Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Altaf Tyrewala

It was January 2008. We were in the north Italian city of Turin for an event organised by an Italian literary foundation, Grinzane. I had asked Altaf Tyrewala for an interview and finally we got around doing it during a bus journey as we were going out for some lunch. Lavanya Shankaran, who was sitting behind us didn’t realise that it was an interview and I was recording it and she also joined in the conversation. I was so happy since the discussion was very stimulating and I was imagining that my recorder is recording her voice as well. Unfortunately that was not the case I can only hear some of her words. I vaguely remember what she said but that is not enough to re-construct her part of dialogue and I regret that immensely.

Here are some excerpts from the transcript of that discussion. The symbols are AT for Altaf Tyrewala, LS for Lavanya Shankaran and SD for me, Sunil Deepak.

AT: I like reading something that has been stripped to the bare essentials. I am almost incapable of enduring descriptions, etc. Anything that assumes that I don’t know ... I read the internet, I try to remain clued in to the world. What I like to read is something that I can not access as an information.

SD: Have you read anything by Agota Kristof like her trilogy of city of K? When I read your book (No God in Sight), after the first chapter I had thought of Agota Kristof. She is Hungerian and lives in Switzerland. She is old now. She writes short books and her chapters are like your’s. Few lines, just bare essential. And yet, she can evoke strong feelings with her few words.

AT: Considering that we are living in a wired world, half of my readings happen on internet so brevity is of extreme importance. Even in my day to day life, when I read books and magazines, I like things to be as concise and as essential as possible. Of course I understand that there is certain advantage in longivity as well, when some thing is dealt with in great depth, I am open to that also.
SD: When we were getting in the bus, you said something about your wife. Did she know you as a writer or as a person before you became ...?

AT: I was a poor graduate student in America when we met. We were studying together. She thinks that I completely misrepresented myself (laughs) because I turned out to be a writer. But because she has seen me before I was a writer, she is an immensely grounding presence in my life. It would have been so easy to float up in this writerly universe ..but she keeps on reminding me that don’t forget ...

LS: That is very wise thing you are saying... sensible, to keep your feet on the ground ..it is important that the spouse is not a writer otherwise ... writers are whackoos (laughs)... very difficult to have another writer in the house...
You can read the full interview on Kalpana by clicking on this link.

Monday, 21 April 2008

A lazy spring sunday

Soon it will be two years since Atam came to Bologna. She has finally found the job she likes. They have also bought their first car, about a month ago. It is a pale yellow Ypsilon. And days pass so quickly. I was thinking all this yesterday morning. We should celebrate, I proposed. May be we can go to eat out in a place I have found, Marco said, they make unbelievably huge pizzas.

While taking out Brando for his morning walk I discovered that our social centre was holding a cyclist meet. They do it by turns. A group of cyclists, mostly men in their seventies, hosting the meeting organise groups of volunteers offering drinks, cakes and other refreshments. Other groups of cyclists from near and far converge, enjoy refreshments and then all go out the explore the surrounding areas. Yesterday it was our local cyclists who were playing hosts and people came from as far as 150 km, around 1800 persons in all. Making cakes and refreshments for all of them must have been a huge affair, but I didn't hear anyone complaining.

Each group of cyclists wearing their group colours and logos looked great. One fellow who came to rest near me, told me that he had a hip transplant last year and this was his first cycle trip after the surgery. I think that it is wonderful way to keep friends and spend time together.

Back from the walk I cooked some afghani chole and then made "panch phoren aloo". I discovered the receipe on a food blog. Panch phoren is a mix of five spices used commonly in Bengal. I love some of these food blogs, they are really good at explaining recipes. Both chole and aloo turned out to be quite good. Then it was time to relax and watch "U, Me aur Hum", the first film of Ajay Devgan as a director.

I think that Devgan can be great director of serious films. His handling of serious scenes is good and some of the scenes are like tear-gas, with a wonderful Kajol. I didn't like the first half and though I like the song "maine to maanga tha.." and Kajol in it, I think that it was placed very badly in the film. Their young son has just risked dying and Devgan has probably come back from hospital, to see Kajol dancing in that scene was kind of cruel.

The afternoon was our picnic time. We went to the park for a family walk. There the group of elderly persons had organised their food festival, so we couldn't stop ourselves from eating some nice greasy local piadina-bread with ham, salami, etc. The park is so lovely with all kind of flowers, so I took lot of pictures.

As we came back home, we are both tired and full. The idea of going out to eat Pizza was no longer apealing. May be another day, we consoled Marco. I am reading a book by Alexander McCall Smith about a scottish philosopher. Going back to sofa and reading the book was a perfect way to end the beautiful sunday.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Age and desirability

I was with a friend and we were talking about the most beautiful Italians. I told him about a blog post I had written some time ago about my favourite Italian sex symbols and that I had put Alba Parietti and Sabrina Ferrilli in my top list.

"What?" he said horrified, "but they are old!!!"

"OK, I also had Monica Bellucci in that list", I added.
"She is also too old for this kind of thing now. You have to look for some one younger!" He insisted.
"There are really hot east European babes", the bar man added helpfully, providing details about the contortions they can do in some porn videos.

"They are not women, they are just meat. And anyway they are not Italian and we exclude porn stars from this classification", my friend clarified.

So there I was trying all kinds of combinations on Google to find out the top young models that Italians love today. Unsurprisingly, there is no unanimity.

Actually quite a lot of them seem to root for Martina Colombari, born in 1975, she was Miss Italy in 1991 and is still considered as one of the best models here. In 2006, in a pool on the best Miss Italy of all times, she was number one.

She does look great but I don't think that she is that young, like my friend was insisting.

Many others think that Carla Bruni is the best Italian top model of all times. Born in 1967 and now married to the French president Sarkozy, even Ms. Bruni is also not very young.

Two other names were mentioned on some websites - Marta Cecchetto and Federica Ridolfi. Ms. Ridolfi was in some recent list of top 100 most desirable women of the world compiled by Askmendotcom. Yet, born in 1974, Ms. Ridolfi is 34.

Marta Cecchetto, the other person often mentioned was born in 1978.

Finally a group of Italian journalists asked to identify the woman they would like to see nude on a calendar, gave the maximum votes to Ilaria d'Amico, a TV presenter but their choice had not so much to do with age, as with the fact that Ms. Ilaria refuses to have top less or nude pictures.

So in the end does it matter what year persons are born? Anyway, I feel that desiring a person has much more to do with the perceived personality of the person than just measurements of breasts or hips, etc. My wife keeps on saying that she finds Sean Connery, who must be seventy now, sexy. So there is hope for all of us, over the hill, but still somehow sexy and desirable, to the people who matter most to us! And I will stick with my Ferrilli and Parietti, thankyou.


Saturday, 12 April 2008

Vote for Zappatero

It is election time in Italy. If I only could, I would vote for Zappatero. The way his government has gone towards reforms is stuff for day-dreams in other countries where frustrated voters are sick of their governments that can't decide on anything. Like the law on people living together rather than getting married, including the same-sex couples that Zappatero could get through. In Italy they started with Dicos, then tried Pacos and in the end, gave up the idea because the centre parties that have strong catholic public image, felt that it would discriminate against regular heterosexual families.

The way last Prodi government had been functioning was so frustrating with its thin majority. Every member of the coalition with a handful of parliament seats threatened to quit if they didn't like something. Mastella with his 3-4 parliament seats and Dini with two seats, did it so often. Mastella finally brought the government down and it came out that he had received assurances from the opposition leader Berlusconi about getting a minister seat in the new government. It was disgusting and the public disapporval against Mastella is so strong that he has finally decided to "retire".

So you can understand my fondness for Zappatero. The only problem is that he is too handsome. I am a little distrustful of the handsome public leaders. Just think of what Blair did, turning into wagging tail of Bush. Or what Bill Levinsky Clinton did. Thus if Zappatero first was good, Zappatero bis may be too much. And then there is Nicholas Sarkozy, a post-modernist nightmare of a prime minister.

Anyway back to the Italian elections. Suddenly people seem distrustful of small parties and small leaders, each of whom gets a few seats and then tries to influence the government. At least I hope so, and that everyone would vote for a main party that can govern the country.

Where I live is a red area of Bologna. Actually the whole city of Bologna has the reputation of being red, in the sense that it has been a stronghold of left parties, for a long time with communitists and later on with centre-left coalitions. Now it is the new left, democratic party of Veltroni, that is the flavour of the season. Last year in October they held the primaries to choose their boss and this was a first in Italy, since usually parties choose their own leaders and don't ask people to vote and elect their leaders. More than 3 million persons voted for Veltroni. Since it is a red area, strong hold of left parties, all election posters of northern league, christian democrats and right parties are missing from the billboards. Probably enthusiastic supporters go out in the night to take down all such posters.

Still some of the posters are really funny. Like this one from northern league, that is the nationalist party of the north of Italy, that does not want emigrants. There poster has a red Indian on it.

"They didn't have rules to control emigration and now they are forced to live in reserves, think about it" it says. But they were all European emigrants, I wanted to tell the northern league leader, Africans, Asian emigrants, they didn't kill civlizations and put people in reserve areas! But I don't think that he wants to listen. The poster is both funny and communicating and in the end, that is what matters.

Sex is another theme of elections that continues to surprise me. Not the puritanical Clinton-Levinsky kind of sex, it is more open and ribald. Like the northern league famous for its "Lega c'è l'ha duro", meaning, "League has it hard" and is just going screw you.

Ms. Santanché, prime ministerial candidate of extreme right, snubbed by Berlusconi, reacted by saying "He wants me to give it to him but I am not, he can dream and die for it." Mr. Berlusconi himself, famous for putting his foot in his mouth every so often, has been trying to keep a check on himself this time. Last time he had announced that for the elections, for one month he was going to give up sex, implying that nearing seventy, he was still having it regularly and thus not too old to be a prime minister.

But it is the pornostars who catch attention every time during elections. Ilona Staller & Moana Pozzi, both pornostars were parliament members for the radical parties almost a decade ago. Both had scandalised for refusing to give up their wayward ways even after entering the parliament by continuing their work in hardcore porn, saying that it was their job and they had every rtight to go on with it. At least Moana was intelligent and able to speak articulately! Now we have Ms. Milly D'Abbraccio, another porn star standing for the socialist party. Her poster in Rome created some more scandal.

"Basta con queste facce da c...", the poster uses a common Italian proverb, "facce da culo" that means "ass-faces" and so in a poster showing her well rounded ass, Ms. D'Abbraccio says, "enough of ass faced" parliamentarians, vote for a more beautiful face. Embarrassed, the socialist leaders vain about their 114 year old history were stuttering their explanations about the poster.

Veltroni and Prodi were in Bologna the other day. Veltroni has choosen the slogan of Barack Obama, "Si può fare", it can be done. Initially all surveys showed the predictions that Berlusconi was ahead by ten points. Now Veltroni is going around saying that he is the new thing in Italian politics, he is running alone, no arrangements with any party and he has been elected by the people and he is young, only 54. Berlusconi is dismissive.

Personally I liked the speech of Anna Finocchiaro, wearing the red cross-checked coat in this picture, along with Prodi and Veltroni. She is simple and effective and to have a woman prime minister won't be bad. But she is not in the race for the prime minister. Bersani, the other minister of Prodi government who was there for the meeting is admired for the series of liberalisation measures he was able to push through in spite of the protests by the different unions.

And this time PD, democratic party is proposing industrials and professionals as candidates, not just union leaders and mechanics. So what will happen in the elections? We are all waiting to discover.

PS: Maybe Mayawati can ask for a ban on Zappatero? It means "shoe-maker" or a mochi.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


It is still a little cold but the sunlight is blinding. Little after the Ethruscan museum we turn towards the mountains. The road crosses over the Rhine (Reno) and then starts climbing up. These are not real mountains, they are only around 400 to 700 meters high, but winter must have been real tough here. In Bologna, the trees are already full of flowers while here the first leaves are just struggling to burst out of wintery skeletons of the trees. The new grass has that lovely shining green colour that looks velvety. When we read the top of the crossing between San Martino and Casaglia (pronounced Cazalia), the endless hills look wonderful and far away we get glimpses of the highway with cars rushing over it.

It is so beautiful. The first ruins of the church and the houses in San Martino, look like the antique Ethruscan ruins. They all seem to be white-washed, all clean and blindingly white. There are no signs of bombs that were thrown here, of machine guns that had killed so many, fires that blazed. Did they scream? Those old men and women and children? Did they ask for pity from the young Nazi soldiers?

Pietro, our neighbour told me about the tragedy in Marzabotto. Around end of September in 1944, German soldiers killed a total of 771 persons in the villages here. Perhaps they were angry and frustrated, they were losing the war and partisans from Marzabotto were hiding in the hills and attacking them regularly. They took out their anger on children, women and elderly, who were left at home. Among the dead were 315 women and 189 children below 12 years.
In Casaglia, they killed the priest Don Ubaldo Marchioni in the church below. Other persons hiding in the church were marched to the cemetry near by. The door of the church was blown out by a bomb. It seems difficult to belive all of it happened in this calm and beautiful place. The grass is bursting with tiny margerita flowers and air is thick with smell of flowers.

The cemetry is around 250 meters from the church. It is a small and simple place, with a few broken down tomb stones and some old pictures fixed to the wall. A board outside the cemetry says:

Hitler said, "We have to be cruel, we have to do with our conscience in peace, we have to destroy technically and scientifically." A survivor of the killings says,"29-30 September and 1 October 1944 were the worst days, even if some killings continued even after these days. Early in the morning I could see 54 houses burning. There was a group of them applying fire to the houses. We had all gathered in the square in front of the church. We were told that nazi and fascist soldiers were coming but their fight was with partisans and elderly, women and children could stay in the church. They broke open the door, we were all forced to come out and they beat many of us, laughing all the time. The priest was killed near the altar. We were led to the cemetry. Inside they started to fire at us. We were trying to hide behind the wooden crosses and the tombs. They were firing low so as to kill the children also. They also threw in some bombs." A total of 195 persons including 50 children were killed in the cemetry.

Afterwards we went to the sacrario in Marzabotto, where the bodies of 771 persons are buried. Pietro used to come here. His sister, sister-in-law and father are buried here. The day they were killed Pietro's 14 year old sister wanted to come away with them but Pietro had stopped her. Sister-in-law was pregnant, almost in the ninth month and could need help, he had said, you stay here, you are only a child, the soldiers won't do any thing to you. "I got her killed, she coould have been saved", he would say.

As we sat in sacrario to remember Pietro, my mind was wondering to remember all those persons I knew and who are dead. My friends, my maasi, my buas.
And, I was wondering about the killings in India, like the 1984 killings in Delhi, like 1992 killings in Bombay, like 2002 killings in Gujarat, like the on-going killings in Kashmir and in so many places. Most of the time in India, the killers from such massacres are never brought to jail, the persons killed are never acknowledged. At least Pietro had the satisfaction of history condemning those nazi soldiers, some of them were brought to trials. The memory of those dead is honoured and there bodies are buried in sacrario, this monument to those killed. In India, none of this happens. How do the families, the children, live with this knowledge, with this burden and pain?
In India, most of the times these bodies will be cremated. There is no place identified with the person who is no longer there. The person becomes invisible, and memories are only that, memories without places to bind them into. Does that has some thing to do with the way we remember our dead and we ask for justice for them?
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