Sunday, March 03, 2019

Vegetarianism is not Synonymous with Virtue


I have nothing against vegetarians. A lot of them are friends who invite me home for meals where I cheerfully stuff my face with pulao (just don’t call it veg. biriyani), stuffed chapathis, papads, gobi manchurian and carrot halwa.  When I return the favour, they are content to tuck into my veggie fried rice, chilli paneer, mushroom au gratin and chocolate fudge without gagging at the sight of the non – vegetarian spread. More importantly, they have never judged me for my carnivorous ways nor, I them their culinary choices since these have their roots in culture, tradition, religion or personal preference. That ought to be that, but unfortunately it isn’t. 

In recent times, many from the growing ranks of vegetarians who may prefer terms like vegan, lacto vegetarian, ovo vegetarian, pollotarian, pescatarian or flexitarian have taken a militant stand against eaters of meat seemingly determined to convert those they believe don’t know better with missionary zeal and extreme shaming tactics. Herbivores seek to condemn and criticize those who are partial to their deluxe bacon burgers and mutton biriyani or simply cannot pay the criminal prices charged for kale, aubergine, quinoa and salads made with 75 environment friendly ingredients. Surely that is obscene in a land where too many are unable to afford one square meal let alone an expensive, organically sourced vegan one? If a fattened goat feeds a family for a week why begrudge anybody that?
Almost as bad is the attempt to impose cardinal culinary principles on others by those who are sanguine in the mistaken belief that vegetarianism is synonymous with virtue which makes them morally superior beings and the offspring of dharma and ahimsa. When those of the phytophagous variety (foes of flora, I like to call them), insist that it is not possible for those who can’t do without roasted chicken to love or care for animals, that those who feed their children meat are guilty of abuse (never mind that courts in various parts of the world have pulled up parents who forced their dietary ‘principles’ on their children with the result that they wound up malnourished) and meat eaters are destroying the planet, the overblown rhetoric stripped of nuance leaves me convinced that all this is little more than superficial posturing and hollow outraging, designed to dictate what others eat and police personal menus.
Studies by Nicoletta Pellegrini have shown that while consumption of animal products have a high environmental impact, vegans with their excessive reliance on processed substitutes for meat and dairy don’t necessarily show a significantly smaller carbon footprint. Besides bland purely vegan dishes are not half as fortifying or fulfilling as meat based cuisine which leads to a higher food intake which in turn defeats the purpose, herbivores keep harping about. It is why experts feel an ovo – vegetarian or flexitarian diet is more likely to produce environmental benefits.
I am not advocating indiscriminate consumption but it is easier to make healthier choices when one is not pressured or forced into it. After all, you are what you eat, and if your dietary decisions make you smug, sanctimonious and superior, perhaps a change in the menu might be in order.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

A CHILLING BLAST FROM THE PAST


Benjamin Kingsbury’s An Imperial Disaster: The Bengal Cyclone of 1876 is about a natural disaster of near apocalyptic proportions which claimed 215,000 lives by drowning and at least another 100,000 lost to cholera and famine. While the extreme forces of nature that led to this catastrophe are meticulously documented, Kingsbury insists and rightfully so, on placing the focus on the ‘all – too human patterns of exploitation and inequality – by divisions within Bengali society, and by the great disparities of political and economic power that characterised British rule in India’ that shaped this natural disaster which exacerbated a horrendous situation to inhuman levels of suffering and loss of life. 

Told with an unflinching and unsparing gaze, Kingsbury’s comprehensive and compelling account serves the dual purpose of transporting the reader back to the horrors of imperial rule with its callous disregard for the natives, particularly the poor, while holding a mirror to problems such as ‘overpopulation, unemployment, landlessness, corruption, illiteracy, indebtedness, official indifference’ which though prevalent during British rule, remain rampant to this very day. This narrative is scathing in its condemnation of ruthless colonial greed pointing out how the people of India were left impoverished, with their manufacturers and industrialists systematically driven out of business, farmers and peasants buckling under the weight of taxation, and a massive chunk of revenue being siphoned away to England.
It also shines a light on the stunning indifference of the authorities towards the victims who having suffered untold losses were left to fend for themselves even as cholera and famine continued to take a toll. The higher ups among the imperial powers made it clear that the more niggardly and pecuniary the efforts expended on relief works, the higher the opportunity for career advancement would be. In fact, relief officers were appointed solely ‘to prove that there was no need for relief.’ In the meantime, officials saw fit to spend beaucoup sums on imperial durbars, feasting, fireworks and idle festivities.
The great majority of the public were uncaring too, not bothering to lift a finger to help fellow Indians. Regional publications like the Amrita Bazar Patrika, rued the callousness of the professional, landowning classes who were ignoring the disaster, refusing to help raise money or donate for a cause. Greed and corruption were not limited to the British alone and the landlords and middlemen saw no reason not to refrain from enriching themselves at the expense of the others. Worse, no preventive measures were implemented in the aftermath.
A brilliant read, this book should be mandatory reading for Indians just so they can learn from the past, wise up in the present and prevent the future from being reduced to a disaster waiting to happen.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.  

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

A Tribute to Forgotten Heroes


History is oftentimes an unjust mistress often choosing to forget or ignore those who deserve to be cherished or at the very least remembered. The First World War fought between imperialist powers anxious to annexe more chunks of the planet for themselves irrespective of whether they called themselves the Central or Allied Powers, truly upped the ante when it came to large – scale carnage. By the time the unmitigated horror of it all, came to an end more than 16 million were dead. Many a tome or movie have been devoted to the heroics of the Allied forces for having successfully held on to their ill – gotten gains and having put themselves in a prime position to satiate their gluttonous appetite for more land and power but not much is known about the contribution of the 1.5 million (not counting those who volunteered or were coerced into serving) Indian soldiers who fought in the Great War and left their own indelible prints in the sands of time.
            George Morton – Jack in his ‘The Indian Empire at War’ puts in painstaking effort into piecing together the lives of these intrepid warriors who lived in a tumultuous, topsy-turvy age where they were asked to fight for democratic ideals by their masters who had denied them and their countrymen the same. The book focuses not only on the nitty-gritty of an Indian soldier’s personal reality and the cultural as well as practical factors which motivated him to pick up arms on behalf of the loathed imperial overlords but also beyond and into the decision making processes of higher forces at play in a deadly game of bloody conflict.
            This historian’s account is thorough and painfully blunt which is readily apparent when he discusses the mind-set of the Indian soldiers who pulled their triggers against peaceful protestors in the infamous Amritsar Massacre simply because General Dyer and ‘the British told them to.’ It is a chilling example of men who are trained to obey and kill because they have been taught to put aside principles and feelings when in uniform. The puzzle of Indians who fought and killed other Indians is hard to unravel despite the divided identity of the nation and an even harder reality to stomach.
            The indictment of British rule in India is readily apparent given that few practised what they preached when it came to denouncing tyranny. For all their high – flown rhetoric of fighting the Great War for all the right reasons, the British to ‘ensure their primacy over Indians as their racial inferiors’ subjected them to constant belittlement and abuse while practising segregation and denying the Indian troops their basic rights such as forcing them to live in hovels, depriving them of decent medical care and rations, while of course their British counterparts were living it up in style and given double their wages. Of course, the Indian troops despite years of loyal service could not expect to be promoted to a rank that meant anything or given their own command. Worse, they were not allowed to fight white armies in case they got new-fangled ideas about their place in the racial hierarchy.
            There is a balance to the narrative which includes anecdotes about the bravery as well as cowardice evidenced by Indian troops and a fascinating tale of two brothers - Mir Dast and Mir Mast, brothers one of whom remained loyal, while the other, who had won a medal for bravery was persuaded to desert when a holy – Jihad was declared by the Turkish Sultan makes for compelling reading. Even among the British officials, care has been taken to document actions that were fair, decent as well as disgraceful. Ultimately it is a stirring tribute to those troops whose ‘achievement was bearing their humiliations at the hands of the British with such strength in the face of adversity and not letting go of their humanity’. 

This book review originally appeared here.

Monday, January 14, 2019

New Year Resolutions for Pongal

Pic courtesy: Mash Kolams


New Year resolutions are damnable things. Mostly they are social media worthy which means it involves all things supercilious bedecked in the paraphernalia of the profound. Folks are always resolving to eat healthy, stop and smell the farts roses, go with the flow, get away from the rat race, travel and see the world, quit smoking, tweet less, smile more, pay it forward, help the needy, and make the world a better place. Needless to say these resolutions are burdensome creatures and make you feel like Frodo Baggins crushed and overwhelmed under the onerous weight of the One Ring. Which probably explains why most of us feel a pressing obligation to break them as quickly as we can so that we can go back to being flawed human beings who are conceited and callous enough not to care about self – improvement or improving the lot of the less fortunate.
            How do I know these things? From personal experience of course. I had resolved to eat right, stop allowing my insecurities to become an obsession and cease revealing embarrassing details about myself when I write up these columns. But hardly two weeks into the New Year, I have failed to convince my body that it doesn’t need desserts after every meal, haven’t managed a full night’s sleep because I am trying to figure out how to become a more successful author or a self – actualized individual and you know…
When confronted with definitive evidence of a weak will and an inability to resist temptation, guilt kicks in and claws at your underbelly making you feel lower than a worm’s belly button. All too soon, one is trapped in a vicious cycle of resolutions made only to be broken and on and on it goes. Perhaps we have gotten the methodology all wrong.
            The problem is we are making resolutions to do things we have been taught to think we ought to be doing instead of the things we really want to do. Which is why we end up like those god-awful souls who judge us when we order a double chocolate chip cookie milkshake with whipped cream and ice cream to go with the garden salad with the add - on meat and insist on viewing entire areas of a perfectly decent life as inadequate. Why not simply admit that ‘I’m not okay, you’re not okay and that’s okay!’? I first heard that in the Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn classic, Dodgeball and that is not at all an embarrassing thing to admit because I am owning it now see?
            Perhaps your New Year resolution made just in time for Pongal ought to be not to make any, except that would qualify as a bona – fide resolution so what now? I know exactly what I will be doing. Now that I have made the word count for my column, I am just going to drop the whole thing and go grab a cupcake. Then I’ll probably stay up all night wondering what it is that Twinkle Khanna has and I don’t which ensures that she manages astronomical sales figures for her yarns on pads, Prasad and pyjamas while looking so damn good.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Standard.

Have Selfies made us Sad?


The other day, somebody clicked a pic of me and to my horror, I heard myself shrieking, ‘Don’t make me look fat!’ As somebody who has battled fat shaming all her life (a potbellied music instructor used to call me fatty boomalatty) and insists that as long as you are fit, the f in fat, stands for fabulous, it was hard to acknowledge that despite my politically correct fundas it is important for me to be magically photographed into looking thinner than I am. Strangely enough, though the voice of reason in my head upbraids me for having become a narcissist who doctors her image for a handful of followers on Facebook , Instagram and Twitter, the fact is my secret obsession with how I look online, (despite being someone whose idea of dressing up is losing the pyjamas for jeans) seems to be everyone else’s as well. After all everybody loathes pics that make them look groggy, grotesquely constipated, gross or anything less than immaculately perfect. In fact for too many it could be a life ruining issue!
The fact that this narcissism has wriggled its way into our admittedly vain and vacuous lifestyles is hardly surprising given the fact that we are bombarded by flawlessly captured selfies of folks, airbrushed and meticulously tweaked to make them look social media worthy. New mummies have never looked yummier, gym rats look smoking hot as opposed to sweaty while pumping iron, and even all those home bakers with their divine sugary creations look impossibly skinny, glossy and good enough to eat! Which means the pressure to glam up is mounting and we worry more than we should about whether our butts look big, if our greys or pimples are showing, or if there is tell-tale evidence of sleepless nights or signs of ageing. Heaven forbid!
In extreme cases, people risk or actually lose their lives while trying to click that perfect selfie which just might go viral and give them their five seconds. The rest of us wind up devoting time and money we can’t afford to spare on looking good despite knowing it might be better to shift the focus to simply feeling good.
Such excessive love of the self far from being satisfying is strangely depressing. How many of us have noticed that fun occasions like family weddings, parties or vacationing with friends feel flat because everybody is too keen on capturing the awesomeness of the moment instead of actually living it? Too many wind up missing out on stuff because of the unholy devotion to perpetual preening, posing and posting that gives the impression that one is having a rollicking time, though the reality of it is usually different.
Handwringing about virtual vanity aside, the incessant dolling up of digital avatars makes it seem as if everybody’s life is better than our mundane ones which has led to all of us moping about with a wicked case of envy and dissatisfaction. No wonder people smile only for the camera and not for real. And even worse, not even this impassioned piece is going to stop me from sucking in my gut when I pose for a pic. Help!
This post originally appeared in The Sunday Standard.

An Exhausting but occasionally Engaging Uphill Trek


Pulitzer Prize - shortlisted Deborah Baker’s ‘The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire’ is a sprawling biographical saga that is a post – mortem of the last days of the British Empire in India. The author narrates the stories of pioneering geologist, John Auden and surveyor, Michael Spender who was the first to draw a detailed map of the north face of Everest, using his skills in photogrammetry. Both men, in addition to having famous poet brothers in W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender, vied for the hand of the same woman, Nancy Sharp, the English painter and sought to be included in an Everest expedition which had become “…an issue of National and Imperial importance” with diehards of colonialism seeing it as a means to reassert and consolidate their power over India.
In a surprising move, Baker is not content to chart their lives and measure the successes of these two extraordinary men, though she does do that while opting to shift focus without warning to a dizzying array of colourful characters, who are an eclectic mix of writers, artists, freedom fighters, politicians, communists and even double agents all of whom made their own mark on history and left valuable impressions behind of the cultural, political and moral landscape of a crumbling empire. Louis MacNeice (who interestingly carried a torch for the redoubtable Nancy Sharp as well) invited to cover the Partition with a view of writing a series of radio plays for BBC, Christopher Isherwood who co – wrote a play with W.H. Auden entitled, ‘The Ascent of F6’about a climber who mounts an expedition to Everest and battles the elements as well as rival nations in a race to the peak, Michael John Carritt, Indian Civil Service Officer and communist sympathizer, and Sudhin Datta, a Bengali intellectual who founded a literary journal, ‘Parichay’ and was deeply conflicted by his love of English literature and hatred of heavy – handed imperialists, sashay into the narrative at will.
Their stories have mixed results in that they do shed light on a veritable avalanche of complex historical facts which manage to occasionally engage the reader while also leaving him or her disconcerted with the sheer density of information conveyed detachedly in opaque prose and a penchant for dogged descriptiveness that is not always flavoursome enough to be savoured. The frequent meandering detours and a surfeit of material crammed into an overcrowded stage with too much happening at all levels can be most vexing. Oftentimes, the process of perusing this excellent material feels as laborious and cumbersome as scaling an unforgiving peak under extremely unfavourable conditions which makes one want to give up in abject despair. However, in the unlikely event that the modern reader afflicted with ADHD manages to persist, the rewards are not entirely non – existent.
Baker is determined to perform a delicate balancing act between the opposing viewpoints of the conqueror and conquered and is even-handed to the point of being exasperating. However her unflinching portrayal of the likes of Winston Churchill who felt the Indians were a ‘foul race’ that ‘breed like rabbits’ and needed to be bombed into submission if necessary as well as her exposure of his role in the Bengal famine strip away the glittering fa├žade of the so – called ‘greatest Briton ever’ and reveal him to be the unabashed racist and white supremacist he most certainly was. The chequered career of Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy, the ‘Butcher of Bengal’ and fifth prime minister of Pakistan, particularly his interaction with Gandhi makes for interesting reading.
Some of the most harrowing portions of the book are Baker’s final chapters, reconstructing the terrible Bengal famine and the communal riots during the partition. Her decision not to make it unduly melodramatic but rather keep it simple and clinical even, succeeds in making the horror all the more stomach turning. If only Baker had managed to hit her stride sooner!

This book review originally appeared here.

THE PERILS OF BEING PELTED WITH POOP


We humans consider ourselves evolved beings, however, I have a sneaking suspicion that at heart, we are little more than the Apes (no offense intended to that noble species) we descended from especially since on any given day we are one bad judgement away from hurling poop at each other. If you are inclined to laugh, scoff or return to your fuzzy YouTube video of candid moments from the #DeepVeer wedding, I urge you to give me a chance to explain. After all, the impending crisis is a real one, and it makes sense to figure out how best to avert it under my expert tutelage. For otherwise the threat may snowball out of all control and culminate with people throwing poop or worse, bombs at each other (for the selfie – obsessed, I am not discussing photo bombs). 

Everybody has a short fuse nowadays. I know, because the other day folks shouted at me for cycling on the wrong side of the road (In my defence, I thought it was a shortcut). Some even wanted to know if I had informed my folks about my intention to die like a dog. Such meanies! But that was only the tip of the iceberg. On any given day, I am trolled and accused of being a gender traitor by feminists and am branded a feminazi by chauvinists. The left scolds me for being a ‘bhakt’ while the right threaten to have me arrested for being ‘anti – national’. It is almost as if I am incorrect about my own awesomeness!
There are so many angry folks out there, you would think it is a fad that refuses to fade. Which means you get dry humped while standing in those slow – moving queues irrespective of whether it is at the airport, temple, theme park, or toilet. If you protest, you are certain to get a full blast of rudeness with a side of spittle. People get pissed off while you count out the correct change and make certain you know they think you are a moron because you don’t believe in the suspicious notion of a cash free society. You can’t even allow yourself to drown your sorrows in a triple scoop ice cream sundae because some wiseacre will stare judgementally at your ample waistline or lecture you about the evils of sugar.
It is even worse, if you are a denizen of social media. Even if you are the sort of person who posts nothing but cute pics of pups and bunnies, it is only a matter of time before you manage to give offense to the army of social justice warriors out there who live to get outraged at the moral discrepancies of others (if not their own). That is enough, of that!
It is time to break away from the herd, now that it is a raging mob and embrace the contrarian within. If everybody has an informed opinion and is frothing at the mouth over it, be the one who refuses to get drawn into a fight. So what is everyone if shouting at the top of their lungs? You can maintain a dignified silence till civility is restored. So what if the entire species is reduced to mush-brained junkies glued to their phones? Read a book instead or go for a walk. Soon your sanity will spread like a contagion and more and more people will throw in their lot with you, till we have a new and improved herd!
All that remains is for you dear reader to go forth and spread the pearls of my wisdom so none of us have to worry about aggressive primates pelting us with poop. Or worse.

This article originally appeared in The Sunday Standard

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Petta is a treat for lovers of Rajini the Superstar and Actor Extrordinaire


I really really loved Petta. And it has been too long since I said this about a Rajni film. As a lapsed Rajni fan (when even a superstar of Rajni's caliber acts in one Shankar film too many it happens), it was nice to go right back to the Annamalai, Baasha phase when I was a proper Rajni fanatic. Guess, you have to be that person to truly appreciate Petta. The first half was absolutely rocking and I love how 'Marana mass' it was. Not since Dhil, Dhool and Ghilli has a Tamil filmmaker made such a sumptuous, masala feast of a film. So kudos to Karthik Subbaraj for that. In the theatre where I was watching Petta, we were all infected with Rajni fever and were cheering, screaming ourselves hoarse for every single scene. It was such an amazing cinematic experience and an incredibly special one. Rajni is one actor who has always made me laugh and cry along with his characters and this time was no exception. I became completely nuts about Kaali (Petta Velan). Bless you Karthik Subbaraj for giving us this vintage version of Thalaivar.
I find it so annoying when people go on and on about his style which is dazzling of course, and forget that the man is one of the greatest actors of all time. I don't think there is an actor who is as sublimely effervescent and effective as he is in any film industry. Examine just about any scene in Petta and you will see what I mean.
The second half worked very well for me but on a different level. It was great to see Subbaraj's unique little quirks, eccentricities and flair on full display. There is a funeral scene which was insanely good, strangely moving and deliriously wicked as well! Loved every scene with Rajini and the terrific VJS. I thought Nawazuddin did a fantastic job as well and was a really intriguing character. What a treat it is to see Rajni cross swords with behemoths like VJS and Nawazuddin, chew them up and spit em out! In retrospect, the editing could have been tighter but with Rajni in such amazing form, we fans aren't complaining. Hope he does more films like this!
I am on such a Petta high and can hardly wait to watch the film again and again. And again.
PS: Did I mention that I really really loved Petta?

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

How my First Wheels Built my Character


Nobody forgets their first wheels even if it isn’t particularly sexy or ever likely to adorn fancy billboards with John Abraham straddling it. I was about four when it came into my possession. A beautiful red Raleigh bicycle which had been gifted to my Dad by my Grandfather in the 60s. The pater is a hoarder if there ever was one and had guarded it with his life. So it was a proud day, when he bequeathed it to his firstborn. 
            Learning to ride a bicycle can be a traumatic experience, especially if you are averse to falling. But I carry no scars or emotional baggage thanks to Dad’s foresight in hanging on to the training wheels as well. They made the learning process a beautiful, bruise – free one. I am happy to report that my four year old self mastered the art fairly quickly. Soon I was spending every waking moment on my lovely bicycle, fancying myself an intrepid explorer like Magellan or Vasco Da Gama. Of course in reality Mum who had this irrational fear that her daughter would get hit by a truck expressly forbade me from riding outside our ancestral home. She even had paid enforcers to execute her rules. Not that it stopped me from embarking on daring adventures.
            One involved an expedition to verify if there were ghouls suspended from the hidden branches of the large mango tree in Grandmum’s garden (I had it on good authority from our cook who may or may not have been trying to get rid of a pesky child). In hair – raising ventures of a blood – curdling nature, one finds that self – confidence is boosted if a quick getaway vehicle is available. Thanks to my trusty steed, I felt brave enough to undertake many perilous missions in search of buried treasure and fabled monsters. We never returned empty handed – our cup runneth over with discarded marbles, the odd chocolate wrapper, dead frogs and on one magnificent occasion – lizard (basilisk?) eggs in a forgotten switch board.
            The thrills were too many to be described and the dangers were real. On that terror – fraught day, I was cycling along briskly, when my unusually sharp eyes caught sight of a tiny bee – hive in the making. Convinced it was a fairy’s cottage, I abandoned my customary caution and blundered in for a closer look (damn you Enid Blyton!) only to see the winged monster, a heartbeat before it stung me on the nose. In my haste to get away from the abomination, I fell off my faithful cycle for the very first time. It was painful alright but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger right?
            Besides, my horrific accident prepared me for what happens when obnoxious adults overrule the protests of your Mother and make you lose the training wheels. What followed is too heart – rending to relate but it did teach me the importance of never allowing your fears to get the better of you. My first wheels were truly character building and all that jazz!
            My Raleigh bike had a glorious reign but succumbed to extreme old age. I now own a pink BSA Ladybird cycle with a basket plus bell and have taken the kids and puppies for many awesome rides. Then and now, I believe in eco – friendly ways to see the world. The fact that I flunked my driving exam on account of the fact that I get panicky behind a wheel and feel like I am going to crash into the sound barrier while doing 15mph has nothing at all to do with it.


This tale of thrills and chills was originally published in The Hindu Metroplus. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Feasting on the Feminine


Anita Nair is a remarkable writer and a compelling storyteller. In her latest novel, ‘Eating Wasps’ she charts the tale of Sreelakshmi, a thirty – five year old writer who takes her own life and the women who touch her restless spirit, half a century after her demise, when her trapped soul is given release to wander in search of the stories that sustained her in life. It is a juicy premise, and in Nair’s hands it becomes something extraordinary, grabbing readers by the throat, plunging them into the depths of the feminine psyche with its myriad hues that run the gamut from the sublimely beautiful and inspiring to the sordid and shocking. 

Flitting like a butterfly from one story to the other, Sreelakshmi and the reader get to know an array of memorable women. There is Urvashi who is a writer too and trapped within the confines of convention, struggling to find release for her nameless yearning, which prompts her to navigate the perils of a dating app that far from nourishing her with the fulfilment she seeks leaves her floundering in disappointment and worse. Little Megha is a precious ‘bommakutty’, doomed to discover that the monsters are real. When her tormentor after pulling her into the back of a truck “pulled down the tarpaulin flap rolled up to the roof of the truck” it is hard to choke down the scream building at the back of the throat. Najma’s tale is a harrowing one as a stalker dashes her dreams with a horrifying acid attack, leaving her with little more than her embattled spirit and the steely will not to give in to her fears.
There are others who face the conundrum Sreelakshmi herself did that of being damaged goods and the girl who ate a wasp, especially when life serves up unhappy experiences to compound an already miserable existence – “Would you spit or swallow? Would you crumple or fight?” The characters deal with the many headed hydra that is the internet which can label and shame one  as ‘Pussy – Mouth’ for a moment’s silly indiscretion, online stalking, body shaming, terrorism and the constant, grinding pressure to conform to societal norms be they ever so suffocating.
Nair has a gift for telling stories that boast of the robust prose, muscle and sinew favoured by the author in this tale as well. Her characters are delicately sketched out and pulse with life as they leap off the pages into the consciousness of those who have gotten to know them so intimately. Whether it is a hate – filled, nightmare of a blind sister who feeds on her younger sister like a parasite or even, the long suffering mother of a disabled child, who is dangerously close to following through on her intention to take his life, these are folks who leave indelible imprints.
Ultimately though is it Sreelakshmi, who burrows into the head and heart with her tragic tale of discovery that “Ghosts and writers are more alike than you think.”
This review was originally published by The New Indian Express.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

A Bonafide Feminist Classic


I’ll go right ahead and write this down: Khadija Mastur’s “The Women’s Courtyard” is one of the most satisfying novels I have ever read. It is elegant, poignant and utterly unputdownable. There is much to be said about Mastur’s simple, frills and frippery free style of storytelling and Daisy Rockwell deserves a shout out for doing justice to this manuscript which has been translated from Urdu (Aangan). 

Aliya finds herself securely sealed within the suffocating confines of her home, relatively safe from the troubles of a world in turmoil with the final stages of India’s struggle for freedom playing out and the partition looming ahead. But she is all but cut off from an outside world with its endless possibility for one who dreams of self – sufficiency, and left to keep her hopes alive amidst the broken dreams and carnage of conflicting ideologies evidenced by her extended family.
The protected environment she has grown up in proves insufficient to the task of shielding her from the trauma of losing her beloved elder sister Tehmina and dear friend, Kusum to suicide when they invest too heavily in the possibility of heady love and romance in the otherwise arid landscape of their lives only to be left utterly devastated. These episodes leave her with no faith where romance is concerned, especially since she is also an appalled witness to the marriages of her mother and aunt, to men who are more wedded to their politics. Aliya is horrified by both the anger and pettiness of her mother as well as the emotional ruin her aunt is. Yet, with a wisdom that belies her years, she is filled with compassion, has a reservoir of good sense and never ceases to care for her tormented loved ones, choosing to learn from their mistakes while teaching herself to shield herself from the pain wrought by irredeemably bad judgement.
Interestingly enough in this cloistered space, reserved for women, men who are related by blood seem to have right of access and given a surprisingly free hand to romance, stalk, molest or manipulate their cousins. There is Safdar, who loved Tehmina to death, Shakeel who has little qualms about stealing from his cousins, and Jameel who refuses to take no for an answer. Aliya is adamant when it comes to rejecting Jameel’s love for her, despite a certain physical attraction, fully aware that he has wronged another cousin Chammi, writes middling poetry, hasn’t distinguished himself in the professional sphere and is a little too much like the other men in her life given to sacrificing their women and children on the altar of their politics.
Love triangles are usually tedious affairs but the prickly one between Aliya, Chammi and Jameel is beautifully realized. The book is radically ahead of its time in giving us a heroine who adamantly sticks to her guns when it comes to resisting patriarchy even when enforcers pressure her with the prospects of love and marriage, which Aliya realizes are both likely to entrap her more surely than the chains she has been struggling against all her life. Mastur doesn’t spare the women who enable sexism either. Aliya’s mother in particular is a gut wrenching example of a gender traitor. A magnificent book that depicts the bitter battles women fight, far from the battlefield.