Book Review: All Those In Pain, There Is Hope

Book: Battles In The Mind
Author: Anna Chandy
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 219

Buy this book here.

She is a superwoman with a thriving career and an enviable family. She throws the best parties in town and her squeaky clean, tastefully designed home is the neighbour’s envy. She is the toast of the party. She hosts house guests for months. Not the image you would associate with a mental health issue, is it? Yet, Anna Chandy, “successful” by all definitions found herself staring at the face of failure in her mirror.

She is not alone. Earlier this year Livemint reported that “over 5 crore people suffer from depression in India” according to WHO in 2015. The same report says that over 3 crore people live with anxiety disorders. We live in a country where a case of jaundice or heart attack in the family is announced with the same aplomb as the birth of a child. But we discuss mental health issues as something that happens to someone else. Maybe in recent social memory AliaShahrukh starrer Dear Zindagi (2016) took a step in the right direction. But Anna Chandy’s Battles in the Mind is a much bolder, tangible step, opening up readers to the stark world of mental illness without the crutches fiction offers.

Anna Chandy, a mentor and counsellor, is also the first certified transactional analyst in Asia. She is also the chairperson of actor Deepika Padukone’s The Live Love Laugh Foundation setup to create mental health awareness in India. At the beginning of the book, we find Anna hunched over her refrigerator, gobbling down cold leftovers in a nightly routine that is her secret shame. While her husband and children sleep, she rises from her bed night after night, “I ate, not out of hunger, but to fill some deep void”, she says.

She delves right into the undercurrents behind her immaculate social facade. Growing up, she lived with her parents in their bad marriage. With heartbreaking honesty, Chandy describes how she as a child learned to manipulate situations as a result of being manipulated by her parents. “Keeping my parent’s marriage together was clearly my responsibility”, believed the little girl who grew up to have a strong sense of responsibility and loyalty.

Once her elder sister married outside their community, her parents always talked about Anna’s future only in terms of how good a wife and mother she would make. In a self-fulfulling prophecy, she becomes a doormat homemaker bending over backwards to make every wish come true before they were even wished for. She also turns into an emotional bully terrorising her subordinates and children. She takes in her husband’s schizophrenic brother and then her ailing father. She takes on more and more responsibility until she finds herself with her refrigerator for company.

As Anna reveals to us more of her life and its obstacles, she begins to unveil how she applies solutions from transactional analysis in her own life. Transactional analysis is a theory of personality that believes that all human beings have the capacity to think and can decide their own destiny. She introduces its concepts and uses her own life experiences to elucidate. Once she figures out a path out of the wilderness of her mind, she still has to make her way across. She tells the readers that it is a difficult journey but it’s not impossible. In her case, she puts herself first and caters to her own needs; she sheds extra weight, culls her social circle and stops being the impeccable homemaker. As she peels off layer after layer of her insecurities, a new Anna emerges.

Growing into her own, leaving behind her fears and inhibitions, she turns her misplaced sense of loyalty and responsibility around to work for her. From the little girl who was “always waiting for emergency to strike”, Anna becomes a strong woman. She is unshaken by the extreme distress of watching her daughter suffer a painful condition and nurses her back to health.

In this book she also shares the stories of some of her clients to give the reader a sense of the other contours of mental health. She includes testimonials from her family, colleagues and friends to substantiate her transformation. She often illustrates complex concepts using diagrams and worksheets giving the feel of ‘reading’ a good lecture on transactional analysis 101.

The expressed purpose of this book is to show that “you can change your script; that all baggage can be left behind”. By all means, this book is a gateway to the world of mental health, giving indications on when to ask for help. Objectively though I know not to underestimate the reader, as a student of psychology, I worry that this book will push readers to self-diagnose, which is not recommended.

Battles in the Mind is dedicated “to all those individuals who experience pain and struggle, there is hope.” I found resonance in many of Chandy’s anecdotes as it filled me with a sense of immense hope and companionship. They stayed with me for days coaxing me to review my emotionality and the reasons for the quirks in my personality.

For those swayed by such things, the foreword to this book is written by Deepika Padukone. She says, “[In] our own journeys of self-discovery, [this book] communicates, energy, resilience and hope for people struggling with various kinds of mental-health issues”. If you suspect that your recent temperament might be beyond just the blues, this book could show you the way. If nothing else, it’s an inspiring read on how a superwoman finds and heals her true self!

Buy this book here.

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

 

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.

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!

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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

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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.

Why I Love A Man Called Ove

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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.

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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

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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.