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.

Friday, September 07, 2018

A Frustrating Exercise in Feminism


The Buddha is one of the most beloved and revered figures in the realms of history, mythology and legend with his teachings resonating to this very day. The luminescence of the enlightened one is such that it is hardly surprising that he wound up eclipsing the rest of his contemporaries. With Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife, Vanessa R. Sasson makes a commendable effort to give voice to a character who has been given short shrift in the numerous accounts of the life and times of Gautama Buddha. 
            Attempting the resurrection of such a character is a thankless task given that historians, storytellers, and scholars have traditionally been so taken with the Buddha and his marvellous achievements, they have been shockingly lapse when it comes to providing information about his consort barring vague nuggets. These lamentable holes often prove impossible to plug. Which of course means, researchers will have to content themselves with a whole lot of speculation and work their way through oceans of material on the Buddha in the remote hope of catching a glimpse of Yasodhara, and somehow find a way to use artistic license coupled with a febrile imagination to flesh out such an ephemeral presence and somehow capture her essence while bringing to life the times she lived in and the momentous events which illuminated that period.
            Sasson makes a game attempt but the result is far from satisfactory. The author is keen to illuminate her narrative with feminist approved principles and she is well within her rights to do so, but the effect feels downright jarring in parts and entirely anachronistic in others. Barring the well – known names, the yarn may well be about an implausible modern – day dysfunctional couple with an overdose of melodrama. Within the fictional framework, one can forgive the occasional strain on credibility provided it is convincing but it is hard to buy that a Princess of the Sakya clan would pound unrestrainedly on the charioteer’s chest in a hysterical fit of grief or argue heatedly with the royal priest and her king in the presence of the gathered assembly on a formal occasion.
            Even worse is an overwrought scene where Yasodhara is assaulted (while she is arranging flowers in a guest room!) by Devadatta who is portrayed as a villain in many Buddhist texts and fights back, using her mother – in – law’s help to throw him out of the window. Even if one were inclined to suspend disbelief at the depiction of a man casually sauntering into the seraglio, the hallowed space traditionally reserved exclusively for the ladies and misbehaving with his prince’s consort, this contrived bit of rah – rah feminism leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
            Clearly a lot of painstaking research has gone into the making of this novel going by the copious notes and detailed bibliography supplied, which makes Sasson’s decision to leave out Yasodhara’s own journey towards enlightenment as well as the miracles she was supposed to have performed, all the more flummoxing. Yasodhara is often exalted as an arhat, belonging to the highest order of saints, credited with spiritual powers that may have been comparable with Buddha’s since she was the one who was aware of their many past lives where she was always his constant companion and faithful consort even when they were born as animals. It is a pity this aspect hasn’t been explored.
            The pieces of the story are too carefully assembled to be organic and clumsily greased together with stilted dialogue that desperately seeks to inspire and elucidate but in the end is merely stultifying in the extreme.


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

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

WHEN CIVIC SENSE WENT DOWN THE CRAPPER

Missing in action :( 

I have a confession to make. While it is true that I can be mawkish when it comes to national identity, feel a personal sense of pride when Hima Das rocks on the track or Manoj Night Shyamlan makes a film that isn’t ripped to shreds by critics and even get teary eyed during the odd Independence day celebration, the fact remains that I am my country’s harshest critic. The sheer rudeness and uncouth conduct of brothers and sisters from other mothers and fathers can always be counted on to ruin my day. 
            All of us can admit to having been at the receiving end of shockingly uncouth behaviour from our countrymen. Nowadays, nobody believes it is nice to be nice. Forget offering a seat to the elderly in a crowded bus, old folks and pregnant women can count themselves lucky if they are not jostled, pushed or kicked out. All of us are litterers who have forgotten moral science lessons stressing that cleanliness is next to godliness but don’t hesitate to assault waiters who routinely serve us food mixed with the contents of their nostrils and dirt beneath their fingernails. The great majority of the public is guilty of being a public nuisance. Garbled ‘news’ reports widely disseminated across social media randomly point fingers accusing innocent folks of child trafficking or beef consumption resulting in them getting lynched.
In another shocking incident, a man died during a Kerala mall inauguration by popular star, Dulquer Salman and the police, denying reports that he was killed in a stampede have registered a case against the organizers for bad planning and crowd control. Somehow, one cannot help but think that this sort of thing is allowed to happen only in India. It is a matter of national shame that the average Indian is guilty of god-awful behaviour, has zero civic sense and cares less than nothing for the lives of those who don’t have anything to do with him or her. We are the sort of people who hawk, spit, relieve ourselves in public, swear at and mow down folks on the road, treat any place outside our home as a trash receptacle, dry hump the mildly protesting if resigned person ahead of us in the queue and allow our kids to run wild in restaurants and public transportation while cussing out the government for allowing this deplorable state of affairs to continue. Pointing out that the PM failed to make Swach Bharat a reality with the aid of droll memes is hilarious but hardly helpful.
Of course, our government needs to get its pants on and get cracking on a dozen different things to make this country a better place, but the responsibility rests with us, the honourable citizens as well. We need to not only start showing a modicum of civic sense ourselves but ingrain this priceless commodity in our children too. What is the point of waxing eloquent about the neatness of the Japanese or the lovely folks in the USA who not only refrain from pooping in public but pick up their dog’s poo as well, if we are not going to bother to emulate the same decent behaviour? It is high time we cleaned up our act and begin cleaning up after ourselves. Perhaps then we really will have a shot at making India incredible.


Saturday, August 11, 2018

On why Bad News is not Good for you


If you don't read the newspaper, you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper, you are misinformed. ~Thomas Jefferson
Nowadays reading the news disseminated via newspapers or smartphones is an excruciating experience. Going by the dire headlines, op – eds, hashtags and whatsapp forwards, we can expect nothing short of chaos, pandemics, wars, industrial collapse, global warming and assorted crisis situations of apocalyptic proportions within the next few days, if not sooner. Therefore, those of us who read about the supposedly tragic happenings of a foredoomed world, are convinced we will all end up being raped, robbed, murdered or worse.  
Even if such perils were to be successfully sidestepped there is still a veritable field of landmines to be traversed with nary a hope of safety. Odds are still high that one can fall victim to a nuclear holocaust given that all the governments in the world are busy stockpiling weapons of mass destruction or become a flesh – eating zombie from the biological weapons that are being perfected. Let us not forget that environmentalists insist that the planet is past its sell by date and we are all on borrowed time. Then there are the human traffickers, Pablo Escobar wannabe drug dealers and illegal organ harvesters lurking in the shadows. If Hollywood is to be believed, (apparently the glam merchants have hired everybody who can write worth a damn since newspapers and journalists have become obsolete replaced by kids wielding smartphones and bloggers/ vloggers) all the monsters from our nightmares are alive, well and baying for  blood. 
           
Not surprisingly, fed on a steady diet of negative news, a pall of gloom and doom has descended upon all those who feel the need to be well informed as opposed to the smarter portion of the populace who are too busy playing Candy Crush, indulging the narcissist within by pouting and clicking endless selfies, watching cricket or stalking their favourite celebrity on Instagram without giving a crap about how the rest of the world is faring. Consequently, irrespective of whether the world is a truly terrible place or not, we firmly believe it to be so and are fully convinced it is getting worse by the second. In this cognitive state, reality itself is likely to become shaded by our jaded view of it.
How did this happen? When did we become such negative Nellies? Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that though we would never admit it, unique as we mistakenly believe ourselves to be, our opinions are shaped by the opinions of others, most notably by those we follow relentlessly across social media platforms. Which is why it is not surprising, that the overwhelmingly pessimistic news content has spread like a contagion and distorted our perception of an admittedly flawed but beautiful world. The rose tinted glasses we favoured back when we were clear – eyed kids has been replaced with cynical shades and a morose outlook. 
By magnifying the nature of the threats confronting us, we have misled our head and heart into thinking we are under siege and act accordingly. Having preparing the soil to nurture nothing but despair and turmoil, we have weeded out hope and faith. Perhaps this is the great catastrophe of earth shattering dimensions.
This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Mughal Roses minus the Thorns


Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun is so engrossing, one is filled with resentment, every time the demands of real life intrude and yank the reader back from a glorious past that has been recreated with exquisite craft. Much has been written about the mighty Mughals but their women have been ignored to the point of criminal negligence. Mukhoty seeks to redress this by writing about revered matriarchs and sisters, cherished unwed daughters, talented wives and wily milk mothers. Characters like the remarkable Khanzada Begum who was the rock that had the backs of both Babur and Humayun, Gulbadan Begum, who honoured Akbar’s personal request to write about her royal father and brother, Maham Anaga, Akbar’s milk mother, the often unfairly maligned Noor Jahan, and Jahanara, Shah Jahan’s daughter and the woman Aurangzeb respected the most, grace these pages and their lives are constructed with painstaking attention to detail.

Mukhoty’s mission is to strip away faulty perceptions about life in a Mughal harem perpetuated through the critical gaze of Westerners and she is mostly successful. The general assumption is that women languished within a cloistered space in the zenana, frittering the years away in misery softened only by opulence. Many mistakenly believe that these ladies when not engaged in sexual excess or popping out babies, spent the time scheming to make their sad existence count. Anxious to set the record straight, Mukhoty paints a version of these forgotten women that portrays them as highly educated, cultured, confident go – getters whose talents were nurtured and prized. These were no wilting lilies left to languish in languor but hardy women who rode with their men into battle, covered great distances across dangerous terrain, delivered babies while in exile, proved themselves to be expert entrepreneurs and administrators, patrons of art, and builders amongst other things. Proud of their Timurid heritage, the Mughal women were visionaries who bolstered the resolve of their menfolk and helped shape an empire that was worthy of their illustrious bloodline.
However, in her zeal to set right a skewed perspective, Mukhoty overdoes it a tad. Choosing to dwell solely on the achievements and positive attributes of the royal ladies, she glosses over intrigues, petty jealousies and downright villainy that was certainly displayed. A particularly revolting incident involves Maham Anaga ordering the deaths of two girls coveted and captured by her son, for fear of their revealing his dangerous machinations against Akbar because ‘a severed head makes no sound’. The author seems content to give this character a pass merely rueing the fact that she was ruined by the actions of the men in her life. Noor Jahan gets similar treatment in order to show her in a sympathetic light. Surely women need not have their warts and blemishes concealed in order to earn our admiration?
This flaw notwithstanding, Mukhoty in choosing to champion the best of the Mughals, who did not deserve the shabby treatment meted out to them by history, has achieved something amazing and deserves to be championed too!
 This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Monday, June 18, 2018

Kaala and its Caste Politics


A Rajinikanth film is a pan – Indian phenomenon. His latest cinematic offering is Kaala helmed by Pa. Ranjith, whose passionate ideology has taken the director in him captive. Not surprisingly, everybody has an opinion on the film provoking vehement debate but this time around it is not about whether the female lead looks young enough to be his daughter or grand-daughter but dicey subjects like dirty politics, institutionalized murder, communist ideals and most importantly, the evil that is casteism.
            Ranjith deserves credit for having the cojones to use the Superstar’s commanding screen presence and magnetic persona as a mouthpiece for his brand of propaganda that includes agitation and education to hopefully eliminate the issues plaguing the oppressed. Of course, the irony is that his hero dutifully mouthed the foolishly idealistic lines endorsing impractical revolution to great effect in reel life while earning public outrage for siding with the establishment during the Sterlite crisis and warning that Tamil Nadu will become a graveyard if its people choose to protest about everything in real life. Between Rajinikanth’s shenanigans on and off screen, the good news is that people are finally talking about things they are normally content to ignore such as untouchability and caste politics. But on the flipside is the devastating realization that this film throws light on a bigger evil while being part of the problem. 

            The caste system is an ancient evil that still has a stranglehold on this land and is as far from being eradicated as it ever was. This is an irrefutable fact and it is a matter of abject shame that we haven’t stopped this monstrosity from defining India. What is the point of our constitution banning discrimination on the basis of caste if we are doing precious little to implement it? For the ostensible reason of righting a historical wrong, the quota system has been introduced in educational and government institutions, thereby ensuring that caste continues to prevail and we fail our best and brightest by denying them a level playing field.
            It doesn’t help that the politicians continue to fan the flames of caste – based rancour which is a very routine part of their vote – grabbing devilry and we allow ourselves to be gulled. News hounds with their incessant bid to whip up outrage and generate chaos do their utmost to convince us that in India we simply cannot get by without lynching Dalits or bashing Brahmins. Now the filmmakers have joined the circus albeit with good intentions worn as a badge of honour thereby furthering this poisonous discourse.
            It is high time we tore up the caste system by its rotting roots. This hideous practice has to be obliterated and surgically removed like the cancer it is from our collective consciousness, quota system be damned. We can begin by ignoring stars with political aspirations, demagogues wielding directorial batons, news stories that promote hatred and unscrupulous politicos who seek to divide and destroy for electoral gains. Then we need to keep on fighting till we have completely forgotten what this caste crap is all about. It is that simple, if only we try.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Paradise and its Protectors Screwed


Sudeep Chakravarti’s ‘The Baptism of Toni Calangute’ manages an affecting trifecta in that it is somehow harrowing, humorous and ultimately hopeful. It tells the tale, of two cousins – Toni and Dino who have taken it upon themselves to serve as the protectors of their beloved Aparanta, known to the uninitiated as Goa. For long, this slice of paradise, with its treasure trove of natural resources has proved to be an irresistible lure for rapacious conquerors and all folks greedy, corrupt, ruthless and unscrupulous with an eye for making a quick fortune both from within and without. Toni and Dino are incensed because Aparanta is being poisoned by her own waste and excess, in thrall of those who would seek to “plough the cunt of Goa, while she lies back like a whore fuelled by ecstasy. Lies back and enjoys it even.

Even in their little seaside village, Socorro Do Mundo, where time seems to be snoozing along with the inhabitants, the overwhelming evidence of the insidious rot is impossible to overlook for the duo. Both are sickened by the unbridled covetousness that has seen the delicate ecosystem destroyed with the overabundance of hotels, resorts, clubs, gambling, dens, men / women of pleasure and drugs. Dino for one, refuses to succumb to the hard - bitten cynicism of those realists bogged down by a sense of the inevitable. Toni is wary and weary, longing only for peace in the public and personal spheres, unwilling to take on the demands of a crumbling world.
Chakravarti paints the two protagonists and all in their lives with sympathetic but unflinching strokes. There is fiery Ida, Dino’s mother and a crusader in her own right, Anastasia, Toni’s wife who uses her suffering like a scourge, and even Melba, the bane of Toni’s existence with her goats and prodigious appetite for lucre and lust. Truly despicable characters tickle the funny bone with their ridiculous dialogues, skewed reasoning and debauched antics as evidenced by the brokering of a nefarious scheme over Tandoori chicken and merry – go – round coitus. It is all very amusing until the devastation unfurls with the destructive potential of a hurricane. Key players responsible for triggering the maelstrom include Winston Almeida with his overblown ambition and overbearing brothers, slimy PI Fernandes, his seducer, the malevolent Princess and a Russian, drug – lord, Sergei Yurlov who is likely to haunt this reviewer’s nightmares for a fair bit. 
There is something childlike not to mention unreal about Dino Dantas and his sincerity in fighting for a righteous if lost cause, uncaring of personal safety or the welfare of his immediate family because he is too keenly invested in the wellbeing of his people who don’t actually care for crusades while there is rice, fish curry, cashew feni, and trance to take away the edge. With his profound saga of love for one’s land, loss and longing, Chakravarti makes one ponder about why it takes nothing short of unspeakable tragedy to galvanize us into doing the right thing.
This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.