FREE SOLO WINS OSCAR FOR BEST DOCUMENTARY

The world of climbing won’t forget the 2019 Academy Awards ceremony.

The movie Free Solo which profiles rock climber Alex Honnold, won the Academy Award for best documentary feature. Alex Honnold is noted for his stunning free solo ascents; basically solo climbs without using any ropes or climbing gear. All that he uses on these ascents from the litany of climbing paraphernalia are rock climbing shoes and climbing chalk, carried in a chalk bag.

Free Solo covers Honnold’s 2017 solo ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider route. El Capitan is a vertical rock formation, roughly 3000 feet high, in Yosemite National Park, US. It is a much revered objective in the world of big wall climbing.

The film is directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, a documentary filmmaker and Jimmy Chin, professional climber and skier who is also photographer for National Geographic. “ The film benefited from Honnold’s thoughtful charm on camera, and Chin and Vasarhelyi’s incredible access during Honnold’s years-long training process, including while he was thousands of feet off the ground without a rope,’’ Outside magazine observed in an article marking the Academy Award. The magazine described the movie as the first climbing film to receive such broad mainstream acclaim.

Free Solo was released in August-September 2018. According to Wikipedia, it has so far made 19.3 million dollars at the box office. The highest grossing documentary on IMDB is 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11, directed by Michael Moore. It made 119.19 million dollars.

The 2019 Academy Awards ceremony – it honored the best films of 2018 – was held on February 24 (early hours of February 25 in India) at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood, US. For more on Alex Honnold please try this link: https://shyamgopan.com/2017/03/16/alone-on-the-wall/

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)     

“ NOBODY KNEW MALAYALAM COULD BE SUNG THIS WAY’’

Avial (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Avial is a traditional Kerala dish. It is central to Malayali cuisine, has a recipe and at Malayali feasts, served on plantain leaves, occupies pride of place. In as much as it is recipe-based, avial is not a stickler for the same. It is seen as prepared from whatever vegetables you have in the kitchen. In colloquial Malayalam, something resembling avial also alludes to an element of disarray and absence of perfection. Arguably therefore, avial is life as it is. A night in Kolkata, sometime in 2009 or immediately thereafter, I realized that a rock band had transformed forever the link between music and my mother tongue. Almost a decade later, while visiting Kerala, I managed to meet the members of Avial. This article written from a fan’s point of view, attempts to explore the context which birthed Avial, the early years leading to their debut album, what their sound meant and what stands between them and a second album.

Avial / Phoenix Market City, Bengaluru (Photo: Pixel Monk / courtesy Avial)

With annual festivals dedicated to classical music, Thiruvananthapuram is unlikely home for rock. Cold shouldered locally and living as they did in a corner of India, removed from the musical scene of the metros – fans of alternative genres of music in Thiruvananthapuram had to stretch to access their fix. While many stayed content with rock acquired for the heck of being branded hip, some plunged into it seriously. A handful of rock’s followers thought of music as potential career. Bands mushroomed. High point was becoming regular, paid act at the five star-luxury hotel in Kovalam. Those not making it so settled for a hotel in town. Life wasn’t easy. “ I was lucky to come from a well to do family. Still my mother would sometimes jokingly say that while others worked and brought money home I was borrowing from her to keep my career alive,’’ Tony John said laughing.

Compared to this Kochi was more happening place for western music. In the days of Tony’s school and college education, Kochi even had a famous band that cut an album – 13AD (the city would follow that up with another talented act – Motherjane). In retrospect, what everyone may have underestimated was the value of stretch. Who would have thought for instance, that one day, there would be a recording studio at Tony’s house in Thiruvananthapuram? The band Tony initially played with was called Karizma. They sang in English and performed covers of songs originally sung by well-known bands overseas. By 1996, it was disbanded. Soon after Karizma wound up, John P. Varkey who was the band’s guitarist, moved to Bengaluru. He played classical guitar there as part of a trio. In 2000-2001 some of the band members reunited under different circumstances.

Avial / Tony John / live at Phoenix Market City, Bengaluru (Photo: Pixel Monk / courtesy Avial)

Now squeezed by the city and portions of it threatened by pollution, Vellayani, is a picturesque freshwater lake in Thiruvananthapuram. It is the sort of environment creative minds craving an element of solitude away from city, would drift to. Among those choosing the area around Vellayani for base, was the Daksha Sheth Dance Company. According to the group’s website, its mission is to create international quality performances by integrating contemporary dance with traditional movement art; theatrical design, innovative design, innovative sound and state of the art visuals. The dance company wanted a drum and guitar ensemble for one of its productions. In 2000-2001, this brought Tony and John to Vellayani. When John left for Sweden, Rex Vijayan stepped in. Sometime later, when John returned, Tony introduced Rex to him. Looking back, this coming together of the three musicians was the seed of Avial. Working with Daksha Sheth Dance Company, they got opportunity to travel abroad. “ The overseas trip was an eye opener. We realized that people were appreciative of original music, sung in one’s own language,’’ Tony said. It was reason to reflect on the tradition of rock bands from Kerala singing in English.

If you meditate on it, you will realize that a lot more goes into language than meets the eye. That’s why languages are different as are the styles in which they were originally shaped into song. “ Doing rock in Malayalam is not easy. You have to find the right word and sentence length,’’ Tony said. One of the bands John had been part of earlier was Jigsaw Puzzle. They brought out an album but it didn’t click. Among the songs Jigsaw Puzzle performed was Nada Nada. It was in Malayalam and felt like folk music. “ The use of local folk music in rock was John’s vision,’’ Rex said. Both Tony and Rex had heard Nada Nada before. They had been impressed by it. Pradeep Kallipurayath – according to Tony, he worked for SS Music (a TV channel) then – wished to feature the song on video. John tuned the song. As important as tune, is overall sound. For discerning bands, their sound is aural signature. “ Rex is an amazing music producer,’’ Tony said. Rex did the music arrangement for Nada Nada and Tony worked the turntable. The track was produced at the recording studio Tony had built at his house. The video accompanying the song was shot in Irinjalakkuda.  It was subsequently released on SS Music. “ The response was amazing. Nobody knew Malayalam could be sung this way,’’ Tony said. Pradeep suggested that the band have a name. Rex came up with Avial. The name stuck. At this point Avial had all of one song.

Avial / Rex Vijayan (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Rex was born and brought up in Kollam, 64 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram. His father Albert Vijayan worked as a music composer and arranger for the Malayalam film industry. His mother liked to sing. Born into a family given to music, Rex started off playing the piano. “ But I got bored,’’ he said an early evening at a cafe in Kochi. It was late September, less than ten days since I met Tony in Thiruvananthapuram. Bored of the piano, Rex taught himself how to play the guitar. He initially played in “ random hotel bands.’’ Then he joined Motherjane. Unknown to him, where he was heading for – the place that would spawn his best creativity yet – was a room in Tony’s house, that recording studio. Growing up in an environment filled with music, Rex was familiar with studios and recording technology. “ I started recording when I was in eighth standard,’’ he said. Rex is credited with creating the signature sound of Avial. It is a sound that is rich, wholesome and quirky. In times of bands choosing utterly polished aural signature and sometimes sounding flat as a result, Avial dared to go with a pulsating bass reminiscent of the psychedelia of the 1960s. “ We knew that as a generation born and alive in the period we belonged to, we had this ability to bridge a variety of aural signatures in music,’’ Tony said. While bass made the band’s music feel like a flow, the quirkiness was courtesy unconventional aural inputs providing a graffiti-like visual quality to Nada Nada. Once as band members and friends sat together, one of them – Reeba Paul – happened to make a phone call. Upon not getting through she spoke frustrated about the recorded message from the telephone exchange: you are in queue; please wait. It struck a chord. The sentence uttered by Reeba and textured to sound like the voice from the exchange, made it into Nada Nada; as did the call of a rooster. It is hard to intellectualize relevance for such audio inputs. The right word seems – quirky or as George Mallory is said to have quipped when asked why he wished to climb Everest: because it is there. Notwithstanding all these audio inputs, for Malayali listening to Nada Nada, the trigger to sit up and take notice was something else.

Avial / live in Kolkata (Photo: courtesy Avial)

For a year after the Nada Nada video appeared on SS Music and began making waves, Avial didn’t do much. Asked if there was any live performance of the song, Tony said, “ Maybe there was one. I recall a show in Kannur, where we sang one or two songs.’’ Then one of Tony’s friends gave money for the band to start work on an album. Encouraged, Rex who was then based in Kochi shifted to Thiruvananthapuram. For the next three and a half years, the band worked diligently on its album. Except for the final mastering, the rest of the recording work was done at Tony’s home. Rex had a room to stay there. “ When we stumbled on to something interesting, we went to the adjacent studio to record,’’ Rex said. The total number of songs worked upon across the three and a half years, was just eight. It betrays the amount of attention and work that went in as combination of music by band and further fiddling in the studio. “ I see the computer as another band member,’’ Rex said. They wished for sound signature capable of long shelf life. One of the interesting outcomes of this period was the creation of multiple versions of some of Avial’s songs. From them, the best versions were chosen. “ Throughout this work, our focus was not on the market. It was not on selling the music. It was to get the sound right,’’ Tony said. Among those who had provided music for the dance productions by Daksha Sheth Dance Company was Mumbai-based bass guitarist Naresh Kamath. When Avial needed a good bass guitarist to play for the album, the band contacted Naresh. “ We sent him samples of what we had created and he was immediately interested,’’ Rex said. Naresh introduced the band to Phat Phish Records, a music company operating from Mumbai. The final mastering of the eight songs was done in Mumbai. Phat Phish also brought out a video of Nada Nada; the song as featured in that video is probably its most popular version.

Avial / live at Blue Frog (Photo: courtesy Avial)

In 2009, music label EMI brought out a compilation of rock songs by Indian bands. The CD was called India Rocks. The first volume was released in 2009; the playlist included Nada Nada. Around this time, freelance journalist was at Music World in Kolkata, looking for CDs of Bengali rock, when the salesman recommended India Rocks as well. That night before sleeping I listened to the album on my portable CD player and was stunned by Nada Nada. For Malayalis fond of rock and other genres of western music like blues and folk (freelance journalist among them), there had always been a major gap in the local style of singing. Popular Malayalam music was trapped in compulsion to endorse social order. Melody was important and melody in turn, was usually based on Indian classical and devotional music. Either way, the songs got lauded for their structure, lyrics and delivery but stayed limited in their capacity to convey variety in human emotion especially when juxtaposed on vastly changed times. Visceral connection was absent. On the other hand in blues for instance, the rawness of human emotion – sorrow, anger – all these are captured in an idiom that is definitely the stuff of music but is content not to be classical or distanced from singer / listener. It links directly. In western music, blues has lent itself well to rock, as did folk. Both Tony and Rex said that discussion on what Avial’s idiom means is beyond them. They navigated their way through the band’s first album with music and sound signature as compass. They hadn’t imagined any of what people (freelance journalist included) read into their work. I could not find a clear response from them describing the band’s sound; it appeared the stuff of exploring and discovering using sounds already heard as reference points. Among external influences, both Tony and Rex said that band members had been fans of Linkin Park. Having mentioned Linkin Park, Rex thought some more and added Incubus and Pearl Jam. Back in time, motive if any appeared confined to finding a solution for the limited audience English rock music fetched in Kerala. As musicians loving the genre, they wanted to break out of such restricted appeal. Singing in Malayalam had seemed potential answer. What made Malayalam click in rock was folk.

Avial / live in Kuwait (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Resonant of bygone times and rich in its interplay with nature, Malayalam folk music can be soulful. Yet in hindsight, one would argue that even Malayalam folk songs – so capable of conveying sorrow, sense of loss and angst – fall short of the total bandwidth of emotions contemporary urban lifestyle, consumerism, globalization et al unleash. But what if, folk and rock joined hands? That was the brilliance in John P. Varkey’s vision. He was based in Thrissur, a little over 80 kilometers north of Kochi and some 280 kilometers north of Thiruvananthapuram. For folk song, John got in touch with an upcoming lyricist. Engandiyur is a village in the Chavakkad taluk of Thrissur. Engandiyoor Chandrasekharan is a writer and lyricist hailing from this place. According to a 2012 article on him in The Hindu newspaper, his studies discontinued after class 10, Chandrasekharan went into his family business of making furniture and wooden sculptures. What fascinated him however was literature and acting. In the article, he says of his writing style, “ I use ordinary language. I write what I understand. That’s why people like them.’’ John asked Chandrasekharan to write some songs in Malayalam, which Jigsaw Puzzle could sing. “ He told me to write as I wished. There was no brief in terms of subject,’’ Chandrasekharan told this blog, mid-October 2018. Nada Nada was one of the songs Chandrasekharan penned so. “ I imagined it as a journey; you walk seeing many things,’’ he said. Tuned by John and powered by Avial’s rock music the song exploded to being an anthem. “ I didn’t expect such popular affection for that song. What happened just amazed me,’’ Chandrasekharan said. Nada Nada and Avial changed his life. Once a writer of lyrics for small films, he is now an established lyricist in the Malayalam film industry. What we haven’t mentioned yet in Avial’s brew, is the significance of voice.

According to Rex, Anandraj Benjamin Paul grew up overseas. The two met when Rex joined a band called Overdrive. “ In real life I don’t think Anandraj can read and write Malayalam,’’ Rex said. It offers insight into not just Avial’s unique predicament in Malayalam rock but also what the idea of being Keralite means these days of globalization and diaspora. Anandraj’s raspy rendition of Chandrasekharan’s folksy lyrics was the blues connection long missed in Malayalam songs. It confidently, almost defiantly took on popular perceptions of vocalization in Malayalam music and inspired the imagery of anyone singing their heart out. It removed intermediary inhabiting space between feeling and singing. That night in Kolkata, I felt exactly what Tony would tell me almost a decade later: nobody knew Malayalam could be sung this way. Adding to overall impression was freight train of a band in the background. Interestingly, despite one of Avial’s strengths seeming the skilled craftsmanship of its musicians, Rex said, “ we are not a band of exceptional musicians.’’ Posted on YouTube, viewers from across the world have sometimes commented below their videos that they don’t understand a word of what is being sung but the music is excellent.

Illustration: Shyam G Menon

Like all genres of music, rock too is an interpretation. The late G Aravindan was one of Kerala’s most respected film makers. In 1979, he made a film for children called Kummatty. It won that year’s state award for best children’s film. The music for the film was composed by M.G. Radhakrishnan. Kavalam Narayana Panicker wrote the lyrics; he also sang them. A memorable song from the film was Karukare Kaarmukil. Aravindan wasn’t a maker of mainstream, commercial films. His films were realistic and belonged more to the parallel movement in Indian cinema. The song in question was meant to accompany scenes of dark monsoon clouds and approaching rain. According to Kavalam Sreekumar, Narayana Panicker’s son and a well-known singer in his own right, the song was based on Samantha Malahari raga, which in turn finds prominence in Kerala’s tradition of classical music called Sopana Sangeetham. This tradition which developed in the state’s temples has distinct ragas and also ragas commonly used in South Indian Carnatic music. Sopanam – Wikipedia describes it as “ a happy blending of Vedic, folk and tribal music’’ – shares a similarity with Hindustani classical music in that both traditions have ragas meant for singing at particular times of the day. Malahari is a Carnatic morning raga capable of providing a sense of calm. It is associated with the rainy season. Narayana Panicker wrote the lyrics of Karukare Karmukil with Samantha Malahari in mind; M G Radhakrishnan tuned it. Tony had a friend from Kottayam with whom he used to jam. The friend had a habit of singing Karukare Karmukil from Kummatty. Its haunting melody and folk flavor caught the band’s interest. Rex was hearing the song for the first time. “ I remember waking up next morning with that melody still in mind,’’ he said.

Avial / Benjamin (Binny) Isaac (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Intrigued, the band proceeded to work on a version. The friend who sang the song had sung it slow. The slow pace remained tempo for Avial’s interpretation of the work by Kavalam Narayana Panicker and M. G. Radhakrishnan, both acknowledged masters in their space. “ Played slow and with rock elements added, the song acquired the feel of grunge rock. Had it been played faster at its original pace, I suspect that within rock, it may have sounded clichéd. It may have ended up just another rock and roll song,’’ Rex said. Crucially, aside from slowing the tempo, the band maintained the song’s melody. “ I don’t think I have heard another melody like that,’’ Rex said. The resultant Karukare has stayed a fine example of Avial’s creativity. Even as the music arrangement is powerfully alternate rock and electronic, it retains the tenderness and mischievous tenor of the original. It broadly retains the original tune, uses rock music in a measured way (it is a song with moments of high decibel music and fade to quietness) and also manages to create the atmospherics of gathering rain, a vignette of existence that is typical Kerala. For purists, it probably remains debatable whether rock is apt format to showcase the devotion and melody associated with Sopanam. Sreekumar said that his father always welcomed creativity and considered Avial’s interpretation as another version. “ I think the underlying reality is that it is a simple, beautiful song. As long as you stay loyal to the melody, it remains beautiful no matter what the style you sing it in,’’ Sreekumar said. Indeed one of the significant aspects of Karukare is sense of unchanged melody – like a slice of timeless old – with rock building a brooding, contemporary envelope around it. Any which way you look at it, it is fantastic recipe. In 2008, Avial’s first album – named after the band – was released to critical acclaim. “ Even though we started off with Nada Nada, the main element was the album. Songs like Chekele, Aadu Pambe, Ettam Pattu – they played a huge role. We started performing because of the album,’’ Rex said. As with all bands, behind the scenes, there were losses. John left quite early in the production process. Then just ahead of the album’s launch, Anandraj moved to the US. Tony, who had until then sung back-up, took over the lead vocals for the band’s live performances that followed. But he knew Anandraj set the bar pretty high. The band’s first live performance post album-launch was at Eastwind music festival in Delhi. It was also drummer, Mithun Puthanveetil’s first show with the band.

Avial / Mithun Puthanveetil (Photo: courtesy Avial)

At Vazhuthacaud in Thiruvananthapuram are two bungalows long familiar to the public as official residence of ministers. In one of them, on the first floor, was an old, weather beaten bass drum, which had followed its owner around, a reminder of his early days in music. Rooms nearby represented the other end of the journey – they had fully kitted out drum sets, equipment for programming and old cymbals, cracked and broken, retained by artiste to add variety in sound. At the time of writing, Mithun’s father, Kadannappalli Ramachandran, was a minister in Kerala’s government. Mithun’s mother liked to sing; the family loved music. The old drum had been acquired years ago, when a young Mithun became obsessed with a drum set he saw at a shop in Kottayam. At his father’s request, the shopkeeper sold Mithun a cheap drum he had in stock. It had no pedals, hi-hat or cymbals; Mithun had to improvise all that.  “ I like seeing an array of drums before me,’’ he said. Mostly self-taught, he however had one teacher he met at Kochi and owes much to – Mathew Joy. By around the time Avial was readying their first album, Mithun had become drummer for the Thiruvananthapuram based-metal band, Rage. Although drumming for a metal band, Mithun’s natural inclination was towards genres like funk and jazz.  Nithin Vijayanath – then guitarist for Rage – was Rex’s friend; Rex used to help the band with music arrangement and mixing. Rage kept a practice room near Keshavadasapuram in the city. Mithun fondly remembered a jam session with Rex (he was on bass) there as first hint of potential chemistry. Among those leaving Avial after work on the first album concluded, was their drummer – C.I. Joffy. Mithun stepped in to fill the gap. The jam session in the practice room was arguably the second turning point in Mithun’s journey in music. The first had been his introduction to western pop music as a kid; he recalls touching the speakers of his National Panasonic audio player and feeling the pulsating rhythm. During his childhood at Iringal near Vatakara and later years in Kannur (including his earliest bands), Mithun’s intake of music had been eclectic – there was Malayalam, Tamil, Hindi and English. Avial’s rock – sung in Malayalam – resembled best of both worlds. There was the rhythm from those speakers and the language he was born to.

Avial / live in Kozhikode (Photo: courtesy Avial)

Naresh also left Avial; he has since been replaced by Benjamin (Binny) Isaac. An accomplished bass player who has played with several bands and musicians / singers from the film industry, Binny is Avial’s oldest band member in terms of age. He spent his early years in Thiruvananthapuram, where working with his church choir introduced him to classical guitar and piano. His two brothers were award winning classical guitarists in their college days. Guitar and keyboard available at home, meant ability to train diligently. For lay music listeners like this writer, bass would seem challenging because its trajectory runs distinctly apart from progression of melody. “ For me transition to bass was relatively easy because classical guitar entails playing melody and bass at once. I was already used to the technique required,’’ Binny said. In 1986, around the same time he started playing bass, Binny’s family shifted to Kochi. Ten years later – in 1997 – he joined his first rock band called Nine Hours. They sang at a hotel in Thiruvananthapuram. According to Binny, these years saw quite a few musicians and singers from Thrissur play with bands elsewhere in Kerala, including in Thiruvananthapuram. There were also youngsters who had picked up western music in the Middle East, shifting to Kerala. It was a period of churn. From Nine Hours, Binny moved to Overdrive, a classic rock band which had in its fold Anandraj and Joffi (as mentioned earlier, Rex too had a stint with them). They played at the luxury resort in Kovalam. Binny was thus known pretty early to the talent that would converge as Avial. When Nada Nada made its debut as a single, Binny was still with Overdrive. Having known John, Tony, Rex, Anandraj and others, he had an inkling of what musical idiom lay in store. He liked what he heard. “ It was an experiment. I don’t think anyone did it as well as Avial did. The song was distinctly rock. It was also distinctly Malayalam. Anandraj’s style of singing played a role in ensuring that,” Binny said.  When Naresh got busy with his own work in Mumbai, the band asked if Binny would step in as replacement. His first live performance with Avial was in 2008-2009 in Mauritius and Reunion Island.

Although critically acclaimed, Avial enjoyed a mixed bag of commercial success. The band’s debut album produced by Phat Phish was to be distributed by Sony BMG. According to Tony, the album sold some 50,000 copies. But following disagreement between Phat Phish and Song BMG, distribution too was done by Phat Phish; that may have limited the album’s reach. Aside from initial signing amount received, the band got no royalties. “ Phat Phish folded up later,’’ he said. The main source of revenue for the band has been live performances. In that market, they remain among the better paid acts. But given to singing original songs, their repertoire of work is limited – about 14 songs. It is enough to perform on stage but probably not enough when imagined as band’s lifetime work. What is remarkable is how some of these songs continue to be heard by fans. By 2018, Nada Nada for instance, was almost 15 years old. The song remains Malayalam rock’s ambassador to the world. About three years ago, Avial was featured on BBC. Ettam Pattu and Aadu Pambe were played on BBC Radio, Tony said.

Avial / live in Thiruvananthapuram (Photo: courtesy Avial)

In Kerala there are still those who refer to Avial’s music as `fusion.’ That is cavalier. The best approach is to call them a rock band and their work as rock or plain, music. One reason I pitch description so is that from vocals to their sound in rock, the Avial package has been more wholesome and committed to genre than later entrants into the same space. There isn’t any pleasing the market, in Avial’s work. The studio may have played a big role in shaping Avial’s sound but the band made no effort to sound sweet. Neither Tony nor Rex could describe accurately how the band’s sound or that creative drive behind the first album evolved. The indescribability of those times is one of the concerns playing in their minds as they contemplate a second album. They may have succeeded in recreating the atmospherics of rain for Karukare but can they recreate the madness which made them a band in the first place and fueled them to one hell of a debut album? The period preceding Nada Nada and their debut album had been a very unsure stage in the careers of band members. Avial was a cathartic release born from that. “ What keeps us going is our passion. You can’t force creativity,’’ Tony said thoughtfully. Both lead vocalist and guitarist concurred that the band’s preferred idiom would continue to be rock and folk. “ Going ahead, the only thing to worry about our music is whether we like it or not. We are that sort of people who get bored of our own music,’’ Rex said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai. This article was written in October 2018, long after Avial became an established rock band.)      

THE GREAT SOUL OF SIBERIA

Something told me this book will be good. It turned out to be fantastic window to a corner of Siberia and its famous resident, the Siberian Tiger.

I don’t know what made me buy this book.

I just knew it will be good.

The book was about the biggest member of the cat family and it was set in Siberia, a part of the globe that must have fascinated every school student who liked geography.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Sooyong Park is an award winning documentary film maker who has devoted more than two decades to studying and filming Siberian Tigers.

His book The Great Soul of Siberia gives you a ringside view of seasons spent tracking and observing the big cat in Siberia, including some incredible close encounters.

It is written with much compassion for the book’s main protagonist, the Siberian Tiger – its magnificence as an animal; the reverence it is given by the native people in Siberia’s south eastern corner and its endangered status courtesy hunters, poachers and the pressures its natural habitat faces. Probably because he is a documentary film maker, who as part of filming studies his subjects, Park’s writing is engagingly visual and moves like a story. The science and statistics of research are there. But they do not deprive tiger of life or leach the magic from Siberia. Park keeps nature wholesome and intact; his descriptions make the landscape he is in, come alive.

The author goes about his narrative at a relaxed pace, slowly building up momentum. The first quarter of the book is largely devoted to sketching the natural environment in which the tigers live. At this stage, the book’s tigers are mostly the stuff of pugmarks in the sand and informed speculation around scenes of prey killed. It is valuable education, providing reader an understanding of how the traces it leaves are used by researchers to build a picture of the animal in question and what it may have been up to. For a couple of chapters, the tigers of The Great Soul of Siberia remain ghosts. Then, commencing with one extended stake-out in wilderness, waiting to photograph and document the tiger, the book barrels into a story spanning three generations of a tiger family. Doing so, it provides reader insight into the behavior of tigers, what each of their actions mean and how genuinely intelligent these creatures are compared to the assumptions in our head. The author’s love for the tiger and his compassion for it shine through without it ever resembling the caricatured compassion that our comic books and animated movies award wildlife.

Here you see tigers as they are, you see a feline family’s fight for survival in nature under duress. It is a tragic story. You also see what life as documentary film maker in wilderness, really means. Sooyong Park takes you into the minute details of a stake out – how they last for several weeks, the many restrictions it imposes on photographer waiting to see the elusive tiger (you have to make sure that no sign of your presence in terms of sight, sound or smell is there locally), the toll it takes on person and the reward in learning it brings even when your  cameras are smashed by tigers that have learnt to detect and destroy them, even when a tiger nearly lands inside your bunker.

This book is pure love for subject and it shows.

Buy it; read it.

For me, The Great Soul of Siberia was another one of the gems found on the shelves of Modern Book Centre, Thiruvananthapuram.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)    

THE MERCY

This film poster was downloaded from the Internet and is being used here for representation purpose only. No copyright infringement intended.

The Mercy is about a participant in the1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, which produced the first solo nonstop circumnavigation of the planet in a sail boat. But it felt much more than a film on Donald Crowhurst. Besides the reality of single handed sailing, vastly different from life ashore, it was invitation to contemplate why we chase goals, how prepared we are for what we wish to accomplish and how apt the sponsorship models adopted for the same, are. The film is recommended viewing.

Hurricane Gilbert of 1988 is one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record.

It was the most intense hurricane till it was surpassed by Hurricane Wilma in 2005. Gilbert wrought widespread havoc in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico; it killed 318 people, damage to property was estimated at $ 2.98 billion.

The Cayman Islands, an autonomous British Overseas Territory in the western Caribbean Sea, was among regions affected by Hurricane Gilbert. Cayman Brac is part of Cayman Islands.  In 1988, among other things, Gilbert damaged further an already damaged trimaran – 41 feet long and at that time, twenty years old – which lay neglected on the beach at Cayman Brac. Whenever the story of the 1968 Sunday Times Golden Globe Race (GGR) is told, the little known Teignmouth Electron is as crucial a player, as the Suhaili, which won the race essaying the world’s first solo, nonstop circumnavigation in a sail boat or the Joshua, which upon getting back to the Atlantic traded its chances of winning for another half voyage around the world. Teignmouth Electron was originally built for Donald Crowhurst, the only sailor who didn’t survive the 1968 GGR. He faked a whole voyage around the world, from the Atlantic and back to it, while all along remaining in the Atlantic. It would be easy to dismiss him as a fraud. Behind every act of fraudulence is a story and such stories typically point to circumstances as much as they do to person.

The 1968 GGR is remembered in India because Suhaili – the sail boat in which, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston won the race – was built in Mumbai. Crowhurst was born 1932, in Ghaziabad. According to Wikipedia, following India’s independence, his family moved to England. Their retirement savings were invested in a sports goods factory in India. But the factory burnt down during the riots around India’s partition. Thanks to financial problems, Crowhurst was forced to leave school early and become an apprentice at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough Airfield. He subsequently served in the air force and the army. Eventually he commenced a business called Electron Utilisation which had among its products, a radio direction finder useful at sea. His attempts to sell this product and related presence at an expo around boats and sailing where Sir Francis Chichester (the first man to circumnavigate solo along the clipper route and the fastest circumnavigation till then) discloses plans for the 1968 GGR, form the opening scene of the film, The Mercy. “ A man alone in a boat is more alone than any man alive,’’ Sir Francis’s character played by Simon McBurney says. Colin Firth’s Donald Crowhurst is in the audience, listening.

A married man with wife and three children and a business struggling to stay afloat, he decides to participate in the 1968 GGR hoping to leverage his participation and the visibility it may bring, to rejuvenate his business. He builds a trimaran because it is capable of great speed. He also tweaks the design to accommodate one of his innovations meant to steady the boat should it capsize in rough weather. Stanley Best – played by Ken Stott – agrees to fund his participation in GGR; Rodney Hallworth – played by David Thewlis – comes aboard as press agent managing publicity. Until GGR, Crowhurst had only been a weekend sailor.  What unfolds in the race is even more desperate than the challenges he faced attempting to succeed at his business.

I first heard of Donald Crowhurst in 2013, while writing an article on Sagar Parikrama, the Indian Navy project that gave India its first solo circumnavigation in a sail boat (Captain Dilip Donde [retd]) and the first solo nonstop circumnavigation (Commander Abhilash Tomy KC; at the time of writing this article, out on his second solo nonstop circumnavigation as part of 2018 GGR).  It was Captain Donde’s recommendation that I read the book, The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst by Nicholas Tomalin and Ron Hall. Crammed with details from Crowhurst’s logbook, the book was not an easy read. Compared to it, The Mercy moves faster.  However, books tell stories more comprehensively and you feel that about The Mercy, which introduces you to a Crowhurst willing to risk it all without giving you matching insight into what made his character so. Equally taken for granted or relegated to backdrop is the sea. If the sea and its nature played a part in weekend sailor-businessman becoming even more desperate miles away from shore, then that evolution is not adequately conveyed by the film. The isolation, loneliness and work to keep home upon water floating, don’t come through although the general sweep of Crowhurst’s story gets told. That’s the film’s strength. In particular I could sense the pressure caused by his expectations, the ill finished boat and the publicity accompanying sponsorship model. Into the voyage, fiction gradually replaces fact in Crowhurst’s progress reports.

The 1968 GGR entailed circumnavigation starting in England and ending there. In era preceding GPS, Crowhurst’s periodic radio transmissions are all that family and support team in England have to go by. When Crowhurst’s fictitious report puts him near the Cape of Good Hope, Hallworth in his statements to media pegs him farther out to build a positive, adventurous image. The publicist’s enthusiasm isn’t agreeable with Crowhurst, who is banking on a finish in last place to spare him probing questions that may unravel his fraud. He goes into radio silence. Hallworth keeps the momentum going with invented reasons for radio silence and access for media to interview Mrs Crowhurst, which she dislikes. When Crowhurst commenced his sail around the planet, he was a weekend sailor in a newly built, untested boat with no assurance of winning the race, his business and house on land marked as collateral to sponsors underwriting the voyage. In the seven months that follow, his plight – combination of boat not up to the mark and his own limited experience as sailor – becomes clear. Instead of admitting failure, he starts to fake circumnavigation. At one point, his fake radio transmissions have him sailing at record breaking speed. Eventually as the mix of cheating and loneliness gets to him he loses his mind. He hallucinates, becomes deeply reflective. “ The end must come to all human experience and that alone is certain,’’ he notes.

In July 1969, the Teignmouth Electron was found abandoned in the Atlantic; there was no sign of its occupant. Crowhurst is believed to have committed suicide. A film on a circumnavigation that didn’t happen, The Mercy – I felt – found its clearest moments in dialogue.  Towards the end of the movie, Rachel Weisz’s character, Clare Crowhurst, says the following and it should stay with us as reference point for our times, wherein few are content being themselves and there is imagery by money, media and marketing for use as currency to be larger than life. To the media gathered outside her house after news broke that her husband had possibly faked his voyage and was now missing at sea, Clare says: I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell or if he jumped as you are now saying. I would like you to rest assured that if he did jump, he was pushed and each and every one of you had a grubby hand to his back; every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a news stand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement. Last week you were selling hope, now you are selling blame. Next week you will be selling something else. But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father and I will still need my husband. I am afraid that doesn’t make a particularly good story – does it? But then I suppose the truth rarely does. In The Mercy Crowhurst is not entirely cheat. You see context and person. The 1968 GGR was won by Sir Robin Knox-Johnston. He donated the prize money he got to Crowhurst’s family.

Both the Suhaili and the Joshua were at Les Sable-d’Olonne in France, when the 2018 GGR commenced in July. Following the 1968 GGR, Teignmouth Electron was auctioned off. It changed hands a couple of times before ending up on that beach at Cayman Brac. According to information on the Internet, it continues to be there. In addition to the damage it suffered, some of its parts have been stolen by vandals. A replica built for use while filming The Mercy, survives. The Mercy was released some months before the 2018 GGR. A second film on Crowhurst called Crowhurst – starring Justin Salinger in the title role – has also released to good reviews.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

TODAY WE DIE A LITTLE

It is not always that you come across a book on Emil Zatopek. Richard Askwith’s biography of the great runner was both informative and a reminder of what humanity can do to the talent in its midst.

A trip home to Thiruvananthapuram is never complete without a visit to Modern Book Centre.

The last time I was there, the manager – he is the rare sort who recalls buyers’ interests – approached me with two books and said: I thought you may like these. I bought both. One of them was material I had waited long to come by.

In his heydays Emil Zatopek ruled the disciplines he competed in. He trained hard, set records, won medals at the Olympics. Richard Askwith’s book on Zatopek – Today We Die A Little – is recommended reading not because it is on a famous runner but because it sheds light on the life of a man we actually know little about. The research is extensive. The emergent picture is a composite of the athlete as remembered by those who knew him, including his wife and fellow athlete Dana Zatopkova, as well as material gathered by Askwith.

A national icon in erstwhile Czechoslovakia, information on Zatopek is colored by popular myth and Iron Curtain-propaganda. Rendered famous by his athletic achievements he unwittingly became a mascot for the socialist block’s ascent in sports. His global fame shielded him from the capacity of totalitarian state to censure. He spoke and acted freer than many of his countrymen, not all of it palatable to political masters. He was also a humanist. He helped others, shared what he had and even gifted one his Olympic medals to a visiting Australian runner. Sociable and easily accessed, those who engaged with Zatopek evolved their versions of what he said. Truth, in such situation, is hard to come by. Notwithstanding considerable research, there are information gaps in Askwith’s book. There is also conjecture at places, to bridge the deficiency. The goodness of this book is that it narrates, admitting the gaps despite sizable research done. In the process you get an idea of Zatopek the person and the context he lived in. It is the interaction between the two that led to the Zatopek we know and crucially, the Zatopek we don’t know as well – a man who eventually paid the price for speaking up. A colonel in the Czechoslovakian army, he was dismissed from military service and faulted by the very state he earned accolades for.

At the core of this predicament was Zatopek’s relationship with socialism. He appears to have agreed with it in principle but disagreed with the totalitarian approach implementing it. It is a relationship with two distinct halves. In the first, spanning the phases of upcoming athlete and Olympic hero, Zatopek periodically tests the state with his comments and actions but is spared reprimand. He is a hero; the people’s darling. In the second, spanning the phase past his athletic prime and deeds around Prague Spring (a season of counter revolutionary spirit in Czechoslovakia), the full weight of the system is brought to bear on him. It eventually cracks him. It is imagery that contrasts Zatopek’s famed capacity to endure on the track. But the pressure of state sponsored persecution is such. In totalitarian societies once you are tagged as wrong doer and word spreads, people avoid you. Not wishing others to suffer through association with him, Zatopek too kept to himself in that bleak phase.

His eventual rehabilitation posed its share of risk to personal reputation. It delineated the contradictions in his life, which as athlete focused on sport – or perhaps, as someone trusting sport to build a better world – he seems to have overlooked. The Communist regime was backdrop for his ascent to world stage and the Olympics. Yet he questioned government. He empathized with Prague Spring when it unfolded and criticized the Soviet military crackdown that followed. After his dismissal from the army and years spent in nondescript jobs, he was put on the path to rehabilitation by the same Communist apparatus. So what is the real Emil Zatopek? Critics felt he wasn’t adequately clear on which side his political loyalty lay. The doubting didn’t end there. Totalitarian regimes maintain a sea of informants. Leading athletes like Zatopek, were under surveillance at home and overseas. It was a time when you didn’t know who was watching who. After Communism’s collapse in Czechoslovakia, Zatopek was doubted of being a former informant. Askwith investigates the angle as best as he can. He finds no direct evidence to prove the allegations hurled at one of the world’s greatest distance runners. Perhaps the best way to put it would be – Zatopek’s life away from race track reflected the troubled reality of East Europe in the years following Second World War and leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This is a story of the athlete as human being. If you are picking up this book to learn how one of the world’s greatest runners trained, you may be disappointed. Without doubt the descriptions of his grueling training schedules come alive in the narrative. As do the races. Askwith’s account of both is detailed. But all that training in military boots, the running in forests and snow and the victories at the Olympics is already the stuff of legend. Many of Zatopek’s techniques – including interval training, which he is said to have pioneered – have since been improved upon, with those doing so, smashing the records he set. Pick up this book, if you wish to know what happened to Emil Zatopek the person. Crammed with insight it is not a quick read. You have to be patient.

The Cold War is over. Communism’s sphere of influence has shrunk. I read this book treating the predicament it portrayed as an example of what could happen when the same political system repeats in different garb. The correct perspective I believe, is to see it as pattern, an arrangement of power and authority diminishing individual freedom. Totalitarian regimes, propagandist media and witch hunts come in all political shades. The greatest impression Askwith’s book left on me was this: it made me wonder why Zatopek ran. What is it that he found in running? What is it that human beings still find in running? Something tells me that despite grand collectives like civilization, nation state, corporation, market and such, the individual would rather run away for a sense of existence.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

IN EVERY STORY IS A SKETCH MAP

Legendary Maps From The Himalayan Club, is a book packaged to be collector’s item.

The concept – each chapter as sketch map of mountain visited plus supporting article – is essentially tribute to an old habit at the club commenced by The Himalayan Journal’s very first editor, Kenneth Mason. A geographer and surveyor, he made it a point to insist on sketch maps accompanying expedition reports published. These maps gave a quick overview of the region visited along with route taken. Since then as The Himalayan Journal continued to be published, the club has steadily accumulated sketch maps.

Harish Kapadia, veteran mountaineer and explorer of the Himalaya who also served many years as The Himalayan Journal’s editor, avers that the total number of sketch maps with the club should be several times more than what has been published in the book. Besides encapsulating the human trait of observing and helping to reinforce narrative, these maps also have a few other uses.  Speakers of languages other than English have contributed considerably to exploration and climbing in the Himalaya and Karakorum. An account in English by them for The Himalayan Journal is a narration in alien tongue.  Writer struggles for correct word and tone. Like a picture that speaks a thousand words, the sketch map compensates for any shortfall in narrative. Further according to Kapadia, the Survey of India has been quite conservative in making maps available to trekkers and climbers visiting the Himalaya. For reasons best known to the establishment, detailed maps in the hands of civilians, is deemed a security risk. In turn, lack of reliable information on mountain features has caused errors at expeditions; some have climbed the wrong peak. In such context, Kapadia believes, the hand-made sketch maps of The Himalayan Journal help to get a bird’s eye-view of a region or a mountain massif, at the very least develop a mental image of what visitor is getting into.

However, between the two – evoking the spirit of exploration with its accompanying human quality of noticing one’s world, and map as comprehensive tool for location in perspective – it is probably the former that this book celebrates. For instance when you study a sketch map with archival article alongside by a Bill Tilman; T.H. Braham, John Hunt, Giotto Dainelli, Maurice Herzog, Bob Pettigrew, Victor Saunders, Kinichi Yamamori, Andre Roch, Chris Bonington, Martin Moran, Major J.K. Bajaj  or Kapadia himself, the take away is a slice of human experience in that time, that year.  As of 2018, The Himalayan Club was ninety years old; to choose maps and articles, the book’s team of editors scanned editions of The Himalayan Journal from the late 1920s onward. There are photos too, from the club’s archives and Kapadia’s personal collection. Make no mistake – this is not a book that replaces the utility of Google Earth. Through its combination of sketch map and narrative, the book reminds you that the act of being outdoors and exploring is essentially founded on one’s senses. Comprehension – that is what you gain when you sketch a map and the quest to comprehend is timeless Google Earth or none.

Given all the maps and articles are from The Himalayan Journal, Kapadia who served as general editor for the book said that curation from archives was based on attributes like a given article being interesting or having a humorous tone, writer being famous or an incident mentioned being important.  “ Priority was for sketch map. A well written piece to accompany followed availability of sketch map,’’ Kapadia said. The written narrative is mostly in the form of abstracts from the original article. In the old days, sketch maps for publication were hand drawn. Over the last 20 years or so, a key person in this craft at the club has been Pune based-Aparna Joshi. A commercial artist and graphic designer associated with The Himalayan Journal’s production, she provides final form to the sketch map accompanying an article. According to her, on most occasions Kapadia provides the basic sketch. She would then render it using computer software. “ We don’t use cartographic software or anything like that. We use regular software used for illustrating.  Our need is limited to showing areas visited and specific routes taken to climb or trek,’’ she said. Visual clues like variations in elevation or the prominence of ridge lines are indicated in a rudimentary way. The maps are generally flat in appearance. Emphasis is on helping the reader to understand. “ The idea of bringing out a book based on sketch maps had been there for some time. The club’s ninetieth anniversary seemed apt juncture,’’ Kapadia said.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)

2018 HIMALAYAN CLUB BOOK AWARD / BRIEF CHAT WITH MARK LIECHTY

Mark Liechty (Photo: Shyam G Menon)

Mark Liechty is Associate Professor of Anthropology and History and Coeditor, Studies in Nepal History and Society, at the University of Illinois, Chicago. What stayed in mind strongest after his talk at the Himalayan Club’s 2018 annual seminar was the intriguing theme of investigation in his book about the counter-culture movement’s fascination for the Himalaya. Mark wondered whether we tend to overlook places as they are and see instead what we came looking for. Outrigger presents the transcript of a brief chat with Mark, author of Far Out, which won the Himalayan Club’s Kekoo Naoroji Book Award. This conversation should ideally be read in conjunction with the report on the Himalayan Club’s 2018 annual seminar, available on this blog:

Can you explain the circumstances and curiosity that led you to write this book?

On my first visit to South Asia when I was nine years old, I went with my parents to Kathmandu. Even then I was struck by a variety of things including things I saw that I didn’t understand. Later out of my own curiosity, I wanted to learn about the hippie era in Nepal and I started looking for books on the topic. I discovered that there were no good books that tried to explain what was going on at that time. Eventually I realized that if I wanted to read this book I was going to have to write it myself. For thirty years I have been collecting information on the topic. In the meantime I have written other books. But this is kind of a labor of love. I have written it more for a general audience and not an academic audience as I normally do. It is really an effort to answer questions that I had myself, which I couldn’t find answers to.

You mentioned in your talk after the book award that people tend to project on to the Himalaya what they came seeking; that they end up seeing what they came looking for. Can you explain that?

It is not people in general but people in the West who have a kind of exotic image of this place, which over the centuries they have been socialized into. Also, people – what I try to argue in the book is that the kind of westerners who come to India or Nepal are not the typical tourist. They tend to be counter-cultural in one way or another; they are looking for something that they don’t find at home. Again for complicated reasons, the Himalaya has emerged as this last unknown place, this last forbidden landscape and it becomes a convenient place to imagine where things might still be that are thought to have been lost at home. What I am trying to suggest is that people come looking for things that they imagine they have lost and they think might still be there in this remote place. To a certain extent, they find them.

In your talk, you also mentioned of the divide that the Himalaya represents between the cultures of India and China and how that adds to the western imagination of what it is….

In there I am just making a basic semiotic point that how – because of the way we construct our mental and geographic maps, inevitably we construct in-between places and those in-between places, between civilizations are thought to be uncivilized. Often they are also thought to be unpopulated even though there are people living in those places. The Himalaya has emerged as one of those in-between places. But I also attempt to argue that some people assume that mountains themselves are inherently marginal. I don’t think that is the case because if you look at the world’s second largest mountain chain in South America, it is the opposite – it is the mountains themselves that are the civilizational core and the lowlands are the mystical borders. So the way in which we imagine peripheries has at least as much to do with our own mental construct as anything inherent in the landscape.

(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)