Tuesday, 21 January 2014

I cut off more than my hair

I once bought a beige shrug, a snug, long-sleeved number that did all kinds of things for me that I liked, including covering me up. While I have never been actively ashamed of my body, no matter what my weight has been, I've had -and continue to have - body image issues that sometimes get in the way of one way of expressing myself: the way I dress. This shrug allowed me to wear whatever I wanted to work and that was all kinds of freedom. I worked in a conservative country, in an environment where I stood out for no other reason than that I wasn't a middle aged malayalee man or a local. 

Once I bought it, I wore that shrug everywhere. Everywhere. One night, on an evening assignment at a hotel, I took the shrug off (in a minute I was transformed from safe office dressing to a slightly more glamorous version. Oh I loved that shrug). And that was the end of it. In my usual absentmindedness I left the shrug at the hotel and went back home, and I never found it again. The 10 days I spent after that almost felt like grieving. And not just because it was relatively new. You see, as a person with breasts, I get stared at. As do most owners of breasts. And as with most of them, I too had developed indifference, and gotten on with life. Till this shrug arrived. The shrug gave me a new sense of freedom, and in epiphanic moment I understood what many hijabi Muslim friends had told me: that their hijab gave them a greater sense of freedom than when they didn't wear the hijab. While that freedom has largely to do with the world outside and how it viewed women, it made a huge difference to their own sense of confidence.

For a week or so after my lost shrug, I was acutely aware of my body, my movement was awkward, I didn't want to inhabit the space I was taking up. I used my hands less freely, I walked a little more folded into myself. I realise it sounds strange, even superficial maybe, to equate the religious hijab with a mere covering but there it is. The shrug offered me protection and I suddenly understood the hijab.

At the end of last year, which is about three weeks ago, I lost a figurative shrug again. This time on purpose. I tonsured my head in the last week of December and it was just like losing the shrug. At first. Back in June, to mark my daughter's fifth birthday, I wanted to donate her very long hair. I talked to her about it and told her we'd shave our heads together, if she was uncomfortable doing it alone. But the vain little miss she is, she refused outright and I was left with a vow to myself that we'd donate hair. There began an everyday nag. Every week, if I were to put an average to it, I'd think I need to do it now. I need to go cut my hair and shave it all off. But cold feet were fast coming, and vanity still sat strong on my shoulders. Ever since I grew my hair out as a teenager, I'd been told it was my best feature. I started believing it myself, and maintained at least waist-length hair at all times, if not longer. But since June, the thought refused to go away. Every day, it would enter my consciousness and be driven out by fear and vanity. How would I wear a sari with a bald head? I didn't have the bone structure to carry off a bald head. How awful would my chubby face look without hair framing it and taking away the width of my jaw a little? All questions of vanity, of course. Luckily enough, I have an accepting family. Or perhaps a resigned one, considering the things I put them through. So it never occurred to me to find out from them if they'd have a problem with it. It was my hair, after all. 

The last Sunday of December I woke up and magically knew that day was the day. I decided I would go for it, and waited all morning to turn chicken and put it away for another time. But this time no doubts, no cold feet, no voice telling me I'd regret it in a week, as I have done the few times I've cut my hair short. Out of habit, I'd gather all the hair to make a bun at night and there would be not enough length to twist it. I'd feel a sense of regret, a faint flurry of loss, put my hair in a ponytail and go to sleep. But today, the path to the salon seemed bright and clear, my resolve shone like my shampooed hair. 

The first snip after the sectioning felt like finding out unexpectedly that you're pregnant;  there was no turning back from here. The hair is partitioned into four or six sections, depending on thickness and length, and then bound in bands. The scissors then go deliciously through a lock of hair where you want it cut. In my case, an inch from my scalp. I saw the first bunch in the stylist's hand, in the mirror, and loudly said "ouch". I couldn't take my eyes off that bunch he was holding, freshly shampooed, dried, (required before donating) and 18 inches long. The other five sections were a blur and once they came away, I was left with an inch or so of hair on my head and my very worried stylist said, "Ma'am, funky banadega. Shave mat karo." But I'm not a funky woman, and I don't know how to carry off funky hair. Besides, any change in action apart from the one I had decided on would result in my crying bitterly into a jar of Nutella two days later, so I told him to stick to the plan. The rest of the work, a very close buzz leaving almost nothing on my head, was a quick process.

I walked out of there with my hair neatly wrapped and put away in a plastic bag and wondering what the hell I'd just done. I had those big shades on and I remember wondering if I looked like The Fly from the movie of the same name. The repeated stares from people on the street was no help. But I'd asked for this, so I chinned up and went about like I was an everyday bald woman. I went home. I waited for it to hit. Two, three, four days and I still wasn't missing my hair. Waking up to a bald head in the mirror was strange as hell, sure, but did I miss my hair? No. Three weeks later, I still don't. What has happened inside me, however, is huge. 

One of the reasons I have body image issues is my arms. Ever so conscious of all those slim, chiselled, perfect arms I see around me, I've always semi-hidden my upper arms in the length of my hair, when I wear clothes that don't cover them. They're heavy, and they carry stretch marks, as a kind male colleague once pointed out so helpfully. On warm days, my hair was the perfect cover-up. On the days my skin looked tragic, and no matter what I did to my face, I still looked like I'd been sitting in a room breathing in cigarette smoke as a beauty treatment, all I had to do was wash my hair. Instant glam. Love bites? No problem. Undo that bun and let your hair curtain that treacherous neck. Women know these tricks. In bed, a toss of long hair that splays across your back, or a cascade of gentle waves down your shoulders, sexy. After a blow dry, the luxury of the silk that you keep running your hands through, the satin that slips onto your shoulder. The twist that you give it when you want to reflect a certain mood or style of dress. Hair makes all this possible and I'm probably limiting its uses by quoting from personal experience. 

As my days played out, I found more and more ways that my hair added to my (now i realise) massive vanity. I wasn't sad it wasn't there anymore and I didn't miss it but I was aware of all the things it did to me, for me. Through this process of realising what I had only read about, ie. what hair means to women, vanity and beauty, there was another transformative experience occurring subconsciously. One that I realised as I laughed a little more freely, as I chose my clothes less carefully, as I found a greater liking for myself. Somehow, and I cannot explain clearly, though I will try, I was becoming more me.

 I remember discussing cutting my hair before shaving it all off and saying, "I enjoy having long hair and it is very me." I honestly believed that, that the ... romanticism, if you will... of long hair was me. I don't think I'm traditional but the idea of beauty and grace I associated with a woman always included long hair and by choosing to keep it long, I was trying to emulate that image of grace and physical beauty. But having taken it all off, the hair that is, I felt as if I'd shorn off layers of myself. Last year was tough, and it affected my confidence and my self esteem to such great lengths that I found it difficult to like myself. With this act of mine, I found a person from three years ago emerging: the person who didn't hide, a person who spoke without worrying too much if she'd be disliked for it, a person unafraid to make mistakes. I liked this person because I felt she was closer to my knowledge of myself than the person I'd been living with for the past three years. 

I had nothing to hide behind anymore. My blemishes, literal and figurative, were there for everyone to see. No hair to hide my bad skin days, no hair to cover chunky arms and stretch marks, no hair to look elegant in a sari. No hair. The past three weeks have been a revelation to me. I've seen how much I've hidden for the fear of being less than perfect. I've also seen what I've hidden. And it didn't deserve to be. Even as I write this, I sense I haven't been able to do justice to the transformative experience this has been. I realise I haven't been able to describe the slow emergence, sunrise-like, of the person that I like more. This change, this slow, steady washing away and emerging of clean, bright river stones, has been as much about my body as it has been about my mind, soul even. I cannot tell you how liberating it is to say I am not afraid, again. I wish I could do better than this because I want to take you with me on this incredible trickling that I'm caught in, this gentle current of cleansing and revealing. I want you to feel, selfishly, this joy and clarity and freedom. It isn't fireworks. It isn't loud and ecstatic.

It's something else. It is the golden light of an oncoming dusk in the monsoon, where the afternoon sun gives way to a gold that is molten and diluted, losing it's brilliance but still gold. It is a gentle light, a gentle transformation that I hope is permanent. 

That said, man, the thing that annoys me the most now is being asked if I went to Tirupati.


Thursday, 26 December 2013

triptych


i

are shells feminine or masculine
what about firecrackers
and labels 
pigeonholes
and stereotypes
are they this or are they that?

ii
considering an alternate handle
for my alter ego
to tweet alternatively
in my altered states
to worship at the altar
of all terminated thought.

iii
tentacle around an ankle
insistent like only sex can be
my mind is on a bookmark
twisting searching penetrating
patterns form behind my eyelids
muscles contract and find an orbit
i become crochet comet dust as i come


Monday, 9 December 2013

How to ride on the back of a serious issue while not really saying anything.

This is the unedited version of the one publicised originally in Hindustan Times. 


http://www.hindustantimes.com/lifestyle/books/of-farmer-suicides-and-bitter-nris/article1-1155786.aspx


Foreign

Sonora Jha

Random House India

Rs 399

 

After having read years of journalistic prose about the searing,  tragic epidemic that is farmer suicides, which has a relatively indifferent India in its grasp, it came as a thing of curiosity when Sonora Jha’s debut novel Foreign announced itself moored to the issue. The scope was vast, the data staggering and the numbers never ceasing. How then, I wondered, would this communication professor from Seattle handle this frighteningly large issue in her first attempt at fiction.

To answer that, first off, Jha does it with grace and earnest attention to varying points of view. The books begins with the point of view of Dr Katya Misra, an academic from Seattle, much like Jha, who hasn’t visited India in 14 years. Katya’s moment of academic celebrity is cut shot when she notices 17 missed calls on her phone from India, where her 14 year old son Kabir is on vacation with his maternal parents. Katya calls back to find out he has run away. Here starts her return from a self-imposed exile back to India where she left many things behind, including, as she sees it, much of her Indianness.  Katya’s return is, in fact, a kind of coming full circle. When she lived in Mumbai, Katya wrote on issues that helped change government policies and was involved in journalism of truth. But when her relationship with her then lover Ammar Chaudhry ends, Katya is bitter and disillusioned, leaving her homeland for good. Her return to India brings her in contact with Ammar and Katya realizes it is time she stayed back and finished the work she started and gave herself to many years ago. At least for a while. This point of view is alternated with that of Bajirao Andhale and Gayatribai, a family that is a ticking suicide bomb. Katya’s return compels her to stay with the couple and it is from here, a dusty, rain-starved village named Dhanpur, that the stories told in Foreign are told.

Jha likes her stories neatly tied up with a perfect little bow at the end. From her chapter headings, which aren’t as obscure as they may be perceived, to the way she ends the book,  the first-time author doesn’t leave anything to imagination or conjecture.  Her academic past may have probably helped her in her research of the suicides in Vidarbha and about the lives of cotton farmers, but you’d be hard pressed to tell. For the most part, the petulant Katya gets in the way of telling the larger story, that of the suicides, with her NRI bitterness and her acute self-consciousness. Her contempt of India, her dread and anger at the past and her final reconciliation with the country and her yesterday form the backbone of the book, with the farmer suicide almost, but not quite, seeming incidental.

Of the many characters that Jha has focused intently on creating in detail, only two people actually emerge as rounded, progressing characters: Katya and Gayatribai. While Bajirao, Ammar and Kabir are all fairly amiable characters, they seem as serving a purpose of bringing these two women to their life’s mission, in a manner of speaking. Gayatribai goes from doggedly devoted village wife to a quiet, desperate “activist” who grabs the attention of the chief minister and media alike, in what seems like record time in the book. Katya herself makes peace and stays on because she knows this is what she has to do now, to save this family and if she can, other families that have been gripped by the suicide epidemic.

The ending is far too cosmetic for an angst-ridden reader like me with Gayatribai becoming the ray of hope, and Katya renewing her commitment to the cause. It asks no questions, it provides even fewer answers and arrives at a solution that fits in best with a hindi film ending. And this is why the book is deeply flawed. With journalism and academia in Jha’s repertoire, one would expect Foreign to strike a deep chord, to cut viscerally. But the book asks no questions at all, leave alone those that would make you search your soul. Your heart goes out to the poverty-ridden farmers but when you shut the book, none of the ghosts of their dead stay with you, a situation which a subject like this one would have a scope to create. Into a few pages, when you’ve formed certain impressions without actually thinking about them, Foreign surprises you with two things: touching prose in places and the rooted, confident portrayal of the relationship between Katya and Kabir. Nuance, dialogue, love and worry all emerge beautifully in this dynamic.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Gowri


A mother and daughter sit at a park bench, two gangly legs swinging as if a key had gone off in their knees. The two of them look up occasionally. The mother and daughter, that is, and not the swinging legs. They look up to see egrets, a swathe of white, grey and pale yellow cutting through an illusion of sky. They laugh at little things, this mother and daughter, and fight over finishing sentences. Suddenly the little girl picks up her new rag doll, and tells her mother she hears the voices of her friends and that she wants to show her new doll Gowri to them. Little hands clutch the new rag doll, who is a vision in a purple and gold brocade pavada and a bead necklace with a heart pendant. Thick braids on an oblong head make her endearing. Legs filled with eagerness and a heart bursting at the seams with joy, and pride at her new doll, and the prospect of showing off, hurtle the little girl's body into a world her mother was apprehensive of sending her into.

Wait a minute, kanna, she says. Let's sit here and talk. We'll talk about Gowri's school and how you're going to help her decide if she wants to do art or drums. The little girl doesn't stop for a second, her heart is right there on her sleeve, right next to tightly-clutched Gowri, smiling, amiable Gowri. She's a minute away from a catastrophe the colour of fake blonde hair, pink walkie talkies and puzzling pom-poms.

The sun is setting now and the mother walks towards the swings, become herself a child. The worst of a child. She watches the girls play; a swing supports her daughter who is nibbling a biscuit, another shadow in the sand is of her friend, a third set of girl feet finishing the trio. Her mother doesn't acknowledge the last girl, says to her daughter that it was time to go home. The swing shuffles. Flop sits down her daughter, thighs digging into the side of a yellow swing. Five minutes more amma, says the little girl who can't tell time yet. The mother agrees and walks away, spying Gowri lying face down, forgotten in the sand, new pavada askew, showing off lace-trimmed bloomers.

There's no peace in the mother's heart as she paces the walking track. Sense, protection, maturity and anger glow incandescent, individual lamps as well as a collective fire, a raging blaze fuelled by the pace of her walk. Finding no answers to questions she does to know how to word, she lets this battle too go, even though she's not sure they've won. Or lost. It Is dark now and the little girl needs to be brought home from the evening. This thought shapeshifts into the little girl, expectant, waiting and unprotesting about not being able to play more. The mother does a mental check list, only so she doesn't have to come back to the park at bed time with a hysterical, unreasonable, sleepy child who demands the one thing that's forgotten in the playground. Shoes, bottle, toy, sweatshirt. Check. Gowri. Where's Gowri, little one? Oh. And two butterfly feet are off to the find her In the sand.

The evening passes with the precision and negotiation of a book-parented household. Through bath and bed time, loopy sentences and discoveries of the day that was interrupt bedtime stories about very, very shy butterflies. Goodnight, flower. May you dream of snow tonight.

Six words leave a sleepy mouth; two expectant, intensely piercing, clear eyes open like reflecting moons shining on the mother's face. "Amma, they said Gowri was ugly." 








Sunday, 17 November 2013

Not a chip


I stand on the white floor, my feet
Instantly splaying out like the billow of cloth 
In a quiet afternoon breeze. Toes swell up,
Just a little, like albino leeches, blood pooling.

What harm have my feet done, I wonder
That they wear their ugliness like a brand.
An arch that rose reluctantly, crowned by toes
That never grew up.

You of the perfect feet; a petite, lithe size five
You of the pretty hands, fingers like frozen rain
Ravens for hair, paintings for eyes
Voice like winter sunshine, song like goodbyes.

Mirrors confess no truths; they refuse to lie,
What I saw in them, I saw through your discerning eye. 
Who am I and who were you? Why did my arms 
End with your palms? Why is my face studded with your eyes?

All those things you ticked off
Long straight nose 
Arched eyebrows
Fingers turned up at the tips
Small waist, flat stomach, swelling hips. 

I look for them in our mirror, then I looked in mine.
Then I looked in yours, mother. And all I saw was you
All I saw was me. Telling you how difficult it was to be your daughter.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Awake

It used to be that we'd toss and turn with curiosity and desire
The kisses we devoured earlier that day wet our eyes
And touched the replay button so that when we lay awake
Yet dreaming, the ravaging played on loop, and all we saw 
Were thirsty tongues, and hungry hands.

They’d keep us up, these tongues, with words and kisses
Till it was no more enough to think about them
And it was no more enough to stay awake thinking about them
So we’d sleep with a seeping wetness at the centre of us
Our insides turned to pools.

Now, we lie awake, waiting for a sun to rise somewhere
Over an ocean we don’t see, counting forward hours on the clock
Waiting for the phone to buzz, hoping the tablet will light up
With kisses from yellow faces and hugs that are sometimes misspelt
While the internet keeps us company in an insomniac vigil.



Sunday, 16 June 2013

Becoming an asshole starts early.

You know how folks turn out to be assholes? Not the personal-criterion-meeting asshole but an asshole that anyone will recognise? You know how that happens? Because their parents show them exactly how to do it. A thousand free kisses to those who grew out of that nonsense and decided to un-asshole themselves in adulthood, but this post isn't about them.

Last weekend, I was minding my own business, finishing up back to school shopping, basically living my suburban cookie cutter nightmarish existence in glorious detail. Everything about that Sunday evening made me want to go on a killing spree in that people-full mall I was in that evening, and be committed for insanity. There I was holding on to my son's hand, my daughter was walking the kids' father, and we had bags and we were all dressed down terribly. We were the picture of an ideal family. In my head we were the picture of every cliche that I have critically struggled against.

But I digress. There was this show at the mall, a Disney show with Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse on stage. It wasn't one of those poor-cousin-of-Disney locally managed shows where costumes looked like they'd give you a disease if you as much as looked in that direction. This gig was a genuine Disney show and the whole team was down from Mumbai and were..., well, it was a great show. Having shopped for the kids to a certain amount that made you eligible for a ticket to watch, I waited in line with the kids for them to open up the seating area. 

I am one of those awful people you meet who tells people off for jumping queues, letting their toddlers walk on seats with shoes on, pointedly picks up trash if people have thrown it out in front of me and generally gets vocal and anal about selfish, uncaring insolence of which there's an abundance all around me. 

As I waited in line, two women with 67 children in tow (even though the passes said one adult, two kids) came up behind me and formed their own organic line. A polite girl stood behind me and I thought she might object, but she didn't. It was beginning to annoy me and having a propensity for losing my temper irrespective of where I am, I was weighing the options of telling these moronic chicks that there was a line and it didn't start behind them. While it tossed and turned, the woman behind me kept fidgeting. Little gets to me more than a fidgety person whose infernal fidgeting affects my physical space. Since this woman was practically assaulting my back with her breasts, stomach and her squirming spawn, I was being jostled quite a bit. I snapped and said, can you not stand so close. She looks at me and says but we are in line. Wrong thing to say, no? 

I had a go at her and said, uh no actually, she was breaking a pretty patient queue and if she really cared about being in the line, she'd go to the back. She says, "it's okay." 
I say, "no it's not. There are people, also with kids, waiting before you. You are being unfair to them."
She says, "it's okay. They don't have a problem, why do you?
Correct.
So I said, "because if I let it go now, I won't sleep well at night." 
I am assuming she wasn't too bright because she turned dumb eyes at me and I said well,  if people behind me let you get ahead, good for you. 
Unfortunately, the girl right behind me was polite and didn't make a scene though she did register a half hearted protest to which again the moron mother said, it is okay.
I'd have forgotten about the whole incident, if the woman didn't turn around and tell the other woman with her, right in front of their preteen daughter, does she think this is the first time I've skipped a line, don't we know what we are supposed to do, we also have tickets, not like we are beggars, "over smart".  
I called security. Not because she was gloating but because she just got on my last nerve. I'll leave this story at that. 
But I thought about my maybe asshole tendency to want to be fair all the time. I am not sure I liked what happened or how I reacted. I might be embarrassing someone or delaying someone or plain being tightassed when I do these things but I very strongly believe that if you are going to let your kid see this behaviour you're just creating another wave of callous, rubbish individuals who dump their trash in the neighbour's yard and call themselves clean, in a manner of speaking. I know I am stating the obvious but I am incensed. In the last week alone, I've had way too many brushes with the indolence and selfishness that we as a whole indulge in and encourage. In the last week alone, I've send two kids to the back of the weighing line at supermarkets, kids whose parents sent them with "just one bag to be weighed", kids who do are learning implicitly and permanently that it is ok to rudely jump the queue, learning deceit and lack of respect. 
On the road, not a single person displays consideration for another driver, no giving way, no letting a pedestrian cross, no waiting. God knows how difficult it is to be a pedestrian in India without Impatient motorists speeding up just as they spot a weary guy trying to get to the other side of the road and to a homemade meal without getting himself killed. Unless you're an aggressive bitch, you can forget about getting a u-turn at crossroads where there're no traffic lights. Peeing in public, laughing at a fat person,  treating a waiter or service staff badly, especially without provocation. So many ways in which you can create a little asshole of your kid and perpetrate her or him or the world. Or not. 

Friday, 14 June 2013

"My Brother's Wedding" by Andaleeb Wajid. A review


Weddings are always fun to read about, especially Indian weddings. Romance, intrigue, larger than life family members and all the shopping make for a riveting read and that is exactly what Andaleeb Wajid’s third (published) book “My Brother’s Wedding” is all about.

“My Brother’s Wedding” starts with Saba’s blog. A 19 year old, Saba starts an anonymous blog that helps her deal with the circus that her brother’s wedding is. Soon enough, though, the actual wedding takes a back seat and all the events that change Saba’s life gently, yet permanently, play out on the blog. From the whiff of first love to how a family sticks together in times of trouble, Wajid takes you through a gamut of emotions, without leaving you drained of them. You just can’t help wanting to know what happens to the characters next.

Wajid is a consummate story teller, and fortunately enough, she has the language skills to tell a tight, funny, poignant story that hits the ground running from word go; right in the beginning, what you read is Saba, not the idea of Saba, not a slow movement by the author towards bulding Saba, but a lively, intelligent Saba, who lives in Bangalore and is different from the rest of her family. Saba’s family is educated and yet deeply traditional, in so much that she wears a full burqa and the women in her family still avert their faces when they come across strange men. Arranged marriages are still the norm and marrying out of the community (even though to another kind of Muslim community) still vexes families.

In the midst of all this is Saba,clear conscience and burqa intact and audacious underneath it. She has strong opinions on her siblings Zohaib and Rabia, her best friend is a world-weary Riya and finds herself taking the first step to pursuing a goodlooking boy who she has an instant crush on.  Not quite the girl most people think Muslim girls are.

Wajid has a strong narrative style and her characters, at least those who occupy most space in her book, are well-rounded and journey to a different place by the time she ends her book. But she is also a cruel author, rarely ever giving readers what they think they want; she snatches and obliterates, she erases and takes away, and presents you with a twist here and a turn there that will have you groaning in frustration. She has no qualms in doling out the worst fate to her characters, and in the end, that very cruelty is Wajid’s biggest advantage. There’s never predicting what the people in her books will do.

Women in Wajid’s writing, apart from obviously being women, are portrayed in the complexity that is associated with them in pop culture. They have many inner conflicts that are rarely shared with others, they are hesitant about love, and not afraid of lust. They are bright, not very stereotypical and question things around them regularly. I have found, Wajid is true to the Muslim women in her community who will accept their lot, but continue to struggle with their questions and complexes. The men, however, are a girl’s dream come true. They are always good looking, charming, cultured and respectful. Unafraid of their love for their girl, they are expressive and don’t hesitate to kiss the love of their lives, although the sex can come once they are married.

“My Brother’s Wedding” is a fast read because Wajid spins a story on a tight plot and delivers a satisfying end. I started in the morning and, with many interruptions, was done by late night. Of course, I do have a lot of time on my hands, but that’s a different thing. The paperback is published by Rupa and pitched as a young adult novel, although at 33, it kept me quite engrossed. I loved the cover,  a bright yellow background with ornate designs that served as a border to a girl sitting at a laptop.  Structurally, the novel shifts between Saba’s posts on her blog and an omniscient perspective that describes the goings on in Saba’s household.
Priced at Rs 295, I totally recommend this between two heavy reads.  

And if you’re in Bangalore tomorrow, June 15, 2013, do brave the traffic to attend the launch of this book at the Oxford Book Store,  1 MG Road Mall, next to Vivanta by Taj at 6.30 pm. 

(Disclosure: Andaleeb Wajid is a friend.)

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Narcopolis, a review.

(It's been a long, long time since I reviewed a book. So please forgive my floundering.)

It took me two readings of Narcopolis to feel able enough to write a review. I took exactly an entire year between my two readings, and as the book turns one, I feel it's time.

The first time I read the book, I read it in a hurry. For two reasons. One, because I had been looking forward to it for a while, ever since I knew Jeet Thayil had written his first book. It isn't the biggest of secrets that I am huge fan of his poetry; it feels really terrible to use the word "fan" for something as exquisite as Thayil's poetry but there's no other word, really. I've looked hard and read repeatedly to find something I don't like about the poetry and come up with nothing. Except perhaps, there isn't enough of it. So when the book came out, I couldn't wait to get my hands on it.

The second reason, and perhaps more relevant to you as a reader, is because unless you get past the first thirty or so pages, this book is a struggle. You are sorely tempted to put it down and pick it up, oh, maybe next year and read other things. Of this I was terrified.

In just about every review, the seven-page long, single-sentence prologue seemed to be talked about a lot. And I can see why. To begin with, you barely notice it is one long sentence till you are about half way. When it does dawn on you, you are also thinking exactly where is this going. My advice to you: persevere. Unlike the first book of Narcopolis (the story is divided into four books), the prologue is a compelling, textured read. The introductions are many, the voice and tone are set here - in the tradition of a drug novel, a lucidity that you move in and out of throughout the book: parts of it so real they make you hold your breath just a bit, and parts of it so fantastical, that it feels like you've just switched books without realising. I don't want to compare it to being high, but if you've gotten nice and high, and tripped peacefully, you'll recognise that quality here.

This is an intimidating book to review. Partly because of the style itself, an ambitious story telling that walks the fine line between trying too hard and intricate originality. And partly because the story arcs and characters are so intimately intertwined that unless you stick objectively to your own response to the book, you run the risk of picking up every skein that runs through it and discussing it, thereby ruining the book for the reader entirely. The reviews I've read all said the book was about sex and drugs and Bombay and poverty. To me, those things in the book are incidental. Big but still incidental. All the elements are there for it to be a Bombay in the 70s/80s book but it isn't what forms the spine of the book. This book could be set anywhere where the big things happen, where cities don't sleep and people die and live every day. There are specific events that might tie it down to Bombay like the riots, and indeed, it captures succinctly Bombay's past of nearly 30 years. The epicentre of book, where the stories radiate from, is an opium den in the not-so-posh part of South Bombay. But all of this could be anywhere, making it not just about Bombay or drugs or any of that, even though it traces the dying trails of opium addiction as it gives way to more violent, synthetic drugs that kills the dubious tradition of opium dens. But maybe because I like people so much, that I am genuinely interested in them, I find this book mostly about human beings and their severe and inescapable humanness. Their lives and, more importantly, their deaths,

There's Dom, the part-narrator, there's Dimple a hijra, her employer Rashid the owner of an opium khana: to me, the lives of these three occupy the largest chunks of the book. Dimple is a multi-layered, subtly astounding compulsive character, filled with an openness, and sadness that seem irreconcilable. As with all good books, and their lasting characters, I found Dimple stayed with me for a couple of days after I finished reading the book, and through her, the others. Her and Mr Lee's Chinese opium pipes.

Mr Lee is another constellation of pain and fear, who adopts Dimple in an odd sort of way. Or perhaps it is Dimple who adopts the dying old man who leaves those bamboo pipes to her. Here, Thayil gives you a sketch done in swift strokes of a brutal, revisionist China. This part of the book is particularly intricate because of the intimate telling of the way Lee's life unfolds. There are details of his traumatic childhood that feature an obsessive mother who eventually locks herself up and an equally compulsive addict of a novelist father. In between is an obviously ignored and confused Lee, a quality that barely changes as he leaves China and settles down in Bombay, even though he hates it. Thayil deftly builds an entire novel that the father Lee writes, in his own novel, within a matter of pages, and you wonder why. In your seeking of that answer, you realise Narcopolis is like an intricate patchwork of entire worlds and the 292 pages it is written in is just an illusionist's trick because there's a lot more there than that many pages can hold.

(Spoiler in the paragraph ahead.)
Book three is the most compelling of all the books. Thayil pulls out all stops on this one and lets his characters riotously loose. On a spectrum of human ugliness, the book's characters fill all the bands. Rumi, another patron of Rashid's chandu khana like Dom, is angry, arrogant, and filled with such great self loathing that he has to go beyond violence to himself and perpetrate it on other unsuspecting folk. Conflicted, zoned out Rashid who considers Dimple his property and resistingly watches his business slip away as time goes by, Salim, a minor but interesting interlude, who chops off his employer's penis when he's being raped (there's no other word for it) by him, and dies a violent death later. Dimple herself, according to me, becomes denser as the book progresses, obviously acquiring layers but as readers, we aren't allowed more than a glimpse. At times, she's shown as mouthy, other times non-judgemental as Rumi tells her things about his life, later in the book she's shown sad, quiet and sullen. The one thing you do know about her is that she's obsessed with reading, educating herself. It left me wanting to know more about Dimple, who was given away at age seven and castrated too about then.

Do I like the book? Yes, very much. Did it blow my mind? Close, it had my slowly-sinking mind in its slowly-tightening grip once I began reading it and much after I was done. What do I like best about the book? That it was deeply poetic and stark and loaded all at once. That it was unexpectedly funny in so many places, in a way that leaves you unsure if you should have laughed or if you misread it. That the subtexts are many - books, lyrics, histories. That it left me wanting more. What did I not like about the book? That it sagged in places and took a while to build steam. That there a couple of typos in the edition that I have (hard cover Faber and Faber). That I am thrown by details like Guru Dutt being referred to as Bengali (it may also be interpreted that he became an icon for Bengalis), little inaccuracies like 'katha' for 'khata' (to eat). These are little things, sure, and I am probably nitpicking, but I trip over them.


Friday, 3 May 2013

A tough year

Every year by April, you write a post saying this has been a better year than the last. And February or so next year, you write a post saying the past year was the most difficult year you have had. When it became a cycle, you realise that as you age life only gets tougher. In fact, when you are particularly depressed, life is actually just a series of moments that look forward to life becoming easier. Then a year passes and you are making more money but you are also spending that much more, so there's no real money for you to save, as your parents have been telling you to and that is just terrible. Because you are a girl and you can never leave the home you grew up in, figuratively. If you have had great parents, you can rarely ever say, I don't care, I am happy with who I am. So you go past a year thinking, damn, that was one difficult year. And then another year goes by and you've have the worst marriage in the history of bad marriage days and your think, wow, I'd rather have little or no money than this and anyway, why did I get married. The next year peeks in and you say, you know what, this is MY year and no one is going to ruin it for me. And you make plans and lists and you are so focused and driven and convinced that everyone around you wants to marry you because wow, you have just inspired everyone with your resolve to write your book lose weight make more money travel more places tweet less sleep more and be happy. February comes around and everything about an approaching spring pisses you off, you have dark circles from not sleeping enough, your body isn't beautiful, you've been breaking your resolutions like dawn and man, life is tough. Now you stay away from your friends because you don't want their pity. But you forget they don't pity you. All they have time for is a quick call and a prayer once a month, when they think of you. And because it is possible and okay to lend a shoulder online, they chat with you as you pour you woes on like syrup. They respond appropriately, but what is there to say because they have a deadline to meet and they still love you and send you a big hug. Send you a hug. Prayer hug deadline. That is enough. Your birthday month arrives and you think, ah another year older, let me take stock. What have you achieved you ask, and when you get answers you don't like you make everything look like an achievement because hey, you are just human and how much can you do, right? Then you think of Hedy Lamar and the woman who comes to cook and clean your house and you feel small like pebbles. Then you justify to yourself that they are them and you are you and the two can never be the same. And that's your lying, snivelling way out because there's no way to go. Only truth or lies and right now the lie comforts. So you want to kill yourself, painlessly and with as little trouble as possible because you do not want to inconvenience anyone in death, and you wonder if you should send off your passwords to someone who really cares and who are not your parents your husband. You think of the promises that you leave unfulfilled, the restaurants you really wanted to eat at but didn't take the time to, the vacations you planned but were too broke to go on. Maybe spirits can do all that, you think and hope everyone who depends on you will not be disappointed and that they have a good photograph of you to turn to when they know of your death. And a memory. You can't decide on the method of suicide and the moment passes. You judge yourself. Another tough year you say and it is tough. You know it and the people around you see it. And guess what, they judge you. But guess what's worse, you judge yourself worse. The worst. Then you start peddling furiously because you don't want to judge but you want life to be easier, and you want to be saner employed taken care of cherished independent happy and that's nowhere in sight. So you get off the cycle and realise it hasn't gotten you anywhere. You were peddling in the same place all this time and your goal seemed to be moving all the time, farther and farther away till winter came and your visibility got so bad that you couldn't see your destination any more. So you get off the cycle and found it was still summer where you started because you haven't moved. Only your legs got stronger. Your destination is ahead of you, far away, and you have strong legs. Maybe you will walk now. The year seems easier now that you are walking, the pace letting you see that life will always be difficult, that as long as you want to be anywhere but here life will be difficult. But if you don't want what is out there, how do you get more. Then you think you shouldn't want more because thankfulness and gratitude. Fuck gratitude. There's enough of that around among happy people. And they say that's the key to their happiness. Or at least that's what all the Facebook posts will have you believe. You get tired of the glamorous faces of your friends taking pictures on all their travels and there's a bit of envy too. And of all the great places they eat at, the lives they live online, the you call yourself pathetic because you are sitting there looking at their lives and the last time you had a holiday was whoa, god knows when. And you don't even believe in a god and now you feel the sudden politically correct need to not say god's name in vain. You need to find another name or word that you can use while you exclaim but you feel stupid, replacing such a small irrelevant word with another deliberate one and giving it meaning, because then you'll need to find and replace it in every other context and you can't think of a better word to use when you orgasm that's not pretentious because if you can't be you at least when you are having sex then you should have just found a method of suicide long ago when you thought about and done it. Because who are you if not you when your clothes are of. You judge yourself again because you have clothes and some people don't, you have sex and there are kids getting raped and you haven't done a thing about it, not even outraged because you are just so full of sadness for everything that nothing is enough. All you can do is fix yourself so you can fix other things. You start to plan and your difficult little life gets in the way, and dude, what a tough fucking year.
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