In the busy Kala Ghoda area of South Mumbai is a run down, decrepit building called Esplanade Mansion. Once upon a time, it was known as Watson’s Hotel and is India’s oldest surviving cast-iron building today. Fabricated in England and assembled on site between 1867–1869, Watson’s has quite a bit of a history attached to it.
There are many stories about Watson’s, but the one I’m going to share here is in the context of the book being reviewed here — Silent Cinema in India: A Pictorial Journey (Harper Collins, 2012, Price: Rs.4,999/-) by B.D. Garga. It was at Watson’s Hotel that the Lumeire Brothers’ Cinematographie was screened on July 7, 1896, to an all-white audience for an admission fee of one rupee.
“Cinema arrived in India like an itinerant traveller, unannounced” (pg.15).
A couple of pages into the “Author’s Note” in Book 1 of the The Aryavarta Chronicles: Govinda (2012, Hachette India) by Krishna Udayasankar, I came across these lines:
We are the stories we tell. The Aryavarta Chronicles are neither reinterpretation nor retelling. These stories are a construction of reality based on a completely different set of assumptions… I am simply one of those innumerable bards who passes the story on, contexualized and rationalized but not lacking in sincerity or integrity. It is you, the reader, who shall infuse it with meaning and bring it to life as you will. (pg. vii)
Ha ! That’s what nearly every author of mythological fiction claims, I grumbled to myself as I settled down to read Govinda.
458 pages later, when I closed the book shut, I was no longer grumbling. Instead, I was keenly aware that I had just finished reading a book that had turned out exactly as Udayasankar claimed, particularly the last sentence.
Govinda was no “old wine in new bottle”, as I had initially feared, but a completely fresh perspective on the most timeless of all epics — the Mahabharata. It was a perspective that delighted me, challenged me and, more importantly, made me think.
The place: Allahabad. The year: 1948. Twenty-year old Abrar Narvi was a fairly well-known Urdu poet, a sometimes writer of short stories and satires, and with a wish to write in other genres as well. One day, someone told him that Urdu novels “would not sell without an element of sex in them”. When Narvi said that no one had ever tried, the same someone retorted that until this was tried no one would know, would they?
Narvi took this remark very seriously, changing the course of his life and that of a whole legion of his readers. In 1952, under the pseudonym of Ibn-e-Safi, he produced his first novel in Urdu without an element of sex and with an emphasis on originality and newness. This novel, in the crime fiction genre, was the first of a series that came to be known as “Jasoosi Duniya”. And in 1953, when Narvi migrated to Karachi in Pakistan, another series was created in the same genre that came to be known as the Imran Series.
Ibn-e-Safi was a prolific writer and wrote 3–4 novels a month at the peak of his productive period. When he passed away in 1980, he had written about 245 novels across both the series. Published simultaneously in India and Pakistan, his novels were hugely popular as they were the type that everyone in a family could read. In fact, Ibn-e-Safi’s publishers (on both sides of the border) claim that no writer of Urdu crime fiction has broken his sales record till date!
It is this popularity which prompted an attempt at translating Ibn-e-Safi’s novels into English to enable a larger number of readers to become acquainted with his works.
Take two families, related families actually, and have them holiday together. They spend a week together in a neutral place, a holiday home, and interact and relate to each other, and attempt to be one big happy family. This is the plot, in brief, of The Red House by Mark Haddon (Jonathan Cape, 2012, pp. 264). But families are never simple are they, and the families here are no exception. And therein lies the extraordinariness of this book.
Richard and Angela are brother and sister, siblings who have buried their mother recently. Estranged for many years now, they don’t really feel like “brother and sister, just two people who spoke briefly on the phone every few weeks or so to manage the stages of their mother’s decline” (p. 6-7). A week after their mother’s funeral, Richard invites Angela and her family to holiday with him and his family. A surprised Angela accepts.
For Richard and Angela, this week gives them a chance to try to put their estrangement behind them and forge a new relationship. It is a week where 4 adults and 4 children try to “bond” with one another. So who are these 8 “family” members?
Sometimes, we miss the forest for the trees. And sometimes, we miss the trees for the forest. Let me give you an illustration. Take a look at the painting below (click on the picture to see a larger view).
The painting is called “Bacchus and Ariadne”. It was painted by Titian sometime between 1520 and 1523. It depicts a tale from Roman mythology where Bacchus (the God of Wine) sees the mortal Ariadne and falls in love with her at first sight. He is so smitten that he jumps out of his cheetah-drawn chariot towards her. The painting has captured Bacchus in mid-leap as Ariadne shies away from him in alarm.
I saw this painting at London’s National Gallery in 2009. I duly noted the story that the painting conveyed, the various characters in it, the lovingly painted animals, Titian’s trademark use of bright colours… and moved on to the next artwork. It was a nice painting, but not particularly impressive. Or so I thought. Today, I bitterly regret at only looking at the painting, but not seeing it closely enough. In only looking at the painting, I had completely failed to see the colours themselves, particularly the brilliant blue of the sky — a blue which came from the ultramarine paint made from the semi-precious lapis lazuli mined hundreds of miles away in the Sar-e-Sang valley (in present day Afghanistan).
The lapis lazuli from these mines would have travelled through ancient trade routes to the colour maker in Italy, who then transformed it into the very expensive ultramarine paint through a laborious process. First, the lapis lazuli would have been finely powdered and kneaded into a dough along with resin, wax, gum and linseed oil for 3 days, after which it would have been put in a mixture of lye and water. This mixture would have been kneaded again, this time with sticks, to draw out the blue of the lapis lazuli into the liquid. The blue-coloured liquid would have been be collected in bowls and allowed to dry, leaving behind a powdery blue pigment, the ultramarine blue. The process would have been repeated with the “dough” to get different qualities and shades of blue (pg.290-291). These days making the ultramarine paint is not so laborious as it is made synthetically.
I read about all this and much more in Colour: A Natural History of the Palette (2004, Random House, pp.448) by Victoria Finlay. The book can be considered as a travelogue; it can also be considered as a book on art history. But for me, it is a book on the micro-history of colour as explored through an artist’s paintbox holding the colours of the rainbow and then some more — violet (or purple), indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, ochre, white, black and brown.
In her attempt to trace and draw out the stories of how natural dyes, paints and colours were made for a European artist’s paintbox, Finlay travelled to Australia, England, China, Chile, Italy, India, Iran, Spain, Afghanistan and Lebanon. As each story, myth, legend of the colours come into life, we realise that:
Classics and bestsellers are rarely left to ..er.. rest on their popularity. The moment they become popular, an entire line of copycat books (which also hope to become a classic one day, or at least the next bestseller) are published. Then come the attempts to make a film or a TV serial (or both) based on the classic/bestseller. Parodies of the classics are not too far behind in getting published or filmed. Then you have the critiques and the re-interpretations of these popular books. And with the social media boom, it is not surprising that some of these books are being tailored or re-written to fit that criteria (for example, click here to read a Facebook version of the Mahabharata, and here to read a Facebook version of the Ramayana).
Twitterature (Penguin Books, 2009, pp. xiv + 146) is an attempt at “facing and understanding … the greatest art of all arts: Literature” through Twitter. The authors, both 19-year-old students at the University of Chicago at the time of publication of the book, wrote it with the intention of mastering “the literature of the civilized world, while relieving [the reader of] the burdensome task of reading it” in its original form. In other words, Twitterature is a retelling of literature in the form of tweet stories in Twitter language.