Monthly Archives: November 2013

A Novel Without A Hero

I haven’t read the Song of Ice and Fire series, but from people’s descriptions, it appears that a major characteristic of the series is the author’s tendency to kill off any character that the reader might be getting sympathetic with.

If physical deaths were substituted by moral ones, then Vanity Fair could be called a Victorian-era Song of Ice and Fire, and William Makepeace Thackeray* is at least as cruel and relentless to his readers as George R.R Martin. Yes, the “deaths” here are not bloody – they are merely sickening moral defeats – acts of cowardice, stupidity, hypocrisy, and plain old evil that make you cringe and wonder if there is not a single honest person left in the world he is describing – but their effect on the reader is pretty much the same.

“Dear God”, you say, turning to page 400-something. “Please let the cunning, unscrupulous, cruel Becky Sharp’s wickedness be discovered and let her, I don’t know, be sent to burn in Hell or something. Please make Mrs Osborne (nee Sedley) stop being so stupid and start displaying a bit of spirit, the little doormat. PLEASE PLEASE let Captain Dobbin get rewarded for his apparently inextinguishable generosity and kindness and courage. Etc etc”

And of course none of these things happen. Thackeray is writing a ruthlessly realistic novel, not a fairytale like Jane Eyre where people with impossibly perfect characters go through dreadful circumstances and come out of their ordeals stronger, better and wiser, and the heroine gets her hero at the end.  Nah.

Plot-wise, the novel can be summed up in two sentences:

1. When will someone KILL Becky Sharp !!

2. Amelia Sedley, marry Captain Dobbin already ! What on earth is wrong with you ?!

Obviously, there’s more to this 700 page novel than that. The author’s acute observation, sarcasm (alas, some of his references are lost on us, 150 years after the novel was published), wordplay and a faultless writing style make the book almost a light read. (Well, you know what I mean). There are parts that are really funny, and others which will make the most hardened novel-reader weep. But the final message is unrelentingly dark. One and a half centuries before GRRM decided to make wild money out of this theme, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair told us that this is a world without heroes, in which decent people always lose and ‘the wicked flourish like the green bay tree’.


Bay tree.

*Yeah, Thackeray is a British name.


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The Island of Museums

One day, in Germany in the 19th century a bunch of professors got together under the patronage of Frederick Wilhelm IV, King of Prussia in order to discuss a pressing issue. They decided that all those pathetic touristy people running off on their stupid Cook’s tours to Paris and Italy had to be counterbalanced with something more *cultural*.

“Enough is enough!” they thundered. ” We cannot have intelligent people made to gawk forever at ugly Baroque palaces and 14th century architectural ignorance gone wild. We cannot allow people to get bored to tears by typical tourist-isms. We shall have tourism for history nerds, of history nerds, and by history nerds !”

And thus came into existence the Museum Island in Berlin.

I am pretty sure this is not exactly how it happened, but Museum Island today is still a history buff’s delight. I had only 2.5 days in Berlin, and we wanted to see other things too….but if I ever get to go to Berlin again, like ever again, I am so heading from the Central Station directly to the Museuminsel and buying myself a 7 day pass.

So first of all, Museum Island has five (five!) museums sitting placidly right next to each other. We could cpver only two of them, to my lasting regret, but even that was enough to leave me gasping for breath. Clearly, when those smart German profs weren’t inventing the internal combustion engine or writing justifications for invading France under the “Iron Man of Europe”, they were running around to Greece, Turkey, the Middle East, Eastern Europe…and excavating, hypothesizing, and bringing the amazing results of their excavations back to Berlin. And when I say amazing I *mean* amazing. I am going to say that the Museum Insel is probably the most underrated attraction in Europe. Dear Louvre: please take note.

The Neues Museum, which unlike its name suggests is *not* the newest of the museums, was the first one we visited. The building was terribly damaged in WWII and was left rotting and unoccupied till about 1986. It only reopened in 2009.

On many of the walls, you can still see bullet marks. It feels eerie and somehow appropriate.

This museum was set up at a time when Europe was suffering from a major case of nationalism, and so it historically had (and still has) a whole section devoted to German history, or should I say prehistory, because we’re not talking about Martin Luther here, we’re talking about Arminius and the Teutoburg Forest battle, and contemporaneous stuff.


Here is a random pic of a statue of Arminius wearing no pants for some reason. Which is funny because he scared the Romans very much, so they should have been the pant-less ones…

While wandering through this section I came across an exhibit of combs, mirrors and several similar articles.Intrigued by this untypical display, I read the accompanying explanation. What it tried to convey through mangled English was that apparently, the terrifying, scary Goths and Vandals and all the scores of other tribes that harried the Romans had a thing for keeping their hair long and perfectly combed (not to mention done up in a variety of hairstyles that conveyed their status). I scratched my (untidy) head at the incongruous vision of a bunch of marauding Ostrogothic warriors pausing to carefully comb their hair between bouts of sacking cities and killing and looting and enslaving the local populace.But then, anything can happen in a world in which a Mr “Olaf the Flashy” apparently fought valiantly on Harald’s side in 1066.

Also, they apparently had a thing for golden hats. Er. I mean this thing. No idea who in his mushroom-crazed dream decided that this was appropriate priestly wear.


The Golden…uh…Hat. I guess ?


This was, however, the only time the museum’s serious history focus seemed to have taken a turn for the extremely ridiculous. The rest of it was impressive enough – piles and piles of exhibits from Ancient Egypt, a few of them that I just quickly went past, dazed by their sheer quantity.

I did not, however, run past Nefertiti.

Walking into the small room, even the most ignorant tourist does not need to be told who she is. She radiates a perfect, slightly amused calm. The perfect planes of her face make you wonder if she is really 3,300 years old.

Maybe I’m too dense to understand the charm of the Mona Lisa, but Queen Nefertiti has won me over to her camp, missing left eye and all.


From Wikipedia. Cameras weren’t allowed.


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Make way for the presiding deity of this blog !

Mr. Wilde is not impressed with your antics.



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I am too lazy to write a post today, so here is a link roundup of the alarming situation in France :



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Feminism in the Movies. Some Thoughts

My Facebook feed the other day suddenly had a ton of liberal friends sharing a link that said Sweden is trying to incorporate a measure of whether a film has gender bias, through the Bechdel test.

Apart from feeling that movies are an inherently non-feminist medium , I’ve always had reservations about the Bechdel test. I don’t really understand how the presence of two women who talk to each other about something other than a man ties in to feminism. It is worth bearing in mind that the “Bechdel Test” originated in a certain context- Hollywood in the early 1990s, where I suppose even this much would be a lot.

It doesn’t make sense to transplant the Bechdel Test mindlessly elsewhere, in all cultural contexts, and expect it to show up meaningful results. Mechanically applying it to Indian TV, for instance, would result in Ekta Kapoor’s K-serials all passing with flying colors (well, they talk about other women and morality and doing the dishes, so that’s not talking about a man, so it’s fine…) If Byomkesh Bakshi’s Satyavati becomes less feminist than a K-soap heroine then I have nothing further to say. So it will be interesting to see what happens in Sweden.

I much prefer what someone with a lot of time and a good power of observation on the internet has called the Mako Mori test:

The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

(Also, this way, LOTR “passes”, because of Eowyn. Whee.)

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Berlin Ahead

Long before blogs were ever dreamt of, a Chinese gent called Cai Lun managed to invent, or atleast to get the credit for inventing, a rather neat thing called Paper. Since the promise of Wi-fi on German trains turned out to be a dastardly lie, I decided to invoke Mr Cai instead and spend the train ride from Munich to Berlin writing things down the old-fashioned way. People looked at me as though I was a lunatic, but it was worth it.

Random and oft-interrupted notes follow, roughly in sequence…

Munich to Berlin is on paper (heehee) about 7 hours, but when I started writing we had already ground to an unscheduled stop in a giant cabbage field outside Augsburg. (I mean a giant field of cabbages, not a field of giant cabbages). After about ten minutes the train gathered speed and I turned my gaze onto the flat countryside that was speeding past us. It was a very clear day for autumn. The usual green and brown fields carpeted the land for miles around until far in the distance they merged into gentle blue hills.

“Hello ! It’s a day !” the whole place seemed to be saying.

Perhaps it was just because I am no expert on the European countryside, but it appeared to me that autumn had touched the country less than the city of Munich, where, on the previous evening, the setting sun on golden trees had turned the English Garden into some kind of Lothlorien.  (Albeit, a Lothlorien with a group of skinny young surfers performing their surfing stunts on a stream that rushed and tumbled through the middle of it, if you can picture the scene, while an appreciative crowd gawked and yelled and urged each dare-devil on. While walking away from the appreciative crowd we nearly strolled right into the middle of their changing room, which we couldn’t have helped because they were changing literally in the middle of the pavement like a bunch of Nixies, unconcerned about the effect of their Teutonic pulchritude on passers-by. But I digress.)

Munich might be my second most favourite city in the world based on nothing but the love its town councillors evidently bore for enormous lion statuettes and horrifying gargoyles. The latter stared down at us from the Old Rathaus (not a rat-house, that’s the town hall), eyes and mouths distorted by terror, until I began to idly think that back in the Middle Ages there would have been no shortage of models for the artist. For all that 19th century European romanticism tried to put a gloss on the High Middle Ages it was a time of cruelty, incurable sickness and poverty. For some reason the medieval citizenry of a certain large Asian economic power continues to have the unsavoury reputation of being the Most Terrible Medieval Torturers, but Europe was no less advanced in those arts.


A gargoyle, looking as though someone had suspended it from a height and was doing unspeakable things to it.

A group of people were playing Pachelbel’s canon on the square (which square ? Some square). I wonder if all nations go through military wars and economic warfare until they are utterly exhausted. Until the savagery is so much, and so immediate, that even the most belligerent citizens decide that it is quite enough. They then enter a stage where most people have enough to eat, and young men can afford to devote themselves to Shostakovich for a living.

In this season, ivy is a deep, frightening red. A number of pretty little houses appear to have their pretty little walls dashed with blood, until you go close enough and discover an inoffensive little creeper gazing back at you.

“Saale” is not a German abuse, but a rather neat little river that “comes from haunts of coot and hern and makes a sudden sally” through Bavaria and on to Thuringia. We met it at Saalfeld, where it was hardly a river. Besides, at that point, the mountains were closer — and more eye-catching. Yellow-leaved trees, the hardiest of the deciduous plants, were set on the lower slopes, contrasting sharply against the gloomy deep green of the conifers that marched glumly on towards the sky on either side of the train. It was little better than being in a tunnel. A tame version, this, of the wild and haunted pagan woods that Heimdalls’ Wacht sing of in their eldritch voices – by moonlight it would be hard to tell the difference.

Tidy Train

Germany is a country where one senses prosperity –and  orderliness. A sort of pride seems to hover around the place, a pride that whispers We built this all mostly by ourselves, while you were busy patting yourselves on the back. We came through when everyone thought we were finished.

The fervent musician sitting on the seat across me had finally finished tying endless sheets of paper into neat little booklets. He’s been working like a machine, with a sort of frenzied concentration, for the past three hours ever since he got onto the train. After having completed enough booklets to last three orchestras – good grief, is he a musician or a bookbinder’s apprentice ? – he has decided to chat with his plump friend who was sleeping with his mouth open throughout his friends magnum opus (but with his immaculate investment banker level clothing as immaculate as ever. Though I wonder about the investment banker bit. I know of no investment bankers who are BFFs with musicians. Or bookbinder’s assistants.). A lady with two small children – a girl of 5 and a boy of 8 or 9  – requests G and A to create some space for her. You see, we three were the first to climb into the compartment and thus are, of course, spread out like liana across multiple rows and multiple seats in an effort to make ourselves as comfortable as possible.(Editors note:  The seat next to me remained empty throughout the voyage. I suppose kohl-rimmed eyes, unruly loose hair and a forbidding “look” do not a welcoming countenance make. I had a bad moment when a man with a huge Rottweiler entered our compartment and started looking around for space but he thankfully decided to go elsewhere)

The lady decides to talk to us and soon we are chatting with her about what we’re going to see in Berlin. It seems there’s a Museum Island with some pretty insane stuff, so must check that out. (Between G’s desire to do the touristy things, A’s desire to do the dark, Cold-War-era and Nazi-era things and my desire to do all the medieval monuments and ancient history museums, we seem to be straining at the leash in three different directions. However, since we are all female and hyperrational, we shall work something out, I am sure). Turns out the lady is a teacher of English and French. She’s been teaching her kids English and French at home.

“What is your name?” the little girl asks me.

I grin and answer her. The boy is shyer than the girl. He is evidently at the awkward age when little boys hate all females in their vicinity and wish they were back at school playing football with their friends instead of being forced to take part in social interactions.

We get up and say good-bye to the little family. The station is just a minute away.


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Obligatory Food Post


I resisted the urge to post this for a VERY long time. Then I ate it. This is a plain and simple potato curry (“Alur jhol” in Bengali) Yay ! I can cook !


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They can’t stop the Spring.

To my eyes, accustomed to the flat, well-tended plains of France and Austria, the Czech countryside was shockingly dramatic. I was told later that it was ridiculously tame compared to the wilds of Romania, but at the time I had nothing to compare it with and the slightly unkempt look of the  farms – and more often, the woods – that our České Dráhy train lumbered through was exciting.

Praha was slightly disappointing after that. An acquaintance we’d met on the train – she lived in the city – had lowered our expectations considerably by looking rather dubious when we’d said we were going to spend two days in her hometown. “Well…I think if you have been to the Castle and the Charles Bridge, you can say you have visited most of the things in Prague”, she said in her cultured, soft voice. (Carrying the most common type of cellphone charger in the world is sometimes a great and unexpected way to make new friends).

Of course, the Old Town was beautifully preserved, with the rather elaborate Astronomical Clock drawing crowds of visitors so thick that for the first time in Europe I began to feel a place was crowded. The river was pretty too (though we visited “the” Bridge on a Saturday night when there was barely place to stand) but it made me wonder if it wasn’t the fall that was responsible for much of the city’s charm.

The Church in The Castle

St Vitus Cathedral was certainly built to intimidate and not to charm, with its blackened walls inspiring awe rather than devotion. An interesting thing about most Gothic cathedrals is that typically the lintel on top of the main (western) door is decorated with a terrifying carving of the last judgement. Christ sits in rather unbending majesty in the centre, with the souls of the good (usually depicted in an attitude of prayer) on his right side. (Why is the right side always the “right” side?) But on his left, devils prod the souls of the sinful (who are also naked, for some reason) into a successionof ghastly tortures. This was supposed to warn the faithful of the dangers of becoming unfaithful (and of not attending church regularly and donating the tithe, presumably).  On the façade of St Vitus Cathedral, this theme returned but with a twist: instead of being carved or painted the Last Judgement was a huge mosaic. The brilliant tiles reminded one of the Eastern Roman Empire. We weren’t in France or Britain anymore, clearly.

Nearly everything of historical interest in Prague seems to be named after a chap called Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor, under whom the Kingdom of Bohemia rose to its peaks in the 14th century. He seems to have had a mania for naming things after himself – Karluv Most (the Charles Bridge), Charles Square, Charles University, Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad) ..unless his successors were silly enough to believe that flattering a dead king would help them any. Of course, they might have been like our modern Indian politicians who believe that putting MG in front of any random-ass program will turn it into a success. PR, you know.

South France snobs, take note: Apparently Montecarlo was founded by this same gentleman.

Charles IV.

Charles IV.

Burning Men

The more poignant part of the city lies elsewhere, in the middle of what is today Prague’s poshest shopping street. Long before the Arab Spring, the Czechoslovak government of Alexander Dubček tried to liberalize the country a bit. In what was known as the Prague Spring, he decided to ease censorship and introduce elements of a market economy.  The story after this becomes predictable: the Soviet high command didn’t like it very much and expressed their disapproval not-so-subtly by invading the country and removing the irritating Mr Dubcek. Everything went back to “normal” (I mean 1960s communist-regime-normal). The revolution that gave us the term “Spring” to mean liberalization of politics was shut down almost as soon as it had started.

(Coincidentally, May 1968 was the summer of student protests in France as well. The student and worker protests were so widespread that they prompted De Gaulle to leave France at some point.  For a certain generation of French people, “1968” is a watershed year – our French professor of banking once said with a twinkle in his eye, “I too was there, in 1968, in Paris!”)

The revolution was over, but the Czech people were too used to occupation and resistance through their history to be mentally cowed for long.  On a cold January morning, a thoughtful 21-year old with brooding good looks and a mind tormented by what seemed like the country’s hopeless future cut his classes at Charles University. Instead he went to Wenceslas Square, a huge central location in Prague where high-end shops jostle for space today, and before anyone could stop him, set himself on fire in protest at the occupation.

His name was Jan Palach and he was 21.

A month later, another “Jan” – Jan Zajíc – did the same thing, at nearly the same place.

One does not know what effect these extreme actions had on the liberalization of Czechoslovakia per se. Clearly, it had to wait twenty years before the Communist regime finally weakened its grasp.  But symbols always have a significance of their own beyond their immediate impact, and I suspect that to the Czech people these two men – and others who committed individual acts of protest – are as powerful  as the images of Bhagat Singh and Khudiram Bose might be to us.


November 6, 2013 · 11:03 am

Assume a can opener…

Without which ye shall be lost and forced to eat only rice and dal ki khichdi, instead of the sausages ye deeply wanted.

This is surely the fault of the Macroeconomics class I attended today.

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Hello World !

I tried to think of a nicer name for my first post, but somehow the pseud-comp-science engineer inside of me won the day. Here we are then. 

On the persistent request of my esteemed friend SP, I have renounced, relinquished and laid down my previous existence in the blogosphere, only to take up what (I hope) shall be a more interesting one. The previous avatar of this blog was located at a rather doddering blogging portal and you can still find it here in all its maudlin, poetry-drenched glory :

However if you have, like me, discovered the importance of being not-so-earnest, I advise you to join me on my Clean Break with bad poetry, “randomness” (this word has to be mentioned at least once in a blog’s life, otherwise the blog is clearly un-Indian and deserves to be condemned –  along with chowmein, jeans and other such horrors — by wise men from a pulpit) and the slightly soiled remnants of yesterday’s teenage angst. I abjure utterly my past writings !

HAHA I am just joking. All the content is going to be continued from my previous blog, I’m not magically changing my writing style, and no, I haven’t had a WordPress Revelation moment. Same wine in a new and more jazzy bottle. 


Eppur si muove.

— Galileo Galilei




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