Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Thoughts on Mari Selvaraj’s Karnan


How do I put this? Karnan is one of the best films I have seen in recent times and truly deserving of that over used phrase ‘epic’. A towering tale of oppression with a protagonist (played by Dhanush) who is one among the downtrodden and refuses to take the path of least resistance, inspiring the others in his tiny village to rise with him, the film is often hard to watch. The opening scene features a little girl in her death throes while the rest of the world is callously indifferent, literally trundling along the highway of life and it sets the tone for what is to follow. A skinny, hooded fellow is being taken away by the cops. There is blood on his hands and the cops are shown at their brutal worst as they beat the handcuffed man to within an inch of his life. You shudder at that display of graphic violence so reminiscent of what happened to Jayaraj and Benix and set aside your cheese popcorn which suddenly tastes like privilege.

Mari Selvaraj’s craftsmanship is excellent and he seldom sets a wrong foot forward. Unlike most others in the Tamil film industry who have handled this sensitive subject, there is no sense of propaganda, torture porn, or excessive messaging in place of good cinema. With infinite sensitivity and command over his narrative, he portrays the damning divide between the haves and have – nots. Even in the 90s, in the fictional village of Podiyankulam, these wretched people have none of the things that most of us take for granted. There is no electricity or running water in their homes, education has been denied to them for generations, and there are no hospital facilities for miles. All they want is a bus stop so they can get the hell out of there in search of jobs, send their kids to school, take a heavily pregnant woman to a hospital or simply make a better life for themselves and their own. But they are systematically thwarted at every turn by those who would rather see them remain slaves to their whims. It is hard on the conscience and a slap in the face of a smug society and its fat cats gobbling away with unlimited greed, the limited resources of a land that has failed its poor.

Karnan is replete with rich emotional content and the writing is exquisite for even smaller characters are etched with delicate strokes that takes you into the heart of the other India that we have all left behind. The hero’s older BFF (played by Lal) has never forgotten his dead wife, Manjanathi and there is a tender moment between him and a sweet old woman who calls him Manjanathi ‘purusha’ (husband) which reduced me to a puddle of goo. The cops have shades to them too and Mari Selvaraj rises above the common tendency to portray everything in black and white. All the villagers are not paragons of virtue. Some are cowardly and self – serving. One among them makes an inappropriate suggestion to the hero pertaining to his sister and is bashed up for his impertinence but this character played by Yogi Babu has his moment of redemption. Even among the cops, there are those who don’t have the stomach to see helpless citizens bashed up just because an officer’s ego has been bruised. Said officer would like to have been seated while conducting an inconvenient interrogation but his needs are forgotten when the youth sent to fetch a chair is called by his bedridden grandmother who needs help answering a call of nature. The expression on the cop’s face is priceless and the scene is gut – wrenching for it portends what is to follow.

The villages led by Karnan are not above taking the law into their own hands, so great is their rage at having been failed repeatedly by the law, bureaucratic red tape and a country and its people who are perfectly content to leave them behind in the dirt. In the pre – interval stretch said to have been inspired by the Kodiyankulam riots of 1995, a bus is stopped with a hurled stone and even as the passengers flee in terror, the vehicle is attacked and taken apart by a horde of angry young men in an act of wanton terrorism that somehow feels inevitable. It is terrifying, especially when you can’t help but think that if this is based on real events, then there must have been casualties unlike in the movie where everybody save the attackers have melted away into the surroundings…

The performances are excellent. Dhanush is extraordinary whether he is playing the savior of his people, or the angry youth with a loving side to him or in a tearful dance at the climactic portions where he conveys the anguish of one who is painfully aware of how much his people and he himself have lost and the heavy price paid for a few gains that those more fortunate than them have taken for granted for yonks. It is powerful, poignant and heartbreaking stuff. This is one actor who seems to have committed himself to creating a superlative body of work for himself and his efforts have paid off in rich dividends for himself as well as cinema lovers. Natarajan Subramaniam, who plays the bad cop deserves mention for a wonderful performance too as do the rest of a well-cast ensemble.

Did I mention the music? Santosh Narayanan’s score is tremendously rousing and used wonderfully. Kanda Vara Sollunga is an instant classic and I keep hearing it in my head. The other tracks are also monster hits and they work even better onscreen and contribute to a satisfying theatrical experience.

Much has been made of the fact, that this film is an interpretation of Karna from the Mahabharata. There are characters named Duryodhana, Draupadi, Abhimanyu, and the villain is Kannabiran, and the director’s purpose in doing so, appears to be to question the existing status quo and our own definition of right and wrong when it comes to those with power and money and those who lack these. Of course, the role of religion in enforcing an ancient evil that is the caste system is also examined and Mari Selvaraj subverts traditional religious tropes by depicting headless deities and grama devatas who are usually those among them whose tragic fate have seen them elevated to Godhood. The visual imagery and heavy – handed symbolism is overdone in parts and I would have liked a closer look at the struggles of women in this milieu but these are minor quibbles in a film like Karnan where so much works beautifully. Take a bow, Mari Selvaraj. Karnan, which follows on the heels of his remarkable Pariyerum Perumal, is a powerful film which is going to haunt me for a long time.

Dealing with Indecisiveness


It is hard for me to make up my mind. Should I go bonkers, cooped up at home during the pandemic or risk getting infected by stepping out and living a little? Should I work harder on losing the weight I piled on during the lockdown or encourage myself to love mine own self even if said self is dangerously close to bursting at the seams? Should I follow through on my occasional urge to leave home with nothing more than my backpack (and all the credit cards and cash I can stuff into it) to explore the furthermost contours of the world or stay put and continue to cope with the humdrum monotony of the daily grind?

Shaking my head like a Bollywood heroine in the utmost throes of theatrical despair, I scold myself a little for being obsessed with pathetic non - issues that are of little consequence to anyone other than me. Then I turn my attention to whatever is trending on Twitter, figuring it has to be better than Instagram and Facebook, which have perfected the art of packaging envy incited by filtered images that give the impression of perfect bodies and lives, and using it to sell overpriced products which will supposedly give us the superficial satisfaction that only pretend perfection can. Twitter is always interesting for those who thrive on chaos or depend on it for stimulating ideas that can be worked into columns. It can also be conflicting as hell.

Is the HBO documentary Allen Vs Farrow a scathing indictment of a predator who groomed and married his step – daughter in addition to molesting his own daughter or is it PR/ activism on behalf of Farrow given how much key information has been omitted that may have exonerated Allen? Is Megan Markle a poor little rich girl who is a victim of racism and violation of privacy or is she merely playing the victim and bemoaning the loss of her privacy while revealing intimate details about the sex of her unborn child to the entire world? Did Kamaraj, a Zomato delivery executive punch Hitesha and break her nose or did she whack him with a slipper and injure herself to grab some sympathy likes for herself?

Perhaps, it would be simpler to fixate on my own stuff. Should I humble brag about an award I have been nominated for? Or acknowledge that I don’t have a shot against my brilliant fellow nominees and forget about begging everyone I know and don’t to cast their votes for me? I could always listen to my mother and disappear into a weight loss facility. Or stock up on Patanjali products that promise solutions for everything from obesity to finding inner peace and making up one’s mind.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Unpromising Politics


If you have the stomach for it and tend not to throw up when confronted with all things revolting, it is always amusing to watch politicians in action when elections are around the corner. They step out wearing crisp ethnic wear, sporting bad dye/toupee jobs, palms folded together reverentially, flashing sincere fake smiles while waving from top open vehicles, trundling past giant hoardings of their photo-shopped selves and strategically placed loud - speakers promising the citizens that the candidate is ‘The One’.

These sterling individuals who repeatedly reiterate their unswerving commitment to making their constituencies an indubitable slice of heaven are usually accompanied by a motley crew of not – quite gentlemen togged out in ill – fitting traditional gear in assorted hues of white the supposed color of purity, flaunting sunglasses, gold jewelry and the odd recurved blade or two, which their attire doesn’t quite conceal. These bear an uncanny resemblance to ruffians in masala movies who serve as the muscle/fawning toadies of the villains who are mostly there to impress upon the masses that they better vote for their exalted leader or else...

Usually there is a lot of speechifying at rallies where the audience are lured in with promises of petty cash, booze and chicken biriyani. Most seeking to become elected or re-elected representatives of the people, for the people and by the people usually can’t speak worth a damn but clearly they have found a way around their limitations and managed to channel their inner Cicero meets Deepak Chopra with the right dosage of inebriant even if it does cause them to slur over their tall promises.

Speaking of promises, there are many of those made in rousing speeches delivered at volumes guaranteed to bust eardrums and via paid advertisements across social media. The impoverished, minorities and women are assured that their rights will be the top priority and not the rich men who actually run the country. Aspiring candidates swear on their lives that the evil that is the caste system will no longer deny people their due, religious rights of all will be upheld, and women need not worry endlessly about being gang – raped, murdered, harassed, or being denied opportunities for career advancement. Hell, even house – wives will receive a much deserved salary, they are told. Law and order will be maintained, there will be beautiful, fully – furnished houses for the poor with as many toilets built as temples/churches/mosques. Quality education will be free for all, development will proceed unhindered and soon, the entire country will look twice as pretty as Switzerland in Spring.

Of course, the oft frustrated Indian voter doesn’t buy any of it but they can’t look away either. Because despite the awfulness of it all, dirty politics makes for one riveting spectacle.

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Interview with Abigail Dean, Author of the Excellent Girl A


Girl A  by Abigail Dean is an exquisitely crafted literary thriller and is one of the finest books I have read in a while. It is an agonizing tale of sustained abuse suffered in childhood, but the author chooses not to dwell compulsively on most of it. Instead she takes us through the nightmare that continues to cast long shadows on the lives of victims and their desperate struggle to flee the monsters that continue to stalk them from their memories of a traumarized childhood. Though, I like to think of myself as hardboiled, I wept at various points in the narrative. Small wonder this debut novel has taken the literary world by storm! 

Sharing the unedited version of my interview with Abigail Dean:

1.      Lex Gracie is a fascinating character – resilient, intelligent and remarkably strong. It was an interesting creative choice you made not to focus on the gruesome particulars of what went down in that ‘house of horrors’ but on the far reaching effects of abuse and its prolonged impact on the psyche of victims, even one, such as Lex who seems to have made it, given how gritty she is. What prompted this decision? I’m very interested in true crime, but one of the questions I’ve always wondered is: what happens next? There is often a lot of media attention on a particular case or crime, to the extent that certain photographs or buildings acquire an odd infamy. But for the people actually affected by those events, there are so many months and years and decades after: how do people live then? In Girl A, I wanted to explore that quieter time, which is so often hidden from the public view.

2.      The dynamics between the siblings seems to be complicated particularly the relationships between Lex – Ethan and Lex – Delilah. It intrigued me that Lex seemed more willing to forgive Ethan and his dubious decisions prior to and in the aftermath of their ordeal than her mum. Do walk us through the process you followed to peel back the layers of their collective psyches to reveal the raw and still bleeding wounds within. Creating the different dynamics between the Gracie siblings was one of the best things about writing Girl A. They may have grown up in difficult, traumatic circumstances, but they share the same alliances, rivalries and barbs as any other siblings. Lex loves her older brother, Ethan, despite questions about his complicity in their parents’ abuse. As the oldest of the siblings, they bonded as children over books, over their love of school – and it’s that old allegiance that makes Lex stick by Ethan, despite the fact that he’s become a very questionable adult.

3.      There was hope permeating the book, even in the aftermath of gut – wrenching grief, trauma and loss. Do we dare to remain positive despite being confronted with evidence of unspeakable evil and human capacity for inflicting harm no matter the number of restraints placed to prevent it? Lex is such a strong, resilient character. She’s the heart of Girl A, and her perspective – wry, humorous, cynical – really does fill the book with hope. As a reader, I usually find that it’s the scenes of human connections, even in the darkest circumstances, that move me the most.

4.      Girl A was refreshingly non – judgmental on many levels seeming to point towards circumstances brought on by factors like grinding poverty and unholy influences (that creepy Jolly!) as the perpetrators of monstrous cruelty. But to what extent do you think individual folly and broken systems are responsible for societal evils leaving aside variables beyond our control and what can we do to prevent others from suffering the fate of the Gracie siblings? I’m glad that you found Girl A non-judgmental. It’s crucial, for me, to have characters who feel like real people, and real human beings are rarely simply good or evil. I don’t have sympathy for every character in Girl A, but I try to have some understanding for each of them, however misguided their actions become. There are many moments in Girl A where the community is complicit in ignoring the children’s suffering – where people try to step in, but fail to do enough - but that’s not intended to be judgmental, either. I don’t have the confidence to assume I would act differently. It was one of the things I found most uncomfortable, writing the book, and I think it’s a question for each reader to ask themselves. 

5.      You have mentioned drawing inspiration from true – crime stories like Fred and Rosemary West, Jasmine Block and the notorious Turpins. How did you go about researching these cases as well as the experience of severe trauma brought on by prolonged captivity and sustained abuse? I was aware of a number of cases through my interest in true crime, so the focus of my research was psychology, rather than real-life events. Each of Lex’s siblings has a very different reaction to their childhood, and I read into what those reactions might be. They range from Delilah’s suggestions of Stockholm syndrome to Gabriel’s uncontrollable rages, which pursue him into adulthood. That said, I also want there to be ambiguity in Girl A: how much of each character’s reaction can be attributed to what happened to them, and how much is simply who they are?

6.      Girl A has been welcomed with thunderous applause and record sales, deservedly so. The screen rights have been sold to Sony. How is the view up there in that stratospheric sphere of elusive success? Just as surreal as it looks, I think! As a writer, you spend so long working in isolation, obsessed with the characters and the story. The most amazing thing, for me, is that my characters are out in the world, there for people to love and detest and challenge – as I’ve done with so many books myself. I’ve received a few messages expressing particular contempt for Jolly and JP, and knowing that you’ve sparked those kinds of feelings in readers is the absolute best.

7.      Do share a glimpse into the next book you are working on. It is eagerly awaited… My second novel follows two characters in the aftermath of an attack: one loses her mother in the atrocity, and the other believes that the whole thing was a hoax, and sets out to disprove it. Like Girl A, it deals with themes of trauma behind the headlines, and with the different perspectives of different characters, just as the Gracie siblings each remember their childhood in a slightly different way.

 An edited version of this interview appeared in The New Indian Express.

Ramayana with Anuja


Hi folks,
Very happy to announce that 'Ramayana with Anuja' is now available on YouTube (12 episodes in all). Working on the series was one of the bright spots in a mostly miserable 2020. We shot under challenging circumstances, practicing social distancing, donning masks, and flinching every time someone coughed or cleared their throat. My mum was in her element - rocking the mother hen mode as she bullied us into drinking gallons of tender coconut water (yum), herbal teas (meh), nilavenba kashayam (double yuck) and other foul smelling concoctions that tasted as bad as they smelled. But thanks to her efforts (and a pinch of luck!), we were able to complete shooting without any dreaded Covid - related mishaps. Thanks mum!
The entire experience was intense, immersive and so memorable. I really hope I did justice to Valmiki's Ramayana and it is with a great deal of nervousness that I am sharing it with you all. Hope you enjoy it!

Do check out the entire playlist right here.

P.S: Please do post your thoughts in the comments section and share the link with anyone at all who might be interested :) Thank you!

2020 and Beyond: Bad Years and Worse Ones


Pic courtesy of PTI and TNIE

The demise of 2020 was boisterously celebrated across the world, with reckless disregard for social distancing. After all, it is now almost universally acknowledged that annus horribilis does not begin to describe the sheer awfulness of the year gone by. The coronavirus has laid waste to global health and economy. Worse, there seems to be no respite from social evils as hardened criminals continue to do their thing, the undeserving continue to enrich themselves and the powerful ride roughshod over the poor and weak, the way they always have and no doubt, always will.

Yet, an overwhelming majority had such high hopes for 2021. Almost as if they were certain that an army of fairy Godmothers were hard at work, zooming across the length and breadth of the planet, wielding their wands with superheroic élan, sprinkling pixie dust on the problem areas that seemed to be erupting and suppurating every which way, while their elven helpers sat over a billion, bubbling cauldrons filled to the brim with magical potions designed to rejuvenate and renew all things rotten and ruined. Needless to say there can be but one outcome when such unreasonable expectations are allowed to skyrocket – disappointment. With a side of depression and desolation.

The year has barely begun and already it seems to be doing little more than regurgitating the contents of the toilet bowl that was 2020 with explosions of noxious nastiness. Vaccines are being rolled out but people don’t seem keen on being jabbed. Large scale protests against the establishment are escalating and the system strikes back by imprisoning protestors young and old, while clamping down on freedom of speech. Elsewhere, hunky dory isn’t the term being used to describe the prevailing state of affairs as the exit of an orange – headed menace led to massive upheavals violently staged by his rabid followers. Meanwhile, those nations worst affected by the pandemic continue to battle it with indifferent success often trampling on fundamental rights in the name of the greater good. Seldom before has the great majority of the human populace worn such a collectively grumpy mien or been this uncooperative and intransigent.

To make matters worse, the Nobel UN agency has warned that we can expect things to get steadily worse this year, since famines of terrifying proportions are expected and the funds needed to tackle the impending catastrophe are fast dwindling. None of this is heartening. But the good news is that it can’t be all be bad news. Now that we have removed the jinx on 2021 by refusing to set ourselves up for disappointment we can steady ourselves with the knowledge that there will be precious moments of hope and happiness to tide us over this year as well. And the crappy ones ahead.

Enough with the Love Stories


The controversial ‘love jihad’ ordinance recently enforced by the Uttar Pradesh government for the purpose of preventing ‘canny’ Muslim men from sweeping ‘clueless’ Hindu girls off their feet in order to get them to change their faith has provoked vehement opposition. This is an ugly measure that spits in the face of secular India and deserves to be overturned. Yet, these unholy methods implemented in the name of all things holy got me thinking about deep – seated issues related to the institution of marriage, that extend beyond the obvious bigotry and hatred that fuel these inane legal precepts. 

Why do we persist in believing that falling in love and getting married are essential to a wonderful life despite evidence to the contrary? Practically, every popular movie or show, features variations of extremely good – looking young people getting smitten, prancing around in exotic locales and dealing with messy matters of the heart before driving into the sunset towards that happily ever after, the fairy tales promised us was the inevitable culmination of every love story. Every once in a while, the lovesick in reel life and more alarmingly in real life are assaulted or slaughtered by sick creeps. Terrifyingly, these lovebird killers are cheered on by fanatics who foolishly believe that it is not in keeping with Indian tradition to fall in love or have consensual sex outside of an arranged, endogamous marriage.

These extreme reactions to cozy twosomes has always been perplexing to me. Lovers, even the interfaith ones are mostly a self – indulgent lot given to stewing in a sickening syrup of all things sensual and superficial, sanguine in their deluded notions of the enduring power of that fragile, fickle emotion called love, which is as likely to last forever as an egg sandwich left in the sun. Eventually when a relationship regresses to a legally sanctified union, even the most besotted come to realize that marriage is where affection goes to die, in a paroxysm of pain brought on by resentment, regret, and an absence of shared joy.

Marriage was originally designed for boring practical purposes to serve a society devoted to perpetuating the human race by raising batches of brats together. It was never intended to be a perpetual source of personal fulfillment or an adventure ride, replete with romance. Therefore, it is about time we stopped defining a good life in terms of fleeting connubial bliss to counter dangerous ordinances framed by harmful halfwits targeting harmless twits. Let us resolve to secure a better future by refusing to invest so heavily in the trivial pursuit of a non – existent state of transcendental togetherness especially if there is risk to life, limb and more. We will do just fine without the love stories, tragic or even otherwise.  

 This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

When the Quotidian Crashed into the Quirky


In recent years, Indian publishers seemed to have given short story writers the short end of the stick which is why is it lovely that 2020 threw up some beautiful collections by authors at the top of their game like Nisha Susan. Two – time Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winner, Anushka Jasraj also makes an assured debut with ‘Principles of Prediction’.

Jasraj has crafted 13 stories featuring a host of characters who are mostly from dysfunctional backgrounds and entirely dissatisfied with their lives, prompting them to embrace the preposterous with mixed results. In the story after which this collection is based, the reader encounters a weather forecaster, who has mommy issues so debilitating, she is pushed to the brink of sanity. ‘Notes from the Ruins’ and ‘Entomology’ take the tired old love triangle for a spin and makes one wonder when this tedious trope will be trashed. In the ‘Circus’ a young woman decides to run away. But not to join the circus of course but to live with the lion – tamer since that is the sort of thing that makes little sense outside the mad hatter’s world these characters inhabit. In ‘Westward’ Soraya meets Sigmund Freud who wonders what her father would make of her fear of dogs. ‘Drawing Lessons’ is about an unhappily married woman who has dreams where real life friends try to make her see where her sexual inclinations lie and say stuff like ‘Amazon women cut off their breasts, so they can be better warriors.’

The star of ‘Elephant Maximus’, is Cassata who is a cat – napper not to be confused with a cat burglar who decides to kidnap an elephant. Then there are the fortune tellers and others of their ilk in ‘Venus in Retrograde’ and ‘Numerology’. In the former, a young man is haunted by a ghost he invented who may or may not be and in the latter, a young girl waits for a long time to read the last letter, her mother left her, which contains a list of things an astrologer put down to decode her future. The private investigator in ‘Feline’ finds herself inconvenienced when she desires the subject she has been tailing at the behest of his ex – girlfriend. These spaces are the most hard to swallow since they appear to have been built and not lived in.‘Radio Story’ on the loss of freedom and love is the most affecting story of the lot. 

The writing is clever, awfully so. Fragmentary to the point, where it is just plain frustrating. Filled to the brim with characters whose character arcs are sketched out by means of cryptic clues that tend to confound more than clarify. Mostly though the collection abounds in the realms of the absurd and is overly spiced with an abundance of quirk for quirk’s sake.

Those looking for simple, enjoyable reads with three, cleanly demarcated acts are in for disappointment since Jasraj tends does not bother with tying up loose ends with neat little flourishes. She prefers to leave the reader dangling fretfully or bursting with questions that have no answers. Those with the patience to unravel the carefully stacked layers will be rewarded with the occasional strokes of brilliance and rare insights into the futility of human existence but these are few and far between.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Domestic Woes and Dirty Truths


There are many tedious, irritating, mind – numbing jobs in the world but housework has earned its place somewhere at the very top of the list. The reasons are painfully obvious. Nobody likes to scrub the toilet or pick out little pieces of food from the sink, sweep and swab the floors till they shine, do battle with the indefatigable dust demons, cook umpteen meals for the family, clean the stove, make sure the clothes are laundered, neatly ironed and folded, shop for groceries, clean the fridge, get rid of stinky garbage in an environment – friendly manner…The list is endless.

Worst, of all household work is drudgery at its most unforgiving. It is a thankless job that offers little by way of satisfaction or compensation. No matter, how hard you work to stay on top of domestic chores, there is no respite, since you have to do it all over again, mostly on the very next day because those tiresome tasks are not going anywhere. And of course, it is unpaid labour, which is far from glamourous and does not earn one respect or appreciation.

In India, the smart choice is to dump this tortuous job on maids who are usually paid a pittance and fobbed off with remnants of discarded meals, sweets that could prove ruinous to diets or damaged articles of clothing in lieu of adequate remuneration. Heaven help those who can’t afford maids!

Let us talk about the division of labour here. Despite the strides made to empower and liberate women, when it comes to household work, we still do most of the heavy lifting. Of course, men who pitch in every once in a while by half – heartedly vacuuming, doing the dishes, or running the washer/dryer are covered in praise for their minimal efforts. Whereas all women are expected to take responsibility for home and hearth, irrespective of whether they have a job or not. Because a woman’s worth is still measured by her homemaking skills.

Kamal Haasan’s promise to provide salaries for housewives as part of his electoral campaign and Shashi Tharoor’s endorsement of the same is not going to cut it, simply because the onus of housework will remain with women. Of course, the value of unpaid domestic labour needs to be recognized but it is not merely a question of payment. Equal load sharing among all members of the household is more important. Or we could simply stop caring and decide that messy houses with a far from spotless tub or an overflowing sink does not necessarily carry the mark of the slovenly but is an indicator of a home full of busy people who have better, more rewarding things to do with their time. This indifference may hold the key to happier households!

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Humour with a Heart


Mysterious screaming heard in the decrepit stairway of a suburban housing complex, evidence of domestic abuse, a suicide case that may just turn out to be cold-blooded murder, thefts involving wedding gifts as well as hefty chunks of cash, and a mounting body count. It is hard to imagine this material being milked for laughs and yet, that is exactly what Kiran Manral, author of The Kitty Party Murder deftly manages to do with oodles of warmth and wit to spare. Her last book was the haunting Missing: Presumed Dead which was a disturbing study of the bottomless despair that those afflicted with mental illnesses suffer from which in turn traps victims and their loved ones in an endless spiral of self – destruction and grief. Manral’s latest offering on the other hand is replete with delightful humour guaranteed to leave you laughing up a storm.

            Why are humourists critically and criminally underrated? The world itself does not offer much by way of good cheer which is the all the more reason we need books, movies and just about anything else that makes us laugh ourselves silly and feel gloriously alive. The Kitty Party Murder is just the thing to make the pandemic – induced blues go away, forcibly driven back by gales of raucous laughter that is totally worth making your family members and dogs wonder if you are utterly and irredeemably nuts.

            Kanan Mehra aka Kay, who formerly graced the pages of Manral’s The Reluctant Detective, is a thirty – something housewife who wouldn’t mind some excitement in her life just as long as it does not disrupt her routine which features lunching with the ladies, shopping, deferring working out, mediating disputes between her domestic help and dealing with her adorable son whom she refers to as the brat and the workaholic spouse. Like the very best of comic fiction, Kay’s world is funny, filled with snark, biting observations about human nature, occasionally dark and entirely enthralling.

            Nearly every sentence is packed with jokes and ideas that demand you savour each line for a truly rewarding read. And while the humour itself is wicked it is also humane. Kay, might be given to abusing hyperbole and an extremely critical narrator but she doesn’t let anyone off the hook, least of all, herself. She goes on at length about her cellulite, recalcitrant paunch, Nutella habit and lackadaisical approach to life even when she is ordered to investigate a supposed suicide case by infiltrating a kitty party group and unearthing their deepest, darkest secrets. One can’t help but admire Kay’s je ne sais quoi and enjoy the joyful romp across her quirky world with its abundance of mirth, keen observation and biting satire. 

This review was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Perils of a Hasty Mission to Win Immunity


Letitita Wright, who rose to fame with her star making turn in Black Panther, posted a link to a YouTube video which raised questions about the Covid – 19 vaccine. Needless to say, Wright was savaged on social media, accused of endorsing unscientific viewpoints and supporting anti – vaccine propaganda. For her part, the actor remained unapologetic and defended her post saying that that there was no intention to hurt anyone and all she had done was air concerns about what the vaccine contained and about what we are being asked to inject into our bodies. Ultimately though, when the tsunami of criticism proved unrelenting she deleted her social media accounts.

I can’t say my understanding of the scientific details pertaining to vaccinations are sound and must confess to an abhorrence of needles although I am not against vaccination itself and think Edward Jenner’s contribution is invaluable. Even so, I have serious doubts about a vaccine for which the trials, tests, research and analysis have taken place at breakneck pace. Pfizer/BioNTech, whose product is being administered to people around the world have emphasized that none of the steps have been skipped, necessary approvals from regulatory bodies have been obtained, the vaccine uses bits of genetic code (mRNA) to build immunity against Covid, and has largely proved to be effective and safe.

So far, so good. But if like me, you have read John Le Carre’s excellent The Constant Gardener, you will be seriously worried about the dark side of Big Pharma. It is well known that pharmaceutical giants have a track record of offering fat incentives to doctors, health care providers and pharma sales reps to promote their iffy drugs. Aggressive, multi – million-dollar marketing by drug makers has led to a proven pattern of over – diagnosis, prescription and drug abuse.

Let us also take a moment to remember the lawsuits lodged against pharmaceuticals, shedding light on fraudulent, illegal conduct that has endangered public health. Global pharma has a long history of shelling out big bucks to settle allegations of criminal wrongdoing, falsifying data and wrongfully promoting drugs beyond a licensed condition. In 2009 and 2012, Pfizer paid billions to settle criminal and civil liabilities for illegally promoting drugs, submitting false claims, bypassing insurance agencies, bribing government officials, hospital administrators, doctors as well as members of regulatory and purchasing committees in countries across the world.

Yet we are keen to place our trust in these pharmaceutical companies because we have had it with 2020 which has been the suckiest year in recent memory and can’t wait for 2021 where armed with immunization from a miracle vaccine we can stride forth boldly into a mask – free existence without worrying endlessly about infection and death. Even if it means being hasty and endangering ourselves further.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.


A Treasure Trove Glittering with Brilliance


The Greatest Hindi Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Poonam Saxena definitively makes good on its boast. This collection is a labor of love from Saxena who confesses herself to be a devourer of Hindi Literature. Regional writers, barring a few who have enjoyed universal acclaim, have long been denied their fair share of appreciation, admiration and popularity. It is a crying shame, because there is a treasure trove of blinding talent, lurking in the nooks and crannies of the artistic world, waiting to be discovered. Translators who work hard to amend this sad situation deserve to be commended for doing their part to give deserving stories the love and exposure they so richly deserve in addition to enhancing their reach in pop culture.

The stories themselves, lovingly gathered and narrated are a treat for readers who are unfamiliar with the bountiful treasures of Hindi Literature. Saxena has selected 25 stories featuring the best work from an earlier time as well as modern talents. The stories from the Nayi Kahani movement which occurred in post – independent India and mirrored a variety of social ills are particularly harrowing and thought – provoking.

Chandradhar Sharma Guleri’s ‘She Had Said So’ written over a hundred years ago is a timeless tale of selflessness and sacrifice set during World War I were Indian Soldiers were carted off to die, yearning for home, hearth and delicious mangoes while fighting a war on the bidding of their white conquerors. Stories set in the aftermath of the Partition, communal riots, and War chronicling dark and bloody chapters in the history of India and Pakistan such as ‘The Times Have Changed’ by Krishna Sobti, ‘Lord of the Rubble’ by Mohan Rakesh, which made me bawl uncontrollably when old Ghani mian  returns to the home he built which has been reduced to ashes along with the rest of his family and ‘War’ by Shaani capture the horror and pathos of those terrifying times and fill the reader with remorse for the hatred and tolerance that was and is reflective of the sundered bonds between children of what was once the same land.

Poverty and caste discrimination is a recurrent theme in some of the stories which seek to highlight the widening chasms between the privileged and unfortunates which leaves one with a bitter taste in the mouth and a stricken conscience. Premchand’s ‘The Thakur’s Well’ is a hard – hitting tale of poor Gangi who is willing to risk life and limb to slake her husband’s thirst but will have nothing to show for her bravery simply because society will never let her rise above her status as a low caste member

Women’s exploitation as well as the untold hardships they are forced to endure are beautifully portrayed in stories like the chilling, ‘Where Lakshmi is Held Captive’ by Rajendra Yadav. It is one of those stories that you will not forget or forgive in a hurry, given the scale of injustice wreaked by a miserly old man on his own daughter and Agyeya’s ‘Gangrene’, a tale about the tortuous monotony of domestic chores that drain a woman of her vitality. Krishna Baldev Vaid’s ‘Escape’, Yashpal’s ‘Phoolo’s Kurta’ and ‘The Human Measure’ explore the same trope with a touch of macabre humor.

The social evil that is ageism is also highlighted in gripping yarns like Bhisham Sahni, ‘A Feast for the Boss’ where a son wonders what to do with his decrepit old mum when his white boss visits and Usha Priyamvada’s ‘The Homecoming’ where Gajadhar Babu realizes that his family has little use for him on retirement.

Asghar Wajahat’s ‘The Spirits of Shah Alam Camp’ and Uday Prakash’s ‘Tirich’ deserve special mention too, though both are going to haunt my nightmares, simply for being undeniably brilliant. In fact, every single story in this lovely collection is replete with merit, making for some very enjoyable reading and truly delicious experiences.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Setting aside Positivity to Fight Injustice


I have a sneaking admiration for WhatsApp warriors who devote much of their energy towards proliferating positivity via posts that usually feature photos of cuddly kittens, yoga practitioners showing off their flexibility and rousing quotes that are meant to motivate in a bid to counter the constant barrage of depressing news. The forced cheer and fixation with positivity is not the worst thing in the world. However, the pressure to stay positive and put a cheery spin on everything may not necessarily yield results that are conducive to collective wellbeing.

Take the recent decision announced by the Indian government to regulate digital media and oversee online news coverage, social media and streaming platforms, for instance. In an infamously horrendous year, the content offered by Amazon, Netflix, Hotstar, and the like has been a source of comfort. Of course, there is an abundance of nudity, violence, and other ‘objectionable’ content that run the risk of ‘corrupting the morals’ of the citizens of a moralistic society but that was part of the fun. Indians finally had the freedom to use their discretion to decide for themselves the kind of material they wished to consume. Now that a heavy handed government has stepped in with the ostensible view to promote ‘healthy and wholesome entertainment’ and of course to prevent the viewing of anything that may impugn the integrity of the ruling party, it is impossible not to have serious misgivings.

After all, this is the country where it is okay for folks to piss but not kiss in public. Smoking and drinking advisories are mandatory in films and TV shows not that it has hindered tobacco sales in the least or stopped the government from pocketing profits generated by liquor lovers. Shooting with live animals is discouraged but cruelty to animals in real life is mostly ignored. Depictions of anything explicitly sexual is frowned upon but trying to secure convictions for proven rapists and other sex offenders is close to impossible. In addition to the random cuts demanded by an opaque bureaucracy which may include anything from bleeping ‘breasts’ and blurring an offending undergarment, there is the censorship enforced by the mob. Violent political groups have tried to prevent the screening of films like Padmaavat and caused Tanishq to take down an ad depicting an interfaith union. The latest move to criminalize ‘love jihad’ and its onscreen portrayal is grave cause for concern.

No amount of cute pics and sweet messages should be allowed to convince us that all will be just dandy with the world merely by thinking it will be so. We need to roll up our sleeves and raise our voices when confronted with the looming specter of gross injustice and any attempt to curtail our freedom and personal choices.

This article was published in The New Indian Express.

Dark Themes and a Droll Touch


A London – based banker, Anil Singh, finds himself in the boondocks when he finds out that he is the sole heir of an uncle who was murdered in distant Palanpur. Thanks to a girlfriend who is an Indophile, he is persuaded to return to the village and try to make sense of a world that is far removed from his own. Not blessed with the skills of a Sherlock or a Poirot, he nevertheless figures out that the poor Dalit woman who has been arrested for the crime had nothing at all to do with it. While he is concerned about the fate of his uncle, investigating his murder takes a backseat as he takes a stab at photography in order to put together a coffee book, makes an even more half – hearted attempt to farm the land he has inherited, and tries to lend a helping hand in a little village ravaged by poverty and hopelessly oppressed by the caste system. There is a whiff of romance as Anil divides his time between his many tasks and the affections of his white girlfriend and a native beauty, he is drawn too but who can never be a part of his world.

The author of Rumble in a Village, Luc Leruth has based his narrative on economist Jean Dreze’s detailed notes from his sojourn in Palanpur, during 1983 – 84 as part of a research project. Like the author, the protagonist Anil, frequently dips into his father’s notes about his own family’s colorful past and less than honorable role in the history of Palanpur, made for the ostensible purpose of writing a novel, so that he can get a better handle on a way of life that is alien to the Londoner and truth be told, to the vast majority of urban India. In this way, the novel hops between Anil’s exploration of his roots and his father’s account of the seamier side of dreary Palanpur and its sordid secrets harkening back to a time when the British were hard at work raping and looting India, ably assisted by crooked and corrupt Indians who thought nothing of enriching themselves on the misery of those they screwed over from among the poor and lower castes without losing a moment’s sleep over it.

A light – hearted approach is favored by the author which is an odd fit for the dark themes being explored. There is gruesome murder, caste – based discrimination, grinding poverty, ceaseless exploitation, senseless deaths of children and the weak, torture, rape attempts and more, yet the horror of it, fails to land like a punch to the gut owing to the breezy approach and an imprudent reliance on narrative contrivances that fail to cohere in an organic manner. This is particularly apparent in the epilogue, which is supposed to be a touching epistle penned by a grateful student but reads more like a clumsy afterthought on the part of the author.

Opening with murder, Rumble in a Village becomes a leisurely ramble with a steady procession of assorted characters who are gone long before the reader can engage with them in a meaningful manner or fully appreciate their arcs which were instrumental in shaping the evils that continue to plague not just Palanpur but India today. Perhaps, the problem is that folks like Anil and his girlfriend who wants to come to India to see Devi, the Goddess and Shiva’s consort, wash her blouse in some Indian river, cannot hope to truly integrate themselves into the fabric of rural India, despite their best intentions given their unwillingness to distance themselves from their own backgrounds of privilege and plenty.

Which is not to say that the material itself is not intriguing because it is. What it lacks is emotional resonance and one cannot help but think that it could have been so much more, based on the promise offered by its premise.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

A White Savior in Another Hue


After a historic win, Kamala Harris is the Veep, and Indians are celebrating like they personally had something to do with it. At Thulasendrapuram, where her maternal grandfather was born, folks partied like there was no tomorrow with crackers, sweets, pujas and kolams, never mind that the Veep has probably never set foot there though she does have childhood memories of long walks with her grandfather in Madras because her mum wished for her to know her roots and cultivate a taste for dope idlis. While it is cool that Biden and Harris won by insisting that both are sweeter than a rotten orange (which is hardly saying much) it is hard to comprehend the euphoria that has gripped America and the rest of the world.

It has been ages since India had its first lady Prime Minister, woman President and Chief Ministers belonging to the female gender. Though iconic, the consensus is they all had more of the sinner than saint in them. None of them spent their terms working tirelessly to promote the feminist cause, empower the girl child and alleviate the evils of a world that has been ruined by the male of the species. On the contrary, women and the rest of the citizens continued to muddle along while the divas like the dudes before them went about the dirty business conducted in the corridors of power which is usually not discussed openly unless one fancies being locked up in jail without the prospect of bail. The question is why is everyone assuming that Kamala, more power to her, is some sort of wand – wielding, fairy Godmother type who is going to magically transform the world and make it a better place?

The only major difference between India and America is that in these parts, corruption is worn as a badge of dishonor, and ordinary folks are dully resigned to it, especially since it seems to be part of the job description for career politicians whereas in the United States of A, leaders do the vilest things from behind the polished veneer of their fancy suits and glib tongues espousing liberal values while throwing their weight behind everything that is anything but. Trump did away with the hypocrisy and must be credited with revealing that the position of President attracts jerks and bullies.

US Presidents are expected to do what is best for their own even if it means screwing over the rest of the world by starting wars, abetting the assassination of elected leaders in order to install tyrants of their choosing, and stand by as millions are slaughtered as a direct result of their actions. Biden and Harris promise more of the same – to be the white saviors we don’t want or need. So why are we cheering already? 

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Putting a Price on the Priceless

Freedom of expression is sacrosanct and the right to express an opinion even at the risk of giving offense is inalienable. Yet, this foremost of democratic principles is usually under attack, more so in the wake of chilling crimes against those who have dared to antagonize extremists. Outrage especially when escalated by social media has deadly consequences. In Paris, the beheading of a teacher, Samuel Paty after he shared caricatures of the prophet Muhammad with his pupils has led to widespread horror and condemnation. He was allegedly attacked by an 18 – year old who was later shot dead by police officials.

The tragedy is the second attack to take place during the trial of those behind the appalling Charlie Hebdo massacre in January, 2015. 14 people are currently being tried for the killings at the French satirical newspaper. Shortly after the trial commenced this year, two members of a television production company were stabbed outside the former premises of Charlie Hebdo in response to the newspaper’s decision to republish their controversial and inflammatory caricatures of Muhammad in pornographic poses. Paty’s demise following this attack has reignited the debate surrounding free speech. Back home, a feel good ad that inadvertently sparked indignation was taken down when pressured by right wing trolls which in turn generated outrage among liberal wokesters. This has drawn attention to questions pertaining to personal and professional liberties being curtailed in a prevailing atmosphere of increasing intolerance.

There are many who stand firmly behind democratic principles but many more are asking if freedom of expression is worth it. Nobody (or at least anybody with a shred of decency) denies that it is indisputably wrong and unforgivable to kill people for their ideas, opinions and cartoons but there are also those who wonder if free speech justifies upsetting religious sentiments, jeopardizing inter – faith harmony and risking death.

Charlie Hebdo like the ghouls on social media have prided themselves on their vulgarity, crude depictions, irreverence for all things religious, and staunch refusal to incorporate nuance, subtlety, thoughtfulness or good taste into their editorial decisions. Personally, I found their cartoons of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee whose drowned body had washed up in Turkey, disgusting and distasteful in the extreme. However, as a matter of principle, it is important not to indulge those who take offense and feel free to be as thuggish as they please with negligible respect for the rights of others. By urging people to recalibrate their sensitivities and sensibilities perhaps we can lessen the impact of virulent outrage and outright hatred. We also need to remember that freedom and tolerance are never without limits. Nothing endangers liberty more than a tendency to take it too far.

 This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Curse of the Unbroken Hymen


Yayati rescuing Devayani.

The myth of Dhrishadvati aka Madhavi from the Mahabharata is an unusual one. According to legend, this remarkable Princess was the daughter of Yayati who had been granted a boon which could easily be confused with a curse) according to which she would bear only sons and her virginity would be restored after every delivery. Naturally, in a world where unbroken hymens were highly prized and women were valued on the basis of their ability to breed and bring forth sons, she was a commodity whose womb was bartered away repeatedly to venerable Kings who sought to perpetuate their lineage in exchange for a hefty fee of an equine nature. It is a bizarre tale featuring a protagonist who serves one who took his devotion to his Guru to extreme levels in an effort to pay his gurudakshina, no doubt written by men twisted enough to find a way to glorify sordid deeds and pimping, somehow marrying these to their version of morality.

Madhavi Mahadevan’s, Bride of the Forest: The Untold Story of Yayati’s Daughter, is a harrowing saga of grace about a woman who managed to be generous, kind and compassionate even while held hostage to the feckless notions of dharma adhered to by powerful men who thought nothing of inflicting pain on women in order to fuel their grandiose dreams. The author does an admirable job of handling the sensational material with sensitivity even as she infuses it with the gentle beats of a pain – wracked heart.

Drishadvati’s story was never her own and Mahadevan, ushers the reader down the winding and more obscure alleys of myth and legend to meet characters like Nahusha, an ancestor of the Pandavas who rose to unheard of heights only to fall into ignominy after lust, avarice and hubris saw him reduced to a serpent, Garuda, the enlightened mount of Vishnu who can’t help but yearn for what might have been had his mother not succumbed to jealousy, the irascible Vishwamitra who was destined to cause a cosmic ruckus when his mother appropriated something meant for his sister, the frenemies - Devayani and Sharmistha who tore each other apart before learning to prop the pieces up, devious Kacha and bellicose Sukracharya.

All these stories inform the fate of Drishadvati who was a victim of neglect and abandonment before she was to discover that there was much worse in store for her. Reduced to the unenviable status of chattel and made to bear four sons to four different fathers, she has been viewed as immaculate and virtuous, on account of her unquestioning obedience and submission to her father, the Brahmin, Galava, to whom she was handed over to pay off his debt and the other men who temporarily wielded power over her. In this narrative though, she comports herself with dignity, courage and a certain resilience that sees her strike a blow against patriarchy with minimum fanfare and maximum effect.

By choosing to walk away from all the things she has been taught to aspire towards as a woman, Drishadvati reclaims her agency. Having returned to her beloved forests, she heals and more importantly learns to forgive those who wronged her even benefitting them with supreme selflessness. Kudos to the author for re-creating a character who inspires admiration even at her most pitiable.

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

Leave them Kids Alone!


It was never easy being a kid but this is a particularly frightful time to be one. Schools remain shut as the pandemic has forced the enforcement of safety measures with varying levels of strictness. Which means children are losing out on those precious hours when they can have their parents out of their hair, catch up with friends and get up to all kinds of mischief while the teacher is droning on about all the things they need to memorize if they hope to become a Doctor or Engineer. They are also missing out on all those tedious extra classes their parents had signed them up for in the hope that their precious offspring will become an Olympic gold medalist, Noble laureate, or at the very least one of those geeky types who make a gazillion bucks by inventing apps, gadgets and all those techie thingamajigs.

Now they have online classes where they keep their eyes glued to a screen, pretending to pay attention to flustered teachers who have yet to master the demands of the new medium, fudging notes, casually cheating on tests while diligently catching up with buddies and cousins on Hangouts arguing about whose parents are more annoying or engaging in heated debates regarding the awesomeness of One Direction Vs BTS. When they have a little down time, they are expected to help with household chores and they can’t afford to slack off since their mommies have sworn to cook their handheld devices in the microwave the next time there is a dirty dish in the sink, chocolate milk stains under the table, or laundry items that have not been folded and put away.

And then there are those coding classes which are all the rage thanks to Madhuri Dixit’s white smile and convincing spiel about how coding is invaluable towards helping youngsters enhance their logical faculties, math skills, creativity and of course, the possibility of becoming the next generation’s Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. The only consolation is that the older kids have it worse. The ones who have to clear the dreaded entrance exams which are tough to crack in the best of times but have become even more formidable thanks to the Covid – 19 threat and the ensuing mayhem. Or those whose parents paid exorbitant rates to get admission to fancy colleges in India or abroad only to be told that the campuses and classrooms are indefinitely closed.

With increased levels of anxiety, stress and depression being reported among children, perhaps it is of paramount importance to ease up on the pressures of our expectations regarding what we want for our youngsters and let them chart their own course in an uncertain future. After all, they are marginally less befuddled than we are.

This column was originally published in The New Indian Express.

When Wanton Women Own their Wickedness


A good short story collection is exactly what is needed in these troubled times when those who aren’t afflicted with ADHD are addicted to Netflix or trapped in a toxic relationship with their smartphone. These allow readers to squeeze in bite – sized doses of sublime stories between massive social media surfing sessions, leaving them feeling good about feeding their brains and souls something that isn’t sludge. But writing short stories is a fraught business and it takes tremendous skill to cram engrossing plots, memorable characters, and literary merit into a few pages. Over the years, I have come to have a lot of appreciation for the maestros of the craft who pull off this feat in style.  Nisha Susan is one of these and her collection of gems, The Women who forgot to invent Facebook and other stories is a master class in the art and craft of storytelling.

It is a women – centric collection and yet it defies expectations on every level. Told with light – hearted whimsy, savage wit and brutal candour, the stories explore many facets of millennial women, steadfastly refusing to paint them as long suffering victims, stoic saints or inspiring heroes who are entitled to our pity, admiration and tendency to deify. With an insouciant wink and a nod, Susan presents a parade of women trying to cope with the challenges of love, sex, careers and everything else in between while dealing with the challenges posed by a world that has been taken hostage by technology with romance and relationships being the earliest casualties.

Over the course of twelve engrossing tales, Susan enables us to make the acquaintance of her quirky, oftentimes unapologetically amoral and thoroughly unlikeable characters. These include bar – hopping buddies who draw up a sex map, talented dancers from Kerala who manage to have rocking sex lives away from the prying eyes of their conservative folks, a Rebecca – inspired tale about a young wife who disappears into her husband’s dead wife’s  secret – online world of vice, a cheating spouse who becomes murderous on discovering that he is being cheated on, a singer and a Prince who run into each other in a chat room, an author who is trolled to within an inch of her life, and a lady boss who becomes uncomfortably aroused while trying to provide insurance for potential victims of revenge – porn.

It is a riot and a half, because Susan steadfastly refuses to genuflect before the grand altar of political correctness, preferring to present her protagonists with their unsightly warts presented to maximum advantage. With bold and brazen strokes of Susan’s brush, these folks wander off the pages of her book and waltz into your life, and you are sorry only when the song and dance is over. Her protagonists lie to each other and themselves, deceive and are deceived, are not above victimising others even as they choose not to rise above their own victimhood, while never being anything less than fascinating and absolutely real. Susan dares you to sit in judgement of this lot or resist their attempt to sweep you into the whirligig of their messed up realities.

This collection is the equivalent of a boxed assortment of expensive Belgian chocolate, every single one of which sends your senses into overdrive with bursts of exquisite flavour.

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

Lessons from a Witch Hunt

A beloved actor passed away. Initial reports suggested that he had taken his own life. It was a heart - breaking tragedy which saw an outpouring of shock and grief that quickly gave way to mass rage. The mob went after those who had formerly been named and shamed as flag bearers of nepotism but gave up when they realized that those who live in shimmering citadels of ivory are unlikely to be hurt by the sentiments of the raucous, mud – slinging multitudes even at their most vehement. All they have to do is draw the shades and wait it out in air – conditioned comfort till the blood – thirsty, unthinking hordes are offered up a sacrificial lamb, to slake their fury. In this case, it was the girlfriend who has since been questioned exhaustively by minions of the law, harassed by some members of the rabble –rousing press, and hounded endlessly by hooligans baying for her blood.

Let us not kid ourselves. None of this is about justice. It is not even a question of innocence or guilt which is unlikely to ever be established beyond a shadow of doubt. The entire thing has become little more than a circus side – show cobbled together by the mean-spirited who have been feeding the mob a steady diet of increasingly bizarre and deranged conspiracy theories with cold – hearted calculation. If this shit storm ever abates, the only thing that is likely to remain buried is the truth. As for justice, it was never on the cards.

We know all this. Because it has happened before. There have been hundreds of high profile cases which have not been solved satisfactorily and there are probably a gazillion more that did not make it to the headlines. Moreover, let us not forget that there is a pandemic out there roiling through the populace, a mounting death toll, an economy that is poised precariously on the brink of collapse, soaring unemployment rates, caste, religion, and gender based crimes, rising illiteracy, poverty, and the calamitous state of just about everything else. Yet, it has become the norm to fixate with borderline monomania on a single tragedy, until the next cataclysmic disaster strikes to divert attention elsewhere and satiate a deep – seated need for blood, gore and heady entertainment on a scale equivalent to what was formerly witnessed at the Coliseum or during those dark times when royals, traitors and all manner of the damned were publicly guillotined or burnt at the stake on suspicion of witchcraft.

Perhaps it would be wiser to take a good, hard look at ourselves and what we stand for, instead of sitting in judgement of a girlfriend who stands accused in the court of public opinion but is innocent until proved guilty.

This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express.