7 Reasons Why Anantya Tantrist Should Be Televised

Published by Harper Collins India, The Matsya Curse is second in the three-part Anantya Tantrist series by the versatile Shweta Taneja. Based in Bangalore, she is also a journalist, graphic novelist, blogger and a dear friend of mine.

Throughout the reading of this mystery novel I couldn’t shake the overwhelming impression that this was destined to be the teleseries we’ve all been waiting for. For all the binge-watchers waiting for the next jaw-dropping Game of Thrones/Breaking Bad/House of Cards/Orange is the New Black, I present my case for Anantya Tantrist, the teleseries.

1. The first chapter is to die for: Well, not literally, because it’s about an immortality ritual. Bhairava is chanting mantras. The night is ready, the yantra is set. Fear in the air is palpable like salty sea winds. The fire is dancing, immortality within reach. The holy trinity of black magic–virgins, blood and screams–are in attendance. In this dark and menacing chapter full of intrigue and action, the stage is being set by the author. Some unearthly mysteries are going to be solved by Anantya Tantrist over the next 250 pages. Is it hard to imagine this series, with exquisite outdoor scenes being made into 6 seasons with 20 episodes of 50 minutes each?

2. Anantya Tantrist, the star: Kangana Ranaut with small-town grit and a head full of curly hair plays Anantya in the movie in my head. We definitely need more of those. Anantya is the bad-mouthed, kick-ass and cocky tantrik detective, solver of supernatural crime. Like all female tantriks, she grew up in a secret ashram in Benaras, believing that her purpose was to be a muse for male tantriks to draw shakthi from. Until, she grew out of her childhood notions and took charge of her life. We could definitely use more women like that too. She also has a love interest, Neel, who is not fully ‘present’. I imagine Arjun Kapoor has the perfect look and expressionless face we need for that.

 

3. Chandrakanta 2017: Which nineties kid doesn’t love Chandrakanta? Talking about immortality, I think Anantya could be just that; Chandrakanta in new skin. As discussed, there are opportunities for outdoor shoots with sacrifices in the forest and some amazing CGI (computer-generated imagery) waiting to happen with shape-shifting, spell-binding and melting bodies. Not to mention the possibilities of imaginative makeup and costumes with the undead walking the streets and the immortals dressed in human skin. This is the series that will catapult the twenty tens into the annals of television history.

4. The Epic Connection: Without revealing too much, let me just say that we know all the immortals whatever body they are in now! And what better way to top those TRPs than to have some godly special appearances?

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5. Violence and Language: Fellow thronies, our search for a desi Game of Thrones ends today! In place of heads squishing like pumpkins we have human-blood painting. Instead of the ginormous dragons breathing fire we have a pissed-off serpent spitting venom. There are potions to replicate on instagram, mantras to merchandise on t-shirts and innovative cusswords to rival the Dothraki language. This is India’s K-pop, its ticket to the world.

6. Genre-bender: Supernatural detective thriller mystery with a female protagonist and a social message against the abuse of the underdog. This is a series we could all get behind because there’s something here for everyone.

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7. A zombie by any other name: There are undeads who fight, as always, for the wrong side. There are some special task force undeads on a mission. Who can say no to the undeads? Especially when they have a catch phrase like ‘May Maut Grant You Death’? Folks, this is the new ‘Winter is Coming’. In a supernatural twist, we also have some suicidal immortals and our detective Anantya Tantrist with a penchant for episodic trouble. Need I say more? Shoot the pilot already!

When my pleas for televising Anantya are heard by the primetime gods, may they cast Kangana Ranaut in the lead role!

Buy this book here.

Haven’t read the first book of the series? Find the Cult of Chaos here.

Book Review: Savithri’s Special Room And Other Stories Is An Agreeable ‘Family-Entertainer’

This article was first published in The News Minute on 06 June 2017.

Book: Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories
Author: Manu Bhattathiri
Publisher: Harper Collins
Pages: 206

Buy this book here.

Gruhathurathvam or nostalgia is a major theme in Malayalam cinema. Our migration to the ‘Gulf’ and our aspiration for civil and military services could both be probable causes but coming home or longing for home have always been popular on the silver screens of Kerala.

But in reality, the small towns we grew up in that we so pine for, have also grown up. Many of them have shed their time warp with prohibition, home delivery and the internet of things.

For those of us still yearning for those long-gone ‘simple days’ of homemade snacks and telltale maids, of toddy shops and the local drunk, the godman and black magic, Manu Bhattathiri’s short story collection, Savithri’s Special Room and Other Stories (2016) is just what the doctor ordered.

Adman author’s first fiction outing, this collection is set in a fictitious little town of Karuthupuzha in Kerala. All its nine short stories revolve around this town’s characters and the incidents in their intertwined lives.

Bhattathiri’s writing style is delightful. He makes your head swim with joy by involving all beings in his narration.

Ponappan’s Lambretta scooter that jumps over humps in the road to wake him up from his reverie. The line of crows sitting on the high voltage wire who are the first to laugh when Chacko the lineman thrashes Rappai for loitering around his house. The jackfruit tree by the theatre that suppresses a giggle when Kunjumon walks past because it knows that his wife left him for the theatre’s owner. The bedbugs that question Kunjumon’s rationale for buying low quality blankets saying, “Would you buy such cheap blankets for your mother?”

When jeering at the human condition, the author includes the whole universe in his conspiracy. Incisive in his commentary on human follies and generous with wry humour, he takes on all the preoccupations of a Malayali community including love, faith, scandal, morality, philosophy, charity and longing.
His ease with irony is evident in Paachu and the Arrogant Tuft, the comedy about Paachu the policeman who believes that policemen should evoke fear in everyone. He practices grimaces before his bedroom mirror and tasks his subordinate Chandy with spreading strategic rumours to build his aura of ferocity. The townspeople dance to the puppetry of his satirical pen and reveal to us the depths of their faith, the shallows of their misgivings; how quick they are to accuse and how slow their acceptance.

Like a picture postcard for Kerala tourism, Manu Bhattathiri’s setting is exquisite too. Karuthupuzha with its single bus service is a wonderland complete with all the tropes of a Kerala town. As one of the fundamentals of fiction, setting, be it in time or space, decides the context and the mood of the narrative. The author has clearly gone to great lengths to build an entire make-believe town full of quirky people who cleverly jetset across the book and reappear in multiple beautifully described situations.

In this scenario, is it too much for the reader to expect the author to tread off the beaten path? What is the point of building an extraordinary lifescape if only to base the same old ordinary stories there? Where is the alternate social structure or the unconventional resolutions that justify the elaborate ruse of a fictional setting?

Another missing element in Bhattathiri’s riverside Arcadia, is women with agency. Everyday women who make decisions on what to cook, who to marry or what to put up with. Except maybe Amminikutty who is cornered into defiance, all the women in the book are subservient and sacrificial, some even projecting their suppressed rage unhealthily on harmless jars of sugared raisins. They are seemingly no more than inanimate objects to whom life and men happen.

Savithri’s Special Room, the eponymous story, dwells on the frenzy of doting grandparents, grandmother in particular, preparing for the arrival of their beloved grandson on annual leave. The author captures the unchanging routine of their old lives expertly. He also describes their frugal life perfectly, the generosity they reserve for their grandson alone. However the story silences the grandmother who prepares a storeroom full of snacks for the child. Savithri remains a silent spectator as her own story sidelines her into existential acceptance.

With the imaginary town, the magical elements and unspecified time, this collection has some strong magic realist inclinations but for the narrator’s interventions. Magic realism frowns upon a visible narrator but here the author steps in often to tell us the story and denies us the opportunity to discover it for ourselves.

Interestingly, throughout the reading of this book, the protagonist in my head had Malayalam cinestar Dileep’s face. Especially in A True Liar, the story of Velu the ethical liar “who lived to lie but never lied to live”.

In early 2000s, Dileep played Meesha Madhavan, the mustache-twirling, lovable Robinhood thief who steals for need and not greed. Like Velu, he is the populist hero whose wrongs are always right, who wins over everything with poetic justice and suffers under his yoke of being the hero.

All of Manu Bhattathiri’s stories lend themselves to ‘family-entertainer’ screenplays in films where the formula is set with an agreeable plot and the applause is reserved for the punchlines and the song sequences. It’s a pity that such great writing style delivered such prosaic stories. But considering his incredible eye for detail and penchant for irony, his next book will definitely be on my to-be-read list.

Buy this book now.

Love the work of South Indian writers? Find my last book review here: KR Meera’s Writing Is Magic That Makes Everyday Stories Into Extraordinary Ones

Finding The Way To A Man’s Heart With Coffee

Book: 50 Cups of Coffee: The Woes and Throes of Finding Mr Right

Author: Khushnuma Daruwala

Publisher: Penguin Books

Pages: 196

Buy the book here.

Meeting a stranger over coffee to discuss whether to spend their lives together is such a commonplace premise in our society, that we sometimes forget how crazy it is. Too often the mating dance is dismissed as too frivolous, but considering how much of an impact it may have on lives, it is worth looking at a little more closely. Khushnuma Daruwala’s 50 Cups of Coffee – The Woes and Throes of Finding Mr. Right is a lighthearted look at this aspect of Indian pre-matrimony. It works very well as a hilarious collection of anecdotes of a single woman in her mid-thirties meeting prospective life partners from matrimonial sites on first dates.

Witty and fast-paced, 50 Cups of Coffee is a practical book that takes love out of the equation to great results. Dia and her childhood friend Poppy are determined to discover Mr. Perfect while sipping coffee.

“if he says ‘herpes’, run. If he says ‘mummy’, run a wee bit faster”.

Daruwala’s whirlwind narrative is a caffeine shot fit for everyone who loves a breezy read. With a relatable worldview and chatty tone, this is a perfect book to curl up to on a do-nothing holiday or to pick-up at the airport. It can be very funny as well, so be prepared to receive some hard stares from co-passengers as you laugh out loud at some of her words of wisdom, like “if he says ‘herpes’, run. If he says ‘mummy’, run a wee bit faster”.

Read the full review here: Finding the Way to a Man’s Heart with Coffee

Book Review: Perumal Murugan’s ‘Current Show’ Is A Novel About The Uncertainties the Young Feel

This article was first published in The News Minute on 21 May 2017.

Book: Current Show
Author: Perumal Murugan
Publisher: Penguin Books
Translator: V. Geetha
Pages: 186

Buy this book here.

There is a scene in the television series Breaking Bad where brother-in-law cop Schrader is brewing beer in his garage. I knew right away that he would hurt himself while capping the bottles. Because Perumal Murugan wrote about the dangers of bottling soda in his book Pyre. The spell Murugan casts gives me the ability to consider the realities of his characters as my own, though it is far removed from my reality.

Who knew that there was joy in the glint of a soda bottle well-washed or the artful perfection of bottling soda until Murugan told us so? In Current Show, he made bile rise to my mouth with similar ease as he describes the theatre grounds squishy with stale urine. When he talks about the crowds for an MGR movie, I could feel the stickiness of sweat against my clothes and the push and shove of being in that crowd.

Sathivel is a poor, young soda seller at an old theatre past its prime. He sells colour soda during the interval and spends his free time with the other theatre boys, doing odd jobs or smoking ganja. Including their next meal, there are few certainties in life for the boys to rely on. Sathi’s friendship with Natesan is one of his certainties. They look out for each other, sharing food and cigarette butts. These boys are willing to get into fights, steal slippers off cine-goers, sell tickets in black and to do the bidding of anyone who will give them money, food or drugs. This is where we begin to see how poverty changes their worldview.

Their lives are without prospects. Lives lived in such abject poverty that dreams are as distant as three full meals. They live in the moment without an eye on the future. Understandably, Sathi and his friends spend all their income on instant, short-lived highs — tea, bidis or drugs. He is defined by his antipathy, an aversion to everything around him. Except Natesan. Their friendship is the silver lining that keeps Sathi going. The turn of events shakes up Sathi’s life and its certainties.

Published in Tamil as Nizhal Muttram in 1993, it was translated into English as Current Show by feminist historian V. Geetha. Though the setting of this novel is in a Tamil cinema theatre, V. Geetha does not transliterate Tamil songs. By staying clear of Tamil words in the text, she elevates the story out of its immediate surroundings, giving it universality. Together, Geetha and Murugan make us experience the heat of the Matinee show — ‘sky is white with heat’ — and the cool darkness of the theatre — “A sharp black knife of darkness greets the soda-man when he comes into the room” — with skilled ease.

V. Geetha’s translation shares Murugan’s alchemy, stringing sentences into experiences. Describing the child playing with the cigarette pack that falls out of Sathi’s pocket and its ability to be consumed by inane things, Geetha says, “Its world shrinks into the pack. The child does not look at Sathi anymore.”

Simply by descending from words like warmth, smooth and happy to die and demon, Geetha takes us to the coldest depths of Sathi’s heart in the chapter His Nose Has Been Eaten Away to a Hollow. Sathi, sleeping under the stairway hears a voice calling out his name. “He feels himself melt in the warmth of that voice. It is smooth and this makes him absurdly happy. He needs nothing, the voice is enough. It can break him down, make him do things.” It’s his father, a leper. Sathi does not want to be seen with him for fear of what the others will say. “Why can’t the old dog die? Why does this demon-father pursue him like this?” he rues. Though he almost shoos his father away, Sathi is quick to thaw when Natesan treats his grandmother poorly when she brings him food. Sathi offers her money and looks at Natesan with contempt baring his double standards and his tender heart.

As the plot progresses, modernisation is on its way to this small town with a new theatre in the works. It threatens to uproot their livelihood in a way they don’t quite understand. It’s the calm before the storm when most of the theatre-folk still believe that the new theatre will co-exist with theirs and not run them to the ground. This naivete also makes for a perfect breeding ground for exploitation. In lieu of providing a roof over their heads and a job, the owners of shops around the theatre take advantage of the boys’ ignorance. The film-reel man even manipulates Sathi with emotions to meet his sexual desires.

Murugan handles the confusion of adolescence with a clarity that is achieved only with hindsight. Whenever Sathi smokes up he thinks that he should give up on the theatre and take up the soda-man’s offer to help on his farm. But he likes the excitement of the theatre.

This is a novel about the uncertainties the young feel. We have all been there. The feeling of being trapped in your own condition. The need for change in a place that has never seen change. The frustration of living an unchanging life everyday. Not having the wisdom to see that this is not forever. This is just the current show.

Current Show will force you to pause and ponder on the impermanence of our experiences. It will make you involuntarily sending up a prayer in gratefulness. Pick up this book on a day when you feel that you’ve been dealt a bad hand.

Buy this book now.

Are you a Perumal Murugan fan? Read my review of Murugan’s Pyre here: May the Pyre Singe Some Sense Into You

 

For You, A Thousand Times Over

I was in love. The minute I laid eyes on him, I knew Max and I were meant to be together. It didn’t matter that he was old or that he hated other dogs. I love old people and strongly dislike other human interaction. He was digging his nose into my palm like he knew it was my favourite body part. I will never forget that feeling of his wet nose burrowing deep with occasional licks. I would realise later that he doesn’t let just about anyone touch his face.

It was six months ago that we brought him home for Christmas 2016. Now, I know he loves me back when he lets me cuddle him. Max is definitely not a cuddler. He hates hugs, just like me. When I hug Max he stays completely still, barely breathing. He lets me do my thing for about 30 seconds. Maybe 45 seconds if I am persistent or if he is in a good mood. Just the way I let Amma brush my hair.

Since March, I’ve had to go out of station a couple of times leaving him behind. When I am away, he lies by the kitchen door where he usually loves to watch me cook. He mopes around the rooms with one of my clothes in his mouth. When I come back, he is miffed. For the first couple of days he refuses to acknowledge me. He uses my signature silent treatment against me. I need to win back his love. It drives me nuts when he favours T over me and acts like I am invisible. And he knows that. For the next couple of days, I offer him extra treats and talk him out of the mood he is in.

Usually Maxu is a dog who loves his space. Feed him, walk him and pet him when he wants and for the rest of the day he will do his own thing. But when we have guests over, it’s another story. If there are children in the midst, I shouldn’t pick them up or hold their hands. I should stay closer to him than to the rest of them. He tolerates people for the first half an hour. And then he gets restless. For the next hour or so, T and I take turns taking him into our room to talking him into calming down. And we always fail. We’ve never hosted anyone without having to take Maxiboo out in between.

When Amma calls, she now asks after Maxkuttan too. And she has never met him and doesn’t like dogs. I tell her about how I give him buttermilk when he has a tummy upset or about how he begs for food each time we eat though he has just eaten. She knows how he hates calling bells and scares delivery boys with his ferocious bark. And then when I open the door, he takes dainty steps towards the said person’s privates for a good, long sniff. Not awkward at all. I share with her how he now lets me clean out his ear properly and will do just about anything for food. When my brother visits India, he brings toys for Maxi. And on most days, T and I catch ourselves talking about Maxooti’s poop during our meals.

Since we don’t have his records, there is very little we know about him. We don’t know how much he weighs because he won’t let us weigh him. When both of us crowd around him voluntarily, he knows it means danger. Either it’s for a bath or for putting on the muzzle for a vet visit. When we got him, we hadn’t considered the logistics of giving him a bath. We had a spare room and a bathroom and we assumed he would use both. When he refused to enter his room and the bathroom, we were quite stumped. But now we bathe him in one of our balconies. Thanks to a skin condition he’s developed, and the occasional ticks and fleas we’ve ended up bathing him every week. Not that it’s difficult. Between the both of us and a mostly cooperative Maxita, it takes under 45 minutes. But he does not like his privates or extremities touched. If it were up to him, he would only wash his tummy. I used to bathe like that as a child.

His vet is a gentle person with a genuine interest in animals. But Maxibabu turns into a crazy nutcase when we enter the clinic. An otherwise well-behaved gentle dog, Maximus starts growling and refuses to let the doctor anywhere near him. So the diagnosis is mostly based on our descriptions. And since he is old, the doctor is against strong medication or anything invasive. As a result, we don’t think he can see too well. He thinks toddlers holding their parents’ hands are dogs. His hatred of dogs makes walking him around the park an anxious ordeal. But when he thinks children are dogs and lunges at them, what we see is Maximax being blind. But what those parents see is a monster dog.

He loves picking up bone scraps off the road. I’ve tried to feed him before his walks, get him bones at home, nothing works. So now I reason with him. Yes, I am the crazy lady who talks to her dog on the road. And then he bares his teeth at me, which I’ve come to believe is the dog equivalent of an antsy teenager slamming the door. Sometimes if I try to take something out of his mouth (usually a disgusting piece of ant-eaten bone) he does a biting motion without the intention of biting. This is my cue to really back off because he is saying I am a dog that can bite if I want to but since you are diligent with your food delivery I shall give you a warning. Passersby or well-wishers tell me that this is all because he is not neutered. Well, you are not neutered either, no?

Recently, when he was put under general anaesthesia for a minor polyp removal surgery is when I realised why Amma cannot watch me get an injection. And the following fateful day, I happened to watch Marley and Me. I bawled my eyes out wondering what life would be without him. Max is not the perfect dog. He is aggressive, moody, stubborn and set in his ways. But so am I.

I wrote about Max days after we brought him home. Find it here: Max

She has a lifestyle disorder

An animation of 40K paintings children made about global warming #koat16

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Today, the sun is not yet overhead but she’s already fed up. Fed up of not doing. Fed up of the news in the media. Fed up of the grains she eats. Fed up of the thick smog behind her eyes. Tomorrow is a new day, if she gets through today. It could be that rare burst of volcanic activity–cleaning, eating, planning. Or just the usual; another day of procrastination.

When she thinks of freedom she thinks of white doves flying off from the confines of a hanging metal cage against a black background leaving the tricolour in its wake–yes, like all the independence day imagery out there. Along with her drawing sheets, she has also traced that image onto her brain. However, she didn’t realise then that white doves are not alone in their freedom. There are other birds in the sky. A whole lot of them. True that white doves fly in pure, white, sweeping flocks with no room for discolouration. But there are also birds that don’t fly in flocks. And birds that don’t fly at all. You have to be a white dove to fly with the white doves. Not a parrot. Not an eagle. Not a sparrow. And definitely not a fowl.

She was a fowl. A scraggly one with indiscriminately multi-coloured feathers and no distinguishable feature. She found her own dreams of flying laughable. She lived on a farm, roosting in the bushes behind the tree, capable only of flying onto the fence and perching there undecided. Should she go off into the big bad world not knowing where her next meal will come from? Or should she remain cooing in the calm of her familiar routine?

When had they taught everyone else to deal with the world? She felt like she was looking in on a world with rules that didn’t make any sense. She felt excluded and alien. Logic was a squiggly worm just beyond her reach. How do these other fowls know what to do? How do they go about they mundane business as if it were the most exciting undertaking? Why should she follow rules that didn’t apply to males? Why should she pay taxes for trees to be cut and lakes to foam? Why should she bring eggs into such a world? There were no answers. And the questions were reducing her visibility.

She lives in hope that one fine morning, the smog behind her eyes will lift and she will fly up, up and away to perch on a weightless cloud of clarity. This hope sends her to bed at night but also wakes her up every morning to be just another fowl. On some days, the same hope makes her kick indecision off the fence and make a flight of faith. But on other days hope tells her that the trick is in setting yourself up for success. Hope also says that success is in knowing when to let go. Right under the nose all these suggestions, indecision was slowly eating her up inside, giving her deadly ulcers, a lifestyle disorder.

Like this post? Check out the previous one from the She Series here.

She Cleanses

Summer is mint-lime-cooler time! #happyweekend #summerdrinks #summeriscoming

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She was a hoarder. A hoarder of feelings. Every emotion she felt joined a pile in her heart.

When the heart pile grew too heavy making her heart sink, she compressed them and sent them away to be composted into memories in the minute wrinkles and folds of her brain. She would call on them later with smells, food and music.

She imagined her brain to be an endless landfill capable of infinite tricks. The ultimate resting place where all emotion–vile, virtuous and vain–rolled over each other in deep, companionable sleep. But there are days when these alleyways get clogged by the truckloads of feelings waiting to be dumped. Thankfully, her feelings like her sleep, smell like bedsheets. The fragrance is officially called Linen and Sky.

When the sinews of her brain city get backed up with compressed feeling cubes that smell like designer perfection, some cubes were bound to fall out of the trucks and litter the streets. The delectably fragrant spillage always hypnotised her brain into a dark, brooding mood. And its on days like these that the trucks were rerouted to purgatory to be put away till they could be properly put away.

Down there in the fat cells of her midlands, nothing much happens. Ever. It’s a lot of abandoned cubes sticking out like cacti in the desert sands of time. This purgatory is their hell for now. Behind the backs of calorie-counting cow-worshippers, the hinterland grows lawless and distends accommodating more degenerates. In time, this protruding landmass begins to wobble dangerously.

Each time the belly wobbles, some renegades jump the fence and go hitchhiking across the expanse of her body. It’s not like anyone is watching them. Sometimes in the steep mountains of her arms or thighs, the plateaus of her lower back or along the shore of her ankles, they pitch tent. Wherever they stop and linger, they cause trouble.
Be that as it may, she occasionally comes alive in the torrential rigorousness that rains in sheet after cleansing sheet of wellness from god knows where. Without warning, she begins to wake up early, prioritising exercise and eating healthy. She’s excited about cleanliness, order, art, books, pickling and even talking.
There is a upturn in the air, much like a beach on a bright, summer day in an otherwise cold country. A flurry of activity clears up the brain, reduces the wobbly bulge, balms the aches and calms the mind. When the rain ends, as it must, the cleanse is complete and she is ready for the next onslaught to begin.

Book Review: Does A Girl In The House Mean Fire In The Belly?

This article was first published in The News Minute on 13 April 2017.

Book: The Taming of Women
Author: P Sivakami
Publisher: Penguin Books
Translator: Pritham K Chakravarthy
Pages: 254

Buy this book here.

“Having a girl in the house is like having a fire in my belly… I will have peace only when I hand her over to a husband.” I bet you have heard someone close to you spout these lines from the novel in all seriousness.

While our boys grow up with a sense of entitlement to the world, our girls are brought up with a sense of gratefulness for being allowed in it. Add to this the impediment of caste and you will see why it was only as recently as 1989 that P Sivakami became the first Tamil Dalit woman to write a novel (Pazhaiyana Kazhidalum). The Taming of Women (Anandhayi, 1992), P Sivakami’s second novel, is about these two social constructs: gender and power.

Anandhayi is married to Periyannan, a landowner and contractor, who has fathered six children namely, Mani, Kala, Dhanam, Balan, Arul and Anbu. Seated on the thinnai outside the house is Periyannan’s mother who runs an uninterrupted commentary on their lives like a broken record.

After Balan’s sudden demise, Periyannan, a philanderer, brings home his mistress, Lakshmi. Once Periyannan lays a hand on her, Lakshmi begins her attempts to run away from him but is always brought back kicking and screaming.

Anandhayi, on the other hand, puts up with his violence and infidelity and still takes his side. The power play between man and woman and the circular logic of their many relationships make up the rest of the story.

Translated into English by Pritham K Chakravarthy, this novel dissects village life in Tamil Nadu and provides the reader a cross-sectional view of Periyannan’s family for detailed study.

Phrases like “excited like rice flakes in boiling water” and “hair like a weaver bird’s nest” add to the flavour of rural living. The nuances of caste, intrinsically linked to dialects are perhaps lost in translation. Also, I would have loved for the book to keep it’s Tamil title Anandhayi, the name of the complex central character than have the contrite title, The Taming of Women.

To my ears, it sounds like an anticipatory bail. Sivakami’s narration invokes the intimate life in a village. “The crowd from the late-night film show had passed by a little while ago”, begins the novel, invoking an image of a quiet village where such things get noticed.

Similarly, Anandhayi tells time by listening to the milkman passing by ringing his bell. Sivakami’s imagery is exquisite and powerful like, “A raging fire spread through Anandhayi’s body and burnt her earlobes. Slowly her eyes pooled and cooled down the flame”.

It’s fascinating how boys and girls in the novel grow up differently. Mani and Anbu grow up with a sense of ownership where they are held responsible for nothing.

Even as young boys, they chastise their sisters on how to behave. Mani says, “If I am not strict with her now, she will regret it in the future”. Anbu, the youngest, is quick to anger, and is encouraged with, “his temper is just like his father’s” as if it were a good thing.

On the other hand, Kala, Dhanam and Arul are brought up with a sense of servitude where everything is their fault. When Periyannan finds Kala riding a cycle, days after she comes of age, she is beaten black and blue and taken off school. When Dhanam’s affair with Daniel is revealed, Mani thrashes her.

Anandhayi is the status quo, the ISO certified Indian mother who is the all-enduring blackhole where all our presumptions go to die. A mother, like yours and mine, who is taken for granted, whose loyalty is a given and whose life is presented at the altar of the family.

“Now when I look back, I cannot actually believe that I spent so many years with that man!”, says Anandhayi who, orphaned as a child, had an early marriage. She rues her lot in life but never thinks of fixing it.

And Lakshmi the mistress, is forbidden like the ice fruit we were banned from eating as children because it used water from the gutters. Everyone secretly wanted to have it but no one would fight for it. Thankfully, against all odds, Sivakami gives Lakshmi the gumption to live life on her own terms.

In the book, women are each other’s worst enemies but also their great supports. The conflict between men and women is constant. Among women though, their loyalties oscillate between hating each other and being there for each other in times of need. They actively further patriarchy, with a sense of invariability.

Vadakathiyaal says about her wayward son, “he’s going to be worse than his father. God knows which girl is going to be married to him and suffer”.

We can only be silent spectators when the story reveals that Kala, Dhanam and Arul are all married to men who hit them. Poongavanam who rejects Duraisami, the father of her child, when he offers to marry her is the only exception; a breath of fresh air.

Sivakami sprinkles the sidelines of the novel with characters like Poongavanam and Neelaveni. Poongavanam rejects Duraisami, her lover and the father of her child, when he reappears in the village with an offer to marry her.

Neelaveni is the village beauty who has cultivated a bad reputation in the wild imagination of the village for no fault of her own. She resigns to live out her life as a spinster in isolation. As we peep into their lives, the author reveals to us most matter-of-factly all the horrific experiences woman after woman has gone through.

In essence this novel is about how we internalise the politics of power and gender.

Sivakami presents us with a microcosm where every woman we meet has a casual tale of abuse to share while filling water, planting saplings or afternoon breaks. It’s casual because it’s commonplace and acceptable for women to be treated badly by all the men in their lives.

And no one expects any better of men. Men in the novel take every opportunity to assert ‘who’s the man!’ verbally and physically assaulting all the women in their territory. Men of the landowning variety, whose sense of power extends to land, think nothing of encroaching upon unassessed government land and skirting law to land government contracts.

In The Taming of Women, Sivakami takes apart the nuts and bolts of patriarchy to find that it is essentially a game of chess that men and women play using emotion, violence, sex and social norms as pieces.

It seems to me that every woman character is destined to be like the old lady- sitting almost outside the house in terms of influence but driven there by her own actions that further the status quo. A poignant read for a bout of self-reflection in these unprecedented times.

Buy this book here.

Zayne Spends Sunday With The Sun

Hanging with friends in Geoje #koat16

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The sun was shining on his face. Zayne crinkled his eyes shut and wondered what the sun was doing in his room!

“Wait a minute. What’s the sun doing in my room?!” shouted Zayne sitting up in bed!

Yes, it was true. This Sunday morning the Sun had risen in Zayne’s bedroom. Now, too excited to sleep, he jumped out of bed shouting ––Look at that!

The Sun himself was just getting warmed up for the day and his soft rays had filled the room. Zayne’s face glowed slightly in its warmth. He had even forgotten his dreams.

“Be right back, Sun”, hollered Zayne as he rushed to the toilet to brush his teeth. Brush…brush…ooooh, aaaah, eeeeh…brush…brush!

By the time he was done, the Sun had slid up the window and was shining brighter. Zayne smiled up at the Sun and his clean teeth sparkled bright! Sparkle, sparkle, shine, shine.

Zayne looked around his room. “If my teeth are shining bright why isn’t my bed, my table, my toys and my books shining,” he thought as he drank his glass of milk. Glug, glug, glug, glug and…done!

Ah, because it’s not clean! Right away, he made his bed, arranged his table, lined up his toys and dusted his books. Whoosh, squeak, dust, clean.

Sun, who was watching Zayne clean, threw down his rays on the room. And magic! Zayne’s bed, his table, his toys and his books shone and sparkled, just like his teeth. Twinkle, twinkle.

Spotlight #koat16

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“Good work son,” said the Sun! “A job well done!”

“I know how to make my arms and legs shine too,” shouted Zayne as he headed to the bathroom for a shower. Shower…bubble…bubble…shower!

When he got back from his bath, the Sun was bouncing off the white walls of his room ready to make him shine. And shine he did! Bright and Brilliant!

Quickly, Zayne ate his breakfast and settled down for a day in the Sun!

He laid down the rails and the train chugged along happily over the grass green rug. Chug, chug, chug, chug!

By now the Sun was warming his skin with its mid-morning glow.

He played till he grew sleepy. Carefree, he slept with the Sun watching over him. As he slept, he dreamt of colourful rainbows made of marshmallows! Violet, Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red.

On waking, he found two birds on his bedstead and a rabbit under the table. “Isn’t that amazing? Will you come and play with me, birdies?” asked Zayne.

The birds chirped in reply and one of them landed on his shoulder. The other sat on the rug among his toys. He shared his lunch with them and they flew around him as he ate all the greens on his plate. Chomp, chomp, yum, yum!

It was now time for Zayne’s nap. He reached out under the table and petted the shy rabbit. “Don’t be shy little rabbit, I’ll be friends with you”, said Zayne! He took the rabbit over to his bed and lay down with it for a nap.

He woke up ready to go out and play. He said to the Sun—”Hey Sun, thanks for coming to my room today. I am going out to play with my friends now, would you like to come with me?”

“Yes of course, I love watching kids like you play”, said the sun and took Zayne’s arm to go outside.

Zayne played all evening as the Sun continued his journey down the sky. When it was time for the sun to go home, Zayne shouted, “Bye Sun! See you tomorrow!

And the sun shouted right back, “Bye son! See you tomorrow!

Zayne came home, took a bath and ate a hearty dinner, all the while thinking of his new friend, the Sun. Before he went to bed that night, he looked up at the sky to see the beautiful night sky lit up with the moon and the stars.

And when he fell asleep, he dreamt of all the fun he would have with the Sun tomorrow!

 

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.