Saturday, August 28, 2010

Just Wink It

This appeared in The SA Times today.

The Indian publishing industry is undergoing what I underwent a decade back. Too many changes, too soon. Such arbitrary changes that if they plotted a graph for every trend that has occurred in the recent past, they run the risk of being more confused than they might have been prior to plotting the graph.

First off, the concept of monopoly is passé. The space has opened up in a big way inviting major international publishing houses to get their fingers wet. So professionalism is in high gear and modern outlook, a must. Enter lit agents. It’s not a job title you might have heard of forever but now you can bump into them at a cocktail party for a book launch of a newbie (read not even old enough to drive) author and they’ll tell you they’ve helped bridge the gap between writers and publishers.

Commercial books (those that can unite a billion people with simple language and a touching story) is a big business now compared to literary and self help books back in the day. No points for guessing that whatever genre you’ve admired in international titles is home grown today. Crime, sci-fi fantasy, romance, graphic novels, children’s books… name it and we’ve been farming it. Just look around the fancy bookstores sprawled across every city, big and small. Until Chetan Bhagat came along, a book that sold 5,000 copies in India would be classified as a bestseller. Today, the numbers have risen steeply from that level in the ball park of 50,000. The next Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh book is just around the corner. Literally.

When an industry undergoes an explosion, a sub-industry comes into action too a la iPod style. If you like to be in the know of the newest statistics that hit the stands, here’s one. For every hardcover book that sells in the US, close to 2 e-books sell. It’s a significant ratio considering how young the e-book market is. I haven’t helped the ratio in favor or e-book btw. Still a hard copy kinda girl. Call me cliché but I love the feeling of holding something that I can spill coffee all over. Plus my blackberry does more than I need. I’d rather not own another device and have them fight in my handbag for space and attention.

A Bangalore based company just introduced a new e-book reader for the Indian readers under a brand name Wink. It stands at Rs. 11,500 and one can not only read books in 15 Indian languages but it also offers over 200,000 book titles on debut. 200,000! Impressive. It also offers access to journals, newspapers, magazines and selected articles.

The funny part is that Pi, the country's first e-book reader, was already launched at the beginning of this year. So technically Wink is 2nd in the game. But all I hear is “the first ever”. Who’s keeping a track right?

Wink seems too pricey and hello, no snob value. But one day, I’m sure I’ll see a panwallah reading a gujju newspaper during an extended lunch hour on one such device. And then he’ll take off in Tata Nano. All I can ask for is that he not judge me when he sees me with a then extinct real book.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A New Generation of Critics

This appeared in The SA Times on Saturday.

You know you were born in a pre-independent India if you strongly believe that a critic of books, theatre, cinema, art or anything else that fits the ‘creative’ mould would be someone who is qualified to carry out the task through detailed study, evaluation and interpretation of the subject. Someone who has a deep understanding of the form of art and is able to objectively assess without letting mass media opinions and biases impact his decision. Someone who has the requisite experience to understand the why, how and what of it.

Fast forward to 2010 and EVERYONE is a critic. Me included. I’m worse off actually. This article will in fact establish be as a critic of the new generation of critics. It’s a spooky place to be but someone has to do it so I shall oblige. And it’s not like I live in Iran where people get sto… terrible things happen when you do irresponsible acts like this so what the heck.

In the 90s, when every other news and tech magazine was running cover page stories of ‘internet explosion’, the extent of explosion was unfathomable. Some possibilities looked promising, some fascinating and most were inconceivable. Social media was one such concept. It’s gone from ‘ya right’ back in the day to a ‘the only way to live’ super rapidly. It’s also the sole reason why everyone is a critic now.

I have my reservations about whether people produced a million opinions a day in the pre social media era. With the ‘whats on your mind’ and the ‘whats happening’ questions that these website pose, one is forced to think and in turn produce an opinion on the spur. Opinions are a dime a dozen so guess how much these websites are worth. Some opinions have to be limited to 140 characters and if one doesn’t take a bold stance, the ‘likes’ make a no show. And we all know those likes are almost as important as paychecks. I’ve noticed trends lately where even zygotes criticize established authors and actors mercilessly especially if their gender is male. Women get the soft treatment atleast on the face. If the good old notion of ‘no publicity is bad publicity’ is to be relied on, it must help those on the receiving end of it a tiny bit. But I can’t help but feel a little sad every time I come across brash and brazen virtual bashing. Wittily worded criticism sounds catchier than simply expressed admiration and goes viral much faster thanks to those impressionable brains amongst us. Forwards, Retweets and several copy-paste statuses later, it becomes something equivalent of a movement ruthlessly scrutinizing those in question.

In good old days, an author or an actor would just have to open a few newspapers and flip a few news channels the morning after to check reviews. It is a rather extensive process now. First thing in the morning, with trembling hands, check Youtube or MTv to see if someone’s made a parody of their work already, then check online newspapers before checking their print versions to read public comments on the review, then watch news channels through fingers covering their faces to listen to random civilians being interviewed outside movie theatres expressing candid views, then log onto their Facebook fan pages and check who’s said what, then check their personal Twitter account to check how badly they’ve been butchered … and so it goes.

Yup, it’s a way of life. Perhaps soon enough, everyone in the public eye will mutate enough to swallow the superfluous criticism and go about life as usual. After all, as Aamir Khan once infamously said “Apun public hai public, jisme apna paisa vasool nahin, uska dabba gul.” True that.

Monday, August 16, 2010

A sign from above

This appeared on today.

I might be slow on life lessons but have discerned that near perfect weekend mornings aren't an illusion. My new blueprint is here to stay until it gets old: divine savory mushroom crepes and tangy goat cheese salad for brunch, a modest bit of sun to warm up my face, Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition which is so heavy I can almost skip weight training, followed by a frothy drink to accompany me as I strut down the city streets.

I was gearing up for an 'everything exotic' afternoon last Saturday when abruptly the backdrop changed into familiar territory. God loving souls in a salmon soft cotton tee and matching dhoti with salmon powder smeared across their foreheads. Engaging a crowd. Imparting bliss. Allocating books. I took it as a sign from God that its time to buy the salmon shorts I've been eyeing at Zara (although I'm not entirely sure it'll complement my personality), read some interesting books (the profound ones have been neatly put away and I've read way too many breezy ones), replace my Lancôme sheer powder (Dr. Oz's bacteria detection tests on stale cosmetics have given me numerous nightmares about live stuff mooching off my bronzer. it's morbid) and mingle with new people (a competent geek, a fashion forward gay dude and a wonky writer is what I wish to add to the current mix of acquaintances). Mental notes made! I don't need next gen phones to remind me of notes I make on the fly. My brain never runs into space, capacity or performance issues despite storing petabytes of seemingly worthless information.

ISCKON followers sublimely dancing away in the trendy Haight Ashbury neighborhood of San Francisco where hippies hold fort is not something I expect to see. Or for that matter on Filmore street which hosts the city’s most glam designer stores and chic restaurants.. “The soul transmigrates from body to body” is what fell on my ears as I walked by and all I could do was wish my soul would get the body of the girl on roller blades across from me (her, LA 10; me, LA disqualified).

Ubiquitous (ISCKON followers), yes they are. I should have known post running into them in Rio de Janeiro, London and Santa Monica in the months gone by. It wasn’t just them. I ran into a gypsy tarot card reader recently and received some mystical wisdom “don’t be afraid to open yourself to the world”. But I'm on Twitter! Then there was this Sufi Saint in downtown saying jumbled words. And my loan agent’s been insisting I use his astrology site.

All mere coincidences or is the universe conspiring to uncover a revelation to me? *Shudder*. If my caffeine addiction doesn’t kill me, this trepidation certainly will. But I’ll still blog from afar.

A link to the article on

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A tale of extremes

Lately wherever I go, I've been encountering extremes. Am seeing two sides of the same thing in the same breath. White and black, truth and false, smart and dumb, beautiful and ugly, good and bad, lucky and unlucky, sober and drunk, busy and busier... ok the last one doesn't quite fit but you get the point. Of course there's shades of everything in between but that's for some other time.

One such extreme story is about the proverbial good girl and the bad girl. And their story one morning. Here goes:

With the widest stretch and the loudest yawn, she wakes up bright and early. Technically it was Saturday but she rarely slacked off. Art was her oxygen. She takes the pooch for a walk on the busy San Francisco streets as she’d promised. City mornings always inspired her. The sound patterns, the hues, the smell of fresh caffeine and complex carbs, the occasional hippie sightings and the fog that added mystic charm. She'd invariably spot something that would strike a chord and run off to her studio to give life to her inspiration. Today she's dared to take off. It was her flat mate's 25th birthday. She'd promised to help arrange for a small party. A wonky homeless fella calls out at her as she enters her regular coffee shop. A non-fat latte with extra whip was her morning treat for walking the four-legged angel a mile. She just carried exact change for the latte and had nothing to give him except for her diamond studs. Thoughtfully, she walks in, gets her latte, asks for an extra cup, splits her drink, gives one cup to the homeless guy, says cheers, does her typical "have a LOVELY day" with the finger and thumb stretched out that most people used to denote 'Loser' and walks off. It leaves the homeless fella bemused but her warm smile had taken over him already. She believed there were no losers, only people stuck in unfortunate circumstances. She was determined on changing how the 'L' was perceived. Half way through the dog’s excretion process, she has a light bulb moment and scurries off with him. She drops him home, takes a cab to her studio, dumps a boatload of stuff in the cab and off she goes to Jon's. Jon, her and flat mate’s pal, had graciously offered his lackluster backyard for a bbq party. She wakes up a visibly drowsy Jon and raids his place until she discovers an unused and filthy basement. Flat mate arrives at noon and is appalled to see her in sweat pants and worn out tee with grease all over her. And then, sees the basement that had miraculously transformed into nothing short of an exceptionally funky art gallery in Manhattan complete with lights. Voila, it was the new venue for her birthday party.

She hated it when she had an early morning shift. There was no justification for buying coffee at 5 am, she'd tell every buyer with her piercing gaze and her classic irreverent manner. Sometimes she'd actually say the words to those who didn't give her a good vibe. Most laughed or shrugged it off. What she meant to convey was that she was annoyed that her dad had abruptly stopped sending her money for living expenses making a million excuses which had compelled her to do this crappy job. It's not like she cared about making people happy by serving them a drink frothed to perfection, just in case they were delusional. A tall guy with bandana in a wife beater shirt with giant exposed biceps walks up and orders four ice drinks with extra ice. How brilliant, she smirked. She didn't mind serving sophisticated and good looking people but she didn't care to be politically correct or to resonate with blue collar workers for that matter. "James" she screams at her only co-worker who seemed almost immersed in the green tea he was so lovingly blending. James obliges by taking bicep guy's order. Bicep dude smells attitude, picks up his 4 drinks, tastes one, then returns it to her with a "honey it ain't no good" and a vicious half smile to match with it. Seeing the grimace on her face, he makes her remake rest of the three drinks as well. She remakes them, her eyes burning with anger under the steel-silver eye shadow and pushes them his way. He takes them, all smug, and walks out. Just when he turns the ignition on, something hot and brown and liquidy comes flying out at him. There she is, with hostile body language, cursing him luridly holding an empty coffee glass. Humiliated, he gets out of the truck to attack her but she spits on him and runs inside. This was one of the reasons this coffee shop was so popular. Drama, guaranteed, anytime. The owner gets the word soon and fires her, for real this time. When he gets home that evening, his wife had left with her bags and a note "Cheaters disgust me". Cheater who, he asks himself, perplexed.

Such extremes, both those characters, both having an impact on people around them and their surroundings but in such constrasting manner.

What do you choose to be?