This list of books read in January doesn’t include my pulpy romances simply because I can’t remember how many of them I’ve read. It’s definitely above eight in number. I abandoned at least two of them because they were just too cringe-inducing. I don’t know if it’s the romances coming my way — yes, let’s just pretend they waft into my Kindle, without any sort of agency on my part — or a general trend, but more and more heroines appear to be either virginal or verging on virginal. These ladies are so damned wide-eyed at the heroes and so in awe of the heroes’ sexual prowess that I would like to poke them in their eyes with vibrators.
But that’s not the point. Here’s what I’ve read in January.
There are two possible reasons for me not writing about a title: laziness or attempted diplomacy. Chances are high of the former being more compelling than the latter. Both A Handbook for My Lover and The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma are quick reads. Spinster took longer. I’d started reading it last month and it got abandoned mid-way. I suspect if I hadn’t found it in my bag while killing time at an airport, I wouldn’t have bothered to finish it. Slade House isn’t bad, but not quite as brilliant as Mitchell’s books have been of late.
I’d like to hold this wretched heat responsible for the fact that I completely forgot to put up links of published articles for the past couple of months. The way the temperature’s been rising, the only logical explanation for Mumbai’s weather is here in this Instagram post. But let us rewind to when the temperatures were less harsh and when less of my brain had molten into slush. Here are the links from February.
There was an odd programme on the History of Sex on television, which I wrote about here.
I know it’s fashionable to feel outraged these days — and considering all that’s happening around us, it seems we’re all en vogue, regardless of our political and cultural orientation — but MSG was the next level of shamelessness. Here’s a sample of my rant about MSG.
I’d like to imagine that in a culture that values aesthetics and creativity, the critical establishment would ignore MSGentirely. Singh has every right to make it, just as his fans and admirers have every right to see it. However, when we as critics consider MSG worthy of a review, we’re giving cinema a bad name. And it’s unfair because MSG is not a film. It’s propaganda.
But caged as we are today by the need to follow trends and the conviction that growth is judged quantitatively and not qualitatively, MSG is a film. With each review that we write, we’re validating Singh, with his non-existent cinematic skills and dubious intents, as a film director. When we say that his film is laugh-out-loud funny, we’re unwittingly putting him in a category that includes real comedic talent and ranges from the silly slapstick of Padosan, the black comedy of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, the mischief of Chupke Chupke, the goofy stupidity of Andaz Apna Apna and the crackle of Hera Pheri. No wonder Singh grins at us leerily through his unkempt beard. Now there are more people who know him as a director and actor than as one accused of rape, murder and possession of illegal arms. Everyone who laughed at MSG, the joke’s on you.
Speaking of outrage, Bhalchandra Nemade and Salman Rushdie had an online spat of sorts. I couldn’t help but say a prayer of thanks that writers are, in fact, lunatics and wrote this piece looking back at literary feuds.
My personal favourite literary feud, however, is from 2008, between Derek Walcott and Naipaul. Naipaul had observed that only Walcott’s early work showed talent so Walcott responded by writing a poem for and about Naipaul, titled “The Mongoose”. You can hear Walcott recite it here. It includes lines like, “The old mongoose, still making money as a burnt out comic”
What’s worth noting in all these examples is that the authors fought (sometimes viciously), but these incidents didn’t take on proportions that intimidated either party. If anything, the provocative statements encouraged debate and discussion. There were no silences because of these feuds; only conversations that were louder and more passionate.
Read about other, more scandalous author squabbles here.
An edited version of this piece was published in the December 2014 issue of ELLE India.
Age is supposed to mellow us, soften the rough edges, dull the sharpness. Canadian authorMargaret Atwood, 74, doesn’t subscribe to this stereotype in either real life or fiction. In her new collection of nine short stories, The Stone Mattress, two women are murderers, another is a werewolf, one man lusts after a young woman who comes to interview him even though his body is far from able to keep up with his thoughts. No one in the book, regardless of how old and wrinkled they are, is going gently into the night.
They’re just the kind of characters you expect from Atwood, who may have gained wrinkles but has lost none of the stiletto keenness of her intellect. “After a certain point, people tend to think ageing is hilarious,” Atwood said, when I asked her how it felt to grow old. “Especially hilarious is the fact that there are things that young people think you don’t know. You know, [like] sex. They think you don’t know anything about that. Or you’re not supposed to know anything about it. You’re supposed to be sort of old, wise and sweet. My older characters are not like that.”
Interviewing Atwood was unusually difficult for me. When you’ve followed an author through her books, short stories, essays, poetry, cartoons, inventions, speeches and interviews over approximately 20 years, it takes some doing to surf past the waves of fandom. It’s also a struggle to figure out what questions to ask her. I know she was born in 1939, in Ottawa, and spent her childhood in the Canadian wilderness. She went to school for the first time at the age of 12 and some of her experiences became the starting point for her luminous book about how girls bully each other, Cat’s Eye.
I know she ate her first rattlesnake in 1957 and that she wrote her first novel, The Edible Woman, in exam booklets on a card table in Vancouver. The book spent two years gathering dust in a publisher’s drawer, ignored until Atwood won Canada’s highest literary honour, the Governor General’s Award in 1966, for her second collection of poetry, The Circle Game. I know Atwood writes the first drafts of her books by hand and then has them typed up. While writing The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel set in a dystopic future in which fertile women are turned into breeding machines, she noted in her journal that she had found puffballs. Atwood is the inventor of LongPen, a device that allows celebrities to sign autographs remotely. And the author may well be a prophet because the future she describes in her Maddaddam trilogy reads more like fact than speculative fantasy. Oh, and Atwood got repetitive strain injury from signing too many autographs. That’s how popular and beloved she is.
In short, I’ve spent years virtually stalking Margaret Atwood. Consequently, I also know that she is not a chatty interviewee. There are horror stories about how she has politely chewed up interviewers who have asked silly questions. Politely but crushingly, Atwood terrorised one journalist so thoroughly that she said she’d run in the opposite direction if she ever sawAtwood again.
Which is why, when I realised that we had been talking for half an hour and were now sharing stories about dead hands and phantom footprints, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief – not just that my questions hadn’t been slashed into ribbons, but also because writers can often turn out to be disappointing when you encounter them outside of their writing. As it turns out,Atwood is delightful. Her mischievous, dry wit and treasure chest of experiences make her a joy to interview because every story Atwood has written has another story behind it.
For instance, the title tale of The Stone Mattress came out of an Arctic cruise that Atwood had been on with her partner, writer Graeme Gibson. The heroine, Verna, goes on that very same cruise and sees what Atwood had seen: a field of stromatolites, 1.9 billion-year-old fossils that could be fabulous murder weapons. That, however, is where the similarities end. “I have never killed anyone in the Arctic with a piece of rock,” Atwood assured me drily. “But I have been in the Arctic and I have the very piece of rock in the kitchen.”
On the cruise, Verna encounters an old acquaintance, Bob. (There were many Bobs on the cruise that Atwood was on and they all survived the trip.) When they were in high school, Bob had raped Verna, but decades later, he doesn’t recognise Verna. She does and decides to avenge herself by killing him. Whether or not you think Verna is justified in her actions will depend on your personal sensibilities.
Verna isn’t the only murderess in The Stone Mattress, belonging as she does to an illustrious line of Atwoodian women who break both stereotype and laws. There’s almost always an anti-heroine in Atwood’s novels, usually the character who haunts the reader long after they’ve finished the book. Atwood is a feminist, but has over the years stood out as one who knows how to create realistic women (and men) who live, rather than serve agendas. The voices she’s crafted for characters like Grace Marks (in Alias Grace) and Cordelia (in Cat’s Eye) continue to mesmerize readers. They’re sharply intelligent, resisting the constraints placed upon them by society and convention in ways that are sometimes uncomfortable and always fascinating. Atwoodian heroines are disturbers of peace, for simple-minded wannabe feminists as much as chauvinists.
“I got some kickback in the ’70s for creating a female character who wasn’t virtuous,” recalled Atwood. “But since that time, after people have reflected a bit especially on their own experiences, we all know that it’s not true that all women are not angels of virtue because we’ve known a lot of women. They come in all shapes and sizes, just like men, and all degrees of meanness or pleasantness, like men.”
The equanimity in this statement belies the way Atwood savages misogyny in her stories, using the women in her fiction to put men – real and fictional – in their place and expose the stupidity of ‘mansplaining’. That said, Atwood’s fiction is peopled with many fantastic male characters. Sometimes, they’re the voices of reason, like Tin from “Dark Lady” in The Stone Mattress, who sees the sadness behind the manic, shiny happiness in his twin sister and is the one standing by her side, whether or not she needs his support.
Today, there’s a host of Canadian writers who feature in people’s reading lists: Nobel prize winner Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Yann Martel, Douglas Coupland, Carol Shields, to name a few. It’s difficult to imagine now, but when Atwood started writing, there was no such thing as a Canadian literary scene. This emptiness worked to her advantage because Canada was hungry for storytellers and the rest of the world proved to be just as eager to sample the stories told by Atwood and those who followed in her footsteps. She explains it as a confluence of coincidences: “If I’d arrived at the very same mental faculties but it had been the middle of the 19th century and it had been rural Canada, I doubt very much I would have become a writer. There wouldn’t have been a place for me to publish.”
Being born in the right era, however, doesn’t entirely explain the way Atwood put Canada on the literary map. She’s been shortlisted for the Booker Prize five times (The Blind Assassin, not her best work, won the prize in 2000) and her novels are part of college syllabi in different parts of the English-reading world. That’s much more than time and place working in fortuitous tandem.
The charm in Atwood’s novels is similar to the stromatolites that give The Stone Mattress its name. Stromatolites, as Atwood explains, are “a fossilised cushion, formed by layer upon layer of…algae building up into a mound or dome.” Packed in these ‘stones’ are the story of our planet and life, because this fossil created oxygen on earth. In many ways, they mirrorAtwood’s style storytelling —layer is placed upon layer, with details being embedded neatly and densely within them.
There are numerous references and allusions from literature, history and science in Atwood’s writing, she wears the erudition lightly. The hooks lie in the plots and characters and they reel readers in quickly: femme fatales, twisted marriages, lost fathers; a young woman who may or may not have killed the two people who showed her kindness; a republic where women are cloistered and segregated according to their childbearing potential. Most of the time, just the blurb at the back of an Atwood book is enough to make the question of ‘what happened next?’ start gnawing at you. Quickly, you discover her deadpan, cutting sense of humour surfacing unexpectedly across the terrain of her stories, like this observation from “Torching the Dusties”, a story from The Stone Mattress: “According to Tobias, it was more difficult to seduce a stupid woman than an intelligent one because stupid women could not understand innuendo or even connect cause with effect. The fact that a pricey dinner out to be followed, as the night the day, by the compliant opening of their peerless legs was lost on them.”
Incidentally, “Torching the Dusties” is about a few old people in an home for the aged which is besieged by a murderous group of protestors, holding placards that read “Time to Go”. They’re a group called “Our Turn” and they want the old to vacate not just the premises, but the planet. It’s unnerving how credible the scenario is, despite Our Turn’s absurdly cruel agenda, and that credibility comes from how Atwood’s characters think and respond to their circumstances.
No matter how surreal the context, those that people Atwood’s writing always feel real. They fall in love, leave scars and tease both other characters and the reader. Every relationship is a tug of war that tenses and slackens in a power play that may be sly or obvious. “In the very, very broadest sense, interpersonal relationships require negotiations of various kinds, stated or unstated,” said Atwood when I asked if she thought love was essentially a power struggle between two people. “Sometimes these interpersonal relationships, such as marriage, are politically determined because they’re constrained by law, and laws are made by politicians. So who can do what to whom legally is a political matter. Who actually does what to whom, that can be outside the box. But it’s always playing against what is legally permissible and what society considers acceptable.”
Listening to her, I was reminded of something she’d written in Cat’s Eye: “We are survivors of each other. We have been shark to one another, but also lifeboat. That counts for something.”
Atwood’s language and her gift for both sensing and articulating suffering is unmatched. Running through the heart of so much of her writing is pain that flashes like a river catching sunlight. Atwood torments her characters and then writes of their suffering with a simple, dazzling lyricism. Violence is written with a certain morbid relish and even something as over-written as heartbreak can become piercing when Atwood words it:
“Falling in love, we said; I fell for him. We were falling women. We believed in it, this downward motion: so lovely, like flying, and yet at the same time so dire, so extreme, so unlikely. God is love, they once said, but we reversed that, and love, like heaven, was always just around the corner. The more difficult it was to love the particular man beside us, the more we believed in Love, abstract and total. We were waiting, always, for the incarnation. That word, made flesh.”
Reading Atwood’s fiction, it often feels as though it’s the flesh made word, to turn the famous phrase from the Gospel of John upon its head. Her novels often feel like a record of something that we’ve experienced or are just about to experience. The Maddaddam trilogy, for instance, was supposed to be science fiction about “things that have not been invented yet” — ranging from hybrid animals to human-like species called the Crakers — but we’re already taking steps in this direction. Genetic splicing is not speculative and these novels offer a chilling (though not entirely hopeless) vision of where we as a planet appear to be headed.
Even in The Stone Mattress, whose stories are Atwood’s take on Gothic literature and folklore, Atwood can’t quite let go of her pragmatism. In the story titled “Lusus Naturae”, for instance, Atwood’s heroine is a werewolf, but her father insists it’s a medical condition. When she’s forced to stay hidden indoors, the werewolf educates herself by reading Pushkin, Lord Byron and John Keats. This only serves to make the fact that she’s considered fearsome both absurd and a reflection of how so many patriarchal societies are made nervous by empowered women.
As fantastical creatures go, Atwood’s are rather human and relatable, which isn’t quite what you expect of a volume that Atwood has stressed is made up of “tales” rather than stories. In her author’s note, she writes,
“Calling a piece of short fiction a ‘tale’ removes it at least slightly from the realm of mundane works and days, as it evokes the world of the folk take, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales.”
The Stone Mattress has many kinds of fantasies, ranging from the apparitions that are a symptom of the Charles Bonnet’s syndrome in the chilling “Torching the Dusties” to the alternative reality of Alphinland and the aforementioned werewolf. However, while none of these are mundane, neither are they entirely fantastical. “I kind of shy at the jump,” admittedAtwood. “I didn’t go all the way to say a dead hand really is creeping about under your bed. I couldn’t quite get that far. But I’ve always wanted to write a dead hand story because I was so smitten by the beast with five fingers.”
Considering how much she’s written – that too in long hand – and the variety in her writing, it’s not surprising that Atwood is smitten by the beast with five fingers. At present, her hand is occupied figuring out the novel she will submit to Scottish artist Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. A forest has been planted in Norway that will, 100 years later, provide the paper to publish an anthology of books that are being commissioned now. Authors will write works that will be sealed for the next 100 years. They’re not allowed to tell anyone what they’re writing and the work must be made up of only words, which means there will be no graphic novels in the Future Library. These will be sealed in a box and all present-day readers will know is the title and the author’s name. After a century, the manuscript will be taken out and published. Atwood is the first writer to be invited to contribute a book to Future Library.
It seems fitting that the last novel that will be published in Atwood’s name will, like her first, sit unopened for a long time. At the moment though, Atwood’s concerns are more technical than literary. “I got some special archival paper because I didn’t want them to open the box and find a lot of oxidised scraps. That would be a disappointment,” she said drily.
Unsurprisingly, she’s breaking the stereotype of ageing yet again with this project. Instead of looking back, as we expect the elderly to do, Atwood is looking forward.
To read Ram Devineni’s “augmented reality” comic book, Priya’s Shakti, you need a phone or a tablet and a good internet connection. View a page of the comic book through the device’s camera and little gold dots appear, like fireflies coming out to play. And then, suddenly, the page is transformed. New elements appear — lightning flashes, characters move, speech bubbles surface. Augmented reality comics is a mouthful that basically means Priya’s Shakti is a virtual pop-up book. Let your device scan the page and like magic, new details appear on the page, which is perfect for a comic book about a woman whose only friend is the Hindu goddess Parvati.
Devineni, who is a filmmaker moonlighting as a comic book writer, was driven to create Priya’s Shakti after he read about the infamous Delhi gang rape of December 2012. This is why the pop-up elements in the book include ads forCircle of 6. Everything, augmented or otherwise, in the comic is intently focused upon women’s safety and women’s empowerment. It’s one of those chilling coincidences that reports of the 2012 gang rape moved Devineni in this way, but in taxi driver Shiv Kumar Yadav, it inspired a new way to intimidate his chosen target. Allegedly, Yadav threatened to penetrate his victim with a metal rod if she fought back. While Yadav took his cue from the rapists, Devineni was inspired by the courage of the woman who fought her rapists and the injuries they inflicted upon her in an effort to make sure the guilty didn’t get away with their crime.
In Priya’s Shakti, a group of men rape a young woman named Priya and her life is destroyed. As a rape ‘victim’, she gets neither sympathy nor help from anyone. Her family rejects her and so, the heartbroken and desperate Priya takes refuge in a temple and prays to Parvati. Priya doesn’t know it, but her timing is excellent. Up in Mount Kailash, Shiva has just said au revoir to his wife, which means Parvati is all ears. The goddess is furious that Priya has suffered the way she has and to set things right, Parvati enters Priya’s body. Possessed by Parvati, Priya goes to the village panchayat for justice, but the men in the council are obnoxious. One says Priya must have provoked her rapists and another suggests she marry one of her attackers.
Parvati, still in Priya’s body, decides to take matters into her hands and finds one of the rapists. Not only is he unrepentant, he tries to rape Priya again and gets a rude shock when an enraged Parvati reveals herself. That Parvati is angry and being manhandled (somewhat literally) rouses Shiva out of his meditative state. He curses humanity and says they will no longer be able to have babies. The earth and the heavens are now in a tizzy, but Shiva refuses to take back his curse. Some of the gods decide they’re going to try to knock some sense into Shiva and a terrible war erupts in the heavens. With a little help from Kali, Parvati is able to calm Shiva down and end the war, but none of this solves the problem of poor Priya being ostracised.
Fortunately, Parvati hasn’t forgotten Priya. She descends to Earth and tells Priya that the young woman is the goddess’ chosen one to spread the gospel of gender equality.
“Take this mantra,” Parvati tells her. “Speak without shame and stand with me… Bring about the change you want to see.” Parvati’s words fill Priya with courage and strength, and a new sherawaali is born.
Technically, Priya’s Shakti is fantastic. Drawn by Dan Goldman, the stylish kitsch of the comic book is comfortably vintage but has a modern edge thanks to details like the use of photographs and collages. That said, it’s a bit odd to see Kali wearing striped tights, as though she’s the Wicked Witch of the West’s punk cousin, and the pink snakes around Shiva’s neck look distinctly like a muffler. Still, Goldman and Devineni deserve gold stars for steering clear of the pinkish beige palette that usually makes up the skin tone of our comic book heroines.
Yet despite its good intentions, Priya’s Shakti is dissatisfying. This is not just because Devineni wants to embed sermons in his comic book. The real problem is in the storytelling. Devineni has tried to fuse Hindu mythology with current affairs to create a new myth. He tries to shake things up and on occasion, his tale is intriguing. For instance, in Devineni’s imagination it is Kali who makes a violently angry Shiva stop when he’s on a rampage, rather than the other way round as in the original myth. Unfortunately, these are details and the central story serves as a potent reminder of how skilled the ancient storytellers were in comparison.
To begin with, there’s the problem of Priya coming across as an exception rather than an everywoman. She’s the only one in the comic book who has faced any of the harassment that is part and parcel of almost every woman’s reality in India. She’s also quite obviously a stereotype — her father didn’t let her study, her mother washes her hands off her when she’s raped — but one that denotes weakness.
There’s no effort to show Priya’s own strength of character. It takes a goddess — who is perhaps the only Indian woman blissfully unaware of the dangers and biases that inform being a woman in India — to spark courage and defiance in Priya. This begs a simple and uncomfortable question: what about all those women who don’t have the benefit of being able to phone in a goddess and ride a tiger?
Then there’s Parvati, who presumably had some plan in mind when she confronted Priya’s rapist, but is literally cut off mid-sentence by an enraged Shiva. Shiva’s anger is not at the plight of women in general or Priya in particular. He’s livid his wife has been disrespected and his reaction is entirely incoherent. He decrees humans will not be able to procreate, which makes no sense as punishment for rape or disrespecting a woman.
As Parvati points out, Shiva’s decision affects not just men, but also women. Other gods tell him that it’s unfair to those who are innocent and will mean the end of humanity. Shiva is unmoved. No one asks him to explain the connection between rape and making babies. After all, Shiva’s not saying humans won’t be able to have sex or that all men will be rendered frigid or cursed with an inability to raise their hands against women. He simply cancels babies out of the equation. As deterrents to rape go, Shiva’s solution is about as logical as the Delhi government’s decision to blacklist Uber and others like it.
Most problematically, the rapists disappear from Priya’s Shakti, effectively getting away with their crime. One of them may have had a heart attack when Parvati appeared before him, but the others are left entirely unscathed. Neither does the panchayat get a divine rap on its knuckles. Instead, the comic book spirals into an interstellar war that seems to be caused by — you guessed it — women who spoke out against rape. It’s easy to see the story getting interpreted as how Shiva lost his temper only because Parvati couldn’t control her own rage, and as a result, tandav was upon us.
Even after the war, neither Parvati nor Shiva turn their attention upon the rapists. All eyes are on Priya. She needs to overcome her fear for predators, tame them and find the courage to go into a deeply sexist world and tell people to change their ways. Meanwhile, her rapists are going on with their lives and their criminal tendencies, entirely unaware that their actions have devastated not just Priya but threatened humanity with extinction. Rapists do indeed tend to get away with their crime in real life and it’s true that the onus of rebuilding lies with the rape survivor, but surely one can hope for things to be different in the world of augmented reality?
Still, for all its clumsy storytelling, you can’t fault the intention behind Priya’s Shakti or the mantra that Priya preaches, simplistic as it may be. There’s so little in popular media and entertainment that encourages people to remove the stigma from rape, that initiatives like Devineni’s are welcome even when they’re disappointing.
So yes, read the comic, take the photo and stand with Priya.
See more about Priya’s Shakti here. The comic book is a free download and to see the augmented reality sections, you have to download the Blippar app.
These are all from October, which started off as a rather bookish month, courtesy the Booker prize shortlist. Not that there was anything particularly unworthy about the novels in the shortlist, but somehow, they didn’t feel quite as fantastic. Or maybe it’s just me growing increasingly senile or brain-melt thanks to prolonged exposure to Bollywood.
This year’s Booker prize went to The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.
Also on the subject of literature, on 10th October, I went online in the morning and discovered RK Narayan’s face where the Google logo tends to be. For reasons best known to tech wizards, the Indian Google Doodles are the dullest and most unimaginative of the lot. Narayan’s Google Doodle was a case in point. Still, it did alert me to the fact that it was Narayan’s birthday and I wrote this.
For once, I loved everything about Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate. It was well-researched, had a stellar set of guests and was so full of triumph. What a great episode on alternative sexuality.
This year’s Mumbai Film Festival turned out to be a rather eventful affair. First it was on, then it was almost cancelled before finally coming together at the last minute. It wasn’t as fantastic a selection as the past couple of years, but there were still some fantastic films. This free e-book has all the pieces I wrote on the films that I saw as well as a little diary of what happened at the festival this year. (Includes bits and bobs on Court, Coming Home, Mommy, Boyhood and more.)
Gone Girlisn’t a bad film, but it is disappointing, especially if you’ve read the book. The film just doesn’t have that same tautness or crackle. And it doesn’t help that it clings to misogynist stereotypes in a way that would make leeches break out in a slow clap.