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


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.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How many Women have to DIE because Men won’t take NO for an Answer?

Ashwini, an 18 year old student was publicly attacked outside Meenakshi Engineering College, Chennai where she was reading Commerce, by one Alagesan, and left to bleed to death with a slit throat. This appalling crime is all too reminiscent of the Chennai techie case, where young Swathi, an Infosys employee was hacked to death by her stalker at the Nungambakkam Railway Station in 2016. Further back in time, a couple of decades ago to be precise, Sarika Shah, another Chennai college student lost her life after she was manhandled, and became yet another victim of eve teasing. And these are only the famous cases in one of the relatively safer metros in India that managed to capture the imagination of a fickle public notorious for its collective ADHD syndrome. There are too many women out there whose lives have been snuffed out, and without the faintest hope of justice being served because too few give a crap. After all, isn’t it simpler to blame the victim and declare that she got what she deserved instead of taking the tortuous trail to ensure a perpetrator is apprehended and punished?
The right thing to do as always is ridiculously complicated given that this pestilential problem is very much like the second labour of Hercules. The one where the monster is a Lernean Hydra. Every time, you lop off a head, a dozen more seem to replace it despite valiant efforts. We have tried tying women to the home and hearth, draping them in yards of fabric, imaginative interpretations of chastity belts that have not been limited to female genital mutilation, and brainwashing them into believing they must embrace virtue, virginity, sacrifice and self – denial to protect themselves but all to no avail. The monster continues to prevail and worse, the damn things spew their poison everywhere, damning the living and the dead alike. Be it Ashwini, Swathi, or Sarika, the overriding impulse of the misogynists and masochistic pigs out there has been to frame a narrative where the victim’s character has been besmirched and their killers are depicted as tragic, romantic heroes whose crime de passion has mitigating and extenuating circumstances. Duh! After all there are females involved and aren’t they all flighty, faithless floozies who are good for little more than fornication.
In Ashwini’s case, the moral police/ moronic poltroon brigade have been stressing on the fact that she was in a relationship with Alagesan for two years before choosing to end things. The latter of course, couldn’t believe her temerity in dumping him and has been harassing her ever since. She filed a police complaint when he forcibly tried to tie a ‘thaali’ around her neck and ‘make her his wife’. But of course, the actions of Alagesan are being portrayed as perfectly understandable whereas Ashwini is depicted as the heartless diva who smashed a man’s heart to smithereens.
Which of course begs the essential question – so what? So what if a woman is a whore, a prick tease, a seductress, a temptress, a gold – digger and whatever filthy epithet that is usually hurled at her when she is a victim of rape, abuse or murder? SO WHAT? It still does not give those of the masculine gender the right to kill them or hurt them in any way! (Psst! The law says so, I looked it up.) It is as simple as that and yet too many men have trouble allowing this fact to penetrate their thick skulls. Numbskulls!
The loss of a life, especially when cut down so mercilessly, not surprisingly leads to massive outpouring of outrage and hard as it is to believe, that’s about it. Furious articles are written about the event, twitter and facebook timelines catch fire as arguments and counter arguments heat up. Then, unless Bollywood stars, Cricketers, Politicians and depraved Godmen are involved, the entire thing fizzles out and we all move on. Till the next big crime against women happens and then we all go around the mulberry bush again. Rinse and repeat.
Enough is enough. Let us not take to social media to vent our righteous anger and frustration. Instead it is time to think long and hard about actually making a difference. What we need is not indignant rants but good old fashioned action -  CCTV surveillance, better lighting, well trained cops and enforcers to patrol the streets and make sure that it is not so damnably easy for women to be abducted, raped, molested, stripped, set on fire, stabbed to death or have acid thrown on their faces. Equally important, men and women, let us stop exonerating the male of the species of crimes and making ridiculous excuses for them every time they do dastardly things fuelled by ego and rage, while always assuming it is the females who err. Finally, let us resolve to please do whatever it takes to make absolutely certain, that years or decades from now, we are not stuck in a cataclysmic loop, where girls get killed because boys can’t suck it up and take no for an answer.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Published Author’s Tale of Terror

What can I write about my big fat experience on getting published? Firstly, it is so much more fun to narrate it as opposed to actually living it. Working on your first book can be an incredibly terrifying and challenging experience, especially when stringing together every single sentence that goes into its making can be an arduous ordeal that begins to feel like you are attempting to scale Mt. Everest armed with nothing more than words (which have the alarming tendency to pull out of your reach just when you need them) and wit (which you assure yourself is something you actually possess not something you imagine you do). The torment is exacerbated when it entails fighting debilitating insecurity, crippling uncertainly and chronic fear every step of the way. Occasionally there is the sanguine belief that a chapter you have just completed is pure genius but the feeling vanishes after the first reread. I could go on of course, but recollecting past traumas can oftentimes recreate the trauma resulting in an uncontrollable urge to reach for anything that is sweet, deep fried or both and that is hardly conducive for good health or an enviable body. 
Of course, the terrors and tribulations of the writing process pale in comparison with the horror show that is getting published. In a nutshell, it feels like swaddling your new-born whom you love to pieces in cover letters and sending it to reputed publishing houses to be mercilessly scrutinized, desultorily examined, callously ignored, and ruthlessly rejected. Rinse and repeat. Having been put through the wringer once too often, with your self – esteem in tatters, you catch yourself contemplating the merits of flushing yourself down the toilet and putting an end to the unceasing misery. 
At the precise moment when dejection has climbed to dangerous levels, there is an email in the inbox from a self-proclaimed self – publishing giant offering you the chance of a lifetime! Which of course is to pay for the privilege of getting published. The stink of fraud is a formidable thing and you fight the urge to sell your kidney on the black market to raise the money demanded, having deluded yourself into believing that you could be the next self – published phenomenon right behind E. L James. Fortunately good sense kicks in and you decide to send temptation into the spam folder and sign up for kickboxing classes instead. After all, something drastic needs to be done to preserve the remnants of your sanity. Besides shrinks charge a bomb and you can’t shake the feeling that Freud, Adler and Jung would have retired in despair after being attacked by the bats in your belfry.
Then one fine day, when you are considering a change in career ruminating on whether waitressing in Manhattan or joining the bomb squad would be a better fit, the Holy Grail is suddenly within your grasp. An acceptance email has arrived from a legit publishing housing and you are over the moon with unspeakable, almost vulgar joy. Your belief in God and Satan, Astrology, Palmistry, Tarot Cards, Green Parrot Fortune Telling, Voodoo, Black/White Magic, and Shamanism is fully restored and you feel on top of the world. Nothing can stop you now! FAME, FORTUNE and glorious SUCCESS are going to be your lot in life. You can feel it in your bones! And to paraphrase Harry from Harry met Sally - when you realise you want to spend the rest of your lives with these three sultry sirens, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.
So you wait for the magical change in your hitherto humdrum existence. Then you wait some more. And wait and wait. Finally, the editing begins and studies had they been conducted on this particular field would reveal that this is akin to having a root canal and your haemorrhoids removed at the same time. Going over the manuscript with a fine – tooth comb and discovering to your chagrin that no, the friendly editor certainly does not think your baby is perfect, can be somewhat disconcerting to say the least. Then there is the proofing to be done and you go back and forth till you are convinced you are caught in a dastardly time loop that is going to play out over and over again till the end of time. Finally, the publishers slap on a beautiful cover which may or not be exactly as you envisioned, since though you were told your inputs are invaluable it turned out it mostly wasn’t and the book is off to print.
When the book/baby is finally in your arms, the delivery pains fade into the dim reaches of memory and all that remains is pure exhilaration. Your happiness is complete and you are already toying with the idea of doing it all over again even though the three sultry sirens are still being coy and playing hard to get. But you are determined to seduce them and become a household name with their help even if it kills you. That ought to be a sobering thought but it isn’t, simply because you believe or need to believe with all your heart that ultimately it is going to be worth it.
This article was originally published by Author's Channel.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Too much and yet Too Little

Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is something of a chore to read. An ambitious undertaking with a sprawling narrative composed of gossamer threads, delicately often barely interwoven together, this novels spans across four decades from 1970 to 2010 and seeks to capture the defining historical moments in the troubled transitional period of a nation as it attempts to find its place and conscience in a brave new world, still carrying the scars from an ugly past while dealing with the horrors of the present. It is loaded stuff and ought to have felt like a sock to the solar plexus. Except it doesn’t. 

            It must be confessed that I was tempted to close the book forever on multiple occasions after wading laboriously from one chapter to the other and feeling that the struggle wasn’t really worthwhile. Coovadia flits and floats though the lives of a bunch of characters from different social spheres –passionate thinkers who are unwilling to die for their beliefs, crooks who steal with varying degrees of charm or integrity, artists who need to believe their work matters, corrupt politicians, opportunistic business men, activists, and musicians, their stories set at different points in the time period he seeks to cover. By simply skimming over their tales with airy dialogue that starts to feel leaden and merely touching on all things shocking and sordid, he makes it impossible for the reader to plunge into the depths of this chunk of history, teeming with detail and swirling with immense feelings. It is the sort of thing that makes you grind your teeth in frustration.

            The book begins in 1970, with the threat of expulsion that could be averted with a timely ‘donation’ before flitting on to the politics practised by the student’s stepfather, Neil who is on the verge of divorcing his mum, Ann. The Security Police are keeping a close watch on Neil’s movements and it is clear that nothing good is going to come of their scrutiny. From here, the action shifts to 1973 when Victor Molloi has the rug pulled out of his feet as he works with a team of promising artists to stage a play with potentially explosive content. In 1973, a guitarist, Yash who loves his music and young son contemplates pulling the plug on his life.  The following chapter returns to Ann and her clandestine work in Defence and Aid before thrusting us into an episode where a young thief faces mob justice. Then, it is the Rugby World Cup Final of 1995 and Yash’s son Sanjay decides to marry but hardly for love. The year is 2003 and a close Presidential aide meets a harrowing end because the doctors are instructed not to treat him for HIV, since the government refuses to acknowledge its existence. Before we can grasp the horror, Sanjay’s daughter has her cell phone stolen and almost falls in love. Twice. In the final chapter, we revisit Neil in the moments before his demise and with his passing, the reader’s suffering ends too.   

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Things that Pissed Me Off in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Problematic Padmaavat

At the onset, let it be asserted that freedom of expression is sacrosanct in a democracy and no artist deserves to be bullied and harassed by fanatical fringe outfits with their fundamentalist fundas the way Sanjay Leela Bhansali has. That said the man has somehow managed to alienate the right wingers and left wingers both. The former have excoriated him for his largely imagined trespass of dishonouring the legendary Rani Padmavati and insulting the Rajputs when it reality his film is an endless paean to the prowess of a privileged caste and their pristine code of honour which when viewed through the prism of history is far less flattering in light of how the various warrior clans in India failed abysmally against foreign invaders. The latter on the other hand have come out with guns blazing to excoriate his spectacular, slow – motion, colour – coordinated, glorification of Jauhar and nonsensical notions of honour enforced by India’s notorious patriarchy.
            Of course, one does not wish to discuss the bullying organizations, backed by a government that seems to thrive on fermenting religious unrest and media who has given heft to their threats by allowing them to hog the limelight endlessly, any more than they already have been. Accusations about Jauhar are more valid even if opinions on this sensitive subject remain divisive. Of course, a filmmaker is well within his rights to tell his story any old way he sees fit and is not under any obligation to take into account, new age feminist beliefs especially if he wishes to stay true to the period in which his saga is set. And yet, therein lies the problem – Bhansali’s messy mishmash of a film does not do justice to either Jayasi’s epic poem, Padmaavat nor the admittedly scanty historical records of the fall of Chittor.
            For instance, a modicum of research would have revealed the status quo at the time. The various warring factions of the Rajput clans were unable to bury the ill feelings between them on account of infighting and lacked a strong leader like Prithviraj Chauhan to unite them against an invader of the calibre of Alauddin Khalji. Consequently, none of them dared risk an open battle with the Khalji forces which were superior in terms of numbers, strength, weaponry and discipline. That left the Rajputs with no choice but to hole themselves up in their fortresses like Chittorgarh and hope their allies would come through or pray for divine intervention, neither of which was forthcoming.
            In the meantime, Khalji’s generals besieged them and cut off all supplies to the fort. Alauddin was not above bribing willing traitors to betray their people and reveal hidden passages inside, starving out the beleaguered populace or poisoning the water sources. Those trapped within had a rough time out of it with every mouthful being rationed, water becoming scarce, hygiene and waste disposal becoming increasingly problematic leading to outbreaks of disease and finally, a mounting death toll. In desperate straits and when all hope seemed lost, the men rather than give in to the expectedly humiliating terms of surrender prepared themselves for one last charge and the women readied themselves for Jauhar to avoid the sacking, slaughter and rape that was the most likely scenario.
            Of course, Bhansali with his almost masturbatory attention to aesthetic detailing can hardly be expected to portray the sordid reality of a siege or capture the foolhardiness of a warrior clan so steeped in pride that they treated war like a game that ought to be played to the bitter end and gave their misguided notions of honour precedence over the lives of those who depended on them. Instead, with his ugly obsession for all things bright and beautiful, he mounts grandiose scenes stacked one on top of the other, where the denizens of Chittorgarh are shown celebrating Holi and Diwali with ritualistic rigor, with marble fountains tinkling away merrily in the background while the invaders cooled their feet and chomped on chicken at their gates. And let us not forget the royal ladies, who are always dressed to the nines, adorned with clunky, uncomfortable looking nose – rings through the good times and bad, leaving them teary – eyed and unable to blow their noses for the life of them. The entire thing is ludicrous to say the least!
            Back then, Jauhar was a choice made by women to avoid dishonour. We have no right to judge them for that but it would also behove us to take into account the irrefutable fact, that Jauhar as well as Sati was often performed with political expediency in mind. Many women were driven to the flames under duress, and often dosed with opiate mixtures to render them docile and encourage them embrace their doom with decorum. One wonders, if Bhansali would have lingered lovingly on the horrid visual of a pregnant woman and her daughter, traipsing prettily towards their deaths or portrayed the Rani Padmavati requesting her husband’s permission to kill herself, thereby surrendering her agency, had he known the awful truth behind romanticized legends.
            Equally problematic is the lack of a balanced perspective in Bhansali’s narrative and his pandering to populist agendas, especially in a time when there is so much hatred and intolerance with regard to faith, caste and class. His portrayal of the Muslim invaders as barbaric and dishonourable while massaging the egos of the Hindus is deplorable to say the least. Alauddin Khalji by all accounts was ruthless, ambitious and known to display a savage streak but the same can be said about every great ruler this land has seen, irrespective of their faith. Khalji was also considered an able administrator, brave warrior and generous benefactor who patronized the arts. Would it have been so bad to give him a curlicue of credit and acknowledge his mighty deeds? After all, we are a secular nation even if only on paper.

This lack of nuance is proof of the prejudice seeping through Bhansali’s so – called auteurist sensibility that saturates every sumptuous frame and is every bit as offensive as the scant respect shown to the source material Bhansali has so liberally borrowed from. It is somewhat galling that someone who has lavished a fortune on decadent costumes, ostentatious jewellery, splendid sets; expended endless effort on synchronizing even the flickering of the flames in the umpteen lamps that twinkle in artificial harmony or the rippling of muscles on hyper masculine torsos, couldn’t be bothered with sparing a little time and thought towards ensuring historical authenticity and thereby creating a worthy work of art that would have deserved to be defended from the extremist elements that sought to suppress it. In the end, it was much ado over nothing, after all. 

When Matters of the Heart become a Minefield

Abubaker Adam Ibrahim’s debut novel, “Season of Crimson Blossoms” is a tale of forbidden passion between a 50 something widow, Hajiya Binta and a young ne-er - do – well, Reza who is mixed up with drugs and dirty politics. The narrative simmers with the tension of a slow – burning fuse even with the foreknowledge that multiple orgasms usually translate into unmitigated mayhem.
This story could have easily devolved into a torrid or sordid romance between a cougar and a willing young buck but Ibrahim clearly has loftier themes in mind. Reza reminds Binta of her dead son. Meanwhile she reminds her lover of his mother whom he refers to as “the whore of Saudi”. It is all very Freudian and is supposed to explain the irresistible often inexplicable pull between the duo which prompts them to throw caution to the winds but it is a little overdone.
Right alongside the heady romance, the perks, perils and pitfalls of communal living in all its mundane glory are highlighted with delicate brushstrokes. Binta lives with a niece, Fa’iza and granddaughter, Ummi and their presence though intended to comfort a lonely old widow serves often to cramp her style.
Fa’iza, tormented by the horrors of a blood-spattered past, with Binta becoming inevitably consumed by desire, is left to fend off her fears, exacerbated by the premonition of impending disaster and further violence. Reza too sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of self – destruction, as his baser instincts win out even as Binta tries to save him in lieu of her dead son. Their fate which despite everything comes as a surprise is a scathing indictment of the supreme selfishness and stupid impracticality of great romance which destroys not only the lovers but those innocent lives hopelessly intertwined with them.

On the surface it is a feminist saga which outlines the strictures of living in a repressive society where a wife’s sexual desires could not be of less concern to her husband. A society where the brutal subjugation of a woman to broodmare status is scarily normalized, “When he is done, always put your legs up so his seed will run into your womb.” However, Ibrahim dares to make the status quo between the sexes more balanced by sneaking in a nuanced perspective that depicts how men and women are equally victimized as both struggle with the expectations of gender bias which forces them unwillingly into the roles of protector and protected respectively.

In Ibrahim’s beautifully created fictional world, which is a mirror of the real one, where intolerance, hatred and spite prevail, happiness and peace are but dreams for anybody irrespective of gender or circumstance. There is much to love here from Binta’s suffering in the face of feminine envy and spite, the amoral world Reza occupies to the eerily cheerful way in which Nigerian politicians use the misguided to further their ends. It is a book you will be reluctant to put down even to answer a pressing call of nature! Abubaker Adam Ibrahim has arrived. 
This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Fabulous or Faux Profound?

Following the monstrous success of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green is back with Turtles All The Way Down. As may be expected from this author, it is one dark and heavy tome that deals with adolescent angst, abandonment, mental disability, death, and despair. All this, as seen through the eyes of Aza Holmes who is afflicted with severely invasive anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and a bad case of germaphobia accompanied by an overriding fear that she is going to die of clostridium difficile.
Poor Aza certainly does have a hard time. But then again so does the reader who is dragged into her nightmare reduced to waiting with mounting unease as Aza becomes trapped in an ‘ever-tightening spiral of thoughts’ tormented relentlessly to the point where she wants nothing more than to escape them in their entirety or for it all to end, whichever happens first.

Green is too good a writer to glamourise or romanticise any of this. Instead he dwells morbidly on the inescapable awfulness of it all. Aza repeatedly opens up a crack on her middle finger with her thumbnail to check if she is real. But then she has to keep the wound bandaged to prevent infection, that is, if there isn’t one already.

So she feels impelled to open up the scab to drain the yucky stuff that may or may not be in there, clean it up with sanitiser and reapply the bandage. Then, after an all too brief period of relief, the process begins again. And again.

Mercifully, there is Daisy, the zany and entirely idiosyncratic best friend who writes fan fiction based on Chewbacca and Davis, a love interest who is knee deep in trouble himself, consumed by the loss of his mother and the recent trauma of an absconding father. Incidentally, there is a $100,000 reward for information for the man and Daisy strong-arms Aza into a reunion with Davis who used to go with her to the appropriately named ‘sad camp’ in the hopes of unearthing a clue and pocketing the money. Soon, a romance is kindled.

Aza is not very good at relationships, mostly because she believes herself to be fictional and a mere ‘skin-encased bacterial colony’. And yet, the fragile bonds forged with varying levels of success with the people in her life serves at once as the lifeline that keeps her tethered to her sanity while also doubling as the whip that flagellates her fragile psyche bloody.

Daisy has created a somewhat unflattering character in her fictional yarns to cope with the supreme self-involvement of a bestie who is not quite in the pink of mental health. This sis-mance is so beautiful, it is gut-wrenching. I hated when they got into a tiff and my heart soared when they reconciled with Daisy saying, “I want to be buried next to you. We’ll have a shared tombstone.”
The love story between Aza and Davis is a sweet and messy one. Even when they do clich├ęd stuff like stare at the stars, what should have been a cheesy moment somehow becomes stirring and intimate. You want them to be the turtles in the title even when their romance runs into troubled waters with Aza pulling back every time they kiss because she cannot help but know that “around 80 million microbes are exchanged per kiss”, much to her lover’s anguish. He realises that she can only like him from a comfortable distance like when she stalks him in cyberspace or wants to ‘facetime’ with him.

A plot point that ultimately gets resolved is the fate of the runaway Dad but after entire stretches spent with Aza’s runaway thoughts that refuse to leave her alone hissing and spitting like the serpentine locks of the Gordon, Medusa, the reveal feels somewhat jarring. That is a slight imperfection among a few niggling ones.

Green overdoes it with the faux profound teenybopper poetry and one too many tired old tropes that are practically prerequisites for Young Adult fiction. But when he is fabulous, the man goes all the way and nowhere is it more evident than the ending which is far from happy yet it couldn’t be more perfect because even at the height of its hopelessness it holds out the promise of hope. In other words, it is so real it hurts.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express