In The Armchair

Maikalal Jaikishan

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on July 31, 2009


The world is mourning the death of Michael Jackson. It is interesting to think what the man meant to different parts of the world. It became fashionable to scoff at his music, to portray those who listened to it as musically deficient. I say, who cares?

I had a couple of early encounters with Jackson’s music. The first, I think, was when I suddenly developed an interest in “Western music”. Back in 1985 or so, this was some mystical chaotic unmelodious music that the cool kids listened to; it didn’t have melody and the lyrics were impossible to decipher, but it did have a certain peppy spirit. I walked into a store that sold music cassettes and asked for “Western songs”. The first thing the guy pulled out was something called “The Best of Sentimental – Vol. I”. But it was only instrumental music, and I was wary of spending all the money I had on something that experimental. The next thing the guy showed me was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I had no idea what the hell it was, but it looked cool with Jackson in a white jacket on a black background; it was one of the best blind purchases I’ve ever made.

I encountered him again during a jamboree: they played the Thriller music video at night.  It scared the living daylights out of me; I couldn’t sleep for 2 weeks after that.  But still, I knew of every album he released, every new dance step he invented.  Not because I was particularly interested in his music or his dance.  I wasn’t.  But he just had a media presence.  Everything about him got reported.  He represented Western music in a way that no one else has, and I don’t think anyone else will.

We found a way to make Jackson our own; everybody knows that Mai ka lal Jaikishan was actually born in Bihar (or maybe UP) and only became famous in the USA.  For a couple of decades, I’m convinced that in India, Western music was Michael Jackson.  The same way that science fiction was Asimov, the action star was Amitabh Bachchan and photocopying was Xerox.  There just wasn’t anyone else.  (Yes, some people knew a little more about Western music, and are probably appalled that I’m revealing all this Indian ignorance that will rub off on them but unki to aisi-ki-taisi.)  When Jackson cancelled some of his India performances, I think Indians were more bitterly disappointed than anyone else would have been.

If only I could find that cassette!

Pale Blue Dot: Stapledon

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on July 31, 2009

sagan-cosmosThe first time I ever heard of Carl Sagan was on a Sunday midmorning more than 20 years ago.  I was maybe 10 at the time.  We used to watch Star Trek reruns on Doordarshan (the only channel in India back then).  Eagerly filing into a friend’s house to watch Star Trek, we were quite disappointed to hear that the programme had been cancelled and replaced by something called Cosmos.  Still, the name Cosmos sounded promising.  We were even more intrigued when, a few minutes into the programme, we saw the main guy standing in a spaceship.  He began talking.  We kept watching, hoping something would happen.  But it didn’t.  No monsters, no fistfights, no logical pointy-eared aliens.  Nothing exciting at all, in fact.  The man just kept talking interminably about something or other and then the programme ended.  We filed out, disappointed at having wasted a Sunday morning.

That man, of course, was Carl Sagan, who I later found was one of the most thoughtful and inspiring writers and science educators I’ve ever come across.  And that programme was the TV adaptation of his fantastic book, Cosmos.  One example of Sagan’s spectacular ability to evoke wonder and awe in his readers is his famous Pale Blue Dot speech, delivered scant months before his death in December 1996.pale-blue-dot Referring to this photograph of the Earth (the almost invisible pale blue dot at the center of the top ray of light), Sagan said:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Great stuff, but it was anticipated 60 years before by Olaf Stapledon.  Stapledon’s 1937 book Star Maker was recently suggested to me by a friend.  In his book, Stapledon says:Starmaker_firstedition

I perceived that I was on a little round grain of rock and metal, filmed with water and with air, whirling in sunlight and darkness.  And on the skin of that little grain all the swarms of men, generation by generation, had lived in labour and blindness, with intermittent joy and intermittent lucidity of spirit.  And all their history, with its folk-wanderings, its empires, its philosophies, its proud sciences, its social revolutions, its increasing hunger for community, was but a flicker in one day of the lives of stars.

The similarity of thought is striking; Stapledon almost sems to have been looking at the same image (which didn’t exist in 1937, of course). This is perhaps quite a common sentiment, felt and expressed by various writers at various times. I would say that, when contemplating the vastness of space, it is hard not to be awed by the relative insignificance of our world. These two authors express it beautifully.

Racism and Tolkien

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on July 20, 2009

[Images, Top to Bottom: The Silmarillion cover; The Five Races – Dwarf, Human, Elf, Orc, Hobbit; An Oliphaunt; Valinor, the Westernmost land;  Cover of ERB’s Tarzan, Lord of the Jungle. The 2nd and 3rd images are by John Howe. 4th image is by Ted Nasmith.  Last image is by Boris Vallejo.]

Tolkien-Silmarillion Growing up, I was a big fan of some of Tolkien’s works.  I started with the Lord of the Rings, which I had heard a lot of hype about.  I bought the trilogy at Calcutta’s great book fair, which used to be one of the high points of my year: at par with Diwali and other festivals.  Having bought it, I struggled to get through the first book; its pace was too slow for me.  On my second attempt I managed to get through the first book, and then found the next two impossible to put down.  I’ve since read LotR about 5 or 6 times; and I’ve also read The Hobbit and The Silmarillion, and admired the early Tolkien-inspired artists.  These are among my favourite books, evoking a sense of fantasy and romance that the multitudes of more recent pretenders fail to.  Yet, they are not without their faults.

Racial Aspects

Five Races

One negative aspect of Tolkien’s works is the racial division in the books.  Races in Tolkien’s universe seem to have inherent morality.  This morality is often expressed in terms of light and darkness, fairness versus swarthiness.  It isn’t impossible for elves to be evil, but they are overwhelmingly good.  Men are good as long as they throw their lot in with the West, and evil if they choose the East.  The evil men are swarthy, the good men are fair.  Orcs are inherently, irredeemably evil.  Though intelligent, they are not dignified with a personal pronoun such as he or she; an orc is just “it”.  Common notions of justice don’t seem to apply to them: if a “good” person sees an orc he is justified in simply killing it.  In the Silmarillion, the superiority of humans in which Numenorean blood runs true is made quite explicit.  Men of that race (Aragorn was one of them) have longer life, but also have deeper vision and can comprehend things lesser mortals cannot.  They can create wonderful things that less men can’t.  Beyond these, a second look at LotR and The Silmarillion reveals that Tolkien’s works presents fears and prides from Western culture.  A common tragic theme is that of a small (Western) population valiantly but hopelessly battling vast hordes of ravening Easterners. (In the movies, the Oliphaunts – elephants – versus horses battles take this West vs. East rivalry another step further. But this isn’t attributable to Tolkien.)


East vs. West

The East/North vs. West/South aspect of Tolkien’s writings is bothersome and also peculiar.  This goes beyond the story in his book, where of course Mordor lies to the East.  Tolkien’s phrasing implies no dissociation between evil in the East and the East itself.  The sense is that there is something inherently bad about lands that lie East, as if the compass direction is itself imbued with an immanent malevolence.  There is a similar implication for the South (Southrons, for example) though this isn’t fleshed out as much.


Defenses of Tolkien

The question of racism in Tolkien’s works is pretty old.  A search on google turns up several links on this topic; most defend Tolkien. The Wikipedia article on the Lord of the Rings mentions several encyclopedia articles defending Tolkien.  Christine Chism writes (J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, Racism, Charges of):

Critics who accuse Tolkien of racism fall into three camps: those who see him as intentionally racist; those who see him as having passively absorbed the racism or Eurocentrism of his time; and those who, tracing an evolution in his writing, see him becoming aware of a racism/Eurocentrism implicit in his early works and taking care to  counter it in his later ones.

I believe the defenses of Tolkien can also be classified into three categories.  Some say Tolkien was born during a racist time and his works should be seen in that context; he wasn’t especially racist.  Some provide anecdotes from his works where a member of a fair/Western race is evil, and say this proves Tolkien wasn’t racist.  The remaining is a miscellaneous catch-all category, including such peculiar explanations as “Tolkien was a Christian, hence couldn’t have been a racist”.

ERB's Tarzan

I would tend to agree with the first defense, which actually admits the racism.  Other writers of that period have similar attitudes.  (For example, the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan,  would be unpublishable now.  The racist content of ERB’s Tarzan or his Mars and Venus books is explicit and clear.)  While this does implicate Tolkien, his racism was perhaps milder than that of his peers the British, who held a number of juicy and choice racist opinions about Indians. He was certainly less of a racist than Winston Churchill.

The second defense cites examples such as Saruman or the Numenorean kings who turned evil.  Since there exist some members of the “noble races” who are evil, Tolkien’s defenders argue, Tolkien didn’t think the noble races were actually noble.  This defense is silly and is invalid for several reasons.  First, the only “crime” of Saruman and the Nazgul was to side with the East.  As such, their evilness presupposes the goodness of the West.  It’s a cyclical argument. Second, one or two bad apples change nothing.  Tolkien’s construction still attributed much racial nobility to the Western races.

In Lieu of Summary…

So does this mean I won’t read Tolkien’s books again?  Nope, and there’s no bitterness either.  Tolkien remains a great storybuilder.  Before his works, the West had a few mythologies but these were before Europeans came into conflict with the rest of the world.  As a result they are Eurospecific.  Tolkien’s mythology is perhaps the first in the Western world that includes the aspirations and fears of the West that arise from conflict with other, distinctly non-Western cultures.  This might explain why so many Westerners can viscerally identify with it.  For me, it is simply the high fantasy, the detailed mythology and the restrained profundity of the events.

Indian Films, DVDs, Quality and Piracy

Posted in Movies and Entertainment by Armchair Guy on July 18, 2009

FellowshipOfTheRing_posterI got an HDTV set a few months ago.  My first reaction was one of disappointment.  All the ordinary 480i definition channels looked quite bad.  They used to look good on my ancient CRT TV set.  It’s because of the fuzzy nature of the older set as well as the size: the HDTV not only makes the jaggies look bigger, its gridwise pixel layout (as opposed to the CRT’s nearly random phosphor dot coating) makes the errors stand out even more.  I prefer watching hi-def channels now.

When I tried to play a DVD for the first time on this new HDTV, I was a little apprehensive.  How would it look?  As it happens, I needn’t have been overly worried.  The movie I tried was The Fellowship of The Ring.  The LotR trilogy extended editions have exceptionally high picture quality, and what was more, my Blu-Ray player is a PS3 — which does a great job of upscaling the DVD to 1080p.  I could hardly notice any difference between the LotR DVD and hi-def TV (though Blu-Ray disc is, of course, at a completely different level).  I tried a couple of other DVDs and was generally pleased with the quality.

mahabharat All that changed when I popped in a DVD of B. R. Chopra’s Mahabharat, produced in India by Moserbaer.  The first disappointment was that it wasn’t widescreen, but that seemed only natural since it was produced for TV more than 15 years ago.  But once it started playing, I realized that something was horrendously wrong.  The picture quality was about the same as VCDs.  Every still has jaggies and pixelation.  There are two versions of the Mahabharat available (in June 2009): a VCD version, for about Rs. 1200 -1300, and this DVD version for about Rs. 3000.  It is amazing that those who produced the DVDs made such a poor transfer from film.

MissammaThis isn’t my first encounter with incredibly poor DVD quality in Indian films.  I have a very expensive (Rs. 500) DVD of the old Telugu film Missamma which is unwatchable, not because of jaggies or pixelation, but because the original print from which the movie was taken itself seems bad.  At first I assumed this was because the film was old, but that’s not a likely theory.  Films are ordinarily projected onto large cinema screens, which means they must have very high analog “resolution”.  I visited a friend’s house, and he had a pirated version of Missamma.  Amazingly, the quality is much better!!  There are other problems.  Some DVDs will say they have subtitles on the cover, but won’t have subtitles.  (Of course, if they do have subtitles these are a source of much amusement because of the quality of English.)  Many have scratches or encoding defects that make them completely unplayable.

To be fair to Moserbaer, I’ve watched other Indian films on their DVDs which had quite high quality.  I’ve heard that Indian studios deliberately produce low-quality versions of some of their films because the DVDs are invariably pirated.  That piracy occurs is indubitably true: nearly every Telugu movie released is immediately available online for free download in VCD (or better) quality.  With Hindi films this is not quite so common, but you can buy pirated Hindi DVDs for $1 in most Indian grocery stores in the US.  Indian movie producers and directors have lashed out against U.S. audiences in interviews.

piracyIt’s interesting to speculate on the reasons for this piracy.  Most of the downloadable piracy seems targeted at the US.  Here in the US, legal copies of Indian DVDs are hard to come by. They are also priced ridiculously high.  A DVD which costs about Rs. 200 in India may simply be outright unavailable, or available for $15 (about Rs. 750).  And then there are the quality issues: even if you paid the high price, you might be buying a dud or have subtitle issues.  Besides, you have to put up with several minutes of un-skippable advertisements and blurbs on DVDs you paid for!

It seems to me Indian movie producers are missing an opportunity here.  They need to work harder to ensure quality, and make sure legitimate versions are easily available for a good price in the US.  That might be enough to stem piracy.

India After Gandhi and Other Histories of India

Posted in Books and Literature by Armchair Guy on July 11, 2009

Ramachandra Guha

I’m close to being done with Ram Guha’s India After Gandhi.  Again, this isn’t a review of the book (I think the book’s subject matter is actually too complex for a short review to mean much).  I have mixed feelings.  Guha structures his book into two parts: the first 2/3 or so is a chronological history of India from the beginning of Nehru’s tenure up to and including Rajiv Gandhi’s term as prime minister.  This part of the book is a broad canvas, trying to describe all significant events in India in chronological order.  In the second part, the last 1/3, the book discards chronology and describes various specific aspects of India’s history.  Each subsection here deals with a specific topic, and includes various incidents at all times of Indian history relevant to the topic.

The first half of the book is great, consistent and helps understand the Indian story.  The second part is a disappointment so far: it seems haphazard, opinionated, unresearched and internally inconsistent.

For instance, Guha says in the second part that Kargil helped heal the wounds of the 1962 defeat; yet there was the far more significant Indian victory in 1971 against Pak.  On Godhra 2002, he takes some speculative theories and presents them as absolute fact.  His writing displays an admiration for the Congress party and a slightly disdainful approach towards others.  As well, he uses loose language, such as describing C. Rajagopalachari and “sulking in retirement” in Chennai.  Occasionally I got the feeling he was worried about what people would think of him, Guha, if he wrote something.  (Probably a common issue for history writers.)

Guha explains the reason he structured the book this way: events that are very recent are hard to see as part of the whole; some distance in time is required before patterns become visible.  This, I think, is a very valid point, but Guha shouldn’t have rushed to insert his opinions into the second part of the book.  While reading, I zoomed through the first half of the book but the second half is less interesting, less convincing, occasionally jarring, and opinionated withal; I’m finding it a bit of a drag.  It could have been polished a lot more.

There’s another, earlier, book that deals with (roughly) the same period in Indian history: India after Independence, by Bipan Chandra (and co-authors Mridula Mukherjee and Aditya Mukherjee), which came out 2000.  The patterns they see are very similar to those presented by Ram Guha, but Ram Guha’s language is more interesting and has a certain flair compared to the textbook-y Bipan Chandra.

The most striking common opinion between the two books is their approval of Nehru’s terms as prime minister.  On blogs nowadays, and even in books, it is common to see heavy doses of Nehru-bashing on the basis of economic and foreign policy.  Both these books claim that it was Nehru, far more than any one else, who kept India from disintegrating and held off communal and other conflagrations in the early years.  The continued existence of Indian democracy is largely thanks to Nehru.  Ram Guha also makes it quite explicit that, although Nehru was wedded to socialist ideals, by no means did he need to put any pressure on anyone to follow them: the mood of the entire country at that time was largely socialist in terms of economic policy. There is also a feeling that it was Nehru who turned Congress into a family-owned business; both the books clarify that Nehru found any form of nepotism abhorrhent, and that it was Indira Gandhi who was responsible for the about turn.  Science and higher education is owed almost entirely to Nehru, who supported practically every successful Indian institution of tertiary education existing today.  On the topic of the linguistic reorganization of the states, there appears to be some difference of opinion in the two books.  If memory serves correctly, Bipan Chandra gives the impression that it was Nehru who held off the North-Indian Hindi chauvinists, and, by association, allowed the formation of Andhra Pradesh (which later led to demands for other states).  Ram Guha writes that Nehru was heavily opposed to statehood for A.P. and held out until Potti Sriramulu actually fasted to death.  But by and large, either book clarifies why Nehru was so important, and why his influence was overwhelmingly benign.

So, while I didn’t like the second half, I thought the first half was fantastic.  I find myself wishing something like this was available when I was in high school.  There were, I think, some books on the topic written by foreigners.  But most of those authors are anglophiles and fail to understand the nature of Indians and India.  They also often suffer from preconceptions peculiar to the Western mind: for example, that British rule was good for Indians, that the Indian state is constantly on the verge of some kind of massive collapse, and that Pakistan is “preferable” to India because of its religion (which I think is a rationalization of the inability to imagine a country as disorganized as India having a pan-Indian identity).  It is perhaps hard for a Western author to understand the collective Indian consciousness.

I wish more Indian historians would write about India.  Even very specific topics, such as say the doings of the British in the Rayalseema region of A.P., or the confrontations between the Rajput kings and the Mughals, could make very detailed and interesting stories.  I’m sure there are many who would like to understand better how common people and kings lived in those days, set against the backdrop of bigger events.  It’s not clear why there isn’t any “popular scholarship” on any such historical happenings.