Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Join my wedding*

Hi there! Long time. How’ you been? I have been fine, thanks for asking. Well, wait! Actually, not so much. I have been avoiding people like plague. I have been frustrated about how things are turning out to be. To the collective us. I have been fighting an early onset of a midlife crisis. Mostly, I have been irritated by things I should ignore. 

I learnt today that there is a start-up that’s like Airbnb for Indian weddings.  For a small commission, this start-up acts as a platform connecting people who want to experience weddings from a different culture (limited to India at the moment) with couples looking to host such people. You pay, meet your hosts virtually,  probably meet them physically, and you can partake in a desi wedding. 

I can't help but wonder, who pays to attend a wedding?  Even in my prime days of gregariousness (let me think.. that one Saturday 4 years back, and one other time),  I would rather not attend a wedding. I mean, weddings are nice and all, but the representative Indian wedding is made up of more than dancing, flavourful food, fashionable gaudy clothes, and fancy celebrations. Most Indian weddings are made up of crippling debts, unwilling protagonists, simmering family feuds, the bawling child who slipped from a chair and hurt her nose,  unsatisfied guests and the mysterious thief who steals half a pair of footwear.

Also, who hosts strangers at their wedding for money? Definitely not people who struggle for money. The hosts are likely to be the sort of people who can afford to put up a grand show for white people seeking "genuine cultural celebration" and "immersive experiences". These are also the sort of people who put up wishlists for wedding gifts. 

Wealth begets wealth. It shouldn’t, and that’s what irritates me the most about the direction the World is heading in.

Source : Some couples in India are selling tourist admissions to their weddings (CNBC)

Image Source : http://www.jamaicaobserver.com/magazines/allwoman/I-am-getting-married-for-money--not-love_15699014

* Taxes may apply

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Review of Roshani Sinha's Snippets

Snippets: Short StoriesSnippets: Short Stories by Roshani Gash Sinha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: The author of this book, Roshani Sinha, is a friend, and I had read a few of the stories from Snippets prior to its publication.

Snippets is an apt title for this wonderful collection of ten short stories, for they are just that - snippets from various lives at different stages of relationships. These are not stories with a conventional plot and a three-act structure. Snippets is more an exploration of emotions of the characters.  Creativity and relationships seem to be the common motifs among most of the stories.

Ten Puffs portrays a man reminiscing his past, his present and his future. Free Falling delves into the mind of a psychologist who is attracted to broken men. This is one of the best-written stories of the collection. Grains of Sand is about the cathartic experience of being involved in a creative pursuit and portrays a snapshot of an artist's life. The Metier is again set in the art scene. It is a sort of a coming-of-age story where a young girl (a student of psychology, once again) finds her calling.

Test of Time portrays a long-lasting relationship and explores why such relationships work. Reminders and Suitcase deal with coming to terms with loss in different settings. My favorite story out of the series is probably Modus Vivendi, which explores, among other things, jealousy. Modus Vivendi is about the compromises one is ready to make to be viewed as a success by the society. The protagonist’s remark “my self-righteousness principles and ideas seemed laughable to the world I lived in today, but it felt right to me” resonates with me deeply. Foreclosure and Dreamcatchers both add some variety to the collection. The former is rendered from the point of view of a child (“I am eight years old, but I know and understand more than they think I do”). Dreamcatchers, on the other hand, leaps into the realm of fantasy on the lines of a Haruki Murakami plot.

Many of the protagonists of the Snippets are writers and artists. Roshani uses her great vocabulary to describe the physicality of her settings. The geographies and the timeframe are not specifically mentioned in any of the stories. While this makes them seem not rooted in a specific place or time, it also frees the narratives from temporal and geographical constraints. There were a couple of typos in the publication, but for a self-published work, the book looks professional by large and has some great artwork.

The characters in Roshani's Snippets are all very decent people, with flaws but without evil intentions. Their concerns are not struggles of life and death. This may seem monotonous at times, but we could all do with the occasional positivity. For a first-time writer’s work, Snippets has a lot of great things. I look forward to reading more of Roshani’s works.
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Saturday, September 2, 2017

Review of Sujatha Gidla's Ants Among Elephants : An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern IndiaAnts Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Your life is your caste, your caste is your life."
Sujatha Gidla was born a Dalit-Christian - an untouchable. She had to move to a different country, the USA, to realize the unfairness of her life in India. Her opening lines in Ants Among Elephants are "My stories, my family's stories, were not stories in India. They were just life". I can relate to this; moving to Qatar taught me that I had been on the nicer side of the unfairness. This acceptance does not come easily though, and -- to use a phrase favoured by Sujatha Gidla -- "even to this day", I have the tendency to get riled up or turn defensive on this topic. There is no surprise in the fact then that when Sujatha Gidla remarks "all Christians in India were untouchables, as far as I knew"  and adds that "I knew no Christian who did not turn servile in the presence of a Hindu", my immediate reaction was to deny the exaggeration. But then, my unawareness of the caste system is by itself a manifestation of my privilege, and it is time that people like me listen to voices like Sujatha Gidla's. After all, "even to this day", caste plays a significant, life-changing role in large parts of India.

The two principal characters of Ants Among Elephants are Satyam and Manjula; the writer's maternal-uncle and mother respectively. Satyam is K.G. Satyamurthy, a revolutionary, an intellectual, an acclaimed poet (going by the pen name Sivasagar),  and a founding member of the left-extremist People's War Group ("the most notorious, famous and successful Naxalite party, a thorn in the side of Indian rulers"). Manjula is a woman growing up in India as an untouchable. Their struggles are equally dramatic and arresting.

Ants Among Elephants begins before the independence of India. While Sujatha Gidla promises us a tale of the cruelty of caste system, Ants Among Elephants is much more. The tales of Gidla's maternal family is actually a testament to the complexity of India as a country, where people are so abundant and lives so cheap that inhumanity does not take a single form. Lives are drastically affected by myriad macro-events - a flooding of the Godavari river; the Japansese bombing of Vizag; the presence of Razakars, a brutal army of Islamic militants serving the Nizam of Hyderabad; the suppression of this brutality by and the subsequent cruelty of the equally ruthless Indian Army; the Chattel system, which the Gidla refers to as "a modern product of the capitalist world market"; the vetti (forced labour) system; the struggle for the separate state of Telangana and much more. We see that casteism was omnipotent, with members of every caste (including the Untouchables) mistreating what they considered as the lower castes. The historical context is also educational in many ways. For instance, one of the many things I learnt was how the country began to get divided by linguistic barriers thanks to relentless protests in Andhra.

I felt that in her introduction to the book Sujatha Gidla came across as unemotional to the point of seeming cold. At one point, she remarks that "as of this writing, I do not know if this book's principal subject is alive or dead" (Satyamurthy died in 2012). But this detachment becomes an advantage, as she does not balk from the flaws of her subjects. So much so that the subjects become characters and we forget that these were actual people doing their best in troubled circumstances. All of us commit mistakes, but when you are at the bottom of the social ladder, your mistakes become irreversible. Sujatha Gidla is so impersonal that she even refers to her own birth in third person. This quality gives Ants Among Elephants an objectivity, allowing her to unflinchingly examine moments like her father's domestic abuse of her mother. On the flip-side, the fact that there are so many threads within the tapestry of Sujatha Gidla's work cause it to seem rushed at times. I wonder if the relatively shortness book (a little more than 300 pages) contributes to this feeling.

One of the many caste names Sujatha Gidla keeps referring to is "paki", which sounds very similar to a derogatory word in Tamil. I have a strong suspicion that the origin of the word is caste-based. The effects of caste system is not always explicit. Casteism has seeped into us in ways we can not even imagine.  Like Arundathi Roy's The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Ants Among Elephants is a significant work that forces us to take an unflinching look at the past and present of India. After a low profile release in the USA, the book still managed to gather rave reviews and is being released in India now. I highly recommend this book, especially to the Indians who feel that historical injustice does not affect the present.

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Prodigy

"Thalangu thaka thimi thalangu thaka thimi thakathari kitta thom…”
"Stop it!", shouted TVR sir, and waited for the percussionist Shree Haravahanan's Mridangam to stop. He allowed a couple of minutes silence and said,
"Darling, I asked you to use the complete stage!"

They were in classroom 28 of Rajaji Girls Primary school, whose principal had generously offered to host their practice sessions after school hours, provided that they would not litter the campus. The room was packed with eager students and teachers who had stayed late to watch the practice, but it was clearly not dense enough to contain TVR sir's loud and angry baritone -- a voice which had permanently frightened away many of his erstwhile disciples. 
"And there are going to be more than 500 heads watching you on your big day. With your Pralokita, make eye contact with each and every person in the audience."
TVR sir was the most sought after Bharatanatyam teacher in Thenkudi. A proud winner of the Natiya Arthakovida award presented by his state, he had a famous temper. Students feared him, but their parents would do anything to get him teach their daughters and sons. His attention today was solely on 13-year-old Radha. 
Start again!", he continued as his voice pierced a silence no one else had seen fit to break, "and this will be the last time." His tone turned to a warning as he completed, "No more mistakes."
"Thalangu thakathimi.." he sang abruptly, and Haravahanan -- who had lifted a water bottle to quench his thirst during -- hurriedly placed it down and attempted to catch-up with the booming voice. No one would have noticed if he had missed a beat or two though, for every pair of eyes in the room was focussed on Radha's Shabda. Radha quickly adopted a hourglass-like stance, and started moving to her master's chants. Gradually, as the pace quickened, she began to crouch, leap, swirl, skip, spring, dart, and zip around the stage. Miming the story of Lord Krishna, she deftly transformed herself from the mischievous child God to the village maidens charmed by his pranks. For the next four minutes, the audience was transfixed by the grace and ease with which she performed the complicated movements, and they felt transported to Vrindavanam - the birth place of Krishna. They started applauding spontaneously towards the end of her performance when Krishna had killed the demon-king Kamsa. Radha completed her final motions and stood looking expectantly at her teacher, waiting for his verdict. One of the spectators shushed as TVR sir cleared his throat to speak and waited for absolute silence. 
"You need to concentrate on your Lasya", he said when his silence was granted. "You have a little more than a month. Practice hard, and get it perfected before I come back".
Having said so, he strode out hastily without waiting for an acknowledgement. With a collective sigh of relief, the audience continued their applause. Radha thanked the crowd perfunctorily, but her eyes were fixed on a lady rushing out of the class. The lady stopped near the classroom door, acknowledged Radha with a quick smile and ran behind TVR sir. 
"Sir, how did she..", she began before being interrupted. "
Madam, I have been teaching students for 27 years now, and I have never seen anyone like your daughter. She is a natural. She is a prodigy. Do not worry, but do not let her get complacent."
"Thank you very much sir. Her talent is a divine blessing. But we would feel less anxious if you were here to oversee her training before the event."
"I would very much like to, but my mother is not well. I need to visit her."
"Of course sir, I am sorry. We understand."
She will be fine." Saying so, he opened the door of his sedan, hesitated a little, and spoke again -- this time in an uncharacteristically soft and faraway voice -- "I will retire from teaching dance once her Arengetram is over. She will be my last student. She will be the best."

Radha stood with Meera and Jennifer on the veranda of her school building taking shelter from the unexpected February rains. A few other children waiting to be picked up by their parents stood around them in multiple pockets. Raja anna, the school watchman who sometimes doubled up as the back-up peon, stood with an umbrella on the now-sludgy mud that connected with the single lane tar road just outside the veranda. He was having a torrid time trying to direct the parents, with each of them wanting to park their cars as close as possible to the school building so as to not get their children’s shoes and their cars dirty. Rain is beautiful. Rain is irritating. Meera and Jennifer were discussing the school excursion to the town museum planned for next week. Jenny would be bringing some home baked cakes, while Meera had requested her mother to make bissibella bath. The children around them were chattering about the trip, and there was a cacophony of excited screechy voices. The most active of the lot had cast aside their bags at the veranda and were playing on the playgrounds across the road. Radha mentally replayed the conversation she had had with her parents last night during dinner, soon after her 3 hour dance practise. 

"Amma", she had remarked hesitantly, and raised her voice a little more,
"Yes dear?"
"They are taking us to an excursion at school.."
"Really? Where to? And when?"
"Next Tuesday. To the museum at Nallur." "Oh, that's wonderful. You can have a whole day's practice." "But amma, I want to go with them.."
"Darling, what do you mean? You have only 3 weeks left. Be serious!"
Her father looked up at his wife's raised voice and joined in.
"Radha dear, you need to concentrate on what is important to you, and you should not exert yourself unnecessarily."
"But Meera and Jenny are going."
"Let them. The museum is not worth a visit at all. If you want, I will take the three of you there after your Arengetram. For now, you should only be thinking of dance"

"MEERA! MEERA!" The girls looked around recognizing the voice of Kumar anna, the school peon. "Your father called. He said he is caught in traffic and that he will be here soon. He asked you three to wait near the veranda and.."
He was cut off midsentence by the shrill shriek. A girl with double-braided hair had fallen face down in the ground and she looked as if she was about to cry. As Kumar anna dashed into the rain to help her up, other girls around her laughed heartily at the awkwardness of the fall. The fallen girl hesitated, but quickly joined in the laughter as she helped herself up. Now that she was fine, Kumar anna rushed back to the shelter of the veranda cursing the little devils under his breath. But he was already drenched. 
"Shit! I forgot dad didn't go to office today!!", said Meera excitedly.
The girls lived in the same locality, and their mothers took turns picking the three of them up in their cars. It was Meera's mother's turn today, and apparently her father was filling in. Rajendran was the coolest of all their parents, and the girls loved to be driven around by him. He even let them choose their favourite songs in his car's stereo. 
"Yay! Your dad wouldn't mind his car getting wet!" remarked Jenny, as she rushed to the ground. Meera joined too. They both motioned at Radha to join them. Radha took a step forward, but then remembered the Arengetram. Mother would be mad if she got drenched in the rain and fell ill. She stood alone, looking at the playing children. Meera and Jenny had now broken into an impromptu jig, and a few other children joined them. Rain is beautiful. Rain is irritating.

As if rain was not enough, the night was accompanied by strong winds too. And darkness. The only source of light was a distant island, illuminating a bunch of children running around happily. Closer examination showed that the light was atop a hill -- a dark brown hill completely made of chocolate. The kids stopped frequently to bite a slice off the hill, and amazingly, the hill seemed to replenish itself. Radha could spot a few more children lying around idly. This island did not have schools, or teachers, or parents; and she was wading through the waters towards it. 
"Come back, Radha!" Her mother's voice.
Radha turned around and in the darkness behind her, over an embankment, she identified her mother's silhouette. She could not make out her mother's face, but she could intuitively feel the anxiety in it. Mom’s hands were stretched out as if it could conquer the distance and hold Radha's. She hesitated, but continued walking towards the island. The winds were strong, the waves were pushing her backwards, and the rains blocked her vision. It was freezing too. She shivered. 
"She is boiling hot!" her mother exclaimed.
"Sssh!! Do not wake her up. She needs rest. Does she need to go today?", her father's voice shouted over the rain.
"Poor girl! She must be so tired. Let her take rest"
"I will call Balki from the car and inform him".
She looked behind her once more. Balki sir, her class-teacher, was standing on the embankment now. He too was frantically motioning at her to come back. She remembered that she had not completed her science assignment ("collect ten varieties of leaves, stick them on a chart paper and label their parts"). She glanced at her mother and still could not make out her face. But she sensed her mother crying. Tears that were being washed away by the rains, only to be replenished immediately; like the chocolaty hill. She hesitated once more, but turned around this time and started walking back slowly. She could instantly feel the smile in her mother's eyes. Something made her stop, and she stood undecided. As she stood there, she realized that she had been dreaming. She stirred a little and her mother who happened to be passing by her bedroom rushed in. 
"What's the time, mommy?"
"Never mind that. It's late for school baby. You are staying home tonight."
"No buts! You have been working hard for the past few days. You need to get some rest. How does it feel now?"
Without waiting for a response she pressed Radha's forehead, and let out a satisfied sigh of relief. "Better. Get up and brush your teeth. Let me get something for you to eat. I will give you a Crocin after your breakfast, and you can sleep again"

The sun shone brightly through the windows and there was silence all around; the silence of working day afternoons. Radha woke up tired having slept for the larger part of the morning. As she lay down for some more time, she could hear soft conversations from the TV in the living room. She stood up and lumbered towards it. Her mother was slumped on the floor, cutting vegetables for lunch. 
"Why are you up so soon? Go get some sleep", she asked, turning around at the noise.
"I want to sit here" "Come here. Let's see if you still have a temperature."
Having convinced herself that Radha was fine, Radha's mother suggested a compromise.
"All right, bring your pillow and lie down on the sofa".
Radha huddled on the couch. Her mother reached for the remote control and increased the volume, which had apparently been kept low so as to not disturb her sleep. Radha tried watching the movie for a few minutes. A teenage daughter and her mother were having a conversation at the back seat of a car while on a journey down a picturesque hill. It was a Bengali movie. Radha's mother didn't know Bengali, but she liked to watch movies of all languages. Nothing seemed to happen in this movie, and people kept on talking. A little bored with it, Radha turned to watch her mother. She was briskly cutting carrots. Clunk. Clunk. Clunk. The sharp knife was brought down at a steady pace, and the cut pieces were so uniform that they could have been made by a machine. Radha's mother had once confessed that she didn't exactly love cooking. Having to decide what to cook each and every day was the most difficult part, she had said. Radha hadn't believed her. How could someone not love something and still be so good at it? Or can they? 
Clunk. Clunk. Clunk.
Clunk. Clunk. Pause.
"Yes dear?"
"Why don't you dance these days?"
When Radha had visited her grandparents’ ancestral home for her summer vacation last year, her Grandpa had shown her some childhood photos of Radha's mother. She had been surprised to find an album with photos of her mother in a traditional dancer's costume. Mother had never talked about it, and always found a way to wriggle out of conversations involving the album. Clunk. Clunk. "Amma?" 
"Sigh! You keep persevering, don't you? Just like your mother. Sleep. You need all the rest you can get. You will be going to school tomorrow, and you need to resume practicing. We don't have much time."

Radha woke up to the sounds of the alarm clock, and pulled up the comforter to muffle her ears. She heard footsteps accompanied by jingling anklets. Her mother was marching into the room.
“Radha, wake up! It is already late. How many more times do you want me to wake you up?”
Radha turned her head sideways, so that one ear would be muffled by the pillow and the other by her comforter. She soon realized that the comforter was being pulled away.
“5 minutes mom, please!”
“RADHA!”, her mother’s voice raised perceptibly, “you are already late for school. You bunked yesterday too. Come on! Let me feel your neck.”
Radha reluctantly let go of the comforter. Her mother placed her hands on Radha’s neck and let out a short scream.
“Look! She’s still got a temperature. I told you to sleep yesterday, and you sat up late night watching taht stupid Hindi movie on TV. Now how will you go to school? You have already bunked a lot, and you need leave for next week too! You have no seriousness at all! You need to perform on 29th and there are hardly enough days left! And you are yet to perfect your Shabdam. Do you have any seriousness at all? Answer me!!”, her mother’s voice kept rising with each breathless word she uttered.
Dad sensed an impending commotion and had hurried into the room. He was now standing at the doorway with a half-buttoned shirt, trying to decide if it was safe to interrupt. Radha just stared back at her mother silently. She was getting anxious and felt hurt. She hated making mother angry, as mom would get completely unpredictable. 
“I said ANSWER me! Is this how you take care of your health before an Arengetram? Do you know how much I am sacrificing so that you can dance? Where did you get the fever from? Did you get drenched in the rains? Mala told me that Meera had come home completely drenched on Thursday! Is that what you three did? Did you get drenched like pigs?”
Her mother was clearly hysterical now, and there was no saying what she would do next. Dad entered the room and tried to interrupt.
“Honey, look. Let her be. Please..”, but he was cut off.
“You stay away from this!”, shouted mother. “You keep spoiling her all the time, and this is how she ends up. Look at her arrogance! She hasn’t answered yet. Did you or did you not get drenched in the rain?”
"What if I had?”, said Radha almost inaudibly.
“What did you say?”, exclaimed her mother.  “What did she just say?”
“I said what if I had!”, replied Radha.
She was louder now, but her voice was trembling.
Why shouldn’t I get drenched, when Meera and Jenny are allowed to do it? Why should I always think about my Arengetram? Everyone else is allowed to go to the excursion, but I should stay home and practise! Why shouldn’t I watch a movie that I like on TV? All you want me to dance, dance, study and dance! Why? So that you can brag about me to your relatives and friends. ‘Wow! Your daughter dances so well. All credit must go to you’. That’s what you want to hear, no? You only think of your happiness! You are so selfish.”
Her parents had never seen Radha raise her voice before. They were too stunned to speak for a couple of minutes. Mother was the first to recover.
“How dare you talk back like that?”
Radha had lost all her resolve by now. She slithered out of her bed weeping, and ran away from it. It was dad who reacted now, and tried to stop her. His daughter dodged him, ran into the bathroom, and locked the door in. He turned towards his wife, and she too was wiping out tears of her eyes.
“Hey, why don’t you stay outside for a moment when I try talking to her? She is just getting anxious. Wait, you wanted to meet the caterers, right? Why don’t you go now, while I take care of her for a while?”
“You want me to get out of my own house?”, she starred at him defiantly.
 She noticed that he had turned slightly insistent, a tone which he rarely used, and nodded.
“What about your office? You said you had a meeting”.
“Yeah, but I can afford to skip it. I will call up Vinoth and tell him.”

“Hello madam, would you please open the door? How long will you stay in that stinking place?”
No response.
“Hey Radha, come on! Please come out. I have something for you here. Why don’t you see what it is?”
A whimper. That gave him more confidence.
“Hey, come out and I will tell you a nice story.”
The lock was unlatched from inside, and the door opened reluctantly.
“Come on lady! What makes you so angry? Tell me”
“I am sorry, pa! I was just tired, and wanted to sleep for a little while. Is she very angry with me?” He admired her maturity. She would grow up to be a wonderful woman.
“Forget it dear. Come, lie down. Let me toast you some bread with Nuttela!”
By the time he finished toasting, she had moved to the couch and was watching another ‘stupid Hindi’ movie.
“Aren’t you going to office daddy?”
“Nope. I bunked too”, he smiled, “Thanks for giving me a great excuse to not-work today! We are going to watch this movie today. That’s Akshay Kumar, right?”
“Look at you, so happy that at bunking office! Amma thinks you love your job”.
“I do, but not always. One cannot love his work completely. I would like to stay home too. You know, it’s been long since I lay down in the bed for a whole day. I would like to play too, but I can’t. Not until you become a great dancer and start earning for me, allowing me to retire”.
He smile became gentler. She had been smiling too, unaware of where the conversation was being led to. It was too late when she realized, and she could only give him a look of mock anger when she did. “You like dancing, don’t you? You are so good at it. TVR sir called your mom last night, and he couldn’t stop bragging about you”.
“Of course I do, pa. I was just tired”
She turned away her face almost imperceptibly, and her father let it pass.
“Appa! Was amma a dancer too?”
He looked at her with contemplation, and seemed to weigh his options.
“Yes, she was. Long back. At least, that’s what I have heard”
“Why doesn’t she dance these days? And why doesn’t she even talk about it? She always gets angry with me when I ask”
He sighed. “I haven’t seen her dance too dear. But your Grandpa tells me that she was the best in these parts of the town. I believe him, for I have heard stories of how good she was”
“But why does she hide it?”, Radha interrupted.
“Well, it seems she was so passionate about her dance that she left her home and stayed at her dance school for a month before her Arengetram. Just a day before her big day, she lost her mother, your grandma. She blamed herself for not being with her mother when she breathed her last. Her Arengetram didn’t happen. Since then, she just gave up on dancing. Until we discovered that you can dance too, that is. And dance so well. Your Grandpa says that you are better than your mother was.” He realized that he had told her much more than he had intended. But he didn’t mind. Children have an uncanny ability to sense things that are being hidden from them. They are more mature than grown-ups imagine them to be. He was reminded of the occasion when he and her mother had tried to surprise her with a late night celebrations on her 10th birthday, only to realize that she had sensed it, and just played along with them to act surprised. It brought a smile to his face, and he turned towards her affectionately. 
“But, it turns out that you might hate dancing. What a disappointment!”
“Who said that?”, shrieked Radha, and then realized that her father had once again tricked her.
“I like dancing too, pa. As soon as I finish eating this tasty toast, I will start practising”
“What happened to your fever? Come on, show me your neck”, he unsuccessfully mimicked her mother.
“Oh, that’s all right now appa”, she moved away with a sheepish smile of her own, “that went away at 08:40 as soon as the school prayer bell rang!”

Saturday, July 29, 2017


ONE LITTLE KITTEN, TWO BIG CATS”, wrote Mala ma'am in big, bold letters on the blackboard, reading her words aloud. The letters curled towards the right, in contrast to the upright letters of the words “HONESTY IS THE BEST POLICY” written in bigger and bolder letters at the top of the blackboard. Rajaji Primary school was in its first post-lunch session on an unusually hot February day. As the students in class I-B repeated the words after her, Rishi suppressed a yawn and joined in at “..TWO..”, stressing the words in an unnecessarily loud and out-of-tune voice. His hands felt under the desk, grabbing one from the last few toffees left in a plastic cover. He unwrapped it as noiselessly as possible, surreptitiously popped the toffee into his mouth, and pushed back the wrapper under the desk.

Psst! Psst!”. He turned around to the outraged pouts of Karan and Rohit, who were sitting behind him at the next desk. Their palms were outstretched, entreating him to share his toffees. His hesitation lost to their insistence, and he passed on a couple grudgingly. “SIX SAD SEALS, SEVEN SILLY SEAGULLS”, shouted his classmates as his mind wandered to the morning session. Rohit and Karan had taken alternate turns in accompanying him to distribute the toffees all around the school. He remembered nervously entering the fifth standard class room, where Anandhi ma'am was teaching Science.

Come in, my child”, she said looking up from her book. “Ah Chocolates! Do we have a birthday baby here?”, she asked as he entered alone, unable to persuade Rohit to join him.

I am g..going to have a baby next week, mam”, he stammered, doing his best to avoid eye contact with the tall, big seniors in the class fixated on him.

The complete class sniggered as Anandhi mam looked up in surprise.

I am going to have a baby sister next week, mam”, he hastily corrected himself.

Fantastic. A cute baby sister for a shy boy. What are you going to call her?

Nithya, mam

Nithya. Wonderful name! I believe it means everlasting. God bless her with a long life”, she said as she grabbed a handful of chocolates and stuffed them in her shiny red purse.


TWELVE FAT FLEAS” continued Mala mam. Rishi concentrated on chewing the caramel toffee. They didn’t taste as good as those foreign-chocolates his dad had brought from Abu Dhabi a few months back. He missed his father, who stayed with Raju and his mom only for a month every year. He pictured himself riding on the bike with his appa, seated over the petrol tank, pretending as if he was controlling the bike. He longed for the sweaty smell of his father. His father had just left back to Abu for Dhabi work, and Rishi knew that it would be long before his father came back again for the next yearly break.

You would be in second standard. A grown-up. Study well, and take care of your mother and the baby”, appa had told before leaving.

Rishi looked forward to growing up. He would ride around in his own bike, handling the bike with one hand while talking on the phone with the other, just like his father. His father had brought his mother an android phone last time, and he had promptly installed Angry Birds and Subway Surfers. Amma always sought his help to do this or that with the phone. But apparently, he was too young to have his own phone.

Soon, Rishi. Soon!”, he told himself.


FIFTEEN DONKEYS WITH FIFTEEN TAILS”, wrote Mala mam and turned around. She was interrupted by a noise from outside. Grateful for the distraction, the children turned towards the door. Rishi let out a short yelp as he recognized the tall bearded man in a blue shirt and jeans outside as his own maternal uncle. “Raghu mama!”, he almost exclaimed, and his face broke into a spontaneous grin. He eagerly watched as his uncle grimly passed on a letter to Mala mam. She glanced at it, and quietly motioned at Rishi to leave with him. Rishi grabbed his bag, stood up, took a step forward, realized he had forgotten something in his excitement, doubled back and pulled out the toffee cover. Half-a-dozen empty wrappers flew out of the desk as Rohit and Karan stifled their laughter. Rishi didn’t mind them though. He had half-a-day off, while Karan and Rohit would have to endure two continuous maths periods followed by an anxious English hour handled by the stern Simion Clark sir.


Raghu uncle didn’t like him sitting on the petrol tank; so Rishi had to sit behind his savior-from-drudgery and hug him tight. He momentarily released his hands to wave a goodbye to the friendly watchman anna, and had to quickly hold his uncle’s waist to regain balance as the engine revved up.

Mama, where are we going?”, he shouted above the noise, asking the question for the thirteenth time since they had left the class.

The last time his uncle had relieved him from school this way, they had lied that their mother was unwell and gone to watch a movie starring Vijay in theatre. After the movie, Raghu uncle had treated him to a Softy cone ice cream. It had been great fun.

Are you taking me to a movie?”, he asked hopefully.

His uncle shushed, and rode on silently.

After what seemed like a long time, Raghu uncle parked his bike before a large, concrete, morose looking building. A lot of people were moving in and out of the entrance, and a large number of them were nurses in white gowns. He read the board in front of the hospital with some difficulty: “Jeya Hospitals”.

Rishi hated hospitals. His mother often took him along for check-ups, and he felt uncomfortable seeing people hastening around. He was also scared of doctors, who wouldn’t think twice about using an injection on you if you annoy them. The last thing he wanted was to take half-a-day off from school and spend it in a dreary hospital. They walked past the reception to a waiting lobby, took the stairs to the second floor, and crossed a row of rooms to reach a door marked as “1906”. Raghu uncle knocked once, and opened the door. Rishi was surprised to see his paternal grandparents; his patti half out of the chair to open the door, and his thatha sitting as he always did, indifferent to the surroundings. Mom rarely got along with his grandpa and grandma. His mother herself was in the lying in the patient’s bed, craning her neck out to see the door. As soon as she spotted him, she ignored the protests of Raghu uncle and sat up on the bed with difficulty, extending her arms to him. Rishi held her, and she hugged him fiercely. The visibly embarrassed boy freed himself from her grasp. His features unconsciously started twisting into a frown of annoyance -- he had told her about a thousand times that he didn’t like her showing such affection in public – but he remembered that she was bed-ridden, and softened a little.

He lied to his mother’s “did you eat your lunch properly?”, whilst inserting both his hands into his pant pockets. His uncle had always chided that gesture as being adult like, and Raju wanted to handle this like an adult would.

And how are you, patti”, he asked turning towards his grandmother.

What did the doctor say?”, Raghu uncle cut in loudly.

The latest scan results have confirmed it. It has been like this for f..four weeks”, his mother’s voice broke.

They have arranged for the operation on 29th, day after tomorrow”, his grandmother added.

The room drifted off into an uneasy silence. Seeing his mother lying dormant on a bed caused an uncomfortable feeling in Rishi’s stomach. Try as hard as he could, he couldn’t remember a day with his mother not standing at the door of their house, anxiously waiting for him as he walked home from the school bus. Her first question would always be, “did you eat your lunch?”. She would then open his Spider-man tiffin box, and berate him when she found the left-overs in it.

She didn’t check his tiffin box today. Instead, she asked him if he wanted to lie down. He protested, but Raghu uncle had already started clearing the spare bed to make space for him. He also made a makeshift pillow using, appropriately, Rishi’s books; covering them with a towel. Rishi lied down, and soon drifted off into a nap.

When he woke up, it felt as if he had slept for many hours. He was surprised to find himself on the hospital bed, and it took a while for him to register why he was there. He slowly sat up. His mother was asleep, his grandfather was reading the latest issue of a Tamil magazine, and his grandmother seemed to be murmuring silent prayers.

Where is Raghu mama?”, he asked.

He had overestimated the strength of his voice, and the words fell flat at the foot of his bed. He tried again.

Patti, where is Raghu mama?

His grandfather opened his eyes wearily. His grandmother starred at him blankly before answering him.

He has gone to the airport.

But why?”.

What why? To pick up your father”, she stated with an air of obviousness.

WHAT!? Is Appa coming home?”, shrieked Rishi.

Forgetting his resolve to act like an adult, he leapt out of the bed and started going around in circles play-acting a bike ride. “Drrr..Drr..dududududu.. Durrrrr”.

The noise woke up his mother.


Keen Kin! Keen Kin! Keen kin! Drrr..dudu dud dud du

Rishi, stop!”, his mother had to shout in anguish to make herself heard.

Nithya is dead. Your baby sister died inside my stomach. They are going to operate me tomorrow to take her out”, she said.

Rishi stopped abruptly, without bringing the gears of his bike to neutral. He had looked forward to playing with Nithya. He had imagined showing her off to his friends, teaching her to wear a sticker pottu and protecting her from Rowdies like his favourite movie heros. He had wanted to teach her to play Subway Surfers, and had visualized her watching him with amazement as the high scores tumbled. What will he say to Anandhi madam when she asks him about his cute sister? What will Karan and Rohit say to him? Would they tease him as if it was his mistake? Had he distributed so many chocolates for nothing? That reminded him, and he quickly glanced at the unshaped chocolate cover which protruded out of his backpack, reassuring himself with relief that it was still there.

It then occurred to him that he had bunked his school. Would Clark sir ask him to stand up on the bench tomorrow? He imagined standing up on the bench, when that bespectacled Raji pointed and laughed at him. The idea made him profoundly sad, and tears poured out of his eyes spontaneously. His mother noticed his anguish, and beckoned at him.

Oh, don’t cry dear child! Please don’t. I love you so much. I thank God for you! Please God, don’t let him cry.”, she hugged him once again. This time, he let her.

After being held for a few minutes, he tentatively tugged at her saree.


Yes dear

Can I have your phone?

His mother hesitated, and gave him a weak smile, asking him to carefully take it from her green handbag lying on the spare bed, and not to disturb anything else from the bag. “Or else, better still, bring me the bag and I will get it for you”.

Rishi occupied himself with the mobile phone. He didn’t know how much time passed, before someone knocked the door of their room. Everyone looked up in expectation. The door opened inwards, and a tall muscular figure wearing an old jeans pant and a gray shirt stepped in, its disheveled hair blocking the numerals ‘1906’.

APPA!”, Rishi shouted excitedly, jumping out of the bed and running towards the door. His father responded with a weak smile, and offered his hand as a greeting. Rishi hung on to the hand and tried to climb up. His father almost lost his balance, and his patti reproved him for his mischief.

How are you, my boy?”, Rishi’s father asked tiredly.

I am fine dad. How are you?


Did you bring those cracking chocolates for me? And the remote controlled helicopter? Where are your bags?

His father looked at Rishi, and tears welled up in his eyes. Raghu -- who had stepped in behind him -- gripped his shoulders, and patted him on the back, whilst meeting Rishi’s eyes with an admonishing stare.

Rishi was baffled, and his face fell. He understood that he won’t be having a baby sister, and he had wept for it too. But he had never seen his father cry. Was his father not glad to see him? He never understood these adults and their mood-swings. He wished he could grow-up soon, and be like them. Nothing would make him happier.

Or so he thought.

Soon, Rishi. Soon.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Review of Alan Moore's Watchmen

WatchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"It doesn't require genius to see that America has problems that need tackling. An' it takes a moron to think that they are small enough for clowns like you to handle"  - The Comedian

I recently came across this engaging Podcast conversation between the controversial author Sam Harris and history buff Dan Carlin. Among other things, Sam Harris brings up the elevated threat levels in today's World thanks to terrorism. In his considered response, Dan Carlin proposes that it is only our perception of threat that has increased, and not the threat itself. He reminisces on growing up during the height of cold war in the USA, where people lived in constant fear of a nuclear showdown between two superpowers. A manufactured fear, implies Dan Carlin.

Imagining this fear helps us understand the bleakness of Alan Moore's Watchmen better. Watchmen is an epic, ambitious attempt, spanning a time period of more than sixty years from the end of the first World War to the fag end of the cold war in the mid 1980s. The backdrop is in an alternate history where the presence of Watchmen seems to have affected events subtly. Richard Nixon continues as the President of the USA, with a mention of a suspicious accident that kills two Washington Post reporters (there is a hint that one of the Watchmen, The Comedian, was involved in this, but it is up to us to draw our own conclusions).

To say Watchmen is dense would be an understatement. The writing and the artwork is crammed with details, and the radical temporal and spatial shifts demand unwavering attention from the readers. Dave Gibbons adds a lot with his art and the arresting visuals enhance the story. Reading the Watchmen is like watching a movie at times. Despite the predominantly dark tone of the actual plot-line ("Life's so fragile, a successful virus clinging to a speck of mud, suspended in endless nothing"), Watchmen comes with a supplementary reading at the end of each chapter where Alan Moore shows off his range of writing styles. The supplements range from an academic report on birds to a staunchly right-wing newspaper account, and these supplements add a lot to the Watchmen universe. There is even a comic-inside-comic about a pirate ship that mirrors the narrative of, and is much darker than, the story.

The primary purpose of Alan Moore in writing the Watchmen was to subvert the superhero genre, and he pulls this off spectacularly. The Watchmen are unlike any set of superheroes we have come across. Most of them are neither super nor heroic. One fights crime to escape from his tormented life, and another to escape from his dreary life. One fights crime for the popularity it entails, and another for reasons no one can fathom. One, the most powerful of them all, is an accidental superhero and would rather be somewhere else (Mars, maybe). Their political positions vary too. Rorschach's journal has an entry that reads "New social evils emerge everyday : promiscuity, drugs, campus subversions"; a stance that is relevant for the far right even today. However the central idea of Watchmen is in elucidating the fascism of a superhero. Will you make decisions that affect millions of people without their consent because you think it is for their own good? What if you are wrong? An additional theme that constantly runs throughout is the incompetence of current political systems to keep people happy. If you think such abstract ideas are irrelevant today, you just have to listen to the very same podcast I mentioned earlier (and I have linked below the post). Sam Harris and Dan Carlin disagree on how injustice in a foreign country must be dealt with by the USA, and the parallels are uncanny (At this point, I must confess that I don't love Sam Harris. I had written about him earlier - Science, Morality and Sam Harris. On the other hand, I like what I have heard by Dan).

On the downside, if you try explaining the plot of Watchmen to someone who hasn't read it (or watched the movie), you are likely to struggle with it. The scope of Watchmen is so big that Moore falters a bit while dealing with the actual central plot-line. Additionally, the characters do not connect with us emotionally. I have never been a big fan of the superhero genre, and the tiny elements of Watchmen that actually deal with the stuff superheros do -- saving people and fighting enemies -- were underwhelming. I would say that these are trivial complaints. Alan Moore is clear on what he sets out to do, and he succeeds. Watchmen was the first graphic novel I read, and I am sold. The narrative technique, the level of detailing, and the moral questions raised by Alan Moore make Watchmen a very satisfying read. The Watchmen is more for the mind that for the heart.

Podcast link : Shouldering the Burden of History

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Review: The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) has been continuously losing territory in Iraq and Syria, and there seems to be no doubt among experts that it will be comprehensively defeated in just a matter of time. There is even an unverified claim by the Russian Government that the chief of ISIS, the Caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been killed. Will we soon, thankfully, see the end of the Islamic State (IS)? Or will we have another version of the horror and terror that was unleashed in the Middle East? Graeme Wood thinks this is not the end, and to comprehend why, he takes us into the minds of a few of ISIS's supporters in his brilliant book The Way of Strangers : Encounters with the Islamic State. Apart from understanding the motives of ISIS, we get a fair idea of Islam as a religion, and the various divisions within it.

We start before the advent of Islamic State in the current form with Hesham Elashry, an Egyptian tailor who lived in Brooklyn and grew up without much of an interest towards religion, until he stumbled upon the Blind Sheik's (The Blind Sheik is a prominent Iman currently under arrest in the USA for jihadist propaganda) sermons. Having converted to Salafism, one of the strictest forms of Islam, Hesham meets Graeme Wood in Egypt and attempts to seduce him into the religion. Hesham is not technically a part of the Islamic State as far as we know, but he exemplifies perfectly the mindset that would lead people to support the IS once the Caliphate is declared. Graeme Wood's narration during this episode is so gripping that this could be a John Le Carre novel, complete with a victim in the form of a non-suspecting Japanese woman caught in unfathomable circumstances. We then travel to Australia to meet Musa Cerantino, the centerpiece of the book as well as of an earlier long form article by Graeme Wood for The Atlantic. Musa Cerantino was, at one point of time, among the three most prolific online recruiters for the IS, apart from doubling up as their unofficial English language spokesperson. Astonishingly, Musa is normal in most ways, so much so that Wood forms a sort of friendship with him. Through the longest chapter in the book, we learn Musa's views on why a Bay'a, or fealty, to the Islamic State is the duty of every true Muslim.

Some investigative journalism leads Wood to Yahya, an American who is just a loser in the eyes of his parents, but turns out to be one of the most influential characters within the IS. Though we do not get to meet Yahya, we get a complete character sketch by meeting people around him and exploring the circumstances that led him to make the decisions he made. Yahya's case proves that the Islamic State attracts many despite their being from geopolitically and economically stable backgrounds. Apart from a few other characters, Graeme Wood then meets a couple of prominent American Muslim scholars who, despite their fierce disagreement with each other, vehemently condemn the Islamic State.

Contrary to the perception of most outsiders, Islam is a religion of logical reasoning, or Qiyas. Reading Graeme Wood's books made me realize that Islam is one of the few religions with really devout followers in current day society. A lot of time is spent on interpreting the religious texts and deriving the right way to live. If you buy into a certain premise, you can reach a conclusion that may sound horrifying to outsiders, but is still logically sound. The premise on which the logic is derived is often what causes factionalism within Islam, and through Graeme Wood's book we get to meet Salafis, Wahabbis, Sufis, Dhahiris and Quiet Salafis, among others. Wood's contention is that if you follow the premise of a devout Salafi who thinks Jihad is okay, it would be extremely tough to not end up supporting the Islamic State. Of course, Graeme Wood is conscious that this is not the only reason for people to join Islamic State. There is always a geopolitical angle, an economic angle, a psychological reason. There is also an apocalyptic perspective, luring people by prophesying that in the near-future, "The earth will suffer a drought - a third of the planet will go without rain one year, and two-thirds the next. We will live in a age of miracles, both counterfeit and real; of inconceivable suffering, bloodshed, and tribulations; of global war waged with tools ranging from sabers to thermonuclear weapons. Those who survive - Muslims and not - will wish for death." However, Graeme Wood strongly disagrees with the view that the IS is just "an army of psychopaths and self-dramatizing losers.", pointing out that many followers of Islamic State are more well-versed in the reading of the religious texts than the average Muslim.

There is also a commentary on research focused on religion. While Wood appreciates Princeton University for their extensive research on Jihad, he laments the lack of such work elsewhere. He disagrees with Karl Marx's opinion that "Religion is always reducible to a material explanation", and argues that religion itself is a prime motive in many cases. ISIS, he implies, is not the exploitation of religion to meet political ends. It is rather the exploitation of politics to meet religious ends. And he adds that a secular outlook would inhibit us from seeing this truth. This is not to imply that Graeme Wood is anti-Islamic at any point of time. He seems to have an extensive knowledge of Islamic texts, and seems to be respected enough by Muslim scholars (at least the ones portrayed in the book). His point is simply that a lot ideological arguments of an entity like ISIS can only be answered with ideological debate, and this can be done only once we concede that ISIS is an Islamic group. In his own words, "Since 2012, tens of thousands of men, women and children have migrated to a theocratic state, under the belief that migration is a sacred obligation and that the state's leader is the worldly successor of the last and greatest of prophets. If religious scholars see no role for religion in a mass movement like this, then they see no role for religion in the world."

Graeme Wood is a terrific writer. The writing has a journalistic economy of words, and The Way of Strangers is engaging throughout. Apart from a command of English that made me reach for the dictionary every few minutes to look up  meanings, he seems to be versed in Arabic, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Russian, and probably other languages he has not revealed to us about. This mastery of languages probably plays a large role in the fact that Graeme Wood is able to connect with a variety of people and get their unencumbered views. He also has a good sense of humour, and inappropriately for such a book, I laughed out loud a few times. Especially when he describes how a Japanese propensity to punctuality irritated a potential ISIS supporter enough to move out of ISIS region. The one complaint I had with the book is of a typographical nature. The notes and references which provide essential insights are placed at the end of the book and it was extremely inconvenient shifting from the main narrative to the notes section. I would personally prefer these in the form of  foot-notes. On the other popular complaint that Graeme Wood does not visit the ISIS territory at all, I wouldn't say I missed it a lot.

Islam is the most popular religion in the World, and it is still the least understood among the non-practitioners. The two major narratives surrounding the religion are, to use Graeme Wood's words, that "Islam is essentially  harsh and murderous", or that "Islam is a religion of peace". Graeme Wood convinces us that both these views are wrong, and when major global decisions are made with either of these view-points, it would turn counter-productive and act as fodder for groups such as the Islamic State. And the sad thing is that, as an idea, Islamic State is probably not dead yet, at least in the minds of many Muslims. He points out regions which are ripe for another Islamic State (prominent among them is Mindano in Philippines). "Wherever there is grievance, savagery can be sown. Wherever there is savagery, it can be used and exploited. Wherever it can be exploited, the nightmare can endure", he says. Humanity should work towards reducing grievances on one hand. On the other hand, as one Islamic State advocate puts, "the fact is, even if you were to stop bombing us, imprisoning us, torturing us, vilifying us, and usurping our lands, we would continue to hate you because our primary reason to hate you will not case to exist until you embrace Islam". This can be curtailed only by the scholars of Islam. It is not a fight the outsiders, the infidels, can win.

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