Book Review: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The most thorough review of The Ministry Of Utmost happiness that I have found useful. Besides the one written by Jerry Pinto. One which is as compassionate in tone as the writer of the book.
“The challenge faced by the novelist who inhabits a clamorous country going through interesting times: how do you make up a world that can compete with the truth? One way is to lie outright, become a fabulist – but lies are now firmly the preserve of the fake-news expert, not the novelist.”

Till you can actually read the book, this is as good an introduction as any.

nilanjana s roy

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

Arundhati Roy

Penguin Random House

464 pages

(A shorter version of this review is published in the Business Standard.)

In the same week that I began reading Arundhati Roy’s second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, published twenty years after her first, I came across an old interview between Gabriel Garcia Marquez and The Paris Review.

He says, “It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”

The challenge faced by the novelist who inhabits a clamorous country going through interesting times: how do you make up a world that can compete with the truth? One way is to lie outright, become a fabulist – but lies…

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It Ends With Us – A novel by Colleen Hoover. A Review.

My April Review. Kind of late, but still within my target of the month. Triggered by some things read recently about the abused wife of an Indian-born Techie CEO in USA.
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“Why did she not leave him?”

“Why do you stay on?”

“If you take it, you deserve it.”

We have seen statements like those above. In the media. We have heard them from friends and in the family. We may have made them ourselves.

Judgments. Opinions. Rarely based on personal experience or insight. Rarely made with any degree of compassion. Often, a one up-manship. Or, a satisfied smugness, born of a safe place. Or, a resentment, born of denial.

Colleen Hoover is a New York Times best selling author who writes entertaining, contemporary novels about a certain kind of people in a certain milieu. ‘It Ends With Us’ though, is a very different kind of book from her; a work of fiction that derives directly from her own life. It has a message and a life lesson woven into the plot. With this book her avowed goal is to help people see things in a different light, and possibly find a way out.

This was not a book I had particularly wanted to read. It happened to be the selection of my book club group for March, and then they changed their mind. I already had a copy, and had started reading it when the change happened. So I carried it with me on my solo holiday to Kerala, not really intending to read it, but to give it away to a friend I would be meeting there.

And then, one night while it was raining and a rough high tide rolled up on the beach across my room window, I picked it up with a vague idea of studying the author’s plotting technique. I had a notebook and pencil ready.

I ended up reading the book over the next few days, carrying it with me to a fisherman’s home, to a beachside diner and around the hotel grounds. While Colleen Hoover plots smoothly and writes in a breezy, witty, chatty, easy to read style, those are not the reasons I kept reading this book. To me, the book is worth reading and worth reviewing for the compelling story it tells about the pernicious cocktail of love and abuse. And it is told with sensitivity, insight and honesty, coming from the author having lived that life, and her generous and kind decision to come out in public with it.

In her twenties, Lily bloom is trying to find her place in the word as an independent professional adult. She has come a long way from a childhood spent watching her mother being abused at home. The story starts right after the funeral of her father, whom she hated. She has refused to say anything in his praise at the funeral. It pains her that her mother never had strength to leave her abusive husband. She has her own past sorrows, and a journal where she has recorded her teenage turmoil in letters (never sent) to TV host Ellen. She is sure her life will be different from her mother’s.

Lily comes to live in Boston, works hard, falls in love, dreams of marriage. She is a girl with spunk, and a sensitive and kind heart. She is a girl who once sheltered and fed and fell in love with a homeless teenage squatter. She sticks to her ideals and values herself and is a loyal friend. Life seems to be finally offering her all her wishes on a platter- her dream of owning a florist shop comes true, the handsome, rich and brilliant neurosurgeon Ryle Kincaid agrees to ditch his aversion of a committed relationship to get engaged to her. She can start to put her difficult childhood behind her.

Typical to a bestseller’s arch, and maybe real life, this is all too good to be true. There are horrible things that start to happen. Shadows emerge. Past secrets get exposed. Trust is broken and fears have to be faced. The present seems to resemble a forgotten nightmare. Love is put to cruel tests. There is a price to be paid, sacrifices to be made. What will you stay true to – to the one you love, though they hurt you, and let the cycle of abuse and indignity continue? Who has to take responsibility to heal themselves? Does being in love mean giving up responsibility for your own integrity? Does being in love also allow for boundaries? When do you know it is time to back out? How do you deal with the fear of losing all you craved for and have found?

The author takes you through the tortured back and forth of a relationship that stumbles from extremes of passion and commitment to jealous rage, mistrust, violence and regret. Lily starts to find a new understanding of her mother, once she finds herself in the same shoes. She can relate to what, as a child had seemed sheer cowardice and a shameful lack of spine. She can understand why her mother had stayed on. And she has to ask herself- can she be the person who will be different? Can she muster what it will take?

The author does a commendable job of presenting both sides of the picture, when it comes to the perpetrators and victims of abuse in loving relationships. There are no pure black as sin villains, no pure white as driven snow victims. Just real people with real problems, real hopes, real personalities, who are making the best they can of the cards dealt to them. People who decide they have a choice, to change the way they play those cards. Or not. And we are made to feel like we can see why each of them does what they do.

Lily comes into her own finally with her brave choice. And for that, she is willing to pay the biggest price. Because, somethings cannot be allowed to continue, no matter how much you love what they bring to you, and how much it pains to let them go. Therefore, the title, It Ends With Us.

Colleen’s skill is in making a story about the most painful choices in life seems like a feel good read. There is no shying away from the gore, and yet, there is a happy ending. The only issue I have with the way the book is the way the story ends. Lily’s bravery and her difficult choice seems less of a stand-alone act of strength with the twist at the end. In the novel the author has clearly tried to make things seem easier and rosier for her fictional characters than it was in the real life inspiration for this book. Most people in such difficult situations stay on because they fear the unknown outside the walls of the known hell. They keep hoping the better moments will prevail more often. They cling to every kind word, every positive thing that happens. They cannot imagine being on the other side, which looks like an even darker void. I wish the author had not gone for a neat tying up of all lose ends, and left Lily unclear about the shape of her future, yet firm and clear about the choice she made for the present.

Except for this one cop out at the end, I still think It Ends With Us makes a very important point. That we are the only ones who can chose to break legacies of abuse – as the ones who heap it on others, or as the ones who are its targets. It is never our job to be another’s punching bag, or to keep hoping against hope that their ‘better nature’ will prevail in the face of all proof to the contrary. And while making this point about taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions, the book also shows us why so many of us caught in situations of abuse in intimate relationships are helpless to break out of the cycle of enmeshment. It shows how difficult it is to gather back a sense of self, when enmeshed in toxic love. It lays bare in beautiful excruciating detail the guts and self-discipline required to honor one’s own dignity, the fears to be dealt with on the way. It brings a lot of insight and wisdom and empathy of a survivor to a topic laden with much judgment and prejudice. By sharing her own life story as the starting point for this novel, Colleen Hoover offers redemptive hope for all who dream of a better tomorrow in their intimate relationships.

I hope this book makes many more people feel brave enough to decide that It Ends With Us. It must.

Friendship, like Wine

 

Its has been said about me, in various shades of approval, praise, judgment, criticism or condemnation that I make too many friends, and too easily. I can only see this is a blessing. Friends have been my go to for too much for too long. Friends across all spectrums of age, interests, personality and life situations have played a big role in all I am.

Friends come in all types, and friendships come in all shades. Some last for a few fleeting encounters. Some are seasonal. Some come unbidden, and leave of their whim. Some seep into you like breath. While I like and enjoy all connections, I cherish most those bonds of  fondness that last beyond situational exigencies and fleeting personal tastes and trends. Friendship that can hold its centre when time and circumstance make past certainties unfamiliar, is an elixir.

I have been told forever that I am an introvert. I live a lot of my life in my mind. I do not belong easily to groups. I am not a party person, certainly cannot be a social butterfly. But when I meet with an old gang of familiars, it is not just another social formality to structured around small talk. A shared past breeds comfort. It reaffirms acceptance.  There is support offered, trust treasured, help given and help taken, fears faced and courage acknowledged. Co-travellers on this journey of life, we look out for each other. We walk different paths but we seek similar destinations. It is a bond that holds tighter with time, even while it uses no ties at all. In its maturing mutuality we each find recognition and a reflection.

Almost all the good things I learnt outside of what was taught to me by family, books, school and college, have come to me via friends  – gardening, cooking, health support, alternate healing, investment advice, even business help, mentoring and networking. But the maturing of old friendships has brought the biggest treasure of all. The gift of acceptance.

So this is my salaam to all old friends. For looking out for me, listening to me, sharing your lives with me, and holding me in your acceptance. Yes, you are a blessing.

Next up at Write & Beyond

https://wordpress.com/post/birdsongblogdotcom.wordpress.com

This time we are having a reading workshop. Yes. One has to know how to read, in order to write well. To read not for entertainment, not for getting to know a story or a load of information. But to study the craft. The structure. To connect with the aesthetics of someone’s creation.

It takes some doing, and we are offering to get you started on this practice over a weekend. As always, a great time is promised, with lots of intense intimate interactions, learning, insights and reading and writing.

Register and book a spot soon. Thanks for being with us.

An Open Letter. In the open season on women.

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Dear lady speaker on Women’s Day program, and those multitudes who wondered ‘how could she’, when she came on the scene,

This is in reaction to statements made by the first, in public, on the occasion of a media event to mark International Working Women’s Day. Statements which I feel owe something to the said lady being once picked on quite publicly for her choices on personal matters.

I wonder lady speaker, what made the media geniuses invite you to be a speaker? What are your credentials as a Working Women? Or is being a woman enough? Or being a privileged homemaker, wife and mother of a few months? Or being a star wife? I guess the point of it was to have you speak about …women, I suppose? How  women must be themselves and do their own things… like, maybe, reach for their dreams, and so on? Only, I do not see you being yourself. I see you mouthing platitudes unthinkingly, unless you have really given careful thought to what are the ideals and tradition you speak up for. At age 20, seriously? You are wiser than most humans then, I suppose. I know, I am being so ageist, no?

I still wonder what makes you a speaker to dole out opinions on IWWD.

It befuddles me.

Maybe the media felt they had to balance the act, after printing all sorts of things that were not always complimentary to your decision to opt for an early arranged marriage? That was stupid of the multitudes who said ‘how dare she’. Why? Because it is her life, her choice, people. It was none of your business to get at her in public, whatever you may think of her choices personally. It is a tough world out there, and we all need to support and wish each other well. Even those who might not easily understand what we do, and in their narrow minded self-absorption, not realise the gaps in their views.

Celebrity bashing, and paparazzi interest in their weddings and babies and so on…it doesn’t catch my interest, much. I ignore it. I felt bad for you, but I put it down to the down side of being a star-wife.

But pronouncements to run down serious socio-political causes on a public forum from a celebrity does become a big deal. People listen. It has impact, so it is important to hold it to high standards of examination.

Is it really your reasoned choice, lady speaker, to decide and declaim publicly that unless a mother can be there full time with her baby she’d be better off with a puppy? Does every working mother have the luxury to stay at home? Does every stay at home mother want to? Not everyone’s dreams are the same, just as their reality is different, as are the options available.

I know about the life and times and work of the feminists who gave us this Day as a marker, and what they did, and stood for, makes sense on every count of humanity, justice and peace. I am sure you would say you believe in these values, and perhaps wanted to use the opportunity your privilege gives you, to speak and share your views. Many young and not so young, impressionable and not so impressionable women listen to such messages, and many of them do actually try to take meaning out of them, and use those words and claims as lights of direction in their own life. It is a huge responsibility to use a public voice. I wish you had used it to say what might not cause harm or reinforce self-defeating cultural indoctrination.

I have some more questions for you, lady speaker.

Did you ever consider reading up, understanding the issue of IWWD before agreeing to be a public speaker on this occasion? Did you read up anything on the term Feminazi before using it? Did you mean to be abusive? Or does you privilege just make you blind and insensitive to others’ reality?

Do you have any idea at all why 8th March is important to the women’s empowerment issue? Do you even have a clue about women empowerment? Were you told to play by a script?

Imagine a scenario, in your own life, which is not entirely about you. Imagine your cleaning maid had a baby. Imagine your cooking lady too had a baby around the same time. Imagine how much you wanted them back at work. They both delivered human babies. Not Puppies. Yet they come back to work after two months of un-paid leave which you generously gave them. How could they do this? Why did they have the babies at all, if only to leave them to come to work? What are they chances they will not have their jobs for long if they keep taking days off? Not all women can afford to stay at home when they have babies. It s not only dog mothers who need to get food home.

To defend your personal choice of, and bliss about marriage and being a homemaker and mother at a young age, in the face of some misguided judgement, will you abuse a just cause? Why not stick to speaking up for your choice, and telling the critics to mind their own business, or engage them in a debate, to call out their unfairness as you see it? A fair fight, won’t you say? Why throw out the baby of feminism with the bathwater of judgement you were washed with, as it were?

Imagine another scenario. Nothing to do with you at all. Another girl your age gets a job with a multinational company after working very hard through her college course. Her parents are lower middle class people. She does well in her job. She gets posted abroad. She helps take care of her parents. She buys a home for herself. She marries. She has kids. She manages both roles with the help of her parents, and her company HR policies on maternity leave, paternity leave, child care leave, day care facilities and health care and health insurance. You know what made a lot of these things a part of the organized sector? Feminism. The education and employment opportunity she had access too. Even the right to buy property. The right to take care of her parents. All of that.

Ask this girl, though, Mrs. Smug Star Wife, why did she have the baby. Why didn’t she wait till her ‘responsibilities ‘ were taken care of , to build a career? What responsibilities were you referring to , when you said once you are done with them, you have your whole future open? The responsibility of bringing up a baby with all kinds of support and facilities? Not everyone has that luxury and privilege. A lot is needed before many more women can talk so comfortably as you of being able to prioritise things so glibly and smoothly. It is feminism that called out the change needed, and showed the way to that change. Just because you happen to be safely up the ladder, as you think you are, is no reason to kick the ladder and make it useless for others.

How much time do you think Karan Johar, as a single working father, will be able to devote to his new born twins ?  Are Roohi and Yash puppies or what?

What the Puppy mother will have to say to this, is another matter. Or any puppy pet-owner.

70,000 babies are born everyday on average in India. You know how many of those mothers can afford to just sit around with a baby, take selfies and look cute, and talk about having their future ahead of them, wide open? Are they Feminazis, out to wreak destruction on this world order?

Most women have hard working lives, whether in the home, on the farm, on a road-work or construction site or an office or anywhere else. You know how many of them want a better deal? MOST.

Ask yourself, what would make their lives better? Try to see who speaks for them. Yesterday, our Parliament approved a bill to raise the benefit of maternity leave to six months from three. You realize it is years of slog by feminism that leads to changes like this? And that this is still just a tiny blip, because the majority of women and men who suffer because of unjust systems are not working in the organized sector where these rules apply. So there is still along long way to go, and a lot of work to be done. Statements of ignorance like yours are harmful, biased and abusive.

I am happy for you, that you get to bask in the warmth of newly wedded bliss and motherhood, which must be even more wonderful when it comes with the trappings of wealth, luxury, glamour and privilege. Such as yours. Maybe you do feel humbled and thank your lucky stars. Maybe you take it for granted. You know, people will say all sorts of thing to individuals, for their luck, their choices, for whatever happens or does not happen. But to take personal criticism to heart, and then to attack a critical and vital human rights movement is short-sighted and narrow minded.

You are lucky. Why stretch your luck by being judgy about others who make choices different from yours? Or those who have no choice?

Why do women with all the privilege like you fear the F-word so much? Do you know the term you used – likening a feminist to someone who supported the mass murder of millions because of their identity, is a slur of the worst kind? Why would you want to use such a term, and then speak of it in a warped context? Do you realize you owe your own relatively ‘safe’ position as a wife and mother without a job or the qualifications for one, to the hard work feminists have put in for women’s rights in marriage and annulment of marriage? Feminism is the reason those like you can still hope for a fair settlement in case your marital bubble bursts with infidelity or abuse or worse.

So please, dear young blessed girl with stars in your eyes, go use the reading and comprehension and thinking skills that your very elite education and background might have instilled in you, and study these topics. Understand that you made a choice and so do others and there are valid reasons on both sides of the fence, and that defending your choice does not have to be at the cost of dissing the very very vital forces that in fact help keep you safe and empowered. The personal, after all, is also political. We live in social systems. What goes on around us comes home to roost.

Respecting diversity of choice is a foundational belief of feminism and of any call for equality. And choices can only be made by the powerful. And power has to fought for, earned, built up, when the starting point of the game is highly skewed towards one party. As is the case with those who speak up as feminists. Someone has to speak up, fight the good fight. You may not want to, and that is fine. But you will enjoy its fruits. So know that the warriors, the radicals, they all work for your rights too, and you would have not much without them. When the status quo of power is shaken, there is always backlash, and some of it takes the forms of abuse. Terms like Feminazi come up, and are mistakenly adopted by some who have not cared to learn any better.

Grow wise, be informed. And then maybe you will not let derogatory slurs pass your pouty lips so casually. Do not demonize a struggle for basic human dignity. It is denied to too many. Please do not let your youthful lack of perspective  and good fortune make you gloat. Do not look down on what you have not much idea of. Do not abuse. Be Woke. Go look that up, because you have no idea what it means, I am sure.

And those multitudes, can you leave people’s personal lives alone?

“Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. “

How beautifully and simply Pullman puts this need for art in life.

“It’s true that some people grow up never encountering art of any kind, and are perfectly happy and live good and valuable lives… Well, that’s fine. I know people like that. They are good neighbours and useful citizens.

But other people, at some stage in their childhood or their youth, or maybe even their old age, come across something of a kind they’ve never dreamed of before…Nothing prepared them for this. They suddenly realise that they’re filled with a hunger, though they had no idea of that just a minute ago; … it almost breaks their heart. … welcomed by this utterly new and strange experience …they needed this as a starving person needs food, and they never knew. They had no idea.

That is what it’s like for a child who does need music or pictures or poetry to come across it by chance. “

Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Pullman Philip 2

Wise words from Philip Pullman, who received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2005:

Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. If you don’t give a child food, the damage quickly becomes visible. If you don’t let a child have fresh air and play, the damage is also visible, but not so quickly. If you don’t give a child love, the damage might not be seen for some years, but it’s permanent.

But if you don’t give a child art and stories and poems and music, the damage is not so easy to see. It’s there, though. Their bodies are healthy enough; they can run and jump and swim and eat hungrily and make lots of noise, as children have always done, but something is missing.

It’s true that some people grow up never encountering…

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Phoenix Rising. Writing contest, reading meet & workshop

New contest and event coming up.

Write & Beyond

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The second annual Write & Beyond writing contest is all about the idea of destructive desire. How does wanting turn to wasting? We invite entries of up to 3000 words in any form of prose writing on this theme, from today till the 31st of March.

The two entries that most impress us will be announced on 7th April and win a place at our next writing workshop.

On 8th April we meet with Saikat Majumdar for a reading of his novel The Firebird – that has at its dark and disturbing heart the very idea of desire turning to destruction. Saikat is Professor of English Literature and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Ashoka University. He earlier taught at Stanford University, and writes critically acclaimed non-fiction, and startlingly unique locally rooted fiction page turners. Saikat will also help in workshopping the writing of those attending the meet…

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When Ashes Are Dust

Write & Beyond

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The paperback edition of Saikat Majumdar’s moving and brilliant Firebird was released by Hachette yesterday. Saikat is a professor of English literature, and currently runs the creative writing course at Ashoka University. He will be talking about the novel, among other things in his talk “Literature as Sin’ at JNU on 28th Feb, 2 p.m – 4 p.m. Come along.

And here is my report on reading the book.

“The idea of the phoenix is the anti-thesis of death. It is a picture of hope, of renewal; the anti-dote of ashes to ashes.

The phoenix is also the firebird.

But in a novel marked by the macabre, the enactment of the play called Firebird is a mere frayed thread in a fading tapestry. It is part of all that is dying; one of the images to depict the end of the ways things were. The death of the culture of…

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The Wealth of a Common Story

Write & Beyond

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To mark the passing of 2014 and 2015, I had made and shared a list of my favorite books read for that year. That did not happen at the end of 2016, and I am going to do it differently in 2017. No year end lists, but a regular update on some of what I am reading, and reviews of some books that leave their mark.

Starting with my review of Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth.

This riveting family saga meanders back and forth over nearly half a century. It held my attention like a limpet. The enormous simplicity of what I read has left me shaken and comforted.

Patchett writes in a straightforward, clean style. There are no words you need to go look up in the dictionary. There are no complex metaphors and sentences you need to decipher and detangle after a re read. Nothing tremendously mysterious or strange takes…

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On Being Good

This one says it simple and well, good.

The Belle Jar

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t preoccupied with my own goodness .

Am I good?

Am I good?

But am I good enough?

Good is a word that children hear early and often. A child probably hears the phrase “be good” – as an exhortation, a command, a plead – several times a day from several different adults. They might hear it so often that they won’t really be sure what good means except to know that they categorically aren’t.

By the time I was in kindergarten I thought that goodness existed as part of a binary, in the sense that either you were or you weren’t. It didn’t take me long to figure out what side of the equation I fell on; no matter how hard I tried to keep my thoughts to myself, to stay at my desk, to model myself after the prim little girls who sat so still…

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Desperately seeking Romance. The Spin on Karwa Chauth.

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Most ladies of my mother’s generation never called their husband by name. Most women in my generation have not held hands with or made willing and happy eye-contact openly in public with their husbands, except to glare or signal something urgent. Many of us in any generation before or after my age cohort have not had a romance before marriage, and even less had a ‘love-marriage’.

But to watch our films one would think every street corner had a dozen love stories blooming. Actually, they may have bloomed in secret, but the path of true love never did run smooth in our part of the world.

Into this culture of romantic lack comes the glamour of married, fully legitimate and socially approved romance, with the filmy version of Karwa Chauth. It is the stuff of dreams. What is not to like? And then, along comes liberalization and the big push on consumerism. A heady cocktail of unarticulated, burning  desire meeting unlimited supply. A match made in consumerism heaven.

Thus unfurls the yashchoprafication of an old, outdated, regressive and cautionary tale of patriarchal control.

Today, I wonder how many of the modern, financially well off women who fast and feast on this festival know the story that forms the bedrock of the rituals they follow in the name of celebration?

When they say they should have the choice to celebrate their marriage and the love in their marriage, do they know what their choice endorses?

The Karwa Chauth story I know is a cautionary tale for women. It stresses in no uncertain terms how marriage was a woman’s sole security and refuge, under the benign grace and fidelity of her husband.

This grace and fidelity though, is most precarious, the story warns. It could be lost at the slightest slip. So you have to be very careful you never let your devotion falter, least of all in favor of your own physical needs or your paternal family’s ‘misguided’ concern over you. Husband comes first, last and everything in-between. After all, you derive your existence and role and validation only as his wife.

So, the story goes…

Once upon a time there was a girl named Veerawati.

She married a brave and handsome chieftain and was delighted with all her finery and the position of a chief’s wife. But this was a spoiled and pampered girl, the little sister of seven doting brothers.

The brothers often took her to visit them back in her parental home. And there, during her Karwa Chauth fast, this girl was going to faint with weakness and hunger. Her brothers, concerned for her, tricked her into believing that the moon had risen, when it had not, and made her break her fast.

Barely had she taken some food and drink, that her misdemeanour brought a curse on her marriage. Her husband fell ill/ was wounded in battle and fell into a coma. Veerawati realised her mistake, and repented and prayed and begged gods and goddesses …and they said ok, he will not die but after many years, if you are good and fast well, he will awaken to life again.

So, began the PUNISHMENT of Veerawati, and her penance.

She took care of the husband, fasted properly every year…and took out the pins which pricked his body. When the last pin was left, she went out to arrange for her fast…in the meanwhile, the maid came and removed the pin, and the husband woke up and in his jumbled up memory, mistook the maid for the wife (maybe it was part of the continuing curse of punishment for the wife). Darn!

Now, the wife had the husband alive, but not with her! The maid became the wife, the wife now was the maid. Still Veerawati devotedly served him as a maid, and sang a song all the time about the switching of two dolls…at length, the chief asked her what this meant, and she told him the whole story. Then finally, he recognised her , and all her seva bore fruit and the husband – wife were re-united.

Bad Veerawati. Bad brothers who led her astray from her devotion.

What do we choose when we sing this katha as we pass the thaali around in the Karwa Chauth Puja.

Are we Veerawati? Should we be? Do we want to be her ?

If the modern KC following woman has no truck with this story, I wish she would drop the Veerawati song and katha from her thaali round  and her moon gazing ritual. I wish there was no ‘touching the feet’ of the husband.

I wish we were a society more open to romance in our lives overall and did not need the cover of filmy fantasies which glamorise misogyny, to fulfil our dreams.

Write it Out. Without Fear. 19th Nov.

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So what is our next Write & Beyond workshop about?

“Where the mind is without fear….into that heaven of freedom…” let all writers awake. Fear is the quicksand. Fear is the block. To be fearless is the most fearful idea for many of us. Certainly was for me.

Writing came naturally to me. I was told I wrote well. But it was only a certain kind of writing. School essays that had pros and cons. Work reports that took tons of data apart and then put it together with insights.

Nothing personal, you see. There was no need.

Letters to friends were a different matter. Descriptions, details, stories filled page after page. Of where I was, what had happened in school, what I was painting, which party had I gone to, which college I was applying to. But not what any of it meant to me, not really. Not what I felt inside. The fears, the longings, the highs, the lows. No, that was not what a sorted smart girl like me did. I had it all together, I knew what I was doing , why and where it would get me. There were no questions, no doubts. None I would admit to, at any rate.

The fear was so huge it could not be named or owned.

And then, under the influence of some friends, I wrote a few poems about something in the news. They frightened me with their power. I met my pain on the page for the first time. I had not known I had such views, or that I felt so strongly about certain matters. I felt I had met myself more fully for the first time, because of those poems. And that is how I continue to feel with most of the writing I have done since. In my journals, in my blog, and in the few published articles and poems and short stories I have sent out, I come closer to myself with each written word.

Our next creative expression workshop at Write & Beyond charts the steps to writing beyond fear.

Come join us and know the lightness of rising above much that holds us  stagnant. If you struggle to find our voice, feel a dearth of ideas, or are just stuck in that plain old ‘writers’ block’, find the freedom to flow into writing that is joyful and fun.

https://www.facebook.com/events/533949100144090/

Why Does Chetan Bhagat Get Your Goat

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I am no fan of Chetan Bhagat (CB). The mediocrity of craft in CB’s books keeps me away from them. His tweets and columns and speeches are often terribly offensive and rather unintelligent and crass.

I cannot wish him away just as I cannot wish away the reality of Dengue and Chikungunya. Some try, of course.

UK-based journalist-writer Salil Tripathi says “He exists for readers who are new to the English language and new to the idea of reading.” Author-columnist Santosh Desai agrees, “It marks a breakthrough of sorts – writing in English becoming popular in a mainstream sort of a way, moving away from a desire to exclude, speaking to a new set of aspirations with simple but resonant stories, cocking a snook at elitism.”

Moving away from a Desire to Exclude! I am not going to focus on the Desire, but lets just go with the word Exclude. Along comes CB and INCLUDES. Of course he has devoted fans, won’t you, if you spoke for and to someone, about things that they mull over, dream of, and if you took their thoughts as worth any attention? When the arbiters of ‘taste’ and ‘art’ and ‘culture’ made these multitudes feel not quite ‘suitable’, not quite ‘in’and ‘just like them’?

Ranting against CB might do a lot of things for the one who rants, and for those who go “yeah!” with those rants. It does not change anything for those who are his fans and readers. It makes them love him all the more. It shows, in fact, a rather close-minded, one size fits all mentality of entitlement among the ranters. A smugness that comes from a lack of any examination of their own position.

A refusal to understand or acknowledge that there are logical, real reasons behind his success, and not CB’s magical ability to ‘fool a generation of readers’ is an arrogant refusal to face colossal shifts and new fault lines in our nation. It is a refusal to see who holds what kind of cultural, economic and social power.

So, I‘d go beyond. I’d like to offer explanations, understanding, and hold out a hopeful call for a more creative response to the world’s realities.

I am a compulsive student of society. So I take an interest in what makes CB click so well with millions of my desh-waasis (English and non-English reading), and many in foreign lands too. (Yes, his books are translated in to many Indian and foreign tongues- French and Japanese included). He opened a new market segment for books, created a new breed of readers. He does not necessarily have to be the one who helps them evolve as well. Bacche ki jaan loge kyaa? He is not God, even though his stamina and self-belief might make him a demi-god to those who don’t know better.

In sneering at CB, we also sneer at his readers. Why be so snide and superior about us versus them? What do we have to offer them, instead, that will be resonant and connecting? Which voice will speak to their yearnings, and can someone help them find a more sophisticated and refined, nuanced awareness of that yearning?

Respect another’s experience and life view, because it comes from a different place. Would you be you had you been in their place? Too much to ask, I know. I got carried away. Why be so serious? WHY ever not?

Market forces understand consuming power. Money talks. Sales figures are the kingmakers. What is to rant about? Don’t like what the system throws up? Want to rant against the real root of things, and not the symptoms, maybe? Rant against the forces of consumerism, which turn everything into a market product. Give it a thought.

Sadly for the ‘English’ types, CB got on to the hotline too easy. And then the gods of the market put all their armies at his disposal. He keeps going. It pays him handsomely. Why would he do any different? Once he hit the mark, non-book markets came to cash in on him. He sold out. Given his clout should he choose better? Maybe, maybe he can’t. Would you? Have others? Give it a thought!

Look at the basic premise that the advertising and marketing industry works on. Seriously, GIVE IT ALL A THOUGHT. A lot of thought.

It is a free world, people. No, it is a ‘free’-market world, specifically. When CB first came into the market he had a unique and novel product. Five Point Someone spoke to a segment of youth about things no one had publicly talked about, but which were ripe for articulation. He did it soothingly, gently, without making the reader uncomfortable. In the newly liberalizing Indian middle class, comfort was at a high premium.

My neighbor told me excitedly that on reading this book, she felt she could understand where her husband came from, a little better. And she thanked CB for it. This was a Loretto school educated Delhi University girl married to an IIT IIM boy. That segment may not be his core audience anymore, but give the devil his due- he spoke to someone’s heart.

CB has moved on to other topics. He picks the stories carefully; with studied deliberation I am sure. Then, he plays the market. He touches on pain points but does not go for the jugular. He gives you resonance, but does not break your heart. That is his choice. And the reader’s too. We cannot rant against that. C’mon, not everyone wants to be shown all the skeletons in their cupboard. You cannot give babies real knives and scissors to play with. There are a few who are born to high art. For the rest it takes growing into. The consumer society public discourse and media does not help that growth. It wants to paint a utopian, no difficult questions scenario, where every answer is achievable, every problem solvable with something readymade off the shelf. Like it is with the situations and characters in CB’s novels. Or it wants to scare you about impending doom. There is no nuance.

Give it a thought.

Having seen that he could catch reader’s attention, and a slice of the book market, CB turned bolder. Tier two and tier three towns, the lesser known engineering colleges and regular graduates with dreams fuelled by liberalization and globalization of the job-market were a big market hungering to hear about people like them. People whose young lives had changed in unimagined ways in a matter of very few years. The narratives of their parents were a misfit in their new world. Nor could they relate to the writers who wrote in ‘elite’ English for the elites readers. This was the setting ripe for One Night @The Call Centre. Lets not forget, this was the time when “most people like us’ sneered at those taking up call center jobs.

How judgy is it of some of us to decide that people different from us must adhere to our tastes and not like what connects with them?

The thing that strikes me most about all the vitriol raised by the CB haters is how little of it is actually useful literary criticism. Quite lacking in anything educative for the seeker of good reading guidance, or for someone looking to develop a higher order taste in reading, and offering nothing to help readers understand what makes CB a poor writer. There is word in Hindi that I think of when I see the outrage against CB. ‘Tilmilahat’. It captures the essence of the reaction.

I saw the film Two States with a ladyfriend who loved the book and the film because it was the story of her life. Who is to judge the value of her fondness for what holds meaning for her at such a personal, deep level?

I found my tailor reading Half-Girlfriend. I asked him what he thought of the book. He said he found it realistic, and enjoyable. I got a copy and read it (it was a drag, honestly) to know what was working for this book. As a piece of art, and for its craft, I could trash the book. But I admired it as a product. Could have been better. But then, CB never claims perfection. Just that he sells. DDLJ sold. Dil Chahta Hai sold. Both left me cold. But they were cult hits, I keep hearing. Why? Give it a thought.

On a recent visit to the parlor, I was reading Ramachandra Guha’s massive tome, India after Gandhi, while getting a pedicure. The boy attending to me was a young lad from Madhubani, sweet and curious and confident. He talked in English, and asked me to correct him if needed, so he could improve. He asked questions about the topics in the book. We discussed the role of mass media, book publishing, the role of English as the language of power and knowledge. And I wondered if there was a simpler, easy to read version of this history book I could recommend to him. I am sure the same boy could read CB. And that is the underserved market we have in this country, hungry for so much. Junk will be lapped up as greedily as long as it is available and somewhat understood. As of now, all this pedicure boy can perhaps reach for, in English, is CB. Will there be a better book for him to read in English soon?

I want to end with this old quote from … http://danieldmello.blogspot.in/2010/03/why-we-hate-chetan-bhagat.html

“CB’s work is mediocre….it isn’t snobbishness to find a piece of work mediocre and reject it for being so. But as to the question of holding the creators and their fans in contempt for patronising mediocrity, and denying them any form of attention, that’s just wrong, and could well be snobbishness….. Some of them read his books because they don’t know any better or they don’t enjoy reading good Indian fiction or contemporary international literature, or even the classics. No wonder then that they worship Chetan Bhagat. …. Is this Chetan’s fault? Of course not. He didn’t force all these millions of Indians to buy or read his books. He simply used his natural talent to write within his capacity, and the masses happened to love his work. Why blame Chetan for the reading habits of the masses? Our anger at Chetan Bhagat’s success could actually be our displaced anger at the masses….. if you’re a lover of good literature, and are amazed by the constant attention CB gets, my advice is to ignore it. That’s right. We are an evolving society. Until we all evolve to a point we we appreciate good literature, we should realise that there will always be some people who will enjoy reading CB. What’s more, no one’s forcing you to read his books. “

For those who still want to stay angry, is being angry and full of hate all we can do? Can we instead turn our anger to something more positive, creative and better?

Give it a thought.

 

 

 

 

The Cradle of the High Peaks

Yesterday I had an epiphany about man’s eternal pull to the mountains. It was triggered, fittingly, by the words of a Bhutanese landscape planner on Youtube. He reinforced something already felt in the deep dormant layers of my own knowing, never quite fully understood and owned, unsaid by me so far.

The man from Bhutan talked about how he can never fully physically feel at home anywhere else the way he does in his mountain kingdom. That the body makes its home as a part of the physical landscape and sometimes so does our soul. And how mountains, to his mind, did this precisely because of what seems their distancing features.

While they are no doubt difficult to get to, and beset with a lot of natural extreme conditions and access problems, it is these very qualities of impregnability that lend a sense of a charmed, protected and even secure sense of self to those who live in the cradle of the high peaks. I was pulled back to just such a discovery I and a friend had shared, years ago, to our own surprise. We were on a long road journey in the relatively remote and wild Central Himalayas, driving down to the plains through high, rugged peaks on roads that on one side hugged steep slopes going up and on the other side ended in deep and sharp drops into a raging river below. Tough as the terrain was, we found ourselves in a sort of flow after a while, and the winding road and the constant turns of the wheels became nearly as normal and natural to us as our breathing. We were one with the land, with the road and with the journey, and it was a happy time.

Then after a whole day’s drive, the road  stopped curving quite so much and  started stretching out straight in front of us. The cliffs and drops on our sides gave way to small mounds  and rocks and then endless vistas of flat green and brown and man made blocks placed together.  Almost at the same time, my friend and I looked at each other and wondered aloud, that though the driving was now easy, what was this odd sense of loss, a sense of being adrift that we were experiencing?

What we felt missing was the physical embrace, the cradling, the scaffolding of the ever-present looming massive bulk of earth, the rock solid presence of those peaks, and not just the beauty, not just the grandeur and snowy brilliance or the verdant bounty of the mountains.

Listening to the Youtube recording, I heard the landscape design expert say that for him and his country folks, the terrain of their mountain kingdom was their biggest source of sustenance and SECURITY! And he further went on to say that those mountains were indeed the protectors of the people in a very real physical sense in olden times, and today the culture still sees them as such. Well, I say !! This was just so like what I had felt – that the mountains were somehow holding us safe, enclosed, enfolded, with all their curves and highs and recesses and valleys, and when we reached the plains we were left wide open and on our own – so distant from the large, benign, overarching physically powerful entities that are the mountains.

I wonder if any of you have also felt this way, or feel a connection with what I am saying. The mountains, to me seem to be about arriving, settling in, and falling into rhythm.  They are about being rooted, about being one with something solid and unconquered and perhaps never fully conquerable. They are also about a certain surrender, a certain acceptance. They are saying, like little else can, that this is it, this is here, this is now.

So tell me, do you feel that any place, any physical landscape that pulls us, pulls us for a similar reason, or is the pull of every kind of landscape feature a random matter of simple sensual or sensorial appeal?  What would those of you say who love heading out to the sea rather than the mountains? For me, the sea is all about another kind of a trance, about losing sense of time and boundaries. It is about being literally, adrift. The mountains are all about being rooted. Present. Is it the same for some of you, and how is it different for others? Do keep the thoughts flowing…..

Fiction by Chance.

Musings as we head into another writing workshop this weekend.

Our next workshop is round the corner. ‘Tick- tock it is 30th”. On Sunday. A full day of inner connect, discovering one’s voice, and learning the art and craft of writing. Mentor author Milan Vohra will be with us to share some readings from her works and to discuss romance writing in the current urban Indian set up, YA writing and much more. She will also of course review the writing we do during the day. I have a piece all ready to be reviewed and critiqued. And I plan to write some fresh pages too, while at the workshop itself. Because the energy, the synergy, the sparks flying off and igniting our creativity have to be simply experienced first hand to know their power.

In eager anticipation of what unfolds anew for all of us on 30th August. In this process, truly, the journey is also the destination.

When I think back to how much I have learnt and grown in terms of my writing skills, in the year and half that we have been running Write & Beyond workshops and events, my mind boggles at the results.From being a person who could only ever think of writing in terms of non fiction, and not even ever be able to write a simple short story for a school assignment, to now penning my debut fiction novel, I have been through an incredible progression. Last week I completed a short story of some 3000 words, and shared it on a public forum. This was a first for me. All I have written for public consumption till last week – save an extract from my WIP first novel, as a entry for a contest at the Bangalore Lit Fest 2014, has been non-fiction;  articles, reviews, feature posts, blog writing and professional, analytical non-fiction writing.

And I only have the happy happenstance of Write & Beyond to thank for my venturing into fiction, for being the seeding ground of my tryst with fiction writing. Things come together and shape you path when you are ready. I was ready without my knowing it. But ready I was, and something, some power out there knew what was needed. The dots connected. Passion found purpose. Purpose found supporters. And a whole new movement was born. And I marvel as I see it grow every day. A path was shown and I walked. And here I am now, thrilled that I can write in ways I thought were not ever going to be mine. And even more thrilling and satisfying is the fact that through Write & Beyond I share my learnings with others on a similar journey. And that makes me learn more, better and deeper.

Hail happenstance and hail holding on to a dream. And here is wishing our ‘Tick Tock It is 30th’  writing workshop all the best.

Write & Beyond

Our next workshop is round the corner. ‘Tick- tock it is 30th”. On Sunday. A full day of inner connect, discovering one’s voice, and learning the art and craft of writing. Mentor author Milan Vohra will be with us to share some readings from her works and to discuss romance writing in the current urban Indian set up, YA writing and much more. She will also of course review the writing we do during the day. I have a piece all ready to be reviewed and critiqued. And I plan to write some fresh pages too, while at the workshop itself. Because the energy, the synergy, the sparks flying off and igniting our creativity have to be simply experienced first hand to know their power.

In eager anticipation of what unfolds anew for all of us on 30th August. In this process, truly, the journey is also the destination.

When…

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Something Sacred

Sacred places, sacred objects, sacred rituals. Sacred symbols. Even sacred ‘roles’. ‘Mother’. ‘Bhartiya Naari’.

We have all seen these, heard of these, been part of the interactions that happen around them. Today I got wondering anew about the meaning of what it means to us, and what it does to our thinking, when something is considered ‘Sacred’. And what is the relation of the sacred to the mundane and further, to that realm of things considered ‘profane’.

Things we often hear in relation to the ‘Sacred’ are a whole lot of ‘don’ts’ a lot of barriers, a lot of distance. Taboos. Forbidden in part or fully. Or approached only through a mediator, a complex ritual or with loads of fearful  consequences in case of a breach of protocol. The Sacred is all very admirable and good and pure, but not quite part of our concerns in a real, here and now way. Maybe it is this way because what is put out there as Sacred is perhaps all the messy stuff that we have no way of figuring out? Best to treat it from far, with kid gloves and some sophisticated denial?

Things we can touch, feel, enjoy, interact with, be our natural selves with, use our force over, control and direct to our wishes, are usually not seen as  ‘Sacred’. There is a distance, a gap between us and the ‘Sacred’ , a gap not always of higher and lower perhaps, but certainly one of difference and separation. And in that gap lies a sense of ‘don’t mess with me’ perhaps? Cut that gap out and it gets to be open season for everything and everyone.

The mundane is what is necessary .

The Profane is again something I can cut off, suppress, reject and refuse to deal with. From a position of power. Unlike the Sacred, which carries some power over me.

Thoughts of this kind were specifically triggered today by a conversation I had about the portrayal of women in Hindi cinema. I have begun to wonder if by making a woman character a somewhat regular, ‘Mundane’  persona and not an exotic, idealized ‘Sacred’ being, movie makers have pricked a hole in the aura of Sacred that enveloped the image of the feminine in the Indian psyche? By making her more real, have we also made her more vulnerable to the fears and attacks of those who do not understand or wish to engage with her as an equal?

To me it seems that some in the audience have clearly made the leap to her being seen as ‘Profane’ once the Sacred pedestal was knocked off. The Sacred is beyond tampering, but when the mundane is a complicated mess I have no wish to deal with, and perhaps more critically, no skill sets of thought and attitude and action, to cope with, It is easier to push things to the Profane and then deal with them?  Is that how the human mind works?

This line of thought started from an exchange today with a film script writer who said to me that she was disturbed to note how today the portrayal of women in Hindi films was so objectified, (read Profane) when in real life women had more freedom and more power in worldly matters (Mundane?) than some decades ago. But in those times, when the movie world was considered taboo for decent women, the portrayal of women in movies was in fact rather noble, strong and inspiring (Sacred?).

The writer said the shift in the depiction of leading women characters could be attributed to the fact that while today women had come a long way, men still had not truly adjusted their sensibilities to the changed reality. So the dominating male had to get his kicks out of subduing or objectifying the woman on screen, in his art (making Profane).

Does that somehow imply that the visible, the in-your-face reality can hardly be handled by the overall sensibility of our society? Does it mean that engagement, involvement, negotiation and debate, which are hallmarks of an alive, healthy interactive – and therefore ‘mundane’ – relationship, are not part of the man-woman equation in mainstream Indian culture and arts today? Pretty much seems so, sadly. Why do we give no space to the vital and life supporting ‘Mundane’ in our discourse and in the play of gender relations? What would make for a changed equation then, an equation of respect and a constructive engagement with the other?

The power of comfort food. And why we crave it.

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Whole whaeat pancake with fresh fruits and yoghurt. Rishikesh.

Comfort food. A very sought after experience, aptly called so as it gives us much succour  when we are out of our comfort zone, be it with the changing seasons, our low key health, the crisis points of daily life or bigger, epoch making tumults of the times, or just the long winding road of a holiday.

Any food can be comfort food, if it evokes the emotions of wellbeing, familiarity and cosiness. I am told comfort food is food we grew up with. food that mom made. I disagree. Comfort food may be all that, but it is also much more, for me. It is all food that can bring me comfort. A sense of ‘ all is Well’. Of being safe, of being tended to with gentleness, of being in a warm embryonic comfort zone.

As I felt with a plate of sizzling, fresh off the oil french fries made during a mini cloudburst, in the warm and dry comfort of our mountain home when we were forced to be homebound by the forces of nature. The taste of those fries took us out  to wherever we wished to be, while the roads remained blocked for days, and our plans of a trek and a chopper ride into the higher reaches of the mountains remained elusive. Then again, comfort food for me need not be food at all, it can be a drink too. Like the ice cold lemonade made with fresh spring water which is sold at Teen Dhara, the mandatory halt for refreshment on the long drive uphill on the NH 48 from Haridwar to Badrinath, which we also pass en route to Birdsong & Beyond. The tangy seasoning of that drink takes away the dull tiredness that by that point in the long and heavily winding road journey begins to seep into the muscles. And comfort food can sometimes be totally alien too, something you have never known or tasted and yet, when you have it for the first time, it feels like having come home. Like the time I had the typical Bengali dish of fish curry with Panch Phoron tempering. Nothing in my Punjabi upbringing had prepared me for those flavors. I had never tasted Rui macch before. And yet it was love at first whiff and a life long commitment at first bite. A dish of fish curry made that way will make up for almost anything for me, anytime.

Journeys, being a step outside our set routine life, are perfect settings for comfort foods. Travel takes us out of the familiar, and off the beaten track travel takes us more and more into the unknown. Connecting with comfort food is one way of establishing touch with the familiar, the enfolding cosiness of being loved and cared for, which can sometimes be missed by travellers crossing the frontiers of the known, while seeking the unexplored.