Saturday, August 27, 2022

Festering Wounds and a Fractured Identity

 Operation Bluestar, was authorized by Indira Gandhi in June, 1984 to clear the militants led by Bhindranwale and his armed supporters who had taken up residence in Amritsar’s famed Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. The deadly military action which left thousands dead dealt a crippling blow to secessionists fighting for a free Khalistan and the national media at the time was full of praise for Ms. Gandhi. Some felt that this tragedy could have been avoided if the PM had used diplomatic means to reach an accord with the moderate leaders of the Akali Dal especially since some of their demands were considered reasonable.Matters came to a head when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her own Sikh bodyguards, five months after the ill – fated operation. National fury over her death and Rajiv Gandhi’s call for a pogrom resulted in anti – Sikh riots and genocidal violence against the community.

The Anatomy of Loss by Arjun Raj Gaind unfolds across a sea of suffering as heinous brutality is deliberately perpetrated against the Sikh community. Interestingly, the author chooses not to dwell on the political/ ideological nitty gritty that contributed to the tumultuous events of 1984. Rather, his is a deeply personal narrative based on real events that intimately examine the long-lasting emotional ramifications bred from a toxic miasma of hatred, intolerance, rage, and an unwillingness to forgive or forget a tragedy.

Haunted by his past, the protagonist, Himmat whose childhood is lost forever in the vicious upheaval brought on by a political assassination, is unable to move on. He was only eight years old and in the middle of an idyllic vacation with his maternal grandparents in their farmhouse when the shocking news reaches them. The ramifications are swift and shocking. Gobind, his beloved grandfather, a poet and professor shaves off his beard of which he is inordinately proud to try and disguise his identity, revealing himself to the little boy not as the vaunted hero he has looked up to but a very human and frail old man. That very night, Gobind’s best friend seeks his help to save his son, only a few years older than Himmat, who has been taken into police custody. Out of concern for his own family Gobind refuses. He changes his mind in the morning, but his intervention ensures he is taken into custody himself, beaten and tortured, despite his advanced years. Though his brave wife manages to free him, his effort is in vain, and Gobind earns himself the implacable wrath of a senior Inspector.

Anxious to protect Himmat, Gobind decides to leave Amritsar with his family. In his single – minded quest, he makes the decision not to intervene even as a great injustice is being played out before their very eyes, though Himmat begs him to help. This horrifying incident is the final straw that breaks the weakening bond between the two of them leaving Himmat feeling adrift from all he has ever known and cut off from his own identity.

Himmat is a finely etched character, whose raw and bleeding psyche is laid bare and exposed to the minute scrutiny of the reader to disconcerting effect. The constantly festering agony of one who has been unceremoniously exposed to the ugliest side of human nature is in no small part due to the crimes of the past, when the Sikhs were repeatedly persecuted in Mughal, British and Independent India. Through his protagonist, the author draws attention to suppurating wounds left on the collective psyche by unspeakable tragedy and the long-term damage done, when the embers of anger and despair are constantly stoked by self – serving politicians that perpetuates the cycle of hate leaving no room for healing. Yet, Gaind also suggests that there is always hope thanks to the resilience of the human spirit.

An incredibly affecting book, narrated with heartbreaking candor and deeply felt emotion, it is hard to put down. Gaind does a fine job of reconstructing personal trauma. Himmat moves to London and tries to drown his pain and impotent frustration in booze, chiromania and is even recruited by disgruntled youngsters like himself who still believe in the dream of Khalistan. But no amount of self – destructive behavior brings him closer to elusive peace or much needed closure until he is able to reach deep within, with only a little spectral help to find the strength to forgive and fully become the man with the heart of a lion, he was always impossibly close to being.

An edited version of this review appeared in The New Indian Express. You can read it here.

Sunday, May 15, 2022

Muting manic Mother’s Day celebrations

Every time Mother’s Day rolls around, I become Scrooge and spend the time rolling my eyes at all the heart-warming mommy dearest pics and touching tributes that pop up while I am infinity scrolling through Instagram. Mothers are likened to Goddesses or Superheroes and there is a lot of sentimental gushing about unconditional love, delicious meals cooked with an overabundance of care, selfless sacrifice and the rest of the slop nearly every film made in the history of Indian cinema has normalised.
Take that recent film about a gangster who is actually a monster with mommy issues which went on to smash box-office records. The protagonist is so hung up on his dead amma and unresolved Oedipal Complex that he goes on to sucker thousands of poor miners into thinking he is their saviour while exploiting them to fulfil his insatiable greed for gold, abducting the spoilt heroine and Stockholm-syndroming her into becoming his wife, with the view to bringing forth a child whom they are convinced will be his dearly departed mother reborn. Apparently, this unholy fixation exonerates him for all his abominable crimes and the audience is urged to worship him for venerating his mother. Never mind, that his mum gave him awful advice on her death bed and galled him into becoming a ravening capitalist who murders his way to the top. 
The phenomenal success of this film on top of other fragments of unassailable evidence gathered over a lifetime has forced me to conclude that the vast majority of men are in love with their mommies and are unable to get over the fact that society does not allow them to wed them. So most males who are not incels spend their lives feeling sorry for themselves because their wives or girlfriends, both real and imaginary, don’t pamper them, feed them ghee-drenched meals with their hands, tend to their ouchies, and tenderly massage their scalps the way Ma used to. Some go on to make movies about women who devote every atom of their beings towards the fulfilment of their precious sons’ petty needs. And the others grow up to become serial killers, rapists or just plain insufferable. 

 All mothers, without exception, will tell you that motherhood is not all that. The miracle of birth is actually a horror show that involves nine months’ worth of nausea, puking, occasional loss of bladder control, mood swings, uncontrollable cravings, bloating, etc. which is just a preview of the painful and life-threatening labour that follows. And just when you think the hard part is over, you are confronted with the unbearable truth... The worst is yet to come and you are on the hook for the rest of your life. This is unpaid, gruelling labour which will come close to killing you and there is no way out. At some point, nearly all mothers fantasise about hurling their kids out the window and making a break for freedom. The fact that mums refrain from their worst impulses and do the best they can with an impossible job is surely cause for celebration. But let’s not be silly about it. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

The worst laid plans

Every morning, when I force my eyes open after a couple of hours spent hitting snooze every time, I am harangued by the annoying alarm and resisting the urge to stay in bed for the duration of the day and blowing off my chores by pretending to be sick, I vow to be better. Today is the day, I tell myself, that I shall succeed in escaping this unproductive cesspool of a swamp I have been stuck in for longer than I care to admit. 

 I swear to begin work on my next book, which I assure myself will not only be an international bestseller but the winner of every prestigious prize there is, not to mention getting me a record-breaking movie deal. Then I shall use all the moolah raked up by its runaway success to literally clean up the streets of India, so that everything is totally shiny, sparkly and Instagram-worthy. 

 People will be able to head out into the great outdoors without being assaulted by the unassailable stench of garbage and assorted wastes. That will be my legacy to my beloved country. All I ask for, in return, is the Bharat Ratna, so that I will have something to brag about to the grandkids who will no doubt be bored to tears by my umpteenth retelling of the time I shook hands with the President of India, who told me that I was a National Treasure (or for all I know called me an uppity Jackass! Who the hell understands Hindi anyway?) and I thanked him most prettily in a mixture of English and Tamil. 

 There is a distinct possibility, that these things will happen sooner rather than later, I reassure myself. After all, the plan is to crawl out of bed, tweet about Ukraine, finish the monotonous tasks that will only take an infinity to complete in its entirety, whip out my laptop from wherever I hid it and get started on my book, which is going to be epic. And I really mean to do it. Soon. 

 It’s just that the Chennai Super Kings have lost a bunch of matches lately and I am yet to get over Dhoni’s ill-timed decision to hand over the captaincy to Jadeja. I just have to share my thoughts regarding the crisis on a WhatsApp group composed of true-blue CSK fans. For some unfathomable reason, there was a lot of acrimony regarding my well-meaning views harshly expressed with pithy GIFs and emojis. Somebody suggested that Rayudu, Bravo and Dhoni himself be dropped. What followed was a bloodbath!

 Needless to say, that unsightly episode put a spanner in my plans. But it doesn’t matter. I am determined to get started… Once I have realised my fitness ambitions of achieving a rad bod with under 2 percent body fat. It is a realistic plan for an author aspiring to become an actor. I am going to do it. But first things first. I have to stop hitting snooze. 
This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

A Bad-Mood inducing Brooding Batman

After two years of being cooped up at home, over Covid-related concerns that not even a currently raging war in Ukraine can dispel, I ventured out to catch the latest blockbuster Hollywood has churned out in the Superhero oeuvre. How bad could it be, I reasoned, even if the Twilight dude whose screen personas suggest he is forever suffering from severe indigestion, had been roped in to fill Christian Bale’s oversized Bat shoes. There were further concerns.
According to Twitter buzz, the new Caped Crusader was even darker than in Christopher Nolan’s trilogy which was single-handedly responsible for making it a cardinal sin for superheroes to do anything less than simmer endlessly in all things sepulchral. This was every bit as ominous as the trailer which gave the definite impression of a film desperate to be deemed a masterpiece, but I am a sucker for caramel popcorn and determinedly ignored the warning signs. 

 The film certainly lived up to my worst fears. Nowadays, it won’t do to make fun films based on comic books. Current cinematic offerings have to take after Booker Prize-winning weighty tomes and be every bit as dense and dismal but with none of the magically conjured soul-stirring sadness that makes the books worthwhile. 

 It is practically a prerequisite for not only the protagonist but every other character to be tormented souls with tortuous backstories and trauma enough to set up a shrink for life. Robert Pattinson tries so darn hard, managing to convey little more than the unavoidable fact that the Batsuit has made it impossible for him to have a bowel movement. 

Furthermore, the narrative has to be overstuffed with socio-political commentary, weighty themes like duality, good versus evil, which, hold your breath, are actually two sides of the same coin! The hooey keeps looping back and forth in sickening spoon-feeding style to give the impression of complexity lest it becomes confused with pedestrian popcorn fare. 

 The villain cannot be allowed to be a run-of-the-mill megalomaniac who likes to blow things up with maniacal glee a la Jack Nicholson and create masala-worthy mayhem. Instead, he is a monster who has torn free from a nightmare, fed on the decay of a corrupt society, and erupted with the vengeful fury of a volcano spewing forth the ugliness befitting a terrorist. Mercifully, female characters have more to do in these films besides being bodacious. Their bottoms are more artfully displayed. Besides they get to brood and kick booty just like the hero! 

 All that canny crafting may be catnip for the critics but the dearth of organic emotional beats leaves the heart groaning with impatience and a simple longing for the earlier iterations of Batman, even the one where studio executives greenlit a Batsuit with nipples on it. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express

The price of distraction

Johann Hari, former star columnist of The Independent, suffered a fall from grace after he admitted to charges of plagiarism and viciously attacking his professional rivals anonymously on Wikipedia. However, he has bounced back with bestselling books tackling high octane subjects such as addiction (Chasing the Scream) and depression (Lost Connections).
His latest book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention, explores the growing attention crisis that has reduced a majority of the human populace to tech–addicted zombies. It is a topic anyone who has felt they have been taken hostage by social media will be able to relate to easily. 

 In fact, even as I read the book, I could not help but Google Hari and devote more time that I could afford to spare on the aforementioned scandals spat out by the search engine that had made him notorious as well as successful. But the problem of our lost focus tackled by the book is real and needs to be addressed. Hari sets about it with gusto having travelled the world for the better part of three years gathering research, talking to experts, and laying out the material in typically provocative style. 

The book is replete with personal anecdotes—Hari dwells at length on his digital detox at a small town in Cape Cod in Massachusetts, US, with no smartphone or the internet for three months, visiting Graceland with his godson who had lost himself to gadgets and findings from studies, interviews with scientists, scholars, activists. He does a commendable job of breaking down the science and statistics to make it more palatable for the average ADHD (Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder)-afflicted reader. 

 Incidentally, in one of the more interesting chapters Hari bewails the ‘collapse of sustained reading’ as a direct result of the hostile takeover of human cognition by big tech rightly stating that books are the ‘medium through which most of the deepest advances in human thought over the past 400 years have been figured out and explained and that experience is now in freefall.’ 

 In another fascinating passage, Hari draws on the work of pyschologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to discuss the possibility of defending ourselves from the constant barrage of personalised distraction by training the mind to enter a state of flow where ‘you are so absorbed in what you are doing that you lose all sense of yourself, and time seems to fall away, and you are flowing into the experience itself. It is the deepest form of focus and attention’. Artists and athletes often experience this. The human existence is rendered most fulfilling in this zone, and entering it armed with a meaningful goal and commitment could be a worthwhile pursuit. 

 For the most part, the book emphasises the systemic factors that have robbed humanity of the ability to focus, the ruses employed by tech giants to keep people glued to their screens, thereby, sacrificing collective attention on the altar of avarice, directly contributing to a toxic atmosphere of negativity and outrage that has severely compromised civilised discourse, led to a proliferation of fake news and increased polarisation and radicalisation to the point where we are no longer able to unite for a worthy cause and bring about much needed reform. Hari also outlines the roles played by climate change, poor dietary choices, sedentary lifestyles and pollution in deteriorating attention spans. 

 So far, so good but none of this information is as shockingly revelatory or jaw-dropping as Hari’s highly frenzied style of writing would lead you to believe. After all it is no secret that social media and assorted apps routinely sell personal information to the highest bidders and that these details are used against users to better uphold the interests of surveillance capitalism. The science is also nebulous and as Hari admits, ‘We don’t have any long-term studies tracking changes in people’s ability to focus over time.’ Even the evidence put forward, as Hari freely states, has been strongly contested and there seems to be little consensus on the subject. 

 Consequently, one can’t help but feel, that the ‘scientific facts’ have been selectively interpreted to bolster Hari’s own perspectives and simplistic approach to the problem of reclaiming our lost focus. Some of his suggestions and interventions will no doubt prove to be useful for individuals but the ‘attention rebellion’ he calls for is likely to remain every bit as remote as the odds on my own successful resistance to the siren call of social media and those infernal notifications indicating that someone liked or retweeted my crap. 

 This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Post-Valentine’s Day Peregrinations

The week after Valentine’s Day is very revealing. We see it in all those empty heart-shaped confectionery boxes looking bereft without the decadent candy that has disappeared down overly indulged gullets. In deflated balloons and pesticide-drenched, dried-out, long-stemmed red roses that lie outside overflowing trash cans, because this is India.

Those cutesy pics and reels of couples on Instagram who are enjoying candlelit dinners, hugging oversized and overpriced teddy bears, slow-dancing or opening gifts with extra-wide smiles to overcompensate for the fact that they are not feeling as elated as they are supposed to feel. 

 Most of all, there is a pervasive sense of discontent as couples who saw a little too much of each other during the pandemic contemplate the joys of being single again and single people who have been roundly reproved by the spiteful for not having a significant other to celebrate a commercial holiday that has cashed in on outdated notions of courtly love, wish they were part of a loved-up couple. 

 Like the mythical Ouroboros, which means ‘tail-devourer’ in Greek and is represented by a tail-swallowing snake or dragon, it is a never-ending conundrum. Most of us are in love with the idea of being in love rather than what it actually entails to be in a relationship, even on the off chance that it is a loving and fulfilling one. 

 Because deep down, we know that even the grandest of passions, at best, serves as a backdrop against which the humdrum monotony of existence plays out at snail’s pace even in a world with its increasingly fast and furious rhythms, if it has not crashed and burnt out already. Love is irksome because it is demanding, takes up more time and effort than is feasible and dies anyway.

 Even so, even the most curmudgeonly and cynical amongst us can seldom resist the irresistible allure of amour and the magic it promises. Everywhere we are confronted with the smoking ruins of curdled romances and the sheer devastation wrought by desire turned to dust. Infinite stories, their never-ending permutations notwithstanding tell us that tragedy is the only outcome we can expect in a love story and we know it is true because it feels like we experienced these stories ourselves even if it was only in a dream and that they are merely echoes of worse ones we have lived through. 

 And yet, we need to believe in not just the highly improbable but even the impossible possibility of a love story that will somehow bypass the near-certainty of a squalid ending and remain as splendid as it was in the beginning. Ultimately, we are all fools in love or hoping to be that fool in love, because we will always choose disaster over dreariness. 

 This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Schism between Science and Spirituality

Two years into a raging pandemic, Corona continues to have most of civilisation in a chokehold. As expected, people haven’t taken kindly to the fact that their prayers, wishes, science-approved vaccines and safety measures have done next to nothing to make it go away. Needless to say, fear, fraying tempers and fraught emotions have come to the fore, creating a toxic climate that claims as many victims as the variants of a virus. 

 People need to present this calamity with a united front and yet, we have seldom been more divided. We can’t agree on whether the vaccines are lifesavers guaranteed to save humanity or a placebo concocted by the pharmaceutical companies to make trillions and profit from collective suffering in collusion with heartless capitalists. The double-jabbed and the vaccine sceptics are butting heads leading to explosive results with World No 1 tennis champion, Novak Djokovic, being the most high-profile casualty. 

The outspoken Novak Djokovic has been one of the most visible vaccine sceptics and his stubborn stance has endeared him to his fans who were infuriated at the public humiliation of a great champion by slimy politicians while earning him the dire wrath of most others. His detractors sought to drown him in a wave of social media-engineered derision, mocking his spiritual beliefs and the pseudoscience he supposedly peddles. 

 This inability to find a middle ground in light of the ever-widening chasm between science and spirituality is our biggest failure in modern times and it needs to be bridged. We must make the attempt to develop a system of knowledge that is free from the fallacies of science and the failings of religion. In the tussle between faith and intellect, neither can hope to subsume the other which is how we have arrived at this hopeless impasse. 

 It wasn’t always this way. Ibn Sina—polymath, philosopher and physician whose innovative theorising in metaphysics elevated the soul to the realm of the intellect—gave the world the Canon, the foundation of modern medicine which was taught as a textbook in Europe and the Islamic lands. Michelangelo was a devout Catholic who risked eternal damnation to perform dissections on corpses to satisfy his scientific curiosity about anatomy which he felt was crucial to enhance his prowess as a sculptor and painter. 

 India’s great mathematicians like Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta managed to find a way to reconcile the demands of their faith with science, making unequalled contributions to the study of numbers even as they gazed upon the stars. These are the giants we must emulate. After all, differences in race, culture and beliefs notwithstanding, diversity is a beautiful thing especially when the divisive elements find a way to beat the odds and coexist in truth and harmony. 

 This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Fractured lives and fickle fortunes: The House Next to the Factory is a confident debut

Sonal Kohli makes an ambitious and confident debut with her collection of short stories, The House Next to the Factory, which makes for a wonderfully textured and satisfying reading experience. Set sometime between 1980 and 2010, these nine inter-connected stories focus on not just the inhabitants of the eponymous house which consists of a post-Partition immigrant family but the lives that are touched by theirs as well. In the process, it explores the potent forces of culture, community, circumstances as well as the crisis of identity with an insightful gaze.
Good short fiction is characterised by blank spaces that leave much to the imagination and dark voids that succeed in captivating the reader while often leaving them confounded with the mysteries of ambiguity and lack of resolution. An interlinked collection of stories such as this one with its fragmentary format and episodic narrative style does not hew to a particular template but lovingly builds a world packed with intricate detail and characters who are bursting with life just like in a novel but without the overarching unified plot. Thus Kohli, by borrowing from the best techniques of short and long form fiction manages to create something unique that feels organic and true to the lived human existence in all its multihued and sordid splendour. 

 Kavya, who is not always the protagonist, seems stifled by the strictures within the suffocating confines of the house but she is not without the gumption to strike out on her own or rebel against the expectations that weigh her down. She sets out in search of a nun. Originally, a senior who had the same bus route, she becomes Sister Celina before returning to her old life. Kavya has heard the scurrilous theories spun out seeking to explain the ex-nun’s decisions but she goes in search of answers or just the chance to re-connect making it a personal odyssey which just leaves her with even more questions than she set out with in the first place. 

 A well-loved tuition teacher whose students include Kavya’s brother and cousin is struggling to pick up the pieces of his life after a personal loss when his world is almost shattered again in the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots. An aunt of hers moves to England but her heart remains with a good friend who encouraged her writing and is heartbroken over the loss of her unborn child. Her grandmother has survived the Partition and is fortunate to witness her family’s fortune grow in leaps and bounds thanks to her sons who are called the Steel Brothers, but her poor friend is not so lucky in life or love. 

 Kavya’s mum’s relatives have a man Friday who has found comfort in the arms of a lower caste widow but will this newfound happiness be snatched away from him because his life is subject to the whims of his employers? The Steel Brothers buy a house from a mother and daughter who are struggling to make ends meet after the loss of the man of the house and have done well by themselves and their family but everything seems to hang by a thread. Kavya and her lover have drifted apart and find themselves in Paris and Landour respectively as they continue to grapple with chequered pasts burdened with history and a future in flux owing to the grievances of a precarious present. 

 The charm of these stories lie in their stubborn refusal to fit into any particular format. Rather, each tale meanders along whimsically staying faithful to its own demands and ending of its own volition. The stripped down prose is effective and instrumental in guiding the delighted reader into the inner lives of these characters. A lesser writer would have tried to cram in exposition but Kohli is that rare talent who exercises remarkable restraint to let each story just be, thereby amplifying the magic considerably, pulling off something truly special. 

 This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Moonstruck with Matrimony

Whenever I have a column due, I start thinking deeply about life and its many issues. For instance, I have never been able to figure out why people are so enamoured with the antiquated if anodyne institution of marriage. Of course, the rewards and incentives are many for those who wed and stay that way thereby ensuring that society as we know it does not fall apart.

 After all, no government wants to be saddled with the responsibility of raising children from broken homes, providing economic support for recently divorced women who have no accommodation in the job market, or supplying medical care for former spouses who have nobody to foot the bill. And heaven forbid the supposed suicide risk posed by the Lonely-Hearts Club makes the government look bad for not caring in the least about mental health. Never mind, that married folks pose a similar threat though they are more likely to kill each other rather than themselves. 

 It also has to be conceded that in the rarest of rare instances that marriage actually works it is truly a many splendored thing which is a bulletproof cocoon that provides safety, security, a sense of belonging, and that invaluable feeling of being loved and cherished. Yet, by that logic, though the Stoics swore that a good King was the best form of government and we know the ancient Greeks knew what they were talking about, none of us have the least inclination to trade democracy for that elusive creature - the perfect monarch! Further, since a majority of married folks are every bit as unhappy if not more so than their unmarried counterparts, one wonders why wedlock is still considered the most desirable relationship goal.
So why is marriage idealized to such a degree? Why are we filled to the brim with outsize romantic notions when Vicky Kaushal and Katrina Kaif tie the knot? The latter is being lauded for finding and landing her Mr. Right even though I maintain that her greatest achievement is earning the right to call herself an actor even though she can’t act and couldn’t manage the feat even at gunpoint. And while my social media feeds are gushing that the duo are the very picture of the fruition of couple goals, I maintain that they are a textbook example of a long line of power couples who have used their relationship for monetary gain while making it all look lovey-dovey. 

In light of the unlimited foolishness on display one can only hope that someday, we will be committed to knocking down outdated institutions instead of cementing them further simply because we have been stuffed to the gills with fairy tales that have conditioned us to erroneously equate a happily – ever after with marriage. 

 This column originally appeared in The New Indian Express