Vantage point

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Re-Appreciating Sherlock

Like most of you, I read Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes books in my teens. Loved them. Sherlock Holmes became an elusive nerdy ideal I dreamed of copying. His mysteries were as spine-tingling as they were educational (my first exposure to the Ku-Klux-Klan was through Sherlock Holmes). Then, like all of you, I grew up. Moved on to other literary heroes, and other practical considerations in life.

Then a couple of years back, I heard that there were two different Sherlock Holmes "interpretations" in the works. Both being conceived by creators I was a fan of - Guy Ritchie of Snatch Fame and Steven Moffat of Coupling fame. Hmm, I said to myself, reinterpreting Sherlock Holmes while keeping his "soul" intact was no easy job. I had sen Granada Television's TV series, and as faithful as it was to the original, I still had issues with it. Translating Doyle's work into something you can put on the screen seems tough. But if I had to choose 2 guys to do it, Ritchie and Moffat would be in my list.

Furthermore, Ritchie's interpretation would feature Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes. I am a BIIIIG fan of Downey's. And Watson would be played by Jude Law whom I have a healthy regard for. I also heard that Irene Adler would be played by Rachel McAdams, whom I consider one of the most talented actresses around. So all in all, I was positively predisposed toward's Guy Ritchie's Sherlock.

Then the movie came out5. I went to watch it, "first day first show". And it left a bad taste in my mouth. I didn't have any major problems with how Downey played Holmes or Law played Watson. I just plain didn't like the movie. Didn't like the underlying "mystery" which I found too Dan-Brown-ish for my taste.

That blunted my enthusiasm for Steven Moffat's BBC TV series. As a tempered Sherlck Holmes fan, I had already been disillusioned by Guy Ritchie. Did I want to give another Brit the opportunity to disappoint me? No thanks! Plus I knew that Moffat's interpretation placed Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century, a tough ask. Yup, definitely NO THANKS! I steered clear of watching the show.

But then, a bunch of my friends got the better of me. "Give it a shot, just one shot!", they said. BBC's series Sherlock, although it is set in present times, is wayyyyy more true to the original than Ritchie's abomination, they said. So I thought, fine, let me give it a shot.

The result astounded me. I loved it, no I LOVED it! Steven Moffat's Sherlock, set in the 21st century, resonated wayyyyyyy more with me than Ritchie's Sherlock, set in Victorian times. The 3 episodes, all "movie length" (i.e., 90 minutes each)felt more genuine than anything Guy Ritchie served up. I didn't know why! How could Sherlock Holmes set in 2010, with text messaging, websites, and GPS, resonate with me more than Guy Ritchie's decidedly Victorian interpretation? I had no idea! But it did!

Then recently, I moved to New York City. Started spending a long time in suubways. So I downloaded the Kindle app on my phone. Looked for free books. Found a lot of Sherlock Holmes books. Started (re) reading them during my subway rides.

And I got why I loved BBC's Moffat series! Over the years, my mind retained the "essence" of Sherlock Holmes, but had forgotten the specifics. When I watched Moffat's series, I felt he had captured the "essence". Re-reading the books told me why I felt that way. Because despite throwing Holmes and Watson into 2011, Moffat retained their basic appeal, with some amazing attention to detail that, my mind forgot, but my subconscious mind appreciated!

For example, the way Holmes asks Watson "Afghanistan or Iraq" when they first meet. It's a clear reference to the way Doyle's Holmes guessed Watson's military background in Afghanistan. How he guesses....I am sorry....deduces several facts about Watson's sibling based on his cellphone (clear and direct reference to how Holmes deduced facts about Watson's brother in the original books).

But these are blatant references. The series is full of references to facts that the generic Holmes fan, who read the books years ago, is likely to forget. For instance, in the series, Sherlock randomly shoots at the wall because he is bored. Seemed gratuitous to me. But after reading the books, I realized it was faithful to the original, in which Doyle writes that Holmes does that!

Or the cipher in the 2nd episode. Such a clear reference to the cipher in the Valley of Fear! The series is studded with loyal references like that. Which makes it, despite being set in present times, the most loyal interpretation of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes ever!

Watch it!

Friday, September 23, 2011


Do you remember that pretty bungalow in your neighborhood owned by a rickshaw driver? Do you remember those groups of rickshawwallahs that sit in Barista or Cafe Coffee Day sipping lattes and mochas as they take a break from their shifts? Do you remember how the expensive box seats at IPL matches are mostly taken up by rickshawwallahs? Do you remember all those rickshaw drivers, with their wives and kids buying up all the designer clothing and shoes in malls?


Me neither!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The IC 814 Fallacy

I am opposed to the death penalty. In all circumstances and situations, no matter how evil the perpetrator. This draws me into occasional debates (the latest triggered by the Troy Davis execution) with my friends who support the death penalty, at least in the rarest of rare cases.

This post is not about why I believe the death penalty is wrong. Rather, it is to address a fallacious argument that pops into death penalty debates among Indians with predictable regularity - the IC 814 argument. This argument typically unfolds as follows. A supporter of the death penalty says that executing the rarest of rare cold blooded murderers protects society from likely repeat offenses. To which my answer is, lifelong incarceration in a secure prison could protect society from the murderer just as well. The counter-point then is, ah, but what about an IC 814 type situation?

For those who came late, IC 814 was an Indian Airlines plane hijacked by Pakistani terrorists in 1999, demanding the release of three dangerous Pakistani terrorists in Indian custody. The hijackers killed one passenger, and threatened to kill all others unless the three terrorists were released. The Indian government gave in to pressure from the hijacked passengers' families, and released the terrorists. So the IC 814 argument in support of the death penalty, at least for terrorists, is that if we incarcerate terrorists without executing them, their supporters may threaten or kill more people to secure their release. That's why convicted terrorists like Ajmal Kasab should be executed.

I find this argument deeply fallacious, perhaps the most flawed argument that a supporter of the death penalty can make.

The first and biggest flaw in this logic is the assumption that terrorists' supporters will only carry out an act of terrorism to negotiate their release, not to seek revenge for the execution. In fact, a follow-up act of terrorism is much more likely to be motivated by revenge, considering that the stated objective of almost all terrorist acts is retribution.

Another flaw is that when you provide prevention of possible murder by someone else as grounds for killing the convicted, the whole logic about the validity of the death penalty goes for a toss. Because you're implicitly saying that the convict's own acts or potential to himself kill again is secondary to what someone else may do. The argument is thus very utilitarian, driven by convenience or precaution against something the convict himself possibly cannot do. Utilitarian or convenience based arguments are rather hollow in justifying execution, don't you think?

If preventing the headache of hijacks or hostage-takings is such a strong motivation, why can't it be utilized against people who haven't committed murders? In the 70s, when the Janata government arrested Indira Gandhi, two men hijacked a plane and threatened to blow it up unless she was immediately released from prison. The aforementioned argument implies that Indira Gandhi should have been executed to prevent such hijackings by her fanatical supporters. There have been other hijackings demanding the release of jailed individuals who had never killed anyone. Should these individuals be executed because their supporters are crazy enough to threaten others for their release?

I am sure any reasonable person's reply is, no, they shouldn't. Because it is absurd to kill someone as a precautionary measure against something someone else might do. The same is then true regardless of what the jailed individual's crime is - fraud or corruption in the case of Indira Gandhi, or cold blooded mass murder in case of Ajmal Kasab. Argue the merits of executing someone on the basis of what THEY have done, not what someone else MIGHT do.

There are many cogent and respectable arguments in favor of the death penalty that I may not agree with, but understand where they are coming from. The IC 814 argument however, is just fallacious and wrong.