How authentic are biopics?

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Are biopics still the flavour of the day, or are they ‘so yesterday’ as the new catchword goes? Always a popular genre, perhaps because it feeds the public’s insatiable appetite and taste for gossip and insights into the lives of the famous, and infamous. In recent years a proliferation of movies based on the lives of well-known people have been released.  Slick productions that have won deserving accolades, as well as honours and awards for the actors, these movies have grossed millions in box office revenues.  We have seen the excellent Meryl Streep win an Oscar for her portrayal of Margaret Thatcher in, ‘The Iron Lady’; Helen Mirren, no less an accomplished actress, won the academy award as Elizabeth II; Jamie Foxx for his portrayal of Charles Ray in ‘Ray’; Reese Witherspoon triumphed as June Carter in ‘Walk The Line’; Philip Seymour Hoffman bagged the academy award as the eponymous ‘Capote’: Leonardo DiCaprio was, unfortunately, pipped to the Oscar post in his haunting portrayal of the brilliantly eccentric Howard Hughes.  The list is endless.  Closer to home we have had Farhan Akhtar win commendations for his depiction of Milkha Singh in, ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’. And that leads me to my question of how authentic bio-pics are: are they scrupulously researched and kept within the parameters of whatever truths are known about the subject, or are the stories facts loosely fabricated with fiction?

Regarding our own  depiction of Milkha Singh, one scene in the movie, which I must first admit, not being a Bollywood buff I haven’t seen, troubles me.  I would not have known about it had it not been mentioned in my presence en passant, and inadvertently.  While hosting friends for lunch at our home up in the mountains a couple of summers ago, one of the guests happened to be a lady who was part of the production team working on the movie.  Apparently they had just shot the scene of Milkha Singh’s historic run in Lahore, and the lady was excited, and gave us a spontaneous and vivid description of the shot which drew my attention because of the lack of authenticity in it.

Milkha Singh went to Lahore, as part of the  Indian Athletic Team to participate in the Indo-Pak Athletic Meet in the early 1960’s, organised to try and melt some of the frost in Indo-Pak political relations which, at that time, were very much on edge.  This lady described the scene of the race as being one in which the camera focuses on burqa-clad ladies watching the Flying Sikh speed across the track.  WRONG.  I know, because I was there.  I did try and clarify this for her, but the scene had already been filmed, and anyway, who cares for authenticity?!

At the time of the said Athletic Meet, I was a student at the prestigious University of Punjab, Lahore. Years later,at interviews  for teaching positions in my country-by-marriage, in order to elicit some sort of gleam of recognition for this once-famed seat of learning, I needed to emphasise that  erudite established living scholars like Kuldip Nayar, Khushwant Singh, I.K. Gujral and other such Indian luminaries who were alumni of the University.

However,back to ‘Bhaag Milkha Bhaag’ .  The Pakistan of my childhood and youth, the homeland where I grew up was,at that time, no different in its social ambience than contemporary India.   Crossing the border in the early 1960’s to visit the elite family who were, years later, happily,  to become my in-laws, I felt quite at home in Delhi.  In Lahore, and my hometown of Rawalpindi, we were as the youth of Delhi were,studying  in coeducational institutions, mixing freely in an open society where ‘good friendships’ between boys and girls was the norm. Together, we went to the movies, visited  restaurants in groups, sharing ideas, opinions, debating, arguing and above all relishing  each other’s company, and having fun.  I cannot think of a single girl among our group who married any of the young boys who were our genuine and sincere friends.  Shalwar kameez, trousers, jeans and sometimes dresses were the norm for girls, with saris often worn, by choice, for social occasions.

The Indo-Pak Athletic Meet aroused huge interest and excitement, because the Indians would be here in Lahore, but largely because of the expected presence of  Sardar Milkha Singh.  Most all of us had never seen a Sikh gentleman before! Until the last minute it wasn’t certain whether he would attend or not, considering the prickly atmosphere between the two neighbouring countries.  The Meet was organized at the Lahore Stadium which, decades later, because of the petro-dollars being poured into the country,President Zia-ul-Haq expeditiously named ‘Gaddafi Stadium’ ( have they changed the name again after the ignominious disposal of the Libyan dictator?).  Excitement was at a peak.  We left our campus early to ensure the best ringside view.  Not a burqa in sight.  The girls and boys were clad in normal gear, all fresh-faced, eager and enthusiastic.  When Sardarji came out on the field, a cheer of warmth and affection went up which, I’m certain, must still echo in his heart. He ran, he flew, he won, and then he was mobbed, by all of us:  for autographs; to get a closer look at this giant in Asian athletics; to be in close proximity to a sikh because it was the first, and probably the only, opportunity!  And as the gracious gentleman patiently took us all  on, pleasant, courteous, smilingly signing his name,diplomatically laughing away the intrusive, and sometimes impertinent, questions we directed at him, we gasped: ‘Gosh, he can speak English’!  The Flying Sikh won more than  a race that day. He won over the youth of Pakistan.   It is disappointing to realize that Milkha Singh did not ensure that this scene was depicted in its authenticity.  But perhaps, he has run so many races, in so many countries, in conditions far more exciting and important than the Lahore Meet, that a clear memory of what was for us an unforgettable occasion, has faded from his mind.  Or did the producers not tell him how they were presenting this?

The Pakistan I grew up in was firmly in the grip of the Military.  President Ayub Khan was at the helm, supported by his coterie of henchmen.  While the poor scrabbled for food, and the middle class struggled to survive, the President’s youngest indulged son ,Tahir, shot around Rawalpindi in an Aston-Martin DB 6, the same car that James Bond flashed around in.  ‘Pindi roads being narrow, bumpy and certainly not suited to a snazzy sports car, the joke was that Ayub Khan had the Islamabad Highway built to accommodate his son’s expensive little toy!

Rawalpindi was still the neat, charming Army Cantonment town the British had built, with brick bungalows lining leafy streets, parks, lovely gardens, and the marble statue of Queen Victoria dominating the Mall.  A salubrious, safe environment that one was so fortunate to live in. On a recent visit, it was devastating to see how it has now become the backwater for Islamabad, and changed character completely.  Indeed, the entire country has changed character.  History marches on. The heart aches; but change is inevitable, so one accepts, but with sorrow.  The Pakistan I read about in news items is a country alien to me; a place I cannot recognize any more. It helps with the nostalgia!  But I balk and bristle  when the past truth is depicted in the colours of the present reality.

There were no burqas at the Indo-Pakistan Athletic Meet in Lahore when Milkha Singh ran that memorable race.

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Cross-border memories

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(Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi. Photographs by Nikhil Kumar Sen)

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                       (Qutub Minar, New Delhi. Photographs by Nikhil Kumar Sen)

The regular and predictable vicissitudes in India-Pakistan relations make for a very anxious and stressful time for those of us with close relatives, and good friends, in Pakistan. This love-hate situation that one had hoped would, or could, resolve itself by now, threatens to stretch into the distant future. A distressing prospect. A sudden warmth and attempt at detente, is swiftly followed by the big freeze, with accusations and counter-accusations streaking across the border like malignant meteors. How often have we been witness to, and I quote the Pakistani journalist, Mariana Baabar, ‘the deathly silence of a frozen relationship’. Much like severed friends, or lovers! And with India and Pakistan, the analogy is apt!

I cannot even count or remember the number of people, and the number of times I have been persuaded, coerced and encouraged to write about my erstwhile country, and my transition to India. Family, friends and colleagues see a worthwhile story in my experiences. The thing is that firstly, I don’t think I have a book in me, and secondly the contemporary Pakistan that shows itself to the world today seems like a different country from the one I was born and brought up in, and so alien to me. So the comparisons and contrasts between these two geographical and politically uneasy neighbours, from my point of view, does not constitute too exciting a story.

I was born and raised in Rawalpindi, at that time a neat, clean, organized, well-maintained Army Cantonment town. Most everyone knew everyone else, social circles were limited to those families whose children, irrespective of their religious affiliations, went to the two foremost private Catholic schools in town. What is now the sprawling metropolis of Islamabad was a long, verdant beautiful stretch of the foothills of the Margalla hills, redolent with wild flowers, myriad trees, enticing picnic spots, and dotted with scattered villages. It was a safe, idyllic ambience in which to live, and in which to raise children.

In-town distances were not great, so most students used to bicycle to school, except during the monsoon ( which were summer holidays anyway) or during ‘Pindi’s freezing winter chill. The air was fresh and clear, there was plenty to occupy children and young adults, and the older generation always had their own absorbing social gatherings and interests. A long evening walk from, and back to home wherever in town one lived, along the Mall Road with its backdrop of imposing church spires, and the statue of Queen Victoria immaculate, white-sculpted marble in its manicured patch of green sward, that dominated the mid-point spot, was ‘de rigueur’. An occasional absence of a ‘Regular’ was cause for instant concern! Most people walked with their imposing pedigree dogs; the popular and ubiquitous German Shepherds conspicuous by their presence. This was an army town remember?!

Daily news was exchanged during a brief pause in the perambulations: health, the weather, births and deaths dominated the small talk The Rawalpindi Club, and the Departmental Club provided regular exercise with their squash, tennis, badminton courts and swimming pool; and there was also the beautiful Blue Lagoon swimming pool for those not Club Members. Excellent local live bands played regularly at both Clubs, and popular ( ballroom) dances were organized every saturday, outdoors during the pleasant weather, and indoors when it was either too hot or too cold. Well-attended and greatly encouraged and appreciated, these were good meeting places for all generations to enjoy a pleasant, cordial evening.

My first visit to Delhi was in the 60’s. The Big City impressed me, a small-town girl, not with its expansive size so much ( shrunken as it was compared to the sprawling Delhi of today) as by the excitement and breathless fascination of the many historical monuments scattered happily all over the city, and which suddenly came so vividly and forecefully alive after reading, and studying them in the pages of dusty history books. I fell in love completely and hopelessly with both Delhi, and a Delhiwallah. I am still not sure which came first!

Connaught Place at that time was Delhi’s premier shopping area, and its imposing palladian elegance was most impressive. As were the many shops and large stores, a far cry from the mostly Mom-and Pop shops in Pindi with their personalized and friendly service. The contrast between the swank, well-ordered and magnificent New Delhi, with the bustling activity and commerce of the Old City was a memorable experience. And the food! Coming from a carnivorous country where no meal was complete without a wide array of meat dishes, the diverse and delicious vegetarian fare on offer in Delhi appealed instantly and immensely to my vegetarian tastes, and preferences.

Other than that, however, the life of people in both countries of whatever generation mirrored the other. The young generation of both sexes mixed, mingled and enjoyed social get-togethers in happy, healthy, fun, platonic, warm, supportive relationships. Our friends were from families socially close to us, or from the coeducational schools and colleges we attended. There was no difference in the way the young dressed,except that in Delhi one saw far more girls wearing saris compared to the shalwar suits and trousers that Pakistani girls sported! Very few people believe me when I tell them this. The present Pakistan gives a lie to my truth.

So it wouldn’t be a very exciting story to tell, really. A sad one though, at the end, of families divided and unable to be together. This was recently brought home to me so forcefully when a friend here wished to visit her family in Pakistan to attend her niece’s wedding. Since she, for whatever reason, could not get through to her family on the ‘phone, she asked me to call. I was fortunate in being able to speak to them, but I already knew what they would have to say. ‘Please tell her not to be upset, but we don’t think she should come’. Not only was the daily political uncertainty a cause for concern, but, they added with forthright frankness, there would always be regular daily visits by the police and intelligence agencies to check on the presence of their Indian guest, and they didn’t want the festive wedding atmosphere ruined by the presence of these formidable agencies.

Thank heavens for modern, and instant telecommunications. Separated families have much to thank the internet for.

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Remembering Kennedy

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Is it really 50 years? As Willie Nelson sang so soulfully:   ‘Its funny, how time slips away’. To my generation, ‘where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?’ was an evocative question.  Most everyone remembers where they were at this pivotal moment of history. I certainly do, but it is a tragic memory, made even more distressful by the fact that, in my erstwhile country, JFK was not in favour because of his Foreign Policy stance and slant.  So I found myself the only broken-hearted mourner amongst my indifferent, or jubilant, contemporaries and compatriots.

Still, even in the midst of sorrowful memories we need to attempt to cherish the special moments.  So I will remember John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the most charismatic of US presidents, that is,until the Present Incumbent, through his elegant, svelte, glamorous and sophisticated wife, Jacqueline, the most noteworthy of First Ladies, again until the Present  Incumbent, ofcourse.

I saw Jackie…up close, if not personal.  I almost MET Jackie!  Now that is a memory worth cherishing.

Fast forward several decades to Washington DC where my husband Adosh and I were visiting our eldest journalist son, Ashish.  Knowing both his parents’ abiding interest in the Kennedys, and how we had absorbed all the goings-on in ‘Camelot’, as the Kennedy White House was romantically termed, Ashish had bought us tickets to view Jackie’s wardrobe which was on display at a special time-bound exhibition at the Corcoran Art Gallery in central Washington DC.

As expected, the day dresses, expensive designer evening gowns, bags, hats, exquisitely crafted shoes, jewellery and other accessories were artistically displayed under spotlights, with printed explanations of where and when the former First Lady had worn each outfit,and by whom it had been designed. I happened to mention that I wondered if they would also  display the buttercup-yellow dress and signature pill-box hat, that Jackie made famous, when, as a University student, I saw her all those years ago.  I sensed incredulous glances being passed between my husband and son.  Unabashedly romantic mother/wife getting carried away, fabricating and fantasizing stories about having seen Jackie, especially since they could not corroborate these events.   So I tried even harder to convince them,giving them all the details of where, how and when I saw her, but the disbelieving smirks were still on the faces of my two men.  However, as we entered the next room, there confronting us was a diorama of Jackie in her buttercup yellow dress ( no hat; that will come later in this story!) at the Civic Reception held for her by the Citizens of Lahore, Pakistan.  Both father and son, not looking very abashed, acknowledged reluctantly that my account was factual, that I actually must have seen Jackie to detail such accurate facts! And so I won the day!  Ofcourse, I  never let them forget this breach of trust in me!

Jackie was on an official visit to Pakistan, in her capacity as First Lady, to try and bridge the political gulf that existed at that time between Islamabad and Washington.  Given her penchant for things historic, she requested a stopover visit to Lahore, the most historic of Pakistan’s cities.  Delighted and honoured, the citizens of Lahore organized a civic reception for her at the Shalimar Bagh, one of the best preserved of Mughal Monuments in that exciting city.  The Students’ Governing Bodies of all Lahore Colleges affiliated to the University of the Punjab, Lahore, were invited to attend.  And the Presidents of the Students’ Union of the three foremost Girls’ colleges were given the honour of presenting the First Lady with a bouquet each.

What excitement! Jackie was every teenage girl’s dream woman.  We all wanted to look like her, talk like her, be in her shoes.  The next best thing,ofcourse, was to meet her!  The reception was scheduled for 5p.m.  By the time the First Lady, escorted by the handsome and debonair president of Pakistan, General Mohammad Ayub Khan, arrived two hours later, our bouquets, like us, had almost wilted!  The First Lady looked stunning, but instead of her matching pillbox hat, she had on Ayub Khan’s ‘karakuli’ cap!  In which she looked perhaps even more stylish.  There was much speculation, tittering and titillating chatter amongst us gaggle of giggling, gossipy girls of how, where, when and how Jackie managed to get the President’s hat on her head!

However, our moment had passed.  Several parts of the planned programme had to be jettisoned because of the late arrival of the Chief Guest, and Host.  Apparently she had been so enchanted with all the historic sites she visited in the city, and had been so absorbed by the history, architecture and art that it would have been discourteous to dislodge her when she was having such a good time, and that too to ferry her to a boring reception of shaking hands and smiling incessantly for people she had never met before, and never would again, and who had no meaning in her life.  But she passed within inches of us standing there with our flowers.  And she was beautiful: enigmatic, statuesque, striking in her good looks and elegance. And her extempore speech, delivered in her soft, slow style was a delight. It was an unforgettable experience.

And to  those sceptics and unbelievers, like my husband and son, I say thank heavens I preserved my invitation of that memorable evening!

Now how can I manage to get up close, if not personal, to the inimitable Michelle Obama?  Seeing Barack, ofcourse, would be an unattainable dream!  But I do have a signed copy of his book, ‘Dreams from my Father’.  Wanna see it?!

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The Art of Conversation

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Observing my enchanting eleven-month-old granddaughter grow up is a fascinating occupation!  Besides her physical and motor development, it is her ‘speech’ that is most absorbing. From initial gentle coos, she now has a garbled ‘vocabulary’ that includes vowel sounds, sibilants and the consonants are coming thick and fast!  Occasional words have started emerging: nouns mostly: ‘birdie’,’there’, and ofcourse the inevitable ‘mama’, ‘papa’, and to my great joy, ‘dadi’!  It is a magical process.
This process of language development makes me very contemplative.  How did language first evolve from the guttural sounds that the first homosapiens made to express whatever they wanted to share.  And what need generated the development of aural/oral communication?  Was it to express emotion ( like affection, anger,frustration) ,or a physical need ( hunger, distress, a warning).  Which is the stronger, and is it the same for everyone, or does the strength of the need differ with individuals? My emotion may be stronger than your hunger, sort of thing. Whatever the motivation for this development,language is a powerful tool as we all know, and have experienced.  And  words either a lethal weapon, or a soothing comfort.
Conversation then becomes perhaps the most important means of interaction between people.  Great conversationalists have been celebrated over the ages: Samuel Johnson in the West; Birbal, closer to home….all known for their ability to engross people not only with their choice or words and phrases, but with the absorbing topics they chose for their discourses.  Good conversation can be stimulating and educative.  A healthy and open interchange of thought and ideas is a tonic for the mind and the spirit.  It can be the seeds from which great ideas grow.
There is a great deal to be said about a vibrant and stimulating exchange of views.  It can be mentally energizing and emotionally satisfying; when conversing with an erudite companion, conversation becomes a stimulating learning process.
But is interesting conversation now a dying art?  Has the contemporary focus on material values killed a meaningful exchange between people?  Have television and the internet contributed towards this? I find that conversation with one’s contemporaries, or between the generations, has been reduced to a tedious game of self-centred one-up-mans-ship; a keeping-up-with-the Joneses, or better still going several steps further!  The focus is on listing recent expensive ‘designer’ acquisitions, or indicating vociferously how socially, personally, socially and professionally busy and in demand one is, with every minute of the day crowded with activity.  There seems to be a breathless desperate need to share one’s experiences in exotic travel, or ‘retail therapy’, or flatulent accounts of one’s unique personal experiences.  Yawn!
One is so tempted to interject when the speaker pauses briefly to take a breath: ‘Si tacuisses , philosophus mansisses’: ‘ If you had kept your mouth shut, we may have thought you clever’!

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A Radiant City of Light

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Pont Neuf at sunset. (Photo credit: Steve Hersey)

There are twenty-three bridges in Paris.  The saying is that you make one of them your own!

The ‘Pont Neuf’ is most definitely my choice among all the architecturally and visually stunning of the Bridges of Paris. The enchantment of the bridges that span the gently rolling River Seine is evident in  the celebrations of them in works of art, literature and music.  Lilting songs have been written, and the most enticing lyrics have been sung in praise of them since the bridges inspire romance, for let us not forget: this is the City of Light; the City of Love!  Dean Martin, Eartha Kitt, Tony Bennett are among those who have made the ‘Bridges of Paris’ memorable in their inspired rendition of the song.

‘Pont Neuf’ is, ofcourse, as it were, an oxymoron, a dichotomy since the word means ‘new bridge’, and it is the oldest of Paris’ bridges.  But what a bridge!  The elegant arches that span the River Seine; the pillars that stand tall and elegant supporting the structure; the semicircular recesses in the bridge with comfortable stone seats on which writers, poets, artists, lovers, leaders, musicians have sat to meditate, or for inspiration.  And at night, the bridge is a luminous presence with its wrought iron lamps, the river reflecting the lights of the city lighting up the arches in glimmering relief.

Any guide book, or the internet can supply us with statistical information. The restructuring of Paris began in the 1860’s commissioned by Napoleon III, using the genius of the French civic planner Baron Haussmann.  The cost, in that era, added up to a cool 2,500,000,000 francs, and though Haussman did come under censure over the expenditure, no one could ever deny the magnificence of the city he created out of slums and narrow streets.  His vision of the city still dominates Paris.  Boulevards, long avenues offering breathtaking perspectives of such monuments as the Arc de Triomphe and the Opera; new bridges, the Opera house; and on a more subterranean level, a gigantic system of sewers, and extensive water supply all stand witness to the creative genius of the architect.

The Pont Neuf, however, was witness to this massive and extravagant change.  Completed in 1607, it is actually two different bridges, one stretch of seven arches, the other five, one on each side of the Ile de la Cite, the island in the middle of the Seine that houses the famous Notre Dame cathedral.

No visit to Paris is,for me, complete without time spent on the Pont Neuf.  At all times of day or night, it’s beauty is seductive.  It is so singularly positioned that it offers a view that takes in an expanse of this amazing city.  Up river all the way to the Eiffel Tower and beyond; down river past the Notre Dame and beyond.  One just needs to sit on a seat and soak in the City through the day, and late into twilight to understand why Paris has invariably inspired the creative genius of so many celebrated people.

On a recent solitary visit, my daily walks ( for there is no better way to understand and appreciate the inimitable atmosphere than on foot), included a stopover at the Pont Neuf.  Either sipping a brunch-time coffee, or nibbling a lunchtime crepe; or relaxed with a ( small!) bottle of white wine watching the orange and gold reflections of the sunset in the ripples of the river. Paris glows at all hours of the day or night. The mellow stone of the buildings was selected to reflect the light of the day at all hours, and well into the night with the street lamps bouncing their subdued golden light off the well-nurtured stone.

On the last night of my stay, I picked up some sinful, excessively-sweet, calorie-rich Turkish desserts from the charming store with its striped awning situated just off the Bridge. It was closing time, a drizzle had started,and threatened to become heavier.  Not anticipating any further custom they were packing up, but were thoughtful enough to attend to my order.  Armed with deliciously rich snacks,and a hot coffee, I chose my seat on the Pont Neuf and sat alone for hours watching the sky darken above the twinkling lights on the Eiffel Tower; the reflections of the raindrops and the street lamps in the river,like an Impressionist painting come alive; the occasional pedestrians walking along the river bank, the ‘shush’ of the occasional traffic on wet streets heading home at that late hour.  In the two or more hours that I sat there,relishing my eats and protected from the inevitable Paris rain by my daughter-in-law’s thoughtful gift of a fleece-lined raincoat, not a soul walked across the bridge, and I had it all to myself.  It was just the river, the bridge, the City and Me! In Woody Allen’s recent cinematographic paean to the city, ‘Midnight in Paris’, the movie ends on the Pont Neuf,  in the rain.  A most exquisite and appropriate end to a love story set in the City of Love. My last night is a memory that will live with me for ever.  I think I may even have sung out loud: ‘under the Bridges of Paris with you, I’ll make your dreams come true’, but perhaps I only hummed it in my head!

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A Book Reviewer’s Lament

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Why, oh why, oh why do my Editors give me crappy books to review?  Not only does it dull, even further, my ageing brain, but it adversely effects my language too as is obvious by the first sentence, since four-letter words and clumsy sex now seem de rigeur if an author wishes to have his, or her, work accepted by a publisher, who in turn, has his eyes and ears on the ring of the cash register.  In this day and age of plastic money, is ‘the ring of the cash register’ an obsolete term now? ‘Change’ is the mantra of the day, and how speedily things get obsolete.  Often, I find myself breathless keeping up with all this change; or at least struggling to keep up.  Not being a great techo-geek, the techo-jargon has me badly flummoxed.  What, for example, is an ‘app’?  And where in the world is the Apple ‘cloud’ located?  And are all ipads, and Kindle readers and Samsung all-purpose phones/computers/players, ‘Tablets’?  And are these ‘tablets’ similar to the one Moses brought down from Mount Ararat with the Ten Commandments chiselled on it?
I veer far away from my original lament.  I guess, in a fast-changing world one has much to lament about!
Back to books.  All the Big Names ( who shall remain nameless) get to worthwhile books to review.  I know of at least one Big Name who lifts entire passages from the book into his review, and is yet considered a great reviewer. I often get the unreadable ones ( President Obama’s ‘Dreams From My Father’, being a notable exception.  What a great book, and indeed, what a great Guy!) and struggle not only to go through them but to find something positive to say.  Once, early in my career I think I was rightly harsh in my review, and the author wrote back to say, ‘ gently please; don’t you know that a book is the author’s life-blood?”.  Well, the end-product certainly didn’t make this evident, but I have kept it in mind ever since.  Recently, a good friend, also a write wrote to ask me to list the worst books I have read this year and why.  He needed this for an end-of-the-year article.  Having learnt an early lesson, I told him I could name at least ten, including some that have received, at least in my opinion, accolades they did not deserve, but I would refrain from mentioning them so as not to decimate the author.  The trouble is, a reviewer must keep himself or herself at an emotional distance from the author.  this can be difficult to do even if one is not familiar with the writer. Recently, having agonized over a tedious tome, I was sorely tempted to trash it in print, but then I leafed through the last few pages of acknowledgments.  There were ‘thanks’  to his ‘proud parents’, his ‘supportive wife’ his friends who made helpful suggestions for editing.  How could I disappoint all of them, and embarrass the author in front of all those who care? So I waded through the book searching for anything positive I could find to highlight.
Often reviewers write on a recently published book of a relative or a friend and that is when the dispassionate review goes askew. One of the many areas of literature in which professionalism is vital, it is in the reading and writing of books.  It is a specialized task, and should be handled with care, maturity and erudition.
I love books; the good ones have sustained me through many physical and emotional trials.  The favourites I turn to repeatedly ever fresh as they are. The new releases I try and keep up with.  One can lose oneself in a good book; forget, even momentarily, any stress plaguing the mind; it is a tonic…’pink pills for pale people’.
But,back to my lament. How does bad writing find a publisher, and get published?  What a waste of the life of a tree all those useless pages of unrelated, trivial, sometimes obscene, junk. Faced with the despair of the task of reviewing such a book, my supportive husband used to jolly me along. ‘Think of it as a compliment’, he said soothingly.’Your editors consider you capable of writing a good review even if the book is not worth it’.
I shall continue to be content with these kind remembered words!

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Celebrating Jane

 

In this the bicentenary year of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen is again the flavour of the day, that is if ever she was not.  Lauded and celebrated internationally, her home country is issuing a pound 10 bank note to honour her immense contribution to the world of English Literature.  Her novels as everyone, including the present Governor of the Bank of England recently stated have, ‘an enduring and universal appeal’. The sterling pound note will include, besides a portrait of the author based on a sketch done of her by her sister Cassandra Austen, on the reverse, the quote by Miss Bingley from Chapter XI of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘ I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading’. There will also be an illustration of Elizabeth Bennet, the most striking of all Austen’s heroines, ‘undertaking an examination of all the letters which (her sister) Jane had written to her’.  Godmersham Park, the home of Jane Austen’s brother which she had visited often ,will figure on the note,as well as a copy of  the author’s writing table.

Jane Austen is (she cannot but be written and spoken of in the present tense!) a consummate artist.  Not only are her characters real, alive and enduring, belonging to all seasons, and all ages, but their appeal has endured over two centuries.  The enchantment of the social ambience she creates with such consummate genius continues to be both fresh and relevant.  The constant stream of visitors to her home in Chawton in Hampshire, and to the Jane Austen Centre in Bath is an indication, if any were needed, of her continuing appeal and hold on the imagination of her readers. For us die-hard Austen fans, a visit, even if once in a lifetime, is an essential on one’s travel itinerary.

Little of original value remains at Chawton Cottage  which was gifted to Jane, her widowed mother and sister Cassandra by their brother, who lived in the adjacent Chawton House, but the fact that Jane lived and wrote there is attraction enough. There are a few precious pieces of original furniture,a pianoforte, music books and a bookshelf lined with her incomparable novels.

The Jane Austen Centre at Bath has brought together memorabilia belonging to the author, her family or to the period in which she lived.  Visiting on one golden autumnal afternoon, I chanced upon a spelling error: an artifact has been labelled as ‘belonging to Jane Austin’.  I summoned up the courage to point this out to the very English formidable ladies at the Reception, somewhat nervous that they may be ‘most seriously displeased’ (as was Lady Catherine de Bourgh) that the ‘Austin/Austen’ error had been noticed by a foreign tourist!  However, it was speedily corrected! ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged’ that each of us has our own personal favourites in some of the excellent movies/ television productions of her novels that have appeared over the years, and more recently in a sudden, and happy, spate over the past twenty years.

I don’t think that Kate Beckinsale has bettered herself than as the eponymous ‘Emma’, brilliantly matched as she was by Mark Strong as Mr. Knightley, and strongly supported by Bernard Hepton as her father, Mr. Wodehouse, and Prunella Scales as Miss Bates.  Emma Thompson won her accolades with an Oscar for her brilliant script of ‘Sense and Sensibility’, also giving a rivetting performance, directed by Ang Lee, as Elinor Dashwood.  Kate Winslet’s mercurial and romantic Marianne Dashwood won her the Academy award for best actress of that year.  Creditable performances by Alan Rickman as the anguished and supportive Colonel Brandon, and Hugh Grant as his usual hesitant self played Edward Ferrars.

And then of course there is the glittering star of all the novels: ‘Pride and Prejudice’.  Colin Firth’s rather gimmicky Mr. Darcy has received much acclaim, partly because of his unnecessary appearance in a soaked shirt that clung to his torso!  But for me, the best, by far, Darcy was epitomized in David Rintoul’s hauteur, elegance, coolness, suave confidence in the BBC’s unmatched 1980’s production.  Elizabeth Garvie brought Elizabeth Bennet alive: her every word, gesture, expression,beautiful facial features, caught so tellingly in flattering camera angles, was as I had always imagined Eliza Bennet to be.  The casting was inspired and magical: Judy Parfitt as Lady Catherine de Bourgh stays unmatched in any other version, as do Priscilla Morgan in her role of Mrs. Bennet, and Moray Watson as Mr. Bennet.  Malcolm Rennie adds a comical touch as Mr. Collins,  Sabina Franklyn as Jane Bennet; they lived their characters and slipped easily into their roles. Every member of the cast brought the book magically alive in their memorable performances.  Jane Austen would consider herself, ‘very satisfied indeed’.

Recently, the mystery writer P.D.James, herself an Austen fan, wrote: ‘Death at Pemberley‘.  We meet all our favourite characters some years after we reluctantly parted from them at the end of P and P.  Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam Darcy are the parents of twin boys; the Bingleys have a daughter and two sons.  The same family equations continue, but though James captures the language of Austen, the book waters the characters down and we leave the story dissatisfied.

Besides the inimitable characters, Jane Austen’s novels are a romantic comedy of manners.  Family equations, personal relationships, class conflicts, social etiquette, an emphasis on high standards of morality and elevated ethics make them stories for all time.  And as we grow older, more experienced, but not necessarily any the wiser, we would undoubtedly agree with our author: ‘The more I see of the world, the more I am dissatisfied with it’!  Pride and Prejudice.

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