Thursday, March 27, 2008

Desai and Archer: Always on Target

Manmohan Desai wrote only one story in his life.
x (where x = integer greater than 1) siblings and y sets of parents (where y = integer greater than 1 but not equal to x) are separated due to evil relatives or natural calamities. They have a unique common trait in physical (locket, letter, tattoo) or metaphysical (secret, habit, song) form. They grow up (old) while coming in contact with each other at regular intervals but are unable to recognise each other. They are united after 7 songs, 4 fights and one drunken scene featuring Amitabh Bachchan.
And he directed 21 films, of which at least 16 were box-office record-breakers.

As I finished the 531-page long A Prisoner of Birth - Jeffrey Archer's latest novel - in a breathless burst of less than 24 hours, I realised that Jeffrey Archer has a lot in common with Manmohan Desai.
His best novels have all been based on one theme - legendary enmity between powerful adversaries. Kane And Abel. The Prodigal Daughter. Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less. First Among Equals. As the Crow Flies. The Fourth Estate. Sons of Fortune.

You can also add to that a plot twist more commonly associated with Bollywood - separation at birth and/or mistaken parentage. I would probably be giving away too many surprises if I started listing these down.

But like Mr Desai's best, they are good to the point of being addictive.

While zipping through the novel, I was amazed to discover a series of plot devices that have appeared in his earlier novels but as a master storyteller, he managed to disguise most of them and make them look new (if not, fresh).
About a year back, I had listed down a series of similarities in Sidney Sheldon's novels. This is similar to that but Archer is a smarter author with greater research, which makes the devices recognisable but not predictable.
Here is my list of the plot devices that I have come across in multiple Jeffrey Archer novels. They are not broad themes as the ones I mentioned above but are quirky set pieces, which the author is obviously fond of and comes back to repeatedly.
I have tried to disguise any spoilers because it would be such a pity if you got even a whiff of the plot twists beyond what is promised on the blurb!

Prison - Ever since he was incarcerated at Her Majesty's pleasure (one of his pet phrases!), Archer has used his first-hand knowledge of British prisons to embellish his novels. In fact, his last short story collection (Cat O' Nine Tails) came almost entirely out of experiences recounted to him by his fellow inmates. Some of his earlier stories (Trial and Error, for example) also had jail episodes but the authenticity (as well as detail) has only come with the author's stint at Belmarsh Prison.

House of Commons - First hand experience again. The Rt Honourable Archer served in both the Houses and First Among Equals came out of it first. Subsequently, a large number of his novels have MPs (mostly Conservative) flit in and out of the scene.
Apparently, the American and British version of First Among Equals had different characters becoming the Prime Minister.

Trial - Brilliant barristers and even more brilliant defendants add up to one hell of a cross examination, usually by a senior QC. His protagonists almost always had sound and thorough lawyers, advising and defending them. But the flip side was that the villain in several novels (The Prodigal Daughter, Sons of Fortune) have also been lawyers, who had become (by fair means or foul) the 'youngest partners in the firm's history'.
Also, there has been a large number of lawyers who have inherited their legal astuteness and probity from their fathers. Consecutive generations of lawyers served consecutive generations of the leading family in As the Crow Flies.
While on the topic of trials, in-chamber settlement of inheritance is another set-piece. Presided by a retired judge full of bonhomie, the protagonists are represented by sound lawyers (see above) and they engage in a duel of smart remarks before the matter is settled by a clever piece of trivia. In As The Crow Flies, a miniature Military Cross (war decoration) was involved and a rare stamp in A Prisoner of Birth.

Auction - Usually accompanied by added complication of an amateur bidder bidding far more than he can afford. As the Crow Flies, Endgame (short story) are the ones I can think of right now.

Swiss Bank - Is this another location of which Lord Archer has a first hand experience of? With sales of his books running into millions of copies, presumably so. The legendary secretiveness of Swiss bankers, their discrete institutions and tons of ill-gotten wealth inside their vaults come back again and again. Depositing an inheritance in a Swiss bank and then leaving a clue for the beneficiary has already been done in A Matter of Honour and now A Prisoner of Birth as well.
Clean Sweep Igantius (short story) was a cute dig at the Swiss' passion for secrecy.

Disciplinarian matron - Florentyna Rosnovski had Mrs Tredgold as her governess (The Prodigal Daughter). The Rupert Murdoch character (in The Fourth Estate) had one as his bankruptcy advisor (Elizabeth Beresford, I think). Both these women were of unimpeachable integrity, unquestionable sternness and infuriatingly calm in the face of calamity.
Mrs Tredgold is supposed to be Archer's favourite character as well.

Two phrases come pretty often:
* "Wash my hands off the whole affair" - In a reference to Pontius Pilate's infamous uttering after his inability to save Jesus Christ, wimpy / inconsequential people have said this in his novels (I remember two from The Prodigal Daughter and A Prisoner of Birth), with even the same rejoinder - "No doubt you will end up being in the footnote of history like the first guy who said this..."
* "He kissed her on both cheeks like a French general" - I had no idea that French generals kiss people (women?) on both cheeks but now I know. In this context, it would be interesting to note that an apocryphal story floated in Calcutta when Satyajit Ray was given the Legion D'Honeur, President Mitterand wanted to kiss him on his cheeks and Ray subtly refused.

Other quirky repeats are venues like Hotel Dorchester and uncommon names starting with H - Hugo, Hannibal etc. In fact, in Shall We Tell The President, the FBI Chief was called HAL Tyson and it was revealed at the end that the H stood for Horatio!
Adding one's birth date at the end of a tender bid has also happened enough number of times.

And finally, the trick from A Prisoner of Birth which has been straightaway lifted from The Eleventh Commandment. It is exactly the same trick except that the build-up is so good that you almost miss it.
Want a hint? One line from the blurb... "Danny is sentenced to 22 years and sent to Belmarsh prison, the highest security jail in the land, from where no inmate has ever escaped."

Read it. Guaranteed to keep you up till you finish it.

Just like Amar Akbar Anthony!

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Delhi Belly: Eating in NCR

The last one month has been extremely erratic in terms of posting. Blame it on a terrible work schedule and my always-on-overdrive son. Okay, okay... you can blame it on my laziness also!

What has happened over the last few weeks is that we have been eating some very fancy stuff. Many springs later when I would be on oatmeal-diet to cure my ulcers, I will come back to this post to reminisce about my fleeting glimpses of perfection!

Sushi-r Kobita

In the last few months, there has been a surfeit of sushi joints in Delhi. When I say joints, I mean delivery places. At reasonable rates, these guys deliver a platter home and the only hiccup is the time taken - because making your sushi fresh and then negotiating the Moolchand Flyover traffic means you choking on drool long before the stuff makes it home! Of course, this is perfectly acceptable when you consider the alternative is Sakura, which brings you to the edge of poverty with every meal.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, a friend invited us to a sushi-and-sake dinner. We were expecting a phone-in menu and hoping that he would time the order well enough to feed the hungry masses. He blew our mind by charming one of the sushi-joint-owners enough to be able to borrow a chef for the evening!
What followed was a sight seen often enough on certain Calcutta footpaths. There would be a popular fuchka-wallah, who would be churning out the fuchkas at a dozen per minute but never fast enough to disperse the crowd in front of him.
We did exactly the same thing. As the chef lovingly pressed the sushi rice, inserted the filling, wrapped the nori (seaweed) and chopped the roll, we hung around him like a pack of hyenas. As soon as he put the produce on the bento plate, we sprang and the rolls vanished in a puff of smoke!
Despite such pressures to perform, the chef never let up on the pace and in fact, helpfully explained to me the intricacies while expertly chopping the maki rolls into 8.
The salmon, tuna and shrimp were first rate. The wasabi knocked the pants off when we were not careful enough. The host genially topped up our drinks. A CD of Raahat Fateh Ali Khan surfaced. An excellent raconteur told stories of a bygone Calcutta.
And the perfection of the evening rivalled the elegant symmetry of a haiku.

The Art of Spice
We started the evening with the intention of watching underfed models sashay on the ramp. A colleague magnanimously donated his India Fashion Week passes to me and we set off from our dusty hamlet in Haryana for the shining lights of Pragati Maidan. We had 1:30 hours to reach and secure our second row seats.
The last thing on our mind was the work ethic and religiosity of the Sikhs in Delhi. Which is why we were stuck for 50 minutes around the Bangla Sahib Gurdwara as millions of sardarjis took a weekly break from earning money and came to pray.
When we reached, Neha Dhupia was about to get into a car and leave. The show was long over. Being the last day, they were about to dismantle the ramps.
To cheer ourselves up, the wife and I landed up at Masala Art at Taj Palace. Yes, these impulsive dinners are reason why everything in our house, including the TV, is on EMI! But we never think of such piffling matters in the presence of good food.
And good food turns out to be a completely inadequate description of the stuff they conjure up at Masala Art. Their plated meals are a sight to behold - if you can hold yourselves back for an instant to admire the presentation. Their kababs are a little watered down in spiciness to cater to their European clientèle. But you cannot fault the quality of their meat and its marination.
We avoided their Raan - as we feared that the two of us may not be able to finish off a lamb's leg. But then, we had tried the last time around and it was with considerable grief that we had to take this decision.
The starters, main course and accompaniments were all excellent. As was the service. Now, I am only waiting for the good lady from Citibank to call so that the bill can be split into 6 EMIs.

Rs 899 + taxes
The Great Kabab Factory has been featured on this blog earlier as well. In the context of exceptionally good food in fantastically large quantities at absurdly high prices.
But having eaten there again last night, I managed to devise an algorithm for future comers. It's quite simple, really.
Eat the mutton.
The chicken is rather bland. Fish is, by and large, quite unpalatable to the west of Midnapore district. Hence, red meat is the safe bet. They will keep coming at you with all sorts of kababs. Avoid. Just keep popping in the mutton stuff - barra, galauti etc - and you will be fine till the biriyani arrives. And hopefully, will keep some space for the dessert.
I have read somewhere that blogs which dispense advice / suggestions are the most popular. So, I managed to fit in some advice in my incorrigibly frivolous blog. And hey - it wasn't all that difficult! I think I will do it more often...

This post was in order as two of the three meals mentioned are probably going to make it to my list of 10 Favourite Restaurants, whenever the next version comes out...
That good, huh?
Yeah, that good!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Jab We Eight

Since I have not been posting for a very long time, the easiest way to break the blogger's block is to take a tag! Mad Momma usually does about 12 tags a week, so it is easiest to take one from her.

Eight Things I am Passionate About
1. Formatting
2. Children knowing their mother tongue
3. Biriyani
4. Letting people be
5. Imaginative names
6. Books
7. Indian Cinema
8. Calcutta

Eight Things I Want To Do Before I Die
1. Stay at Oberoi Udaivilas.
2. Eat at Indigo.
3. Buy an original Bikash Bhattacharya painting.
4. Go back to my maternal grandparents' place in Dibrugarh (Assam).
5. Watch a World Cup Final match starring Brazil
6. Attend the Film Appreciation Course at FTII
7. Buy the complete Asterix set (and get the complete Tintin set free!)
8. Watch a Rajanikanth movie. First day first show!

Eight Places I Want to Visit
1. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam
2. Venice
3. 221B Baker Street, London
4. Jaisalmer
5. Selexyz Dominicanen in Maastricht, Netherlands.
6. Ladakh
7. The Louvre, Paris
8. Disneyland (with my son)

Eight Things I Say Often
1. ...and stuff like that.
2. What rubbish?
3. Korena, buro. (Don't do that - to my son!)
4. Aisa hi hota hain.
5. Sathiya gaya hain, kya?
6. Kiii??? (Whaaat???)
7. One plate mutton biriyani.
8. Kya baat kar raha hain?

Eight Books I Have Read Recently
1. Shaam-e-Awadh: Writings on Lucknow (edited by Veena Talwar Oldenburg)
2. South by South East (Anthony Horowitz)
3. Fantasies of a Bollywood Love Thief (Stephen Alter)
4. The End of Marketing As We Know It (Sergio Wyman)
5. Brochure of the Neemrana Group of Hotels (!)
6. Lashkar (Mukul Deva)
7. Apu And After: Revisiting Ray's Cinema (edited by Moinak Biswas)
8. Eating India (Chitrita Banerjee) - Actually, I am reading this one right now!

Eight Songs I Can Listen to Again and Again
1. Aanewala pal jaanewala hain - Golmaal
2. Allah ke bande - Waisa Bhi Hota Hain Part II
3. She's a woman to me - Billy Joel
4. Je raatey mor duaarguli bhanglo jhorey - Meghey Dhaka Tara
5. Pyaar karnewale pyaar karte hain shaan se - Shaan
6. Mera dil bhi kitna paagal hain - Saajan
7. Humne tumko dekha tumne humko dekha - Khel Khel Mein
8. Gorgeous Hamesha - Jingle from the Parachute Advansed ad

Eight Things That Attract Me to My Friends
1. Sense of Humour
2. Love for food
3. Eloquent speech or expressive writing or both
4. Laziness
5. Knowledge about arbitrary trivia
6. Confidence
7. Passion for what they believe in
8. Ability to be calm

I will pass the Eighth Topic on tagging eight innocent bystanders!