Friday, April 29, 2016

Converting a Critic while Fighting the Green - Eyed Monster

There are few things that suck as much as a bad review.  And if the bad review is from a good critic it sucks even worse. A couple of years ago, Urmi Chanda - Vaz, who describes herself  as a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and a mythologist by passion, had this to say about Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior - Prince in her article Indian Mythological Fiction: What to Read, What to Ditch for Scroll, "Another disappointment in the realm of Indian mythological fiction comes in the form of Anuja Chandramouli’s Arjuna. In yet another retelling of the Mahabharata, the author writes the story from the prime Pandava’s perspective. With so many character-specific retellings in the market and subpar language, there’s nothing new this book has to offer. Her latest book, Kamadeva – The God of Desire chooses an unusual character and one hopes there are more takeaways." (You can check it out here.)

Needless to say, I was crushed but consoled myself with the fact that Ashwin Sanghi and Anand Neelakantan,  were keeping me company on the 'Ditch' list and Urmi had some scathing things to say about their work as well. The thought offered a little solace till harsh reality struck - both are more successful and famous though I am younger and thinner, which last fact notwithstanding, Amazon still went with Ashwin for what I am sure was a super - lucrative advertising deal and the Gods of television chose Anand to script a mega serial. Damn it, no wonder they seem to handle criticism with such grace and poise, two traits I struggle to find in the aftermath of negative reviews! How on Earth does one recover from such trauma without wallowing in petty envy and resentment? Simple, one gets over oneself and keeps going. 

Cut to a couple of years later. I had been pestering Urmi on Facebook, with the occassional cringe - worthy message that went something like this: "Hi!
I just read your article, "Indian Mythological Fiction: What to Read, What to Ditch" and what can I say but ouch! That being said, I hope you do read Kama. Arjuna may not have been the right guy for you but Kama is irresistible and hopefully this time around, you'll be blown away! Regards, Anuja Chandramouli" 
Sometimes I am the world's greatest source of embarrassment to myself and still find it hard to come to terms with the lameness and desperate need to be liked part of me which clashes awfully with the don't - give - a - hot - damn persona, that I worked so hard to cultivate for myself. The critic in question meanwhile was sweet and showed a great deal of restraint while dealing with this pain in the posterior/ irritatingly insecure author. 
When Shakti was out, she promised me a review and was as good as her word. In her assessment of my third, which appeared in Swarajya she had a few observations, " This book had me both delighted and confused. Delighted, because in the realm of mythological fiction Anuja Chandramouli displays great skill...Confused, because its agenda doesn’t seem very clear.I cannot help but call this work ‘moody’ given that it swings so often from the sublime to the violent, from the lofty to the crass. 
When she assumes her beauteous stance, the author’s words sound mellifluous and poetic. But when she gets into her blood-and-gore mode, her language gets crass and the graphic details could put an Eli Roth movie to shame." (You can read the rest here.)
With Ashwin Sanghi, Anand Neelakantan and Arshia Sattar at OLF 2013

This is not exactly a rave review even though she commended me for tackling such a complex subject with "guts and gumption", but I am still over the moon, because it is awesome when readers get you. It was my intention to bring together the sacred and profane; profound and putrid in Shakti, because the way I see it, every single contrasting element in the world may be traced back to the same divine source and hence nobody and nothing is ever exempt from divine grace. That is a happy thought isn't it? Especially for one who admires and respects Ashwin Sanghi and Anand Neelakantan for being lovely human beings and wonderful authors, despite an awful tendency to be jealous of them and as a direct consequence, stooping to the level of making fun of their girth and advanced years. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Need for A Balanced Diet Literally Speaking

A lot of folks ask me to recommend books for their children and look somewhat askance when I suggest letting the kids choose for themselves. “But I don’t want my underage child reading trash like 50 Shades of Smut!” they protest vociferously, “Are you saying that they should be allowed to get their hands on that sort of thing?”
            Not exactly. What I mean is that youngsters should be allowed to wander about in the aisles, inhale the delicious aroma of books, soak in the ambience of unlimited stories so that they may hone in on the tomes that speak to them. In the early stages, they may just go with a book because the cover is a virulent shade of their favourite colour with glitter to boot. But gradually they will learn to hearken to the call of the voracious reader within, attuned to the lure of the alluring opus that best meets their needs.
Parents in their enthusiasm to cultivate the burgeoning reading habit of their children tend to nudge them towards books that have educational or moral value which makes the experience feel like the literary equivalent of being force fed broccoli and spinach, thereby inculcating in kids a disdain for books and sending them back into the toxic embrace of television and ipads.
Any bibliophile will tell you that for sheer entertainment value, books are hard to beat. And as with any form of divertissement, tastes are wide – ranging and there is no accounting for it. Calvin and Hobbes is as likely to stimulate the intellect as Socrates or Plato and kids may be morally enriched by a perusal not only of Aesop’s Fables but Archie comics as well.
In the course of their literary wanderings, youngsters may want to wet their whistles in erotica and dip their beaks in novels written in blood with so much graphic gore, they make your standard Quentin Tarantino and Takashi Miike fare seem on par with Disney at its most cuddly. And I say let them. Why do we always assume the worst of our children? Today’s whippersnappers are smart and perfectly capable of making wise choices for themselves.

My father batted an eyelid but just barely when I opted for yet another instalment of Francine Pascal’s Sweet Valley series during our bookstore visits and much later, he might have winced when I informed him that Sade had taken up residence on my reading table. It is to his credit that he trusted me enough to believe that weird though my tastes were shaping up to be, the odds of my becoming a deranged serial killer were remote. Needless to say, his wisdom and forbearance paid off because to the best of my knowledge, I have not gone berserk, embarked on a mass – murdering spree or even done anything remotely illegal. Yet. 

An edited version of this was carried by The New Indian Express in my fortnightly column, For Crying Out Loud. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Case against Game of Thrones the TV Show

Disclaimer: This writer is no prude and therefore not liable for direct, indirect, incidental, consequential or other losses and damages incurred from acts of censorship including but not limited to viciously hacking off graphic sex scenes and bleeped out cuss words in a beloved television show resulting from a perusal of this column.
It must be unequivocally admitted that George RR Martin, author of the wildly popular series A Song of Fire and Ice, commonly known as Game of Thrones is all kinds of awesome. However that has not stopped his more rabid fans from frothing at the mouth, when the sexagenarian failed to make good on a promise to finish the hugely anticipated sixth instalment of the series, ‘The Winds of Winter’ before HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 6 premieres later this month.
For some, this is hardly the equivalent of the sun failing to rise in the morning or a similar catastrophe of devastating proportions but for the rest of us, who devoured his five offerings in the series, each thousand – page epic tomes of fantasy at its finest only to come to the calamitous realization that he is nowhere close to finished and tends to take a minimum of six years before books it is truly the end of the world and have been known to bawl uncontrollably into our pillows.
After venting their outrage on social media, the great man’s legion of fans have taken to praying fervently to every God out there to preserve the life of the old timer who looked alarmingly feeble and too overweight for the good of his heart when he held up his middle – finger on camera in response to all those who were selfishly worried that he would kick the bucket before writing the last line of his addictive saga set in Westeros.
Others like myself have chosen to take a principled stand against the television show which kidnapped the notoriously slow author, seducing and holding him captive with fat paycheques and impossibly skinny hotties who were very obliging when it came to leaving out the no nudity clause in their contracts with the unhappy result that GRRM has allowed the deadlines to whizz past while simultaneously pissing on every fanboy’s ardent desire to hold the next book in their hands and devour it whole to find out if a certain beloved character is truly dead and a notoriously wishy washy Queen has stopped shitting long enough to save herself and bring her winged monster to heel.
If that were not bad enough, the damn show is not a patch on the book. Initially, I refused to watch it, sticking to my decision to boycott the show for daring to distract GRRM from his noble labours, though others had given in to their desperate need for a Game of Thrones fix, in whatever format, with an embarrassing lack of resistance which made me go tsk and urge myself not to despise them for being weak.
It pains me to relate that my addiction got the better of me as well and forced me to throw myself at the feet of primetime television. And it was all for naught. The show is the book’s poor, plague – afflicted cousin. There are lots of ridiculously pretty people who jump each other’s bones at every miserably contrived opportunity acting on the instigation of their makers who compound their unforgiveable errors by daring to take liberties and diverging from the original script.
In the book, the characters are real and the writing is brilliant. Even the good looking ones get hurt, pass wind and suffer from hair loss, chopped noses and stretchmarks like normal folks. There is sex aplenty but it has the master’s touch which makes it engaging and arousing not groan – worthy like in the TV show, where nearly everybody is groomed to within an inch of their lives, boasting buff and hairless bodies as they moan and groan en route to the earth – shattering orgasms that form the climax of all that simulated sex. Who cares about the realistic dialogue when the sex scenes are amped up to the point where it is hilarious?

The entire thing is a blatant crime against good fiction and should not go unpunished. On behalf of fans everywhere, I beseech GRRM to save us before we once again fling every semblance of dignity aside to glue our eyes to the television screen in order to get high on Game of Thrones, even if it is a cheap fix.

An edited version of this was featured in The New Indian Express for my awesome fortnightly column, For Crying out Loud!  

Tuesday, April 05, 2016


Book Review: Rosalyn D'Mello's A Handbook for my Lover
Rosalyn D’Mello’s A Handbook for my Lover, which she asserts isn’t entirely fictional, is so exquisitely crafted and erotically charged it took my breath away. A young writer strips her relationship with her much older photographer lover of every scrap of clothing, leaving it nakedly exposed and bathed in the intense glow cast by the sheer poetry of her elegant prose, inviting bystanders to revel in the haze of sensuous introspection and be a voyeuristic onlooker, included within a love affair in progress.
            This is one striptease that is remarkably free of all things obscene even at its most brazen when the stripper dwells at length on the taboo thrill of “…manusturprare, to defile with the hand”, intercourse during “monthly spillage”, the perils and pleasures of traversing “the universe of love and the paradise of sex”, discovering the ecstasy of feasting on the delights down under or the hazards posed by an unbearably long dry spell in the boudoir in the course of a relationship that occasionally flounders because it has no destination. No subject pertaining to matters of the heart is shied away from and D’Mello flashes a light on every hidden nook, cranny and unwashed crevice in the landscape of love, scrutinizing it till she and her passenger have both had their fill of gazing.
            A skilfully constructed memorabilia, this handbook celebrates the joy of living life voraciously, hedonistically and with wild abandon, greedily gorging on every particle of pleasure that the human existence affords, be it a Chilean Red with wood – fired pizza, truly epic sex or the slow honing of one’s craft against the flesh and blood of an all – consuming passion. Interestingly enough for a work of erotica, A Handbook offers equal if not more insight into the fine art of conceiving and creating art be it writing or photography as it does love and lovemaking.
Bolstered by pithy inputs from fellow romantic conquistadors skilled in gathering together gems of wisdom and pinning it down on paper like Roland Barthes, Alain de Botton, Sylvia Plath, Jane Austen, Jacques Derrida and Kamala Das, D’Mello lovingly assembles the pieces of her grand love story while flipping the bird at absurd convention. With endearing candour she reveals her insecurity about her dark complexion which pre-empted her need to be desired and deep – seated wish for “earthly delights with all the seven deadly sins for company.” Her lusty revelations of sexual escapades, tampons made of toilet paper, and inability to walk away from the man who was the fount of her agony and ecstasy makes for a book that is to be slowly savoured and thoroughly enjoyed. 
Too many books, TV shows and movies have been devoted to the tired subject of romantic love with its attendant mundane, low octane drama rendered at a feverish pitch, inclusive of every form of physical and emotional chouchou that is usually irritating and occasionally uplifting or arousing. What makes A Handbook stand out is the raw honesty and sheer ballsiness of the author, who is also possessed of an impressive ability to string together a sentence with stylish craftsmanship as well as profound intensity.

Even more importantly, it is a formidable effort in an increasingly intolerant climate where women are encourage to cower behind their dupattas and pretend to be coy, inexperienced virgins till they kick the bucket. How then can it be possible to resist the unstoppable D’Mello who says of herself, “I am all cunt, all receptacle, all slush.”? More power to her and the other women out there who refuse to be afraid.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express