Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Project: Reading

The following is the list of books that Nanga Fakir's read in the past six months:

1) Brisingr (Christopher Paolini)
2) One Hunrdred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
3) Much obliged Jeeves (PG Wodehouse)
4) Batman RIP (Grant Morrison)
5) Heavy Liquid (Paul Pope)
6) Midnight Days (Neil Gaiman)
7) Maus (The Complete) (Art Spiegelman)
8) Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky) [Repeat]
9)-19) Transmetropolitan (Warren Ellis)
20) The Motion of Light in Water (Samuel R Delany)
21) Accelerando (Charles Stross)
22) Cat's Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut)
23) The Banyan Tree and Other Stories (R K Narayan)
24) Ender's Game (Orson Scott Card)
25) Godel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid (Douglas R Hofstadter) [Repeat]
26) The Short Story Collection (Tolstoy)
27) 100% (Paul Pope)
28) Ghost World (Daniel Clowes)
29)-35) Sin City (Frank Miller)
36) I Saw You (Edited by Julia Wertz)
37) The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga)
38) Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace)

The playlist further consists of the following books (which NF reckons will take him a further 3-4 months to finish):

1) Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace) {the book that NF's currently re-reading}
2) India: A Million Mutinies Now (VS Naipaul)
3) Brief Interviews with Hideous Men (David Foster Wallace)
4) Inside Mr Enderby (Anthony Burgess)
5) Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
6) The Road (Cormac McCarthy)
7) Nausea (Jean Paul Sartre)

NF has been planning to take a break from reading fiction for a while now. He hopes to finish another (carefully handpicked) ten books or so and then leave off and stay sober for about six months. Should be a good experiment. Let's see if he can pull it off.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Moment of Zen

Question: "Have you ever had sex with a relative?"

<*Ominous background music; the camera swerves; the old man on the seat grimaces visibly (he's originally from Lucknow, it turns out!); the Soul Searching Subroutine is activated; his relatives are on the show and are now looking at each other (perhaps in wonderment) (Was it him/her he fucked?)*>

Answer: <*reluctantly albeit*> "Yes".

"Let's see what the polygraph machine has to say."

Polygraph Machine: "The old man speaks truthfully. It was a dark winter night when he came home drunk..."


The show is called Sach ka Saamna and (thankfully!) all its episodes are there on Youtube.

The premise is simple. Answer twenty one questions truthfully ["Ah but what is truth?", the philosophically minded among you would ask; NF: "Didn't you know? This deep philosophical problem was solved a little after WW II. The Polygraph Machine boasts of stellar success rates. As much as 61% according to a '97 study!"; "Huh, that's a little better than pure chance!", you counter; <*Nanga Fakir goes to an adjoining room for a minute or two*>; NF: "The machine says you're lying. It also says you're an absconding sex offender."] and you could win one crore rupees. Just like KBC, the initial questions are sitters [cf. "Have you ever gone without bathing for more than a week?";"Have you ever thought of killing your husband?"; "Have you ever stripped naked in a public place?" {actually this question was posed to Vinod Kambli who confessed to having done it. Turns out that Sachin Tendulkar put him up to it!}]. The later ones...not so.

"Do you remember the names of all the people you've slept with?"

So all those plagued by darkness, all those battling terminal diseases, all those who think life has no meaning, all those contemplating suicide as a way out of this whole ungodly boredom can turn their attention to Youtube now.

It's as the late George Carlin said - "When you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front-row seat." However, as in other fields of endeavor (business, science etc.), India is giving America a run for its money. The Chinese, since they don't believe in democracy, haven't caught up with such sophisticated standards of TV production yet.

"Do you have illegitimate children?"

But frankly, who will be interested in knowing sordid details of ordinary middle-aged housewives? So in a clever marketing move, the contestants will more often than not, be wannabe B grade celebrities, many of them from the same Saas-Bahu franchise which made them a household name in all of India. As again, the common, poor man loses out on earning one crore rupees and washing his dirty linen on national television by the moneyed, second tier celebrity bandwagon. Arundhati Roy is proven right. Yet again.

"Would you sleep with other men if your husband doesn't come to know of it?"

Nanga Fakir is also all taken up by the new breed of writers of such insanely groundbreaking TV shows. He knows for a fact that all of them are recruited from the Hogwarts School of Advanced Misanthropy and Indian Institute of Pure Cynicism - none of which are easy to get into. The entrance exam consists of raping an old woman to death and shooting a baby on her face in front of her mother.

So all those afflicted with the Truth Syndrome who want to earn a little easy cash on the side - Welcome!

Link to the TV Show the concept's been filched from - The Moment of Truth.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Sympathy for Lady Vengeance

To watch Rakhi ka Swayamvar is to audit a crash course in Enlightenment. Earlier, reality TV had Nanga Fakir convinced that there is hope for humanity; the show in question makes him want to be a first rate philanthropist.

It is tale of love, heartbreak, devotion, betrayal, family-values, dark secrets (the list could go on) and features a simple Indian girl steeped in age old customs and traditions who wants to play the part of a traditional-housewife-by-day and a sleazy-foul-mouthed-cabaret-dancer-who-can-crush-your-balls-to-dust by night. It also boasts of the highest number of WTF/Jesus-fucking-Christ exclamations from the audience per episode.

The show is gripping, enthralling, masterly suspenseful and full of Shyamalanesque twists and turns where delivering campy dialogue with a serious face is your biggest asset (that and performance of fiery Taekwondo fight moves on cheesy, filmi soundtracks). It is a watershed moment in the history of Indian television as it takes the two most explosively successful ideas - reality TV and saas-bahu sagas and amalgamates them into a unified (w)hole whose inexorable success is a testament to the greatness of human civilization.

And so it was that Nanga Fakir saw entranced, the exploits of a psychotic stalker who's been stalking Rakhi for over three years; the smartass commentary of the Astrologer who's got a hook into everyone else's character (and who very considerately went up to offer a hassled Rakhi a little sip of Bacardi at which she threw a tantrum and complained that her TV persona is totally orthogonal to her true Indian self and that she doesn't 'drink'. Little did the poor fucker know that the only thing she likes drinking is the dessicated soul of a small town, starry eyed, publicity hungry Neanderthal schmuck like him); the prayers for regrowth of the destroyed balls of the big hunky contender ('Luv', he's called) offered by Rakhi with a seriously cool Nirupa Roy expression; the serenading of Rakhi by a very genuine-looking Kashmiri cop (whom Rakhi respected the most...(now that's a compliment)); the badly acted tortured expression of shock on Rakhi's face as the same cop announced that he already had a wife and three kids and they were cool with his being on the show (imagine the kids (and perhaps their mom) in Srinagar rooting for their laugh-of-the-underground-terrorist-crowd dad) and the ingenious elimination protocol - a mithai (sweet) for those who've qualified for the next round and evil stares and heartfelt sorries for others who leave with heavy hearts, heavier baggages and even heavier pockets.

Another thing that struck NF as he kept watching episode after episode on youtube was that all contestant were from UP plus Delhi plus Mumbai (okay one Rajasthani too). Period. Apparently people from South India have more self respect than Northies. What is counter-intuitive however, is that there was absolutely no contender from Bihar - the land most ignoramuses like to make fun of at the drop of a hat. From personal experience, Nanga Fakir knows that Biharis are the simplest, hardest working and the most down-to-earth people that there are. (Every now and then, they freak out and go on a kidnapping spree but that's forgivable in the long run.) The people who were in overwhelming majority were small towners from UP (from places like Rishikesh, Kanpur, Lucknow (yes...<*sighs*>), Bulandshahar etc.). Heh...jobless fuckers!

On second thoughts, maybe the producers of the show thought that Southies wouldn't be funny enough (intentionally/unintentionally) and so were not good enough to be in the final sixteen. Because, out of twelve thousand odd people from all places in India, who volunteered to be on the show (including an 87 year old!) surely there must've been some not-so-self-respecting Southies. Plus the fact that they can't speak Hindi and that Rakhi's English/regional language skills are surely worse than her acting couldn't have helped matters much.

The blogosphere is lit up with lively discussions of "Will she...won't she?" - whether Rakhi will end up marrying the winner of the show. Most seem to think that a brief marriage and a speedy divorce assisted by Balaji Production lawyers will follow.

But what then about the cameos of the actors that are the surrogate family of Rakhi (read the saas-bahu franchise) - the truism spouting self proclaimed upholders of Indian culture and tradition who drop in shlokas with timed precision (and blissfully unaware, mispronounce all Sanskrit words with amazing consistency)? What about the claim of Rakhi Sawant being in actuality a simple girl who's misunderstood by all? What about the sanctity of marriage?

What about future TRP ratings?

NF has his doubts.

For answers to these and many more questions, stay tuned.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Maps and Isomorphisms

Warning: Very long post. Maybe boring for those not into either films or mathematics.


Disclaimer: The word 'isomorphism' here is used in a very loose, non-mathematical sense. Probably a better word would be 'similarity/analogy' but that wouldn't sound cool enough.

Another description of the post is in terms of functions that map domain spaces (film directors) to extremely 'dissimilar' target spaces (mathematicians).


Nanga Fakir has always wondered at isomorphisms lurking at a structural level in a wide variety of apparently unrelated disciplines of human endeavor. This post is about such isomorphisms in the (apparently unrelated) fields of Mathematics and Films - in particular, the similarities in the manner of work of some mathematicians and some directors. It is unfortunate that NF doesn't know even half as much as he would want to know about either discipline and so the possibility of errors is significant. (Hence it is a blog post and not an article in the New Yorker.)

1) Kim ki Duk & John Milnor : The former is a Korean film director and the latter is an American Fields Medalist.

That which brings them both together is the quality of minimalism in their works.

Kim ki Duk has been known to make films with hardly any dialogue at all and with each passing work, relying more and more on non-verbal cues, quiet, subtle gestures and dry, unusual humor. Milnor on the other hand is not only a legendary mathematician who's won all possible math prizes left, right and center, but has also won the Steele Prize for mathematical exposition. The books and notes written by him are thoroughly minimalistic - in fact sometimes notoriously so. (The standard lemma-theorem-proof-corollary style is followed in a sparse, somewhat austere style and the Proof sections of his books are peppered with remarks like "Not hard to prove", "Easily shown to be true" etc. - much to the frustration of your average math graduate student.)

Perhaps it was Hemingway who said that perfection is achieved not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Both of them seem (consciously or otherwise) to adhere to this view, for in both their works, taking anything away from what is there, necessitates the collapse of the entire edifice - the mark of a true minimalist. (NF sometimes fancies himself as a minimalist in the sense that he tries hard to put the minimal amount of effort required to barely get along. He wonders if he's a true minimalist though. Any lesser effort and we'll know the answer to that question.)

2) Andrei Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr & Alexander Grothendieck : There is no catchword here (like 'minimalism') that can be invoked to compare the two directors with Grothendieck (seen in picture here). In fact what is probably more at work here is the obsession with purity, perfectionism and mind-boggling care for details which is the hallmark of all these artistes.

This is easily seen to be so in the case of the two auteurs in question - both of them are obsessed with insanely long cuts (some of them as long as eleven minutes), excruciatingly slow camera movements, artsy and extremely highbrow literature, shots of breathtaking beauty and concerns with questions that are of deep philosophical value. The camera lingers on each shot, hovering on the subjects as if unable to tear itself away, trying to absorb the fleeting moment and record it forever. The concerns for purity and technical wizardry over audience-friendliness (and here the audience are considered to be arthouse regulars and not those who line up to buy tickets for the latest Transformers flick), the demand for patience and faith in the vision of the director (which is rewarded at the end by a deeply ambiguous and artsy climax which may or may not make any sense) and the paramount consideration of cinematic beauty over everything else make them to be champions of cinema as a pure, high art medium.

In order to see for yourself, look at the following videos:

a) A sequence from Tarkovsky's Stalker.

[probably one of the best sequences in world cinema]

b) A 'short' scene from Satantango - the seven hour plus long movie (yes, you read that right!) from Bela Tarr.

Like his counterparts in cinema, Grothendieck (Fields Medalist, greatest mathematician of the 20th century, according to some) was obsessed with purity and methods of great abstractness over more obvious routes to problem solving. In fact, his was such an abstract take on matters in Pure Mathematics that it is inaccessible to a lot of working mathematicians themselves, let alone the common man. His style of Mathematics - often dubbed 'Fortress Mathematics' (built around his cult of followers) was a major dampener for many-a-young wannabe mathematician who were overwhelmed by the technical virtuosity demanded of them to even begin to understand what was going on. Again, concerns for stellar, unimaginably stringent purity and an open disdain for anything even slightly contaminated (read less general/abstract - woe to applied mathematicians - the hacks who dare defile the sanctity of math!) make him the counterpart to Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr.

3) Quentin Tarantino & Benoit Mandlebrot and Paul Erdos : Cinema for Tarantino is not a meditation on deep matters (cross Tarkovsky, Tarr). He's definitely not into minimalism (cross Kim ki Duk). What's he into then?

Filmmaking for Tarantino is an expression of sheer joy. It's also about being all-over-the-place like a jumping, hyperactive kid suffering from attention deficit disorder high on methamphetamine. It is about exuberance, aesthetic violence, non-linearity, dialogue (his characters never seem to shut up) and a breakneck, blitzy pace. He doesn't care about conventions or boundaries or classifications. He breaks rules, bends them, amalgamates genres, rips off others' work and gives them a new spin and constantly reinvents and pushes the boundaries of filmmaking all the fucking time.

Somewhat similar was the approach to mathematics taken by Mandlebrot and Erdos. Mandlebrot was repelled by the Fortress Mathematics so in vogue when he took up studies of Math. His was a more intuition based, a more qualitative approach (often called 'Open Mathematics' by some). He was genre defying and refused categorization of any kind. His work in pure math soon spilled onto areas like Information Theory, Fluid Mechanics, Economics and Physics (one of his papers was on the stability of cotton prices over the years). Nassim Taleb considers him his guru and chief mentor.

Erdos is a legend in himself. His versatile work in Graph Theory, Number Theory, Analysis, Combinatorics and several other disciplines was the work of someone obsessed with and totally in love with what he was doing. [Perhaps it was he who said "When I am depressed I do math to become happy. When I am happy, I do math to stay happy".] Again, the hyperactive-all-over-the-place-kid effect can be seen here. His encouragement of budding young mathematicians, geeky sense of humor, astoundingly large collaborative body of work that changed the way Mathematics was done and championing of Open Mathematics makes him the ideal counterpart of Tarantino in Mathematics - perhaps even more so than Mandlebrot.


Perhaps more such maps will be discovered by readers of this blog, maybe not in the same two fields, but perhaps in others where such isomorphism have not yet been discovered.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

In Which He Does a Yoko Ono

It is said that Yoko Ono once stood up on stage and shouted long and hard (perhaps with the accompaniment of some background music for name's sake) that fateful, eternal query "Why?", swooning and shaking and stressing first the "Ai", then the "Wh...", then some mixture of the two and finally following it up with some good old fashioned mindless screaming into the microphone. Knowledgeable critics holding seriously hardcore degrees in various genres/sub-genres of liberal arts from awesomely badass ivy league universities nodded and smiled in smug appreciation of the avant garde musical performance.

"A cry of a wounded soul...a manifestation of the existential dread. The eternal Why", they said.

This is where Nanga Fakir does a Yoko Ono reprise.

Don't say you weren't warned before.


Nanga Fakir: "Vaaaaaaaaieeeeeeee?"

<*picks up his phony spectacles and gives a meaningful look*>

<*a couple of lit theorists write books about the hermeneutics/semiotic implications of this symbolic gesture by Nanga Fakir; another one about the 'meaningful look' is adapted into a film which unexpectedly headlines the Chchapra Film Festival and becomes a cult favorite*>


[Interesting little footnote here (I so see why David Foster Wallace found endnotes and footnotes so irresistible - even though they seem to piss everyone off): Little did Yoko know that this idea of an existential howl would be (unbeknownst to them) quite independently, lifted off by the duo SatyaVrat and Nanga Fakir in the first block hostel in that famous song which was to be the first Brahmasmi chart topper - "जीवन बर्बाद हो गया" (Life is destroyed). I doubt if the village dwelling runts had any conception of avant garde, but the idea was the same. The same line would've been put on an infinite loop and the self proclaimed charismatic swooner SatyaVrat would howl and blast through the pithy line (that by the way, NF claimed was a perfect description of the human condition) over and over again interjecting it with lyrical comments, improvised aalaaps and some (yes...) good old fashioned screaming. Nanga Fakir had also planned to direct an avant garde music video which was to feature bare asses and hairy testicles of mountain goats juxtaposed with footages of Gandhi, Amitabh Bachchan, David Gilmour and Chuck Norris. He hoped that the lit dons would pick up various sufficiently vague highbrow/ironic-lowbrow references peppered throughout the video to make it a brilliant contribution to the cinematic literature on the human condition right next to the works of Stan Brakhage and Tarkovsky and ensure a local fan base for the band. The avant garde experiment went too far however and the band never recorded the song or shot the video - an even more poignant summarization of the human condition according to some (cf. "Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines").].