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Battle for Bittora

May 3, 2011 2 comments

Battle for Bittora is Anuja Chauhan’s second book, another wickedly funny, light-hearted romance set in contemporary India, and it’s been very interesting to see how she’s evolved/changed as an author from The Zoya Factor. Not to mention, it’s such a great read by itself.

*Spoilers galore, mind*

UPDATE: I deleted this paragraph before posting first because it seemed too corporate & ‘pat’, but I really want to make the conclusions explicit, so I’m putting it back in…I think the big change is Chauhan’s increased confidence – in her content (#1 below and #5) and in the business (#3 & #4), and in her craft (which comes across in #6 and #2 below, where the confidence wasn’t as warranted). Content and business are maybe easier to learn than craft? Or does the learning curve for craft, as opposed to content/business take up some funny plateaus on its way? Or worse, does success lead to a flattening of the only learning curve that truly matters for a fiction writer – craft (as opposed to a technical writer for whom content is key)? Anyway, here are my thoughts…..

First, let me just state how much I love the casual feminism in Bittora:

  • The plethora of fantastic, fully realized female characters here makes this book easily pass the Bedchel Test, and I’m not sure The Zoya Factor does that.
  • She wins!!! She wins!!! They have a political battle, and she wins, fair and square. I was dreading reading the ending of the book because I was expecting it to be something like Zain winning, and Jinni totally making an unbelievably submissive cop-out at the end, like realizing at the last minute that she never had wanted the seat, and then Zain offering to make her his second-in-command, which would’ve left such, such, such a bad taste in my mouth.
  • I love how she has an internal life and a purpose throughout the book, and that the reader can believe that she has a life path ahead of her after the ending, too. Unlike Zoya, where the romance was the main story, and you were left wondering if she quit her job afterward or something.
  • The protagonist’s last name is the same as her maternal grandmother’s, and there is no explanation of this. None whatsoever. Smart writing, too, because saying anything there would’ve just sounded contrived and defensive. This is an unlikely scenario, but not all that unbelievable, especially in the anything-goes world of Indian politics (Indira Gandhi appropriated the ‘Gandhi’ name quite randomly, for instance).
  • No Disney-dead-mother syndrome here, thank you very much. And the woman character gets a cool, permissive mom, too, the likes of which usually cool male characters get. The women get cool dads and dead, or absent, or subservient moms.
  • Chauhan dismisses Rahul Mahajan categorically. I wish she also dissed Salman Khan less subtly.
  • How fantastic was Ammaji’s comment about wanting to ‘settle’ her granddaughter – i.e., her career, not her marriage. For all her religious bigotry, how very, very far-thinking and impressive.

Second, and hopefully not caused by the first point above: somehow for me, the romance isn’t that very strong. It’s still amazing, and better than most other books, but Zoya Factor wins, very slightly, here. It’s not for lack of a fantastic hero in Bittora – if anything, Zain Altaf Khan is even more ‘eligible’ than Nikhil Khoda – he is equally handsome, of royal blood, is an environmental engineer and an MIT graduate, and as a teenager, wrote a superhero series – and has compelling vulnerabilities! All of this should’ve totally made him more compelling than the sports-quota-type, back-story-missing Khoda, at least for someone like me (erm, I still swoon over liberal young handsome Indian Muslim men with the nostalgia of my own love. But, TMI). What gives, then?
Maybe it is just the fact that this is a repeat performance, and nothing beats the first, unspoiled, original version.
Maybe it is the fact that the first book was focused more on the romance and less on the Zoya Factor phenomenon, and the second book was focused equally on the political battle and the romance (actually this one is hard to say. I think both were equally split!).
Maybe because Zain never does something completely unexpected and out-of-the-blue in the romance, he’s never pushing the envelope, unlike Khoda with his ‘I’ve been wanting to kiss you all evening’ and his random intimate text messages especially in public, his popping-up-in-her-hotel-rooms-when-least-expected, etc.
Maybe it is because all the back-story of the romance is between sixteen-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds in Bittora, and that for me was borderline creepy and often boring.
Maybe because the first time they meet, they instantly jump into their make-out session, with no build-up for the reader. Anticipation is half the fun.
Maybe in said ‘first-for-the-reader-make-out-session’, Zain disregards her non-consent and kisses her. Somehow that wasn’t as hot as I think the author set it out to be. Khoda does a similar thing towards the end of the first book and that played out as playful (ha!), here I found it distasteful.
Maybe it is because I was put off by the crude ancillary references, e.g. Tawny uncle’s son The Rapist, the crowd’s groping at the mela, etc. that were all supposed to be casually laughed off (and were pretty much correct-for-context), but which totally put me in a defensive, disgusted mood, not receptive towards the actual romance. In Zoya Factor, the ancillary references are equally crude, but they refer to sex (not rape).
Maybe it is because the supporting cast in Bittora – especially Ammaji – was so solidly crafted that your attention was split, vs. in the first book where no one else apart from the main characters got to monopolize reader attention & affection.
Maybe it is the fact that in the Big Contest in the book, Khoda won his battle, but Zain lost. Did ‘loser stench’ ruin the latter’s alpha male scent?
Maybe it is that Khoda kept his hands and nose very clean and never lost the high moral ground during the book, even in times of stress with Jogpal & Sons. Zain was doing as much mud-slinging and dirt-throwing as his competitors in the electoral battle. A Bauji-type honest man would’ve called for suspension of disbelief, but wouldn’t’ve been totally impossible, would he?
Maybe it is that Khoda was shown to be a leader of men, literally, but Zain was only shown to command his friends’ loyalty, which is admirable, but less sexy.
Maybe it is because the captain of a successful Indian cricket team is unattainably desirable, but there are a hundred former-prince’s-son-types around?
Maybe, paradoxically, it is because there is a close real-life analogy to Khoda in M S Dhoni but someone like Zain isn’t really around today (no, not even Omar Sharief).
Maybe it is the face that the power and social status imbalance is so little, almost negligible, between Zain and Jinni, rather than the insurmountable gulf of celebrity between Khoda and Zoya. And obviously power imbalances are what make (straight?) women swoon with lust, or something.
(Oh, and of the four main characters, I only referred to Khoda by last name in my first draft of this post, then went to correct it, and stopped myself. Maybe my subconscious is telling me something. That I think of Khoda as more male? That the author thinks of Khoda as more male? She keeps calling Zain ‘Zain’, but called Nikhil Khoda ‘Khoda’ almost throughout. Men are usually called by their last names, especially in situations of power and authority, and women are called by their first names – through history, and for various reasons. Remember how everyone back in 2008 called Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton ‘Obama’ and ‘Hillary’ respectively?)

Third, the Hinglish was so much more obvious here in Bittora. There was not even the perfunctory attempt as in the first to ease the way for readers who didn’t speak Hindi or know local references. This is an unapologetic “of Indians, by Indians, for Indians” book. While I’m impressed with such confidence and a little intimidated (what to do, I’m a pasty-faced NRI), a part of me does wish they would care for their overseas readers, even if it’s just so readers like me could share the book with local friends here. But yooooohooooo for no more stupid substitutions like ‘unleavened bread with clarified butter’ for roti-and-ghee, like in English books by Indians published even as late as 2002.
This means the economics of the publishing/book selling business is so sound in desh that it can sustain itself, which is more than the US publishing business can say for itself. Despite nakli books sold by eight-years olds at traffic lights. Good for you, desh.

Fourth, and related to the above, the target audience seems to be a more mainstream Indian than the SEC A, urban woman target audience of Zoya Factor. There aren’t too many highbrow riffs on people who use unnecessary plurals (‘anyways’/‘grands’/‘butts’); instead, the riffs are now on people who ask politicians for favors. The internal demon that gets defeated is not a nation’s harmless superstitions during cricket matches but the violent, all-pervasive, gut-wrenching religious bigotry.

Fifth, and this is not a change in Chauhan’s writing as much as a repeat performance. I’ve also recently read a couple of other desi chick-lit books, and wanted to gouge my eyes out. The plot is non-existent. The heroes are vapid. There is absolutely no originality to the stories or the characters or the conflict or the treatment. There is liberal lifting of entire narrative arcs from Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’ Diary, the wannabe-ness of it all is depressing. Oh, and the editing is SO disgusting, SO terrible the editors should commit hara-kiri. In Advaitha Kala’s Almost Single, the very first line has the protagonist waking up from a ‘deep dreamless REM sleep’ and I read that and threw the book across the room in disgust. Unfortunately, in a moment of weakness I picked the book off the floor a few days later and continued reading, to my eternal regret. Another book – Kkarishma’s Konfessions, was it? – has a blatant error in the first page: someone is someone’s elder sister, then suddenly becomes the younger sister in page two and goes on. And that typo is not even an ironic insight into the idiotic world of Indian soaps. If it was an insight, it was way too subtle as irony and way too obvious as a typo.
So, compared to genre, Chauhan’s books are high literature, which is not saying much. But even by themselves, her books are well researched and grounded in their industry and setting (rural India and politics for Bittora, cricket and advertising for The Zoya Factor), have lots of in-jokes about Bollywood and pop culture, and lots of really funny random insights (“like all visiting NRIs, [mother] was obviously hoping to squeeze both a funeral and a wedding into one India trip” – Bittora, or “People who knew only one language…what would they switch to if they started getting pally, or angry, or fell in love?” – Zoya Factor)

Sixth: I love that this one had a much more satisfying ending. This book had closure. Of the relationship, and also, for the character’s individual lives. Zoya Factor didn’t. I kept turning the page to see if I’d missed the last part. That, if nothing else, makes author confidence very clear, as I’m realizing in my own writing.

So what’s unchanged?

As before, Chauhan’s own stated real-life inspiration for the hero (Saif Ali Khan for Zain Altaf Khan) completely rings false (like Rahul Dravid for Nikhil Khoda. Ew.) Saif when younger was too dissolute and completely unlike current-time-Zain or even younger-Zain. And current Saif? Oh, please. The guy is more and more like a real-life Macbeth, with his insecurities and his younger, prettier girlfriend.
As before, I can imagine only Farhan Akhtar in today’s Bollywood doing any justice to Zain’s character. Stretch it to Imran Khan, or (ugh) Ranbir Kapoor. I actually know some people in real life who’d play this role perfectly, too. Jinni would have to be Ayesha Dharkar, I suppose, just to be able to do justice to the ‘abnormally wide smile’. Konkana & Kareena are good stretch choices.

Finally, if she were to ask me: dude, what should I change in my next book, I’d say:
Please have a genuine love triangle. I’m curious to see how you’ll write that. Oh, and please don’t have a creepy, precocious pre-teen male child with an inappropriate obsession (women’s panties/human torture). It’s too done, and done irritatingly. And get yourself a website, woman, it is 2011 already, and even fans have needs – e.g. to obsessively stalk their authors.

Oh, oh, and write more. Please.

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What’re your weekend plans?

August 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Keep your weekend free. This Sunday, I’m getting myself a copy of the New York Times’s special issue. Yup, after nearly four years of being increasingly distrustful, disappointed, disillusioned and disgusted with the NYT, I’m actually recommending to everyone that they buy and read this issue, because of the most heart-warming, well-researched articles they’ve put out in a long, long time.

The Women’s Crusade
Nicholas Kristoff talks about the ‘alchemy of gender’ in a deliciously long article, excerpted from his and Sheryl WuDunn’s book. I was alternately in tears and alternately giggling with excitement and nodding in vehement agreement through the story (but it could just be undiagnosed bipolar :-))

A New Gender Agenda
An interview with Hillary Clinton (swoon already), but I’m shocked at how much and how often she references India. It’s clear she’s actually one of the rare Westerners who can wrap their heads around the fact that one nation can be both more liberal and more conservative vs. another at the same time; that progressiveness is not a one-dimensional continuum. She gets that India is, in many ways, a model of development for the West and desh seems to be as top of mind for her as it is to me. And most effectively of all, she’s understood that advocating to the rest of the developing world (argh, I hate that term) that development = American values will not get them or her too far, that she needs to use someone else, someone closer to the developing world as an example – therefore the frequent references to Indian democracy in Nigeria, and to Liberian elections in Congo. Wish someone would smash some of her wisdom into Aaron Sorkin’s pathetic little brain sometime.

And hey, I’m suddenly more respectful of journalists again. Who knew.

Kambakkht @#!@$#@$#

July 7, 2009 Leave a comment

Mr. Rajiv Hari Om Bhatia, Hon’ble Smt Pratibha Patil called. She wants the Padma Shri back.

Is Akshay Kumar gunning to be India’s Judd Apatow? In which case, why is India’s Angelina Jolie wannabe (*cough* Posh Spice wannabe *cough*) acting in his movies again?

And who’s going to break it to either of them – and to the rest of bollywood – that feminist != man hater and/or frigid? (Please, even Hollywood’s gone beyond. Not!)

Of course, they’d’ve happily gone onto feminist = ugly, hairy, old, etc…but arre, phir piktchar kaun dekhega yaar? Hence.

Yes, Kambakkht Ishq sounds like one sick, stupid, and (worse) utterly boring flick (No, I haven’t seen it. No, I don’t intend to. Yes, I review films I haven’t seen). The first weekend after a three month movie strike in Bollywood (except for New York, which was released a couple weeks ago) is probably the only time it would’ve got the opening it’s got. Also kudos to the people marketing the movie because they made what I thought was an utterly boring trailer, but one apparently not nearly as offensive as the actual movie (unlike some other trailers which picked the worst parts of the movie to showcase).

The saddest part? Apparently Kareena’s character goes from blaming her dad for her parents’ divorce to realizing that it’s all her mom’s fault. I just hope to the Good Lord that she doesn’t subject her own mother to this appalling movie and its sleazy sub-text.

UPDATE: Apparently great minds do think alike.

Wonder Woman! Woot!

April 13, 2009 Leave a comment

So, on a lark, P pointed me to the Wonder Woman DVD at Blockbuster last week, and we watchd the movie today, simply because we wanted the next one in quickly. I speak for both of us when I say we LOVED, LOVED the movie.

And P is impressed by Keri Russell too – but I found her interviewing (here, go to ‘NEWS’) kind of hesitant. It’s the same irritating “oh, I know I did something that could be construed as feminist/strong, but – hahaha – hey dont hold it against me! I didn’t really *giggle* mean it, y’know!“. What’s with all these women?

On the contrary, the interview with Virginia Madsen (same location: here, go to ‘NEWS’) reads like a yummy bowl of the most wholesome wholemilk chocolate ice-cream ever. See what she has to say:

QUESTION: Did you prepare for voicing the Queen of the Amazons in any special way?

VIRGINIA MADSEN: Well, I prepared this morning by writing several edicts for my son (laughs). Honestly, I love when I get to play these characters that are bigger than life. There are roles in animation that I never get to do in real life and it appeals to my ego as an actor to play the Queen of Everything (laughs) Hey, I’m honest. I admit it.

VIRGINIA MADSEN: This is a blockbuster voice cast – any thoughts on your co-stars?

VIRGINIA MADSEN: Actually, Marg Helgenberger and I were waitresses in the same restaurant in Evanston, Illinois. I’m happy to say that that restaurant has since been torn down. But Marg made it out first. We both had an audition for ABC soaps different soaps, but we auditioned at the same time, and she got the part and went off to New York. Three years later, I went to L.A. So she was kind of an inspiration to me. And it makes sense that we will both be in Wonder Woman together, because we ARE Wonder Women (laughs).

QUESTION: Is there a comic book role that your inner geek covets?

VIRGINIA MADSEN: Sadly, I really want to be Batman … and I just never will be (laughs). That’s the cross I bear. When I was growing up, the really, really cool super heroes were all male so I wanted to be them. I really didn’t like Batgirl. I was like, ‘No, if I’m not gonna be Batman, I’m not gonna play.’ Maybe they could write an evil female super villain who takes over Batman, and nobody knows. Then I could live my dream (laughs). I think that’s a good idea.

[all bolding mine, all symbols and punctuation mine]

I think that’s a great idea too, Madsen! And kudos for not settling for a side girl role. May “they” write greater and better women roles for women like you to play and for people like us to watch and fall in love with.

This movie may not yet pass the Ultimate Heroine Test, but we at least have one (B) of three qualifications met:

A movie with a strong leading woman character:

A) Whose sex life the audience is not made aware of, either its details or the fact of its existence.
B) Who is not, or has not, and will not be sexually assaulted during the narrative.
C) Who does not have a makeover.

And this is my live blog of the movie [Spoilers possibly ahead – but you’ll first need to make sense out of my notes, har har har]:
_____________
W.O.W. the origin story is simply F.A.N.T.A.S.T.I.C. I’m drooling at the richness of all this. It’ll take me DAYS of reading Bullfinch to unpack all of this.

why did the GUY pilot have to go onto the island? I was hoping for the black woman ‘rook’. But yay for pilots! (After doing my first stall and my first landing and my first take off today, I feel like I’m already Amelia Earhart! :-))

ummm.. with all this discussion of what to do about the stupid pilot and the outside world – even THIS movie would fail the Bedchel test!!!

wolf whistles, ‘hot chick’ – why do the Amazons allow that? And is it really something to be brushed off?

ok, I get the silly stars and stripes – but why did Diana have to wear a bikini? Thats not even remotely like what the Amazonians were/are all wearing.

And why’s PErsephone the betrayer? Because women cannot be trusted, as always? Not good.

I liked how Diana’s mom said, because men are untrustworthy….

Great move on the Etta scene, where this colleague of Steves pretends to not be able to find her pen. But it’s WONDER WOMAN being independant – so its eas to externalize.

Aha. WW actually explains the patriarchy. 🙂 Awesome stuff.

Again, is ‘hot chick’ really something to be brushed off?

WW is a great role model too – she teaches small girls to defend themselves. Poor little girl, she doesnt know that even if she’s a zillion times better at the sword fight than the boys they wont let her play or win. Ask Hillary Clinton.

WW does NOT GET DRUNK!! WOOT!

This stupid pilot just sexualizes everything – every fight she wins. Is he trying to do a James Bond? And it’s a-okay – is he giving the audience permission to do so as well?

The street fight – wow. Simply awesome. Ten thousand leagues above the morass of the Watchmen street fight.

She pokes Deimos in the eye with a red stiletto. Umm, cute, but cliched. Anyway.

if only it was TWO girls fighting in the greek underworld, not Steve and Diana!

Is Ares is going to kill persephone? The sacrifice is like Voldemort’s attempt in the Goblet of Fire?
and Ares brought the statues to life – like in the Mummy. Which one thought of it first? Oh, maybe it was the Chinese a thousand years ago, with their Terra-cotta army….

So a simple stupid PILOT saves Wonder Woman from the talons of the eagle? AAARRGGGHHHH.This is Wybie all over again. I CANT WATCH!!!

she gives it back in the Ospedal. His first duty was not to save her, bt do her bidding. Men…………

At the footsteps of the Whitehouse, the battle begins.

Again Steve rescues her? Oh no, that was an arrow shot by *drumroll* THE AAAMAZOOONS!!!! YAY!

Oh, Ares can make Inferi…and like the Pirates in the Caribeean, they cant be killed. Every loss is doubled on the Amazonian side! Sister kills sister. Oh no. Oh no!

Ah, the inferi shake off their control with quick thinking by Artemis and Alexa. Oh good, so book knowledge is sometimes important too. Who were all those people criticizing WW for being yet another comic that glorifies violence – there’s a bone for ya!

Steve saves Atlantis….I kinda don’t mind at this point really. Wonder why :-).

Persephone ruins it for me by saying ‘we may be warriors, but we are women too – we need families and children’. What, and men don’t? It’s a false dichotomy, lady.

PERFECT – WW beat Ares with SCIENCE!! Though the fact that electricity is conducted in water should be basic…it’s surprising how less often media and fiction shows even this basic level of science. So TRIPLE YAY!

P: And she beats him fair and square. No black magic or sudden ‘out’s….

“I can lift cars, Steve – I can lift car door handles!” 🙂 oh, but she needs to apologize and keep his ego – and societal norms – in place? w.t.f.

Call if you’re going to be late, he says. Har har har .

Hey, when’s the next WW movie coming out?

Which feminist icon are you?

March 9, 2009 Leave a comment

You are Judith Butler! Your postmodern queer theory has shaken up people’s ideas of gender, sexuality, and sex. Your work has blurred lines between what it means to be a womyn and what it means to be a man. Queens and transbois all over the world worship your Birkenstocks!

Go here to take the test. Happy Women’s Day!

Favreau of the day

February 19, 2009 1 comment

Favreau = Stinkin’ stupid sexist scumbag.

Coming from a woman who’s always stood up for justice & social equality, broken stereotypes for actresses in how they should look and what roles they should portray, and shown exemplary courage in speaking up against the organized mafia in Bollywood where every man on the ‘Most Powerful People in Bollywood’ list caved (incl. SRK, Hrithik, etc.), this is just sad (via Annie Zaidi):

Preity Zinta: I am a woman and do voice my concern over injustice done
to women but that does not make me a bra burning psychotic chick!

Say it ain’t so, Preity. I strongly suspect this is horrendous mis-reporting by the great journalists of TOI and indiatimes, but if not, this just breaks my heart. C’mon, Preity. So all you want to do is meekly “voice your concern” but not actually voice it loud enough to get something changed? And are there just two mutually exclusive possibilities: a woman that voices concern vs. psychotic chick? Nothing in between – which belies Preity’s whole existence, really, of smart power and effecting change thorugh personal courage. And what makes a bra-burner psychotic, anyway – can’t you be a non-psychotic inflamer of underwear? She’s actually more of a Phylis Schafly here than a Jon Favreau, but I have just one award to give away right now. I like to believe in positive reinforcement, so I’ll institute a Renuka Choudhary award – and maybe give it first to Renuka Choudhary, the grand dame herself.

Oh, and is this Ram Sena the same one as Muthalik’s? If yes, what delicious irony that the Indian right-wing supports the US “left-wing”. Tell you a lot about (A) Overton’s window and (B) about Barrrracccckkk’s special, universal appeal to all kinds of bigots around the world.

Why Hillary needed to win.

February 8, 2009 Leave a comment

This broke me….

The First Couple stepped away from the White House pressure cooker for a short visit with Washington D.C. schoolchildren. Among the topics addressed was the perennial favorite “what do you want to be when you grow up?” According to “The Swamp” (the outlet for the Chicago Tribune’s Washington Bureau), one little boy informed Mr. Obama he would like to be the President of the United States. The future former President responded encouragingly: “I think you might make it.” One of the girls volunteered that she would like to be First Lady. “It doesn’t pay much,” the First Lady commented. I don’t know if the self-described Mom-in-Chief delivered that remark as a quip or a lament. If only she could have followed up with an explanation of how role models can expand – or circumscribe – girls’ ambitions (including their future earning potential) it could have been a real learning experience…

The contrast between what the kids of each gender said and how the adults of each gender reacted is stunning. This, in 2009.

Fuck you, Barack and Michelle Obama. May you rot in hell.