& occasionally about other things, too...

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Best of Enemies

Having been out of India for the last seven years, I have not been a witness to the rise of gladiatorial television that has swept the country off its feet, and made mega stars of news anchors. The quality and character of news has metamorphosed with talking heads spewing venom has become a norm, turning the staid business of news into rambunctious entertainment.

There is an erroneous perception among the practitioners of this craft that Indian television has taken a leaf from the West, and more particularly from America, where influencers holding diametrically opposing views slug it out on television to entertain the audience.

I say erroneous because in most cases the chat shows on American television do engage in a bit of slugfest, they aren’t devoid of substantive content. Among the best exchanges that I’ve enjoyed are between Fareed Zakaria and Bret Stephens – on the opposing sides of the ideological divide – and who combine finesse, sophistication, etiquette, and a deep conviction of their ideological position to convince the audience as well as the opponent of the validity of their point of view.

The little that I get to see of Indian television – mostly from snippets shared by journalist friends in India on Facebook – seems to be utterly devoid of substance, and relies more on all-round hollering with everyone, including the news anchors, speaking simultaneously. But this may be a view based on insufficient evidence. There are some fine journalists in India whom I’ve known and whose professionalism I respect, and a number of them are on television.

This rather long preamble to this post was necessary to provide a context to the excellent documentary I saw yesterday at Tiff Bell Lightbox – The Best of Enemies. It narrates the historic debate between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal on ABC in 1968 that created television history, and set the tone and the format for television debates globally. It is a format that has remained more or less unchanged even after nearly five decades.

Both Buckley and Vidal were failed politicians perhaps because they were intellectuals who couldn’t relate to voters, but could relate more to each other despite their strong personal animosity and equally strong ideological antipathy for each other.  

The documentary made by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville narrates how ABC – then a lowly third in the pecking order of America’s national broadcasters (or as one of the interviewees of the documentary says, “it would’ve been fourth, had there been a fourth broadcaster”) was able to redefine television journalism when it engaged Buckley and Vidal to exchange views on first the Republican convention, and then the Democratic convention leading up to the Presidential elections of 1968 that eventually saw Nixon being elected as the President of the United States.

The documentary traces the ideological underpinnings of both Buckley and Vidal. The former was the superstar ideologue of American conservatism, the editor of the influential National Review, and a man much sought after by the then Republican leadership, especially Ronald Reagan. The latter, on the other hand, was the voice of liberal America, boldly exploring taboo themes of transsexuality, feminism and continuing patriarchy in his novels such as Myra Breckenridge (1968).

Buckley, the supremely gifted debater, with a perpetual supercilious sneer, was seemingly confident of demolishing Vidal in a jiffy. But Vidal had worked long and hard on understanding his opponent, and proved to be tenacious. As the debate progressed, the effete verbal jabs were replaced by venomous and vicious spitfire insults and repartees. It must have made for riveting television then, and doesn’t lose the sting even now.

The documentary intersperses the ten debates between the two with their biographies and their ideological pursuits both pre and post the debate. It interviews people known to them personally; people involved with television broadcasting at that time; academics and media studies experts to piece together a compelling story.

The debate, of course, ended disastrously with both debaters turning abusive, and Buckley threatening Vidal with violence. Vidal, of course, is the provocateur; he calls Buckley crypto-Nazi, and Buckley, the ever calm and collected lofty intellectual, crumbles to pieces, and retaliates by calling Vidal a queer, and then threatens to sock Vidal in the face.

Although the debates ended then, the issues that both raised – race relations, rising economic gap between the rich and the poor – continued to remain relevant for a better part of the next 20 years. It would seem, especially with the rise of Reagan and Reaganism that after all Buckley’s point of view had eventually emerged triumphant. But that triumph has, of course, led to unmitigated disaster, as is becoming evident by the unending economic recession and the rising inequalities between the haves and the have-nots.  

For all those interested in journalism and the perennial debate between the right and the left this documentary is not to be missed. 

Friday, July 31, 2015

Subway to Downsview

I haven't seen her in here;
these days she meditates
in the traffic on the 401,
commuting 60 miles between home and work

but I meet
that part-timer from Walmart
– a full-time artist
as he furtively glances at
the young woman’s
d├ęcolletage, which seems
delighted to be left
uncovered in summer’s warmth

he smiles at me, and nods
when I peak into his notebook,
as I get off at Lawrence West,
and see two ripe breasts
dominating the page

─ he’s sketched her in the nude

Epic Retold - Chindu Sreedharan

Ramayana and Mahabharata fascinate Indians across all times and ages. I am no exception. I have not an expert, and have read them only in English translations (C. Rajgopalchari’s classic Ramayana and Mahabharata published in 1951 by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan).

Of the two, Mahabharata is without doubt more complex and infinitely more interesting, because unlike in the Ramayana, where everyone is an epitome of virtue, in Mahabharata everyone is utterly human; including gods; and none of them are above pettiness, chicanery, and shenanigans.

I read Irawati Karve’s Yuganta more than three decades ago. It tore down the epic of all heroism and interpreted the characters from a secular point of view. Originally written in Marathi and then translated by the Karve into English, Yuganta locates the epic in its historical time.

For instance, Karve notes, “What people eat, they offer to their gods, and inversely whatever is offered to the gods is consumed by the people. Horses and goats were certainly sacrificed then. And though cattle is not mentioned as having been an item of offering, new archaeological evidence does show that cattle too was used similarly. Does this mean that beef was eaten as a matter of course and perhaps for that reason finds no special mention, while game does?”

The last time I read the epic was with my son when he was young enough to enjoy picture books. I doubt whether he remembers anything that I read to him.

Earlier this year, I read Chindu Sreedharan’s Epic Retold. It is Mahabharata for the social media generation. It’s a brilliant interpretation of the epic, and a uniquely creative work because Sreedharan has written the entire epic (supposedly the world’s longest poem) into a series of 140-characters twitter feeds.

The author, a former journalist, reinterprets the epic from Bhima’s point of view, and portrays him as an anti-war advocate, disgusted with the internecine palace intrigues, and one who prefers quality time by himself in the forest. He is brave, strong and skilled, but clearly a reluctant warrior. He is aware of his lowly status in the pecking order of the five brothers, is aware that the younger brother Arjun is really the hero of the epic, and dislikes the elder brother Yudhistira for his double standards and hypocrisy.

Sreedharan’s effort is breathtaking because he successfully compresses the entire epic, without missing any important episode. When the battle at Kurukshetra ends, after Ashwathma has set everyone and everything on fire, Bhima sighs: “Is this what we fought for? I sink on to the sand under the crushing weight of our victory.”

A couple of years back, I came across another interesting version of the two epics by Satvik Patel, who reinterpreted the epics in the form of Facebook status updates. Here are the links: Facebook-Ramayana, Facebook-Mahabharata.

Cosmopolis Toronto

Colin Boyd Shafer is a documentary photographer who came up with the idea of defining the multicultural character of Toronto, arguably Canada’s most multicultural city. And he did that in a unique manner – by photographing a person from all the countries of the world now calling Toronto home.

He began the project by raising money through crowdfunding in 2013. I saw his announcement on Facebook and responded immediately. In October 2013, Colin chose me to represent India. I was to decide the venue of the shoot – a place that made me feel at home in Toronto. Without a second thought I told him that place would be the Toronto Reference Library, because Toronto gave me the opportunity to write fiction, be nearer to books, authors, reading and writing. I began this blog in Toronto.

He also wanted me to get something from my city of birth that was precious to me. I took a black and white photograph of Eros cinema probably taken in the 1950s. To me it was representative of the time when Bombay was truly cosmopolitan. Indeed, a time before my time, and a time about which I have only read in books. I imagine Bombay in the 1950s was what Toronto is today – utterly cosmopolitan in character.

At that time, there were people from all over the subcontinent who called and made Bombay their home, just as today there are people from all over the world who call and have made Toronto their home. I was excited to be a part of the project, and eagerly participated in a promotional video, which included the first batch of participants. It gave me an opportunity to express my gratitude to a city that my family and I came to without knowing anyone seven years ago in July 2008, and a city that welcomed us, accepted us with open arms.

Earlier this week Colin released a book version of the documentary at a simple launch ceremony in Toronto. His achievement is staggering because he has managed to get people from more countries than any official list.  As he notes in the introduction of the book, “Did I photograph one person from every country in the world? I now know a definite count is elusive. Numbers used by United Nations, the US State Department and the Olympic Games are all slightly different. The question of territories or autonomous states was raised in that people born in Palestine, Tibet, Scotland, Taiwan and Puerto Rico wanted to represent what they consider to be their ‘home country’. Because inclusiveness is germaine to this project Cosmopolis Toronto has more home nations than any official list.”

Cosmopolis Toronto won at the 2014 Toronto Urban Photography Festival and was presented at TEDx-Toronto 2014. It has been featured widely in the media, including The Globe and Mail. The Wall Street Journal, and National Geographic. Shafer won the 2013 Human Rights Watch Film Festival’s photography competition and his work has been showcased in publications such as Doci, FStop and Foto8 Magazine. Cosmopolis Toronto has been exhibited at various venues in Toronto, including the 2015 Contact photography festival.