Archive for ‘culture’

April 16, 2012

From the reading while brown chronicles

Gail Carriger’s Timeless has, early on, a werewolf smelling someone unusual. “Something spicy and exotic and – he paused, trying to think – sandy”.

The character he smells speaks Arabic and is implied to be Egyptian. This is not a spoiler – the Sphinx and some pyramids are on the book’s cover.

There is a tradition of having exotic Eastern characters be associated with the smell of spices.

Sometimes Eastern writers do this to themselves.

Werewolves have an acute sense of smell so probably can smell the difference in someone used to a different cuisine.

Perhaps Egyptian werewolves think English people smell of tea. We don’t meet any Egyptian (or otherwise non-European) werewolves in the series, so it’s hard to be sure.

Sometimes I smell of cloves. That’s because of my anti-acne gel, so if you notice it it’s probably because my skin is having a bad week. It’s politest not to point it out.

I mentioned the werewolf thing on Twitter. I said “You know, I’d prefer it if the Egyptian character didn’t smell “sandy” and “spicy” to a werewolf…”. I rolled my eyes. I went on with the book.

I enjoyed Timeless. I have enjoyed all the Parasol Protectorate books. I especially like Professor Lyall. In my head he looks like Paul Bettany. No one agrees with me about this, though I have many long casting discussions about these books.

Some people who saw my twitter update said they were less interested in reading the series if this was the sort of thing they could expect. I said no, no it’s really good.

I thought – what a pity if such a small thing should turn someone off reading a book entirely.

English is the only language I am really comfortable reading. Most things I read growing up had moments that threw me out of the text.

Perhaps being able to dismiss a book for alienating you thus (because you always assume that you’ll find something else that doesn’t treat you as other) is easier if you belong to a group of people for whom books generally are more likely to be written.

Perhaps my willingness to overlook the spicy, sandy Egyptian and go on with the book is unhelpful and unlikely to lead to change.

Perhaps I can shrug off occasional, throwaway orientalism in a book because it’s easier on me.

I think the racism in, say, Rider Haggard is quite funny.

I have a strange, antagonistic relationship with the books I read growing up. I love them and I also like to tear them to bits. I think it’s made me a better reader. If it was a relationship it would be very dysfunctional.

I argue for greater diversity of characters and settings in genre fiction. I think genre fiction (and all fiction, but genre still feels like mine in some way) would be better for this.

I feel uncomfortable when well-meaning allies argue for greater diversity on behalf of the poor Brown/Queer/ThirdWorld child who grows up reading English language fiction and never sees herself reflected in any of this.

Do they see me as fundamentally broken as a reader because I grew up that way? I don’t ask.

I think there’s lots wrong with me as a reader (insufficiently critical; sometimes dismissive; too lazy; not smart enough; too lazy) but I don’t think I’m broken.

If I had sufficient critical rigour there would probably be a Homi Bhabha quote here.


April 11, 2012

A signal boost (with some added self-promotion)

Fabio Fernandes and The Future Fire have started a Peerbackers project to finance a collection of colonialism-themed SFF from outside the first world perspective.

Much widely distributed science fiction and fantasy is written by American and other Anglophone authors, and treats subjects close to the hearts of straight, white, English-speaking men. There’s nothing wrong with this sci-fi itself—we love lots of it—but there’s clearly something missing. Having white Anglo cis/hetero/males as (the only) role models is not an option any more. We aim to redress this balance, not only by publishing speculative stories by people with different viewpoints and addressing concerns from outside of the usual area (seeWorld SF), but also by explicitly including fiction that addresses the profound socio-political issues around colonisation and colonialism (see Race in SF). We want to see political stories: not partisan-political, but writing that recognizes the implications for real people and cultures of the events and actions that make up science fictional or fantastic histories, as well as our own history.

This looks like being an exciting project, and Fabio and Djibril are Good People. You can donate to the anthology here (where they also explain how much they hope to raise and how they plan to spend it). Hopefully some of you will also consider submitting work for consideration.


As for non-first-world sf that already exists, Zubaan’s Breaking the Bow, now has a cover which you can see here. This collection has been a long time coming – I’ve been suppressing my excitement about it for over a year now. It’s an anthology of speculative fiction based on the Ramayana and contains stories by Kuzhali Manickavel, Manjula Padmanabhan, Lavie Tidhar, Tabish Khair and Tori Truslow, among others, and is edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh (who also has a story in the anthology). There’s also a story by me; please do not read it though you may admire my name in the table of contents.

I’m still not sure when this is due out, except that it’s “soon”; but I get to share this because now that it has a cover it is a thing that exists.

Edit: I knew I’d forget something. The cover is by Pinaki De, who has been responsible for some of my favourite covers in Indian publishing over the last few years. 

January 6, 2012

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana

There’s lots of Ramayana-related literature coming out at the moment. The thing I’m most looking forward to is Zubaan’s Speculative Ramayana anthology (not least because I’m in it), but there are also Arshia Sattar’s book, the furore around the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay, various people angsting over Sita Sings the Blues, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole (I don’t have this yet, but it looks beautiful), and others. I spent a big portion of my New Year’s Eve arguing for the Ramayana’s complexity – my interest in it has begun to feel proprietorial – and this flowering of derivative works is a strong argument in its favour. The pick of them so far (for me, at least) remains Sattar’s, but I think I’d have to write a separate piece on that later. For now, last week’s Sunday Guardian review of Arni and Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana.


In Lost Loves, her collection of essays on the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar suggests that many retellings of the epic “are prompted by those aspects of the text that have made the tradition uncomfortable, for example, the times when Rama acts unrighteously and violates dharma.” This is a big part of the reason that there are so many feminist retellings of the epic – Sita’s fate is, by any yardstick, unjust. Following her husband into exile out of loyalty, she is kidnapped and held captive as part of a feud in which she has played no active part. Upon being rescued she is accused of being unchaste and even after proving herself pure (the idea that she should have been considered guilty if her kidnapper had raped her is itself vile) she is banished in order that her husband’s kingly status not be besmirched. Rama’s treatment of Sita may be the right thing to do for the kingdom, but at a personal level it is a horrendous betrayal.

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana opens at the moment when the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her current plight, she tells the story of the events leading up to this point.

Sita is offstage for many of what we might consider the main events of the Ramayana – Rama’s search for his wife, the building of alliances and formation of an army, the journey to Lanka and the war itself. One result of shifting the narrative voice to Sita, then, is that these events are telescoped through multiple perspectives – first Hanuman, then Trijatha (Vibhishana’s daughter) fill in for Sita the gaps in her story. This often creates an interesting ambiguity. For example, in telling the story of the death of Valin and the crowning of Sugriva, does Rama’s devotee Hanuman really focus on Tara’s anger and grief at the loss of her husband and at being bundled from one king to another, or is this Sita’s extrapolation (bearing as it does some resemblance to her own fate)?

The extra layer of commentary that these multiple voices adds also allows the text to describe certain acts as outright wrong – the killing of Indrajit for example – something that might have been didactic were it not in the context of a centuries-old tradition of glossing over these sections in mainstream accounts. Though Sita is quite capable of making these judgements on her own; of the Surpanaka incident she claims that “an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped him. Instead, he spurred him on”. Sita’s voice is a strongly feminist one, and throughout she empathises with the other victimised women in the story – Surpanaka, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. It’s a position that sometimes lacks nuance (the “war…is merciful to men” section quoted on the back cover is an example of this). But the polemic is a style in itself, and this one is, for the most part, handled with style.

Of course Sita cannot be the narrator of the whole of her story, since someone has to tell how it ends. When her story reaches the point of her abandonment in the forest (the point which forms the frame narrative for most of the book) it is taken up rather abruptly by a third person narrator. This narrator (possibly Valmiki himself?) tells of Sita’s refuge with Valmiki, the birth and education of Lava and Kusha, and finally the events that lead to Sita’s final encounter with her husband and her departure from the world. It’s hard to see how this particular narrative shift could have been avoided but it is a shame – this last section lacks the layered thoughtfulness of the earlier parts.

Moyna Chitrakar is the real star here. According to the afterword, Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written, and it’s obvious that the art is at the heart of the book. Chitrakar is unafraid to play with the panel layout, and often focuses on startling images. The entire book begins with an unusual dramatis personae. The sequence in which Sita arrives in Lanka and refuses to marry Ravana is told in three panels with no human (or divine, or rakshasa for that matter) figures – one depicting the waves of the sea, one the ornate architecture of the city, and one a tree in the palace gardens. Earlier, when Surpanaka gazes upon Lakshmana’s beauty, the artwork objectifies him with her, actually labelling those of his attributes that are most desireable.

In some ways, of our two great epics the Ramayana is even better suited to retellings than the Mahabharata. This is partly because the former has a more contained story to work with, partly because its protagonist is still held up as a moral ideal in ways the latter epic has been spared. Sita’s Ramayana is part of a strong tradition of feminist retellings, yet it manages to feel fresh and to stand up to them.



November 22, 2011

Hanan Al-Shaykh, One Thousand and One Nights

So pretty!As I understand it, Hanan Al-Shaykh’s new translation of the Alf layla wa layla (and alarmingly, I cannot say that title without hearing the old Doordarshan “Alif Laila” theme song in my head) has its roots in a stage adaptation, on which Al-Shaykh worked with Tim Supple. This book re-imagines nineteen of the stories. It also has one of the prettiest covers I’ve seen in a long time.


I don’t have a particularly deep childhood association with the Thousand and One Nights – like most people, I’m familiar with the framing device and with the more famous stories. As I’m sure anyone reading this knows, the base for the narrative is the story of King Shahrayar and his wife Shahrazad. Shahrayar has grown disillusioned with the fickleness of women after his first wife was unfaithful to him. He kills her, and vows from then on to marry a virgin each night and have her killed the next day. Eventually he marries his Vizier’s daughter, Shahrazad, who is a skilled storyteller and so entrances the king with her stories, left tantalisingly unfinished each night, that he keeps postponing her death so that he can learn what happens next. A thousand and one nights later he realises he doesn’t want to kill her anymore and they presumably live happily ever after. It is the stories that Shahrazad tells that make up the bulk of the Alf layla wa layla.


Like many people I have in the past made the mistake of thinking the framing device was the thing most worthy of interest here. Because though we all ought to be used to the idea by now, the concept of stories within stories is still fascinating. Al-Shaykh shows telling stories to be part of our natural language even before Shahrazad has started, when the Vizier, angered by his daughter’s stubbornness, explains to her an extended metaphor (not being an Arabic speaker myself I don’t know if the language when spoken is this rich in metaphor). Telling stories is a part of the culture of the people whose lives Shahrazad tells – groups of strangers, brought together by unusual circumstances, sit down and share their stories and the stories they have heard. The resulting Russian doll effect is spectacular. The book takes advantage of the constant shifts in the level of narrative by introducing tiny graphic elements around the page numbers; each picture signifies which story (or sub-story, or sub-sub-story) we are on. But Al-Shaykh doesn’t do what the framing narrative traditionally does, which is to wrap things up neatly. She leaves the stories open ended (after all, there are only nineteen stories here), and so we never get to the point when Shahrazad finishes speaking. Were this all, it would merely be an incomplete version of the traditional structure. One Thousand and One Nights does more. Haroun al-Rashid, the Caliph who is a character in Shahrazad’s stories begins to tell a story of his own – that of King Shahrayar, to whom Shahrazad is supposedly telling all of these tales. Later, a character refers to “an ancestor years ago in the faraway lands of India and Indochina at the time of King Shahrayar and the brave and brilliant Shahrazad”.This is no longer nesting-box storytelling; the layers of narrative have been completely interwoven.


Yet One Thousand and One Nights reminds you that the stories themselves are of as much worth as the ways in which they are told. It feels rather predictable to invoke Angela Carter every time traditional tales are rewritten intelligently – but these stories are funny, colloquial, sexy, feminist. Men and women flirt, play, have sex. Men have nicknames for their penises, women refer to their husbands’ “useless sperm like farting soap bubbles”, characters “nearly shat myself”. Al-Shaykh chooses a number of the lesser known stories (Sindbad, for example, only appears in a couple of pages towards the end) and focuses on the tales told in a houseful of sisters who live together without men, and on the specifically gendered debates among them and their guests.


In versions of the stories I’d read before, the Vizier offers his daughter to Shahrayar only when there are no other young women left to offer – she is clever and resourceful, but to save herself from a position she had no choice in. In Al-Shaykh’s version, Shahrazad chooses to be married to Shahrayar (involving her little sister in the plan – and the bedroom – as well) in order to save other women from death. Yet despite the playfulness and the strong female characters the power differences in this world are clear -women are bought and sold, or brutally murdered when they are perceived to have strayed. Even Haroun al-Rashid himself is depicted treating women unfairly or outright badly. And serving maids are “white”, and male servants who have sex with their mistresses are “black”.


What comes across more than anything, for me, is the sheer range of the stories. We know, of course, that there is no single original version of this group of stories; that the folktales themselves come from a number of sources across the Middle East, Africa and Asia. But when we are confronted with stories that move rapidly from Samarkand to India, with Jinni from Persia and silk imported from China, it’s hard to ignore the sheer vastness of this tradition. When, towards the end, a character exults that in the space of one night he has “visited Basra, China, India and Persia – all without a ship!” you know just what he means.

May 24, 2011

Suspicious Bulges II

I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that this post (along with a couple about the hotness of Marat Safin) is one of the most searched items on this blog. Still, for those who are here because of it, some further reading on the subject.

This is from Stephanie Laurens’ Captain Jack’s Woman. Laurens writes terrible fatally addictive (to me) Regency romances. I don’t know how much research she does – therefore I don’t know to what degree her statement of the problem below is accurate. But clearly she has also given thought to the issue.

He supposed he should give her some brandy, but he didn’t really want to get closer. The table was a protective barricade and he was loath to leave its shelter. At least he was wearing his “poor country squire” togs; the loosely fitting breeches gave him some protection. In his military togs, or, heaven forbid, his town rig, she’d know immediately just how much she was affecting him. It was bad enough that he knew. (pg 72)

January 20, 2011

Piracy and privilege and property and publishing and other things that begin with P

Apparently people are talking about this again. This isn’t so much a post as a way of directing people who are interested to fantasyecho’s collection of links (which I found via Shweta Narayan).

Also to quote this, from qian’s first post there, because it is so familiar*:

“Order it from Amazon!” It takes a million years for the book to arrive, you pay a swingeing amount**, it’s held up at the post office and you have to drive out and pay taxes to collect it, and all the while you’re aware that it cost you four times the amount it cost an American to buy it. The worst insult? In almost every case, the author is not even contemplating that somebody like you will be reading it. You quite simply do not exist in their world.

*It’s not quite as bad as this in India anymore, because we’ve had a few really good online bookstores (Flipkart!) start up in the last few years. Plus there always have been a few good bookshops that could surprise you, if you lived in one of the major cities.
** “But the book depository has free worldwide delivery!” Here is the list of countries they ship to. I appreciate them and the work they do, but I really think they need to remove that “worldwide” from all over their site.
January 15, 2011

Not knowing better and other thoughts about books and race and words

Some theses on books and race, not directly related to but inspired by some of the comment that these new edits of Huckleberry Finn have caused. Feel free to apply these (in modified forms obviously) to sexism, or most other forms of discrimination. I repeat, none of this is directly related to Twain’s book. I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn. (For actual Huck Finn commentary, see here,here and here).

Thesis 1: Racism was not invented in the Twentieth century.
Things which were not perceived as racist when they were written may still have been so at the time; they did not magically come to be that way after someone proposed this revolutionary idea that we should treat all people like human beings. It also means that things a lot of us consider completely innocent now will likely be looked upon with horror in a few decades. As long as we’re moving in the direction of being nicer to a greater number of living beings, this is a good thing and does not cause me too much concern.

Thesis 2: Most of the time, they did know better.
There’s a particular defence of racism in literature that I find insulting to pretty much everyone involved. That is that people living at a particular point in time simply didn’t know better than to be racist. This is patronising to start with – “s/he doesn’t know any better” is not the sort of remark you make about someone you’re treating as an intellectual or moral equal. But it’s also only varying degrees of true. At most points in history there have been plenty of people suggesting that certain forms of behaviour were not okay – it’s one of the ways we’ve gotten to (at least) this point. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t take effort, or that it isn’t far easier to believe what your society and the structures that make it up make it easiest to believe. But, particularly in the twentieth century, the means for knowing better have always been there, and people who chose to have had the opportunity to seek them out. To suggest that this is not the case does a tremendous disservice to all the people and movements in history that worked so hard at taking those first steps and making those thought processes available.

Thesis 3: Things that are critical of colonialism/slavery/other things associated with racism may still be racist in and of themselves.
Three words: Heart of Darkness. Strongly anti-colonialist. Frequently very beautiful (subjective, I know. But I think it is and so do many other people). Racist. I’m not a huge fan of people who dismiss it entirely for that last characteristic, but I prefer them to the sort of people who believe that because of its anti-colonial stance it simply cannot be racist and the rest of us are all just missing the point.
[Corollary: “The author once said this thing that was really progressive” is not a particularly strong defense of a work of literature.]

Thesis 4: Fraught words are fraught.
And thus we descend into lolcat speak. I’m against removing words from books. I think we need to keep them there and confront our pasts. And this is a viewpoint I’ve seen in a lot of commentary on the Huckleberry Finn debate. It’s well-meant, and to a point I agree with it. But I’d like to do this with the understanding that making those decisions for everyone is a tricky issue. No one has a right to mandate individual responses to words – certainly not in situations where the fraught histories of those words have generally been to the disadvantage of the individual whose response you are attempting to mandate. This has all gotten very convoluted.

Thesis 5: Replicating the racial politics of the forms you emulate is still racist.
Certain Tolkien Scholars, no one cares how many medieval texts you cite to prove that the portrayals of certain groups of people were *only* that way so they’d echo his literary tradition. Missing the point. Stop now.
I suspect this is an ongoing list. What else would you add?
April 8, 2010

Three pairs of hands and some waffling on genre. Also, Fabio.

There has been quite a bit of debate on various SFF blogs in recent months over the nature of book covers. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing because the people who have been following the discussion are all probably really sick of it by now, but briefly, some people are annoyed by the sameyness of a lot of SFF cover art at the moment, with all the hooded figures and swords and things. Which is a valid enough complaint. On the other hand, other people have pointed out, a major (perhaps the primary) function of the cover is to sell the book to as many people as possible. That means making sure that regular readers of the genre see the book and recognise it as the sort of thing they like. Those cliche elements on the cover act as useful signifiers. [I’m simplifying unfairly – if you haven’t read this stuff and want to, go here, here and here].

On the whole, I’m neutral. I’d like things to be more original; then again, the fiction I read doesn’t usually have this problem – I haven’t read as much epic/ sword and sorcery fantasy in the last few years as I used to. Plus, generic covers have been useful to me as a romance reader, so I can quite well see why they would perform that function for someone who reads fantasy in the same way. So yes, cover cliches as useful signifiers of genre make sense to me.

I was very amused a couple of years ago when the good people at Sepia Mutiny came up with this hilarious Anatomy of a Genre post where they pick apart the various elements of a generic Indian Novel In America (is there a less clunky term for this category of book?) cover*. The book in question is The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi. For a more detailed pointing out of what, specifically, makes that cover so…generic, you should probably read the SM post. Or just look at the picture of the cover below, along with a couple of other books that deal with a similar theme.

Except, wait. One of these things is not like the others.

Earlier today I read about Heather Tomlinson’s Toads and Diamonds on John Scalzi’s blog. Toads and Diamonds is a retelling of a Perrault fairy tale set in India. What it is not is a generic Indian Novel in America. But would you be able to tell by the cover?

Tomlinson’s book is set in India and the publishers are justified in using an “Indian” image (however cliched) on the cover. Just as, for example, the publishers of Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia could have argued for the inclusion of a romantic image on their cover (the title is apparently a play on the Russian for “I love you”). Yet if I’d gone into a bookshop and seen this I’m pretty sure I would have been surprised and confused (and delighted!) to find Roberts’ book between the covers.

(Yellow Blue Fabio)

It’s a silly example, but that is how weird it feels to see a book from one genre with a cover that so obviously suggests it to be part of another

I have no idea whether Ms Tomlinson’s publishers purposely designed the book to look like the sort of covers above, or if it’s all a very odd coincidence. Perhaps it’ll get mis-shelved, or someone walking past the SFF section in a bookshop will do a double take and buy it and so become a hopeless fantasy addict? I do not know.

*The existence of this sort of genre raises a few other interesting questions in the context of this cover debate – I’m footnoting them because I don’t really want to make them the subject of this post. In some of the discussions around covers people brought up the issue of publishers “whitewashing” covers (which the publishers involved presumably think will sell more books) vs using cliches to indicate genre. (which the publishers involved presumably think will sell more books). To my mind the difference is obvious, yet here is a genre where the cover conventions are entirely dependent upon presenting a very specific picture of India to a mostly Western audience. You could hardly call that entirely divorced from race. Hmm.

March 27, 2010

Practically Marzipan: In which I am revealed to be a fraud TamBrahm…

…rejecting a symbol of our culture almost as central, as relevant, as thayir sadam.
In my defence, I cannot help it. Also, I had a traumatic childhood.

[A version of this was published in today's New Indian Express]


One of the few real problems I have with my cultural heritage is my extended family’s love affair with jasmine. We love the stuff. Everyone wears it in their hair at every opportunity, and when a cousin is so insensitive as to cut her hair short the major protests that arise involve the difficulty of properly attaching mallipoo in the future. There are crushed, dead flowers on people’s pillows in the morning, and sometimes more fall out when hair is being brushed. I think I might like them if they weren’t so omnipresent. Even in Delhi, where most people walk around flowerless, three huge jasmine plants grow on the terrace and provide a constant, if not huge, supply to those who want them. Sometimes they are picked and then put in the fridge to keep fresh, and this is almost the worst of all because the smell permeates everything. It is, I suppose, possible to think of jasmine as a pleasant smell in most circumstances. When the items that smell of jasmine include your slice of left-over pizza and your bottled water, this is no longer the case.

As a result, my dislike of the smell of jasmine has grown intense. It’s a pity, because I do like looking at flowers in other people’s hair (while they’re fresh and alive, at least). And while I don’t mind picking up other people’s dead flowers, I find myself coughing and choking at anything that smells intensely of jasmine. A couple of years ago an unfortunate set of circumstances led to some jasmine perfume being spilled on a book I was reading. Unable to read the book for several days as I could barely breathe near it, I finally resorted to desperate measures and stuck the book in the microwave, hoping to toast the scent out. I can find no reasonable scientific explanation for the fact that it actually did alleviate the smell.

While one flower smell effectively cuts me off from a huge chunk of my heritage, two others provide strange links to it. Roses have a definite claim to being part of Our Culture, as evinced by the quantities of rose attar used by our ancestors. The smell is slightly spicy, deep and not particularly sweet. It is as complex as (and far more pleasant than) most perfumes. I’ve never encountered actual roses that smelled quite like that, and if I did I’d by them in an instance.

The other flower I refer to connects me to a chunk of my heritage that is rather more humble. It’s the smell of violets. I do not think I have ever seen a violet flower actually growing and alive, and all I really know of them is that they’re kind of purple and kind of shy. I have certainly never smelled one, as far as I know. But they can be sugared and put on cakes, too. I’m not sure how big their role is in the confectionery industry as a whole, and whether they are a common ingredient in many sweets. All I know is that when I was washing my hands with violet-scented soap a few years ago I breathed in and felt like I had come home – I was a five year old in a sweet shop again. I do not remember actually loving or even noticing this smell when I was a child, but now it means any number of things to me. Perhaps one day jasmine will do the same.


Oh look, I am only one of a generation of Degenerate Youth. Who knew?

March 14, 2010

Practically Marzipan: The corruption of the swayamvar

This week’s column was swayamvar-based, since Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega had just ended (sadly before I’d ever seen an entire episode). Being sadly unoriginal, I stole a lot from this post I wrote a couple of years ago.

[An edited version was published in yesterday's New Indian Express]


Of the many things I admire about our rich and ancient culture (its excellence at building things, its fondness for good stories, its invention of the gol gappa) my favourite may just be the swayamvar. Let’s face it, our ancestors, in common with most ancestors the world over, have had a pretty dismal showing where women’s rights are concerned. Yet the swayamvar allowed women at least a nominal choice in who they would marry; an important decision in a world where (judging by the epics) your husband might be banished to the forest at any moment and you would have to tolerate living with him in the close confines of a hut.

In these degenerate times the men have it far too easy. All a man has to do is get a good engineering degree, it seems; no one cares whether he is the best archer in the room anymore. Whether or not being the best archer in the room is likely to be a useful skill is, of course, debatable (if a forest exile is on the cards then it might well be), but at least it allowed for the power equation to be temporarily reversed. This is not the case with the modern arranged marriage, where the female’s less-than-wheatish complexion is as likely to work against her as the groom’s PhD in English literature is to him.

Which is why I have watched with guarded hope the resurgence of the swayamvar in recent times. In the summer of 2008 a number of news sources reported that a “young tribal girl” (most of them don’t seem to have bothered with her name) had chosen her groom through a swayamvar in which her father had asked the hopeful young men philosophical questions. Then there was last year’s TV show Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, which, though dreadful in almost every imaginable way, did at least show us a number of (presumably) eligible men competing for the attention of a woman who their families would almost certainly disapprove of. Like the traditional Swayamvar these shows tested men on skills completely unrelated to normal life: does one want a husband who can answer philosophical questions and dance, or one who can negotiate Delhi traffic?

Unfortunately, all good things are made impure by our sinful and unregenerate world. The Americans (who I am frequently informed are the source of unregenerate behaviour) took our idea of the swayamvar and perverted it, creating a situation in which multiple women competed for one man. Programmes like Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire and The Bachelor were so influential as to make Indian producers forget their culture and create the monstrosity Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega which ended last week. It is a national shame.

Should I, at some point in the future, hold a swayamvar myself, I’d like to test prospective grooms on skills that would be useful to me. I would shut a contender into a room filled with books and empty bookcases and see what shelving system he used. I would quiz him on the home delivery numbers of restaurants I like. I would ask him to buy me shoes and test his ability to chop onions. If one must have a husband, he might as well be useful.


Yesterday I gave my boyfriend a book-shelving problem to solve. He failed miserably at it, suggesting that I sort my books by size rather than genre or author. I am rethinking this whole swayamvar thing.

I think Wilbur Sargunaraj has the best idea.