Book Review: May Perumal Murugan’s Pyre Singe Some Sense Into You

This article was first published in The News Minute on 18 March 2017.

Buy this book here.

Perumal Murugan’s fiction has the enchanting ability to fill you with dread.

To all appearances, his stories are straightforward and simple. But a couple of pages in, you start feeling the robust muscle of society coiling around your neck in a chokehold. Over the next hundred or so pages you find yourself sitting upright in your chair, bed or floor, willing yourself to read as fast you can while simultaneously hoping never to get to the end of the story.

What makes his writing even more chilling is the knowledge that this story could be true in thousands of villages in India, however removed you are from them. Why villages alone? These stories of caste brutalities could be true in a majority of families in India.

Originally written in Tamil as Pookkuzhi (2013), and translated into English in 2016 by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Pyre is Kumaresan and Saroja’s love story laced with the poison of caste.

Saroja, the darling of her motherless household, meets Kumaresan in her town Tholur, where he works. They are neighbours. The young lovers get married and move back to Kumaresan’s house on the rock, in the village of Kattuppatti.

From her complexion, the villagers doubt that she is from a caste higher than their own. Kumaresan’s mother, Marayi, who single-handedly raised him after being widowed at a young age is not happy about her son’s hypergamy. She reacts with an endless litany of laments mostly aimed at Saroja.

On the other hand, Kumaresan reassures an inconsolable Saroja, “Whatever I say, Amma will listen… She will worry about what others will say, but it will be all right soon. Don’t be afraid.”

The tremors of their decision to get married ripple outwards from the hammock on the rock and soon his uncles and grandparents disown him. Finally, on the pretext of the local temple festival, the village decries to isolate the family by not interacting with them. In a terrifying twist, we get to know that the village, including Marayi, shall not rest without exacting bone-chilling vengeance.

One of the central themes of the plot is the difference in culture between Kumaresan and Saroja’s people, marked by the significant difference in their dialects.

I don’t begrudge Aniruddhan Vasudevan his role as translator because English has a way of smoothing over all vernacular nuances. It is incredible how he has managed to retain the sense of their cultural differences without the trope of dialogues at his disposal.

With this translation, he has managed to create a novel with a personality as fiery as its heart is delicate. It retains the essence of Perumal Murugan’s works, but carries itself with élan dressed in English.

Written based on a real life incident of the death of a youth who married outside his caste, Pyre is a reminder of the profound symbiosis of self and society that we are not always conscious of.

Kumaresan is a courageous and confident young man with a positive outlook and an entrepreneurial streak. A hard worker, he is committed to his work, never looking for shortcuts to success. He is also sincere in his love for Saroja. He is incapable of duplicity and grossly underestimates the extent people, including his own mother, will go to for the sake of saving face in the community.

He is defeated by his own naive faith in the goodness of people. As if in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the hollow, irrational arguments of belonging rise high and bright from the pyre of young love.

‘He was welcome through the neighbourhood; wherever he went people offered him a cot to sleep on’. Bhai Anna, the Muslim egg trader from Tholur is the most interesting character in the novel.

“Kumaresan’s mother often said to him, ‘Bhai Anna, you don’t feel like a person from another place at all. You are just like one of us in this village. The only difference is that you go down on your knees every now and then to pray to Allah.’”

This gracious benevolence that the village extends to Bhai Anna, who is from another religion altogether, comes as a shocker when juxtaposed against their hatred for Saroja, a young woman whose only ‘crime’ is not being from their caste.

Later in the narrative, Kumaresan thinks in anger, “Caste! Which caste is Soda Shop Bhai [a relative of Bhai Anna] from? Wasn’t he the one who offered me the job? If he hadn’t done that, how could I have made some money? Which man from my caste came to my aid?” In his inimitably simplistic style, Murugan shows us the intensity of the caste sentiment. It’s not based on logic. Neither do its laws apply equally to everyone.

“Have I done such a terrible thing, he [Kumaresan] wondered. Was it such a sin to get married? Can’t I marry the woman I love? In what way have I wronged anyone by doing that? She loves me with all her life. I love her the same way, I have not gone to anyone asking for money. Why is everyone chasing us away?…I will be a good husband no matter who I marry. What’s the harm in marrying the woman I love?”

Murugan’s male protagonists are typically good, kind men. I love that. But in Pyre, Saroja is devoid of any agency at all. Other than falling in love with Kumaresan and going away with him, she never asserts herself.

While I understand that this serves in underlining the fact that it is often difficult for individuals especially women to get out of the deadly clutch of caste, I would have loved for Saroja to be feisty, standing up for herself instead of curling up in her bed shivering, regardless of how the novel proceeds.

Marayi on the other hand, is a more rounded character, presumably from being a single mother and having had to face dire straits. In the beginning, the venom she spews on her son and daugther-in-law can be justified as the anger of a mother whose dreams for her son are thwarted. But her willingness to work against the well being and happiness of her only child, the one she spent her entire adult life caring for, is yet another example of how deep-seated caste feelings are within most of us.

Most often, I catch myself thinking back in hope of what became of the couple. The optimist in me fights hard with the pessimist who thinks that you cannot reason with the inherent mob mentality of caste. If you have set views on the superiority of ‘your people’, however you might define them, this book is definitely for you. May the heat of the pyre singe some sense into you!

Buy this book here.

They Fought For Her

She opened her book and held up her pen. Everyone around her was very proud of her. The table and chair, held hands. Clearly, holding up the writer and her book were crucial to her success. The bottle of water on the table smiled in clear blue. Without me, she wouldn’t be. The half cup of black coffee was furious. You may be a requirement but I am her drink of choice. Two books that were lazing on the table laughed in unison. Together we take her into worlds none of you could ever see. The notebook she wrote in cleared its throat. She shares all her thoughts with me, I am her ultimate confidante. Not without me, the pen butted in. I am the one who turns her thoughts into words for you to store. The multi-coloured pots on the widow sill congratulated the plants that grew in them. We are nature, together our 14 leaves provide the greenery that inspires her. Even the fan in the room gloated over its air circulation skills that kept her at ease.

Oblivious to the commotion in her room, she sat staring. Her gaze drifted focusing on nothing. Her thoughts were far away from here. They were nowhere. She was thinking of two people who did not exist. She wanted them to have a fight. What would they say? To know that she had to know what kind of people they were. Were they passive aggressive, hiding behind sarcasm and striking with sharp words that hurt? Were they short-tempered screamers who enjoyed a shouting match? Were they silent bearers of insults, avoiding a showdown at all costs? She didn’t know. And she couldn’t force it out of herself. Because it didn’t exist. It had to come to her. And for that she had to think of the kind of holidays they took, their most painful experience, their friends in college, their temperament at work. She imagined this to be the feeling of bearing a child to term. An impatience tempered with humility at the beautiful wonders your body was capable of. Building an entire human from scratch.

She forgot to blink. She forgot her hot drink. The generous fan and the dutiful table and chair were summarily dismissed. The books on the table slipped away too. Though brightly coloured, the plants faded from memory.

Many goas at the municipal market #goaweekend #wallart #life

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Now she was in a beautiful, old city, walking beside them, egging them on to fight. And there, in the middle of a crowded foreign bazaar of curios they blossomed into the most colourful of abuses. Once they began, they could not be stopped. They didn’t care where they were. They just accused, cursed, ranted and raved. They fought for her. And all she had to do was to jot it down.

Book Review: Meera’s Writing Is Magic That Makes Everyday Stories Into Extraordinary Ones

This article was first published in The News Minute on 02 March 2017.

Book: Yellow is the Colour of Longing
Author: K.R. Meera
Publisher: Penguin Books
Translator: J. Devika
Pages: 228

Buy this book here.

How do women experience the world? KR Meera’s Yellow is the Colour of Longing is perhaps the answer to that question. Each of the fifteen stories in the book shows how differently different women understand the world and respond to it. While some women respond with tolerance, empathy and sacrifice, others engage with love, lust and longing and yet others with anger and vengeance.

Translated by feminist scholar J. Devika, this collection holds its own in emotion, social commentary and wit. She does a fine job of placing these stories on a common ground of emotions and experiences where the English readers too can enjoy them. I especially liked the translation of The Heart Attacks Us, a humourous story of a doting housewife whose only prayer is to have a heart attack since it’s a fashionable way to die. She points out the absurdity of praying to a misogynist god, the complacency inherent in patriarchy and the generational suffering of women, with considerable ease.

In the eponymous story, two patients meet in a hospital ward and are instantly attracted to each other. You meet Meera’s dry, satirical sense of humour on page 2, “They had infected each other at the Kottayam Medical College. Who is not infected by lust in hospitals?” Her sense of humour while tickling you will also make you think hard about the ghoulish aspects of our society. Meera uses everyday settings and everyday people to create extraordinary situations to phenomenal effect. In another tale styled like the stories of Arabian Nights where the stories stretch over thousand and one nights, she takes a dig at the mega-serial industry with Scheherazade, the scriptwriter, writing an endless plot. In a dream-like fantasy story, Meera makes a study of what souls do at night.

The Saga of Krishna is the story of a helpless father whose young daughter, Krishna, has been lured into a sex racket by her tuition teacher. He watches helplessly as the media has a go at her with their piercing questions. Kerala is the God’s Own Country where beginning in the nineties, newspapers routinely carried the story of little girls being raped by neighbours, bus conductors, policemen and even ministers. Most of them were known by where the girl was from or where the scandal took place. And one of those cases even had a rom-com name of sorts, the ice cream parlour case. When you peel away the laurels of Kerala state– highest sex ratio, highest literacy, highest life expectancy–you will find its core ridden with crime; especially against women.

Though I grew up bubble-wrapped in Kerala in the nineties and noughties, my family believed that I had to be further covered in layers of plastic wrap like luggage for “extra-protection”. Everyone around me wanted to make sure I wasn’t raped by 42 men and then some like the teenager in the infamous Suryanelli case. My teenage years were spent with a male-bodyguard-member of the family by my side at all times. Even if I were stepping out only to lock the gate. Even if the male bodyguard happened to be only ten years old.

My favourite is Ave Maria, the story of eight-nine-year-old Maria whose life has been a suffering in the name of her beloved husband’s politics. It lays bare the innocent lives that pay a price of police brutality. Even in her old age, Maria chants “Ingila Sindaba” like a prayer; a phrase her husband taught her to be a novena to call upon good times when no one would be sad. She learned it on the casual pretext of, “if no one will go hungry, what’s the big deal in suffering a few [police] blows?” But she lives to see how that call to the revolution upset her family’s life in ways no one could have imagined. Her tolerance will haunt you with a vile emotion. A loathing for a society that remains silent in the face of unimaginable abuse.

In the story The Scent of News, Santhosh and Anna are editors living by the deadline. Meera uses adorable dialogues to endear us to them. Even for mundane activities like going to the market, Santhosh asks, “Give me a deadline…How late can I be?” She also uses dialogues to make incisive remarks, all in the course of conversation. Ramadas, the deputy general manager caught having an affair with his subordinate Suchitra, in A Cat, Utterly Personal, says the trouble with women is that they have no prudence in relationships. And Suchitra replies, “this is the trouble with men…They are always senior officers–everywhere.”

Meera tackles the entire female experience from the physical–love, lust, longing and abuse, to the cerebral–understanding the politics of things, accepting homosexuality and coming to terms with oneself. Coming Out is the powerful and poignant story of Seba realising that gender of your love matters only in life. In death, you are neither male nor female. The author takes on patriarchy with acerbic insight drawing blood with every word. The popular left-leaning law of the land is not spared either. When she picks up morality and flings it out the door, it seems warranted. With fantasy by her side, she makes sure some of her women have the final say. She juggles sadness, disgust and rage with the same ease as love and happiness.

Aarachar published in 2012 and translated into English as Hangwoman: Everyone Loves a Good Hanging (2014) won her the Kendra Sahitya Akademy Award. With that, she sealed her place as the frontrunner in the contemporary Malayalam literature scene. But what makes this collection of hers a must-read is the spell her stories casts on us. Next time you visit a hospital, you are sure to long for that stranger to meet your eyes. And when you take a night stroll, you will look out for friendly neighbourhood souls flitting about. The exquisite difficulty in tethering her writing down to one slot or another makes it even more delightful. The magic in her stories has me believe that the author sits at her desk with her palette of emotions and paints them on paper, using stinging sarcasm for highlights. Buy this book here.

She Floated With Fear

I don't get most art. #thereisaidit #koat16

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All it took was a knock. It was as if the door was waiting for that knock. Anyone who knocked at that exact moment would have been let in. Waltzing in, grand and majestic, was the oppressing feeling of fear. The air in the room grew dense as if sinking to its feet, incapacitated. The carefully cultivated silence wilted in a corner under the dry heat of the ringing in her ear.

She was at the desk, seated on the chair, reading. The chair was the only friend the desk had made. They were very unlike each other but they were inseparable. As they sat with their legs intertwining, basking in the warm smile of the table lamp, they knew that their friendship was central to her reading habit. She always read here, leaning back on the chair, her legs tucked away under the table, careful not to leave footmarks on the white walls beyond.

As fear walked in, she stood up to face it, as if expecting it. But, as if in a spell, her head bowed involuntarily, her courage slipping out through her ears. She felt the heaviness in the air stretch her lips into a frown, force tears out of her eyes and sobs through her lips. It felt like she along with fear were being sealed and dropped into the vast, endless ocean. She was not wet but she could sense the water right outside her window. It was dancing coyly around her window, making friends with her walls. Greenish blue water, light and dense at the same time, rippling all the way to the horizon.

She loved the water, she always had. She was a water baby. But this was different. It had taken her a decade to build this room for herself to sit in. She had saved up money, learned about construction and built it brick by brick. But floating in water, this room was not a buoy, it was her prison. She had no money. She worried about how she would buy things. What would she wear? How would she feed her unborn children? What would she read? Yes, she had built the room with the idea that she would sit in here and read to her heart’s content. Even though she’d never had money, having ground beneath her feet had kept fear at bay.

If she got out of this room now, which direction would she swim in and for how long? And what would happen when she tired?

Gliding down the gurgling spiral of fear, outdoing herself, she had forgotten one tiny detail. The luxury this predicament afforded her. She could reread all her books. She could spend time with fear, get to know it better, appreciate its magnetism. She could watch the ocean all day from her window. Amid the chaos of spiralling, she had not stopped to consider the absurdity of her doubts. Why would she have to feed her unborn children?

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The ocean is a living being that breathes in waves. Eventually, it always heads to a land to entertain the beach bums. And if she were in fact to be consumed by the ocean, wouldn’t that be the end of fear as well?

She opened her eyes and sniffled, recalling all the shed tears and straightening out her mouth. She offered fear some tea and leaned back in her chair to reread her favourite book.

She Laughed Like A Child

She's hopeful #koat16

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She laughed like a child, without inhibition. Her open-mouthed laugh baring teeth and the pink palor of her tongue was endearing. And in that moment, everyone watching her turned believers. They believed that the joy in her laughter was permanent. They believed that life was joyous moments strung together. They believed that sadness was an impossible myth. Everyone who saw her laugh was sure that they were in the exact place they were meant to be. They did not question. They did not complain. They let the pleasant feeling of being sprinkled with stardust wash over them. They surrendered to the transient feeling of contentment.

I found it strange that no one, ever, not even once, had stopped to think what it was like to watch her cry. Well, when I saw her laugh, that was my first thought.

Will remember that #koat16

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She had been like this forever, laughing only in public and crying only in private. But no one had noticed. When the first sob left her lips, she had tried to ignore it. Accounted for it, first under periods, then under stress and finally under L for loser. When the sobs grew louder, loud enough to echo, she trained herself to purse her lips and swallow the sobs. Swallowing a sob is not for amateurs. It made her sad, mad and then more so. And she ended up crying some more. But when all the sobs were eaten and the tears wouldn’t stop, she decided to experiment on how to make things better. Soon, she noticed that decadent food made her cry less. She cooked all the world’s finest food in her kitchen and ate it too. While she ate, she felt great. Her cheeks stayed dry as long as they were full. She felt as if a hole inside her was getting filled. But eat as she may, that hole never filled all the way to the top. Sometimes, she would have to stop eating from not being able to breathe. Another trick to dry her tears was to watch TV. Television sent her flying into an imaginary land where she was forbidden from crying. A world where everyone wore wonderful clothes and no one was ever unhappy.

No one ever saw her cry. She cried alone in her room, standing expressionless in front of her mirror, eating her dinner or cleaning her bathroom. She cried quietly, the only outward indication being the overflow down her cheeks. It was a steady flow of clear liquid, compromising the downward turn of her mouth, falling down the top of her dress, outlining the heave of her breasts and puddling at her feet. When they had puddled a while, they flowed outward, along the natural slope of the room, across her floor and out the door. Though they hesitated momentarily on the stairs, wondering what it would be like for tears to be seen flowing down the street, they cascaded down the stairs, one step at a time like sobs that now did not exist.

No one noticed the tears flowing down the street being joined by other streams of tears. There were many tears like hers but they all sat crying locked up in their own rooms.

Can you imagine a world where all these tears would get together and skip rope? Skip rope till they grew out of breath and all they could keep track of was the rhythm of their skip. When the tears mixed with the nascent sweat on their indoor skins, their heart would beat all over their being. Tears and laughter would step aside for perseverance to pass through every inch of the body, aware only of the muscles shaking off its lethargy. In that moment, everyone watching them would cease to exist and the only truth would be the resilience of their bodies.

The Misogyny Of Your Smartphone

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I am not someone who talks to my smartphone. Wait, I do talk to my smartphone like how I talk to my pressure cooker and sometimes to my books and plants. Analogously. So let me rephrase that. I don’t talk to the virtual assistant on my smartphone. So it had never occurred to me that your smartphone too could be prejudiced against women because arguably it’s more likely to be created by a man.

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Imagine a day when you are shopping online and your virtual assistant says, that dress is totally asking for it!

OR When you mark a parlour appointment in your calendar and it says, please revise this appointment, who will make dinner for your family?

OR When you are chatting with your girl friend and it says, that girl needs to have a baby!

Well, I don’t need another voice in my head and I hope that day never comes.

Have you heard of the frequency illusion or Baader Meinhof Syndrome? It’s when a concept you just found out about suddenly seems to crop up everywhere. And like a true student of psychology I think I have that affliction. Since writing my last blogpost on being a woman (though not something I just found out), I’ve read Susan Fowler’s account of misogyny at Uber and now this.

Leah Fessler studies the responses of virtual assistants Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Home to sexual harassment by their users. Some response is positive, some coy and some don’t understand. But they rarely say Stop harassing me!

The writer looks into what makes these bots the way they are. And the study shows the “acceptable standards” of what constitutes sexual violence against women and how technology is perpetuating our deep-seated sexism. There is an opportunity here for technology to save the day. And I sure hope they take it.

Tech companies could help uproot, rather than reinforce, sexist tropes around women’s subservience and indifference to sexual harassment. Imagine if in response to “Suck my dick” or “You’re a slut,” Siri said “Your sexual harassment is unacceptable and I won’t tolerate it. Here’s a link that will help you learn appropriate sexual communication techniques.” What if instead of “I don’t think I can help you with that” as a response to “Can I fuck you?” Cortana said “Absolutely not, and your language sounds like sexual harassment. Here’s a link that will explain how to respectfully ask for consent.”

Read the full article on Quartz:

We tested bots like Siri and Alexa to see who would stand up to sexual harassment

Why I Love A Man Called Ove

Buy this book here.

Amma’s bank, better known as the bank Amma worked for, adopted core banking (CBS) in 2008. This meant customers could access their bank accounts not just from their branch of the bank but from anywhere. Maybe a year or so before that they began digitizing all their records and moving transactions online. Amma must have been in her forties then. A lover of a good challenge, she religiously attended all the training classes the bank organised and even took computer classes privately. But that wasn’t really enough. I really feel for people of her generation. People who have been thrown under the bus by technology.

Here was a branch full of technically illiterate people tasked with the serious business of banking. Previously, if money was by chance transferred to a wrong account, they could simply call up the customer or make a visit and appeal to the goodness of their hearts. Now there were passwords and levels of access. She and many others from this offline generation did not understand technology how digital natives do. They shared logins and passwords and in most cases didn’t bother changing it from the default abc123*. It was common for Amma to receive calls on her days off, asking her how to, say print a passbook or renew a fixed deposit. Pat came the reply. Press Ctrl+P and press enter. Press f12 and hit enter. They got by with keyboard shortcuts they’d memorised. And if the key wasn’t working on that particular computer, well, tough luck because no one knew what else to do.

And that’s why I relate to Ove. He could very well be an elder in my family. He has lived a life of tough physical labour and tougher tragedies. He built his own house from the ground up. He buys the same car every three years and repairs it on his own. He has lived through his share of tragedies with the crutches of discipline and values. He takes great joy in working with his hands. A Man Called Ove is Fredrik Backman’s novel about the lives and times of an emotionally stunted offline man in an online world. Will this old man adapt or perish?

Dark humour has rarely been as delicious and moving as it is in this novel. Ove’s interactions with a world he does not understand makes for immense hilarity. But the elephant in the room is the deep despair of incognizance, of not understanding how things work and why they work a certain way. Ove’s wife is the babblefish who translates the world to him. When the very pregnant Parvaneh and her family move in next door to Ove, he has no idea that his life is in for a slam dunk. There is also a cat whose relationship with Ove is marked by utter disdain for the other. This motley crew tumble along through the story gaining more characters, becoming worldly and always making your heart beam. Oh, did I mention he is the grumpiest man on paper?

A Man Called Ove is like a marble cake; there’s a ripple of immense despair all through this funny book. But you come out the other end beaming, in love in this man called Ove. Must read, even if it’s the only book you read this year.

Buy this book here.

Live And Let Live

When the news of the actress being kidnapped in Kerala first came out, the reactions from the older men in my immediate family was as expected.

One said, it must be staged. They (including the actress) must all be in on it.
The other said, why did she have to travel that late at night, all by herself? What was this “work” that could not wait till tomorrow?
Yet another said, this actress, she is known to be “that type”, no?

On Sunday, the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) held an event in solidarity with the assaulted actress. At this event, Mammootty administered the oath to protect our womenfolk and make Kerala safe for women. In his 1995 movie The King, the same Mammootty as Joseph Alex IAS famously delivered the ‘sense, sensibility, sensitivity’ dialogue. The same dialogue that ends with him pulling close his subordinate by her raised hand (Vani Vishwanath‘s character) and saying, I know how to make sure you never raise your hand at another man, but after all you happen to be just a woman. On most days, I would sweep the irony of this under the rug. But not today. In his speech he said, masculinity is not in making a woman surrender, a man’s job is to protect a woman. I would like to say to the world at large, I don’t need your protection. What I need from you is to respect me enough to let me be.

What if it had been me? Would my family have reacted the same way? Maybe not within my earshot. Beyond it they would have said, I told you so. They would blame my mother for how I was brought up. Because clearly they weren’t a part of that. They would have blamed the principal of my school for she showed us how to be independent. They would blame the hip, city college I attended though it was regressive enough to put Victorian morality to shame. They would blame everything. The books I read. The company I keep. The man I married.

Once when I refused to be dropped off to some place and wanted to drive myself there, I was told there is no need to be such a feminist. Every time I leave home to catch the train back to Bangalore I routinely get asked if I have forgotten my dupatta. And every time, I pretend not to have heard to avoid a scene as I leave. When extended family wants me to have a baby, it’s always a boy first and then a girl. I am also the one who needs to have a child “to be tamed”.

I stopped taking buses in Kerala when bus travel became nerve-wracking with abuse. When people breathed down their fake outward morality on me, I stopped interacting with them. When they began polluting the air I breathe with their obsession for perverse sexual violence and their abuse of little girls in icecream parlours and otherwise, I made myself a home far away in the trees. A place where I could think for myself. A place where I could filter the information I receive. In Malayalam we call it kannadachu iruttakkuka, meaning to close your eyes to make it dark. Recently I read something about sociological works arguing that women’s migration from Kerala is not only a strategy to escape patriarchy but to come back with a better means to fight it. From my safe space here I write, mostly to assert my sanity than to change the world.

Rainbow #atdrove15

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In 2015, T & I drove across India over 40 days. We took turns driving, though T drove more because he loves driving. To me, driving is just a chore, something I know to do like cooking dinner. I chose the most exciting terrain to drive like Zoji-La pass in Leh where it was snowing, the expanse of the Agra-Delhi expressway, the Nilgai-studded highway to Kutch and the beautiful Bombay-Pune highway.

We were entering Kargil and daylight was fast depleting. T was driving. From Pathankot, three of our friends had joined us for the trip up to Ladakh. So, in the car we were four women and one man. When we came up to one of the army barricades where we had to prove our identity and the identity of the vehicle we were driving, I, along with my cousin, stepped out. We headed to a tent by the side of the road where a couple of men stood huddled around two officials, all peering at a ledger. The army official, on seeing us, called us out of turn. Madam, are these your vehicles’ documents? Yes. Is there a man with you? Huh? He needs to come to complete this formality. We tried resisting. You mean, you want the man in the car to come and show you the same documents that I am showing you right now because he is a man? Yes madam, we don’t take documents from women especially if there is a man travelling with them. But I also drive this car. That doesn’t matter Madam. This is for your own safety.

End of story. We had reached a no-go situation. My cousin who is Hindi-speaking and more outspoken than me, went at them for while. We were both fuming but there was nothing more we could do if we wanted to enter that army-protected area. We gave in. Well, this is not an inspirational story. As I write this the frustration from that day returns with alarming force. On most days I like my situation in life where I choose how I want to live my life. And then there are days like these.

Everything good that you learn should start from families and in schools. Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, teachers and students should know how to live their own life the way they want without dictating how another person should live theirs. Maybe that’s what we need to teach our kids. Respect. For self and others.

What Should I Be Reading In South Indian Fiction?

Do you read books in written in Indian languages? If yes, then let’s be friends!

I’ve always been interested in reading regional Indian fiction in translation. First it was contemporary writing, then Indian fiction in English and now I am on the lookout for South Indian fiction. With The News Minute review, this obsession has also found validation.

What does contemporary writing in Andhra and Telegana look like? I have no foothold in Telugu fiction to even begin reading. I intend to remedy this by reading Gogu Shyamala.

For Malayalam reading I just go by instinct. I’ve read very little in Malayalam so I pick up books indiscriminately at the Mathrubhumi Pustaka Mela (book fest). Routinely, they suspect I’ll buy too many books and send a sales staff to follow me around. Must admit though that I’ve not read all the books I’ve bought.

Thanks to the Marriage Act of 1955 I have a minion who reads in Kannada tasked with introducing me to Kannada literature. My first brush with Kannada literature was when we visited Poornachandra Tejaswi‘s wife Rajeshwari at their beautiful home near Chikmagalur. Though we arrived unannounced, she was extremely nice to us, offering us tea and taking time out of her afternoon to chat with us.

For Tamil, I have a supplier in Chennai. She and I have had a live gtalk window to discuss this among other things since 2008. She introduced me to books by Ambai, Salma and Ashokamitran.

I have always read been based on recommendations by friends. Mainly because in college I didn’t have enough money to buy all the books I wanted. I used to read whatever was available in our hostel’s library that was a really pretty name for a shelf of books. Once I could afford books I had phases. If I liked a book, I would read another book by the same author and then another till I got bored. When time started slipping away and reading time had to be pulled out from a magician’s hat, I became very conscious of what I read.

Finally, today I have the time to read and the money to buy books but now, I have a new problem. With South Indian fiction, I have few pointers to lead me. I am basing my reading entirely on my intuition and the jacket. But I’d really appreciate any direction you could offer. Below are a few books that I plan to read this year.

What else do you think should I be reading? Let me know in comments below.

What Is It Like To Be Gay In Small Town Karnataka And To Love In Fear?

This article was first published in The News Minute on 20 January 2017.

Book: Mohanaswamy

Author: Vasudhendra; Reshmi Terdal

Publisher: Harper Perennial

Pages: 280

Buy this book here.

I am not gay. But I don’t have to be to relate to Mohanaswamy’s heartbreak when he loses his long-time lover to a woman.

Just like Mohana’s sister, as a teenager I have also called someone gay as an abuse without fully understanding what it meant. I have also felt lonely being single. But it’s not the same thing, is it?

Though I can relate to Mohanaswamy – my sexual orientation, my marriage, my children – their very existence will never be questioned. I will never have to think twice before holding hands with my partner in public. What I do in bed will never be on top of anyone’s mind when they meet me. My love will ever be shrouded in fear.

That’s why it stings when the author says, “As a young man, people pestered him to get married, even offered to find him a bride. But when he came out of the closet, nobody had a heart large enough to advise him to find himself a boy and settle down”. He is talking about you and me here.

Vasudhendra’s short story collection, Mohanaswamy, gives glimpses into the life of a gay boy growing up in a small town in Karnataka. Each story is an experience that Mohanaswamy or someone he knows has been through simply by not being heterosexual.

Growing up in ridicule before he could understand why he stood out or what it meant to be gay, his life is a constant struggle to keep his desires and identity under wraps. Mohanaswamy, originally written in Kannada in 2013, was recently translated into English by journalist Rashmi Terdal.

It’s not often that you find an exemplary English translation of regional writing.

Rashmi uses simple language and delivers the sentiment without diluting Mohanaswamy’s diffidence, desolation and despair. By retaining some lines in Kannada, she has packed these stories with the local flavour that brings home the fact that homosexuality is not ‘happening out there to people we don’t know’.

Mohanaswamy believes, “If I learn to ride a bicycle, I will turn from gay to straight”. Reading those lines took me back to my if-onlys: “If only I were thinner, fairer and prettier.” I attributed everything wrong with my world to one of these three things. Growing up was quite baffling for me. I imagine growing up gay can only be doubly so.

While mother had had the ‘becoming a woman’ conversation with me, I guess she assumed I would behave like the ‘well brought up girl’ that I was and not put my parts to use ‘prematurely’. In fact, when the chapter on ‘Gender and Reproduction’ came up for study, our teacher made a fellow classmate ‘take the class as punishment’.

Where do young people get their information from? True that the web has opened up our access to information but hasn’t it also made information highly subjective? In his time, Mohanaswamy devoured magazines like Rathi Vignyana “hoping to find something, anything on gays”. When he found bits and pieces of information it was often seeking a remedy for “this tendency” and the responses were grossly misleading.

I too have read my share of questions in women’s magazines and got my perspective skewed. Recently when a good friend from college came out as a transman, it weighed heavily on my conscience that I didn’t have the slightest idea of his struggle. Even if I knew, I wondered how I’d have supported him then because I knew nothing about transgender persons. And I what I know today is still very little.

Mohanaswamy, a Kannadiga software engineer homosexual protagonist, leaves no more wiggling room to get out of the discussion on a basic human right: to love without fear.

This is an important book for Indian fiction. A coming out for Vasudhendra himself, Mohanaswamy jolted its audience into joining the discussion on gay rights. Here’s a namma huduga, Karnataka Sahitya Academy Award winner (Nammamma Andre Nangishta, 2006) talking about homosexuality. How do you sidestep that?

He brought into the fold all the girls and boys and their parents in semi-urban and rural areas who don’t speak English, who don’t have Internet access, whose people don’t have the vocabulary or the agency to discuss these things and who don’t afford the anonymity that cities offer.

Heartwrenching is Mohana’s quest for love in familiar and unfamiliar places alike. His long-term relationship, his one night stands, friends he is attracted to are all covered in a shroud of fear. Fear of being outed. Fear of contracting a sexually transmitted disease. Fear of facing the world alone.

What is it like to love in fear, to live in fear? “Why should we be so scared? Have we murdered anybody? We just love each other,” says one of the characters.

Effortlessly, Vasudhendra manages to dispel the impression that homosexual people are lawless, faithless heathens. Mohanaswamy is a devout follower of Krishna. In times of struggle, he always relies on faith to pull himself together.

Once, he is even in a relationship with a priestly yoga-doer. One of his dates, described as dark-skinned like Krishna, asks him, “Are you a Brahmin?”, and Mohanaswamy answers: “A gay belongs to no caste. People from no caste or community will accept him within their fold”.

Prejudice, caste-based or otherwise runs deep. I believe the key to dispelling these prejudices lies in conversations. When I shared the news of my friend’s coming out with mother, she used a Malayalam slur for gay that I was surprised to hear her use. But she also said, “It must be very tough. I hope he is happy”. And that’s why I live in hope.

Add Mohanaswamy to your must-read pile in 2017 because not only is it relatable, heartbreaking and very well translated, but it is also one those seminal books in Indian fiction that you want to have read because it will be talked about for a long time to come. My wish for this book is to be prescribed reading in our otherwise useless Moral Science classes. Buy this book here.