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.


The Mag This Week

And we have a Books page this week. Yay!

This week, there are reviews of Gogu Shyamala’s Father May Be An Elephant and Mother A Small Basket But... (by Pramod K. Nayar); The Tainted Throne, book four of the Empire of the Moghul series (by R. Krishna); Peter Hobbs’s In The Orchard, The Swallows (by Karishma Attari), and Niven Govinden’s Black Bread, White Beer (by Colleen Braganza).

The theme of The Mag this time was the movies and somehow, I ended up writing a profile of Prosenjit Chatterjee, aka Bumba-da. Here’s the unedited version of the profile (we had to snip to fit it on the page. As usual).

Prosenjit’s Second Coming

Prosenjit Chatterjee is in “the most critical crisis time” in the life of a filmstar. He’s a veteran of 324 films. For years, he has almost single-handedly kept the Bengali film industry alive by delivering pulpy box-office hits. It’s been more than 20 years in show business for him. This is usually when an actor is replaced by younger heroes. Chatterjee, however, not only remains a superstar in Bengal but he’s also reinvented himself and with his portrayal of Dr. Ahmedi in Shanghai, reintroduced himself to Bollywood as an intelligent actor.

Chatterjee carries his age lightly, whether it’s in his portrayal of a Rowdy Rathore-inspired cop in the Bengali film Bikram Singha or as part of the acting ensemble in Shanghai. “They feel like I’m their older brother,” Chatterjee said of his relationship with younger co-actors. “Like, there was an interview with Yami [Gautam], in a Kolkata newspaper and she said, ‘I want to work only with Prosenjit.’ I started tweeting [to the younger actors who are his friends]: ‘You still can’t beat Bumba-da!'”

Some actors may shy of making their age or nickname public, but not Chatterjee. He’s as proud of being known as Bumba (with a “da” because he deserves the respect given to an elder brother) as he is of being 49 years old in 2012. “It’s time for a Bengali comeback,” he said, referring to the recent successes of Sujoy Ghosh (Kahaani), Shoojit Sircar (Vicky Donor) and, of course, Dibakar Banerjee (Shanghai).

“The characters I’m getting, I’m enjoying tremendously,” said Chatterjee. “I’m touching 50 and I’m sure this is going to be the best period of my career. When the books and documentaries are made on me, I want to tell my next generation, don’t get stuck in that typical thing of a hero dancing and singing. Enjoy that success and then you’ll get more.”

It may sound presumptuous for an actor who had an important but bit part in Shanghai to present himself as one whose life should be chronicled, but Chatterjee is a superstar. Having begun as a child actor, his career really took off in 1986 with Amor Sangi. Since then, Chatterjee has been Bengali cinema’s most reliable hero, making producers, young men and women of all ages go weak at the knees.

Despite being the son of the actor Biswajeet, who had a limited run in Bollywood and was never able to pip Uttam Kumar from the top spot in Bengal, Chatterjee’s entry into cinema didn’t follow the usual trajectory of a star’s son. When Chatterjee was 16, his parents divorced and Chatterjee kept little contact with his biological father. “I started by doing theatre when I was only 16 or 17 years old,” said Chatterjee. “My entire career graph went like that of a newcomer who would take one, one, one step,” said Chatterjee, gesticulating to show the rungs of the imaginary ladder he’s climbed to reach where he is now.

Listen to Chatterjee and it seems as though he made every advancement in Bengali cinema possible. While his claim that he brought Cinemascope to Bengal may not be entirely accurate, the actor has played an important part in Tollywood’s revival. “When I joined, it was in very bad shape,” he says. “I always say, we who worked then, we were the warriors.” Some of Chatterjee’s films certainly are an assault, but more upon good taste. Shoshurbari ZindabadBaadshaahMon Maane Na and most recently Bikram Singha are just a few films from his extensive filmography that have cemented Chatterjee’s status as the one Bengali hero whose market has not faltered over two decades.

In the 1990s, few would have imagined the same actor would also be responsible for more experimental cinema finding a market in Bengal. After appearing in a number of Rituparno Ghosh’s films from 2000 onwards, including Chokher Bali and Dosar, Chatterjee became the star that young directors could count on if they had a good script. If he liked the story, he’d do the film, even if it meant reducing his own fees in order to get the film off the ground.

It’s been a calculated move on Chatterjee’s part to ensure he has a respectable career. “The critical time is from 45 to 55,” he said. “Everybody will come to that point. You can’t fight against your time. It has to go.  So one day I thought, this 45 to 55, I have to make the best career of my life.” The way to do it was to prove his credentials as an actor. For example, in 2010 he played the part of a baul singer in Moner Maanush, directed by the acclaimed director Gautam Ghosh. “For Moner Manush, I gave nine months,” Chatterjee recounted. “I left my office, my family, I started staying in jungles. I ate vegetarian food, I used to sleep on the ground. Everyone told me, your eyes were not looking like you’re a normal person.”

In comparison, Shanghai was far less intensive. Working with sync-sound, a first for Chatterjee, made it imperative that Chatterjee work on his Hindi. “I did my homework,” he said. “Twice I came to Mumbai for workshops and I had my teachers. I really wanted it to be perfect. Whatever little I do, I want it to be perfect.” The praise his performance has received has helped soothe the sting ofAandhiyan, the 1990 David Dhawan-directed flop that marked Chatterjee’s Bollywood debut.

He’s now in the process of finalising a film with Shoojit Sircar and is optimistic about doing “one or two films a year” in Bollywood. Chatterjee also has more ambitious plans. “Direction is my final call,” he said. “Not only Bengali, but I will direct Hindi films also. I’m planning to produce as well.” He is hoping to start a production company in collaboration with the Sahara group, which will fund films in both Bengali and Hindi. “I’m saying, let’s find new directors,” he said. “One Kahaani will not make things change. You have to make ten Kahaanis. Then Bengalis will have that power.”