Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Say Cheese. You're being shot...

Rummaging through my personal stuff the other day, I found this poem that I had written aeons ago when the world and its cousin were much younger. A lot of the concepts in it are of course outdated today.

The invention of the digital camera, and the Delete key, has taken the sting out of my phobia for having my picture taken. But old habits die hard, and the sight of a camera still manages to put me on high alert.

In the old days, the mere glimpse of a camera would cause me to freeze. And if you were particularly cruel enough to snap me in that mood, you would see for yourself how deer feel when they are rudely caught in the glare of the headlights.

I know just two other people who had a similar phobia. But while I could be induced to grin and bear it for the sake of not making a scene, these others were truer to their fears.

It was the last year of school, and the entire class of girls and the teachers who had taught us through the year had taken up their positions in front of the camera for the annual yearbook picture. Just before the photographer could actually focus and shoot, one of the teachers suggested that it might be a good idea to conduct a roll call to make sure that we were all there. The attendance register was duly brought out and the names recited. It was then that the school became aware that two girls had elected to abscond.

For some strange reason, the school authorities put their heads together and decided that this was a major infraction of the rules, particularly when all of us had been expressly instructed on the previous day to show up at school, looking suitably decorous and becoming for the yearbook photograph. It was a necessary injunction, considering that some of us had already begun experimenting with our appearance, to the eternal displeasure and horror of the nuns.

A search party was formed, and units of the party, in groups of two or three teachers, were summarily dispatched to different corners of the school to find the errant girls.

Over the next hour, they searched. They looked through classrooms, the library, music room, the Physics, Chemistry and Biology laboratories, the school auditorium, the basketball court, the playground, the school office, the canteen and the teachers’ staff room. They even searched in the nun’s convent and poked their heads in the little space near the stairwell where the janitors kept the cleaning supplies. But not a trace of the two runaways was found. This was strange, since the two had been seen during class in the morning. And the old, sleepy watchman at the school gate had sworn that no student had left the school.

Another hour was employed in the search, with different units dispatched to search through the same places. This time, the searchers were more diligent. They walked into classrooms that were occupied and stared hard at the bewildered students to see if the fugitives had camouflaged themselves in their midst. They walked into empty classrooms and peered under desks to see if they were hiding there.

While this interesting drama played out, the rest of us waited, pleasantly amused. And while we waited, we wilted under the sun. By degrees, the excitement of the moment ceased to interest us. The sun got hotter, and we found ourselves getting broiled and roasted under its glare. A few sentinels had been posted to watch over us and they effectively prevented us from dispersing.

Eventually the two girls, looking sheepish but unrepentant, were brought in and the ceremony of clicking the yearbook picture got underway. Apparently, they had spent two agonising hours, holed up in the bathroom.

The lengths some people will go to just to avoid having their picture taken.

Incidentally, an anna was a copper coin that was in use in India in pre-Independence days. It was valued at the 16th part of a rupee. The four annas which I had referred to, in the poem below, constituted 25 paise, one-fourth of a rupee. The 25 paise coin, popularly known in Hindi as the chavanni, ceased to be legal tender in India, on June 30, 2011.

Dear Chavanni, you and your heydays are sorely missed. May your soul rest in peace.

The rest of you who survive the chavanni and mourn its loss can amuse yourselves by reading my ancient poem.

There's nothing that leaves me more completely shaken
Than the thought of having my picture taken.

I am not what people in the know refer to as 'photogenic'
I look better in real life than I look in my pictures which is a positive way of saying that in my pictures I look pathetic.

Therefore, clicking a snap never evoked in me feelings of delight.
On the contrary, the first idea that strikes me is immediate flight.

I have never been able to understand why people love to take pictures.
They're actually pleased and thrilled; some even go into raptures.

Some are happy, some are glad, some even get excited.
But all in all, most people are delighted.

To me, however, these feelings are alien.
If I could, I'd think with my legs, I'd be fleein'.

But the family, that great institution that always thinks differently from noble minds,
On thoughts of escape restriction binds.

Parties, birthdays, weddings, christenings, picnics, et cetera,
Whatever be the occasion, they produce a camera.

The camera itself is a strange contraption
That causes me not a little agitation.

A camera in the hand drives most people bananas
They proceed to treat me as if my brain is worth just four annas.

First they want me suited and booted
And when I'm ready, they want me shooted.

They make me stand in all sorts of gawky postures that would put a contortionist to shame.
They refer to the above torture euphemistically as 'posing'. What a choice of a name!

All this they expect me to do while saying 'cheese' with a grin shooting from ear to ear.
The only positive thing about this whole exercise is that it makes me end up feeling like a martyr.

The worst thing is that the camera chooses to capture that particular moment
Which causes a sensitive person like me acute embarrassment.

Did I say this is the worst thing? An error on my part.
There's more to come. I tell myself, "Cheer up." With these words, I take heart.

The last straw comes with the moment I particularly dread
When the developed pictures are subjected to a post-mortem, I wish I were dead.

The spectators gather around and the pictures undergo keen scrutiny.
They observe every picture and laugh; they obviously find me funny.

And since being laughed at is not something I relish
It necessarily follows that having my picture clicked is not an experience I cherish.

Friday, May 11, 2012


Book: The Devotion of Suspect X
Author: Keigo Higashino
Translators: Alexander O Smith and Elye J Alexander
Publisher: Hachette India
Price: Rs 350
Pages: 374


This murder mystery, unlike others, does not start as a typical ‘whodunit’. Nor is there any doubt about the how, why or when aspects. The only mystery lies in how the mystery is unraveled and the truth revealed.

Detectives of the Tokyo Police, Inspector Kusanagi and Kishitani, seek to solve the crime using the tools of their trade, questioning suspects, finding holes in assumptions and tearing down alibis. But it is physics professor Manaba Yukawa, known to the police force as ‘Detective Galileo,’ who succeeds in unraveling the mystery.

In most murder mysteries, you, as the reader, are allied firmly on the side of the law, trying to make sense of the clues that the Omnipotent Author throws so haphazardly in your way, trying desperately, but in vain, to clear the air before the detective does, and finally finding that the one person you had forgotten to find guilty is the one who is the killer. Here Keigo Higashino puts you firmly on the side of the killers, sympathizing with them against an exploiter and seeing things from their viewpoint. And so you find yourself wincing with increasing discomfort as the physicist gets dangerously close to discovering the truth.

Yusako Hanaoka and her teenage daughter, Misato, from her first marriage are leading an ordinary life in Tokyo, safe from the machinations of Yusako’s abusive ex-husband, Togashi. When Togashi drops in unexpectedly at the lunchbox shop where she works and later at home, it throws the duo’s peaceful and orderly life out of kilter. An altercation takes place between an on-the-edge Yusako and a menacing Togashi. When the latter makes a seedy remark against his ex-stepdaughter, Yusako takes offence. A struggle ensues between the mother-daughter and their adversary, and the thin line between killing in self-defence and willful murder gets crossed.

Their neighbor, Ishigami, a high school maths teacher and judo instructor and a mathematics wizard who secretly has a crush on Yusako, becomes their willing accomplice when he makes their problem his own. He not only helps the mother-daughter duo to dispose of the body but also tutors them to construct an airtight alibi for themselves. “Logical thinking will get us through this,” says the genius as he seeks to use his brilliant mind to extricate them out of their predicament.

His elaborate efforts to destroy the corpse’s face and so thwart identification, and his attempts to plot and offer false clues serve their purpose and the police investigation gets horribly entangled. As the inspector tightens the net around Yusako, Ishigami, with the impenetrable mask for a face, remains unfazed. For the most part, he continues to advise Yusako about how best to fend off the police.

However, when Yukawa, who turns out to be an old friend and classmate of Ishigami’s, becomes interested in the game on his own account, and uses logic to see through the ploys and draw the net tighter around the culprits, the maths teacher feels cornered for the very first time.

Even as I expected Ishigami to come up with another killer escape route, came the ending, unexpected and banal. I began to wonder, is this the book that has become a phenomenon across Japan? Is this the book that has been made into a cult film? Has the writer of this banal ending been described as a Japanese Stieg Larsson?

Just as I wondered what the fuss was all about came a dénouement as striking and impactful as the bathos and melodrama it had seemed to be full of a short while ago.

The ending was a little gruesome. But the puzzle, like a mathematics problem, that is beautiful in its total reliance on logic, was complete. Every missing piece was in place.

Surely Higashino, like his character Ishigami, was a genius! If only he had ended the story at that climactic high…

Unfortunately in the third and definitive part of the conclusion, Higashino resorted to banality once again.

Fortunately for him, I was quite impressed by the high and by a greater part of the novel and I forgave him his lack of judgement about the end.

Read the novel to find out for yourself how Ishigami constructed an elaborate scheme to save the woman he loved and her daughter. When cold, emotionless mathematicians fall in love, it is only fitting that it would be with a devotion such as this.

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