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