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.