All it takes is a little push...


The world seems to be more fractured now than it ever used to be. Race, class, caste, religion, region, language; just when we think that one is getting weaker, a new de-marker comes up; dividing people, plunging the societies into a fresh hell of hatred and a mad vicious circle of violence and vengeance. I remember when I was growing up; this country was embroiled in a turmoil over demolition of some mosque and construction of some temple in its place. I remember how strong my views were or at least the impression that you can credit to a ten year old’s mind; about ‘the others’. Over the years as I became more aware, I realized that the problem was not with ‘the others’ or with ‘us’. People have been killing each other for centuries. What changes with time is the de-marker, the criteria for determining ‘the others’ and ‘us’. People will keep killing each other for centuries. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is.


In the fourth year of law school, I got an internship with Lex Juris Prude, LJP for short, India’s best law firm. These internships usually ended with job offers. Johnny on the other hand got an internship with the legal department of Axals Electronics, one of the leading consumer appliances manufacturer in India. It wasn’t the best place to work for some one out of the National Law School. After all, we were the best legal minds in the country, the crème de la crème and as was the norm most of us looked forward to a life of slogging hours and raining money in some sweat shop of a law firm. But not Johnny.

Johnny (his pet name by the way, his parents did not hate him enough to actually name him Johnny) was in the peculiar position of being more confused than the rest of us and believe me, we were quite a confused lot. His dad was in the armed forces. Johnny wanted to get into civil services but only after finishing IIT. He managed to get admission in some random engineering college but dropped out of it after a couple of months. Then by some strange mix of fortitude and fate, he landed up in law school. In that sense he was like the most of us, people who landed up in law school because we were smart enough to not to go to an engineering college. In law school, Johnny had a wide range of interests. None of them were even remotely relevant for academic purposes. At least not the kind that you got graded on.

One of the best kept secrets in law school was how Johnny passed his courses. It was a usual sight on the evening before the exam, to see him stocking up on food and beverages in preparation of a long night ahead before the exam. Almost as certain would be the sight of him snoring away soon after midnight even as people around him were indexing notes or preparing the ammunition for toilet breaks. Johnny in total oblivion of the commotion around him, lived his life unconcerned and blissfully. Mind you, he was not a genius. So of course, he flunked and got the ‘repeats’ and the ‘carry overs’ quite frequently. But just when it would be the last time, the time when it really mattered, the time when everyone thought it was over for Johnny, he would manage to clear it. So he reached the fourth year like the best of us in just four years. From now on it was just one cool, nonchalant walk till you passed out and got a well paying job at the end of the fifth year. On his way sometime around the half way mark, Johnny started showing where his heart lay. He became the uncrowned king of theatre in the college putting up one production after the other. It was alleged by his closest friends that his love for the stage was just a way to get some chick and sure enough he did start going out with the lead actress of one of his plays, a romantic comedy, incidentally. The number of movies Johnny had watched and the number of movies he had heard of or read about made him a walking IMDB for the rest of us. He was quite excited about the internship with Axals but least of all because of what they did. It was not his job profile or the pay package which drove him to accept the internship. The prospect of working with Axals delighted Johnny because more often than not work would get over by six o’ clock plus they had a five day week and most importantly it would be located in Bombay.

Off late, Johnny had started taking his theatre quite seriously. He had even performed (meaning written, produced, acted and directed plays) in a couple of prominent theatres in Bombay which was no mean feat for someone studying in the best law school in the country with supposedly the most rigorous routine and curriculum. It was now the grand ambition of his life to manage theatre as a hobby with his professional life for some time and finally at some time after finding his feet, take the plunge in the movie industry. Johnny and I got along quite well. He more or less introduced me to the joy of English movies and I was more than hooked. Movies were the common ground on which the tree of our friendship found its roots. It’s a fact that anyone who’s ever been to a college can confirm; that the strongest and the most lasting bonding always happens over some form or the other of pop culture. Drugs, alcohol, rock music, films or literature are the forces which bring people of impressionable age closer than exams, projects or class room lectures ever could. Though he was not my room mate in college, I spent a lot of time in his room. When we realized that both of us would be interning in Bombay, we booked a room together in a student hostel in Colaba, the heart of south Bombay. It was a place run by the Jesuits, the same people who run the Saint Xavier’s schools and colleges across the country. There were a lot of people from our class who were interning in Bombay that vacation and we were soaking in the many delights of the city even as we reached the last week of our internships. As was expected, most of us including me and Johnny got the job offers in the places we were interning. It was the last weekend we had in Bombay when Johnny told me about a great way to spend the Sunday evening.

“Dude, lets go and meet Ravi Kumar" , he spoke with his trademark forced enthusiasm.

“Who the hell is Ravi Kumar.” It seemed like one of his nonsensical conversations and I was not in the mood to humour him.

“Arrey, he is film star.”

“Of what, Bhojpuri movies?” I was pretty sure he was just making all this up.

“Well actually he’s not a star. But he’s done a lot of movies. He was the father of SRK in Anjaane and the lead villain in Betaab Dil. He also does a lot of TV serials and theater. He is a friend of my dad.” Johnny gave me what was sure to be the gist of Mr Ravi Kumar’s profile on IMDB; except of course the last sentence.

Although I could still not recall his face, I had definitely heard of the movies and was more or less convinced that Mr. Ravi Kumar was not another product of the fertile imagination of Johnny. As it turned out later that evening, Mr Ravi Kumar was not only a real person but a very realistic one also. He gave us a nice talk about the systemic inefficiencies of the entertainment business and how the creativities of young idealists are more often than not lost in the search of financiers and in appeasing the whims and fancies of the people who matter. He lived in a nice flat overlooking a creek in a peaceful northern suburb called Malad. He was a nice soft spoken gentleman who insisted on walking us till the gate of his apartment complex on the pretext of it being an evening walk for him. It was actually quite a pleasant evening. Most evenings in Bombay are rather pleasant unless it is pouring. Johnny and I walked around aimlessly for some time till we reached a multiplex which happened to be screening Kisna, the Warrior Poet. Being men of free will and refined taste we decided to watch it. It was probably not worth the 150 Rupees we spent on it but was still good for many laughs as we ripped apart what were supposed to be some of its most sentimental scenes. It was almost 11 o’clock by the time we were done with the movie and the familiarly greasy food court dinner. There was a guy selling pirated and second hand books outside the multiplex. Book sellers like this all over the place was another thing about Bombay which excited me. Although we were law students, we had no obvious qualms in purchasing the pirated books. We justified it to ourselves with the reasoning that the originals were just too overpriced to be afforded by students like us and we managed to convince ourselves quite easily. This guy looked like he was done for the day and was packing up his wares. Just then, I saw a copy of the Fountainhead lying on top. I convinced Johnny that it will be the most influential book he would ever read. Actually, I wanted to drive the point that his plays will remain trivial and shallow until he has an understanding of good literature. The book seller looked in a bit of a hurry to go home and without much haggling agreed to sell it to Johnny for 150 bucks which was a pretty good bargain. Satisfied with our conquests for the day, we took an auto to Malad station and got on to a slow train on our way to Churchgate, the last station on the route. We would have to walk to our hostel from there.

Local trains in Bombay are notorious for the unimaginable number of people that are cramped in a compartment during the peak hours. This was of course a late night on a Sunday and we were going towards the business district. Moreover, we were travelling by the first class (Courtesy the monthly passes both of us we had). So we were not really surprised to find that we were the only two people in the compartment. We occupied the two seats next to the window to enjoy the cool night breeze. As usual the topic of our conversation was movies. Earlier in the day, I had bought a pirated CD of ‘A Clockwork Orange’, a movie which both of us had seen when it was screened in law school in our first year. I was of the firm opinion that the gruesome and explicit scenes in the movie were justified because without them, it would not be that impactful. My point being that you cannot understand the brutality of the acts of the lead guy and his gang unless you see what his victims go through. More importantly, you cannot understand the motives of the lead guy and why he enjoys doing those things unless you actually show him in the process of committing those acts. Johnny on the other hand felt that it was really easy to excite or disgust someone by showing shocking or sensational visuals and that is not really a sophisticated way of film making. More importantly he was not interested in following the life of such a psychotic guy. I however, found it fascinating to observe and know about the deviant human behaviour and in my opinion the only way we could enhance the knowledge of our species in general and our own selves in particular was by observing and learning about the deviant elements. After some point of time our conversation drifted towards less controversial topics like the use of or rather the lack of use of swear words in the Hindi movies.

Hamaari rashtra bhasha Hindi hai’. Why don’t you talk in Hindi?. Hum bhi baat karenge tumse.”

Both Johnny and me were startled if not shocked to hear this loud voice. As we turned our heads, the speaker came into our view who was now beginning to sit down on the berth across the aisle. He was a guy in his early forties wearing a faded jacket over his denims, which was a bit odd because it was not cold enough in Bombay at that time for anyone to wear a jacket. The train had been moving at a fast speed for some time, so the guy must have got on to the train on some previous station and must have been sitting towards our back without either of us noticing him. I actually felt a bit embarrassed. Here was probably some educated guy who was pointing out why two educated young Indians should feel ashamed in talking in Hindi with each other. But Johnny was not one to entertain any self righteous moral preaching.

He snapped back, “Hindi is not our rashtra bhasha. We know, we are lawyers.” Then for a good measure he added, pointing towards me, “and he does not know any Hindi”. This of course was a blatant lie. Coming from Allahabad, the heart of Hindi belt; I thought, slept and dreamed in Hindi or at least I used to for the most part of my life. The guy however kept looking at us without blinking. It was almost as if he did not hear a single word of what Johnny said.

He started giving a monologue in Hindi, the essence of which was, “Do you know who I am. I work for the government. I give advice to the prime minister and the president. Do you know the reason why I am travelling in first class today? To catch people like you. I knew someone or the other will get caught and now I have caught you. One Indian and one foreigner talking in English. Now, you been caught’. There was an eerie menace in his voice when he said the words, ‘now you have been caught’. Both Johnny and me just looked at each other’s face. We didn’t know what to say. I was thinking who was this guy? What was his problem? Moreover, I was now silently cursing Johnny for being a smart ass and replying rudely to that guy. What followed were an uncomfortably long and silent two or three minutes during which the guy kept staring at us with a sly grin on his face. In an attempt to make light of the suddenly dense atmosphere, I spoke to Johnny in almost a whisper, “You know I would have never spoken to anyone in English for more than five minutes till I was in school except of course with the teachers.’ “AMENDEMENT. CONTENTMENT. PUNISHMENT. FONTEN. PAINTAN. HAINTAN”, the guy started shouting at the top of his voice and then stopped almost as suddenly as he had started. Now this was getting really weird and confusing. Why was this guy doing this? Was he irritated by us and was pulling a practical joke on us by forcing us to remain quiet? Or could he be just some loser who’d had too much to drink. It was getting more and more unnerving with each second. The guy just kept looking at us. Johnny and I were pretending to look outside the windows even while keeping an eye on him. " Yes, I have caught you now’", the guy spoke again, in almost a whisper this time and with a wide grin of immense satisfaction on his face. His next sentence was drowned by the announcement informing that the next station was Bombay Central. I looked at Johnny and was about to whisper to him that we should get down there when I saw the guy getting up and move towards the door. He was now standing between us and the door blocking our chance of getting off the train without going through him. I looked at his jacket and realized that the label on it was a fake and it was obviously a very cheap one. It was now riding a little above his waist. Then all of a sudden, I noticed something stuck between his jacket and the denims. It was a knife! It was quite evident from its thick dark wooden handle, that it was not of the harmless vegetable chopper variety but the kind that I had heard were used for wrenching out the guts. I suddenly felt a flush of heat as if I had been standing in the sun for an hour. A drop of sweat started rolling down from my forehead. Seeing the look on my face, Johnny also realized that there was something seriously wrong. I pointed with my eyes towards the guy. Johnny followed my line of vision and spotted the knife. His reaction was even more telling than mine. He started biting his lower lip and I knew that his mind had gone so numb now that he was as good as paralyzed.

The train came to a halt at Bombay Central. There were only a couple of people on the platform and none of them showed any inclination of getting aboard in our compartment. The train started moving again and within seconds it picked up to its normal speed. The guy moved away from the door and sat down again in his seat. I realized that now he was staring directly at me trying to establish eye contact. I kept looking out of the window even as my heart started pounding. Though I was really tense now I couldn’t help thinking that this would make a really good anecdote if we could just get out of it now. The problem of course was how to get out of this situation. Another few minutes passed and none of us moved or said anything. The only sound was the dispassionate rhythm of the train. I had always liked the sing song sound that a fast moving train makes but today it felt like someone was beating my head repeatedly with a baseball bat. Somehow I was reminded of A Clockwork Orange and Beethoven’s ninth. The mechanical lady announced that we were reaching Grant Road station. As expected, the guy once again got up and moved towards the door. I looked at Johnny and spoke in a barely audible whisper, “I hope he gets down here.” Of course I knew that it was not likely to happen. Grant Road was even more deserted than Bombay Central. Now there was only one station, ‘Marine Lines’ before we got to ‘Churchgate’. What if this guy followed us and attacked us in the deserted road in front of the hostel? The guy looked in pretty good shape too. Probably the two of us together could be of some match to him but with him having a knife we stood no chance in case of a direct showdown. We could try running to the police as soon as we got down but considering that both Johnny and me had gone through ill health during the last couple of months, I doubted our stamina to out run him. And what would we tell the police. Probably that was not a knife after all. Although I couldn’t imagine of what else that handle could be?

The train had just started to move again, when all of sudden two guys got on to the train. They sat on the berth the guy was sitting on. The one who sat next to him was listening to music on his ipod while the other one sitting opposite to the guy looked blankly in front of him. Evidently, the two new passengers on the train did not know each other and so no one spoke. I do not have the words to describe the joy and relief that Johnny and I felt to see these two people. I had never been this glad to see a friend as I was to see two complete strangers now. A few minutes later, the train stopped at Marine Lines. It is a station which is ridiculously close to Churchgate station. So much so that if some of the proposed long new trains stop at Churchgate, they will extend till Marine Lines station. No body got on the train but as he had done earlier, the guy got up and moved towards the door. This time he did not stop and actually got down. He started walking on the platform with his back turned towards the train. I broke into a grin as I sighed with relief. My smile was frozen half way through when the guy suddenly turned. He stared into my eyes for a couple of seconds before slowly turning away again. I was not sure but I think I saw a hint of sadness in his eyes. I actually felt a moment of pity for him.

The train started moving again and Johnny was now saying something which I could not hear as I was still looking at the guy who was walking almost painfully towards the exit on the platform. "Wow. What a loser. I am sure he was just drunk out of his wits or probably stoned. Must have had some really good stuff though." Now that it was all over, Johnny was finding his sense of humour back. Quite typical. I mean this guy was good company and all but he did get on my nerves at times. Specially with his ‘I am so great and talented but most of the times I underestimate myself ’ attitude. I made a note in my head to avoid him for some time after going back to the college. ‘Yeah. Yeah. Sure., I said so as to discourage Johnny from giving any more gyaan. Johnny did not get the hint though. He kept on blabbering and laughing rather obnoxiously on his stupid theories about the guy. God, he was at his irritating best. Finally, the train came to a stop at Churchgate and we got down. The big old clock dial on the platform showed 12.20 AM. I was thinking about the day ahead; the last day of the internship. I had to ask for the certificate and hopefully they’d give me a stipend cheque also. ' much will they give actually?', I wondered.

“You know I think that guy was actually an actor, a method actor…”. Johnny went on as I almost tripped on my shoelaces. I sat down to tie them. There was a faint metal squeak as the train started its journey again, this time in the opposite direction. There was something sticking to side of my shoe. ‘Uggh....I will have to clean it tomorrow morning’, I thought. ‘If they give me five grand, I can buy a good hard disk with it. Take all the movies when I pass out.’ As I got up I had a peculiar feeling. Something was wrong. Somehow it all seemed to have gone very……quiet. Johnny!! I turned with a jolt. He was not there. He was right there behind me, blabbering and now he was gone. For a couple minutes I though he was being the jerk that he was a lot of times and playing a prank on me but with each passing minute, it seemed less and less plausible. He would not do it today. No after what had happened earlier. Probably, he had gone straight to the hostel. I went there. He was not there. I waited for an hour and then I told the hostel caretaker. He called the police immediately.


They never found his body. It was five years back. They never found what happened to him. They never found the guy who was on that train with us that night. I spent the last year in college outside the campus. I hardly spoke to anyone. I did not take up the job at LJP. I now work at a pharmaceutical company. The only reason I took up this job was because there is no one from my college here. The pay is too low for anyone from law school to come and work here. It was all going well. I had almost forgotten about the entire thing. Almost forgotten. And then a few months back, it started all over again.

A colleague of mine fell off a train and died. Everyone thought it was an accident. In fact, I was in the same compartment although I did not see how it happened. Then about a month back, I spoke to his fiancée, a beautiful woman who works in the same office as us. Apparently, he was talking to her on the phone when he fell down. Just before she heard the phone crashing on the tracks, she heard in the background a creepy soft voice saying, ‘Hindi mein bola karo.’

This morning I got a courier. When I opened the envelope, there was only one thing inside it. The front cover of the Fountainhead with a couple of smudges of dried blood. I think I know whose blood it was. On the reverse side were written these ominous words: ‘Don’t speak Hindi, learn Marathi’. I know he’s coming after me now. I am leaving this godforsaken hell tonight. My train leaves in an hour. There is no time to pack. I am not going to leave any clues for him. I’ll burn this place down before I leave. He won’t know where I am going. I am just taking a few clothes, some money and a couple of books. Now, wait a minute, where’s my copy of the Fountainhead.


People will keep killing each other for centuries. It doesn’t really matter what the reason is.

The Diary of an Unreasonable Man: Shock Therapy? Yeah, for Bozos!


According to a survey by some really jobless people, there were approximately 112.8 million blogs in 2008. The number is certain to have increased by a considerable extent by now. Although I have no real or imaginary authorities to back it, from my general browsing of the blogosphere, it appears that when you take out the usual marketing, film, sports and sex blogs, the most common form of blogs are where people vent out their angst. I mean there are thousands and thousands of blogs out there which no body needs to read and which perhaps no body expects to be read in the first place. I do not know if this is a result of a dangerous therapy suggested by some new age psychiatrists or a new fad; in the parlance of our times which is responsible for so many people crying and ranting about the miseries of their life in cyber space. Nobody apart from you has any interest in knowing how badly fucked up your life is. You hate your job. Welcome to the club, 99.9% of the people doing any semblance of a job do. The 0.01% who don’t are actually inhabitants of ga-ga land. And no, being a waiter in Playboy Mansion is not a job, that’s destiny. You hate your boss. Well, so does everyone else who ever has to report to anyone. If you really hate your family or life, don’t blog about it. Pick up a semi automatic and do something about it but please spare anyone the misfortune of reading your maladies on the already cluttered beyond repair internet. My other and even bitter contempt is reserved for those bloggers with pink tinted glasses who wake up everyday like a puppy staring with amazement at the world around it and write about the most boring things that they did and the great joy they derived from them. Oh, you had a terrific dinner. Well, I hope they fry you in oil whenever you have to pay for gluttony but really it was just some food you had, right. So get over it and stop ruminating. Did you have a tiff with your boyfriend? Congrats, this is as fascinating to me as a slap fight between a democrat and a republican over use of excessive force on their neighbour’s dog in sixteenth century Mozambique. Well, if your life is full of such fascinating and captivating nuggets and you are a walking streak of stupidity, please do enjoy it by all means. Don’t get me wrong, I really respect your right to live your wonderful life but at least be magnanimous enough towards the rest of the mankind to not to write about it. The fact that irritates me the most is that some people who know such a ‘writer’ (and if the ‘writer’ is a pretty chick, some plus 20 more people) actually read such stuff and give their insights like, “Ooh. Wow. You poor baby. Way to go. I know what you mean…” and other such complex lingual combinations. The real reason of course for all my ranting and cribbing against such writing is that I do not have such friends and will never have such friends who’ll read and appreciate the incredibly invaluable and unbelievably intelligent stuff that I write and I won’t ever find a publisher who’ll publish it even though these may be the most important words since those of some bearded guy walking on water. Madhav Mathur unfortunately was not so lucky. He found a publisher and got published the bullshit he wrote on his office computer three o’ clock in the morning while he was supposed to be managing millions of dollars of some poor unsuspecting oil tycoon. The cover of the Diary of an Unreasonable Man has no less than Anurag Kashyap proclaiming that it’s a shock therapy. Of course, it is. Once you’ve finished reading it, you’ll drop dead out of the shocking waste of time and money that you just incurred. The consolation being that at just over two hundred pages and just less then two hundred bucks, the loss is not that substantial. It may probably be the only book to ever see the ink of the printing press which in its forward thanks the person who praises it on the cover for praising the book! The first hundred or probably eighty pages are about the protagonist ranting, full of angst, professing his ideas with a sincerity that would make Socrates appear a medieval edition of Russel Peters. And what does his holiness talk about? Well, you know; the usual. The tedious desk job. The illogical office rules, the dickhead who passes off as the boss. But it does not stop at that. It goes truly deep by wasting pages and pages about the manipulative capitalism and shallow consumerism with special emphasis on the advertising industry (the profession of the protagonist) making it appear a job so hideous and ghastly that it must rank second only to blowing up buildings filled with people on Satan’s recruitment website. Like a sad Govinda comedy, or a glorious Baba Sehgal song, he goes on and on, non stop to his heart’s content. Finally, realizing that he needs to dress up his grouse against his boss and everyone in his building complex as a novel, the author tries to clue us in the plot. The protagonist thinks of ingenious ways to wake India out of its slumber, to make the people rise in revolution against the rich, the corrupt, the greedy and the horny. He starts by calling himself and his sidekick flatmate, ‘Your Anarchists’. Well, done. I suppose calling yourself ‘V’ would have been really naïve. If you must know, their methods include blowing up a ‘harmless’ paint bomb in a local train (Stampede, what’s that? That happens only in that Kumbh mela) and leaving behind pamphlets with signed sermons in bold letters (lest some of the poor daily commuters have a weak eyesight) in English (Come on. What do you mean they don’t know English. How do those people talk to each other? In sign language? And what’s the Hindi word for ‘anarchist’ anyways?). Our Batman and Robin pour dung all over a car launch. (Have you heard of a more exploitative thing than having a launch party for a new car range. I mean surely there are children starving out there, somewhere. I don’t know where but I am sure must be somewhere.) They feed paans to visitors of brothels so that they’ll have a green face for the rest of their lives. In case you are wondering, why green? Well, that’s because its derived from chlorophyll and paan is also green na, you silly! By the end of the book, you can sense that Mahur is getting tired of sleeping in office or the oil tycoon is calling him incessantly to find out where his couple of zeros have disappeared over the last couple of days. So he does what any self respecting creative Indian born and brought up on the diet of Bollywood would do. He brings in a couple of nasty, heartless mean gangsters to chase our poor Anarchists and an honest, sensitive and idealistic policeman to save the day. There was also a sub plot about the protagonist and his childhood sweetheart who were always different from the other kids. Yeah, well I guess nowadays you can blame everything on bad childhood, especially stupidity. Hope you had a good one though, Mathur. Would really hate to blame your parents for this. In the end, a patriotic appeal to all those Indians like Mathur living in Singapore, working as bankers/engineers/drycleaners, guys there is a very good market for English writing in Singapore/ Timbuktu. Please do not seek a publisher in India. You owe at least this much to your mother land. Jai Hind. And a word of warning to AK, dude you better had made some more really good movies before I run into you.

Post Script: In case you are wondering how I ended up with this classic despite giving so many tips about picking a good book in my previous post, well, in my defense I was in a bit of a hurry and did not get the chance to see the photograph of our hunk with chiseled model like looks who works as a banker during the day and as a superhero during the night. Also, I read what appeared to me to be a positive review in HT. Apparently Mr. Mathur has also written screenplays. When they hang me tell them, there was more than grave provocation.

“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”: Book review of sorts


I picked up the book at the Bombay airport. I always thought that people who say that they buy books at the airport are the pompous lot for whom the height of literature is ‘seven secrets of highly successful people’ or something along those lines. But it really is true that once you’ve checked in your luggage and have to serve that mandatory time waiting for your flight, browsing books at the store seems to be the only decent self redeeming thing to do after gawking at a firang chick for twenty minutes.
It seems like the government is forcing people to read and actually succeeding too. The sad thing is that now these shops sell DVDs also. So someone actually asked for What’s Your Rashi while I was browsing through the books. I would have been sure to raise a terrorist threat alarm but for the fact that the people in question here were two gentle looking maidens in their early seventies.

It is a cliché done to death that a book should not be judged by its cover. I disagree. More often than not a tacky or loud cover is an indication of the stupidity it is trying to hide and more often than not books with interesting and subtle covers turn out to be quite decent. Of course it would be idiotic to think of it as a universal rule but it did ring true for me after I finished reading Midnight… It had the photograph of a weathered tombstone on its cover. One with a statue of girl with sad eyes holding two saucers in her hands and the shadow of trees above. Although I have to admit the name itself did not appear to be too imaginative to me. Till then I had never heard of the book so had no way of actually knowing that it holds the record for being a New York Times bestseller for the longest period of time.

The back cover is again a pretty good indication of what to expect from the book. The louder the praises, the greater should be your suspicion. The worst of the books always market themselves by using adjectives that someone supposedly famous has used about the book like ‘excellent, spellbinding, masterpiece’ etc., each followed by an increasing number of exclamation marks as if you are expected to fall to your knees in reverence of the gospel in your hands. Even worse (if there is indeed a category of worse than the worst!) are those which loosely throw around human emotions like popcorn. If a the book says that it is a story of love, endurance, tragedy, redemption and the indefeasible human spirit; drop it right at that instant. Thankfully, the cover of Midnight…talked about it being a travel book with some off-centered sex, murder, trial and mystery. The next step is to read the first few pages. If you cannot get through the first few pages standing there, you’ll never get around reading the book. Unless of course you already know the book to be a classic and will force yourself to read the first few pages and acquire the taste. That was the case with Marquez for me. But once I got through the first few pages of One Hundred Years of Solitude, I was hooked for life.

But coming back to Midnight.., the first thing which catches your eye is that in the introduction John Berendt says quite clearly that this is not a work of fiction but a result of his journalistic endevours. Really? Doesn’t the cover mention an array of weirdest characters, a murder mystery, a sex scandal and what not? Yes, it does and yes all of it actually exists or existed or happened. So it is time to bring another dead cliché to our use, truth indeed can be stranger than fiction! set in the small American town of Savannah. In early eighties, John Berendt working in the big apple as an editor of magazines like Esquire discovered the joys of low cost domestic airlines. Soon he was flying to far off places cheaper than the cost of his average meals in fancy NYC restaurants. On one of such bohemian trips, he discovered the pleasurable pastures of Savannah, a town in the southern state of Georgia. Soon enough he was so charmed by the town’s architectural and anthropological marvels that he decided to write a book on it. He kept coming for more visits and eventually rented an apartment there spending half of the year, the other half in New York (to perhaps retain his sanity and perspective!).

The best part about the book for someone like me who is generally averse to non fiction is that it is written in the style of a novel. What is the style of a novel? I guess something which has sequential chapters each of which deals with one particular thread of the story. Also, and perhaps, more importantly in the first place, there is a clearly identifiable story with a beginning and an end and not just a random collection of thoughts coming in one’s mind like this piece is turning out to be!

What makes Midnight..a relish is of course not just the fact that it has a coherent story but that the story has a number of peculiar and interesting characters which would be more expectedly found in a Murakami or a Marquez world. The story is told in first person but in a number of places the narrator in not present and the reader can unobtrusively peek into the weirdly funny and entertaining world of the residents of Savannah.

The star, the king-pin on whose shoulders the story of Midnight…rests is Jim Williams, a “nouveau riche”, an antique collector and dealer, restorer of heritage structures; and as the second half of the book reveals, possibly a murderer. Jim Williams made a fortune through a series of fortuitous and high risk deals. He settled in Savannah and became the toast of the social circles with his lavish parties but in the process he managed to ruffle quite a few feathers with his peculiarities and haughty attitude. A major portion of the book revolves around Jim Williams and his trial(s) for murder. En route we encounter a bumbling District Attorney hell bent on getting a conviction and the endlessly changing defense strategies of Jim Williams, only a portion of which came from the legal fraternity or the world we can claim to be familiar with. Incidentally, Jim Williams holds the record in the state of Georgia for being the only person to have been tried four times for the same crime.

An even more delightful and unbelievable character is that of Joe Odom, a partner in a tax law firm who quits and moves his office to Savannah to in his words, ‘mix business with pleasure’. But in Savannah, Joe, a serial womanizer finds occupation as a piano player and a tour guide entertaining people and hosting open door parties every night. More often than not he is giving paid tours to people of the house he is living in at that time and more often than not he is not paying rent even in cases where the landlord is aware of his living there. Sample as an example of the carefree nature of Joe, this account given by his girlfriend and fourth wife-in-waiting, Mandy. One night while they are sleeping, Mandy hears certain noises downstairs. She is afraid that it might be a burglary; after all they did not have a lock at the front door, lest it may discourage any visitors. She wakes up Joe and asks him to check. Joe not bothered a bit says, it could be anybody. He shouts, without getting up from the bed, “Angus? That you, Angus?” When there is no reply, he assures Mandy, “Well, if we got a burglar, his name ain’t Angus” and goes back to sleep.

The third most prominent character in Frank, a negro more popularly known in his cross dressing avatar as Lady Chablis, the drag queen. In the racially conscious town of Savannah, it is no mean task for Lady Chablis to carry on her performances not to mention her occasional appearances at formal social events.
There are also a few supporting character like the guy who walks an invisible dog or the guy whose idea of pets is flies on a string leash and whose Columbian ambition is to breed goldfish who’ll glow in the dark. The reasoning behind this brilliant inspiration is how trippy the fish floating in the darkness of the night clubs would appear to drunk people. Awesome! No? There are some more wildly eccentric and amusing characters and what makes the book funnier to read is how little the people of Savannah are shocked by these characters. The ‘normal people’ are mildly amused but not disturbed by the ‘colourful characters’ even as they carry on with their regular lives around them almost without noticing them. In the introduction, John Berendt tries to explain the rationale. He attributes the presence of so many larger than life characters in Savannah to its inward looking, gossip loving and eccentricity tolerant people.

I think I got carried away so much with introducing the outrageous characters that I almost forgot to mention that a very good travelogue as well. The lyrical prose with which John Berendt describes the architecture of the old buildings, the picturesque squares and nice small town quaintness of Savannah, makes you want to pack your bags and go off to Savannah for the next holiday. Evidently the book had the same effect on a number of other people as well and the tourist inflow in Savannah increased by manifolds a few months after the release of Midnight…in 1994. In the introduction to the new paperback edition, John Berendt assures that the tourist inflow has not ravished it as is usually the case, and Savannah remains a beautiful, eccentric and charming small town.

Post Script: The book was adapted into a movie with the same name and directed by Clint Eastwood. I haven’t seen it but according to most people, it didn’t turn out as well as the book mostly because some things are best left to imagination. As venerable Ebert said for the movie, “something ineffable is lost just by turning on the camera: Nothing we see can be as amazing as what we've imagined.”