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.
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.
In one word, my considered and erudite response to The Casual Vacancywas “meh”. The more wordy version is given below.
Big Whingeing: The Casual Vacancy
The popular expectation was thatThe Casual Vacancy would do whatHarry Potter did, even if it wasn’t magical: give JK Rowling’s fans, across age brackets, something to read. So what if it’s a novel for grown ups? The Harry Potter series was meant to be for kids, but look how many adults are Potterheads.
The Casual Vacancy is not for all age groups. In fact, one of its central messages is that adults haven’t the faintest what goes in children’s heads. So if you thought you were a good parent or that your parent might understand your adolescent woes, Rowling has two words for you: forget it. There’s no meeting ground between the old and young, unless a terrible tragedy upsets this unhappy natural order.
Ostensibly, The Casual Vacancy is about a local election in a small town named Pagford, whose steeple-spiked skyline against a blood red background illustrates the back cover. When one parish councillor dies unexpectedly, someone needs to take his place and Pagford’s finest begin plotting against one another. The elections reveal what a snobbish, narrow-minded and largely contemptible set grown-ups are. Simon Price is a wife-beater. Howard Mollison is grotesquely obese and treats people like they’re chess pieces. Gavin Hughes is a hypocrite. Mike Mollison is an overgrown baby. Brown people give Rowling a cheer because the one decent chap, both in terms of behaviour and looks, is a Sikh surgeon. The women don’t fare much better, though they get more sympathy from Rowling. All of them are weak, quivering masses of anxieties. They take part in the pettiness and tolerate the abuse so that there is a façade of harmony. Using these adults, Rowling spends 500 pages describing the town’s petty politics and the uncharitable nature of a parish obsessed with appearance and class.
Interestingly, Rowling grew up in a village like Pagford, named Winterbourne. The school in The Casual Vacancy is named Winterdown. It’s easy to imagine Rowling’s mother, who lived with multiple sclerosis for 10years, in the frantic helplessness of the women in the novel, who can do nothing as events and their families slip out from their protective control. Simon, with his roaring rage, is reminiscent of Rowling’s ex-husband who has admitted in interviews that he hit her. Like all the teens in Pagford, Rowling too was desperate to leave home because her relationship with her father was unpleasant (they’re not on speaking terms). Perhaps like Krystal, who has a brother and an addict mother who can barely function, Rowling had to raise her younger sister as a teenager while her own mother battled the onset of MS. Also, Rowling has known poverty intimately having been an unemployed single mother, which explains the distaste with which Rowling depicts Pagford residents who turn their nose up at the poor who survive on welfare.
The good news is that Rowling is able to hold a reader’s attention for most of the novel. The bad news is that The Casual Vacancy lacks complexity, both in terms of storytelling as well as characterisation. The good guy is called Fairweather, the girl whose mother is a meth addict is named Krystal Weedon — how’s that for subtlety? Rowling’s nihilism is quickly evident and while many characters are twisted, there aren’t many twists in the novel.
Pagford’s teenagers are perhaps the only ones that hover around normal, though one of the objectives of the novel seems to be to suck all the fun out of their lives. Their little cruelties seem epic, like posting nasty messages on Facebook, and the pleasures can be as simple as the prettiest girl in class saying hello to you. That said, Sukhvinder cuts herself, Andrew’s father bludgeons him; Krystal raises a toddler brother, takes care of her mother and gets raped.
More than the election, The Casual Vacancy is about the loss of innocence as the children get embroiled in the workings of the adult world. However, considering the detail and attention Rowling lavishes on the flatly-characterised and unpleasant adults, Rowling’s cursory summary of the changes in Sukhvinder and Andrew at the end is perhaps the biggest betrayal on the part of the author. It’s almost as though Rowling relishes the breakdown more than the recovery.
If you’re looking for Harry Potter and his crew in The Casual Vacancy, you’ll find them. Remove the details and reduce the characters to prototypes, and Barry — the kindly teacher who dies — is Albus Dumbledore. Andrew, the battered teenager who ultimately shows integrity, has acne instead of a lightning-shaped scar. The stern Nana Cath, who does her best to give temporary refuge to a tribe of unfortunate children including Krystal, could be Professor McGonagall.
The real similarity between the Harry Potter series and The Casual Vacancyis the vision of adulthood as an unforgiving, humourless condition. As Harry grew older, the stories became darker, more thriller-esque and less fun. One by one, every character that had been a support to Harry (other than Hermione and Ron) died, often gorily. It was obvious that Rowling was itching to write something that didn’t have the restraints of kiddie fiction, and with The Casual Vacancy she’s done it.Sadly, though, while Harry Potterwas extraordinary, particularly the first three books, The Casual Vacancy is just mediocre. Had Rowling written this novel first, it’s unlikely we’d have sat up and noticed her.