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The Rivered Earth

January 14, 2012 Leave a comment

The sad thing about my reading a great book about music or poetry is that although I love reading it I can never fully understand it, and therefore never fully appreciate it, and so no matter how much I like or hate it I can neither trust my judgement of it nor fully articulate my half-formed opinions about it.

This was my problem with Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music and is also my problem with his new book, The Rivered Earth. It’s about his collaboration with a composer and a violinist, the first part being memories and interviews, which I understood enough of to laugh/nod at the right places, the second part being the text that was set to music. I *liked* a lot of the latter; can’t honestly say I loved it or that it was particularly memorable or awe-inspiring, but then again, what do I know. I missed Seth’s usual puns and word play – there was such little of that in there. It’s a pity that I read something by such a great writer and look for gimmicks as handrails to his words, but in this case I should totally blame Seth. He’s conditioned his readers to *look* for, as he puts it, puerile puns and ciphers, acrostics and double/triple entredres.

I love his stories about his house. The fact that his house has history and character gives his work more heft – I think knowing his personal choices has given his work that extra shine, at least in my eyes. Where you live is such an incredibly effective way to communicate to the world the kind of person you are, more subtle, more powerful than the clothes you wear and somehow taken so much more seriously by ‘very important people’.

I wonder if I could do it – live in the house of, say, Virginia Woolf? Or maybe in her room. That would be such a delicious irony. But of course, it would force me to confront the madness in my head head-on – and it’s so much nicer to just have that on the fringes of my regular life, forming the fjords of my human-interactions. I like living in my very stable mainland.

Still, going back to the book, I found a lot of the themes pedestrian and the interpretations predictable (a collaboration across time and with influences from different parts of the world is called ‘Confluences’!! It’s as bad as when they named the theater group at our business school ‘Expressions’). The poetry was too often way, way literal even for me, the lover of all things direct. So much so that there was no fun in any of it. This is no Golden Gate.

But you know – the problem is likely with me. Indian classical music has a very different aesthetic from Western music. What is ‘kewl’ and admirable here is very different from what works there. And all my hours spent absorbing dhrupads isn’t going to get me anywhere with understanding this or Philip Glass’s Satyagraha. Too bad, because there’s only so much I can glean from a cursory reading of my favorite author’s quickly jotted-off interpretations.

So yes, if you know anything about music, you should totally read this. And maybe explain it to me.

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Categories: culture, literature, music, rw Tags:

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.

The Zoya Factor

April 21, 2011 Leave a comment

Just finished re-reading the excellent chick-lit “The Zoya Factor“. For the record, I have no major qualms about using the word (phrase?) ‘chick-lit’ to describe the broad genre of easy-breezy reads involving contemporary-to-the-times characters, a female protagonist – a usually ditsy and often extremely insecure female protagonist – dealing with relationship issues, presented to the reader with situational, self-directed humor, and involving a happy ending. I wish we could come up with a slightly less condescending name, but I can live with ‘chick-lit’ because it captures the spirit of the books themselves – irreverent, playful, self-deprecating. It’s the covers of these chick-lits – uniformly involving red stilettos, ‘cartoon’ drawings on the cover, primary/pastel colors – that usually get my goat. And the utterly boring, predictable plots that some of them have – seriously, even if it is ‘chick-lit’, you still need to put in *some* work, Ms./Mr.Author!! Oh, and yes, the irritating stupidity of the heroines, who just can’t seem to handle the fact that they have actual brain cells in their heads.

But The Zoya Factor is not irritating. The Zoya Factor is not thoughtless. For the most. And Zoya, the protagonist, is sily, but not teeth-grinding-inducingly stupid. I love that it is set in the familiar world (for me) of advertising/marketing. I love that it involves a seriously ambitious love interest – it doesn’t get bigger than the captain of the Indian cricket team. Oh, and did I say the humor is spot-on?

I’m not going to review this one thoroughly, because there isn’t much to review – it’s a pretty straightforward story that makes fun of ‘India shining’ while also being reclaiming ‘India shining’ for itself, in the whole Luck-by-Chance/Om-Shanti-Om style. Anuja Chauhan, the author (who’s from my college!! WHEEE!!!), doesn’t waste too much space setting context or even background for Nikhil Khoda, and with good reason. Her secondary characters are excellent, the love story holds your interest, the conflict could’ve been better – it is contrived in places, but not terribly irritating, so I’ll let that go. And the romantic pay-offs are superb.

Oh, and Nikhil Khoda has to be the dishiest romantic hero EVER. Really. He’s in Rhett Butler/Mr.Darcy league. That is all.

Anuja does the cricket well, though I do wish she’d spent just a little more time, but that’s a personal preference. Of course, she does the cricket-and-advertising pitch perfectly (see what I did there?), she does cricket-as-national-religion and cricketers-under-pressure pretty well. She’s also incorporated the whole Greg Chappell-Saurav Ganguly-Jagmohan Dalmiya fiasco, leaked email and all. Unfortunately (for me), she takes Chappell’s side very, very unambiguously, and makes Ganguly and Dalmiya look like buffoons. During the controversy, I’d felt – along with most Indians – that the Australian-import Chappell was being totally unfair to Ganguly, so here I will need to disagree with Chauhan. But of course, she probably has loads of better information. Maybe the former Indian captain was a shoe-stealer and weight-thrower during her Pepsi shoots? And this was her way of getting the perfect revenge? And maybe Red Chillies optioned for movie rights *after* Ganguly was out of KKR? Huh? Huh?

Because the script hews closely to actual current events, it’s fun to play guess-who. Khoda is Dhoni, despite the author’s protests. Sorry, but I just.do.not.see a ‘younger, unspoilt Rahul Dravid’ there. If anything, I can see a bit of Ganguly in the arrogance. Of course, Khoda is too metrosexual, dripping sophistication, compared to M S Dhoni’s earthy-cool. But the records are similar, and there’s just too many parallels.

Harry/Hairy is very likely a mix of Harbhajan and Yuvraj Singh (‘cut surd’, juvenile antics, aggressive on-field, etc.). Zaheer Pathan is, of course, Irfan Pathan, who was looking really good in 2005-6 when she was likely writing the book. Soon after, his luck turned south: but he’s been immortalized in the book, good for him! I’m guessing the others: Monita-Rinku-Chachi-Zoravar-Papa-etc are from Chauhan’s family/friends/acquaintances circle.

And now that the movie is being made, these are my picks for casting choices:

Zoya Singh Solanki:

  1. Preity Zinta, 10 years ago, would be my top pick. And if Aamir Khan can play a 17-year old in 3 idiots, why can’t Preity Zinta play a 27-year old lead? I would totally cast her. With crazy curly hair, of course.
  2. Amrita Puri. She could do the ditzy stuff well, and of course be Karol-Bagh-Solanki to the tee. And I *think* she could pull off the advertising executive work – but that needs to be seen.
  3. Konkana Sen Sharma. I can see her do both the ad-exec and the Karol-Bagh thing well. But she’s probably a bit too self-possessed to do the ditzy stuff. Well, she’s an actor, who knows. But this would be an interesting choice.
  4. Anushka Sharma. But I’m so, so tired of her being the Punju babe.
  5. Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor, etc. – too urbane. But who knows, maybe they can pull off this role.

Nikhil Khoda – oh you dreamy, dreamy man.

  1. Farhan Akhtar. Top pick, hands down. Looks like a sportsman. Can totally do the intense, brooding “leader of men” thing. And looks dishy, oh, so dishy (forgive me, I just re-watched Luck by Chance recently!). Can do the romantic/angry/sexy scenes SO WELL. And is probably one of the three ONLY actors in Bollywood who can say ‘musical soiree’ and ‘pyromaniac’ without sounding like he had to practice in front of his bathroom mirror for days (the other two being, maybe, Abhay Deol and Shah Rukh Khan).
  2. John Abraham. Needs to stand up straighter to pull off the sportsman thing. And has been playing too many wing-man roles for me to be able to picture him as Alpha Male quite as well. But he does have potential.
  3. Siddharth (the guy in Rang De Basanti). Intense, brooking, blah, blah blah. Also, looks a lot like a younger Dhoni, but pseud-er, which is what we’re looking for. I just can’t picture him being masterful enough, but you could probably compensate with camera angles or background score or something.
  4. Imran Khan. In a pinch. Can’t act for nuts – yet. Especially not the angry/intense scenes. But he looks the part.
  5. Ranbir Kapoor – NO NO NO. He’s over-exposed, and a real-life d*ck. He’ll totally make the movie about himself, instead of supporting the woman lead. Doesn’t look the part ONE bit (dark, sportsman, intense, etc.). Can act all right, but is – and looks – too entitled to be a hungry-to-prove-himself-rookie-Indian-skipper. I only added him to the list because there’re rumors doing the rounds that he’s playing Khoda. Please, SRK, NO!! Don’t destroy Nikhil Khoda for me!
  6. Hrithik Roshan – Not really. Too old, for one. And too, too good looking. But he has magic, and can probably pull off the role better than others who’re more suited for it.

So that’s my take. Can’t wait for the movie, especially since Reema Kagti is supposed to be working on the screenplay (SQUEEEEEE!!!!).

What Google & Wikipedia can’t answer for me

June 19, 2009 Leave a comment

You’d think that with the slew of search engines, a new one being launched every week (Cuil, Wolfram Alpha, Bing), everyone would now the answer to everything that can possibly be found, searched for, derived, or put together. But as anyone using the Internet for long enough knows, there are some things Google can just not answer for you. My list of ‘aggravating unknowns’ for now:

* What is the real name of the story/novel that I remember as ‘Ants’, a story that starts with a white man being tied naked on an ant hill as the ants slowly crawl up his toes, his feet, his legs, his genitalia, his stomach ? It’s revealed slowly that he’s being held and tortured in a town in northern India (near present-day Uttaranchal), it’s pre-Independence era, and that the local leader who instigated this and has the power to get him out is a woman, a foreigner, presumably white – and he tries to escape twice, both very daring series of last minute run-ins and escapes described wonderfully. I think he escapes in the end, but I’m not sure and (therefore) I badly want to read this again, just to make sure he does escape.

* What is the name of the series of science fiction books I spent half of 1998 devouring? This was a series of YA-type science fiction books that started off very, very strongly, with a boy and a girl in a high school in California, both intelligent, good athletes in their late teens. It went on to a major search of some ‘golden orb’, and was a Jetsons-version of LOTR, and so I gave up after book 7 or 8. But what was the name of the series?!!!?

* What are the titles of the three novels (and where can I buy the books) published by India Book House (they were all gifted to me by an uncle for my 13th birthday, i.e. mid 1990’s) – one story involved an alien who survived on sugar and supported a girl fighting for her right to play football, this was set in a ‘colony’ much like the one we lived in, and this girl had a twin brother who was not as good as her at the game but got to play it nevertheless. A second book was a sci-fi story set in ~2050 and involved some really kewl technology. The third was a geeky gamer boy cracking a kidnapping ring using gaming technology, again very very engaging.

* Which country(ies) of origin does the last name ‘Lukashok’ denote?

Categories: lists, literature, web

Watching Men

March 8, 2009 Leave a comment

Kotwal ko kaun dekhta hai? “Kotwal” ko kisne dekha?

First, in this totally play-worthy “interactive trailer” of the movie, each of the characters is represented by a symbol that you, the audience member, needs to figure out. It’s a little like the Spice Girls, manufactured personalities distilled into an idiot-proofed symbolism, but then again, the Watchmen is a graphic novel, so I have no major delusions of its profoundness like so many others seem to. Maybe for some parts of me animation is still = cartoon, and I cannot take a Tom & Jerry equivalent too seriously :-).

But anyway, once you play that trailer, see what symbols they have for each of the male characters, and compare it to the one they made for the sole female character. ****SPOILER**** They have everyday objects, like glasses or the smiley face for the other characters, and ‘girl’ for the female character. I don’t know if this means that the makers of the trailer think of women as objects, or if they picture the female form (not female genitalia, but our bodies) in Rorschach tests, or if they’re trying to say the Silk Spectre is a token female, or that the only thing that she stands for is her body, or that her superpower is her sex appeal – all of these explanations just point to some crazy reasoning or just lazy trailer design by these guys. ****SPOILER ends*****

Second, I propose a follow-up test to the Bedchel/Wallace test (read here for a great description).
To pass the Bedchel test your movie must have the following:
1) there are at least two named female characters, who
2) talk to each other about
3) something other than a man.

Corollary to that, I hope I sometime get to see a movie with a strong woman character:

A) Whose sex life I am 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.

I’m really tired of seeing ANY independent woman’s independence having roots in some sexual assault, or in some deviancy. I’m sure there are other ways in which women characters can be made to find their voices or themselves. I’m sure there’s a range of hurdles they must cross, much like the male superhero, to be tested and prove their mettle. But if for once the hurdles were not sexual- or appearance-related, I would be very, very grateful.

I understand why they do it. For most male scriptwriters (or women who write in a predominantly male context, e.g. Farah Khan of Main Hoon Na) and the audience they wrote with in mind, this is just a natural way of viewing women.

Flowchart begins:

  • Do I want to put my penis into her? If no, then of course she’s not worth existing (see a wonderful analysis by Amrita here on female film villains). If yes:
  • Does she want my penis in her? If yes, she’s a slut but also a golden-hearted one. If no, she’s a frigid woman. Since she can be pretty much one or the other, once I establish her interest in me, I can easily go on to the rest of my story. Either way:
  • Does she want the other guy’s penis in her? If yes, she’s a slut, and just a confused, virtue-less whore. If no, she’s a wronged woman and the other guy’s the bad guy.
  • Do I get to put my penis into her or not? If no, then the other guy who does is definitely the bad guy. If yes:
  • Do I get to put my penis into her before someone else does? If yes, she is the heroine of the movie. If no, she dies or is otherwise made irrelevant before the end of the movie.
  • Flowchart ends.

What a wonderful, simple way of establishing good and bad. Almost as simple as Isha Sharvani‘s character in Luck By Chance, who establishes her character with costume colors. Who needs complex story arcs and narratives when you can use sex lives and assault tales as proxy?

For women or men who’re trying to break their characters out of a patriarchal construct, I can somewhat understand what they’re doing too. They usually show sexual assault or attempts thereof as symbolic, as the ultimate form of patriarchy, which our female protagonist needs to go through and then win over. Examples – Thelma & Louise, Bandit Queen. Of course, often the ‘winning over’ is with her life. But she’s a free woman, since she’s ‘suffered the worst’ – and she dies or goes into exile a ‘free woman’. Some really rare times, the protagonist goes through assault and/or rape, and then pays her dues again through exile or life-threatening situations as ‘punishment’ for having escaped the rape, and then is granted her life – changed, modified, somewhat incomplete – but still a life. Example: Volver.

While their attempts to face facts are admirable, what the latter category does is no different from what the former does. Everyone’s just using sex and the sexual act to define their female characters in ways it would be unthinkable to define male characters. And as much as I understand where they’re coming from, I wish someone would be creative enough to give me a kick-ass heroine with a completely mysterious, undisclosed sex life. I wish they made the heroine so kewl, so complex, so real that I couldn’t care less where she keeps her vagina.

Girlfriends, we’ve just OD’ed on TMI. Tell me about yourselves. No, not about that. Everything else. Reveal the rest of your amazing, funny, smart, resourceful, frivolous selves to us. You too, Silk Spectre I and Silk Spectre II. What were your superpowers? What gadgets did you use? Which bad guys did you destroy? What government secrets did you help protect? What is/are your obsession(s)?

Ah, the possibilities.

Anita Brookner

February 27, 2009 Leave a comment

I find myself falling in love with Anita Brookner after reading this interview of her. It’s unnerving to see how perfectly unhappy women can be, how perfectly unconventional, if they only let themselves be. It’s rare to see a woman so outside the pale of ‘normal human lifestage’, but her life and lifestyle are just a Disney cartoon version of every 80-year old woman’s.

I’m going to go buy myself one of her books now. On my new Kindle 2!!

Categories: literature, pride, sisterhood

HIS-tory of half the World

January 20, 2009 Leave a comment

I’m reading this book, the History of the World in Six Glasses, that outlines, yes, the history of the world, by following the lives of six drinks – beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea and cola. It’s a great read, no doubt, very entertaining and informative and engaging – and my test of a good non-fiction: tells me at least one new story every chapter. That’s the only way I can digest non-fiction: if it slips in small sweeteners of fiction or fable or anecdote for me.

Anyway, the author, Tom Standage, is an excellent storyteller, and seems to be the model of the Good American (as opposed to the Bad = racist/xenophobic/close-minded, etc. type). He’s curious, informed, has a truly ingrained sense of democracy and equality of all people of all colors and nationalities and is able to appreciate various cultures without giving them a cartéblanche on their bigotry. He is visibly outraged that slavery was such an integral part to most commerce through the ages, and that even the Europeans, who prided themselves on equality and their humanity turned so easily such a blind eye to the most heinous forms of human trafficking.

Also, thankfully, his sense of racial equality is not limited to whites and blacks, he also repeatedly acknowledges the contribution of Arabian knowledge, expertise and commerce in developing most of the foundations of modern human life – the technical and scientific knowledge, the economic philosophies, mathematical and astronomical experience, etc.

Each time he stumbles upon an advancement made by one culture on the backs of another – like the development of rum as part of the sugar plantations run by slavery in the West Indies; or the invention of distillation by Arabian scholars; or the class structure in Roman society that was so stringently implemented that people never got to drink a different wine than the one they were born to; or the failure of Charles II to close down the famous and ubiquitous coffee houses in the 17th century – Tom subscribes to the Christian Amanpour school of thought: you cannot forever be an impartial observer in the face of extreme bigotry.

However, note this: the famous London coffeehouses that Tom lauds for ushering in the Age of Reason did not permit women entry. He mentions this, often as a joke – about how a group of women published a petition in ~1675 complaining that their husbands spent all their time in coffeehouses and were therefore no longer interested in sex. The fact that this segregation was even stricter than the Roman wine classification has not occurred to him – if it has, he feels no outrage, just mild amusement. The coffeehouses of London were pivotal in bringing together people from different walks of life. They were instrumental in merchants finding practical uses for the science of their time (e.g. for astronomy, navigation and all via the kewl instruments those guys invented – gyroscopes, periscopes and sextants), and in scientific method and reasoning finding its feet as the basis for all civilized argument and discourse. The London coffeehouses were where new financial products were discussed and created – the London Stock Exchange was an offshoot of Jonathan’s coffeehouse.

Women were excluded from all of this. Not just the pleasures of coffee drinking itself, but from the discussion, the debate, the mental stimulation of the times, the enormous social networks that were built over coffee. If there was a parallel, it would be like excluding women from using the Internet today, including, say, Facebook, and from reading newspapers, and from attending Universities/colleges. For half the population to not participate in society is horrendous, not just for that part of the population but for society itself. Imagine suddenly having doubled the activity in one of those hubs of activity back in the seventeenth century – doubling the commerce, doubling the rationality, doubling the scientific brainpower. And yes, the value of diversity, then as now, is not just that it dramatically increases the total number of participants, it beings in different kinds of participants, it brings in a whole new perspective, whole levels of creativity, and entire new world-views to the debate. It would’ve been not just the Age of Reason, but the Age of Revolution. But Tom fails to notice or remark on this enormous lost opportunity.

It’s not surprising that he does, it’s just yet another proof that the Age of Revolution is yet to urgently make its way to Earth, circa 2009. He’s able to, with the confidence of hindsight, critique and evaluate the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, and upto modern-day Americans, and call them out confidently on their racial injustices and heinous practices like slavery. He’s unable to see the injustices of gender-related discrimination because he is himself a participant in the inequality. He’s a victim of male privilege, which, as many advantages as it confers, it also induces extreme blindness to gender-based victimization. There’s not much that he offers in terms of analyses of gender stereotypes, not just for women, but also such stereotypes for men – on why they need to be masculine, on say why Jon Favreau felt he needed to pathetically grope a cardboard cut-out of a powerful woman, or on why Barack Obama’s Iowa victory was not just his triumph over a strong political rival, it was his male conquest of a female threat, reinforced by his campaign’s selection of theme music for the night “99 problems but a bitch ain’t one”.

If you still wonder why this great nation that was built on the idea of liberty and equality doesn’t have a female president after 300 years, or if you still wonder why Prop 8 can pass in California, if these thoughts even occur to you, you know you’re years ahead of all the better known thinkers and successful authors of your time.

Categories: invisible women, literature, rw