& occasionally about other things, too...

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Marco Hülser's Masala Chai

Continued from the post above

It was with such a heavy baggage of the past (and all of the aforementioned is but a mere glimpse) that I bought tickets to see the documentary Masala Chai at the recently-concluded Reel Asian Film Festival in Toronto’s Innis Townhall. Marco Hülser is a German filmmaker who’d been fascinated by India’s intoxication with tea for several years, compelling him to document it fascination on film.

Masala Chai is a multilayered documentary that explores the lives of five individuals involved in selling chai to customers. The documentary follows the lives of five different tea makers: Yogesh, a US-educated business owner of a posh teahouse in Pune; Mohammad, an elderly tea-maker who has worked in film production for 40 years; Gouri, an outspoken teen assisting with her family tea stall in Kolkata; and Sushanta and Subodh, who run small tea stalls in Darjeeling and Delhi, respectively.

Each of the tea sellers has a story to tell, and while they narrate their stories, we learn of the multifaceted, nuanced, multilayered society that is India. All of them except Yogesh are living on the margins and in extreme poverty.

The filmmaker shows India as it is, without embellishments, and without trying to create false hopes in the audience’s hearts and minds that somehow the conditions of the tea sellers will miraculously and dramatically improve.

These people belong to those strata of the society that gets adversely affected by the minutest calamity – whether personal or because of an official policy change such as demonetisation. Hülser succeeds in extracting personal stories from each of these people, without ever seeming to be intruding. And all of them have strong narratives.

Yogesh is ambitious and wants to emulate the big American-style barista coffee shops. But he doesn’t have the deep pockets to compete with the Starbucks of the world. He tries hard to give his customers an experience of having a hot beverage in cool environs but knows and understands that it isn’t going to be easy to survive and make money in a tough market.

Khan, who makes tea for filmmaking unit, is looking forward to retiring. He came to Bombay to find a life in the movies but ended up making tea for people who make movies. He believes his children will continue the business. Gouri is enthusiastic young entrepreneur assisting her dad in the business of making and serving tea from a roadside stall in Kolkata. She believes in being perfect in making tea and believes in satisfying her customers; unlike her dad, who she says, only wants to make money.

Subodh has also experienced the hard knocks of life and branched out on his own, with his own roadside tea business in old Delhi. He has taken a few apprentices, who are immigrant labourers (just as he was many years ago) from Bihar and who will eventually start their own ventures somewhere in Delhi.

The perkiest and precocious protagonist of the documentary is, of course,  Sushanta, who has married to a man from a lower caste and is the subject of scorn and ridicule by her family. Yet, she gamely continues to assist her husband in his tea business and rears her daughter be cajoling her to focus on education because it’s only through education, she believes, that her daughter can change her life.

Hülser is able to not only show these petty self-employed folks in the midst of their poverty and squalor but is also able to successfully portray their aspirations and through them the aspirations of the millions of Indians such as them. 

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Mixing Genres in Fiction

I have always felt boxed in by the definition of “genre” when it comes to writing fiction. Why be bound by the rules of a craft when that craft itself is in a state of evolution, and where tomorrow’s rules may be today’s exploratory scribbling?

When I sat down to compile my new short story collection, Crossing Limbo, I drew from stories written over the last ten years, written with long time intervals between each piece. Therefore, the stories didn’t resemble each other. When I wrote each piece I hadn’t the intention that they would ever become part of a collection, which usually requires a common theme and genre. I guess I had been scanning too many bookstores which had “mystery stories,” “YA” and “fairy tales,” categorizing the shelves and reading copious quantities of Alfred Hitchcock’s terror magazines to draw the conclusion that stories accreted to specific genres. I wrote my pieces whenever something had intrigued me at the time, and I selected the appropriate voice and genre that gave my subject matter the greatest expression, or so I thought.

Therefore, when I wanted to write about greed, I thought I would make the narrator a dog who is observing this weakness in humans; when I wanted to portray an Arab Spring, I put myself in the shoes of the bad dictator to understand his perspective on the approaching “bad season”; when I wanted to check out the seductive world of swingers, I had an inexperienced housewife naively enter the club to experience its shock impact; when I wanted to explore predation on the internet, I created a fictional chat line; when I wanted to write about disadvantaged immigrants, I chose the voice of one who had fallen on the wrong side of the track through no fault of his own; when I thought “ romance,” I thought how neat would it be to explore this ephemeral state with two candidates at extreme ends of the game of love: a tantric sex instructor and a sexless corporate executive. You can see where this is going... Before long, I had a mixed bag of stories that included the genres of magic realism, suspense, crime, erotica, romance, and everything else that I lumped under the broad umbrella of “literary fiction.” Who was going to buy this?

Then I said to myself, had I written a novel, I wouldn’t have been able to cover such a broad expanse of human experience without writing the next War & Peace. With short stories, I could get in deep and get out quickly and move onto the next, and readers would take that as par for the course. Besides, in these speeded-up times, the short story is supposed to be the replacement to the novel, just as the 140-byte Twitter line is supposed to replace the 420-byte Facebook post. Neither of these things has happened yet, but we are told to anticipate them. So I pitched my collection with this “deep and quick” angle in view and my publisher bought it. The editor added that even though the genres varied, the theme was consistent: dark literature about people traversing their personal limbo towards redemption. I hadn’t thought of that!

So I have this cocktail of a book that came out recently, and I am hoping that readers will appreciate the different genres, although I suspect that some form of selection will take place and the audience will divide and gravitate to different stories based on individual taste. However, I am hoping that bibliophiles, who devour everything, will find a smorgasbord in this collection instead of just Indian Curry,  Japanese Sushi, or Italian Pasta, and that it will satisfy their diverse tastes. And I look forward, somewhat in trepidation, to the reaction afterwards from all camps. Any book, once released, takes a life of its own. All the writer can do is reflect on the hours of engagement he had with it, akin to raising a child, and wishing it well when it leaves the nest.

(Shane Joseph is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers and the author of four novels and three collections of short stories. His work After the Flood won the best fantasy novel award at Write Canada in 2010. His short fiction has appeared in international literary journals and anthologies. His collection of short stories,  Crossing Limbo (Morning Rain Publishing) was released in June 2017. 

For details visit his website at www.shanejoseph.com)

Reviews of Crossing Limbo could be read at:

Tuesday, November 21, 2017


After three-and-a-half decades, I saw Casablanca (director: Michael Curtiz) again. It was the first time in a cinema house. The first time I saw it was in the early 1980s at Bombay’s (Mumbai) American Centre. The United States of America’s diplomatic thrust in those days was to saturate Indians with Hollywood’s and Madison Avenue’s soft power.

Casablanca introduced me to Rick Blaine, the owner of the swinging nightclub and gambling den (Rick's Café Américain), the most happening place in a city otherwise charged with wartime tension. Humphrey Bogart essayed the role. Casablanca also had the inimitable Ingrid Bergman, a stunning natural beauty who was also a consummate actor, performing the role of Ilsa Lund, the woman torn between her husband (Victor Laszlo, played by Paul Henreid) and her former lover (Rick, Humphrey Bogart).

What lifts Casablanca and makes it extraordinary is a melange of memorable scenes. Permit me to describe just two that are my favourite.

The first is when Ilsa walks into Rick’s café, with her husband Victor Laszlo, the guerrilla leader of the Resistance. She doesn’t know who Rick is, but immediately realises his identity when she sees Sam in the café, playing the piano. Dooley Wilson performed this pivotal role of the piano player and singer at Rick’s nightclub.

Ilsa strides across to Sam and after a few awkward moments where she extracts information about Rick from an unwilling Sam, requests Sam to sing As Time Goes By, a song that he sang when Rick and Ilsa were in love in Paris. “Play it Sam, for old time’s sake,” she says. And as a reluctant Sam begins to sing the song, Rick storms from the bar and shouts at Sam, “Sam I thought I told you never to play…”

Another scene that remains etched in one’s memory, long after the movie is over, is when it’s time for Ilsa and Victor to leave Casablanca for Lisbon. Rick manages to convince Ilsa to escape from Casablanca to Lisbon onward to the United States of America. He promises her that he would go with her, and dump Laszlo. But at the airport, as the aircraft is about to take off, Rick tells, no, he forces Ilsa that she should accompany her husband.  Two of the film’s classic lines “We’ll always have Paris” and “Here’s looking at you kid” are part of this scene.

Made in 1942, at a time when the Second World War was at its peak and Hitler’s armies were scourging large parts of Europe, Casablanca was Hollywood’s (and America’s) propaganda tool that worked remarkably well in creating public opinion against the Nazis. In all these years since I don’t think I’ve seen any male actor with such rough and raw appeal as Bogart; Harrison Ford comes close, but not quite.  Three of Bogart’s best films are the Maltase Falcon, the African Queen and, of course, Casablanca.

The Yonge-Dundas Cineplex was nearly full Sunday afternoon and an appreciative audience clapped when the film ended and the credits rolled up. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Ashoak Upadhyay's The Beacon

Ashoak Upadhyay is an idiosyncratic man. He’s a leftist intellectual, an economist, a journalist, a novelist and now the editor of The Beacon online magazine promoting long-form writing.

I’ve known him since the early 1990s. He was my colleague at the Observer group, though we worked at different publications, and then he was my editor at Business India, where we routinely argued over matters that, in retrospect, seem so utterly irrelevant. 

But he was a great editor to work with. In particular, I remember a report that he conceived and for which I did the field work on the burgeoning entrepreneurialism in Dharavi slum (in those days it was called Asia’s largest slum). Subsequently, another senior journalist turned the idea into a book.

A few years back, Ashoak published his debut novel – The Hungry Edge. It’s a layered tale consisting of stories within stories and is a commentary on urban Indians coping with the changes that globalisation is bringing into their social and moral lives. But it is also about memory and time and their role in shaping our passions and our self-perceptions.(Read an earlier blog about the novel here: The Hungry Edge)

Ashoak is a great guy to be around because he can (and often does) talk on every subject with great erudition. This erudition springs from his being extremely well-read and knowledgeable and also because he is opinionated and biased. 

It’s this combination of being expertise and bias that must have led him to launch The Beacon.

I'm sharing a recent email exchange with him where he talks about his website:

What motivated you to launch The Beacon?

The paucity of essay-length writings that are not knee-jerk responses to events as they occur or are boringly academic. Less journalism, even less pedantry, more readability, imaginative analyses, contemplation. Long form writing with long shelf lives that can be read after the contingent moment has passed.

What is it that you're trying to achieve through it

Different ways of seeing and thinking about, our diversities, differences and frailties. Conversations across races, communities, genders and cultures.    

In a crowded space will Beacon achieve that you envisage it should?

The space is crowded with platforms or media urging obvious thought, even more obvious actions on the contingent; there can never be enough platforms that make readers think heterogeneously and without the categories they have been told to think with.

And what are you doing to make it more relevant to a younger demographic?

Despite the dominating categories of homogenized thinking and action being pressed upon them, the young have the capacity to imagine, to see life in its variety, to see difference as intrinsic to the human race. The Beacon offers them the windows to the ineffable, the imagined, to the possible in the impossible.