Kim Longinotto’s Salma

A severely-edited version of this piece was carried in today’s DNA (scroll down). Those who have worked with me know that few things give me as much joy as zapping out extra words in anyone’s copy, including mine, but I think cutting an 1100-word piece to 260 words is brutal even by my standards. So here’s the  rambly version.

Blood lines

Salma was 12 years old when she began menstruating. Her family pulled her out of school and locked her up at home. This is standard practice in Salma’s village. Girls are hidden away the moment they ‘become women’ and are allowed out only to get married.

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From Kim Longinotto’s Salma

For nine years, Salma’s world was a room whose only comfort was a window that let in a little sunlight and looked out on to nothing. At one poing in Salma, award-winning filmmaker Kim Longinotto’s newest documentary, the Tamil poet Salma goes back to the room that had been her prison and sits by the window. “Why would you build windows that you can’t see out of? It’s crazy,” she says with a laugh. You have to wonder how anyone can laugh about being locked up in a room for nine years. Longinotto has a simple explanation: “Salma’s not normal. … I think she’s like an Indian Nelson Mandela.”

Salma is an acclaimed Tamil poet who has been praised by critics for the lyrical nuance and  elegant candour of her writing. The story of how she became a poet and a politician is less well-known. Longinotto learnt about her from Urvashi Butalia, founder of Zubaan (they brought out a translation of Salma’s poetry in 2009). “I thought Salma’s one of millions of women under house arrest,” said Longinotto. “Families pick them up one by one and they just get locked up. We never hear of them because they’re women. Here’s a woman who’s survived and who’s out. I thought, I’ve got to grab a camera and make a film about it.”

The little village near Tiruchirapalli, in Tamil Nadu, where Salma was born and where much of Longinotto’s Salma was shot, doesn’t seem remarkable at first glance. It’s clean. The houses are painted in bright, pretty colours. Inside the homes are modern conveniences like washing machines, tiled walls and floors, televisions, water filters. It’s difficult to reconcile this modernity with the village’s aggressive male chauvinism.

While most girls in Salma’s village were married by the age of 15, Salma resisted until she was 17. Then when her mother convinced Salma that she was becoming seriously unwell because of the stress caused by Salma refusing to marry, Salma relented. It was much later that she realised her mother had duped her. When she recounts this in the film, a Mona Lisa smile that is neither cheerful nor sad stretches Salma’s lips.

Kim Longinotto
Kim Longinotto

Salma is more melancholy than Longinotto’s usual style. Longinotto never stages the action in her films, but most of her documentaries are full of drama and unfolding events. Salma, in contrast, is made up of reminiscences. “I was absolutely terrified because I thought. this isn’t how I make films,” said Longinotto. Following her editor Oliver Huddleston’s advice, Longinotto made sure she got many shots of Salma on her own — daydreaming, driving. They emphasise how solitary Salma is and also provide the space for her poems to be read out as voiceover. For Salma, who despite her efforts can’t stop young girls from being forced to abandon their studies and marry or prevent heartbreaking incidents like that of a young girl who sets herself aflame because she was locked up, the only way to make sense of the world around her is poetry. It’s a sentiment that Longinotto can probably relate to since filmmaking has played a similar role in her life. The director had a difficult relationship with her parents, a nightmare of a time in boarding school; she spent a year homeless as a teenager and almost died; she’s been raped. It’s filmmaking — hunting down stories of incredible women and making documentaries on them, in particular — that has helped Longinotto see herself and her past in perspective.

For Salma, poetry became the breadcrumb trail that led her out of her cage. Marriage to Malik initially landed Salma in a new prison. Perhaps because she had refused to marry him for years, he set out to cow her into submission with threats and violence. Afraid, angry and trapped, Salma turned to poetry. Neither Malik nor his mother approved of this. Salma realised no matter where she hid her poetry — in the cupboard, her dressing table, in the box where sanitary napkins were stored —  the pages would disappear. Determined to continue writing, Salma wrote on the backs of discarded calendar pages and hid them. Ultimately, it was her mother who smuggled Salma’s writing out of Malik’s house and sent it to a small publisher in Chennai.

“Salma’s mother was her jailer, but she was also the one who helped smuggle Salma’s poems out,” said Longinotto. “What Salma’s taught me is that the people that can damage you the most – which is your family – are also the people who love you the most.” Today, Salma’s escaped the ways of the village partly on the strength of her poetry, which piqued the attention of the Tamil literary establishment and press, and partly because Malik pushed Salma to stand for panchayat elections (she won). At one point in the film, Salma asks Malik why he encouraged her to join local politics. He replies that it was the only way he knew that would allow her out of the house and be free. Not looking at Salma, Malik tells the camera that he made mistakes when he was young and he was wrong to have stopped Salma from writing. It’s almost as though making Salma first join politics and then move to Chennai, where she now spends most of her time, were Malik’s attempts to redeem himself. “I struggled with this all the time that we were there,” said Longinotto. “I found myself becoming fonder and fonder of him.”

Contradictions and arresting female figures who challenge an oppressive system are regular features of Longinotto’s filmography. In the past, she’s made powerful documentaries on a variety of subjects, including gender identity in Japan, FGM in Kenya and divorce in Iran. In 2010, she made the multiple award-winning Pink Saris, about Sampat Pal who founded the vigilante group, Gulabi Gang. (According to Longinotto, however, it’s not a gang. “It’s the Sampat Pal show.”) Along with inspiring survivors who are the protagonists of her films, the other common thread that runs through Longinotto’s work is a sense of optimism. No matter how bleak the situation, the subjects of Longinotto’s films find silver linings and hold on to them, much like Longinotto herself. When you consider what Longinotto and her band of merry heroines have survived, it’s amazing that they can cheer so readily. To Longinotto, though, the silver linings are a basic requirement. “I wouldn’t want to make a film that’s just depressing and negative. … That’s why I love making these films about these women. They’re the real rebels. I’m not. I just run along with them and film and follow them.”

Women’s Day Special

Usually the idea of these days that are a fascinating blend of generic and specific — Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Teacher’s Day, etc. — make me roll my eyes because it’s quite spectacular how we can spout things that actually mean nothing all because it’s a greeting-card-powered day. So when DNA decided that there’d be a Women’s Day special, the women in the editorial section decided the pages would not be the stuff of token gestures and fake whoops. Net result: today’s paper, which has driven all of us ladies and quite a few men completely batty. City, Nation, Money, Sport and 8 pages of features — with the women cracking the whip all the way.

Let’s just put it this way: being in the newsroom yesterday was… interesting.

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The Women’s Day special edition of DNA

Maybe it’s just me but in the morning-after, I have to say it was also great fun. I’m going to miss the buzz and “we’re-in-it-together” adrenaline that powers the newsroom on some days. But anyway…

The women were stellar and the men who helped us were rock stars. Some of the people who worked on today’s edition have their names and photos in the pages, but many of the people  who did the heavy lifting haven’t left any trace of how hard they’ve worked. They don’t get bylines and they don’t get credit. They do, however, have people like me pestering them and in spite of this, their smiles don’t falter for a second. So when you read today’s DNA, and I truly hope you do, give a round of applause to the invisible ones — both men and women— without whom, this special edition of the newspaper would never have happened. There are too many for a comprehensive list but off the top of my head:

Colleen, who planned everything meticulously and then, while at a mehendi in another city, fired out messages to sort out things like fly sheets.

Nagesh and the merry band of designers, who were a little less merry by midnight and probably never want to hear the words “Women’s Day” again.

Kavitha, Jincy, Nagaraj and Alex who lost neither cool, wit nor good sense, despite the copy they encountered and the crises that kept popping up every other hour.

The Sunday gang of Sameer, Joanna, Krishna, Shikha, Apoorva, Geetanjali and Aditi, who probably wanted to stuff many socks into my mouth every time I hollered for printouts. Instead they beat up recalcitrant printers and produced pages.

And Bhandari-ji, who not only wore a pink shirt to show he’s with the program but also saved a few stories from crumpling and, when he didn’t have much to do, strolled around quoting Hindi adages.

Like I said, it was fun. Frazzling, but fun.

So in the special, we’ve got some amazing women: from known names like Irom Sharmila and Flavia Agnes, to those who want only their stories shared, not their names. Like The Good Indian Girl, a marital rape survivor and a woman who cheerfully redefines “merry widow”. Sex workers, girls who have had to drop out of school because they began menstruating, executives who have crashed into glass ceilings, cops, students, they’re all in our Women’s Day Special. It’s not all feelgood and neither is it all ranty or heartbreaking. It’s real. I hope you enjoy it.

If you want to read the paper online, keep an eye out for Women’s Day Special on DNA’s Twitter and Pinterest.

At some point, I’ll put up the unedited piece I wrote on Kim Longinotto’s Salma. It went from about 800 words to 250 words, so yeah, it was a bit of a drastic cut. Ah well. Hurrah for the internet and blogs where word counts can be more liberal.

EDITED TO ADD:

The special stories are all listed here.

One of the people I forgot to mention was Manjul, who drew our masthead but more importantly, he rallied the design and illustration troops so that the pages came together to look as good as they do.

The Mag This Week

In DNA Sunday’s Books page, we had reviews of

Peter Smetacek’s Butterflies On The Roof Of the World: A Memoir, by Mita Ghose

Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, by Sanjay Sipahimalani

Jayant Kripalani’s New Market Tales, by Joanna Lobo

and last, but definitely not least, Amish’s The Oath of the Vayuputras, by R Krishna. For those interested, Krishna spoke to Amish about his Shiva Trilogy.

Elsewhere in The Mag, I wrote a tiny piece about Reena Kallat’s mahussive installation that will be up on Bhau Daji Lad Museum for the next few months. Kallat was commissioned to make this work by ZegnArt Public, a project sponsored by the fashion label Zegna. The local partner is Bhau Daji Lad. Here’s what it looks like, from a distance and up close.

Despite being properly swamped before the installation was actually put up — pullies weren’t enough; they needed a crane to get the web up ultimately, just as Reena had suspected — Reena did make the time to chat with me about her work. Here’s what she told me about making this particular piece and its location.

Bhau Daji Lad is a city museum, it archives the artisanal and industrial past. That was my interest. The fact that the museum itself had undergone a change of name, from being the Victoria and Albert Museum to the Bhau Daji Lad, that has its resonance in the city in terms of street names being changed from colonial names to indigenous names.

Reena’s installation is made up of outsized rubber stamps that have names of Mumbai streets on them, written in English and Hindi. She’s picked the names that were changed for not being sufficiently local. 

I was interested at how else one could extend this into looking at how streets reflect the imagination of the city. In what manner do street names define the identity of the city? Do street names mean anything to people?

Tasneem [Zakaria-Mehta, director of BDL Museum] was really courageous to take this on because it’s a heritage building and we’ll have to keep in mind all those issues. But she was very positive. There’s a very close relationship with the museum because it has a lot of colonial statues in their backyard, many of the people are those whose names the street names were based on. You also have the foundation stones that were laid to mark the city, which was only the Fort area before the walls came down and the city expanded.

Well, actually she told me lots more, but I’ll put that up at a later date. (Insert mysterious waggle of eyebrows here.)

In case anyone was thinking of scooping out quotes and passing them off as your own, please don’t. Partly because I’ve done this interview and also because Reena Kallat’s one of the most approachable artists you’ll ever come across. So get in touch with her, and enjoy interviewing her for yourself.

The Mag This Week: Books

Three reviews and one interview in this week’s Books page.

And we have an interview with Amit Chaudhuri, whose new book Calcutta: Two Years in the City has just come out. (For those of you in Mumbai, there’s a launch on Feb 28 at Bungalow 8 in Colaba (at 6pm) in which Chaudhuri will be chatting with his old friend and journalist, Naresh Fernandes.) Here’s the unedited text of the interview. Warning: it’s long. But I think it’s worth the time it takes to go through it. And the hot pink bits are just an ode to the hot pink in the book’s cover.

Amit Chaudhuri on Calcutta

Full nostalgia: Victoria Memorial on a cloudy day. Taken using a cracked, old iPhone 3GS.
Full nostalgia: Victoria Memorial on a cloudy day. Taken using a cracked, old iPhone 3GS.

Why write the book despite the initial disinclination:

I felt the city, despite all its exacerbations, has been transformative to me as a child, and it had a certain quality, particularly in the 60s and early 70s, in the way New York once did. When I first visited New York in 1979, it hadn’t been cleaned up by Rudy Giuliani nor become the first city of the world. It was doing very badly economically. It was seedy and dangerous in parts, but it was vibrant with a history of experimentation in culture. In those years, Calcutta had that same quality. It’s very difficult to package this and consume it later, after the event, but you do sense it when a city loses that quality. So, for example, when I returned to New York in 2002 to teach at Columbia University, I’d walk those streets and it was no longer threatening in that way, thankfully, but, alas, it was no longer exciting in the old way either. The cafes and pavement stalls were there, but that earlier past was now available only for consumption by the very rich. Incompatible things coming together create a unique kind of life, which is what New York City and Calcutta had until, say, the mid-70s.

So in 2005, when my agent asked me to write a book on Calcutta, I wasn’t so eager because I realised his idea was partly a response to the reaction Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City had received. It’s a book that I’ve enjoyed greatly and reviewed but I didn’t feel Calcutta could be written of in the same way. Calcutta was resistant to being part of new India. Other cities, Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Delhi, they’d been alchemised by economic deregulation, but Calcutta was out of joint. Mumbai arising out of Bombay was a distinct development but Calcutta, or Kolkata, whatever you want to call it, it has no distinct definition in its new post-bhadralok period. This is the Calcutta I felt disengaged from, almost believing it was an aberration from the earlier, contradictory city that had once so moved me.

I think what convinced me to write the book was Utpal Basu, the poet and one of the few remaining Bengali cosmopolitan intellectuals who, in the serio-comic manner befitting a cosmopolitan, once hovered around and eavesdropped upon homeless people in Sealdah Station at night. Utpal Basu told me two stories of about a personable homeless woman whom he ironically called khurima, or aunt, and the stories got me thinking. Maybe this Calcutta, this post-bhadralok city, has more going on in it than I’d been willing to admit to. And I realised my being here, this too was part of the narrative of the new city.

On writing the book:

I knew I didn’t want it to be structured in terms of separate chapters on history, memories, infrastructure and so on. I wanted it to move like my fiction does, shifting almost seamlessly from history to object to myself to other elements. I didn’t want to separate things into compartments.

Knowing where to end it, that’s a kind of instinct you have, and it’s similar though not exactly like writing and ending an essay or a novel. I did briefly toy with the idea of adding a chapter. I remember the fire at AMRI took place when I had almost finished writing the book. The day it happened, I was up early, unable to sleep because of the tension of nearing the end of my book, writing at 4.30am, and I heard sirens in the distance. Later that morning, I heard about the fire. So I went there and spoke to people there. There’s a slum neighbouring the hospital whose inhabitants had helped to put out the fire, and I thought I’d include a chapter about this event and the amazing people I’d interviewed that day. But ultimately I didn’t and I stuck to the book as it was. At some point, you’ve got to trust your sense of judgement that the book is done, and the interesting things you couldn’t put into it will find their place in other things you write.

The city characterised by the question “Will you be eating at home tonight?”:

Sandip Roy’s comment captured the comedy and anguish of Calcutta now being a peripheral city. But at the same time, there’s also an intimate, caring quality to it. I thought it summed up the city as we saw it around us perfectly.

My notion of Kolkata changed much before the writing of the book. It changed with my spending time here. Also, marrying a person who had partly grown up here – part of my wife’s schooling was in this city and her family and relatives are here – meant access to a very different family from my own mother’s. My mother’s family had been the inspiration for much of the Calcutta and its characters in my fiction. They had a quirkiness and idiosyncrasy about them. They were larger than life while being ordinary. My wife’s family was quite ‘normal’ and this brought me a very different perspective on the city.

You said the Calcutta in my fiction was romantic, which implies it was constructed but I don’t think it was a construct. I think there was something real in those depictions. What was real in it was the quality I would encounter in works of art inspired by other cities. That’s why it made sense that Vittorio de Sica’s Bicycle Thief could inspire Satyajit Ray, even though it’s apparently a world away and set in a different time. Calcutta once enshrined a kind of provisionality, a kind of life on the street, a coming together of things that characterises certain great cities. It’s a city of provisional lines, structures, and patterns, rather than monuments and masterpieces. It’s not a quality you find, say, in Washington or New Delhi or Dubai, and it’s what I responding to when I began to write fiction.

On belonging to Calcutta:

It was in 1999 that I moved here and it made me realise how much of an outsider I was. After all, I did grow up in Bombay, and then moved to England in 1983. Particularly among middle class Bengali society, there’s a fund of shared anecdotes – schools, teachers, memories – that I had no access to.

I think belonging will come in retrospect. It’ll perhaps be like my experience of England. I spent years there and I didn’t like the time I spent there much. I still don’t like it but I do have deep associations with it. As of now, what I look at in Calcutta is the city around me. It’s where I do my work, I try to make sense of the city, and my family is here. When I land in the airport after a trip abroad, and make my way back home, I feel the same excitement I felt as a child, and then, gradually, I realise it’s not the same city I knew as a child. I don’t know how much I belong to it consciously. But yes, when I’m away from it, I desire it.

On turning from the Left to the poriborton (Bengali for ‘change’) that Mamata Banerjee embodied:

For a long time, while the Left was in power, people were in denial and then they became fed up. That said, I don’t think anyone in their right mind who had heard her speak could have thought Mamata Banerjee could effect the change people wanted. At that level too, there was denial. But people were absolutely fed up. To all purposes, Mamata Banerjee was category X. Maybe that was what the hope was based on. At that level, there was shock when the Chief Minister’s intolerance first began to become evident.

I think now there’s despair. I don’t know anything that can revive her popularity other than perhaps the palliative of the free market. That is a remarkably effective device.

Look at Mumbai. It’s had some very bad governments, some of its political parties thrive on intolerance, its infrastructure is not great and it hosts huge numbers of the poor, there’s great violence – but there is the palliative of the free market so you forget about these things. It gives the illusion of things happening, and perhaps they are. But the magic of free market capitalism can desensitise us to political intolerance.

Look at Narendra Modi, for instance. The man’s a monster, the history he’s responsible for is terrible, but his praises are sung by everyone because he can show a certain kind of success. So yes, the palliative of the free market is the only thing that I see saving Mamata Banerjee because the promise of poriborton has certainly failed. But at a larger level, at a national level, this tendency of ours to be seduced by the booming India rhetoric is a cause for worry.

On the possibility of a cultural resurgence in Kolkata:

I don’t know. One of the great things, and I say this not because of my Bengali identity, but one of the great things about Calcutta’s cosmopolitan efflorescence was the Bengali language. It was much more than a language rooted in identity and racial pride. It denoted a modernity, an openness, a true cosmopolitanism. It adopted so many personae, it encompassed so much. The lack of support for this language, both among people and at a governmental level – and I mean real support that is beyond the patriotic, chest-thumping rhetoric – is worrying. That said, perhaps a source of optimism is that one still notices in Bengali media, in local publications, very interesting and erudite letters from readers. It’s something my wife pointed out to me: the letter writers, particularly from outside Kolkata, are often more erudite than their counterparts in other parts of India. That’s worth being interested and invested in.

Otherwise, there is a deadness about Kolkata’s engagement with the Bengali past. It’s characteristic of Kolkata as well as Bengali communities abroad who will celebrate their identity with sammelans. It’s a static version of what the past was. It’s conservative. It’s essentially a closing of the ranks against where they’re actually located to create a synthetic little Golf Green or Dhakuria for themselves.

Curiously, I feel the one celebration that still does have a sense of Bengaliness to it is Durga Puja. You see the puja pandals and the decorations, they’re using Kolkata as it is now, rather than denying it. In the pujas you see the city being acknowledged for what it is – decaying in parts, derelict in parts, built up in others. I’d be happy if more filmmakers, artists, video artists made more use of these spaces.

We tend to forget Jean Renoir’s marvellous insight – “All great civilisations are based on loitering” – was based on Kolkata. I think it is possible to create something here, even now, simply by taking a camera and following a person around the city, as Renoir had suggested. I don’t think enough people do that.

The Mag This Week: Shilpa Gupta

If you’ve made it to Bandra and not gone to Carter Road, shame on you. Because Carter Road Bandstand has a lovely piece of public art by Shilpa Gupta, titled “I Live Under Your Sky Too.” There’s a little interview with Shilpa in today’s DNA and here are a few photos of the installation.

 

The Mag This Week

Actually, last week. But whatever.

Fiction aimed at women tends to be of two kinds: weepy and fluffy. Both varieties were reviewed in last week’s page (along with an interview with the authors of book that’s a guide to getting a divorce. Just ’cause) and fluffy proved to be way better than weepy.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, reviewed by Apoorva Dutt, sounds like debutant Ayana Mathis desperately wants to be this generation’s Toni Morrison. Not quite an easy task.

Joanna Lobo reviewed I Kissed A Frog And Other Stories by Rupa Gulab. She loved it.

I offered my tuppence on Those Pricey Thakur Girls, the latest from Anuja Chauhan.  The unedited text of the review is below, but first, a bit of blathering.

Annie Zaidi has written a piece on how chick lit is pockmarked with stigmata. It’s a persuasive piece but I have to say, I don’t quite agree with everything she’s written (though I do like the term “lad lit”). I do agree that if women authors are to be painted into a gendered genre because they write about women, then male authors who write only about men deserve to be cornered similarly. It’s not that this doesn’t happen. Take Eric Van Lustbader, for instance. I suspect he was considered very much a gentlemen’s favourite. The gender divide exists in literary fiction too, but let me not loiter away from the point. Men usually don’t suffer labelling even when they write almost exclusively about men — agreed. But chick lit as the stuff of shame and dismissal? No. I’ve done a quick poll in my immediate circles. None of the women are ashamed of reading this genre. There’s more shame for having read the collected works of Chetan Bhagat, from what I can see. Of course, this is not conclusive. Annie’s writing from her perspective just as I’m writing from mine.

My point of view probably has to do with the fact that I’ve always had a soft spot for chick lit and romantic comedies, both in cinema as well as literature. I’ve never been ashamed of this because some of the smartest people I know love the genre. My grandfather, for example, was a physicist, enormously erudite and read complex philosophy for fun. He also LOVED Georgette Heyer and Barbara Cartland. He’d wheedle my mum for her copies, much to her exasperation. My mother and my aunt have wall-to-wall shelves stuffed with Mills & Boons. They’re both ridiculously intelligent. (The only reason I can’t say the same for myself is that I regularly donate books to Welfare for Stray Dogs.) In fact, every bright mind I know is a connoisseur of some sort of popular, pulpy fiction.

When you read enough of the genre, you realise how varied it is (which is something Annie doesn’t acknowledge) and how difficult it is to write good chick lit. I’m sure the same applies to good pulp in general. It’s very easy to write it badly, which is what most people do. To write it well means a writer gets to be far less self-indulgent than an author of literary fiction. Part of my grouse with what is held up as popular fiction in India (in English) is that it isn’t as smartly written as English pop fiction from America and the UK. Take the Indian Mills & Boons for example. They’re significantly worse written than their Australian, British and American counterparts. As far as my experience goes, from plot to characterisation, the Indian writers’ books are weaker in every aspect.

But that’s a separate matter. The point is, I don’t think writers of pulpy, lad lit are considered somehow wiser because they write about men or that they’re transformed into something more intelligent and/or respectable because they have columns. They have chosen to share their spoutings with us via certain publications. This is their choice and that of editors. Should writers of chick lit choose to do so, I’m quite sure they’d be offered similar platforms. I don’t think women writers don’t get columns because writing chick lit gives them some sort of blonde aura. Are they “railing at the perjorative chick lit” as Annie put it in her article? I don’t think they need to. I appreciate someone not liking the term “chick lit”, but then again, “boyfriend” does sort of infantilise any man who is in a romantic, unmarried relationship, doesn’t it? The term may not be perfect, but it doesn’t carry connotations of disrespect unless one chooses to impose such a perspective on the term. The people who look down on chick lit remind me of all those who think science fiction or fantasy is for kids. It’s laughable. And it says more about the limited horizons of the haters than it does for the genre.

The fact of the matter is that if women will feel ashamed of a genre aimed at only us, then that’s our problem as a gender. Let’s not blame anyone else for it. (And if Chetan Bhagat makes it personal on a panel, why not serve it right back to him? I’m sure he can handle it.) Women writers don’t need to write non-fiction to prove they’re smart. When they write good fiction, popular or literary, they’ve done their bit. And those who don’t read good chick lit because they’re afraid of being considered silly, your life is duller for this decision. My advice: pick up a book like Those Pricey Thakur Girls.

Those Pricey Thakur Girls

tptgAlright, let’s not kid ourselves. Dylan Singh Shekhawat isn’t particularly rooted in realism. He is “tall and sinewy and muscular”, has “lean dimples”, long eyelashes, unruly hair and a torso made up of “muscular toffee-brown bits”. He’s also smart, a journalist and an unrepentant flirt. In short, he’s like no Indian man you know, but who cares? Rhonda Byrne said in The Secret that if you can visualise what you want, chances are the universe will manifest your desires. Fortunately for many single Indian women, Anuja Chauhan has done the visualising for you. Yours is only to read, and dream on.
Chauhan won readers’ hearts with The Zoya Factor and Battle for Bittora, and her fan base will only grow with her latest, Those Pricey Thakur Girls. As aficionados of chick lit will know, high quality fluffy romantic comedy is very hard to write. The story must follow predictable patterns and yet hold a reader’s attention. The storytelling should be light-hearted but intelligent. The characters must be lovable, largely divorced from reality and yet credible. Most Indian attempts at chick lit have displayed about as much fluffiness as a tetrapod does, which is why Chauhan deserves three cheers. For the third time in a row, she’s cracked the rom-com code and given readers a story that’s as cuckoo as it is cute.
Set in pre-liberalisation New Delhi, Those Pricey Thakur Girls is a simple love story with some complications and many eccentric characters. Justice Laxmi Narayan Thakur (retd) and his wife live in a bungalow in Hailey Road, New Delhi, with Debjani and Eshwari, two of their five daughters. (The other three are married and live elsewhere.) When we meet Debjani, or Dabbu, she’s on the threshold of fame because she’s been selected as a newsreader on the state television channel. Her prince charming is Dylan Singh Shekhawat, the son of Laxmi Narayan’s friend Saahas Singh Shekhawat. Despite his commitment to being Casanova, Dylan falls hook line and sinker for Dabbu and Dabbu’s pulse pitter-patters simply at the thought of Dylan. But of course, before happily ever-afters, there must be complications. So Chauhan throws in some sly villains, a touch of politics, one lunatic aunt, a sturdy shamiana and other whoops and whirls into Dabbu and Dylan’s story.
There’s more than a hint of Pride and Prejudice in Those Pricey Thakur Girls, but Chauhan isn’t a lazy storyteller. To Austen’s classic elements Chauhan adds some solid Delhi masala, including references to the Sikh riots, the snobbery of St Stephen’s alumni, a stolen kiss on a stairway and an obsession with body building. Those Pricey Thakur Girls bubbles with delightful mirth and Chauhan has the rare talent of being able to endow every character with a distinctive voice. And here’s the best part: this isn’t the last we’re seeing of the Thakurs. Chauhan’s next book, The House That BJ Built, will take us back to the Thakurs’ Hailey Road bungalow. Until then, we’ll settle for visualising that delicious Christian Rajput, Dylan Singh Shekhawat.

The Mag This Week

Lots of book reviews in this week’s Books page.

I wrote about Manil Suri’s The City of Devi and The Missing Queen by Samhita Arni (the unedited version of the article is below).

Joanna Lobo reviewed Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa by Jessica Faleiro and liked it.

Alpana Chowdhury loved Joginder Paul’s The Dying Sun.

Farrukh Dhondy’s London Company was reviewed by Aditi Seshadri. She enjoyed it.

Colleen Braganza sank her teeth into the new Keigo Higashino mystery, Salvation of a Saint, and found it meaty but not as juicy as The Devotion of Suspect X.

Amberish Diwanji was won over by Rahul Pandita’s Our Moon Has Blood Clots.

Missing & In Action

(The City of Devi, The Missing Queen)

What does it mean to miss someone? The dictionary defines the emotion as an absence tinged with longing. But like many four-lettered words in English, there are nuances to “miss”. When a person disappears, it creates an emptiness that can only be filled with stories and reminiscences. There’s none of the closure that death brings in its wake. Instead, there’s a single question for those left behind: What happened?

In both The City of Devi by Manil Suri and Samhita Arni’s The Missing Queen, the protagonists are on a quest to find someone. Suri’s two storytellers are Sarita, a wife looking for her husband, and Jaz (or Ijaz), who is looking for his lover. They’re making their way from Colaba, at the tip of south Mumbai, to the northern suburbs and it’s a dangerous journey. Mumbai in The City of Devi is a war zone. It’s divided between communal gangs. The threat of a Pakistani nuclear attack looms and terrorist attacks are frequent. Sarita ventures into this troubled world, armed with nothing more than a desperate desire to be reunited with her husband Karun and a pomegranate. Jaz – irreverent, resourceful and gay – ends up as Sarita’s ally even though she doesn’t trust him entirely. She meets him in a Hindu neighbourhood and quickly figures out he’s only pretending to be Hindu. She doesn’t buy his story that he’s going to the suburbs to join his mother, but she doesn’t guess that Jaz’s reasons for this quest are exactly the same as hers: not only does he also need an answer for where and why the man he loves disappeared, the man in question is Karun.

The trio become a reimagining of the Devi-Shiva-Vishnu trinity operating in a futuristic Mumbai that is dishearteningly easy to imagine as real. The parallels between Shiva pursuing Mohini while Parvati mopes and the three characters in The City of Devi are intriguing. The figure of a Kali-esque devi as someone who is revered and whose fearsome avatar is a man-made (and man-controlled) creation is less interesting and a more obvious aspect of the novel. The devi is, in fact, the weakest and most unconvincing part of the world Suri presents to the reader. It’s Sarita and Jaz’s obsession with Karun, their need to claim him as their own, that powers The City of Devi.

In The Missing Queen, it’s Sita who has disappeared and the one looking for her is a young journalist who becomes determined to unearth the truth. Arni’s Ayodhya glints with success and is an echo chamber of rhetoric. Rama’s Ayodhya has become a rich, powerful kingdom, thanks to the the riches acquired from a vanquished Lanka. Sita’s birthplace, the nearby kingdom of Mithila is effectively Ayodhya’s colony, but even though economically it’s under Ayodhya’s thumb, Mithila feels freer than Ayodhya where the moral police flexes terrible muscle and everything stinks of deceit and hypocrisy. The idea of setting a Hindu epic in the present isn’t novel, but Arni’s interpretations don’t feel forced or hackneyed. Valmiki as a senior journalist makes sense – after all, he did claim to report a story that was unfolding before his eyes. Lakshmana putting on weight as guilt bears down on him, Surpanakha as a rebel leader, Rama as a consummate politician, a spy network of dhobis – the elements Arni introduces don’t clash with the original storytelling and her own version of the post-war years in Ayodhya is very engaging.

Although there’s much reminiscing about Karun and Sita in the two books, it’s worth noting that the two missing characters remain something of a blur. In Sita’s case, she’s a flash of colour (ochre, to be precise) and only those who are against Rama’s oppressive monarchy seem to remember her. She embodies resistance and survival, whether in captivity in Lanka or as a victim of Rama’s shadowy cruelty.

Karun, on the other hand, is a creature pieced out of rose-tinted memories. To both Sarita and Jaz, he is innocence and all Sarita and Jaz want from his sex, which must be the fantasy of many an Indian male. Unfortunately, the fact that Karun is gay makes it a little difficult for him to have sex with Sarita and the fact that he’s married makes it problematic for him to have sex with Jaz. (The trio ultimately resolve this problem by engineering what might be one of the most convoluted alternatives to Viagra.)

Both novels are set in unspecified time periods – Arni’s in the present, Suri’s in the near future – that seems not just credible but also probable. The cityscapes in the two books show the novelists’ anxieties about contemporary India. These are intolerant places that rob people of their basic liberties. As worrying as the oppression by the powerful is, how so many citizens are happy to be manipulated is an equally worrying feature of the cities. These are violent places, where bloodshed is so commonplace that it evokes no reaction. It’s quite obvious the cities in The Missing Queen and The City of Devi aren’t dystopic fantasies, but metropolises sculpted out of the impressions contemporary India has left upon the authors.

It doesn’t feel as though the missing, Karun and Sita, have escaped these terrible worlds even though they have by disappearing. Ultimately, their stories become less about them and more about the storytellers who survive and continue without them. So they remain in these terrible worlds despite not really being there. The missing come to stand for hope – desperate and unrealistic as it might be – because they live on in the memories of those who continue the good fight.