Friday, November 13, 2015

Why Everyone Should Try Quizzing

“Quizzing?! That’s not for me. My GK is very poor”
“Who really remembers what year the battle of Waterloo was fought in or what the capital of Romania is?”

I have been quizzing for over twenty years and been goading people for as long to participate in quizzes. It has been one of the great passions of my life and I have always made it a point to preach the good word of the activity to all and sundry. There are always going to be good quizzers. There are always going to be great quizzers. Many choose not to quiz at all because (a) they think they’ll never win and (b) they think this is an obscure activity to be pursued by geeks. That is a pity because when you do that, all you are doing is limiting your ability to participate in a great activity to build mental muscle and enjoy the thrill of solving a puzzle or two. Yes, you heard me right. Quizzing is nothing but solving puzzles.

The formula is pretty simple. Put in a dash of information, add in a hint of mystery, tease your audience with breadcrumbs of a hint, and there you have it … a quiz question. The best of quiz questions are those to which the answers are known. Asking obscure questions does the quizmaster and more importantly, the quizzers great disservice.

Let us take a simple example. Consider this question.
“”The Polyester Prince”, by Hamish McDonald is a banned book in India. It is an unauthorized biography of X. Name X.”

Now one could look at this and wonder how on earth one could solve this. You might not know who Hamish McDonald is, let alone know any book written by him. Look closely and you’ll find the breadcrumbs right there.
(a) Given that the book is set in India, most likely it is an Indian person
(b) The person in question is likely very famous or controversial if the book warranted a ban
(c) The title ‘Polyester Prince’ hints at someone who is famous for their standing in the business of polyester

All of these leads to one possibility, ‘Dhirubhai Ambani’

Note that the problem was solved without ever knowing who Hamish McDonald was and without ever having heard of the book.

Quizzers build on this basic skill and get better. They don’t sit around reading the newspapers from the front to the end of gobble up pages of Wikipedia. They simply hone the skill of piecing together the puzzle from the breadcrumbs of hints a question provides. Anyone can be a quizzer. Everyone should be a quizzer.

There’s joy to be had in solving a question and learning a fact. There’s joy to be had in quizzing. Get over your fears. Try it sometime.

I leave you with another question to solve. Happy quizzing!

“In a 2012 Hindi movie, the closing credits had the following line: ‘We would like to thank Jayesh Desai for the use of X’s Y. Y was central to the movie and probably more expensive than the lead actor’s fees. Name X and Y.”

Thursday, November 05, 2015

A Review of ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’

My review of Salman Rushdie's new novel 'Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights' - a work of uncommon and unabashed beauty, published in Spark magazine this month. Read on.

A Review of ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’

Salman Rushdie’s latest novel ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’ is his first fiction book released in over five years. The enigmatic title is a great way of introducing where the inspiration for the book lies – the total number of nights add up to one thousand and one. Much like the Arabian Nights tales, where allegories fly cushioned on giant urns and flying carpets, Salman Rushdie writes a modern day fable that flits between the real and the fantastic.

The story is interspersed between two worlds – ours, the one of human existence and the world of jinns, the kind that once pleased Aladdin. The jinns though are not the kind that indulge in Robin Williams like tomfoolery. They are serious, supernatural beings with serious, supernatural existence. They possess powers that give them overwhelming superiority over human beings. It is to the great benefit of the humans that they are unaware of the existence of these beings who live in their own little world. They live on for a long, long time and their primary activity is having lots of sex because there isn’t much else there to entertain them.

The jinns are bereft of some human emotions like remorse, empathy, etc. but one among them parts from that ideal and starts a chain of events that form the crux of the storyline. Dunia, the princess of the land of the jinns, falls in love with the 12th century philosopher Ibn Rushd (which is a way of Salman Rushdie playing tribute to the man from whom his family got its name). Rushdie places the story a few centuries in the past and yet draws parallels to the state of modern society. Ibn Rushd is in a battle of his own – a battle of philosophers where his premise of following reason, of questioning the sacred and not having blind faith hits a wall when he comes in confrontation with Ghazali, he of the absolute devotion to God and not shy of using fear as a weapon to convince people to trust in religion. Dunia falls in love with the philosopher, with his face, with his ideas. Putting her magic to good effect, she manages to produce many an offspring with Rushd. The progeny then multiply over the centuries in the world, carrying a little bit of the jinn within them. Meanwhile, both Ibn Rushd and Ghazali go to their graves, carrying on their battle of beliefs beyond the mortal realm.

The story kicks into a higher gear as it moves to the current day. The characters, with their engaging back stories, tumble out one after the other. Geronimo Manezes is a New York gardener who misses his wife and the country he left behind in equal measure. There is Jimmy Kapoor, a graphic artist who lives in New York with his mother and lies in wait hoping that his comic character called ‘Natraj Hero’ (whose superpower was dancing) finds success. This and many others disparate souls have a role to play in the apocalypse that is to follow. After nearly eight centuries, the portal between the world of the jinns and that of humans has opened up and humankind is subjected to a great storm after which nothing remains the same. People levitate, spout lightning from their hands, and a great many such abnormal events kick off, attributed to the bad jinns who are now attempting to subjugate humankind in the guise of fulfilling their past obligations to their masters. Rushdie masterfully converts this into a continuation of the argument of reason versus religion between Ibn Rushd and Ghazali. The world is in dire need of heroes and in comes Dunia once again, to protect her progeny that has spread since the time of Ibn Rushd. To defend the human race, she has to defeat her four strongest enemies – the jinns Zumurrud, Zabardast, Shining Ruby, and Ra’im Blood-Drinker.  How she goes about doing that and how she enlists the help of her progeny in furthering her goal drives the second half of the book. The period of the jinns in the book amounts to, as you can guess, 1001 nights.

As mentioned before, this is Salman Rushdie’s first adult fiction book since the year 2008 and he attacks the storyboard with a vengeance. He masterfully brings in pop culture into the mix, interspersing the story with references to events or personalities that we are familiar with, or using his characters to affect some of the events of our recent times. An example is an allusion to how a jet plane is brought down by a jinn, in reference to the Malaysian airliner being shot down in Ukraine.  It is erudite, but not pompous. The sheer breadth of his references would make a quiz master giddy with joy. Where else can you find a reference to Simple Kapadia, a veiled reference to ‘Anjaana Anjaani’ and David Letterman, shoutouts to Rebecca Romjin and Mickey Mouse within the confines of a story about jinns and humans, being narrated by anonymous narrators a thousand years into the future? The narrative is fast paced as it keeps shifting between time periods and worlds. Rushdie weaves in experiences and references from many cultures and religions in a way that he seems quite adept and quite equipped to do. If anything, the reader would be hard pressed to keep up with the number of oblique hints Rushdie throws to people and events. Despite the immersion in pop culture references, there is considerable depth in the common themes that he explores, be it the philosophical approach that Ibn Rushd takes towards reason and free speech, or the risk of letting dogma rule the roost or the thin boundary between lust and love.

Rushdie’s choice of genre has always been ‘magical realism’, a genre where it is common to accept magic in the rational world. ‘Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights’ is a book where he takes the license that the genre offers and produces a work of uncommon and unabashed beauty, where the writer seems to make no apologies for the world that he lives in or the beliefs that he shares. It might have been years in the making, but the wait has certainly been worth it.

Monday, October 05, 2015

“Khat”-arnak – The Deadly Letter

My latest publication in the magazine Spark is on the use of the hand written letter as a device plot in Hindi movies. Enjoy!

“Khat”-arnak – The Deadly Letter

“Run, Tuffy, run,” you shout at the white Pomeranian tearing across the screen, holding the fate of the sacrificing lovers in his little mouth. This was 1994, before Facebook and WhatsApp and text messaging and SnapChat and Instagram and any other current ways of sending messages was invented. Tuffy was using his gentle mouth to hold on to a good old-fashioned handwritten letter. The handwritten letter has long been used as a plot device in Hindi films. Tuffy was only the messenger. He couldn’t have spilt the beans to Rajesh about Prem and Nisha. No, only the letter could have. (If you don’t know what I am talking about, please hark back to the 90s and watch ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’. For Tuffy’s sake.)

The letter has always served as a simple yet effective way of subverting what would have been a normal story in a Hindi film. No matter how simply and clearly a letter is written, its purpose is usually to confuse and confound and get either the sender or the recipient in trouble.

Take the case of Nirupa Roy in the movie ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’. She is down and out with an illness and is riddled by guilt that Pran has to spend all his income to cure her. So she writes the suicide note which she leaves with her children and goes on her mission to end her life. All hell breaks loose. She who doesn’t want to live gets crushed under a tree, loses her eyesight and is very much left to live on. Pran, who does want to live, takes his three children away from the goons trying to kill him and promptly loses them to give rise to, “Amar, Akbar, Anthony”. The only one to benefit from this letter was Manmohan Desai, who used that two paragraph letter to his advantage. Why Manmohan Desai, even Sanjay Leela Bhansali made sure that when he wanted a twist in ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’, Ajay Devgn catches Aishwarya Rai reading love letters written by Salman Khan.

Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. Think of a letter in a film and the first thought that comes to mind is a love letter, not a suicide note. Sooraj Barjatya, who directed both ‘Hum Aapke Hain Kaun’ and ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, must have been traumatized by a postman in his childhood. To extract his revenge, he made sure that letters in his films were delivered by a dog and a pigeon respectively. When Bhagyashree sends her first letter of her first love to Salman Khan in ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’, the pigeon (Handsome. Yes, that was his name) must have put down some terms of his own. No letters were seen in transit in that movie after that.

Sometimes, these letters have the oddest of set up for being exchanged. Consider the movie ‘Lunchbox’. Capitalizing on the rare mistake that the six sigma efficient Mumbai dabbawallahs made, a relationship formed on letters was initiated in the movie between an accountant and a neglected housewife. The film should have been titled ‘Letter with butter’. Talking of mistakes, when the postal department does commit a mistake, confusion ensues. In ‘Kal Ho Na Ho’, the letter gets delivered to a neighbour with the same name.

Some of the silliest plots come from the silliest of mistakes made in writing these letters. When we were taught to write a letter in our 3rd standard class, the first thing our English teacher mentioned was ensuring there was a To and a From. Clearly, that was not the case for the person who wrote the letter in the movie “P.K.” and turned Aman ki Asha into Aman ki Niraasha for the Indian Anushka Sharma and Pakistani Sushant Singh Rajput. It was equally silly of them to believe the letter was intended for them, but then we wouldn’t have the oddest love triangle involving an extra-terrestrial now, would we?

No one expects Hindi movies of being compliant with logic, but even the most hardnosed Bollywood fan would be scratching their head as to how a one-year-old can read a letter! Or a two-, three-, four-, or five-year-old. But Anjali, that little girl in ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’ who was entrusted by her mother at age 8 to get the other Anjali back with her father (Rahul, you must have heard his name!), was also left eight letters by her mother before she died. The expectation was that each letter was to be given to her on each of her birthdays. If she wrapped up great life lessons in her letters, she didn’t set it up such that they would be private for her daughter. Even her mother-in-law would have learnt a thing or two.

The use of letters in Hindi film songs has also been exemplary. Consider ‘Likhe jo khat tujhe’. A brilliant song where the letters metaphorically become flowers and stars. If the lyrics of the song are anything to go by, surely, those letters must have been a masterclass in writing. The subject of letters can also get googly-eyed NRIs all mushy and teary when Pankaj Udhas sings ‘Chitthi aayi hai’. I can aver that many a reverse brain drain happened on account of that song. Perhaps Rajendra Kumar wasn’t entirely sure of what effect his letter would have on Vyjanthimala in ‘Sangam’. So he followed up a love letter with a word of caution serenading her with “Yeh mera prem patra padh kar ke tum naraaz na hona” (Please don’t be upset after reading my love letter.)

Times have evolved and movies like ‘Mujhse Dosti Karoge’ involve e-mails while movies like ‘Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge’ show the protagonists using Facebook. But there is nothing like a letter to stir up the pot (or the plot in this case). I’ll rest my case with an example where the Big B is involved. In the movie ‘Muqaddar Ka Sikandar’, Sikandar (a.k.a. Amitabh Bachchan) tries to profess his love to Kaamna (a.k.a. Rakhee) through a love letter. Because Sikandar himself is illiterate, Vishal (a.k.a. Vinod Khanna) transcribes the letter for him. But when Kaamna mistakes the letter as actually being from Vishal, it sends the movie hurtling towards a tragedy and giving the famed baritone a chance to shine through it all. The movie was made better with the letter.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015


My 60th publication is also my first attempt at writing a Ghazal in English, with as much fidelity to the format as I could manage. Hope you enjoy it.


The sky blushed a crimson red for you
The night pushed the day away for you

A crescendo followed the sound of your voice
Three notes scaled through mountains for you

I had caught the moon by the tails of its coat
My wish was to wrap it as a present for you

They abandoned reason, they left behind guile
My words fell away in silence for you

Not even you could look away from yourself
The blessing of your beauty was a curse for you

You shrugged away your desires like an autumn tree
The false promise of spring was a lure for you

What of you, my love, who loves none but self?
What happens when that love dries up for you?

Death will take you in a lover’s embrace

It will succumb to its greed for you

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

The Hunger Games: An Indian Parent’s Challenge

Are you a parent? An Indian parent? Trying to feed your child?
Read on without further delay my latest publication in Spark magazine about this trial by fire all Indian parents go through.

The Hunger Games: An Indian Parent’s Challenge

The survival of the human race owes a lot to three key things humans managed. Running away from wild beasts, discovery of spices and the patience of parents. Without the last ability, the chances of humans strangling their own chain of succession is pretty high. Children are a beautiful gift from a higher power, sent down to earth to temper moments of bliss with other moments where your temples throb with pulsating rhythms that resonate with their shrieking voices.

Through centuries of evolution, children have always been defiant and parents have always been deferential to their wishes. You’ll see shades of this in every culture around the world. Today, I’ll omit the tragedies of the French parent and the sacrifices of the Japanese ones. I’ll skip over the restlessness of the Egyptian father and the single-minded determination of the Chinese mother. I’ll focus on the tribe to which I belong. The Indian parent. The 21st century specimen whose influence on their kids will dictate how the century of Asia (as it has been touted) will be.

Let me start with a succinct definition of the Indian parent. par.ent
1. a father or a mother of Indian descent often seen chasing their young offspring with a spoon in their hands in a desperate effort to feed them, yet being completely incapable of ensuring the kids put on any weight with all that effort.

I know what you are thinking. Isn’t the definition too narrow? Isn’t there more to parenting then simply ensuring that your child eats food? Good thinking. And yet, this reductive definition tells us all there is to know about the challenges of parenting. Food is essential to survive and you’d think that in itself should be sufficient for the parent to let go off their worries and just put the plate in front of the child. Yet, the Indian parent distinguishes himself or herself from all other cultures in this realm.

In the 21st century, this continues to remain one of the most defining characteristics of an Indian parent of young children. They are often seen trying to feed the child as if he is on the precipice of starvation and as if they are on the verge of doom with only one last good meal left to eat. They try to mimic the Brownian motions of a child as they run around the place, trying to keep pace with the kid. When they finally manage to catch the child, with great optimism, they would tell “Say Aaa”, and unfortunately, the child would only keep his mouth shut tight. This particular behaviour seems amplified when abroad. In the presence of American parents who would basically ask their children to “take it or leave it”, the Indian parent stands out in his or her extreme agility in chasing their child and extreme inability to feed them.

I am going to step into the field of generalizations here. Indian kids are finicky eaters. There, I said it. My conclusion is rooted in all those years of having run around my own kids trying to feed them like a heat-seeking missile chasing its target. And it isn’t just me. It is also based on watching Indian parents around me, be it in the U.S. or India.

Watching an Indian parent feed their child is like watching an emotional roller coaster.

It generally starts with a mild imploring, “Beta, please eat.”

The next stage is a little sterner. “Is your mouth empty?”

Then comes the realisation that the food hasn’t really dislodged itself from behind their teeth.

A tone that borders on being a warning creeps in “I am telling you. Eat your food.”

And when none of this goes anywhere, the parent reaches for the helpless anger that bubbles up and manifests itself into something like this: “You know you can watch and chew at the same time? How hard is it to just eat? Do you know how much you could be doing with this time? You are so old now and yet we have to keep reminding you?”

When none of this has any effect, they give up in a huff, concluding with “I am not responsible for your food tomorrow onwards. If you want to eat, eat.”

But, when the next meal comes, the cycle repeats itself.

It is not that the Indian child likes to run or the Indian parent likes to chase. And yet this circle of strife continues. I often sit back and think about how our parents fed us. Surely, if our children have inherited our genes in all matters positive, this lack of interest in food must also stem from some genetic pre-disposition. Ergo, we too must have troubled our parents the same way our kids trouble us. Our parents must have had infinite patience to survive us.

“Look out the window, my son.”

“The first bite is for the bird, the second bite is for the squirrel, the third bite is for the dog.”

And so on and so forth would each meal go until all living creatures that were visible were accounted for. Can a modern parent, stressed by commute and work and EMIs and the need to keep up with Facebook and Twitter do that? Not a chance, I say.

To the aid of this time-constrained 21st century Indian parent comes technology. Perhaps this is why Indians do so well in the technology sector. They ensure that all tools needed to make the feeding process easier are at their disposal. They say that technology is democratic and that is for a good reason. The modern Indian parent dips into all of them. Angry Birds or YouTube videos, Xbox games or Netflix, American TV or Indian soaps, the world is at their fingertips and they put those fingertips to very good use. The modern day parent knows that moving images constrict the brain so much that the taste buds rarely object at anything they are subjected to at the same time.

Is it always true when kids grow up? Perhaps not. At some point in time, parents and their children find other stresses to deal with, other challenges of co-existing. Food then becomes a foot note, for its purpose as a means of survival becomes obvious to both parties.

The Indian parent, then, takes a moment to look at his or her offspring and pats themselves on the back for having raised well-nourished, well-rounded children. When the moment has been enjoyed, they move onto asking their child about the obvious next thing,

“Have you finished your homework yet?”

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Lunch On A Lazy Summer Day

A proud day for me today as I become a certified Seattle poet. My poem, which was selected for the 'Poetry on Buses' contest, got published today. The challenge was to write a 50 word poem on the theme of 'Home' and I dipped into a memory from my childhood to write it. 

Lunch On A Lazy Summer Day

Home was the surety of my grandmother’s hand
Rolling grains of flour into a ball,
Cajoling sweetness out of a 
Hot grumpy day.

Readying a meal for her emaciated;
The children, lazing on the verandah
The birds, hovering, for the leftovers
The Gods, waiting to be appeased.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

A Musical Escape

Do you believe in the power that music has to uplift? Please read my latest poem published in the magazine Spark that combines two of my favorite things: music and rains.

A Musical Escape

And then it rained
The parsimonious skies opened
And showered freely their blessing
A brazen wall of water
Enveloping the road

Oh, the road, the road
Whose middle path I stood in
Hands behind the wheel
Clenched tighter than needed
Muttering curses under my breath

It was me, and my frustration
Trapped in an expensive hearse
Surrounded by those
Morbid daily warriors
Dead souls returning home from work

Harried, I turned, to
The last resort I had
And then it unraveled
Like a pearl from an oyster
Like a sapling in scorched earth

A dulcet tune flooded around me
“Go on”, she sang, “Set yourself free”
And I let loose a song
Like a tenor unbounded
Like a prisoner uncaged

“Who knows what tomorrow will bring
The promise of tomorrow is a wonderful thing”
I sang, and my heart escaped
The trap of the traffic
The despondency of my being

“Move ahead, shout out, don’t doubt”
Droplets of rain provided the rhythms
On the wings of music, I soared far away
Even though I hadn’t moved
Three feet in thirty minutes