Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Writer's Rights in India

To commemorate World Book and Copyright Day, I was queried by Divya Kala Bhavani of The Hindu on contemporary copyright issues. Have reproduced our Q and A session below.



1. When you first started authoring/writing, did you have a good understanding of the contemporary copyright issues
This is not going to enhance my non - existent reputation for being a smart cookie, but the truth is as a writer and aspiring author I was so keen nay desperate to get published to ensure that all the effort, sweat, and blood expended didn't get flushed down the toilet, I tended not to look at the big picture. Which of course means that all the legalese went straight over my head. I chose to get lost in the euphoria of realizing the great dream of being a published author and merely skimmed over the particulars of the contract with the publisher, deeming it sufficient that the copyright of the work will remain with the proprietor (me!) and the publishers undertake that the name of said proprietor (aka doofus) shall appear on the title page and on the cover of every copy of the work published. Rather belatedly, I became aware that there are plenty of complicated legal issues to be taken into account when it comes to protecting your own work and making a semi - decent income that is less likely to make you want to kill yourself, while avoiding getting sued to within an inch of your life. 
2. What are some of your observances when it comes to copyright issues for writers in India? The challenges, the successes and turning points?
The objective of the copyright, universally, is to protect the rights of the creator and acknowledge their labor and intellectual contribution. In reality, however, unless you are an A - list author, and thanks to the fact that you have signed a contract giving the publisher the exclusive right to produce, print, publish, translate, market, distribute, and reproduce or license others to do the same, you realize to your horror, that you have in essence pimped out your baby. And for peanuts at that!
The good news is that publishing houses will vet the material for legally objectionable material and the author can derive a measure of solace from the fact that if there are any legal battles to be fought, on paper at least, team work can be counted upon. Moreover, publishers have decent distribution networks and the hope is you get to piggyback off the success of their big shot authors. They will even take a half - hearted stab at marketing your book if you harangue them enough with a daily email blast or go on a hunger strike outside their office. Self - published authors on the other hand have to take on the onus by themselves. The takeaway from all this heartrending drama is that painful experience has forced creative types consumed by the magic of words and caffeine to smarten up, if they don't fancy becoming the stereotype of the struggling, suicidal artiste and take care of themselves as well as their works, because nobody else is going to do it for them. 
3. What has being an author taught you about authors' rights?
Being an author, has taught me that my teachers were right. Making mistakes is part of the learning process, even if in the adult world, the price which you pay is a costly one that comes dangerously close to killing your spirit . The important thing though is to never give up, always stand up for your rights and believe in yourself, even if nobody else does. 
Creative people have a gift and it is tragic that despite being the backbone of glamorous, high paying institutions like film and television, writers don't get their due. Yet, the world needs dreamers, wordsmiths and those who can use the power of words to make the world a better place. Nobody can take this away from us, and if we persevere even as we perfect our craft, there is no limit to what can be achieved by those of us who have sworn allegiance to the mighty pen or MS Word. 

Be sure to check out her awesome article which includes quotes by yours truly right here.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

A Question of Marriage and Sexual Misconduct


In a bizarre turn of events, the Gujarat High Court ruled that marital rape is not a criminal offense under Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code. Apparently, a man is well within his rights to engage in this sort of criminal behaviour within the sanctified and societally approved confines of marriage. However, no doubt feeling the persistent pricking of a pernickety conscience, the High Court stressed that marital rape ought to be criminalized and suggested the victim initiate proceedings against her husband under Section 377 which frowns on sexual practises that are deemed unnatural including but not limited to demands for oral sex and consensual homosexuality.
            Rational citizens of this great nation may feel an uncontrollable urge to bang their heads against whatever hard object presents itself at this point, but unfortunately there is more draconian claptrap of the legal variety. Exception 2 of Section 375 states that a man may have sexual intercourse with his minor wife, provided she is not under 15 years of age and not be adjudged a cradle snatching rapist. Never mind that the IPC also states that a man is guilty of statutory rape if he engages in sexual acts with a girl, consent notwithstanding, if she is under the age of 18. Which of course means that the law in all its wisdom, extends its protection to minors only as long as they have not been hustled to the altar or chained with a mangalsutra. Now, the aforementioned citizens may feel free to tear out their hair and give up on democracy.
            The problem of course is the conundrum that is consent, complicated further by traditional beliefs, routinely enforced by society and pop culture, that it is a woman’s duty to sacrifice her own needs or calibrate it to suit her ‘better’ half’s will and his sexual desires. It is expected and deemed expedient that an ill used woman better suck it up, since there are usually kids, extended families and finances at stake.
 Much has changed in the last 50 years pertaining to what may socially and legally be considered as appropriate, acceptable sexual behaviour  but if the MeToo movement and the Aziz Ansari imbroglio are anything to go by, we are a long way from anything close to a consensus or a reasonable resolution to the gender wars. The only bright spot is that we are at least talking about things that were formerly taboo and brushed under the carpet where all ‘icky’ things supposedly belong. However, sexual misbehaviour and assault within marriage are still not part of public discourse.
            Nobody wants to bother with the boudoir brouhahas of friends and family though the reverse is true in the case of Bollywood stars and cricketers. As always, we’d rather be titillated or tickled pink but heaven forbid we take the trouble to get to the root of the terrors lurking within wedded bliss. Tackling unsavoury issues like safe sex, teenage pregnancy, and marital rape is not a pleasant proposition but it needs to be done to preserve Indian society and the values we all claim to give a crap about. 

This article originally appeared in The New Indian Express.

An Ugly Crime and its Uglier Aftermath


For the most part, we are a hedonistic, ridiculously materialistic lot who like our fancy cars, swanky apartments, Burberry bags (or is it a Fendi baguette?), Jimmy Choo shoes, overly embellished Sabyasachi saris, Victoria’s Secret underwear and getting massaged to within an inch of our lives at sumptuous spas (if that is the sacrifice one makes to be selfie – worthy then so be it) to bother about the less fortunate and their petty problems which let’s face it, is usually a buzz kill. Or we deride those with beaucoup bucks to burn and pity the shallow, empty lives they lead bloated to bursting with the fat of the land while secretly envying them, hoping and praying for the affliction that is affluence to give a hoot for those who are nowhere as fortunate or privileged and are getting themselves raped, killed, cheated, starved, misfortune – ridden or just dying in droves. How very thoughtless and annoying of the poverty – stricken, downtrodden, unfortunates!
Yet, even in the midst of the endless ennui and selfish self – indulgence there comes along with a little more frequency than we would like, the occasional case that is so heinous that even a slumbering conscience cannot find it in itself to hit snooze and return to its preferred somnambulant state. So we rise up in arms and agitate against the fat cats in power, those debauched douchebags, ever dithering over their dirty politics, who refuse to do the needful and serve up justice even when children are slaughtered, women are violated and the blood of the innocent flows in copious streams. But when the frenzy of outrage burns itself out over the course of a torrential outpouring of passionate feelings via strongly worded tweets, facebook posts and candlelit vigils, as it inevitably must, we return to the cosy cocoon of creature comforts, change and making the world a better place be damned!
Image courtesy of The Polis Project 

This moral torpor is the defining characteristic of the modern Indian and it is truly a shameful state of affairs. But even by our standards, we have reached a new low and plummeted to the very depths of all things vile, if the tragedy at Kathua which saw eight – year old Asifa lose her life in the most horrifying way imaginable, is anything to go by. It was bad enough that the child was abducted, drugged, violated, tortured and murdered by monsters who lacked even a shred of kindness or humanity, but what followed is every bit as depraved. In a land which believes in celebrating the differences of its diverse peoples if only to perpetuate them in order to divide and rule, we have witnessed yet again, the appalling hatred and prejudice on the basis of religion, race, caste, creed and the rest of the reasons we use as an excuse for detesting and despising our fellow Indians and treating them abominably. We have allowed our prejudices to fester to the point where compassion for a child and a rightful need to redress the wrong done to her has been eclipsed by an incessant preoccupation with squabbling over idiotic ideological notions. It is the disgrace to end all disgraces and when coupled with our crimes of omission and commission it is one that by rights ought to haunt us to our dying days.
These are dark days for India and Indians and if we are to emerge from this with our innate decency intact, it behoves us to make amends for all the countless victims over the years who need not have suffered so much or died in pain and so often in vain. For starters, irrespective of what defines our identity or which side of the belief brigade we belong to, we need to acknowledge that though hopelessly caught in the toils of divisive politics for ages, we must do our utmost to abolish and burn down the barriers that separate us whether it is caste, religion, language, class, colour beliefs or gender that have torn us apart or die trying.  This country belongs to all of us and loving it means loving each other or at the very least embracing the differences that make us so unique and India, a secular country as well as the world’s largest democracy.
Let us not blame the victims of rape or murder for their fate but do our utmost to ensure that the perpetrators are taken to task immediately if not sooner. In the same spirit, let us acknowledge once and for all, that it is not acceptable to name and shame the accused over the dreaded firing platforms that social media has become, for the simple reason that in a democracy, mob justice is not acceptable and everyone is innocent until proven guilty over the course of what is hopefully a fair trial. Doing otherwise, makes us no better than those purveyors of revenge porn who merit all the disdain there is in the world. If we have lost faith in our judiciary system we need to restore its integrity, by putting down bribery and corruption once and for all, instead of shaking our heads hopelessly and saying we have joined them only because our half – assed attempts to beat them has not paid off.
Accusing the ruling government of their colossal failure to make this country a safer place for women while stating the obvious is far from productive. We keep talking about raising awareness about the shortcomings of the head honcho and his bhakts but when it comes to taking honest to goodness action we are not even as effective as kids playing on handheld entertainment. Let us not lose sight of the fact that our disappointing leaders are where they are because we put them there on account of being too busy chasing the great Indian dream of working in MNCs and making money hand over fist hawking products that sell self – loathing and discontent to take a stab at serving our country and making it great. Of course, our parents forced this dream upon us, following the example of their parents and we, will shove it down the throats of our kids too instead of encouraging them to join the Indian armed or civil services that include administration, foreign service as well as law and order. Correct me, if I am wrong but being more service minded and asking how we can make a real difference is bound to be far more constructive than the constant bellyaching and calls for castration of rapists. The latter makes for an awesome revenge saga but the truth is, it is entirely barbaric and somewhat impractical because the majority of policy makers have man parts which they are inordinately attached to.
In addition to this, we need to vigorously review the changing dynamics of sex and sexuality in a brave new world that has witnessed the #MeToo movement. This means not pretending that intercourse occurs only within the sacred confines of marriage for the express purpose of procreation. It also requires making peace with the shocking truth that women and even minors have sexual desires and are not quite the ‘pure’ creatures everyone needs to believe they are. Besides it is an inconvenient truth but sex always has and always will defy the laws of logic, politics, cultural values and morals. And to navigate the minefield, bumping uglies has become, youngsters need to be taught how to express themselves in an empowered way as well as how to practise safe sex. And of course, sex education is not an endorsement of promiscuity and a Western plot to vanquish our culture and its values.
Since we are all aware that this is no country for children, it is high time we worked on implementing decent child care services to ensure that our youngsters are being raised in a safe and healthy environment. It wouldn’t hurt to make sure that every child, irrespective of his or her financial status must be provided access to quality education and equal opportunities to shine and realize their full potential.
Most importantly, let us not forget Asifa or use her death to drive home twisted agendas. Instead, let us hold her close to our hearts forever more and vow to never ever let our children become victims of our gross selfishness and negligence. Let us strive to make our country a place where everyone is treated fairly and with respect, where women our revered as Goddesses and whose children are taught the power of service and sacrifice. Let us be worthy of this great nation and of the memory of a beautiful soul snatched away too early, a bitter price exacted for our gravest sins.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How many Women have to DIE because Men won’t take NO for an Answer?


Ashwini, an 18 year old student was publicly attacked outside Meenakshi Engineering College, Chennai where she was reading Commerce, by one Alagesan, and left to bleed to death with a slit throat. This appalling crime is all too reminiscent of the Chennai techie case, where young Swathi, an Infosys employee was hacked to death by her stalker at the Nungambakkam Railway Station in 2016. Further back in time, a couple of decades ago to be precise, Sarika Shah, another Chennai college student lost her life after she was manhandled, and became yet another victim of eve teasing. And these are only the famous cases in one of the relatively safer metros in India that managed to capture the imagination of a fickle public notorious for its collective ADHD syndrome. There are too many women out there whose lives have been snuffed out, and without the faintest hope of justice being served because too few give a crap. After all, isn’t it simpler to blame the victim and declare that she got what she deserved instead of taking the tortuous trail to ensure a perpetrator is apprehended and punished?
The right thing to do as always is ridiculously complicated given that this pestilential problem is very much like the second labour of Hercules. The one where the monster is a Lernean Hydra. Every time, you lop off a head, a dozen more seem to replace it despite valiant efforts. We have tried tying women to the home and hearth, draping them in yards of fabric, imaginative interpretations of chastity belts that have not been limited to female genital mutilation, and brainwashing them into believing they must embrace virtue, virginity, sacrifice and self – denial to protect themselves but all to no avail. The monster continues to prevail and worse, the damn things spew their poison everywhere, damning the living and the dead alike. Be it Ashwini, Swathi, or Sarika, the overriding impulse of the misogynists and masochistic pigs out there has been to frame a narrative where the victim’s character has been besmirched and their killers are depicted as tragic, romantic heroes whose crime de passion has mitigating and extenuating circumstances. Duh! After all there are females involved and aren’t they all flighty, faithless floozies who are good for little more than fornication.
In Ashwini’s case, the moral police/ moronic poltroon brigade have been stressing on the fact that she was in a relationship with Alagesan for two years before choosing to end things. The latter of course, couldn’t believe her temerity in dumping him and has been harassing her ever since. She filed a police complaint when he forcibly tried to tie a ‘thaali’ around her neck and ‘make her his wife’. But of course, the actions of Alagesan are being portrayed as perfectly understandable whereas Ashwini is depicted as the heartless diva who smashed a man’s heart to smithereens.
Which of course begs the essential question – so what? So what if a woman is a whore, a prick tease, a seductress, a temptress, a gold – digger and whatever filthy epithet that is usually hurled at her when she is a victim of rape, abuse or murder? SO WHAT? It still does not give those of the masculine gender the right to kill them or hurt them in any way! (Psst! The law says so, I looked it up.) It is as simple as that and yet too many men have trouble allowing this fact to penetrate their thick skulls. Numbskulls!
The loss of a life, especially when cut down so mercilessly, not surprisingly leads to massive outpouring of outrage and hard as it is to believe, that’s about it. Furious articles are written about the event, twitter and facebook timelines catch fire as arguments and counter arguments heat up. Then, unless Bollywood stars, Cricketers, Politicians and depraved Godmen are involved, the entire thing fizzles out and we all move on. Till the next big crime against women happens and then we all go around the mulberry bush again. Rinse and repeat.
Enough is enough. Let us not take to social media to vent our righteous anger and frustration. Instead it is time to think long and hard about actually making a difference. What we need is not indignant rants but good old fashioned action -  CCTV surveillance, better lighting, well trained cops and enforcers to patrol the streets and make sure that it is not so damnably easy for women to be abducted, raped, molested, stripped, set on fire, stabbed to death or have acid thrown on their faces. Equally important, men and women, let us stop exonerating the male of the species of crimes and making ridiculous excuses for them every time they do dastardly things fuelled by ego and rage, while always assuming it is the females who err. Finally, let us resolve to please do whatever it takes to make absolutely certain, that years or decades from now, we are not stuck in a cataclysmic loop, where girls get killed because boys can’t suck it up and take no for an answer.

Monday, March 12, 2018

A Published Author’s Tale of Terror


What can I write about my big fat experience on getting published? Firstly, it is so much more fun to narrate it as opposed to actually living it. Working on your first book can be an incredibly terrifying and challenging experience, especially when stringing together every single sentence that goes into its making can be an arduous ordeal that begins to feel like you are attempting to scale Mt. Everest armed with nothing more than words (which have the alarming tendency to pull out of your reach just when you need them) and wit (which you assure yourself is something you actually possess not something you imagine you do). The torment is exacerbated when it entails fighting debilitating insecurity, crippling uncertainly and chronic fear every step of the way. Occasionally there is the sanguine belief that a chapter you have just completed is pure genius but the feeling vanishes after the first reread. I could go on of course, but recollecting past traumas can oftentimes recreate the trauma resulting in an uncontrollable urge to reach for anything that is sweet, deep fried or both and that is hardly conducive for good health or an enviable body. 
Of course, the terrors and tribulations of the writing process pale in comparison with the horror show that is getting published. In a nutshell, it feels like swaddling your new-born whom you love to pieces in cover letters and sending it to reputed publishing houses to be mercilessly scrutinized, desultorily examined, callously ignored, and ruthlessly rejected. Rinse and repeat. Having been put through the wringer once too often, with your self – esteem in tatters, you catch yourself contemplating the merits of flushing yourself down the toilet and putting an end to the unceasing misery. 
At the precise moment when dejection has climbed to dangerous levels, there is an email in the inbox from a self-proclaimed self – publishing giant offering you the chance of a lifetime! Which of course is to pay for the privilege of getting published. The stink of fraud is a formidable thing and you fight the urge to sell your kidney on the black market to raise the money demanded, having deluded yourself into believing that you could be the next self – published phenomenon right behind E. L James. Fortunately good sense kicks in and you decide to send temptation into the spam folder and sign up for kickboxing classes instead. After all, something drastic needs to be done to preserve the remnants of your sanity. Besides shrinks charge a bomb and you can’t shake the feeling that Freud, Adler and Jung would have retired in despair after being attacked by the bats in your belfry.
Then one fine day, when you are considering a change in career ruminating on whether waitressing in Manhattan or joining the bomb squad would be a better fit, the Holy Grail is suddenly within your grasp. An acceptance email has arrived from a legit publishing housing and you are over the moon with unspeakable, almost vulgar joy. Your belief in God and Satan, Astrology, Palmistry, Tarot Cards, Green Parrot Fortune Telling, Voodoo, Black/White Magic, and Shamanism is fully restored and you feel on top of the world. Nothing can stop you now! FAME, FORTUNE and glorious SUCCESS are going to be your lot in life. You can feel it in your bones! And to paraphrase Harry from Harry met Sally - when you realise you want to spend the rest of your lives with these three sultry sirens, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.
So you wait for the magical change in your hitherto humdrum existence. Then you wait some more. And wait and wait. Finally, the editing begins and studies had they been conducted on this particular field would reveal that this is akin to having a root canal and your haemorrhoids removed at the same time. Going over the manuscript with a fine – tooth comb and discovering to your chagrin that no, the friendly editor certainly does not think your baby is perfect, can be somewhat disconcerting to say the least. Then there is the proofing to be done and you go back and forth till you are convinced you are caught in a dastardly time loop that is going to play out over and over again till the end of time. Finally, the publishers slap on a beautiful cover which may or not be exactly as you envisioned, since though you were told your inputs are invaluable it turned out it mostly wasn’t and the book is off to print.
When the book/baby is finally in your arms, the delivery pains fade into the dim reaches of memory and all that remains is pure exhilaration. Your happiness is complete and you are already toying with the idea of doing it all over again even though the three sultry sirens are still being coy and playing hard to get. But you are determined to seduce them and become a household name with their help even if it kills you. That ought to be a sobering thought but it isn’t, simply because you believe or need to believe with all your heart that ultimately it is going to be worth it.
This article was originally published by Author's Channel.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Too much and yet Too Little

Imraan Coovadia’s Tales of the Metric System is something of a chore to read. An ambitious undertaking with a sprawling narrative composed of gossamer threads, delicately often barely interwoven together, this novels spans across four decades from 1970 to 2010 and seeks to capture the defining historical moments in the troubled transitional period of a nation as it attempts to find its place and conscience in a brave new world, still carrying the scars from an ugly past while dealing with the horrors of the present. It is loaded stuff and ought to have felt like a sock to the solar plexus. Except it doesn’t. 

            It must be confessed that I was tempted to close the book forever on multiple occasions after wading laboriously from one chapter to the other and feeling that the struggle wasn’t really worthwhile. Coovadia flits and floats though the lives of a bunch of characters from different social spheres –passionate thinkers who are unwilling to die for their beliefs, crooks who steal with varying degrees of charm or integrity, artists who need to believe their work matters, corrupt politicians, opportunistic business men, activists, and musicians, their stories set at different points in the time period he seeks to cover. By simply skimming over their tales with airy dialogue that starts to feel leaden and merely touching on all things shocking and sordid, he makes it impossible for the reader to plunge into the depths of this chunk of history, teeming with detail and swirling with immense feelings. It is the sort of thing that makes you grind your teeth in frustration.

            The book begins in 1970, with the threat of expulsion that could be averted with a timely ‘donation’ before flitting on to the politics practised by the student’s stepfather, Neil who is on the verge of divorcing his mum, Ann. The Security Police are keeping a close watch on Neil’s movements and it is clear that nothing good is going to come of their scrutiny. From here, the action shifts to 1973 when Victor Molloi has the rug pulled out of his feet as he works with a team of promising artists to stage a play with potentially explosive content. In 1973, a guitarist, Yash who loves his music and young son contemplates pulling the plug on his life.  The following chapter returns to Ann and her clandestine work in Defence and Aid before thrusting us into an episode where a young thief faces mob justice. Then, it is the Rugby World Cup Final of 1995 and Yash’s son Sanjay decides to marry but hardly for love. The year is 2003 and a close Presidential aide meets a harrowing end because the doctors are instructed not to treat him for HIV, since the government refuses to acknowledge its existence. Before we can grasp the horror, Sanjay’s daughter has her cell phone stolen and almost falls in love. Twice. In the final chapter, we revisit Neil in the moments before his demise and with his passing, the reader’s suffering ends too.   

This book review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Saturday, February 03, 2018

Things that Pissed Me Off in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Problematic Padmaavat


At the onset, let it be asserted that freedom of expression is sacrosanct in a democracy and no artist deserves to be bullied and harassed by fanatical fringe outfits with their fundamentalist fundas the way Sanjay Leela Bhansali has. That said the man has somehow managed to alienate the right wingers and left wingers both. The former have excoriated him for his largely imagined trespass of dishonouring the legendary Rani Padmavati and insulting the Rajputs when it reality his film is an endless paean to the prowess of a privileged caste and their pristine code of honour which when viewed through the prism of history is far less flattering in light of how the various warrior clans in India failed abysmally against foreign invaders. The latter on the other hand have come out with guns blazing to excoriate his spectacular, slow – motion, colour – coordinated, glorification of Jauhar and nonsensical notions of honour enforced by India’s notorious patriarchy.
            Of course, one does not wish to discuss the bullying organizations, backed by a government that seems to thrive on fermenting religious unrest and media who has given heft to their threats by allowing them to hog the limelight endlessly, any more than they already have been. Accusations about Jauhar are more valid even if opinions on this sensitive subject remain divisive. Of course, a filmmaker is well within his rights to tell his story any old way he sees fit and is not under any obligation to take into account, new age feminist beliefs especially if he wishes to stay true to the period in which his saga is set. And yet, therein lies the problem – Bhansali’s messy mishmash of a film does not do justice to either Jayasi’s epic poem, Padmaavat nor the admittedly scanty historical records of the fall of Chittor.
            For instance, a modicum of research would have revealed the status quo at the time. The various warring factions of the Rajput clans were unable to bury the ill feelings between them on account of infighting and lacked a strong leader like Prithviraj Chauhan to unite them against an invader of the calibre of Alauddin Khalji. Consequently, none of them dared risk an open battle with the Khalji forces which were superior in terms of numbers, strength, weaponry and discipline. That left the Rajputs with no choice but to hole themselves up in their fortresses like Chittorgarh and hope their allies would come through or pray for divine intervention, neither of which was forthcoming.
            In the meantime, Khalji’s generals besieged them and cut off all supplies to the fort. Alauddin was not above bribing willing traitors to betray their people and reveal hidden passages inside, starving out the beleaguered populace or poisoning the water sources. Those trapped within had a rough time out of it with every mouthful being rationed, water becoming scarce, hygiene and waste disposal becoming increasingly problematic leading to outbreaks of disease and finally, a mounting death toll. In desperate straits and when all hope seemed lost, the men rather than give in to the expectedly humiliating terms of surrender prepared themselves for one last charge and the women readied themselves for Jauhar to avoid the sacking, slaughter and rape that was the most likely scenario.
            Of course, Bhansali with his almost masturbatory attention to aesthetic detailing can hardly be expected to portray the sordid reality of a siege or capture the foolhardiness of a warrior clan so steeped in pride that they treated war like a game that ought to be played to the bitter end and gave their misguided notions of honour precedence over the lives of those who depended on them. Instead, with his ugly obsession for all things bright and beautiful, he mounts grandiose scenes stacked one on top of the other, where the denizens of Chittorgarh are shown celebrating Holi and Diwali with ritualistic rigor, with marble fountains tinkling away merrily in the background while the invaders cooled their feet and chomped on chicken at their gates. And let us not forget the royal ladies, who are always dressed to the nines, adorned with clunky, uncomfortable looking nose – rings through the good times and bad, leaving them teary – eyed and unable to blow their noses for the life of them. The entire thing is ludicrous to say the least!
            Back then, Jauhar was a choice made by women to avoid dishonour. We have no right to judge them for that but it would also behove us to take into account the irrefutable fact, that Jauhar as well as Sati was often performed with political expediency in mind. Many women were driven to the flames under duress, and often dosed with opiate mixtures to render them docile and encourage them embrace their doom with decorum. One wonders, if Bhansali would have lingered lovingly on the horrid visual of a pregnant woman and her daughter, traipsing prettily towards their deaths or portrayed the Rani Padmavati requesting her husband’s permission to kill herself, thereby surrendering her agency, had he known the awful truth behind romanticized legends.
            Equally problematic is the lack of a balanced perspective in Bhansali’s narrative and his pandering to populist agendas, especially in a time when there is so much hatred and intolerance with regard to faith, caste and class. His portrayal of the Muslim invaders as barbaric and dishonourable while massaging the egos of the Hindus is deplorable to say the least. Alauddin Khalji by all accounts was ruthless, ambitious and known to display a savage streak but the same can be said about every great ruler this land has seen, irrespective of their faith. Khalji was also considered an able administrator, brave warrior and generous benefactor who patronized the arts. Would it have been so bad to give him a curlicue of credit and acknowledge his mighty deeds? After all, we are a secular nation even if only on paper.

This lack of nuance is proof of the prejudice seeping through Bhansali’s so – called auteurist sensibility that saturates every sumptuous frame and is every bit as offensive as the scant respect shown to the source material Bhansali has so liberally borrowed from. It is somewhat galling that someone who has lavished a fortune on decadent costumes, ostentatious jewellery, splendid sets; expended endless effort on synchronizing even the flickering of the flames in the umpteen lamps that twinkle in artificial harmony or the rippling of muscles on hyper masculine torsos, couldn’t be bothered with sparing a little time and thought towards ensuring historical authenticity and thereby creating a worthy work of art that would have deserved to be defended from the extremist elements that sought to suppress it. In the end, it was much ado over nothing, after all. 

When Matters of the Heart become a Minefield


Abubaker Adam Ibrahim’s debut novel, “Season of Crimson Blossoms” is a tale of forbidden passion between a 50 something widow, Hajiya Binta and a young ne-er - do – well, Reza who is mixed up with drugs and dirty politics. The narrative simmers with the tension of a slow – burning fuse even with the foreknowledge that multiple orgasms usually translate into unmitigated mayhem.
This story could have easily devolved into a torrid or sordid romance between a cougar and a willing young buck but Ibrahim clearly has loftier themes in mind. Reza reminds Binta of her dead son. Meanwhile she reminds her lover of his mother whom he refers to as “the whore of Saudi”. It is all very Freudian and is supposed to explain the irresistible often inexplicable pull between the duo which prompts them to throw caution to the winds but it is a little overdone.
Right alongside the heady romance, the perks, perils and pitfalls of communal living in all its mundane glory are highlighted with delicate brushstrokes. Binta lives with a niece, Fa’iza and granddaughter, Ummi and their presence though intended to comfort a lonely old widow serves often to cramp her style.
Fa’iza, tormented by the horrors of a blood-spattered past, with Binta becoming inevitably consumed by desire, is left to fend off her fears, exacerbated by the premonition of impending disaster and further violence. Reza too sinks deeper and deeper into the morass of self – destruction, as his baser instincts win out even as Binta tries to save him in lieu of her dead son. Their fate which despite everything comes as a surprise is a scathing indictment of the supreme selfishness and stupid impracticality of great romance which destroys not only the lovers but those innocent lives hopelessly intertwined with them.

On the surface it is a feminist saga which outlines the strictures of living in a repressive society where a wife’s sexual desires could not be of less concern to her husband. A society where the brutal subjugation of a woman to broodmare status is scarily normalized, “When he is done, always put your legs up so his seed will run into your womb.” However, Ibrahim dares to make the status quo between the sexes more balanced by sneaking in a nuanced perspective that depicts how men and women are equally victimized as both struggle with the expectations of gender bias which forces them unwillingly into the roles of protector and protected respectively.

In Ibrahim’s beautifully created fictional world, which is a mirror of the real one, where intolerance, hatred and spite prevail, happiness and peace are but dreams for anybody irrespective of gender or circumstance. There is much to love here from Binta’s suffering in the face of feminine envy and spite, the amoral world Reza occupies to the eerily cheerful way in which Nigerian politicians use the misguided to further their ends. It is a book you will be reluctant to put down even to answer a pressing call of nature! Abubaker Adam Ibrahim has arrived. 
This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Fabulous or Faux Profound?


Following the monstrous success of The Fault in Our Stars, John Green is back with Turtles All The Way Down. As may be expected from this author, it is one dark and heavy tome that deals with adolescent angst, abandonment, mental disability, death, and despair. All this, as seen through the eyes of Aza Holmes who is afflicted with severely invasive anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder and a bad case of germaphobia accompanied by an overriding fear that she is going to die of clostridium difficile.
Poor Aza certainly does have a hard time. But then again so does the reader who is dragged into her nightmare reduced to waiting with mounting unease as Aza becomes trapped in an ‘ever-tightening spiral of thoughts’ tormented relentlessly to the point where she wants nothing more than to escape them in their entirety or for it all to end, whichever happens first.

Green is too good a writer to glamourise or romanticise any of this. Instead he dwells morbidly on the inescapable awfulness of it all. Aza repeatedly opens up a crack on her middle finger with her thumbnail to check if she is real. But then she has to keep the wound bandaged to prevent infection, that is, if there isn’t one already.

So she feels impelled to open up the scab to drain the yucky stuff that may or may not be in there, clean it up with sanitiser and reapply the bandage. Then, after an all too brief period of relief, the process begins again. And again.

Mercifully, there is Daisy, the zany and entirely idiosyncratic best friend who writes fan fiction based on Chewbacca and Davis, a love interest who is knee deep in trouble himself, consumed by the loss of his mother and the recent trauma of an absconding father. Incidentally, there is a $100,000 reward for information for the man and Daisy strong-arms Aza into a reunion with Davis who used to go with her to the appropriately named ‘sad camp’ in the hopes of unearthing a clue and pocketing the money. Soon, a romance is kindled.

Aza is not very good at relationships, mostly because she believes herself to be fictional and a mere ‘skin-encased bacterial colony’. And yet, the fragile bonds forged with varying levels of success with the people in her life serves at once as the lifeline that keeps her tethered to her sanity while also doubling as the whip that flagellates her fragile psyche bloody.

Daisy has created a somewhat unflattering character in her fictional yarns to cope with the supreme self-involvement of a bestie who is not quite in the pink of mental health. This sis-mance is so beautiful, it is gut-wrenching. I hated when they got into a tiff and my heart soared when they reconciled with Daisy saying, “I want to be buried next to you. We’ll have a shared tombstone.”
The love story between Aza and Davis is a sweet and messy one. Even when they do clichéd stuff like stare at the stars, what should have been a cheesy moment somehow becomes stirring and intimate. You want them to be the turtles in the title even when their romance runs into troubled waters with Aza pulling back every time they kiss because she cannot help but know that “around 80 million microbes are exchanged per kiss”, much to her lover’s anguish. He realises that she can only like him from a comfortable distance like when she stalks him in cyberspace or wants to ‘facetime’ with him.


A plot point that ultimately gets resolved is the fate of the runaway Dad but after entire stretches spent with Aza’s runaway thoughts that refuse to leave her alone hissing and spitting like the serpentine locks of the Gordon, Medusa, the reveal feels somewhat jarring. That is a slight imperfection among a few niggling ones.

Green overdoes it with the faux profound teenybopper poetry and one too many tired old tropes that are practically prerequisites for Young Adult fiction. But when he is fabulous, the man goes all the way and nowhere is it more evident than the ending which is far from happy yet it couldn’t be more perfect because even at the height of its hopelessness it holds out the promise of hope. In other words, it is so real it hurts.

This review originally appeared in The New Indian Express

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Not so much a Book as an Out of Body Experience


Holding a copy of Jeet Thayil’s ‘The Book of Chocolate Saints’ in your hands can be somewhat intimidating, mostly because it gives every indication of being a weighty tome in every sense of the word. Not surprisingly, it is not possible to classify this literary extravaganza which is many things without limiting itself to anything in particular. Mostly though it is chock full of the avant-garde even when it seeks to do as it declares which is to fictionalize the lives of “a lost tribe of brothers and sisters marked by ink and drink” or in other words chronicle the terrible cliché that is the tormented artist with their mommy issues, substance abuse troubles, solar – system sized egos and existential angst.
            While it is something of a struggle to describe or summarize the sprawling expanse of this novel there is no denying that it is most compelling and an absolute pleasure to disappear into its delirious depths replete with compelling characters and colourful stories that are dizzying in terms of their sheer plenitude and the towering ambition that conceived them.
As the blurb says, it is the story of Newton Francis Xavier, a remarkably talented poet turned painter wrestling with protracted writers block and his personal demons, social misfit and the quintessential wild child slash dirty old man with a wandering eye for pretty young things and taste for potentially any intoxicant that could be the death of him. Based in New York and thoroughly disillusioned with the land of the free which revealed its ugly racist inclinations in the wake of the 9 /11 attacks he returns to India with his present paramour for one last blowout bash, only to the disquieting realization that the land of his birth is no better but merely “slathered with whore make – up to cover boils, moles, and warts at least for the night.”
The journey thither is of course filled with diverting detours and segues into an involved digression on the Bombay poets of the seventies and eighties, those tormented souls and ‘chocolate saints’ who engaged in the lonely struggle against obscurity and ignominy armed only with their pens which they had been misled into thinking was mightier than the sword only to eventually succumb to the all-pervasive wretchedness that had dogged them all their lives.
It is also among other things a searing examination of the terrible thing that is the artistic ego and temperament that with unstinting selfishness sees fit to use and discard all those who are hopelessly drawn like the proverbial moths to the irresistible creative flame. Thayil’s unflinching portrayal of the raw savagery art demands is comparable to the gut wrenching ferocity of blood sports leaving victims cruelly broken; reduced to ghosts of their former selves, carelessly strewn about by the artist who claimed them, with even the occasional twinge of remorse serving only as the laxative to blocked inspiration.
The protagonist’s callous treatment of the women in his life is particularly disquieting, bordering on the unspeakable. There is something to be said about the carelessly elegant predators out there who feed on the generosity and tender care gifted to them by the women who love them, with parasitic frenzy, before abandoning them, drained of vitality and will. Art, even great art cannot be used as an excuse for such senseless brutality.
This aspect grates on the nerves to the point, where you wonder at the tiresome notion that every author/poet/filmmaker/musician/etc. who wishes to stakes his claim to greatness must wallow in the cesspool of mostly self – inflicted misery. Surely throughout the extensive history of art there must have been a fair share of exceedingly gifted types whose personal life was relatively conflict free, sans obsessive emotional flagellation and did not culminate with heads being stuck into ovens or drowning in one’s own puke while under the influence of intoxicants?

Yet, minor grousing aside, Jeet Thayil’s remarkable book is not really meant to be analysed, rather the reader would do well to cast aside all reservation and be swept up in its surging currents, delighting in the sheer sensations it evokes. Revel in the inspired ideas, relish the asides that are funny as well as heart-breaking and ride on the wings of lyrical prose that transcends the limits of the medium while allowing your soul to soar towards the very height of great art powered by a superior mind at the very height of its prowess. 
An edited version of this book review appeared in The New Indian Express

The Padmavati Row and the Unnecessary Evil that is Censorship

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right bequeathed to every Indian citizen. Theoretically. On paper, we have the right to think for ourselves, dissent at out discretion and make personal choices regarding self – expression, thank you very much, without fear of being hounded or prosecuted. It is a precious right which our ancestors fought and died for during the glorious freedom struggle against their imperial overlords who had subjugated them and sought to dictate how they thought and how they behaved.
Yet, as the Padmavati row has proved, we still need to pick up cudgels and fight the good fight, except this time, it is against those we voted to power ourselves (having made a bad choice from an array of worse ones), who are attempting to blatantly control what the citizens can watch, think, or read. Since everybody and their cousin know the particulars of this issue, I refuse to devote writing space to the moronic machinations of those whose reprehensible actions do not merit attention or a response. 

Thanks to a climate of moral and cultural hysteria we have ushered in the age of rigorous censorship which has made it a difficult time to be in the creative fields (or any field for that matter). All things artistic be they innocuous or inflammatory are liable to hurt the ‘sentiments’ of vested interests and their makers will find themselves in the unhappy situation of having to deal with wannabe expurgators backed by the tyrannical authority of the ruling government. Ironically, today, if an author were to make the attempt to pen down the life and struggles of legendary figures from History or Mythology which is often not quite as clearly demarcated as one might think given that too many ‘facts’ are gleaned from the realms of legend or fantasy and stubbornly venerated as the absolute truth, the going would be rough to the point of ridiculousness. I ought to know having written on mythological figures like Arjuna, Kamadeva, Shakti and Yama that involved the occasional heated debate with editors who not surprisingly tend to have qualms about subversive interpretation of Puranic texts, since it may be construed as shocking or scandalous and banned outright. 


Beloved historical figures are even trickier to handle as the makers of ‘Padmavat’ would attest to, given that they are no longer considered as human beings who once lived, laughed, loved, lost and dare I say it, let loose noxious gusts of wind just like the rest of us but have been elevated to the status of Godlike beings, symbolic of valour and virtue. It is amazing how many Indians hurting from the unpalatable knowledge that as a nation and as a people we have fared dismally against foreign invaders and continue to fall horrendously short of taking care of the interests of our citizens, cling to mostly made up ‘facts’ of grandeur and glory, which amounts to little more than garish make-up shovelled on to the corpse of abject failure. 

While writing my books on Kartikeya, Prithviraj Chauhan and Padmavati, I remember making my editors nervous and having fiery arguments that would have degenerated to a bout of fisticuffs had they not been made over a flurry of emails and frantic phone calls. Padmavati was particularly problematic, thanks to the raging controversy buffeting the film version. I remember, how hard it was to work past the preconceived notions surrounding the character, her parentage and even nationality, since Jayasi’s almost entirely fictitious account portrays Padmavati as a Sinhalese Princess, all of which lacks the backing of sound research.
The depiction of Jauhar and Alauddin Khalji was even more irksome since I flat out refused to glorify the former and vilify the latter. With regard to the former, it truly gets my goat when the notion of a woman burning or taking her life to uphold her virtue and nonsensical notions of honour enforced by patriarchy, is romanticized and held up as an example of ideal womanly conduct. As for the latter, too many are convinced that the admittedly unsaintly Shah was a lusty, libidinous lecher who could not see past the needs of his engorged member, when history has it that he was mostly a determined, ambitious, often ruthless monarch who also proved himself an able administrator. After many an exhausting round, we arrived at a compromise that we could all live with though I could  not help feeling very ill – used and thinking that a Hilary Mantel or Ken Follett would not have had it so rough.  
It must also be mentioned that editors mostly prove themselves amenable once I firmly but kindly decline to allow for any cuts, modifications/ mutilations to my babies and drew their attention to the original source material which contains a lot more incendiary material than anything my fevered imagination can concoct (in the case of mythology) and the glaring holes in the tapestry of history can only be plugged with artistic license and insightful writing (pause, while I blow this particular trumpet with loud and discordant pride). In Padmavati’s or Prithviraj’s case, once I reached the obvious conclusion that entire chunks from their life and times are lost, there was nothing to be done but to fictionalize the gaps in such a way that it is melded neatly to the existing facts.
            Fortunately or unfortunately, since this writer is nowhere as bold or beautiful as the likes of Deepika Padukone or feted and recognized as the Salman Rushdie types, it is possible to spin many a fabled yarn inspired by beloved characters from history and mythology without having to deal with censorship, death threats, the hate brigade that uses social media platforms to train their guns on those of us who want nothing more than to be left alone in La La Land or worrying about getting mobbed or figuring out a way to deal with the never-ending cash flow which can be a most tedious chore for the successful. Even the publishers barring the occasional harangue, give you a wide berth to express yourself since they have bigger fish to fry, especially since Karan Johar / Twinkle Khanna / Chetan Bhagat are usually mouthing off on Twitter or they are avidly following the twists and turns of the Padmavati row as Sanjay Leela Bhansali is made to scurry from pillar to post to make sure his movie sees the light of day. 
It is hard to blame publishers with cold feet entirely given the fact that it is ridiculously easy not to mention nearly cost free to slap a ban on just about anything given the rampant spirit of censorship that plagues this nation. While hardened criminals who brutalize women, rob the nation of gazillions, shoot and kill endangered species when not driving drunk over pavement dwellers, are considered innocent until proven guilty, a work of art does not have it so easy. Thanks to antediluvian provisions in the law, all it takes is for a fanatical sort to gather likeminded folks and bandy about terms like ‘sedition’, ‘obscenity’, ‘insulting religious beliefs’ or ‘defamation’ for a political heavyweight with a beady eye on the vote bank and the full weight of the ruling government behind him or her to ban books or movies without allowing the author, publisher or filmmakers to have their say or even prove in a court of law that such damaging charges are justified.
What follows is a long, costly and arduous litigious procedure with an extremely uncertain outcome which can drive the interested parties to the brink of ruin and leave them shattered emotionally. Nobody has it easy in this world, but we can safely assume that a Veda Vyasa, Valmiki, Vatsayana, Kamban, Kalidasa, Bana, and incidentally Mohammad Malik Jayasi (whose role in cementing Padmavati’s position in the collective Indian consciousness cannot be stressed enough) would certainly not have thrived and created such immortal works had they been forced to ply their craft in these inclement climes. Our ancestors would no doubt be ashamed and aggrieved to see what this land has been reduced to.

We need to remember that we are traditionally peaceable folks (with a tendency to keep the bickering and bloodletting in house), known to have taken giant strides in the fields of art, architecture, science, literature, medicine, mathematics, and philosophy. Our knowledge and culture is our legacy to the world and we will do well to preserve and perpetuate it, instead of allowing the unnecessary evil that is censorship to run roughshod over artists, writers and thinkers thanks to misguided notions about honour and glory. In fact, if the past is any indication, Indians would rather make love than war in any sphere. And that is the noblest thing about our identity and we should not let the hooligans and hoodlums take that away from us.   

An edited version of this article appeared in Scroll.in