For the love of the written word…

Ever read a book that transports you into another world? Ever read one that makes you wish you inhabited that world instead of the one you actually do? One that makes the pages of history come alive in front of your eyes?
If you’ve never known what it feels like to get so involved in a book that you even forget to breathe, then you haven’t really lived. The written word holds a magical charm that’s hard to resist. It’s a world of its own, with no barriers or expectations. A well-written book is equal to a thousand movies rolled into one. It’s magical because it gives wings to imagination. 

My first tryst with historical novels was Kalki’s Ponniyin Selvan. Ah! Who can forget the handsome Arulmozhi, or the stunning Kundavai. I don’t know if these people actually looked the way I imagined them to be. But, for me, it’s the image that will remain forever etched in memory. Since then, tens of historical novels have fascinated me. The Ibis Trilogy and The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, White Mughals by William Dalrymple, even Freedom at Midnight by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. Each of these books have made me fall a little deeper in love with history. 
Don’t believe me? Just pick up a book and read. Let go of inhibitions. Let the story carry you forward. You’ll never regret it. 

Of marks and grades…

It’s that time of the year when the marks and grades frenzy grips every household that has a student old enough to ponder over questions of career. And every year, unfailingly, we see and hear reports of students choosing to end their lives over their perceived failure. It’s depressing and disheartening to see that so many teens view this failure as a failure in life itself.

There’s something seriously wrong with a system that encourages rote learning and privileges grades and marks over a true understanding of what is taught. Somehow, every year, the focus shifts a little further away from learning and towards the result. So much so that we’ve moved so far away from learning that we no longer recognise the true purpose of education: learning.

What drives children to end their lives over something so trivial as a few marks lost here and there? What makes them believe that they’ve truly reached the end of the world and there’s really no way out of the mess? Haven’t they ever heard of Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? Or are such motivational stories just stories that bear no resemblance to the lives we live? 

I am not qualified in any way to talk of education, its quality or the way it’s delivered. But, what I do know is that this is not what it should be. Learning should inspire, not terrify. It should bring joy, not stress. If our system brings so much stress that we no longer feel or experience the joy of learning, maybe it’s time to change the system, one brick at a time. And perhaps, we should start by telling our children that it’s ok to fail sometimes. 

Questions of identity…

The elections have just concluded. Much discussion has transpired on the various things politicians said to get votes and seats, from free laptops, to Activas at half price. But, for some reason, one election promise hasn’t been discussed in the mainstream as much as I would like: that of giving primacy to Tamilians in Tamil Nadu. This election slogan of “Tamil Nadu is for Tamilians”  is neither new, nor entirely unexpected. What is, however, disheartening is the number of educated and seemingly sensible people who seem to think this attitude is acceptable.

I do not quite understand how someone can be so determinedly nationalist in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world. I do not understand how nationalism and exclusionism is not a negative quantity in a world where most products we routinely consume are produced outside of the geography that we occupy. How can someone who boasts an Apple iPhone, a Fossil watch and a Ford car think that only people who “originally” belong to a state/region have the right to live there? How can anyone, in the same breath speak with great pride of Satya Nadella and Indra Nooyi, while simultaneously wishing to deport all non-Tamils from Tamil Nadu? What does nationalism or regional pride even mean in today’s world?

Questions of identity are extremely complex and difficult to resolve. This questions is one of special personal importance to me, as I have spent the better part of my life trying to give myself a single identity. And failed. Am I Kannadiga, when my knowledge of the language is limited to the dialect I speak at home, and that of the state limited to my few visits to Bangalore? Or am I a Tamilian, when my mother tongue is a language other than Tamil? Who exactly am I and what is my relationship with this place I call home?

When someone asks me where I am from, the first answer I give is, “Chennai”. Because, it is true. I am from Chennai and this is home. I certainly do not speak Tamil as a first language or mother tongue. I belong to a tiny community of Kannada-speaking people who migrated into this state several centuries ago. I am married to a member of an even tinier community of Marathi-speaking people who also migrated several centuries ago. If someone asked us to go back where we belong, where do we go? To Karnataka, whose language and people are so alien to me that I return from each short trip to Bangalore with the joy of pup returning home? Or to Maharashtra, which I have barely visited except for a few times for official reasons? For me, home is Chennai. Even if I were to go a few generations back to trace my origins, they would go no further than Coimbatore and Theni. Then, who am I?

If mastery of a language is the criteria for qualifying as a “Tamilian”, then would millions of my co-inhabitants of Tamil Nadu qualify? How many native speakers of Tamil actually know the language they call their mother tongue? How about this generation of urban youth, which is more comfortable in English than in their mother tongue?

These are questions that are extremely hard to resolve, or even attempt a resolution at. Yet, we do not hesitate to call someone an “outsider” just because we feel entitled. Can we try, at least, to build a more equitable world? A world that, in Tagore’s immortal words, has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls? Try?

Welcoming a new year…

I’ve always said that the new year is a tad overrated. That said, a new year is an opportunity. It’s a chance that we get, year on year, to start over on a fresh page, leaving the mistakes of the previous year behind. It’s a chance to look ahead, to hope for a better future. After all, what’s life without hope?

Like everyone else, I too have a bucket list. Many elements of this list have stayed on for years, even decades now. Some have been struck off to be replaced with other things. But these are not resolutions to be broken by the end of January. These are things that change with time, with baby steps, taken one step at a time. These are little drops that will one day form an ocean.

First on my list, is to forgive myself my shortcomings a bit more easily. I am perhaps my own worst critic. There are days when I look around me and see a messy house, an unmade bed and dirty dishes and curse myself for being worthless, constantly telling myself that I’m no match for others who manage to keep a spotless house. This year, I’d like to be a little kinder to myself and try not to feel inadequate all the time. 

The next on my list is to take some time off for myself every week. To start doing what I love to do: write. To spend time with my thoughts and words, because they’re important to me. 

And finally, to tolerate crap a little less. To speak my mind without being rude. To be strong without appearing insulting. This is perhaps the most difficult of my tasks. But I’d like to try. 

What’s on your bucket list?

2015: The year I rediscovered the joy of reading

2015 has been a roller-coaster in more ways than one. But, if there is one good thing about this year, it is that I rediscovered by love for the written word. Reading is homecoming. It is joy. It is getting lost in a world of words and becoming a part of it. Today, as I look back on the year past, I realise I’ve actually managed to read more books than I even thought was possible when I embarked on that challenge a year ago. So, here we go, with a list of books I’ve read, in no particular order.

Some were great, others were mediocre. Some others were simply bad. But, no time spent on a book can ever go waste. So, take your pick and share the love.

  1. Shikandi and Other Stories They Don’t Tell You by Devdutt Pattanaik
  2. God is a Gamer by Ravi Subramaniam
  3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
  4. Aavarana – The Veil by SL Bhyrappa
  5. The Giver by Lois Lowry
  6. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  7. Sita’s Sister by Kavita Kane
  8. Ajaya: Roll of the Dice by Anand Neelakantan
  9. Rise of Kali: Duryodhana’s Mahabharata by Anand Neelakantan
  10. Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh
  11. Yagnaseni: The Story of Draupadi by Pratibha Ray
  12. Domechild by Shiv Ramdas
  13. Mistress by Anita Nair
  14. The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan
  15. Asura: Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan
  16. The Lives of Others by Neel Mukherjee
  17. Never Go Back by Lee Child
  18. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Book review: Asura: The Tale of the Vanquished

This is perhaps the first time I’m actually writing a book review. That the book is so bad, is what spurred me on to actually writing this review. As a reader, when I pick up a book to read, I expect it to be interesting, engaging and internally consistent. Sadly, this one is none of the above. Having read Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, I expected a much better book from Anand Neelakantan. It’s always interesting to read the story from the point of view of the underdog and the story of Ravana, the Asura king is no exception. It is this curiosity that made me buy the book. But, this book is so disappointing at so many levels, that I don’t know where to start.

The plot & storyline

The success of a good writer is in sticking to the accepted plot of the traditional telling and still managing to convey a radically different viewpoint. This is what books like Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Ajaya by the very same author manage to do. Those books do not radically change the plot of the traditional telling in an attempt to justify the doings of the antagonist. This is Asura’s primary failure. It overlooks basic attributes of Ravana’s character in Valmiki’s Ramayana to paint an entirely different picture of who he is. The writer conveniently sidesteps Ravana’s parentage, his knowledge of the Vedas, his love for music and his devotion to Shiva. Instead, Ravana is portrayed as a rejected half-caste, suffering in poverty and burning with the ambition to become the feared Emperor of Lanka. Towards the end of the book, the author tries to make some amends by mentioning, in passing, the codification of musical notes and Ravana’s expertise in playing the Rudraveena. Unfortunately, the mention is too brief and unsatisfying to add depth to Ravana’s character.

Secondly, this entire sub-plot of Sita actually being Ravana’s daughter seems to exist in the book solely to justify her abduction by Ravana. Given the context and the narrative, this sub-plot falls flat on its face, failing to really rouse the reader to internalising that relationship. At one point, Ravana seems almost apologetic that Sita is his daughter, unwilling to disclose the true nature of that relationship to Sita herself. To me, Ravana did not make a very convincing father.

As for internal consistency, the writer seems to be in love with the idea of the oppressed dark-skinned masses belonging to the Dravidian Asura race. First of all, the Valmiki Ramayana barely distinguishes the good and the bad on the basis of skin colour. Rama, the hero, is dark-skinned, as is his wife. Ravana, the principal antagonist is fair-skinned. The heroes and the villains in the traditional telling possess an entire range of complexions between these extremes. Somehow, this portrayal of an Indian apartheid just does not cut it.

The narrative

For any good book, a good narrative is essential, as is a good editor. Neelakantan seems to have lost out, not because his editor was bad, but because he doesn’t seem to have one. Sentences are long-winded and repetitive. The narrative is complicated for no reason. And to make things worse, grammar and spelling errors abound. If I’m paying 300 bucks to buy a book, I’d at least expect basic typos to be corrected.

Then, there is this character called Bhadra. What purpose does he serve really? All he does is lament his own fate, rant about the rape and murder of his first wife and child, and the rape and impregnation of his second. When he’s not doing that, he is grovelling at Ravana’s feet despite the fact that it was Ravana who actually raped his second wife. Why exactly do we need him in the book? The alternating points of view are actually tiring to read and add absolutely no depth or value to the story.

The characters

Practically every character is frustratingly unidimensional. Ravana is arrogant and foolish, rejecting all so-called Deva traditions, and not really upholding too many Asura ones either. Then pray, why is he our hero? Vibhishana is a coward and a traitor with no redeeming factor. Rama is a coward too, not to mention suspecting his wife of infidelity. Kumbhakarna is a drunkard, addicted to opium to boot. Sita is, well, either dumb or a complete idiot. I can’t quite decide which one. Bhadra shouldn’t actually exist in this book, for he has no role. What more can I say?

For the first time in many years, I actually skipped about 50 pages of a book in an attempt to just finish the book. If you want to really read a good book on mythology, don’t pick this one. Palace of Illusions is a better choice. Or Karna’s Wife. Or even Valmiki Ramayana.

A maelstrom of emotions

I’ve been struggling to verbalise what I feel since my city started sinking on the 1st of December. It’s taken me 13 days to finally sit down and attempt to put these thoughts into words. Forgive me if I’m not entirely coherent, for these past days have been extraordinary in more ways than one.

The first day of December will remain forever etched in my mind. Only a stroke of incredibly good luck got me out of office and back to my parents’ home that evening. Things were still looking manageable when I got home around 6 that evening. Little did I know that the next three days would be a roller coaster of emotions. Little did I realise that this city that I so love would sink in ways that none of us ever imagined it would. Even when the power went off at 8 that night, I only grumbled a bit about the inconvenience caused, never realising that parts of my city were already under water. Only later that evening when I started seeing tweets about people stranded on their way home did I realise that this wasn’t going to end just yet. I remember being amazed at the generosity of common people like you and me, who threw their homes open to complete strangers stranded in the rains, offering them food, wifi and a place to sleep. I didn’t know then that this was only the beginning.

For the next three days, cut off from the rest of the world, with no power or network, I didn’t quite know what was happening. The road before the house was waist deep in water. Inner roads were flooded till the neck. Back home, I managed to ascertain that S and the FIL were fine but had no power or network either. I heard from friends, neighbours and well-wishers that Nanganallur was fine and with very little flooding. I heaved a sigh of relief. I got my parents out to the safety of my aunt’s house and we all treated it like a quirk of fate that brought the family together under a single roof after all these years. Even when my cousin called on the evening of Wednesday in panic asking if we needed to be rescued, we put it down to unnecessary panic. We didn’t know that people were indeed being rescued by helicopters in many parts of the city.

It’s only when I got reconnected to the Internet on Friday afternoon did I come to realise the magnitude of the tragedy. I was seeing tweets for help, cries of distress, common citizens rally together to hold afloat a sinking city. And by then, the worst was already over. As I progressively got back to civilisation, I was struck. Struck by random strangers answering calls for help. People in other cities reaching out to volunteers and the rescue forces on the ground to provide information. I saw common people come together and cook meals for the displaced. I saw places of worship throw their doors open to everyone and shelter them for the days to come. What I saw filled my heart with an unspeakable gratitude for the goodness innate in people. I personally sent out an appeal for rescue of a trapped friend that was retweeted and shared about 100 times. It warms my heart that help reached less than three hours after the first appeal went out on Twitter. Used as I am to seeing bitterness and rancour, outrage and politics, I was surprised that my Twitter feed was almost entirely filled with tweets asking for or offering help. That is still the case, 13 days after the tragedy. I see people still tweet about rehabilitation, relief, clean-up and the like.

Born and raised in Chennai, I always associated my hometown with a distinct lack of respect for the other. Friends hailing from places like Coimbatore, including and especially S, have never failed to point out that Chennaiites lack basic manners. But in the aftermath of the floods, I realise that a sea of humanity still exists in this city. Ten years later, the death toll and the flooding will become a statistic, but those who helped me, my family and friends will forever remain etched in my memory. I may not remember the day the roads of my city turned into an ocean, but I will always remember random strangers who offered help unsolicited, asked after my well-being, and ensured my family and friends were safe.

Maybe it required a wall of water to turn this selfish, disrespecting mass of people into something we are all proud of. They say disaster brings out the worst in people. But, for me, this disaster has indeed brought out the best of Chennai. May you always remain this way, my beloved city.

Some introspection…and a revelation

Today was an important day. Actually, today was a wake up call. It struck me like a thunderbolt. A basic truth about myself that I didn’t quite know or acknowledge.

Earlier today, I was at a social event that I wasn’t quite comfortable in. Among the many people, all happy and cheerful, I felt quite out of place. I’ve said it before. While I consider myself quite social, I also like being left to myself.

I’ve always considered myself an extrovert. But many things have happened over the past year that have made me rethink my own character. In this past year, I discovered that I actually like my own company. That I prefer spending time by myself. After these experiences, I decided to reclassify myself as a selective extrovert. But today was a whole new story.

I wasn’t even selectively extroverted. I found myself wishing that I could just get home and curl up in my bed with a book in hand. Or curl up against S and have a quiet conversation. Or anything. Anything apart from being within this mass of people I barely know. This feeling surprised even me. I wasn’t quite expecting to feel this way, given that I was quite enthusiastic about going there in the first place.

I realised within that crowd of dancing people that I’m in reality intensely private. That I can count my close friends on the fingers of one hand. Actually, I don’t even have to count. I just know. If I’m left alone with just family and close friends, I’ll probably be at my happiest.

To me, this realisation has come pretty late in life. I’ve actively sought company in the past and become part of a larger circle of people. I’ve gone out of my way to ensure I’m always surrounded by people. 

What was it about today that made me realise something so diametrically opposed to what I thought my character was? Is this what we call growing up?

Of life, online and offline…

I’ve had an online presence for nine years now. Starting with a very public blog in 2006, I’ve come a long way. I’ve published under my own name, then chosen to go anonymous. Each of these has been a learning experience.

I’ve been on Twitter for over six years now. Both on my blog, and on Twitter, I’ve had interesting discussions, gained valuable insights and met wonderful people. I’ve been criticised, trolled, threatened with murder and rape. But I’ve also been encouraged and supported by people who barely know me but stand by my right to have an opinion. For that, I’m grateful.

I’m not a very social person. I like to think of myself as a selective extrovert. I have many friends but few close ones. I’m circumspect about what I say and careful about who I allow into my life. But, once or twice, strangers have broken that barrier. They’ve stormed their way into my life and made me question it.

In all these years, I’ve met just two of these online friends in real life. It’s been the right choice to make. I won’t ever regret meeting them and allowing them into an otherwise private life. They’ve taught me valuable lessons. They’ve taught me that you can make great friends, irrespective of age and distance. They taught me see life differently. For that I’m grateful.

As I continue this journey, I can only hope that many more such people come into my life. After all, isn’t that what life’s all about?

The problem with body image

I realised this very late in life. Love your own body and you’ll be a happier person. Growing up in a normal, middle class family in Chennai, I always had body image issues. I hated the way I looked. Too dark, too fat, too clumsy and too much of a slob. This was what I was always told by friends and family. Cousins made it worse by telling me that fair is beautiful, which I was admittedly not.
At 14, I discovered the secret world of crushes and boys. And what did I find? That I could never peacefully have a crush on someone without being relentlessly teased. Sometimes the teasing was baseless. About a crush that was actually non existent. Since then, I’ve always been circumspect. Losing two close male friends to such juvenile teasing did not help. Especially not when one of them told me upfront that he did not want to be my friend because being teased with a fat slob troubled him. Maybe this is why I don’t quite keep in touch with school friends any more. They are reminders of an unpleasant time in my life I’d much rather forget.
But, coming back to body image. I always thought I was too dark and too fat to be beautiful. The obsession with being fair goes a long way back. I was advised not to venture out in the sun, to use sunscreen and haldi and all sorts of assorted creams and lot . The rebel that I was, I still did exactly as I pleased.
Then came the obsession with weight loss. I starved myself, skipped breakfast, ate fruit. But no matter what I did, I could never slim down to the size I wanted to be. I was conscious of my weight and tried to cover up the layers in clothes that are better called pillowcases.
As I hit my late teens there was an additional problem. Blemishes and body hair. There was nothing I could do about it. So I did what I knew best. Cover up rather than flaunt. This reluctance to dress my age continued right through college and university.
And then something changed. I went to France for my masters. Suddenly, I discovered a world of possibilities. I discovered that women were proud of their bodies and flaunted them. I discovered that for a woman to be beautiful, she must first love herself. I saw women who were twice my size carry off short skirts and dresses with an elegance that I could only hope to match some day.
Gradually,I told myself I was beautiful. I convinced myself that weight, complexion and body hair notwithstanding, I had the right to flaunt. If I didn’t like what I saw in the mirror, nobody else was going to.
And there has been no looking back. With every passing year, I find myself dressing bolder and bolder. I find myself picking out clothes when shopping that I wouldn’t have dared look at when I was 14. Crossing 30 was an important moment because at that moment, I realised I no longer cared when men thought of me. I realised that I only cared what I thought of myself.
Now, I realise that all it took for others to find me attractive was the courage to accept my own body for what it is. That acceptance is never easy to get. But it’s essential for me to be happy with who I am. The other day, someone told me that very few people can look elegant with no makeup on and I am one of them. I acknowledged that with a quiet sense of pride in who I have become.
When I look back at my teenage years, I tell myself that I will never let this happen to anyone else if I can help it. Maybe this is why I felt the need to write this blogpost.
Beauty is the way you treat yourself rather than in the colour of your skin or in the inches around your waist. If you love yourself, everyone else will love you as well.