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Book Review: Leila by Prayaag Akbar

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In a strictly-segregated metropolis of an India in a believably near future is a sector known as the East End, the last bastion of liberal sensibilities. Everywhere else, sectors are divided by caste and religion (and the way these dovetail neatly with class), and each one upholds its own standard of morality and customs – or in the lingo of apartheid, “culture” and “community”. Beyond the sectored zones are the slums, the only places that remain more or less precisely as they always were. In this almost-here India are looming walls, their partitions enforced by armed Repeaters, men who move like mobs, imposing law and order with their long bamboo staves. To a city plunged in drought, the excesses of the East End, with its swimming pools and its oblivious prosperity, its sexual mores and overall happiness, are less bearable than usual. On the night of a party at one such house – where the affluent, interfaith couple Shalini and Riz live with their toddler Leila – the Repeaters storm in. Riz is murdered. Shalini, arrested and sent to the Tower, spends bides her time for years, waiting for a transfer that will allow her to search for Leila, or at least the truth about what happened to her.

Prayaag Akbar’s debut novel Leila opens on a mother longing for her child, trapped in what we see through her eyes primarily as an era of misogyny. Shalini has waited years for a tribunal that will allow her to work where she will have access to bureaucratic records. If Leila is still alive, she would be nineteen years old. It was on the night of her third birthday that the family was shattered, and Shalini has honed the need to find her to become the pure purpose of her existence. Memories of her baby are interposed by the grimness of what has happened to them all, and how Leila is unlikely to still know her at all. “When I think about this, it’s like I’m burning on the inside. She wouldn’t know me if we crossed on the road. To her, I am an emptiness, an ache she cannot understand but yearns to fill. No. I have left more, a glimmer at least. The blurred outline of a face. A tracery of a scent. The weight of fingertips on her cheek. The warmth of her first cradle, my arms.”

The narrator, Shalini, is a brilliantly etched character, one of the finest portrayals of privileged Indian womanhood seen in recent fiction. The author has honed her so convincingly that she maintains our empathy even when the more unpleasant sides to her personality are seen. At a rally not long before her arrest, where she finds out for the first time that her domestic worker’s locality has been without water for three years, her discomfort is evident. This is what happens when she sees a woman scratching an old mosquito bite: “The wound, a small black ring with a flaky white centre, looked deeply ugly against her dark skin. A spot of scarlet appeared and bubbled into a small drop. This she wiped with the pulp of her grubby finger. I turned away, suddenly sick, desperate to move to the better section, where at least the men weren’t wearing all this stinking polyester.” Yet, we somehow forgive her, accepting her moments of remorse, such as when she is put to work at the Purity Camp where new inmates are indoctrinated, and introspects: “I learned to properly sweep the floor with a jhadoo, down on my haunches… For the first time, it occurred to me that no one – not Riz, not I, our friends, family – had through to buy long-handled mops and brooms for our homes. Did we enjoy keeping these women’s noses to the ground as they cleaned? We brought in televisions and cars and phones and everything else from abroad, why not these simple things?”

That rally that Shalini accidentally attends also serves to complicate the politics of the time and place she lives in. Gradually, the various sectors had rigidified not from pressure from the very top, but from hardline stances from within. Riz and Shalini left their respective sectors for the East End precisely to avoid religious fundamentalism in their original ones, and were able to carry on with their lives with the surety that theirs too was a sector that would protect its own ways. At the rally she encounters the political rhetoric behind the segregations and the insistence on “purity”. She can no longer see it only in its fragments, in small differences of opinion that she can dismiss or look down upon. But neither can she quite see it all. Even once she is a resident of the Tower, having lost that life completely, she retains a mismatched admiration, tinged with nostalgia, for how it all works. She remembers: “Riz’s parents used to serve this special kebab, spicy, soft as pastry, prepared by a thirteen year-old, a bawarchi boy who came to their kitchen from the Qassab Slum outside their sector. They were happy to have him and he was happy to have such good masters. A fine system.”

Akbar has a style that is prone to loveliness and adept at finding tenderness even in so dismal a storyline, with evocative lines such as, “She sits by a window, centred precisely in a square of sunlight. Once in a while a frizz comes loose and falls on the side of her face like a lash of laburnum…” In one of the most surprising, endearing passages in the book, Shalini and Riz become physically intimate for the first time as teenagers, and she tries to not have him roll her T-shirt off completely, despite already being braless. “He looked at me again, smile gone, confused. Nothing’s wrong, I said, I just can’t take my shirt off. He laughed and wanted to know why. For many minutes I refused to explain, as he nibbled at my breasts and my ribs, sure that I would yield. When he didn’t stop asking I had to explain. Innocent of where this afternoon would lead, I’d forgotten to shave my underarms.” Elsewhere, and quite unrelatedly, he subverts the common word “godman” into “man-god”, cleverly defusing and lampooning the term.

It is astonishing how multi-pronged this novel is in its critiques. It critiques not only, and most obviously, the overt dangers of theocracy creeping into statehood, but brings individual accountability into the equation in very subtle ways. Shalini, having survived the night of the raid on her family, is ostracised by the same people who had enjoyed the freedoms she had had in the East End. Meeting one such friend years later, she hands her a gift, nailpolish in a pink box, for the friend’s daughter. It is declined ignominiously. “Pari isn’t this type of girl. Her father would never let her use it…. We have to bring up girls the right way. It’s the main thing. Everyone is watching. Comparing. Until a good man takes her away we have to be careful.” The friend is utterly unaware of the irony of her phrasing. She has simply allowed the establishment to enfold her and her mind, in exchange for a comfortable security.

Indeed, Leila’s power as a political novel lies not at all in what seems to be its overt premise of the authoritarian state, but in the undercurrent of easy privilege that lies just beneath it. This is what makes it lose its dystopian tag and firmly contextualises it in the current and the real. In doing so, it also throws up a great many questions toward the literary firmament. How often does something qualify as a dystopic work merely by recasting the privileged in the role of the helpless? How often are readers more horrified to recognise someone like them in a book about extremism than by what takes place daily in democracies held together by their votes, in their names?  This mordant truth is finely elucidated by Akbar throughout the novel.

In one telling scene, Shalini tracks a woman named Sapna to a slum, believing she will find Leila there. Sapna laughs bitterly as she explains to her own daughter who Shalini is: “Remember this woman. The Tower is where they put high-borns…. Still they get big, big buildings. Toilets, fans, electricity, flush. Even when they break the rules they’re too good to be put out here with us. But us? Our crime is being born. We don’t get anything. We don’t deserve it.” Through Shalini’s eyes, we see gender politics. Through her choices and reactions – through the fact of her having those choices, which produce those reactions – we see the truly large picture: caste, class and communalism in a late-capitalist backdrop.

Leila is a devastating debut, a book that both mirrors and forewarns the India of today.

(An edited version appeared in Biblio, July-Sept 2017)

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The High Priestess Never Marries Wins A Laadli Award

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I am so deeply honoured that The High Priestess Never Marries has won a 2015-2016 South Asia Laadli Media & Advertising Award For Gender Sensitivity in the category of Best Book (Fiction). The award ceremony was held at the National Centre of Performing Arts, Mumbai, on May 12 2017. I was presented the award by Kamla Bhasin.

It means all the more to me because the Laadli Awards are not literary, but feminist.

The complete citation for the award is as follows:

“Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.”

 

5 Decades Of Desire: The 30s

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I am often assailed by longing for the woman I was at the cusp of 26, neither too young to know nor old enough to know too much. Not only was I free-spirited and passionate, but I was also met by what I sought. Except, as I sensed even then, I could not keep them: those entanglements, that exhilaration. And so, I am also often assailed by compassion for the woman I was at the cusp of 26.

This year, I will turn 32. But right now, I am 31 – “a viable, die-able age”, as Arundhati Roy unforgettably wrote in The God of Small Things. I prefer to focus on the first word. There is so much that is viable about being a never-married woman in her 30s.

It is true that on any given day, I am likely to feel more lucky than lonely. The blessings of being unburdened are easy to count, and I have the luxury of counting them often. But it’s not all lovers and solo travel and disposable income and possibility. It is also, more often, practical thinking and responsibility and the weariness of combat. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

But why is it that I feel lucky? More than anything else, it’s because I’ve outgrown so much conditioning about what a woman’s life should look like. Even, in fact, what a wild woman’s life should look like. I’m more interested in what it is. Do I believe in Love with a capital ‘L’?  I’ve found pondering the question a waste of the imagination, when I now much prefer the small ‘l’, the verb, the everyday extravagance of being and feeling instead of waiting.

This life that is neither tragic nor in need of rescuing is anomalous, and I recognise why it’s necessary to not present a unidimensional version of it. So here is another truth: that there is melancholy. Last year, I climbed into an autorickshaw wearing an empire waist tunic and the driver gently suggested that I move to the middle for a less bumpy ride, as I appeared to be newlywed and “carrying”. I struggled not to cry on that ride, not because of anything as inane as mistaking concern for body shaming but because those things are not true for me, and may never be true. I am soft and never-wed and I carry memories, desires, legacies and scars, but only and all of me.

But the beauty of being this age, of having arrived here tenderly, toughly, is the sincere acceptance that it’s alright. All of it – melancholy, uncertainty, anger, hunger and even moments of bitterness – is perfectly alright. They are balanced by laughter, courage, wisdom and – yes – pleasures little and large. We are all every age we have ever been. And sometimes I am already all the ages I will ever be. The great moral challenge of my decades to come, should they come, is whether I’ll be able to hold on to both: unyielding principles and petal-perceptive heart.

An edited version appeared in The Indian Express on International Women’s Day, 2017.

The Venus Flytrap: Cassandra In The Kingdom Of Closed Eyes

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A boy is knifed in a train and bleeds to death on his brother’s lap on a station platform and no one sees. A young woman is stabbed and bleeds to death on another station platform and no one sees, but someone covers her with a shawl so that her womanly shape isn’t visible, for that is all they can see of her. Something cold sits on my heart, listening to them; how do they do it, looking me straight in the eyes and blithely revealing that they are among the unseeing?

They don’t register the headlines, the statistics, the faces, the stories. They demand proof even as it plays out before them. They claim blips and skewings, and when faced with facts, claim conspiracy. Last weekend I saw someone carrying a poster with a version of Bob Dylan’s words: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” Some – no, many – deaths don’t count because some (many) lives matter less than others. There’s a quota that can never be filled enough for them to say “Enough”. That’s not a riot, they say. And a riot’s not a holocaust. And at least a holocaust is not… well, no one will be left to finish that sentence.

And someone will ask me (I know the script) – how can you connect them, the boy with the skull cap and the girl with the stalker – and like a fabulist I will have to try to prove a theory of invisibility. About how there are reasons why some people can only see some things and not others. And I will play right into their hands when I tell them: when a girl was raped on a bus five years ago, you lit candles and raged, when the same thing happened to another girl in Salem a month ago, you scrolled past her, just like you did the one whose body was towed in a garbage truck, the pregnant one found brutalised at the bottom of a well, the one who was never written about at all but whom you would have ignored anyway.

Then they’ll say: where were you when the earth first wept (not yet born), or when that other silence stuck like tar (raising my voice, then as now, but it didn’t carry in the wind) or when those other dead were named (I hadn’t known then – but you had). As though their wilful, obstinate unseeingness is vindicated because of my not being omniscient. And they never turn the same question on themselves: where are you now, as this unfolds, and why do you justify it? And if you ask, they say flatly, “But there is nothing happening.”

They cannot see the forest burning for all the ashes in the trees. Cannot see structure, system, sense. Cannot see anything beyond their own noses, even as they fill with noxious smoke.

Here’s what I see then, if you can tolerate a Cassandra in the kingdom of closed eyes: nothing we have not already seen. Nothing humanity does not already know. Nothing humanity can forget – unless humanity has forgotten the meaning of itself.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 6th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Exhumation of Salvador Dali

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It’s a suitably surreal story, the kind that would make a fascinating novel (and later, when the author can finally quit her day job after selling the film rights, a good movie too). Picture it: it is the 1950s. In a small Mediterranean village called Port Lligat, a celebrated painter builds a waterfront home where he spends some decades, most of them married to his muse. When not busy with her own work, she poses for him as the madonna, a sleeping nude about to be pounced on by tigers, and herself as a matrix of suspended spheres, among other renditions. The couple are childless, but there are families who live near them who employ a young, married nanny. The painter and the nanny have an affair, and more than sixty years later, a professional tarot reader comes forward and convinces the courts to order an exhumation of the painter’s body to determine whether he is her father, as her grandmother once told her.

So Salvador Dali is to be exhumed, although his estate – worth over 300 million euros – will fight the court order. The big hitch in the paternity suit is that Dali was rumoured to have a phobia of female genitalia. Unlike stereotypical muse-artist relationships, it was his wife, Gala, who enjoyed their open marriage (along with some other atypical dynamics like requiring Dali to receive her permission in writing before visiting her at the private castle she spent her summers in). The plaintiff’s mother, the nanny, is now in her late 80s and suffers from Alzheimer’s, and corroborated the parentage story only a few years ago.

The whole thing is mildly entertaining, but also mildly distasteful. Still, who are we to judge? So many people are still hung up the concept of bloodlines as proof of superiority – or something – and that’s even without millions of euros in the picture.

I was curious about precedents for Dali’s exhumation. The 19th century English poet Elizabeth Siddal, who also posed for her husband Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s paintings, was buried with the only copy of his early literary attempts, and her body was later exhumed so he could retrieve them. Then the poets Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca came to mind. The former had been a civil servant who died suddenly days after Chilean dictator Pinochet’s 1973 military coup; the latter was long known to have been executed, with three others, in 1936 by fascists in a Spanish civil war. Neruda was exhumed in 2013 to investigate murder claims, but when he was reburied in 2016, the mystery remained. Lorca’s corpse has never been found, although over the years numerous excavations have been made to determine where his remains lie.

What’s interesting about the search for the truth about Neruda and Lorca’s deaths is that, unlike the Dali exhumation, they speak to, and are reminders of, a larger cause. Thousands died in the same events, yet we only know of the famous few. And there are mass graves the world over: they contain not just the bodies of the dead who had no rites, but also the pain of the surviving who have no proof.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 29th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Once Bitter, Twice Sweet

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Once when I was still intrepid in the ways in which I ventured in the world, I sat on the leaf-carpeted floor of a forest at sunfall and ate a piece of honeycomb. It had been cut fresh from a hive I had watched drop from the overhang of a cliff, unstuck by a spear held by a traditional honeygatherer swinging on a rope ladder. I lifted the leaf on which this piece of honeycomb was given to me and tasted it. And, with surprise, I learnt that wild honey from the flower of the jamun plant is bitter.

Medicinal bitterness, the healing bitterness of herbs. We eat them because we trust that there would be no other reason to. Not taste, not pleasure. The human heart – though often identified by its virtues first, of sweetness and strength – is capable of a kind of bitterness that consumes itself. I have pondered this bitterness of late, because is it also the thing I most fear, the thing I recognised very early in others as something I should guard for in myself. And these days, I look at my face in the mirror and I see a hardness that would not be there were it not for things I can name precisely. And it’s in that naming that my bitterness is rooted, but in naming this I hope to avert its hold.

I asked a counsellor I know, outside of her office hours, what she would tell a person who feared bitterness in themselves. No – I used more dramatic terms – “What is the cure for bitterness?” I asked, because what she said was, “There’s no such thing as a cure for bitterness.”

And then I said – “Maybe not enough people name it in themselves. They call it unhappiness or disappointment or rage. But imagine if we saw it as something we too are prone to, capable of, and addressed it as we would any other toxic feeling?”

She told me she would have to consider it. I did too. I went back to Rumi in prayer: “Make me sweet again, fragrant and fresh and wild, and thankful for any small gesture.”

Could the remedy for bitterness be in thankfulness? I reach hungrily for that possibility then realise immediately that it is not in the kind of comparative gratitude many practise in lieu of the real thing. The comparative gratitude that teaches children to be appreciative they have food when others don’t, and adults to be appreciative that they are privileged without allowing the playing field to be equalised. That’s not being grateful for having what you have; it’s being grateful for having what another doesn’t, which makes it a kind of greed. Vigilance to avert loss can lead to bitterness too.

I have kept vigil against bitterness and that vigil itself has exhausted me, drained me of both love and sorrow and left only an amaroidal aftertaste. I remember jamun-flower honey and turn it over in my mind: how its essence, although so deeply tinged, was sweet. Healing bitterness. Perhaps the cure for I seek is ironic: not in letting go, but in holding true, never forgetting.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 22nd 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Tale Of Two Poets (aka A Little Aishwarya Rai Appreciation)

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If Karan Johar was going for a parody effect with the character of the poet in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, he failed. Essayed by Aishwarya Rai, Saba of the shayaris was surprisingly familiar, real and honest in a way that nothing else in that film was. In a club of her choosing, she grooves to a remix of an iconic ghazal before taking her date home; the next day she tells him not to mistake passion for familiarity. It’s not a line of defense, only of caution, because she proceeds to get to know him, and to invite him into her world of art and contemplation. She’s divorced – love suits her more than marriage did, although when her ex-husband sidles up to her at an art gallery in a moment of cinema coupling perfection, she still recognises him by aura, and smiles. And when she does fall for her current lover, and sees what is not to be, she tells him this too. All in (I’m inferring, because subtitles vazhga, I mean, zindabad) profound, lyrical Urdu.

It wasn’t the first time Aishwarya Rai had played a poet, though. In the grip of that particular melancholy that only a certain kind of cheesy-but-never-cringeworthy cinema can cure, I watched Kandukondein Kandukondein again after ages. And there, in just one scene, was Meenu sitting under a tree overlooking a river’s grassy banks – writing. So she didn’t just read widely, recite Bharati by heart, and manifest a man who knew his words almost (but not quite) as well. She wrote, too. At least until the #1 reason for the fatality of art/ambition among women happened: a deceptively suitable man. (Take it from me – the ones who love you but are too afraid to be with you are more common than linebreaks in verse).

But then again, she did ball up that paper she was writing on and throw it into the scenery before a pretty dubious song sequence.

Imagine if Ae Dil Hai Mushkil’s Saba was Kandukondein Kandukondein’s Meenu grown up and grown away. That the longing in her, once a trickle she thought was as pretty as rain, had pooled: tidal, bottomless. So the naïve woman plunging into a temple tank in the village of Poonkudi and the wiser woman who walks cobblestoned roads a continent away, all the while diving into the well of her own emotions and memories, are not so different after all.

Meenu seems to stop writing, starting to sing professionally instead, encouraged by the good if slightly macho man she marries at the movie’s end. Saba, meanwhile, might be who Meenu may have become if her luck had veered just a little off the conventional trajectory. Still writing, still loving. Because she didn’t crush up the core of who she is and throw it into landscape or landfill. Because she kept claiming her words for herself, and not just the ones someone else placed in her mouth. Because, most of all, she’d touched the bottom of the pool she thought was made just to play in, and surfaced from it with knowledge of the deep that can only be learned – but never taught.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on June 15th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.