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.

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.

Monday, April 30, 2018

A Divided Nation and its Devastating Consequences


It is no secret that the Divide and Rule policy was favoured by every invader and imperialist to have held sway over the Indian subcontinent. But they did not have to create rivalries or even exert themselves to exacerbate the teeming tensions between factious groups at each other’s throats on account of a host of petty reasons, because the differences were always there. Since its birth, India has been bitterly divided and progressively weakened without ever feeling like a single country. Not surprisingly, nothing changed after independence. It was hoped that with the dawn of a new age, Indians would set aside their traditional differences and live together peaceably. But that was not to be, then or now.
 The landowning classes and ambitious capitalists simply picked up the reins handed over by the British and went right back to exploiting the masses to safeguard the bastions of privilege. We were back to square one and seem to have made absolutely no progress to this day. If recent events are any indication, things have taken a considerable turn for the worse. Ordinarily, a tragedy of epic proportions or the threat of powerful outsiders may be counted on to unite Indians for mutual protection. But this is the age of social media where everyone has been provided with a loudspeaker to vent venom and spew hatred in a torrential outpouring that has resulted in battle lines being drawn, endless skirmishes turning nasty and absolutely no quarter given. Even cataclysmic events and unmitigated disasters are more likely to see us rend and tear at opponents real and imaginary as opposed to bringing us closer together.
This harsh reality was apparent in the ugly aftermath of the tragic demise of an angelic eight – year old, Asifa Bano. Even the most cynical and world weary of us, wept when the details of her passing came to light. Surely we would all join hands and make sure that her death wasn’t in vain by bringing her killers to task and implementing procedures to ensure that nobody else would share her fate in this land? But it wasn’t to be. If the rage and hate fuelled frenzy that has gripped this accursed nation is anything to go by, we are all dirty politicians at heart who will use a child’s murder to further our own mostly pointless ends. Every side, and there are many, seems to be populated with extremists who have become canny operators, skilled in the use of rhetoric to bolster their arguments.
Whatever happened to civility and the need to find a common ground? In these troubled times it would behove us to remember that even if we are passionately devoted to the side we have cast our lot with and are inclined to view everyone who doesn’t agree with every miserable point we swear by, as the enemy, there is always potential for fruitful collaboration provided we are willing to reach out across the void as opposed to being hell-bent on shoving dissenters into it. Simply making the effort could be the difference between slowly rebuilding a fractured country or a doomed one.


This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Writer's Rights in India

To commemorate World Book and Copyright Day, I was queried by Divya Kala Bhavani of The Hindu on contemporary copyright issues. Have reproduced our Q and A session below.



1. When you first started authoring/writing, did you have a good understanding of the contemporary copyright issues
This is not going to enhance my non - existent reputation for being a smart cookie, but the truth is as a writer and aspiring author I was so keen nay desperate to get published to ensure that all the effort, sweat, and blood expended didn't get flushed down the toilet, I tended not to look at the big picture. Which of course means that all the legalese went straight over my head. I chose to get lost in the euphoria of realizing the great dream of being a published author and merely skimmed over the particulars of the contract with the publisher, deeming it sufficient that the copyright of the work will remain with the proprietor (me!) and the publishers undertake that the name of said proprietor (aka doofus) shall appear on the title page and on the cover of every copy of the work published. Rather belatedly, I became aware that there are plenty of complicated legal issues to be taken into account when it comes to protecting your own work and making a semi - decent income that is less likely to make you want to kill yourself, while avoiding getting sued to within an inch of your life. 
2. What are some of your observances when it comes to copyright issues for writers in India? The challenges, the successes and turning points?
The objective of the copyright, universally, is to protect the rights of the creator and acknowledge their labor and intellectual contribution. In reality, however, unless you are an A - list author, and thanks to the fact that you have signed a contract giving the publisher the exclusive right to produce, print, publish, translate, market, distribute, and reproduce or license others to do the same, you realize to your horror, that you have in essence pimped out your baby. And for peanuts at that!
The good news is that publishing houses will vet the material for legally objectionable material and the author can derive a measure of solace from the fact that if there are any legal battles to be fought, on paper at least, team work can be counted upon. Moreover, publishers have decent distribution networks and the hope is you get to piggyback off the success of their big shot authors. They will even take a half - hearted stab at marketing your book if you harangue them enough with a daily email blast or go on a hunger strike outside their office. Self - published authors on the other hand have to take on the onus by themselves. The takeaway from all this heartrending drama is that painful experience has forced creative types consumed by the magic of words and caffeine to smarten up, if they don't fancy becoming the stereotype of the struggling, suicidal artiste and take care of themselves as well as their works, because nobody else is going to do it for them. 
3. What has being an author taught you about authors' rights?
Being an author, has taught me that my teachers were right. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, even if in the adult world, the price which you pay is a costly one that comes dangerously close to killing your spirit . The important thing though is to never give up, always stand up for your rights and believe in yourself, even if nobody else does. 
Creative people have a gift and it is tragic that despite being the backbone of glamorous, high paying institutions like film and television, writers don't get their due. Yet, the world needs dreamers, wordsmiths and those who can use the power of words to make the world a better place. Nobody can take this away from us, and if we persevere even as we perfect our craft, there is no limit to what can be achieved by those of us who have sworn allegiance to the mighty pen or MS Word. 

Be sure to check out her awesome article which includes quotes by yours truly right here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Question of Marriage and Sexual Misconduct


In a bizarre turn of events, the Gujarat High Court ruled that marital rape is not a criminal offense under Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code. Apparently, a man is well within his rights to engage in this sort of criminal behaviour within the sanctified and societally approved confines of marriage. However, no doubt feeling the persistent pricking of a pernickety conscience, the High Court stressed that marital rape ought to be criminalized and suggested the victim initiate proceedings against her husband under Section 377 which frowns on sexual practises that are deemed unnatural including but not limited to demands for oral sex and consensual homosexuality.
            Rational citizens of this great nation may feel an uncontrollable urge to bang their heads against whatever hard object presents itself at this point, but unfortunately there is more draconian claptrap of the legal variety. Exception 2 of Section 375 states that a man may have sexual intercourse with his minor wife, provided she is not under 15 years of age and not be adjudged a cradle snatching rapist. Never mind that the IPC also states that a man is guilty of statutory rape if he engages in sexual acts with a girl, consent notwithstanding, if she is under the age of 18. Which of course means that the law in all its wisdom, extends its protection to minors only as long as they have not been hustled to the altar or chained with a mangalsutra. Now, the aforementioned citizens may feel free to tear out their hair and give up on democracy.
            The problem of course is the conundrum that is consent, complicated further by traditional beliefs, routinely enforced by society and pop culture, that it is a woman’s duty to sacrifice her own needs or calibrate it to suit her ‘better’ half’s will and his sexual desires. It is expected and deemed expedient that an ill used woman better suck it up, since there are usually kids, extended families and finances at stake.
 Much has changed in the last 50 years pertaining to what may socially and legally be considered as appropriate, acceptable sexual behaviour  but if the MeToo movement and the Aziz Ansari imbroglio are anything to go by, we are a long way from anything close to a consensus or a reasonable resolution to the gender wars. The only bright spot is that we are at least talking about things that were formerly taboo and brushed under the carpet where all ‘icky’ things supposedly belong. However, sexual misbehaviour and assault within marriage are still not part of public discourse.
            Nobody wants to bother with the boudoir brouhahas of friends and family though the reverse is true in the case of Bollywood stars and cricketers. As always, we’d rather be titillated or tickled pink but heaven forbid we take the trouble to get to the root of the terrors lurking within wedded bliss. Tackling unsavoury issues like safe sex, teenage pregnancy, and marital rape is not a pleasant proposition but it needs to be done to preserve Indian society and the values we all claim to give a crap about. 

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

An Ugly Crime and its Uglier Aftermath


For the most part, we are a hedonistic, ridiculously materialistic lot who like our fancy cars, swanky apartments, Burberry bags (or is it a Fendi baguette?), Jimmy Choo shoes, overly embellished Sabyasachi saris, Victoria’s Secret underwear and getting massaged to within an inch of our lives at sumptuous spas (if that is the sacrifice one makes to be selfie – worthy then so be it) to bother about the less fortunate and their petty problems which let’s face it, is usually a buzz kill. Or we deride those with beaucoup bucks to burn and pity the shallow, empty lives they lead bloated to bursting with the fat of the land while secretly envying them, hoping and praying for the affliction that is affluence to give a hoot for those who are nowhere as fortunate or privileged and are getting themselves raped, killed, cheated, starved, misfortune – ridden or just dying in droves. How very thoughtless and annoying of the poverty – stricken, downtrodden, unfortunates!
Yet, even in the midst of the endless ennui and selfish self – indulgence there comes along with a little more frequency than we would like, the occasional case that is so heinous that even a slumbering conscience cannot find it in itself to hit snooze and return to its preferred somnambulant state. So we rise up in arms and agitate against the fat cats in power, those debauched douchebags, ever dithering over their dirty politics, who refuse to do the needful and serve up justice even when children are slaughtered, women are violated and the blood of the innocent flows in copious streams. But when the frenzy of outrage burns itself out over the course of a torrential outpouring of passionate feelings via strongly worded tweets, facebook posts and candlelit vigils, as it inevitably must, we return to the cosy cocoon of creature comforts, change and making the world a better place be damned!
Image courtesy of The Polis Project 

This moral torpor is the defining characteristic of the modern Indian and it is truly a shameful state of affairs. But even by our standards, we have reached a new low and plummeted to the very depths of all things vile, if the tragedy at Kathua which saw eight – year old Asifa lose her life in the most horrifying way imaginable, is anything to go by. It was bad enough that the child was abducted, drugged, violated, tortured and murdered by monsters who lacked even a shred of kindness or humanity, but what followed is every bit as depraved. In a land which believes in celebrating the differences of its diverse peoples if only to perpetuate them in order to divide and rule, we have witnessed yet again, the appalling hatred and prejudice on the basis of religion, race, caste, creed and the rest of the reasons we use as an excuse for detesting and despising our fellow Indians and treating them abominably. We have allowed our prejudices to fester to the point where compassion for a child and a rightful need to redress the wrong done to her has been eclipsed by an incessant preoccupation with squabbling over idiotic ideological notions. It is the disgrace to end all disgraces and when coupled with our crimes of omission and commission it is one that by rights ought to haunt us to our dying days.
These are dark days for India and Indians and if we are to emerge from this with our innate decency intact, it behoves us to make amends for all the countless victims over the years who need not have suffered so much or died in pain and so often in vain. For starters, irrespective of what defines our identity or which side of the belief brigade we belong to, we need to acknowledge that though hopelessly caught in the toils of divisive politics for ages, we must do our utmost to abolish and burn down the barriers that separate us whether it is caste, religion, language, class, colour beliefs or gender that have torn us apart or die trying.  This country belongs to all of us and loving it means loving each other or at the very least embracing the differences that make us so unique and India, a secular country as well as the world’s largest democracy.
Let us not blame the victims of rape or murder for their fate but do our utmost to ensure that the perpetrators are taken to task immediately if not sooner. In the same spirit, let us acknowledge once and for all, that it is not acceptable to name and shame the accused over the dreaded firing platforms that social media has become, for the simple reason that in a democracy, mob justice is not acceptable and everyone is innocent until proven guilty over the course of what is hopefully a fair trial. Doing otherwise, makes us no better than those purveyors of revenge porn who merit all the disdain there is in the world. If we have lost faith in our judiciary system we need to restore its integrity, by putting down bribery and corruption once and for all, instead of shaking our heads hopelessly and saying we have joined them only because our half – assed attempts to beat them has not paid off.
Accusing the ruling government of their colossal failure to make this country a safer place for women while stating the obvious is far from productive. We keep talking about raising awareness about the shortcomings of the head honcho and his bhakts but when it comes to taking honest to goodness action we are not even as effective as kids playing on handheld entertainment. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our disappointing leaders are where they are because we put them there on account of being too busy chasing the great Indian dream of working in MNCs and making money hand over fist hawking products that sell self – loathing and discontent to take a stab at serving our country and making it great. Of course, our parents forced this dream upon us, following the example of their parents and we, will shove it down the throats of our kids too instead of encouraging them to join the Indian armed or civil services that include administration, foreign service as well as law and order. Correct me, if I am wrong but being more service minded and asking how we can make a real difference is bound to be far more constructive than the constant bellyaching and calls for castration of rapists. The latter makes for an awesome revenge saga but the truth is, it is entirely barbaric and somewhat impractical because the majority of policy makers have man parts which they are inordinately attached to.
In addition to this, we need to vigorously review the changing dynamics of sex and sexuality in a brave new world that has witnessed the #MeToo movement. This means not pretending that intercourse occurs only within the sacred confines of marriage for the express purpose of procreation. It also requires making peace with the shocking truth that women and even minors have sexual desires and are not quite the ‘pure’ creatures everyone needs to believe they are. Besides it is an inconvenient truth but sex always has and always will defy the laws of logic, politics, cultural values and morals. And to navigate the minefield, bumping uglies has become, youngsters need to be taught how to express themselves in an empowered way as well as how to practise safe sex. And of course, sex education is not an endorsement of promiscuity and a Western plot to vanquish our culture and its values.
Since we are all aware that this is no country for children, it is high time we worked on implementing decent child care services to ensure that our youngsters are being raised in a safe and healthy environment. It wouldn’t hurt to make sure that every child, irrespective of his or her financial status must be provided access to quality education and equal opportunities to shine and realize their full potential.
Most importantly, let us not forget Asifa or use her death to drive home twisted agendas. Instead, let us hold her close to our hearts forever more and vow to never ever let our children become victims of our gross selfishness and negligence. Let us strive to make our country a place where everyone is treated fairly and with respect, where women our revered as Goddesses and whose children are taught the power of service and sacrifice. Let us be worthy of this great nation and of the memory of a beautiful soul snatched away too early, a bitter price exacted for our gravest sins.