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One Part Woman- Perumal Murugan : 4/52 (Translation)

tl;dr : Vyasa- Ambika-Ambalika.

What better way to make a book popular than to demand a ban on it. This isn’t a book that I would have picked up if it hadn’t been for the whole controversy around it. I’m not sure whether I got the sanitised version or the original ‘scandalous’ version of the book. I would have loved to read it in Tamil, but it would have taken me much longer to finish the book and my curiosity got the better of me. But the translation is quite good. And since those of us from Tamilnadu can relate to the overall setup, it worked for me. (Note to self: Stop picturing every book you read as a movie these days)

Kali and Ponnayi are a childless couple living in a society where the taunts, insults and innuendos are free flowing. Help and advice come in many forms to them, some well intentioned, some plain sadistic. Ponna is made to drink bitter infusions made with neem leaves that are handed to her by an ‘auspicious’ widow. (Isn’t neem a contraceptive?) She has men making not-so-subtle suggestions offering their services. She does a Fear Factor level walk on a dangerous rock near a temple to bribe the gods. She is deemed unfit for motherhood because she found the stink of a baby’s feces repulsive. Surprisingly, she isn’t the only one to be ‘blamed’ here. Though Kali is constantly under the pressure to take a second wife, he is also equally taunted for his ‘impotence’. He has everyone from cousins to random neighbours hoping to dip their fingers into his heirless property after his death. More than his love for Ponna, it is the fear of confirming this impotence that doesn’t allow him to marry again. Afterall, it was his ancestors who raped a tribal girl and incurred her curse. Yes. It is a difficult life being childless in such a society in that era. Any society in any era actually.

So what does one do when the gods want more than rooster blood and arrack? What does one do when the gods want more than a dangerous walk around their temple? What does one do when the gods want more than your prayers? You have to look beyond god. You have to look at man. Another man. Do it with him thinking of him as god. Kunti did that, Madri did that. Oh wait. That was vice versa. But anyway. Apparently, the results are guaranteed here. And this is what Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law finally suggest.

Does she do it? On the fourteenth day of the temple festival, that day when all married women above thirty get the sanction of the gods to lay with random strangers and bring forth ‘god’s children’ into the world. Does she do it? Does she manage to look beyond the face of her husband, look beyond her fears, look beyond society’s taunts and find a god to do it with?

Since I was waiting for the ‘controversial’ part, I did not take the time to savour the book as much I should have. The narration went back and forth a lot, sometimes confusing. Characters like the bachelor uncle Nallupayyan who gave the whole drama the much needed sane voice and Muthu, Ponna’s brother, who took Kali to the same temple festival years ago to ‘offer their services’ give you an insight into the hypocrisy of it all. Small but sharp references to the caste equations in that society add a dash of sting. During the build up to the climax, when Ponna sits in the cart looking at the Chakkli man’s baby with so much longing, I hoped that the story would take a more ‘scandalous’ twist. But I was disappointed.

A good book. Not a great book, and in my opinion it was not a shocking book.  But a good book, so read it. If not for anything else, atleast  for the sake of supporting freedom of expression. Because is a thing these days.

‘Whenever I pass a temple, I touch my throat and then touch my lips with my index and middle finger. That is how my two babies were born’ I just remembered someone tweeting that long ago.

And whenever a topic about childlessness comes up, I can’t help but remember We Need to Talk About Kevin. Unrelated to this book, but the thought just crossed my mind.

There are two sequels to this book. Would love to read them soon. Someone please translate.

 

 

 

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We Need to Talk About Kevin: Lionel Shriver- 52/52

My biological clock just left the building.

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There is a reason why I picked up this book. I started it a few months ago, but the first couple of chapters were a drag, so I abandoned it. Then something happened last Thursday that made me feel I just had to read this book. And I couldn’t put it down until that very last chapter, that very last line. That very last line that left me stunned.

At first, I thought Lionel Shriver was a man and that is why Eva Katchadourian came out as un-womanly as ever. No woman, I thought, can even think of writing about regretting a pregnancy just because she had to stay off wine. But then, Lionel Shriver is a woman. A woman who wrote a book so stark, so honest, so unapologetic, so bonechilling and so shockingly real.

I hated Eva. If only she had put in half the effort she put to get Kevin her surname into actually understanding and loving Kevin, Thursday may not have happened. Or would it have? Maybe she shouldn’t have wanted the answer to the Big Question. Maybe she should have just let the page be, not turned it. Turned it to reveal the horror on the next page. Maybe. And I hated Franklin. For all his denial. For all his good intentions. I hated him for just wanting to have had Kevin. But Kevin, I couldn’t hate him. I couldn’t love him. I couldn’t feel anything for him.

An unborn child can hear, it can feel, it is scientifically proven. An unborn child can learn the secrets of warfare from his mother’s womb, it has been mythologically proven. And now I believe that an unborn child can hate. A minute old Kevin shuns his mother’s breast. A four year old Kevin destroys his mother’s favourite wallpaper. A six year old Kevin plays mind games with his mother. A fourteen year old Kevin disgusts his mother. An almost sixteen year old Kevin destroys her life. And his. And eleven more.

The writing was not so great, so many digressions. Letters of confession, unsaid words, unthinkable thoughts all poured out to Dear Franklin. But those digressions were probably necessary. You need to know how much she loved her job and her company and her travels , loved those so much more than she loved her son. You need to know about her agoraphobic mother, maybe that mental condition manifested itself in another way in Eva. You need to know about her contempt towards American society, the very society she brought up her son in. You need to know how much importance she gave to her Armenian ancestry and the genocide. You need to know. Because only then you’ll understand the other genocide. That high school genocide.

Devastating. Haunting. Shocking. Mindnumbing. The book kicked me in the pit of my stomach. The book reached inside my heart and squeezed it till it clogged up. The book reached inside my mind, my soul and made me introspect. Yeah.

PS: Two things I didn’t buy. How does Kevin mention ‘flying planes into the World Trade Center’ in April 2011? How does he manage to keep that object he gives his mother in the end? Doesn’t juvi have the same squat and cough rules as in other prisons?

 

Afternote:

Now let’s get personal.

Last week I got a frantic call from a friend. Her 16 year old son had just called the child helpline number and complained about her just because she refused to buy him a laptop. No, not refused. She just didn’t buy it for him the moment he asked for it.

Five years ago, I wrote this 55 word fiction piece.

 “Half that blood is your father’s. How else do I expect you to behave?”She slapped him. “As long as that bitch’s blood runs in your body, don’t call me Appa” He shouted. The mother’s still remained inside when they found him. The father’s blood had coagulated as a pool around that eleven year old wrist.

That was when the same child had threatened to jump off the balcony.

Two years ago, I got this email from my friend. She had fractured her leg and was immobile without her crutches.

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That was when she had asked the boy to study.

And last Thursday, I took calls the whole day. From the mother, from the father, from the aunt and from the child himself. Horrible language was used, tears were shed, family was disowned, death threats were made. The rage resonated across 600+ kilometers and sent a shiver through my spine.‘ Oru savam inniku vizhum paarungo’. And I thought to myself, ‘If only this was America, this boy would have grabbed a gun and shot a dozen of his classmates’. And that is why I picked up the book from where I had abandoned it. No, he is not Kevin, she is not Eva and he is not Franklin. Thankfully, there is no Celia. This is a more complex story. But in some way, they are too.

We take it for granted in India that ‘good news’ questions are in order two months after the wedding. Why India, even George Clooney’s father-in-law wanted babies even before the wedding pictures were sold to a tabloid. And of course, no woman can not want a baby. She is either a monster, a career minded bitch or just plain hormone deficient if her uterus doesn’t skip a beat whenever she sees tiny crocheted socks or catch a whiff of Johnson’s baby powder. Maybe our society, culture and complex family network helps such monsterwomen overcome their true feelings and go on to make happy families. But you can’t deny that such women do not exist. Or that such thoughts do not cross the minds of some women, even fleetingly.

And then there’s postpartum depression. Maybe our oldwives call it something else. But another friend wept to me five years after her daughter had been born. About how she couldn’t touch the baby for a fortnight, how she hated her husband for feeling so comfortable with the baby. About how when she was alone, she slapped the week old baby. Slapped. The. Week. Old. Baby. Again, our family system complete with gushing mothers and mothers-in-law, neighbors, extended family and long paid maternity leave help tide over this kind of crisis. This child has ofcourse turned out alright.

But I’m afraid. Very afraid now. Is there a Kevin walking among us? How many?

 

52 done. And what a book to finish with!

 

Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You- Devdutt Pattanaik :44/52

Mind fu.. oh wait.

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This may be politically incorrect, multi-religiously blasphemous and all that jazz, but seriously what were our ancients smoking? It takes truly brilliant  minds to come up with such fascinatingly kinky, twisted stories, attribute it all to gods and goddesses and have centuries of humankind unquestioningly believe in them . To be safe, let me clarify that I say this in a positive sense.

‘Queer’ is a term I absolutely detest, because the very definition of the word defeats the purpose of creating an all inclusive, tolerant society. I don’t know if the purpose of this book was to say that ‘queerness’ has the blessings of the gods, be it Hindu, Roman, Greek, Assyrian or Egyptian. Or whether it is to convince the upholders of present day morality to look within before they judge. Or to say that it has existed over several millennia so let’s not be hypocrites about it. Or to  say it happens, deal with it. Or whether it is  just another book on Indian mythology for contemporary readers. But I’ve loved every one of Devdutt Pattanaik’s books and I did like this one too.

Most of these  stories aren’t new to me. I’ve known many of them since I was a child, thanks to Amar Chitra Katha. But reading them again through adult eyes and from the perspective of  ‘queerness’  is what makes this almost mindblowing. Take Karthikeya for instance. From ACK, all I remember was babies born through a spark from Shiva’s head, floating in a river and six beautiful celestial mothers adopting them. These babies then go on to become one baby and is the much loved, much revered god. A heartwarming, beautifully illustrated tale. But now, reading about it from this ‘queer’ angle, I’m sorry to say, I find his actual conception (if you can call it that) plain creepy. Shiva shoots his seed into the mouth of Agni, it is cooled by Vayu,  it goes on to impregnate all the male Devas, then finds its way into the wombs of six totally clueless women who are so angry that they discard the foetus in the river. The baby(ies) survives inspite of that, a custody battle follows and in the end we get the god we know and worship as Skanda-Karthikeya-Muruga . How crazy is that.

The last time I read about Aravan, after maybe an ACK comic, was in Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya. All I felt then was anger towards Arjuna for being so callous and unfeeling about his own son, one whom he didn’t even remember and was ready to sacrifice. I was irritated with the son of Uloopi and Arjuna for wanting to help the father who had no clue about who he was. And the unfairness of it all.  But I didn’t give much thought to the queer angle of this tale. And the lesser said about what I think of Krishna the better. I can’t  bring myself to justify anything which that god has ever done ever.

There are thirty such stories in this book, twisted stories, stories of gods and men being castrated for showing restraint, for not showing restraint; men turning into women, women turning into men; deer eating human seed and giving birth to humans with antlers; crossdressing gods, sons of gods and mere mortals; men taking the form of animals and sneaking into unwilling women’s beds; Bhagirath ,whose very name means what it means, born of two ladyparts; men giving birth to men, men giving birth to women, men giving birth to iron maces. There are also tales from Rome, Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, China and other ancient civilizations where Things happened.

Maybe these stories started off with the good intention of encouraging ancient societies to embrace all kinds of people. Or maybe these stories were all made up by cunning men  to justify their kinks. (I won’t say women, it was a male dominated society)  Or maybe these stories were just versions of pr0n or fantasy fiction back then.

But whatever it was meant to be, then and now, this book left me totally mindfucked. And looks like that was one bodypart that our gods or our ancestors didn’t actually do.

Disclaimer: 

Let me make some things absolutely clear about where I stand on the LGBT community. I fully support them, their rights and their lives. I believe that it is natural.  Natural because it is part of nature. You even see such orientation in the animal kingdom. But normal, I won’t say. It is not normal. Like say a birthmark is natural, but not normal. I also believe that this is not a disease and it is not something that can be or needs to be ‘cured’.  I am totally in favour of scrapping Sec 377. The government has no right in anyone’s bedrooms, they can’t dictate whom people should love or how. I try my best not to use the word gay as an insult (though I sometimes do). I’ve been brought up to call the saree wearing eunuch who used to deliver the newspaper as  ‘aval’ or ‘her’ and not ‘adhu’ or ‘it’. But I also believe that the LGBT community does not need our condescending and patronizing support, they need us to just let them be. So I won’t be seen sporting the rainbow colours on my Twitter or Facebook DP.

And then, on the other side, in Oct 2009, sometime around  when Sec 377 was decriminalized, I wrote a blogpost titled ‘377=666?’ and was all judgy about a picture of a famous fashion designer in an open liplock with his (then?) boyfriend. This was what I had written. And I hmmm to myself about it. And cringe.  But then, this was five years ago. And I was stupid. Kindof.

I pride myself in being extremely broad minded. I always support everything that society frowns upon.Sometimes because I really mean it, and sometimes just to go against the grain. But anyway, I always ask “Who made up the rules?” If something happens it was meant to be that way. So just let it be.

…..but ever since the great 377 floodgates opened up in the country, there has been a small chink in my armour and I have begun to rethink my “broadminded” stand

I slowly find my support wavering away from Celina Jaitely and moving reluctantly towards Baba Ramdev. I tried hard to sway towards Celina, but the wind kept whispering otherwise and kept pushing me away.

But yesterday two images from the Van Heusen Men’s Fashion Week sealed my resolve strongly and firmly, and now, I can declare with conviction that I wholeheartedly support Baba Ramdev and Co

But people change. Attitudes change. Opinions change. I changed. I grew up.

Alchemy of Desire- Tarun Tejpal : 37/52

Don’t judge a book by its author.

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It took me a long time to finish this book, almost two months.  No, it wasn’t boring. I just took it slow and easy. Like a leisurely drive up those mountain roads, savouring the view at each hairpin bend, soaking up the sunshine. The prose is lovely, the mountains and valleys come alive and people become real. But the story, the plot? Not so much.

The unnamed narrator, one whom I cannot help but picture as Tarun Tejpal, grey ponytail and all towards the end, and his wife Fizz  live a content life wanting nothing but each other. Obsessed with each other’s bodies, they exist happily on love and fresh air. His only other relationship is with his typewriter and the book he wants to write, a book that gets  abandoned many times. There are stories within the story. A story that he writes, a story that he plans to write, a story that he abandons halfway, a story from his grandmother’s life and finally a story that changes his life.

An unexpected inheritance and an advertisement in a newspaper that wrapped a samosa takes them up the mountains to Gethia where they fall in love again, but this time with an old house. They buy it and name it First Things. And while they tear down walls and put up balconies, they discover a chest full of diaries written by the original inhabitant. And that is when a wall comes up between them and their life begins to unravel. I still don’t understand exactly why those diaries and his obsession with them made him fall out of love ( or think he fell out of love), but as he finds himself sucked into the life of Catherine , Fizz gets slowly phased out of his. There are five sections in the book: Prema ,Karma ,Artha ,Kama and  Satya  with Kama playing a major part in all sections. But as shocking and unconventional and disgusting as it was, the Kama was handled tastefully. (Disgusting and tasteful? Yes)

As with all women ‘seeking’ something in many of the books these days, I still don’t get Catherine. Can a woman not ‘rebel’ or ‘discover herself’ without sexual adventures? But anyway, that’s not the point. In pre Independence India, Catherine, her gay Muslim husband and their (yes, their) lover consume the Kama section and totally draw you away from the main story, much like how the narrator got drawn. It is another world, another era another lifetime. And then abruptly, it shifts back to the 90s, the 90s where you realise you don’t want to be in. I just couldn’t buy that trip to the USA and the super easy closure that he got. The book stretched languidly for almost 450 pages and ended suddenly.  And then again took a lazy turn in the penultimate chapter ( it was totally unnecessary, it just dragged the book down) before a predictable end.

I bought this book only after Tarun Tejpal got into the mess he is in now, so though I don’t judge the book by its author, I judge the author by his book. I almost want to pronounce him guilty of that crime simply based on his unconventional attitude and obsession with a woman’s body in this book. But I won’t.

Sita’s Curse- Sreemoyee Piu Kundu: 29/52

She lost me at ‘Feminist Erotica’. And then I saw the promo video, the one with a woman eating a mango more sensuously than Katrina Kaif, and it got me curious. But if this is ‘feminism’, hand me my pink chaddis already.

Spoilers ahead. But hey, this is not the kind of book you read for the plot.

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‘After 15 years of a loveless marriage…’ it says. Love? Hah.

Meera. The ordinary girl from the village. The girl who starts off her sexual journey with incest, moves on to underage discovery, graduates to doing it with a stranger on a riverbank, experiments with another woman and finally gets into that supposedly loveless marriage.

The husband ofcourse is,well, inadequate.  Mohan, inconsistent wimpy creature that he is, tries hard. He really tries. He tries at home, he tries in a movie theater, he tries on the public road behind a parked car. He tries. He even calls her up in the middle of the day and has a very contrived, shudderworthy conversation describing various pieces of imported lingerie. The poor man.  He tries. But hello, what about love shove and all that.

In between the extremely graphic scenes a bit of story happens. And then she goes on to have Guruji sex, indulges in icky voyeurism ( thanks to the lustworthy brother-in-law and his wife), lots of self pleasuring and some more. And then some more. Wait. That’s not all. There is a rendezvous with the hot dance teacher neighbour and some cliched partying with classmates from her English class.

And finally she ushers in the internet era and discovers the pleasures of cyber sex using webcams in paid chatrooms. Oh, the book doesn’t disappoint. These scenes come complete with graphic chats with mumbailover (well researched, I assume ). And then that cataclysmic day finally happens with the earth shaking climax : A  gigolo who completes her search for whatever she is searching for. A godman, his assistant, a neighbour, cheesy classmates, chatrooms and a man who charges three thousand rupees per hour. What more can a woman trapped in a loveless marriage ask for? Seriously.

Yes, the book is not meant to titillate. It is meant to make you cringe. No, I’m not a prude. I’m so ‘modern’ that I was even disappointed with the level of erotica in the 50 Shades books. But this book is pure ick. I have no other words to describe it. Written in first person, it makes it even more icky. There’s so much of sex, that towards the end I skimmed through the scenes just to get to the damn story.

You know those sleazy websites like indian sax stories dot com ( how do I know? Puhleese). Those websites that have ‘true’ stories born out of suppressed fantasies and written in really bad grammar? This book is  like a compilation of all those stories, but with the grammar and spellings corrected. Complete with backless cholis and conveniently slipping pallus.

Sita. Where does she come in? I don’t know. She is plugged into the book in a few places, but I don’t understand the connection. Maybe I should read between the sheets. I have half a mind to call in the culturebrigade and outrage about misusing Sita’s name.

Verdict? Nope. I couldn’t digest it. But maybe you can.

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