Thursday, December 13, 2012

Snapping chords

I have to admit, the music of Pandit Ravi Shankar is not one that I came to of my own volition. Over the years, as I heard my parents play his tapes and CDs in the car, I came to appreciate his music and develop a mild affection for it. A bit like the ghazals of Jagjit Singh, what struck me was not the virtuosity of his performances, but being the unrepentant musical philistine that I am, it made 
me recall many fond memories from my childhood and adolescence.

I've been listening to a few of his albums today and I randomly wondered what Pandit Shankar recalled of his childhood and adolescence after all these years. It absolutely boggles the mind to think that Pandit Ravi Shankar started to publicly play the sitar the year Nazi Germany invaded Poland, before India won its freedom, before Mao became Chairman, before the Cold War, before man deduced the structure of DNA or went to the space or the moon, before all our modern contrivances - his performances started before and continued through it all. Till now. For this reason, I suddenly feel as if an intangible connection to the past has snapped and has cast me adrift in an unknown sea.

[His death was prefaced by those of Oscar Niemayer, Sunil Gangopadhay, etc. so you can surmise why I feel this way.]

Source: Bangladesh Old Photo Archive

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Recognising an old face

I fret and worry about my receding hairline.


I said it. I wrote it. I blogged it.

I am under no pretension. I know that I've always looked older than I really am. (It's been a blessing and a curse)

I suppose the hairline is a family heirloom, passed from generation to generation, like a watch or a book collection. 

I was pondering this while stuck in a traffic jam at Bangla Motor. I then heard a tap against my nearside window. A rickshaw puller stared at me quizzically. 

I felt someone staring at me. My eyes rested upon a grizzled beard that was contoured into a grin. Despite the liberal speckles of white hair and an emaciated frame, I recognised this man. Ever since I can remember, he has been manning the Bangla Motor-VIP road junction and has come by our house in Eskaton during Eid, with the hope of receiving a new lungi and a generous plate of biryani. Once he came to ask for help to get his son admitted into a local school. He used to hobble then on one leg, supporting himself on a makeshift staff.

I was surprised to note that he recognised me too. Many people don't. I have been away from the country for years, I am now a Barrister and I have returned considerably plumper and sporting facial hair. Yet he saw through that facade. He saw the boy that spent so many hours sitting (and sleeping) at the same junction on the way to school.

I rummaged in my pockets for change. He was generous in his thanks.

I saw him roll away on a small board set on wheels. The staff was gone. I patted myself on the head consolingly.


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Thoughts on 'The Radetzky March'

It isn't often that you recall precisely where you first met a close friend or where you picked up a favorite book. The Radetzky March, without a doubt, has become one of my favorite books and so I feel the need to write about where I first saw it - even if it has nothing to do with it's contents and what I think about it.

Summer was almost entirely non-existent this year but on one of the rare, baking-hot days of the season, I found myself in London, inappropriately dressed in a pullover and black trousers. My exams had long since ended and during the interminable days before both results and the granting of my Schengen visa, I had decided to come down to London to visit Thomas - resident of the British Library - and Gabriela, world traveler, on a short excursion home. Thomas and I arrived at Holland Park tube station on that sweltering afternoon, desiring to both meet Gabriela as well as drink copious quantities of water. Unfortunately, we were not able to do either as Gabriela was still in Notting Hill. Hoping to kill some time before her return, Thomas and I, wandered into the local bookstore. It was here, while browsing the German literature section that Thomas noticed The Radetzky March and commented that it was "his favourite novel".

Such extravagant an accolade, though passed off-hand, came from someone who is usually reticent with his praise and so the title of the book and the image of the red drum on the cover, remained seared in my memory. A couple of weeks later, after receiving confirmation that I had passed the Bar course and my visa-stamped passport by post, I stepped into a bookstore in Berlin with my father. The newly renovated Duschmann had considerably increased its stock of German book translated to English and among them was Roth's Radetzky March.

We picked it up immediately and over the next couple of weeks, I went through the novel slowly, savoring each chapter like a particularly sweet cherry dumpling. On the micro-scale, the novel follows three generations of the Trotta family and explores the nature of family legacies, heroism and codes of honour. On the macro-scale, it provides a suspicious perspective on modernity and, as Thomas puts it, a lamentation on the "entropy of progress". What adds to the melancholic atmosphere of the novel is that the author is invariably resigned to the inevitability of this.

In an exposition that uses a plot device eerily similar to the one used in the beginning of One Hundred Years of Solitude, the dominating character of the novel is introduced, the 'Hero of Solferino' and the reader is made aware immediately, just like with Colonel Buendia, that the character is doomed to death and oblivion. In a continuation of this parallel, the 'Hero of Solferino' haunts the pages of this book and its characters despite passing away in the first Chapter and his long shadow is present throughout the lives and death of the Kaiser, the District Captain Trotta, Jacques and Lieutenant Trotta. While his name is wiped out from the history books, his memory abides in the fertile imagination of the Kaiser and the Trotta family. The younger Trottas do not have nearly as imposing a presence as their forbear - which only heightens their anxiety. District Captain Trotta, while polished and dignified, in many ways, comes across as the stern father who becomes softer with age and thereby loses his father's soldierly distance and reserve. Lieutenant Trotta bears only a superficial resemblance to his grandfather, possibly symbolized by the fact that he only manages to 'save' the Kaiser's image from a brothel, while his grandfather saved the actual monarch's life. By most accounts, Lieutenant Trotta would be seen as a failure: a cavalry officer demoted to the infantry due to his irresponsible dalliances, a careless gambler whose mounting debts requires the ultimate intervention of his father and the Kaiser and a poor soldier inept at horse-riding and warfare. Through his eyes we see Roth's personal perspective. That this is so is reflected in the following passage:
I lived in the cheerful, carefree company of young aristocrats whose company, second only to that of artists, I loved best under the old Empire.  With them I shared a skeptical frivolity, a melancholy curiosity, a wicked insouciance, and the pride of the doomed, all signs of the disintegration which at that time we still did not see coming.  Above the ebullient glasses from which we drank, invisible Death was already crossing his bony hands.  We swore without malice and blasphemed without thought.  Alone and old, distant and omnipresent in the great and brilliant pattern of the Empire, lived and ruled the old Emperor, Franz Joseph.  Perhaps in the hidden depths of our souls there slumbered that awareness which is called foreboding, the awareness above all that the old Emperor was dying, day by day with every day that he lived, and with him the Monarchy--not so much our Fatherland as our Empire; something greater, broader, more all-embracing than a Fatherland.  Our wit and our frivolity came from hearts that were heavy with the feeling that we were dedicated to death, from a foolish pleasure in everything which asserted life: from pleasure in balls, new wine, girls food, long walks, eccentricities of every sort, senseless escapades, self-destructive irony, unfettered criticism: pleasure in the Prater, in the giant Ferris wheel, in Punch and Judy shows, masquerades, ballets, light-hearted lovemaking in quiet boxes at the Court Opera, in manoeuvres, which we mostly missed, and pleasure even in those illnesses which love more than once bestowed upon us.
Such a passage, with its wistful reminisces of mild hedonistic pleasures, could have been written by Lieutenant Trotta himself. While all of these three characters can move us, Roth does not depict women and servants nearly as well. There are only three prominent women in this novel and two of them are portrayed as mature seductresses and one of them a bland, featureless, despised housekeeper. Even the two male servants, Jacques and Onufrij are caricatured as being utterly loyal and devoted, with hearts of gold, even when they are repeatedly ignored or chastised. Jacques in particular takes this to extremes by polishing his master's boots and looking upon his former master's portrait while in the throes of death. Onufrij, Lieutenant Trotta's orderly-cum-deserter is slightly more interesting and resembles in many ways Svejk from Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk.

Structurally, each chapter is like a self-contained unit whereby it seems that Roth could have designated each as autonomous short stories. This is because each chapter's story-line is remarkably airtight with each focusing on a different family member at distinct times of their lives but shaping the novel's narrative overall.

The narrative examines, through the characters in the military and the civil service, the slow decay of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This is most evident in Chapter 11 when the District Captain visits his son in the Empire's hinterland and dines with Count Chojnicki, a patron to the captain's son, who informs him that "we are no longer alive" (p.161). It is perhaps appropriate that he shares this thought in such a geographical location, caught between old and new, between aging Empires and nascent worker's communes. By saying this he seeks to intimate that he, the lieutenant son & the district captain are no longer relevant as power is moving in the direction of the nation states and they are party of a collapsing dynasty that "God has abandoned" (p.162) (Given that the Austrian Kaiser is empowered by God himself, that is quite a loss!) From the events of the day, it can be extrapolated that God has not only abandoned the Kaiser but also his people, who have fallen prey to Godless revolutionaries. Chojnicki, in one dramatic monologue, raves about the relentless march of modernity:
We are doomed, you and your son and I. We are, I tell you, the last members of a world in which God sheds upon majesties and lunatics like myself make gold. Listen! Look! And Chojnicki stood up, went to the door, turned a switch, and the lights on the large chandelier shone. "Look!" said Chojnicki again. "This is the age of electricity, not alchemy. Chemistry too, you know! Do you know what this thing is called? Nitroglycerin." The count articulated each syllable. "Nitroglycerin" he repeated. "No more gold! In Franz Joseph's palace they still often burn candles. Do you understand? Nitroglycerin and electricity will be the death of us!" (pp.162-163)
The highlighting of this facet of modernity reminds me of the melancholia which pervaded the scenes in Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, where telephone poles were erected and the new Bengal railway could be seen. But it was not only electricity, but also casinos and sleazy, featureless 'businessmen' whose reach extended all the way to the frontiers of Empire. They stand for all that is decrepit and ignoble in that fading world and are omnipresent in the book like Death. These passages where the soldiers fall under the pernicious influence of gambling rings and petty businessmen provide some of the most tragic and touching moments of the book.

However, a reader will reach their emotional nadir in the last chapter and epilogue. The book that begins with elaborate descriptions of and sun-drenched lunches of roast beef and cherry dumplings, sparkling uniforms and proud military processions ends on the bleakest of notes with priests and peasants hanging from trees in church squares and dying soldiers struggling to find water in wells stuffed with corpses. It is the kind of imagery that wouldn't be out of place in Dante's Inferno and is in keeping with some of the horrific events that are yet to come!

The Epilogue accounts for the slow death of the last Trotta, around the same time as the passing of Kaiser Franz Joseph. What adds poignancy to this is, as Elie Wiesel puts it, is that the protagonists of this novel are anti-heroes living outside of history. "They are defeated from the start by some nameless malediction. They live in the back country, cut off from the mainstream, outside history. Their hopes and ambitions are limited to their needs. Winners or losers, their stakes are too small for them to be anything but extras on a make-believe stage."

Some reviews of the Radetzky March:
New York Times (October 17, 1933)
New York Times (November 3, 1974)
New York Review of Books (February 28, 2002) (Coetzee also writes a lot about his life)


Monday, August 6, 2012

Sailing on the Schwielowsee

What a remarkable day. I have a lot of things to do tonight so I can't be particularly 'poetic' when describing what I did but I still want to jot down my account of the day's events. I woke up in the morning worrying about my father's health, only to be whisked away by him to the lake-front house of one of his friends. The sun was beaming on the rolling, navy blue Schwielowsee and the Old Tablers' yachts and boats. After having kaffee, pflaumen kuche and mohn kuche on the bank of this Havel lake we set off on an hour long circumnavigation of the lake, where for the first time, I had the opportunity to steer a boat. In the process I navigated around yachts, speed boats, dinghies and managed to pass through narrow passes and follow waterways. We were shown the sights of the lake by George, the owner of the boat and were informed that the largest resort there was built by a former member of the Stasi! Our last port of call was the island of Werder, known for its church, windmill and restaurants that line the lakefront and serve the freshest of fish. I am not a big fan of fish but even I had to concede that the baked fish served to us was delicious.

In any case, after downing a double espresso, we made our return voyage to the mainland where in the distance we saw the sun slowly disappearing behind the forest. I still couldn't believe that I had spent the day steering a beautiful boat, resplendent with a mature teak hull and a gleaming white bow.

Another notable feature of my day was that I came across some great e-books on law on the Project Guthenburg website. One of them, entitled "Briefless Ballads and Legal Lyrics" (Second Series) by James Williams contained, as you would imagine, some wonderfully witty poems on the law and the legal profession. I admit that some of the classical references went over my head, so I'm sharing some of the more intellectually pedestrian but nevertheless touching and humorous ones:

The Squire's Daughter

We crawled about the nurseryIn tenderest years in tether,At six we waded in the seaAnd caught our colds together.
At ten we practised playing atA kind of heathen cricket,A croquet mallet was the bat,The Squire's old hat the wicket.
At twelve, the cricket waxing slow,With home-made bow and arrowWe took to shooting—once I knowI all but hit a sparrow.[22]
She took birds' nests from easy trees,I climbed the oaks and ashes,'Twas deadly work for hands and knees,Deplorable for sashes.
At hide and seek one summer dayWe played in merry laughter,'Twas then she hid her heart away,I never found it after.
So time slipped by until my call,For out of the professionsI chose the Bar as best of all,And joined the Loamshire Sessions.
The reason for it was that thereHer father, short and pursy,Doled out scant justice in the chairAnd even scanter mercy.[23]
As Holofernes lost his headTo Judith of Bethulia,So I fell victim, but insteadOf Judith it was Julia.
My speech left juries in the dark,Of Julia I was thinking,And once I heard a coarse remarkAbout a fellow drinking.
I practised verse in leisure timeBoth in and out of season,It was indubitably rhyme,Occasionally reason.
I lacked the cheek to tell my woes,Had not concealment fed onMy damask cheek, but left my noseWith twice its share of red on?[24]
Too horrible was this suspense,At last, in desperationI went to Loamshire on pretenceOf death of a relation.
The Squire was beaming; "Julia's goneTo London for a visit,But with a wedding coming onThat's not surprising, is it?
"Old friends like you will think, no doubt,That she is young to marry,But ever since she first came out,She's been engaged to Harry."

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Dr. Oetker's Zitronen Kuchen

Up till now, I've not had the greatest interest in baking, so when I feel like having a cake I usually use baking mixes. (Maybe one day I will become more sophisticated and yearn for fresher ingredients!) Dr. Oetker's is a solid household name in Germany (and perhaps throughout Europe) and so their lemon cake mix is a pretty safe bet. It only needs 150g Margarine/Butter, 3 eggs, 100ml Milk and 2 Tbsp. Water in addition to the mix. As the recipe is in German, I had to go through the 'arduous' process of google translating it. (Please excuse the horrible sentence structure; you get the gist):

Prepare dough and prepare
Grease and flour loaf pan. Preheat the oven.

Top and bottom heat: about 180C
Hot air: about 160C

Cake mix in a mixing bowl, margarine or butter, add eggs and milk. Handle everything with a mixer (stirring bars) on the lowest kury, dan at the highest level about 3 min to form a smooth dough.

Pour batter into loaf pan and smooth the surface. Form on the grill slide in the oven.
Inset: lower third
Baking time: 60 minutes
Cut after about 15 minutes baking time the cake with a sharp knife lengthwise in the middle about 1 inch deep.

Cake only 10 min. leave in the form, then loosen from the mold and immediately glaze. This glaze mixture into a small bowl gave. Add hot water to a thick cast verrühen, then give up the cake and spread with a knife. Let cake cool on a wire rack. 

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Visit to Togo Dada's House, Bracknell

I spent my first night in the UK (since childhood) at Togo Dada's house and I spent my last day night there as well. Life has a way of being wonderfully circular at times. I felt guilty that I had not been to his house since my first visit, having missed his youngest daughter's wedding as well but this last evening was an opportunity for tying up loose ends. 

Togo Dada and Dadi live in Bracknell, a small town close to Reading. Dada has not been very well recently and Abba and I thought that we should meet him on an urgent basis before we left the UK for Germany. So, the night before our final departure, we made the long Tube journey from Walthamstow to Waterloo followed by an even longer train journey to Reading. (There were a few moments of panic along the way as we were not able to get in touch with Togo Dada and we got off at the wrong stop but that was quite quickly resolved) Togo Dada arrived at Bracknell station to pick us up and to our pleasant surprise, seemed to be in good health. He informed us that Dadi was away in London, watching the Olympics. 

At his house, Togo Dada took upon himself the onerous responsibility to feed us. He proposed a barbeque, an idea we jumped upon with considerable relish (pun fully intended). I learned a thing or two about 'healthy' barbeque foods that day. I helped Togo Dada prepare chicken skewers for the Barbeque and threw together a coleslaw and a salad as well. They were all delicious, fresh and (quite) healthy, so I will share the recipes here for future use. (Like him, I determine the quantities of my ingredients purely based on instinct):

Togo Dada's Chicken Skewers:

  • Chicken Brest (Fillets) 
  • Low-fat Natural Yoghurt 
  • Minced Garlic
  • Minced Ginger
  • Paprika
  • Garam Masala
  • Chili Powder
  • Lemons
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Salt (to taste)
Marinate the chicken, refrigerate and prepare the coleslaw! Once marinaded, skewer for the barbeque!

Togo Dada's Coleslaw
  • White Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Creme Fraiche
  • Low-fat Natural Yoghurt (left over from chicken)
  • A small quantity of Mustard (whole grain, powder, etc.)
  • Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper (to taste)
Shred the cabbage and carrots. Add salt and pepper and a small quantity of olive oil. Add mustard. Mix in Creme Fraiche and Yoghurt. Taste to see if quantity of mustard, salt and pepper is adequate. Otherwise, add more. Refrigerate if not used immediately. 

Togo Dada's Garden Salad
  • Tomatoes 
  • Lettuce
  • Avocado 
  • Red & Yellow Bell Peppers 
  • Feta Cheese
  • Salt and Pepper to Taste
Dice the Tomatoes, Avocado, Peppers and Feta Cheese. Thinly slice the lettuce. Mix. 
Togo Dada likes to add Cucumbers to his salad but I've never been a big fan of Cucumbers in salads, so I may try something different. Maybe Beetroots? 

Mustard Dressing
  • Wholegrain Mustard/Mustard Powder
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Lemon
  • Salt & Pepper to Taste
Mix the ingredients in a small bowl. Serve with the salad (obviously)

While preparing these dishes, Togo Dada and I discussed my time in the UK, my law degree and my future. His ears pricked up when I said that I intended to move back to Bangladesh to practise. He turned to me, with half-squeezed lemons in his hands and a half-grin on his face and said: "You know, all that is wrong in that country is our fault." He paused. I looked at him, querulous, uncertain of what to think or say. He continued: "My generation left the country, we're all here, abroad. We didn't want to go back to struggle and deliberately chose a life of comfort. You'll have to go back and struggle. I admire you for making that choice." I remained silent and he went back to squeezing lemons.   

After the meat was barbequed, the table set and dinner commenced, Dadi returned from the Games. We spent some time reminiscing about my childhood and Abba's first posting in London before heading back to the Railway Station. Togo Dada also took the time to impress us with his considerable knowledge of Classical (particularly Romantic era) music: Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, etc. It was a wonderful way to spend an evening with one of the elder members of my family; a man who to me represented a certain set of choices but also someone I hope to see again in the future. 


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Ruminations about my dreams

I'm at that point in my life where I am between full-time education and full-time employment and during this period of limbo, I have been getting an inordinate amount of sleep. Nowadays, my sleeping schedule is completely out of whack, with one day melding into another with little regard to sunrises and sunsets, weekdays or weekends. 

I have also been dreaming regularly - something that I have not done in many years. My dreams are neither inexplicable or fantastical but instead prosaic and dull. I dream of mundane matters, of little or no consequence: I see scenes where I am meeting old friends and sense the awkwardness contingent to it, with its familiarity, uneasiness and feelings of inadequacy about an unfulfilled youth; close-up shots of my mouth in pain, only to awaken to remember the niggling pain of my wisdom teeth; family portraits where a son and his parents watch TV which depict both contentment and a void at the center of every individual framed. And it goes on and on. 

I don't try to find meanings in these dreams just as I don't try to find meaning in my palms or in the residue at the bottom of my teacup. After waking from my 12 hour sleeping marathons I drowsily think about whether there is any difference in substance between my ephemeral self, greeting friends in London or eating at home in Dhaka, and my corporeal self, sleeping soundly in my single room in a student dormitory in Birmingham. If a human is defined by their action, then does my very in-action mean that I am void of definition? What difference is there between my inactive, unobtrusive sleeping self and my (relatively active) unobtrusive dreams?

On one of those days, when I was feeling sluggish and lethargic, reluctant to even leave my room, I thought about the Voyager II as it leaves this solar system and wondered whether at that distance, billions of miles away, there was any difference between the inhabitants of this pin-prick Earth and the dreams they see. Our substance, our corporeality - the fact that we are here on this planet - are relative to our permanence (and the permanence of our actions) but under any considerable measure of time, our permanence dwindles to nothing and our substance takes on the quality of dreams. After death, are we different than any of our dreams?  

"With relief, with humiliation, with terror, he understood that he too was a mere appearance, dreamt by another." (Jean Luis Borges, Circular Ruins)

"I dream that I am here
of these imprisonments charged,
and I dreamed that in another state
happier I saw mself
What is life? A frenzy.
What is life? An illusion,
A shadow, a fiction,
And the greatest profit is small;
For all of life is a dream,
And dreams, and nothing but dreams"

(Pedro Calderon de la Barca, Life is a Dream)

Sorry for my early morning solipsistic driveling


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Summer Movies

Given my current 'servitude' at Alexandra House, I thought I would start making inroads into my 'must watch' films list. Some of the films below are from that list and others simply follow my friends' recommendations:

1. Finally came around to watching Glengarry Glen Ross, that is primarily famous for Alec Baldwin's epic cameo speech. When I was learning how to write plays at University, we had to study this script, so I was glad to finally see the movie. Al Pacino is great, as you would expect, but I think Jack Lemmon as Shelley Levene really steals the limelight with his slobbering, hand-rubbing desperation. Would really recommend it to anyone remotely interested in the real estate business and/or wants to see a star studded cast.

2. I watched Gulaal recently, following the recommendation of one of my West Bengali friends, and I wasn't disappointed. Besides the acting and the depiction of Rajputana politics, I loved the character of Prithvi Bana portrayed by Piyush Mishra. He acts as the supposedly half-witted brother of Dukey Bana, the leader of the subversive Rajputana movement, but in reality he has the most perceptive and memorable lines; often delivered as lyrics in thinly-veiled political songs. In effect, he had a great resemblance to the 'Fool' in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Along with Baburao Ganpatrao Apte, I think he's one of my Indian film characters!  

3. Another Al Pacino flick - The Devil's Advocate. The film starred Keanu Reeves pre-Matrix and it was Charlize Theron's first 'big film', so Al Pacino as the Devil is the biggest draw. It's possibly one of Pacino's less remarkable roles but nonetheless he has a memorable diatribe against 'God' towards the end of the film. I also loved his line about vanity being his favorite sin. Beyond the acting, the film left me with very mixed emotions. The film depicts the corruption of wealth and power in an intriguing way that builds throughout the film and thankfully, the Devil is not horned and fanged but I found the deeper theme concerning evil vs. free will to be superficial. In fact, I was slightly alarmed by the ultra-conservatism of the movie as it depicted most women as temptresses luring men to their doom, men as power-seekers and anyone with wealth as innately evil. It even went so far as to imply that lawyers should choose not to defend their clients if they are seemingly guilty (thus depriving them of the right to fair trial!). 

4. Moving to a slightly older era, I watched North by Northwest by Alfred Hitchcock yesterday. It's supposed to be a precursor to the first 'spy thriller' and according to Ian Fleming, it was the dashing looks and charm of Cary Grant that inspired the creation of his novels' main protagonist, James Bond. I suppose as a movie from 1959, the cinematography was impressive and the sexual tension between Eva Marie Saint and Cary Grant was risque but in the modern context, it is not particularly memorable. I watched it only a day ago but unlike the fantastic 'Kind Hearts and Coronets', I can't remember a single line of dialogue! 

Next up, a Touch of Evil (1958) by one of my favorite directors, Orson Welles and Lost Horizon (1937), as recommended to me by an English friend. 


Saturday, June 16, 2012

Summer Days

I'm reading quite a few things at the moment. I'm reading Polemics by Alain Badiou, which is basically a collection of his articles on a variety of issues from parliamentary democracy to islamic head scarves to the wars in iraq and serbia. (I dip in and out of that one.) I've also started reading Beyond a Boundary by CLR James which is supposed to be the greatest book ever written on any sport and is a very appropriate read given the current series between England and the West Indies. Oh and finally got around to Midnight's Children. It was good (of course) but I thought some of the metaphors and allegorical imagery was too on-the-nose.

I've also read the following articles by Zizek:

A review of Václav Havel: A Political Tragedy in Six Acts by John Keane (


With regard to the latter, I don't entirely agree with his assertion that "democratic mechanisms are part of a bourgeois-state apparatus that is designed to ensure the undisturbed functioning of capitalist reproduction." I think this overly simplifies the role of the legal system as a democratic mechanism i.e. that it merely protects commercial interests. This is, of course, not always the case. 


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Tempest in Bangla

On 7th May, I went to see the Tempest at the Globe. It was my second visit to the Globe - having seen Faust with my father and cousin the year before - but as usual I found myself lost on the banks of the Thames. I eventually stumbled to the venue, ten minutes late, but fortunately I had not missed much. The audience was larger than I expected, brimming with middle-aged, wistful Bangladeshis/Bengalis and younger, theatre-savvy non-Bengali Londoners. I had been hoping to see more Bangladeshis my age, especially in the standing area, but there didn't seem to be too many. Instead, much to my surprise, I happened to run into an old University friend of mine. I had always known about his interest in literature and theatre but was completely taken aback by his decision to come see a Bangla version of the Tempest! I spent half the play translating the dialogue on stage to him and his friends.

The production itself was great fun. It wasn't characterized with mesmerizing acting performances by Prospero or Caliban, as may have been seen if the play was put on by the RSC but it was a much livelier rendition of the play. This article that appeared in the Daily Star describes it well:

What was especially memorable was the comic trio of Caliban, Stefano and Trinculo. Besides their hysterical antics, as the reviewer above pointed out, it was as this point in the play that the audience really became engaged with the performance. My Warwick friend and his companions seemed to be particularly taken by the acting of Prospero as well. During the encore, it was also nice to see the exuberant pleasure of the cast members. One of them, Stefano, ran off stage to get a Bangladesh flag and ran on stage with it. (I have a video of this moment and will upload it soon.) The whole audience cheered and clapped in appreciation, even the non-Bangladeshi theatre-goers! I think it was a particularly heart-warming thing to see considering that most issues relating to the old country have been saddening/horrifying, such as civil unrest over the disappearance of Illias Ali and the earlier murder of a journalist couple.

In the end, it was great to be a spectator at the first Bangla production at Shakespeare's Globe!

Yousuff innovatively blends Shakespeare with the traditional 
dance of the Manipuri people to create a captivating style 
of storytelling. Photo: Simon Kane


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Wicket-keeping in the Rain

A few days ago I played a 20 overs-a-side game at a proper ground for the first time in many months. It was raining very heavily and the wicket was a typical 'sticky dog', where the ball would not leave the inner circle and any hard hit stroke would lose most of its momentum as soon as the ball bounced on the field. Having lived in the UK for the past four years, I've gotten used to these soggy conditions but it is an entirely different proposition when asked to wicket keep in such weather! I was the only one in my team who had ever kept wickets before and so it was left to poor, out of shape and bespectacled me to wear the gloves. While I would not say that I carried out my duty with distinction, I was competent enough and I was glad that a catch did not come my way, considering the fact that my glasses were coated in mud, sweat and rain every few minutes. With the number of squats that I had to do as well as the painful blow I took to the knee by a delivery that kept surprisingly low, I knew that I was in for quite a bit discomfort the next morning. And right I was. But I loved it! There's nothing quite like playing cricket in an open field, with proper equipment and proper XI-a-side teams. I hope to have more of such games in the future!


Friday, March 16, 2012

The Prado

Almost three years ago, a few friends and I visited Spain for the summer. It was meant to be a reunion of sorts as we were coming from different parts of the world - Brazil, Italy and England - and meeting some of our mutual friends in Madrid, Burgos and Grenada. I arrived there first, a day ahead of everyone else, and was picked up at the airport 'by surprise' by a friend who I had not seen in over a year.

Her parents lived in Punto, on the outskirts of Madrid and though she spent most of the year in an entirely different continent, her relative familiarity with the city made her our de facto guide. The first place she took me was the Prado Museum. It was afternoon already and we knew we didn't have much time in the museum, so we went immediately to her favourite section - the one exhibiting the Black Paintings of Francisco Goya. Though I did go to the Prado again, once my other friends arrived, it was the paintings of this section that left the biggest impression on me. I was particularly taken by the painting below, which was possibly inspired by the Ruben's painting beneath it (also displayed at the Prado):

Goya's Saturn Devouring His Son c. 1819-1823

Ruben's Saturn Devouring His Son  (1636)

The paintings depict the Greco-Roman myth of Chronos (Saturn) the Titan devouring his children because he had heard it prophesied that one of them would overthrow him. (There seem to be many such narratives in Greek and Roman mythology - the story of Oedipus springs to mind)  

I find the former painting to be more potent in its imagery than the latter, despite the latter being more refined. The crazed, desperate look in Saturn's eyes as he peers out of the darkness leaves a particularly haunting impression. I have read on one blog that this painting can be seen as an allegory "on the situation in a country [Spain] that was consuming its own children in bloody wars and revolutions". I think this is an apt way of explaining the imagery as the painting was made weeks after the French declared their war on Spain. (On the other hand, contemporary accounts also say that Goya was also experiencing the onset of paranoid dementia at the time, so that could have had an effect to!)

These were also some of the memorable paintings I saw at the Prado:

Velazquez's The Triumph of Bacchus (1629)

Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights Triptych (1490-1510)


Saturday, March 10, 2012

Shakib's fall from ODI No. 1 All-rounder status

Over the past year, I have become an increasingly regular contributor to the BanglaCricket forum. I love the cricketing and non-cricketing discussions that take place on the forum and can't help but marvel at some of the intellect on display. It's a shame that most of these Bangladeshis are expats, never to permanently return to Bangladesh. In any case this was what I wrote in response to some of the comparisons which were being drawn between Shakib al Hasan and latter-day, legendary all-rounders Botham, Hadlee, Khan, Dev, Sobers and co. It was written soon after Shakib lost his throne as No. 1 ODI Allrounder in the world to Shane Watson and there was criticism of his supposedly diminishing performance.

Drawing Comparisons to All-Time Greats

 I think its important to remember that while statistics are indicative of a player's prowess, they still need to be looked at in context. Botham's ODI Batting Average looks poor but it's important to remember that he largely played as a lower-order (pos. 6-7) slogger in England's ODI team. That much is clear from his 79+ SR at a time which had thinner bats, larger boundaries and no Twenty20. Even if the England team of the 80s wasn't the greatest, it certainly had some very good batsman and did not call upon Botham to bat out a majority of the overs. The fact thatShakib has had to do this on a number of occasions has meant that he has had more opportunities to score centuries and half-centuries (and full credit to him for making the most of many of those opportunities!) To illustrate my point, look at the performance of this season's KKR team. They are a balanced outfit with competent professionals and have done well so far (and hopefully will continue to do so, fingers crossed!). They haven't required Shakib's batting services as of yet but from the look of things, if they ever need to, it will be in the last quarter of their innings which is a slog fest. He would have to score runs very quickly and more often than not he will get out on a relatively low score. His average may look poor, (even in T20 terms) but as it is the SR that matters, it would not necessarily indicate his lack of capability with the bat.

Regarding being an All-rounder in general, as an All-rounder in Tests, Botham was remarkable, as 14 Test Centuries and 27 5wicket hauls attest to. As you know, the figures of Sobers, Imran, Kapil and Hadlee are just as/more impressive.That will require some effort and skill for Shakib to catch up to. And I wonder if he will ever get the opportunity to attain such a number of runs or wickets, given the decreasing number of Tests we seem to be playing each year. Shakib has now bowled in 34 innings and taken more than 4wi, 10 times. Will he ever get to play the other 134 innings that separate him from Botham and thereby attempt to surpass his record of 48 4wi+ innings? Probably not. 

As the G8's poor cousins, we're stuck in a vicious cycle of few international-quality first class/test matches and poor overall match performance. Which is not only unfortunate for the country but is also unfortunate for our shining lights, Tamim and Shakib

When they retire people will not look at how ICC rankings changed over the years but at bare statistics. If they play fewer matches, their runs or wickets aggregates will never match those of the best players. Also, the average spectator will not consider how many catches were dropped off Shakib's bowling or how sloppy the ground-fielding was but rather how many wickets he took or how many runs he scored in comparison to the players of the G8. If his side remains mediocre, the vivid images of arm balls shattering stumps and searing square cuts will blur and overtime people will only remember the depressing win-loss column. While the all rounders of moderately successful teams may secure legendary status with sensational performances in one series, Shakib would have to replicate Hadlee and win matches for Bangladesh single-handedly for over a decade, if he wants to enter the 'Allrounders Pantheon'. 

Shakib not being on the list of All-Time Great Allrounders

I wouldn't personally use that list as an authority for this discussion. While the Cricinfo debate is about the 'greatest allrounder', they obviously mean greatest allrounder 'till date'. The Selection Panel have deliberately nominated players who have long since retired and thus have the benefit of a sweeping view of the players' entire careers; the peaks and the troughs and their impact on the game as a whole. (The exception, of course, is Kallis who is still playing but as we know he has broken enough international batting records and been consistent enough with the ball to merit discussion. Importantly, he has also been around as an allrounder for close to a decade and a half now. In contrast to someone like Vettori, who has also been around for ages but has only become an allrounder in recent years.) Shakib's international career is little more than 4 years old and we still can't be certain about how his overall career will pan out - so how can we compare him with someone whose career is/largely is over? It will be interesting to see what the nominations are in 20 years time when such a question is considered again, long after Shakib, Vettori and Watson have retired. Given that they take into consideration unquantifiable parameters like 'impact' on the game and memorable victories/achievements, I have a feeling he will be in good stead. 

University of Warwick, Coventry

Some thoughts on what it would take for Bangladesh to be a democracy

I think these are some of the things that prevent us from being a so-called real democracy (besides the obvious corruption and dynastic politics):

1. Identity crisis. Are you a Bengali first or are you a Muslim foremost? Are you Americanized, Bollywoodized, Ingrej or khati deshi? Is it possible to reconcile their differences? If so, how? Or, better yet, how without being hypocritical or a mixture of contradictions? And what about those Hindus/Christians/Buddhists and Tribal/Indigenous people that we hear about in the news from time to time? Bangladesh has been sold as a homogeneous country for a long time but it's clear that we're not. We need to accept these differences, respect and celebrate them. Easier said than done of course and we can see the kinds of problems that established heterogeneous countries like the USand India have. 

Fostering a distinct Bangladeshi identity is a very difficult aspect of nation-building. There is practically a silent consensus among most people that different religions and ethnicities should be respected; that strong religious and cultural values can co-exist, etc. But the problem is how the question ofidentity is used in the political sphere and how it is manipulated to create schisms in our society. An ordinary Bangladeshi can almost innately reconcile their Bengali heritage with their faith, their traditional values with their increasing exposure to the world. The problem arises when political forces artificially delineate what is 'Bengali', what is 'Islamic' and what is 'foreign' and force people to choose between them. Such ploys need to be discontinued.

2. Lack of political and legal education. An elected government has relatively free reign but an opposition party(ies) need to know how to effectively oppose in and out of Parliament and the public needs to be more aware of their rights.   

At the moment MPs have their hands tied if they wish to oppose a particular Bill, Act or Amendment as they have to vote along party lines. If I remember correctly, the tenuous justification given for why MPs have to vote according to party lines is that it prevents 'floor crossing'. Apparently, in the early days, MPs would surreptitiously change their party allegiance and it was feared that Parliament could become unstable as a result, so, floor crossing was banned. The fact that politicians like Barrister Moudud Ahmed changed their political party every few years clearly shows the ineffectiveness of this policy. Whatever merit this policy once had, it has no place in a country that tries to project itself as a multi-party, transparent democracy. 

The point is that the opposition parties as a whole should voice their objections in Parliament (rather than in public press conferences). People forget that only a little bit of Parliament's work occurs in the main Chamber and most of the actual legislating and policy making is done behind the scenes in standing committees. There, the Chief Whip has less power and there is more opportunity for across-the-floor negotiation. As far as I am aware, there are at least a few BNP MPs on standing committees and they have the opportunity of voicing their opinion and effecting a real change. Whether they do so, is another matter. (Of course, the incumbents act in the same way when they are in the opposition.) 

Parties seem to think that the most effective way of protesting legislation and policies is through general strikes. Staging protests outside of Parliament is nothing more than a facile exercise in political showmanship which only demonstrates how immature our democracy still is and is detrimental to the economy to boot.

3. Lack of an efficient and transparent criminal justice system.


British Bangladeshi Identity Crises

In my four years in the UK till date, I've often gotten the impression that religion is a 'culture substitute' for british-bangladeshi youth, where alienation from both their native culture and 'western' culture has led them to cling to another set of cultural values i.e. Islamic values. 

Growing up abroad, many of them have never learned their native language and have never become really familiar with Bengali literature, music, festivals, customs etc. You'll almost never see a young guy in a cotton panjabi or a lungi or a girl in a sari (except for weddings). At the same time, many of them also feel distant from western customs and habits and feel that they do not truly belong to it. So, in this state of limbo, they attach themselves to a more pan-national set of values that give them a sense of identity and community. By being British-Muslim, they suddenly have brothers and sisters from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Palestine, Malaysia, Indonesia and all over the Muslim ummah. This particular attachment is clear from the fervor with which the youth campaign for Palestine as compared to socio-political issues in Bangladesh. I believe it is this desire for identity and community that causes many deshi young people abroad to be religious. 

This is not the same in Bangladesh. Bangladesh may only be 40 years old but there have been Bengali Muslims living in that particular tract of land for many more years than that. This gestation has allowed for a more comfortable synthesis to be reached between culture and religion, which allows them to exist side by side. Many people are deeply pious but also greatly revere their mother tongue and immerse themselves in cultural festivals. (I'm speaking generally of course, there are always exceptions) It isn't really a choice, it just happens. In contrast to that, in the last couple of decades, many choices have opened up to Bangladeshi youth. They can choose to stay the course of their parents or they can become increasingly 'westernized' or 'bollywood-ized'. Striking a balance is difficult and I am sure many of them will face crises of identity like their British-Bangladeshi cousins in the UK/US. 

Someone who embodies this 'caught between two cultures' identity is Lowkey, the Anglo-Iraqi hip hop artist. He describes himself as being an 'Englishmen amongst Arabs and an Arab amongst Englishmen'


Sunday, February 26, 2012

Taj Mahal Foxtrot

This is a wonderful new book by Naresh Fernandes about the jazz scene in Bombay between roughly 1935-1967. In the words of the author himself:
"Taj Mahal Foxtrot unfolds between 1935 and 1967. It listens to a tumultuous period in the history of India – and the city of Bombay – through the ears of jazz musicians and jazz fans. It is about a quest for freedom, both political and artistic. It follows the circular movement of jazz from the ghettoes of New Orleans to elite Bombay ballrooms and back again to the street as a pulsating element in Hindi film music. It describes how India became a battleground on which hot jazz was deployed during the Cold War. It reaches back into the pre-history of jazz, recalling the tours of nineteenth-century minstrelsy troupes of white people who put on blackface to perform “negroisms” to audiences of brown people." 
The blog relating to the book is: (It has some wonderful old scores)
And a Review:

I must purchase this book!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Fire in Babylon Review

(This is something that I wrote in July-August 2011 but only had the opportunity to type up now) 

“Babylon is a state of mind”

Every team needs a few bowlers who can, not only catapult the ball from one end of the pitch to the other at bone-shattering speeds, but can also vary their lines and lengths as the occasion demands while doing so. The West Indies cricket team, the subject of this film, has never had a total absence of such bowlers but after their whitewash at the hands of Australia, they were in a precarious position in which some of their best fast bowlers had retired and their young pacers were still raw and undisciplined. It was the endeavour of Clive Lloyd to groom a motley group of such young pacers from across the Caribbean into great fast-bowlers and world beaters that is captured in the 2010 film ‘Fire in Babylon’

The reason why I call it a film rather than a documentary is because the director has chosen to create an arc of dispiriting defeats and inspiring fight-backs with the narrative being led by fearsome fast bowlers instead of an empirical documentation of the rise of the West Indies from ‘calypso cricketers’ or how such a factory line of world-class bowlers almost magically appeared. This has meant that certain liberties were taken in the making of the film, for instance there was no mention of the fact that the West Indies had won the first Cricket World Cup a full year before they were trounced in Australia 5-0. Instead, of the first few minutes of the film showing disconsolate images of West Indies cricketers moping in Australia, as if West Indies cricket had reached an all-time low, it may have been more effective to begin at an earlier decade where the team had a few stars and only occasional wins – the eras of Learie Constantine and George Headley.

However, fast bowlers who can draw blood and bruise opposition batsmen provide a far more potent image of resurgence, pride and to put it bluntly, black power.  It is the image and persona of the fast bowlers nurtured by Clive Lloyd that is the driving force of the film. During a time of civil rights and independence movements around the world and particularly within the Commonwealth, these bowlers who could physically and symbolically put the white opposition batsmen on the back foot began to be seen as more than sportspersons. They were presentations of the people on the closest thing to a level playing field (pun fully intended) and their struggles were seen as the people’s own struggles to gain respect. This was only reinforced by the disastrous statement by English captain Tony Greig in ___, when he said that he would make the West Indies team “grovel”.  The players were incensed and the fire and brimstone that they unleashed on the helmet-less English batsmen continues to be seen as one the most blood curdling episodes in cricket since Bodyline. Anyone who has seen old footage of Michael Holding tenderising Brian Close would testify to this. England was ‘blackwashed’ comprehensively and their captain who was born in Apartheid South Africa fell to his knees in front of the gallery of Caribbean supporters.

For the average Caribbean spectator in Britain it was a watershed moment. Amidst the racial tensions, income disparity and police brutality rife in 1970s Britain, it engendered a sense of pride among the immigrant community. This feeling of pride is evident in the interviews of the aging spectators of ‘West Indies’ glory days – among whom a member of Bob Marley’s ‘Wailers’ can be counted. What these players meant to their adoring fans is immortalised in song, some of which are nostalgically sung in the film by old men in aquamarine suits with cataracts in their eyes.

Despite what they say in the interviews in the film, it is questionable from the outset whether these players, some of them still very young at the time, fully appreciated how their on-field actions resonated off-field. This was even candidly admitted by Michael Holding during the red carpet ceremony before the launch of the film in London.

Even in such an all-conquering West Indies line-up it is this sense of purpose and identity that really separated the men from the boys, the Sir Vivian Richards from the Colin Crofts. ‘Viv’, as he is affectionately known, was fully aware of what he meant to the Caribbean and despite being offered a blank cheque, he refused to be wooed by Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in apartheid South Africa. Croft gave in and in one of the more honest moments of the film he even admitted that he was lured by the unprecedented amount of money. Unsurprisingly his career and reputation died on the rocks. He was still fortunate as some of his teammates during the World Series are now drug addicts.

Viv, on the other hand, continued to play for the West Indies, brutalising attacks around the world and ultimately taking over the mantle of leadership from Clive Lloyd- all the while wearing the arm band of Zion. With his gum-chewing swagger and domineering presence, he bestrode the cricketing world stage as its equivalent of Malcolm X. The movie ends with a mention of their successful tour of Pakistan and a scrolling list of their awesome Test series record. In the words of Holding again, “No team, in any sport, was so dominant in their sport for 15 years.”

The title ‘Fire in Babylon’ suggests a depth that is not really present in the film. It plots a narrative of oppression and retribution which is sweeping in ambition but glosses over the context in which they rose to prominence and the roots of their sporting dominance. It has the requisite protest images, some general comments about being oppressed and a nod towards the West Indies’ first black captain Frank Worrell but it is insufficient in creating a backdrop upon which the meteoric rise to the peak with the help of fast bowlers can be seen. The fact that no one under 30 was interviewed in the making of the film speaks volumes too. It raises questions about the dis-connect that exists between generations of players and spectators.

While the interviews of old Caribbean spectators is both heart-warming and entertaining, rather than seeing this film as a commentary on the societal impact of cricket or its use as a tool in the anti-colonial struggle, it should be viewed for what it is: a glimpse of the ingredients that make an unparalleled sports team and an immensely satisfying montage of videos of bowlers sending batsmen off the field in stretchers! And even if it is too satisfy such a blood lust, I would recommend watching this film as you are not likely to see in a Bangladeshi cricket match any time soon. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Summer

A beautiful song.

The Summer 
- Josh Pyke (2008)

" If I could bottle up the sea breeze I would take it over to your house 
And pour it loose through your garden

So the hinges on your windows would rust and colour
Like the boats pulled up on the sand for the summer
And your sweet clean clothes would go stiff on the line
And there'd be sand in your pockets and nothing on your mind

But every year it gets a little bit harder
To get back to the feeling of when we were fifteen
And we could jump in the river upstream
And let the current carry us to the beginning where
The river met the sea again
And all our days were a sun-drenched haze
While the salt spray crusted on the window panes

We should be living like we lived that summer
I wanna live like we live in the summer

And I'll remember that summer as the right one
The storms made the pavement steam like a kettle
And our first goodbye always seemed like hours
In the car park in between my house and yours
And if the summer holds a song we might sing forever
Then the winter holds a bite we'd never felt before

But time is like the ocean
You can only hold a little in your hands
So swim before we're broken
Before our bones become
Black coral on the sand"