Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Chokkan's Rahman and Battling Mediocrity in Tamil (India)

After my recent blogs on Devyani Khobragade and Charu I heard the same sickening litany of "you are bashing India", "you are being excessively dismissive", "you don't give credit", "you blindly adore the West", "does not mediocrity exist in America" and much more.

On my last day at work in Chennai my much respected Managing Director (MD) had a chat with me. He opened by saying "you will see enough mediocrity in USA too". He was and is true. Hopefully for the last time let me say I am well aware of Western mediocrities and Western hypocrisies. But If that is all there is in USA I, and the millions who feign love for India that they willingly and gladly chose to leave, would have left sometime back. Or maybe I'd not have come at all.

I am accused of stereotyping and being dismissive with a prejudiced mind. I wish I was proven wrong time and again. But I am proven right many times, if not every time. N.Chokkan's biography of A.R.Rahman is another time I am proven right, sadly. It is an exercise in sheer incompetence in not just subject matter but in even the basic issue of 'writing a book'. Littered with mis-translations, fictional moments, grotesque errors in Tamil and mostly stringing together of internet based 'research' and gossips from film magazines.

Before I go further I am really perplexed as to whether I am over-reacting to such things instead of ignoring or are others so blind out of whatever reason? The only reason I write blogs like this, instead of really interesting one on why Gandhi's travel in third class compartment is a path breaking moment or how Obama's politics of envy needs an Ayn Rand to counter , is because nothing irritates me more than mediocrity being passed as 'good'. I don't mind mediocrity existing. When mediocrity is held up as "good job" an irrepressible emotion to scream "enough" wells up within me. Maybe its because I am human.

In my current obsession with research in literature today a Facebook discussion tempted me into browsing this book. I cannot read it in full lest it harm my sanity. The discussion centered around Chokkan's use of imagination to 'dramatize' events especially in variance to what factually happened. Of course I chimed in saying that there is no place for 'fictional dramatization' in a biography. A person posted a wikipedia link about 'creative non-fiction' and said it is "quite common in cover stories of New Yorker". I am not much of a New Yorker reader owing to its strident left wing liberalism. But I can say that no other magazine of repute does 'creative non-fiction' in cover stories. Interestingly the wikipedia article states in the very first line that creative non-fiction is a genre of writing that uses literary 'styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives'. In cover stories even anonymous quotes are corroborated with a third source for veracity and when such verification is not possible the reader is explicitly told so. There is no room for literary license. There is no such thing. 

Chokkan had dramatized, without any proof, that Rahman was serene before the Oscar awards were chosen. He claims it is 'dramatization'. It has no place in a biography. Actually Rahman was fluttered because he also had to perform two songs during the Oscar awards function. All other nominees were only musicians and only watched or conducted the song they were nominated for. Rahman was a singer too. One of the awards was announced right after his second song ended. Rahman ascended the stage breathlessly muttering 'this is crazy'. If my memory is wrong my apologies. But anyway Rahman's serenity was cooked up.

Bang the first sentence in the first page gets it wrong as "And the oscar goes to.... அறிவிப்பாளர்".... ஐயா எழுத்தாளரே there is a difference between "announcer" versus "presenter". Oscar Awards are 'presented' by stars not 'announced' by 'announcers'. I am sure everyone will pounce at me as nitpicking. This is my standard for anything that seeks to be called "book" or somebody who is referred to as "author". 

Then comes how Satyajit Ray was "waiting for this award lifelong". Oscar speech of Satyajit Ray is available on youtube. He only expresses happiness getting the best award and a magnificent award. The remark is presented within quotes which, in a non-fiction book, means "verbatim" exact quote. Not 'as understood' by the language challenged author. Even A.R.Rahman speaks in pedestrian normal Indian English the quote gets garbled in translation setting a new standard for 'lost in translation'. Many would say I am nitpicking the very mild shade of difference in translation. Again No. Remember he is NOT translating a Virgil phrase or Hamlet soliloquy but just Rahman's simple English.

When Rahman's name is announced Hollywood responds with affectionate loud applause that the author, to heighten drama about an Indian, changes to "applauded politely". ஐயா ஹாலீவுட் என்ன கோடம்பாக்கமா குத்தாட்டம் போட. Watch the Youtube video.

நானா தமிழ் வெறுப்பாளன்? புற்றுநோயை கேன்ஸர் (that too not கான்செர். He has to use the Grantha 'sa'. Note:I've nothing against Grantha letters where they are required) என்று எழுதும் தமிழ் எழுத்தாளரல்லவா தமிழ் விரோதி

A slight anachronism. Ray got his award in April 1992. Roja was released only in August 1992. So ARR was not in filmdom. The slight possibility is Mani Ratnam had signed him up in April. I doubt that.

For a person writing on a musician the following passage grates my senses "ஆங்கிலத்தில் Music Conductor  அல்லது  Music Arranger  என்று சொல்லுவார்கள். ஒரு பாடலை ஒழுங்கு படுத்தி பிறகு அதை குடலாப்பிரேஷன் செய்து...". இதை விட இசையைப்பற்றி மொன்னையாக யாராவது எழுத முடியுமா?

He alleges that until monk like Ilayaraja came music directors were drunkards. First of all Ilayaraja in the 70's was not a monk. It was a later garb. Does he mean to say K.V.Mahadevan and M.S.Viswanathan were drunkards? Not even Raja and Rahman would say that. 

Talking about Rahman's father Sekar dying young Chokkan writes "எதிரிகள் சூனியம் வைத்து விட்டதாக சொல்லுகிறவர்களும் உண்டு. இதெல்லாம் நிஜமோ பொய்யோ தெரியாது". A Facebook friend (not real life friend) who quibbled about Chokkan using fictional narratives warmly said, after all that, "you have sweated to do research". Is this what passes for research? If I start listing good English books on Beatles, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash etc I'd be called 'names dropper'. 

This is why I lament our people should get comfortable in reading English books. Then they would read good books and possibly could write something in Tamil that is remotely good. Rahman used composing music for ads as a ''நெட் ப்ராக்டீஸ்". Charu worries about biologists speaking in English. I worry about Tamil writers killing. So this is not ignorance or a 'slip'. This is arrogance. "I can dish muck and the Tamil reader will lap it up uncomplainingly". A friend in North Carolina once recounted a shocking incident about an Indian grocery store owner. The store was very dirty and my friend asked the owner why not clean it. The owner replied "who cares. People will still buy here". From dirty Indian restaurants to grocery stores to Tamil books this is the attitude. 

Speaking of how Rahman adopted different style in Telugu Chokkan says "ஆந்திரா குத்து வேறு அங்கே திடும் திடும் ஸ்டெப்புலுகளுக்கு மவுசு ஜாஸ்தி". And people call ME 'stereotyping'. That kind of racist language in a book that is being hawked as biography and not a single person to call him out.

The narrative is uneven. He probably calls it non-linear. In second chapter Sekar, Rahman's dad, enchants Kerala and worries about dying leaving behind his family. The first paragraph of 3rd chapter then starts with Sekar getting married and enchanting Kerala, again. Rahman was born a Hindu and then converted to Islam taking the new name Rahman. There is no clarity on referring to Rahman as Dileep.

Chokkan exults in Time magazine listing Rahman's 'Roja' songs one of the top 10 soundtracks. He enthuses that never before an Indian music director was honored thus. True. But a biographer has to rise above regurgitating a factual nugget. If my not giving credit for that 'research' is being cynical then so be it. In the era of google I'll not give much 'credit' for research. It took me 2 minutes to get that exact link from Time magazine (http://entertainment.time.com/2005/02/12/all-time-100-movies/slide/roja/). A biographer would and should put a fact in perspective for the reader. While Rahman's international accolades are justifiable lets not forget that many other worthy or worthier people were passed over because India had not yet arrived on the global scene. Rahman's global acclaim and fame is also the result of a globalized era. The Oscars, in typical American fashion, was the last to recognize the worthy in India. Thats why Satyajit Ray, feted in Europe, was given an Oscar on his deathbed. Literally.

By the way nowhere in the book does Chokkan grasp the genius of what Rahman achieved in 'Roja' like Richard Corliss does in that very short Time magazine blurb. Don't give me nonsense about "oh Tamil reader will not understand such language". அது போன்ற மொண்ணை சால்ஜாப்பு சொல்கிறவர்கள் தான் தமிழ் வாசகனை செருப்பால் அடிக்கிறார்கள். நான் இல்லை. இன்னும் சொல்லப்போனால் என்னைவிட தமிழ் வாசகனுக்கு சிறந்தவொரு நண்பன் இல்லை. 

A biography is not just a summary of dates, events, list of awards and gossip etc. I love and admire Rahman much more than Raja. But it is my strong opinion that Rahman's song in Kaadhalan "Pettai Rap" is an insult, a full frontal assault, on the 'idea' of music. It is unapologetic and unabashedly lumpen. I don't expect an author to echo my ideas (or prejudices) but I did not see much by way of criticism. But then that needs knowledge of the subject and a finer incisive intellect.

I may have hundreds of differences with Jeyamohan but I respect him as an intellectual adversary worth engaging. I respect Jeyamohan for what he is trying to do with Mahabharatham (though I'd still carp about some aspects). Ever since Jeyamohan started that series he says his web traffic has increased multi-fold. I've seen many friends post that they will resolve to read as he posts each episode. Many in fact said they would make an 'effort' to understand. On the other hand we have Chokkan whose only aim is to pollute cyber space with a free e-book. எளிமை படுத்துவது என்பது வேறு மலினப்படுத்துவதென்பது வேறு. இந்த புத்தகம் மலினப்படுத்துவதென்பதையும் தாண்டி கீழ்மையான ஒன்று. 

Oh and please don't give me the "we don't have money like American authors". There are many Hollywood movies that can easily be produced in India today but they will not even be made. In a country that has a god for education and a day to celebrate teachers India will never produce a movie like "To Sir with love". William Shirer was down and out in life when he started researching and writing 'The rise and fall of the Third Reich". J.K.Rowling wrote 'Harry Potter' sitting in coffee shops. 

I don't know what is going on in the Tamil publishing world. Apart from a few books by Jeyamohan, Nanjil, S.Ra, Charu and few others all the rest that was published in the past 10 years will not probably see even one more edition. I wonder amongst the tens of books published in the past 10 years how many will survive the next decade let alone a half century. I hope my good friend Rajesh Garga's book on Tamil grammar survives. Despite my misgivings on some stylistic aspect, including the cover picture, it is a boon to the Tamil reader. I've lamented the absence of a Wren and Martin style grammar book in Tamil. Garga's book is a step in that direction. He could have written a very Wren and Martin style book but he hesitated. The merits of the book far outweigh its deficiencies. Reading his book made me respect Tamil grammar much more than ever before.

I've no personal enmity with N.Chokkan. I only know his name from twitter verse. None of the above is a personal comment. I am sure many have colorful opinions of me based on what I write. Its just professional hazard since I choose to write in public. I am sure many will take exception to the 'tone' of this blog. My apologies. The intention is not to hurt but to be blunt. 


Naga Chokkanathan said...

Hello Sir,

Thanks a lot for your detailed review about my Book on A. R. Rahman. It shows how much you care for good books in Tamil!

N. Chokkan,

Jazeela said...

I like your psychoanalytic literary criticism. It shows your love for Tamil and anticipation to read good books of your language.

RamB said...

A person criticizes and writes a blog about negative side of a book and the book author himself comes and thanks in the comments for that review ! this is a Healthy environment Indians have when compared to those western geniuses abusing with f**k words for criticizing them ! ;-)

Shankar said...


I was the one who shared that wikipedia article about creative non-fiction. If you look it up, you would realize that it is a genre that in increasingly being taken up in different aspects of non-fiction writing, including journalism and biographies.

I do agree with your approach to a cover story, where every piece of information has been checked for its veracity. And as you indicate in this case, if a particular piece of information (physical or emotional notwithstanding) does not stand the scrutiny of truth, then that doesn't have a place in even the definition of creative non-fiction.

But, I believe creative non-fiction does allow for dramatization, or, subjective narration of an incident, when there are no clear descriptions of how that might have actually happened. I think that, in a way, enriches the work, especially when it is something like a biography, instead of just stopping at being a laundry list of numbers and facts.

I can understand why you mightn't consider the New Yorker to be a magazine of repute :) If you point out another magazine which finds favor with you, I am sure we can find a good, engaging piece of creative non-fiction even in that.


Raja M said...

It was amusing to read your rant about the quality (or lack thereof) of the work by Mr. Chokkan.
Mr. Aravindan, amateur writers routinely write and publish junk in the US in the hopes that they might make it big one day. There are well over 100 books each about OJ Simpson , Justin Bieber, Kim Kardashians etc., and many of those books are filled with fantasies, factual errors, and grammatical mistakes.
If a well known writer such as Jeyamohan had commended this mediocre work, then it might be something to worry about. All this rant about some young chap ‘publishing’ an online book, in my view, is simply grandstanding.
You have mentioned, “But I can say that no other magazine of repute does 'creative non-fiction' in cover stories”. Really?. How about Michael Lewis portrayal of Obama’s decision to invade Libya – a vanity-fair cover story1? May be a subscription to the magazine of creative of non-fiction, could help to abuse you of this notion.2
It would indeed be interesting if you can get off your soapbox, and relinquish this self-appointed role of the guardian of Tamil literary quality, and follow through on your threats to write about ‘serious’ stuff such as Obama’s politics of envy, the relevance of Ayn Rand today, etc. The endless name(s) dropping about the titles of books that you have ‘read’ is getting a bit tiresome. One is more curious about any insights that you can share from such wide reading.

1. http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/2012/10/michael-lewis-profile-barack-obama
2. https://www.creativenonfiction.org/books

Kannan said...

I like your blogs though I don't agree with most of them. Are you serious while writing "I respect Jeyamohan as an intellectual adversary worth engaging."? How many books you have written?