Book Review – Perdido Street Station

Fanart book cover of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, cover design by Vishal K Bharadwaj

It’s a fairly well-known fact to anybody who’s read this blog that I’m poorly read, and that fact has always been something I’ve been trying to change (not going to be much of a writer if you haven’t read anything). So with the aim of developing a reading habit, I decided to start picking up books I’d always wanted to read but had never bought, waiting for that mythical
‘someday’ when I would be in a relaxed mental state to kick back and read a bit. ‘Someday’ turned out to be when I walked by the Fantasy section in Kinokuniya and spotted a paperback of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station recently, not horrendously overpriced as books in Dubai tend to be, and picked it up. Instead of relegating it to the bookshelf like several previous purchases, I cracked the thick tome open and started reading the second I got home.

Perdido Street Station is a book I have been hearing about almost since it first came out in 2000, mostly through the lavish praise and the awards & nominations it was starting to rack up back then. Online friends raved about it (What? My real life friends, and read? Not bloody likely), and I’d hear it or Miéville’s name mentioned every now and then, so it was rarely out of my mind. Alas, I almost never saw it sitting on a shelf at any bookstore I frequented, and nine years passed before I picked it up (there are far too many unread books sitting in my house for me to even dare open up the Pandora’s Box that is easy online shopping, so I tend to limit myself to retail, brick-and-mortar purchases). And in all that time I managed to glean very little about the plot, other than that it was set in a strange, highly detailed Victorian-era steampunk-style city on a world called Bas-Lag.

That city, New Crobuzon, is at the very heart of Perdido Street Station. It permeates every page, described in loving (and often excessive) detail by Miéville. But such is the baroque style of the book’s prose, and as an exercise in worldbuilding it is a sumptuous, if indulgent treat (no wonder there’s a New Crobuzon-set RPG in the works). From the mysterious Glasshouse, home of the Cactacae plant people, to The Ribs — literally the towering bones of some long-demised creature — to the leviathan-like presence of the station itself, and all points in-between, New Crobuzon is a gloomy, rotting hulk of a city. An old city where life just seems to keep on chugging. It becomes less a setting and more a character in itself, its various burroughs and neighbourhoods forming a weird anatomy on which its protaginists and antagonists scurry like insects, rather than inhabit, scarcely in control of events and the city’s whims.

We get to know some of the city through the eyes of Yagharek, a garuda (roughly a bird-man — the name comes from Hindu mythology) from the far desert of the Cymek, who has come to New Crobuzon seeking the solution to a peculiar problem that afflicts him. He zeroes in on the scientist Isaac Dan de Grimnebulin, a maverick, his head brimming with ideas of tapping ‘crisis energy’. Isaac’s cricle of friends is similarly radical; anti-government magazine journalists like Derkhan, and his Khepri sculptor girlfriend Lin (she has a human’s body but the head of a scarab beetle). Isaac’s investigations into Yagharek’s problem inadvertantly leads to him unleashing a near-unstoppable, deadly force upon the city. With everyone from the shadowy government to drug-baron gangsters on his tail — and with the help of some very unusual allies — he must rid New Crobuzon of this threat.

You’d think that a plot as simple as this couldn’t possibly fill out seven hundred pages, and you’d be right. So much of the book is spent in worldbuilding, in laying down the structure of the city, the peculiarities of each neighbourhood (oddly enough they all end up sounding pretty-much the same, with only a little less or a little more gloom here and there), and the characteristics of its myriad non-human races, that the plot and the characters tend to get lost.

Frequently, a character will commute from one part of the city to another, and we get a long, detailed account of every area and lane and neighbourhood the person passed through to get there. After about the fifth time you start to glaze over. It often reminded me of a Monty Python sketch about train timings, but I don’t think Miéville is trying to be funny.

Actually, I’m pretty sure he isn’t trying to be funny, because this is possibly the most humourless novel I’ve ever read. On the surface of it, a book about ravenous flying beasties terrorising a city of weird fantasy folk should be funny, but I can’t for the life of me recall anything in the book that wasn’t meant to be taken in a deathly serious manner. Pretty-much everything in Bas-Lag is horrible, a lurid tabloid newspaper version of life, and this fact is repeatedly brow-beaten into the reader. It doesn’t matter if you forget how hot it’s supposed to be in the city, because there are going to be fifteen more times when the heat will be described — usually in very pretty sentences that should be blown up and stuck on a wall. And yet this enormous mudslide of style is employed in the service of what is the plot equivalent of a Michael Bay movie, and you end up scratching your head wondering, “Is that it?” By the time the plot has cleared away its considerable mountain of clutter, all that it amounts to is an action thriller with overegged production design.

It might be acceptable had Perdido Street Station billed itself as a straight thriller set in a well-decorated fantasy world, but the book tries very hard to seem important. It should be a treat: a book that folds hard Science Fiction and Fantasy with Literary Fiction, Dystopia, Steampunk, Clockpunk, Biopunk and perhaps more variations of punk that I’m not even aware of into one big, juicy steak of a tome — but like most dishes that play with too many ingredients, it just ends up an indifferent heap.

Every interesting thread that you think is going somewhere — Isaac’s crisis engine, the weird Mr. Motley — are turned into the most facile of MacGuffins and deus ex machina solutions later on. So maybe Miéville has some grand plan to use all of these elements ten books down the line (two more Bas-Lag set books have already been released, The Scar & Iron Council) but really, do I need any of this information right now? No, of course not.

There are moments when I really wanted to love Perdido Street Station. Every now and then a beautifully-wrought passage or sequence would make me smile, but then there would be another five pages of how much grime that bit of the city had, or how polluted the river was. And then some bits just made my eyes glaze over; there’s a mid-air fight between flying monsters and people flying in pairs strapped to each other’s backs that was complicated enough without trying to remember what a Sinsitral and a Dextral was, and why I should care.

And caring is something I never did for the protagonists either; whom, despite all the text devoted to their actions (and which route they took through which lane & over which bridge to get there), I barely felt I knew as people. They do a lot, and talk a lot, but even I wasn’t sure even they believed any of it. And then there’s the ending, where suddenly everyone who had no problem killing folk left right and centre up until that point suddenly took the moral high ground on things (like I said, Michael Bay movie).

It’s a shame to come to the end of a seven hundred page book, a book of great ideas and occasional beauty, and then conclude that you probably shouldn’t have bothered, but that’s exactly how I felt. Perdido Street Station has everything a fan of speculative fiction could want, from clockwork robots & quantum mechanics to wizards and brain-drinking beasties.

And all of it just seems far less than the sum of its parts.

Section of Fanart book cover of Perdido Street Station by China Mieville, cover design by Vishal K Bharadwaj


This post was included in Book Review Blog Carnival #32. Check it out for more great book review links!

A Short Return to Writing Fiction

Click here for the PDF
I‘ve been trying to get back to writing fiction for a long, long time now. In fact, I’ve spent more time trying than I did actively writing fiction from 2000-2003. It’s not that there’s a dearth of ideas or that I have suddenly lost the ability to string two sentences together, quite the opposite. In the past six years there have been short stories that turned into long stories, long stories that didn’t go anywhere; several aborted novels, even more never begun; scripts and outlines and treatments and everything in between, but not a thing among them has been finished.

Well, today that changed. If only in a small way.

Giving myself the most miniscule of writing deadlines — five hundred whole words — and the challenge of trying to fit an entire story with a beginning, middle & end in that space, I set out. Instead of attempting an isolated scene or a standard flash fiction short, I thought I’d try and stretch my muscles. Could I possibly condense an entire action thriller novel into 500 words? Would it read as anything more than an outline? Would it just be a gimmick and nothing more?

Well, you tell me. Click on the image above or here to download a PDF of the short story/micronovel Pendragon. I’ve released the story on a Creative Commons License, so feel free to pass on the PDF file via email or the link to this page to anyone you think may be interested in reading.

I’m fairly satisfied with the way Pendragon has turned out. I don’t think it quite achieves the ambitious ‘novel in 500 words’ goal I set for it, but it does have a beginning, middle, and end. Perhaps in one thousand words I would have been able to squeeze in as many thrills & spills as the average airport thriller.

But you can be assured of two things. One: I am back to writing fiction (and soon, in ways that are bigger than you might think).

And, two: Dirk Cleft will return!


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Vishal Remembers a Lot of Cable TV

Nearly two years ago now we let the subscription on our cable TV lapse, and haven’t bothered to renew it since. In this age of DVD season sets, 24-hour streaming internet news and just plain frustration with the rubbish value for money that local cable bouquets offer, it made no sense to continue. Nowadays when I go to a friend’s place and see the TV on — inevitably tuned to some flavour of news — it feels like some kind of alien world. The last time I was on vacation in India I tried to spend some time flipping channels, seeing if I could recapture those feelings of discovery and entertainment that TV provided for a long time in my life, but it ended with me bored and angry, two hours later having not stayed on a channel for more than five seconds.

Strange things have happened since then. I find that the large chunk of space in my brain that used to be reserved for TV is shrinking. I remember TV, but not as well as I used to, and in a few years time I may not remember much of it at all. Hence this post, which is an infodump; a big steaming brick about TV and the way it was when I used to watch it. Because, though I loathe the way it is now, a lot of me has been shaped by TV, by that first viewing of Star Trek when was an infant, by entertainments factual and imaginary, by the rush of information and colour and sound.

TV was the internet of its time. And this is how I saw it.

Eight Whole Channels!

Back in the early nineties, when cable TV first stared to take a hold in South Asia, the content was not the latest episodes of the then-new American fare such as Friends or E.R.. Star, part of Newscorp (that runs Fox) was the big kahuna, and they had an English language channel called Star Plus (um, yes, kids, it started out as an English channel, and not K-Serial-ville) which showed a lot of primarily seventies and eighties American TV. This was a time when the only subscription channel was their newly launched Star Movies, so revenues were gained from advertising, and with a previous diet of Doordarshan (and the oh-so-classy DD Metro), we were about ready to accept anything that didn’t involve poverty-stricken melodrama families, crack detectives in tight jeans with tiger-skin seats on their bikes, and, er, Zimbo.

It was even worse in the Gulf, because local TV in Oman was 99% Arabic, save for the evening news (“And now, here’s a list of the pharmacies that will be open tonight…”) and the odd afternoon cartoon that would no doubt be cut in half and preempted by the prayers, never to be completed. Dubai had its English channel, Channel 33 (what happened to the other 32?), and obviously had some kind of budget and person with a brain running it*. because for the two short years in the late 80s that we lived in the city (No traffic jams! No road works! No malls!) we got to see fairly recent 80s fare from the west such as Knight Rider, Remington Steele and Centurions, not to mention a whole slew of British, Canadian and Australian shows, commercial-free.

( * – Since 33 was replaced by Dubai One a few years ago all that has gone out the window, and we get the same trash as fifteen other channels)

A lot of these same shows were what I tuned into on Star Plus eight years later, only now it was on a 24 hour channel so there were many more of them (Manimal! Automan! …er, Neighbours), repeats for things I’d miss, frequent commercials — that was a rude shock — and most importantly, no censorship (no kissy-kissy on gulf TV, even today for the most part). I was reintroduced to my old heroes Messrs. Steele & Knight, to new ones like The Fall Guy (who I was convinced was so named because he looked like he was going to keel over any minute from old age and a loss of circulation caused by his tight jeans). There were oddly compelling pre-Reality TV game shows like The Crystal Maze, and even new fledgling Fox-derived shows like The X-Files and Third Rock from the Sun.

The thing that secretly swayed many people to invest in a satellite dish and receiver, however, was Baywatch. Back then, unused as we were to seeing anything not wearing a saree or burka, Baywatch was tantamount to pornography, and there wasn’t a kid in school (or his dad) who didn’t discreetly tape it for convenient viewing later. My uncle’s excuse was, “I like the way they shoot the rescues.”


Believe it or not, the show never really held my attention; perhaps it was because I didn’t find any of the women attractive, or that the show was so pedestrian in its writing and execution. Maybe it was because I still identified David Hasselhoff with Knight Rider, and I expected him to patrol the beach in a cool robot car or something. Regardless, I didn’t rearrange my life to watch it, much to the disbelief and derision of my peers. Scully was sexier, anyway.

Speaking of her: it got really annoying when every few months they’d run out of X-Files and just start showing repeats. Sure, I liked watching that episode with ‘Dr. Bambi’ as much as the next man, but after the fifteenth time it got a little frustrating. I had no idea what ‘seasons’ were back then, and assumed, that like Indian TV, people just made episodes of something every week until nobody watched anymore and the shows died (which was about three years after they all should have ended).

There was one show, however, that never seemed to run out of episodes despite the fact that they aired it five times a week, and that was M*A*S*H (this had something to do with their being over 200 of them). I don’t quite remember the first episode I ever saw, but it hooked me instantly. I’d watch the same episode twice in a day when it repeated. It wasn’t that I was obsessed, simply that I was entertained. There was something different about it, something that set it far apart from its other sitcom brethren, a genre which, as episodes went by, it distanced itself further and further from. The tautness of it impressed me, I suppose, years before I even knew what story writing was or gained any interest in the craft. The guarantee of nearly every single episode being entertaining was something I marveled at. Even back then, like The X-Files, M*A*S*H was something else. There was regular TV, and then there was that.

Doordarshan (State-run Indian TV, still the channel of choice for millions not hooked into cable in India) still held its own, though. Everyone, it seemed, tuned into Shanti (cable viewers included), and it featured a ‘Brought to you by’ bit almost as long as the show itself. It set the mould for many of the serials today, but now especially there’s nothing really like it anymore. Shanti was something of a transition point for Indian TV drama. On the one hand, a lot of its core DNA — the lone female protagonist, the cast of hundreds divided into dozens of factions, the power games of the rich and the richer — are things that are still evident, however greatly mutated, in the popular soaps today. On the other hand, it incorporated a lot of the pulp crime procedural tropes that had become a mainstay of DD drama since the eighties.

The Late 90s

As the Millennium grew from a lofty point in ‘The Future’ to an event just a few years away, satellite TV started to change. Several new channels started to pop up; some were welcome — The Cartoon Network! — and some were not (but I was 12 and would watch anything). If I knew that the then-NDTV-managed Star News would one day result in the glut of horrendous excuses for current affairs programming we have today (New Star News a.k.a. desi Fox News, Zee News, the Aaj Tak Omniplex and NDTV whatever etc. etc.) I wouldn’t have encouraged them and just tuned out.

Then came the subtle introduction of a few Hindi programs into the wholly English language Star Plus. I think that this was about the time that Zee — the all Hindi channel — was separating from Star (if they were every truly together). Zee had built a following around its flagship shows, the musical game show Antakshari**, the youth dramas Campus and Banegi Apni Baat (I seem to recall its big comedy hit, the Balaji-produced Hum Paanch, coming a little later). Their early focus had always been strangely young & urban — perhaps they were trying to get as far away from Doordarshan as they could. I say strangely because now nobody would associate Zee with ‘cool’ and ‘young’ but back then kids used to get very vocal when teachers gave them extra homework the same night that Campus was on.

(** – Antakshari is a popular party and road trip game that could only really work in India. The word very roughly translates to ‘final letter’ or ‘final syllable’, and it’s simple enough to play, and exploits a particular way in which Indian songs are structured. The main ‘hook’ or mukhda (literally, face) of a song is always at the beginning unlike western songs, and in the game you have to sing a song’s mukhda, and then the opposing team has to start a song with the last syllable or letter of the song you have just sung. So, if you sing ‘…I did it my way’ they have to counter with a song whose lyrics start with ‘y’ — ‘Your Winnebago stopped me in my tracks…’. Trust me, in a party these games can go on for hours.)

On Star Plus, we had the Neena Gupta vehicle Saans, which reintroduced melodramatic suffering into Indian TV that Shanti, for the most part, eschewed; only, it dialed it down to near European levels and had everyone living in posh houses (at the time. In today’s soaps, Neena’s home would probably be that of a slum dweller). In a strange twist of (probably unintentional) branding, the show’s logo featured the protagonist’s peculiar bindi, and that became as much a calling card for the show as the big ‘S’ on Superman.

There was a new entrant in the form of Sony, another all-hindi channel. Their station IDs were slick, miles ahead of anything Zee was doing, and much more interesting than Star’s comatose branding. The Zee Network started EL-TV, first as a five or six hour slot on its movie channel, and later as a channel proper. It was like Zee TV, only with more game shows, and I suppose that now it would be seen as an early attempt at a ‘Lifestyle’ channel, i.e. one where drama was not the mainstay. The shows were clunky at best: my favourite to laugh at was Peecha Karo!, a kind of cross-country cops & robbers deal featuring trench coat & fedora villains, hilariously out of place in India.

EL-TV’s big splash came with the Kirron Kher sari parade–sorry, Purush-Kshetra, which was an Oprah-style talk show apparently about men and how evil they are. I thought this was a foregone conclusion? Anyway, they milked about as many episodes out of it as Mrs. Kher had saris (i.e. a lot), none of which I watched, but which my parents were riveted to. There were a lot of talk shows that followed the mould of Purush-Kshetra on various channels. They all kind-of blur together now. Most of them were also about men being evil, except when they were about children being evil to their frail old parents (who had, no doubt, whipped them for getting two marks less than the neighbour’s kid all through childhood, but this was never brought up).

Spurred by this new direction into urban middle-class, middle-age friendly programming, the other Hindi channels started to fight back. Zee played down their game shows (EL-TV disappeared, I don’t remember when or what it morphed into, but there are a dozen Zee channels now) and staples like Banegi Apni Baat and Campus went tat-ta-bye-bye (all of them seem like they come from another universe now, and I’m not just talking about the clothes and the hair). For the longest while — even until the mid 2000s — they tried to keep the urban flag flying. There were office politics shows, I remember, and things like Kitty Party & Astitva. There was also Daastaan which was shot in Dubai and about Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), and while it was a pretty pedestrian soap, it probably sold a lot of air tickets and tourist packages in the days before Dubai was famous in the west for making big buildings and funny-looking islands.

Sony, meanwhile, decided to just take what Star Plus was doing and ramp up the angst to 11, so we got a bunch of super-suffering stuff like Heena and Thoda Hai, Thode Ki Zaroorat Hai. That one was another thing my parents watched that I couldn’t stand. I’d love to burst into the room whenever Alok Nath was going into his umpteenth angst binge and shout in unison with his character, “Vishal mar gaya, Beena-ji!!!” (“Vishal is DEAD, Beena!!”) Did Vishal (Sachin Khedekar, post-Teacher but pre career as sleazy bollywood villain) ever get cured of his amnesia and return home? Did Alok Nath continue to tell Beena-ji he was dead even after the show ended just ’cause it was the way he rolled now? Such questions still keep me up at night. Thank the gods all of them were only weeklies.

The effects of all this never-ending, insipid and unsexy melodrama was quick and staggering. Firstly, they became really popular. So popular, in fact, that Star Plus stopped being an English channel and they actually started making money. They switched to subscription, chucked all their old eighties content — including M*A*S*H — and started showing Friends a lot on the newly minted Star World.

Sigh… Friends. I first saw it in 1999, and had been hearing the hype for years. I must say, that first season was great. I mean, it was still a sitcom, but there was some terrific writing at play. How they went from that to one of the most inbred, maudlin 25 minutes on TV I’ll never know, but do that they did, and from now until the next millennium every single channel in this part of the world will play it day in and day out.

The K-Serial Virus

I had always been surprised in the 90s that nobody in India had successfully pulled off a ‘daily’ soap, but that was only because nobody had got the formula right. Western soaps are about large groups of somewhat inter-related characters who have sex with each other and marry each others’ parents, siblings and offspring. Someone in India was also paying attention to The Bold & the Beautiful, only it took seven or eight years for us to work the logistics out so we would successfully duplicate its five-days-a-week schedule. We couldn’t really lift the plot — no sex please, we’re Indians — but we could and did adapt the ridiculousness.

The answer to the plot problem was fairly simple and had been around for a few years, namely Neena Gupta’s Saans and, to a lesser extent, Shanti. While other late 90s soaps rolled with their template of the travails of angsty urban middle-class intelligentsia, Ekta Kapoor at Balaji Telefilms probably realised that a whole lot of people were tuning into Saans because it featured a strong but embattled female lead dealing with somewhat hackneyed but still engaging domestic issues such as infidelity and relationships. From Shanti came the cast of hundreds, the political intrigue and the high stakes corporate duelling, but without the social activist baggage.

Balaji, who had until then been known for producing the Zee comedy hit Hum Paanch and a couple of other dramas on Sony, gave birth to the soap that launched a million others, Kyuni Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Whether or not it was helped by the spillover from the hundreds of millions of people who tuned into Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?), the fact remains that it stuck and was still one of the top rated shows until its demise last year (due to falling ratings of all things!).

K-Serials are so called because Balaji produced dozens of them, all of which started with the letter K which they consider lucky (and why not? It worked!) and are now generally known by their first words (Kyunki…, Kahani…, Kasautii…, etc). They’re also called Saas-Bahu serials (‘mother-in-law – daughter-in-law’) because no matter how they begin (the world of doctors, or lawyers, or aspiring film directors) by around the twentieth episode the lead female is married, and they boil down to a large joint family situation and the various intrigues that supposedly go on in them. Balaji were at one time the only people who made this kind of soap, but since they were wildly popular every channel now has a few, and Zee TV has pretty-much done an about face on its urban lineup and embraced the form (and has met with success).

Of course, being Indians, we took Ridiculous to a whole new level. The glamour was ramped up, the houses got bigger, the families larger and their values more conservative. If only Neena Gupta knew that the simple bindi trend she started would snowball into the grotesques that were nightly painted on Sudha Chandran’s face years later in Kahin Kissi Roz (My favourite was the anatomically correct cobra, complete with silver glitter fangs). The soap vamps’ bindis became a national talking point, their saris are still influencing fashion, and the suits — oh god, why would anyone in a monsoonal climate wear so many suits, and why are all of them so bad?! — well, um, the suits are everywhere now. You can’t pass a wedding without seeing twenty mauve jackets with dhinchak trim.

Forget Bollywood. Balaji with its half dozen vaguely different takes on ‘young woman gets married into large family and shit happens’ routine influence Indian culture more on a daily basis than what state Aamir Khan’s abs are in. The only thing to rival them in the past few years has been Himesh Reshammiya, and I for one think that he’s pedaling the same melodrama, only in music videos and films. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari — it’s a strange coincidence — but India sways to the letter K.

The West Gets Real

In the west, meanwhile, Reality TV and the rise of the SUV happened. These two things formed a symbiosis of sorts, as the vehicle of choice for every reality show contestant was some flavour of black SUV.

Since the Newscorp-owned Fox was its champion over there, we got to see a lot of it on their channels here. Most of English programming now is either Reality TV or sitcoms, with the odd single season reject from America quickly making its was over (like Miss Match or Journeyman). You’d think that the older shows would be even cheaper now to broadcast, but instead we still get that episode of Friends where somebody’s marrying the other one while another pair are secretly sleeping together. People still seem to look to Star to set the trend, so the half dozen English channels that have been started by local (Middle East) media groups all seem to follow the trend of Reality TV, a couple of reheated shockporn dramas (Law & Order: SVU, but I’ll save that rant for another time), and Friends.

Star World is perhaps the most comically misnamed. They have a couple of non-American shows going on at any time (British sitcoms), but is that really all there is to say about the English speaking world? Hell, there aren’t even any Australian or Canadian shows on TV anymore, and most of those I’ve seen are pretty decent, and frequently great (Traders!). It would be a real miracle if somebody actually came up with some original English programming. Where is the Singaporean cop drama I’ve always wanted? Where is the Indian rom-com? Is there nobody out there who can pull one together for about the same cash as the syndication fee of Race to the Altar?

The Ghost of EL-TV

I shouldn’t be the one to talk about original content, however. A couple of years ago a friend of mine, my brother and I tried to put together a Hindi sitcom the likes of which had never been seen in India. We fleshed things out, wrote a few scripts and that was about it. The plans, as they say, are still afoot. Back when we started there was Star Plus — bonded to the K-Serial — and Zee and Sony, all of whom were trying to be Star Plus. Getting anything other than a five day soap on TV was probably impossible, but there were rumblings of new, urban, modern channels launching soon.

When Zoom showed up with its super-swanky station ID — the best since mid-90s Sony — I was one of those people who thought that there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Star was going to launch one of its own too (Star One) and NDTV was probably not far behind. They didn’t have anything as cutting-edge as I would have liked, but they were trying to break out of the mould. Three years later, however, Zoom has degenerated into a E! clone, Star One is Star Plus-lite, playing old shows and quasi-K-Serial mutations of their starting lineup. Though I haven’t seen it yet, I hear the NDTV one is similarly disappointing.

Today I think TV in India is a toss-up between News channels and dance/comedy variety shows that follow the American Idol/Dancing with the Stars template. The serials are still around, but nearly all the flagship soaps have died (sometimes suddenly), and even the news channels show stand up comedy (because they’re crap when it comes to news, but that’s a rant for another day). Is there hope for Indian TV? Will it have some kind of renaissance the way that American serials have gone through in the noughties? I have no idea, and all signs point to more dance variety shows.

TV But Not TV

Despite having no access to cable or local television, I still watch a lot of TV. I just don’t bother with cliffhangers or interminable ad breaks, or worry about keeping my schedule free to catch my favourite show, or to remember to set my VCR to tape it. TV is no longer restricted to cable and satellite broadcasts. In the 90s a two or three episodes of a show might be squeezed onto a single VHS cassette, but today you can get a whole season’s worth of shows in a pack of DVDs that take up roughly the same space. Yes, so some of the thrill of speculating for a week or months as to what would happen in the next episode is gone, but that was an artificial thrill anyway. The shows themselves have changed too, having large overarching plotlines, dozens of characters and histories; This sort of thing has even crept into procedurals.

In a given year I’ll see a season’s worth of LOST, Mad Men, 30 Rock, House, Entourage, Friday Night Lights, Battlestar Galactica, Heroes, Brothers & Sisters and several more I can’t think of offhand, and catch up with shows I’ve seen on TV back in the day but can now watch the entirety of. I’ve seen all of M*A*S*H, and am currently almost at the end of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and just that statement would have sounded completely unbelievable to me 10 years ago. Today it’s as simple as popping down to the local DVD store, or even just downloading a torrent. If I want to watch a particular episode of She-Ra, it’s a simple Google search away.

I don’t miss TV. The medium still has several strengths, but it’s just not compatible with the kind of person who has free time almost whenever they want it. If I had a steady 9-5 job and more structure in my life, then maybe I’d still have that cable subscription. But as someone who spends almost an entire weekend each year devouring the latest season of LOST, that type of — I’ll admit it — antiquated lifestyle just seems wrong. It helps that I never had a palate for the way news is presented, and abhor it now; that I don’t feel a frisson of excitement when this week’s American Idol elimination is about to be announced; that watching sports does nothing for me beyond marveling at the odd skillful play.

I never liked TV, I just liked the stories that were being told on it. I like examining it as a facet of culture, like opening up the case and seeing how all the gears and strings of it fit together, but the medium is mine no longer, if it ever was. I can’t, on the other hand, say that I’m a child of the internet. I only joined facebook a few weeks ago, and I still don’t know how to actually use it or a dozen other internet staples. I just see the net for what it is to me; another way to get at the information I’ve always filtered though, only with a mouse instead of a steady thumb on the ‘channel ’ button.

I like the way it tells me stories.

Spoiler-free, of course.


Prince of Persia Revisited

screenshot of the original Prince of Persia
At the cusp of the 1990s, every home PC had to have one killer app installed. When you’d go round to a friend’s place and they’d show off their new Amstrad or IBM beige behemoth, the first question out of your mouth would be, “How did you convince your parents?” The second would be, “Do you have Prince of Persia?”

Jordan Mechner’s seminal 1989 game (published by Brøderbund) was the high watermark for computer games at the time, a title that combined fluid graphics, exquisite music and challenging gameplay into an astonishing final product. I remember the first time I saw it in 1990, on the PC of one of my parents’ friends. He fired it up for us, to keep us kids busy, I suppose, but I don’t think even he would understand quite the impact the next hour or so of play had on me.


Here was a computer game, until then just a kid’s thing with colourful graphics and tinny bips and bleeps for sound, only it was strangely adult-oriented. The character was humanoid and moved in a lifelike way (thanks to the rotoscoping animation process), the environments were grey and moody — unsettling, even — and there were no guns, no quick-trigger projectiles with which to fell waves of enemies. Come to think of it, there weren’t many enemies either, and the your character started with no weapons. Deadly spike traps, floor switches and a labyrinthine maze of a dungeon was all that lay between you and destiny. If only you could complete it in one single hour.

It’s amazing how well the original Prince of Persia holds up nearly two decades after its initial release. Sure, later versions cleaned up the graphics and gave our hero a makeover (out went the white pyjamas, and in came the turban and vest combo), but the essence of the game has remained intact in every version. The prince is still a tireless acrobat, leaping over pits and scampering up and down ledges. His swordplay is not the quickest — can’t expect much else from a street urchin — but there is an inherent pace and rhythm to the combat that was (and still is) uncommon among games, favouring position and timing over mindless button mashing. Many a heartbeat was skipped in the split-second that both his and the enemy guard’s swords arced through the air and I hoped that I was just that minuscule bit quicker.

I must admit that I never did finish the original Prince. My nascent curiosity about all things design was just forming (even though I wouldn’t realise it for another decade) and I spent most of the one hour of alloted time pootling around the first few levels, exploring every nook and cranny, seeing how it all fit together (I think I ran around the room telling all and sundry that I’d found the alternate way back to the intial starting point of the first level — you could never do that in Mario). I was fascinated by the spike pits that were perfectly harmless when you walked carefully past them — there’s more than one way to skin a cat — and by the mirror prince, by health replenishing and enhancing potions and the copy protection roadblock before level 2 (you had to drink a certain potion of a certain alphabet, a fact only knowable to people to had the game’s manual and had therefore purhcased the game properly).

Screenshot from the Opening sequence of Prince of Persia
Mostly I was enthralled by the cinematic nature of it; the sweeping opening music, the stark, simple gestures in the opening sequence. It was the first game I’d encountered that was trying to tell a story rather than a high score. It was the first time I’d seen blood in a game, and I recall with morbid fascination the first time I saw the prince chopped to bits by a steel-jawed door trap, his blood still oozing from its teeth. Looking back now, there was also that fantastic device of having the game played on non-scrolling individual screens; you never knew what was going to meet you on the next one!

Screenshot of Eric Chahi's Another WorldScreenshot of Delphine's Flashback
Prince of Persia spawned a whole genre of single-screen adventure games where the emphasis was on puzzle-solving and mood, and I was a huge fan of two of the most prominent Prince-inspired games, Delphine software’s 2D vector classics Another World (by Eric Chahi) and Flashback. As time passed and technology grew, the 2D side-scroller was rapidly losing its place in the world. It’s amazing to think that just five years after Prince of Persia was released, the original Sony Playstation debuted in 1994, ushering in the age of the 3D polygon videogame that is still with us. There was a 2D sequel to the game in 1994 (the lovely Shadow and the Flame), and in 1999 the flawed Prince of Persia 3D was released, but it wouldn’t be until late 2003 that the world would see a game worthy of the Prince of Persia name.

The orginial is still a classic well deserving of that status, and if you’ve never played it, you’re missing out.

Google Chrome & the Power of Comics

Over the next few days you will hear a lot about Google Chrome, the new web browser from the internet behemoth. I’ve tested it out and am happy to report that it’s quite nice. Of course, I’m a long-time Mozilla Firefox user, so the transition has not been very stark. But if you’re one of the poor people who still use Microsoft Internet Explorer (or worse, if until now you didn’t even know what a web browser is and that there are mutliple available ones), then Chrome will be a revelation.

Even for me, the new browser is an intriguing new beast. It’s very quick, intuitive to use and so far does things well. I can see myself using it for most tasks, at least those that don’t require certain firefox plug-ins that I’m used to (but there will no doubt be equivalents for them in Google Chrome eventually), and I’m very happy that there is now a new robust, polished open-source browser. Competition and choice can only lead to better products in this regard.

But as impressive as the browser is, it is not the thing that I really wanted to blog about here. For you see, the most impressive thing about Google Chrome for me today is the fantastic comic that serves as an introduction to it.

The name Scott McCloud should be familiar to most comic book geeks such as myself. The author of seminal works like Understanding Comics has carved a name for himself as true master and expert of the comics medium. Who better to explain a new web browser; an application that’s so simple to use it’s invisible, but is so complex underneath that entire careers can be dedicated to it? Scott McCloud, of course.

I love how he manages to represent even the most arcane programming concepts in a fun and exciting way (helped, of course, by the words from Google Chrome’s programming staff), how there’s a single narrative thread but multiple voices from members of the team — this is a feat you can’t really achieve as well in video, for instance, but as a comic it works great. Alan Moore has always maintained that comics as a medium are rich beyond measure, that there are things you can do in it that you can’t do in a movie or a book. I can think of several examples of Moore’s own work to support this, but Scott McCloud’s introduction to Google Chrome is a shining example too.

So even if you don’t give Google Chrome a spin (I highly recommend you do), please do check out the comic that goes with it. It’s simply superb.

Comic Konga 2 #5: Megalomania

-I wish I was fabulously intelligent. -You aren't?
-Then I'd program a kickass brew of linux and rule the world!! -I see.
-Geeks would love me. Children would respect me. Women would really love me! -Women love men who program operating systems?
-You're no fun anymore.


Finally, the fifth and final strip of the second Comic Konga!. Dunno why I dawdled do long on this. It didn’t take me long to do. I guess that’s because I had a bunch of other strips planned and never got around to doing them (sorry Dolly!). I’ll have to get around to those soon, or when we do the next comic knoga in a month or two. Come to think of it, I didn’t end up doing any of the strips I thought I would do this time. Most of the ideas were very long, multiple page ideas, and would have required a lot more drawing. Still, I’ve enjoyed all the strips I’ve done (not to mention the rest of the strips).


Don’t Call it a Piña Colada

Further adventures in processed food in this, the fourth and much delayed strip of the second Comic Konga! Click on the image to see the full strip.

The drawing is all over the place in this. I’m just a bit out of it this week, I suppose, running around doing real life stuff. One more left; have the script, should draw it asap.


Comic Konga 2: A Short Intermission

comic konga intermission monks
Due to unforseen developments, I’m going to have to put my contributions to this second Comic Konga! on hold for a couple of days. I won’t have computer access for the next two days, and instead of rushing and putting up some crap or the other, I request my readers to be patient with me for a little while.

The remaining two comics will be posted on Saturday and Sunday (12 & 13 July).

Meanwhile you can look at these monks. Ah, don’t they look serene? You would be too if you were dreaming of comics.


Comic Konga 2 #3: Mint Chocolate Marvels

Third day, third strip of the second Comic Konga!. Today’s strip is a two-pager, so click on the thumbnail above to bring up the first page, and then click next at the bottom to see the second. Alternately, you can click here to directly see the second page.

I can’t say I really hate mint chocolate — the ice-cream version is something I enjoy quite a bit — but most varieties of it are not very well made, and the experience is more negative than positive.

I have no idea what tomorrow’s strip will be. Oh noes!


Comic Konga 2 #2: A Dilemma

Here’s the second strip of the second Comic Konga!. Click on the image to see the full strip.

This was actually the first strip drawn but I wanted to post it after the single panel from yesterday. Tomorrow’s strip has been penciled; I only have to ink and scan it, perhaps shade it in like this one. Like I said yesterday I think I’m not going to do full colour versions (Today’s strip is done in shades of desaturated blue). For no other reason than, like most Indians, I have a bit of a lenient hand with colour and it always ends up gaudier than I would like (strangely this is only a problem with my illustration work; my colour sense works fine when I’m doing design).


Comic Konga 2 #1: Jewels

So begins the second Comic Konga! I think I’m starting to like doing the first one as a single panel gag; it’s a format I never otherwise use, and it’s a challenge to distill something down to one panel and one line only. Like most writers I have a tendency to ramble, and something like this could easily have been a three or six panel piece.

The anatomy and line-work is all over the place, and I did try to colour it but decided just to keep it to black and white (perhaps that can be a theme for this time’s CK). Hope your own comic endeavours are fruitful. Can’t wait to see what you lot have come up with.


Race – Movie Review

Director Duo Abbas-Mustan (not otherwise known as ‘The Brothers Burmawalla’) have been steadily putting out pulp thrillers since their early 90s hit, Khiladi. The brothers’ latest offering, Race, hit theatres a couple of weeks ago, and since then has gone on to do unexpectedly good business. Some of this success can be attributed to the fact that it’s the first truly ‘Bollywood’ movie to come out for months; whether we admit to it or not, posh city folk like nothing better than an indulgent entertainer now and then. The last one that fit the bill — Om Shanti Om — was released last October. If only someone would tell our filmmakers, who are increasingly shifting their attention towards an output of macho noir violence-fests, epic historical snore-a-thons, Oscar bait (and always failing that, Filmfare Critics award bait) and trendy urban train wrecks distinguished by their characters calling each other ‘Guys’ a lot and knowing what ribbed condoms are.

In this age where the term ‘Pulp Fiction’ is more synonymous with an overrated art movie than the vibrant genre that supposedly inspired it, it’s nice to see that someone, somewhere at least isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel or make a genre of pure entertainment ‘relevant to this post 9/11 world.’ Wielding the twin cannons of amoral pulp and bollywood exuberance (with both genres’ devil-may-care attitude to realism as their car’s engine) the brothers have came out with a winner.


To summarise the plot of Race would be foolhardy. It’s ostensibly about two rich step-brothers who stand to inherit tons of cash in insurance payouts should either of them die in an accident. Obviously, this being pulp, one of the brothers is rotten and wants to bump the other off, and the story goes from there. How it does so is nothing short of marvellous: over the course of its two and a half-hour running time, Race manages to squeeze in more plot twists and sudden reversals than a whole DVD box set of thrillers. The twists themselves are all the old ones, but the makers are obviously aware that the viewers will be actively trying to guess which one comes next, and almost always the twist that they do deploy is not quite the one you were expecting. Is there one twist too many? That’s an irrelevant question in this case. It’s a tightrope walk, for sure, but it manages to be consistently entertaining.

The characters are sketched very broadly. You have the work-hard-play-hard businessman, his alcoholic schemer of a brother, the dame with a dark past, the pining secretary, the corrupt cop and his bimbo assistant, all of which is laid out within ten seconds of their onsceen appearance. It’s more archetype than character, and in any other movie this would not be enough, but Race is a film where your focus is always on the increasingly knotty plot; any attempts at making whole characters out of this bunch would distract from it.

Also, if you made these people more realistic they would throw the ludicrousness of the world they inhabit into sharp relief. Here people are blown up in broad daylight, men survive treacherous falls and deadly car accidents, and insurance companies have no problem parting with 50 million in cash once a little paperwork is done. Race is unrealistic to the core, and it knows it; it’s a sexy pre-code comic book where there are no good guys, but everybody isn’t a dour Frank Miller creation either.

To their credit, the actors do a fine job with what little they have. Saif Ali Khan and Akshaye Khanna are wonderful when they’re playing bad guys, and it only dawned on me a few days later that they were both in Dil Chahta Hai together (playing very different characters). Anil Kapoor’s fruit-munching cop is loud, over-the-top and has more bad jokes in him than there are pips in his orange, but even this manages to fit snugly into the proceedings. The women have less to do and don’t quite distinguish themselves beyond eye candy and comic relief.

What really impressed me about Race to begin with is the great pacing. Usually in films there’s an energetic first fifteen minutes, and then the filmmakers decide they’ve had enough quick stuff, and according to that ‘How to Make a Movie’ book they read, it’s about time to slow down and add in some character and texture to it. Not so in Race, whose first half maintains its breakneck speed from start to finish. Even post-interval they keep it up, and it only ever really slackens for a few minutes here and there. To anybody who says it can’t be done, this should be Exhibit A.

If anything lets Race down, it is often its technical side. There’s terrible sound mixing in the songs; Bollywood movies are loud and hissy anyway, but the songs here are really pushing it (and I saw it in a good theatre with excellent sound). The soundtrack itself is the by-now standard action movie staple of Pritam-composed songs and a revolting Salim-Sulaiman background score (they should stick to film songs; they’re much better at it). Lots of jarring hip-hop and crashing guitars. Some of it is hummable but most is not, and one wonders how much better the film would be if the score wasn’t trying to hit you over the head every two seconds. Oh, and the songs literally come out of nowhere (incuding one which happens just after a major twist in the second half), but like every excess in this film, I went with it.

Also, the film could have used a few more weeks of post-production, especially digital grading. There’s some wonderful physical camerawork to see, but since a lot of the film is shot during stark daylight it doesn’t quite have the same impact. Towards the interval there’s a fantastic day-for-night sequence on a high-rise terrace; it’s coloured to look surreal and weird, and I wish the rest of the film’s sequences could have had that much attention paid to them (but they probably ran out of time/money).

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here with dreams of logic and social relevance. This is the land of surreal entertainment that Bollywood should never really forget, and as long as Abbas-Mustan in their matching white clothes are around, it never will. Race is pulp without parody, Bollywood madness without apology. It’s loud and loopy and I loved it.