Books This Week

In this week’s Books page, we had a review of Rahul Bhatt and S. Hussain Zaidi’s Headley and I, written by Little Yadav, one of DNA‘s crime beat journalists. It’s one thing when a book written by a friend lands up on your desk. It’s another thing entirely when the book that lands on your table is written by someone you’re legally obliged to stand by in sickness and in health. Obviously I wouldn’t review Anuvab Pal‘s new book, Chaos Theory. But if you want to know a little bit about the book and Pal, here’s an interview.

Not that I knew this would be quite so timely as it ended up to be, but most of the books page was devoted to some of the memorable and strong women characters we saw in fiction this year. Voila the list.

Ladies’ Special


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Illustration by Sudhir Shetty

Syamamma from Gogu Shyamala’s Father May Be An Elephant, And Mother May Only Be A Small Basket

Dalit feminist and Telengana activist Gogu Shyamala’s short stories were all poignant and memorable, but one character stood out: Syamamma. Born into a Dalit family in rural India, Syamamma’s life is marked by challenges, not the least of which is the practice of making Dalit girls “joginis” (which means she’s available for sexual exploitation by all the upper caste men in the village). The short story “Raw Wound”, based on Shyamala’s own life, is about how Syamamma escapes this fate. She, like Shyamala, is a champion. Insert roaring applause here.

Mausiji from Ambai’s Fish In A Dwindling Lake

Most of us wouldn’t think getting an auto outside Bandra station could be fashioned into a remarkable story, but that’s because most of us aren’t Ambai. “Journey 7” is about an older woman, Mausiji, helping a young wife named Rupmati and her brood of children negotiate their way through Bandra station. Mausiji is such a refreshing alternative to the scheming, sniping and insecure older women we usually see in popular culture. Plus, as far as we are concerned, anyone who helps another get an auto is a hero who deserves all the adulation in the world.

Rabi from Balaraba Ramat Yakubu’s Sin Is A Puppy That Follows You Home

She weeps, she’s melodramatic and for much of the novel, she’s worried about getting her daughter married. This doesn’t sound like the formula of a strong woman character, but in the way Rabi carefully carves out an independent identity in the intensely-conservative Hausa society, she’s positively heroic. When Rabi is thrown out of her marital home (with her children), she sniffs and sobs but she also wastes no time in setting up a business of her own. Rabi’s story would probably feel far closer to many an Indian woman’s reality than the saas-bahu serials on television.

Sukhvinder from JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy

She’s hairy, dyslexic, awkward and she cuts herself. Basically, Sukhvinder in The Casual Vacancy is the kid in school that no one speaks to because it’s just more entertaining to make fun of them. Although she shows up late in the novel, Sukhvinder is ultimately one of the few people in Rowling’s Pagford who warms your heart. She’s doesn’t move past her insecurities magically, but is strong enough to not lose sight of what she believes is right. In the end, when she organises the funeral for Krystal, the terribly-misunderstood heroine (of sorts) of The Casual Vacancy, Sukhvinder proves she has more integrity than almost anyone else in the novel. Brava!

Captain Naphi from China Mieville’s Railsea

One of her arms is a whirring mechanical contraption and all of her is geared to hunting a massive albino “moldywarpe” (a giant mole). This may sound a bit ridiculous without context but in Railsea, a reimagining of Moby Dick, Captain Naphi is Mieville’s version of Captain Ahab and a fascinating character at that. Her determination to find the mole is fearsome. Her crew is both petrified and in absolute awe of her. You’d think a woman without all her limbs would seem handicapped, but not Naphi. It’s not often that a character is both menacing as well as reassuring – Naphi manages this balance and is someone no one would mess with. This is a woman we want by our side.

Amy from Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl

Move over Hannibal Lecter. A man eating our liver sounds far less scary than the psychopathic Amy Elliott Dunne whose ability to plot and pre-empt is positively horrifying. After all, with Lecter all you have to fear is death. Amy doesn’t let you off so easily. Dauntingly intelligent and cold-blooded, she will make her victim – her husband – survive and suffer. Gone Girl isn’t really a horror story. It’s a novel about marriage and Amy is a chilling personification of that old saying, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Or in Amy’s case, a woman bored. Considering the horrible crimes against women being reported these days, there’s a politically incorrect side of us that takes great pleasure in these criminal husbands being saddled with a wife like Amy.

Em from Jerry Pinto’s Em And The Big Hoom

From the very first moment that you meet Em, you fall in love with her. She is completely mad, which means she says delightful and often inappropriate things with glorious charm. It also means that she tries to kill herself, hurts those around her and is crucified by depression. Yet, even when she’s at her worst, when she’s curled into a miserable knot of delusions and suicidal urges, Em’s strength is remarkable. Her desperate urge to kill herself is matched only by her intense joie de vivre. Heady, heartbreaking and utterly lovable.

Mariamma from Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People

It was the year of mad mothers, and Mariamma, who talks to walls and regularly douses her alcoholic husband in order to wake him up, matches Em in both lunacy as well as charm. The Illicit Happiness of Other People is actually a father’s quest to unravel the mystery of his son’s suicide, but Mariamma is the parent who wins your heart. Haunted by the past, miserable in her present and yet full of humour, Mariamma’s determination to not let her difficult circumstances overwhelm her is fantastic. From taking advantage of the competition between local churches, using economic theory to discipline her son and thwacking a man who “eve-teases” a young woman, Mariamma is amazing.

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