Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: The Butcher of Benares

Blame it on DaVinci Code. All of a sudden, thriller with a base of religion and mythology suddenly became my obsession. I have read my fair share of such books but I was trying to find something with an Indian background. The recently concluded 2nd Pune International Literature Festival managed to convince me to pick up the talked about book The Butcher of Benares by Mahendra Jakhar. While talking to the author, his detailed study intrigued me to read his debut novel.

After reading the prologue, I was hooked and within a span of one day, I finished the book. I believe the story has to have a linear thread, despite being set in different time frame or places. The readers should be made aware beforehand that the title is quite apt for the kind of blood and chilling scenarios presented in the book. You are introduced the protagonist, tough Jat cop from Delhi Crime Branch, Hawa Singh, who might look all brawn with his six foot plus height and hulk of a frame. But he also has some brains to match.

An incident from his path has given him a devil-may-care attitude, apart from a bullet lodged in his brain. He is in Benares, the heart of Hindu world, with his dying father Fauja Singh, whose way of dying is more hilarious than ever. Dying in Benares leads to moksha. And it here on Makar Sankranti that he discovers the floating body of an American woman, amidst the cries of Har Har Mahadev of the intimidating Naga Sadhu. She has a cross stake in her heart with the organ removed.

Hawa gets sucked into a murder mystery of a religious nature which involves the Vatican, the Benares royal family, Hinduism’s most formidable sects (Nagas and Aghoris, bitter rivals) and most important, a cunning cannibal on loose who will not stop at anything to prove his point. As Hawa gets entangled in this rather internationally religious plot, you also meet FBI agent Ruby Malik assisting the protagonist.

What pleasantly surprises the reader is the fact that the book has been well-researched. Whenever the mention of any religious or even historical fact arose, it does not bother you as something out of the fertile mind of the writer. Mahendra weaves these facts without letting the pace of the book down. The Naga sadhus led by an intriguing American Mahant named Baba Ramtirath create a terrifying vision, be it their fierce loyalty for their guru, utter disregard for worldly rules and just mere presence. On the other hand, you have the equally terrifying Aghori sadhus. Hardcore Shiva followers, the revered but mostly kept a hand’s length Aghoris are known to haunt cremation grounds, indulge in cannibalism and known to be masters of tantric art. With these two rival parties making appearances as suspects, you also have a suspicious Kashi naresh with an intelligent but maniac brother who happens to be an Aghori and a cannibal. In between you are introduced to a scheming evil opportunist entrepreneur-cum-politician and his deranged son.

It is these facts mixed with a linear pattern of fast-paced story-telling. Mahendra does not let the mystery or the plot slow down with soppy romantic plots or personal baggage. I found it refreshing clipped. I also found the character sketches on similar lines. The characters are not burdened with endless dramas. You can picture Hawa Singh’s personal battles while solving this case. His father is on another trip of finding death and moksha in the holy city, but it eludes him. So he is on another trip of enjoying life till it lasts. Be it FBI agent Ruby, the mysterious Kashi Naresh Abhay Singh or his Aghori brother Manavendra, the very mysterious Baba Ramtirath, or even minor characters like SSP Neeraj Thakur, each make an impression.

I would prefer calling the language to be perfect for the kind of story The Butcher of Benares is. Mahendra has used simple language with the scenes to be created effortlessly before your eyes. You see Benares in a different light here. Holy is one word which always comes here, but eerie and dark will soon come to your mind. Whether Hawa and Ruby tried to pick up clues or episodes leading up the next victim, all episodes come out with ease.

I have always been a big crime thriller fan, along with mythology and religious stories. It is probably because all these offer me the thrill to picture the written word or figure how it would be. One would call The Butcher of Benares to be quite a heady combination of all these genres. At the end, I was just glad to pick it up for a relaxed Sunday. Mahendra Jakhar, take a bow.

P.S: Benares happens to be on my must-visit places list for quite some time. The book allowed me visit the place without even stepping out of my room.

Title: The Butcher of Benares
Writer: Mahendra Jakhar
Genre: Crime Thriller
Publisher: Westland
Price: Rs 350 (Paperback)

Friday, September 12, 2014

An act in mask

Theatre lovers in Pune are in for a treat as this Sunday at Arc Asia, Koregaon Park where an unusual play unfolds in front of the patrons. Music Matters will present A Tale of Two Treaties which is a Commedia Dell’Arte play for the first time in Pune. One man with ten masks will tell a story of love, betrayal, vengence and more with lots of hilarious results. While the one man army behind the play is Deepal Doshi, Music Matters is run by the young Arthur Fernandes and Chantelle Cabral. Commedia Dell’Arte happens to a popular and influential Italian form of masked theatre from 16th century. Here, you have masks, improvisation, physical comedy and grotesque humour and also meet archetypes.

Deepal Doshi
Deepal’s foray in physical theatre began at Grotowski-based school in Sweden, where he learned Commedia Dell’Arte for three weeks. “I immediately found an affinity to the world of masks. My teacher then suggested me to study physical theatre in California at Dell'Arte International School Of Physical Theatre. I studied here for 3 years. Here is where I studied forms like Commedia Dell'Arte, Clowning, Melodrama, Tragedy, Buffoun, Devising, Adaptation work. At the end of school, I was working as a freelance artist directing shows, acting and teaching in the US, Sweden and Bali.”

We return to A Tale of Two Treatise. After taking the decision to come to India in 2012, doing something in Commedia Dell’Arte was running through his head. “I tried to look up on the internet and asked friends if they knew of anyone doing Commedia Dell’Arte in India and unfortunately I couldn’t find any. I was averted to the idea of starting with a workshop or beginning by teaching about Commedia Dell’Arte to introduce the form in India. So I decided to experiment with this form. Even though Commedia Dell’Arte is an ensemble form, I decided to create a one-man show. I wanted to challenge myself just the way the form challenges the actor to create a piece of work that engages, entertains and inspires. I was all set to perform this show in Mumbai at The Hive, where I met Chantelle Cabral with Arthur Fernandes. Unfortunately the rains destroyed the make-shift roof and the show was cancelled but a small chat with Chantelle and her partner was enough to inspire the three of us to collaborate. They introduced me to the possibility of performing at Arc Asia in Pune. Since I haven’t performed for a Pune audience, we thought this might be a great way to premiere this show here.”

Speaking about Music Matters, Chantelle reveals, “Our company is into very innovative events indeed. And creating a new path and opening out a new horizon of innovation for the people to see, take part in and experience. All our events are organised on our own and we also work along with like-minded people. We are blessed to come in contact, work with, or associate with the people who share the same thought of experimenting with interesting ideas that are out of the box.”
For any artiste, his creations hold something special for him to do it. For Deepal, it is the engaging world of masks. “What excites me the most is the experience that the show transcends from one actor playing ten characters to an entertaining story of these eccentric characters that entertains the audiences. This performance demands a lot of energy and everytime it creates a magical space where I feed off the audience energy and throw it back at them creating a “play” in every sense of the word. My memory of Puneris has been of fun and enthusiasm ans I have a feeling that that’s what they will have on Sunday. The show in Arc Asia is not just a performance but an entire evening of great food, great wine and a wild theatrical experience.”

This Mumbai-based actor, creator, director and educator has travelled all over learn various works
Chantelle Cabral & Arthur Fernandes 
like Commedia Dell’Arte, Clown, Melodrama, Mime, Tragedy. “I teach workshops and master classes for acting professionals as well as students in U.S.A, Sweden, India and Indonesia. I am currently performing this one man show directed by Kathryn Doshi as well as It’s Not Waht You Tihnk, a three person original devised  Commedia Dell'Arte play, written and directed by me.”
For Deepal, the thing that enthrals him about theatre is its essence from his point of view. “The performer shares a unique emotional and intellectual vulnerability with his/her audience in an exclusive time and space that they have agreed to be in together. I believe the experience of an audience watching physical theatre is profoundly visceral as much as it is intellectual and emotional.  In all the work I create and aspire to create, I am always questioned by my sub-conscious “What is it about your theatre Deepal that film cannot recreate?”. I believe this forms the basis of my work and the inspiration for me devoting myself to theatre.”

Regarding Music Matters which has base in Pune, Mumbai and Goa, along with events in Nashik, Delhi and worldwide, Chantelle speaks, “We are always open to moving to where ever we are needed. We always have done our best to have the most successful events and got very positive responses from them. The only tough part we find is to talk to people and introduce concepts that haven’t been done before. Innovative Events, Drum Circles, Artist Management and so much more... keeping Music as a constant base, we work around.”

They makes sure that they give back to society as much as they can. “At the end, if you believe and faith in what you do, leave the rest to nature and you shall see it all fall in place at its own time. You do what you love doing and you will never have to work for the rest of your life, and that’s what we do.”

VENUE: Arc Asia, ABC Farms, North Main Road, Koregaon Park
DATE: September 14th, 2014
TIME: Cocktails at 7pm and Showtime at 9pm
TICKET & INFO: 9860088475

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Visiting PVR Bluo

I am always sceptical about places which have so many things woven into one. One is not sure of whether it stays true to anything. While Pune is flooded with new places of entertainment and eateries, I refused to be allowed to be the donkey made to travel all over with a carrot in the front. And in this state, I was called to check out a new place in town – PVR bluO at Phoenix Market City at Nagar Road. Three words proved to be THE word of attraction – Bowling Alley, Complete Entertainment and Good Food. Psst... bluO happens to be a bowling chain and the one here is indeed quite big.

Located on the lower level and spread over quite some area, what interested me was the fact that the area was not lumped together for just one thing. While a large area was given to the bowling area and the eating & drinks area, the cubicles were divided into private sitting areas, karaoke area, games area, and area for parties of all kinds.
I started to discover the place by checking out the specialised cubicles. I was glad to note that the area was well-divided and even an area for collectibles. One only felt that the area could have been a bit brighter, though it was not like you have a blackout here. It just needs more illumination than provided. But this could be a personal view. It’s a good thing that the various cubicles allowed privacy.
As I moved around, I found the place to be crowded but it was not claustrophobic. An in-house DJ played good techno music, but one is afraid that it might be turned towards boring item songs. The bowling alley – the main attraction - was quite large indeed. Special shoes are provided for those who want to play and it was quite fun to see people enjoy.

I was more interested in the food, as unlike other places with gaming as a major part and food relegated to the last, here good food is given prominent place. There is an actual qualified chef heading the kitchen here and had arranged for all kinds of world cuisine along with Indian.
I first sampled the Aloo Chutney Waale, a tangy dish with a twist to a typical aloo chaat. The Sheesh Touk was an interesting middle-east kebab. Though it tasted more like any spicy tikka, it still made you want to eat more with the yoghurt dip provided.
Now that my taste buds were tempted, I went ahead to eat the Chinese BBQ Chicken – a certified winner. I loved the way the BBQ sauce was in right consistency and the chicken was well-cooked. The best part is the way it was presented – on a fork to be eaten while you played. All you aloo tikki fans will be happy to find Dilli Style Aloo Tikki. It was as authentic as one got in Delhi and came with three dippings. The taste came out perfect.
Since the A/C air was pretty chilly for me, I tried the Chicken Pepper Fry which was just like it sounds and so much better. I loved the way the tender chicken went well with the pepper marination. Its finger food which you pop while chatting with friends or bowl around. The eating session went on to BluO Special Nachos which was a better version of the typical nachos you find everywhere else. But I found the Peri Peri chicken Satay to be usual... tasty, yes.
I prefer passing Masala Spring Roll, while the Garlic Bread Platter to be a great option for having a bite, literally. All the three – Caramalised Onion and Sour Cream, Leeks and Cherry Tomato Compote and Roasted Bell Pepper and Balsamic – were an unusual topping but quite tempting. Though there was a complete bar, I preferred avoiding it. But it might be an attraction for many.

To be honest, I expected PVR bluO to be just another bowling alley. But it turned out to be a complete package. You can hang out with family, friends, on your own or for just about anything. It might be on a loud side, due to the music and the fact that its attraction is bowling. If you can deal with it, you can head to Phoenix Market City in a jiffy.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review: Zindagi Ke Martbaan Se – Poetic Reflections From The Jar Of Life

I confess that despite being a literature student and also taking Hindi as one of my subjects during my graduation days, poetry has always brought out mixed emotions. You either liked it or scrapped through it for the marks. And there were people like me who oscillated in between. While travelling on the path of writing authentic impersonal reviews, I chanced upon this book of poetry by Kuhoo Gupta who describes herself as a born singer, an IITian and a Gulzar fan. Her poetry book, Zindagi Ke Martbaan Se – Poetic Reflections From The Jar Of Life, is a collection of 79 poems written in a very conversational fashion. The Hindi verses have Urdu and English mixed in it.

Thanks to my previous shaky connections with poetry, I made an attempt to truly appreciate the varied topics and emotions covered by Kuhoo in her debut book. So, we meet love (loads of it), nostalgia, remembrance (that too in kilos), emotions and many random topics. You do feel that these poems have been written during an emotional phase. The sentimentality has a touch of contemporary via the use of modern lingo. So, you have poems like ATM, Teri Wali Nas (vein), Kasam Se, Khushboo, Parvaah, Grand Canyon, Hourglass, Mansuba, Aadatan, Tera Pehla Bosaa, Betakkalufi, Metro Station, Zindagi Mausiki Hai, Ranjishe, Fasle, Pehli Mulakat, Khudgarz, Bhawandar, Gehrahee, Ehsaas, Technology, Immortal and Kitaab.

One can notice a certain impression of Gulzar’s shaayari on her style as it is colloquial, simple and at times, profound. One still has to read a lot from Kuhoo to make her stronger connection with the legend. One can appreciate the fact that her poems display a certain maturity, though she has a tendency to go a little too philosophical in the matters of the heart. But she has not kept herself limited in that sense. There is that poem on global warming or on quitting smoking and even on what the mind wants to.

It is the language which might interest you all. It is a reflection of the GenX wherein Kuhoo uses Hindi mixed with Urdu and a word or two of English. Many of us who have departed from Hindi language after school might be happy to know that the language here is simple. But allow yourself to understand the deeper meanings. One of the smartest thing done is you can find the meaning of some of the Urdu words used at the bottom of each poems.

I had a few favourites. One, titled Bhawandar, speaks of being caught in a swirl wind of sorts and her need to find a place to speak to herself. Another of my favourites happens to Gehrai which wonderfully speaks of trying to find the meaning of relations and finding its depth. My personal favourite is Illma – a two line poem of trying to find the depth of others but not sure of their own. I loved the fact that the length of poems is varied but the meaning it is trying convey is sublime.

Kuhoo Gupta’s maiden attempt at poetry and Hindi one at that too is worth taking notice. Zindagi Ke Martbaan Se – Poetic Reflections From The Jar Of Life is a note-worthy pick, but only if you have the patience and nature to understand what she wants to say. We would look forward to more attempts but purely in Hindi.

Writer: Kuhoo Gupta
Publisher: Notion Press
Price: Rs 260
Genre: Fiction
January 2014

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