Nina Martyris

Arundhati Roy, Tyeb Mehta, Michael Jackson, Kipling, Rushdie, Jinnah, Leonard Cohen, Anita Desai, Kiran Desai, East India Company, Namdeo Dhasal, etc

Monday, January 10, 2011

No Gates, Please

The Sunday Times of India
January 9, 2011

Nina Martyris

In all the excitement over British sculptor Anish Kapoor’s maiden India outing, a singular lapse has been overlooked. And that is that both exhibition spaces – the NGMA in Delhi and the Mehboob Studios in Mumbai – are behind gates. This would have been perfectly all right if one or two sculptures had been placed in the public domain.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Monday, October 11, 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Klowns Vs the Klan

At one surreal moment, both the Nazis and the liberals, were shouting USA, USA

Nina Martyris

I am a new immigrant to the land of Op, so fresh off the boat that I could still catch scurvy. I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, from Bombay, India, last November, and discovered that contrary to my fears, provoked mostly by hoots of laughter from my American friends when they heard that I was moving to the Bible Belt, the people of Knoxville were warm, intelligent and distressingly polite, nodding away even when they couldn’t follow my strange Indian sarcasm.

One month ago, I got my first taste of a street demonstration in the USA when I attended a rally to protest another rally. The neo-Nazis had planned theirs first to signal their support of Arizona’s immigrant profiling law. The neo-Nazis are a fellowship of like-minded people who band under names such as the White Supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan, and it was the latter that made me sit up.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Times of India, Oct 12, 2006

The Unique Inheritance Of Kiran Desai

The Inheritance of Loss is Kiran’s intimate itch, one that she has scratched, salved and picked at for seven long years. Now it has paid off—Kiran Desai is the youngest woman to have ever won the Booker

Friday, July 2, 2010


The jazz man has little use for fidelity

Thursday, July 1, 2010

In which Kay Ryan Gives It Those Ones

US poet laureate Kay Ryan's verse is like freshly cut grass -- sharp, soft and on song. There are no big words to break your mouth or make you reach for your Oxford. Ryan is not a poet who was smelted in a writing workshop, and therefore her poetry is largely free of pretension.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

October 2, 2009.

‘An MoU on every mountain’

In an exclusive and in-depth interview to The Times of India, Arundhati Roy talks about the three elephants in the Indian living room

Thursday, July 9, 2009


Edit Page, The Times of India

September 19, 2006

Leave Those Kids Alone

Keep politics out of the classroom

Nina Martyris

As the nation went through the paces of Teachers’ Day this year, the mood in many staffrooms was grim. A section of the academic fraternity even boycotted the celebrations and wore black armbands to protest the brutal murder of a professor by BJP-affiliated student rowdies on an Ujjain campus during college elections. Just two months ago, a senior lecturer at Mumbai’s Wilson College had his face blackened and was dragged through the streets on a distinctly fishy sexual harassment charge by Congress-affiliated student goons.

Even as India strives to become an economic world power, its most fundamental civilisational block, the classroom, is under attack as is its keeper, the teacher.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tyeb Mehta, hope over hype

The Times of India, July 2, 2009

Nina Martyris

Tyeb Mehta, one of India’s finest painters who courted only his canvas and recoiled from the blandishments of the media and the market—though both pursued him—passed away in a Mumbai hospital in the early hours of Thursday morning on July 2.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

June 27, 2009

When Michael moonwalked in Mumbai

Rewind to November 1, 1996: Michael Jackson burst forth from a spaceship. Swung from a crane. And used Bal Thackeray’s toilet

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Times of India, October 16, 2008

The sword is sharper

Nina Martyris

The one ambition of the arriviste hero of this harsh novel is simply this: not to sink into the sucking mud of the Ganga. Driven by an almost deranged desire to escape from the India of Darkness to the India of Light, Balram Halwai heads towards the coal bowl of Dhanbad, and ultimately Delhi, escaping a rotting armpit called Laxmangarh, where the "sewage glistens" and the women wait behind doors to fall on the salaries of their returning migrant husbands like "wildcats on a slab of flesh". In the local school, where the teacher is a lying, thieving bully, a visiting inspector gives Balram the name White Tiger, the rarest of the rare, the only boy in a classroom of underfed dunces to identify the photograph of the Great Socialist, the politician who is an even bigger lying, thieving bully.

Balram escapes but carries with him a wound that never heals. The death by tuberculosis of his rickshaw-puller father eats into him, informing his every action and final act of madness. He is determined to be a man with a "big belly", not a man with a "small belly" like his father was. Behind the wheel of a Honda City, the White Tiger soon realises that he has exchanged one zoo for another. He is employed as a driver by the Stork, the man who owns the strip of river that flows by his village, and is ordered to drive his son Ashok, who has returned from America with his Christian wife, Pinky, who, for all her short hair, has a conscience.

Despite his fancy wage and uniform, Balram knows that he is still imprisoned in the coop with other roosters awaiting slaughter. Slaughter must be fought with slaughter, and blood stains his flight to freedom. Like Salman Rushdie's Shalimar the Clown, The White Tiger opens with murder. Most foul or fair is the larger question that the reader must answer, and it is this complex, aching morality that underpins the novel.

This is Adiga's first work of fiction and the leap from journalist (he worked with TIME Magazine) to writer, though successfully made, is not completely convincing. The constant ranting against the darkness seems more the writer's upper-middle-class outrage than the hero's own. The first half of the novel is riveting, and has a page-turning intensity, but the grip slackens and by the end the writer seems to have lost his cunning.

Where The White Tiger does succeed forcibly is its savage portrayal of India Unshining, and the depressing betrayal of the wretched of the earth by a system that dares call itself a welfare state. As dodgy tax deals are cut between the Stork and the Great Socialist whose goons pulverise a rickshaw puller for daring to vote, the public continues to obsess over the elections "like enunchs discussing the Kama Sutra''. Ashok, who is just back from the land of the free, and who is sickened by the bribing and spitting and bad roads, is no different__beneath the veneer throbs a zamindar, weak and cruel.

But more than an indictment of the venality of the old rural rich and their urban offspring, the penumbra of menace that encircles this novel is that of revolution and the flowering of Naxalism. Foreigners and others staggered by the poverty of India always marvel at the lack of crime, the absence of insurrection. Why hasn't the guillotine been sharpened so far, when there is no bread in one India and only cake in the other? What would happen if a million Balram Halwais awoke to the fact that the meek usually do not inherit the earth, and were to rise in rebellion? That confection would be red and sticky.

Richer still is the twisting irony of the thoughts that flow through Balram's mind as he sits in his Bangalore office beneath the scattered light of a chandelier__for all Bharat's evils, he knows in his gut that brown men and yellow men will rule the world, for the white man has been finished by buggery, drug abuse and talking on the mobile phone. The Balram Halwais will be the human hoardings of superpowerdom. India will shine, but not before the white tigers have had their kill.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

One more bouquet for Saleem

The Times of India, Sunday Review, July 20, 2008

Nina Martyris

As trophies go, the Best of Booker that Midnight's Children recently won wasn't the most compelling. Many felt that there was a sameness to ­the award title--after all, the book has already been adequately feted with the Booker Prize in 1981 and the prestigious Booker of Bookers in 1993, and further, this new prize had arrived via the rather banal passage of the SMS vote. One even wondered snarkily whether the voters were from the same constituency of tiresomely patriotic Indians who had voted Amitabh Bachchan as Star of the Millennium in the BBC poll and ensured that the Taj Mahal was one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, a racket floated by a businessman in Switzerland.

Since praise for this tour de force novel has long lost its bite through repetition, it was left to the author Salman Rushdie to water the wilting laurel wreath. He did so through a simple pre-recorded acceptance message when he said that it was a wonderful alternative to have his real children (his two sons Zafar and Milan) accept the award instead of his imaginary ones. And with this casual, jokey reference, one was sucked back suddenly and helplessly to the epic world of Midnight's Children, with its array of characters so crazy that they had to be human, its mad plotlines plucked straight from the purple heart of Hindi cinema, and above all, for the readers of this city, its glorious rooting in childhood memory.

George Orwell rightly said that none of our memories come to us virgin, and in this book, Rushdie's Bombay is one that is endearingly tainted by nostalgia. It is a Bombay that he recreates as cosmopolitan and embracing and eccentric and that he always references as different from the Bombay of today where the "political gangs are all Hindu and the criminal gangs all Muslim". This, even though we know that in that unforgiving August of 1947, Bombay was insulated neither from the bigotry and hate nor the consequences of a bloody border freshly drawn. It was a dark place even then, where Gandhi's murderers met and plotted, where Sadat Hasan Manto had to leave his employment at Bombay Talkies because he feared for his safety, where India's best-selling artist Tyeb Mehta saw one man slaughter another because each prayed to a different God. Rushdie is no political ingĂ©nue-–in fact, his knowledge of history is remarkable – and so this roseate celebration of a lost childhood is even more touching.

To return to the author's mention of his "imaginary children", while his accomplished pen has given us a whole brood--Virgin Ironpants in Shame, the ultra-fast-growing Moraes Zogoiby in The Moor's Last Sigh, the doll-fixated Prof Solanka in Fury, and Shalimar, the bestotted, psychotic assassin in Shalimar the Clown, it would be safe to say that the character who has really stayed with us, and whom we carry around in our hearts, is his first-born imaginary offspring, Saleem. Saleem Sinai, the snot-nosed, cucumber-nosed. know-all narrator of Midnight's Children, whose life swings between exultation and suffering, for he has been "handcuffed to history", a coupling determined by his time of birth, midnight on August 15, 1947, when "clock-hands joined palms in respectful greeting".

For a writer as gifted as Rushdie, and for one who names Dickens as a shaping influence, one of the most disappointing aspects to his writing has been his inability to create memorable characters. In an interview he gave a few years ago to Hari Kunzru, Rushdie said that Dickens placed big grotesque characters against a meticulously observed background, and that he had tried to learn this literary conceit from him. Somehow this has not happened. If one is asked to reel off from the top of one's head, some of his most memorable creations, only those intimate with his books would be able to name names. These characters have not become part of popular discourse the way that personas like Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble, Scrooge or Fagin have, or if one is to cite from popular fiction, the way a Sherlock Holmes or a Dumbledore or even a Mr Goon has. Salmeen Sinai comes close. We experience his pain and share his passion, despite the ridiculous caricature that he is and his infuriatingly jalebi way of telling a story. Perhaps this is because through Saleem's narrative of his family's life -- his parents, grandparents, friends and loves – we come as close as we can to peering into Rushdie's past and the watering hole of his imagination.

Saleem is not Salman (although he marries a Padma) and Saleem's grandfather Dr Aadam Aziz is not him too, but there is a touching prescience at work here. In the opening pages of Midnight's Children, Dr Aziz while bending down on his prayer mat, bumps his nose on a hard tussock of earth. His nose bleeds and his eyes water and he decides then and there that never again will be bow before God or man. "This decision, however, made a hole in him, a vacancy in a vital inner chamber, leaving him vulnerable to women and history."

Battered by a fatwa and one femme fatale too many, Sir Salman would have some understanding of this.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Reading Bond by torchlight, under the covers

The Times of India, June 9, 2008

Nina Martyris

Mumbai: The new James Bond book, written by British novelist Sebastian Faulks in perilously taut prose, has a special Mumbai connection. Faulks, who was commissioned to write the new caper in the centenary year of Ian Fleming, the man who created the suave English spy, has dedicated Devil May Care to two people: to Fleming himself and to “Fali Vakeel, who, when he and I were schoolboys, first introduced me to Bond’’.

Vakeel is sitting at the quietly lit bar at the Oberoi’s Opium Den where bankers and their credit cards are easily parted. A compact 55-year-old with a terribly polite manner and a remarkable ability to speak in full sentences complete with long dashes and semi colons, he indulgently goes through the parody of ordering a round of dry martinis, shaken not stirred. This affectionate nod is lost on the deferential barman but helps set the mood for the interview.

When Fali was ten years old, he was packed off to England to prep school, a rite of passage for Malabar Hill Parsi schoolboys at the time. At the “uncomfortably cold and brutish school’’, the curly haired Sebastian Faulks and Fali Vakeel became friends.

“Although I made many friends, many of them were friends for survival. Sebastian was clearly a cut above—intelligent, bright, he had a certain class. We were together for three years, and at 13 he went to Wellington and I to Rugby,’’ begins Vakeel. “After that, I got into London University—I was too precocious for Oxford—but chose to return to Bombay, to Elphinstone College, and then I went into advertising.’’

Now executive director of Lowe India, the country’s biggest or second-biggest ad firm after JWT depending on whom you talk to, Vakeel has been faithful to the profession except for one “brief and regrettable foray into accountancy, which was kind of like having a camel screw a poodle, and I’m not quite sure who was who’’.

At the Elsstree prep school at Berkshire, a lasting friendship was forged over Casino Royale, From Russia With Love and Live and Let Die. Young Fali had smuggled his father’s copies from Bombay into school, and the two boys read them eagerly under the sheets by torchlight. “The school was Calvinist and cold but Bond was always in Istanbul, Nice, Russia. While there were deeply unattractive males in the changing room, Bond was bonking Tatiana Romanova, and while we were eating boiled cabbage, Bond was drinking martinis. He was the perfect antidote to our lives.’’

The boys lost touch. Vakeel occasionally read about Faulks’s growing fame and the success of his book, Birdsong. Sometimes on a visit to London, he wondered whether he should wander in to a Waterstone’s or a Hatchett’s and catch up with Sebastian signing books there, but he never did. Then, one day in 2004, forty years after they had last met, an e-mail popped up in his inbox re-establishing contact. “It was quite spooky, really, because at that time I was just finishing his book, On Green Dolphin Street,’’ he says. “It turned out that he had googled me to find out where I was. A month later, I had dinner at his Notting Hill home with him and his wife, Veronica, who I must add, on the evening of the book launch, looked better than any Bond girl.’’

After Faulks was chosen by the Fleming estate for the coveted commission that many novelists would have killed for—with a stiletto if need be—he broke the news to Vakeel in a suitably clandestine way. “I was having a drink with them when he firmly shut the door of his sitting room and said he had been asked to do this book. I said, amazing. Later, on e-mail, he asked if I would be appalled if he dedicated the book to me. I replied that I would have to be a retard brain donor if I had to be appalled. Why on earth would I be?’’

Devil May Care has been praised for its spareness of style and authentic atmosphere. It opens with Bond in Rome on a three-month break to clear his head and reclaim his life. He is listless, a burnt-out case, repelled by his own reflection; his cummerbund still fits but is afraid that his mind is running to fat. He has been warned to stay off alcohol. And then, of course, things happen.

Vakeel enjoyed the book, describing it as “high on adrenalin and very sexy’’. “I continue to love Bond,’’ he says. “I’m talking about the books mind you, not the new films where it’s all about exploding arse holes and parachutes coming out of breasts. The books have a great sense of place. You can almost smell Istanbul, smell the girls’ shampoo. And, of course, Bond is every man’s fantasy—sex without commitment. Fleming once said that his books are positioned somewhere between the solar plexus and the knees. In boarding school, these books were an escape from a life of lumpy porridge and fish which smelt of extremely old underwear.’’ He pauses, and adds with a sense of fairness, “Mind you, that was boarding school food then. Today, it’s probably like Frangipani.’’

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