Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Dear Justice Katju, please advise this unmarried woman!

(Published in, on January 21, 2015, retrieved from

Dear Justice Katju,

Unlike most of my ilk, I am a dedicated fan of yours. Every morning, I navigate to your Facebook page, and sometimes check out your blog, as much to keep up with your interpretations of literature, as to find out how I must live in this vile world.

Last month, I read with fascination your Facebook note Gay Relationships and Gay Marriages, and was moved to slow-clap when I came across your marvellous deconstruction of George Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman.

Of course, I take it you’re aware of the number of children Shaw himself had. No doubt this overwhelming number, combined with the moral of his play Man and Superman, is proof of Shaw’s disapproval of homosexuality and homosexual marriages, which should be reason enough never to legalise them in India.

May the Life Force be with you, good sir, for that post immediately changed my perspective on life.

Inspired by your post, I was all set to “get hold of a man, not merely to make [me] pregnant, but also to look after [me] and provide for [me] financially while [I am] performing this role.”

Following your advice, I re-read Man and Superman, and watched Fatal Attraction, to fine-tune my mode of pursuit of young men. Unwittingly, I revealed my respect for you and your views on love, marriage, and sex.

And so, all the candidates I had shortlisted for the act of getting me pregnant, and looking after me financially, also read your post, enigmatically titled ‘Marriage’.

This has had a rather disastrous effect, as many of these men have begun to get wary of my pursuit, while others are confused.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sure all the young men whom I know are charmed by the idea of my greeting them, and preparing a cup of tea for them after they get home from a hard day’s work. They are pleased at the idea that I will prepare good food for them.

However, one raised the point that this duty is just as well performed by the waiters at the restaurants we frequent on dates.

I, in turn, argued that you also suggest that they will have “someone to talk to, someone to take care of [them] when [they] are unwell”, but he said that that was what why he had a psychiatrist and family doctor, and so I was redundant.

When this question was posed to me by all my shortlisted suitors, I looked up your blog, and asked them to consider that I might want to “partake of their thoughts, worries, and aspirations”. That stuck for a while, but then one said that his thoughts, worries, and aspirations usually got a warmer response on Facebook. What can I do, I only have one ‘Like’ option at my disposal.

What has really done me in, though, is this line – “get love (and all that it entails), companionship and friendship.” Now, “all that it entails” is presumably either sex, or your translation of a Sanskrit sloka: "A woman is angry at one moment, happy at the next, angry again the moment thereafter, and happy again the next". 

Some of my suitors have now decided that I am too even-tempered to make a good wife. Indeed, I am too even-tempered to even be a woman.

Among those who remain, some tried following the advice you have to offer, from your 44-year experience of marriage. You said, “The way to handle your lady is to become mum when she [is] enraged, and wait till she is cool again. Thereafter you will find her very sweet and full of affection for you.”

Unfortunately, that is not the case with me. Kya karen, blame it on my being a columnist. When I find silence at the other end, in response to my rage, I get further enraged.

The other major problem your blog has caused in my pursuit of a suitable impregnator is your warning that “not all women are beautiful and wonderful”, and often the “very beautiful” ones have “terrible natures”, and can “make their husband’s lives hell”. You also suggested that “many plain or even ugly looking women who had such a good and kind nature that they made their husbands' lives heaven.” 

The prospective fathers of my unborn children are not sure to which of these categories I may belong.

So, some are checking with other people to see whether I qualify as very beautiful, plain, or ugly.

Others are trying to do a background check on me, but again, they are not sure what that entails.

The nail in the coffin of my grand marital and procreational plans was your suggestion that they should check my academic qualifications and work experience, since “in these days of high prices it may be necessary to have a working and earning wife”, to supplement their income in order to raise our “coming child or children”.

Some have asked me to send me my CV, which I can’t find, since I stopped working several years ago.

Some want proof that I received High Distinction or Distinction in each of my degrees – I am not sure whether this is with the intention of genetically engineering intelligent children, or channelling a good job.

One – and I must say he is the only suitor who is still vaguely interested in me – has suggested that the only way to ensure that I am working and earning, and also capable of greeting him with a smile, tea, good food, and conversation, while providing “love (and all that it entails)” is to become a geisha. Could you please guide me to a school that trains geishas today? Is it not against Indian culture? Or do you think we should look Eastwards for culture?

My training as a geisha is crucial, because, failing this, it appears I am doomed to remain single and become “prone to psychological problems”, as you kindly pointed out in your post about gay relationships.

For a moment, I considered getting a woman to live with me, so that I would not be single. Then, I remembered that “it is only sex between a man and a woman which will give birth to a child, not sex between a man and a man, or between a woman and a woman.”

And marriage which does not lead to the production of children is “humbug and nonsense”.

So, now, I am forced to choose between my sanity and my Life Force.

Please advise.

Hari Om.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sans teeth, sans eyes

(Published in The Friday Times, on January 16, 2015, retrieved from

Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times

I have always been terrified of old age. Not death, because it’s inevitable, and I’ve always been curious about what lies beyond, but old age. Partly because an eighty-year-old woman will not make a comely damsel-in-distress, which is my usual modus operandi when I want an upgrade on my flight, someone to ferry me around town for nothing but the joy of my company, or someone to help me with my luggage. Partly because I am certain I am the most shallow person I know whose IQ is not in double digits. Nothing freaks me out more than the idea of grey hair, wrinkled skin, missing teeth, and a disproportionately fat bottom on myself.

Sometimes, it strikes me that I could eventually become one of those aunties who latch on to young women with surprising strength in their gnarled fingers, and ask them through a haze of saliva and paan, “When am I going to eat at your wedding? You shouldn’t leave it too late. How will you have healthy children? And how will you be able to run after them?”

Or, a worse fate would be to become one of those aunties who haven’t noticed that they have got too old to wear makeup, and smear extra layers ofkaajal in the hope of disguising their wrinkles, and hide the paan stains with a deeper shade of red lipstick, and dye their hair blacker than a raven’s feathers, and wear enough gold to make Bappi Lahiri jealous.

All these horrors were recently made more real to me. When the rest of the world searches out its woollens and curls up in electric blankets, Madras, the coastal town to which I belong, hosts the Music Season. This is a two-month long celebration of Carnatic music and the classical dance Bharatanatyam, with its core in the Tamil month Margazhi.

Sounds like a lot of fun, except that, unlike most music festivals where anyone who is out of college feels old, and everyone is more interested in the narcotics going around than in the music, the average age of the audience during the Madras Music Season is 60. And that’s mainly because of the busloads of schoolchildren who are brought to fill in the auditoriums during the afternoon, and are essentially a captive audience. Otherwise, the average age would be 80.

Centenarians hobble to the performances, clinging to the shoulders of their retired sons and daughters. They cough throughout the music concert, ensuring that your experience of the raag is punctuated by an up-close-and-personal knowledge of the state of 90-year-old lungs.  They get up to visit the loo approximately five times an hour, tread heavily on your feet each time, trip, and grab your thighs for support. Believe me, the only thing worse than gnarled fingers gripping your wrist, as the owner of the fingers coughs into your face, would be gnarled fingers digging into your thigh, as the owner of the fingers coughs into your face.

“I don’t know how much longer I will be able to attend these concerts,” croaks the woman in a wheelchair.

You want to tell her that seven decades of attending every concert in the city ought to have satiated her, and that she should have stopped two years ago.

“Actually, I used to enjoy the food more than the music,” she says, jerking her head towards the canteen attached to the hall, “But these days, I can’t. I have indigestion.”

All right, thank you for that redundant bit of information that will haunt me every time I make a foray into the canteen.

“Where do you live? And how do you come to the concert? My son has arthritis, so he is not able to drive me around anymore,” she says, looking at you with a gleam in her barely-functioning eye.

I doubt I will be as clever as these ladies seventy years down the line, given that I am barely clever enough to evade escorting strangers to and from music concerts in the prime of my mental health.

A while ago, I promised myself that I would commit suicide ten years to the day from when I discovered my first white hair (which, for the record, has not happened yet, thanks to either good genes or failing vision.) 

But that criterion was altered when one of my aunts recently thought she spotted a classmate across the road.

“I’m not sure it’s her,” she told me, “She used to be much fatter in college.”

“Well, unless she's pregnant at 60, that's a pretty big stomach,” I said.

My aunt paused, looked at me, and said, “Uh...sweetie...that’s not her...stomach.”


 And that was when I realised that old age comes with more dangers than white hair, and a bad cough – especially if you’re...ahem, a well-endowed woman.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

"Perumal Murugan has died": We let them kill literature today

(Published in DailyO, on January 14, 2015, retrieved from

In the wee hours of Tuesday, a chunk of Tamil contemporary literature died. Writer Perumal Murugan, whose novel Maadhorupagan (One Part Woman) has been at the centre of a controversy over its representation of women and religion, returned from a meeting with his detractors, and announced that Perumal-Murugan-the-writer was dead, and he would only serve as a professor of Tamil in his college. His unwritten novels have died, and the published ones have been withdrawn from circulation.

In a post that will remain active only for another day, he wrote, referring to himself in the third person, that he was withdrawing from all social networks. He said in his note that he was sure that issues would be raked up over all his novels, and to avoid being hounded, he was putting an end to the sale of his entire body of work with immediate effect. He promised to compensate the publishers for their losses, and asked those readers who have bought his books already to feel free to burn them. He said he was willing to compensate those readers who feel they have made a poor investment. His poignant post ended with a plea to all organisations representing the interests of particular castes, religions, and political factions, to stop their protests and leave him be.

On Tuesday, as soon as the stall of his publishers, Kalachuvadu, opened at the ongoing Chennai Book Fair, its employees began stacking his books into cartons. When readers approached them to try and buy the books they had in stock, they refused.  His publisher was wary when I asked if I could take photographs.   

As I watched them packing his books into obscurity – the books of a writer whose work and personality and intelligence I greatly esteem – I felt angry, helpless, and frightened.

The protest genuinely baffled me at first. Now, it terrifies me.

It baffled me because Maadhorupagan was published three years ago, and its translation more than a year ago. In the intervening years, Murugan has written two sequels to Maadhorupagan.

Why were groups raking up the allegation that he portrayed women and religion poorly now?

First of all, Murugan cannot be accused of male chauvinism by any stretch of the imagination. His books often explore prejudice against women, from female infanticide to inheritance laws to childlessness. (My profile of this brilliant writer, in which I discuss his work in some detail is available here.)

Second, even if he were guilty of giving us a stilted view of a village and its women, it is irrelevant – to demand the arrest of a writer and a ban on his book, on the charge that he portrayed anyone or anything in a particular manner that is offensive to some readers, goes against the fundamental rights guaranteed to us in the Constitution.

Third, the timing of the protest makes no sense.

Fourth, why was Murugan so worried about this protest, when there has been a backlash over most novels he has written? These include a politically-motivated protest against his debut work, Eruveyil (Rising Heat), which necessitated that he sneak in and out of his hometown for two years.

Fifth, when the Tamil literary world and – more importantly – the state itself had stood by him, how did the protests against him persist?

And, sixth, despite his agreeing to change sections of the novel and satisfy the demands of his detractors for the next edition, why did the protesters continue to harass him?

But my confusion transformed into terror, as the face of the protests changed.

It appeared Maadhorupagan was not the only problem. Murugan had dedicated his 2014 release Pookkuzhi to ‘Ilavarasan of Dharmapuri’. Ilavarasan, a Dalit, was one half of the famous Divya-Ilavarasan couple, whose inter-caste marriage caused riots that lasted for several weeks and made national headlines. Divya, who belongs to the Vanniyar caste, eventually filed for divorce, after her father committed suicide – there were rumours that the suicide was forced.  The case culminated in the suspicious death of Ilavarasan, whose body was found on the railway tracks. A suicide note was recovered, but the death remains murky.

And here was a writer, whose novel about an inter-caste marriage was dedicated to Ilavarasan.

When this issue was raised by the protesters, politicians who had voiced their support for Perumal Murugan began to demur.

In an email to me, Murugan said he was comforted by the support he had received from fellow-writers, but haunted by the idea that he must continue to live in an interior district of Tamil Nadu. In other words, people know where he lives, it is away from the city and the media, and he is worried about his family.

It appears that Murugan’s disregard for the unwritten rules that govern caste politics in Tamil Nadu has caught up with him. He wrote about the powerful Gounder community, to which he belongs. He wrote about the prejudice against Dalits. He has spoken out against forced land acquisition, and political malpractice.

Localised animosities have morphed into objections to his writing on the basis of religion and gender.

The protests have gained currency, and pulled law enforcers to the side that wants blood. The writer has been forced to choose between his safety and his calling.

I’m angry as a writer, because no one stands up to protect us when a crazed mob decides to target us. The idea that a writer could be in danger because he picked up a pen is chilling. The fact that we cannot rely on the authorities to protect us is scary.

I’m angry as a reader, because we have failed. We have failed again. We, as a country, failed Salman Rushdie when the land of his birth became the first country in the world to ban The Satanic Verses. Three decades later, we continue to fail.

I’m angry as a Tamilian, because in this state, which is run by Dravidian parties that boast of their atheist street-cred and anti-caste agenda, a writer has been silenced for making a reference to an extant religious practice, and for dedicating his book to a Dalit youth.

We need to ask ourselves what kind of country we live in, and what kind of times we live in. Can any of us recite our list of fundamental rights without laughing at the irony?  

And as we sashay around the high-profile literary events that are doing their rounds of the country – JLF, The Times Literary Carnival, Hindu Lit for Life, Delhi Book Fair, Chennai  Book Fair, you-name-it – let us remember that we cannot protect the writers whom we are celebrating.

How to organise a successful lit fest

(Published in DailyO, on January 13, 2015, retrieved from

Several years ago, I promised myself that I would not go to a lit fest until my first book had been published. I couldn’t resist the temptation when The Hindu’s Lit for Life cropped up at its original venue at the Hyatt, a kilometre down the road from my house, in 2011. That lit fest was sober and sedate, as if tailored to the tastes of the paper’s clientele. It made me wonder whether I should break my vow. In the time between my first lit fest and the last one I attended, my first book was published, my second is under way, I moved from the audience to the stage, and my perception of lit fests changed drastically.

Unlike those authors whose publishers interrupt their schedules to force them to market their books, I have no gripe with the commerce behind lit fests. I’m unemployed, I don’t have a schedule, and I quite like talking about myself. I also enjoy coming up with snide replies to questions such as, “To what extent is your book autobiographical?”, and “What advice do you have for aspiring authors?”

The only awkward experience I’ve had on the festival circuit is Chetan Bhagat cutting ahead of me in a queue for drinks, calling, “Yaar, ek Black Dog dedo”, nodding to me, and saying “cheers” before he left. That aside, I got to talk to writers whose works have influenced my thought, ideas, principles, and even my life, since I was in my teens.

Also, with at least one major lit fest for every metropolis – and another for every national daily, it seems – and about 200 writers and assorted celebrities being invited to each, they make for rather lovely all-expenses-paid reunions. At last count, there were over 60 annual lit fests of varying size and consistent shape. During the day, panellists try to decode ‘-isms’, after which the well-known ones sign books their readers have bought, and the newbies autograph scraps of paper for students. During the evening, everyone grumbles about the day, and over good wine and bad food, some authors corner agents, and the others befriend each other.

However, my chief takeaway from the lit fests I’ve attended – or followed in the papers – is that I now know how to organise one.

Aim: To create a successful, and enduring, lit fest.

  • 3 hats, a pen and lots of paper
  • 6-7 Nobel Prize winners, Booker Prize winners and nominees, and other inhabitants of the literary and cultural stratosphere
  • 10-15 bestselling authors, ranging from those who write grammatically incorrect now-a-major-Hollywood-motion-picture-type novels, to those who write grammatically incorrect could-have-been-plagiarised-by-Bollywood-type novels
  • 2-4 lit fest item numbers – film stars and sport stars
  • Random assortment of tabloid journalists, serial house-party attendees, magazine editors, or anyone else who can be found in Market Café or Pali Village Café on weekday afternoons
  • 8-9 writers who have been freshly unleashed into the market
  • 2-3 academics whose books are only available in the libraries of the universities in which they teach, usually because these are their PhD dissertations
  • One person whose presence would offend either liberals or fundamentalists
  • 1,000 or more audience members who chiefly want to know how to get published, and why Indian writing in English is in English, rather than in languages which would be inaccessible to most of them


There are several intricate steps involved here, of which the first is determining the topics. In order to impress an audience, one must have at least three parallel sessions through an eight-hour day, and a self-respecting lit fest lasts between three and five days. So, that’s over a hundred discrete topics.

No worries. Algorithms will solve all your problems. Here’s how. First, cut all your paper up into tiny bits.

Step 1: Fill one of the hats with papers containing words like "writing", "expression", "subjugation", "dynamics", and "rule”

Step 2: Fill a second hat with papers containing words like "modern", "subaltern", "post-colonial", "Western", "Asian", and "vernacular".

Step 3: Fill the third hat with papers containing words like "alienation", "feminism", "race", "women", "colonisation", "rape", "languages", and "independence".

Step 4: Pick a random word from each box, and link using a random preposition.

Inevitably, the resulting string of words will sound like an important topic, providing scope for panellists whose work has nothing to do with the string to discuss it for an hour, and even inspiring the audience to ask long-winded questions.

If one is feeling particularly creative, however, one may want to customise topics for certain panels. There are several ways to go about this, but the Stretch-Till-You-Retch school of wordplay is time-tested.

The methodology depends on whether one is in the mood to single out each inhabitant of the literary stratosphere for ignominy, rage, and angst, or whether one is in the mood to punish each inhabitant of the literary stratosphere by forcing him into the company of either his fellow-inhabitants, or those he derides, envies, and fears – the writers of bestselling-major-motion-picture-type books.

The former case calls for derivative topics like "The Master of Johannesburg: The Life and Times of JM Coetzee". Yes, I do know where he’s from, but factual errors and offensive topics are key ingredients of all lit fests, especially when you’re an advocate of stretch-till-you-retch wordplay.

In the latter case, one could do a mash-up of the authors’ book titles. So, you’d have "A Million Point One Mutinies Sometime: The Revolution in Indian Literature", maybe, starring VS Naipaul and Chetan Bhagat. Or, "The Famished Code: Is Popular Fiction Given its Due?", starring Ben Okri and Dan Brown. Or "My Name is A Suitable Enchantress". You get the picture. But, do note that a panel comprising more than one star writer must be moderated by a vacuous panellist who hasn’t read any of the books they have written.

Now, a lit fest which invites only authors is barely worthy of its epithet. You must have a celebrated chef on board, to discuss food with one of the erstwhile royals of the country, or perhaps with a sex-and-gossip columnist. In that case, you could give it a suitably asinine title, like "Meals and Bun: The Story of my Love Affair with Food".

The session topic is crucial when you have an incompatible star panel – let’s say, off the top of my head, Amartya Sen, Prannoy Roy, Amitabh Bachchan, George RR Martin, and Vishwanathan Anand – because the topic must acknowledge all of them, while sounding equally esoteric to each. Something like "Game of Thrones: Is the Indian Sarkar making the right moves in the West?" would ensure that each of the panellists is as confused as his neighbour, and topics about which no one can speak with authority are important components of a lit fest.

Any Indian lit fest must devote at least an hour to discussing Pakistan. Twitter, Bollywood, cricket, and diplomacy must feature prominently. This is best done with a topic such as "Jab We Didn’t Meet: Does the Future of India-Pak Friendship Depend on Social Networking?"

Of course, the press will not take notice of a lit fest unless it is associated with a protest. That poses a problem, because writers welcome affronts and bizarre experiences – they make good raw material for forthcoming books. So, one must rely on the phalanx of journalists and columnists who praise each other’s forgettable forays into poetry and magic realism, while eschewing most good fiction until it is nominated for, or wins, a prestigious prize. Hopefully, one of these people will fail to recognise an Arjuna Awardee, or hold forth on the importance of forgiving rapists.

But a good lit fest needs a foolproof controversy plan, which is why one must always invite a high-profile guest who has earned the wrath of religious fundamentalists – or, even better, bleeding-heart liberals – and then revoke the invitation on public demand.

Conclusion: You know how music festivals are all about bands playing their music, and driving their fans crazy, and everyone getting stoned and... having fun? Unless you want your lit fest to be about literature and those who love it, do follow the directions above, lest you end up with sessions that panellists actually enjoy.

Monday, January 12, 2015

We need to be more open about Islamic terror

(Published in, on January 12, 2015, retrieved from

In the days since the Charlie Hebdo office was attacked, and twelve of its staff murdered by Islamic terrorists, I have been reading apologia over the attack – the most disgusting line is of the “I am not Charlie Hebdo because I don’t seek to offend” persuasion, where columnists pontificate about how the paper should have refrained from publishing its "blasphemous" and "offensive" cartoons and articles; as insidious, are the posts about how one ought to stay safe, and protect one’s employees, by not publishing content that could incite an attack, a stance which many senior editors have taken, either for the love of being different, or – less forgivably – for the love of peace.

First of all, has there been anything as uninteresting as a politically correct satirical paper?

Perhaps people are propping up this idea, because the world of liberals that we inhabit is so terrified of the ‘Islamophobe’ tag that we feel compelled to take a more lenient view of Islamic terror than we should. We hurry to throw in lines about Jewish terror, and Hindutva and Christian extremism, so that we will be seen as being secular in our rage against terror.

However, it is important to separate Islamic terror from other kinds of religious extremism, in today’s world, simply because it has resulted in more deaths over artistic freedom than any other. It is not politically driven, or a revolt against ethnic discrimination, but driven by a misinterpreted ideology – an ideology that is being used to foster a victim complex among Muslims across the world.

To shy away from condemning Islamic terror, indeed from singling it out for fear of offending our Muslim friends is an offensive act in itself, because we are: (a) refusing to acknowledge that Islam is separate from Islamic terror (b) exempting Muslims from having been the victims of terrorist attacks themselves.

This is why I am angry with the slew of articles that state that Muslims should not be apologising for the terror perpetrated by those who claim to represent their religion. The point is redundant. To hate fundamentalist militants is not to hate Muslims. To hate fundamentalist militants is to hate a particular faction of cruel, depraved individuals, whose lust for blood and power and monopoly has led them to use religion as a ploy.

The Imam of Paris’ Grand Mosque was among the first to condemn the attacks, so let’s not confuse Islamic terror with Islam.

The reason I stress the need to separate Islamic terror from others, and the reason I stress the importance of not enabling the notion of “respect for religions” is that Muslim extremist gunmen have claimed many lives for “sins” ranging from the translation of allegedly “blasphemous” novels, to the “portrayal” of Muslims in “a bad light”.

Salman Rushdie’s Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was stabbed to death, and his killer was never found.

Filmmaker Theo Van Gogh was killed for making a film about the ways in which the Quran can be misinterpreted to exercise violence against, and control over, women.
His collaborator on the film, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, can barely make a speech without threats preceding the event.

And yet, we hesitate to speak out against Islamic terror in the manner we would against Hindutva terror, just as we hesitate to speak out against the burkha – flag-bearing feminists whom I know insist that wearing the burkha must also be seen as a choice, ignoring the fact that the garment, in itself, is an acknowledgment that the female body can distract, and should not, and that women are responsible for ensuring that it does not.

While the artistic fraternity swarmed around in support of M F Husain, and now Perumal Murugan, there was no such protest in favour of Salman Rushdie when his book was banned. Yes, the campaigns in favour of Husain and Murugan have not been effective, but the outrage counts as a gesture.

Inimical to the notion of freedom are the cluster of articles that clamour for us to “respect” religion. I wonder whether the writers of these articles, and the people posting those links, even understand that they are apologists of the most execrable, condemnable kind.

What irony that this view is being offered after an attack in the land of Voltaire, whose worldview his biographer Evelyn Hall described with the oft-quoted "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

I'm almost more angered by people pontificating about Islamophobia, and how Europe is getting it back for having raped the world, than by the terrorist act in itself.

No religion should be above criticism, and its crazed practitioners should definitely not be above criticism. The right to free speech should not succumb to fear, or "respect".

A few years ago, The Onion took a dig at Islamic terror with its NSFW post “No one murdered because of this image” – a drawing that showed an orgy involving Jesus, Moses, the Laughing Buddha and Ganesha.

Even as I write this, I know I will be accused of being anti-Muslim, which I most definitely am not. If an outfit belonging to any of the above religions decided to attack The Onion, I would immediately bracket the perpetrators with the perpetrators of the assault on Charlie Hebdo.

Often, we stop just short of saying what we really want to say, for fear of being misunderstood, at best, and killed, at worst. But saying these things, and drawing these "blasphemous" and "offensive" cartoons, repeatedly, is the only way of showing extremists that they have not won.
Islam does not need apologists. It needs the world to acknowledge a distinction between its peaceful practitioners and its militant proponents.

And religion does not deserve any more respect than politics, or sports, in a newspaper. The media is, by definition, secular and open to different views. We need to be unafraid, as writers and cartoonists. We need to ensure that the adage, “The pen is mightier than the sword” is not proved wrong.

Most of all, when people say they’re offended, we need to be able to turn back and say, as Stephen Fry did, “So fucking what?”

The moment we believe that people are owed a lifetime of freedom from contradictory viewpoints, we are lost.

Friday, January 02, 2015

How to save your New Year’s Day

(Published in The Friday Times, on January 2, 2015, retrieved from

A host of predictable assaults in the week leading up to New Year, and the week following it, is as inevitable as the screening of Love, Actuallyon five different movie channels and at every second house party on Christmas. And almost more irritating.

Of course, there’s the painful, “What’s your New Year resolution?” text, often made more annoying by the use of smileys and quicktext. My instincts beg me to shoot off a reply which my Autocorrect would tamely suggest is, “To cut out aunts like you from my life”. However, since nastiness has been proven to make the perpetrator more alluring, it would not be the best idea.

Since I came out as a misanthrope, I have become infinitely more desirable at house parties.

Thankfully, the birthday of one of my brothers falls on the first of January, which is the perfect excuse to avoid ridiculous New Year’s Eve parties, and sloppy alcohol-flavoured kisses from overenthusiastic women and fat men.

However, my brother’s birthday unfortunately doesn’t shield me from clichéd texts and Facebook tags.

And so, I have armed myself with the right tools of defence against the New Year. One was the serendipitous discovery of James Franco’s poetry. Franco’s superpower is the ability to make people melt by making eye contact through celluloid. His poetry’s superpower is the ability to make readers’ skin crawl, and their hair stand on end. His repertoire ranges from the vacuous – "There is a fake version of me / And he's the one that writes / These poems. / He has an attitude and a swagger / That I don't have" – to the bewildering – one of his ‘poems’ is essentially a list of Heath Ledger’s films, containing the slow-clap-inducing tribute "You were the knight in A Knight's Tale".

On Facebook, I threatened to send lines from his poetry to anyone who wishes me and my family a prosperous New Year, and/or suggests that all my dreams may come true this year.

The responses to that post alerted me to another threat. Most people are so dense, and bad poetry is so in, that the recipients of Franco’s experiments with self-indulgence may think you’re actually doing them a favour. In which case, they may either reciprocate the gesture by sending you their own collections of poetry, or persist with wishing you for every non-occasion, in the hope that you will text or email them more verses.

And so, it may be a better idea to threaten these people with shirtless pictures of Anil Kapoor, which ought to be an unequivocal deterrent to all but the morbidly masochistic.

My second safety measure was to rewrite my name on Facebook in the Naskh script, which ensures that few people can find me, and no one can tag me without going through an elaborate procedure of navigate-scroll-copy-paste, or getting lucky with Google Translate. Of course, as someone proved with a comment on my status making the announcement, there are those who will take the trouble, undaunted. But then, one must respect such persistence, and throw them the odd bone.

My third safety measure has been to make a random cryptic announcement on Facebook, which will make people think twice about wishing me, along the lines of: "Thank you to everyone who has stood by me during this difficult time. I’ll be all right. Still not taking phone calls, or checking messages." Naturally, some idiots will respond with comments such as, "Hey, what hap? U ok?", but they rarely expect acknowledgements, leave alone replies.

My fourth has been to put up a customised Batman-slapping-Robin-meme cover picture, which ought to make evident my dislike of people who assure me that it’s been a great year, and thank me for being an unwilling part of it.

My fifth measure is saved for when all else fails, and that’s stonewalling with absolute honesty.

Q: What are you doing for New Year’s????

A: Refusing to respond to texts with excessive punctuation marks.

Q: What are you doing for New Year’s?

A: Watching TV.

Q: What!!!! Why don’t you come have drinks and ring in the New Year with us????

A: What does it tell you that I would rather watch a bunch of people scrambling to find love before the ball drops in Times Square than ring in the New Year with you?

The last could backfire. One of my stupider acquaintances’ major takeaway from the text was that I needed to find love before balls started dropping across the world, and sent me this a day or two later:

Hi Nandini, A writer friend recently single would be interested to meet u....shall I give him your number? xx

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Why we all need to read Perumal Murugan’s Maadhorubagan

(Published in, on December 30, 2014, retrieved from

In India, we only need to chance upon a cover, or glance through a blurb, in order to demand that a book be banned because it offends our sensibilities. And, usually, the government obliges.

It happened with Salman Rushdie, when the country of his birth banned the book even before Iran did.

It happened with Wendy Doniger, when Penguin pulped existing copies of the book and withdrew sales, ironically pushing a book that was barely sought after to the top of the bestseller lists internationally.

The reaction has become a joke among authors: all of us wish each other good luck with getting our books banned, so that they will go viral.

But underneath the sardonic wishes is real fear.

Thankfully, it appears that vernacular writers look out for each other in a manner that writers of English literature don’t, and that’s heartening.

However, despite the loud voices of support for Perumal Murugan, and the rallies organised to protest against the call for a ban, the threats to the author and the demands for his arrest have not abated.

Strangely enough, the people threatening him, and accusing him of denigrating women, are the same ones who call me a slut for “going against Indian culture” every time I suggest that a woman has a right not to get raped.

The fact is that no one who is familiar with Perumal Murugan’s work could possibly suspect him of insulting women.

The novel in question, Maadhorubagan, is neither against women nor any of the gods. It is a nuanced story of how two people become victims of societal norms. Having read both the original Tamil version, and its English translation One Part Woman, I can vouch for its exquisite literary finesse as well as the importance of its subject.

The book is about Kali and Ponna, a couple who are deeply in love, and constantly desirous of each other’s bodies. However, their “failure” to have children, which doesn’t bother them, is exploited by their narrow-minded, jealous, cruel social circle to drive a wedge between them.

The author’s preoccupation in the novel is the idea of procreation, and how that distorts societal behaviour, individual behaviour, as well as relationships.

The climax of the novel is set at a temple festival, but it is not with the belief which forms the core of the novel that the author takes issue. For those who are unfamiliar with the novel, this belief is that all men become ‘gods’ on the last day of the festival, and are empowered to grant a barren woman a child; and this idea has people conspiring to send these women ‘alone to the hill’, unaccompanied by their husbands, to be impregnated by a ‘god’.

Murugan’s main concern in the climax of the novel is not even the superstition, which is treated as part of the region’s social fabric and belief system, but the callousness of people who would trick a woman into becoming part of this ritual. The main themes of the novel are the illogical pressure society puts on people to reproduce, and the way in which people interfere in the lives of others, especially when those lives are happy.

Even so, it could be argued that even this society is more progressive and pro-women than most others, in that they first suspect the man of infertility, rather than assume that it is the woman’s fault.

Perumal Murugan’s 2008 novel Kanganam (Resolve) deals with female foeticide and infanticide.

It is quite ridiculous that the charge which has been brought against him is that his work is disrespectful of women.

Perhaps it is Murugan’s insistence that writing is not a campaign vehicle, and his manner of subtly teasing the reader into contemplation, that has got him into trouble. His 1991novel Eru Veyil (Rising Heat) which describes a man whose ancestral land is being sold in order to make way for industrialisation, became so politically controversial that Murugan had to leave his village and visit in secret for years. Kanganam has a scene in which a man lusts after the shadow of a woman, who turns out to be his own mother, and Murugan received flak for it.

Born into a family of farmers, in which he was the first to go to college, Murugan has made such a mark with his writing that he has a fan following as far away as Poland. His Nizhal Mutram (published in English as Current Show) was translated into Polish, to a tremendous response. The book is set in the 1970s, and is about children who sell snacks at a rural cinema theatre. During an interview I did with him for Open Magazine, he told me with wonder that people in Poland had written to him, saying they could relate to it. At the time, he said, “I think all writing contains a humanism that transcends language and culture and comfort zones.”

We as a country should be ashamed that such a writer is accused of using language to insult a culture, and that attempts are being made to force him out of his own comfort zone. Where is the humanism in intolerance?

When I wrote to him in the wake of the controversy, I received a heartbreaking reply by email. He said he felt encouraged by the support he has received from the Tamil literary world, but that he is preoccupied by the thought that he lives in the countryside, where he is exposed to his haters.

When did our India become a country where authors had to fear for their lives?

Was it when we became the first to ban Salman Rushdie’s novel? Or, was it when, a decade and a half after the fatwa against him was revoked, we wouldn’t allow him to speak at a literary festival for fear of bigots?

Was it when we pulped Wendy Doniger’s book, for fear of bigots?

I am passionately proud of my country, and the reason I am proud of it is its secularity, and the space it allows for different voices with different views. If we lose that, we lose everything, except the bigots.

And, unless we are among the bigots who will troll this article, we should be among those who stand in the way of their stripping the secular fabric, and the right to freedom of expression, that have been quintessential to the idea of India.

Perhaps ordering Murugan’s books, in the original (as a gesture, even if one can’t read the language) and the translation, could be a start to this resistance.

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