After many years of resisting, I’ve finally sunk my teeth into Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a 12-week course for recovering your artistic self. The daily morning notes and other weekly tasks have been surprisingly helpful in removing the inner obstacles (fear, self-doubt, etc) to writing. This week, Ms Cameron threw me a curve ball with a week of reading deprivation! The horror! But I have stuck to it for five days and it felt like a good way to start the year. Since I haven’t been reading, I thought I’d report back on some of the books, movies and other experiences I’ve had.

Cutting For Stone: I’ve been meaning to read this book ever since I interviewed Dr. Abraham Verghese briefly for an article I was writing about the prevelance of Asian American doctor writers. I remember my father loving his seminal memoir, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story, about life as a small town AIDS doctor in the South. I was absolutely enraptured by Dr. Verghese’s speaking voice over the phone. Kind of a silly reason to want to read a person’s book, but – in any case – it was the last purchase I made on my Kindle before boarding the plane to India. The novel is absolutely epic in scope, concerning the mysterious birth of twins, Marion and Shiva, to a nun (who dies in childbirth) at Missing Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. After the gory opening scene, the novel follows the life of the twins and their cobbled-together family of adopted doctor parents Ghosh and Hema, South Indian doctors who have come to work at the hospital, neighbors, hospital workers, servants—and eventually their long-dissappeared father. Some of Eithiopia’s political turmoil is thrown in, which makes for some tense and dramatic scenes, as well as unrequited love and finally, a journey of exile to America. I’ve been tossing around the idea of a novel, or at least a set of stories, set in a hospital and the glorious amount of medical detail in this book made me think I could never do it without the medical training of a doctor, but it is gripping and Verghese puts you inside the minds of the medically inclined and sometimes un-inclined with such precision, that you understand the profession for much more than it’s usual glories. Verghese, who himself was raised in Eithopia, inhabits the landscape with such fervor that I immediately wanted to go and see the flowers blooming after the rainy season and taste real fiery wot as it would be served in a roadside bar. Cutting for Stone reminded me of a novel’s expansive possibilities.

Just Another Love Story (Aarekti Premer Golpo): I am an unabashed snob when it comes to Indian cinema, turning my nose up at most Bollywood has to offer. Introducing people to Bengali film is one of my favorite things to do. So, when a few non-Bengali friends ended up wanting to go see a film on New Year’s, I thought that this movie might be a crowd-pleaser. Luckily, I was right. Directed by Kaushik Ganguly and staring director Rituparno Ghosh (one of my favorite Bengali filmmakers), the film is the first to openly address homosexual relationships since same-sex relations were decriminalized in India, but it was also very much about the art, power and difficulty of storytelling–and, of course, that tricky bitch known as love. The film follows director Abhiroop (Ghosh) and his crew as they come from New Delhi to Kolkata to make a documentary about the famous folk theater performer Chapal Bhaduri, one of the first openly gay actors in this scene. Bhaduri, played by the actual Bhaduri, was famous for his performances of women’s roles. When controversy causes the film to relocate to the countryside, the story splits into two narrative streams: the modern day tale of the film—which includes Abhiroop’s relationship with his cinematographer (played by the hot Indraneil Sengupta), who is married, and then Bhaduri’s life as he relates it, which is played as a period piece featuring all the same actors. The acting is suberb and Ghosh does an incredible, incredible job as the young Bhaduri. In fact all the actors give extremely nuanced performances in both of their roles, giving complexity to the film and really putting an emphasis on storytelling. The film raises questions like: Why do we—as artists—tell the stories that we do? What do we owe our subjects? What are the dangers of using your subjects to exorcise your own personal demons? Anyway, a really inspiring film that I hope will get some kind of distribution internationally.

Maner Manush: Ever since first getting to Kolkata I noticed the billboards for this movie, translated roughly to Soul Mate. They were everywhere and the image of a robed holy man walking along a river caught my attention. Then I learned that it was the story of famous Baul singer Lalan Fakir, who wrote hundreds of songs in the Baul tradition and influenced the Tagore family. The film actually structurally stems from Lalan Fakir’s interaction with Rabindranath’s brother Jyotirindranath, and the films goes back and forth between a day-long discussion the two men have about Lalan Fakir’s life and beliefs, interspersed with flashbacks to his life. (This is actually the movie we were trying to go see on New Year’s, as we heard the music was incredible and I hang with a bunch of musicians. Not all of the screenings of this film are subtitled though, so Robin and I finally went to see it at Nandan—a center for film, who unfortunately refused to screen Aarekti Premer Golpo, even though it was okayed by the national and state censors.) The actors who played the young and middle-aged Lalan were great, bringing a sense of joy and gravity to the role of this famous wandering singer, but—as ignorant foreigners—Robin and I did not get a very clear sense of the Baul tradition, which came off as being primarily about Hindu-Muslim togetherness and seemed to have a semi-misogynistic sexual gratification system where woman were treated mostly as possessions, though sexual practices were freer. Later, a friend schooled us and let us know that what we saw was a serious mainstreaming of Lalan Fakir’s mythology–and that a real film depicting Baul philosophy, especially when it comes to sexuality, would be way too much for middle class Bongs (slang for Bengali community) to handle So, I’m really glad we saw the film and now are starting to learn more about this amazing tradition, but hope to get some more clarity on Lalan Fakir and the Baul tradition through more reading and enlightening conversations.

“His Mahabharata”, art show by Ganesh Pyne at CIMA: I saw a pretty amazing art show by 73-year-old artist Ganesh Pyne, which featured pared down interpretations of the Hindu epic the Mahabharata, using crayon and tempara paints. Pyne has been obsessed with the epic since his childhood and the best thing about the show were his meditations on some of the lesser characters, who I have also often been interested in, including Eklava and Abhimundu. Pyne’s Mahabharata is not a kind, beautiful or happy one—in fact, it isn’t even very noble. It is mostly full f anguish and pain. (The gallery where the painting was shown was nicely appointed and next to this amazing Radha Krishna Temple which I thought was absolutely beautiful. I am not a big one for temples, but I went in and wandered around for 20 minutes and even considered giving money. Later, I found out it was made by the Birla indistrialist family, so it kind of seemed like a corporate temple or something – like going to a Hilton Church. Now, I feel dirty for having liked it so much.)

Concert featuring Rimpa Siva, Ajoy Chakravorty and Swapan Chadhuri: I also went to the Birla Mandir concert hall (next to the temple) to see a concert in dedication to a local music teacher who was turning 60. The show started with the stellar Rimpa Siva, a female tabla viruoso, who has been playing since being a child and literally blew the top of my head off with her fireworks. Being a lowly unstudied, untrained audience member, Rimpa’s speed, sweetness and fun had me absolutely entranced. She also rocks the flouncy tabla hair (must be long enough for flipping around, but not long enough to get in the face too much) and manly Panjabi style man’s kurta. Okay, maybe I have a bit of a crush? Then came the vocalist Ajoy Chakraboty whose ethereal singing allowed me to drift off into the world of a writing project I am working on where I am looking for the surreal in India as viewed through Lynch’s Twin Peaks. And then of course, the impeccable Swapan-ji—whose humbleness lays the foundation for some absolutely mind-blowing compositions. More concerts to come!

Lost: We also finally finished the television series Lost, which I think we started back in March. I was a champion of the show all the way, even through most of the final season, but I lost my enthusiasm a bit when the origin episode about Jacob and the Smoke Monster was so poorly executed—not to mention the overt Christian mythology and references. Then the ending seemed like a big fat consolation, without really answering questions. Anyway, I still think it is a great act of storytelling and character development, and even though there definitely seemed to be a white man hero complex–I thought they gave us some great diverse characters: especially Sayeed, Jin and Sun. What magic will you do next, Mr. Abrams?