Saturday, May 27, 2023

Dazzling Damayanti Redeems Toxic Tale of Love


Nala Damayanti is a timeless tale of love from the Mahabharata that seeks to impress upon impressionable young girls, that they must love their spouses unconditionally. Even/especially if, said spouse is a whiny, weak loser who irresponsibly gambles away his entire Kingdom before abandoning her in the forest, to fend for herself. Husband dearest might be a rapist, murderer, and afflicted with every kind of awful trait there is but the wife must put up with his crap not just with superhuman stoicism but with a loving heart and devote every waking moment of her existence to pandering to his unworthy whims, enduring his gross embrace, and bringing forth sons by the dozen. She must also refuse to entertain even the thought of another man let alone his advances, because according to the ancient incels who wrote the scriptures while under the influence, a woman’s chastity must be safeguarded at all costs even if it entails eking out a miserable existence without an orgasm in sight, leave alone happiness or fulfillment.

Anand Neelakantan takes this material, and working within these crippling limitations does his utmost to redeem it. The fate of humanity, which is dangerously close to extinction, thanks to Brahma, the original dirty old deity, rests in the dainty hands of Damayanti, and her ability to love a man, who is hardly worth her toenails unconditionally, while fighting her way past the many barriers, that loom on their way to a doubtful happy ending. She is aided in her hopeless quest by Hemanga, a golden swan with a beak that just won’t quit jabbering. The lovers face untold hardships, thanks to the wily machinations of Kali, a God of darkness, who emerged from the sum of humankind’s fears and insecurities as well as Indra, Agni and Yama who toy with humans because they can and since immortality does not seem to have rendered them immune to boredom.

The story chugs along pleasantly enough. Here, as in the epic one wonders what Damayanti sees in Nala. We are told that the way to Damayanti’s heart is through her stomach and Nala as an amazing cook, manages the feat with a little help from Hemanga, in whose wake chaos usually unfolds. This isn’t quite convincing, but the reader goes along because of the charming mirth present though the proceedings. Nala is a self – made, irritatingly noble soul who has made a better life for his people but his achievements notwithstanding, he suffers from a severe inferiority complex on account of belonging to the Nishada tribe. He and his people are constantly dehumanized over their lower caste status. Neelakantan explores this recurring theme common to most of his books with the sensitivity and sharp wit he is known for, making Nala a sympathetic figure when he is not being an insufferable one.

In contrast to the self – pitying and almost ineffectual Nala, we have King Rituparna of Ayodhya who towers over the story with his brashness, bawdy tastes, and ferocious appetite for life. A truly memorable character, he appears to be a stand – in for the author himself with his irreverence and impatience for those who are so filled with fear about the torments of an afterlife that may see them in hell for their sins, that they forget to savor the joys of the single life allotted to them and fail to fill it with love and worthy deeds. He is the perfect answer to false Godmen and priests who play on the human penchant for being foolish for personal profit. Too bad, Damayanti doesn’t ditch Nala for Rituparna, but an epic tale can only go so far and thanks to Neelakantan, the modern reader will hopefully emulate Damayanti’s intelligence and gritty resolve to extricate herself from impossible situations in which she lands up thanks to idiot males without ever losing sight of the power of love to fix almost anything.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Hashing out the Harsh Truths behind Hashtags

 Hashtags that set social media ablaze tend to be ominous beings that mutate into somethingbigger and uglier in seconds. They lurch along in true monster style dividing people into opposing camps who shovel s**t at each other before piping down, since the creature that stirred up such divisive sentiment has simply vanished in a puff of digital smoke, having achieved its mission to divide without conquering or liberating. Besides being almost entirely useless, hashtags serve a sort of purpose. They reveal much about those of us who generate these thingamajigs and waste our lives watching them play out in virtual time, preferably in the form of easily consumed reels or tweets as per our personal penchant for prejudice.

Take the #TheKeralaStory for instance. It reveals that though we mindlessly consume content which has been hastily assembled with the view only to make a profit, without caring a crap for political or social consequences, folks will still argue about whether Bollywood and the patented brand of balderdash with a heavy helping of baloney it belts out, has the capacity to divide people along the lines of religion and endanger secular India and everything it stands for. In the meantime, most of us still in pocession of a semblance of sense have little patience for indifferent Gods and the more moronic of their followers because we'd rather watch #GuardiansoftheGalaxy3 since Superheroes are sexier and don't bore us with tedious talk of sin and shame.

Speaking of shame, #WrestlersProtest tells us that sexual harassment remains an inconvenient truth which we Indians insist on burying under the carpet because who amongst us has the bandwidth to deal with the whole He said She said hoo-ha which is destined to remain inconclusive though protestors carry on protesting till they are fit to burst? We prefer to wear them out with indifference and further abuse till they can protest no more. And when the issue persists and victims continue to be victimized by powerful predators giving rise to further hashtags, we merely shrug in exasperation or blame the victims for being falsely implicated in their victimhood before turning to #IPL2023 for more mindless entertainment. Like the #KohliGambhirFight. It confirms what we already knew. Most Delhites are angrier and more aggressive than most and think the rest of us are worth less than the dirt beneath their shoes. We bristle with outrage and feel better about ourselves by treating those we consider beneath us worse than dirt.

The advocates of #SameSexMarriage will certainly attest to being treated horrendously in the land where the Kamasutra which was light years ahead of its time in terms of addressing gender as well as sexual fluidity was written. We know that love can never tear apart the fabric of society but who wants to get involved in this farcical fracas when it is simpler to fixate on our own love lives and marital problems or Malaika Arora's vacation pics with Arjun Kapoor?

Hashtags themselves come and go too quickly to be too harmful but what is far more alarming is the hopelessness of the human condition they so clearly elucidate.



The Pledge: Adventures to Sada, co – written by Madhulika Liddle and Kannan Iyer, has lofty ambitions as it strives mightily to create an epic fantasy of Tolkienesque grandeur. The land of Mandala where this saga unfolds is a troubled one, with the empire having been split in two and the people being forced to weather the gale winds of hate, intolerance, and greed. In the midst of the tumult where everyone is suspicious about the activities of everyone else and people languish in prisons for no discernible reason, Jaadum, an aged prisoner and former magician who is also a chronic do – Gooder makes known his dying wish and sets in motion, the rickety plot.

Raibhu, the magician’s son, Afhash, his childhood buddy and Inosa, whose personal history is closely related to Jaadum’s secret activities for the greater good, find themselves facing down the forces of evil, led by the warlord, Umur Naash. This material calls for swashbuckling characters, rollicking pace and rip – roaring adventure. But all these requisite elements are sorely missing.

The characters are unbearably bland. Raibhu is noble, angst – ridden and supposedly talented but mostly he is commendably kind while also coming across as clueless and lacking in smarts. Some of his actions put the innocent in grave danger which makes it hard to root for him or his companions. Afhash is supposed to be the funny sidekick with a tortuous past, but this bromance is never convincing. Inosa is one of those jaw – droppingly gorgeous, tough yet tender women, favored by most novelists whose spectacular looks can be used to spark tantalizing romance as well as treachery. Umur Naash as the soulless, merciless ‘evil incarnate’, mass - murderer villain is straight out of a particularly bad Bollywood movie. Naturally, he has an eye for beauty and commits fully to destroying any semblance of it.

The plot plods along as the authors expend a lot of effort and words on world building. Some of the descriptive passages are not entirely lacking in charm. The co – authors explore the theme of religious intolerance and the people of Mandala occasionally find themselves at loggerheads over their right to worship either the land, sky, or water spirits, and one wonders why they don’t get their period underwear in a twist over the other two elements of nature as well. There are some ideas here that are intriguing, but the premise does not hold up thanks to the lackadaisical pace, clunky writing, and stilted dialogue. For people who have a monstrous war lord and his minions breathing down their necks, the protagonists follow a lumbering path through the wildlands, stopping once too often to eat, rest and tend to the superficial wounds inflicted on each of them at various points, when they can ill afford to.

There is a contrived twist in the epilogue which appears to have been hastily tacked on to whet the reader’s appetite for the inevitable sequel. This flight of fantasy is headed for a crash landing.

On Monstrous Men Who Create Merciless Machines


I once read a book by Terry Brooks, where the powerful Druid, Walker Boh is trapped by genius machines created by foolish men. Victimized by the soullessness of the true machine, he is pinioned on a sterile table with invasive tubes attached to him, and fed lifelike visions where he is fleeing from repeated attacks by relentless creepers of steel that seek to cut him up and is forced to use magic to defend himself. The machines then siphon away the potent energy expended and use it to power their cells. Poor Walker is helpless to defend himself, and the machines are perfectly content to let him keep at it, without respite, till even his formidable mind, cracks under the ceaseless strain. This is somewhat like the Matrix movies, but scarier.

Sometimes, I am convinced that we are all doomed to suffer the same fate as Walker, except, we choose to be trapped in an alternate reality, expending our vital life force on infinite inanities, so that we don’t have to cope with the evils of a broken world. How else do we explain the unvarying nature of crime and consequences? Of life’s predictable pattern of chasing highs which plunge us into fathomless lows? We are being fed the same stories with only a few variables altered, to trigger us into responding with incoherent rage. We flail at shadowy oppressors with all the ‘weapons’ in our arsenal, believing we are slaying them and making a difference. We keep tilting ferociously at nebulous nothings hoping that something will change.

It was only as recently as 2020, when the molten rage of the public spilled over when Bennix and Jayaraj became victims of custodial torture in TN. Now, we are directing our ire at ASP Balveer Singh, accused of torturing as many as ten suspects, two of whom were minors at the Ambasamudram police station. Apparently, he yanked out teeth using pliers, crushed testicles and used the police baton to devastating effect. Elsewhere, in the hallowed premises of Kalakshetra, a bastion of culture and tradition, founded by the legendary Rukmini Devi Arundale, allegations of sexual harassment have flown thick and fast, not long after the #MeToo movement, promising positive change, ran out of steam. Meanwhile, a video of the Dalai Lama asking a little boy to suck on his tongue has gone viral. In all these cases, there has been condemnation aplenty. But a familiar pattern has emerged with higher ups demonstrating a fierce commitment towards protecting the accused while leaving the victims to deal with the nuclear fallout. The same as always.

Clearly, things will never change if we stick to tried and tested non – solutions for societal ills. Where we allow our deep-seated fear of tackling the powerful, for fear of ruination, rule us to the point where we are happy to kowtow to a system designed to let the strong thrive while the weak are crushed.

Perhaps, it is best to let the machines take charge. The hope is that we can program them to do better than us. While we sink deeper into a morass of merciful oblivion.

My Sunday Column for The New Indian Express