Monday, 12 September 2016

Society and sensational women: A Passing Glance

So last week I read about two sensational women, namely, Rekha and  the late Madhavi Kutty. Rekha is a Bollywood actress whom, despite her experience in the film industry you can't dismiss as yester-year because she's still acting or dancing to item numbers. Madhavi Kutty, also known as Kamala Das, is a poet and novelist- I say 'is' because even though her physical form has passed away, her spirit lives on through the mark she left on literature in India.
There was an article in Outlook ( Through the Author's Veil) that talks about a new book coming out on her personal life, which was rife with controversies. I read some of Kutty's poetry while in school, but came to know of her life only now.
Rekha is a Bollywood celebrity, and that sort of predisposes her to a colorful life ( although there are people who keep a low profile and don't court controversies). Whether it's her doomed love life, the bordering-on-sexual-harassment incident with actor Biswajeet when she was barely fifteen on a movie set, her origins as the love child of famous South Indian artistes, her makeover, the sexist comments made on her looks by actors and directors, her rumored affair with Big B, the suicide of her husband Mukesh Agarwal for which she was demonized...Rekha has lived a life filled with ups and downs. All this is chronicled in a book on her recently released by Juggernaut (Rekha- The Untold Story).
What is similar about the two women mentioned above? They are, by profession, as disparate as possible. And yet I perceive similarities in their personalities and lives. Namely:
1. Both are successful women in their fields
2. Both, whether willingly or not, courted controversies throughout their lives.
3. Both lived life on their own terms
4. Both never needed or used men to validate their existence. Their identities and reputations are based on their own individuality.
5. Both were reviled and criticized and demonized by a society still deeply entrenched in patriarchy because they refused to adhere to archaic diktats that control and oppress women.
6. Both used the public's sexist mentality and perverse hunger for sensationalism to their advantage. Both deliberately fanned rumors about their personal lives, especially love affairs, that created controversies and put them in the limelight. And both benefited from it as well!

It's the last point that makes these two most remarkable. It's an ugly truth that a patriarchal society like India will never let maverick women like Madhavi and Rekha just be. They will vilify, adore and probe and intrude and generalize as it suits their regressive, hypocritical mentality. An extension of this mentality is exhibited by a sleazy, unethical media which will go to any lengths to pull famous people, when they can, to sell copies to a perverse reader base that craves controversy and titillation. Famous women especially are soft targets- because they're women and the media is no less sexist than the general public.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Review- Two 'Unfinishable' Books

As much as I tried, I could not ring myself to finish the both of these books. Maybe my reading preferences, preconceived notions about both literature and society, and my penchant for well written books with stories that make sense is responsible.

My different educational and social background from the author maybe the reason I couldn't read Democracy 2.0. There's no real story, no characterization, no plot, no agency, no goals, no direction to the tale. The novel's blurb suggests it is about a revolution but it peddles and perpetuates all cliches in the Indian educational system. It repeats the same old rhetoric about MBBS/Engineering and then IAS- the path most students take when they don't go down the B.Tech-MBA way. The book blatantly ignores other unexplored fields like pharmacy, journalism, literature etc. as a revolution for young people for career choices- that's how India's actually going to rehaul it's socio-educational structure and the nation can think of developing. There are also cliches regarding women and how they should live and behave. The book perpetuates a patriarchal domination of public spaces and discourses in the Indian milieu. Some revolution.
Like I said, my different educational and social background from the author maybe why the book didn't click with me. The author should seriously read some actual books and learn how to write a story. This sounds like a fancy version of a boring government report.

The Dominion sounds like an interesting novel on the outside. But once you start reading you find out how flawed this book is. There is no cohesion to the narrative. I cannot make head or tail of the story no matter how hard I try. The flawed language and grammar, and numerous typo errors, make the novel more difficult to comprehend because it's obfuscating the story. This made it all the more difficult to proceed with the book. The author said they took three years to write the book- but this is a very poor output. No cohesion of narration, no discernible plot structure, no pacing, no semblance of sanity in the story...made the book difficult to click with me. I can only proceed with a novel when it 'clicks' with me, interests and intrigues and invites me, in the first few pages. This book, alas, fails to do that. The author needs to go back to the drawing board and rehash their skills and their understanding of the basics of the craft.

Thank you.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Review-Among the Stars- Dhasa Sathyan

Usually my reviews are long and detailed; but for this book I'll keep it relatively short and sweet. The author sent me a free copy in exchange for an honest review, so I owe him an honest review. This book is one of those you can delineate easily into the strong points and flaws, so I'll directly talk about that and try to be as lucid as possible.

First, the good points of the book:
1. The themes: In a scenario where the reader base in India is dangerously, and depressingly, tilted towards soppy, cold turkey romance novels, the author has made the right choice by opting to write a book of short stories about various human themes brought together under the umbrella of twisted, dark storylines ( another reason it clicked with me). From zombie horror to psychotic army men to psychedelic plants on mysterious deserted islands, the author has got the variety right and interesting.
2. Ideas have potential: The ideas are original and have potential, if explored properly, of making for mind-blowing stories.
3. Emotional intelligence: The stories speak of everyday human beings, our varying moods, shades and fantasies. Emotional intelligence in a book is important, at least for me, as a reader, to connect with it.

Flaws: As good is the idea of the book and its potential to shine, Among The Stars fails miserably in execution. And that's the sad part- to see books with great potential never realize their own capacity for greatness. Where it fails:
1. Language: Honestly, from the quality of writing, it's glaringly obvious that the author has had lack of practice- both in reading and writing. Too many big words and too much purple prose. A mistake many first-time writers make, seeking to impress by usage of complex words and phraseology. Wrong. The reader seeks the story, the context, something they can relate to first; and vocab second. You don't need complicated language to tell a great story and leave an impact- your writing becomes powerful when you string simple, lucid language together in an effective manner.
This needs practice. You need to read and read and read books till your mind resonates with words that coalesce into ideas. You need to write and get your work critiqued, then write more and more critique till you can pack those ideas cogently into power-packed prose. This is inevitable.
2. Grammar and quality of prose: Grammatical errors-basic ones- dot the landscape of the book, and take away from the stories. Add in the poor use of language and the prose becomes stilted and difficult to sift through. As a reader I'm being blocked because the author hasn't packed any flow into the prose. There's no finesse, and the prose is languid, lacklustre.
3. Poor editing: The editor can still take away some of the inadequacy by at least window dressing the work- especially in this case where the author lacks basic language skills and grammar skills. But where the editor disappear into on this one?
Will make a comment here, even though it's perhaps not my place to make it. Has the editing been ignored because the publisher is a vanity publishing house? Then I would advise the author to go with a traditional publisher next time, or hire a good editor if the publisher is a small or middle-level press. Editing IS important, no matter how much we are awestruck with Chetan Bhagat's bestselling status despite the horrible language and grammar and lack of editing.
It may take time, and numerous attempts, to find a good trad pub house- but in the mean time the author can hone his writing skills by reading a lot, writing a lot and getting his work critiqued by other writers in critique groups.

But do check the book out because it has some really original ideas in store: Among The Stars

Review-Honor For A Ransom- Rajnish Gambhir

Blurb: "April 13th, 1978. Kartar Singh, an upper caste agriculturist, guns down his newly married daughter Simran and her lower caste husband, for the sake of 'upholding family honour'.His ex-lover, Sarah Jefferson (a British psychologist) visits him in jail to discover that Kartar has been a victim of ruthless manipulation at the hands of his politician father, Dilawar Singh, who is known to unconditionally despise the lower caste. Vowing justice for Kartar, Sarah embarks on an intriguing mission, venturing to turn the tables against the unscrupulous Dilawar, who by now is a powerful minister in the Punjab cabinet. Curiously delving into his boyhood days, she is astonished to learn that young Dilawar was in fact an 'affable-boy-next-door' who too had a love life, having lost his heart to a beautiful girl in Lahore... What then caused this drastic transformation in his attitude and personality? With the time fast running out, can Sarah succeed in nailing Dilawar as the chief culprit for the honour killings? Will she be able to reunite with Kartar - the only man she ever loved? A heartrending love story - Honour for a Ransom unfolds through the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, horrifying hazards of partition, romantic strolls by the Thames, and the unbending complexities of the rigid caste system." 

Honor For A Ransom is one of the most touching books I've ever read. No, it's not a faux-emotional tear jerker like the tripe dished out by crap-tastic writers like Ravinder Singh. 
This is, in the actual sense, an emotion-filled, high on context and brutally honest book about both the caste system in India, and honor killings- a construct of patriarchy wherein society tries to control women's bodies and sexuality by interfering in their choice of life partners, and deciding when they should marry and how they should have kids. This book also struck a cord with me because it exposes the hypocrisy, tyranny and misogyny of the arranged marriage system. 
In the first scene itself, Kartar Singh, a man who is an agriculturist and a gentle being whose nimble hands have lifted nothing more dangerous than a pen- that too to write profound poetry- murders his only daughter Simran and her 'lower caste' husband in cold blood. 
Post that, it's a gut-wrenching tale of the havoc that Dilawar Singh, Kartar's sociopath father, wrecks upon the entire family. 
Gambhir effortlessly straddles timelines to tell the story of three different generations- 1947 and Partition, when young Dilawar's life is torn apart by events that transform him into a sociopath and narcissist who will go to any lengths to get what he wants; Kartar's own love life with the British lady Sarah Jefferson and how it's destroyed by his father; and Simran's own love story with her husband and how it is brought to a brutal end. 
Dilawar is very well sketched as the sociopath; so is his elder daughter-in-law, Parminder. 
Kartar's life journey is portrayed evocatively...of a good man who lacks a backbone and ends up hurting the woman he loves; and how he's shattered after gunning down his Simmo and her husband, and the tragedy that follows, and how his father treats him like his puppet. 
Both Sarah and Simran have been sketched extremely well as strong, intelligent and independent women with a mind of their own and a will of iron. They're my kind of women.
Especially the relation between Sarah and Kartar has been written very well. 
The most poignant story is that of Kartar's invalid mother and alcoholic brother Nihal- the devastating effect Dilawar has on their lives is both outrageous and sad. 

Read this book, for it will make you think about both the individual and societal evil that is patriarchy; and the bane that is the caste system. And when both combine, they make for a decadent populace that cannot rise above its mediocrity. 
The language is very good and the grammar is perfect. The editing shines through. 

Anyone who enjoyed the movie NH10 will enjoy this book too. I'd say go for it; we need more books like this, well-written and high on emotional intelligence and context.

Grab your copy here: Honour For a Ransom 

Friday, 24 June 2016

Review- The Madras Mangler by Usha Narayanan

First of all, it's rare to find a crime thriller written in India.
Second of all, it's even rarer to find a well written, well researched crime thriller.
Usha Narayanan's The Madras Mangler is one of those books.

The story revolves around five young women studying in Chennai's SS Padmaja college. Kat, Minx, Moti, Deepika and Lolita, five young, ambitious ladies who want to make something of their lives- something other than getting married, raring babies and serving their husbands like slaves as expected by the patriarchal society around them.

Usha's novel is loaded with subtext. She shows how patriarchy affects the girls' personal lives and their relations with their own families and boyfriends, it also depicts the misogyny and the violence against women rampant on the college campus and in Chennai as a city. It's like everywhere they go they're surrounded by miscreants who have the most perverted fantasies about women and violence against women is almost a ritual. This is how a lot of women in India feel, especially those trying to break the stranglehold of patriarchy and the glass ceiling as well. From the nerds who go around campus, openly making sexist comments and harassing girl students, to the misogynist Dean who espouses archaic attitudes towards women, to the cop who is as regressive and unconcerned with gender equity and other issues- we've seen and faced them all.
What I like is how the author has etched the women protagonists as not damsels in distress, but women who fight on their own level first and overcome difficulties, and even help each other out in time of need. Only and only when matters get a little out of hand do they take the adorable male lead Vir Pradyumna's help.
Vir himself is a lovable character, relying more on brains than brawn to get his work done; and he doesn't hit on the woman he likes, or make her feel low or other such tactics, to get her to go out with him. I like how he genuinely respects and helps the girls, like teaching them self-defence and asking them to be careful when they find the bodies in the Adyar river.

The serial killings, in themselves, bring out the patriarchy in sharp contrast: How such incidences are a way for regressive fringe groups to make sexist statements, and how women are advised to stay indoors and blamed if harmed, rather than being taught to be careful and stick up for themselves.

The background of murder and mayhem fits in well with the story and makes the plot delicious and the twists refreshing. The research in criminology has been done well, and Vir espouses the sharp criminologist with a human side very well. The suspense is nail-biting, the tension sustained till the end.
The climax is satisfying and great, an 'Aha' moment for a thriller buff like me.

Usha writes very well, her prose alive and taut, her language brilliant and her grammar perfect- this I suppose owing to her advanced degrees and proficiency in Literature and creative writing, and her solid background in advertising and teaching literature as well.
Usha writes like a pro, and if I may make a personal statement here: Her writing is of a very high level and this reflects in the fact that she has gone on to get published subsequently with Harlequin and Penguin Random House.
TMM is Usha's debut but she has outshined a lot of other English writers in India with this novel. She's a very intelligent and evocative writer as well, cutting through the crap to make an outstanding, articulate statement about gender inequity and societal apathy towards both women and people who're different.

I wish to read another nail-biting thriller from Usha, and wish her all the best for her future works across all genres she treads.

Go read The Madras Mangler if you want a good read with tea and fritters on a rainy evening. And a succor from the crass pop fiction being churned out as 'literature' today.

You can get a copy of this amazing novel here: The Madras Mangler

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Tall Tales Thursday: Short fiction- Strangler Lingerie

The first time Raja's mother admonished him for looking at 'those ungodly things' was when he was almost thirteen.
He was with his mother at a big, plush boutique. While Mrs. Kataria bantered with the saleswoman about the various salwar-kameez she put on the counter with alacrity, Raja was bored. Sulking, he moved around, looking at the mannequins and clothes on display, occasionally glancing at his phone and texting.
Somehow, without consciously realizing, he wandered off into the lingerie section. The saleswomen stared at him, goggle-eyed, or looked at each other and giggled. What was a lanky, pimply teenage boy doing looking at lingerie? Raja, at first, was blissfully unaware, texting away to friends.
When he did pocket his phone and look up, he frowned. This seemed new, unchartered territory. Skimpy, oddly cut garments of all shapes and sizes, in different colors and designs. Some were designed to look like the skin of a leopard!
Intrigued, Raja strolled in between the aisles, inspecting the goods on display, fleetingly running his hands over them occasionally, enjoying the soft silk or the plush velvet, when he thought no one was looking. At the end of an aisle, he reached a mannequin. The mannequin was built voluptuous, just like those actresses he kept seeing in the movies. It was dressed in a leopard-print brassiere and underpants and posed in a way that Raja found alluring.
He turned around to face the aisle and saw that the same two-piece was displayed on a hanger nearby, with a transparent golden slip covering it.
He walked over, and hesitantly reached out with his to touch it.


He turned around and saw his mother standing there, hands on hips, her eyes two burning, yellow hot coals.

"Haramkhor! What do you think you're doing, you idiot? Touching those ungodly things!"
"But I was just..."

"Don't you know these things are evil and against our culture?" she shouted, and slapped him hard. Hearing her, two saleswomen ran to where they stood.
It is normal for a boy of Raja's age to be curious about women's underwear and lingerie; but his mother was unlikely to understand that. Even more unlikely was that she would talk to her son about what he was feeling and why; and what lingerie was. And how it was okay for him to be curious about girls and their undies, but still have a healthy relation with them.

Raja stared back at his mother, tears in his eyes, reeling more from anger than embarrassment. Now they were surrounded by a group of saleswomen and other customers, who'd dropped in for some free entertainment.

"These things are evil, you moron! They will strangle you in your sleep!"


"Yes...these things are the work of demons! They will come and strangle you in your sleep! Never touch them, or as much as look at them. Do you understand?"



"Yes, Ma."

Fast Forward: Ten years later 

"Make yourself at home, Rajan!" his girlfriend shouted from the bathroom.


Rajan looked about the room in the large, plush three-bedroom apartment. Nina was his first girlfriend; and the first woman he had ever meaningully connected to. Ever since he had moved away from home, to come as an undergraduate to DU to study English Literature and Linguistics, this was the first time he came really close to a woman.

Rajan believed it was because he was away from his overbearing, obnoxious mother and his distant, taciturn father that he was finally breathing free. Ever since he'd come to Delhi, clinched a scholarship and also found a part-time job to support his studies and living expenses, he had vowed never to go to that hell-hole he'd been forced to call 'home' for years. He wasn't 'Raja' anymore.

And yet, he'd found it difficult to talk to Nina when he'd first fallen for her. Both of them were classmates in the Masters in English Lit batch; both were, again, scholarship students. Nina was a young, blue-jean-and-T-shirt-and-funky-accessory wearing, outspoken, intelligent, well-read young woman from Chandigarh.

It was she who had approached and befriended him. He'd glance at her during classes or when she was with friends- not stare, just glance.

"In a city where men stare me down like I'm sex on a stick, while mentally undressing me and probably having the wildest sexual fantasies, your admiring glances are a welcome surprise," she'd told him. He'd opened up to her. After days of cajoling and seducing, she got him to kiss and make out with her.

And then she brought him to the apartment she rented with two girlfriends, both of whom weren't at home.

"Hey!" she whispered in his ear, grabbing him by the waist, from behind.

"Hey!" he replied, holding her hands with his. And felt the soft, tantalizing touch of silk on his skin.

"Are you wearing lingerie?" he asked.

"Yes, Raj." Only she called him Raj.

He turned around to look at her. She looked ravishing in a grey brassiere and underpants that both highlighted her curves and left little to the imagination, clearly visible under a transparent black slip. She had applied kohl to her eyes to make them look smoky, and it somehow made her face all the more aluring.

"I'm...I'm sorry...I can't do this," he said. The horribly vivid vision of his mother slapping and berating him in the boutique all those years ago came back to him. So did the memory of how he had woken up, for days after that incident, in the middle of the night, covered in sweat. He woke up from nightmares where hundreds of brassieres and women's underpants snuck up to him in bed, and strangled him.

"What...why not?"

"I just...can't. I'm sorry, Nina."

"Oh, I think I know the reason. You don't think I'm desirable enough, perhaps? That's why yyou won't as much as look at me?" she asked, hurt.

"Oh no no. It's not that, not at all."

"Then what is it? Please explain before you leave!"

"You look...amazing. I like you. But I'm...I'm afraid of those things..." he replied, staring at the ground, his hands pointing to her bra.

"My breasts?"

"No. I meant your underwear."

"What? You're afraid of my underwear? Are you serious?"


"But why? They don't bite!"

Rajan looked at Nina, and tears came into his eyes. Tears of exasperation. He thought he was free from that vile woman who was his mother...but distance couldn't cure the curse she had given him- undie- phobia. He couldn't as much look at women's underwear, should he be so unfortunate so as to encounter them, without getting the urge to pour kerosene over them and set fire.

"Okay, that's it. Tell me why you're afriad of my undies. What's wrong with them?"

Rajan told her about the boutique incident, and the nightmares. It was a test of strength of Nina's character and her feelings for Rajan that she didn't burst out laughing.

Instead, she got dressed, ordered pizza, and they spent the night eating and talking.

A few weeks later

Nina took Rajan to a prominent psychiatrist, who he visited once a week for his 'problem'.

They did get together on Nina's insistence, but she simply built up the tension by dressing in a flimsy robe.

Slowly, because of the shrink's therapy and Nina's support, Rajan started overcoming his phobia. The doctor advised him to face his fear with information- by researching the objects that terrified him, he could convince himself that they couldn't  harm him.

So he did exactly that, with help from his girlfriend. It involved visiting the lingerie section of boutiques, all by himself; the first two of these visits had him almost freaking out with a panic attack. But he didn't give up.

Nina hoped he will grow free of his fear, one day.

Note: This story came to me while I was reading an article, on the prominent feminist blog, The Ladies Finger, about how, in public, display of women's underwear is considered a taboo. As a feminist and observer of human behavior, this mentality both amuses and irritates me. Why do we women have to hide our undies from view like they're some disgusting little secret? Or worse, some weapon of mass cultural destruction?
This story is merely intended as a sardonic take on sexist attitudes regarding us women and our clothes and sartorial behavior. It's not meant to tantalize or tittilate you.
You can find the link to the original article here: Why do Bras in Public Terrorize Some People?

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

D for Devil Comes to Greenfield

Greenfield, Missouri 

Church of St. Agnes

Father Morton O'Neill unlocked the door to his office, his glance flitting to the door of the office adjacent to his. The gap beneath the door of Father Goretti's office showed that the lights were still on in there.

He's been here all night? But why? 

Morton left his own door open and walked to his superior's cabin. He would ask the other priest if he would like a large mug of hot coffee.

"Father Goretti? This is Morton. May I come in, please?" asked Morton, while knocking on the door.

There was no answer.

"Father Goretti? You in there?"

Morton noticed that the door was slightly ajar. And again, there came no reply.

A cold shiver passed down Morton's back- and he had an overwhelming feeling something was terribly amiss. He remembered the chilling spectre of Dorothy Swanson's body in the churchyard.

His heart rate suddenly shooting up, he slowly pushed open the door, and entered.

"No! No! Father....Nooooooooo!"

Amelio Goretti's corpse hung from the ceiling, bloody and oscillating slightly, blocking the sunlight from the large window behind his desk.

His blood was dripping onto the desk and had trickled to the floor. His throat and wrists had been slit and his eyes were open.

Morton ran to his office and called the Sheriff's office.

Sheriff Hadley and his team found Morton slumped against the door of Goretti's cabin, dazed.
They were accompanied by Senator Tuttle, who was a former priest as well, and a local celebrity politico now.

"Our Father in Heaven, protect us from evil. The Devil Has Come to Greenfield!" he exclaimed when he saw the corpse.

This post is written for the A to Z Challenge