Monday, December 28, 2009

Sale Away

As perhaps Mae West would say - I’ve been thin and I’ve been fat, and believe me, thin is better.

Except, of course, on Boxing Day: the beginning of the Christmas season sales.

Because if you are size small, you share your dimensions with the shopping locusts of London – the slim, small and highly fashion conscious South East Asians. Even before the sun breaks through the inky skies, they have already attacked all the chain stores giving the best bargains and ferreted away all size smalls in all colours, textures, hues and cuts.

And all that is left are the trampled remains of a colourful sale that is not of much use to size Smalls like me anymore.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Google Enterprise: The Final Frontier

Guess what greeted us inside the Highbury & Islington tube stop: a gigantic advertisement of Google’s latest outing – Google Chrome, the company's home-built internet browser.

Oh the irony of it! That Google, who earns nearly 99 per cent of its profits by creating new platforms for people to advertise, is resorting to traditional advertising itself.

To me, the advertisement marked the final chapter in Google’s life as a lean, highly-independent, cutting-edge enterprise still redolent with the memories of two geeky Phd students who created a powerful search engine in their friend’s garage in sunny California just over a decade ago.

Since then, Google would go where no man had gone before – well, most of the time anyway. The Google Search Engine, Google Earth, You Tube, Orkut: they were all first of their kinds in their fields (even where they were not created by Google itself). If it wasn't a pioneering venture, it was not of enough interest to Google. Hence, it never needed to advertise because it would start out as the market leader. Others hoped to capitalise through their association to Google.

But web browsers have been done by others, and done fairly successfully. Google Chrome can, at the best, offer more of the same.

So I am left wondering, is it the beginning of the end?

Check out BBC's tech correspondents report on the best technologies of 2009. Seems like Mark Ward is on my camp, and Rory Cellan Jones on the opposite. (Though where did Jones hear that Google has already unveiled its operating system? It has unveiled its decision to develop one, but hasn't launched the operating system yet. And it is not called Chrome, it is called Google Chrome OS. As as tech correspondent, I would have expected him to not confuse the two.)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Indian Visa strikes back

On Wednesday, the BBC carried a report on how the Indian government has tightened its visa rules for foreigners, causing incredible inconvenience to British and American tourists. The trouble was apparently regarding whether a foreigner who left India while living-out his long term visa could or could not re-enter India within two months.

The British Business Secretary Lord Mandelson was riled enough to state to the Press Trust of India: "I can understand the motive for the new visa arrangements but we have to be careful not to make, create general restrictions."

Mandelson's retort came on the day I got my paltry six-days, single entry Schengen visa.

I had applied for one-year multiple entry visa to continental Europe the week before so that Sid and I could organise our travel plans through the year. However, the visa officer turned around and said that she will only grant me a single entry visa. Why? Because I don’t have job.

Me: My Australian husband has a full-time job?

Visa officer: Yes.

Me: I have residencies to the UK and Australia on the basis of our marriage?

Visa Officer: Yes.

Me: I have had residencies to Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in the past, and have never flouted visa regulations?

Visa Officer: Yes.

Me: You have all our bank account statements?

Visa Officer: Yes.

Me: So?

Visa Officer: Sorry, you don’t have a job, you are Indian, and we can’t grant you a multiple entry visa.
Does the Austrian embassy actually think that I will risk becoming an illegal alien in a Schengen country when I am a perfectly legal alien in the UK (with the choice of being one in Australia)?

I don’t think so. It is just an occasion of visa arrangements making, creating general restrictions.

I wonder what Mandelson’s views would be on that.

 Incidentally, in August I called up the immigration office in the UK for a clarification regarding my UK residency. The electronic voice informed me that the office was too busy to attend any calls all through August and September, and if I had any doubts about my visa status could I please leave the country. How’s that for general restrictions?

Actors in their new avatar

While watching Avatar, I was time and again reminded of the 1952 musical comedy Singin’ in the Rain starring Gene Kelly. No, no, no. There is absolutely no similarity between the plotlines. But in a way, Kelly’s musical portended what Avatar could mean for actors in the coming decades.

Singin’ in the Rain was a goofy portrayal of how the transition from silent films to talkies befuddled movie actors. Never having been trained in voice-modulation, the shift to talkies required them to adopt a whole new mind-set and attitude towards acting. Some sank, some stayed afloat. And a whole new breed of actors came into being.

What will the success of Avatar -- where most of the action takes place in a bioluminescent coral-reef-like world entirely created out fantastic 3D animation -- mean for actors used to performing their craft in the what-you-see-is-what-you-get world we inhabit?

The New Yorker gave a riveting account of how the actors in the Na'vi world (the alien world in this case) acted out their parts. Talking about Zoe Saldana in particular, the actress who played the Na'vi heroine in the film, it explained that she essentially acted her part in an empty industrial-like space surrounded by other actors wearing black unitards covered with reflective white dots. Their movements were captured by several surveillance cameras on the ceiling which positioned their performance inside the Na'vi world digital set. Saldana wore a head set with a tiny camera floating inches from her face, capturing the minute details of her facial expressions: "the movements of her facial muscles, the contractions of her pupils, the interaction of her teeth, lips, and tongue." The data uploaded by all these cameras were fed into computers which translated the actors movements onto their digital characters, and positioned these images onto the digital set design - and it is this image that Cameron saw on his screen in real time.

So Saldana was not merely providing the voice for her animated character. She acted it out. It was her facial expressions and body movements that we watched, albeit after conversion via digital technology into her animated avatar (excuse the pun). However, her acting skills required her to anticipate not just the non-existent set around her, but also what we would eventually see of her in her 9-ft tall, inky blue, luminescent-dotted alien character. Can all our current actors cope with it?

I should say no. It is obvious from the fact that Sigourney Weaver looked awkward and slightly stupid in her Na’vi character, particularly when compared to her real-life version.

If Avatar changes the audience expectations of films as everyone is predicting, and makes CGI (computer graphic image that is essentially a translation of the actor’s body movements) a norm – we are looking at a major sink-or-swim moment for Hollywood actors.

Incidentally, none of the reviews of the film I came across commented on the acting in Avatar.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Three's a company

I am researching weird statistics for a magazine article. And here is an interesting one I found: "2 out of 3 of us would not give up our spouse for a night even for a million bucks."

Meaning 1 out of 3 would?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

One person's blizzard

One person’s blizzard is another person’s windfall.

Stuck inside cars and buses, most Londoners had every reason to curse yesterday’s unexpected blizzard. But Sid and I, bidding away on furniture at Critereon auction house on Essex Road, could barely contain our glee. Thanks to the blizzard, most dealers couldn’t make it to the auction house and we got all the pieces of furniture we had our eyes on for a reasonable price.

For the last three weekends, we had been religiously attending the auctions – hoping to find some bargains. But thanks to our excellent tastes, whatever we would like would immediately catch the eye of some antique dealer as well. And once they get their beady eyes on something, ordinary wide-eyed couples like us, conscious of the precious pounds jingling in our pockets, stand no chance.

But yesterday, thanks to the blizzard and all the dealers stuck inside their cars, our killing included a pine table with extendable leaves for £5, a wooden rotating bookcase for £20 and beautiful mahogany four-drawer chest of drawer for £50.

May there be many more blizzards in London

PS: The blizzard story missing from the newspapers today is how many ankle injuries were reported last night.

PPS: To try your luck at the auction, next time there is a blizzard - visit

Monday, December 21, 2009

Whore art thou!

Yes, Hoerengracht did capture that curious mixture of seediness and banality of Amsterdam’s sex district, as I had hoped it would.

Look out for the window with the prostitute contentedly lounging about reading a gossip magazine in her lingerie surrounded by ordinary bric-a-brac – a radio, a ring-dial telephone, a vase of wilted flowers, and a poodle snuggled under her feet. Hardly the image of a prostitute vending her goods!

But it was Amsterdam of the 80s. Twenty years don’t seem much on paper. But to understand what they mean in terms of the little details that surround our lives, visit Hoerengracht. It means a total overhaul of all the concept of design surrounding us – the clothes, the wall paper, the radio, tvs, telephones and other household gadgets, even our image of a beautiful body has undergone a complete transformation. Were it not for the semi-naked models confronting us, Kienholz’s sex district would seem like a quaint relic of the past.

Don’t miss the documentary that plays alongside about how Ed and Nancy came about making Hoerengracht and why is it such an important installation of our times. What struck me was the humour and sense of fun with which they worked on it. It is always a joy when you find an artist who can laugh at himself and his work, while discussing it intelligently.

The show is on at the National Gallery till Feb 21, 2010. And Sid and I were pleasantly surprised to find entry free.

Roped in

This weekend, Sid and I went for a rather gripping performance of Peter Hamilton’s 1929 play Rope at Almeida Theatre, Islington. (Yes, it is this play that had inspired Hitchcock’s film Rope twenty years later. So you already know it is about ghoulish murders and the evil that lurks in our midst.) Watching the play reminded me again of all the reasons why I would any day prefer good theatre over cinema.

First, is the immense physicality of theatre – the fact that the actors are physically present in front of you. And when the actors know how to exploit this proximity – fill the space with their bodies and voices until nothing else exists but them and you – it is pure magic. Bertie Carvell and Blake Ritson who play the main protagonists of Rope knew how to exploit this potential to inexhorably draw into their cat-and-mouse game. The performance was visceral in a way that movies simply cannot be, thanks to the ever present camera between you and the actors.

And then there was the set. There was a time when I found the single stage of theatre rather static and bare compared to the technicolour busyness of film sets. And yet, doesn’t the real art lie in the power of suggestion. A good theatre stage gives you just enough clues to the setting of the action but leaves your imagination to fill in the rest. And in the process, you find yourself a willing participant of the action, your mind ticking away adding the details that make the action come alive for you. How boring films seem in comparison where everything is pre decided and your imagination is put to rest.

The play itself, I must admit, was rather predictable. But entranced as we were by the Carvell and Ritson and the moody set – all lights and shadows around a circular stage, a chest filled with a dead body in between, and rumbles of thunder in the background – I don’t think Sid and I really noticed. We came out thrilled and satisfied and ready to tackle Avatar.

The play will be performed everyday at Almeida Theatre, Islington till Feb 6, 2010.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Hoo Dunnit: Mystery of the missing dinner jacket

Sid in his new dinner jacket
Last weekend, Sid’s office invited us to a Christmas party at a country house hotel at the outskirts of London called Luton Hoo.

Luton Hoo, as a bit of research revealed, is a five-star country manor hotel with 1000 acres of estate land around, an 18 hole golf course, a spa and a history that encompasses over 400 years of aristocratic ownership, parties with the King and Queen in attendance, the movie Four Weddings and a Funeral, and a resident ghost – the manor’s previous owner, Nicholas Harold Phillips, committed suicide there and is rumoured to haunt the premises. Luton Hoo promised us luxury and adventure wrapped in one.

It turned out to be an adventure alright.

As the main course was being laid out, the waitress stumbled behind Sid as she was serving the guest next to him, coughed an apology and quickly disappeared. In turn, Sid felt a warmth trickle down his back. Our pretty waitress hadn’t just stumbled, she had also managed to pour most of the beef sauce in the plate she held down Sid’s hand-tailored dinner jacket. We had a situation – a 6-ft Californian left with a steak without sauce, a vegetarian Hindu with beef sauce trickling down his dinner jacket and a culprit waitress nowhere to be found.

Sid immediately raised an alarm, and the head waiter – our saviour no 1 called Bobby – took charge. He sent Sid’s jacket to the laundry, got him a replacement for the night and assured us that we would open our eyes the next morning to a freshly laundered, stain-free dinner jacket.

Of course, it wasn’t there the next morning. It was still missing as we were checking out. The night staff at the laundry had left, and the morning staff hadn’t heard of any wayward, beef-stained dinner jackets from the night.

Determined not to lose our cool, we asked them to locate the lost jacket while we took a stroll around the verdant 1000 acres of Luton Hoo’s parkland.

After an hour and half of freezing walk, we got a call from our saviour no 2 called Gareth. The jacket had been located. We rushed back, only to be told that the stain hadn’t come off, the jacket needed to be dry-cleaned, the dry-cleaner would only open on Monday, so could we pretty please leave our address, and they will definitely courier the dry-cleaned jacket by Friday.

In protest, we insisted they dry-clean the pants as well, left our address at the reception, drank the complimentary coffee, and headed back.

It is Friday today, and no courier has come knocking on our doors.

We are now expecting a call from our saviour no 3, who we are sure will be called Nicholas Harold Phillips, Luton Hoo's resident ghost.

PS: Yes, of course, I am married to Sean Connery.

Shake Up Sid!

A misunderstanding arose between Anon and me.

I told Anon that I was going to do a “get coffee for boss” job. She thought I was going to live the Wake Up Sid life of Konkana Sen Gupta. Which means that I would get hit on by the boss (editor of fancy magazine with saxophone on his office wall), get squired around the jazz joints of the city, graduate to a columnist, and get to dump the boss – all in the span of a month. And I’ll get paid to do all this.

Unfortunately, life’s not like that. Internship is only for a couple of weeks, boss is a woman, there are no saxophones on the office walls (I checked), and I won’t be paid.

This is what annoys me about Bollywood. It doesn't makes films about life. It makes three hour long advertisement clips on life. Which means that everything is colourful; everybody is young, hopeful and charming; Mumbai is all sea, rains and chor bazaar; bosses flirt with you; Daddies are rich – and everyone had paid jobs. The dilemmas, frustrations, betrayals, failures and Bombay gutters – all the things that make life real, gritty and so worth fighting for – are airbrushed away. It is a big huge advertisment industry.

Of course, not that anyone minds. My 24-year-old sister called from Bangalore and said, “Wake Up Sid was so real. I totally identified with it.”

Clearly, as a race, we deserve Bollywood and Dharma Productions.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Fall of the Titans

First, Brown and Co announced a super tax on banker bonuses.

Then, Sarkozy gleefully signed a deal with Brown to do the same in France.

Today, Obama called the heads of the top 9 American banks to candidly discuss their obtuseness.

If bankers are in any more doubts about their dizzying unpopularity - here's Guardian reporting on how cleaners are economically worth more to British society than its bankers.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Fantasies no more

Even if Me and Orson Welles hadn’t been so well-acted; even if it hadn’t explored the ambitions, envies, inspirations, insecurities and egos that drive the theatre world with as much insight; even if, Claire Danes hadn’t looked quite so radiant, Zac Efron as charming, and Christain McCay as flamboyant; even if, it wasn’t a well-told tale of the coming of age of a cocky teenager against the backdrop of Orson Welles’ 1937 theatre company in New York – I would have still enjoyed the film.

Because after watching Fantastic Mr Fox, The Imaginarium of Dr Parnasus and 2012 in succession, I couldn’t bear to watch another film where humans, if at all, appeared as props to their more fantastical computer-generated counterparts. I wanted to watch a film where the agonies, joys, treacheries, dilemmas and nuances of the real human-inhabited world around us were the main and only focus brought to life by flesh-and-blood actors.

That Me and Orson Welles did it well was a bonus.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Veggie Delights

The Sustainable Development Commission in the UK has published the first ever official recommendation for a diet that is both healthy and good for the environment.It concludes that British consumers must reduce their consumption of intensively-produced meat and dairy products and processed foods.

What this means is that they should start eating:
a) More free range meats and dairy products;
b) And as these, in any case, cannot be produced in the quantities of current meat intake – move to veggies, preferably seasonal and field grown.

Of course, it helps the environment. But it will also help tackle the “growing crisis” (Guardian’s words not mine) of diet-related diseases spreading through the UK.

So far so good. But here’s why regulation may not be the best first-step strategy.

Having lived in UK, Holland, Denmark and Germany, I can certifiably say that nothing in the North European cuisines dares to be vegetarian and tasty. Either it is meat based and mouth watering, or vegetarian and tasteless. In restaurants and homes, the vegetarian component of a meal is limited to a leafy side dish – lacking nourishment, proteins and most importantly taste.

How do I know? Through Sid – who having come to a conclusion similar to SDC several years ago, courageously converted to vegetarianism. Since then, his meals outside have been largely limited to pasta salads at dinners at friends’, penne arabiata in regular restaurants and over-priced ratatouilles in fancy ones. (Our saving grace is that we are Indian – and can cook the range of tasty Indian vegetarian dishes at home. But if Sid was European, he would be screwed.)

But surely, Gordon Brown can’t expect the whole of Northern Europe to survive on penne arabiata and pasta salad.

So if the government really wants to encourage vegetarianism, here’s where it should begin: Hire Jamie Oliver to transform the English cuisine with vegetables and pulses in mind this time. Everything else can follow.

PS: And stop shaming smelly foods.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Curry Worries

Transport for London takes public service very seriously – especially if it involves pasting preachy messages all over the trains and tube stations. But I am worried that this latest public service message (see picture) may have some cataclysmic effect on the real estate market of London thirty years hence.

Let’s examine this message again from the perspective of an Indian kid on the tube.

Cute, nerdy child = Me.
Frizzy, darkish hair = Me.
Smelly food = oh my god curry, again Me.

Now, Sid grew up as a cute, nerdy boy with frizzy black hair eating curry in Melbourne three decades ago along with a small but select group of equally, nerdy Indian kids with frizzy black hair eating curry. They all loved curry. They were all traumatised by the fear of the smell of Indian spices sticking to them as they stepped out with odourless, colourless skip (read: White Aussie) friends.

And as they grew up to become nerdy engineers, doctors and lawyers, the latest trend in the tightly-knit community is to build two kitchens in their houses. One a barely-used, clinically clean, odourless model kitchen to convince their skip friends that they have never heard of curry before. And then, the real kitchen ferreted in the back redolent with the smells of spices, daals and flavoured meats that they can’t live without.

But Melbourne has a lot of open land to indulge the smelly food paranoia of its rich Indian immigrant kids. Can London afford the same?

For more on curry-infused fears of Indian kids read Anon's review of the book Leaving India.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Intergalactic promises!

Sir Richard Branson has finally unveiled the Virgin Galactic Spaceship that will make space tourism possible – stick that, NASA.

I wonder if he will remember his promise made to my friend Iain Ball to save him a seat on the maiden intergalactic flight.

Funny, how six degrees of separation works in this world. Who would think that Branson would only be one acquaintance removed from little Miss Me? But Branson knows my former employer Smiti Ruia well enough to come visiting the Paprika Media office in Mumbai, shaking hands with each one of us part-star struck, part ironical staff of the Time Out Mumbai magazine. It was then that my friend and colleague Iain had made his jesting request. On his part, the flamboyant Mr Branson had seemed somewhat embarrassed, shy and tongue-tied – and taking Ball’s request seriously had sincerely said “Of course, I’ll keep it in mind.”

I wonder then, if Ball has received his complimentary ticket as yet or not.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rat pack

And the silliest incident award goes to ITV apologises for killing and eating of a rat.

Out of the Woods in Amsterdam

It is interesting that I read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam a week after poor Tiger Woods found himself in the eye of a media storm – his personal life, wife, and girl friends on the side embarrassingly laid bare by tabloids thanks to a strange combination of a hedge, a fire hydrant, a tree and an out of control car.

McEwan’s story is a tale of morality following a week in the life of two friends, one of them a newspaper editor called Vernon Halliday. His moral dilemma involved a newspaper with falling readership and some photographs he found his hands on of a right-wing politician – who had previously supported apartheid and currently supported capital punishment – dressed in drag. To print or not to print, was the question. Of course, Halliday chose to print, and we are asked to believe that he is an unprincipled twit for it.

Yet, I found myself wondering if digging into the personal life of a politician is equivalent to digging into the life of a golf pro. Politicians play a critical role in deciding society’s attitude towards morality – that tricky question of what is acceptable and what not in our personal and public lives. Hence, it is important to know that they can themselves live by the principles that they want others to follow. McEwan’s politician, Julian Garmony, knew what it is to be different from the norm, to hide, to feel ashamed, to find yourself different from others in his personal life. Yet, he didn’t use his own life experience to create a world that was more forgiving and sympathetic of people in minority, with an outlook different from others. In public, he presented an unsympathetic, unforgiving pose because that brought him more power. That is hypocrisy, and in this case, a dangerous hypocrisy. And a newspaper was justified in exposing it.

Tiger Wood’s predicament is of another order. His sponsorships, his achievements, his sport – the reasons of his fame have little to do with his affairs and marriage. Nor does he find himself in the position to arbiter society’s tolerance of other adulterors. Yet, we embarrass him out of the pure ghoulish pleasure of seeing the rich and famous humiliated. That is yellow journalism at its purest and most venomous.

McEwan tripped on this one, I am inclined to believe.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Notes from Anti-Universe

The other day Sid and I found ourselves discussing the theory of Universe vs Anti-Universe.

Now, Sid and I live in the Universe and find Sarah Palin too mean-spirited, ignorant, incoherent and irrational to ever be elected the President of the United States of America. The thought itself is illogical, puzzling and not just a little laughable.

But there are people who want just that – very ardently. So they must live in Anti-Universe where an equal and opposite logic must apply. This video gives us a glimpse into the tenets of anti-universe.

Art of Portraiture

One the last things I did in Amsterdam was to visit the World Press Photo exhibition with Sulakshana in June last year. The World Press Photo is a worldwide photojournalism contest that was started by a Dutch group of photographers in 1956, which over the years has rewarded some of the most iconic images of our recent history. Think the baby with glassy eyes that embodies the Bhopal gas tragedy of 1984 or the lone man standing in front of tanks at the Tiananmen Square in 1989, they’ve all made it to the top of this contest.

The exhibition that I attended was of winners of 2007. One particular photo – the winner of the portraiture category – had us intrigued. It was a portrait of Vladimir Putin, which at first glance looked no more than his “mug shot” as Sulakshana elegantly put it. It was an intense close-up of Putin’s face against a light blue background that had appeared on the Times magazine cover. Of course, both of Sulakshana and I were photography novices so it was difficult to gauge on what grounds this portrait, and not the thousand others, won.

The reason became clear from the audio commentary by Platon, our alleged mug-shot taker, which accompanied the photograph. Platon first explained that it was probably the only portrait shot of Putin in existence. He is notoriously difficult to gain an interview with, and nobody before him had managed a personal one-on-one photo shoot. The Times magazine had initially been told that they would only be allowed to take Putin’s pictures as he was being interviewed for the article. The magazine’s request for a separate photo shoot had been denied. So essentially, Platon had few minutes after the interview to convince one of the most powerful and intimidating men in the world to sit for a photo shoot that he was reluctant over. And if he managed that – another few minutes to set up his camera, build a rapport with the famously cold president, and get a portrait that would do justice to both Putin’s stature and the Times cover.

And Platon achieved just that, and in style. The candour, ease and intimacy of that portrait is striking simply because the circumstances in which it was taken fought against those exact qualities. In that sense, the portrait deserved to win as much for what it told about Putin, as for what it didn’t tell about the difficult circumstances in which it was taken.

I was reminded of Putin’s portrait today because the latest issue of the New Yorker carries a slide show of portraits of world leaders taken by Platon recently during the UN summit. It is an amazing slice of history, of course. But the engaging audio commentary by Platon that accompanies each portrait also makes us understand and appreciate this difficult art much more.


The archive on the world press photo website is an amazing repository of world through the camera in the last 60 years. A definite must for journalism, photography and history lovers!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Match-made in heaven

The Clintons have announced the engagement of Chelsea Clinton to her long term boyfriend, Marc Mezvinsky.

Mezvinsky is Jewish, works for Goldman Sachs, and his father Ed Mezvinsky served a prison sentence between 2002 and 2008 for bank, wire and mail fraud (much like Madoff but on a cosiderably smaller scale).

Goldman Sachs and financial fraud! Poor Clintons, I can already see Fox News salivating over the news.
According to a report that gives a rather riveting account of Daddy Mezvinsky's misadventures, Ms Clinton's fiance grew up in Pennsylvania in a six bedroom mansion with four step sisters, two adopted sisters, a blood brother, three foster siblings and his parents. On the other hand, Ms Clinton, as we all know, grew up in a 132-rooms-and-35-bathrooms mansion called the White House largely by herself. Opposites attract.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Some things matter

Visited White Cube Gallery at Hoxton Square and Mason’s Yard to see Damien Hirst’s latest exhibition – Nothing Matters.
The works focussed on crows and rather fetching skulls (see picture above). But before you get excited, there was no formaldehyde, diamonds and precious metals in the picture. In keeping with the recession, Hirst has scaled down his works to mere paint on canvas. (Though he couldn’t resist pasting real crow feathers on to the paintings).

Interestingly, the exhibition opened on Tuesday, November 24. The very next day BBC Four broadcasted an investigative documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble by art critic Ben Lewis. The documentary traced the unprecedented rise in the prices of contemporary art in the last decade, and particularly in 2007-08, examining how much of it was mere speculation. Hirst and his patron gallery White Cube figured rather prominently in Lewis’ firing line.

The documentary is worth viewing because it tries to examine the role of the artist-gallery-auction house nexus in raising and maintaining the prices of contemporary art works, and why the general public should care about it.

According to Lewis, money matters in the art world – it really matters, and don’t let Hirst tell you otherwise.

The documentary can be viewed for another five days on the BBC website. Hirst’s crows and skulls that don’t matter will be on view till January 24 at the White Cube gallery.

Scottish Saga

So Scotland wants its independence according to its First Minister Alex Salmond.

I will support their call for freedom on only one condition. That once free, it joins such great nations as Haiti, Nepal and Costa Rica in allowing tourism-minded Indians like me through its borders without a visa. I simply do not have the energy or patience to apply for yet another visa to visit Scotland.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Beyond Borders

Yesterday, Sid and I happily went scavenging through the Borders book shop outlet in Angel. The chain bookstore went into liquidation last week, and we were hoping to capitalise on its bad luck.

No, Borders doesn’t have my sympathies. None at all! Borders would like you to believe that did this to it. But I wonder if it was Amazon that was responsible for its poorly informed staff, boring recommendations, and topsy-turvy book management system.

A few months ago, Sid walked into a Borders bookshop with a specific book in mind. It wasn’t just a vague idea, he didn’t just have the subject in mind – it was a specific book by a specific author that he was after. He couldn’t find it in the supposed designated area, so walked up to the staff. The staff took him back to the designated area, and started looking around in confusion – obviously, it wasn’t there. So he looked up the computer systems, stocks hadn’t run out. The book was there in store, just that the shop assistant had no idea where it could be. Sid left in disgust and bought the book on Amazon.

The problem is that Borders tried to attract buyers with coffee, toys, CDs and beautiful pictures. So it got coffee drinkers, toy buyers, CD hunters and picture gazers – it didn’t get in book lovers.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Kapoor's Land of Wonder

Anish Kapoor's retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts on PhotoPeach

Visiting Anish Kapoor’s exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts yesterday was like experiencing the Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus again – without the long boring story and characters to distract this time.

The artworks are difficult to describe precisely because they don’t resemble anything real that I have seen. They were all about material, form, size, shapes and beautiful, vivid colours. As we entered, there was an undulating rust-coloured metal cavern of gigantic proportion that filled up the whole hall. And then, there was a huge block of wax in rasberry sorbet colour that slowly made its way on rails between different rooms, its shape being cut out of the curved marble doorways it passed through. Or my favourite: a gigantic wall smoothly curving inwards in the prettiest shade of yellow. It reminded me of nature’s landscapes and Disney fantasies all at once.

And the material and colours somehow invited you to touch them, stare into their curving holes, pose in front of its shiny surfaces, hop over them, slide under them – and just fool around with them. The museum staff was having a tough time stopping people from doing just that, even though, I wonder if Kapoor would really mind. The works looked too solid to be easily harmed by anyone.

I also loved the disregard with which the hallowed, imperial halls of the Royal Academy were being treated. Like the giant paintball sending canons of red colour at fifty miles per hour on the white, white walls of the Academy. Or the coloured wax block cutting through the archways and dropping slimy wax all about the pristine marble floor. It seemed sacrilegious under the ornate ceilings and cold marble of the academy, and somehow gave you a guilty, but immensely satisfying, kick.

Fun is what his works were, and if the squeals of joy and surprise, the anticipation, the gaping mouths and wonder-filled eyes around me were any indication – they achieved their purpose.

(Images courtesy: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images Europe)

Friday, November 27, 2009

Window Dressing

As December 25 comes closer, the London shops are choking with Christmas spirit. Here's an early nomination for the most over the top window decoration in London.

Fortnum & Mason (scaring us with OTT windows since 1707), Picadilly, W1J 9.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

2012: The Scariest Moment

The chilliest moment for me while watching 2012 came 40 minutes into the film when the theatre screen suddenly went off and a mechanical voice called us to attention asking us to quietly make our way out. Everyone started looking around in confusion and not-just-a-little alarm. It was the as if all the while we had been watching the comic apocalypse in the film, unaware to us, it had been turning into terrifying reality outside.

It turned out to be a mere power cut at the Vue Cinema in Islington, where Sid and I were watching the film.

As it is, the unscheduled power cut also turned out to be the only unexpected moment of a film so utterly predictable that I found myself wishing that human race does get polished-off by the end of the film – just to give me that one moment of satisfying surprise.

PS: Did the industrious Jimmy Mistry take special lessons from Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on the Indian accent for 2012? I guess nobody told him that Apu is a cartoon character for a reason.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Solving Britain's unemployment problems

Here is my contribution to solving UK's rising unemployment which stands at 7.8 per cent of the population at the moment and is predicted to rise to 9.5 per cent in two years. Gordon Brown should make it illegal for service companies to use any kind of automated voice recordings. No company should ask its clients to speak to automated voice services to pay for bills, send details about addresses or changes in them, or any other inquiries.

We just moved out of our old place and I had to go through an immensely long and frustrating exercise to get my address changed and outstanding bills cleared off with government councils, gas, water and electric companies. All of them forced me to speak to automated voice services. None of these enlightening conversations eventually worked out because either the automated voice couldn't understand my accent or because I didn't read out the addres exactly as it had on its records or whatever. So I was passed on real operators eventually anyway. But not before I had already wasted much time and patience over delightful chats with machines.

It is poor service, it wastes my time - and most importantly, it is taking away some poor unemployed British sods job. Get rid of it!

Monday, November 23, 2009


Why do Marks & Spencer's price tags say "outstanding price" instead of just "price"? Is it that by merely looking at the price tag, I have already paid part of the price - and what I will come out of my debit card will be merely the left over installment?

London Independent: Cafe Moccha 2

Is it possible to develop a relationship with a café? I am not living in Angel at the moment. So why did I feel that I owed it to Café Moccha and to myself to drop in and have its excellent café latte and greasy omelette just because I was in the area? To not have done so would have somehow amounted to disloyalty.

Café Moccha 2: it stands on Essex Road and is owned by an Albanian with a monkey-cap haircut who harmlessly flirt with anything fetching that walks into his café. Most of the staff, dressed in non-descript black, are Albanians too who speak in a charming rounded-vowel accent, and lovingly eat up every sixth preposition in a sentence.

There is nothing distinguishing about it. It has granite-top tables and metal pipe chairs neatly arranged in rows; clean cream walls with no wall hangings or paintings; and two large televisions always playing an Italian music channel called My Music. (Why Italian? Six months of visiting it every day and I still don’t know). The paper card menu that stands on every table is basic – omelettes, paninis, ciabattas, sandwiches and pastas (most of it greasier than I prefer). The coffees are standard lattes and mochas – though always perfectly turned out.

So why is this place always full, when many others along the road are not? There are groups of mothers meeting for early morning group therapy chats, toddlers stumbling about, black suited men having business meetings, old couples having their daily meals, college students discussing work projects, and lots and lots of single souls tapping away on their laptops like me.

I doubt it is the the food, the coffees, the space, the décor. It is the fact that the café is always busy, but never enough to not have a table for you. The staff is busy but never so much that they don't greet you in recognition or remember what you usually like. You are somehow never underdressed or overdressed for it. And it is not a part of a chain, so you know that you are special to have found it. The experience is not available dime-a-dozen on every street. You feel welcome, wanted, special, accepted just as you are – and it comes with a free, great internet reception. Now, isn’t that all we look for in a relationship?

If I could marry again, I would marry my Café Moccha.


Cafe Moccha 2: 48 Essex Road, Islington, London N1 8LR. (phone: 07882892493)

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Here is how I know that the NYT columnist Gail Collins doesn't know much about the UK.

As she quotes in her latest column about the end of Oprah Winfrey's show: "The idea that anything popular should stay around until we turn green at the sight of it is not, of course, confined to our culture. The British have Tony Blair and The Spice Girls Reunion Tour."

Tony Blair and Spice Girls? Which British newspaper does she read, I wonder.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Free for all and all for free

A friend told me a horror story last summer. Sulakshana was spending her summer break in London doing an unpaid editorial internship at Time Out, where she met another unpaid editorial intern who had been living in London for a while. Apparently, over a course of more than a year, her new "also unpaid intern" friend had done over ten unpaid internships at all major newspapers in the city including several at Guardian, The Times, Daily Mail (and even the bloody Economist). But none of them transpired into a "paid job".

And then, both of us sat at Russell Square gardens gloomily contemplating about our future. After all, a year later we were hoping to find paid jobs as journalists in London.

I told her that perhaps her new friend was stupid. If so many internships later, you still can't convince someone to pay you then perhaps it is time for some introspection.

That said, it is also true that all these newspapers did get free work out of her. Isn't it ironical that the same newspapers who scream blue murder at readers wanting content for free are happy enough to accept free services coming their way?

They say charity begins at home. Shouldn't paying for services received too?


Sulakshana cut her losses and ran away to Sierra Leone to work for a human rights organisation that would pay. While there, she got a very much paid job with the BBC World Trust. She writes a blog Notes from Freetown about life and times in Sierra Leone.

As for me, I am about to apply for my first free internship with a London newspaper. If that's the way the cookie crumbles....

Chew the fat

My favourite scene from the movie Fight Club is when Brad Pitt takes Edward Norton scavenging through the rubbish bins of liposuction labs in search of human fat. Then, they make soap out of it and sell it to an upmarket cosmetic shop. As Brad Pitt explains - they use fat from rich women's ass to put it on their face.

The set-up was so outrageous that it was priceless. It was funny precisely because we couldn't bring ourselves to believe that anyone would be coarse enough to do that. After all, who would have a disgust-threshold high enough to survive that?

Apparently, these Peruvians do, who according to BBC were operating "an international network trafficking human fat". Only, they didn't bother with voluntary donations of fat. Since this is Peru, they simply abducted people of lonely roads, killed them, sucked off all that luscious human fat and sold it to European pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies for £9000 a litre. That is globalisation of human fat for you.

Somehow, the Fight Club anecdote doesn't seem so funny anymore.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Kafka Presidency

Every time I begin attempting to comprehend the EU and its activities, I feel like I am entering a Kafka novel – The Trial to be exact.

It all starts with Hewitt’s column on the BBC today on the upcoming appointment of EUs “face on the world stage” as he called it. However, he completely missed out mentioning what exact designation was up for grabs. How peculiar?

So I type in “EU” and “presidency” – and google away.

This must be it: I find myself reading about the “Presidency of the Council of the European Union (commonly referred to as presidency of the European Union)”. However, this six-month president’s primary responsibility is to organise and chair all meetings of the Council. This is it! Is this what Tony Blair was chasing so hard?

Of course, not. (Besides, this Presidency is already full till Dec 2010.)

I google again – this time adding the “EU Commission” to the list. Isn’t that the executive body of the EU? The presidency must have something to do with it.

The “President of the EU Commission” comes up, which is the described as the most powerful office in the EU. Yes! I have finally hit the nail on the head. But wait a minute. José Manuel Barroso of Portugal is sitting pretty on this seat till the next five years.

This couldn’t be it.

I google again, throwing in “Tony Blair” into the fray this time.

The President of the European Council comes up (with the helpful hint that he shouldn't be confused with the "President of the European Parliament"). But wait a minute! Haven’t I already read about him? No, no no, that was the President of the Council of European Union.

The president of the European Council, the president of the European parliament, the president of the European Union commission, president of the council of European Union, the president of the EU council of parliaments, the president of the council of European commissions, the president....

I am confused, suffocated, in a state of mild panic and switch to AbFAb videos on You Tube.

When Nick Griffin was elected to the EU parliament, a shiver had run through my spine. Was the UK turning racist? My fears were utterly misplaced. It was just the best way the British people could think of shutting him up – by sending him to Kafkaland. What better punishment than that?


Perhaps, Max Seddon can find another similie to his description of Korina's installation. If you are looking for a somewhat shapeless, many tentacled creature why not the EU?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Critical Findings

I have a lot of respect for art critics. They often find references, connections and ideas in the art works that leave me amazed. But there are also those times when I am left thinking - hmm... Is he kidding me?

This unnamed art installation by Irina Korina (I love the sing-song quality of her name) at Bloomberg SPACE has been described by art critic Max Seddon in the accompanying leaflet as resembling a "jellyfish, Kraken, spaceship or enchanted tree".


Jellyfish - ok, I hadn't thought of it, but now that Seddon mentions it, I see the resemblance.

Kraken - well, isn't that a kind of monster jellyfish anyway?

Enchanted tree - Why? Because there are dead leaves and branches scattered about?

Spaceship - Now, I must protest on behalf spaceship lovers. Spaceship it is not! I don't know what science fiction Seddon watches but spaceships do not and have never had Chinese lanterns on their heads.

A lamp on an abandoned gazebo in autumn is what it most reminded me of - but then again, that is exactly why I am not an art critic.

Visit and judge for yourself: Korina's work is displayed at the Bloomberg SPACE till November 28.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bloomberg Blooper

Someone must tell Bloomberg LP that it is bad corporate branding for a company whose essential business is packaging and disseminating information to do such a poor job of explaining the art exhibits displayed in its art gallery housed in the company’s London office.

First, despite the huge banners outside inviting you to Bloomberg SPACE, it is rather difficult to find the actual gallery, tucked as it is behind an angle in the tall concrete building with many entrances. I am shooed away by a Nepalese security guard in a black suit and Hollywood-style ear piece at one doorway, before I find the right one.

Inside, I discover myself in an empty lobby with an art installation made out of worker’s uniforms in the centre. I look around for clues to its origins. There are none. The abandoned reception has two pamphlets. Both relate to other exhibitions in London, none to the exhibit on display in front of me.

As I walk through the other room I find myself on a mezzanine floor with several paintings, seemingly unrelated to the installation I had just seen. In confusion, I look around and find two pamphlets hanging in the tiny corridor connecting the two spaces entitled "Vicky Wright Comma 14" and "Irina Korina Comma 13". Were those the two works on display - and which is which? To add to the confusion, on a far wall I can see several more pamphlets with artists’ names followed by Comma 1, 2… to 12.

The mystery is solved by another security guard – again Nepalese, again in black suit and ear piece – in the second room. Comma 1, 2.. to 12 were the previous exhibitions. Comma 13 and 14 were the current ones. The hanging uniforms were Irina Corina’s and the paintings on the mezzanine were Wright’s.

Shouldn't all this be self-explanatory?

The paintings do not have any titles, not even those that announce that the art work is “untitled”. There are no references to the media or materials used. This is particularly annoying in case of Wright’s work because with paint smudged straight on to the wooden canvas, media and material seems to be the most interesting aspect of her work.

The pamphlet to Wright’s work is not very friendly either. It only comes to Wright and her ideas after six long paragraphs of personal pontifications on the ways in which economy and art are connected. Which in any case, are explained again in the next six paragraphs with reference to Wright’s paintings. The author of this comment is merely described as “writer living in London” with no references to his credentials.

Thankfully, the author of the pamphlet to Irina’s installation sticks to the artist’s work and is described as “until recently the chief art critic of Moscow Times”.

I wanted to take pictures, but am told by yet another Nepalese security guard that I can only click Korina’s work. Room 2 was out of bounds.

I leave wondering why was this gallery so relentlessly determined to bury poor Wright’s work? And more importantly, when, where and why did this office get overrun by Nepalese security men?

*** Not mentioned: Internet informs me that Wright’s paintings are actually entitled The Guardians. The commentator of her work, Jonathan Griffin, is the assistant editor of Frieze magazine apparently. The exhibition is on till Nov 28.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Not so high after all

The Indian government remains the Indian government, no matter which part of the world you approach it from.

The pages in my Indian passport, which is no where close to expiry, are over. The website of the High Commission of India in the UK says I must apply for a new passport.

So far so good.

But the form to fill gives me only three options to apply for a passport: if I am applying for the first time, if my passport has expired, or if I am applying for a duplicate passport. I fall into none of the categories.
So I look up the website for helpline numbers. There is a general enquiry number, a passport enquiries number, and impressively, an after-hours number. All carry the country code to India and turn out to be invalid. I figure that they must have by mistake skype addressed the numbers to India, when they meant to do it to the UK. So I call the general enquiry number using the UK country code. The pre recorded voice informs me that I have definitely reached the HCI but no one actually bothers to pick up the phone number on the first two tries. On my third try, someone picks up the phone and bangs it down loudly. I get the message.
So I try the passport enquiry number. Only to be told by a pre recorded message that I should look up the website for details. There is no "talk to a human being" option available on the inquiry line. So why is it an inquiry line at all?

In desperation, I call the after-hours number. There isn't even a pre recorded message this time confirming whether I've reached the HCI or outer Mongolia. The number rings four times and then I am told that as no one's picking up the number and no voice mail service is available, good luck and good night!
I am left with no option but to do just fill the form to the best of my knowledge, and then keep my fingers crossed when I jostle my way through the HCI tomorrow.

When I was at the High Commission of India office in London earlier, I met a girl who had been living in the UK with her Scottish husband for the last nine years. In a year, she would be eligible for a UK passport. In the meantime, her Indian passport had expired. But it had taken her three months to bother to apply for a new passport. "Who will deal with all this?", she had remarked distastefully looking around at the noisy, overcrowded HCI office at Aldwych. As a recent migrant to the UK, I had immediately felt defensive of India and its miseries, and had thought - Geez, what a snob?

But now, as I feel frustration mount up in me, I can almost sympathise with her. Really, who wants to deal with the HCI. Not me!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pitch perfect

Little-Miss-Me in London found herself at a “Pitching To Editors” workshop today. It was being conducted by Susan Grossman, a cuddly warm 50-something former journalist who has digressed into mentoring budding writers paddling wildly in London’s media ocean. The workshop was part-therapy for unsure writers and part hard facts on how to eke out a living as a freelancer: who pays what, for what kind of stories, how to find and approach them and – yummiest of all – how to get as much financial mileage as possible out of a single story idea.

Who else lost their way to the workshop? A former foreign correspondent for NYT, a current City AM editor, a cookbook writer, a fiction writer, a former Metro writer, a freelance sub-editor, a few working journalists, and a sweet Japanese lady who was bored of lunching at Harvey Nichols and wanted to do something constructive with her life. Ironically, she took away the prize for the best, funniest story idea of us all.

Moral of the story: If I play my cards correctly, I can make approximately £800 on one good story idea. That is more than a penny to my thoughts.
To find more on Susan Grossman’s workshops, visit her website.

Friday, November 13, 2009


History: If you dig deep enough, you can connect the most bizarre and seemingly unrelated bits of historical events together. For example, what connects the Russian military exploits of the 1860s, false rumours of walnut groves in Azerbaijan, oil fields in Baku and Barack Obama? The Nobel prize, of course.

Among the gazillion exhibitions going on in London is one at the Asia House near Regent’s Park titled “The Nobels and Baku Oil”. As it chronicles, while Alfred Nobel was quietly inventing dynamite in his laboratory in Stockholm, his other less-famous elder brothers, Ludwig and Robert, were busy manufacturing equally innocuous devices such as mines, torpedoes, artillery shells, and weapons in their factory in St. Petersburg to keep the Tzar's army happy. However, they needed – of all things – walnuts to make gunstocks and walnuts were expensive in St Petersburg. The brothers heard of rumours of walnut groves in Azerbaijan, and Robert was dispatched to investigate more. He never found the walnuts – what he did find was mouth watering oil fields around Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

What followed was the making of the Russian Rockfellers, as author Robert Tolf called the Nobel family, which monopolised the Russian oil production for the next fifty years. In the process, they invented the first oil tankers, and popularised the use of oil pipelines and liquid carrying trains. The fun came to an end with the Russian Revolution, when the Nobels fled Baku and their assets were nationalised. But not before, Alfred Nobel had made another fortune through the oil production company Branobel run by his brothers. Apparently, nearly 12 per cent of his endowment of 33, 200,000 Swedish Krona for the Nobel Prize came from his shares in Branobel.

The multimedia exhibition is a mix of personal histories of the Nobel brothers, the innovations made by them, and lots and lots of oil trivia (if that is what interests you). It has been put together by Azarbaijani historians Azada Huseynova, Naida Abbasova and Amina Malikova, and one can sense that by bringing the Nobel connection to light, they also hope to show the prominent role played by Baku in Europe of the nineteenth century. Many of the sepia photographs show Baku of the times, with wide tree-lined roads, horse carriages and imposing stone buildings. It wasn’t just some remote outpost in the back of the beyond – it was important, it was cosmopolitan, and it was where the action was, or so suggests the exhibition.

Hundred and thirty six years after Robert Nobel arrived in Baku with walnuts in his eyes, Azerbaijan wants these noble connections to be recognised.

"The Nobels & Baku Oil" ends tomorrow, and will move on to Berlin, Belgium, Sweden and Norway. But for similar thrilling exhibitions, contact Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1G 7LP. (+44 (0)20 7307 5454).
For more on Nobels and Baku Oil, read Brita Asbrink or Robert W. Tolf.

Sentenced to Death

In the process of ridiculing Ms Palin’s long meandering sentences, has The New York Times caught the bug itself?

An extract (the third paragraph) from an NYT report today on Ms Palin:

An official with the McCain campaign with knowledge of the matter referred questions to Mr. McCain’s general counsel, Trevor Potter, but, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added that Ms. Palin’s claim about being stuck with a $50,000 legal bill for the vetting process was “completely false, not true.”

51 words, five commas and three characters jostling for space in the same sentence. Bad fengshui!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Bible Babel

Being new to London and a Hindu, I am not exactly sure how to respond to the lovely old ladies who often come knocking on our door to tell me how "All Suffering Is Near Its End". They are Jehovah's Witnesses, apparently.

Sid says I should give them a big smile, thank them profusely, and before closing the door add brightly: "And May Allah With Be You!"

Vaginal Twist: Or how Eve Ensler got women wrong

A recent BBC report on the growing trend of women wanting designer vaginas had me thinking of the seminal play, The Vagina Monologues, by the American playwright and feminist Eve Ensler. The play written and performed by Ensler for the first time in 1996 in New York quickly catapulted to a feminist phenomenon. It inspired V-day, a global non-profit charity to oppose violence against women, which in 2009 alone has held over 4200 benefit events; a book entitled A Memory, a Monologue, a Rant, and a Prayer comprising pieces by such famous personalities as Tariq Ali, Maya Angelou and Jane Fonda; and a television film on HBO by the same name. Besides, the play itself has been performed in 28 countries covering all habitable continents of the world except Australia.

I came across The Vagina Monologues when it was performed in Mumbai, India for the first time in 2003. The play – a set of monologues by women about their different vaginal experiences – was funny, tragic, empowering and incredibly graphic. At a superficial level, it was about sexual violence committed against women. But under that, it was a larger call for women to embrace their sexuality without any guilt or shame, and vocalise their experiences and desires. In particular, I remember one of the skits, Because He Liked to Look At It. It was about how we, women, often don’t even know what our vaginas look like, simply thinking them to be ugly and embarrassing. It had a woman sit in front of a mirror and look, properly look, at her vagina.

Well, it seems many British women have taken Ensler’s advice to heart and have sat in front of a mirror to look, properly look, at their vaginas. The result: they found it ugly and embarrassing, screamed in horror, and ran to the nearest plastic surgeon to demand a better, designer vagina. As Douglas McGeorge, the past president of the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, described the surgery: “this is just about removing a bit of loose flesh, leaving behind an elegant-looking labia with minimum scarring”.

Hmmm... what would Ensler think about this latest vaginal twist.

London nugget: Ensler performed The Vagina Monologues at the tiny pub-theatre, the King’s Head, on Upper Street, London in 1999. As Ensler fondly recalled on Timesoline: “Ah, the King's Head. I had to pee in a pot because there weren't any toilets.”

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cheapside High Fashion

Murdoch may have lost patience with the them-like-it-free turn of the Western print media (he has pulled the rug from under the free daily tabloid London Papers, and is threatening to charge all and sundry for using Newscorp-produced material) but others still have faith in the "and free shall show you the way" mantra.

Yesterday, I had the new free women's fashion weekly Stylist shoved at me as I walked into the Angel tubestation. It is produced by Shortlist Media, which also produces ShortList, a free men's weekly. The first issue of Stylist was launched in October 2009 with Angelina Jolie on the cover. However, by issue 6 that I was holding between my fingers Jolie had given way to a large, furry fuschia handbag of unknown antecedents with a cheesy Carrie-esque coverline: True Love is Bag-Shaped {Why Else Do We All Work So Hard?}.

Only Stylist isn't quite free. Both the readers and the advertisers pay the price in terms of grainy images, blurred text and bad design. Page 10 boasts the grainiest image of Gwenyth Paltrow I ever set my eyes on, and I doubt that the store Next will be too pleased with all that colour bleed on its inside cover full page ad. And did the art director really think cutting through the handbag straps to place the prices is a good design choice (pg 25-28)? And I wonder in which culture is Leon Tom (really) Yum Soup considered gourmet food (pg 19). The PDF version of the magazine is available online - so everyone can judge for themselves.

As Sid would say - high fashion and cheap, grainy magazine? Bad, bad fengshui!

Jenny Goes Smoking

I thought I had discovered something when I found my little cigarette box Conrad in an independent book shop on Rivington Street yesterday: a miniature novel by Conrad packed inside a cute black cigarette box cover, complete with a cellophane covering on top and silver foil paper inside. It was the perfect gift for friends who love books but don’t read. We all have so many of them.

Of course, I was just being Ms Jenny-Come-Lately to London…. again.

Apparently, the publishing company Tankbooks had the brainwave in 2007 when the smoking ban kicked into the UK. The series of cigarette-style classics by Hemingway, Conrad, Tolstoy and others were launched under the name Tales To Take Your Breath Away in the summer of 2007. Its launch was duly noted by the Design Museum, sales zoomed during Christmas, a cigarette company promptly sued it for design infringement, a facebook page popped up to save the series, and soon all was well and everyone forgot about them. The staff at the Waterstone's in Angel couldn't even recall what they were. The books have become a footnote-to-history on the Internet with the Rivington Street shop being one of the last few to still stock them.

What I find odd though is how none of the rave reviews (like this one) commented on one important missing detail: how can you come close to being an imitation cigarette packet without that inseparable whiff of tobacco that envelops the pack and foil? That warm tobacco aroma defines a cigarette packet for me, ciggies or no ciggies inside. It clings to everything: the package, the foil, your fingers.

Inhale all you want, but these cigarette classics will leave you disappointed with their M&S scrubbed cleanness.

For £6.99, me thinks they could have taken the pains.

For Jennies-Come-Lately to London like me who might want to buy these ciggie-classics, you can order them through the Tankbook website. For a closer look at the goods, visit Art Words Bookshop, 65a. Rivington Street, London, EC2A 3QQ (tring tring: 020-7729 2000).

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Life's like that.

Just as I finish and send my master's thesis - I find the perfect academic website: Make Your Own Academic Sentence.
Choose academic jargons from four drop down boxes and the website gives you a perfectly formed meaningless academic pearl. Absolutely fabulous!

Sexscapes from Amsterdam

It is red red red in Amsterdam
On November 18, the venerable National Gallery will unveil its first contemporary art installation in 185 years of existence. This momentous installation will be "The Hoerengracht" or the Whore's Canal: a life-size recreation of Amsterdam's red light district by American artists Ed and Nancy Kienholz. Ed is dead, but Nancy is still living, making her the first living artist to see her work exhibited at the National Gallery. Having lived six summer months in Amsterdam, I can't wait to view it.

All tourists to Amsterdam religiously take a tour of its notorious red light district. And are dutifully awed by it. No matter how much you have read about it, how world weary you are, how primed you are for the experience: the reality of Amsterdam's canal-lined sex lanes will leave you overwhelmed. It is the shopping arcade of prostitution. Women of all ages, colours, sizes and catering to all kinds of festishes are casually displayed in windows like candies for your pick. Nothing is left to the imagination including the price of the experience: 50 euros for a mere hump, another 5 for moaning, another 10 for a caress, another 15 for her to kiss back, more for some oral... you get the picture. It is in-your-face, unashamed, unsentimental and utterly commercial. And it will leave you awed. I was awed.

But what is more amazing - and something you learn only if you live in Amsterdam - is how quickly, how unbelievably fast, you stop noticing the sex romp around you. It hit me two months into the city, as I was pedaling my way to the university early one morning. As I glanced around, I noticed a bored sex worker in dominatrix attire sitting in front of her window, perhaps waiting for a customer to walk in for a early morning quickie. Her window was in the basement of what looked like a respectable residential block, and was sandwiched between a bakery and a dress shop. The bakery had just opened and the smell of warm freshly baked bread was in the air. The dress shop had an hour to go before it opened. There was little excitement or sense of the forbidden anywhere - it was just another banal morning in Amsterdam with a sex worker, a baker and a university student (me) going about their lives in an everyday city street. And to me, it was priceless.

I wonder, if Kienholzes manage to capture the banality of Amsterdam's sexscapes!

BBC reports on Hoerengracht.

Monday, November 9, 2009

On the Edge

My quest for a magazine writing job started today in a tiny artsy magazine-and-book store in the Old Street neighbourhood of East London. Yes, the same Old Street where you meet slightly-built men walking around with dainty handbags and women carefully dressed-up to look like garbage bins. In other words, the "edgy" neighbourhood of Old Street.

The shelves inside the store were groaning with thick, thick magazines filled with endless glossy pages of edgy fashion. The shoots had girls looking like garbage bins -- with artfully-arranged messy hair, carefully-spread eye shadow, and meticulously tattered clothes against graffiti filled backgrounds. And, of course, slight men with faraway eyes, beautifully manicured hands and an occasional handbag tucked away in the background.

So here's the question: What happens to "edge" when being edgy becomes the norm? If everyone is trying to different from the norm, does being normal become edgy?

A magazine I actually liked: Under the Influence.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Lost in Translation

Men Who Stare At Goats is an odd film: its plot has a definite beginning and middle but strangely, no climax. It begins in a special 1980s US military unit that is trying to harness the psychic powers of its men to change the dynamics of war. It was goofy as hell but it definitely worked, we are told. The film’s middle lies in the encounter of journalist McGregor and a former psychic warrior Clooney in Iraq sometime in early 2000s: Clooney is on a secret mission, and McGregor is hoping to find a story. Only there is no special mission, no story, and Clooney's psychic powers are never put to any real use.

At the end of the film, Sid and I were left wondering what the hell was it all about. Why did the director tell us so definitely that the psychic powers were for real: that the “Jedi warriors” may seem comic but they could indeed travel through time and space, and kill goats by staring at them? It left us feeling that something serious lurked behind all the jokes. But why were we made to care about the psychic powers, if they amounted to nothing in the larger plot? If they had left the reality of the psychic powers ambiguous, we could have accepted the film as simply absurdist, and enjoyed it for what it was.

The fault, I think, lies in the adaptation of the book to the film.

The author of the book on which the film was based, Jon Ronson, said in a Q&A that followed the screening of the film that his novel turned dark in the second half. The characters of Clooney and McGregor found psychic powers being used to torture prisoners in Iraq, and the plot surrounded their dismantling the programme. But the moviemakers felt that too many dark films had been made recently on the Iraq War, and they wanted to keep to the funny side of things, explained Ronson.

Obviously, in the process of filtering out the darkness from the second half of the plot, the filmmakers failed to examine if the plot still functioned as a whole. Their failure highlights how novels, films, poems, art constitute bodies of work, where each decision regarding language, style, tone, words, colour is meant to provide continuity and progression. You cannot tinker with one aspect and leave the rest unchanged.

In other words, you can make men stare at goats but you better make sure it means something as a whole.
Ron Johnson talked about his book and the film at Screen on the Green theatre in Islington on Nov 6, 2009.

* Watch the trailor (which by the way has the funniest bits of the film):
* Screen on the Green often holds Q&A with filmmakers. Next on its agenda is Q&A live via satellite with director Richard Linklater and stars Christian McKay, Claire Danes and Zac Efron of the film Me & Orson Welles.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An ode to blogs?

It's true I write about myself
Who else do I know so well?
Where else gather blood red roses & kitchen garbage
What else has my thick heart, hepatitis or hemorrhoids -
Who else lived my seventy years, my old Naomi?
and if by chance I scribe US politics, Wisdom
meditation, theories of art
it's because I read a newspaper loved
teachers skimmed books or visited a museum.
--- by Allan Ginsberg, Objective Subject, March 8, 1997, 12.30 am.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The racist Greek

As an Indian living in Europe, I've naturally had my brush with institutionalised (usually airport-related) racism - getting picked for security checks at airports, endless paperwork regarding visas, being asked strange questions at immigration borders. But the people of the cities that I lived in - Aarhus, Amsterdam, Hamburg and London - never made me feel unwelcome for a minute. Never did I smell a whiff of racism in the restaurants, shops, universities and neighbourhoods that I lived in. Of course, it helped that my lifestyle barely differed from my European counterparts.

And then it hit me straight in the face last Wednesday.

Sid and I were holidaying in the sunny, jagged island of Rhodes in Greece. It was our last day there. Over our weeklong stay, we had puzzled over the fact that we seemed to be the only Asians on that entire island. The island was filled with white people, and we had encountered two to three blacks at the most. But then again, the islands biggest attraction is its bikini-filled beaches, and Indians are famously awkward on beaches.

On Wednesday, thinking of the rainy London that awaited us, we started browsing through some umbrellas displayed on a shop window. But as we tried to enter the shop, a middle-aged balding man barred our way with his portly body, elbows akimbo. He said we must choose what umbrella we want from the window first. There were many people browsing inside the shop, and at first I thought it was a joke. But as he continued walling our way, the penny dropped. He didn't want us in his shop, and since we were well dressed, the only reason for that was our brown skin.

As heat rushed to my face, my instinct was to run - run as far as I could from the hedious shop. But Sid being braver called him a racist bastard to his face before we left. I don't think our abuse shamed him in the least. If we called him racist, he could live with it within his white skin as long as he could keep us out his shop. The term, and its unattractive connotations, held no meaning to him.

As we left, I for the very first time in my life truly thanked the likes of Gandhi, King and Mandela for their fight against racism. What that fight meant, and how it affected me came to life in that instant. For they made it unacceptable in most societies to treat people differently by colour. The shop owner was not a marginalised Neo-Nazi seeking a fight. He was a perfectly respectable Greek businessman who thought it acceptable to turn someone out of his shop for being of the wrong colour. I thought we had won that war. But in Greece, which is only beginning to have its brush with the rainbow-coloured world, the fight has only just begun.

And Sid started it with calling our Greek opponent what he is - a racist bastard.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

September Issue

Caught September Issue, the documentary by RJ Cutler on how the september issue of the American edition of Vogue is put together, last week. More than Vogue or even fashion, it explores the personalities that run the magazine. Naturally, Wintour looms large over the documentary.

What caught me by surprise was how Wintour's body language contrasted against her reputation. She has a tiny, little-girl body and an angelic page boy haircut. She walks with her arms folded, her body shrinking inwards rather than projecting outwards. When she would talk to the camera, a coyness would take over - her eyes would become big and she would look at the camera through her lashes in a Diana-esque manner. And yet, she is known to be (and is) a barracuda and an iceberg rolled into one. She is also perfectly aware of how her iceberg-y personality affects people, and uses it to the hilt.
I wonder then, what do the shrinking body language and shy, little girl mannerisms of Wintour say about her. 

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Caught quoting

Chetan Bhagat on why critical acclaim eludes him:

‘‘So what if I write for the masses? So did Shakespeare. He was probably the Ekta Kapoor of his time.’’

More on Bhagat:

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Anonymous Ltd: Or Hello, I am Chetna. And You?

All this week, the subject of internet anonymity kept popping-up everywhere before me.

First, on the Times ethicist blog I read about Liskula Cohen - the supermodel who dragged Google to court in the US to find out the identity of an anonymous blogger who called her a “psychotic, lying, whoring … skank” among other pretty things. She wanted to sue the blogger but had to sue Google first to find out who the blogger was. The court decided that if someone calls her a "skank" publicly, she might as well know who that person is.

Second, I picked up the Guardian, and there was David Denby, my favourite film reviewer, talking about how most public conversation in the US has gone snarky - mean and unconstructive in the garb of funny and witty - and listed internet anonymity as one of the reasons. The piece was connected to his recent book titled Snark (helpfully subtitled It’s Mean, It’s Personal, and It’s Ruining Our Conversation).

And today, my very funny friend and fellow blogger - Anon - has written why despite all the temptations to reveal her true identity, she continues to remain Anon(ymous) in her blog. (Of course, Anon has a clever blog name - Going Anon and On - that I would consider reason enough for her to remain anonymous. )

Which made me question, why am I anonymous? After all, my blog name will not suffer if I reveal my identity.

For assistance, I went through the discussion on the Ethicist blog to find out what makes me and my fellow anonymous bloggers hold on to our precious anonymity.

a) There are crazed whackos out there who are waiting to do unthinkable things to me. And the only thing keeping me safe is my anonymity. (Comment 4)

Err... As a journalist in Mumbai for five years, I've probably met more crazed whackos in person than most people meet in their lifetime. None of them found me exciting enough to do unthinkable things to me. I am somehow not convinced that my blog entries will ignite that desire in them.

b) If I was being sexually harassed at office, I could write blog about it and seek the cyberspace sisterhood for tips and tricks, without the fear that anyone from office would find out? (comment 41)

I have already had that pleasure. It was difficult. I decided to take it to the management and flog it out with my full name and face showing. I am sure that my cyberspace sisters would have given me the same sensible advice, had I blogged about it anonymously. I am 29 and I hope that if I need help, I will have the courage to seek that help in my name. And I encourage the whole sisterhood to do the same. Learning to deal with problems in our own name is a part of the empowering process.

c) Revealing my name would inhibit my freedom of expression. (comment 11)

The only thing revealing my identity would inhibit is the desire to take irresponsible digs at people that I wouldn't with my real name showing. Writing in my own name, doesn't stop me from writing anything that I think is the truth.

d) Because if my political views were something that my colleagues and clients didn't like, I could still express them without facing a backlash in real life. (comment 5)

And be hypocritical to my colleauges and clients? Besides, expressing political views eventually lead to political action, which would be visible to my esteemed colleagues and clients. So either I can act differently than I anonymously speak and be hypocritical to myself and fellow bloggers, or I stand to be outed eventually anyway. I would rather be outed from the beginning and take my chances.

e) Because.... I can be nasty without being accountable for it :-)

It all comes down to that eventually, doesn't it?

So towards more responsible public conversation - as requested by Denby - I am Chetna Mahadik. And you are...?