Books

The Sirens of Titan

The Universe is an awfully big place. There is enough room for an awful lot of people to be right about things and still not agree.

How does one talk about a work of art that is spectacular, but there is a single, significant piece of it that is extremely repulsive? I’m going to take a stab at it by purposely ignoring the awful bits, at first. So here goes nothing:
I didn’t know what to expect from Vonnegut. My introduction to him was to put Slaughterhouse-Five on my reading list, and leave it there, unread, with many other classics.

I organize a book exchange at work, where we bring books to lend to each other and talk about why we liked it. The Sirens of Titan was lent to me with high praise and a comment of being a book that “changed my life and laid the foundation for how I understand the world”. It was intriguing indeed. I have to say that Sirens in that regard is absolutely phenomenal and I would almost definitely recommend it as a book to be read by others as well (except that… you know).

The Sirens of Titan takes on the big questions of life and deals with them in a deliciously convoluted story that hearkens to Macbeth’s dilemma.

What is Destiny?

What is Free Will?

Was Everything That Is Happening Always Meant To Happen?

Could It Have Happened Any Other Way?

For me, I have always personally been in the free will camp, if I may call it that. A belief that it’s our choices that take us to where we end up, not some higher purpose. Though, I have heard the contradictions in myself as well. For instance, here’s a favourite hypothetical question that gets thrown around:

If you could kill Hitler, would you? 

I have thought about this sort of question a great deal. (To myself, it’s usually, if I could kill Winston Churchill, would I?)

For the curious, here is why I hate Winston Churchill:
(In my opinion, Andre goes easy on him)

And my answer:

I don’t think that killing Winston Churchill or Hitler would change much. I think that the situation, the environment in England and Germany was so toxic and so rife with racism that simply cutting off the head of the Hydra isn’t the solution. The problem would have to be routed out at its root, and we haven’t even eradicated the root cause of racism, the mindset of its perpetrators, nearly a century since we destroyed much of the world over it.

And this is the feeling that Vonnegut picks up and elaborates, describing several instances of it in his book until it’s undeniable.

“I was a victim of a series of accidents, as are we all.”

So, if we are all a product of our times, and it is inevitable that we think a certain way and act a certain way because that is what we have been trained to think and do by our environments, what even is free will?

Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t leave the question hanging in the air as it would have been so easy to do. Instead, he answers it, through the voice of Bee. It is that while the events that shape our life are often not in our control, we each deal with them in our own unique way. And even if the event would occur regardless of us, even if the outcome is exactly the same as it would have been had anyone else been in that situation, we still put our unique spin on it – we leave a mark, how ever ephemeral.

And there’s beauty in that sentiment.

If the Rani of Jhansi had not ridden into battle, someone else would have. And the outcome would potentially still have been that the Indians lost and the British oppressors got harsher. But it was Laxmibai who rode into battle and it was she who inspired Subhadra Kumari Chauhan to coin her famous ballad that was sung in Parliament by Shubha Mudgal to commemorate half a millennium of the first freedom struggle.

So if everything is somehow destined to happen (not preconceived by a “higher power” necessarily, simply an accident of circumstance) what is the point of anything? What is the meaning of life? How can one be happy?

Vonnegut has an answer for that too.

“I found me a place where I can do good without doing any harm, and I can see I’m doing good, and them I’m doing good for know I’m doing it, and they love me, Unk, as best they can. I found me a home.”

Boaz. Cruel commander Boaz. Terrible awful person Boaz. Boaz, who had such a terrible childhood, that there really wasn’t anything else that he could have ended up being when he joyously inflicted pain and made a brainwashed man strangle his best friend with his bare hands. He finally finds peace after being stranded on a planet where he undertakes the pointless task of bringing joy to the local lifeforms alive by playing music for their brief lives. Though, if it makes him happy, is it really pointless?

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.”

As in much of popular science fiction and fantasy, there is only one noteworthy woman in the Universe. (Tricia in H2G2Arwen in LOTR, Holly in Artemis Fowl, Arya in Eragon) She is Bee or Beatrice. The noteworthy thing about her in this book is that she gets raped by Malachi Constant or Unk. And at the end of the book, she thanks him for “using” her.

Ugh.

Yuck.

Vonnegut’s Beatrice is haughty and plain. She is supposed to be intelligent too, but god forbid Vonnegut actually focus on that! She is hated by her husband because at the time of her rape, many years into their marriage, she is still a virgin. She has a child born out of her encounter with Malachi Constant named Chrono who despises his father and loves his mother. For all of the reasons stated above, Bee is positioned as a character that we should not like. I’m annoyed at that portrayal and furious about the ending.

Why must I dislike a woman who doesn’t want to sleep with someone even if that someone is her husband? Their marriage doesn’t give him a right over her body, nothing does.

For a story that was otherwise neatly wrapped up with a profound message, Beatrice’s conclusion was jarring. In every other instance of the book, Vonnegut’s endings for his characters were measured, considered and beautifully showcased his philosophy.

Except Bee.

The only woman in this Universe.

Well, the only other females are the sexually titillating sirens of Titan, which doesn’t make Vonnegut look any better.

And that’s why I’m torn. I loved nearly every bit of this book but I have never hated any other story arc in literature as this one from an otherwise seemingly thoughtful author.

I’ve heard that this podcast on the book by the Kurt Vonneguys is really good, though I haven’t finished listening to it myself:

And finally, another thing that struck me about this book was how similar it was to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and a friend told me that Douglas Adams was good friends with all of these science fiction authors at the time and wrote H2G2 as a parody of stories like those of Vonnegut’s. I believe it!

Advertisements
Books · World

5 Books On My Mind This Week

Delhi By Heart

By Raza Rumi

Delhi: The Eternal Capital.

I have visited Delhi a couple of times, but it still feels like we have unfinished business. There’s too much history to cram into a single trip! With a friend’s wedding coming up in Delhi this year, I want to take time off to roam through the different eras of the endlessly fascinating ancient city that seem to blend together seamlessly. I’m really looking forward to stocking up on my endless book collection at Bahrisons, wandering aimlessly through patli-galis and visiting Mirza Ghalib’s haveli (a man who until recently was just a name – more on that in a different post). I chose Rumi’s Delhi By Heart out of all the Delhi books that I want to read because there unfortunately don’t seem to be a lot of experiential books on the city by a local! William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns was a contender, but the perspective of someone from the same culture but the other side of the border piqued my curiosity much more.


Burning Country

By Robin Yassin-Kassab and Leila Al-Shami

Images from Syria over the past week have been seared into my memory. Any time the news is on, I hastily (ashamedly) avert my eyes from the chemical attack on the civilians in Douma because it’s too traumatic to watch. While world leaders argue about whether or not Assad really did use “chemical” weapons, I wonder what got the Muslim-majority Syrians into the mess of being caught between their Muslim dictator and an Islamist terrorist group. I underline that most of the citizens are Muslims because it seems like these days people need to be reminded that the overwhelming majority of the victims of terror attacks are Muslim and that the majority of the places where ISIS attacks have taken place are Muslim countries even if popular media goes out of its way to ignore this information since it doesn’t sit very well with fanning the Islamophobia flames.

Screen Shot 2018-04-12 at 4.45.21 PM
As of February 12th 2018 from CNN

For instance, I do enjoy watching Trevor Noah and think that he’s quite funny, but was unamused that he (and CNN) were shocked that Buddhists could be violent, since it’s the “most peaceful religion of the major religions”. Does the religion of a government really matter when it is persecuting its ethnic minority? Does a faith that one chooses to adhere to (or more often, is born into) make them an inherently better or worse person? Isn’t glorifying a religion just as bad as vilifying another as it creates fertile ground for religious stereotyping and discrimination? Would the tone have been different if the Rohingyas were not a Muslim-majority minority? Where will we be if even liberal news can’t seem to tell the difference?

Answer: At a place where there’s been a 7 year long war involving Syria, Russia, USA, Iran, Iraq, UK, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia et al and the Shining City On A Hill slams its doors on the victims’ faces because they are purported to share the same faith as their murderers. Peachy.

I need to read a book on this war, as hard and disturbing as I find it.


Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – And The New Research That’s Rewriting the Story

By Angela Saini

On the coattails of righteous anger comes another pet peeve: having to constantly educate, reason with, cajole and snap at the human population (mostly male, I’m afraid) about how women aren’t “also there” in the human story. (While being told off for getting “too worked up”, “too loud”, “calm down” for snapping). Just because history was written by people in power who refused to allow or even identify other stories as history, and just because scientific research has historically dropped the ball on gender (among others) and just because we live steeped in gender (and other) stereotypes today, doesn’t mean that it’s always been like this and that it always has to be. The Secret History of Mongol Queens will be happy to set the record straight, and it’s about the 13th century – not so long ago really.

Inferior has been excellent so far and I do like that the title has an optimistic note to it: “And The New Research That’s Rewriting the Story”.


Calling Sehmat: A Novel

By Harinder Sikka

Alia Bhatt is my favourite new actor and I can’t wait to watch her next movie! The trailer was released earlier this week and is the story of an Indian Kashmiri woman who infiltrated Pakistan as a spy in the war of 1971. Not only am I looking forward to another masterful performance by Alia, I also think that this film comes at a very interesting and trying time in domestic politics. To have a Kashmiri Muslim woman portrayed onscreen as putting her life on the line for her country, her watan, is a reminder to the ruling faction that she too is Indian – though I don’t have high expectations of introspection from adherents of an ideology that abets inequality. The movie, Raazi, is based on the book Calling Sehmat and while I would like to read the book, in an uncharacteristic turn of events, I’m not sure if I want to risk ruining the movie… I’ll probably pick it up later because I am curious. Also, I probably need a crash course in the war of 1971 first anyway.


  

Sapiens

By Yuval Noah Harari

I’m cheating by adding Sapiens to this list because I have been reading the book on and off for the past several months. It’s well-written and authoritative, or at least accessible, and the story of humans on the planet, how we came to be and spread out across the globe, living in climes that our monkey exterior isn’t suited for is mind-boggling! Another facet of the book that struck me especially is that while I have had to study and read about human evolution quite thoroughly, I felt, no one had bothered to tell me about how evolution affected women and consequently the entire species! The background is that baby mammals are remarkably advanced, for instance a foal can start walking mere hours after birth. A baby on the other hand takes several months to learn the same. Turns out when early humans stood erect, uteruses shrank. By the nature of natural selection, premature births were favoured since those babies were smaller and could be pushed out more easily without, for the most part, harming mother or child. This meant that human children were unprecedented in known mammal history: they were malleable enough to be given a deep and diverse education, and after all, if intelligence is a measure of how much one can learn, humans win in the animal kingdom! All because we stood erect and women’s child-bearing organs shrunk – fascinating! And note to other authors: this (unless it disappoints me down the line) is how you write human history and evolutionary biology, not by ignoring half the population of humans.


My book choices this week all seem to be about current events, history, minority rights and science. It was really fun to create this list and I hope that the next time I do one,  I have more variety!

Books

Women of the Year

2018. People, mostly women and about half the men, wore black to the Golden Globes in solidarity with victims of sexual assault and in protest against the predatory behaviour of those in power against the women who still have to claw their way around various industries on less pay and more unwanted attention. Feminist social activists walked the red carpet. Saudi Arabian women after the spectacular driving victory of last year now get to celebrate at football games. Iranian women are protesting for their choice to wear a hijab. Annual women’s marches are spreading across the globe like wildfire. The Doctor is a woman for the first time. Emma Gonzalez is leading the charge on “The March for Our Lives”.

Women are finally vocalizing universal truths that were thought to be common knowledge, like Natalie Portman befuddling her poor male co-host with her unamused jibe at the “all-male nominees” for best director in the year of Wonder Woman (highest grossing superhero movie), Lady Bird (Best Motion Picture), Mudbound (Best Picture) and Detroit (Outstanding film nominee), none of whose female directors were even nominated for a Golden Globe award.

In the same vein, a Google employee was fired for saying that maybe women are biologically less capable of being software engineers. Really strange since the history of software is female-dominated. This is of course at the time when “building a computer” was all about hardware and the “softer”, cerebral work was meant for women. Which is why Ada Byron, Lady of Lovelace (or, Ada Lovelace) is the writer of the first computer algorithm (ever, not “first woman”, dear male friend who made it a point to ask me this), and why “computers” was a job description for a mostly female workforce in laboratories around the world and during WW2, which is supposed to have reduced the length of the war by two whole years.

But perhaps it is unsurprising that sexist-Google-man doesn’t know the history of his own job considering that an expert at the Computer History Museum claimed to a woman who enquired about the ENIAC women, that they were “refrigerator girls”:

“Refrigerator girls” are attractive models who sold refrigerators, with progressively more sexist connotations of the phrase over time.

The women were not refrigerator girls.

They were the programmers of the ENIAC, the first super-fast computer built.

The description on the Computer History Museum’s website is still “An ENIAC engineer and programmer verify the configuration near the multiplier racks.”

giphy

I am conflicted about gendering literature.

On one hand, I don’t like the notion of examining the demographics of the authors that I read. A good story can come from anywhere! But… I did notice that in consciously choosing to read books from around the world over the last couple of years rather than ones that I am commonly exposed to, I read new favourites that I might have otherwise missed.

Another compelling argument:

Though, some of my favourite authors have won these prizes: J. K. Rowling has a Hugo, Margaret Atwood a Booker, Arundhati Roy a Booker, Jhumpa Lahiri a Pulitzer, Harper Lee a Pulitzer, Agatha Christie none of the above but is the first Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, Marjane Satrapi none of the above, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie none of the above, Harper Lee a Pulitzer.

The numbers say that while women read more, female authors are less likely to get published, win awards, be reviewed and since reviews boost sales, women are less likely to be read, maintaining the deadlock of “women’s stories aren’t read so why publish them”? (With undertones of the unfounded conclusion “women’s stories aren’t read because they aren’t interesting”).

But.

Instead of making a list of favourite books by women, I thought it would be interesting to examine the representation of women in books that I have read and many that are favourites.

Besides, most of the book lists of “books by women” seem to cater to a tiny sliver of people, usually a certain flavour of American, and for some reason that almost certainly never means me.

Fantasy and Science Fiction

As a child, fantasy was by far my favourite genre. A progression from Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree and Roald Dahl’s The Witches, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter with Eragon by Christopher Paolini and Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer in between releases, even one-offs like Haroun and the Sea of Stories and The Neverending Story and Stravaganza – I read so much fantasy that I grew sick of it (Inkheart, Dragon Rider) but I read it all the same. Somewhere even deeper in my pre-series-reading subconscious were surely imprints of Alice in Wonderland, the Mahabharata, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Arabian Nights.

And then I feel like I ran out of books in the genre. Several read too young and failed to enthrall me as they once might have and others petered out. The last was possibly Lord of the Rings.

I’ve dabbled since then of course. A Song of Ice and Fire, Assasin’s Apprentice and The Iron Druid – but they revelled too much in gore and naked women to be interesting.

The differences that I notice between fantasy novels that I read as a child and my choices as an adult:

  • Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl’s stories for young children didn’t focus on gender differences: kids were kids! Bonus: The fact that the children were British children didn’t matter either – the books weren’t less relevant than R. K. Narayan or Ruskin Bond.
  • Harry Potter had a plethora of fantastic characters. The women who stand out are Hermione, Luna, Professor McGonagall, Trelawney, Umbridge, Bellatrix, Molly Weasley, Tonks, Aunt Petunia and of course, Lily Potter. They were such a diverse set of characters! Inspiring, flawed, relatable, aspirational, stern and vile. The men too were so interesting, beloved, and reviled – Harry, Dumbledore, Snape, Voldemort, Malfoy, James, Sirius, Lupin, Pettigrew, Ron, Slughorn, Dudley, Lockhart, Mad-Eye, Barty Crouch Jr., Fred and George, Percy.
  • The Lord of the Rings is a book series that I loved and not the least because I watched the entire trilogy with my best girl friends during a glorious summer vacation at the peak of teenage sisterhood. Compared to the character richness of Harry Potter though, it seems a little sad that the main female character is Arwen whose defining characteristic is that she’s beautiful and brave and serves as the primary motivation for Aragorn to unleash his destiny.
  • George R. R. Martin. Stalwart of the fantasy genre. Lover of unclothed women and gratuitous rape scenes. Somewhere I got it into my head that much of fantasy, particularly Epic Fantasy, especially Epic Fantasy Written By Men tends to follow the same tropes concerning women since Martin sort-of established the field and is the fount of truth and inspiration. My forays into finding the next series to immerse myself in has yet to disprove the hypothesis that is rapidly solidifying into theory. The latest on my list is Iron Druid: of course all the women are hot, of course all of them make out or sleep with the protagonist. Bonus: A good smack of orientalism with Hindu gods and godesses being butchered. I’m really getting sick of that too.

Murder Mysteries

Perhaps a good candidate for my favourite book genre if my taste wasn’t so constrained. Agatha Christie dominates. I can read a Christie any time anywhere. I’ve tried other mystery writers. I loved Secret Seven, Famous Five and the Five Find-Outers by Enid Blyton as a child, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl was a captivating read… But I haven’t found any replacements for the Christies that I reread every so often. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was interesting but disturbing with an abused protagonist and a story centered around assault. “Why is it that women are only ever assaulted in books written by men?” exclaims a peeved brain, but the rational part of me knows that this isn’t true. Midnight’s Children is a perfectly fabulous book without it and The Colour Purple opens with it.

Though then again, I read The Sirens of Titan recently. Science Fiction by Kurt Vonnegut. Naked women to entice the protagonist and the only female character in the universe thanks her rapist for “using” her.

“The worst thing that could possibly happen to anybody would be to not be used for anything by anybody. Thank you for using me, even though I didn’t want to be used by anybody.”

I can’t imagine a woman ever writing that.

History

Until I read Sapiens, I had never thought about how humans have been forever changed by the evolution of human females. That for humans to stand erect, the uterus had to shrink, which favoured premature births, which meant that though human infants are weaker and less capable of looking after themselves compared to other mammals, their brains are remarkably unformed which allows them to absorb information and learn things that other mammals cannot, which is the integral piece of our evolution that allows us to invent, create, tell stories and so forth. Fourteen years of a scientific education didn’t clue me in to something so elegant and obvious. [Sapiens is written by a man.]

Unfortunately, Sapiens is the exception and not the rule. It’s a book that is not female-specific but is novel because it takes the holistic view of human history rather than a one-sided approach, and it is only in comparison to this book that I see how inadequate the rest are.

Other books of interest include The Hindus: An Alternative History, focussing on women and minorities, The Land of the Seven Rivers, that doesn’t mention women but does try to paint Indian history as inward and Hindu without Central Asian, Persian, Islamic and other influences, Indian Summer, which is a fantastic book on the last days of the British Raj, The Secret History of Mongol Queens is written specifically targeting female-history. India After GandhiA People’s History of the United States are excellent but I have not read about women comprising a substantial chunk of the narrative in them yet.

So the choices in history that I have are books focussed on women (rarer but growing), books focussed on men (the norm) and the lone Sapiens.

 


My biggest problem is certainly with Science Fiction and Fantasy. For made-up worlds, the genre is unfortunately the most problematic. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising since it’s the genre that tends to be the closest representation of the society in which it is written. I want to make it a point to at least read N. K. Jemisin and Ursula Le Guin this year.

I wish I could read more Christie-like mysteries, and will try Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh.

For non-fiction, in a pleasant surprise, books by and about women seem fairly easy to come by, so I don’t feel the need to change my diet.

source

Books

Midnight’s Children

Padma – our plump Padma – is sulking magnificently. (She can’t read and, like all fish-lovers, dislikes other people knowing anything she doesn’t. Padma: strong, jolly, a consolation for my last days. But definitely a bitch-in-the-manger.) She attempts to cajole me from my desk: ‘Eat, na, food is spoiling.’ I remain stubbornly hunched over paper. ‘But what is so precious,’

Padma demands, her right hand slicing the air updownup in exasperation, ‘to need all this writing-shiting?’ I reply: now that I’ve let out the details of my birth, now that the perforated sheet stands between doctor and patient, there’s no going back. Padma snorts. Wrist smacks against forehead. ‘Okay, starve starve, who cares two pice?’ Another louder, conclusive snort… but I take no exception to her attitude. She stirs a bubbling vat all day for a living; something hot and vinegary has steamed her up tonight. Thick of waist, somewhat hairy of forearm, she flounces, gesticulates, exits. Poor Padma. Things are always getting her goat. Perhaps even her name: understandably enough, since her mother told her, when she was only small, that she had been named after the lotus goddess, whose most common appellation amongst village folk is ‘The One Who Possesses Dung’.

Appreciating Indian literature isn’t taught in India. Our classics are Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. Drama is Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. Poetry is Wordsworth and Lord Tennyson, though there is the occasional sprinkling of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Funnily enough, even the translated works are of Anton Chekov or Guy de Maupassant.

That’s ridiculous. Not the least because I feel like I grew up with the notion that Literature-with-a-capital-L must be pre-19th century Europe to count. Everything else was tosh. American literature was an acquired taste (A pity, since The Great Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird are books I will cherish forever). And Indian literature… As Rushdie says in the introduction to his Booker of Bookers winner, Midnight’s Children, an Indian came up to him and said that he could have written this book.

I laugh, but I understand that smug stranger. Midnight’s Children is unabashedly unapologetically unmistakeably India, as no doubt it was meant to be. Padma is instantly recognizable! Of course we know her! When I read the excerpt out loud, I know exactly the tone, the inflection, the exasperation, and so does my (Indian) audience – we laugh and snort and tut as though we’ve rehearsed the scene a million times – and that’s how many all most scenes from Midnight’s Children play out.

Most surprising to me is why Midnight’s Children won the international accolades that it did and why it continues to garner love across borders today. It’s both completely obvious (well-written, compelling characters, funny historical magical) and completely baffling (but it’s so Indian). It’s frightening how ingrained the idea that “our stories” are for “us” is. If a year of reading books from around the world has taught me anything, it’s that “our story” is The Human Story and that “our” experiences are the emotions felt by billions of people around the world! It’s just taken a while for that message to hit home – that my story could be a story that other people could connect with as well; it’s not a one-way street.

So why Midnight’s Children?

I think Midnight’s Children should be taught at schools. Not at the expense of the British classics (or really, Indian classics by British authors); I would be loath to give up Dickens or Wordsworth, but to be studied alongside. The writing is superb. It’s familiar and engaging. The story is told in the same meandering, convoluted and distracted style as grandmother’s tales usually are. The historical context of Independence to Emergency is chilling and a relevant reminder of where we started (with the optimism disease) to what happened (just the disease) to where we are today (is history repeating itself?). And most important, the intentional message that yes, our stories are Literature too.

It reminds me of Adichie’s all-too-familiar experience of how her first stories were “foreign” and her impression that books had to be “foreign” with characters whose experiences she could not personally identify with, to be worth reading or writing about.

My father read my first Rushdie to me as a child. It was Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I remember being very amused that the story began with a country with a very ordinary name: “Alifbay”. Amusing because it squished the first two letters of the Urdu alphabet together to create a word. Since the only other thing I remember about the book are the duo “Iff” and “Butt”, it seemed well within character to my little self. Today, it feels like a stroke of genius. If it’s all so ordinary and common, why doesn’t anyone else crack the same bilingual in-jokes as Rushdie? “The Rani of Cooch Naheen” tickles me to no end. If you didn’t know Hindi (or Urdu), a lack of knowledge doesn’t hinder understanding the story, but if you did, “The Queen of Nothing” suddenly popping up in the tale is hilarious!

Midnight’s Children isn’t a breeze to read by any measure. It demands an attentive audience. A novel that weaves such an ornate tapestery of the tale of many lives must be savoured, inhaled, ingested, lived through. It is a web of generations of stories within stories, with Saleem as Scheherazade – the narrator of the tale and also a character in the story being read. In the pickle factory where he lives and writes, he records the various events of his life as different flavours of pickles and chutneys. The novel luxuriates in the myriad fascinating settings of Kashmir, Bombay, Delhi, Pakistan and Bangladesh, packing in an impossible amount of detail, description and story into about five hundred pages. The pickling metaphor makes complete sense. The Children of Midnight are the one thousand and one (another reference to the Arabian Nights!) children born at the same instant as the birth of India and so are irrevocably tied to its fate, or is it the other way around? Blessed (or cursed?) with special abilities (“like the X-men!” exclaimed a friend enthusiastically) of reading minds, controlling destinies, travelling through time, the children’s lives, mainly Saleem’s, are the direct consequence of the happenings in India (or is it India affected by Saleem’s life?). Rich with references to gods old and new, from blue Jesus reminiscent of Krishna to a clever twists in the tale with Shiva-Parvati and interesting observations of the Indian Muslim experience, Midnight’s Children is beautifully wrought by a master storyteller and feels strangely very personal.

Books · World

Books 2017 – Pages From History

Last year I tried reading books from countries around the world – The World in Books. It made me realize how little I knew of the world; most importantly how similar our human stories were. L.P. Hartley said, “The past is like a foreign country: they do things differently there”. Douglas Adams describing time travel in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy emphasizes the notion with:

The Campaigners for Real Time claim that just as easy travel eroded the differences between one country and another, and between one world and another, so time travel is now eroding the differences between one age and another. “The past,” they say, “is now truly like a foreign country. They do things exactly the same there.”

I’m inclined to agree whole-heartedly with Adams. In the past couple of years of reading and travelling, I have realized that the differences that I drew between countries and their inhabitants are really rather superficial boundaries, though after reading Sapiens I understand why it is necessary to buy into the fiction of nations and patriotism. It’s how we survive and swear allegiance to millions of strangers who we have never and shall never meet.

This year was meant to be a continuation of the quest for the human story, but instead of continuing my journey through (mostly) world fiction, my instincts seemed to have veered towards a specific kind of fiction: history.

The lesson for 2017?

History doesn’t provide answers. It provides context. – John Green

If I had to trace the beginning of this year’s journey, it probably began with Partitioned Histories. It is a book that juxtaposes Indian and Pakistani narratives of our shared history, and it is breathtaking when realization dawns at how the same incidents are viewed so differently to further the political agenda on either side of the border. Worse, when I met Pakistanis to discuss the book, I couldn’t tell them apart from Indians. Even when we cracked bilingual jokes, we understood one another perfectly, without the need to explain cultural context.

In the quest to further my adventures in anarchy, here are my favourite books from last year:

Honourable Mention: The Palace of Illusions

The Mahabharata told from the point of view of Draupadi, maybe the most memorable female character of the epic, unfortunately memorable for being gambled away by Yudhishtra and being stripped in the royal assembly by the “winner” Duryodhana. The Palace of Illusions greatly expands Draupadi’s narrative by collecting her mentions from various versions of the Mahabharata and filling in the gaps. It’s interesting to read about the great battle from a woman’s point of view and Banerjee spins an amusing yarn of historical-mythological-fiction.

15. Dreams From My Father

Barack Obama’s autobiography, much like the man himself, is thoughtful, intimate and surprising. I wish I had followed him more closely in the time before The Election. For the immense respect that I have for him, and especially, perhaps more, Michelle Obama, this book was revelatory in exactly what odds Obama was up against when he became the President.

14. The Mahabharata, R. K. Narayan

A retelling of a classic. It’s impossible to grow up in India without growing up with the epics: The Mahabharata, the Ramayana, Layla Majnu, Heer Ranjha, Panchatantra, the Shahnama, Jataka Tales, The Arabian Nights… R. K. Narayan is one of my favourite authors as the writer of Malgudi Schooldays. His writing is simple and succinct with clever twists of language to elicit frequent laughs. He narrates an old tale in his distinctive style, illustrated by his brother, the equally famous R. K. Laxman, creator of The Common Man.

 

13. Dear Ijeawele, Or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions

Later in the list is my love letter to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Here is her talk on “We Should All Be Feminists” instead. It’s a book too.

12. The Elephant, The Tiger and the Cellphone

Shashi Tharoor is my favourite author-politician. He’s erudite and eloquent and he writes for public consumption (unlike many Indian historians) and understands the ethos of India (unlike many Western historians). Also, he quit his awesome job at the UN to make a difference to his country.

DXxtCLfU8AAqzfq

I’ll put the translation here.

11. No God But God

“La ilaha illallah” – No God But God. As the name suggests, it’s a book about Islam by Reza Aslan. As preconceived notions might not suggest, as they didn’t for me, this is a book about the history of Muhammad’s message, and that’s it. I downloaded the Kindle sample on a whim, not intending to ever read it but mildly curious about the title since I had seen another book by Aslan at a bookstore (“God: A Human History”). On perhaps a non-wifi-enabled-stalled-subway-ride, I don’t exactly remember, I started reading the sample and was quite astonished to find myself waiting to be connected to the internet again so I could buy the book. Muhammad’s story is truly compelling, the history is exciting and as a lover of stories bred from a childhood of the chaotic intertwining tales that is The Mahabharata, I found myself quite drawn to this journey of a man, just a man, and his very real, very human struggle. It also gave me greater ammunition to counter whatever nonsense one finds the Protectors of the Purity of Islam spouting (not to mention the Racist Haters of Islam also echoing). As John Green so succinctly puts it, much of the hadis really reads like “middle school gossip”. I’m glad I read this book if for nothing else but the next time someone dares to annoy me with misguided notions of sanctity, segregation and intolerance.

10. I, Robot

Isaac Asimov. For a child who grew up on fantasy and science fiction, it took me a long time to come around to this luminary of the field. I’m usually quite wary of classical science fiction because so much of it is so sexist and distasteful. And Asimov is a startling, pleasant surprise. Brilliant, engaging, polished short stories that give us the legendary Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

9. Born a Crime

I love Trevor Noah on The Daily Show. I never watched the show when Jon Stewart was the host, so I don’t have that point of reference, though I know his replacement is why several people resisted and perhaps still resist Noah’s charms. He brings a refreshing often non-mainstream-American and sometimes non-American perspective to the news and one might not expect his personal story to be so interesting! While Adichie’s middle class Nigerian background is very similar to an Indian middle class background, Trevor Noah’s poor, apartheid-fraught upbringing is not and yet, again, I find a human story and a shared history and empathy and laughter in his work that very easily overcomes the distances of continents and cultures.

8. In Spite of the Gods

I really can’t honestly say that I place “In Spite of the Gods” higher than “The Elephant, the Tiger and the Cellphone” for content. In content, Tharoor has a far greater fundamental understanding of India. But the book, which a collection of Tharoor’s essays, is often repetitive. Luce’s “In Spite of the Gods” is much narrower in scope: it doesn’t talk about either cricket or Bollywood, without which a modern Indian narrative is woefully incomplete, nor does he talk about the West (Bombay), South, East or North-East regions of India as much, choosing instead to focus on the seat of political power – Delhi and the culture of North India. This again paints an incomplete picture of India, because the many of non-North parts of India are the more literate, less corrupt, and often it’s people from these regions that find themselves in seats of power, even in and especially Delhi (Tharoor is an example).

That said, what Luce does focus on is superb. Tharoor, as much as I do admire him, has a mild case of the common Indian affliction of brushing its most unsavoury bits under the carpet or making them seem not-so-bad-after-all. Edward Luce has no such qualms. As the South Asian bureau chief of the Financial Times at the time and married to an Indian, his is not a typical outsider’s view. His book is well-structured and unabashedly political. He interviews several interesting characters, and some of them are truly “antique pieces” as one would say. He talks about Hindu nationalism, the plight of India’s Muslims, India’s place in the world and how the 21st century is India’s to lose. His perspicacity is biting and brilliant. Though he does sometimes take the traditional British (or American or Pakistani) view sometimes of seeing this part of the world as a clash of civilizations, when it is much more a melting pot, it does not invalidate his opinions. Also, I do like the tongue-in-cheek title of the book. This is a Tharoor recommendation by the way.

7. Indian Summer

In the beginning, there were two nations. One was a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swathe of the earth. The other was an underdeveloped, semi-feudal realm, riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses.
The first nation was India. The second was England.

I cannot praise Alex von Tunzelmann enough. And it isn’t just because of her stellar opening to the book. Her book is about the British Raj, Indian Independence and Partition, and I loved it because she does something that too few historians do: she puts the people first. The book, which is very firmly history and not historical fiction, reads like a novel. The characters are everyone from Gandhi to Nehru, Jinnah to Mountbatten and Churchill. And even better, she sheds light on Edwina Mountbatten, Betty and Nan Nehru, Ruttie Jinnah, Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru and Indira Gandhi. I like that Tunzelmann devotes equal screen-time, if you will, to the women and men of the drama playing out on the Indian stage and that she doesn’t make gods or demons of any of the characters. They were all human, well-rounded and fallible, and leave you feeling ultimately conflicted about your views of these “great men” and women. If all history could feel this realistic and interconnected and human, it would be truly incredible. Amazingly, this is her debut work.

 

6. Americanah

Life in America would not be the same without Americanah. This book by the immensely talented and wonderful Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is fantastic and insightful, though I would not be exaggerating if I said that it’s a mere shadow of the intelligent, compassionate, independent and articulate author.

It’s the story of an African in the US, and what it means to be black and what it feels like if you look like an African-American but do not share the legacy of the history as an African, until you realize that you do and we do. The story of some people is really the story of all people, and skin colour cannot divide us as completely as it often does. This book also inadvertently set the stage for Dreams From My Father and put into context the magnitude of his victory, success and humanity.

5. The Shadow Of the Wind

Carlos Ruiz Zafón is a Spanish author. His book is set in Barcelona. After reading this book, I wanted to travel to Barcelona immediately but I’m afraid that I will break the spell if I do so.

The book begins at “The Cemetery of Forgotten Books”. As a book-lover, merely the title of the first chapter sends shivers down my spine. And the book does not disappoint. It is a magical tale of mystery and romance. Not Taylor Swift’s Love Story romance, but Capital-R the headiness of the Romance languages, the symphony of a deep culture, the exhilarating beauty of well-crafted prose and of course, twisted and fatal love Romance. Spellbinding, breathtaking, tear-jerking and please-read-it-already.

4. The Reluctant Fundamentalist

What if a book was written to you, the reader? You are having a conversation with a character, the protagonist of this novella, and he takes you on a journey. From historic Lahore to the hallowed halls of Princeton, from working at a bank to being ostracized when buildings collapse. Do you believe the narrator? Who are you and why are you having this conversation in the first place?

I loved the book. It’s short, but it has stayed with me. The dramatic monologue, identifying with the protagonist’s cultural background, the theme of the persecution at the wake of 9/11. It left me feeling melancholic, thoughtful and hopeful. Needless to say, my optimism assumes Changez’s best intentions. It reminded me of My Name Is Khan, which is a movie that I loved the first and only time that I watched it.

3. The Twentieth Wife (The Taj Trilogy #1)

Noor Jahan was a badass woman. I love her and she’s amazing and I wish that I had understood how truly exceptional she was when studying history. A Mughal Queen who fought and ruled and was the first Indian woman to have coinage made in her name. Wow. Indu Sundaresan stays mostly true to historical events and notes her deviances in the epilogue. The trilogy brought history to life for me and is such a thrilling adventure that I blazed through all three books, loved the historical context and makes me giddy to think about these being the people and moments in history that brought us to where we are today!

2. Exit West

I was at the launch of Exit West at the Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn. Mohsin Hamid read out “In a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war, a young man met a young woman in a classroom and did not speak to her.”

I wish I could describe this gorgeous book, but the words flow so effortlessly through the pages, that I fear mine cannot compare. A story about leaving home, of a world beset by war and migration, of refugees desperately trying to find a place in the world and in places that are not-home. A more timely and exquisitely crafted book there cannot be.

1. The Great Gatsby

I couldn’t decide how to rank the top five books that I read last year because they were all so compelling and fabulous that I finally settled on arranging them in order of how deeply they affected me. It’s not a great benchmark because the order changes based on my mood, the time of day, and frequently. However, it would be a travesty to rank The Great Gatsby any lower. I’m surprised that I read it only last year because I feel like I read this book ages and ages ago and it has been with me ever since.

I read the classic alongside annotations from Genius, which helped me a great deal in understanding the context of the book and in my connecting with it very deeply. It also opened up awareness into a deep love for New York that I seemed to have imbibed somewhere along the way. It’s a city that grows on you, creeps under your skin and stays in your heart, quite like this book and quite like the country that I still call “back home”.

The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.

 

Books · Luminaries

Notorious RBG

“When will there be enough women on the Supreme Court?”
“When there are nine.”

There are nine Supreme Court Justices.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn’t set out to become a feminist icon, all she wanted to excel at her job and have a wonderful life with her college sweetheart and husband looking after their children together.

She had the audacity of expecting equality, a radical notion in the sixties and often today.

I dissent.

From the hallowed halls of Harvard where she and her eight compatriots were asked why they took a seat from more qualified men (in a class of five hundred) and was not allowed into the Law Review library because she was a woman though she had made the cut, to graduating at the top of her class from Columbia but not getting a job as a woman, a Jew and a mother, to becoming the second female Supreme Court Justice, RBG’s life is inspirational.

She fought hard for men to be the primary caregivers of their children (why must only women have the right?) which open the floodgates to not discriminating against primary caregivers (usually women).

“Feminism … I think the simplest explanation, and one that captures the idea, is a song that Marlo Thomas sang, ‘Free to be You and Me.’ Free to be, if you were a girl—doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Anything you want to be. And if you’re a boy, and you like teaching, you like nursing, you would like to have a doll, that’s OK too. That notion that we should each be free to develop our own talents, whatever they may be, and not be held back by artificial barriers—manmade barriers, certainly not heaven sent.”

RBG’s brand of feminism is very simple: it’s equality for women and men. By fighting cases for men in a society that is strict about the definition of masculinity, RBG could argue that laws should not be based on gender and this allowed her to also point out cases where women were discriminated against only because they were women and not because of ability. This she knew from her own experience. Marty, her husband, was her biggest cheerleader and also the cook of the house. As a couple, they embodied the world view popularized by RBG, that they built together. A partnership of equals where both partners support their better halves in achieving personal and professional success, without allowing social norms to dictate personal choices.

“Someone who used whatever talent she had to do her work to the very best of her ability. And to help repair tears in her society, to make things a little better through the use of whatever ability she has.” – On how she would like to be remembered.

Film

Aditi Mittal “Things They Wouldn’t Let Me Say” Review

I am thirty. I am single. And I am an Indian woman.

And I’ve realized that being thirty and single and an Indian woman is like being that Tupperware container at the back of the fridge where you’re like, “Is this still good?”

Aditi Mittal’s standup comedy show on Netflix mostly generated interest because Amazon signed 14 male standup comedians, several of them new faces, and not a single one of India’s established funny ladies. This is when Netflix swooped in to stand up for “feminism”.

The unfortunate problem with that narrative is that Aditi was immediately judged for every word, every sound, every gesture, rather than being enjoyed for her hilarious bilingual (sometimes trilingual) act with ample Bollywood references and relatable everyday jokes. Her show so far seems to have received rather lukewarm reviews with comments usually ranging from, “I’ve heard this before” (oh) to “she’s too shrill” (what?!). Luckily for me, I live under a rock, so Aditi’s jokes were completely novel compared to the other Indian and international comics that I have watched. I loved it.

Aditi’s comedy is contextual. She speaks from the perspective of an urban, anglicized, filmy, modern, independent, bratty Indian woman. I relate. Clearly.

I love her larger-than-life delivery and her daft facial expressions. I laughed out loud for most of her performance. The laughter unfortunately did peter out towards the middle when Aditi reentered the stage as Dr Lutchuke. Sure, her old lady act was impressive for about a minute, but this was the first time that her performance devolved into hackneyed sex jokes. For some reason, standup comedians seem to be incapable of coming up with funny material without alluding to, or smacking you over the head with, references to sex. And this is exclusively the reason that I think Kenny Sebastian wins hands down. He’s funny because he doesn’t go for the easy laughs, his material is always unexpected!

For instance, one of the best comic performances that I’ve seen recently is by new kid on the block Urooj Ashfaq:

Aditi saves the final moments of her show with some mildly funny jokes on the Delhi party scene, a surprisingly laugh-out-loud arc on sanitary napkins and an unfortunate fizzle with digs at Miss India that honestly fell flat.

For the first half, Aditi’s expressions are priceless and her take on Punjabi-Sindhi families, eve-teasing, airports, kids with unpronounceable names keep one in splits with loud guffaws all around. Like any Hindi movies, the performance flags in the second half with the highlight being the denouement surrounded by below-par material. Overall, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable hour, if watched to laugh, rather than to judge.