Dec 042012

Let me start of by saying I have little interest in sport (except, out of loyalty, for cricket), but this story about the International Olympic Committee suspending the Indian olympic body not only caught my eye, it made me laugh.

Here’s how the semi-official Press Trust of India reported it:

“The decision was largely expected after the IOA decided to go ahead with the elections on Wednesday under the government’s Sports Code, defying the IOC’s diktat to hold the polls under the Olympic Charter. …

“The IOC had repeatedly told the IOA not follow the code for the elections on the ground that it would be a violation of the Olympic Charter and compromise autonomy. But the IOA went ahead saying they were bound by the Delhi High Court order.”

Of course, this is sad for the many Indian athletes who will no doubt suffer because the IOC’s expected move (it’s to be announced later today) means the IOA will stop getting money from the IOC, and Indian athletes will be prevented from competing in Olympic events under the Indian flag; they can, however, compete under the IOC’s auspices.

Then what’s funny? As anyone who knows Indian sports officialdom will tell you, this is perhaps the world’s greatest collection of self-obsessed, sad men whose usefulness has long passed their sell-by date. It isn’t uncommon for promising athletes to be treated like the servants of said officials; it’s also not uncommon for international athletic meets to see almost as many officials as athletes.

Sadly, in the world of global sports, India is an also-ran, so the autocratic moves by Indian officialdom can only be matched by a body that’s more autocratic than it. Enter, the IOC.

This is not cricket after all, where every move by the Board of Cricket Control in India had global ramifications because it’s the world’s biggest market for the game (and the other cricket boards grin and bear it); this is the Olympics.

What India does in the world of global sports is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. To put it mildly, no one cares — except the IOC. But I’m quite confident of a swift resolution of the issue, after all the suspension means Indian officials can no longer attend Olympic meetings and events.

Dec 032012

If you lived in the U.K. at anytime in the past twenty-five years, as I did, chances are you know Brian Cobby’s voice: He’s the man who told you the time.
Well, the Economist reports that Father Time died Oct. 31 at the age of 83.

Here’s more from the newspaper:

The job required consummate accuracy, and he had it. This was a man who liked everything arranged just so: notepads aligned on the table, ornaments in their places, a shaken-but-not-stirred Martini every night at 6pm on the dot. He recorded the speaking clock’s 86 separate words in a single take of 50 minutes; though someone forgot to include “o’clock”, obliging him to drive up again to London the next day. “O’clock” was followed by “precisely”, delivered with especial fondness and exactitude; for indeed the time he announced, measured by an atomic clock at the National Physical Laboratory, was accurate to within five milliseconds, more reliable even than computers and mobile phones. In the 21st century Mr Cobby still set right 30m callers a year.

You can read the rest of the Economist’s obituary here.

Brian Cobby, RIP.

Sep 192012

The other day, I saw a tweet recommending my book, Murder in Mumbai. As any first-time writer can attest, positive feedback is a validation.
Of course, there’s the positive feedback from friends and family. I think of those like the internal tracking polls that the Republicans and Democrats run for their respective candidates: Mostly positive (from an unexpected source: “Super!), but with some incisive critiques (My mother: “It would have been better if there were a love story at the center.” Mothers always cut right to it).
But it’s the negative feedback — the bad reviews — that have more of an impact.
Let me explain.
My thoughts on the matter could stem from the kerfuffle over mystery writer R.J. Ellory’s reviews on; or The New York Times story on the company that writes fake reviews (for a fee, of course); or because I visit Amazon at least twice a day to see my (steadily slipping) ranking and to read and reread the reviews of my book. Either way, despite what other writers may say, reviews do matter to me. Especially bad ones.
I spent the period before the publication of Murder in Mumbai worrying about what people would say. I vowed to be one of those writers who is so self-assured that (s)he doesn’t need validation. Of course, on the morning of the publication, I ran to Amazon.
There were two reviews: One good, and one — let’s just say it wasn’t flattering. As I read and reread it, instead of feeling rage or whatever you’re supposed to feel when someone has shredded your work to bits, I was amused. Amused because of how well written the critique was. I saw immediately that it wasn’t a personal attack (I’m just not famous enough for that). I didn’t necessarily agree with all of it, but there were bits in it that made me laugh in much the same way I’d have done if the review had been about another writer’s work.
Here’s my favorite bit:

“Calamur’s prose is competent but lackluster, the sort of writing found in the middle pages of second-string newspapers. Long strings of ponderous dialog carry much of the story.
Mystery fans with a special interest in India might be drawn to this story. While it is far from awful, it fails to rise above the ordinary.”

I could see it: cover blurbs that say: ‘Far from awful.’ ‘Second-string’ writing. (Actually, I found that particularly funny given my profession).
But unless a review is unreasonable — and there are plenty of those around — this sort of criticism is quite helpful. Much of it comes to mind as I work through my second book, trying to keep the narrative going. On some days, especially on days when I find myself staring at a blank screen, the words hit harder than on others — when words flow easily.
But I know reviewers have a tough task, too. Many of them, especially the ones on Amazon, are doing it as a labor of love. They’re making the effort to read books — some good, some bad, and some just OK. They have the right, just like everyone else, to have an opinion about a writer’s work. It may not be one you like, or flattering, or even fair. But it’s there. And it’s an opinion. And the fact that the good reviews are next to the bad ones reminds me of that old Kipling line about success and failure being the same impostors.
And to illustrate how fickle personal tastes are, I’m reminded of a review I once read for a promising writer. Here’s what part of it said:

“This is an awful book. … there is nothing of credit to his writing. It is devoid of any depth. Don’t waste your brain…”

You might have heard of the book in question. It’s called War and Peace.

 Posted by at 11:11 am
Sep 112012

Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi

Two stories this week made me think about the perilous state of free speech in India: One is the arrest on charges of sedition of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi; the other is older, but I was reminded of it by an excerpt of novelist Salman Rushdie’s memoir in the most-recent issue of The New Yorker.

First, the cartoon.
Trivedi is a 25-year-old cartoonist and anti-corruption activist. Two of his cartoons drew particularly strident responses, prompting a Mumbai lawyer to complain and leading to the charges against Trivedi.
In one, Ajmal Kasab, the Pakistani man convicted of carrying out the deadly 2008 terrorist attacks on Mumbai, is depicted as a dog urinating on the Indian Constitution (presumably, the complaint is that Kasab’s death sentence hasn’t yet been carried out). In another, India’s national symbol of three lions have morphed into wolves and the motto Satyamev Jayate (“The truth will triumph”) has been turned into Brashtamev Jayate (“Corruption will triumph”) — it’s a linguistic pun that makes more sense in Hindi.
Reaction to the cartoons has been mixed — even on Trivedi’s Facebook page.

One woman wrote:

“At least respect our national symbol! please dont make a joke with our prides..”

And that was one of the milder comments.

Trivedi was granted bail today, and he’s vowed to campaign against the nation’s British-era sedition laws.

“If telling the truth makes me a traitor, then I am one,” he’s said.

His story is hardly unique. As Soutik Biswas of the BBC has written:

“So, have Indians become more intolerant?
On the face of it, yes. In recent months, the chief minister of West Bengal state sent a professor to prison for emailing cartoons critical of her, there was a massive row over old cartoons showing Dalit icon BR Ambedkar and the government has been talking about curbs on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter”

Now, to the second story: Rushdie, the novelist, has a new memoir, Joseph Anton: A Memoir, an excerpt of which was published in The New Yorker. The excerpt deals with the novelist’s travails following the publication in 1988 of his most controversial novel, “Satanic Verses.” The book and that era hold a special memory for me. I remember going with my older sister to Folyle’s in London where they’d stocked the book behind the counter despite bomb threats. The line snaked through the store, a defiant public message if there ever were one.

In his memoir, Rushdie describes living life under a fatwa, in hiding, and not knowing if a day is your last. Mostly, he seems aggrieved that his novel was perceived more as an “insult” than a piece of literature. Of course, the book was banned in India, and Rushdie explains how that came about:

“Then, on Thursday, October 6th, his friend Salman Haidar, who was Deputy High Commissioner of India in London, called to tell him formally, on behalf of his government, that “The Satanic Verses” had been banned in India. The book had not been examined by any properly authorized body, nor had there been any semblance of judicial process. The ban came, improbably, from the Finance Ministry, under Section 11 of the Customs Act, which prevented the book from being imported. Weirdly, the Finance Ministry stated that the ban “did not detract from the literary and artistic merit” of his work. Thanks a lot, he thought.”

As we can see, things have changed little in the more than 20 years since that ban.
What does this means for India?
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees a free press and freedom of speech. India has no such guarantee. In fact, it allows for “reasonable restrictions in the interest of the general public.”
It’s easy, of course, to resort to that old saw, free speech good; restricted speech bad. But in India, everything is more complicated. A cartoon drawn with righteous indignation can lead to arrest on charges of sedition; an offhand remark can spark religious riots. Many Indians, including my friend and former editor Aakar Patel, believe India’s media should not have a U.S.-style free press. He has based his view on reporting on the 2002 Gujarat riots.
So should India’s laws allow artists and writers and cartoonists to be arrested when their work is deemed to be against the “interests of the general public”? Far be it for me to sit in the U.S. and prescribe what may or may not be good for India (for the record, I believe in Voltaire’s line: I disagree with what you say, but will defend unto death your right to say it), but surely laws governing the media and literature need to be re-examined by a country that prides itself on being the world’s largest democracy.

Jun 282012

What would Holmes be without Moriarty, Batman without the Joker and Jai and Veeru without Gabbar?
You can probably see where I’m going with this. How memorable can a character be if he doesn’t have a foil? The thought sprung from a recent remembrance by the retired American spy Milton Bearden in Foreign Policy magazine’s website.

The piece is an appreciation of his Soviet counterpart, Leonid Shebarshin, who killed himself in March. Bearden writes:

His death marks the end of an era, the passing of one of the most thoughtful, cultured, and effective leaders of the redoubtable Cold War KGB. He was a master spy, a central figure in the tumultuous half-century contest between the CIA and the KGB, and a true believer in the Soviet dream until the very end. He never wavered; he never apologized.

For much of the last decade of my CIA career, Shebarshin was the closest thing I had to a main adversary in the Soviet spy apparatus. (For you John le Carré fans out there, he was my Karla.) I met him only after we had retired, when our respective organizations were still trying to sort out all the body blows of treachery and betrayal we had taken in those last desperate years of Cold War rivalry.

In other words, could the CIA been what it was had it not been for the KGB goading it, pushing it, prodding in a decades-long game of chess across the sixty-four black and white squares on the map of the world. This has certainly been a theme in fiction, and an obvious parallel is the one Bearden himself mentions: Smiley and Karla.

The two men’s destinies are so interlinked that Karla keeps Smiley’s lighter given to him during their first meeting in New Delhi. And, when Smiley becomes chief, he keeps a photograph of his rival on the wall. Each man knows — in the case of Smiley discovers later — what his rival’s weakness is (one’s wife, another’s daughter), and seeks to exploit it for a triumph. But each also possesses a degree of respect that’s evident in the three main novels where they play off each other.

This respect and mutual antagonism is also evident in the relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty.

In the story the Final Problem, which Arthur Conan Doyle wrote ostensibly to kill off his hero, Holmes calls Moriarty “the Napoleon of Crime” (a title he shares with Macavity), and tells Watson:

You know my powers, my dear Watson, and yet at the end of three months I was forced to confess that I had at last met an antagonist who was my intellectual equal.

And while Moriarty appears in few Holmes stories and may have been created with the express intention of killing of the detective, his appearance in subsequent movies and pop culture make them an inseparable pairing. I would go as far as to say that while Watson serves as Holmes’ sounding board, the professor is what makes Holmes think.

So, in the best cases, the hero and the villain, at least a good, complex villain, are intellectual equals. That’s more than can be said about a detective’s relationship with his sidekick or any one of his romantic partners.

As the Joker tells Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight (and as any fictional hero or villain may tell his rival), “You complete me.”

Jun 192012

I wrote last week about crime statistics and crime fiction and how the relative absence of one from a particular society needn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t produce the other.
I revisited that thought last night as I read a blog post by the brilliant David Simon.

If you’ve known me for any length of time you’ve probably heard me rave about Simon’s The Wire. It’s my favorite TV show, not just because of its brilliant plot, performances and writing, but because it tells the story of a society in decline. Now, we often tend to gloss over the less appealing aspects of our cities, but The Wire not only stares those defects in the face, it forces us, the audience, to confront all that is wrong.
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