Sunday, July 09, 2023

Good, Bad and Ugly News


I like receiving notifications from News apps. This way, I can pretend I know exactly what is happening in the world. Thanks to these timely alerts, I know that Meghan Markle is no longer as loved as she used to be, because too many have taken on her brand of self - pity politics, grievance – hawking and aggressive self – marketing to ensure that her success exceeds her meagre talents and made it their own. I have also been made aware, despite repeated hints that ‘news’ of this nature does not really rock my boat that Vijay Varma and Tamannaah Bhatia are dating post their ill – advised forays in Lust Story 2. Cricket lovers are gung-ho about whatever is happening at the Ashes series. While I myself have no idea about what constitutes the difference between white, red and blue balls, (although I think Kookaburras, a bird that may or may not be mythical is involved), I do know that Virat Kohli thinks that Ben Stokes is the most competitive bloke he has played against. I have also been informed, that political players across the world continue to generate all kinds of drama. But I’ll be damned if I know exactly what that is all about.

One such notification, informed me that a Jo Lindner - Bodybuilder and influencer had died at 30, from a sudden aneurysm. His many fans have compared him to Arnold Schwarzenegger while his critics hated on him, insisting that he was a steroid user. Jo himself had admitted as much in a candid YouTube video.

In a sea of negative news cycles, which reiterate our secret fear that we are all doomed, something like the passing of a good – looking, gym – ripped hunk of youth is deemed newsworthy because the tragedy is strangely comforting to a great majority who can’t be influenced into working out and eating right, just so they can get skinny, post pics of themselves sipping green smoothies and flaunting washboard abs to gain a devoted fanbase on Instagram. Most of us would rather tsk at Jo’s untimely demise because it is reinforcement of our preferred belief that the societal standard of physical beauty is hardly ideal and certainly does not mean that the fit and fabulous are healthier than their chubby counterparts even if the latter may be committed couch potatoes with a partiality for the guilty pleasures of Nutella and Lotus Biscoff.

Let’s face it. The benefits are many for those who wake up at 5 am, meditate, practise hot yoga and intermittent fasting, derive satisfaction from small pleasures, embrace positivity and appreciate sunsets and the many phases of the moon. But it might not be the worst thing in the world to work out by reading a hefty book, eating ice cream and making peace with your choices even if they are perceived to be imperfect. Who knows it might just prolong your life. Or cut it short. But it might not matter, just as long as you are happy and comfortable in your own skin. And avoid the news in favour of discerning, topical columns written by yours truly.

An edited version of this piece was published in The New Indian Express.

Sunday, July 02, 2023

A Soaring Triumph of Storytelling

 Kalki’s beloved Ponniyin Selvan is a sprawling Tamil epic, that since its serialized publication in the author’s magazine in the 1950s, holds a special place in the hearts of Tamilians and continues to captivate modern readers. A stupendous feat of storytelling, the novel explores a turbulent period in Chozha history. The ageing emperor, Sundara Chozha is bedridden after a stroke has deprived him of the use of his legs. Ominous portents seen in the sky foretell momentous events. The ailing King’s eldest son, Aditya Karikalar has won a tremendous victory against the Pandyas, their traditional rivals, after beheading their King, Veerapandian. He is the obvious choice to succeed to the throne. But the Apathuvadigal, elite bodyguards of the slain King have sworn vengeance, aided by the exquisite Nandini, who has a personal vendetta against the Chozhas. As the wife of Periya Pazhuvettaraiyar, who along with his brother hold the reigns of power in the Kingdom, Nandini is well placed to strike. Meanwhile, the Pazhuvettaraiyars are conspiring to place Prince Madhurantakar, Sundara Chozha’s elder brother’s son on the throne, convinced that Aditya is too volatile and his younger brother,Arulmozhi Varmar, whom history venerates as Raja Raja Chozha is too unconventional.

Kalki spins an enthralling yarn that is a soaring triumph of storytelling. It is filled to bursting with memorable characters like the impish Vandiyadevan, through whose eyes, we witness the intrigue, adventures, and romance aplenty in this epic saga. Kalki is also famed for his powerful female characters like the Princess Kundavai, who is clever, resourceful and a game changer in the political landscape and fan favourite, Poonkuzhali, the daring boat girl. The author had a penchant for combining historical facts with fiction and blending both to create a truly magnificent tale that keeps the reader hooked from the very beginning and begging for more at the conclusion of every chapter.

Nandini Krishnan has an uphill task in her English translation of Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan as she strives to recapture the magic of the original and present it in a contemporary format for today’s readers, without losing the charm and essence of the masterpiece. Her efforts are a triumph and First Flood, Book 1 is masterfully crafted with loving attention lavished on every nuance. Krishnan meticulously stitches together the narrative, taking care to retain the descriptive beauty of the Tamil text which goes a long way in evoking the grandeur of the past, the lush beauty of a land held in the multi-limbed embrace of the River Goddess,

Kaveri, the lives of a hardy people from a harsher age who nevertheless loved, laughed and fought their battles just like us and bringing to life an important chapter in the history of the Tamils. Her retention of Kalki’s love for onomatopoeia and verses in Tamil are lovely touches. Her readers will no doubt be grateful to her for throwing open the doors to a glorious realm made accessible by Kalki and beg for more instalments in this excellent series.

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

Laws by Men, For Men, Stacked Against Survivors


Prosecuting sex crimes is starting to seem like an impossible business. Just ask Sakshi Malik, Vinesh Phogat, the victims in Kalakshetra or the hundreds of other women who have reported cases of sexual assault and harassment only to run into a wall of resistance designed to grind them down till they are silenced for good. This is not a problem unique to India. Even in the post #MeToo world, there are those like Judge Robin Camp aka the ‘Knees – Together Judge’ who in 2017, ruled against the 19 – year old complainant citing that she could have prevented being raped if she had just kept her knees together! This mind – boggling verdict was upheld in a retrial with a new judge. There are others like Camp who find in favour of the aggressor brazenly spouting bilge along similar lines. The issues resulting in the miscarriage of justice when it comes to sex – related offenses are easy enough to pinpoint.

The abysmally low conviction rate is due to how rape is largely perceived. Thanks to movies and cheap pornography, where the violation of women is either mined for maximum titillation or the gore factor, victims are either believed to be into it or are expected to kill themselves, since suicide is the only ‘honourable’ course of action for a woman whose ‘purity’ has been sullied. Those ‘unnatural’ creatures who refuse to shut up, opting to file cases against perpetrators, demanding justice are seen as uppity harridans who are routinely retraumatized, accused of promiscuity, threatened, and disbelieved. It doesn’t help that in a world where fake news is peddled as the truth and increasingly leftist/rightist ideology – driven journalism where the detached commitment to reporting the facts alone has become an obsolete practise, it is easy enough to dismiss survivors as making it all up for their five seconds of fame or levelling false charges as revenge against former boyfriends after ugly breakups.

The burden of proof rests with the accuser and in most cases, bulletproof evidence that sexual violence occurred is impossible to produce. Mostly, it comes down to a ‘He said, She said’ scenario. Many powerful defendants have no trouble quashing the cases even when there are multiple complainants and strike back by filing defamation cases against those who named and shamed them publicly.

The legal system designed by men for men, is stacked against the survivors. It takes forever for a case to make it to the courts, requiring the expenditure of money, time and effort. Most back off unable to withstand the bullying of aggressive lawyers and public censure. Those who don’t are more likely to be claimed by old age before a verdict is delivered. And even, then it is unlikely to be favourable. 

Women fighting for justice face insurmountable challenges worsened by caste bias, illiteracy, poverty, rank corruption and a legal system that fails them repeatedly. But now more than ever it is imperative to keep fighting the odds. To do that we must never give up and add our voices to those of the brave women who refuse to be silenced though they have everything to lose.

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.