Reviews

From The Doughnut Magazine – May 2014

Arêtes – Mission Creep

This has the chill-out of Radiohead but without hypnotising you into wanting to slit your wrists. This is an album counsellors will be able to recommend to insomniacs and manic depressives in years to come. You’ll get good rest listening to this album and come round later with a smile on your face and at peace with the universe.

Read the full review and hear the recommended track here

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From The Doughnut Magazine – April 2014

cover

It’s hard to believe that “Turn the People” is merely the debut album for this four-piece Australian group. It’s a cracking good album. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise; MOM have been together over four years and quickly became recognized as a band to notice winning ‘Best International rock Band’ at the LA Music Awards and AIM Music Awards in 2012 and extensively touring internationally in 2013.

These guys (Vikram Kaushik – lead vocals; Joseph de la Hoyde – guitar; Joshua Baissari – drums; John de la Hoyde – Bass) have honed their skills in the modern-day equivalent of how the Beatles learned their craft in Hamburg before signing up with EMI. Still, it’s a debut album and ought to sound like one.

It doesn’t. It’s too good.

In fact, I’m a little embarrassed how damned good it is. I keep playing it repeatedly like I’m fifteen again and bopping away in my room to most of the thirteen tracks when I think no one is looking.

Read the rest of this review and listen to the album here

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From Kenthinksaloud – April 2014

MKO-BluesFortheWhite

MK-O are a Greek duo who have been performing together since 2000. Their first album ‘Ovation’ released in 2006 and was voted as one of the top 20 albums of the last decade to come out of Greece.

Blues for the White Nigger‘ is their third album and CDBaby lists it as ‘Progressive Rock. That’s pretty accurate as their opus mixes a range of styles together – funk, Jazz, classical and so on – though in doing so, the work almost loses the ‘Rock’ part making it, I guess, more ‘Progressive’ than anything else!

I will warn you now that BftWN is not for everyone. If you enjoy the electronic dance style of artists such as Moby and Enigma then you’re likely to find something in this album you’ll like. If you’re not so keen on tracks based on repeated motifs – which either form the structure through continuous repetition or simply frequently reappear juxtaposed with other motifs – then you won’t be so pleased. This is, in a sense, dance music for those who don’t like to dance.

Personally, I enjoyed the album though -being a 70s baby – I’m less keen on electronic synth sounds which can easily sound dated and would have preferred a little more electric guitar in there. But such moans apart, this is a pleasing album and one I’ve been happy to listen to again and again.

Perhaps one of the reasons is that I hear so many stylistic ‘tips of the hat’ to many and varied artists. My notes for this review read like a list of some of my favourite musical artists from several different genres. This shouldn’t be a surprise: MK-O’s site admit the album is

…hard to categorize. Extended instrumental arrangements coexist with lyrical songs. Rock, classical, techno, psychedelia, industrial, acoustic, electric and electronic instruments as well as a palette of samples varying from Cesar Franck to Son House, Pink Floyd and Ministry, give a brief idea of the sound of this album.”

Yep, I heard a lot of that too.

BftWN is a collection of twelve pieces, most of which do not run on to one another though I wonder if they should considering many pay homage to the likes of Mike Oldfield or Jean Michel Jarre. There is a heavy emphasis on instrumental sound although, according to the sleeve blurb six are vocal and six instrumental. Some of the tracks are hard to define quite like that which is not a criticism – it’s all part of the experimentalism these two musicians enjoy.

What is not in doubt is the love of Jazz-Blues which runs through almost every track particularly in the title track which comes in two parts. Similarly, funk is prevalent – especially in the bass guitar lines. After that…it’s anyone’s guess!

For instance, White Nigger Blue I had me thinking of Erik Satie’s equally experimental piano style mixed with Thelonius Monk’s eclectic jazz. When a fairground organ sound entered I thought immediately of The Beatles Sgt Pepper’s album. Who would have guessed you could combine those three?

In white Nigger Blue II the mood changed to more of a laid back jazz style which hinted of my beloved Pink Floyd. Perhaps I compared with the Floyd too unfairly as I listened because I longed for more echo and flange in the sound with this track. I felt MK-O were missing an opportunity for real psychedelic chill.

I got my fill with Tranfiguration which is, for my money, the best track on the album. Beautifully laid out with well-executed Monk-like riffs and an open ambient sound which made me think very specifically of Pink floyd’s Atom Heart Mother. By the time the piece ended I was now with Engima from the 90s instead. The Angel’s Machine, the penultimate track, carries on this ambiance reminding me of Moby at times. This was a wonderfully spaced-out piece which fitted my mood perfectly.

I don’t have time to mention all the influences I heard – there were so many! Artifacts reminded me of that great experimenter in style and sound, Kate Bush, reminiscent of the second half of her Hounds of Love album as it was. The final track, by complete contrast made me think more of the disco funk sound of Jamiroqui! And I’ll leave you to figure which track I thought sounded like Jimi Hendrix. Yes, one really did…

Overall, a good album and one which experimental funk/prog rock/ambient sound fans will enjoy.

Blues for the White Nigger is available for download here

MK-O’s website is here.

Marina Kanavaki’s art website can be found here

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From Paste Magazine – June 2013

Paste - Caged in Paradise

Caged in Paradise and Other Stories

Rizia Rahman

The University Press Limited

Rating: 7.0

Trapped in a terrible beauty

Review by Ken Ford-Powell

Bangladesh doesn’t normally get noticed by the world.

The tiny size of the country, dwarfed by China above it and almost cuddled protectively on all sides by its mother India, means most people miss it on a map. (In fact, the map I have in front of me doesn’t even have room for the name of the country.) Yet some 160 million inhabitants make Bangladesh roughly the seventh-most populous country in the world. Add to this the fact that Bangladesh ranks as one of the fastest developing countries in Asia, and you’d think people would take notice. They don’t.

Until recently.

A few months ago, a nine-storey garment factory in Savar, on the outskirts of the capital city, Dhaka, collapsed with thousands of garment workers inside. Most were young girls, many of these newly married or betrothed or already mothers. Almost all took home to their villages a pittance of a wage to feed their families. More than 1,100 of them died.

I happened to be just a few miles away when the tragedy occurred. I watched live broadcasts on the TV with horror, cameras poking into holes where the dead and dying lay. Thousands of rescuers clawed their way into the rubble. Much more brutally honest than Western reporting, Bangladeshi cameras left nothing to the imagination. Horror on an unprecedented scale unfolded before our eyes.

I wept. This is not the Bangladesh I am used to. I’ve lived here for five years. I know this as a beautiful country with wonderful, friendly, welcoming people. A ‘paradise’ if you like, earning a perfect title in Bangladeshi author Rizia Rahman’s collection of short stories, Caged in Paradise. This book powerfully describes life for more than 100 million poor, rurally based Bangladeshis. The author genuinely seems to understand this country is a heavenly place to live, but it can also turn hard and hellish.

One of Bangladesh’s top writers and novelists, Rahman has published stories here and abroad for more than 30 years. She won the country’s top literary award, the Bangla Academy Award, in 1978, then other prestigious awards for the next 20 years. The stories of Caged in Paradise appeared originally in Bangla – the state language – but the collection’s editors, Niaz Zaman and Shirin Hasanat Islam, compiled an excellent team of translators for a wider, English-speaking, audience. These stories present voices that deserve hearing … else, like the girls at Savar, no one will ever hear them.

Bangladesh is a country born in turmoil, a land full of contradictions. For the whole of this year the opposition political party has been trying to oust the ruling party by inflicting hartals, nationwide strikes, on the country. These bring work to a halt day after day, crippling some businesses. Elections await, and the Bangladesh National Party wants a ‘caretaker government’ installed to ensure safe and democratic elections. The ruling Awami League will have none of it.

Hartals  inevitably end in bloodshed. Although well used to them, I found that Rahman’s “A Hartal Story” sheds new light on the real reasons for these strikes (“if people like us don’t die in the Hartals, they can’t win the game”) and their effect on the poor – supposedly the very ones these strikes support and defend.

The story focuses on beggars living in Dhaka who can’t earn any money – not even selling matchboxes to passing motorists – because everyone has deserted the streets. (You do not drive on a hartal day if you want to keep your car in one piece.) The poor suffer the most from the reality of these strikes. “Hartals never harm them,” says Jamila, a street prostitute in the story, in reference to the rich. “It is street people like us who starve or get hit by bullets or killed by bombs.”

Most living in Bangladesh have known poverty and this leads to strange ambitions by those who begin to claw their way out of it. In the opening story “The Lure of the Sea,” Rahman tells us of an elderly couple, Benu and Altaf. Benu dreams simply to visit the seaside at Cox’s Bazaar – famed for having the world’s longest continuous beach but rarely visited by non-Bangladeshis. Benu’s obsession begins when her husband brings her a gift – a calendar.

Calendars carry tremendous importance in Bangladesh – anyone who has lived here will know that. For whatever reason, Bangladeshis love them. One picture of the blue sea (something Benu did not even know existed; Altaf must explain it to her) captivates this poor wife of a lowly clerk. She begins a quest to save enough money for a “trip to the seaside.” That quest, unfortunately for Benu, proves lifelong.

Religion also plays an important – and provocative – part in Bangladesh’s life. The country’s birth after a bloody civil war in 1971 created an identity crisis. Are Bangladeshis Muslim first (the country is 90-percent Muslim) or Bengali? This question emerged explosively in recent months as rajakars – men who during the war abused, raped, and murdered millions of Bangladeshis – finally began to face trial in a country where the death penalty remains in use.

Life sentences arouse great suspicion. Most accept that when the opposition party becomes the Government any rajakars in jail will, inevitably, be released. (They are chief political leaders for the party or its allies, after all.) History will merely repeat itself – only the players have swapped roles. Many despair of finding any true justice. But when intelligent, Internet-savvy youth formed the so-called Shahbhag movement demanding the death penalty for these rajakars, militant Islamists immediately took to the streets in violent protest. They accuse Shahbhag of being atheists, causing split loyalties throughout the country. Everyone wants traitors brought to justice, but no one wants to support perceived anti-Islamists. The nation must take sides, Islam or Bangladesh. Most people would quite happily be both.

Rahman’s “Mother Fatema Weeps” gives heart-rending background to this national split-personality and the damage often  inflicted by some using the tenets of Islam for personal gain. Here a cruel village Islamic leader called Taleb Munshi secretly lusts after Hajera but also feels repulsed by her ‘Western’ attitude and her immodesty. He wants her … but he also wants to destroy her.

Rahman focuses often on the plight of women in Bangladesh. Readers find poverty, cruel treatment at the hands of husbands, and an often excessively patriarchal society at the core of her work, and she represents Bengali women skilfully and empathically.

Not all her stories succeed. I found the final piece, “A Poet, a Crow, and the War-Horse of Chengiz Khan,” strange and ineffectual. Would it be better in the original Bangla? More understandable to a native here? I don’t know, but it left me with a sense of disappointment. It also led me to read the title piece, “Caged in Paradise,” a second time to finish the book in a positive mood.

Caged in Paradise tells the story of 19-year-old Rahela, a wife of a cruel man who literally keeps her chained up during the day. He blatantly sleeps with the maid, Moyna’s Ma, now pregnant with his child. Rahela relates her life to that of her caged birds. This story, like all the others, does not end well – in fact, I have rarely ever read a Bengali story with a happy ending. It can seem, to Western minds, rather excessive, overly melodramatic.

But then I read of one of the last women found alive in the Savar tragedy. She survived four days buried in the rubble only to then die in an accidental fire as the rescue team prepared to pull her out. Happy endings in Bangladesh (and East Pakistan before it and Bengal before that) rarely happen.

Rahman’s short stories – her best chosen for Caged in Paradise and Other Stories – make grim reading at times, though not without flashes of light and humor. Nevertheless, they stand as required – albeit not perfect – reading for anyone who wants to better understand the psyche of Bangladeshi and the issues facing it in modern times.

I highly recommend the collection, and not just as an interesting and digestible series of short stories. It’s a treatise on modern Asian thought and condition.

Ken Ford-Powell is a British writer living in Bangladesh. When not occupied with writing, teaching, or finishing a Masters degree in Asian Studies, he drinks far too much tea and writes a blog you can follow at http://kenthinksaloud.wordpress.com .

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Review for the Solway Deltas – May 2012

When I grow up I want to be in the Solway Deltas.

This was not a post I was expecting to be writing I have to say. Having popped over to the UK from Bangladesh for a Masters course, I expected to be doing nothing other than studying, writing essays and working on completing the manuscript for the book I’m trying to get finished (and largely ignoring). I had a weekend free and so decided to visit family and friends in my beloved Whitehaven and get well fed while I wrote.

I was surprised and delighted then, when a friend contacted me on Facebook and said “come down to the Waterfront Sunday night. There’s a band on”. She promised me a pint and a night I’d remember. Well, how can I refuse an offer like that?

So I took a well needed break from the laptop (to be honest I was looking for a way to avoid doing some writing) and made my way down to Whitehaven’s beautiful harbour where the Waterfront pub and restaurant is to be found. I’ve eaten there before – they do wonderful food there by the way – but was trying to figure out how they were going to squeeze a band into the place. It’s not that big.

I stepped in and the Blues hit me.

This was odd because I’d just met my friend and her daughter (and old student of mine) and she immediately proved good to her word by buying me a pint so I was far from feeling blue. But the music blasting out from the Solway Deltas was unashamedly blues. They had been squeezed into a corner and a few tables removed to give space. The five piece band knew how to make use of the space and the equipment was well organised around them. The Waterfront continued to serve food for one or two who seemed very hungry, but mostly everyone there were there for the band.

I joined my friends and sat down with my pint and began an evening of pure joy.

The band have clearly been playing for a long time. They knew their songs and every chord, every note and every beat were in place. The Solway Deltas are well experienced at not just at playing the music but playing the audience too. Steve Smith – the lead vocalist and nifty harmonica player – bantered with the audience and even sometime, during a long solo break by one of the other members, leapt out into the audience with pint in hand to watch the performance.

“We don’t normally do requests” he said to one audience member. “Unless we’re asked” he added.

This sense of fun pervaded throughout the night with a lot of good old Rock n Roll mixed with the blues. With numbers like the classic “Mustang Sally” (which the band ‘lowered themselves’ to agree to play) and Free’s “Alright Now” the audience were up on their feet and turned the cramped area around the tables into an impromptu dance floor. Some danced magically and were great fun to watch. Others made me clutch my pint for fear of life and wonder who was going to be propelled into my lap.

But it didn’t matter. I’ve never seen a pub audience have so much fun that didn’t involve smashing bottles and shaking your brain to bits. This was good old fashioned fun and I couldn’t help but wish my two kids were there to see it. My son would have died to get his hands on the band’s equipment – especially Guitarist Alan Stubbs effects pedalboard. My daughter would just have loved the dancing.

For me, the highlight was watching John Dugan – who I prefer to think of as B B King – sat in the corner with his ‘empire’ around him of guitar and keyboard both of which he played skilfully and with true artistry. Numbers such as Hendrix’s “Hey Joe” became alive under his fingers and I just chilled out to them.

Their drummer, John Branch, is unusual in that he actually listens to the band and it is clear he understands the pieces rather than just bashing out a beat until persuaded to stop. He played with light and shade throughout the gig and knew instinctively when to play and when not. This band knows their numbers perfectly – essential if you are going to pull off songs by Muddy Waters, Cream, T Bone Walker and Little Walter as they did that night.

They clearly love music and this came out in their own composed pieces which were interspersed with the classic numbers. “Solway Blues”, “Sins of the Father” and “White Boy Standing” were great numbers by the band that stood up with the greats easily probably because of Bass guitarist Gary Simpson’s ability to play a strong bassline that didn’t dominate the sound but drove the band on and got everyone bopping away.

 

In short, a great night, great band and nice people enjoying the great band. A near perfect night out (which just lacked my own family being around to enjoy it too) – and not just because I got a free pint out of it. If the Solway Deltas are playing a gig near you, I strongly recommend going to see them. If you have any taste in live music at all and want a night out that doesn’t require you to be arrested or have a trip to Casualty at the end to say you enjoyed it, this is the band for you.

For me, as a musician who plays all same the instruments to some extent (though my drumming would be a bit dodgy these days) I had to resist the voices in my head that screamed at me to leap into the band and start joining in. Thankfully, for all involved, I restrained myself and stayed content to just tap away on the table and scream like a girl at the end of each number.

But one day, when I’m back, I’ll find a way in. They could do with someone to play the spoons. I could do that…

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From WriteOutLoud – November 2013

Review: ‘Write Your Way Out of The Rat Race’ by Linda Formichelli

I was honoured when Linda asked me to be one of her beta-readers for her latest Kindle book written to help writers considering giving up the day job and begin trying to earn a living from words.

I was even more pleased to end up being one of the ‘rat-race escapees’ she quotes throughout the book. So you immediately have a good reason to buy this book – I’m in it!

More seriously, though, Linda’s book isn’t worth the money she’s selling it for. Oh no.

It’s worth much, much more than that – and no surprise considering Linda Formichelli is the co-author of the acclaimed The Renegade Writera bestselling book considered essential for all writers to read these days.

This is the book I wish I’d had when I began writing professionally part-time about three years ago. If you are a writer who has been wondering if you could ‘make the break’ and finally try earning your living from your words, then this is the book you need to read.

The author writes clearly, concisely and with an easy, friendly style which makes the book very natural to read. The pace is swift and each chapter is broken down into lots of short sections meaning you can pick it up and put it down whenever you need to.  The subheadings also mean it is easy to find certain sections when you want to check her advice again. Believe me, you will want to do this!

Her book divides into four sections:

The first looks at whether or not leaving the ‘rat-race’ really is for you (it’s not for everybody) and how to make that decision.

The second part, assumes you are going to go for it (yay!) and looks at how you break into this without burning boats with your soon-to-be-former-boss, scheduling time to write, money matters and so on.

The third contains fantastic, solid and very practical advice about breaking into a range of writing markets. Whether you want to write for magazines, blogs or content marketing, Linda Formichelli tells you just how to go about it. It is this section that makes the book worth much more than the asking price.

The final section is a brief but important check-up on just whether you are really ready to leave those rats behind and become a full-time writer. It also has some useful bio information about the interviewed writers quoted in the book – yep, that includes yours truly J

For writers like me who have already gone full-time as freelancers, some of the advice is a little redundant – though it’s always useful to be reminded of things you might have forgotten, of course. Nevertheless, the third section alone makes the book worth buying. I found two particular sections incredibly helpful:

  • The LOI/Query advice in chapter 13 is worth ten times the price of the book. Linda Formichelli gives a straightforward template which I use now without fail.
  • Chap 18  contains advice for making the ‘Perfect pages’ for your website or blog. I’m still working my way through this one – on this very blog (still under construction) – and I know I will come back to Linda’s advice again and again.

These are just two of my personal favourite sections for the book but you will find plenty of your own. Write your way out of the Rat-Race is packed with useful advice and will make a welcome addition to any writer’s resources.

In summary, this is a must-read e-book for anyone seriously contemplating making a living from writing. It’s an excellent resource for all writers – pro or not – and is jammed-packed with links to other useful resources and goodies. I really can’t understand why Linda is selling it for so little other than the fact she is a really nice lady whose career centres around helping other writers. The price means there’s no excuse not to buy it, you have nothing to lose. Besides, you’ll find my name in it handful of times 😉

So what are you waiting for? Go buy it!

You can buy ‘Write Your Way Out of The Rat Race for Kindle on Amazon UK

You can buy it here on Amazon.com

Linda Formichelli’s excellent website can be found here:  The Renegade Writer

 

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From Paste Magazine – February 2013

Book review for Paste - Conversations with Mani Ratnam 1

Conversations with Mani Ratnam

Baradwaj Rangan

Penguin

Rating: 7.5

Dancing with Shiva Bhakt

Review by Ken Ford-Powell

I’m at the laptop writing this review, and I’m trying to remember what I liked about Rangan’s Conversations with Mani Ratnam, a book I read many weeks ago. I’m distracted by the gyrating antics of my 12-year-old daughter, Amory, who is dancing to the TV. It may have been a mistake to sit in the same room. The objects of our attention, however, are related.

We live in Bangladesh. The music channel currently occupying my daughter’s attentions is not MTV or some other American music channel, but the Hindi Music channel … beamed straight from India where the hit songs from the latest movies play endlessly and, to my mind, without mercy.

I try to re-focus on the task in hand. What do I know about this book?

I know that Mani Ratnam is accredited with revolutionizing Tamil cinema and with altering the course of Indian cinema. He is one of only three Indian directors to have a film (Nayakan, 1987) listed in Time magazine’s All-time 100 Great Movies – despite never training to make movies. (Ratnam grew up on the fringes of cinema, but studied as an adult to be a management consultant.)

By fluke, Ratnam ended up working on a film project with two friends. That film never came to fruition, but cinema now had him hooked. Living a kind of bohemian existence and hanging out with other wannabe stars, he happened to be in the right place at the right time when he began writing his debut film, Pallavi Anupallavi (in English), in 1980.

He never looked back.

I also know that the biography’s author, Baradwaj Rangan, works as a well respected award-winning film critic in India and teaches a course on cinema at the Asian College of Journalism in Cennai – right in the heart of the Tamil Film industry that Ratnam almost single-handedly revolutionized in the 80s and 90s.

Conversations with Mani Ratnam started slowly. (Both interviewer and interviewee turn out to be shy, introverted types.) Rangan’s well-edited book keeps up a sense of fun and camaraderie between brilliant director and knowledgeable expert as it shows fascinating insights into the making of all Ratnam’s films.

Rangan gives a separate chapter to each of the director’s films (except the first four works, which he bundles into one chapter). With the consistent focus, conversations can twist and turn without rambling.

I do have qualms about Rangan’s style. He tries just a little too hard with the English language. Like many Asian writers who become fluent in the colonial tongue, he seems hell-bent on proving his mastery. In his introduction, Rangan refers to girls in Indian movies who “threatened to burst out of salwar kameezes glued to their zaftig frames.” I had to look up the word zaftig, which didn’t please me. If you’re interested, it means ‘full-figured body.’ Fair enough, having watched many of these early Bollywood movies, but less pretentiousness would go a long way.

The author clearly admires Ratnam’s work. He treats him, in fact, with god-like awe in the introduction, disclosing that he grew up in the 80s admiring the director’s work. Referring to Idhayokoyil, Ratnam’s fourth and worst film according to the director himself, Rangan admits “I saw it three times.” So readers should not expect Rangan to be deeply critical here of the director … or to scrutinize his weaknesses. We get fleeting moments of critique, but generally we read an account of a student with his guru.

What makes this palatable? Ratnam critiques his own works and does not shrink from declaring a film to be weak or compromised in some way. One one such film, Unaru (1984), Ratnam found himself competing with two other co-writers to produce the script.

“There are moments and shots and flavours in the film that are mine” he concedes … but he then goes on to admit that he finds much of the film conventional, and that at the time he really didn’t know how to shoot a frame with 10 people in it. “I had to learn very fast,” he says with characteristic humility.

Squeals from my daughter remind me that Ratnam did learn fast. And well. His influence shows up in every movie coming out of India today. And Amory, along with her classmates and most other young Bangladeshis, soaks it all up.

Bangla culture, predominantly Muslim, differs from its enormous Hindu brother next door. In the last four years living in Bangladesh, my daughter has taken lessons in traditional Bengali dancing and performed in several festivals. Somehow, along the way, the dancing transformed from Bengali into Hindi.

This didn’t come about by some Western ignorance of ours – all Amory’s Bangladeshi school friends love the same dances and movies. Posters advertise Indian movies – not Bengali – many of them Ratnam’s. I can’t help but wonder why is he so important to non-Indian Asians, considering the differences in cultures.

Rangan makes it very clear in his book just why Mani Ratnam is so important to Indian movie lovers, at least. The writer describes the effect Nayakan, (1987) arguably Ratnam’s most famous movie, had on him as a young man:

“…Some of us remember our experience of the film as if we’d unknowingly stepped into the competition ring at a village fair and ended up flattened by the local wrestler. We couldn’t move, we couldn’t speak— during the film and even afterwards, as we lurched back home in a late-evening bus, too stunned to slip into the genial ritual of post-movie analysis, too numbed by the serendipitous shock of stumbling into a moment that would forever alter our expectations of Tamil cinema.”

Ratnam achieved this by removing the clichés of previous Asian movies and creating characters identifiable to the average young person. His girls giggle as they secretly take their first cigarette and play Faltermeyer’s Axel F just like real kids in the 80s. Ratnam told his fans that taking the bus home wasn’t beneath their dignity and that ‘settling down,’ despite the wishes of Asian parents, could actually wait while they pursued their dreams. In fact, though he worked predominantly in the Tamil movie industry, Ratnam’s characters could be found anywhere in India and inspired an entire generation. He portrayed these players so well that young audiences beyond India identified with them too.

It may be difficult for Westerners to appreciate just how ground-breaking this approach really was. Asian countries are largely communalist – in Bangladesh, 70 percent of the population lives directly from the land. Rural village life, strongly hierarchical, discourages the concept of individual identity. When a community spends every spare moment trying to gather enough food from the fields, forests and rivers to feed families for even a day … and to overcome the many and varied natural disasters that ravage the nation each year … to be an individual means to be alone. And to be alone means to risk starving.

Ratnam’s films shocked Indian audiences as Blackboard Jungle shocked American teenagers in 1955. But the filmmaker didn’t stop at just having his characters identify with middle-class Indian life.

He challenged social norms – his ‘Terrorism trilogy,’ consisting of Roja (1992), Bombay (1995) and Dil Se (1998), then went on to challenge political ones. For example, Dil Se was Ratnam’s first film written in Hindi, the dominant language of India, despite the director not actually being able to speak Hindi himself. Ratnam here began breaking away from the Tamil industry to focus on pan-Indian audiences.

As a result, Ratnam became one of the most influential directors in India, and he raised the profile of Indian cinema internationally with films nominated for numerous international awards. Cinematically, he put India on the map. And he took cinema out of the hands of parents and put it into the hands of youth … probably the reason I don’t quite understand the excitement of my daughter over the latest Madras movie. (The films Amory and her Bangladeshi friends love adopt most of the themes Mani Ratnam introduced in the 1980s.)

Arguably, the most important of the themes in Conversations is that of nallavana-kettavana – the question: Are you a bad man or a good man? By challenging the role of the individual in communal society, Ratnam also challenges what it means to be individual. We find few ‘super heroes’ in his films. Instead, lead characters are ‘everyman.’ Like each us, they are neither wholly good nor wholly bad.

We see this clearly presented, Rangan writes, in Mouna Raagam (1986). That film made Mani Ratnam famous in India. A girl, Divya, leaves home in an arranged marriage. Previously, she loved another man. A typical Indian story stops there. But in Ratnam’s version, Divya begins to find her husband a decent and kind man … and she discovers her former lover less than wholesome. She must decide between hanging on to a dead and dubious past or giving in to a pleasant future … even if not of her choosing.

This question – communalism versus individualism – emerges at warp speed in Asian society today. The lure of Western lifestyles seen on TV overwhelms many young Asians who hunger for more than traditional village life.

Gradually, we see Asian views swinging towards the Western view – the rights of the individual are of paramount importance. But Mouna Raagam cleverly questions the issue. Be careful, Ratnam seems to say, there may be more than one answer, more than one path. For example, arranged marriages, often sensible, can result in happy relationships just like love marriages. For the young village girl who does not know free choice but does know a comfortable role in an extended family where everyone plays a role, chosen or not, is an arranged marriage necessarily wrong?

Ratnam stands, in many ways, as India’s answer to Steven Spielberg. I’m not sure Jurassic Park prompts the same depth of questions, but America had already embraced a great deal of change by the early 1990s, when that movie came out. India’s transformation? Only just beginning. Bangladesh had only been 10 years out of a bitter civil war with Pakistan, and the Bengalis had only begun to recover economically and find themselves as a nation. As Ratnam’s lead roles ask themselves Who am I?, these emerging nations asked the same questions of their roles internationally. Their people sensed society changing around them.

My 12-year-old remains oblivious to all this. A young Bangladeshi friend joins her, and they dance now to another movie – almost certainly it carries Ratnam’s fingerprints. The Indian film industry influences Bangladesh youth culture tremendously. Amory and her friend have no idea they are, in a sense, dancing with the devil. Or perhaps, as Ratnam describes it, a ‘Shiva Bhakt.

The last film discussed in Rangan’s book – Raavan (2010) – modernizes a traditional Indian story of a monster that kidnaps a beautiful bride. The husband, Ram, searches until he finds the monster and avenges her.

In Raavan, a man takes the wife of a policeman in revenge. But the ‘monster’ – the Shiva Bhakt – turns out not to be entirely a brute (though he is far from innocent), while the heroine’s husband often shows more cruelty than the kidnapper.

Even now, Ratnam asks Who are we? In doing so, he continues to stir millions of Asians to ask the same question.

Is this a dangerous game that Ratnam plays?

Indian subcontinent nations erupted out of a kind of dark age, enforced by British colonialism. Forces thrust these fledgling nations into a post-modern global community in just a few decades … without first going through modernization. Western societies gradually adapt and change with the demands of each generation. But Asian communities face the dangers of breaking down completely as a restless younger generation greedily views a very different style of life … and demands it.

To ask Who am I? as Ratnam encourages, is one thing.

To ask Who do I choose to be? may be quite another.

Ken Ford-Powell is a British writer and teacher living in Bangladesh. When not occupied with writing, teaching or finishing a Masters degree in Asian Studies, he drinks far too much tea and writes a blog you can follow at http://kenthinksaloud.wordpress.com .

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Whitehaven News – November 2011

Modified version

 

If you live near to Whitehaven or intending to visit today or tomorrow can I strongly recommend you get a ticket to see War of the Worlds at the Civic Hall? I went last night and enjoyed every last minute of it.

Usually, first nights are prone to nerves and teething problems but, though not perfect, in this case the PROJECT AUTUMN team had clearly rehearsed this complicated performance so they knew every bar of it. It was no surprise to me when, after the final note had been played and the hall was dramatically plunged into darkness, the audience spontaneously leapt to its feet and gave a standing ovation. It was well deserved by the entire team.

Producer John Thompson put together an impressive team whose credits were amazing before we even heard a note and who gave an incredibly polished performance. Ably led by Musical Director Stephen Hunter-Brown, all did well but I must mention a few in particular who made the night so special.

Both Roger Wilson (who plays the Journalist) and Martin Kelly (the Sung thoughts of the Journalist) looked the part dressed in Victorian garb as befits the novel which begins with those famous words “No one would have believe in the last years of the 19th century…”. Martin sang well (my son turning to me and saying of him  “HE should have been on X Factor!”) – not easy when the band is going hell for leather throughout the performance! Roger filled Richard Burton’s famous shoes with great success.

Dan England (the Artilleryman) just gets better and better with every performance I have seen him in and War of the Worlds is no exception. He took the David Essex role and made it his own singing the difficult “Brave New World” with ease.

Claire Price looked lovely and commanded attention as she played the part of the Parson’s wife and did well to keep up with the person who, for me, stole the show. Stuart Buchanan played the role of the deranged Parson and clearly knew the role inside out and backwards. His singing was terrific, his acting even better. His presence on the stage was electrifying. I would go again just to see Claire and Stuart perform “The Spirit of Man” a second time.

The band were spot on. I would not have liked to conduct them nor play any of the instruments – the score is way too complex! Graham Brown earns man of the match just for having to switch from guitar to mandolin back to a different guitar throughout the show – sometimes only seconds apart! He also sang and provided vocal sound affects and I am sure he must be losing weight as a result. He was kept busy alright. Dean Newton earned my admiration getting the guitar solos just right and recreating the sound of the original recording perfectly. I was not surprised that he has just graduated from the London College of Music; his skill showed in his performance.

I could go through each performer as they all deserve a mention but I think the best think I can do is say “go see it! ” See for yourself how well the team have rehearsed and put together a quality show that had everyone I spoke to in the audience singing their praises. It was worth every penny I can assure you.

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Book Hub – May 2013

“Fishing is not a hobby; it is who we are.”

Source: Amazon.com

I’m not a fisherman; chances are I won’t ever be. But, last year, I wrote my soon-to-be-published novel The Pukur and I needed advice on the subject. One of the major character’s hobby is fly fishing. I knew nothing about the subject at the time but spent a very pleasant afternoon with a friend, who was a fanatical fly fishing hobbyist, learning all about this strange and obsessive world.

I jumped at the chance then to review David Joy’s new book, Growing Gills. I figured it would give me insight into the fisherman’s mind which wouldn’t hurt while my novel is in the last stages of editing. There’s always room for a little more research.

I wasn’t disappointed.

David Joy, a self-confessed ichthyologist, was obsessed with fish from a very early age. By the age of five he knew how to hold a rod, set the hook, prepare the reel and so on. By eleven he was raiding his teenage sister’s ten-gallon aquarium to use for his own fish. Though this first and last foray into keeping live fish proved disastrous (for his traumatised sister at least) it reinforced Joy’s desire to be in the fish world rather than the human one.

This is not to imply that Joy didn’t enjoy eating fish too. “I was born into a school of cannibalistic fish,” he tells us – with characteristic bluntness – when describing the cartoonesque image of mealtimes with his family.

“We spent so many hours casting to bream and eating their fried bodies that we all started resembling the fish we caught.”

It’s a vivid picture.

Although Joy writes obsessively about fish, in many ways his book is more about the people connected to his life on the rivers making his book accessible even for non-enthusiasts like me. His descriptions of those close to him are a pleasure to read and often most tender. His affection for his granny is obvious:

“…all I could focus on as a twelve-year-old were her hands. Hands that had picked cotton, cleaned fish, mixed cobblers, and held young’uns now exposed brittle bones and fragile skin as delicate as tissue paper. The story of her life was spelled out across her palms, each line a narrative of her eighty years.”

He never strays far from a reference to aquatic life, however, describing her with “blue veins peeping through the skin of her hands like the forks of an azure river, even her blood mimicking water.”

Occasionally, Joy’s language is a little clumsy and there are some minor, mildly irritating punctuation errors which spoil the flow. But then is he’s describing the world of a fisherman and not the finer points of Plato – though, with a degree in Literature, I am sure he could do that just as well and he certainly quotes from many a fine writer along the way.

Nevertheless, the minor flaws are quite forgivable and part of the charm of the author’s storytelling technique. Reading Growing Gills is like chatting with the fly fisherman himself – rambling, a little ad hoc and, occasionally, a little lacking in direction, but eminently enjoyable. Don’t wait for a punchline or a climax to the book – just enjoy it for what it is: A fisherman’s tales of love and devotion to the waters.

On the whole, he actually writes with artistic skill and certainly sucks the reader into his world of  ‘stocked brookies’, ‘bows’ and the importance of cork grips; and especially what those corks really mean for this fisherman.

In his vivid and generous descriptions of other fishermen, like his hash-stoned but expert fly-making friend Zac, you can’t help but admire these artists, or as Joy puts it “Piscatorial Picassos”. Even a non-fisherman such as I am can appreciate – and even be mildly jealous of – the great care and skill with which these unusual folk chase their fish.

Joy gives a great deal of detail about the technique of fishing – this is a world of ‘Woolly Worms’, ‘Parachutes Adams’ and ‘Pheasant Tails’ – yet he never bores, never gets lost in the details. Like a skilful story-teller who knows when to give the reader setting and when to get on with driving the story onwards, so Joy keeps the momentum going by mixing up moments of  technical knowledge with the tales themselves.

Sometimes, he even offers philosophical moment contemplating the nature of life as taught to him by the rivers in his life:

“I’ve spent years reading the words of the great philosophers, from Plato to Nietzsche. Though their prose left me awed, their thoughts never taught me as much about life as time spent knee-deep in the water with a fly hung in the hemlocks. Just as soon as my ego grows and head swells, there always seems to be a tree limb to knock me down a peg.”

Elsewhere, he says:

“The wild was nothing more than exactly what it was. Everything was true. Really, there is no greater truth on earth than the reality of the natural world. Humans should dare to be so honest.”

My favourite section of the book describes this adoration for nature best. Joy’s description of night-fishing is captivating. I could imagine being there under a full moon, on the river bank with beer in hand and fish that I’d caught stacked up ready to prepare for a rich and tasty breakfast perhaps. I wanted to be where he was and I felt jealous of the author as he described the coolness of the night; the beauty, mystery and serenity of nature in the dark. I could almost smell the water and taste the fish as I read his words.

Joy has interesting quirks. He won’t kill a trout, for instance. All other fish he will happily catch, kill and cook but not the trout. For Joy, trout are “higher on the totem than others”. Furthermore, Joy describes how he kisses the ‘slimy flesh’ of many of the fish he catches – right on the nose. That’s not for me, no matter how beautiful they look, but still, I admire his devotion.

It is much later – in fact, near the end of the book – when we find out it is a tradition of Joy’s harking back to his childhood, watching Jimmy Houston kiss every bass he hooked on TV. For the author, this is not just about catching fish; his whole life is wrapped up in even the simplest activities. I believe that if you permanently removed the author from his beloved rivers he would gasp for breath as if he was a fish himself.

Of course, no fisherman’s tales could be complete without the ‘one that got away’ and David Joy certainly has more than one. He warms us up early on with the tale of ‘the ugliest fish in the sea’ (named Spike, naturally) but later tells of the one that didn’t so much ‘get away’ as ‘never came near’!  After hours of trying to catch the attention of a ‘monster brown’ to no avail, the author had to concede defeat. In Joy’ words: “Anthropomorphizing or not, that fish was smart”. Another tale is about what he calls the ‘grass eater’ a fish that caused Joy to resort to “monosyllabic cursing…more crushing than finding out that Santa Claus isn’t real…”. Even as a non-fisherman, I feel his pain.

Still, Joy is philosophical about these defeats – even welcoming them:

 “In many ways the fish that get away are more satisfying than the twenty-inch trout that occasionally take the fly…These are the fish that grow twelve inches by the time the story is told, the fish that lead to tales of Volkswagen-size catfish swimming below a dam, the fish that rip drag, break rods, shatter egos, and never look back. These fish are the reason that I trim my line, tie on a new hook, and cast again.”

I feel certain that any fly fisherman will empathise with this kind of thinking – more than I can. In fact, even though this book is the fishing memoirs of an American fly fisherman, I would recommend it for any man or woman who enjoys the world of chasing, catching and eating fish. Growing Gills is an ideal bedtime companion for any obsessive ichthyologist or for someone who just enjoys getting the rod out from time to time.

For me, I enjoy fish best when they are on the plate and ready to eat. That’s as near as I want to get to these aquatic delights. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed David Joy’s stories in Growing Gills and I envied him for the harmony he has known with nature.

If you are looking for a gift for that fish fanatic in your family – for the times when they’re in the house and not out on the river – Growing Gills is the perfect choice.

Growing Gills by David Joy is published by Bright Mountain Books and is available at Amazon.com 

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