone welcoming them, and also providing a tryst with the audience!
I had the opportunity to meet two of their creative giants, Girish Kasaravalli and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Both showed their films and later there was an interaction with the audience. Without being too intimate, it brought face to face the creator and his audience. Some of the questions asked were embarrassing; some seemed downright rude!
When a questioner grabs the mike and says: “I didn’t like your film!” to a world-renowned director, you are stunned for a moment, and wonder how the man is going to react. But then the questioner continues: “I’ve seen all your films, and I’m a great admirer, but in this one---” And you realise there’s already a channel open between these two, the maker and the consumer. The audience has appropriated the creator for their own, and naturally demands complete satisfaction with every new effort. And as the sparks fly, things get brighter.
It was the forum I’d been looking out for all along.

August 2005
Aliens!

Our first prime minister Pundit Nehru wanted to establish a University chair in International Law in the country. The place he picked was Madras. The man chosen for the job was Prof. Charles Henry Alexandrowitz.
During those days, my father was doing research in international law, particularly the relationship between European states and the states of Kerala in the 16th and 17th centuries. He had reason to interact with the professor, and one day he told us the funny story of how the professor had introduced one of his local colleagues to his wife. The colleague held out his hand and said cheerfully: “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs Witch. I’ve heard so much about you from your husband.”
Of course, the story was told with great amusement and everyone had a good laugh, but my sister and I were very small and we had our doubts. What if she really was a witch? We’d read stories of witches who looked normal at first glance, and were then transformed into deadly creatures! When Prof Alexandrowitz and his wife visited us at home, we backed away in panic and screamed when she came up and spoke to us. We’d never ever seen a foreigner before, and this one was tall, white and very imposing. The poor lady never quite solved the mystery of the two terrified Indian children.
Another house-guest was Prof. Luce, an Italian psychologist. She was interested in meditation, and we were amused no end by the story that she, along with two Indians, sat meditating in a beach-house with lighted candles balanced on their heads. But even more amusing was the day she wanted to eat non-veg. No one at home ate meat, so we got some chilli chicken packed from Spencer’s (which was in those days still a red, gabled, stately building). She ate, and her face changed. It became red and puffy, and tears sprung up in her eyes. My sister and I behaved disgracefully that day, laughing uncontrollably at her agony, unable to understand why a little spice should worry a grownup like that.
Our third foreigner was a Japanese gentleman who headed the parent company of the factory where my father was chairman. We watched in fascination as he sat in the drawing-room, smoking cigarette after cigarette. After he and my parents had left for his hotel, we discovered to our delight that he’d left his cigarettes and lighter behind. About twenty minutes later, the man wanted to smoke, and they returned. And found an eight year-old and a ten year-old with his cigarettes in their mouths trying desperately to light them with his gold lighter. We never heard the end of that. And we never forgave him for coming back.
Those days we thought all whites looked the same. We were even surprised that they could recognise each other! Everyone seemed too white or too red, and had a fund of golden hair. They lived far away from us, in a hazy world that was as strange as any science fiction locale. Indeed, the books we read suggested that their lives were as far removed from our own as any rush of childhood fantasy.
Time passed.  I interviewed several creative artists from the UK and US. Some were writers, others connected with theatre. One English director, who held his workshop immediately after my interview with him, insisted that I join in! “No one will stand and watch, everyone will participate!” he growled. In no time at all, I’d put away my tape-recorder, and was prancing around the room with the most energetic participant. I soon learned to expect the unexpected from creative people who came from the UK.
Actually, this funny impression we’d formed of cultural strangers went back a century ago. There was a strange relationship between orthodox Kerala families and the white people who ruled the land. Sometimes, they came in close contact with each other. For example, an English family doctor was permitted to come into the household and examine a patient. But after he left, the patient took a quick bath to get rid of the “pollution”! Some older folk even held the impression that white people never bathed, because if they did, they’d lose their white colour!
Last year in the UK, I couldn’t resist sharing some of these gems with University students and professors who attended my readings. They were particularly interested in the matriarchal system and caste divisions of Kerala which featured in my novel. One professor and critic said: “You know, this isn’t  such a strange thing to us either. We have our own class system. You can spot an ‘inferior’ person by the way he dresses and speaks. It’s almost as pernicious as yours!”
I was slowly discovering that those “aliens” were like us, and a part of our own world. Sitting in the London Tube and looking at the cultural mix of commuters, I recollected a friend snapping after the attack on Iraq: “Someone should go and bomb their cities, and then they’ll know!” I looked around and watched the innocent faces of civilians who had nothing to do with the bombings on Iraq. Later, in Scotland I met a couple of Pakistanis. One of them, who ran a small store, told me: “We should be friends! Why can’t these politicians leave us alone!”
Today, when Travel, Communication and Information have bonded us with the rest of the world, no one is an alien. We see and speak to each other on a second-to-second basis, ignoring space and differences.
In fact, even the Japanese myth was exploded for me!
Decades after the shattering cigarette episode of my childhood, the next Japanese gentleman I interacted with was the head of the Consulate. He was an enthusiastic  and enormous collector of prints of my great-grandfather’s paintings. The consulate building on Spur Tank Road was white, neat and clean. Inside his office-room, however, he rose  grinning from the fumes of a hundred extinguished cigarettes. He soon became a delightful friend. He couldn’t remember his own phone number, and with every move he made he upset artefacts and antiques much to the dismay of his harried wife. His dream was to open an art gallery in Tokyo which he’d fill with my great-grandfather’s paintings. Once, when I took him to my club for dinner he looked around in wonder and said: “We can accommodate a hundred clubs in this space in Tokyo!”
So it would seem the Pakistani store-keeper from Scotland is right, after all. If culture and art can bring together people from across the globe, why allow politics to keep us apart?
 
September 2005
Corruption, Verse & A Reunion
The word corruption is on everyone’s lips. We feel the social and moral fabric of our life has been corrupted by what is generally known as “give-and-take”. When everyone is on the take it’s difficult not to give. That is the formula of corruption. If you have to get something done, you have to give something. It is like taking a by-lane or a detour. And this “something” has become a whispered mantra, a legend. It can be passed on under the table (in some cases above), handed over in suitcases, secreted in handshakes, between book covers, in sweet-boxes---the list is endless and innovative. “Something” is your part of the bargain. Once you’ve done it, you are justified in feeling righteously indignant when your job is delayed or not done.
I feel corruption is a habit like smoking or drinking, and has to be considered as such. The alcoholic doesn’t realize he’s in the grip of a disease, and if he does he won’t admit it. He justifies his addiction by citing deprivations in his life, not admitting that in his addiction he is deprived of life itself. The taker takes because he doesn’t get enough from his job. And the giver gives because he feels there’s no other way. And like the smoker who dismisses the risk to his heart and lungs or the alcoholic whose liver is crying out loud, the “taker” is prepared to face the law when it does come knocking at his door, hoping that it never will.
A habit is difficult to give up because it is so easy to carry on with it. And most people don’t realize that a habit has formed. Take the case of this intrepid friend.
At a get-together he was boasting of his impeccable integrity. In thirty years of business life he had never paid a bribe. If someone insisted on taking, he confronted him and shamed him into submission. Or he complained to the man’s superiors. He regularly wrote stinkers to Government offices. He threatened corrupt officials with legal action. Slowly he acquired a reputation and was now accepted for what he was. He still conducted a satisfactory business minus the blemish of the bribe.
“I was back on an international flight one day and the customs official wanted something. Do you think I gave?” he asked with a grin. He should have stopped right there. Instead, he continued: “The trouble with these trips is that you have to buy little gifts for everyone back home. Who has the time to go shopping? These are business trips, for God’s sake.” So how did he keep his folks happy? “I send my driver to Burma Bazaar. You can get anything foreign there, you know, minus the hassles. The folks are happy.”
For me the legend collapsed right there.

Cleaning Up Your Words: Workshops are a great place to find new friends, and also to discover new areas within yourself.
About five years ago, I acquired a new signature on the first page of my poetry book. It’s a book where I scribble verse whenever the muse strikes. But the signature isn’t mine. It belongs to W.N. Herbert, the young Scottish-English poet who was brought down by the British Council. I didn’t attend his readings but I participated in the poetry workshop he held. The participants were predominantly college girls. And some battle-scarred veterans like me. First, Herbert gave us little chores to do.
We wrote about a favourite / typical city place, our city impressions, and about ourselves. Everything was seen from a unique perspective and gave us insights into ourselves and how we thought. It was fun to watch ourselves express what had been so internally secure till then. It was great to be able to play with words, and revel in their rhyme, alliteration and reverberation. Herbert watched over us like a benevolent conductor or a grandfather-muse. Though no one may ever read what we wrote that morning, it gave us the thrill of invention and discovery as we learnt about ourselves through our own words.
Herbert was a pleasant curly-haired man who rolls his R’s and eyes with the same degree of warmth. His poetical skills were formidable. So were his insights into other people’s poetry. We read out our poems. He then presided over a critique durbar, where each effort was passed through the dryer. They emerged fresh and new as though we were seeing them for the first time.
I guess it helps to get out our words and feel and savour and roll them around every once in a while.

School Again!  Imagine this. One morning you get out of bed and look into the mirror and see yourself as you were in school! I did, some years ago. I saw myself in white shirt and khaki half-pants and a roguish smile. It was a nostalgia hard to resist.
The thought resurfaced a couple of days ago when my old nursery classmate told me that there was a move to start an alumni association of our old school, the first one I studied in. After so many decades! The trouble is, only the girls are around (Good Shepherd Convent turned girls-only shortly after I passed out), and they don’t know where most of the boys went!
It all began when an old class-mate called up out of the blue some years ago and said he was organizing a reunion of the Class of ’71.  That was my second school, the Madras Christian College High School. We would have an added bonus: the presence of our old masters. There were several preliminary meetings where old faces emerged from memory and stared right back at us. It was a divine experience. Language regressed, behaviour roughened, tenderness peaked and the intervening years simply fell away.
We wore name badges to make recognition easier. But in most cases we didn’t need them. A sharper glance, a smile and then a shout: “Hey, it’s you!” Though we are now positioned on all rungs of the social ladder, the reunion has been a great leveler. We see ourselves as we were, boys of the class of ’71.
And now, probably another reunion that will take us back even earlier in time! Talk about second childhoods!

RITZ is a bright new magazine from Chennai that looks at fashion, films, home and several more such things. PLATFORM used to be a monthly column