Monday, September 30, 2013

Watched: The Lunchbox

This movie has certainly generated a fair amount of buzz, lately around the Oscar nomination bit...but I had caught the trailer a long while ago and had resolved to watch it, regardless of any sort of buzz. 
So did it live up to its reputation? Yes. This is a well-crafted little film, one that leaves you with a feeling of satisfaction that I imagine you don't get with a regular masala-flick. For that alone, I am grateful.

As to the story, it involves a young  married woman, Ila, anonymously exchanging letters with an older single man, via the lunchbox (intended for her husband) that lands up at his desk instead. That, in sum, is the driving force of the narrative. Set in Mumbai as it is, the backdrop is the familiar yet well-captured sense of claustrophobia of that city, further compounded by tight close-ups of the lead actors' faces.

The pace is leisurely. Each frame dwells lovingly on its subject, building a sense of loneliness and of being trapped, longing to escape. Each letter exchanged between the two brings them closer to that sense of escape, and this is all finely told. There are good performances by leads Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan (more on him later), not to mention a stellar Nawazuddin (the guy simply sparkles!) as the annoying yet endearing understudy to Irrfan's Saajan Fernandes. Also delightful was the character of "Auntie", Ila's upstairs neighbor who is never seen, only heard, a unique device for a Hindi film if I'm not mistaken.

What I would have loved to see is a deeper relationship between Ila and her daughter. Given that her husband mostly ignores her, one would then expect her to be especially close to the child. Also wonderful would have been more exploration of the lunchbox itself, or rather, the food in it; a sort of elevation of her somewhat dutiful cooking to a more personal and fulfilling part of her daily life thanks to the effect it has on Fernandes. (And I will not rant about the forced 'intermission': what is the purpose of turning the lights up in the theater for 90 seconds and stopping the movie? There wasn't time enough to even go to the bathroom...then what did they intend for us to do, exactly? Stretch, in full lighting?)

Still, these are minor niggles. The film is a bitter-sweet slice of Mumbai life that bravely wades into the territory of personal loneliness and the struggle to realize dreams, however far-fetched. Irrfan, though good, felt a little lackluster...I know his fans are legion, but to me he lacked the conviction that Nawazuddin threw into his character. Also, the themes reminded me a little of the gem Lost in Translation: young woman in a floundering marriage forms unlikely bond with older man, the rush and rattle of one of the world's largest cities, and the ending.

To sum up, more films like the Lunchbox would be welcomed with open arms (and mouths...they made each meal in said lunchbox look really good, especially as I was stuck with a pasty sandwich in my hand). Oscar controversy or not, Ritesh Batra and the 90 other producers (!) of the film, please sit up and listen! 

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The long arm of the

I had barely boarded my bus back home yesterday when the rather aggressive-looking conductor came up to my face and asked me rudely where I'd boarded. "Sony World," I said. This was apparently the wrong answer; astonishingly, she barked, "NO ONE got on at Sony World! Where did you get on?"
I was completely baffled and asked her what she was talking about, though I really wanted to ask, "what have you been smoking, woman, it's made you daft!" After a few fruitless sallies in the same vein, she revealed grandly that she was an inspector of some sort, and had deduced that I was traveling ticket-less and hence would I damn well pay the fine. 
Well then. Here were the facts of the case. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Where are you?

Is mourning complete without knowing for sure that you have lost something? 
Our friend and companion of five years has left us. We think it was rabies...he showed up looking distinctly ill and suspect the last time we saw him. He stood looking at me for a second, then turned and ran off. We never saw him again. 
It has been four months now. One friend nearly convinced me that he had merely moved to another neighborhood and is alive and flourishing there. But my heart does not believe this. 
Most days when I step out of the door, I still look for tell tale signs of his presence. Most days when I walk back home, I can almost see him waiting under the street lamp, ready to career down the street towards me in greeting. 
In the days when he was well and happy and always around, life always seemed a little bit sunnier. The past few months have been hard for me, what with the endless dripping rain and the looming absence of this strange, happy-hearted creature who came to us out of nowhere and settled down in our lives. 
But, the universe in its wisdom, has decided to let the sun shine for the past few days. This has slightly lifted the burden of grief, but only slightly.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


This morning I woke up with visions of pink lotuses in my head.

When I was eleven, we went on a family trip to Orissa. Driving between cities one early morning, we came upon dozens of small ponds, each with many spectacular, shocking pink lotuses. (What would you call that exact shade, I wonder: fuchsia? magenta? rani-pink?) Even at that early hour, or perhaps because of it, these flowers would demand attention. 

Look at me, each proud and eternal bloom said. I exist for the sole purpose of beauty. What, as you rush by in your haste, is your purpose? 

The color and audacity of that has lain buried in my memory. What does it mean, to have the same flowers in front of my eyes, so vividly and so much later in life? 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

It lies all around us

I recently visited one of our many 5-star hotels here, and was struck by a thought. On the lobby floor was a huge, elaborate pookalam: a flower arrangement done during the Onam festival. Of course it was gorgeous. The colors of the flowers glowed warmly in the light of the tall brass lamps, the polished marble floors gave off a genteel gleam, and the lobby itself seemed transported somehow back to a more relaxed time.

There were several foreign guests, taken with the sight, who were taking pictures and showing the familiar signs of awe. Hotel employees looked on, indulgently, an almost maternal pride on their faces. 

And there I was. My ungrateful heart couldn't help but wonder if the grace and beatitude would last once these same guests stepped outside. This hotel is indeed a cocoon, presenting the best and the most gentle of our selves to the foreigner. What wrenched at me was the contrast between this cocoon, and the other: the rough and tumble of daily life here, the general failure of politeness or consideration. This difference between the beauty and sophistication of our heritage and the raucous disregard we live in today.

Sigh. I am not India bashing. It's just that the older I get, the more disappointment I feel at this asymmetry. This failure of potential; indeed, not failure, but wastage. And why should I call it potential: we are already a culture of high achievers. (We have ample proof of that.) I long for those times to return, when we applied intellect and self-awareness in all we did; for instance a gesture as simple as namaste is unparalleled in its sophistication and maturity. I see the vanished greatness that lies all around us in ruins, and in the flowers of the elegant pookalam at this cocoon we have such pride in. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Pick your poison

Aid-worker friend has just told me a very funny story about a new store that opened in his neighborhood. "A new store" he gurgled, his voice laden with meaning. Of course it turned out, merely, that this shop stocks meat. However, in a blow which he says is characteristic of daily life here, the meat in question is actually mincemeat that's six months old. Moreover, the shopkeeper insisted- insisted-  that it was manufactured 'in foreign.' The label saying 'produce of India' was clearly just piffle.
Sigh. Poor aid-worker friend. After toiling so hard in this great land of ours for close to a decade, one would think he would be entitled to some goodies in the blessed neighborhood shop. Disconsolate, he wandered over to the soft drinks aisle and spotted ginger ale. Ah! But such is his despondency, he is wondering how old that is. Well, I consoled him, at least ginger ale won't give you salmonella. Or will it? Some new form of ale-borne pest that will fell him and crush his last remaining bits of optimism? 
But, as the beginning of this rather pointless story will tell you, hope still springs eternal in his breast. Better that than salmonella, what?

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

(love, lightning)

is like standing in a field
waiting to be struck by lightning.

It sounds pretty.

It sounds like it
would make a very pretty poem.

But then there is the lightning
and everything is hot and bright
and painful and silent
and there is something
inside of you
pinning you deaf to the ground.

Some people
stand back up

but some people stay there
lying in that field
arms wide
having forgotten why they asked for this
in the first place.
~Lewis Mundt

In honor of our nightly lightning storms here in this neck of the woods. If it were to rain like this everywhere, we would all drown.

Monday, September 09, 2013


let us make this pact: we each think of the other every time we see the clock strike 730. a reasonable, even prosaic time, even if you are on the other side of the world. then let's see what happens. i suspect the clocks will stop.the earth will stop turning, too, for just that instant, then go back as though that collision had never happened. and somewhere, a blue flower that blooms only once in twelve years will bloom out of turn,
but no one will know.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Readings: Troubles

I made the rather embarrassing error of mistaking J.G. Farrell for E.M. Forster, before I picked up this book. Must have been something to do with the double-initial British-sounding venerable author-like name. Consequently, I had somewhat tepid expectations from the novel Troubles...and was proved delightfully wrong.

The hero of Troubles is one Major Brendan Archer, recently released from duty in WWI. Suffering from a lack of real family, he goes to Ireland in 1919 to reunite with his 'fiancee', a girl he once kissed on a summer afternoon and never met again. The girl Angela, hilariously enough, has been writing to him all through his tour of duty, signing off, "your fiancee..."

This gave me enough indication that the book was going to be a good deal more funny than I gave it credit for. And it does deliver on that account. Angela lives in the Hotel Majestic run by her father Edward in rural Ireland; the hotel itself is run-down and now populated by various old ladies and cats, both contingents of whom neither pay nor leave.

And in essence, that is all the plot there is. Which is to say, the good Mr. Farrell is so dashed accomplished, that he can take this idea- a crumbling, once-glorious institution like the Majestic, and chart its decline along with the stories of those who come to live there, one way or another- and make a jolly good show out of it. The descriptions of the Palm Court and first tea-party scene are alone worth the price of admission.

The poor Major does manage to fall for the wrong girl, though, I will say that. The increasingly tense political situation in Ireland is also masterfully depicted. Not that I would know a whit about that, and indeed I was guilty of skimming over parts which dealt with it, but that is my own failing and doesn't take away from the narrative.

In sum, the novel scores highly on characterization, sense of place, and a rollicking yet spare sense of humor. (The episode where old Mrs. Rapapport's cat attacks the pheasant feathers on Miss Staveley's hat is among the most comical I've ever read, very close to Gussie giving away prizes in Market-Snodsbury Grammar School in a Jeeves and Wooster story). Yet, every time there is a funny thing happening, something else immediately happens to sober you up. Brings you back to earth, so to speak.

What I didn't quite understand was who the narrator was at the beginning of the book. Maybe I was daft and should have got it, but never mind. Nothing will deter me from recommending this book enthusiastically...the greatest things going for it are the sense of place- both Ireland and the Majestic-, the characters, especially Edward who is drawn with the most sympathetic strokes (and the twins, unsuitably named Charity and Faith), and the way you will want to follow along with each and every one.

I am going to read Farrell's Siege of Krishnapur next. It's set in our motherland, and I hope it is at least somewhat as funny as Troubles. 
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