October 16, 2016

Of Interest (16 October, 2016)

After a hiatus of a couple of weeks, I return to you older (I had a birthday! It was okay), sadder, and bearing several links about books, a couple about other things, and no Bob Dylan thinkpieces.



Carmen Maria Machado on Joanna Russ, women’s writing, and a Neil Gaiman blurb.

Safiya Sinclair on being/claiming Caliban. (Via Maureen Kincaid Speller.)

Sharanya on Ferrante. (Via Hena Mehta.)

Daisy Rockwell on the poetry of Shubham Shree. “Hindi mein likhne ke liye Hindi se bachna jaruri hai aur likhte reh paane ke liye likhne ki duniya se.”

Anne Chisholm approves of Edmund Gordon’s new Angela Carter biography; Rachel Cooke is underwhelmed.

Anna Carey on the Juvenalia podcast, on girls’ comics.

Peter Moskowitz’s interview with/profile of Tommy Pico.

Jed Hartman’s history of SF prozines on the internet. (Incidentally, you have a couple of days to contribute to the Strange Horizons fund drive! Please do.)

Floella Benjamin on Coming To England‘s 20th anniversary. (Via Karen Sands-O’Connor.)

Aarthi Parthasarthy and Mira Malhotra on being a woman who reads things on the internet.

Hena Mehta, Shashi Mike and Samira Nadkarni discuss Manjula Padmanabhan’s gender dystopias.

It feels important that you read Dario Fo’s Nobel lecture.

Marian and James Womack on translating science fiction. (Via Vajra Chandrasekera.)



Annie Zaidi on tea.

Rahel Aima explains Madras filter coffee.



Solange Knowles in conversation with Tavi Gevinson. (Via Anna Carey.)

Sonal Giani on the queerness of Falguni Pathak. (Contains a link to “Meri Chunar Udd Udd Jaye”, the least heterosexual thing I have ever seen on tv) (Via Shruti Ravi.)

Anu Kumar on the life and work of Kaikhosru Shapurji Sorabji.

Uday Kapur on the classist gatekeeping around Indian hip-hop. (Via Supriya Nair.)

October 14, 2016

Alex Wheatle, Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights

Liccle Bit, the first of this series (trilogy?) was on the Carnegie nominee list this year, but never made it to the shortlist. Crongton Knights, I suspect, will be eligible next year, and I’ll be interested to see whether it is short (or long)-listed. It’s on the Guardian Children’s Fiction longlist–the shortlist is not out yet. (This is mostly a post about Crongton Knights.)

“Liccle Bit” is the nickname of teenaged Lemar, the second shortest boy in his class. His height, as his friends McKay and Jonah constantly remind him, is one reason he’s unlikely ever to be in a relationship with Venetia King, the hottest girl in school. Bit lives with his mother, grandmother, his sister Elaine and baby nephew Jerome; his mother’s the only member of the family with a job, and there isn’t much money for cool haircuts and the other minor luxuries that he thinks might make a popular girl notice him. As it happens, Venetia has noticed him; Bit is a talented artist with work in a forthcoming exhibition, and Venetia needs someone to draw a portrait of her. The two become friends, even as Bit learns that the portrait is to be a gift for Venetia’s boyfriend.

Meanwhile, Bit has gotten tangled up in events of which he really wants no part. Elaine’s ex boyfriend (and Jerome’s father) is local gang leader Manjaro. As a result, Manjaro knows Bit, and calls upon him to run various errands- and Bit is too afraid to say no. Things come to a head when he’s asked to conceal a gun for Manjaro for a few days.

If this feels rather heavy on character summary, it’s because characters and relationships were central to my experience of the book. Liccle Bit is fundamentally kind to its characters–it makes room for Bit’s mother’s anger at his father and his father’s current happy marriage, Manjaro’s ruthlessness and violence and the possibility that he might want to be a good dad, and even finds space for us to step back and notice Bit’s own biases. Everyone makes sense as a complex, real person (except perhaps the wise, kind grandmother; but presumably those do exist outside literary cliche).

I liked Liccle Bit, though I took a while to warm to it. Crongton Knights, though, I fell into straight away.

Crongton Knights is told from the perspective of Bit’s friend McKay, and is set a few months after the events of the earlier book. Life in Crongton has been tense ever since, though things are returning to normal. Venetia and Bit have continued to be friends, which is why when she breaks up with her boyfriend and discovers that he has pictures of her naked on his phone, she asks Bit for help. Venetia, Bit, McKay and Jonah, along with a couple of friends they’ve picked up on the way, have to make the long journey across Crongton to find Sergio, get hold of his phone, and delete the pictures, on the way becoming entangled with enemies of McKay’s brother, Nesta.

This is a quest narrative. For some reason, my Kindle edition of the book skipped straight to the prologue of the book and so I missed the map at the beginning on my first read though. But: there’s a map! There’s a small but determined fellowship of friends and allies, walking though dangerous territory to complete a quest, and there’s a map.


Early in my first read through Crongton Knights, I was already aware that I had sunk comfortably into it much more quickly than with the earlier book. I assumed that my rapid involvement in the narrative was simply a byproduct of reading series fiction–that I recognised character and setting and was thus able to find my bearings immediately (pause to consider what it means that that metaphor is cartographical). That’s probably true, but it’s also true that I’ve grown up on fantasy quests. The shape of this story made sense to me in ways that Liccle Bit could not (and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that LB is drawing on genres and/or narrative traditions that I don’t know as well), even before I found the map.

It makes sense to McKay as well. McKay likes the Lord of the Rings movies and Arthuriana; it seems perfectly plausible that he’d conceive of  this mission as a heroic quest. Bit would not have told this story in this way. It’s hard to express why this is impressive writing without running the risk of sounding very trite (perhaps I am sounding very trite now); it’s to talk of the sort of fundamentals that surely we all take for granted by now (of course the shape of the story is a result of who’s supposed to be doing the telling) except that taking things for granted can mean not thinking about them at all, and they should be thought about. To shift between the rhythms of different genres with the same set of characters and relationships isn’t just a matter of skill (though it is skillful), it feels important to what the text does, and how it conceives of itself.

There are other reasons why I think this is great. One of them is purely personal–in the week before I read Crongton Knights I was in Dublin, doing some work with the Michael de Larrabeiti archives, and so ended up rereading large swathes of Across The Dark Metropolis, which is another beloved story about a band of loyal young heroes travelling across a dangerous London. After that, this book felt like coming home.

It also, I think, has something to do with language. Apparently Wheatle has invented much of the language used by the characters in the Crongton books, bringing together “elements of US Hip-Hop, Jamaican dancehall, old school reggae and every other sub-culture I thought could supplement my concoction.” I’m very obviously not in a position to suggest that the result feels “authentic”, whatever that would mean; Crongton is far enough from any of the cultures I inhabit that I’m not sure I can tell the South London bits from Wheatle’s additions. But I have, inevitably, been reading the books in the context of the discussions around e.E Charlton-Trujillo’s When We Was Fierce.

A couple of paragraphs above I mention fundamentals that too often are taken for granted in writing–perhaps the most basic of them is the idea that things can be represented in any meaningful way at all. To invent a fictional language (and I’m speaking here of languages that are supposed to feel “plausible” within their frames of reference; nonsense verse and deliberately silly dialects are doing other things entirely) is to suggest, implicitly, that languages are inventable; that this big, interconnected, evolving thing is actually basic enough that a convincing imitation can be produced in the head of just some guy. But fine, all representation is suspect, the word is not the thing, language is inherently reductive, life goes on.

In a recent article, Lili Loofbourow discusses the powerful and reductive nature of naming, before noting that:

We have shown the same proficiency when it comes to labeling behavioral patterns in minorities and members of other cultures. One of anthropology’s early problems as a field was the worrying ease with which white people could label behaviors and systems that weren’t their own. Ethnocentrism makes it simple to diagnose the peculiar habits of others while you, the implied (white male) observer, remain gloriously exempt. Science plays a huge and important role in the world, but the fantasy of scientific objectivity can bleed dangerously into other areas: that fantasy being that you, as the detached observer, are the one capable of universality, of transcendence. Of objectivity. Of naming.

It’s possible that I’m flattening the author’s point here in extending this from naming and the creation of particular vocabularies to all language ever (sorry Lili, if you read this), but it’s reasonable to suggest that, even if All Representation Is Suspect, questions of who gets to represent what and who gets to present what as real are tied to specific histories and power dynamics. One of the many good posts on When We Was Fierce is this one, by Jennifer Baker, which has a useful section on the ways in which Charlton-Trujillo’s constructed AAVE doesn’t work. Baker notes, crucially, that it is “perceived (and current reviews from White reviewers see it) as ‘real.’” Here, the power to simplify and misrepresent is inherently bound up in race*–the author, who is (afaik) not African-American, writes a book presenting a community in a particular way, and an overwhelmingly white publishing industry endorses it as Truth.

In the interview I link to above Wheatle places his own linguistic innovations in the same tradition as Tolkien’s, and I think that framing is important. Not only because it positions them as something akin to fantasy (and therefore frees them of some of that burden of representation, possibly? Though only if one came to the book as I did, after having read that interview), but that Tolkien’s labour in inventing languages, whatever one may think of the utility of such an exercise, is presented as Work. Whether you think of him as a philologist doing philologisty things or as a massive nerd wasting far too much time and energy on making stuff up, language is positioned as difficult, requiring effort, not just something you can casually create. Wheatle’s invocation of Tolkien, then, helps us to frame his books within that tradition of innovative language, rather than the one where creating “believable” dialogue can so easily lead to a mass of lazy stereotypes.

(On the other hand, one of the functions of secondary world fantasy of the sort Tolkien gave rise to is as an outlet for the sort of colonialist anthropology that deems Other societies and systems and languages eminently classifiable/categorisable; what does one do with that?

I’m not sure. But Crongton Knights has a character who “wrapped untold ice cubes in my flannel” and that “untold” is so good, and pleased me so much.)



* Whereas Wheatle is a Black British writer from South London, writing about black and brown kids in a fictional/ised South London.

October 3, 2016

September Reading


Alex Wheatle, Liccle Bit and Crongton Knights: Liccle Bit was on the Carnegie longlist and didn’t make the shortlist; Crongton Knights, which follows it, is on the Guardian children’s longlistlist. I’ve written at greater length about these two books elsewhere–here I’ll only note that Wheatle’s invented district of London, and his invented slang for it, lead to some gorgeous prose (I’m not in a position to judge how “authentic” it feels, but it feels respectful and loving and playful in ways that other examples of making up slang often have not), that characters and the relationships between them are complicated and interesting, and that I liked both books a lot.

Chimène Suleyman, Outside Looking On: I’ve been torn about reading this for ages. On the one hand, I like what I’ve read by Suleyman in the past, and I love architecture and personal relationships with buildings; on the other, as an Indian living in Newcastle, I have both postcolonial and Northern reasons to be very tired of books about London. I didn’t love the book for the reasons I thought I might, but I suppose if people must write London-y books this is a pretty good one.

Robin Stevens, The Case of the Deepdean Vampire: This has become a tragic cycle; I buy the Wells and Wong mini-mystery, it ends too quickly, the bulk of the ebook is the first chapter of the next book, and then I have to wait months for the rest. This is a very halloween-y story (ideally it’d have been published around then, but Stevens’s christmas book is out at the end of October), and the Carmilla references are fun, but it’d be nice if there’d been more of it.

Katherine Woodfine (ed.), Mystery and Mayhem: Contains takes on various classic mystery plots by various children’s authors (all women, and I think all white)–naturally it’s a bit uneven. The Frances Hardinge (historical, murder in a hot air balloon!) was good, the Robin Stevens (contemporary, murder in a hotel) disappointing; I genuinely liked Susie Day’s locked room murder, and found Clementine Beauvais’s (also a locked room) to be too easily solved, but delighting in its prose more than the other stories did. On the whole, though, not a very satisfying collection–classic crime is inherently comforting, so it feels unfair to criticise it for doing that, and yet the whole felt lightweight.

September 25, 2016

Of Interest (25 September, 2016)

All that really matters this week is Leonard Cohen wrote the most 2016 of songs. Nevertheless, here are some links to things I read.


Art things:

Some amazing work in the most recent issue of Nepantla, via Kate Schapira.

Chenxin Jiang on William Empson and Buddhist art.

Namrata Poddar on visual vs oral storytelling and “show don’t tell”.

Anannya Baruah on Bhaskar Hazarika’s Kothanodi.


Life things:

Lawrence Liang on copyright and the DU photocopying case.Via Gautam Premnath.

Ashwaq Masoodi on food hierarchies, Dalit cusine and “dirty” food.

Louis Allday visits the Imperial War Museum.

Via Kawrage on twitter, Deepa Kumar on imperialist feminism.

James Kilgore on the recent prison labour strike in the US. (via Kurt Newman)


People talking:

Via Kate Schapira again, this conversation between Darcie Dennigan, Joyelle McSweeney and Michael Martin Shea. It’s difficult, and good, and yes.

This interview with Ava Duvernay is about a lot of director-y things that I know nothing about, and it’s fascinating.

Claudia Rankine on her MacArthur grant.

A Q&A by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad with the winners of the Islamicate short story contest, via Jonah Sutton-Morse.

Kate Kellaway interviews Eimear McBride, via Subashini Navaratnam.



September 18, 2016

Alice Pung, Laurinda

I only discovered a few days ago (when I saw the Reading While White review of the book) that Alice Pung’s Laurinda had been retitled Lucy and Linh in its American edition. My own copy of the book is the Black Inc/Penguin version that was available (in kindle form, at least) in the UK–as ever, I’m unsure whether this means it would have been eligible for the Carnegie award or not.

I’m not sure what to make of this title change, and to talk about my ambivalence I am going to have to give away certain plot elements (I don’t think most people who read this blog care about spoilers, but just in case: Spoiler Warning).

The novel is written in epistolatory form from Lucy Lam to someone named Linh. Lucy is a Vietnamese-Australian teenager of Teochew ancestry, and she has grown up in a working class suburb of Melbourne. She has been attending a local Catholic school, but wins a scholarship to Laurinda Ladies College, an old, exclusive private school. From the beginning, she’s a bit ambivalent about the scholarship, which she really did not expect to win–it may mean a better future, but it also means leaving her friends behind. Linh, we’re given to understand, is one of those friends.

It is probably clear from “we’re given to understand” that this isn’t really true. Towards the end of the book it is revealed that Lucy and Linh have been the same person all along; that the letters are a form of mediation between the two sides of our protagonist’s life.

Which is fine; the trick of allowing your readers to frame the narrative in a particular way and then undermining those assumptions at the end can be really effective–I’m thinking of books like Rebecca Stead’s Liar & Spy, or Gene Kemp’s Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler. An attentive reader who has read this sort of thing before and has some sense of what to look for may begin to suspect not very far into the book that there’s a reason we’ve got a much clearer sense of Lucy’s other friends than of Linh (who is seemingly her closest friend). But even for a pretty experienced reader of This Sort of Thing, Laurinda presents a bit of a challenge. An example, from early in the book. Lucy and her friends have come out of the scholarship exam, and are discussing the final essay question:

Suddenly, Tully turned towards you. “What did you write about, Linh?”
You just laughed. “Something stupid.”
[a page or two later]
For some reason, the picture in the exam paper had reminded me of my mother, so I’d written about her. If the other girls had asked, I would have told them. But somehow I did not want to share this with Tully.

“If the other girls had asked” is doing some good work here–allowing for both “the other girls in Lucy’s group,” and “the other girls, except Tully, with whom she does not want to share this.”

Moments like this are really cleverly done–at other points, it’s still not clear to me to what extent Lucy is imagining herself as separate from Linh; whether some of the difficulty in working it out is from inconsistency rather than skillful elision. But I think the concealment of Linh’s identity does add something to the book– and it’s something quite disconcerting. For much of the book Lucy is talking about the split in her life between her working class suburb and family, and Laurinda’s posh whiteness, and the level of performance that survival at the school entails. It’s all too easy to map this split onto Lucy and Linh, but then we’re left with the possibility that Lucy, with whom we’ve spent the duration of the book, is only half of the complete person we’ve let ourselves think we’re seeing; that we are part of the audience to whom she must perform. And you then go back through the book, wondering to what extent things are being framed to suit our expectations of the narrative (and you remind yourself that voices aren’t that neatly split across people, and whether it’s possible to write as Linh at all without some Lucy slipping in). I wonder to what extent the reframing caused by changing the title then changes this experience–if by giving Linh equal weight in the title, the reader is led to focus more on her role, and what that does to the book’s playing around with the reader’s assumptions. (I also don’t know if the book has been edited and/or changed in other ways for its American edition, so this speculation may be meaningless.)

But my other reservation about the changed title is a personal one–that it shifts the focus from the school.

I became interested in reading Laurinda because it was a school story. (Pause for regular readers of this blog to roll their eyes.) It’s a school story because it’s set in a school and is about a student’s experiences of that school, but I don’t know if Pung is a fan of the school story genre; Laurinda doesn’t obviously position itself in dialogue with that tradition (in the way that, say, Robin Stevens’s books do), but that needn’t mean she isn’t familiar with it.

Here are some tropes of the school story: the new student who comes to the school and has to familiarise herself with its structure and ethos; the scholarship student who, despite being poorer than the rest, shows herself to be as worthy as them and triumphs in the end; the bad prefects who are exposed so that things are put right. Intentional or not (perhaps some of these tropes are just inherent to the setting), Laurinda ends up negotiating exactly these situations, but in complex, and (if you’re already interested in school stories) fascinating ways. Arriving at the school, Lucy finds that her background has not made it that easy for her to prove her worth–there are things that are taught differently, or better, here than in her old school; there are cultural shibboleths that will continuously mark her as an outsider. More, her outsiderness itself will be weaponised in ways she hadn’t anticipated–by the well-meaning white woman who wants her for a protégée, the popular kids, and most importantly, by the institution itself. She learns that she is expected to perform her role as (poor, ethnic minority) scholarship student in ways that are sufficiently palatable to those around her as well as making the institution look good. The book’s big climatic moment is not the one where Lucy and Linh finally merge to tell the powerful girls of the Cabinet to fuck off, it’s later, when Lucy gives a speech that proves that she’s finally understood her place in this system, has understood how far she can go without being crushed by the institution; how to accept that she is being manipulated and to manipulate it right back.

Because throughout her year at the school, both in her interactions with the principal and with the Cabinet, Lucy has been receiving an education in power. The Cabinet, whose mastery over the student body means that they can hurt others for fun and escape any consequences (“Because Amber was crying so much, Gina could not” is one of the most succinct descriptions of a particular sort of power play as you’re ever likely to see), befriend Lucy because she makes them look better, discard her when she is insufficiently teachable, and attempt to co-opt her once more when she has learnt to play the game. But the Cabinet become negligible as Lucy begins to understand their role in the institution as a whole. In the traditional school story, morality emanates from the institution itself, and the head of the school is unfailingly good. It’s Mrs Grey, the principal, whom Lucy “finally [accords] the respect she was due,” and who is in a position to see that Lucy has become “this true Laurindan who now layered her words with care and cunning.” Mrs Grey and Lucy understand Laurinda (and the world of which it is a part) and are in that sense allies–but this isn’t a happy ending. The corrupt prefects (the Cabinet come as close to this as anything) will not be reformed, and Lucy will not triumph, because they are part of a system that is already working as it is intended to.

I was prepared to be disappointed by Laurinda because so many of its early scenes document the sort of racist microaggressions that are designed to make white readers go “oh wow I never thought of that before!” and move on; the sort of thing that already feels like a cliché (though now that I’ve come around to the book, I want to defend these moments by pointing out that its young adult readers may not have reached the point of thinking these clichéd yet). I’m glad that the book turned out to be so much more, that its depictions of power and its workings are this incisive and this ruthless. And I’m still going to read it as a school story.


September 11, 2016

Of Interest (11 September, 2016)


The World:

Julian Brave NoiseCat and Anne Spice on #NoDAPL, and a history of indigenous resistance. Via Nandini Ramachandran.

Amit Kumar responds to Ashis Nandy’s recent comments on Kashmir.

On Kafila, a post by the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition for Civil Society

Gee Imaan Semmalar on the representation of trans people in the Indian media.

Shereen Abyan on black futures, technology, loss. (Via [I think] Kate Schapira.)

I have arguments with this piece on the trajectories of student protest movements and the burning of a library in Durban, but it also describes dynamics I recognise, so.

Everybody Loves A Good Riot, a multimedia project stemming from the Muzaffarnagar riots, by Aman Sethi, Adi Prakash, Kunal Mehra and Hitesh Singh.

Via Jennifer Marie Brissett, this piece on marronage and the Great Dismal Swamp.

Jackie Wang on the globalisation of George Jackson.

By Ita Mehrotra, this short graphic history of Irom Sharmila.


Books and film and music:

Anvar Alikhan interviews members of Freddie Mercury’s school band, The Hectics.

Via the Racist Sandwich podcast, Shahu Patole on his book about Dalit food.

Gerry Canavan on the Idea of Star Trek.

Suketu Mehta’s new book has had some scathing reviews over the last few days, but my favourite is this one at Brown Paper Bag.

Sofia Samatar’s WisCon Guest of Honour speech.

B. Prabakaran on Kabali, caste, and consciousness-raising.

September 10, 2016

Bulletpoints: Mohenjo Daro

Here are several thoughts on Mohenjo Daro, which was a cheesy, terrible mess which I loved.

I mean:

hats of mohenjo daro


  • The headgear. I will come back to this, but it’s a delight. Watching the trailer some months ago, I suggested that the prevalence of horns in the various headpieces on display were obviously the result of someone associated with the film having a vague memory (this is something I learnt in primary school) that animism of some sort was a big part of the Indus Valley civilisation. This was unfair; I’m sure researchers of some description were consulted. I’m not sure it matters though.

  • Tarsem Singh is in many ways a good reference point for my feelings about this film. It’s not as beautiful, or as visually sumptuous (now that the brilliant Eiko Ishioka is dead, are Singh’s films that beautiful? I haven’t seen the most recent), but at times it feels like it’s working in a similar register, and with a similar visual language. (It’s also less beautiful because the cgi is not exactly great–the flying crocodile in the trailer is hilarious. On the other hand, the mystical unicorn looks, as the friend with whom I watched it pointed out, like a goat drawn by Lisa Frank, which is surely enough to make the whole film worthwhile.) This is also one of the reasons I find attempts to read it from a viewpoint of historical accuracy rather po-faced–surely it’s missing the point to try and map this onto a solid historical narrative. It occupies a space between history, myth and fantasy, and its job is not to Accurately Represent The Past. The film’s title is a good example of this–with the opening credits we get a disclaimer about how obviously the real name of this city wasn’t Mohenjo Daro, but rather than make up a name that its residents might have called it, we’re going with the one that is familiar and that we all acknowledge is wrong. Likewise, the use of language: the movie opens with Sarman and his friends speaking a completely unfamiliar tongue (though they’re mostly yelling each other’s names while trying to fight a crocodile) before zooming in on one character’s mouth, and zooming out again to have him speak a form of Hindi–comprehensible to the audience, but with enough differences to prevent immersion, to remind us that we’re at an extra remove from reality. Or at least, that appears to me to be the intent–how successful it is is another matter entirely.
  • Having said all of which, the film’s gestures towards Real history, though obviously dubious af, are sometimes very satisfying. I genuinely enjoyed the sense of the city as a point of contact for multiple ancient cultures. The Sumerians (whose fault everything here is; also it’s capitalism’s fault), but also all the other names I half-recognised and have to look up. Various people have commented on the presence of horses in the film, but even there they’re presented as strange and foreign–the sort of exotic beast you might find if you travelled to a marketplace like this one, where strange things from strange lands that were previously unimaginable are suddenly here. In a recent conversation with Samira Nadkarni about another myth/fantasy film, I described a marketplace scene as something that might fit into Xena, Warrior Princess (this is not a bad thing, obviously) and I think that’s true here too, but we’re also presented with a vision of an interconnected ancient world, full of trade and travel and stories and material goods being exchanged across vast distances, rather than the rather isolationist view of the subcontinent that is about as far as a lot of school history goes. 
  • I’ve said that the film rests at the intersection of history, myth and fantasy. Particularly considering it’s directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, who also made Lagaan, it’s worth thinking about its mythic aspects, and what story it’s trying to tell. There’s a disclaimer at the beginning of the film that denies any sort of political agenda, and refuses to take a stance on the historical questions of the Aryan invasion theory or connections between the Indus Valley and what we know as Hinduism. Fair enough, that’s a lot to burden a film with (and can only end in riots). The problem is, that it then goes on to tell what is pretty straightforwardly a Hindu origin myth. The movie ends with Mohenjo Daro destroyed, and its survivors, led by our two heroes, wander the earth North India until they find and settle on the banks of the Ganga, guided in this decision by Sarman’s vision of the unicorn that originally led him to Mohenjo Daro. There’s even religious continuity, if one wants it–our other hero is Chaani, blessed by the river goddess and destined to save her people. We’ve moved from Tarsem Singh to Cecil B. DeMille. Nationalist and religious-nationalist myths may have their place (though they’re always suspicious), but when that place is a 21st century India, where Hindutva has state sanction, they’re particularly alarming. It’s worth, also, looking again at the trailer which insists that we’re in a time “Before the British Raj / Before the Mughals / Before Christ / Before Buddha”– with the puzzling exception of Buddhism, all of these are routinely positioned as corrupting outside influences, and their invocation here feels like a pretty blatant sort of nativism.
  • In a forthcoming review of A Flying Jatt (and what a joy to be able to type that phrase), Samira Nadkarni talks about a similar beleagured-natives-vs-invaders framing of national history in that film as well; and I suspect a wider survey would show these aren’t isolated instances.
  • As alarming as it is, this origin myth is at least coherent (is that good, though?). One of the several problems with Mohenjo Daro is the muddled-ness of most of its plot. Nothing that is confusing in and of itself happens, but the whole is so trope-y that individual plot elements end up standing in for larger story structures, and those larger structures simply cannot co-exist together. So we have Sarman, the village boy of mysterious parentage, who comes to the city, feels a strong emotional connection to it, learns that he’s the son of the deposed ruler, and confronts the tyrant. And we also have Chaani, the Chosen One blessed by a goddess, who is destined to change the future of the city and save its people. And we also have the proud city whose citizens angered nature and which was lost underwater. Essentially, then, we have two saviours and a city that can’t be saved. To no one’s surprise Chaani’s story is the one that gets shortchanged–the big moment that will change the future of the city is taken out of her hands. What makes it the more glaring is that Sarman also very clearly (see next bullet) doesn’t know what he’s doing, most of the time. There’s a possible version of this story in which Chaani, knowing the city and its problems better because that is her job, steps into her father’s role of kingmaker, and uses Sarman’s parentage to get things done. It’s not the version this film gave us.
  • There are moments in this film where Sarman’s bumbling, tongue-tied, dazed demeanour is clearly deliberate and meant to signify how out of his depth he is–most of these moments are when he’s interacting with Chaani (and Pooja Hegde is astonishingly pretty, I’d probably gawp awkwardly at her too). At other times, I’m genuinely unsure whether it’s Sarman’s bewilderment I’m looking at, or if Hrithik Roshan just has a really gormless resting face. It’s an important distinction, I feel, because if we’re really meant to view the hero of the film as  lost and incompetent (as opposed to just smitten by the pretty girl), that’s … quite a bold narrative choice, and rather makes you wonder if Mohenjo Daro is deliberately undercutting some of its tropes.
  • Because, as I’ve said, the film is multiple contradictory stories at once; it’s Return of the King and the Akallabeth and displaced people founding a new homeland. And I’m curious about the possibilities of juxtaposing those subgenres–what happens to the (for want of a better term) beats of the story? Twice in the film there are dramatic moments where characters (Maham and Jakhiro) are cut off mid-speech, and I find myself wondering if this narrative KLPD is something fundamental to the film; whether in refusing to let the comforting restoration-of-order story play out, cutting it off with Suddenly, the Flood!, that sense of interruption is enacted on a larger scale.
  • (I mean, I know it probably isn’t, but “this is a shit film” is so boring, and this film was so interesting)
  • The language thing has been much mocked, but I think if the film had been able to commit to that genuine sense of alterity throughout it might have worked. The not-quite-Hindi  does frequently remind you that it’s not-quite-Hindi with some added vowels (and the frequency with which everyone says “कदाचित,” for some reason), but it doesn’t feel like enough. I enjoyed the choice not to translate when, frequently, travellers to the city spoke different languages, though it hits a low point when Sarman has to gladiatorially fight two cannibals from (as far as we can tell?) Tajikistan, who for some reason wear animal skins, and whose conversation to each other the subtitles rendered as “tribal language”.
  • No, really. One of the moments of genuine weirdness about the film is this one, when we learn that two humans are just kept, and possibly starved, under the city, to be brought out when a dramatic fight scene is needed; suddenly we’re in this horrific Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas scenario and no one seems particularly bothered. Maham’s persecution of Sarman is clearly bad, but the fact that he has enslaved and unhumaned these two men, Bakar and Zokar, is just left there. Their attempts to fight Sarman (or die), their lack of (to the viewer) language mean that this casual unpersoning belongs to the film itself, not just Maham.
  • It’s a pity because in its own way, and rather too blatantly, this is trying to be an ethical film in the way something like Jupiter Ascending tries. Informed that he’s the new rightful ruler of the city, Sarman denies the role and suggests trying democracy. In the earlier gladiatorial scene, he refuses to kill the second of his two victims because he has won and can’t bring himself to commit a murder. The film commits itself to evacuating all of the residents of the city, other than Jakhiro, who refuses to leave, and Maham. (Maham is tied to a stake and left to drown. He manages to almost work himself free, just as the deluge comes.) At surface-level this is a film that wants to insist that the lives of people not its heroes are important. It’s a pity that it forgets this whenever those lives cease to be sufficiently Indian. 
  • Those final scenes. when the dam breaks and the city is flooded, are some of the best in the film. Jakhiro’s dancing about and welcoming death, Maham has just begun to think he might get out alive; everyone else is lined up on a hill watching and waiting. I know I said above that the final scenes and the Hindu origin myth they suggest made the film coherent, but they also rob this scene of much of its power. Imagine if mohenjo daro artichokeGowariker had ended it here–had ended this story of heroes and chosen ones on Sarman’s traumatised, shivering face as he watches the city drown.
  • And here, a final reminder of all that glorious headgear. Watching this with a friend was very rewarding–we couldn’t work out what Moonja’s hat reminded us of until she whispered “Jamiroquai!” Later, as Chaani had replaced her usual headdress for a gold one, she turned to me and asked, “is she wearing an artichoke?” Reader, I think she was. —>
September 4, 2016

Of Interest (4 September, 2016)


Shaun Tan’s new fairytale book is made up of sculptures that are rather wonderful.

This piece on queer precarity in the UK by Joni Pitt (Cohen) and Sophie Monk is exhausting, and occasionally hopeful.

Nayyeema Ismat on queer shuttling–if you read the New Inquiry’s Sunday Reading list (which you should, and all these links are over there anyway) you’ll have seen this in Kitabet’s recommendations last week, but consider this an added endorsement.

More on the Farooqui rape case (see last week’s links); Kalpana Kannabiran on the gradation of assault, carceral feminism, and the Badhwar-Agnes interview (that interview was also published in Outlook, who have probably benefited from all this clickbait).

Via Nandini Ramachandran, this essay by Amelia Schonbek on Madeline Gins.

Hilary Plum on Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs: “Ultimately, my complaint about this novel is one that its characters would recognize: I find its narrative of the phenomenon of the bomb insufficient.” Via Subashini Navaratnam.

Mark Summers on Percy Shelley’s lost (and recently found) political pamphlet.

IndiaResists on Friday’s huge labour strike.

Tim Phipps on Star Trek Beyond is weird, and brilliant, and weird.

I missed this when it was first published–Mikki Kendall on Beyoncé’s hot sauce.

Nicholas Dawes on his Indian and South African colonial legacies.

Annie Zaidi on a generation of Indian sportswomen.

Ezekiel Kweku on Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the American flag, and its history in black political protest art.

Via Marika Rose, this interview with Silvia Federici on capitalism, work, class, feminism.


Finally, a tiny self-plug; I wrote a review of a book by Kevin Costner (???) among others.

September 1, 2016

August Reading

Here is the complete list of (two) books I read in August:

Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child: I don’t like sweeping statements, but broadly, might one say that the reactions to this script are divided along the lines of those who read fanfiction and those who do not? I’ve been somewhat bewildered by some of the glowing reviews talking about the authors’ excitement at being in this world again, because to me it seemed like clunky fanfic written by someone who, had they read any fanfic, would have learnt to avoid several of the pitfalls into which this text falls. Some of the jokes are good though.

Roshni Chokshi, The Star-Touched Queen: YA fantasy/fairytale based on various scraps of Hindu myth, and featuring Yama quite prominently. I’m ambivalent on this one for various reasons–I think as a work of mythic fiction it manages to tap into a lot of things and be sweeping and interesting, and I’ve been mildly annoyed at reviews that I’ve read failing to engage with its intertexts–not just the Hindu ones (surely to be expected, with mainstream SFF fandom). But I’d like to see more thinking around how this works as a Hindu fantasy, how its fantasy world works as a Hindu country, what one is to do with any of that. Much about this setting makes me suspicious–a conveniently Hindu-myth-ised world which has none of India’s messy pluralism or caste or race politics is uncomfortably close to the history our current political rulers keep trying to sell us. And Chokshi’s writing and I do not get along–this is the sort of book where things are never red or black, but are vermilion or obsidian, and I’m far too prosaic to tolerate that sort of thing patiently. Having said which, the second part of the book, which has Maya bereft, wandering, and trying to remember who she is feels to me to draw on both sets of traditions brilliantly–the iconography of the ascetic, but we’re also in the middle of a version of the black bull of norroway.

I’ve also been rereading Simon Gikandi’s Maps of Englishness (the section on Enoch Powell feels even more current than I’d remembered it being) and Jacquetta Hawkes’s A Land, and spent a couple of days this week in Trinity College Dublin in the manuscripts and archives section, where I read as much of the Michael de Larrabeiti archive as a person can in that short a time, and am therefore rereading the Borrible trilogy (also more current than I’d remembered). I had to re-skim various bits of The Explorers Guild to write this review, and I may have spent some evenings rereading Nicholas Blake.

Meanwhile, N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate, Carmen Boullosa’s Before and Alex Wheatle’s two Crongton books have arrived on my Device, and I’m looking forward to all of them.

August 29, 2016

Of Interest (29 August, 2016)

I’ve been travelling this week, so have done very little reading that wasn’t a) my own conference paper or b) in an archive I’ve been rootling in for another essay. However.


Books, film, TV:

Full text of Perumal Murugan’s recent statement on censorship and attempts to ban his work.

Erin Horáková has this majestic thing on Blakes 7, and what it did and meant, on Strange Horizons.


The world:

Doreen St Félix on the role of racism in Haiti’s cholera crisis.

Shyamolie Singh on a recent interview between Flavia Agnes and Natasha Badhwar, about Mahmood Farooqui’s conviction for rape.

Ballard on Modernist architecture: “I know that most people, myself included, find it difficult to be clear-eyed at all times and rise to the demands of a pure and unadorned geometry.”

Rafia Zakaria on empires’ obsession with women’s clothing, and Musab Younis more specifically on France’s long preoccupation with unveiling women.