Archive for ‘SAWWC’

March 20, 2013

Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, Tina’s Mouth

This was fun. From this weekend’s column:



“To be honest, Sartre, up until last week I did not have the slightest interest in the meaning of my existence”.

Tina Malhotra is the youngest member of her family, and attends a prestigious, and expensive, school in California. “Prestigious” here means the sort of school where it is normal to take a class on existentialism. Philosophy isn’t that interesting to Tina, though, until a particularly disastrous period in her school life when her best friend grows overly absorbed with a new boyfriend and leaves her behind. Tina has no one to have lunch with, an unrequited crush, and has never been kissed. Perhaps writing a diary addressed to Jean-Paul Sartre will help her to figure things out.

Describing itself as “an existential comic diary”, Tina’s Mouth, by Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, chronicles the events of one semester in Tina’s life. These include the end of her oldest friendship, her first kiss, and varying degrees of family drama. The “comic” part of the equation (though it’s also frequently a very funny book) is provided by Mari Araki’s illustrations.

Like most people reading this, I have never attended an American High School. I have (again, I suspect, like most people) watched far too many teen movies, and read far too many teenage books, and recognise all of the tropes. So it’s sometimes hard to tell how far Kashyap and Araki’s depiction of Yarborough Academy is authentic and how far it is specifically intended to invoke these tropes. There’s certainly an awareness of, and a willingness to play with the tropes of the high school story; the cool teacher who smokes pot, the charming, unattainable crush, the terrible secrets and betrayals heard in the girls’ bathrooms, and the division of the student body into ridiculous cliques. So we have “hippies”, “cheerleaders”, and “skaters” (are there really still skaters?), but there are also “pseudo-intellectual-future-art-school-hipsters”, and anti-racism clubs featuring white boys with dreadlocks. The back jacket of the book describes Tina as a “wry observer” of those around her, and this is sometimes true. But often Kashyap’s satire is light-handed, allowing the reader to see the absurdity of things and behaviours Tina takes for granted. This is certainly true of the many sections in which Tina’s Indianness comes into play; when the mother of a friend refers to her as “my little six-armed goddess”, or the boy she has a crush on expects her to teach him about Buddhism, it’s far more effective than the more explicit list of silly questions people ask about her heritage that she provides at the beginning of the book.

One of the things that makes Tina’s Mouth work is the matter-of-fact way in which Tina’s Indian origins are merged with other aspects of her life. The book never makes a particularly big deal about the fact that Tina once had a crush on Lord Krishna, or that her sister, whose last boyfriend was a German architect, must fight off Pinky Aunty’s matchmaking her with doctors. An old story about Krishna’s mother Yashodha seeing the universe in her son’s mouth comes up over and over. No book deserves credit merely for avoiding a lazy stereotype, but so many books make this cultural difference the site of angst that this approach comes as a relief.

It’s probably clear from all of this that despite Sartre’s presence Tina’s Mouth is not a book that engages deeply with philosophy; though there’s a throwaway conversation about Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a scrawled “Die Camus # ❤” on the last page. It manages not to be too precious with its references, which is really the most one could hope for.

Araki’s art is charming and detailed. In one scene, as an increasingly drunk aunt lectures Tina about feminism, philosophy, and the superiority of European (as opposed to American) men, Tina’s mother’s increasing disgust at the smoke from the aunt’s cigarette is never alluded to by the narrative, but becomes the focus of interest for this set of panels. These are real people, and the book never lets us forget that.


March 5, 2013

Anjali Purohit, Ragi-Ragini

I picked up Anjali Purohit’s book at the Yoda Press stall at this year’s Delhi book fair. It turned out to be nothing like what I expected, in a mostly very good way.

From this week’s column:


There’s a lot going on in Ragi-Ragini. Subtitled “Chronicles from Aji’s Kitchen” the book appears at first to be, and is at least in part, a collection of recipes that use ragi (or nachani, or kelvaragu, or finger millet) as their base interspersed with personal accounts of life with the grandmother from whom most of them were learnt. Recipes for laddoos or savoury porridge are scattered with little personal interjections; Aji would add salt here; this custard is named after Ragini herself because she likes it so much. In an introduction to the book Ragini explains her own connection with ragi recipes and some of her choices for the book itself (such as the use of verses by the poet Bahinabai Choudhari to begin each section of the book). It would be a completely ordinary introduction were it not for the fact that this is not the autobiographical work it projects itself as. Ragi-Ragini is a story by Anjali Purohit – “Ragini” is a fictional character.

In the gaps left between the recipes themselves we are also given the story of Ragini and the women who raised her. Ragini’s mother, we are told, was a disappointment to her wealthy, sophisticated in-laws, and crowned her iniquities by giving birth to a sickly girl-child and dying soon after.  Ragini was raised by her maternal grandmother and aunt, who kept the weak child alive with ragi-based recipes and shared stories of the mother she never knew.

Ragi-Ragini is very much a book about women’s spaces. Men occasionally enter the household upon which the book is centred as friends, but Ragini’s grandfather is barely present even before his death. In a short author’s note, Purohit dedicates the work to her grandmothers and mother. And the very format of the recipe book as memoir is another example of shared women’s space; not because women have any particular predilection for kitchens (Ragini describes herself as a reluctant cook at best) but because it has for centuries been such a social space. Bahinabai’s poems are in the “ovi” metre, traditionally sung by Maharashtrian women doing traditional women’s work ; Ragini claims to have learnt the songs as she poured grain for the two older women to grind into flour. A constant theme in Bahinabai’s poems is that of the maher, or maternal home. Marriage and career do not weaken the bonds these women have with their mother’s home; at the end of the book Ragini too has decided to return to her Aji’s village to work, along with two children who we can only assume are her own.

There are three parallel stories of women’s lives running through Ragi-Ragini. One of them is Ragini’s own, another, the story of her mother Shanta as told through her grandmother’s words. And the third, in a way, is Bahinabai Choudhari’s as she develops from the young bride of the first poem to the wife of a household that has fallen on hard times to a grief-stricken widowhood.

The book’s big flaw for me, though, is that it’s sometimes poorly executed. It’s hard to tell whether it’s Ragini or Purohit herself whose prose is so overly effusive in some sections — I’m inclined to blame the fictional character, since this style seems so completely at odds with the book’s clever structure. At times it reads uncomfortably as if Purohit is parodying a particular cliché of food writing, particularly when we’re asked to leave something roasting until “it starts giving out a fragrance so heavenly that you begin to hear violins”. Then there’s the unfortunate moment where the book jokingly casts Aji’s insistence on putting salt in laddoos in Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis terms and then, not content with having made a weak joke, repeats it twice.

Yet Ragi-Ragini is structurally ambitious, women-centric and interesting in ways that few books dare to be. It’s easy enough to forgive such a work some over-written recipes, particularly when said recipes promise laddoos.


February 21, 2013

South Asian Women Writers Challenge

Some of you will remember that I wasn’t very impressed with my reading stats from last year. I did read more women writers than men, but only a tenth of the things I read were by writers who weren’t white, and I have a worrying suspicion that the number of romance novels and school stories I reread made the gender balance look more impressive than it really was.

So I’d planned to fix that this year, and I like to think I’ve already made a good start. And then a couple of days ago my friend Aishwarya G (with whom I am proud to share a first name) suggested a writing challenge along the lines of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

So we spent some time trying to work out how many books people read per year on average, arguing over whether we wanted to focus on Indian writers or not, and finally came up with what seem like a comfortingly liberal set of guidelines. An introductory post is here; there’s a twitter account here, there’ll probably  be a facebook page soon (Aishwarya has done most of the work so far). Join in, read things.


For my own challenges: I will not be counting books I am asked to review professionally as part of the challenge, but I will count books I choose to review for my column. I don’t want to commit to a number (though I hope it will be more than 10 at least) but I will review at least half of the books by South Asian women that I read.