Tag Archive | dark and twisty

Coraline- Neil Gaiman: 12/52 (Book a friend recommended )

In what twisted universe is this a ‘children’s book’?

Ok. Reading more about the book, it looks like the author started this off as a children’s book and then it turned out to be a children’s book for adults. And apparently, it scares the daylights out of only us adults, not children. And coming to think about it, all those Enid Blyton books where the toys in the nursery coming alive at midnight seemed so delightful at age seven, but the very concept does sound creepy now.

So. Coraline. The book that gives you disturbed sleep that’s filled with dreams of pale women coming at you with a needle and thread, trying to sew a button into your eye. Coraline is a strong, independent, inquisitive child. She doesn’t like it when people get her name wrong and she doesn’t like ‘recipes’. So on one bored rainy day, she explores her house and finds a door that opens into another world. A world where everything is the same, yet different. And different like you would never imagined.

In any situation, when you have two elderly spinsters living together, there is always a little room for crazy. The two ladies, the delightfully named Miss Forcible and Miss Spink who read Coraline’s tea leaves, give her a stone with a hole and later perform for dogs in the alternate universe, don’t disappoint you with the crazy. The mouse man, for some reason, I pictured as Mr.Heckles. But both him and talking cat I found to be a tad too predictable.

Towards the end, I felt sorry for the other mother though. All she wanted was a little girl of her own, one she could love, cook for and sew button eyes on. But I felt worse for the other father. Somehow, the father seemed to play the same role in both universes, a person just living life and going through the motions.

I don’t think I’ll be watching the movie, I liked they way I pictured things in my head while reading the book and I don’t want to spoil that. But I’ve finally discovered Neil Gaiman and the Ocean at the End of the Lane has come highly recommended as the next Gaiman that I should read. I’m not sure if I’m ready yet, but soon.

Growing up, I did live out my quota of Fantasy World. Like when I tried to stay up past midnight to see if the dolls come to life and such normal things. But this book reminded me of the creepiest thing I did as a kid. I beheaded a pretty little imported doll, a golden haired one named Bonnie that came with a tiny feeding bottle ( a gift from Mrs.Martin, a missionary, whom I remembered when reading about Miss Mitten in GOST) and buried the parts in a wooden chest while the road was being dug up and tarred. I don’t know why I did it, maybe I wanted the doll to go live in some alternate universe or maybe it was some repressed psycho killer tendencies that I was exhibiting. I should make that into a creepy little story like this someday.

PS: Thanks for the recco, The Visitor. I’m ticking this off my reading challenge now.

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The Grill Door

I’m one who watches movies in installments. I finally got to watch the first story of 5 Sundarikal on my flight this time. It was the most disturbing story in that movie. 

Time to plug in a story I had written a few years ago.

Sanju plodded up the stairs and rang the doorbell. Rama aunty wouldn’t open it soon. She stood there waiting impatiently, digging on a flake of peeling paint on the yellow wall. The schoolbag was weighing her backwards. A good five minutes later Sanju heard shuffling footsteps.

“Hello Sanju, back from school?” Rama aunty gushed as she opened the door, and then went back inside for another two minutes before she came back with the keys.

“Why don’t you come in and have something” she asked in a baby voice.

Sanju shook her head. “Bye aunty”, she said and lugged her bag up the next flight of stairs, clutching the bunch of keys in one hand.

“Rama aunty is doing us a big favour by keeping our house keys. Never impose on her. Politely refuse if she offers you a snack, and never go inside their house” These were her mother’s strict instructions, and Sanju followed them scrupulously.

Rama aunty was not actually an aunty, Sanju thought. She looked more like her grandmother in Kanpur. But since her mother and father both called her Rama aunty, Sanju too did the same. The old woman too probably felt some satisfaction, being called aunty by a nine year old. How come there is a grandmother in that house when there are no children? Sanju always wondered.

She missed both her grandmothers a lot. She hardly saw them. Sometimes she visited on Diwali or for a few days during her summer vacations. She treasured those moments with her grandparents. One was in Dehradun and the other was in Kanpur. Both of them never visited their house in Noida. “There is nothing for us there” was their reply whenever they were invited to stay over.

She stood outside her house and fumbled with the keys. She pulled out the silver key and opened the silver lock. The iron grill door opened. She then pulled out the golden key and opened the golden lock. She struggled to close the grill door, holding two locks and the key bunch in her left hand. She then opened the wooden door and went inside the house, throwing both the locks and the keys on the couch in the living room.

She ran to her room and threw her school bag on her bed, and went straight to the dining table. She poured herself a glass of water from the jug. “No fridge water” her mother always warned her.

“If you drink fridge water, you will lose your voice and will not be able to sing anymore” Sanju loved to sing.

Her mother had put out the green tuck box today. Sanju eagerly opened it, waiting to see what goodies lay in store for her that afternoon. Apples. She scrunched her face and closed the  box. They had become brown and the room smelled like the Sector 22 market as soon as she opened the box. She looked around; there was nothing else that her mother had put out for her. No cookies, no cakes, no Munch. Angry, she went to the kitchen to search for something to eat. The big box was sitting right on top. She could see the Namkeen packet inside, pressing against the translucent white plastic, trying hard to break free.

“No, I cannot reach it even if I stand on the stool” she thought with frustration and ran back to the dining room.

She opened the thermos flask and poured out her Bournvita into the yellow mug. She took a sip. It was tepid, as usual. She spat out the bits of cream floating on top that stuck to her tongue. She hated that. Holding the mug in one hand, she opened out the door to the balcony and stood outside. She smiled at Rakesh who was standing on the opposite balcony. He was holding a red mug.

“Next month, I will get the red mug with my Bournvita” Sanju decided. He took up his right hand to his mouth questioningly, “Did you eat?” he gestured. Sanju shook her head back slowly, sadly. He shrugged back.

They stood for a while smiling at each other, sipping their chocolate flavored health drinks from free mugs. Both wishing they had the other colour. Hers was tepid, but his would be hot enough she thought. Shiny didi would have mixed fresh Bournvita for him and strained off the bits of cream. Shiny didi was in eighth standard and was allowed to light the gas stove.

Rakesh was also in her school, her class. In fourth standard, but he was in section C. She was in section A. The three of them, Sanju, Rakesh and Shiny didi along with Karan and Rinkie from R block were rickshaw mates. Every morning, Sanju’s mother dragged her out of bed, hurriedly dressed her, made her stuff two slices of bread into her reluctant mouth, wash it down with a yellow mug of Bournvita and literally chased her out of the house to the waiting rickshaw already overflowing with children and schoolbags.

The rickshaw uncle would then pedal the five of them and their schoolbags for another two kilometers to school on his broomstick legs, coughing and spitting every five minutes. Sanju hated the rickshaw uncle’s smell and always sat at the back, her legs hanging outside, facing the opposite direction, smiling and waving at the cars they tried to cunningly overtake in the traffic jams. The same rickshaw uncle would pick them up at three o’clock and drop them back home.

Rakesh, Shiny didi, Karan and Rinkie had come for her birthday party the previous month. Why is my birthday only on 16th of July, she wondered. Couldn’t it be on the 16th of every month? This year, she had actually celebrated two birthdays. On her Real Birthday, she had to go to school, but she took a box of Alpenlebies to distribute to all her friends and a tin of  Rasagullas for her class teacher. They had all sang Happy Birthday and clapped. Everyone was so nice to her that day.

And then that Saturday, she had a Second Birthday with a party at home. Her Delhi uncle and her Ghaziabad uncle had come with their aunties. Reema aunty and uncle had come from Sector 61 with her little cousin Coco. She was a bit disappointed that none of her classmates from school had come though she had announced that they were all invited before handing out the sweets on her Real Birthday.

Three other kids from their building had also come. Sanju smiled at them sweetly, though she didn’t like them. All of them wore the party hats, ate the goodies laid out and admired the decorations. They are all so jealous of me, Sanju thought. They all sang Happy Birthday again as she cut the clown shaped cake.

Her mother had dressed her up like a film star that day and she even allowed her to apply a touch of lipstick. Sanju had pouted her lips for the rest of the evening, trying hard not to press her lips together lest the lipstick faded away. She ran up to the mirror every now and then to check whether it had worn away. They had taken a lot of pictures and videos and her father played it on his laptop after the guests had left. The three of them had sat on her parents’ bed and watched happily.

Rakesh and Shiny didi had given her a pencil box that opened on both sides. Karan had given her a doll and Rinkie had given her a shiny necklace with matching earrings. The three kids had brought some fluorescent crayons, sketch pens and a Spiderman doll. She hated the Spiderman doll and hated the kid who brought it even more now.

Her uncles and aunties had disappointingly handed her envelopes of money. Her mother had allowed her to remove the one rupee coins stuck to the envelopes but took away the money inside.

“I will put it in your name in a bank account Sanju, the money will grow with you” she said.

“That is my money,” Sanju thought angrily. “They gave it to me and I want to buy that game from Geepee Store.”

But she knew that her mother would scold her if she said it out loud. No,not today. Her mother had been so sweet to her since morning and she did not want to spoil that. It was afterall her Second Birthday.

***

Sanju wished so badly that her mother would be there to open the door for her every afternoon when she returned from school. Make her hot Bournvita and Maggi noodles. She wanted to tell her that Miss had praised her in front of the whole class for finishing her sums first. She wanted to tell her that a frog had hopped inside their class today and Rita had screamed and climbed up on the table. She wanted to tell her mother that Vijay had Made Toilet in his pants today.

Sanju giggled recalling how Miss had pushed him outside, muttering unapprovingly “You are in fourth standard Vijay, what is this?”

But she knew she could never share all this with her mother. Even if she did, it would just be acknowledged with a grunt from her before she started yelling at her to finish her homework.

But Sanju was glad that her mother came home to her every evening. Rinkie lived with her father and her grandmother. Her mother’s office had sent her to America six months ago and she had not come back yet. Rinkie said that she phoned  every day and promised to bring her gifts, but still, Sanju decided that she was luckier. She prayed that her mother’s office would never send her to America.

She finished her Bournvita and turned the yellow mug upside down to show Rakesh on the opposite balcony. He did the same with his red mug and they both giggled. Shiny didi came and shooed Rakesh back inside the house. They both smiled and waved at Sanju before closing the door. Sanju wiped her mouth with her school tie and went back inside the house.

She went to her room and changed into the clothes her mother had laid out on the bed for her. She hung up her school uniform on the cupboard handle and pondered for a minute. She could start doing her homework, but then she decided not to. If she finished it now, her mother would not sit with her for even those few minutes in the evening. Everyday, her mother darted back and forth from the kitchen to the dining table where Sanju sat with her homework. She was always irritated and raised her voice at the tiniest mistakes Sanju made, but somehow Sanju cherished these moments with her mother. She asked her the silliest doubts and enjoyed it when her mother tried to explain to her.

“Is it Either or Ither mummy? You say Either but my Miss says Ither” she would ask in between long division and her mother would reply in an exasperated tone “Both are right Sanju, now finish your sums.”

So she put her homework back in the bag and looked around the room wondering what else she could do now.

She was bored of the computer games. She wanted to ask her father to download some new games, but didn’t know when to ask him. He always sat with his laptop on his bed and never did anything on the other computer. These days he signaled angrily at her to leave the room whenever she went up to him.

She switched on the TV and surfed channels for a while. She tried to watch Disney channel for sometime and then went back and forth from Pogo to Hungama. She was bored. Kareena Kapoor was dancing on Sony. Sanju loved Kareena. She turned up the volume and began to sing with her. She climbed on the couch and began to dance. She had been in the group dance for the annual day last year and was hoping to do a solo number this year. She jumped up and down happily with Kareena mimicking her movements and her facial expressions. She folded up her pink T shirt high up to her chest and pulled her pants a bit lower to expose her belly button. She ran one hand through her hair and the other all over her body, singing along, pink with excitement. She plopped down on the couch happy and exhausted after the song was over. An advertisement.

“I will become an actress when I grow big”, she decided. She made a mental note to dig into her mother’s dressing table later. It was forbidden, but then Mummy is not here, she thought.

She sat waiting in anticipation for the next song but it was a boring one. Disappointed, she changed channels again. Hannah Montana was crooning away on Disney. Sanju sang along with her loudly, trying to get the words, the tune and the accent right. She moved away from the TV, still singing along. Hannah Montana didn’t dance as well as Kareena.

She opened the wooden living room door and stood behind the iron grill doors, looking out through the holes. Her mother had told her never to open the grill doors once she came home.

“It is like I am in jail,” Sanju thought angrily “Anyway, mummy is not here.” The bolt squeaked loudly tickling her teeth. She opened the grill door and stood on the doorstep, not knowing what to do next. She stood on the door and swung it back and forth, staring into the empty hallway.

The door of the opposite apartment opened. An Uncle came out. He was not a new Uncle, she had seen him many times, but her parents had never spoken to him. She didn’t know his name.

The Uncle smiled at her and nodded, wriggling his fingers gesturing to her to come to him. Sanju shook her head and smiled shyly. He gestured again. And she shook her head again swinging the door almost closing it.

The Uncle went back inside. “Oh no”, Sanju thought. “He is angry with me. I should have gone when he called.” She stood on the door and swung it back and forth again, loudly, hoping he would hear it and come out.

A minute later he came back and stood on his doorstep. He had a Munch and a packet of Lays in his hands. He smiled and called her.

Sanju’s face broke out into a huge smile. She ran to him.

The iron grill door swung slowly and banged against the wall.

Hannah Montana continued to croon on Disney channel.

A housefly buzzed greedily over the sticky yellow mug lying on the dining table.

Inside the darkened apartment, the Uncle smiled again. This time, Sanju didn’t smile back.

Our Moon has Blood Clots- Rahul Pandita: 58/52

…and still bleeding. Silently.

To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to the issue of Kashmir Pandits. Mainly because it is one of the Whatabouts that the rabid rightwing on Twitter invoke everytime anything about anything is discussed. That argument when you use the atrocities against one minority to negate the atrocities against another minority. But now, after reading this book, after reading this book in two extended sittings because it was so gripping, I realize that this is a story that needs to be told in louder voices. Louder, saner, sensible voices. Voices like Rahul Pandita’s.

I’m on a voyeuristic journey these days, reading about wars and genocides. Humanity’s greatest mistakes, history that should teach us lessons. But this exodus of the Kashmir Pandits is not yet history, it is just two decades old. It is not a horror that happened in another era to another people. It is something that happened during my lifetime, in my country to people from my generation. It is a wound that is still raw, bleeding. No, the blood has not yet clotted.

All that time when I was living a carefree life in the safe south, complaining about the ‘same old’ Kashmir headlines in the news every day; laughing at the old woman who watched Ulaga Seidhigal for news about Kashmir, where her grandson was posted, thinking that it was not part of India ;romanticizing Azaadi based on Pankaj Kapur and Aravind Swamy, a boy almost my age was uprooted from his home and thrown into refugee camps where he would be handed half a tomato as part of the rations. He would then be shuttled from room to room, hotel to hotel, house to house more than seventeen times over the next two decades, never finding Home again. Just because he was not one of Them.

Rahul Pandita’s Hello, Bastar was good. It was to the point, well researched and well written. But it was someone else’s story. This book on the other hand is his own story. A story of the teenage boy who lived in the house with 22 rooms and the apple tree. A house with the kitchen garden and the soon-to-be-renovated attic full of ‘costly deodar wood’. A house he would return to after years, and seek permission from strangers to enter. A house where he would then search desperately for traces of the life he was forced to leave behind. The story of the teenage boy with a cousin he hero worshipped, the cousin whose death he dreamt of a decade before it happened. The story of a teenage boy who was Kris Srikanth to his best friend Javed Miandad, best friend before he did something to break them. The story of the teenage boy who looked out of his window one night and saw people dividing up the neighborhood among themselves, laying claim to his house while his whole family cowered with fear inside. The story of the teenage boy whose mother grabbed a kitchen knife, ready to kill his sister and then herself if those people outside entered the house. A chilling story of a people caught inside someone else’s fight for freedom. A people killed for no reason other than the fact that they were not one of Them.

No hate is spewed in the book. It is largely neutral, actually, too neutral given that it is a first hand account of the exodus. He is allowed some hate. But there is so much dignity in the writing.There is pain in each word and that pain is more powerful and effective than hate. Facts are laid out, clean and clear. Names of the people killed, how they were killed. Plain facts enough to let the reader decide what is right and what is not, who is right and who is not. And who is to blame. It is such a shame that the people of the country’s first Prime Minister are living in exile for the past two and a half decades, largely ignored by both the media and political parties. I won’t blame the rightwingers now for being vocal about this. They seem to be the only voice for these people.

The Visitor summed up the KP Conundrum perfectly here

The Rape of Nanking- Iris Chang: 57/52

The forgotten Holocaust. One of the forgotten Holocausts

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I swore off all real war book after This Divided Island. But then, the masochist-voyuer in me didn’t allow it. I wanted to read about more horrific horrors that happened  in other wars. So I Googled to find more such books. And I realised that there is no dearth of such books and such horrific horrors and such wars in this world.

This book happened in between my trips to China and Germany. It shook me up badly and I wanted my emotions to settle down a bit before I wrote about it. But then I went to Germany and visited Dachau Concentration camp. And suddenly I wasn’t too sure about which horror was more horrific. The relatively unknown WW2 horror of Japanese soldiers slaughtering Chinese civilians in killing competitions and bayonet practice or the well known WW2 horror of gas chambers and Hitler’s Hate. And again, I waited for my emotions to settle down. But now I’m actually too numb and that moment of horror has passed. One more war book and I think I’ll be vaccinated for life against Feeling. So what I write now is not what I initially felt.

When I think China, I think of only Tiananmen Square, Bamboo gulags, Inhuman Rights. The land without Twitter and Facebook and Google. Enemy country. I don’t know anything about Chinese history before 1989. And when I think of Japan, I think of hard work and perfection. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tsunamis. A country of phoenix birds rising from the ashes to greater heights each time. The victims. Our friends. But now, I can think of just one thing when I think China. Nanking. And when I think Japan, again, Nanking. (  A Tale for the Time Being had that chapter from the Kamikaze pilot’s life. I wasn’t that moved then. But now I should read it again to understand Japan’s cruelty. )

The most horrific part of the Rape of Nanking is not the cold blooded massacre of 50000…100000…300000…prisoners or war and civilians because the Japanese Imperial army didn’t know what to do next; not the rapes of women from 8 to 80; not the killing competitions or the mass burial grounds; not the mountains where the  soil turned into metallic red slush or the Yangzte river that turned red with the blood of the beheaded. The most horrific part of the Rape of Nanking to me, is the fact that most of the world is still unaware about it even now.

It is like a ten line article tucked into page 30 of the WW2 newspaper where the Jewish holocaust and Hiroshima and Nagasaki are on the headlines. More sad is that China itself has tried to forget and remove all traces of the horror and move on to other self inflicted horrors instead of throwing open their doors for the world to see. And saddest is that the USA, self appointed guardians of humankind,cared only when Pearl Harbour happened, and even afterwards only made amends for their own wrongs to Japan instead of telling the world what Japan had done to their neighbours. And Japan, Japan with its denial, false propaganda, school books with twisted history and a right wing that still intimidates anyone who wants to share the truth. Oh, Japan, you’ve fallen from that pedestal I had you on. And how.

On my next trip to China I wanted to plan a quick visit to Nanjing. But after Googling a bit, I decided against it. Even if I can make that overnight train or expensive flight for the weekend, I think I’ll be going into a city that has erased her scars and painted herself over with a new shiny gloss. A city that has buried its past and moved on to the future. But then, maybe that’s what China is all about. And to some of us here, Nanking will continue to be nothing more than that authentic Chinese restaurant.

Edit: On the anniversary of the Rape of Nanking, I got some uninvited attention on Twitter from some Japanese. Some keywords led them to my tweet about the book. I was open to discussion and they shared some photos showing the Japanese-Chinese ‘friendship’ in Nanking. Three happy propaganda photos do not erase the horror that it actually was. These were some of the links they shared to debunk the ‘myth’ of the Nanking Massacre.

This–> http://www.howitzer.jp/nanking/page01.html Seriously? If you say so.

This, obviously, is the Ginling College Safety Zone –> http://digitallibrary.usc.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/p15799coll123/id/33881/rec/50

This, I don’t understand the language, but yes Chiang Kai Shek was to blame too. Although he was just a pawn in the bigger picture –>  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9c66d9WKRwk

This Divided Island- Samanth Subramaniam : 55/52

Is It really over?

There are some types of hate that I totally don’t get.

‘If we even step into the country they will kill us’, said the janitor in my Oslo office in that amusing singsong Srilankan Tamil accent. This was in 2008, before the war ‘ended’. Who is They, I wondered.  Are They tracking the movements of this nondescript man standing in front of me with the mop in his hand? How could They hate him so much? I didn’t get it.  He told me about his  annual trip to meet his parents the next month. They would fly in to Chennai from Srilanka and he would fly into Chennai from Oslo. They would meet for a fortnight in a hotel in Vadapalani, laugh , cry, pray, enjoy togetherness as long as they could. Then they would bid goodbyes with  the hope that they would meet again the next year; sametime sameplace, godwilling. And they would go back home. The parents, back to their home in some war torn town near the equator, and he, back to his destined life closer to the north pole.

In another country, a few months before it all got over, a gentleman was just leaving a friend’s house as I entered. ‘He’s a puli. He rushing to meet someone with some money’, my friend whispered to me. Maybe my friend was exaggerating and the man was just a sympathiser, a refugee, but a shiver ran down my spine.

I read Reef this year, it had some mild mentions about the War. And I read Blue before that, it had nothing about the War.  That’s all I knew about Srilanka till a week ago. I blindly supported The Cause, outraged over Rajapakshe’s visits, made the obligatory noises over that John Abraham movie and such things because I felt that it was the thing to do. But now I know.

The Terror travels from Colombo to Canada to London with Tigers, ex Tigers, disillusioned Tigers, resigned-to-fate Tigers and non-Tigers telling their tales. Scattered across the world, they still yearn for the life they dreamed of, the life they left behind.  And then the book moves to The North, the defeated country. Jaffna, a town stuck in an automobile timewarp, haunted by the ghosts from the Terror. Nameboards scrubbed clean of Tamil. Kandarodai is now Kandurugoda, Hindu temples are overshadowed by Buddhist viharayas and Mahinda Rajapakshe’s creepy smile overshadows The Buddha. A mosque that refuses to erase the bullet holes from a Tiger attack, a mosque inscribed with the names of 103 victims of a Tiger attack. A tale of an eight year old boy shot in the mouth by a Tiger.

The Faith broke my faith in Buddhism. I thought Buddhism was a religion of peace. But turns out that it is much like the other Religion of Peace: violent and fanatic. It also takes on the shades of that ideology from Germany when the Sinhalese talk about Aryan supremacy. The Sinhalese are apparently the Aryans who came with Buddhism from North India and the Tamils are the ugly dirty Dravidians who deserve to be wiped out. And it also reveals shades of the current trend of hatred that is taking over India these days with  monks dressed in various  hues of saffron invoking kings and events from two millenia ago to justify the ethnic cleansing today.

The book ends with the Endgames, where the futility of it all hits you. Villages full of families clinging on to the hope that their loved ones snatched away by the Tigers are still alive somewhere. Wives refusing to let go of their missing husbands, either running from NGO pillar to post for answers or challenging the gods by flaunting the symbols of their marriage with the hope that their dead husbands will return. On one hand, you seethe with anger at the Tigers for grabbing unwilling men and women, boys and girls to fight the War, but on the other hand you also wonder at the selfishness of families refusing to participate in the war , a war that is theirs as much as it was Prabhakaran’s.

I was a Tiger sympathiser until I read this book. But I still don’t hate them as much as I feel sorry for them. Like all Causes, this one also started off on the right track, for the right reasons. And went horribly, horribly wrong  somewhere. A war is not lost when the last bullet hits your leader, it is lost when disillusionment sets in. And that, it seems, happened long before 19th May 2009. In every line of the book there was the undercurrent of the frustration and the helplessness of the cornered Tigers, the frustration that made them lose their minds long before they lost the war.

Samanth Subramaniam writes so beautifully. Like  tiny flowers blooming on a battlefield, his metaphors brighten up the depressing storyline. He has traveled the length and breadth of The Divided Island on rickety buses, autorickshaws, motorcycles and on foot to speak to the people whose voices need to be heard; voices of  anger, frustration, sadness. Voices of hope and hopelessness.  He treads carefully throughout the book, telling the tale without revealing his sources, most of them initials and pseudonyms. Because, though it is 2014, They might still get to them. He doesn’t take sides in this book, but at the end, the reader will. And that side will be the side of the civilians. The ones who didn’t have a choice.

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.

$19CD8675CB6F4F0B

 

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!

 

The Lives of Others- Neel Mukheerjee :50/52

A one pm on Doordarshan book

If I had a time machine, I would transport myself into Bengal of the late 60s. Naxalism fascinates me. As a child, I remember someone explaining Naxalite to me : ‘They hate rich people. They behead the man at night and place the head on the doorstep for everyone to see it the next morning’. Something that gave me nightmares, something that made thank god we were not rich. But as I grew older and wiser (?), I began to sympathise with them. Last year I went on a Red Sun and Hello Bastar reading phase, topped by The Lowland and The Shoes of the Dead. Overdosed. So maybe that is why The Lives of Others didn’t hit me as hard as it should have.

There is not a single likeable character in this book, not even Supratik; he fell from that pedestal towards the end. But that’s how reality should be.  A huge messy joint family, the Ghoshes live in a four storey building on 22 Basanta Bose Road. And there is a story in each storey. The patriarch witnessing the slow downfall of the family business he built,  four sons with problems of their own, an unmarried daughter seeped in bitterness and spewing venom, a scheming daughter-in-law, grandchildren ranging from mathematics prodigies to  drug addicts. And a revolutionary Naxalite.

The narration moves between the story of each Ghosh in Calcutta and a diary written by Supratik while hiding in small villages on the Bengal-Orrisa borders. Disillusioned by his comfortable life and the party power politics in the city, he moves to the villages and lives with the farmers there, as one of them, and sows the seed of revolution while he sows seeds of paddy in those fields. The diary he writes is expected to invoke strong feelings, but I was somehow immune to it. I’ve read enough about starving farmers to know that they never win ever. But to whom was he writing this diary? At first, I thought that it was to his mother, then it seemed like it was to his lover. But when the recipient was finally revealed, it left me hanging. The relationship had no form, no closure. And there’s one more uncomfortable relationship in the family, one that is disgusting and disturbing. Weddings, funerals, trade unions, mad professors, terrace romance. You have everything, but without the song and dance or comedy. It is an Ekta Kapoor saga, without the blingy clothes. It is a Visu movie, without the lesson at the end. As I said, it is a one pm on Doordarshan story. And it is a story that is reality even today.

But all these make the book what it is. A slow, long, painful but wonderful journey into the Lives of Others.

Afternote:  Maybe an overdose of such stories where there is no happy ending is a well planned conspiracy to make people like me disillusioned with the revolutionary movement?