Tuesday, March 09, 2021

Interview with Abigail Dean, Author of the Excellent Girl A


Girl A  by Abigail Dean is an exquisitely crafted literary thriller and is one of the finest books I have read in a while. It is an agonizing tale of sustained abuse suffered in childhood, but the author chooses not to dwell compulsively on most of it. Instead she takes us through the nightmare that continues to cast long shadows on the lives of victims and their desperate struggle to flee the monsters that continue to stalk them from their memories of a traumarized childhood. Though, I like to think of myself as hardboiled, I wept at various points in the narrative. Small wonder this debut novel has taken the literary world by storm! 

Sharing the unedited version of my interview with Abigail Dean:

1.      Lex Gracie is a fascinating character – resilient, intelligent and remarkably strong. It was an interesting creative choice you made not to focus on the gruesome particulars of what went down in that ‘house of horrors’ but on the far reaching effects of abuse and its prolonged impact on the psyche of victims, even one, such as Lex who seems to have made it, given how gritty she is. What prompted this decision? I’m very interested in true crime, but one of the questions I’ve always wondered is: what happens next? There is often a lot of media attention on a particular case or crime, to the extent that certain photographs or buildings acquire an odd infamy. But for the people actually affected by those events, there are so many months and years and decades after: how do people live then? In Girl A, I wanted to explore that quieter time, which is so often hidden from the public view.

2.      The dynamics between the siblings seems to be complicated particularly the relationships between Lex – Ethan and Lex – Delilah. It intrigued me that Lex seemed more willing to forgive Ethan and his dubious decisions prior to and in the aftermath of their ordeal than her mum. Do walk us through the process you followed to peel back the layers of their collective psyches to reveal the raw and still bleeding wounds within. Creating the different dynamics between the Gracie siblings was one of the best things about writing Girl A. They may have grown up in difficult, traumatic circumstances, but they share the same alliances, rivalries and barbs as any other siblings. Lex loves her older brother, Ethan, despite questions about his complicity in their parents’ abuse. As the oldest of the siblings, they bonded as children over books, over their love of school – and it’s that old allegiance that makes Lex stick by Ethan, despite the fact that he’s become a very questionable adult.

3.      There was hope permeating the book, even in the aftermath of gut – wrenching grief, trauma and loss. Do we dare to remain positive despite being confronted with evidence of unspeakable evil and human capacity for inflicting harm no matter the number of restraints placed to prevent it? Lex is such a strong, resilient character. She’s the heart of Girl A, and her perspective – wry, humorous, cynical – really does fill the book with hope. As a reader, I usually find that it’s the scenes of human connections, even in the darkest circumstances, that move me the most.

4.      Girl A was refreshingly non – judgmental on many levels seeming to point towards circumstances brought on by factors like grinding poverty and unholy influences (that creepy Jolly!) as the perpetrators of monstrous cruelty. But to what extent do you think individual folly and broken systems are responsible for societal evils leaving aside variables beyond our control and what can we do to prevent others from suffering the fate of the Gracie siblings? I’m glad that you found Girl A non-judgmental. It’s crucial, for me, to have characters who feel like real people, and real human beings are rarely simply good or evil. I don’t have sympathy for every character in Girl A, but I try to have some understanding for each of them, however misguided their actions become. There are many moments in Girl A where the community is complicit in ignoring the children’s suffering – where people try to step in, but fail to do enough - but that’s not intended to be judgmental, either. I don’t have the confidence to assume I would act differently. It was one of the things I found most uncomfortable, writing the book, and I think it’s a question for each reader to ask themselves. 

5.      You have mentioned drawing inspiration from true – crime stories like Fred and Rosemary West, Jasmine Block and the notorious Turpins. How did you go about researching these cases as well as the experience of severe trauma brought on by prolonged captivity and sustained abuse? I was aware of a number of cases through my interest in true crime, so the focus of my research was psychology, rather than real-life events. Each of Lex’s siblings has a very different reaction to their childhood, and I read into what those reactions might be. They range from Delilah’s suggestions of Stockholm syndrome to Gabriel’s uncontrollable rages, which pursue him into adulthood. That said, I also want there to be ambiguity in Girl A: how much of each character’s reaction can be attributed to what happened to them, and how much is simply who they are?

6.      Girl A has been welcomed with thunderous applause and record sales, deservedly so. The screen rights have been sold to Sony. How is the view up there in that stratospheric sphere of elusive success? Just as surreal as it looks, I think! As a writer, you spend so long working in isolation, obsessed with the characters and the story. The most amazing thing, for me, is that my characters are out in the world, there for people to love and detest and challenge – as I’ve done with so many books myself. I’ve received a few messages expressing particular contempt for Jolly and JP, and knowing that you’ve sparked those kinds of feelings in readers is the absolute best.

7.      Do share a glimpse into the next book you are working on. It is eagerly awaited… My second novel follows two characters in the aftermath of an attack: one loses her mother in the atrocity, and the other believes that the whole thing was a hoax, and sets out to disprove it. Like Girl A, it deals with themes of trauma behind the headlines, and with the different perspectives of different characters, just as the Gracie siblings each remember their childhood in a slightly different way.

 An edited version of this interview appeared in The New Indian Express.

Ramayana with Anuja


Hi folks,
Very happy to announce that 'Ramayana with Anuja' is now available on YouTube (12 episodes in all). Working on the series was one of the bright spots in a mostly miserable 2020. We shot under challenging circumstances, practicing social distancing, donning masks, and flinching every time someone coughed or cleared their throat. My mum was in her element - rocking the mother hen mode as she bullied us into drinking gallons of tender coconut water (yum), herbal teas (meh), nilavenba kashayam (double yuck) and other foul smelling concoctions that tasted as bad as they smelled. But thanks to her efforts (and a pinch of luck!), we were able to complete shooting without any dreaded Covid - related mishaps. Thanks mum!
The entire experience was intense, immersive and so memorable. I really hope I did justice to Valmiki's Ramayana and it is with a great deal of nervousness that I am sharing it with you all. Hope you enjoy it!

Do check out the entire playlist right here.

P.S: Please do post your thoughts in the comments section and share the link with anyone at all who might be interested :) Thank you!

2020 and Beyond: Bad Years and Worse Ones


Pic courtesy of PTI and TNIE

The demise of 2020 was boisterously celebrated across the world, with reckless disregard for social distancing. After all, it is now almost universally acknowledged that annus horribilis does not begin to describe the sheer awfulness of the year gone by. The coronavirus has laid waste to global health and economy. Worse, there seems to be no respite from social evils as hardened criminals continue to do their thing, the undeserving continue to enrich themselves and the powerful ride roughshod over the poor and weak, the way they always have and no doubt, always will.

Yet, an overwhelming majority had such high hopes for 2021. Almost as if they were certain that an army of fairy Godmothers were hard at work, zooming across the length and breadth of the planet, wielding their wands with superheroic élan, sprinkling pixie dust on the problem areas that seemed to be erupting and suppurating every which way, while their elven helpers sat over a billion, bubbling cauldrons filled to the brim with magical potions designed to rejuvenate and renew all things rotten and ruined. Needless to say there can be but one outcome when such unreasonable expectations are allowed to skyrocket Рdisappointment. With a side of depression and desolation.

The year has barely begun and already it seems to be doing little more than regurgitating the contents of the toilet bowl that was 2020 with explosions of noxious nastiness. Vaccines are being rolled out but people don’t seem keen on being jabbed. Large scale protests against the establishment are escalating and the system strikes back by imprisoning protestors young and old, while clamping down on freedom of speech. Elsewhere, hunky dory isn’t the term being used to describe the prevailing state of affairs as the exit of an orange – headed menace led to massive upheavals violently staged by his rabid followers. Meanwhile, those nations worst affected by the pandemic continue to battle it with indifferent success often trampling on fundamental rights in the name of the greater good. Seldom before has the great majority of the human populace worn such a collectively grumpy mien or been this uncooperative and intransigent.

To make matters worse, the Nobel UN agency has warned that we can expect things to get steadily worse this year, since famines of terrifying proportions are expected and the funds needed to tackle the impending catastrophe are fast dwindling. None of this is heartening. But the good news is that it can’t be all be bad news. Now that we have removed the jinx on 2021 by refusing to set ourselves up for disappointment we can steady ourselves with the knowledge that there will be precious moments of hope and happiness to tide us over this year as well. And the crappy ones ahead.

Enough with the Love Stories


The controversial ‘love jihad’ ordinance recently enforced by the Uttar Pradesh government for the purpose of preventing ‘canny’ Muslim men from sweeping ‘clueless’ Hindu girls off their feet in order to get them to change their faith has provoked vehement opposition. This is an ugly measure that spits in the face of secular India and deserves to be overturned. Yet, these unholy methods implemented in the name of all things holy got me thinking about deep – seated issues related to the institution of marriage, that extend beyond the obvious bigotry and hatred that fuel these inane legal precepts. 

Why do we persist in believing that falling in love and getting married are essential to a wonderful life despite evidence to the contrary? Practically, every popular movie or show, features variations of extremely good – looking young people getting smitten, prancing around in exotic locales and dealing with messy matters of the heart before driving into the sunset towards that happily ever after, the fairy tales promised us was the inevitable culmination of every love story. Every once in a while, the lovesick in reel life and more alarmingly in real life are assaulted or slaughtered by sick creeps. Terrifyingly, these lovebird killers are cheered on by fanatics who foolishly believe that it is not in keeping with Indian tradition to fall in love or have consensual sex outside of an arranged, endogamous marriage.

These extreme reactions to cozy twosomes has always been perplexing to me. Lovers, even the interfaith ones are mostly a self – indulgent lot given to stewing in a sickening syrup of all things sensual and superficial, sanguine in their deluded notions of the enduring power of that fragile, fickle emotion called love, which is as likely to last forever as an egg sandwich left in the sun. Eventually when a relationship regresses to a legally sanctified union, even the most besotted come to realize that marriage is where affection goes to die, in a paroxysm of pain brought on by resentment, regret, and an absence of shared joy.

Marriage was originally designed for boring practical purposes to serve a society devoted to perpetuating the human race by raising batches of brats together. It was never intended to be a perpetual source of personal fulfillment or an adventure ride, replete with romance. Therefore, it is about time we stopped defining a good life in terms of fleeting connubial bliss to counter dangerous ordinances framed by harmful halfwits targeting harmless twits. Let us resolve to secure a better future by refusing to invest so heavily in the trivial pursuit of a non – existent state of transcendental togetherness especially if there is risk to life, limb and more. We will do just fine without the love stories, tragic or even otherwise.  

 This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

When the Quotidian Crashed into the Quirky


In recent years, Indian publishers seemed to have given short story writers the short end of the stick which is why is it lovely that 2020 threw up some beautiful collections by authors at the top of their game like Nisha Susan. Two – time Commonwealth Short Story Prize Winner, Anushka Jasraj also makes an assured debut with ‘Principles of Prediction’.

Jasraj has crafted 13 stories featuring a host of characters who are mostly from dysfunctional backgrounds and entirely dissatisfied with their lives, prompting them to embrace the preposterous with mixed results. In the story after which this collection is based, the reader encounters a weather forecaster, who has mommy issues so debilitating, she is pushed to the brink of sanity. ‘Notes from the Ruins’ and ‘Entomology’ take the tired old love triangle for a spin and makes one wonder when this tedious trope will be trashed. In the ‘Circus’ a young woman decides to run away. But not to join the circus of course but to live with the lion – tamer since that is the sort of thing that makes little sense outside the mad hatter’s world these characters inhabit. In ‘Westward’ Soraya meets Sigmund Freud who wonders what her father would make of her fear of dogs. ‘Drawing Lessons’ is about an unhappily married woman who has dreams where real life friends try to make her see where her sexual inclinations lie and say stuff like ‘Amazon women cut off their breasts, so they can be better warriors.’

The star of ‘Elephant Maximus’, is Cassata who is a cat – napper not to be confused with a cat burglar who decides to kidnap an elephant. Then there are the fortune tellers and others of their ilk in ‘Venus in Retrograde’ and ‘Numerology’. In the former, a young man is haunted by a ghost he invented who may or may not be and in the latter, a young girl waits for a long time to read the last letter, her mother left her, which contains a list of things an astrologer put down to decode her future. The private investigator in ‘Feline’ finds herself inconvenienced when she desires the subject she has been tailing at the behest of his ex – girlfriend. These spaces are the most hard to swallow since they appear to have been built and not lived in.‘Radio Story’ on the loss of freedom and love is the most affecting story of the lot. 

The writing is clever, awfully so. Fragmentary to the point, where it is just plain frustrating. Filled to the brim with characters whose character arcs are sketched out by means of cryptic clues that tend to confound more than clarify. Mostly though the collection abounds in the realms of the absurd and is overly spiced with an abundance of quirk for quirk’s sake.

Those looking for simple, enjoyable reads with three, cleanly demarcated acts are in for disappointment since Jasraj tends does not bother with tying up loose ends with neat little flourishes. She prefers to leave the reader dangling fretfully or bursting with questions that have no answers. Those with the patience to unravel the carefully stacked layers will be rewarded with the occasional strokes of brilliance and rare insights into the futility of human existence but these are few and far between.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Domestic Woes and Dirty Truths


There are many tedious, irritating, mind – numbing jobs in the world but housework has earned its place somewhere at the very top of the list. The reasons are painfully obvious. Nobody likes to scrub the toilet or pick out little pieces of food from the sink, sweep and swab the floors till they shine, do battle with the indefatigable dust demons, cook umpteen meals for the family, clean the stove, make sure the clothes are laundered, neatly ironed and folded, shop for groceries, clean the fridge, get rid of stinky garbage in an environment – friendly manner…The list is endless.

Worst, of all household work is drudgery at its most unforgiving. It is a thankless job that offers little by way of satisfaction or compensation. No matter, how hard you work to stay on top of domestic chores, there is no respite, since you have to do it all over again, mostly on the very next day because those tiresome tasks are not going anywhere. And of course, it is unpaid labour, which is far from glamourous and does not earn one respect or appreciation.

In India, the smart choice is to dump this tortuous job on maids who are usually paid a pittance and fobbed off with remnants of discarded meals, sweets that could prove ruinous to diets or damaged articles of clothing in lieu of adequate remuneration. Heaven help those who can’t afford maids!

Let us talk about the division of labour here. Despite the strides made to empower and liberate women, when it comes to household work, we still do most of the heavy lifting. Of course, men who pitch in every once in a while by half – heartedly vacuuming, doing the dishes, or running the washer/dryer are covered in praise for their minimal efforts. Whereas all women are expected to take responsibility for home and hearth, irrespective of whether they have a job or not. Because a woman’s worth is still measured by her homemaking skills.

Kamal Haasan’s promise to provide salaries for housewives as part of his electoral campaign and Shashi Tharoor’s endorsement of the same is not going to cut it, simply because the onus of housework will remain with women. Of course, the value of unpaid domestic labour needs to be recognized but it is not merely a question of payment. Equal load sharing among all members of the household is more important. Or we could simply stop caring and decide that messy houses with a far from spotless tub or an overflowing sink does not necessarily carry the mark of the slovenly but is an indicator of a home full of busy people who have better, more rewarding things to do with their time. This indifference may hold the key to happier households!

This article was originally published in The New Indian Express.

Humour with a Heart


Mysterious screaming heard in the decrepit stairway of a suburban housing complex, evidence of domestic abuse, a suicide case that may just turn out to be cold-blooded murder, thefts involving wedding gifts as well as hefty chunks of cash, and a mounting body count. It is hard to imagine this material being milked for laughs and yet, that is exactly what Kiran Manral, author of The Kitty Party Murder deftly manages to do with oodles of warmth and wit to spare. Her last book was the haunting Missing: Presumed Dead which was a disturbing study of the bottomless despair that those afflicted with mental illnesses suffer from which in turn traps victims and their loved ones in an endless spiral of self – destruction and grief. Manral’s latest offering on the other hand is replete with delightful humour guaranteed to leave you laughing up a storm.

            Why are humourists critically and criminally underrated? The world itself does not offer much by way of good cheer which is the all the more reason we need books, movies and just about anything else that makes us laugh ourselves silly and feel gloriously alive. The Kitty Party Murder is just the thing to make the pandemic – induced blues go away, forcibly driven back by gales of raucous laughter that is totally worth making your family members and dogs wonder if you are utterly and irredeemably nuts.

            Kanan Mehra aka Kay, who formerly graced the pages of Manral’s The Reluctant Detective, is a thirty – something housewife who wouldn’t mind some excitement in her life just as long as it does not disrupt her routine which features lunching with the ladies, shopping, deferring working out, mediating disputes between her domestic help and dealing with her adorable son whom she refers to as the brat and the workaholic spouse. Like the very best of comic fiction, Kay’s world is funny, filled with snark, biting observations about human nature, occasionally dark and entirely enthralling.

            Nearly every sentence is packed with jokes and ideas that demand you savour each line for a truly rewarding read. And while the humour itself is wicked it is also humane. Kay, might be given to abusing hyperbole and an extremely critical narrator but she doesn’t let anyone off the hook, least of all, herself. She goes on at length about her cellulite, recalcitrant paunch, Nutella habit and lackadaisical approach to life even when she is ordered to investigate a supposed suicide case by infiltrating a kitty party group and unearthing their deepest, darkest secrets. One can’t help but admire Kay’s je ne sais quoi and enjoy the joyful romp across her quirky world with its abundance of mirth, keen observation and biting satire. 

This review was originally published in The New Indian Express.