Friday, August 31, 2012

Dracula and Frankenstein

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Ideally both these books deserve an individual blog post but reading them back to back was so much fan. All thanks to the Fantasy and Science Fiction course at coursera.

Firstly, i hate horror movies. I had heard about Dracula and Frankenstein but have never seen their movie adaptations before. I was aware of their big fan following in USA but i was never drawn into it.  However, given my penchance for getting things directly from source, i was very much looking forward to both these books.

Dracula review:
I loved reading Dracula. I took this course because (a) I was tired of reading non-fiction, so wanted to read good fiction and was looking for avenues and (b) After LOTR and AGOIAF, i wanted to read more about Fantasy genre and learn it. In Dracula, both of my desires were fulfilled. What an amazing piece of writing!

Dracula hooked me on after the first couple of Johnathan Harker's journal entries. The way the psychological change is described through his journal it was just edge of the seat kind of thriller. I was just amazed how we are able to feel the terror of Dracula through the eyes of only one character (victim). To see Dracula such a rich and cultured broke all pre-concieved notions that i had. Bram Stoker's Dracula has a class. He is very knowledgeable and his conversation manners have a lot of style.

Next thing that stood about the novel was the Point of View (POV) style of narration. After A song of ice and fire, i was already fan of POV style. I was very happy to see it again here. Bram uses this style very cleverly. Again we see characters knowing partial information (while we know more than them individually) and we see how they act based on their partial data. POV from crucial characters such as Van Helsing is absent atleast in the beginning. POV style adds elements of mystery and thriller to this horror genre.

The writing is full of prose and a lot of time is spent in painting the vision. Be it Castle Dracula or Lucy's ghost in the grave, we are there with the characters and are eager to know the future.

A very very entertaining read. Highly recommended.

For an outsider like me, first thing that strikes is that Frankenstein is not the name of the monster, instead Frankenstein was the creator. The book began as quite a drag for me. A lot of writing is spent on describing the scenery, romanticism dominates a lot in the first few pages. But the moment we start to learn about the monster and we know the story from his perspective, it was a very thrilling read. How does an artificially created man learns the basic things - the language, the history, human behavior and relationships, all is explained and to me it was very entertaining to read it.

Frankenstein creatively explores the connection between God and Frankenstein. Frankenstein is the creator here; and what happens if you do not like what you have created. Is it ok to abandon your creation? Is it ok for God to abandon us? And is the creator responsible for the actions of his/her creation? Mary plays with this subject in a very interesting manner.

In both the novels, the sophistication of the villain was fascinating. Reading back to back gave me a sense of knowing everything there is to know about in the horror genre. I also went back and saw Van Helsing again which pays tribute to many horror themes. I hated the movie again but watching it with more context made it enjoyable as well :)
It is so amazing that if i think of the horror genre now, it is associated with cheap sound bytes, erotica and some useless story background. But both these novels, the creators of this genre are so intellectually drafted that it makes you fall in love with the classics!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Grimm's fairy tales

Grimm's fairy tales was one of the first reading as part of Fantasy and Science Fiction course at coursera.

It is a collection of fairy tales that were mostly present in oral form coming down from generations. Grimm Brothers are said to have merely compiled them all in one place.  So in a sense they are not Grimm's fairy tales per say in the sense that they were not imagined by them.

While reading Grimm's fairy tales, one thing that surprised me was its richness. Cindrella, Hansel and Grethel, Rapunzel, Snow white every whose who of fairy tales that i had heard before is present here. It was incredible to read from the source of all of those stories, what an amazing effort is this book!

Typically one associates fairy tales with morals or teachings about good behavior. Grimm's tales  do not. There are stories where the one who is shrewd wins, cheaters cheat and are rewarded, lies are often met with favorable outcomes. There are few stories with morals but very few. In a sense these tales are true reflection of our society's norms that one would expect from fairy tales. Behind speaking animals, witches and magic, there lies a very close commentary on human behavior and reasoning.

It is an interesting read. I think it was a perfect start to the course as fairy tales indeed are our first introduction to the world of fantasy. This blog is written mid-way into this course and looking back, i am happy that it started with fairy tales. The content has been maturing (or rather getting dark) week over week.

There is a also a HBO movie about the world of Grimm brothers, i have watched its first 30 mins and it is quite interesting. Grimm brothers had money issues. One of the brothers was very much into this project, he often gave money to local women in exchange for stories. While the other one used to cover him up both professionally and financially. Need to finish the movie soon.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Kashmir - Been there, done that and want to do more. Kashmir is a feeling that will stay with me for a long time to come.  My Kashmir trip was from 11-19 Aug which primary included the IndiaHikes organized trek - Great Lakes of Kashmir from 12-18 Aug. This post is a detailed account of my time there.

The first thing we (Pankaj, Sachin and me) noticed when we landed in Srinagar is the presence of military on the streets of Kashmir. It is normal for Kashmiris. But for us, constant patrolling force was a shock. The second shock was the cab prices. The prepaid counter charged us 450Rs from airport to hotel which would not have been more than 10Kms. That is about 45Rs per km,  it is even more expensive than Bangalore.

Day -1: Dal lake and the Shikara
We arrived a day early under the pretense of acclimatization to see Srinagar.  Dal lake on a 3-4 hr Shikara ride gives a feeling of calm, peace and the slow pace of life as it should be. Just imagining sitting on one of the houseboats, sipping coffee and lazily overlooking  the lake gives contentment. The level of entrepreneurship is also amazing. We saw a shikara with a lot of suitcases just standing there. As we went closer, it came next to us and the suitcases were revealed to be boxes holding  collection of jewellery sets. There are mobile Chai shops, Photo studios, freshly roasted Butta (corn) being sold on Shikaras. There is also a whole floating market and now a floating Indian Post Office as well!  But we could see signs of a lot of commercialization of the lake.

Day 0: Shankaracharya temple and to reach basecamp.
The Shankaracharya temple on the hill is decent. It gives a good view of the city and we realizes that (a) Srinagar is quite densely populated and (b) Dal lake is huge :) The drive to base camp at Sonamarg was very beautiful. The road goes next to the Sind river for about 2 hrs and the scenery is beautiful. Sparsely populated, small hills, green vegetation and good roads just lightens the heart. The basecamp at Sonamarg was right next to Sind river on a lush green grass at the foothills. Perfectos!  The local guide said that this is just the start, as the trek progresses, it is going to get better. I had no reason to doubt him but i was completely satisfied here as well.

 The   trek route/itinerary can be read from this page - 
I will not repeat that. Rather, i want to talk about things that i observed and cool incidents that will be remembered -

~ Drinking water straight out of river. No purification, no RO, no cleaning, no boiling. I do not remember when was the last time i drank like this.  It just makes you wonder that if water is so pure at the source, why it is so contaminated by the time we get it.
~ The magic of water - We were asked to drink about 5-6 litres of water everyday. Pretty much drinking water and peeing was the order of the day.  But water is magical. There were couple of points in the trek when we were at high altitudes (13.5K feet+) and i felt dizzy, the pukey feeling and both the times, i just drank water. It helps in acclimatization, keeps the body hydrated and everything else feels normal.
~ No bath. The water was cold. Sometimes freezing cold. That meant no bath for me and many others for 6 days. There were a few who took a dip in the Hanmukh lake on day 5 but i am not that brave (stupid :)
~Oh shit! This was the first time i used a shovel to dig a cathole to take a dump. I had heard that people do it in long treks, but doing it was a first experience.
~Pampered - Treks in India pamper us. We didn't had to carry our tents,  nor our sleeping bags. There were even mules available on pay basis to carry our bag packs. There were cooks with us to cook food for us, horses were carrying the food and other raw materials. helpers for everything. I atleast carried my bag pack on my own for the entire trek.
~ No people. For the most part, it was a people free trek. It is so important to be feel the wilderness, to get that feeling that you are all alone against the nature. In many treks in India, one finds Dhaba/villages for a long way, there are highways crossing the trails etc etc. But on this one, except on the last day, we were pretty much on our own. We did cross two army camps and met local sherpas but was interesting in itself.
~ Army camps - Army people were happy to see us. There were happy to see people in general. Else, they are all alone between the mountains.  At the Satsar camp, we were offered water and cadbury chocolates which was awesome. But one thing that became evident was their distrust towards Kashmiris. They openly called them liars and looked down on them. That was quite sad! 
~Daily we were given 3-4 toffees, a cholocate bar and a biscuit pack for the trek. I used to eat the toffees along the way but the chocolate and biscuit pack was left till the end as a celebration of accomplishment. It was amazing.
~ Slept under the Sun on day 4 and 5 and got sun burnt. I love the feeling of sun burnt even though it is itchy. The peeling skin becomes proof of an experience!

The route was very well planned. Everyday started with an ascent for about 2-2.5 hrs followed by a slow descent to get to the camp. Just the way i like it - ascent followed by descent. Day 1 was quite strenuous as it was the first day and we also rose up by 3000 feet in altitude to get to the camp.  Reaching at the highest point was always a sense of satisfaction - the worst has been done, now it is just a matter of walking to the base camp. Everyday was about 12Km in distance, about 6 hrs time-wise. The camps were always next to water with many rocks nearby so that natural calls can be done in private.

Day 3 will be remembered by me and by everyone. People had claimed that it will the most strenuous one but no-one imagined it to be this bad. We left the Vishasnsar campground in morning at around 8:30. Pretty soon there was rain and as a result, the whole soil became slushy.  As i was climbing up, suddenly i found that it was difficult for my shoes to get a grip on the trail and it was sliding down. In a matter of 5 mins, i was lying flat on the ground unable to stand up because of slippage. There was a feeling of helplessness. I needed help and i was cursing myself of this very reason - why do i need help? I should be able to take care of things as they come. Twice i tried to get up and twice i slipped down, i actually went 3-4 feet down. Then i was rescued by Altaf, our local trek guide, who just took my luggage away, pulled me up so that i could stand and then told me to walk on stones as they dont slide away. I did that and finally managed to reach the top. It rained the entire way to campsite, it was a long day as well, about 15 kms. Because it was raining, i couldn't take any pics. We passed the Gladsar lake and it was the most beautiful lake i have ever seen.  It was not only me but there were many others who slipped or required help to climb that day. From the top to the camp, the trail seemed like it would never end. It was just walk, walk and walk and faith that there would be a camp in the end. It was a hard day, very tiring but it gave a lot of confidence - Girne ke baad khade hone mein alag hi mazaa hai!

The day 3 camp was just after Gadsar army camp. The campsite was just 12km away from LOC (line of control). This is the closest that i had been to LOC, so yay! Even though it was just 12K, it was actually behind three big mountains :)

Day 4 was the most beautiful day of all days. The sun was shining just right and we walking on a green carpet for as long as we can see. The sky was of sky blue color, just as it should be. A spot (cloud) less blue color with green mountains on both the sides. Very very beautiful!

Day 6, the final day, had the worst descent. We came down about 3500 feet in about 2 hrs (4-5km) at Naranag. It took a big toll on the knees. We could see the road down but we kept on reducing altitude  yet it took forever to reach there. The slopes were very very steep and it was painful to get down. But as this was the last day, we kept on going to finish the trek.

A big shout out should be given to the trek guides especially to Altaf and Amit. Altaf is literally a superman, spiderman. He went up and down multiple times to help others, especially on day 3. He carried three bags at one time because others couldn't even carry one. Both Amit and Altaf were tired at the end of the trek yet they were there to help others or to arrange wood for bon fire or anything. Big salute to them. And very special thanks to the cooks and helpers. Even though it was not their job, they were always ready to help us. in any way. They were very soft spoken too. Most of them will not eat until all of us had food. And we would just ask for food the moment we came down from the trek. Their spirit is very inspiring. May good things happen to them!

 The time in evenings was very eventful. We played Antaskshari, dumb charades, Mafia, cards :), chit chat, star gazing, sun bathing, and just lazily sleep down. On the day 5, we took upon us to prepare food for the entire crew and give rest to our cooks. The food was decent. Preparing food for 30 people is not an easy task.  At night, all the Kashmiris helpers got together and sang local folk songs for us. One of the guys, Riyaz, even danced. Local folk songs are always a treat to listen. That was very special!

 Lastly, it gave plenty of time for reflection. When you are sitting alone, staring at the big mountains in front of you, clean river flowing by your side, natural beauty all around you,  and you are tired to move, all you have are your thoughts and you can clearly see what is important in life and what is not.

ab humein bhi maloom hain, Kashmir ko jannat kyun kehte hain.

Kashmir Great lakes trek

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Khayal Darpan

Movie: Khayal Darpan
Directed by Yousuf Saeed

Khayal Darpan (KD) is a documentary on Classical music scene in Pakistan.  Made on a very small budget, in a time (2006) when getting visa to Pakistan was also not that easy, Yousuf Saeed overcomes all odds and gives us a comprehensive view through various artists, teachers and critics.  Khayal Darpan offers us a glimpse of classical music post the independence and creation of Pakistani state and how it has shaped up in the last five-six decades.

Through various candid conversations with artists, we learn about the maturity of audience in Pakistan, the quality of talent - the ustad and gurus that migrated after partition, yet even with such great pedigree, the state of affairs is quite sad.  There has been an evolution in the music, it has drifted more towards ghazals and qawalli. All this has been a result to distance themselves from anything that had roots in Indian part. Lack of support from state, lack of patronage has resulted in a significant decline, lack of good schools has resulted in break in the transfer of knowledge.  Comparisons are made between the Indian and Pakistan's evolution, state support; there is an acknowledgement that Indian govt. had played a better role but it is clearly stated that classical music is in decline in both lands.

 If we look at the facts presented, it will come as a very sorry state of affairs, but here lies the beauty of the movie. Through some carefully chosen conversations and through some careful editing, there is always hope in every corner. Yousuf Saeed gives us beautifully sung music bytes at several key junctions that we forget the despair.  Khayal Darpan also shows us a glimpse of how things have changed, Indian music is accepted and adopted;  as the popularity of various music competitions rise,  a young teacher remarks that youth will realize the importance of classical music and soon, there will be a turn to its roots.

At the start of QnA session, Yousuf waits by saying "Take your time, it will take some time to sink in". He realizes that for many of us, this is a first time experience about the Pakistani classical music; he realizes that his movie has much to offer than we can grasp. Yousuf offers insights about the decline of music under the Zia government and how the two wars further deteriorated the scene mainly as radio stopped supporting classical music.

Khayal Darpam deserved repeated viewings, not only to comprehend the content but also, one should note the artists to follow. The Khayal Gayaki in Pakistan is a treat to ears, it should be heard again and again. 

Jai Bhim Comrade

" An event has happened, upon which it is difficult to speak, and impossible to be silent" -- Edmund Burke

In 1998, 10 dalits were killed by open police firing in RamaBai colony near Mumbai as they were protesting against desecration of a local Ambedkar's statue. Three days later, a Dalit poet, singer Vilas Ghogre committed suicide. Anand Patwardhan, friend of Vilas, was present at his funeral with his camera and thus began a decade plus journey of  "Jai Bhim Comrade". 

We are gathered in a small auditorium at TERI, Bangalore for a matinee (afternoon) screening. At the tea before the screening begins, i see a drop of rain fall from one leaf to another in a small green landscape in the middle of this dense city. As i sip my coffee, i see Dr. Girish Karnad standing next to me waiting like everybody else for the movie to begin. Inside the auditorium, Anand is setting up his Mac to pick correct subtitles for the movie. Once he is done, as we wait together, Anand plays songs writted by Sahir Ludhianvi, sung by Mukesh. I have not seen any Anand Patwardhan movie, have never seen the man before, but looking at this silver haired man with such calm face, i can not picture him to be a political documentary filmmaker.  As he stands silently enjoying the music, there is a face of a man satisfied with his work.

 "Jai Bhim Comrade"(JBC)  is a tour de force; it is massive in its reach and scale.  Anand uses the poetry of Vilas Ghogre, Bhai Sangrala and various other Dalit artists to give us a world view from their perspective. "A tradition of reason" reads the cover of its DVD and we see it through the words of these brilliant poets. 

"Budham sharnam gachami" (I will go to Budha' for refuge), JBC chronicles how on Ambedkar's calling Dalits started to convert to Buddhism. He has a lot many candid conversations with people on how do they feel about it. No wonder, many of them are pleased to give up the discriminatory Hindu religion, few regret not doing it and there is a minority who feel that there is some identity is lost as they adopt this new religion. One of my favourite segments is when Anand questions two school going girls on what has been the reaction of their fellow classmates in school upon their religious views.  One girls shyly expresses that she feels different while her young sister has not told anything to her classmates. 

In the second part, JBC adds another layer by focusing on Pune based artist group - Kabir Kala Manch.  We see that how these simple ordinary people realize the importance of woman empowerment, education and above all futility of religion.  JBC never tries to be preachy, it does not have force any social message, it only offers several view points. There is a brilliant sequence where Anand questions the localites, mostly belonging to upper caste,  of a ground where Dr. Ambedkar's birthday is celebrated by tens of thousands of Dalits annualy. One gentleman complain that these people dirty the entire community and make an appeal that they should stop, quickly his wife draws the parallel between the this event and annual Ganesh puja celebrations where similar behavior is seen.  

 Politics always lingers in the background; from the black commando movement, the early Shiv Sena support here to the present where support has been divided between Congress and BJP. In a very shocking scene, JBC reveals how people of Ramabai colony have forgotten who was in power when the killings happened a decade ago. Indeed, we really have a short term memory.  JBC goes beyond Ramabai and covers atrocities on Dalits in other parts of India as well.  Even though it is around three hrs, it does not feel a drag at any point because there are stories and raw emotions of actual humans; these are the poems of few of India's finest poets, and above all these are voices of rationality. \
 The QnA session that followed the movie was equally informative. The movie ends when the Kabir Kala manch folks are declared naxalites and are forced to go underground. Anand explains that he chose to end the movie so that he can get public attention to this issue. Ramabai killings issue continues to fight battles in higher courts.  Reservation comes the word whenever you utter the word caste to an upper caste Indian, explains Anand.  First, lets acknowledge that there is a problem, tells Anand to one of the most elite audience in India; everybody nods aye.  There is a lot of thought process behind every scene in this movie, there are lot many layers and there are references to topics  each of them could be made into a movie of its own.

In between the two parts, Anand asks if people want a small break, "NO" comes the immediate response which brings about a half smile to his face. Behind his calm face, there is a lot of anger, a boling rage against the system but Anand has brilliantly learnt the art to channel it in his films. My strategy is very simple says Anand, "First get a national award for my film" and then fight court cases to get it screened. 

In a very interesting argument, a gentleman in audience says that Anand has chosen "morally settled arguments" in his movie. According to him, these are easy topics while nobody is talking about "morally unsettled topics". This draws ire from several audience members including Dr. Karnad who remarks that it is incredibly irritating to a film maker when people complain that why have you not made your film about that other topic.  Anand explains that comparing KKM to a naxalite organization may be morally settled in your world but in reality, it is far from it.