Book Review

The Hungry Tide

 Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s “The Hungry Tide” takes us into this mesh of vegetation, animal life, and the ever-present river with Kanal, who has taken leave from a translating job in New Delhi. He meets Piya, an expatriate Indian scientist from the US who believes there is an unusual species of dolphin in the murky waters of the Sundarbans.

In this novel, Ghosh weaves a compelling story by holding a narrative in perfect suspension between the worlds of language and silence. “The Hungry Tide” is like a Conradian expedition and an ideological collision between western assumptions and Indian reality.  The pattern of the novel can occasionally seem erratic, but vigilance is rewarded.

The characters are finely drawn and Ghosh’s innate ability to evoke strange places remains undiminished in this novel too. It reads as a metaphor for the lost ideals that each character in the novel reaches out for but never accomplishes.

The book is much more than a 400-page river trip in search of an obscure marine mammal – it is a search for India’s modern identity.

 

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Book Review

English, August

Upamanyu Chaterjee

First published in 1988, Upamanyu Chaterjee’s “English August” is the story of a young civil servant posted to a fictional rural town in India. Largely regarded as the ‘Indianest’ novel in English, the novel captures the zeitgeist of the 1980’s when India was emerging from economic isolation and ill-conceived socialism.

Chaterjee, a member of the Indian civil service himself, and having travelled across the lengths and breadths of the country, portrays an ‘India’ in his book rarely seen in modern Indian writing. It reveals a detailed insight into the heartland that can result only from personal experience. Graham Greene once remarked, “Without him I could never have known what is like to be Indian.”

There is something quaint about Chaterjee’s descriptions, reminders of a time when a Walkman was still a totem of modernity and the title, “English August” is filled with cultural references.

Today’s India is very different from Chaterjee’s portrayal but the book wears the crown of authencity and Agastya Sen’s (the protagonist) story is moving, entertaining and timeless. One can merit it an accolade that’s far harder to earn then authentic. It’s a classic.

 

The Making of a Fashion Icon – Coco Before Chanel

Audrey Tautou plays the grande dame of Parisian haute couture in ‘Coco Before Chanel’ – a movie based on the life of Gabrielle Coco Chanel before she became a brand – became public property. Directed by Anne Fontaine, the film spans across a period in Coco Chanel’s troubled early life, tracing the genesis of her personal style, and perhaps the DNA of the fashion world itself.

Coco is orphaned at a young age with her sister, Adrienne (Marie Gillain). The movie follows the young girl into a life when she becomes a courtesan and starts performing in double-acts in cafes and bistro bars. She meets a rich gentleman farmer, Balsan (Benoît Poelvoorde), and follows him to his château outside Paris. She makes an attempt to crack into the Paris showbusiness with Balsan’s help.  It turns sour and she starts earning her bread as a dressmaker. While staying at the château, her bemused patron presses his sexual prerogative, but there is something in Chanel which will not let her become anything as banal as a kept woman.

Throughout the movie, Anne Fontaine focusses on Chanel’s instinctive prowess to notice what is amiss with women’s clothes – when they are too uncomfortable, too gaudy, or too absurd at times. She dons a short bob haircut and wears simple clothes that efface womanly curves, which in her eyes are unchic and unacceptable.

With the money and social connections of Balsan, Capel and d’Alençon behind her, Coco starts to slowly establish herself as a designer and revolutionise the fashion industry. And, in so many ways, re-invent the industry.

Conversations slip among velleities and carefully caught whispers and secrets, and as new plots start developing, white flannel trousers are replaced by themes of unrequited love and intrigue. Coco goes through a slump and a depression; she starts pouring her emotions solely into her art. The clean lines of her designs, the black and white colours juxtaposed with elegant high-contrast stitching – embody the underlying themes of the movie. This transitory phase in her life eventually reflects in her clothing – holding pieces of her past.

A tastefully furnished drama, the film is notable for outstanding performances from Tautou and Poelvoorde and their relationship. Tautou exhibits maturity to portray and carry off the big role of a complex personality and gives an excellent performance. Poelvoorde, on the other hand, gives a brilliant supporting turn as Coco’s sponsor and sugar daddy.

Tatou is far prettier in the movie than Chanel, but style does not come naturally to her. What Coco possesses goes beyond grace or physical beauty. The movie is brilliant but in the end, the viewer is left pondering. What is it that is missing in Tautou or what is it that Coco Chanel possesses that makes her such a brand success? Can it ever be bottled? If so, will such a thing smell like Chanel No. 5?

Book Review

The God of Small Things

Arundhati Roy

‘May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst. Dissolute bluebottles hum vacuously in the fruity air. Then they stun themselves against clear windowpanes and die, fatly baffled in the sun.’

It is rare to come across a book which cuts through the lines of caste, religion, and communism – all at once so morally strenuous yet imaginatively so supple. The story in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things” unfolds the lives of people in Kerala who are captives of social discrimination, Communism and the Keralite Syrian Christian way of life.

Roy’s first novel, unlike other predominantly first novels, is an anti-Bildungsroman, for the characters never properly grown up. The author captures the ambitious medication on the fall and decline of an Indian family and makes it a part political fable, part fairy tale, part psychological drama, and it begins at its chronological end.

A masterpiece and a novel of real ambition, the book shows how small things in life can affect a person’s life. The beauty of the book lies in its way of narration – narrated brilliantly from a third person perspective. Roy invents her own language with words chosen enticingly. The book won the Booker Prize in 1997.

 

Lookbook – Whose looking at you this season?

I never doubted the link between fashion and marketing, and while I was transferring responsibility from my line of thinking over a cup of coffee, my thoughts were fixated at the launch of Lookbook – a fashion and lifestyle magazine.

When the magazine came together, I kind of felt that it was like a curator’s handbook at a fashion carnival. As I pored over pictures from the season’s collections, gathered from runways around the world, my thoughts sailed back to the time when I was with my fashion editors trying to bring these pages to life – by combining artistry with humour and fashion with extraordinary storytelling.

We rummaged through pages and pages of fashion kitsch and prevailing awkward trends, including tropical animalistic prints to wacky camouflages, before finally landing a role for the more straightforward, or with a turn of phrase if I be allowed to say, the vintage and classic approach to summer dressing.

We made it a point to approach Lookbook in a different way from the already existent fashion magazines. With a primary focus on engaging what was in it for our consumers personally, we zeroed in on various aspects like the context, the perverse twists, and the narrative.

The creativity of various designers and stylists were ushered in – the need to capture the sheer vigor and chutzpah of youth was a unanimous choice. Of course, there were timeless yearnings and timely style (and we all know that the years can get the better of any clothing: the John Travolta leather jacket and motorcycle boots from Grease you swore you would have forever? Doesn’t work anymore.), and suddenly you have your moment of despair, and swing back to fervent faith in the passivity of the young.

But isn’t there always a perennial drive to express ourselves by any means possible? Or, the desire to come to grips with the prevailing trends relevant to the way you live now? It is a gargantuan task of being in fashion without being fashionable.

In the hours and the minutes that followed, portfolios after portfolios were circulated, and we were spellbound more with fear than awe because of the looming proximity of the launch. There was summer suits – light-weight, softly lined, easy-to-carry and slim fitted. There were sporty separates – windbreakers, sweatshirts – with more focus on technical efficiency and aesthetic simplicity. Then, there were beautiful shirts and exquisitely designed tops, intricately patterned and drenched in multiple hues, that impart a certain elegance. No coats or jackets necessary.

And there we were, all perched on our swivel chairs, delivering our goods in our quietly determined voices; weaving in imagination, art and fashion altogether in a little glass room. Devising smart fashion for the here and there, and quite possibly, for a few years to come – encapsulating into the magazine: the various incarnations of style and trends to galvanize generations and to start a fashion revolution.

When Lookbook hits the high-streets and newsstands, the story will begin.

Fashion And Art

Much has been discussed over the defining point at which fashion becomes art – the co-mingling of these two worlds and if they share a genuine exchange of creativity. Both fashion and art require the translation of ideas from one form into another and they have established well-known collaborations, feeding each other in many ways.

However, the überbranding propelled by PR agencies by overlooking their aesthetic integrity paints a fairly faint picture that commercial aspects alone drive their conceptions, especially fashion. Critics have, in fact, gone to the extent of labeling fashion as a trivial offshoot of capitalism and vanity.

It is true that fashion specifies no medium. It is easier to express ideas in terms of fashion which can be accessible to audiences in a way that contemporary art cannot. Paintings and sculptures are a mirror of changing fashions, but fashion per se is devoid of boundaries and refers to any aesthetic change for its own sake.

Styles of painting or other artworks might evolve in pursuit of form, but the change in styles of coats or skirts are seen merely to entice. The changes are strongly influenced by whatever the subjective eye craves for, with an aesthetic logic of their own.

Not all fashion is art but fashion has been influenced by art over the ages, and it is evident in modern playful illustrations which are a mash-up of pop art, op art, surreal art, and even vintage and classical art.

Fashion designers and labels including YSL, Zara, Levi’s, Tommy Hilfiger etc. put a fresh spin on an artist’s work by combining it with their own imaginative and aesthetic creations. Pop art artists – Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami – have designed the most recognizable bags of all time for Louis Vuitton.

No Art Fair or Fashion Week is complete without an event that involves collaboration between a designer, gallery, museum, and a major fashion brand. The new sponsors for museums are no longer banks and insurance companies, but the who’s who of the fashion industry including Armani, Gucci and Prada.

Not everyone can afford to own an original Picasso, but for much less you can have a bit of the maestro in your wardrobe and wear his art on the streets.

Food Review – TGIF Vasant Kunj

I set out on a balmy winter evening with the sole intention of visiting a good steakhouse in Delhi. Having worked up a gargantuan appetite after watching a re-run of America’s best steakhouses on TLC, I came out looking for the best, and the first steakhouse that came to mind was TGIF.

It was some time before I got there. I had gone to the mall with a friend, and she wanted to shop. All the mall-crawling whetted my appetite even more.

When we finally reached TGIF, we were greeted by a fantabulous deal on Tequila shots flashing at the door. We ignored, and walked straight in, with the settling evening sun and the aroma of steak in the passageways. I couldn’t believe I wasn’t flirting with the idea of a good steak anymore – I was tantalizingly close to gobbling one down.

We preferred a table by the window with a view overlooking the Mandela Marg. The music was good and the sitting area was less crowded. My glance bounced over an old lady busily munching down chicken strips by the dozen, barely managing to take notice of anyone around her. We stepped up to a table and took our place next to a couple caught in an embrace over plates and full cocktail glasses.

I have always been some kind of a beer connoisseur, especially with home-brewed draught beer. It didn’t take long before we were greeted with two mugs of TGIF draught beer. We started our meal with some spicy chicken wings sautéed in a house-special sauce to go along with the beer. The succulent wings looked fiery on a plate accompanied by celery sticks and cheese sauce. I picked one and as I steered it towards my mouth, I was hit by a rush of pungent vinegar aroma. I felt super jittery – I can’t quite say I enjoyed the sensation. I quickly chewed on a celery stick – the freshness and blandness of the celery stick toned down the acute tangy taste. The cheese sauce was equally sour, if not less.

In some time, the much anticipated Tenderloin Asada made its way into our table along with a plate of Spaghetti – the latter, for a moment, looked even more sumptuous and appealing than my steak. My friend loved Italian food and she was pretty adamant on sampling some Italian. I didn’t waste time and dug into my steak with a razor-sharp knife. Usually, tender beef is not served in restaurants around Delhi, so the tad harder and fibrous Buff meat is used as an alternative. The steak was a little stringy, but well-cooked and richly spiced. The only disappointments were the oven roasted potatoes, and the onion and pepper rings which came with the steak. They were soggy and horribly presented on the plate unlike the steak. The onion rings looked like rags and the potatoes were better left untouched. Not quite the potato incarnation I had in mind.

The spaghetti was the catch of the day. Consistently and brilliantly cooked beyond perfection and garnished with the right mix of spices and vegetables, including some lovely skewed cherry tomatoes and mushrooms. Not too much mozzarella, but if it was not cheesy enough for you, you could help yourself to more. The steak was exactly how I wanted it to be – juicy, succulent, well-bodied and evenly grilled, if not barbecued.  It went perfectly well with my beer-aided appetite. I downed the last morsel with the last swig of beer from my mug.

There is nothing sadder than the end of a great meal, knowing what comes next. But my gastronomical tryst with TGIF is far from over. I have my sight on the legendary TGIF Loaded Potato Skins and Spicy Jack Glazed Ribs. That’s for another time.