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.

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.