Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Feminism in Myth, Non – fiction and a Historical Romance

In Bhumika: A Story of Sita, Aditya Iyengar envisions a life for his protagonist without the Man – God who has come to define her in the collective consciousness. In the twilight of her life, a somewhat embittered Sita is given an opportunity by Sage Vishwamitra to find out what could have been if a certain someone hadn’t prevailed at her swayamwara, won her heart and spirited her away to fulfil the dictates of his destiny. What if she had never married Rama or been abducted or cast aside because her purity had been called into question? What if in an alternate life, Sita had been Bhumika, a Queen who will defy convention and fight to live life on her own terms?
Bhumika, is a feminist reinterpretation of Sita, who has long been held up as the ideal woman given her perceived docility, innate goodness and submissiveness although there are those who would argue that like other strong women in mythology, it is only the jaundiced lens of patriarchy that has rendered her thus, since this remarkable character has always been more complicated and strong than most believe likely. Be that as it may, Bhumika cleaves to more contemporary views of the feminist ideal. She can lift and string the mighty bow, Pinyaka and is more than capable of ruling her Kingdom without a man’s help, thank you very much.
This Queen is determined to include women in the workforce and free others from restrictive gender expectations. Bhumika’s crusade is a lonely one though and she has neither close friends nor lovers but only strife for company. Sita later wonders if it had all been worthwhile. Iyengar leaves the reader in no doubt that both their choices were valid and ultimately it is all about making your peace with the decisions made for better or worse. 
Shanta Gokhale’s One Foot on the Ground: A Life told through the Body has its feet planted firmly on the ground with all things earthy, profound, and practical. It is a remarkable autobiography of a life lived fully, unapologetically, and narrated with oodles of grace and humour to spare. The feminist perspective on display in these memoirs is subtle, matter – of – fact and entirely effective.
Gokhale bares intimate details about her life through her body never shying away from discussing her tonsils, misaligned teeth, adipose tissue, breasts, buttocks, menstruation, childbirth, menopause, glaucoma, cancer, and bunions. While navigating the topography of her body, she takes the reader on an arresting journey across the landscape of her life that includes badminton, idyllic childhood vacations, dance lessons, a stint in cold England for her education, young love, failed marriages, disappointing relationships, children and a varied career as an author, translator, journalist, critic and an executive at Glaxo, the pharmaceutical company, amongst among things.
The most inspiring takeaway from the book, is Gokhale’s cheerful acceptance, boundless optimism and ever present equanimity even in the face of the trials and tribulations that cropped up at regular intervals the way that terrible two is wont to. Whether it is a relationship gone wrong, the ineptness of doctors who almost certainly exacerbated severe health issues she faced in her later years like failing eyesight and cancer, or even the household help who molested her, Gokhale has the refreshing air of one who has made her peace with the past and is free of resentment or anger. Her independence, free spirit and absolute refusal to point fingers at anyone for the little and big things that went wrong along the course of her existence is a valuable lesson for everyone in this age where it is fashionable to play the name, blame and shame game with impunity.
Dust under Her Feet, Sharbari Zohra Ahmed’s confident debut novel is a historical romance set in 1940s Calcutta, when American troops set up an army base in India to beat back the Japanese from Burma. Yasmine Khan is the unlikely proprietor of a night club – The Bombay Duck, which exists as a utopian zone, where the rigid boundaries separating people on the basis of caste and race are supposedly blurred, except they aren’t actually. Soldiers roped into a war that is in truth being played out by pig - headed politicos in the interests of imperial greed with no expectations of anything but that of getting slaughtered find some respite when they watch Yasmine’s girls sing and dance, helping them forget their troubles however briefly.
Yasmine’s motley family include her childhood friend, the gorgeous and talented Patience as well as people from all walks of life and she looks out for them while running the business with an iron hand. She doesn’t expect to fall in love but naturally she allows herself to be swept off her feet by the much married American Lieutenant Edward Lafaver. What follows is a tale of love, lust, and betrayal while the Second World War and famine rages all around them.
Ahmed dapples with burning issues like discrimination on the basis of race, caste and gender but it mostly feels superficial and half – hearted, given the author’s preoccupation with the ultimately undercooked romance and a friendship gone awry. A horrendous incident of rape and its repercussions are dealt with in a particularly ham – fisted manner, existing mainly as an area of contention between the lovers. Dust under Her Feet strives to be epic but succeeds only in being occasionally engaging.

This review was originally published in The New Indian Express.


I have nothing at all against precocious children determined to save the world and draw our attention to catastrophic climate change. The boundless idealism of students is charming even if their simplistic solutions to everything is irritating in its impracticality. Even the eternal willingness to play truant from school (or life) is understandable and on some days, I am tempted to bunk the endless monotony of chores that await on a daily basis and join the global climate strikes.
However, doomsday prophets are another matter altogether. They all have lots in common - messianic zeal, self – righteous wrath, magnetic charisma, tend to advocate extreme courses of action and enjoy a rabid cult following who accept every impassioned word they utter to be the gospel truth. The seeds of panic and fear are sown and it spreads like a contagion, leading to a worldwide pandemic and epic upheavals which if history is any indication seldom leads to desirable outcomes. Damn it, now I am the one sounding like a panic monger and anxiety attack inducer. See what I mean about these things being infectious?
Greta Thunberg, the freshly minted, iconic climate – change activist’s passion and sincerity is compelling. However, I find it exasperating when she thunders that “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction” using her reach to convince children that they have no future unless world leaders along with the rest of the entire populace act immediately to avert the impending doom. “We have to focus every inch of our being on climate change… unprecedented change in all aspects of society need to have taken place within this coming decade.” Come on! I think we can all agree that neither we, the people nor those we have chosen to lead us are going to do anything of the sort.
All of us like our creature comforts too much to give it up. We find it convenient to fly, leave the air – conditioner on, take long showers, eat meat, and use every single technological advancement ever made to make our lives easier. If anybody suggests we give up our refrigerators, washing machines, microwaves, fancy cars, become vegan and revert to a simpler time/pre – industrial age, we are going to ignore them. Hard. However, to assuage the guilt, we might whip up a social media storm to express our support for eco – warriors and helpfully suggest that everybody else and the government do their utmost to combat climate change, deal with that stupid hole in the ozone layer, those melting glaciers, endangered species etc.
Still, the hopelessness of it all is hardly reason enough to give up hope. Children need not live in fear. The truth is that none of us can possibly know what tomorrow holds. What we do know is that we are living in a golden age of prosperity and scientific advances. Alternate sources of energy are being explored and with time, there is reason to believe there will be positive change. And even if the worst were to happen, odds are we will find a way to live in a post – apocalyptic world and use the pieces to build an even better one. In the end, like the cockroach, we will endure even if we don’t overcome, and find a way to blunder on the way we always have.

This articles was originally published in The New Indian Express.

The Right and Righteous Way to Celebrate Diwali

Every year, when Diwali comes around, the Indian thing to do seems to be to get into a vehement argument about how best to celebrate it. Firstly, there are those who insist that bursting fireworks in an already dangerously polluted world is an irresponsible and reckless thing to do, and call for a blanket ban of the material which is literally explosive (Greta Thunberg would approve). These ostensibly environment conscious folks who belong to all walks of life, would be making an excellent point, if not for the fact that most are not quite ready to give up flying, driving, using animal products and the rest of the things that usually give Greta Thunberg and her fellow ecowarriors conniptions.
Then we have the Hindutva types, who insist that Hindu festivals, traditions, rites and rituals are unnecessarily being targeted by Godless folks and foolish intellectuals. Since ancient times Diwali has been celebrated with ritual oil baths, the consumption of delicious sweets and savouries guaranteed not to rot the teeth or clog the arteries provided they are cooked with the right dose of religious fervour, the adornment of the self with new clothes and ornaments, prayer and the all – important fireworks. Those who claim that fireworks were invented by vested commercial interests in China to blow up the world are liars who are woefully ignorant of the power of our venerable sages and rishis who could put up dazzling pyrotechnical marvels that lit up the heavens by merely twitching their eyebrows. How dare anyone question the wisdom of the ages? It is all these modern ideas that have prevented India from becoming a super – power and taking over the world.
They insist that the Gods in the pantheon will be mollified only if crackers are burst with gay abandon during Diwali celebrations and all who say otherwise especially the celebs who gripe about crackers exacerbating lung – related ailments but feel free to splurge on spectacular fireworks displays to impress their firangi husbands are anti – nationals, who are working hand in glove with ISIS. To hell with them! As every sensible person blessed with true faith is aware, appeasing the Gods in the traditionally approved manner will see the divinities rid the world of all its evils. And surely that includes those dratted carbon footprints, holes in the ozone layers, melting glaciers, and the rest of the ominous stuff that climate change nuts, sorry activists are always harping about?
Others can’t really be bothered with political correctness, theological debates, and environmental issues. It is the Instagram feeds that matter at the end of the day. Thanks to the television and the internet where all those ads keep popping up with unwanted diligence, it is well known that Diwali isn’t Diwali unless one is photographed while togged out in expensive designer outfits and magnificent pieces of jewellery not unlike those flaunted by heroines in those extravagant historical epics and earned at least a few thousand likes across social media platforms. If followers aren’t made sick with envy and left contemplating the futility of an existence without similar baubles, then Diwali celebrations are incomplete.
In the meantime, nobody cares about the most important thing. Diwali has fallen on a Sunday this year depriving us of the chance to holiday on a weekday. How can one celebrate this catastrophe?

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.