Saturday, April 29, 2006

The blind swordsman

Readers of this blog will know that I am fascinated by Japanese cinema. But that’s only partly true, since a majority of my love for Japanese cinema comes from admiring Akira Kurosawa’s consistent cinematic brilliance, Toshiro Mifune’s fantastic screen charisma, and the wonders of Japanese anime, especially the creations of Hayao Miyazaki. But there certainly is more to Japanese cinema than just that.

There’s also a fascinating world of amazingly entertaining B-grade films that fit either the “period/Samurai” genre, or the improbably (and almost C-grade) Sci-Fi genre, particularly with monsters walking out of the sea to destroy Tokyo (Godzilla, anyone?). One of the all time most popular series of films, that would define “Easterns” (as opposed to Westerns) was Zatoichi, the story of the blind swordsman.

Though this series of films were ragingly popular in the sixties, seventies and eighties in Japan, I’d hardly heard of them, but then Netflix decided to educate me. Being a regular borrower of Japanese films, my recommendations always had a range of Japanese film suggestions. And some time back, one of the recommendations suggested one of the Zatoichi movies. I was intrigued, watched it, and became hooked.

What’s it all about, you ask? The plot of all the two dozen odd movies (I’ve seen only about ten of them, but I guess that’s a decent sample size) is practically identical. It is the saga of a blind man, Ichi, in Medieval feudal Japan (the Edo period). Unlike the legendary Kurosawa creation, Yojimbo, Ichi is not a Samurai or a Ronin (a masterless Samurai). He’s just a masseur, of the lowest rank for the blind (yes, even the blind masseurs had ranks). He is a Zato, and hence his name, Zatoichi. And in every movie, he wanders in to some town, which is either being (a) oppressed by a ruthless and greedy feudal lord or (b) the people are being manipulated by a shrewd and violent merchant or (c) is being run down by the Yakuza (Japanese organized gangs) or (d) Zatoichi is himself an outlaw and is on the “run”. And Shintaro Katsu, who charmed audiences without the swagger of a Mifune, almost always played the role of Zatoichi.

Though blind, Zatoichi had the ears and reflexes of a panther. And he carries a cane, with a hidden secret. It holds a fine sword, which he wields with ferocity. Though cane swords were traditionally no match for good Samurai swords, we learn that his cane sword was actually crafted by a master sword craftsman. You can see easily, this is a cinematic goldmine. There are just endless possibilities for Zatoichi movie makers to come up with ingenious situations to trap Zatoichi, and then figure out even more ingenious ways of getting him to escape, and vanquishing his opponents. Take for example one of my favorite scenes. Ichi is running on a small log bridge, and a plank slips, and he falls in to the swamp. But it’s not just a swamp, it’s quicksand. What can a blind man do in quicksand? Well, here’s what he does. He holds the cane in his mouth to free his two hands, and then manages to loosen the chord that holds his robe. He then draws the sword, ties the chord to it, and hurls the sword. Obviously, it goes and sticks to a tree. And he starts pulling himself slowly towards the shore. But it’s not over yet. As I bite my nails in excitement, the sword is pulled out of the tree, and he’s back to being stuck in the swamp. Then he throws the sword again, and this time it wedges against two poles (or two rocks or something), and as he draws himself out slowly, you think he’s safe. But no, the chord slides down the handle of the sword, and the blade rips it. And as he falls, you think all is lost, when the rope is grabbed by this girl (who has a soft corner for Ichi), and he is saved! Talk about excitement. Or the standard dice games, where Zatoichi always wins, because he can hear the dice roll! And the standard brawl that will follow after that.

And then, there are the more than ingenious fight scenes. How many different ways can a blind swordsman fight? As he slashes and whirls furiously, and opponents fall down like ninepins, there are always little scenes that amaze even my fertile imagination. Like when he’s locked in to a rice storehouse by the henchmen of a lord. They slowly open the door and charge in, to only find that he’s disappeared! Then they hear his voice, and half a dozen large sacks of rice fall down. Aha! So, he’s inside one of the sacks! They walk up from one bag to the next, stabbing them with their swords. All of them just have rice. Finally they reach the last one. As the peer closer, a whirling blade rips through it, Ichi arises, and hacks down all of them, (with blood spraying around like fountains).

Throw in to this mix some “sentiment”, just like a good ol’ Tamil movie. There’ll be a long lost friend that Ichi finds, or a sister, or some struggling but kind hearted peasants, or some bandits with hearts of gold, who help Ichi.

Awesome, or what?

How can one resist heady “Easterns” such as these? Zatoichi rules.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Reach of the Wiki

Wikipedia, many of us agree, is a marvelous resource. And no less than the prestigious journal Nature did a study, and found that the Wiki is about as accurate as the Encyclopedia Brittanica. A visit to the Wikipedia has almost become a daily affair for me. But that’s not the main point of this post.

I think the Wiki also provides a very good and real estimate of a number of socio-economic indicators (in this case for India). There’s been too much media talk and hype about IT revolutions in India, and greater nation wide penetration of the internet. So much so that some of us even have started believing the hype. The Wiki turns out to be a very good indicator of how true that is.

The Wiki after all is the ultimate internet tool. It provides information, and is created and maintained by all users. So, the more aware a society is of the internet and it’s power, the more it’s likely to use the Wiki. So, I just decided to take a look at the language wise breakdown in the Wiki. The order of representation of Indian languages (when compared to each other) hardly surprised me, but something else did.

The most represented Indian languages were Telugu, Tamil and Kannada (see the screen capture). This is not that surprising, since they are the most “IT enabled” states in the country. But it’s the sheer number (or lack of) entries that caught my attention. Only Telugu, a language spoken by around 70 million people, had more than 3000 entries. It was ranked 64 in terms of number of entries, with a similar number of entries as Irish-Gaelic, Kurdish, and Latvian. Tamil has around 2500 entries and Kannada has about 1500. Hindi, India’s most widely spoken language (with an estimated 400 million native speakers, and perhaps a couple of hundred more non-native speakers) has only around 1200 entries in total. Other major Indian languages, (Bengali, Punjabi, Marathi, Gujerati, Kashmiri) have only a few hundred entries at most. In contrast, Russian and Chinese have over 50000 entries, and Indonesian or Malay have well over 10000 entries each. So, the general situation in India becomes clearer (and I think it’s very reflective) without having to go in to expensive or inaccurate surveys.

To me, given that the majority of the population speaks one or the other Indian language, this says a few things:
1) Even if internet penetration has increased (with reports of over 10% of the population at least having access to the internet through net cafes etc), understanding of the power of the internet remains minimal.
2) The concept of the internet as an “enabling tool” is yet to catch on.
3) The internet in India not widely used as an information gathering, sharing and educational resource.
4) The internet is either not reaching the masses (who are most fluent in their native language), and/or all internet/computer education in India is only in English.

Which means that (a) there is a large untapped market and fantastic economic opportunity for someone to go in there, and create IT enabled learning in vernacular languages. It is not as if all Indian language speakers are poor. In fact, a majority of the population (even in cities) is most comfortable in Indian languages, and Indian language newspapers outsell the nearest English rival by a few fold. (b) If tapped, there’s a great deal of creative energy here that’s waiting to be released. The extended question would be, if one were to start exploring educating people to use computers and the internet in Indian languages, where would one start? Would it be in an area with some infrastructure and awareness (eg. Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka) or in a completely untapped and unexplored region (eg. most of North India).

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Old wine, old bottle, new stopper

The little cork stopper that plugs your favorite wine bottle is intimately associated with it. Some of us even have our favorite wine corks, or have a little cork collection graffiti on the wall, or even use them for growing orchids! Cork is a supremely versatile material that’s nice and elastic, and also almost completely impermeable, so it’s perfect for wine bottle stoppers.

Somewhere during a class I was taking, a rather interesting (and informal) discussion on pricing wines for a market came up. And the discussion here was based on wines with plastic or cork stoppers.

Sacrilege! You scream. Only cheap wines have plastic stoppers. Any real wine worth it’s price has a nice cork stopper.

And then you’ll justify it by saying “wine with a plastic stopper doesn’t taste right”.

But then, is that because the plastic stopper spoils the wine, or is it because of what we, the “market” are ready for? Could other economic lobbies be influencing this as well?

What are cork’s advantages or disadvantages? It’s very environmentally friendly to use cork (the same trees are harvested of their bark once every ten years). The cork looks rather nice on the bottle. It is elastic and waterproof, and fire resistant as well. Wine making has become used to the cork, and so the wines made account for it, and mature well with cork stoppers. But its major disadvantages are that its supply is inelastic (trees can only be harvested once every ten years), a crop failure would cause havoc for cork (and the wine industry) for the next decade, some cork (especially the cheaper ones) can cause cork taint in the wines (ruining the smell). Also, almost all the world’s cork grows in Portugal and Spain (which make decent but not spectacular wines) while the best wines are made in France, Italy, America (California and Washington), Chile, Australia and South Africa.

So clearly, there’s plenty of economic incentive to make wine bottle stoppers out of plastic or some other synthetic material. And obviously, this has been thought of by plenty of people other than me, because a good number of wines now come with a plastic stopper.

But, in the States, and Europe as well (the world’s major wine consuming regions), plastic (or other synthetic) stoppers are associated with cheap wines.

So (and this is just to see what people think), would you buy wine with a plastic stopper? What if the winemaker decides to launch a premium wine with a plastic stopper, and price it more than it’s nearest competitor, to make it sound and feel special. Would that work? How about a separate range of synthetic stoppers for premium wines, as opposed to the cheap wines? Will that work?

As for me, I still like the cork wine stoppers. There’s a nice feel good factor associated with it.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Passover humor

Wish you all a (belated) happy Tamizh new year, Vishu, Easter, passover, or what ever else your preference is. Normally, this blog doesn't rehash jokes, but I was at a friend's passover Seder this weekend, and there heard a rather good Jewish Bush joke, which I found hillarious. So here goes,

George W was at an airport, when suddenly he sees Moses standing in line. So W walks up to Moses and says,

"Hey, aren't you Moses?"

Moses stays silent, ignoring W.

So, Bush tries again. "Hello, aren't you Moses? What's up?"

Moses still remains silent.

W's now seething in anger, and confronts Moses. "Hey, I'm the president. Aren't you Moses? Why don't you say anything to me?"

Moses turns towards W exhasperated, and reluctantly replies, "the last time a bush talked to me, I had to cross the Red Sea and walk across the desert for 40 years!"

(Apologies if the joke isn't obvious. It requires some knowledge of the old testament.

Also, happy (belated) anniversary to Balancinglife.)

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The day I saw Rajkumar

Growing up in Bangalore (especially during the early and mid eighties) meant that there were a few things one took for granted. Great weather even in summer, very long lunch breaks when all stores would be closed, peaceful avenues to walk in, high pollen levels and mild asthma, pleasant conversation starting with “coffee (kapi)/oota aitha”, and the omniscient presence of Rajkumar.

Rajkumar was truly more than a mortal. He was Karnataka’s greatest pride. Kannada cinema was doing quite well at box offices then, and compared well with cinema from neighboring Andhra or Tamil Nadu. But both those other regions had “two” superstars each, one a popular crowd pleaser, the other an actor in search of perfection. The Telugu masses flocked to N. T. Rama Rao’s movies, worshipping him as Rama or Krishna (depending on his last screen role), while reserving their admiration for Akkineni Nageshwar Rao’s acting skills. Tamil masses adored their savior, M. G. Ramachandran, while being mesmerized by Shivaji Ganesan’s histrionics. But only Kannada cinema had Rajkumar, the complete package, and crowd puller cum actor. When he was on screen, mothers and grandmothers would cry when he did, and men would wish they were as brave, honorable and valiant as he was on screen.

It was hard to resist this heady mix.

Especially when television was still at its infancy in India. Cable TV was a distant dream. Heck, even a second channel on Doordarshan didn’t exist. Entertainment was the Kannada movie on Saturday evenings, cartoons on Sunday morning, and the Hindi movie on Sunday evening. Which meant that one third of my early television entertainment was Kannada cinema (not really, since I watched way more Tamil and English movies on video, but I’ll stick to that claim here), and one third of all Kannada movies shown had Rajkumar as hero. Practically a sixth of all my early television entertainment was dominated by the man himself, and I would wait with baited breath for his confrontation scenes with Vajramuni, villain par excellence. Other actors in Kannada cinema (Vishnuvardhan, Anant Nag, Ambareesh) weren’t close to the throne. They weren’t even in sighting distance of the throne. That belonged to only one person. Rajkumar.

The man was also gifted with a reasonably good voice (no, it wasn’t spectacular), so Kannada record companies turned around their sagging fortunes by churning out devotional songs sung by Dr. R. That meant that every bus in the state, as well as an assortment of households, temples, meeting halls and any thing else played his songs every morning (and often during afternoons and evenings also). With such power, it was hardly a surprise that Rajkumar was omniscient. He wasn’t a person, he was a complete economy. There was little wonder then that I was seduced by his power. No one else in the state could hold a matchstick to Rajkumar.

And to top it all, he didn’t contest elections or try to influence them. He didn’t make demands or statements on TV or newspapers. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy, leading a peaceful, normal life as best he could. In fact, it was almost unanimously agreed that his only real sin was to allow his sons to become actors. Shivarajkumar an actor?……maaaaaaybe. But those other two creatures?

And so life went on, and I continued to consume masala dosas, bise belle and khara bath, and grow in to my teens. An entire lifetime had passed, but I had still never actually seen the man. How could he possibly be everywhere, and yet I had never seen him? There had to be something wrong.

And then, one day, my quest came to an end. I was making my way back home from Malleshwaram. As the auto neared Natraj theater, suddenly traffic came to a standstill (ok, you laugh now, but it was a rarity in the early-mid nineties). The auto driver got all excited, and showed little interest in proceeding forward, as apparently did any one else. The crowd appeared restive, and a little too boisterous for my liking. It was the 100th day celebration of “Akasmika” (which means “by chance”). The hoardings and cutouts around the cinema appeared larger today, and were decorated with garlands. Loud-speakers blared hit songs from the movie. A few thousand people clogged the streets. There was a small pedestal visible at the entrance to the theater. On it were a couple of people. Then a third got on to it, a lean, balding gentleman who appeared to be in his sixties, but looked quite fit for that, appeared vaguely familiar to me.

And then my auto driver yelled “Annavaru bandru”, and got out of the auto, leaving me behind.

It was the man himself, standing on a pedestal, waving gently at the crowd.

I saw Rajkumar.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Book review: The passion of Mary Magdalen

“My name,” I said one more time, “is Maeve Rhuad…….I am the daughter of the warrior witches of Tirna mBan, daughters of the Cailleach, daughter of the goddess Bride…”

And so it begins, one of the most remarkable adventures I’ve read in recent times. I started reading Elizabeth Cunningham’s The passion of Mary Magdalen with a little bit of caution. After all, Mary Magdalen was a hot commodity, especially after The Da Vinci code. I half expected another pulp-thriller that wove between religious imagery and wild fiction. I ended up being only half right. The passion turns out to be full of religious imagery and wild fiction, but turns out to be a rollicking entertainer with a most remarkable story and wonderful style.

The second most famous woman of Christianity in this story is a wild, beautiful, red-haired Celt. She’s the daughter of warrior-witches, from distant Celtic isles, foster-daughter to a great Celtic king, and trained in the lore and wisdom of druids. The book though starts off in a Roman slave market, in the city that all roads led to. Here we meet our protagonist, in the story being narrated by her. She’s bought by a brothel madam, the greatest domina in Rome, and from then on, the adventure never stops. Maeve first becomes a reluctant whore, and then goes on to become the most coveted prostitute in Rome. We are drawn in to an ancient world of decadence and splendor, and squalor and misery. To a republic where there are perhaps more slaves than citizens, yet all slaves are not the same, and all slaves certainly were not unhappy. Maeve makes friends at the unlikeliest places and forms a deep bond with her fellow prostitutes.

Yet, deep down, she is constantly reminded of her lover, who came to her in the Celtic isles. He is Esus to her, though he called himself Yeshua. And the strangest of events separated her from him. And she constantly has the same dream, a dream of the great Egyptian goddess, Isis, the goddess of all life and fertility, and her quest on a boat for her divine but separated lover, Osiris. Maeve escapes, only to encounter the priestesses of Isis, who see in her a connection to the goddess. And then, from whorehouse, she becomes slave to a Roman mistress, the endearing and slutty Paulina, a woman of much beauty, but deeper sadness.

Cunningham delves deeply in to the lives, miseries, stratagems, intrigue and complexity of slave life in Rome, even as Maeve continues her adventures. From whore-slave, she also becomes a priestess of Isis. There’s even a remarkable encounter with Rome’s vestal virgins. And they all, including Maeve’s friend and admirer, Joseph of Arimathea, journey on to the holy land, and Jerusalem, fleeing from Rome. There, Maeve establishes a “divine” whorehouse, a temple of Isis (the Temple Magdala), where she is priestess, whore, and healer, welcoming every person in as if he were divine.

Amidst all this we also meet the other Mary, the most important woman in Christianity. She’s a rather likeable but completely dotty character. And she decides to give Maeve the name Mary of Magdalen. And then there’s yet another Mary, of Bethany, who (in this book) is a Jewish scholar, who was supposed to marry our (largely absent) hero, Jesus, but doesn’t. Jesus himself makes a physical appearance only late in to the second half of the book. Till then, he’s with the readers only as a part of Maeve’s dream and memories, even while Maeve searches for him in the desert, amusing and annoying the populace (including John “the dipper” Baptist) to no end. Finally, she finds him, or rather, he finds her. And she heals him back to life.

And Jesus turns out to be a character only almost as strong-willed, and perhaps a little less charismatic. After all, here he’s still unsure if he’s the son of god, while Maeve has the deeper sight, and is intimately bonded with Isis. Their union is passionate (none of that “Maeve was touched (asexually) by Christ” stuff here), stormy and wonderfully drawn out. They fight and make up, and understand each other; while Jesus’ other disciples bumble around, taking everything Jesus says literally.

There are famous stories from the bible and the gospels here. The one about Jesus walking on water, or feeding a crowd, or making water at a wedding turn in to wine (of course, by now you must have guessed whose wedding it is in this story), all those good stories. Except that they are all quite different here, and superbly written. Even the miracles Jesus performs have more to them than meets the eye. And the “lost years” of Jesus are for any one to imagine, so Elizabeth Cunningham does just that, and does a good job of it.

There are a few stylistic elements in this book, like Maeve’s narration suddenly drawing modern allusions, which startle you at first, but then grow on you. After all, Maeve isn’t a woman of that time, but is just a woman, for all time. Elizabeth Cunningham’s Maeve also has a wonderful sense of humor, which shows up just when you’re being bogged down by a touch of excessive sentimentality. If you’re squeamish about sex, sexuality, gays or lesbians, or blunt passion, you can give this book a miss. If you’re tied to the bible and the (four) gospels as the literal truth, you might cry blasphemy.

But this is a thoroughly wonderful book (my only complaint being that it is a tad longer than it should have been). Elizabeth Cunningham’s Maeve might even draw plenty of controversy. But then, if you’re offended, you’ll miss the beauty of this book completely. It’s hard not to constantly admire and love Maeve’s spirit, stubbornness, love, temper, loyalty, wit, and passion.

It’s not the love of Mary Magdalen, or the devotion of Mary Magdalen, but the Passion of Mary Magdalen. And that’s the only title that would fit.

“Stereotypes are flat, one-dimensional, like the donkey you blindly pin the tail on. Archetypes are rich, lush, juicy………….you can’t keep a good archetype down.”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Eating out desi, in style

Ever been bored of the same types of stuffy, lackluster Indian restaurants that dot towns and cities across the States? All of them seem to work according to a single plan. Quantity and not quality. Low cost all you can eat buffets. Drab d├ęcor, with tacky paintings that you could buy in Pondy bazaar (T. Nagar) or a similar place for a 100 rupees. Three types of gravy, yellow, red or green for ALL dishes. And the names would be some combination of “Taj Mahal” or India Palace/garden/house/mansion, or spice rack/bowl/world, with the odd variation of Bombay palace, or Madras house or Delhi pavilion. And with that would end the creativity and yearning for superior quality.

I had often wondered where all those Indian food-entrepreneurs were. After all, there are some superb restaurants in Mumbai or Bangalore or Delhi or Chennai or any other Indian city, that serve Indian food (specific to a region, or just a blend) with style. Why didn’t they make it across the pond and set shop here in the states? And where were the Indian restaurants that were really reaching out to a greater clientele, the many Americans who loved to try good food, and who would spend to get good food, service and ambiance. Geoffery Moore might just call this “Crossing the chasm”.

My quest though was finally fulfilled a few days back, and unsurprisingly, it was California’s Bay area that fulfilled my quest.

My generous cousins decided to take me out to dine in style, and took me to a place called Amber.

The choice of name itself hinted at much thought behind the restaurant. After all, it means sky in Hindi, and is also the name of a beautiful color in English. Perfect for both crowds.

It is located in the former strip-mall now ultra-chic Santana Row in the South Bay area, and even as we entered it, I knew I was at a place that had put in a lot of thought and effort and wanted to make it.

The place is very stylishly designed, with a very modern feel to it. You enter to actually face a small front desk, with a very professional couple (who appear to be the owners and managers) greeting you, and taking your name and group size. The lighting is mellow, but not shabby or too dark. The paintings on the walls fit perfectly with the modern look. They looked very Indian (like M.F. Hussain’s paintings do), AND fit in to the surroundings. The ceiling was rather innovatively done too, black with little twinkling lights doing a good imitation of stars in the sky, and a little translated phrase from the Bhagvad gita adorning the rim. The place was very, very crowded, and so we had to wait. And there was a little waiting lounge with comfortable couches, pretty flowers and some magazines to read. You actually could get comfortable during the five-minute wait (I watched a comet streak across the starry ceiling). Though it is obviously moderately upscale, it retains a relatively laid back atmosphere, and (like any Indian restaurant), there is plenty of pleasant conversation being exchanged at the tables. There is no hint of formality or excessive reserve.

This is one of the few Indian restaurants I’ve been to that actually had a well equipped bar, with a professional bartender tending it. The waiters who waited at the tables seemed to be trained to do their jobs, and were rather smartly turned out. There was neither the overzealous water-filling seen in too many Indian restaurants here, nor was there the marked indifference often seen in many others. The restaurant management has clearly put in a lot of work to make the place just right for people used to certain standards of service, and who are willing to pay for it. And this is the only Indian restaurant I’ve visited in the States that has a real and substantial wine list, from good quality mid-range New and Old world wines, to the premium wines, that are priced in the hundreds of dollars a bottle. Don’t ask me about them though, since those wines elude me even in my rather extravagant dreams.

But then, to repeat an old phrase, the proof of the kebab is in the eating. And the food here doesn’t fail you. It is, to put it simply, outstanding. The food is prepared by trained chefs, who would have fit well in a Taj or Oberoi. The menu is relatively simple, but sufficient. Most of the dishes are fare associated with North-West Indian cooking, with plenty of tandoori dishes. We opted for a kalaunji baingan (an eggplant dish), a dry tandoori pakora like dish made out of makki (corn) and peppers (makai motia seekh), and a simple lahsooni palak, along with some paneer kulchas and naan. The food arrived in immaculately presented serving dishes, and was sumptuous. There was no holding back of the spices, but it was cooked to perfection, and each spice blended with the other, to create three very unique dishes (yes, each dish actually tasted substantially different). Though the hot peppers in the makki dish made tears roll down my eyes (and I’m very tolerant to spice, having developed a taste for this through innumerable green pepper bajjis from the streets of Southern Indian cities), I couldn’t resist continuing to eat it.

The true winners though were the desserts. Here, they’ve achieved what few restaurants have achieved anywhere. They’ve actually managed to perfectly blend Indian and Western desserts. I had a dark-chocolate mousse rasmalai, and it was wonderful. There was a perfectly respectable rasmalai (without the loads of ras it usually swims in), sandwiched by an excellent chocolate mousse, and with a dash of raspberry syrup decorating it. It was indeed a potent yet superb combination. The kulfi was rich and creamy, and had figs and honey in its core, and was surrounded by some mango pulp. The gajar halwa pie too did desserts proud. The desserts somehow retained an Indian feel, though appeared very western.

Sometimes restaurants try to be too ambitious. They strive for tradition and modernity, convention and risk. Amber has just the right blend of all of this, and actually manages to pull it off well.

If I’m in the Bay area again, and any of you decide to invite me out for dinner, I’ll gladly be taken to Amber for dinner.