Friday, April 29, 2011

The Superior Virtue of the Wicked

I was watching Public Enemies the other day on my comp, the second time after watching it at a theatre. I was mainly viewing it for the earlier talk that Depp would figure as the Riddler in the last Chris Nolan Batman movie. Fanboys like me take a special delight in watching actors who play comic characters play other characters. Allow me to explain: a fanboy once posted, “Who would win in a fight between Batman and Wolverine?” Answer: “Watch the ending of The Prestige.” Or: who would win in a fight between Jason Bourne and Bob Lee Swagger? Answer: watch the ending of The Departed.

Public Enemies is not a badly executed period crime drama at all, not by a long chalk. Depp’s Dillinger holds your attention, as does Bale’s Purvis, the action is crafted well, the human interest explored. Billy Crudup’s J. Edgar Hoover, however, is a pale figure compared to the real man, but that is not Crudup’s fault. It is the story’s. You see, if Hoover’s real nature had to be explored, it would turn some of the key elements in the movie on their head. That’s where the problems in the movie lie.

Crime thrillers, as explored in the popular media, seem to hinge on exploring the human side of various criminals. There are mainly four kinds of criminals, and in my time as a political and urban crime reporter I have met specimens of each category. They are broadly defined by what I call The Aftermath, or what they look the morning after they are arrested, interesting tableau vivants that could have walked off a Gericault oil painting.

The amateur criminal manifests in incredible brutality visited on known people, and wakes up to crime and punishment confused. The professional knows his ropes so thoroughly he no longer cares to differentiate between whether he is in custody or out. The political criminal is so keyed up about his beliefs he actually relishes his impending imprisonment, while the psychopath…well, more on him in a later blog, perhaps.

I have yet to find meaningful redeeming qualities in any of these types or specimens. Rather, their stories have been sordid replaceable, utterly commonplace plays of broad human themes just as easily, if not so dramatically, explored in our own, mostly law-abiding lives. But there must be something vicarious in the human psyche that we demand to explore the lives of criminals.

John Dillinger was no hero. He was a bank robber with flair in an era of gangsters with flair. He was a criminal in the Depression-era resurgence of lawlessness America saw. Although only directly charged with one cop killing, the bank robberies he committed saw scores of deaths. And he didn’t look like Johnny Depp or sing better than Gene Autry.

This treatment or, shall we say, revisionism of the history of crime has other examples, like Bonnie and Clyde. The couple, as Stephen Hunter points out in this brilliant article ( were no cute twosome on the run from the wicked forces that try to discipline them. They were psychopathic murderers and had to be stopped. The men who eventually stopped them were not malicious old men who envied their freedom, but people who laid their lives on the line and had friends and family too.

It is easy to find criminals an interesting character study, and perhaps proper. But it might not be just if we assigned them human elements that, in case of historical examples, were absent.

Returning to Crudup’s Hoover, the powerful director of the FBI was also insecure about his position, so he hounded Melvin Purvis out of the Bureau. Public Enemies mentions Purvis took his own life in 1960, but does not say it was because of a bad boss, somehow leading the audience to believe that while Dillinger died on his feet from another man’s (a hired man too) bullet, Purvis was an unknown suicide. Melvin Purvis was a good man. The kind that stopped a scourge. Historical depictions ought to do some things right.

P.S. The title of this post is based on Joseph Addison’s The Superior Virtue of the Oppressed, about how women and children, who were given the short straw in his time, were glorified in fiction and art.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Some stories…

I have had very few opportunities of getting theoretical guidance on how to write. I once attended a workshop on writing for children. It was a wonderful experience, and I met many famous names in children’s fiction and learnt much from them. One of the writers at the workshop mentioned that some other writer (I forget the name) had once said that there are only two kinds of fiction: ‘hero goes on a quest’ and ‘stranger comes to town’.

I do not know if this is true, although for a while at the workshop I tried to slot the stories I have read in either category and found it somewhat true. I do know that fiction provides some rare moments of that special frisson you feel when a plot takes such a twist you can see it happening in front of you.

Which of either category, if they exist, would give that sort of frisson? Again, I do not know. But sometimes, events in real life can provide a template of the kind of stories that are difficult to forget. In the genre of the western, for instance, you have fiction work after fiction work on gunmen of all kind and description, all adept with their weapons.

This was not always the truth in real life. The truth is, a rifle or a shotgun back then was more reliable than a pistol or revolver. This did not fit a fiction work or the innate heroism of a pistol, so it never made the pulp fiction of those times. But the staples: the breathtaking shooting, the characters sharply etched, the strong motives driving them, they were all derived from the real world.

Once in a while, though, events in real life can provide you just the kind of frisson fiction in that genre tries to create. This is what happened on August 19, 1871 at Newton, Kansas, 10 years before the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday set out for the OK Corral. What happened at Newton is my favourite factual gunfight, and possibly the least known.

The story, then. Mike McCluskie and Billy Bailey were two cops at Newton. On August 11, election day, they had a little political difference of opinion so McCluskie shot Bailey, who died the following day.

Now, Bailey was a Texan so some of his cowboy friends vowed vengeance and waited for McCluskie, who had fled town, to return, which he did on hearing that the incident would be taken as self-defence.

The problem with telling this story is I do not know when I should insert the central character who only becomes central for about a few minutes. I should do it now.

The central character is not McCluskie or Bailey or the vengeful cowboys about to walk on to the stage. McCluskie, it seems, was otherwise a nice guy, so a few weeks before the Bailey incident he had befriended a young man who was new in town. This man, 17 years old, was Jim Riley. No one knew where he came from or much about him except he was suffering from advanced tuberculosis. He didn’t do much while staying with McCluskie but was known to carry two revolvers wherever he went for no known reason.

On August 19, McCluskie was back at Newton and sitting in a bar in the Hide Park area with his friend James Martin. Four of the late Bailey’s cowboy friends entered the bar looking for him: Jim Wilkerson, Billy Garrett, Hugh Anderson, a rich rancher and Henry Kearnes.

Martin got up to stop the fight but was shot. Anderson shot McCluskie several times.

Jim Riley was in a corner of the bar and at this point, by various accounts, he got up and began shooting. He hit seven men: Martin, who got shot by both parties, Garrett, Kearns and an onlooker were shot and died. Anderson, Wilkerson and another eye-witness were shot but survived.

With all twelve of his bullets fired and all the gunmen down, this little kid then walked out of the bar. Apart from his age and the shootout, there is nothing really differentiating this from any other story of the real Old West.

Except, you see, Riley, after a gunfight that produced more deaths than the Four Dead in Five Seconds fight and the one at the OK Corral combined, walked out of the bar…and disappeared. No one saw him afterwards. It has been speculated that he died of the disease a short while afterwards in some other place, under another name. But for the reader, he just walks out of the bar and right off the story.

That’s the kind of event that fiction tries to come up with. And that’s what the best kind of stories have: some identification with the real, the actual, the it-really-could-happen-and-holy-shit-it-did.

So, was Riley on a heroic quest, or was he the stranger in town? I don’t know, though my vote goes to the latter. But then, there’s a problem. You see, his legend grows after he leaves, not when he walks into town.

I guess real life defies classification.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Genre Fiction: Fantasy

Continuing from my previous post, the only Indian English fantasy work I have is The Immortals of Meluha by Amish. It is difficult to call it fantasy, though, which is where its problem begins.

Fantasy—high, low or in between—is permitted to field any cast of characters its creator chooses, and any number of anachronisms. You can have dinosaurs and dragons, ray-guns and swords, kings and corporations. There is a high degree of suspension of disbelief, so long as the story has an organic integrity within its universe.

Great fantasy writers provide this integrity by basing their stories outside our timeline, even our dimension, sometimes with no reference points to connect with our world. Ursula K. Le Guin, that beautiful storyteller, does not opt for intense sub-creation, but we do not mind, because her stories are mainly about the human condition, which remains the same whether it is in this world or the next galaxy or dimension. C.S. Lewis, after creating the magnificent Aslan, disappoints us with allegory, but his works have an integrity within their universe. Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion is the common thread in his super-cycle.

Tolkien is not a part of this discussion because he did not create Middle-Earth or its people: he just chronicled some of them.

If you trawl the web, as I did after reading Meluha, you will find two broad kinds of responses to it: enthusiastic support on one side because Amish narrates a god’s life, and derision on the other side because he uses ‘modern’ speech patterns to narrate a god’s life. Meluha fans mostly seem to have read the book after watching his video. The writer, it appears, does not share the chronic self-effacement of the Mennonite sect which is his namesake. Remarkably, very few readers have discussed the book within its genre, and I hope this is not because serious readers have been put off by the Shiva connection.

Being a Pastafarian by religion, I have an equal respect for all gods, although I must say that our god, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, has bigger balls than any of the rest.

Any story that recreates a theogony has the potential to be exciting. I have followed Thor, for instance, in his travels in the Marvel Universe, or in his partnership with Dirk Gently in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul or all the gods and monsters in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.

But the moment you establish a god as a historical character, your book is faced with a curious and difficult choice: will it become historical fiction, or will it continue as fantasy?

Meluha is based at the end of the 20th century BC. Alright, says the reader, so it is historical fiction, set in our world, in our timeline. The reader then remembers that Sumerian tablets from that period recovered in Iraq mention three trading partners—Magan, Melukhkha and Dilmun. Magan was, experts say, somewhere around Oman. That leaves the other two, and we still can’t be certain Melukhkha was the Indus Valley Civilisation. In the writer’s defence, though, The Immortals of Dilmun would sound like a story about ghosts in a pickle factory or some kind of Indian romantic movie.

A little after the reader has decided it just might be historical fiction, the discrepancies start emerging. Any work, if based in our timeline, must follow the rules of our timeline. That is the whole basis on which fantasy and science-fiction are separated from other genres, including historical fiction. Even within science-fiction, writers today follow this rule. Steampunk, which is mainly about what the world would have been like if steam had remained mankind’s prime motive power, does not introduce instruments of the electronic age. If such devices are introduced, the writer makes the effort to describe a concept device which adheres to the integrity of the steampunk premise.

In Meluha, the people have gained immortality or at least remarkable longevity by drinking somras, a concoction which, as the scientist Brihaspati explains to our hero, acts on the free radicals which modern medicine tells us are responsible for some serious diseases. Interesting, but it just doesn’t work here. The idea of free radicals is not possible without the idea of a free shell configuration existing in the first place. Radicals are sub-atomic particles. To study them in any useful measure you need electricity and an extensive knowledge of the human body. It took us two thousand eight hundred years to go from Sushruta, the surgeon, to what we have today. Ancient India’s idea of the anu, loosely translated as atom, was an amorphous concept comparable to ideas of any ancient culture.

There are other equally visible anachronisms. The Meluha cities have arches connecting citadels to one another, and yet page after page mentions characters swimming or rowing across rivers. Historically, the arch was first used for aqueducts and viaducts before it became an architectural mainstay. Shiva mentions that he read about asuras in books in a library. A newcomer from a different land masters the written language without it being mentioned anywhere in the story. Also, in 1900 BC India did not have a script because the Phoenicians hadn’t sailed over to Spain to make their alphabet. Even Megasthenes, one thousand seven hundred years after our hero, mentions that Indians did not appear to have much to do with writing.

The point which I have found particularly disconcerting, but which is also forgiveable, is iron. The Assyrians hadn’t unleashed their secret weapon on the Bronze Age world just then. Siege engines were crude but could be such fertile ground for some concept work. There isn’t any.

Mohan-jo-Daro, far from ‘the hill of Mohan’ in some ancient language, stands for ‘the mound of the dead’ in 19th century (CE) Sindhi. There are other instances where Shiva is quoted speaking in Hindi, of all languages.

The story could still have been redeemed by the plot, but it isn’t, with more focus on Shiva’s hash stash and his blue throat than his other attributes. Nor does the writing redeem itself. If the series is being built on a philosophical premise, the reader can benefit by reading any speculative Shaivite text, regardless of its provenance. It is a pity, really. Shiva is such a fascinating subject for this kind of endeavour.

You might ask why I should be concerned about a book whose chief claim to fame is it has sold well. I am concerned, because as a reader I would hope that if other readers are buying a book, whether it is critically acclaimed or a bestseller (or perhaps both), at least they get value for their money.

The bigger concern I have is: fantasy fiction by Indians based here is such a small pond that it is very easy to muddy its waters irretrievably even before it gets fresh inflow. Meluha, thus, does its genre a grave disservice. If, on the other hand, it is a historical fiction novel, I hope future works in this equally small field will be more thorough.

I have liked Ashok Banker’s Ramayana because it is clear about its nature: it is fantasy and sticks to it. I look forward to his Krishna series. There are other works of Indian fantasy emerging, and fans might be advised to follow them within the context of their genre and not just because of a possible emotional connect with the concept on which the central character is based.

In an interview to my friend, Amish had said that he was inspired by Shiva to produce the trilogy. We are yet to see the second book, but we must remember that the god was an intransigent, filicidal, borderline misanthrope with a history of drug abuse and a remarkable proficiency with a weapon that is, trust me, very difficult to use. He might have very little patience with this sort of work.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Nature of English Fiction Writing in India

I am sometimes asked why I do not possess many English fiction works by Indian writers. At the moment I have three novels that I recall: The Englishman’s Cameo by Madhulika Liddle, which I got at its launch, The Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripathi and Fallout by Usha Ananda Krishna which my publishers at Tranquebar gave me.

Of the three, I have loved Fallout. It is dark comedy in just the right places and has a murder that might have happened purely because a writer was critically acclaimed. It has been written remarkably well. The prose is spare, which I appreciate because it seems to be rare in Indian writing. My publishers tell me it got panned by critics.

So, going back to my first sentence. I do not follow many Indian fiction writers, possibly to my detriment–and here I must explain that by Indian writers I mean those based in India, not abroad, nor expatriates or those of Indian or mixed parentage who have, at least for now, returned to the mother country.

I could be facetious and say I’d rather read writing from other countries, but that would not be the whole truth. Nor would be the undeniable fact that they are better written. There is so much to read about from India. There are stories of such immediacy and colour to be explored, understood, even empathised with, such remarkable characters that can be sketched, coloured and animated. I have not read these stories yet among the mass that is Indian writing.

I have found that writers based in India are limited in their plot. While good writing can frequently win a book through, in the absence of stellar writing, an interesting plot might just satisfy the lay reader, and I count myself with him.

Most Indian writing I come across might have passable word-work, but their plots are about people like you and me going on with their lives. There is no harm in writing about us, you know, or at least there would have been no harm if we, the reading, almost-reading, pretending-to-read, working professional upper or middle-middle class in this country represented a composite—or at least a significant—idea of what this country is. We don’t, and that is the core of the problem. If the lives of a country’s people were evaluated as newspaper editors measure story ideas, our lives are single-column stories. The seven-column fliers, the anchors, the two-page spreads are not among us.

Most Indian writers and their readers come from a certain urban background, with a common education, upbringing and lifestyle. As students in school we are limited to our everyday lives and the high walls around us. In college we are limited to spending our parents’ money in limited endeavours and, if fortunate to live in hostels, getting a small idea of the other kinds of India there are.

Then we get jobs and continue in them, limiting ourselves to the workplace and our friends. If literature, from what I understand of it, is about drawing from our own experiences for the most part, the pool we can access in this country is cripplingly inadequate. If you look at the lives of writers from the West, they drifted across different fields. Some were waiters for a while, bus drivers, lift attendants, sometimes journalists, enlisted men, buffalo hunters, you name it, they did it. The strong vein of individualism that runs in the West liberates them in ways we might not experience in this country for a long time. They are free to see the world in its entirety and to fashion stories and characters from where they will.

This problem in India is compounded by writers who come from a metropolitan background. There is no harm in being from a big city either, but the range of experiences one might get in our increasingly homogenised metros is so limited that every story emerging from here appears to look like another. The same kind of people, dressed and speaking identically, debate about the same topics in similar eating places over similar food in story after story. To call it déjà vu would be to wake Jung and shake him, and since he was by all accounts an irascible man he wouldn’t like it.

As far as non-metropolitan stories go, the stable of writers originally from these places is limited as things stand today. This divide between the language in all its beauty being available to a small number of people who do not have access to a wider horizon of existence, and the language not being available (except as a key-to-the-kingdom kind of upward aspiration) to those from the hinterland is what cripples English writing in India.

The few that straddle this divide have a different albatross to carry—identity, or rather, identification. I can speak about the North-east, from where I am. The example is not without context, considering the increased focus writing from or about the region has started getting from Indian publishers today. The major fear I have is in the rush to mine the well-springs of stories from that land (and it is a gold-mine, but which place in India isn’t?) publishers might permit a lot of chaff to creep in with the grain.

It is in the nature of chaff to do this, and it is the duty of publishers to winnow thoroughly. I would not read a work by a Jarawa from the Andamans only because there is no Jarawan writing so far. Neither would some other readers, I am certain.

That brings us back to the problem of identification. If a person is from a certain under-explored region, this does not imply she has to write about it to the exclusion of everyplace else. Re-considering the North-east example, it is very difficult for a person from any one part of it to have or provide a complete picture of the whole, or even the idea of the other, or at least not over several books. While the person might write story after story about her land, this will limit her range, although, considering the really good writers who do so, they are a pleasure to read.

There are different Indias, and there are different lives. The ones which contain within them the kernels of memorable stories and characters are still waiting for the light to shine down on them. If only our writers stepped out into the cold a little more.

(I haven’t talked about genre fiction from this country. I will, sometime later.)