Archive for ‘delhi’

March 16, 2016

No Time For Goodbyes/Split

 

Andaleeb Wajid, No Time For Goodbyes

A friend finds it deeply annoying when trilogies (or books otherwise in series) fail to indicate the fact somewhere on the cover (front or back). I’m less hardline than him on this subject, but that there’s no hint anywhere on or in Wajid’s book that this is the first of a trilogy seems an odd choice on the part of the publisher (Bloomsbury India). I genuinely wouldn’t have known had I not looked the book up online.

No Time For Goodbyes is a time travel romance. Tamanna, just out of school and about to begin college, finds an old polaroid in her attic and is sucked into the past; the early 1980s Bangalore of her mother’s schooldays. Appearing in her grandmother’s house with no way of explaining what has happened to her, she pretends to be the Australian pen pal of the boy next door—Manoj, whose scientist grandfather created the camera responsible for her predicament. Naturally Manoj and Tamanna fall in love; naturally Tamanna returns to her present just as things are getting interesting; naturally it appears the two are destined to be tragically torn apart.

One doesn’t particularly want scientific rigour from this genre, and critique from that angle is therefore a bit pointless. But I want to pick at threads—why would Tamanna’s mother name her daughter after the weird Australian who showed up at their house and was rude about their clothes (and refused to buy any of her own) and made her friend sad; why has she not noticed that her daughter looks identical to said weird Australian; has no one given the Christ College library a decent spring clean in three decades? (Okay, that last one is plausible.) And there are things I find jarring about its engagement with pop culture—the determined, awkward references to the Harry Potter books, to the friend who likes the Twilight films (Tamanna, of course, has nothing but scorn for them).

I mention this awkwardness in part because while Tamanna herself often thinks longingly of the comforts of the 2010s (better ice-cream flavours, better YA fiction, not having to wear Mirinda orange dresses, the internet), none of these are particularly deeply-felt arguments for the present, as they might be presented (um) by one who lives here. I’m speculating, obviously, but it rather feels as if someone sat down and tried to think of reasons a teenage girl might like to live now, but wasn’t convinced by their own arguments (and do teenagers in the 2010s see enough of Mirinda for it to exist in their consciousness as a colour the way Digene pink was for my unfortunate generation?). Underneath it all the book seems far more convinced by its nostalgia for the Bangalore of the past, where there were more trees, less crowded public transport and affordable cinema tickets (all good things, don’t get me wrong, though I have questions about the public transport thing). Perhaps people with a greater connection to the city might find this less trite than I did, but I imagine reading a similar take on my own city and I cringe. And if a girl from the future came along and told me she liked my world because it was “quaint”, I don’t think I’d be falling in love with her (Manoj is clearly a nicer person than I am). For a teenage romance, its notion of the present sounds suspiciously like it was written by someone who also writes letters to the editor (the editor of The Hindu).

I’m not really a reader of time travel romances so I hesitate to generalise about the appeal of the genre. But it seems to me that a big part of the point is the impossibility of a happy ending (until, of course, there’s a happy ending but then often there isn’t). And as much as I dislike this book’s treatment of time and change, it often does manage to invoke the bleak impossibility of this couple’s getting together. The choppiness of Tamanna’s movements between times is genuinely discombobulating, the lack of explanation given to the device makes the characters seem helpless in the face of an enormous, unknowable universe. There’s enough there to make me curious about the next two books in the trilogy (both published in 2014, though I haven’t yet obtained them).

 

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Split

This is a more recognisable (to me) version of teenage romance. Noor is part of the group of popular girls at school, and has an ideal-sounding home life with cool parents with cool politics and tastes. But her mother has fallen in love with someone else and moved to Paris, and Noor finds herself unable to tell her friends (incidentally, this is done in emotionally believable ways that made perfect sense). Forced to go to an after-school support group she finds herself lying to and drifting apart from her older friends and socialising with children and nerds. She also meets A Boy who is funny and nice and from Bombay, but has not been previously vetted and declared acceptable by her popular friends.

I say “recognisable” above for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the book is rooted in a very specific (in terms of class, gender, geography, family) South Delhi milieu, one which is relatively close to my own upbringing; though separated by 15 years and a bit more privilege. Which I’ll come back to, but the other reason it feels familiar is that it’s a lot closer to high school narratives that we’re mostly familiar with through literature/TV/film. So obviously football players can be regarded as acceptable boyfriends; boys with glasses are a bit iffy; the head of Noor’s little clique is more than a little Regina George-ish. (This isn’t Mean Girls; Madhavan takes much of what that film suggests about teenage friendships for granted, but shows a lot more empathy for her popular girl characters, and manages to write them as vulnerable children.) This isn’t really the space for musing about how high school romances as a genre inflect the lives of teenagers who are exposed to the genre, but I think both forms of recognisableness are interlinked and sustain one another in complex ways.

I don’t know if it’s a feature of the book (the author’s about my age) or a feature of me that I spent the whole thing thinking how young and vulnerable everyone was.

But. The book is, as I say, fixed in a very particular milieu, and it is very much Noor’s own. We’re seeing through her eyes, and it’s not always clear where the split between book and narrator lies. Which is fine to an extent–as we cringe at her bigoted grandmother, or learn with her to appreciate the younger, poorer girl with the looped, ribboned plaits,  and so on (some visible assumptions are being made here about the sort of reader the book expects). A corollary of sorts is that you sometimes wonder if Noor’s prejudices are in fact the book’s–the fat girl from West Delhi who has no taste but they keep her around for the money, and whose inferiority is left unquestioned? (Not the only example, but one that irritated me with how blatant it was.)

Split is good at the inside of a (certain sort of) protagonist’s head, then, but I have some reservations about how it has said characters interact with the world.

December 13, 2015

Of Interest (13 December, 2015)

Assorted, after a couple of weeks of silence:

Rebecca Solnit in the Guardian, on the links between oil and everything else that is wrong. Via Kate Schapira, as many of these links probably are.

Angelica Jade Bastién’s series on the feminine grotesque and madness is great–here’s the introductory post. Via Sofia Samatar.

Pankaj Mishra on responses to terrorism in the West.

Victoria Best’s interview with Gabriel Josipovici, here, is honestly one of the best I’ve ever read. There’s so much here–I’ve read through it a few times now and I’ll want to keep going back to it. Via Ethan Robinson, who loves it even more than I do.

Evan Calder Williams on crises and Chris Chitty and related important things.

Mihir Sharma on Delhi’s murderous air and class (“Only the Indian elite would rather not breathe than be ordinary”). The Ladies Finger’s collection of despatches on Delhi, air and class–I think this is a fantastic structure for a layered understanding of shifts in living in a city in crisis, except that by its very nature, venue and other factors this discussion of class is, so far, entirely among people who can, as Padmaparna Ghosh does in her section, speak of a “we” and an “our class”.

On a ‘new’ W.E.B. Du Bois story from over a century ago.

Rohin Guha on Alisha Chinai’s Madonna covers and reparations. I have mixed feelings about this piece–I also grew up in the nineties with a fraught relationship to both my cultures (which is to massively oversimplify) and I don’t recognise the traumatised, healing Indians that Guha sees– but that readers of the Toast have now possibly discovered the “Made in India” video is surely important in itself. (Someday I am going to write about that video and the existence of an early 90s Indian epic fantasy aesthetic, but that day is not today.)

Jane Hu on Eve and Hal Sedgwick’s relationship made me a bit teary.

Biographical criticism really doesn’t interest me, and nor does the sort of reading of a book that feels like it’s shutting it down rather than opening it up, and yet Sady Doyle has decided Frankenstein is about Mary Shelley’s sister and … it’s pretty convincing? I link to it knowing that Ethan (hi Ethan) will hate it.

Kuzhali Manickavel and Minal Hajratwala watch the first episode of Sense8. I have not yet watched (may never watch) this show, yet for months the spectacle of Indians watching what can only be described as The Ganesha Episode has afforded me quantities of entertainment.

Here is Erin Horakova being brilliant and incisive and funny on the subject of Over the Garden Wall and its critical reception.

Here is an interview with Nalo Hopkinson in which she talks about her most recent collection, how her writing has changed over time, teaching, and a bunch of other things.

Kate Schapira on snails in Cape Cod Bay and other things (like change and loss and family and love).

Ravish Kumar on The Intolerance Debate is searing and brilliant. (In Hindi, so those of you who don’t understand will just have to miss out on a very good thing.) Via several people, all about as thrilled with it as me.

Who is the Smart City for? asks Stephen Assink, and he cites (though he links to the wrong piece, alas) this piece about India’s smart city ambitions from a few months ago by Shruti Ravindran. (Link to Assink via Subashini Navaratnam.)

Supriya Nair is typically wonderful on M. S. Dhoni’s stardom.

This collaboration theorizing black and indigenous relationships to land is amazing–the piece I link to here (via Kate again) is by Eve Tuck, Allison Guess and Hannah Sultan, but you’ll want to read all the links as well.

February 10, 2015

Janice Pariat, Seahorse/ Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners/ Mhairi Mcfarlane, It’s Not Me, it’s You

In the last few months I’ve been in London a bit, in Delhi a bit, in Newcastle a lot. I have read some books set in those places. The real theme of this column (from a few weeks ago) is this: there are times when I miss Delhi so much.

 

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A recent read, Mhairi Mcfarlane’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, is a romance novel set partly in the city in which I now live. I’ve become very fond of Newcastle very quickly, and want to see it in fiction. And yet as I read the local sections of the book I rolled my eyes a lot; I found every reference to a specific place jarring, as if it were trying to draw too much attention to itself. Certainly when the action shifted to (the much more often written about) London, everything felt a lot smoother. I’m not sure whether this had anything to do with the book itself, or whether the shift to a less familiar (to me) setting was what changed; but I’m now struck by the idea of Londoners reading the thousands of books set in their city with the same feeling with which I read this one.

They must be used to it though, when it’s all so written-about. I’ve recently returned to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which West Indian immigrants to the UK carve out homes for themselves in a London that is so much a part of their culture that every street is fraught with meaning. “Jesus Christ, when he say ‘Charing Cross’, when he realise that is he, Sir Galahad, who going there, near that place that everybody in the world know about (it even have the name in the dictionary) he feel like a new man,” thinks one newly-arrived young man.

When Nem, the protagonist of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse, moves to London friends congratulate him on being able to live there while young. “it stays with you, for London is a moveable feast”. “That’s about Paris,” objects Nem, before discovering that “all these cities were identical, cloaked with the same shiny, glittering appeal; pronounced with reverence, like a hushed prayer. [Nem] found that London was filled with old light”.

I don’t know if Nem’s “old light” is the same thing that Selvon’s ‘Sir Galahad’ refers to when he visits landmarks so significant as to be part of the language itself, but I think it might be. Selvon’s narrator later describes the importance of being able “to have said ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.” Everything is saturated with significance. Here is a place whose name is in the dictionary; there is the place where T.S. Eliot once worked. Perhaps it does not seem jarring to speak of these landmarks, because they are already so spoken of. Perhaps residents of that city do not sit grumpily reading books set there and complaining that the setting feels forced, that the author is trying too hard. Perhaps old light even comes with the assurance that a place is worthy of being written about.

This column is about a city that I don’t know well, and another city that I’m beginning to know and love. But there’s a third city, always, that is home. Pariat’s Nem spends a significant part of the novel in Delhi; it’s there he falls in love, goes to university, finds his first few jobs. In “Golf Links, Panchsheel, Defence Colony, Neeti Bagh […] previously unfashionable Lado Sarai and industrial Okhla,” and a few pages later “in the newly trendy Hauz Khas Village, in front of Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort, […] Paranthe-wali gali.” Nem’s relationship with Delhi, like most people’s is not entirely positive; even those of us who love the city deeply have trouble doing so unreservedly.  But homesick and a continent away I can see how a mere list of landmarks can begin to be important; how they can cease to be a mere attempt at local colour and become talismanic.

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January 11, 2015

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan/ Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt

This was a bit uncomfortable to write, and I’m not even sure how objective I can be (one author’s a friend, both books were edited by friends), but there you go.

(Published column here)

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A couple of weeks ago saw the anniversary of December 2013’s Supreme Court decision overturning the Delhi High Court’s ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. It felt like an important occasion, particularly since I was at the time reading two recent YA novels, both of which structured themselves in part around that moment in our recent history.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan has been heralded as India’s first queer YA novel. The action opens on the day after the Supreme Court ruling, which is also the day after the title character has attempted to kill herself. The narrative then shifts to a few months earlier, and through the voices of three of Muskaan’s teenaged classmates (best friend Aaliya, clever-but-poor Shubhojoy, spoilt, rich Prateek) we piece together the events leading up to this moment.

Komal, the narrator of Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, is another teenager who is shocked to discover that her best friend Sahil is gay. Even as she is absorbing this new information, the news about Section 377 breaks, forcing her to confront the levels of intolerance that still exist around non-normative sexualities among her friends and family.

Komal’s initial reaction to Sahil’s coming out is far from ideal—and perhaps this is realistic. She feels uncomfortable with his sexuality, resentful of his lack of normalcy, betrayed because he is not who she thought he was. So shaken is she that she must go to the school counsellor for advice on how to process things. Dhar doesn’t entirely indulge her in her discomfort—the counsellor gently, and the internet less gently, remind her that Sahil is probably suffering more than she is.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Komal’s discomfort, and the process by which she overcomes it, are the story of Slightly Burnt. Sahil probably is going through a lot, but we don’t see it directly. Sankar’s book too is talking of, about, around but never by, or to, Muskaan.

Dhar and Sankar’s choice of (mostly) heterosexual narrators makes sense in a way, and the references to Article 377 form a part of this. We’re reminded over and over that all non-heteronormative sexualities (it’s to both books’ credit that they do not erase bisexual, transgender, or other queer identities) are the subject of ignorance and prejudice, and that people need to be educated about them or risk causing unimaginable harm to vulnerable people. Komal’s change of heart comes when she reads up on LGBT suicide rates; Aaliya’s comes after her best friend nearly dies. There’s a sense in which the reader too is being educated along with the characters.

Both books, for all that they adopt the idiom of contemporary YA, are very much in the tradition of the teenage “problem novels” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which brought their protagonists face to face with a social issue, and over the course of their pages educated, unpicked said issue, and generally promoted tolerance. In a country where the sex lives of consenting adults can be criminalized and queer youth must constantly be reminded that they are “unnatural”, education and tolerance can only be a good thing. And yet.

As an (admittedly very lucky) young adult, I didn’t think of my own feelings as a burning social problem. I looked for myself in poetry, in romance, in tensions simmering under the radar; not in novels that explained me and the harmlessness of my tastes to the world. Both of these books assume a heterosexual reader who needs to be educated past her prejudice and reflexive (both books seem to assume that this is inevitable) disgust, not a queer teenager trying to find herself in fiction.

“At some point it has to stop being about you,” says Usha, Komal’s counsellor. Perhaps as long as this law exists that point cannot be reached. For now, queer readers will have to resign ourselves to reading books about, not for us.

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June 14, 2013

Adi, Tantra

One of the things I’ve been waiting to see, with the current explosion of popular Indian literature, is popular genre fiction. What started out with Chetan Bhagat and the 100-rupee campus novel has grown into something bigger– Amish Tripathi’s Shiva trilogy was massively successful; Srishti (publishers of about two-thirds of the awful campus novels out there) have just published Arka Chakrabarti’s The Secrets of the Dark, featuring a Mysterious Hooded Figure on the cover, and there exists something called Thundergod: The Ascendance of Indra by Rajiv S. Menon. My attempt a couple of months ago to read The Immortals of Meluha went horribly wrong, and yet I’m glad that series exists. Because very few of the Indian authors I know are genre snobs; most of them will happily read across genres and are fans of some major SFF authors that I like, and many will include speculative elements in their work. Samit Basu’s written some genuinely good epic fantasy, Anil Menon has written good SF, Nilanjana Roy even ventures into genre’s beloved talking cat territory. But it’s taken this, a series of books by (from the bits I’ve read) a not-very-good writer to really get popular genre fiction started, and now that this is a thing, it’s possible that some better writers may emerge.

In the meantime, there’s Tantra, by a writer known only as “Adi”. Tantra is an urban fantasy, set in Delhi, and is about a “guardian”/ vampire slayer named Anu Aggarwal who has come to Delhi to track down the murderer of her American boyfriend Brian. As Anu stumbles on a bigger mystery involving the disappearance of slum children in Delhi, she has to deal with other problems–like the loving aunt she’s staying with who insists on trying to arranged-marry her off. Anu has told her parents she’s gay to avoid marriage-related pressure from them, but in Delhi, it seems, coming out would be at least as scandalous as admitting to being a professional killer of vampires. (Indian queer people, like vampires, must be fictional).

I didn’t have particularly high hopes for Tantra, but this is still a set-up that is full of comic potential. Unfortunately the writing makes some of the comedy rather less intentional than I suspect it was intended to be.

So on the first page we have Anu terribly dressed for the local climate and culture. “She’d worn her signature pleather pants, midriff-baring halter top, and cashmere-lined leather jacket for the occasion”. This is already awful, and it’s only slightly mitigated by the fact that the book clearly sees the humour in anyone walking around Delhi dressed like this. Her partner Amit ridicules her, and

“The toughest battle she’d fought was with an elderly couple convinced she was an upscale prostitute who needed saving. After an hour of explaining that leather was not the temptress guise of a lost soul and that she had in fact read the Ramayana, she’d nearly staked them”.

Because I am a lazy person, here are some of the quotes I ended up saving as I read this.

On Anu’s Guardian-angst: “She tried to remember what it had been like when she was more intimate with the smell of uttapams than the smell of blood.”

A character introducing himself: “the quintessential scotch-drinking Indian hypocrite male.”

A character explaining why Indian men don’t hit on women in clubs: “The Indian gentleman is always discreet to a fault.” (you can all stop laughing now)

Anu, lamenting the difficulty of conversations with the man you have a crush on: “It was hard to talk to Gaurav, who continually and wittily flirted with her on the phone.”

A battle: “The vampire preferred to use his hands rather than a weapon, and Anu’s knives kept finding stray limbs to cut.”

Anu’s don’t-call-me-guru guru, lending her his strength: “A gush of crimson threads from his hand invaded her body.”

Some sexy talk:

After Anu grabs the testicles of a man who attempted to chat her up:

(Drink every time Anu punches one of her male companions in the shoulder)

Anu herself is (of course) superlatively fair-skinned (enough that she was pale by American standards) and beautiful enough that every young male in the book, be he dead ex boyfriend, colleague, potential husband, potential husband’s brother, or chief vampire, has a crush. She’s also superpowered beyond the abilities of most Guardians. I think this is as much a problem of this genre as it is of this particular book, but it still caused me to roll my eyes.

For all its various badnesses, though, Tantra makes me realise how starved I am of genre fiction set in worlds I know. A few months ago I read a really good Zen Cho story in which a character is wearing white Bata shoes to school and I remember those shoes, and that they cost rs 80 when I was ten years old and somehow this really mattered. Tantra is set in my city; Anu’s aunt lives about ten minutes away from me and the plot mostly moves between south and central Delhi. And so I did genuinely laugh when Nina aunty was safe from the vampires invading her house because she’d shifted to a more vaastu-compliant bedroom, and I was very pleased when the violet line of the Delhi metro made a cameo (accompanied by an India-Shining-esque bit about how much better it is than New York’s subway). There’s a rather unbelievable bit where the characters manage to do a complete circle of Ring Road in 15 minutes in a Honda City, and a mention of there being “hundreds of white Maruti cars” which would make me wonder, were it not for the Metro reference, if the author had been in Delhi since the mid-90s at all.

There’s a genuine attempt to combine vampire lore with Hinduism and without falling into a Hinduism Is The One Truth trap– though conveniently, pretty much every character (except poor Karim, who is a noneity) is at least nominally Hindu.

There’s a scene in which a disgraced vampire is strung up in public with a sign attached to his belt that reads “Cock-a-doodle-doo, behnchotes”. I almost want this book to be made into a movie purely so that this can be its tagline.

In short, it’s terrible and I will probably still read the sequel.

May 23, 2013

Uday Prakash, The Walls of Delhi (trans. Jason Grunebaum)

I read a version of “The Walls of Delhi” in the Hirsh Sawhney-edited Delhi Noir a few years ago. I remember thinking at the time that it was the strongest story in the collection, though I get the feeling it may have been rather truncated.

The three stories that make up this collection are ‘about’ poverty and class; they’re angry, erudite, often sardonic, frequently quite chatty and self-reflexive. They’re brilliant. And the first in particular feels like it belongs to my city in ways that few Delhi books do.

 

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In his translator’s afterword to Uday Prakash’s The Walls of Delhi, Jason Grunebaum discusses the difficulty of deciding how much to translate, with which words and concepts the reader can be expected to be familiar. In order to make Prakash’s work accessible to the widest possible audience Grunebaum chooses to assume a relatively ignorant reader, equipped with little knowledge of Hindi or of the society in which the stories in this collection take place.

The Walls of Delhi is comprised of three of Prakash’s works, the titular short story and two novellas. I read Grunebaum’s afterword before I began on the rest of the work, which is why I was particularly struck when, a couple of pages in, the author referred to Fellini and Antonioni. Clearly the author himself wasn’t too worried about readers lacking cultural context.

I kept coming back to this as I read. The three stories that make up The Walls of Delhi all focus on individuals, and are all set among India’s poor. The protagonist of “The Walls of Delhi” is a sweeper who commutes to Saket every day to clean out a gym. The family at the centre of “Mangosil” live in an impoverished neighbourhood in Delhi, next to a fetid open drain that may be the primary mover of the plot. “Mohandas” tells of a man who, unable to get a job, struggles to support his family in the face of both bad luck and corruption. All three stories have struggling protagonists trying to get ahead and being constantly beaten back. And yet these stories of individual struggle take place against a wider backdrop that is stunning in its scope. Uday Prakash lays claim to the whole world; he constantly invokes political events across the globe. The Holocaust, India Shining, Abu Ghraib, the release of particular films and songs, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, the Gaza Strip, all of these are referred to, creating a sort of timeline of modern history that intertwines itself (as the world always does) in the lives of our heroes.

Often this timeline is used as a mechanism for outrage, fixing the story in history so that we cannot dismiss these tragic events (none of these are happy stories; all end in failure, disappointment or death) by relegating them to the past. The stories are upsetting and angering, yes, but they are even more so because they take place in a modern, civilised world. “This was the time of Mohandas, of you, of me, of Bisnath, of what we see this very day when we look outside our windows,” the text insists, “And the time everybody knows as the first decade of the twenty-first century”.

If Prakash’s text is wide-ranging and cosmopolitan, we’re never allowed to doubt that many of his characters are as well. A character named Azad (“his personality was perfect, apart from being a smackhead”) is well-informed on subjects like horses and perfumes. The narrator of “Mangosil” is a writer, and widely-read, as is the honest judge (named “Muktibodh” in honour of the great poet) in “Mohandas”. Despite the anger underlying these stories they are frequently clever and self-referential, often addressing the reader directly and inviting her to play along. “Don’t you think that amid all the pain and sorrow and bleak colours of this story little drops of joy have been interspersed?” Prakash offers his characters moments that are gloriously funny or sensual (I was particularly struck by a description of a woman bathing in a red sari)—which only make their eventual tragedies all the more poignant.

Jason Grunebaum’s translation manages to convey both Prakash’s rage and his playfulness. The tendency to translate everything, including the lyrics of film songs, is bound to make the Indian reader roll her eyes a little, and the results are sometimes redundant (“salty namkeen snacks”) or bizarre (“hey, blindy!”). Yet I find myself in sympathy with Grunebaum’s desire to reach the widest possible audience—Prakash deserves nothing less.

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February 25, 2013

Delhi Comic Con ’13

Delhi’s comic con was held earlier this month, and I ended up doing a story on it for The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine. This was rather weird for me, because The Hindu is the paper my grandparents (and most of the older members of my extended family) read, so it felt a little like I was explaining comics to my own thatha.

It’s a long-ish piece (reproduced below) about how while there’s a lot of fantastic work being done in Indian comics, I think we’ve reached a point where we need to think about developing communities and having discussions, rather than continually being introduced to the work.

Things that happened that I do not mention in the article:

  • I bought many things and bankrupted myself.
  • A well-known TV personality and book thief stole my copy of this.
  • My friend Deepa and I got mansplained at by a young man at the Campfire stall, who explained that Deepa’s opinions on the art in something she liked were irrelevant because he knew a lot about comics and was a professional critic.
  • I got blue icing from a Batman cupcake stuck in my hair because I haven’t yet learnt to eat like a grown-up.

 

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On an ordinary day Dilli Haat, a crafts bazaar in South Delhi, is a good place to buy handloom saris, pashmina shawls, perhaps stop by the food section for momos and fruit beer or (if it’s that time of the year) kahwa. Had you been there last weekend you might still have done all of these, but with some unexpected fellow-shoppers; the venue was playing host to the Delhi leg of India’s Comic Con, a celebration of Indian and international comics. A large area at the back was given over to a stage and a number of stalls displaying or selling comics and comic-related merchandise.

One thing that was immediately clear was the sheer diversity of the ways in which the comic form is being used in India’s nascent industry. Vimanika Comics and Holy Cow Entertainment’s Ravanayana series both draw on Hindu mythology, as do many of Campfire’s titles. Campfire also reinterprets a number of literary classics in graphic form. Some comics spoof or play with classic superhero tropes. One of these is Munkeeman, created by Abhishek Sharma and written by Anant Singh, which takes up a Delhi urban legend and runs with it. Singh also collaborated with illustrator Abhijeet Kini on the animal fable Chairman Meow and the Protectors of the Proletariat. Vidyun Sabhaney and Shohei Emura’s Mice Will Be Mice has the subject of a failed science experiment go on the rampage, with multiple references to Frankenstein and King Kong. Prominently displayed at the Popculture Publishing stall were the Timpa books, created by Jhangir Kerawala and featuring a young, Tintin-like hero who solves crimes in Calcutta. A stall put up by Chennai-based publishers Blaft displayed prominently Kumari Loves a Monster (with a special pre-Valentine’s day discount) in which short poems in English and Tamil describe the love between a series of beautiful women and monsters. But a large section of the hall was devoted to World Comics, whose aim is to use the medium to disseminate information, and whose display table featured a number of anthologies and posters. Sufi Comics used the comic form to educate people about Islam. Ari Jayaprakash and Anisha Sridhar’s Kuru Chronicles, a vast project that includes some stunning artwork, drew attention . In a panel on the art of writing comics, Campfire’s Jason Quinn declared that India would shortly be outstripping the West in the quality of the comics it produced. It was rather too obviously a crowd-pleasing statement, but the amount of talent on display at events like these is heartening. Sharad Devarajan, the Co-Founder and CEO of Graphic India and Liquid Comics, is convinced that India “has the potential to become one of the biggest creative exporters in the years ahead”.

Despite all this there were some conspicuous absences. Among the missing were Level 10, creators of the excellent Odayan series, and Libera Artisti whose comic Autopilot was one of my favourite finds last year. Also missing were the prodigiously talented team from Manta Ray.

A great deal of the art shown here wasn’t in the form of comics at all. A booth from B.I.T displayed sample prints of its students’ artwork, including a miniature pair of superheroes and a wonderful image of Krishna plaiting Radha’s hair. Elsewhere, a number of interesting t-shirts were on sale. On offer at the Chimp stall were a confused Batman at the crease and a veshti-clad “Supermaniam” (of which my father is now the proud owner). At the Popculture publishing stall one saw a growing stable of superheroes, desi versions of their Western counterparts. SuperKudi, WonderBai, WolverAnna and SuperMummy don’t seem to have starred in any in stories yet, but they can be found on a range of mugs, cushions and similar merchandise. One counter even offered superhero cupcakes. In many cases the products seemed aimed less at comics fans in particular than at people who simply followed popular culture; at least two stalls were selling t-shirts based on popular internet memes.

In earlier iterations of the Comic Con there appeared to be at least as much of an effort to market the event to children as to adults. Last year in particular the Chhota Bheem theme song seemed to provide an inescapable and often irritating soundtrack to the festival. There were still a number of children present this year –including a girl in a purple tutu and Spiderman t-shirt, and two small superheroes sharing a dosa outside the Tamil Nadu restaurant – yet things seemed far more geared to the adults who accompanied them. The t-shirts that were on offer in many places came in adult sizes only, and even the hugely popular Amar Chitra Katha stall seemed less crowded than in previous years. Last year’s event also included big promotional displays for forthcoming movies from Disney and Marvel. These were missing this time.

What all this seems to indicate is that the convention’s organisers and participants are beginning to feel more confident that there already exists an audience of adult comic book fans who are willing to come out and participate in events like these. Graphic India’s Ashwin Pande, who has attended the comic con for the last three years, notes that it has become “nerdier and more fan-friendly with each successive Con”.

That this is true is clear from the sheer number of people crowded in to the Random House and Hachette stalls (these two publishers distribute DC and Marvel comics respectively in India). It’s clear from the growing number of international publishers at the event – this year saw display booths from Top Cow, Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, First Second, and Vertical.

And it’s certainly clear from the cosplayers. The first Indian Comic Con, held in Delhi a few years ago, could boast only a very few people in costume, and those who were there were dressed as relatively mainstream characters. This year saw a conspicuous lack of Batman and Superman costumes; though there was, as always, a full complement of Batman villains. Instead, we had Lady Loki and Spider Jerusalem, Doctor Who and a number of manga and anime characters (the city has also played host to an Anime convention for quite a few years now).

But a convention implies much more of a sense of community than is easily felt at the event in its current form. At the moment there’s little space for fans and artists, or for fans and other fans to interact with one another.

In part this may be because of the venue. Dilli Haat is, after all, designed as a series of small stalls, whether they are selling papier-mâché boxes or superhero mugs.  In the last couple of years the convention has moved to other cities; Mumbai has had two comic cons, and Bengaluru’s Koramangala Stadium hosted a “Comic Con Express” in September 2012. It’s possible that in different venues the imbalance between comics and merchandise sorts itself out;  As Swati Moitra, a fan, pointed out, this year in Delhi “the merchandise seemed to outnumber the artists presenting their work”.  Fans might adjourn to the food court for friendly conversation, but the crowds there, at least on the weekend, were more conducive to blood feuds than to the creating of communities. The single stage might provide a focus for initiating discussion, but it was rarely used for this purpose. A panel on the Friday, during which writers Samit Basu, Anant Singh and Jason Quinn discussed the art of writing comics was one of a few exceptions. The majority of the stage events seemed purely informative, allowing writers, editors and artists to introduce their work on the assumption that they were speaking to an audience unfamiliar with their work. In most cases this was true, particularly for the upcoming Indian artists. At the moment the goal of the convention seems to be to showcase the work that is being done; it’s only when we get past this stage that we’ll be able to have exciting panel discussions about the role of women in Indian comics, or even see fans costumed as Munkeeman or SuperKudi.

And yet it was also clear how many of those gathered at Dilli Haat wanted to find and develop a community. People looking over the shoulders of strangers to comment approvingly on the books they were buying; people screaming and running up to cosplayers who were just as excited to have their costumes recognised. As crowded as many of the stalls were, artists and writers still seemed thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about their work with people who knew where they were coming from. Fans will find each other and forge a community for themselves even in the most harrowing of situations, but the con could give them a little more help than it is currently providing.

India’s Comic Con is something of a hybrid beast at the moment, suspended halfway between a fan convention and a family outing. And while there’s something rather nice about being able to wander off in the middle of a talk about superheroes and look at saris, I suspect at some point the organisers are going to have to pick a side and move on, possibly to a more conventional (no pun intended) venue. But the work that the comic con has already done for the fans and the industry is wonderful, and I have a pile of new things to read.

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February 11, 2013

Two Owls and a Goat.

I’m never looking for anything in particular at the Delhi Bookfair, which is why my purchases always feel (to me) so unexpectedly entertaining. Among those I picked up this year were three Indian children’s books the covers of which featured, respectively, an owl, an owl and a goat. I like owls and goats.

The first was The Magic Feather by Roma Singh, published by Tulika Books. The owl on the cover is slightly misleading — though it plays an important role in the book it has very little screentime and no speaking lines. A little girl is looking for her friends. She tucks a fallen owl feather into her hair, and from then on, whatever she places in her hair leads her to a wonderful land. Eventually she reaches the land of books, where she finds her friends and they all read things.

What makes this is the art, which is a mixture of papercraft and simple, drawn-on colours, which makes for a sense of overlapping textures leaping off the page. The little girl’s hair is made of long strips of curling print, and birds, clouds, leaves are varieties of patterned paper. Some of the paper still bears text,  so that on the owl’s wings or the belly of a frog it is possible to read part of an article about construction work. It is so very pretty.

Owl Ball by Francesca Xotta was published by the National Book Trust and was not half as attractive as (though a fraction of the price of) The Magic Feather. The NBT can be frustrating if you like children’s books– there’s so much potential for greatness wasted for lack of funds and perhaps lack of care. I’d work for them (part-time only) for free if it meant better-edited books.

So, Owl Ball. It’s about an owl who lives in a park where children regularly dump junk food. Our protagonist eats these unhealthy things and grows fat. This causes the other animals in the park to bully him and call him names, including “kumbhakarna” and “football”; it becomes clear that in calling him “Owl Ball” the book is doing something similar. Owl Ball is too weak to defend himself from the bullies until he meets a little girl. She tells him he must become physically strong in order to stand up for himself. A strict programme of exercise follows but this is not enough. She must “turn Owl Ball into a normal owl … his behaviour also needs reformation”.

Now that he is strong, does Owl Ball defend himself from the bullies? Well, no, because they are impressed by his newfound slim handsomeness and do not taunt him anymore. Instead they all become friends. What Owl Ball has learnt is that his new friends are really a bunch of bullies to whose ideas he was forced to conform “excess of everything is bad”. Owl Ball  is a story about how children can protect themselves from being bullied by getting rid of whatever traits about them the bullies fixate upon — and that these bullies make desirable friends. And that being fat is the worst thing in the world. It was published in 2009.

The last of the three books was The Bravest Goat in the World, a story (incredibly) by former president Dr. Zakir Husain, translated by Samina Mishra and with illustrations by Pooja Pottenkulam. It’s published by Young Zubaan, and I bought it mainly for the combination of the title and this illustration, reproduced on the cover:

(Note: the goat in question does not have seven legs. That is merely her coat, though various people on twitter suggested that they might be udders).

Chandni is a goat, owned by a lonely man named Abbu Khan who keeps goats for company. All his previous goats have escaped and run to the mountains, as mountain goats cannot abide being chained; Chandni yearns to do the same. Eventually she breaks free, lives the life of a real goat, falls in love, and (spoiler warning!) … is killed by a wolf.

Which is the point at which in many books we’d learn that Chandni shouldn’t have left her nice safe home. Instead, The Bravest Goat in the World actively validates her choice. We’re told that she had lived “like a mountain goat”, that in fact “it was Chandni who had won in the end”. What we have is a book that upholds an idea of personal integrity as more important than anything else– certainly more important than safety; as far as morals in children’s books go this is one we really don’t see enough of. Our former president. There’s rather too much text on each page to make for perfection, but between the unusual, gory morality of the story and Pooja Pottenkulam’s adorably silly illustrations, I was completely charmed.

January 7, 2013

Studies

In school in Delhi in the mid/late 1990s it was a commonly done thing, when boys asked girls out, for the girl to explain that she had no time for a relationship, that she was “busy with her studies”. I didn’t do this; for one thing, no one would have believed it (exhibit A: my maths, physics and chemistry marks). But then, I can’t imagine anyone believed that was the real reason anyway, even when someone smart and quiet and capable of good grades said it. If I thought about it at all (I didn’t, much) I assume I thought it was a way to let someone down kindly; it’s not you, it’s me. Now I wonder if letting people down kindly was the problem. To turn down one teenaged boy you had to make an excuse that left you unavailable to all teenage boys, you couldn’t reject a relationship with this boy without rejecting relationships, full stop.

Perhaps we should have stuck with that other classic form of Indian maidenly rejection- the adoption of the rakhi brother* that at least acknowledged the individuals in this relationship/non-relationship, rather than reducing us all to our component genitals. (We were, of course, working on the assumption that everyone was heterosexual and cisgender, even as some of us were learning that we weren’t).

This is possibly reading too much into teenaged girls’ perfectly kindly impulse to spare people pain. But I think of it when rape culture suggests that a woman who has consented to a relationship with one man is therefore available to all men. I think of it when Delhi police, in last year’s horrifying Tehelka piece, explain that a woman who was going to have sex with her boyfriend anyway is hardly justified in crying rape when a bunch of his friends join in. I think of it when we still haven’t gotten rid of the “two-finger” test, in which someone can shove a couple of fingers into you, decide that you are “habituated” to sex, and therefore cannot have been raped- because all men, and all sexual encounters, are the same thing really. I think of it when Anurag Kashyap thinks it reasonable and natural that “the lament of a boy who has been rejected by a girl and is expressing his feelings musically” should take the form of the generalised violent hatred of women displayed by Honey Singh’s “Choot”.

And I suppose I think of it to a far less serious extent when family members and friends of family members treat marriage as a goal in itself, independent of who the person one marries is (assuming of course, that he’s a he, and not of the wrong caste or social background. Or at least not muslim or black – or, my grandfather insists, american). This not wanting to get married is just a phase, insists a cousin (my age!) when I tell her I don’t have plans to do so in the near future, you’ll be lonely if you’re not married to someone. An unspecified someone, whose only attributes are broadly generalised negatives- not the wrong gender, not the wrong caste, not the wrong degrees from the wrong colleges, not cruel, not ugly, not fat, not shorter than you — and if you have found this man why are you complaining? My parents still sigh over the end of my last relationship with someone who was for many reasons exactly what good Indian parents are supposed to want; but those reasons weren’t why I loved him. The (tragically) recently shut down “Nice Guys of OK Cupid” mocked the stereotype of the Nice Guy™ who believes himself to be entitled to sex from the women he’s attracted to because he’s a nice guy; he’s not like those other guys who stupid women inexplicably choose over him. He’s been so kind for so long, when is he going to get the sex he’s owed? The only way any of this makes sense is if women as a whole are fundamentally flawed, and foolish enough not to want him. As if nothing about individual men mattered except that they not be violent or openly horrible.

I suppose what I’m trying to get at is that when the patriarchy (or the kyriarchy, generally) makes it hard for us to believe that women are human beings with individual subjectivities, it also in a wayturns men into an amorphous blob — to me, this is the natural conclusion of the “if him, why not me?” logic. And this isn’t a “What About The Mens?/The Patriarchy Hurts Men Too!” conclusion because while this logic may be demeaning to men, it’s proving to be life-threatening to women.

And I’m not sure what any of this means; I certainly don’t mean to suggest that this “why not me?” attitude to women doesn’t come from a place of the grossest entitlement, and I don’t think my family wanting me comfortably “settled” is necessarily propping up the patriarchy. I don’t know if gendered violence (or indeed racist violence, or classist violence or or or) is going to just magically vanish if we all take the radical step of treating individual people as if that is what they were, but then the sheer amount of structural change something as simple-sounding as this would require is terrifying.

I’m lucky in my immediate family, in that they’re far less invested in my adherence to the trappings of ordinary adult life than many I know. If I can scrape together funding I’ll be starting a PhD later this year, and at the back (and occasionally the forefront) of many of my conversations with them has been the terrible fact that this means I’ll be in my thirties before they can reasonably bring up the marriage thing again. Finally, a good decade-and-a-half later, I’m using the “busy with studies” excuse to opt out of heteropatriarchal relationships.

Except if there’s one thing the last three weeks in Delhi have reminded us (as if we needed a reminder beyond mere existence in this city or any other) it’s that opting out isn’t an option. And I think it’s amazing that my entire country is coming out and having this conversation, and that we can finally hope for things like police reform and better laws (and please, please make marital rape illegal) but beyond all of that there’s the thing where we need to initiate the personal and structural reforms that allow us to conceive of people first and I’m not sure how to even begin.

 

 

*Yesterday “spiritual leader” Asaram Bapu suggested that the victim of the recent gang rape in Delhi was to blame for not calling her attackers her brothers. Such is the power of the Rakhi, it seems.

January 3, 2011

DU and Hatterr

I was trying to write a short note on G.V Desani’s All About H. Hatterr (one of the best things I read last year) and then I began to digress and talk about my university syllabus and it all got very long and turned into a post of its own. So here it is:

I wanted to talk about a particular aspect of the Delhi University undergraduate English syllabus (of which I am mostly quite a fan). Most people (and I was one of them) have read very little Indian writing when they start the course, and the university has wisely included a compulsory Indian Literature module that introduces them to some of the better 20th century Indian literature. The only problem with this that I can see is that it is introduced in first year. The first year is when we’re also given Victorian literature to read, presumably because this the sort of writing with which we’re assumed (probably correctly) to be familiar. The Indian Writing course has some pretty impressive stuff on it, for all that: almost the first thing we read was Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”. There’s Jayanta Mohapatra, there’s Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal (which is marvellous even though I think we’d have appreciated it more if we’d read it a couple of years later when we were reading people like Dario Fo) and Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure (ditto but with Beckett) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadowlines which, combined with a really good professor, was the text that really taught me how much a text gives you to play with.

Still, faced with a class of undergraduates recently come from CBSE/ICSE schools, I can imagine the university would leave out a few things as possibly being too much. If it was necessary to break us in with the Victorians (for the next two years the compulsory courses all followed historical chronological order), it was equally necessary to keep the Indian literature we did accessible and recognisable. And since this is the only reason I can think of for All About H. Hatterr’s exclusion from the syllabus, I think it’s best to assume that this is why.

There’s an Angela Carter essay where she talks about the enormous importance of James Joyce both to the English language as a whole and to her personally:

Nevertheless, he carved out a once-and-future language, restoring both the
simplicity it had lost and imparting a complexity. The language of the heart and
the imagination and the daily round and the dream had been systematically
deformed by a couple of centuries of use as the rhetorical top-dressing of crude
power. Joyce Irished, he Europeanised, he decolonialised English: he tailored it
to fit this century, he drove a giant wedge between English Literature and
literature in the English language and, in doing so, he made me (forgive this
personal note) free. Free not to do as he did, but free to treat the Word not as
if it were holy but in the knowledge that it is always profane. He is in himself
the antithesis of the Great Tradition. You could also say, he detached fiction
from one particular ideological base, and his work has still not yet begun to
bear its true fruit. The centenarian still seems avant-garde.

And that is what Desani could, should be for us. We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.

Desani’s approach to language is so far away from the way English is taught and experienced in Indian schools that it isn’t even, as with Joyce and the Great Tradition, the antithesis to it. The two bear no relation to one another; they exist in different planes entirely. And so I’d like to see what would happen if Delhi University undergraduates were to be exposed to All About H. Hatterr. In third year, perhaps– by then there’d be a certain amount of context to help them to make sense of him. Yet if an unsuspecting class of first years were to come across H. Hatterr it might be exactly what they needed for the next few years of college.