Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Let’s face it: There’s no cause, and no forgiveness, for rape

(Published on December 15, 2014, on Sify.com, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/lets-face-it-theres-no-cause-and-no-forgiveness-for-rape-news-columns-ompiSjehifaee.html)



Every time there is a high-profile rape – and how abhorrent it is that, in this country, we must divide rapes into ‘high-profile’ and ‘everyday’ – there is a mushrooming of reactions across media. There are the open letters, and the open letters written in response to those open letters.

But, far worse than the sometimes-amusing, more-often-self-righteous, and usually-poorly-framed open letters, are two breeds of consciously contrarian writing.

One is that women should look after themselves, because, hey, this is not a free country. I mean, it’s free, but that doesn’t mean one can wear what one wants. I mean, one can wear what one wants, but that means there will be consequences. I mean...

And the other, more insidious, kind is the one that urges us to look at the reasons behind rape, the kind that exhorts us to examine the background of rapists, and treat them as human beings whose criminal tendencies are but a natural consequences of their upbringings – what can you expect from boys who have grown up in poverty, and watched their mothers and sisters being abused, the poor little darlings? – and the kind that points out that Norway’s luxurious prisons have worked as rehabilitation centres.

Well, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that line of reasoning. There is no reason behind rape, except love of the power one enjoys over someone who has been deprived of agency. And there is no justification for that power. A person who enjoys and exploits that kind of power does not deserve the dignity of being treated as a human being.

One only has to glance through the newspaper pages when the annual school examination results are printed, for stories of what other consequences being raised in an impoverished household can have. Every year, there are stories of toppers who went to government schools, and of children of food-cart vendors who got into prestigious institutions. Some of our best known film stars, sports icons, and politicians spent their childhoods in penury.

As for the high-security prison in Norway whose rooms are better-equipped than the last student dorm in which I lived, I think it is a thorough injustice that a terrorist like Anders Behring Breivik may be sent to live a life of comfort. Perhaps the rate of crime and repeat crime has gone down in Norway, but that is easily controlled in a country with a population that is a fraction of that of India – perhaps a fraction of that of some Indian states.

People who commit heinous crimes, such as murder and rape, cannot and should not be rehabilitated. They must be punished.
I hope the columnists who constantly write about the need to "forgive" and "reform" rapists understand that they're quite like the women who write love letters to men on death row. You cannot reform a rapist, and should not forgive one. The only solution is to lock him or her up and throw away the key.
Yes, it may not bring down rapes drastically, but it will bring down the chances of that particular rapist finding more victims.
Equally, a life of witnessing abuse cannot season one to commit abuse. If it does, it is less forgivable, if anything.
As for the argument that women must take care of themselves because cities aren’t safe, why don’t the men and women who say this stop to ask themselves who makes it unsafe? Because it is not simply rapists, but also people like you – people who set social norms of acceptable, or safe, dressing. What anti-rape clothes would you recommend? Cowls such as the burkha, niqab, hijab, nun’s habits, and whatever else are passed off as “modest” dressing for women? Jeans, because they are difficult to pull off? Sarees, because they are considered demure?
What anti-rape measures would you have women and men take (because, let’s not forget, many, many men are sexually abused too)? Pepper spray? Knives? Keep talking to someone on the phone throughout the car ride? Ensure that one doesn’t get drunk unless one is being driven home by a spouse, or trusted friend or partner? Make sure one stays awake while travelling alone?
Well, none of the above clothes or measures has been foolproof.
It is probably sensible to stay awake when one is alone in rented transport, but failure to do so doesn’t justify rape.
A few years ago, in Delhi, when I was working twelve-hour days through six-day weeks, I dozed off in an auto, against my best efforts.  The driver stopped by the side of the road and called out to me, to say that the book I was reading had fallen to the floor. I remember waking up, startled and disorientated, and staring in panic out of the auto, to make sure I wasn’t in some deserted alley.
What is wrong with our world is that a woman lives with the constant fear of rape, the constant threat of being raped if she lets her guard down for a single moment.
And it does not help when people helpfully point out that it’s a good idea not to fall asleep in rented transport, or ask why a couple who spent more than a thousand rupees on the evening’s entertainment should choose to take a bus home.
The victims are not to blame. The rapists are not to be forgiven.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

That awkward moment when…

(Published in The Friday Times, on December 5, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/that-awkward-moment-when/)


It has been one of those months. It has, in fact, been one of those years.  I have travelled too much, and met too many people. I have been to several writing and acting workshops in several cities, several literary festivals in several countries, and made too many Facebook friends for my comfort. The only upside of such an aberration in my schedule, which is usually divided between classes in dance and music, writing, and sleeping, is that I have contrived to offend more people than I ever aspired to cut out of my life.

Here are five stellar moments:

“Have you read her book?”

When people ask me for feedback on their work, I know they are looking for help in dealing with their insecurities. Most insecurities are justified, and should ideally exist for the greater good of the greater number. I usually tend to find neutral praise, such as:

Q: “So, what did you think of my acting in the play?”

A: “It must have meant so much to you, this play. You have been in rehearsal for so long! It shows.”

However, when I’m paid to reinforce insecurities, I go the whole hog. Once I had to undergo the trauma of reading a cloying collection of clichés that had been bound into a work that aspired to magic realism. I wrote a review nasty enough for compensate for the three days which I had spent with the book. Unfortunately, I moved to the city where the writer lives, and have been running into the writer at nearly every literary event held in the city.
We have been introduced to each other at least seven times, and we pretend we have never met before. The facade died when someone asked me, the last time we were introduced, “So...have you read her book?”

“I think you guys will really get along...”

I’m not sure why, but a particular acquaintance of mine has been wanting me to fix her up with someone – anyone, really. She is under the (right) impression that I meet a lot of interesting people, and under the (wrong) impression that I might want to subject them to her company and body. However, I did sense an opportunity to get rid of her repeated requests when I met someone so obnoxious that I thought they may deserve each other. Yet, I had not bargained for her to reply to my email introduction with, “Uhh...this is awkward, but, actually, we used to go out five years ago.”

“I’ve spent a traumatic three hours with...”

I dislike the company of most people, but intensely dislike the company of people with loud voices. In fact, I dislike their company only marginally less than I do the company of people who interrupt. For years, I used to stop speaking when I was interrupted, partly because I had heard that that was the polite thing to do, and partly because I am even less articulate than usual once my thread of thought has been interrupted. And so, after spending an afternoon with a loud-voiced interrupter, I wrote out this text: “I’ve just spent an entire bloody afternoon wanting to shoot myself through the head, thanks to *insert name*. I’ve decided I’m not going to stop talking when someone interrupts, ever again. It is up to the listener to make an intelligent choice.” As things happened, the loud-voiced interrupter had so made an impression on my brain that I sent the text to him, instead of to the friend I had intended.

“Inge pakkathule irukkaale...”

Most people would understand as little of the above three words as you do. It is the beginning of a Tamil sentence, and Tamil is spoken in one state of India. Which is why it was a great idea to speak it in Paris, to the two people who understood it, when I wanted to made snide remarks. Which is also why it was a great idea to speak it in Hampi, to the two people who understood it, when a group of shrill women was getting on my nerves. And which is why it was not such a great idea to come back to my city after a month away, and speak it loudly in a coffee shop, when I wanted to bitch about people in the vicinity.

Relatively speaking...

...this isn’t the worst thing I’ve done in the last year, and the world could do with a few pun-makers being told they are luxuriating in the lowest form of humour – well, hell, the lowest form of wordplay, which is the lowest form of humour – but when one says, “Hey...you’ll have to excuse me. I have to get out of here. It looks like that man is going to join us, and I can’t stand his stupid puns”, one would ideally want to avoid the interlocutor turning out to be the daughter of the subject.

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Rajinikanth is best for jokes, not politics

(Published in Daily O, India Today, on November 20, 2014, retrieved from http://www.dailyo.in/art-and-culture/superstar-rajinikanth-or-loser-politician/story/1/730.html)

"We have no Pongal and no Deepavali. Our Thailaiva's movie release dates are our Pongal, Deepavali, New Year, Christmas, Eid, Navratri, everything."
It was the day before tickets were to go on sale for Chandramukhi, in early 2005. The speaker was a rickshaw puller, who had arrived with a tarpaulin sheet, to camp overnight outside a cinema hall. I was a rookie journalist, covering the Rajinikanth hysteria.
Nearly a decade later, more than 3,000 fans crowded into the venue of the audio release for Rajinikanth's newest offering, Lingaa, this Sunday. It has been more than four years since his last in-the-flesh film, Robot/Enthiranwas released. In the interim, the shoddy Kochadaiiyaan (2014), his first animated film, became a box-office debacle. Despite the fact that Rajinikanth had been hospitalised several times in the preceding year, even his crazed fans couldn't salvage the film's box office performance. Was Rajinikanth's appeal waning?
At the time, I had written that the 63-year-old actor perhaps has one last in-the-flesh film left in him.
In a state which has only had chief ministers from the film industry for nearly half a century, it would make sense for Rajinikanth to segue from acting into politics. Jayalalithaa's conviction in the disproportionate assets case has created possibilities on which the "superstar" may capitalise, if he were to take the plunge.
Rajinikanth has often been asked about his plans to enter politics. He has traditionally evaded them, usually with some form of humble-brag. However, at the audio release function, when he was urged to run for chief minister in 2016 - by a film director who, incidentally, ceded his copyright over the title "Lingaa" so that Rajinikanth could use the name for his film - he said, "I am not afraid of politics, but I am wary. I don't know where my path will take me, but if it leads me there and if god wants me to do it, then I will strive to do good for people."
Vairamuthu, a well-known Tamil film lyricist, said, "No one can push him to enter politics, but when he decides to do it, no one can stop him."
If one didn't know better, one would think the questions and comments were orchestrated.
Ever since Rajinikanth met Narendra Modi during his campaign in Tamil Nadu, in the lead-up to the General Election, there has been increasing speculation over his impending entry into politics, fuelled by his meeting with the BJP state president. The rest of India woke up to Rajinikanth when he started acting with Bollywood heroines - Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone, and now Sonakshi Sinha - and began to wonder what the secret of his appeal is. We, down south, have been trying to figure it out for two and a half decades.
It is, perhaps, a combination of Rajinikanth's marketing acumen and his dreamlike rags-to-riches story. Actors-turned-politicians such as MG Ramachandran - who was Jayalalithaa's mentor - and Vijayakanth have used their films as campaign vehicles, playing characters who were patriots and reformers and spokespeople for the oppressed. DMK patriarch Karunanidhi used to be a film writer, whose scripts contained heavy overtones of Dravida politics. But Rajinikanth's charms are not confined to his screen roles. He is a school dropout, whose family was so poor that he devoted most of his teens to working menial jobs by day and acting in plays by night. His real-life transformation from bus conductor to superstar makes a more dramatic story than the most escapist of his films.
Incredibly, Rajinikanth has managed to actively foster the "superstar" epithet - he starred in a film with a signature song that reinforced the sobriquet - even while having his humility documented by camera crews who follow him on barefoot Himalayan pilgrimages. His family organised a festival celebrating his 25th year in cinema. The producers of Chandramukhi ensured that the film ran for 890 days in a theatre owned by them, playing to empty halls towards the end, just so that it would break a record for the longest-running Tamil film.
If the actor were to run for office, his popularity and PR skills could see a man with no administrative experience or political know-how take over the state that made him a superstar.
He's making the right noises. But will the momentum of the film be enough to carry him through to 2016? Or will he decide that Tamil Nadu has learnt to separate the man from the make-believe, and refuse to throw his hat in the ring?
Perhaps it would be best for Rajinikanth to bow out of his career, leaving behind a legacy of Chuck Norris style jokes, and a tradition of casting unattractive men in lead roles for Tamil films.

5 ways to end a conversation

(Published in The Friday Times, on November 21, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/5-ways-to-end-a-conversation/)

A while ago, I discovered that my style of comedy – and even comic writing – tends to be so deadpan as to leave most people in doubt over whether I am serious or not. Often, I am not entirely sure myself.

Several times, I have had to kill one of my own jokes in the interest of saving a tedious acquaintanceship. Eventually, I realised that I was looking through the wrong end of the tunnel.

As someone who holds views that are perceived as contrarian, but which really boil down to a matter of convenience – such as the idea that women ought to be given special treatment for generally existing – it is incredibly easy for me to end meandering conversations to which I am regularly subjected.

Like most superpowers, I discovered mine by serendipity.

“It is most natural for two women to discuss the men in their lives”

I found myself in a group of playwrights. I hadn’t realised they were all feminists. I usually don’t. So, we were asked to put our plays through the Bechdel test – which rates films or plays based on the presence of two or more women who speak to each other about something other than men. The test doesn’t mention makeup, as far as I know, or children.

Being rather more partial to the sound of my own voice than anyone else’s – with the possible exception of Benedict Cumberbatch, who was not at the table at the time – I said, “When two women get together, it is most natural for them to discuss the men in their lives. And once they start, they rarely talk about anything else.”

The other women at the table burst into a hiss of righteous anger, scaring away the unfortunate lone gentleman among us. Apparently, none of the others discussed her partner with any of her female friends. One left the table in her fury, and the others looked at me with the expression usually reserved for the moment when I declare myself vegetarian.

When I was recounting this to another gentleman I know, he asked whether all these women were happily married. I replied, “Sadly, there’s no way we’ll ever know, because they never talk about their husbands.”

“James Bond shouldn’t be henpecked”

I decided to push the envelope a little further the next time I found myself among a group of aspiring activists.

Like most people of suitable sexual orientation, I endured the film version of The English Patient chiefly because of Ralph Fiennes, who contrived to look sexy even when most of his skin had peeled off. My delight at his taking over as M was only partially adulterated by my love for action bromance.

However, the most effective way to annoy aspiring activists is to say that M ought not to have been a woman, “because James Bond shouldn’t be, you know, henpecked.”

“I haven’t heard of Khaled Hosseini. Is he a singer?”

Worldwide, there is an entire generation of readers who aren’t sure of the difference between Paulo Coelho and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Even more unfortunately, before the likes of Chetan Bhagat broke all rules of grammar, everyone writing from the subcontinent was perceived as a literary figure.

Nothing gives me more pleasure than pretending I don’t know who Khaled Hosseini is, when people ask me whether I liked The Kite Runner.

“What is that?”

The Kite Runner! I mean...THE KITE RUNNER. Khaled Hosseini.”

“I haven’t heard of him. Is he a singer?”

 “I have a medical condition which makes it difficult for me to get married”

Since I turned twelve, some of my relatives have been planning my wedding. In the intervening years, several have successfully turned their daughters into dumpier, whinier versions of themselves.

And so it happened that, a few days ago, one of my cousins asked me, “So, listen, when are you going to get married?”

“Around the time you lose weight, I guess.”

“You know I have a medical condition which makes it difficult for me to lose weight.”

Yeah, it’s called ‘gluttony’. “And I have a medical condition which makes it difficult for me to get married?”

“Oh! Really?” the cousin leans forward eagerly.

“Yeah. High IQ.”

“My idea of the perfect thriller drama is Homeland”

For the longest time, I wanted to tell someone from Kazakhstan that my favourite film is Borat. I succeeded three years ago.

Ever since Homeland launched its new season, which appears to have Pakistan confused with Yemen, I’ve begun to believe that this one drama is more likely to precipitate a diplomatic crisis between Pakistan and America than any militant group ever was.

And, so, I’ve decided that the next Aman ki Asha type peacenik venture could do with this icebreaker: “My idea of the perfect thriller drama is Homeland.” And it is somehow poetic that the first episode had one of the characters searching for his ma-behn.

Kiss of Love: Open letter to the guardians of our culture

(Published in Sify.com, on November 10, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/kiss-of-love-open-letter-to-the-guardians-of-our-culture-news-national-olklWzegiafbg.html)



Dear Guardians of Indian culture,

First, please accept my gratitude for destroying a coffee shop that was alleged by a Malayalam channel – and its bitter-looking anchor – to have been nurturing amoral, amorous activity in its premises.

I was horrified by the video. First, the garish pink umbrella which was being shared – shared, I shudder to even think – by a mixed-sex couple...the colour of that umbrella may have permanently affected my sight. It also appeared that a woman wearing white clothes was passionately kissing several men. Or, it may have been two similarly-built women in similar clothes – the video was blurred, so I couldn’t tell.

The anchor pointed out, I think – my Malayalam is only marginally better than my Russian – that, in the guise of a car park, the coffee shop had provided a secluded area for such rendezvous. It seemed that people were – god forbid – actually having fun. Some groups even had a couple of women in the mix.

Just when it appeared that all of India’s cultural richness was going to be destroyed over several cups of coffee, you showed up like old-fashioned warriors, complete with flags.

You went on to break all the glass that you could see – save for the cameras that were recording your heroics.

Not only did this scare people away from this love-nest-in-the-guise-of-a-coffee-shop, but it also provided fodder for the Swachch Bharat campaign. I mean, at the very least, it spared municipal workers from carting along garbage in order to create a photo-op for our charming politicians.

Your intentions were no doubt excellent.

However, they have led to this execrable Kiss of Love campaign. First, a husband and wife decided to kiss in public. Despite their having given notice of their plans, the courts refused to put a stop to this act, leaving it to the police to make a last minute decision.

The fact that it was last minute allowed people to gather in force. What did you expect, really? Traditionally, or at least stereotypically, Malayali men based in Kerala are supposed to be at a disadvantage where the Casanova moves are concerned, you know. And now, suddenly, women were willing to make out with them, all for a good cause.

You did well in having the police arrest the peaceful protesters, after first allowing them to be attacked by the aggressive protesters who were protesting against their peaceful protest.

Yet, this seems to have spawned off a chain reaction.

Women were willing to kiss IIT boys.

I mean, IIT boys.

Think about it. Across India, any given IIT campus is a bigger sausage fest than a mediaeval war sequence in a Hollywood film. There are fewer monsters and creatures, and far fewer women. The sex ratio is more skewed than 300. Hell, it’s more skewed than The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

As an Indian woman, I am deeply affronted by this departure from our traditions – never in our history have we given college boys, leave alone IIT boys, so much bhao.

Worse, all the spots that lovers have painstakingly found for themselves – the university campuses in all the metropolises, abandoned bridges and shady lanes, which senior citizens frequent with torches and moral high ground – will now lose their significance.

And so, I encourage you to persist with your campaign against Public Display of Affection (PDA).

I must confess at this point that I have a personal stake in the matter.

As a stand-up comedienne, I find the prospect of PDA being legalised extremely disturbing – most of my routines involve imitations of cops threatening to call up the geriatric parents of middle-aged couples who are caught making out in their cars.

So, I hope that you will always have armies of destruction-loving, sexually frustrated young men at hand, to willingly vandalise coffee shops and college campuses where people of opposite sexes are found engaging in face-to-face human interaction.

To concede to our hormonal impulses – wait, I’ll have to rephrase that, given that this may also cover the activities of your young men on their violent missions...umm, let’s say: 
To concede to the call of our procreative hormones, outside the bounds of an auspicious and socially-blessed marriage (no manglik, bhaichara etc, you know), would destroy the moral fabric of our society.

While it is important to maintain our status as one of the world’s most populous nations – and, dude, we’re going to overtake China in the near future – we must equally ensure that no one has fun doing it.

The courts’ hesitation to rule against marital rape is a case in point.

I humbly submit my imploration that you will follow the footsteps of our learned judiciary, and do the same.

My best regards,

Bharatiya Nari

Monday, November 10, 2014

5 party games that need to be banned

(Published in The Friday Times, on November 7, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/5-party-games-that-need-to-be-banned/)


Picture Courtesy: The Friday Times

I’m not sure why people have random house parties. Right, so maybe you want to show off your cooking. But, there’s Facebook and Instagram, right? Maybe you want to show off your clothes. But there are weddings every second week, right? Maybe you want to show off your friends to each other. But it can never be a good thing when worlds collide, right? So, maybe you want to gather people so you can have sparkling conversation...not.

Inevitably, a large group of people that isn’t bound by the commonality of having worked in a terrible company, having gone to draconian school or college together, or belonging to a religiously persecuted minority, or being of a generally self-pitying nature, runs out of conversation fairly quickly. The only thing left to do is break off into groups, or talk shop and then explain shop to the people who aren’t part of the shop, or – and this is the part I dread – play a game.

There are some party games that need to be removed from the face of the earth. Not only do they provide too much information that you would rather not know, in time you would rather not waste, but they also remind you that we desis fail to grow up after school. Here’s why:

Truth or Dare
The only circumstances under which this game should be played once one has graduated from school is: (a) The players are characters in a clichéd play that an author was pressured to submit in order to meet a deadline (b) The players are in a horror movie, and will all be killed, which is the best course of action to take against anyone who plays Truth or Dare. This is also worked into the desi version of Spin the Bottle, because, hey, we don’t kiss (and thank god for that), and therefore the most fun to spin a bottle is for the spinner to be dared by the spinnee.

Antakshari
I will forgive Bollywood for its rain dances and designer funeral costumes and sarson ka khet mayn reunions. But I will not forgive it for inflicting this terrible plague upon us. At every party, even the occasional conversation you may strike with the occasional person whose IQ is in three digits, is eventually drowned out by pitchy girls screeching Asha-Lata numbers and tone-deaf boys channelling Kishore. I don’t usually know more than a line or two of any given song, so I’m the one sitting on the sidelines, waiting for the braying to end.

Taash
Really, anything you can do with a pack of cards should be banned. First of all, if you have even the most basic knowledge of permutations and combinations, there is no way you can lose a hand of cards. Second, unless you’re a drunk businessman, the stakes at desi taash parties are so low that it’s the least profitable way of spending your time (aside from writing columns, perhaps).

All.Drinking.Games.
Yes, all. Starting with “Never have I ever...”, at least in our side of the world and probably on all sides of it, the main point of any game – especially a drinking game – is to probe everyone about his or her sex life. This game can only leave you with enormous pity either for yourself, or for everyone else. Also, unless you’re an exhibitionist, you don’t want to be telling strangers things you haven’t told yourself, so there’s that.

Humble-Brag
I’m not sure whether this is a game, or this an art, but everyone in my circle – which is fairly obtuse, as shapes go – seems to have converted this into a self-oblivious exercise. First of all, they choose topics which ought to be banned from conversation – children, partners, workouts, skin, age, success...and then, they do their humble-brag thing.
“You know, nowadays schools are just so strict. My son gets maximum 95-97 percent. How about yours? Are they more generous in his school?”
“No, not really. His record is 98 percent.”
Awww. And you both get a 100 percent for obnoxiousness. How’s that for generosity?

“How do you keep your figure so trim, yaar? I’m like a whale. I look some 10 years older than you, and I’m 2 years younger.”
“Whaaa?! You’re only 2 years younger than me? I thought you must be at least 10-15 years younger.”
“Noooo!”
“Look at your skin!”
Wake up and smell the coffee. On a good day, you both look your age. On a bad day, each of you looks older than the other.

“You’ve lost so much weight! What have you been doing?”
“Oh, nothing. Just eating at the right times. I had to lose weight. I don’t have your metabolism, na...”
Right. Or her fat-burning pills. Or her eating disorder. Meow.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Ancient science: Angry letters from the Gods!

(Published in Sify.com, on November 3, 2014, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/ancient-science-angry-letters-from-the-gods-imagegallery-2-features-oldca3fhhihhf.html)


Image: Osiris and Re merged into a single body, from the Litany of Re in the tomb of Nofretari. (Wikipedia)


Disclaimer: The author wishes to assert that the opinions in this article are those she received from the gods in question, and not her own. As an Indian, she believes she has the support of all our politicians in claiming that the telepathic powers which enabled her to receive these divine messages should not be questioned, as there are plenty of examples of such telepathy in The Mahabharata.

For several weeks, We the Discarded Gods of Greek, Egyptian and Scandinavian Mythology, have been observing the enlightened politicians of India give their divine – and mortal – beings the credit for medical and scientific processes with prehistoric origins.

Thus far, credit for the mastery of plastic surgery has been given to the doctors who sewed and elephant’s head on to Lord Ganesha after he was decapitated by his father (by the way, +1000 for excellent parenting, yo).  The credit for IVF or genetic science or whatever it is has been given to the midwives who supervised the birth of Kunti’s son Karna. Stem cell research has been credited to the rishi Vyasa, for his intervention in Gandhari’s aborted pregnancy. The invention of the television has been credited to Sanjaya of the Mahabharata fame.

We are quite touched by the dedication which these politicians have shown. Equally, we are enraged that the countries to which we belong have ignored our various contributions to science. After an impromptu, high-level meeting among us, we have also realised that India’s claim is contentious, as we have evidence that some of our own deities and doctors and midwives, and other such eminent members of our populace, could claim equal credit to these inventions.

As we are not presently occupied with much else, we will continue to have these parleys, and send down regular letters to the governments in question. However, in order not to overwhelm the world, we have chosen three delegates – Zeus, Ra, and Thor – to represent some of our cases. Below are the relevant letters:

Dear Greece,

It is bad enough that your economy is a mess. It’s worse that most of the precious architecture of your country is sitting in museums in England and France. But must you also embarrass us by allowing India to take credit for plastic surgery?

The Indian Prime Minister has said that Lord Ganesha was attended to by doctors who were masters of reconstructive surgery, and saw fit to fix an elephant’s head on the body of a human.

However, we must remember that our own ancient doctors performed a much more complex surgery in creating the Sphinx. I must also add here, a creation that the Egyptians shamelessly plagiarised and are now more famous for on account of the architecture that symbolises this – really, will you never learn, Greece?

The Sphinx had the head and partial anatomy of a woman, as well as the partial anatomy of a lion, and wings to top it all off.

So, either there was a massive inter-specie orgy that would put all editions of the Penthouse Letters to shame, or we had some kickass plastic surgeons. Yet, you made no effort to stand up for this.

In my next letter, I will berate you for nor crediting Homer – as in, the writer of Odysseus, not the Simpson – with the discovery of sound waves. I have apparently crossed my word limit, so I would urge you to Google the story of the Sirens who drew Odysseus and his sailors to their island.

Here’s hoping you will fix the situation with our scientifically advanced mythology, whatever the hell you do with the economy.

Best,
Zeus

Dear Egypt,

I won’t allude to your economic or political problems. The last thing I enjoyed watching or reading about you was The Mummy series of films. Yeah, the quality did go down over time, but...wait, hold on, I digress.

Right, so, I know you have a complex relationship with India. But, I think you should make a strong objection to the claims of its ministers regarding India’s superiority in genetic science.

If you go back to our mythology, you will find that Osiris was torn into pieces and sort of scattered across the country, leaving his missus, Isis, with the arguably harder challenge of first finding all the parts of the jigsaw puzzle, and then fixing them back on in the right manner, and – on top of that – bringing her husband to life.

You will see that this is far more complicated than simply fixing the head of an elephant on a human being.

Therefore, I insist that you – at the very least – summon a high-ranking official from the Indian embassy in our country, and make my offence known.

Best,
Ra

Dear Scandinavia,

I am aware that your laws about child safety and so on have caused considerable friction with India of late. What I have to suggest here may actually help you bond over something. You see, I am writing on my own behalf because none of the other Norse gods was willing to get into the fray. They are jealous because of the attention Hollywood has been paying me of late, I think. Anyway, this is not particularly relevant.

So, Indian mythology speaks about my counterpart, Indra, who is the god of thunder, though I think he may have outsourced the other duties that I hold sole responsibility for.
I know a day is named after me, and I’m grateful for that, really, but I resent the fact that my experiments with thunder have not been nominated for a Nobel Prize.

I was wondering if, maybe, you could speak to the government of India regarding combined credit for the invention of electricity, and sound, to me and Indra. The television is all Sanjaya’s.

If the Indian government proves resistant to this, then, could you at least get me credit for the invention of carpentry? It really is not easy to constantly carry a hammer, you know.

Okay, this letter is getting embarrassing. If I find no response from you, I will draw comfort from the fact that I am, at the very least, portrayed by a hunky man on screen – though, I’m told that the girls really go crazy for the other guy, the one who plays my nemesis, and I’m not very happy about that. Can you confirm whether this is indeed the case?

Best,
Thor

Saturday, November 01, 2014

Five Writers and a Festival

(Published in The Friday Times, on October 31, 2014, retrieved from http://www.thefridaytimes.com/tft/a-festival-in-paris/)



When I got an email in mid-August, saying that I was one of the five winners of a fiction contest conducted by the Writers of India Festival in association with Caravan Magazine, and that my reward was a trip to Paris, to attend a literary festival organised by Columbia University, my first instinct was that this was all a hoax – a social experiment of some sort, to figure out how young writers react on being told they will be flown to Paris on the merit of 3000 words they have written. First of all, I have rarely won writing contests. Second, I have never been flown to Paris, no-strings-attached (or strings attached, for that matter). Third, the first thing you’re told when you embark on a writing career is that you will make little money, and find less fame.

However, it turned out to be a genuine contest with a genuine reward – not only would the five of us be flown to Paris, but we, along with five students of Columbia University’s Creative Writing MFA programme, would read out extracts from our work to a panel that included Jeet Thayil, Vikram Chandra, Sudeep Sen and Geetanjali Shree.

The mascot for the Writers of India Festival turned out to be Mona Lisa photoshopped into an Indian costume in the fashion of Rajasthani miniature, her unironic smile in place. I named this creation ‘Monisha’, a sobriquet that caught on.

We trooped into the venue where most of the events were to be held, and saw several lines strung with clothing, high up in the air. Initially, we were lulled into the belief that France had gone all out to make us feel at home, but eventually discovered it was part of a modern art exhibition.



We were given sound advice by one of the staff of Columbia University, who was trying to humour our tourist leanings. “Go to the Seine, but don’t put a lock on the bridges,” she said, “Why would you lock up your love and leave it to be sent to a junkyard when the bridge gets too heavy? Set it free.” On our way to the bridges, in writerly fashion, we composed the beginnings of a rubbish poem called ‘Junkyard of Love’. The only line I contributed was “This is where love goes to die.”



Before the festival took off, the five of us decided to indulge a common interest – we went on a rather morbid excursion to the Montparnasse cemetery, to check out the graves of the writers and philosophers who had made Paris their home, or the home of their remains. The French have a rather macabre sense of humour, we discovered. Among the graves was one that had statues of lions playing football, and another that we deduced to be a zombie grave, because its inscription reads, “Dead? Not yet.” Finally, we found the graves of Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir. His gravestone was covered in lipstick marks. It fascinated us desis, because the last flat surface on which we had seen such vivid lipstick marks was Shah Rukh Khan’s chest in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.





I’ve always loved literature festivals. You meet some of your literary heroes, and spend days pinching yourself, wondering if you were really having that conversation with that person. An author of international renown sounds interested in your work, and you’re so touched and thrilled that you begin to sound like you’ve been pulling tricks with helium balloons. Every now and then, you find a spark with someone who was until recently a name on the cover of a book, and become fast friends. And there is no better place to hop in and out of eating places, sing ghazals by Faiz in the middle of the night, and get drunk than Paris. 

The only unfortunate aspect of a literature festival is the audience. Of course, there are the usual suspects – the aspiring author, the professor who wants to throw decasyllabic words at you, and the insistent person who believes his express purpose is to dazzle the audience and authors with a five-minute ‘question’ that eventually turns out to be a comment.

The Diaspora and the locals who are interested in world literature provide you with a bunch of new categories.

There are the exotica hunters, who want to believe in flying carpets and shimmering illusionary palaces and dark arts and dungeons. They will theorise that, just maybe, Baudelaire or Sartre was reborn as one of the writers your country has produced. And they will prove their love for your country either by doing the Bollywood snake dance step or striking yoga poses.

There is the benevolent Westerner who wants to rescue you from writing in English, clearly one of the traps of your colonised mentality and in no way your first language. Your ancestors have been wronged. In the case of the French, they see no reason why people from former French colonies in India – like Pondicherry – should not write in French, but they see no reason why people from the rest of India should want to write in English. Their chief aspiration is to convince you to write in a language which will ensure that you sell fewer books for less money.

Somehow, at every lit fest, you find people who take a fancy to you for no evident reason. In our case, there was a Tamil couple which began to bond with me on the premise that I speak acceptable Tamil – a fact they discovered when I asked Tamil poet Salma a question. Inexplicably, the couple decided to tack themselves on to us for the rest of the event – including the photo ops. When I finally asked them to allow us a single picture without them in the frame – the task fell to me, because they only spoke French and Tamil, and none of us had any French – they took offence and refused to comply. As a result, in every photo of the group, there is a beaming sari-clad woman whose identity none can fathom and presence none can justify.

The lit fest experience would not have been complete, naturally, without someone asking why there were no Pakistani writers at a festival of Indian literature – did that reflect India’s bigotry?

And so ended my little adventure in Paris, leaving me rather more in love with literature, more in love with festivals, more in love with my luck, and more entrusting of all humanity.

That last development was to change when I got back home. A relative asked how my trip to Paris was. Before I could respond, another relative said, “Why, what’s so great about a trip to Parry’s?” – this being an old neighbourhood in Madras, where the sugar manufacturing company EID Parry is headquartered, and in her mind, the limits of my wanderlust.  
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