Finding One’s Way Through the Home in the Forest

This article was first published in The News Minute on 26 Feb 2018.

Books: Speaking To An Elephant & Walking Is A Way Of Knowing

Authors: Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi

Publisher: Tara Books

There’s a running joke in my family. How Amma would visit my brother in boarding school in Kodaikanal. At a time before maps and mobile phones, she would take a taxi and use a tree lining the highway as a landmark to turn towards Kodaikanal. Who uses a tree as a landmark? What if they cut down that tree?, would be the refrain.

Madiyappan, the adivasi elder in Walking Is A Way Of Knowing, has the best comeback, “That’s how I find my way in the forest—by using everything I have—eyes, legs and hands.” In time, as Google maps have gained popularity in India, they too have adapted to Amma’s very Indian sense of direction. They’ve moved from ‘head south east’ to ‘take a right at the SBI ATM’.

Speaking To An Elephant and Walking Is A Way Of Knowing are two books of a complementary collection of stories from the Kadar adivasi community in south India. Retold by researchers Madhuri Ramesh and Manish Chandi with exquisite art by UK-based illustrator Matthew Frame, these two 2017 books are based on stories narrated to the authors by the Kadar elders.

Kadars, literally “people of the forest”, are a small adivasi community who live in the Annamalai and Parambikulam hills bordering Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Though originally hunter-gatherers, they no longer live deep in the forest and have been relocated to permanent settlements on the edge of the forest. When the British began using the mountains for tea plantations, some Kadars became their forest guides.

Today, some of them who still live off the forest, guide tourists and scientists through their home. The others have found work in plantations or the plains but continue to live near the forest.

While Speaking To An Elephant is a collection of five short stories from the Kadar forest, in Walking Is A Way Of Knowing, Madiyappan, a Kadar elder, shows an urban youth around his home—the forest. The fables in Speaking To An Elephant deal with themes around benevolence, gratitude and co-existence. Kadavul, the creator, in these stories is portrayed as a benevolent father who gives generously but also disciplines.

It also involves an origin story that answers the question, why do grasshoppers hop around? It’s fascinating how the grasshopper is always the antagonist in fables across the world. Remember the grasshopper that spent the summer singing while the ants stocked up for winter? Similar is the story of the tortoise and the birds. Isn’t it captivating to find a version of this tale of the talkative tortoise who wanted to fly in the Indian Panchatantra, Greek Aesop’s fables, African tales and now also in the stories from the Kadars?

Speaking to an Elephant with its rich and intricate illustrations captures the dark and dense undergrowth and wildlife of the Indian tropical rainforest. Just like the unexpectedness of the jungle, the fantastic swatches of design popping out at the turn of every page adds to the fantastical quality of these images. These sketches of the flora and fauna, Aamai the tortoise, Ongal the hornbill and Pithakannu the leopard add surprise and intrigue to the narrative. Most interestingly, human figures seem to be missing from these representations, perhaps indicating that the jungle, unlike the rest of the world, is not centred around humans.

I found that there was a lot to discover in these drawings, the more attention you paid them. In true Tara books style, each of the five stories are also bookended by mesmerising black and white full page illustrations. In case you didn’t know, Tara books in their own words “is pushing the boundaries of the book form”. To them design is not an embellishment; it is basic to how a book creates meaning. Though it seemed whimsical to me at first to have such a heavily illustrated book, once I entered the forest through the first page, the illustrations transported me to that sticky hot tropical jungle where the breeze is busy playing among the treetops.

Both the books mix indigenous words with the English text quite unapologetically. While most of them make sense contextually, the tougher ones are reinforced in English. To the presumably urban reader already in unfamiliar terrain, this adds another layer of unfamiliarity.

The second book, Walking Is A Way Of Knowing pays tribute to the Kadars’ oral traditions of storytelling passed on from elders to the next generation around the evening fire. Kadar elder and expert forest guide Madiyappan, his uncle Krishnan and his cousin Padma share with the young visitor their stories of the forest—stories that inform their way of life.

Though more dramatic and philosophical in content, it does have its light moments. Madiyappan talks about spirits of his ancestors as casually as he does of the foul-smelling leopard’s poop or Krishnan of his wish to turn into a fragrant cinnamon tree when he dies. It’s a story for adults and for children. It’s a story for anyone who wants to know the forest. When asked how he finds his way in the forest, Madiyappan says that “knowing the path itself is not enough”. What he means is that one also needs to know the lay of the land. The forest is ever-changing and unpredictable and one needs to think on one’s feet to survive. Padma adds, “Good forest people are curious, we constantly explore”.

In finding their way through the forest, they find new paths which they then share with others so that together they can “add to the map of the forest”. There are many such instances of sharing one’s knowledge and living in harmony with nature. One of the underlying threads across the book is that the forest has everything for man’s need but not for his greed.

The book is dreamy and magical with beautiful descriptions of the forest. It winds its way through the life of the adivasi in the forest, talking about survival skills, how to collect honey and other forest produce, about common animals and plants and their characteristics, the bounty of nature and its seasons. Stunning illustrations show the Kadars at home in nature, getting on with their daily routine, fetching water and collecting frankincense.

Walking Is A Way Of Knowing manages to demonstrate the meandering nature of folktales beautifully with Madiyappan’s stories digressing ever so gently like a forest trail before eventually getting back to the answer. Madiyappan says that the forest is a “storehouse of smells”. Outsiders use books to understand the forest so they understand things only by sight. But most of the adivasis cannot read, so they use all their senses, their entire bodies “to hear the stories of the forest”. That’s my biggest takeaway from these two books. To be receptive to the world; to listen with all our senses. Especially in these trumpeting times. On days when the world gets me down, I see myself entering the forest again and walking with the Kadars.

Travels Through South Indian Kitchens: A Japanese Architect’s Travelogue Cookbook

This article was first published in The News Minute on 05 Feb 2018.

Book: Travels Through South Indian Kitchens
Author: Nao Saito
Publisher: Tara Books
Pages: 194

Buy this book here

If I had to sum up Nao Saito’s travelogue cookbook Travels Through South Indian Kitchens (published by Tara Books) in a single word it would be ‘simple’. The premise is simple. Nao, a Japanese architect and designer, attends a Tara Books workshop in Tokyo. She gets invited for a three-month residency at their publishing house in Chennai. When she moves here, she decides to discover the place and its people through their kitchens because the kitchen “is not just a fixed physical structure—it is also fluid, shaped by the way in which people use it”. She begins this culinary travel by visiting the kitchens of colleagues at the publishing house and then expands it to their friends and so forth.

Another word I would use to enhance my single-word summary would be ‘delightful’. It is delightful in its simplicity. The artwork is minimalist. Saito uses simple line drawings of swings, kitchen equipments, coconuts, vegetables, jasmine garlands and other kitchen sights to enrich her narrations. Being an architect, she draws out the floor plan of every kitchen she visits, sometimes musing over the impractical use of space like the kitchen sink tucked away in a corner beyond reach. “Indian kitchens are not concerned with practicalities”, her hosts respond.

How many kinds of kitchens can there be in South India? Turns out, a lot more than we realise. Saito chronicles 22 kitchens beginning with her own, in the guest house she is put up in. “I turn on the gas, but the stove doesn’t light up”, writes Saito, a stranger to the concept of lighters. The idea for this book comes to her as she stands shocked in her kitchen on her very first day in Chennai, surrounded by a variety of spices and lentils. She goes on to visit traditional domestic kitchens, a girls’ kitchen and a bachelors’ kitchen, a Chettinad kitchen, a school kitchen, a “power-cut” kitchen of Tsunami survivors and most interestingly a kitchen without cooking among others. Even as a South Indian, it made me appreciate anew the diversity around us.

At first, the book threw me for its premise was a stranger writing about kitchens I am familiar with. It seemed like a convenient excuse of a book, narrating anecdotes from kitchens of colleagues. It took me a while to grasp that this is exactly how we understand the world. We maneuver from our own points of reference through a bridge of commonality over baffling cultural anomalies to finally reach a place of acceptance. Saito’s master stroke is her perspective. She brings to the local reader a fresh set of eyes to review our way of life — an introspection.

It’s not everyday that one finds a travelogue-cookbook with not-so-special recipes. Almost magically, the author manages to remove herself from the centre of the plot. Not all dishes are made especially for her visit. In many instances, Saito seems to drop by, showing the household in its natural setting. Modern cooks will definitely identify with some of the short-cuts the hosts use in their kitchen like a pressure cooker sambar where all the ingredients are pressure cooked together like a one-pot dish. This way of condensing many processes into one gives Nao faith that she too can cook Tamil food soon. And it gave me faith that cooking need not be a herculean task.

However, I found two chords of dissonance in this book. Saito’s use of initials in place of names of her hosts, possibly to maintain their privacy, was jarring. Using their full names could only have added to the richness of the text. Also, the kitchens she visits are not representative of all the regions of South India, choosing to focus mainly on Tamil Nadu and its cuisine.

In her travels, the author includes home cooks from different castes, religions, socio-economic backgrounds and marital status including a bilingual and a bi-racial couple. The effects of these parameters on the use or disuse of ingredients and preferred ways of cooking are hard to miss. The most interesting kitchen she visits is the “Kitchen Without Cooking” where a sprouts salad is being made. There, when asked if she prefers raw food, Nao’s host says, “Not really. I’m simply not interested in cooking”. I was struck by how matter-of-factly Nao establishes that kitchen need not just be a place for cooking in traditional terms. It gains focus also because of how central kitchens are to the South Indian way of life. In narrating stories from a variety of kitchens, Saito shows the reader that your relationship with your kitchen is your own to create.

The recipes themselves are pretty basic like sambar, chutney, puttu, kuzhi paniyaram, maavu and filter coffee, but the stories that lead up to them and the author’s musings make for interesting reading. In every kitchen, Saito also outlines the implements used along with measurements. Ammi the stone grinder, arivalmanai the traditional cutting and grating tool, puttu kutti for making puttu are all illustrated to capture the reader’s imagination. It’s delightful to see what catches her eye. She is taken by the idea that South Indian cooking is not confined to our kitchens. Cooks often chop vegetables in the living room and eat while watching television.

We realise how different we are from the narrator when Saito observes with surprise the use of hands in cooking and eating. She talks about the closeness of a teacher feeding a child with a fractured arm. Even in shared kitchens and large scale kitchens, the use of hands as a measure reminds her of the distance between her hosts and her. In these differences, she manages to find connections to Japan and Finland where she has lived for a while.

She discusses in detail the times when most kitchens come alive — during festivals. She captures the festivities of Christmas preparations with a family making fried sweet kal-kals and the early morning hustle and bustle of sweet and savoury pongal-making for the eponymous harvest festival of Pongal. The conversations and anecdotes by themselves make this book recommendable. In true filmy style, her bachelor hosts tell her the story of how everything in their kitchen was acquired from a film set! In a relatable tale, the same set of bachelors describe how they were vegetarians till they moved to Chennai but took to eating eggs everyday because they are easy to make.

One of Saito’s trips out of Chennai is to the south-eastern fishing villages of Velankanni, destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami. To her surprise she discovers that everyone in Velankanni knows of the tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. One of the grandmothers she meets says, “People in Japan must have had a terrible time, just like us! […] When it happened to us, we had help from all over the world. I wish we could help the Japanese people like others helped us”. As readers, we are as stunned by the grandmother’s generosity as is the author.

I recommend Travels Through South Indian Kitchens for how it makes you notice the obvious. Most of the recipes are everyday affairs, things many of us would know without a recipe or have our own recipes for. But it’s the perspective of a stranger from a faraway land looking in that makes us sit up and take notice of the peculiar ways in which the kitchen rules our lives.

It’s the openness with which she accepts a culture unknown to her that makes this a goodread. With its quirky illustrations and jotted instructions, it’s one of those books I will never forget I read.

Buy this book here.

Book Review: Show Up and Work

 

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Growing up, I was an absolute sycophant to Chettan, my elder brother. Four years older and sent away to boarding school, he was the very definition of cool in my eyes. He would return on holidays with multi-coloured toothpaste in tubes that stood on their head. I was still in school when I found him reading a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all non-fiction bestseller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures of a Culinary Underbelly. Chettan was the reader then. He couldn’t stop talking about Anthony Bourdain. He read a lot of autobiographies of successful people. I had no interest in such books. But the book’s cover drew me in like a moth to light. It had three cooks in whites holding swords, nonchalantly looking away from the camera. They looked like rockstars. Highly aspirational image to a dreamer like me. #anthonybourdain #kitchenconfidential #autobiography #succesfulpeople #chef

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Book: Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

Author: Anthony Bourdain

Pages: 307

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Buy this book here.

Growing up, I was an absolute sycophant to Chettan, my elder brother. Four years older and sent away to boarding school, he was the very definition of cool in my eyes. He would return on holidays with multi-coloured toothpaste in tubes that stood on their head. I was still in school when I found him reading a copy of Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all non-fiction bestseller, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures of a Culinary Underbelly. Chettan was the reader then. He couldn’t stop talking about Anthony Bourdain. He read a lot of autobiographies of successful people. I had no interest in such books. But the book’s cover drew me in like a moth to light. It had three cooks in whites holding swords, nonchalantly looking away from the camera. They looked like rockstars. Highly aspirational image to a dreamer like me.

 

Chettan also happened to be a natural at cooking. He would throw a bunch of things together and it always tasted good. He constantly pulled my leg about how I measured out ingredients. In the book, Bourdain talks about an incident where as a cocky young cook he was thoroughly humiliated and shown his place by his pirate ship of a kitchen crew. An important turning point in life, this incident triggered the author to go to cooking school and show them how good he could be. In the same light, I learned to cook because Chettan was so good at it and because he made fun of my cooking. Though I never quite picked up the throwing things together act from him, I do hold my own in the kitchen.

 

Only in reading Kitchen Confidential did I realise what an adult milestone it was in my head. Subconsciously, I had always associated biographies as something adults read. Somehow reading them would make me an adult. It’s been almost two decades since the book was first published in 2000. In all the years I hadn’t read it, the book had taken on the colossal form of an impassable tome. It symbolised the infinite coolness that I would never be synonymous with. It had fused into a demi-god of cool; a ear-ringed, long-haired, badass biker and freestyle cook; a mutant Chettan Bourdain.

 

As awesome as I think the book is, I am thankful I didn’t read Kitchen Confidential while in college when I first took to reading in a big way. It would have fanned the fire of my self-destructive tendencies. As a student of the arts with lots of time at hand, my biggest takeaway from this would have been that drugs were cool. Now, a decade later, I find Kitchen Confidential to be a powerful testament to a rather simple motto. Show up and work. Bourdain says food (his work) is the only truth around him. I dare say that in Bourdain’s classic no-fucks-given prose, I found an answer that has been eluding me for a while. What to do in life. The answer is simple. Keep working.

 

Of course, a critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller such as this one does not need my approval. What makes me wax eloquent about this book are a combination of things. It takes a certain kind of human being to talk about his drug abuse for exactly what it was. A whole lot of good times and a whole lot of bad times. They do say hindsight is 20-20 but to see through his own perspective what a life of drug abuse did to his career in the food industry, is to me, inspiring. When juxtaposed with the success story he is today, Bourdain’s life is an inspiration not to give up the fight however hard it gets. Kitchen Confidential is a self-deprecating telling of a chef’s life. It’s unmistakably American in its references, it’s a laugh riot in pockets, it’s fast-paced, entertaining and jam-packed with wisdom especially on what days not to order fish in New York.

 

In the end, Bourdain turns all his wise words about working with drugged out chefs in battlefield kitchens owned by nefarious hoteliers, on its head by introducing Scott Bryan, a contemporary three-star American chef. In comparison to Bourdain, Bryan is a saint. His kitchens are a quiet affair, his crew waltzing through service. Bryan never even raises his voice compared to Bourdain whose kitchen is run like a pirate ship. He is foul-mouthed, conniving and ruthless by his own admission. He values people who show up to do what they said they would do. That is no extraordinary wisdom but through this chronicle of his work life, he manages to show us why it’s important to show up and work.

 

Finally, reading Kitchen Confidential puts to rest a mystery I didn’t know needed solving. A little spot of smouldering embers in my brain that I have finally put out. Thanks to his celebrity and the Internet, post the book, I have read up quite a bit on Bourdain. The highschool-sweetheart wife he so appreciatively refers to in this book is now his first wife. His second marriage too has ended since. Life goes on, well beyond the book.

 

My life too has gone on till I successfully waded through the enigma I associated with this No Reservations TV star Chettan continues to idolize. In reading this book, I’ve checked off another box, a milestone under ‘being an adult’. It’s momentous. Being an adult is a rare moment of being a doer, when I accomplish something I’ve convinced myself for very long that I can’t. And reading Chettan’s copy of Kitchen Confidential only makes this milestone sweeter. Now to show up and work.

Buy this book here.

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.