Saturday, January 25, 2020


Nirbhaya gang rape case convicts (clockwise from top left) Akshay Thakur, Vinay Sharma, Pawan Gupta and Mukesh Singh. (File Photo | PTI)

‘Fresh’ death warrants have been issued for the four convicts in the Nirbhaya gang rape and murder case. Yet another date has been set aside in February for serving them. The Supreme Court has called it the ‘the rarest of rare, most brutal, barbaric and diabolical attack’ on a young paramedical student who stepped into a bus with a friend and lost her life but not before she was brutally assaulted in inhuman ways. Seven years later, her aggressors face the hangman. They have been awaiting the gallows for a while now even as their lawyers keep dipping into a seemingly inexhaustible bag of tricks, filing innumerable appeals, pleas for mercy, claims of minority, etc. Incidentally, of the six convicted, Ram Singh allegedly killed himself in Tihar jail while another was a juvenile who was sentenced by the court in its infinite wisdom to serve three years in a reform home.

A great majority are baying for blood. These are mostly the same folks who cheered the ‘encounter killing’ of the four alleged perpetrators in the recent and horrifying Hyderabad case where a vet was abducted, gang raped and burnt to death, never mind that the same cops had been grossly negligent in response to the frantic attempts made by her parents to find her and had failed to initiate search and rescue operations.The logic behind the bloodlust regarding the Nirbhaya case, of course is that such a move will deter future rapists and murderers while also providing justice for the victim and closure for her loved ones as well as a nation that had its jaded conscience painfully awakened. But knee – jerk responses aside, is hanging really the ideal solution?

Questions on the morality of state sponsored killing aside, is the death penalty truly going to put the fear of God or the Devil in potential rapists and scumbags? Will the world be magically transformed into a safer place where women won’t be groped, molested, raped or murdered with impunity? Will the victims in the Nirbhaya, Kathua, Unnao and countless other heinous cases get their lives back? Will a majority of the boys pay attention in moral science class and not grow up to be boors, jerks and lechers who think they are better than women simply because they can stand up and pee? Will society finally acknowledge that women are not the inferior sex and treat them accordingly without being collectively guilty of female infanticide, dowry harassment and acid throwing? The answer unfortunately is a resounding ‘NO!’ to all of the above.

As taxpaying citizens, we expect the government to prevent crime by having cops patrol the streets, responding immediately to emergencies, making the public transport system less of a shambles and if the worst were to happen, act quickly to nab offenders and bring them to task instead of allowing cases to languish for the rest of time. Having failed on all these counts, the government imposition of the death sentence rather like Ranveer Singh in a masala movie is a cruel joke. This is a broken system and by supporting its more farcical measures, we kid ourselves into thinking that we are doing the right thing. But all said and done, the Nirbhaya case is that rarest of rare cases that merits the death penalty. The government should just quit dithering, do the deed and make sure that such evil is never inflicted upon anyone else. 

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

A Monument to a Mother’s Love

Perumal Murugan’s collection of essays about his mother is a labour of love that captures beautifully the essence of a remarkable, resilient and resourceful woman. It is his first work of non – fiction to be published in English and it is every bit as superlative as his fiction. This is the work of an extraordinarily gifted writer in his prime.
Given that ‘Amma’, is a son’s attempt to pay homage to his deceased mother, while finding an outlet for his grief, it is surprising that this is not a sickly sweet sentimental portrait which attempts to deify the dear departed. Rather, it abounds with pithy descriptions of the agrarian way of life, code of conduct, prejudices and superstitious beliefs along with an inspiring work ethic which is sans greed or wastefulness. His treatment of someone who clearly has such a big place in his heart is honest to the point of brutality, while also being graced with infinite tenderness and Murugan’s trademark compassion for his characters.
It is easy enough to pity a woman like Amma who on the face of it, dealt with more than her fair share of hardship. Losing her mother at a very young age, dealing with a negligent father, having no access to an education, getting married at a young age and ceaselessly toiling till the end of her days, life had not been fair to her. If that were not enough, she also had to live with an alcoholic of a husband who was not above hitting her every time their arguments got out of hand, the loss of a child at birth, another to suicide and the crippling financial burden he left behind. Yet, this was a woman who cared nothing for pity and lived a full life with pride and honour.
Amma laboured endlessly because she believed honest labour even it were literally backbreaking was its own reward. She cared neither for riches, glory or possessions but lived with a quiet dignity, honour and pride. Of course, she was not without her flaws and clearly had a sharp tongue as well as a marked caste bias though that did not detract from an innate decency reflected in her courteous treatment of her daughter – in – law who belonged to another caste.
There is a touching simplicity to Murugan’s words and yet, make no mistake this is writing at its most profound, layered, and heart – breaking. It is not often that one is fortunate enough to pick up a book that is hugely entertaining and edifying at the same time. As you turn the pages, you will be surprised at how often you are left smiling or with a tear in your eye.

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

Tuesday, January 07, 2020

Bringing in the New Decade with a Bang!

There is something portentous about the changing of the decade. For those who are rolling their eyes and want to insist that the new decade doesn’t begin until 2021, I offer as evidence all the glitzy end of the decade parties I haven’t been invited to and beg you to just indulge me.  Everybody feels compelled to take stock of their lives which usually involves poring over social media memories. It is a totally worthwhile pursuit that is guaranteed to put a nostalgic smile on your face when you are not bemoaning the fact that you are no longer as young or effortlessly good looking (it is all relative!) as you were ten years ago. So you make a resolution to lose weight and take care of personal wellness, which means making the commitment to eat right, put in a big chunk of your time hitting the gym and frequenting beauty salons. The idea being that if you look like Anushka Sharma or Virat Kohli, you are more likely to emulate their success and hopefully big bucks and fame are just around the corner!
There is a need to engage in deep introspection which means you plonk yourself on a yoga mat to meditate but give up in 2 seconds flat to update yourself on which exotic and extravagant locale, the movers, shakers and richly compensated influencers are holidaying in to usher in the brand new decade, so that you can go green with envy and groan pathetically over the inadequate state of your bank account. Immediately thereafter you resolve to do whatever it takes to rake in the moolah, even if it means selling your soul/organs so you can vacation in Gstaad or Bora Bora next year instead of camping out in your room drinking soda and pretending it is champagne, while choking on your lone cupcake.
Having sworn to look your best and get rich asap, the next step is to assure yourself that you are no supercilious twit by setting goals for self - improvement. That means resolving to read more books even if it extends only to sneaking into bookstores to click a couple of pics with trending bestsellers at flattering angles to be used for your #greedtoread hashtag before making a speedy getaway. Picking up a new skill or hobby is a must. Obviously that means logging in to YouTube to look at all those ‘How To’ videos that promise to make you an expert in two minutes or attending those weekend classes and workshops that guarantee a new improved personality/lifestyle for a reasonable fee (coffee/tea/snacks included)!
Of course, one must learn a new language. Perhaps one of the romance languages, so you can communicate fluently with the locals since the plan is to become rich enough to spend the holidays gallivanting in style across Europe. Or Hindi if you are worried that its imposition across India is inevitable. I have made an encouraging start and now know more swear words in Hindi than my mother tongue.
Armed thus with the loftiest of aspirations, you can stride forth confidently into the decade and make it your own. Bring it on! 

This articles originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Packing a Wallop

Seasoned writer and novelist Timeri N Murari sure knows how to pack a wallop. His latest work of fiction, Gunboat Jack, is set in the early years after India won her independence, loosely based on a real-life boxer from the annals of Bengaluru’s history. The British may have departed and monarchy done away with, but India was still trying to find its footing while ridding itself of the demons from the past which persisted in dying hard. The country was still trying to forge ahead into a brave new future shorn of the evils plaguing the present. 
It was in these trying times that Gunboat Jack, an American, homesick for the shores he left far behind, struggling to make enough for the passage back home both for himself and his Anglo-Indian lover, finds himself talked into coaching former Prince Natraj aka Nicky, who wants to take on a formidable English opponent to prove to himself and others that his is not an inferior race.
Nicky’s adversary also happens to be the son of the English governess, Miss Hobbs, who has inveighed herself into the Raja’s favour and is not above conspiring to put the lowly Indians in their place while doing all in her power to enrich herself. 
A simple enough tale with a rather predictable climax, but in Murari’s hands, it is hugely engrossing with sparse, elegant prose that makes it easy to savour and delight in. Seen through Gunboat’s unflinching eyes, the still prevalent British influences even after the empire has breathed its last are readily apparent. Also, the cushy lifestyles of the petty Maharajahs, who have been shorn of real power but nevertheless enjoy the perks of generous privy purses and business dealings which allow them to wield considerable power and influence over their fiefdoms, are laid bare.
As is the plight of the Anglo-Indian community whom he refers to as the ‘lost people’ who are too English and Indian to ever be either. Gunboat cannot look away from the grinding poverty and servility too many Indians have been reduced to, even if all around people insist on turning a Nelson’s eye to the suffering of the downtrodden playing out under their noses. 
Even as the reader is drawn along with Gunboat, Nicky and the assorted characters in their lives for a thoroughly engaging ride, the marked editorial snafus ranging from an unforgivably tiny font, spelling, grammatical and factual errors like the one about the location of Tirupati are a definite grievance. But that aside, Gunboat Jack is a first-rate yarn that yanks one back in time to a transitional period, where two pugilists slugged it out in a ring to make sense of themselves and their differences.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Dark Deeds and Damaged Lives

Winner of the DSC Prize, 2014 for South Asian Literature, Cyrus Mistry’s latest novel, The Prospect of Miracles begins with the death of Pastor Pius Philipose. Remembered as a charismatic priest, fine orator and a noble soul who was ‘morally unblemished, upright, drenched – in – the – milk – of – human – kindness’ by his adoring small town parishioners, the Pastor is mourned, even regarded as a latter day saint. He is survived by his wife, Mary Agnes who has a starkly contrasting view of the not so dearly beloved departed. She is mostly relieved to be free of his overbearing, tyrannical and abusive presence though she has a dark suspicion that it would not be a simple matter to be well and truly rid of his toxic influence which has infected her life so deeply.
Mary Agnes reconstructs excruciating details for the benefit of the reader about her husband whose private persona was far removed from his carefully constructed public façade of a hardworking, dedicated, benevolent and beloved pastor who led by example and practised what he preached. Pius is not your typical, clichéd drunken, foul – mouthed, wife – beating spouse but he is definitely an abuser of the worst sort simply because he is crafty enough to conceal his villainy beneath a veneer of benevolence, misleading all around him. Even his wife who is at the receiving end of his behaviour doubts her very senses often feeling compelled to give him the benefit of doubt and exonerate her husband for his numerous misdeeds.
Carefully committed to using his wife to better his lot in life, determinedly chipping away at her sense of self – worth with a constant barrage of callous words and deeds, giving her regular glimpses of a vicious temper without ever using his fists, betraying her at every turn, the man is a monster with nary a redeeming quality. Worst of all he is a hypocrite with a gift for delivering fire and brimstone sermons warning his worshipful flock of the dangers inherent in indulging in the sins of alcoholism, fornication as well as assorted prurient pleasures of the flesh while forcing maids half his age into bed and imbibing freely of intoxicants, far away from prying eyes, taking care not to leave behind any damaging evidence.
Like Mary Agnes, the reader begins to feel lacerated under the onslaught of this disturbing account of dark deeds which the Pastor seems to have gotten away with. Except perhaps he hasn’t. Feminine fury and righteous indignation can be powerful weapons that often lead to deadly consequences. Having had a hand in his come-uppance even if it was mostly on a subconscious level, his wife struggles to come to terms with the damage that has been done to her spirit and very soul.
Their only son, Mark was one of the casualties of their dysfunctional marriage and has run away from home. Left utterly alone with only her dismal memories, guilt, and hopelessness for company, Mary is more vulnerable than ever and slowly starts to unravel as she suffers further betrayal with the spectre of madness looming threateningly from the abyss that stretches ahead of her. Soon, she begins to question herself. Perhaps Pius was right all along and she is not quite right in the head the way he always insisted.
Mistry’s skilled pen brings to life, not only the sights, smells and very essence of beautiful Kerala with its scenic beauty and aromatic spice plantations but the less savoury underbelly of Naxalite activity, oppression of scheduled castes and tribes by the landowning classes, plus conflicting religious ideologies. Mercilessly revealing the ugliest side of a marriage gone hopelessly wrong with a trapped wife, unable to extricate herself from the tentacles of her tormentor even after he is long gone, this is a dark tale that weaves a disturbing spell which clings to the reader long after the last page has been turned.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Monday, January 06, 2020

Cleaning up the #MeToo Mess

When the #MeToo movement exploded, most of us were pumped up with pent up anger, pleased as punch that predators were being pounded into the dirt and optimistic that in future mayhap, women will finally be treated with respect, listened to, cherished and allowed to breathe easier in a world that has been made safer. Thousands upon thousands of stories of abuse, harassment, gross misconduct and violation of rights have spilled forth prompting us to take a hard look at the tragic legacy of patriarchy. Formerly taboo topics pertaining to sex, sexuality, consent, appropriate behaviour, hostile work environment, abuse of power are being openly discussed. We have finally acknowledged that it is all too common for crimes perpetrated against women to go unpunished because more often than not, these cases are complicated, intimate, messy and hard to prove with the frequent result that serial offenders are let off the hook while their victims pay a heavy price by losing their jobs, credibility and even lives.
Real change, however, has proven to be a painstakingly slow process and not many have the patience for boring things like due process or the justice system (who can blame them given the abysmal track record of both!) or the fuddy-duddies who urge caution and state that in a democracy, the accused is considered to be innocent until proven otherwise. #BelieveAllWomen has become the war cry of the woke, new wave feminists who are tired of being relentlessly trolled and receiving unsolicited pics of male genitalia every time they raise their voices to express solidarity with their sisters.
In the subsequent shitstorm, a sense of balance, proportion, and nuance have all but vanished. The movement has devolved from denouncing sex offenders to criminalizing flirts, boors, and creeps. By clubbing together a wide range of misbehaviour some of which are merely silly, stupid or sleazy with serious offences like stalking, rape or paedophilia, #MeToo has lost steam and is becoming increasingly asinine as evidenced recently by the senseless shenanigans played out on social media by self – serving, wannabe stand – up clowns.
In this supercharged circus, people are forever being pulled up and derided for false claims and fake news. Men who denounce other men for sexual misconduct, demanding that they be hanged without a fair trial backtrack when they are the ones accused of the same foul deeds. Women who insist that all women be believed change their stance if it is their son, husband, brother or friend who has been accused by some ‘floozy’. Everyone seems to be enjoying the sordid revelations and mudslinging while deriving inordinate pleasure from witnessing the public humiliation of others.
I am all for the #MeToo movement but as someone who studied in an all-girls boarding school, I can confidently assert that you have to be every kind of moron to #BelieveAllWomen. Everybody lies and those who claim otherwise are lying. How ironic that while fighting patriarchal stereotypes of the chaste, pure, virtuous and non-existent woman as being the only one worthy of protection and exaltation we wind up perpetuating the same myth by casting all women as incorruptible champions of truth! Surely it is high time, we realized that wanting to verify claims and vet stories does not necessarily mean one is against women but merely on the side of fairness and justice?
The time has come for us to say Time’s up! To sexual harassment as well as social – media dispensed justice and punishment. To the mob mentality that sees us revel in the destruction of careers and lives. To hashtag activism. And to the dumdum in all of us.
This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.