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.

Tuesday, November 06, 2018

Hogging in Hyderabad


Most folks are aware that Hyderabad is awesome for a number of reasons. But let us leave aside for a moment the Charminar, Golkonda fort, Taj Faluknama palace, Ramoji film city and the Telugu film industry hotties like Prabhas, Allu Arjun and Vijay Deverakonda, though they must by no means be forgotten and certainly checked out. After all, it is the incredible array of culinary choices which is absolutely to die for that makes Hyderabad the ideal place for all who love to hog without worrying about silly things like burgeoning waistlines and way too much junk in the trunk. After all you live only once and what is life without a decent meal right? 
The foodies with Varsoo! 
Traditionally, Hyderabad is famed for the opulent culinary offerings of the Nizams, particularly the mildly spiced yet intensely flavoursome biriyani and with good reason. This is a biriyani lover’s paradise. The savoury meat and rice dish guarantees a foodgasm and is so good all who have tried it will most certainly choose it for a last meal. I kid you not! The discerning foodie and biriyani aficionados will do well not to google the best biriyani places in Hyderabad and head there directly though these establishments are usually deserving of their reputation. It is far more fun to wander around, taking in the sights and sounds of the city and allowing it to guide you to charming, lesser known joints that lure you in with their quaint décor and tantalizing aromas. And trust me, in Hyderabad, they all seem to know how to make heavenly biriyani.
I recommend Ulavucharu, Jubilee Hills for those who can boast of a cast iron stomach and like their food hot and spicy. The hospitality of the serving staff makes you feel like you are being feasted by a particularly benevolent monarch and the flavours are unbeatable. Be sure to try the scrumptious vepudula (starters) particularly the bamboo kodi (chicken) and chilli prawns. If you are with friends, guard your portion because those seated next to you may not be able to resist the temptation to steal some succulent morsels off your plate. They have a smorgasbord of biriyani and pulao options to choose from whether you favour the milder Hyderabadi version or the spicy Andhra style. Irrespective of your choice be prepared to enter foodie heaven. The Gongura kodi vepudu and grilled tandoori fish are smart choices as well. 
For those who can’t stand the heat, it may be a good idea to order their yummy lassi to wash it down with. The dessert options are pretty decent too, and I am partial to junnu, a delicate and delectable milk pudding made with colostrum, produced by lactating cows just after birthing their calves. If you haven’t tried it before, prepare yourself for a treat!
You may be tempted to bury yourself in biriyani, but if you need a breather there is a quaint bakery named Labonel at Banjara hills, that serves the most decadent chocolate cake in the world. And trust me that is hardly an exaggeration and more of an understatement. It is one of those charming places that makes you feel like you have stepped out of the real world and into an Enid Blyton eatery where you can expect to be served google buns, pop biscuits and shock toffee. And you will not be disappointed because the yumminess quotient of the goodies served at this place is through the roof.
It is hard to choose from an array of classics like red velvet cake, chocolate Victoria sponge, midnight fudge and chocolate walnut since they all taste amazing but do close your eyes and blindly opt for Labonel’s signature chocolate cake, a marvel in dark chocolate, semi – sweet ganache and chocolate flakes.  It is the definitive cake that put the chocolate in death by chocolate. Incidentally they have death by chocolate too! How incredible is this place? Some nights I dream of this cake, and wake up with hunger pangs so great, I am tempted to move to Hyderabad and spend my days at Labonel. Sighs! Oh and did I mention that the little cupcakes melt in your mouth, the brownies are something special and while you wait, you can sample bite – sized treats? I insist you try this place, dear reader. Thank me later! 
Labonel's sinful signature chocolate cake! 
            Doing the clichéd thing in Hyderabad is a lot of fun. Therefore, it makes sense to hit the streets if only to try tasty treats like keema (minced meat) samosas, lukhmi (deep fried maida squares with a meat filling), chaat and idlis with paaya (spicy goat trotters gravy). For those with a sweet tooth, regional delicacies include ariselu made with rice flour and jaggery (they are particularly good in temples during festivals!), payasams, sheer kurma and shahi tukdas.
            If like me, you are the sort of person who develops a hankering for continental food, even while on Indian shores, never fear, you are likely to be spoilt for choice. Do yourself a favour though and steer clear of those ubiquitous fast food chains and head towards, La Vantage Café in Jubilee hills. They have tasty short eats like quesadillas, buffalo chicken wings, bruschetta, garlic loaves, and nachos. The steaks, burgers, sandwiches, pizzas, and pastas are yummy too. The chilled out ambience of the place is its USP. It is a great place to relax and unwind with friends.
            For travellers who would like to dress up and check out fine dining options, needless to say there are a number of choices. I daresay, all the five star establishments in Hyderabad can cook up a storm but the Thai pavilion at Vivanta by Taj, Begumpet, the Dining and Living room at the Park Hyatt are personal favourites.
            Each time, I head out to Hyderabad, I make a mental note to try the famous haleem but am yet to do so. But this is just another reason to visit the city asap. And I can hear the siren call of Labonel! I can hardly wait to visit Hyderabad again!

Really enjoyed writing this piece for AirAsia's Travel360. 


Sunday, October 21, 2018

Horror for the Head and Heart


A searing look into the bare bones of a dysfunctional marriage, played out against the backdrop of encroaching madness, Kiran Manral’s “Missing Presumed Dead” makes for a troubling read. The author is too smart a storyteller to provide convenient or contrived answers to the questions that pile up with dizzying momentum. Yet the reader is not left hanging or frustrated. It is a satisfying yarn that is meaty, evocative and likely to keep you mulling over it, long after the last page has been reluctantly turned. Manral knows how to give her readers what they want while leaving them asking for more. 

Aisha Thakur finds herself in the unenviable position of being fully aware that her marriage is dead but decides to stick to the corpse no thanks to the recalcitrant remnants of a once powerful passion that refuses to kick the bucket. And of course, there are tedious things like duty and parental obligations to her son and daughter to be considered. If that were not bad enough, Aisha lives in constant terror knowing that the lurking chemicals in her cranium may unloose the same demons that claimed her mother’s life which if left unchecked will take her and everything she loves and once loved as well. Then a stranger shows up at her remote mountain abode in the middle of a vile storm, claiming to be her half – sister, and suddenly Aisha life stands poised to take the plunge into the doom that was inevitably going to be her lot.
The protagonist’s long drawn out defeat to the monsters both within and without plays out painfully and with profound pathos, leaving the reader sick to death with anxiety and fighting back tears at various junctures during the course of her downward spiral. Aisha’s innate insecurity and vulnerability are exacerbated by both her condition as well as circumstances. Prithvi, her better half originally comes across as a bit of a cad with rage issues and designs on her ancestral property but by choosing to tell his side of the story as well, Manral casts him in a more sympathetic light. The harsh truth is that even the best of us are ill – equipped to deal with disability and for flawed souls just trying to get by, it can turn out to be the wrecking ball that leaves nothing but devastation in its wake.
In the end, Aisha as well as Prithvi are sitting ducks for predators who seek to prey on the weaknesses of others, having zeroed in on the scent of blood. Having made her way into town on an errand, Aisha is trapped in more ways than one and is left to the mercy of a charming stranger who offers her hospitality and a way out for better or worse. It is hardly surprising that she takes him up on the offer, given that she holds her wellbeing so cheap. Therein lies the true horror in this moving saga that will leave your head and heart reeling.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Saturday, October 06, 2018

AN INEXPERT REACTION TO MOMENTOUS MATTERS


Forget Vicky Kaushal, everybody seems to be crushing on the Supreme Court nowadays thanks to landmark judgements which will no doubt have a major impact on the great Indian future. Some of us who don’t believe in invoking love laws made famous by Arundhati Roy which dictate who should be loved, how and how much had barely recovered from the happiness engendered by the verdict decriminalising homosexuality when the Men in Black Robes put the pedal to the metal and authenticated aadhar with a few caveats, ruled that adultery is not a crime and women of all ages irrespective of their menstruating age must not be denied entry into Sabarimala. People considered smarter than me on account of being actual experts have written at length on the significance of these monumental matters, but that is hardly reason enough to keep my opinions to myself is it? 

While it is nice of the Supreme Court to uphold the noble principles of democracy that our freedom fighter ancestors fought and died for, the battle is far from over. After all, as citizens we have seldom felt obliged to honour either the letter or the spirit of the law and every one of us is guilty of a range of minor and major offenses ranging from bribery, traffic violations, littering, discriminating on the basis of caste, colour, gender or if you are a Bollywood star, stashing weapons for terrorists, killing endangered species, running over pavement dwellers and getting away with it not entirely  scot-free since concerned officials have to be paid off first.   

Therefore, it is one thing to declare that it is okay to be LGBTQ by the highest judicial authority in the land but entirely another for a dude to be able to openly date another dude or a transgendered person to run either for public office or represent India at the Olympics. Even the celebs don’t seem to be in a tearing hurry to come out of the closet as yet. And you can hardly blame them, after all this is the land where anti – Romeo squads run rampant and straight couples who marry outside of their caste are hounded or murdered in broad daylight even as the guardians of the law turn a blind eye to the plight of victims.

It cannot be denied that steps have been taken in the right direction with regard to women’s rights. But of course, there is a but... It is all well and good for the wise men to declare that “husband is not the master of the wife” or “To treat women as children of a lesser god is to blink at the constitution itself” but make no mistake words are wind without proper action to back them up. Dowry harassment, rape, trafficking of little girls, workplace abuse, stalking are very real evils plaguing women that aren’t just going to disappear in a puff of smoke, just because women can now visit a famous temple in Kerala.

We need to work harder than ever before if the daughters as well as sons of India, irrespective of their sexual orientation and feelings towards Aadhar are to feel safe and cherished. Otherwise, even the Supreme Court is just a toothless tiger.  


This article was originally carried by The New Indian Express.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Messy History of Desire


Infinite Variety: A History of Desire in India by Madhavi Menon is just what it says it is and so much more. Frog – leaping between a history of impurity, dargahs, the zero, suicides, law, make – up, psychoanalysis, sambandham, paan and sexology, with verve and gleeful abandon Menon takes the reader on a rip-roaring ride across the variegated landscape of love, lust and longing in this land where paradoxically sexual progressiveness and repression have thrived side by side, with neither yielding an inch to the other. When it comes to all things Indian, a strictly scholarly approach seldom works which is why Menon’s writing which is a combination of academia and practicality stemming from her keen awareness of ground reality is refreshing.
As Menon rightly points out much of India’s obsession with high – flown notions of purity and morality believed to have its roots in ancient wisdom and a glorious heritage is in reality the result of a cultural imposition of colonial puritanism and Victorian prudery. She also emphasizes that sexual practices considered taboo in many parts of the world including but not limited to homosexuality, adultery, cross - dressing and transsexual relationships have long been treated with a degree of acceptance in these parts that puts present day moral policing and the draconian section 377 to shame.
Bolstering her case with anecdotal evidence and factoids culled from popular folklore, mythology, classical texts, songs and even, Bollywood, Menon succeeds in capturing the essence of the messy history of desire that has long defied attempts to classify it into neat little categories with labels. In her own words, “Today, the public assertion of identity by sexual minorities is considered a victory, but it also signals the defeat of a history of desire that was resistant to, and flourished by not, being named. Not because it did not dare be named for fear of god or the law, but because it participated in too many pleasures to be able to count them all.”
In choosing to look for desire in unlikely places such as in the love lives of queer grandparents, boarding schools, poetry of Sufi mystics, forgotten tombs, Sabarimala, hair salons and even calendar art, Menon manages to broaden the horizons of our own understanding of it. Dashes of humour spice the narrative with its salubrious take on all things sexual and makes for delightful reading. The puerile obsession with bhabhis, canoodling in parks and porn evidenced by Indians is hilarious especially when juxtaposed against Yoga and grammar. In a similar vein, Menon highlights the opposing faces of sexuality by hearkening back to Vatsayana’s Kamasutra and the notorious Manusmriti. Like her one can’t help but wonder how things would have turned out for all of us, if our British conquerors had based the legal system on the former manuscript rather than the latter.
Regrets aside, Menon’s tome is ultimately hopeful because it asserts authoritatively that when it comes to desire, which is ever fluid and constantly evolving, “rigid distinctions cannot hold.”

This book review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Harem Pants maketh the Liberated Woman


When it comes to what women wear, everybody has an opinion. There is always somebody seeking to enforce some weird dress code, making it an issue in social as well as professional spheres. Recently, there was an almighty hullabaloo over Serena Williams’ sensational cat suit which was banned at the French Open (not that her sponsors would ever allow her to repeat an outfit for a fresh season! Quelle horreur!) and a whole lot of chatter over her tulle tutu at the US Open. Elsewhere in the world people debate the right to wear burkas and burkinis. Closer home, one can recall instances where celebs were pulled up for their fashion choices that failed to respect our glorious Indian traditions and culture. Priyanka Chopra was excoriated for wearing an ‘insensitive shirt’ that offended refugees, Jhanvi Kapoor and Sahana Khan are kept in the news for wearing bikinis at pool parties and the twittererati work themselves into a tizzy defending or denigrating their sartorial choices. 

Of course, for those of us who don’t have to deal with the hardships of being one among the glitterati, there is still a permanent dress code to contend with or the perennial pressure to look as good as Anushka Sharma does. Schools are forever enforcing rules, insisting that their female students wear longer skirts or restrictive salwar kameez sets with attached dupattas. There was even an institution in Pune that tried to regulate the colour of underwear worn by students! In social settings women are slut shamed for being too hot, showing too much skin or wearing outfits that embrace their curves a little too lovingly though one can never be certain about how much is too much. And there is worse to come.
If you are someone like me who firmly believes that life would be far more fun if we were allowed to sail through it wearing nothing but plus – sized tees, shorts, tracks and harem pants then there is the definite risk of being prude/behenji shamed for not being hot enough in addition to dealing with not entirely unfounded accusations of being fugly, frumpy or a fuddy duddy. It is a cruel world out there for those of us who choose to liberate our inner dowdy diva by stepping out wearing flip flops having opted for comfort over couture.
Forget patriarchy, it is about time women addressed their enslavement by the fashion police and custodians of overpriced couture who bully us into squeezing ourselves into stilettos and flesh coloured thongs (wedgie alert!), insisting that it is the empowered thing to do. As is ridding ourselves of unsightly bodily hair, frizzy tresses, natural curls, meat on the bones, and the occasional blemish using pricey products foisted on us by the cosmetic industry. That way, we spent more time and money than we can afford prettying up to meet the impossible standards of conventional beauty when we could be doing something far more constructive, instructive, edifying or enjoyable such as working on our ahem, inner beauty or lazing on a couch, and stuffing our faces with nutella cheesecake.
Ladies, it is time to wake up to your rights! And that goes double for you Serena Williams, I recommend shorts. It is the champion’s choice!

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.