Thursday, 6 April 2017

Playing like a girl

The first fifteen to twenty minutes of a new video game are vital. In it, you've got to set the scene, establish the protagonist, and give the player a feel for the controls. Of course, most of the keys are standardized across games, but things like the range of a jump or the size of the hitbox need some getting used to. There's the story, as well, the sequence of events that set the narrative in motion.
The easiest way to do this is with the "attack on the homebase" trope, of course, where the homebase may be anything from a spacecraft  to a village. (Halo 1, Knights of the Old Republic,Neverwinter Nights 1 & 2, Dragon Age:Origins - the Human Noble origin, atleast, Dragon Age 2, many others). The other, of course, is the ever popular "Player as prisoner" opening (Every Elder Scrolls game ever, KOTOR 2, Shadows of Amn, even the original Prince of Persia).
Horizon Zero Dawn begins with a birth, an adoption, and a little girl coming to terms with the fact that she is an outcast and that "normal" people will not even speak to her. Oh, and that this is a world in the far future, while steel dinosaurs prowl the land, but humans are still making do with spears and bows.

Image result for horizon zero dawn art book
That's a Thunderjaw, a metal T-Rex armed with missile launchers, machine guns and a laser cannon
I've only played one set of games as a woman character, and that was the Mass Effect series, and that, only for Jennifer Hale's performance as FemShep. But that was to "check it out", and the character I identified with was Sheploo(the male default character, modeled on Mark Vanderloo ), and Mark Meer was always my def Shepard. And wherever the player character's gender is a choice, I always chose male.
Horizon Zero Dawn was the first game that I played in its entirety as a girl.

I loved it.

There are different levels of engagement when you start playing a game. The first couple of hours tend to drag a little, especially in RPGs. There's exposition, of course, and there's the getting used to things like inventory screens, maps and quest objective tracking, getting the basic economics of buying and selling stuff. There are also the questions of skills and weapon upgrades as you gain your first levels. Does this skill work as well as it sounds? Will I be using melee or range? How important is crafting going to be?

Then, there's the period of increasing engagement, as you begin to find out what tactics work for you, and which weapons. You've faced the first boss, and managed to come through. This is when you get hooked, and you consume the game, like popcorn or a bowl of paneer maggi. You can't stop yourself, and you want more - the next level, the next skill points, the next weapon or weapon upgrade.

All this, obviously, is gender neutral. And Horizon Zero Dawn does an excellent job of this. But it also gives you a likable protagonist - not one of your run-of-the-mill hardasses like Master Chief or Marcus Fenix or John MacTavish or Nick Reyes or Nico Bellic or even Darth Revan (I exclude Shepard, simply because he's introduced staring pensively out of a window at the earth and the fact that he can quote Machiavelli and Beccaria), a protagonist who you can empathize with, who is both a woman and a pariah, but who handles those loads without making the story about Aesops and morals, one who manages to be a teen without being aggravating.

Games give you agency, in a way that books or movies or any other artform can never do. And that agency allows you to identify so much more with the character you play. When I played Baldur's Gate, I would dream of the further adventures of its protagonist. I would compose mental fan fiction on the undocumented exploits of Revan and the Jedi Exile. For the past fortnight, I've gone to sleep thinking I was Aloy, with my tearblast arrows and Sharpshot Bow and spear, dreaming of ways to take down stormbirds.

Yep, that's a stormbird

A very good friend of mine presented me a T-Shirt, with the names or the titles of every video game character that I loved playing. The Nephelim. The Nerevarine. The vault dwellers and couriers and sole survivors from Fallout. The Nameless One. The Grey Warden. Nathan Drake. Geralt of Rivia (One of these days I'm going to post a Witcher related question on a Facebook quizzing board and reply to the person who posts the correct answer with the comment "You're a real Geralt of Trivia, aren't you?"). The Dovahkiin.
But if I had the T-Shirt remade, right on top would be the name of Aloy of the Nora.

It's 4:10 am in the morning. I'm running a temperature and I've just finished playing Horizon Zero Dawn. I'm feeling high and awake and so...satisfied.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017



If you aren't a Tam, you can't even pronounce it right.

It's a Tamil month, one that loosely corresponds to the period from the middle of December to the middle of January.

But if you arent a Tam, you dont know Margazhi - It's the Madrasi's season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, the season of woodsmoke at dawn when the temples play ML Vasanthakumari singing Andal's Thiruppavai, the season of kolams and carnatic music, when Tamil Nadu's scorching temperatures dip into the twenties.

It is ... beautiful.

மாதங்களில் அவள் மார்கழி, மலர்களிலே அவள் மல்லிகை

Among the months, she's Margazhi. Among flowers, she's the jasmine.

There's this song, a love song, a movie song, where this guy sings about the woman he loves. As lyrics go, the lines are simple, but so loaded with meaning that it makes your heart swell.

The song was written by a tubby womanizing drunkard - who also happened to be one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

Hyperbole? Maybe. But if you aren't a Tam, you wouldn't know. You wouldn't be able to evaluate the distance between ஆசையே அலைபோலே நாமெல்லாம் அதன்மேலே    and ஜகமே மந்திரம் சுகமே தந்திரம் சிவசம்போ.

So this guy, this Muthiah, wrote songs for movies. He wrote novels. He was a member of the Dravida movement, an atheist. He wrote propaganda verse.

There's a story of a man. A powerful man, beloved by millions. He was a movie star, a matinee idol, and a politician who'd become the chief minister of a state that loved him. But as Chief Minister, he found that he had to take unpopular decisions, tough decisions. So he would steel himself by listening to a song from one of his movies, taking strength from the lines "வாழ்ந்தவர் கோடி மறைந்தவர் கோடி மக்களின் மனதில் நிற்பவர் யார்" (crores of people have lived, crores have died - but who remain in memory), written by this Muthiah, a guy he quarreled with all the fucking time.

If you think this is all quite trite, you're probably justified.

But I'd like to to draw your attention to a film called Raaja Paarvai, one which starred Kamalahasan - not fucking Kamal Hassan - and a song called Azhage, azhagu.
Now, Raja Paarvai is a lovely film, where Kamalahasan plays a blind guy who is in love with Madhavi - and he asks Madhavi to draw a self portrait based on how he sees her in his mind - with eyes like stars, ears like question marks, fingers like "thenkuzhal", and so on...
The result, as drawn by Madhavi, is grotesque, but its also an illustration of the impossibility of translation.

How would you translate, for example, செந்தமிழ் தேன்மொழியால், நிலாவென சிரிக்கும் மலர்கொடியால் (yes, I know that its the hard la, not the soft la there, but translations online are fucked up). That "her voice is as sweet as pure honeyed tamil, that her smile is like moonlight on a flower?" Whatever you try, its not going to be the same.

So, autobiographical note alert, my grandfather was into films. He made money financing them, and the stories of his banging starlets are legendary in our family. As a reaction, my father grew up in rebellion. Where Thatha was hedonistic, he was puritanical. Where my grandfather enjoyed movie music, my \father swore by the Carnatic greats. But I remember this, back in 1981, when appa looked up from the Hindu that he was reading and said, to no one in particular, "What a waste. He died. What a waste of a life".

Kannadasan. Kaviarasu Kannadasan wasn't a Padma Shree or a Padma Bhushan or a Padma anything,.  But he could writeabout vegetables, about beans and bitter gourd, and make it it into one of the most heartfelt love songs ever.  He could write a song glorifying Allah, where every third line ended with "Om" - not because he was taking the piss on Muslims, but because it was about God, whatever you chose to call him or her.  He could write Deva Mainthan Pokindran, a st6aple of every Christmas and Easter Oliyum Oliyum, where Kamal was Jesus, and he could write Yaarum Varuvar, Yaarum Thozhuvar, Naagoor Aandavan Sannidhiyil.

He was, to put it mildly, awesome.

I've always loved hacks. And Kannadasan was the ultimate hack.
But in his commercialism, he transcended commerce.
He transcended politics and propaganda.

So if you had one song to sum up Kannadasan's life, which would you choose?
This one?

or this
or this

or this, the only song he wrote for Mullum Malarum,

or this
or the ultimate Tam stoner anthem

You can't.

And that's my point.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

On and Off Facebook

After a layoff of around six months, I got back on Facebook. I think it was a mistake. Within hours of my initial return post, I was back on the page, checking and rechecking who had liked it, who hadn't, who had noticed my absence, who had commented and so on. I mean, I can talk all I want about the interesting stuff friends and colleagues are doing, and all the jokes and memes and political commentary, but ultimately, its all about getting likes and comments on your posts.
Which, when you think of it, is actually kind of sad.
There's a videogame trope called gameplay and story segregation. There's the gameplay - the tactics of combat or platforming, the sequences of keystrokes and button presses that take you from one level to another, and there's the story, the overall narrative. The technical term for this is "ludonarrative dissonance" - meaning that while the story tells one tale, the way you play the game tells another.
The most obvious example would be a lawful good paladin in a roleplaying game who loots everything that isn't nailed down - because, well, loot means better equipment, more money, easier boss fights and so on. So, in essence, while you may be playing an ethical character, the game rewards you for unethical behaviour.
In Facebook, of course, you set the narrative. The role you play is your online self - something which hews - at certain levels - to yourself. The building blocks of your online personality - your political views, your sports and hobbies, the books you read and review on Goodreads, the movie clips and music you post, your attempts at wit, all the rest. There are the vacation snaps, the showcasing of family, photos of gatherings and reunions in boozy pubs and college campuses - thats the story.
The gameplay is the likes you gather, the number of comments on each photo and post, and its not unlikely that at some point, Facebook - or Instagram or Sanpchat - will introduce metrics that measure your social media presence - "You are a 'four star' personality. You have an average of 24 likes and 15 comments on every link you share. You have an average of 67 likes for every photo album. Your most popular memory featured your spouse and children urinating in tandem at the Mannekin Pis on 24th July 2016. Your most popular post tagged Bill Clinton and Ivanka Trump" and so on. And so, in through the Black Mirror we go.  
Being away from Facebook took me away from it all for a while. It wasn't easy. The first few days, almost by reflex, every time I opened my browser, my fingers would work thusly. +D, "fa", and autocomplete would fill in "" and . But then, since my account was deactivated, I would be asked to login, and I would sigh, and then pull back.
But as withdrawals go, it was pretty mild. Maybe it was because my post would be ignored, more often than not. If I was lucky, I'd get a couple of likes and the occasional comment. (That, of course, is a very good reality check for narcissism).
But here's the thing. My life didn't change for the better. It wasn't as if I'd decoupled from the net completely. So I might have missed grieving posts about the passing of Carrie Fisher or Edward Albee or George Michael, or the shocked ones about Trump's election. I must have missed furious debates on demonetisation, and whether or not it was a disastrous bungle that destroyed the economy. And as ever, the arguments about gender and caste, about Jaya and Jallikattu, about storms and steel bridges. I missed the discussions about that Australian Open match, or the Mistry Masala at Tata Sons
All in all, not much, because it's not the events you miss.
There's this piece of faux-profundity that goes "Wherever you go, there you are." But like most trite shite, it's true. Not in the sense of "ooh. Enjoy every moment mindfulness yada yada bullshit", but because there's no escaping from yourself. And staying away from Facebook isn't a journey into the uncharted. It's pretty much the same as staying of Facebook.
Games succeed because of replayability. Replayability is a function of gameplay, however good the story is (except maybe Planescape:Torment).  So, story be damned. I'm back for the gameplay.

PS: A cry for help. Please like this.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Thoughts on the Dylan Nobel

I was in my sisters place, attending to appa and trying to keep amma from fretting when Bull sent me a text. “Just heard that Bob Dylan won the Nobel for literature. For once someone whose works I am rather acquainted with”. At first I thought it was just one of those hoaxes that sweep the internet from time to time, but this time, with everybody from the Guardian to the NYT weighing in, it obviously wasn’t.
There was a time when I had what was arguably the best room in college. 296, Ram Bhavan was the last room in the “new wing facing sky”, overlooking the Birla Museum and its mucky pond where fat koi fish, mottled silver and orange swam in its murky depths. In front of me were the lawns, the grass trimmed and the hedges manicured. And from the balcony seat, you could see the most spectacular sunsets over the arid hardpan that lay beyond the campus walls.
One evening, there was a storm. Have you seen it rain in the desert? It’s spectacular. It went on for a long while, shading dusk into night, and angry streaks of lightning would shatter the darkness.  I sat there in my armchair, in the dim yellow of a 60 watt corridor lightbulb, while Desolation Row played in my room. I was wrapped in the warm cocoon of a bottle of phens. I had my packet of Charms cigarettes, and I had a brilliant light-and-dark show. And in that setting, I’d see the parade of grotesqueries in the song. Cinderella, her hands in her back pockets “Bette Davis style”, Ophelia, an old maid at 27, sepia tinted postcards of hanged men, a hand painting passports brown. Einstein in green rags, playing a violin. A leather cup on a back alley quack’s desk, where a nurse snaps on rubber gloves before she shuffles a pack of dog-eared cards, all saying the same thing.  A song that was both a heap of broken images, as well as scraps of moving pictures of broken people. Even now, if I close my eyes and think back, I can see them all, like something seen through a grimy window, a group of famous marionettes going through the same set of motions for eternity.
There must have been a lot of division about awarding Dylan the Nobel – I’m pretty certain I saw a lot of headlines about how it was deserved or undeserved, often running side by side. I didn’t read any of them. Also since I quit Facebook, I don’t know what my friends are saying – or which clips of which songs were posted.
My own feelings are mixed. There’s the world of Nobel Laureates. And there’s the world of Bob Dylan. Separate worlds until now. The former, at least to me, was essentially a conservative institution, with the standards and choices of a group of Harold Bloom clones. Dylan – the quintessential Dylan, the Dylan of those 640 days between Another Side of Bob Dylan to Blonde on Blonde - was the opposite of that world. But that’s a thought that doesn’t stand up to closer examination. What was revolutionary for the US in the 60s – or in India in the 80s is dated and archaic to a world that’s grown up with touchstones like Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. For someone who was born in the 1990s, how is Dylan different from Paul Anka or Jim Reeves or any one of those dinosaurs of “Western music”?
For some of us, the answer is, well, obviously, if you’ve listened to Dylan, the difference is obvious. But listening to Dylan isn’t the same for the iTunes playlist era. Of course you can line up Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Volume X on your iPhone and listen to everything from Like a Rolling Stone to When the Deal Goes Down or the latest thing from Dylan does Sinatra, but that’s hardly the same thing as that segue from Ballad in Plain D to It Ain’t Me, Babe in Another Side of Bob Dylan or that amazing B-side of Bringing it All Back Home (Mr Tambourine Man, Gates of Eden, It's Alright, Ma (I'm Only Bleeding) and It's All Over Now, Baby Blue). And when you listen to it when you still are struggling to figure out who the fuck you are and what the fuck you’re doing in this fucked up world, it leaves an impression.
A large part of listening to old music is nostalgia, of course. With songs of love and songs of youth, it’s pretty much a guaranteed return trip. But not so with Dylan. A large part of it is the timelessness of it. It’s alright ma remains as scathing a commentary in 2016 as it did in 1964. When the ship comes in may have been written as a response to a snooty hotel clerk, but works so well as a prayer of hope and defeat of adversity as well as “Fuck you, naysayers” comment.
If that two year period was the kind of thing that any artiste would kill for, just remember that Blood on the Tracks came almost a decade later. And if later albums weren’t always great, remember that Shot of Love had Every Grain of Sand, Oh Mercy had Shooting Star, Time out of Mind had Not Dark Yet, Love and Theft had Mississippi and – well - all of Love and Theft.
So now, I’ve seen enough people (internet commenters, so take that as you will) diss Dylan. “Can’t sing”. “Overrated”. “Sexist/Misogynist”. “White male”. And yes. He sang for Miss Universe contests and shilled for Victoria’s Secret underwear. But he also came out on stage to accept his Grammy, twitching and fidgeting, and said “My dad, he was a very simple man and he didn’t leave me a lot. But what he told me was….” (A very long pause as Dylan looks at the award, the way a tramp may examine something shiny found in the garbage, wondering how much he could hock it for).. “He said son…”. Pause again. “He said so many things”. And he followed it up with a raging Masters of War, while the first Gulf War (the “good” Gulf war) raged on in Iraq and Kuwait. He’d make speeches about the plight of American farmers during Live Aid, completely pissing off  Bob Geldof. 
He just didn’t give a shit.
Then, there’s Ballad of a Thin Man.  It’s a song I hate. It may have been written about a specific person in a specific set of circumstances, but I’ve always felt it was about me, that I was Mr Jones – that something was happening around me, but I didn’t know what, despite my wide reading, that despite trying so hard, I still didn’t understand.
And when a song can make you feel uncomfortable in your own skin, it means that the songs words have power.  
And isn’t literature all about words with power?

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Thoughts on Kabali

First day, second show in Bangalore. The parking lot outside Urvashi theatre in Bangalore was packed. Not just with people who wanted to watch the movie, but also with people who were filming the people who wanted to watch the film. TV vans were everywhere.
The movie itself begins with a voice-over narration, about gang wars in Malaysia, setting the stage, as it were. It's an interesting opening. Normally, voiceover narrators are chosen for voice quality - it has to be deep and sonorous, with clear diction. This one was nothing like that. It was the voice of an ordinary Tamil blue-collar worker, not especially resonant or memorable. The language itself was colloquial, and stumbled a little, like a kid in school having to recite an ill prepared history lesson. It was an interesting subversion of the narrator trope, but it didn't quite come off. In a way, it set the tone for the film, full of interesting attempts that don't quite come off.
The scene shifts to a group of Malaysian cops discussing whether Kabali's prison term should be extended. It's like a parole board meeting, only without the prisoner. The language shifts, seamlessly, between Malay and Tamil. And then we cut to Rajini's introduction, in his prison cell.
And here, as in every Rajinikanth film for a long time, you don't begin by showing Rajini's face. But instead of focusing on the feet, as is tradition, the camera pans out from a book, the back of a head, and on to the cops opening the door. The man in the cell closes the book he's been reading- My father Baliah, by Dalit activist KB Satyanarayana. It's a piece of trivia that's meaningless if you don't know who Satyanarayana was, or what the book was about, but it's a powerful hint into the identity of the reader if you do. Rajini gets up, comes to the door of the cell, and does a quick pull up before he leaves, to thunderous applause from his fellow inmates. He goes and picks up his belongings - which include - joy of joys, a copy of Terry Pratchett's Sourcery
It's an economical scene. It establishes that Rajini may be old, but is still fit, that he has kept his mind active while in prison. The so-called "genius bonus" comes from the choice of books. The Satyanarayana book tells you that he either is a Dalit himself, or has empathy for them.The Pratchett says that he is an omnivorous reader (and, as a Pratchett fan, testifies to excellent taste). Later, we find out that he was a plantation worker, and you begin to consider the eclectic taste in books implies autodidactism,  providing an explanation for his sometimes stiff use of English.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't quite live up to the promise of the introduction. There's a song, a celebration of Kabali's release from prison, and then there's a quiet scene where Kabali returns home to see the memory of his dead wife chiding him. Then before you know it, there's a confrontation with a gangster miniboss at a petshop. There's an interesting line that happens at this time, one that Baddy comments about in his fine review here. Kabali and his friend are walking through a row of cages of brightly coloured birds, and Kabali says that the birds should be flying free. The friend says that it's probably for the best, because otherwise they may become prey to larger predators. Baddy was struck by the first part of Kabali's reply, "Unnoda karunai adhoda saavai vida kodooramanadhu". I was more struck by what he says afterwards. "Let them free, so that they make the choice whether they want to flourish or perish."
This scene ends with the first boss fight - you'll have to excuse my language, I've begun to see narratives through the lens of video games, some seepage of jargon is inevitable. The bad guy is suitably obnoxious, saying that Kabali's wife would have been sold into prostitution if she hadn't died.  Needless to say, he dies.
And here's are a couple of things that become problematic. One, there are too many villains. We're told that the big bad is a guy called Tony Lee, but we have very little idea of where the others feature in the backstory. We're given short flashbacks, explaining the context, but it's almost as though the flashback is like a quick primer, like a recap in long running TV show. And after a point, it becomes difficult to keep track of each minor villain's role in the overall narrative.
There are a couple of slightly longer flashbacks, which establish that Kabali was a plantation worker, who fought the plantation's owner to get Indian workers equal pay as Chinese workers. This brings him to Tamilnesan's (Nassar) notice, and while its clear that Tamilnesan is a big deal, its not clear exactly what he is.
There's a sequence in Citizen Kane, where it cuts from Joseph Cotten saying "He entered this campaign", to Orson Welles completing the sentence "With one purpose only". We get something similar here, where Tamilnesan moves from private conversation to public address, and back and forward again, but it's there, without moving the story forward, without establishing the growing rapport between Kabali and Tamilnesan. So when Kabali takes over Tamilnesan's organization, we don't really see the misgivings of Tamilnesan's son, Tamilmaran (Charles Vinoth). And when Veerasekaran (Kishore), over the course of drink, incites Tamilmaran to go against Kabali, it seems a little abrupt.
There are a few scenes that are visually stunning, but they're left dangling. There's a scene of Yogi (Dhansika), in a red swimsuit in a circular swimming pool at night, and she's there, suspended on the surface, a silent scarlet splash in a blue green circle. There's another scene where the camera pans out from Kabali's safe house, a lovely place surrounded by trees. But both these scenes are isolation. Yogi's swimming pool  isn't how she prepares for a kill, or unwinds after it. The safe house scene isn't a long tracking shot that ends with the revelation that the safe house isn't that safe. That comes later, and is much less impressive.
The villains are another problem. While Winston Chao is ok, he would be more consequential if the race angle was explored more deeply. But then, the movie wouldn't have played in Malaysia - I understand that it was censored pretty heavily there. There's subtext, but never explored. There's the section when the story moves from a straightforward revenge story to a search, and it loses steam.
There are some good scenes, of course. The reunion with Radhika Apte is stellar. The cross cutting of Kabali and Lee dressing up for the showdown and Jeeva's death and excellent. But the overall effort falls short of the intent.
Now, I've obviously lot a lost of the references that make the movie so significant to Malay tamils - according to this, it's the Malay Tamil's film. I caught the pointers to Kabali's character from the books, but I missed the significance of the opening scene where the Malay cop says "If Kabali begins to be too much of a problem, we will take care of him in our own way," a line that sets up the final scene. So, its quite possible I missed a great deal
In the end, it's like Ranjith wanted to do too many things, and it ended up with a cluttered film where effort falls fall short of intent.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Revisiting the Magnet, with Boy's Weeklies and Orwell

Back in 1940, George Orwell wrote a long piece (10,000 words) on magazines like The Gem and the Magnet.  It was called "Boy's Weeklies", and it was a detailed examination of the language, readership, attitudes, and priorities of the stories that appeared in them.
It's hard to think of something comparable to come out today. Firstly, the magazine is dying. Second, it's hard to think of anyone with the equivalent of Orwell's heft as a political and cultural commentator. Third, though there are numerous think pieces, they're companions to "trend stories" in children's writing. Fourth, there are essays and articles about "What kind of book should kids be reading" - promoting books that promote "diversity", the current cultural ideal. And there are the inevitable listicles for people with ever decreasing attention spans.
In, for example, the Magnet's Greyfriars stories, written for and read by a much smaller English-speaking audience than exists today, there's Hurree Jamset Ramsingh, an Indian, Sampson Field, an Australian, Tom Brown, a New Zealander, Wun Lung, a Chinese, Piet Delarey, a South African - and Afrikaner,  Monty Newland, a Jew, and Nappy Dupont, a Frenchman. This probably was one of the most diverse schools in fiction. Of course, the reason for the diversity was the Empire, and the worldwide readership the magazine enjoyed. "It is read in every corner of the British Empire, by Australians, Canadians, Palestine Jews, Malays, Arabs, Straits Chinese, etc., etc," writes Orwell. Of course, the diversity is national, and not racial, but then immigration into the UK, according to Migration Watch, was insignificant before the second world war.
Despite that, both characters of "colour" that figure as students are drawn relatively sensitively - despite the stereotyping. Hurree Singh, for example, is the direct descendent of F Anstey's Hurry Bungsho Jabberjee (who says things like "I am like a duck in thunder with admiring wonderment", and was supposed to be  "a humorous yet truthful study of the East Indian with a veneer of English civilization").   Inky (Singh's nickname) may talk like a twerp and his language is one source of comedy, but as a character, he is as good a person as any other, and rather better than most. He plays cricket beautifully, and is several times described as the best bowler in the school (drawn from Ranji, no doubt, the Indian who could play cricket). He's also much smarter and a better observer than most of his peers, though that's not saying much, since most of his peers seem to be complete blockheads most of the time.
There's Wun Lung, the pigtailed Chinee who "talk velly funny". Very much the inscrutable Oriental, Wun Lung is very much a revolting stereotype most of the time. I can forgive the portrayal of Inky, being an Indian. I wonder if today, a Chinese reader would forgive Wun Lung's portrayal. But when he is at center stage - he is shown as devious, but very nice. A good friend to have in times of need, and with a wicked sense of humour that uses and subverts the very stereotype he represents. In one story, he takes his revenge on Bunter, who has stolen his tuck, by convincing the fat Owl that what he's eaten is the shopkeeper’s cat. It's actually chicken, but Bunter believes him because, of course, everybody knows that Chinese eat anything.
And there's Monty Newland, the Jewish boy. The story where he is introduced is still hard reading - in terms of the sheer amount of prejudice that Newland endures when he comes into the school. And despite following a well-worn groove, it's still quite powerful. He's called a Sheeny and a Shylock when he steps into the school. His study mates try to throw him out, and at one point, he wonders that why, despite his family being in England for centuries, they've always been treated as outsiders and lesser citizens. (Surprisingly, there's no reference to Christ-killing or anything, but that's probably because religion hardly ever figured in these stories. Newland, of course, proves his worth, as all boys must do, by standing up to the school bully, and beating him down. It's also notable that he ends up sharing a study with Dick Penfold, the son of the shoemaker and a scholarship boy. An inadvertent reflection of where Jews stood in the English class system?
The Gem and the Magnet were popular. “They are on sale in every town in England, and nearly every boy who reads at all goes through a phase of reading one or more of them,” wrote Orwell. Evelyn Waugh was a fan. So was Noel Coward. And VS Pritchett. When Christopher Hitchens was asked by a godmother to choose any six books he wanted, his first choice was “a garish series of the adventures of Billy Bunter”.
There’s this lovely book called The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, by a guy called Jonathan Rose. It covers, in some depth, what the miners and canners and fishmongers and weavers read, from the mid-late 19th century on, and it devotes a chapter to The Gem and the Magnet. Rose looks at the influence of these magazines and the school stories on their readers – most of whom were drawn from the working classes.
The books were inherently conservative, and Rose wonders if any of their readers – much older now, of course – would say “These books indoctrinated me in a bourgeois cultural hegemony, and I’m a better man for it”, and finds that there are quite a few. Of course, this comes from a time when it was possible to be culturally conservative, but politically radical. A number of the Magnet’s fans got their ideas of honour and ethics from these stories. According to Paul Fletcher, the son of a colliery worker, the stories defined a code of honour that was as well defined as the scriptures were nebulous. Later, in 1972, Fletcher, would write that “(Some), rejoicing under the name of intellectuals, would find it difficult to stifle their mirth at yarns which a beginning, a middle and an end, and were completely free of drugs, dolls, crude Americanisms, and lavatory wall adjectives. But they don’t matter. Harry Wharton and the Famous Five set an example of ‘How to play the game’, and their code of honour, effete as it may seem now, was something which society as a whole could do with”.
The Famous Five in the quote above refers not to Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent, Bob Cherry, Hurree Jamset Ramsingh and Johnny Bull. The term was coined in 1912, and Enid Blyton used it in 1951, well after the first books were published. There was also a Secret Seven, a school secret society that dealt out justice to errant prefects using Guy Fawkes masks. It’s unlikely that David Lloyd pinched the idea for V’s mask from, but still, it’s a fascinating titbit. Harry Wharton’s father died on the Afghan frontier, serving in the Loamshire Regiment. This was in 1908.  Wiki the Loamshire Regiment, and you’ll find this:
“Loamshire Regiment is a placeholder name used by the British Army to provide examples for its procedures. For example, the Loamshire Regiment is provided by the British Forces Post Office to show how to write a British Army address, and is used to set out specimen charges for violations of military law. It is used in Hesketh Hesketh-Prichard's Sniping in France, a World War One manual for training British Army sharpshooters.”
Sniping in France was published in 1920. The Loamshire Regiment was also used by Sapper – Bulldog Drummond is a Loamshire Regiment man. Since then, the Loamshires have appeared elsewhere, including Waugh’s Men at Arms and Powell and Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp.
But if anything, the lasting legacy of these magazines, these stories – mostly written by Charles Hamilton – must be the “Schoolboy Code”. Or the “Schoolgirl Code”, filtered as it was through Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s and Malory Towers books. After all, Blyton, the daughter of a cutlery salesman, was born in 1897, and would have been among the Gem and Magnet’s significant female readership when she was growing up.
On a personal basis, my school, at least between 1974 and 1987, was making its name as a crammer. We had some good teachers, of course, and some lovely people studied there, but as an institution, I have very little love for it. We yearned for the last bell, waiting for freedom from the endless tedium poorly taught maths and science. When I’m at home, I take a walk by “the old school” almost every day, but all I feel is mild surprise about how small the classrooms were.
So it’s not surprising that these school stories, with their pranks and rags, their feeds and feasts would work their charm, 5099 miles and seven decades away. Oh, I never saw a Magnet or a Gem, but I remember the bright yellow Cassell paperbacks, and the Armada publications with their ugly cover art, borrowed from Eshwari lending library on Lloyd’s Road.
The “Schoolboy Code” is irrelevant today, of course. It’s was irrelevant when I was a schoolboy as well, but I didn’t know that. As Robert Roberts would write “Greyfriars gave us one moral code, life another, and a fine muddle we made of it all”.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

After the flood

Well, I'm back. Back in my comfortable Bangalore apartment.
And I'm not feeling relieved. I'm feeling guilty. Like a deserter.
Being in a catastrophe - and being healthy and not doing anything - isn't a good feeling at all.
I went to Apollo for my results on Wednesday, a day after the rain was the heaviest. I had to wade through waist-deep water, past parents carrying children on their shoulders and a few precious possessions, past patients who had come all the way from Bengal and Orissa for treatment, only to be caught in what was literally the storm of the century.
In Apollo, though, people were working. The nurse who administers the treadmill test had come from her West Mambalam home  - where the water was thigh high at its shallowest - by travelling half-way around the city. I saw Dr Vijay Shankar, my cardiac surgeon, looking tired and noticeably thinner, in his scrubs. Other hospital staffers looked bleary eyed, having stayed overnight in the hospital, as they struggled with systems without networking, trying to provide lab reports and perform X-Rays with generated power.  
There were corporation workers trying to clear blockages on the roads, so that water could drain out, and they were working as it poured. There were cops everywhere, trying to reach areas more inaccessible than moated medieval castles.
All I did was stay at home and watch the water level rise.
I had no lists useful contacts to share. I donated no drinking water - despite having plenty. I didn't take any cooked food to people who needed it. I had mobility and a full tank of petrol, but I didn't use it. All I did was go around looking for milk, and when I found it I didn't kick up a fuss when the shopkeeper told me that he was keeping it for women who had young children who would need it more. I didn't post notifications of people who were missing, or of localities which needed supplies. I didn't, like the guys I saw, go from Saidapet to Kotturpuram, with carloads of supplies, calling their friends to tell them which areas were under served and which areas help had reached.
All I did was fulminate against the rain, the closure of the airport and the cancellation of trains and the inaccessibility of Koyambedu, about how it would screw up my holiday if I couldn't get back to Bangalore by Monday.
Meanwhile, thousand of people have actually been doing things. Fuck politics, fuck religion. RSS guys have been providing aid to those who need it. Muslims have opened up their mosques to provide shelter and are cooking food to distribute to Hindus in temples. Movie stars have rolled up their sleeves and climbed on to boats - photo-ops to be sure, but more than I was doing. Even in their own shallow, opportunistic ways, the news channels have done some good.
But if the only positive things you can say you did when your city was reeling under the worst catastrophe in living memory is that you didn't get drunk and screw around with people trying to make a difference, its a pretty sad reflection on your character.
Well, it looks like I'm getting my vacation.
The prospect, which looked so attractive a week ago, seems so shallow now.