Friday, August 15, 2014

Gulab hooks reviewers

"Annie Zaidi's Gulab is a near-perfect ghost story and one of the things it does so well is achieving this balance. It is perfectly paced and uses its ghost shrewdly and sparingly."
- The Sunday Guardian 

"Zaidi makes brilliant use of the sense of disorientation that comes from an unacknowledged sense of loss, coupled with an unfamiliar location, a strange language and self-assured strangers. Bit by bit, she tugs away at all that Nikunj knows—his memories of Saira, his belief that he’d gotten over her, his ideas of life, love, fidelity and death—till he stands naked, confronting only the reality of himself and his perceptions."
- Mint

"There is a whirlwind of conversations, heated exchanges, physical fights and helpless sobs as the tempo builds and the mystery deepens. It’s nothing sort of a roller coaster ride, smooth one minute, scary the other and in between pregnant with foreboding."

"Gulab ends on a different note than its beginning. It begins with a darkly comic, almost absurd response to the idea of courting the supernatural with its everyman ordinary hero. And it ends with a chilling and seductive struggle as Nikunj is drawn to the magnetism of a dead woman’s charms."
- The Asian Age


"There’s more fun watching a ghost movie than reading a scary book. But Annie Zaidi’s novel, Gulab, ticks all the right boxes for an entertaining read. To start with, the book is all of 184 pages, it is a love story, it has a ghost, it has intrigue and a twist in the tale."

"From the very beginning we know what to expect from the story, yet the simplicity with which the author has woven monologues and dialogues, built up suspense and created situations keeps you hooked.
What binds the narrative together is the 24-hour time-span within which the story takes many unexpected turns." 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

That other space

 
Gulab tests the limits that our mind sets upon a ghost’s powers. If you see her as a woman clinging to life, there is not much to fear. Yet: what if she wants to return to your life? 
And what makes you think you can make her leave?

Annie Zaidi brings her characteristically clear-eyed exploration of love to this beguiling, 
hair-raising ghost story.

Order it online. Or walk into the neighbourhood bookstore and ask. The book ought to be in stores over the next few days. 

Sunday, June 29, 2014

An Impractical Education

This is the latest graphic story I wrote for the Mint.



I have been thinking for a while now about the inadequacy of our secondary and senior secondary school syllabi. As far as I can see, the syllabus informs teenagers about fairly complex natural, physical and chemical phenomena, formulae for equations and trignometric calculations that most of them will never use in their daily lives. But it leaves them totally unprepared for life.

The average school student is illiterate when it comes to survival skills, especially in urban areas where they do not have any opportunity to learn through direct observation.

The choice of studying Science, Arts, or Commerce is a significant life decision if we assume that this choice is to have a real bearing on how we live our lives, or how we can make a living. I took up Science and later, in undergraduate college, 'Arts' (which is really the Humanities and Social Sciences). But the curriculum told me nothing about how to live. All I had was an assortment of facts and formulations, decrees and interpretations. If I had not been lucky enough to have the money for a specialized degree afterwards, I would have floundered. If my family did not support me further, I would have sunk into poverty. At fifteen, I was being prepared for what could eventually be a career in, say, medicine or astronomy or biochemical engineering. But I was totally unprepared for supporting myself in case I did not have the resources or temperament to study towards the aforementioned careers.

A formal school education tells us very little about how to make a living from the land or how to actually - practically - tap into nature's resources. We grow up knowing nothing about sustaining life (or love, which is incredibly sad and goes a long way towards dehumanizing and de-sensitizing the populace). Why is this so?

I am starting to believe that a highly stratified (in India, this means stratified along class and caste lines) society has something to do with it. We take human labour and basic survival skills for granted because we expect someone else to do it for the higher ups, i.e. people who access to formal schooling.

This someone else would be a low-paid mazdoor, some unfortunate born with limited access to white collar schooling. Even if this someone wrangles some schooling out of the system, a secondary school certificate is not likely to lead to a white collar job. The only other way out of poverty would be entrepreneurship, which would mean a small investment of money or material assets. The poorest in India have been rendered landless either by the caste system or modern institutional 'development' leading to displacement. Worse, they often work under conditions that lead to health breakdowns with no compensating insurance or benefits.

The pool of labour might have shrunk, but it exists. And so, the rest of us survive without having any real survival skills. Growing hundreds of food crops, harvesting, cooking, cleaning, growing cotton, rearing silkworms, beekeepers, weaving, sewing, shoe-making, assembling machines, cutting wood, building houses, mining sand and stone, cutting and shaping metal, identifying medicinal herbs. We cannot do any of this.

Skills that define human civilization, skills without which we would not last a day, are denied to us. And we allow it because we see so little value attached to these skills in the current economic system.

I often wonder, what would it be like if we actually began to attach value to our own survival? Would we not be a different sort of India?



Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Still smouldering

The best thing about being able to look at a banned book in hindsight is that it also offers a kind of foresight.

The short stories – and a one-act play – that made up Angaaray are mundane stories in the literal sense. The book focussed on the everyday brutality suffered by millions of Indian Muslims in the early twentieth century. Economic despair, domestic enslavement, sexual oppression, hypocrisy practised under the guise of religion, the physical damage suffered by women who are not allowed to make childbirth choices – it is at the intersection of these truths that the four Angaaray writers placed this book.

What we have now is an English translation of the original Urdu manuscript that was published in 1932. There are five stories by Sajjad Zaheer, two by Ahmed Ali, a story and a play by Dr Rashid Jahan, and a story by Mahmud-uz-Zafar.  The saddest thing about reading the book today is that it remains relevant.

Read the rest of this review in TimeOut 

Monday, June 09, 2014

A bookish adventure

I stack books in double rows on each shelf so that an invisible row sits behind the visible row. Some shelves are three thick. I’ve also begun to stack books in horizontal piles on top of a row. Last year, I donated a boxful to a children’s library. But a donation cull is one thing; sentencing a book to death by drowning is another thing. To leave a book vulnerable is to say that the ideas it holds are insignificant. Which leads to a difficult question: what books are more significant than others?
There is no better time to evaluate a book than a physical crisis. A couple of years ago, the house was flooded again. As the water rose around my ankles, I decided to put on a pair of gum boots and get down to the dirty work of classifying books in descending order of ‘significance’. On the lowest shelf went the most ‘dispensable’ ones. I’m not naming names but...
Read the rest of the essay on trying to rescue books in a household flooding situation and thus assessing its importance, published in the new edition of Kindle mag. 

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

More about love

I was invited to read and talk about love at the Godrej India Culture Lab book club event in February 2013.

I had upheld love as the only truly significant thing that happens in our lives, apart from the necessity of making money in order to stay alive. But for what should one stay alive if not to love, and enable love? I do believe that all human life and endeavour is about finding and keeping love. In most human societies, marriage is the cornerstone of our culture, but perhaps that is only so because we use marriage as a way of holding on to love, trying to prevent ourselves from frittering away our loves too easily.

You can listen to some extracts from in Love Stories # 1 to 14 in this video.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

An excavation of our pre-partitioned self

Peoples’ political and cultural choices are directly impacted by history, or whatever little scrap of history is allowed into our narratives about who we are, and it is a shame that most of us in India and Pakistan are either ignorant of the forces that led us to where we are, or have been actively misinformed. A God in Every Stone sets out to peel back some layers, revealing a part of our selves that lay buried under the dust of the 20th century.
I reviewed Kamila Shamsie's new novel for Timeout recently. Read it here.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Because so much rupaiyya makes us blind

As citizens and voters, we are often stumped by the glaring lack of options. There doesn't seem to be anyone 'good' around. All candidates appear to be either directly corrupt - having been implicated in scams, or their family members named as beneficiaries of their time in office - or else, their politics is inherently corrupt. Their policies benefit a certain small group of people, heaping privilege upon privilege instead of levelling the playing field, and doing little to extend public infrastructure, that is truly public in the sense of being accessible to all. 

Why do they do this? 

As always, the answer is - follow the money. Political campaigns are very big business, and therefore, likely to be pro-big business. The more expensive a campaign is, the more compromised the candidate is, no matter how good his/her intentions. India does not even have a precedent of candidates and political parties revealing the source of 'donors' to election funds. AAP has made a fresh start in this direction. I wish all parties would follow suit. Transparency must begin with political parties.


For voters, the mounting of a 'big' (expensive) campaign is especially problematic because it obscures the candidature of smaller parties or independent men and women. The Election Commission is supposed to monitor how much money is being spent, but there has to be a way for the media to play a more proactive role during elections. It is not enough to discuss the 'chances' of various high-profile candidates. That is not what the fourth pillar of democracy is expected to do. If the media is supposed to 'communicate' information to the voting public, is incumbent upon the media to discuss all candidates - their work, their track record, their manifestos, their background, their allegiances, their politico-cultural agenda - and give each one a fair chance. 

On the subject, a comic I wrote recently for Mint

I attempted to show why the few 'clean' candidates who want to serve as politicians are so invisible. We seem to only hear and see of people after they have spent a lot of money, and this is enabled largely through media. Click on the picture to see a larger image.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Sharing, caring etc

Further musings on toilets and our shared existence as citizens, families, lovers etc. I do firmly believe that the day we all start leaving a public toilet cleaner than we found it, we will have understood the true meaning of patriotism.

I'd also like to say that there is nothing so unromantic as an unclean toilet, and that a nice, airy, really sparkling clean bathroom-toilet is a strong incentive to commit to someone.

The following comic appeared in Mint.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

because lioness hearts are not the same as lion hearts

"cubs are slow, fathers fast and lion mothers know that truth
is the thing that prevails... "

I have a new-ish poem in Kindle magazine. This one was inspired by a National Geographic program about the lives of lionesses and lions in the savannah grasslands in Africa. Read the full poem here.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Short Story - Inverter

For a minute, nothing. Then a pool of light gathered at the window across, smearing itself untidily against the grimy glass.

I didn’t know what to do after that. I looked at the moon, at the street below, and sucked in the warmth spreading in my blood.

The next night was the same. She let her pool of light shimmy across the lane one more time, and went down the stairs. I too pointed my torch at her, turned off the light, then turned it on again.

We did this every day now...."  

From a new short story 'Inverter', published in Verve magazine. Read it here.


Sunday, February 02, 2014

A snatch of music

This is the latest script I did for The Small Picture in Mint. It comes from me missing music in public spaces, and then, chancing upon a few snatches at suburban railway stations last year. 



Wednesday, January 15, 2014

# wishlist 2014

I had, on an impulse, begun to tweet a wish-list in the new year. Most of these were civic or political wishes. Am compiling them here in one place and will keep adding to them as I keep wishing and wanting.
- Can somebody not pass a law against people stealing others' hisse ki dhoop? Isn't sunshine basic human right like food, water, oxygen

- Pass a law to prevent housing society discriminating against tenants and home buyers on the basis of religion/ race/ caste/ sex/ marital status.

- Do away with 'obscenity' as a legal concept for arts and public spaces. Define sex/ nudity limits for the public in clear terms. Everyone should be subject to same rules, regardless of religion/gender. If Naga Sadhus can be nude at a public mela, so can performers in a park.

- Introduce farming, childcare, sewing as optional subjects at the Senior Secondary school level instead of Chemistry, Physics, or Geography. Home Science must be a compulsory exam (theory + practicals) for both boys and girls at the higher secondary level. Cooking, cleaning etc should be treated as new subjects and be available as new combinations. (For instance, Biology + Farming + Childcare is an excellent combination and it should be allowed at an entrance levels for pre-medical exams. Any additional knowledge of other subjects, say Chemistry, can be acquired after the entrance is cleared, through a secondary exam for students who opted out in school.)

- Insist that all public offices be open to citizen engagement via email, along with a guarantee that they will get a response within 3-5 days. Officials in all departments MUST resolve email complaints in 7-15 days. Failing which, citizens should be able to approach a higher official to escalate the issue, also via email or phone.

- Citizens must have the right to approach a lower court directly in case public officials fail to respond to email complaints within 15 days.

- Insist on TOTAL transparency, especially for wages and labour. Firms, even private ones that employ less than 20 people must also be open for public scrutiny.

- I want cars to be taxed MUCH higher. The state should also incentivize experiments in transport: 4-wheel cycle carts? Solar cars? Also incentivize WALKING.

- Free up transport choices. I want cycle rickshaws in Mumbai and other cities. Cyclists need to be given priority because they are the most efficient commuters in every way possible.

- Set up a website and an office to help less educated/ illiterate workers get registered for work, and potential employers can access them through phone calls.

- If people are going to jail for non-violent crimes only because they cannot pay the fines, allow them to opt for community service instead.

- For sexual crime offenders, along with jail terms, they must take a course of education on gender, consent, sexual rights. They must read certain books, watch certain films etc.

- Make gender studies compulsory in secondary schools, as a sub-set of social sciences. Make it optional in colleges, in lieu of compulsory English/Hindi.

- Let sewage treatment happen at local levels (within residential colonies and each territory demarcated along political zones). Make corporator/ MLA directly responsible, and encourage citizens to take care of their own sh*t.

- Instead of 'free' water and electricity, let people harvest their own water in cities and use solar energy. The capital cities must lead by example. They must also own up to the fact that there's nothing free in life. Citizens in villages pay with their lives for 'free' water and electricity (@ArvindKejriwal listen up!). If we must have free water (in taps, inside homes) and 24-hour electricity, let the villages have it first, before the cities do.
- Enforce commercial land grant rules based on intent of use. If a factory/ mill shuts down, the land reverts to the city or the public commons. It can only be put to commercial use, if someone wants to set up another labour-intensive project.

- If private schools, hospitals are not admitting the poor, then let them buy land at commercial rates. If subsidized land rates are being offered in cities, then the schools and hospitals must be open to the public. Preferably just build a whole lot of public hospitals.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Plural losses

This piece was written for The Small Picture on December 6, and for my grandfather, who left so much unfinished, so much unsaid:




Saturday, January 11, 2014

On writing, getting published etc

I often get approached by aspiring authors who want to know how to get published, and what my own experience has been like. So I thought I would just collect my various thoughts and responses in a single post. Treat all advice, however, as general advice. Each writer has a different journey and therefore different points of view.

- Finish the manuscript.
- Edit it to the best of your ability. Format it properly and check grammar and spelling.
- Send a query letter directly to a publisher. You will know of most publishers if you are a reader (and if you are not a reader of books, I don't know what you are doing trying to become an author).
- Most publishers have websites. You just have to run a google search. Many Indian publishers these days do encourage you to query directly, so send an email. Try and make sure your email has complete sentences and full words instead of sms-ese.
- Find an agent if you are confident that you will get a good advance. India has very few literary agents but Siyahi and Writers' Side are two example. For foreign agents, you will have to again send query letters. Am afraid I don't know anything about finding foreign agencies.
- There is some good advice here, written by those who are clearly more experienced than me : http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/getting-published

MORE

I recently talked to Cosmopolitan (India) magazine about how I got published. Here's the Q and A, which might be useful to some of you:

1) What made you take to writing? What were some of your motivations, aspirations, goals etc? Anxieties, concerns too?

A - I do not recall ever making a conscious decision to 'take to writing'. I wrote a bit in high school, but mainly essays or my speeches for debating contests. As an undergraduate, I used to participate in all extra-curricular activity - song, dance, drama, fashion show. The college had an extempore (on-the-spot) poetry contest and I participated, and to my surprise, won. I began to take writing a little more seriously then, mainly because of the encouragement I received by my English Literature teachers. Soon I began to co-edit the students' magazine. By the time I finished college, I knew I could write decently, and didn't know if I could do anything else. I had no clear ambition or, indeed, motivation. But I did write quite a lot of letters, diaries, poems. Mainly to express myself, I think. Nor did I have many anxieties in the early years. I had the arrogance and confidence that very young people often do. I think I needed it knocked out of me, and that happened very quickly when I moved to big cities and my reading widening to include contemporary Indian writers who was clearly leagues ahead in terms of both creative expression and basic knowledge of the world, society, culture and so on.

2) Did you start by getting feedback from your inner circle? How did the aspect of support and encouragement from family/ friends play out?

A - I rarely sought feedback in college, though I did show my poems to close friends. It was only a couple of years after college that I began to think about what I could do to get better. I began to read a lot more contemporary work from India as well as translations from everywhere else, that it began to sink in that perhaps I was not ready yet. I began to seek peer review groups and found a couple of places online. 

Friends and family are reasonably supportive, though I do not show my work to them while it's in process. Unless these friends happen to be writers themselves. We've had well-known writers in our family before (my maternal grandfather), and in any case cultural growth has always been encouraged in my family.

3) Were there steps involved? A progression? Diary...blog...digital...publishing/ author conventions & seminars...networking...print? Would you recommend that to aspiring writers?

A - Yes. Like I said, I wrote a lot of letters and essays initially. I began working for newspapers and magazines and wrote almost daily from the year 2000 onwards. At home, I would try to work on fictional stories though none of them came to fruition. In addition, I blogged a lot, from 2005 on, and was offered my first book deal on the strength of those posts.

I don't think seminars or writer conventions helped in the publishing process. I am not good at networking and when I attend, I do so in a quiet way. However, it is always good to hear other writers speak of their ideas, and be introduced to new kinds of writing through such seminars. Writers come in all kinds of personalities, so what they take from a gathering of writers depends on what they came looking for.

4) What's the best way to pitch/ put together a proposal and make oneself stand out in the clutter?

A - I wish I knew. I've rarely attempted book proposals, and when I have, I have not been successful. I prefer to just write the whole book and then try to get an editor interested in the manuscript.

5) Could you please dwell on the writing process itself? Timeline, schedule, any experimentation involved? Learnings from the process? What was particularly fulfilling/ frustrating? What to guard against?

A - I like to experiment with genre. I want to try and write in as many kinds of ways as I can, so I give most genres at least one shot. I also get rejected a lot, and some of my work is a failure even in my own estimation. My main learning is that you've got to keep at it. 

I don't have a fixed schedule, but I try and write regularly, and I read regularly too.  

What's most fulfilling is when I've finished something - a poem or a story - and it is just where it needs to be. For now, this is the best it can be. The feeling that I've said what I wanted to say in the genre I chose. Most frustrating is not being able to do this - to start something and then not finish it as I'd hoped.

6) How would you summarise the publishing and writing industry in India currently? Is it a good time for first time writers and is there a general openness towards new voices? In your opinion, what are the challenges first time writers are likely to/ can potentially face in this setting?

A - There is a fair degree of openness. But this is not a good time for everyone in a commercial sense. Writers whose voices are very experimental, or who do not translate easily for foreign markets must be content with very small print runs and very few readers. The Indian English market is very crowded, and there is not just a lot of intellectual laziness and creative stasis, there are also a lot of below-average writing available at a very low cost. It is easy to be lost in the crowd.

7) Do you think it's tenable to be a full time writer in the Indian context? How do you manage it? Tips on how to follow one's calling and also keep the roof up?

A - Not easy if you're a fiction writer. Impossible if you're a full time poet or playwright. I have thus far made a living from journalism and related media formats. But I continue to struggle, so I really should not offer anyone any advice.

8 - What was the response to your first book like and what's in the pipeline?

A - There were decent reviews when 'Known Turf: Bantering with Bandits and Other True Tales' first came out. I'm not sure how much it's sold but it did go into a second edition, which was good news. I'm trying to work on a novella and also editing an anthology for next year.

9) Any general pointers/ insight that you'd like to share that's not been covered in the questions above.

A - General advice - read. Read constantly. Those who live in the world of words must be familiar with the landscape. Reading is what you want others to do, when you write. You better know the worth of what you're offering before you expect anything from readers. 

STILL MORE

If you're looking for more details from my own personal experience, here is another interview:
http://www.bookchums.com/blog-detail/author-interviews/bookchums-interviews-annie-zaidi/NTc3.html


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

In gratitude, and regret

I cannot fully express the nature of my regret at not having done this post before. I had meant to, as soon as I walked out of the hall after watching Club 60. But it was late, and over the last month, I was always either too sleepy, or too distracted by my own struggles to stay afloat, to stay hopeful. Next thing I hear, Farooque Shaikh is gone. And though I never met him, I would have liked to say 'Thank you', especially for playing Dr Tarique Shaikh. This post is not about the actor. It is about the film.

I cannot, with any sincerity, say that it is a flawless film. It is not. I was half-afraid actually, that I might be bored. It gave off 'sincere' vibes and such is the Hindi film industry's track record of sincerity in recent years, it is often accompanied by boredom and predictability. Still, I had little choice.

I have decided not to pay cinema halls for encouraging bad cinema. I especially stay away from 'big' films with 'stars' when they seem to offer nothing except a thick account of expenses. I stay away from stereotype and misogyny and re-makes. But I had not taken my mother out for a movie for a long time and Club 60 seemed to be the only film I could watch without compromising my newfound principles.

So we went out. One multiplex theatre had pulled the film off the screen, although a show was still being advertised in the papers. We went to another multiplex.

The film started. I was surprised at the outset - there was a very brief, fast-paced treatment of the events that led to the tragic death of Dr Saira and Dr Tarique Shaikh's son. No zabardasti ka melodrama. The drama of grief, after all, lies in the way people struggle to live, despite their losses. And the film allows this struggle to be a dignified one.

But what surprised me what that the film turned out to be actually quite entertaining. I was laughing, my mother was laughing, and none of the jokes were derogatory even if there was a hint of naughtiness in the scene. The music was lovely. We actually enjoyed all three ghazals.

But the real reason I am writing this post is that after a long, long, long time we saw characters who had 'Muslim' names, but who were allowed to be just human. They were doctors. They were allowed to live in a normal upper class home with a dining table, at which they eat parathas.

The couple is allowed to enjoy the sea breeze without an azaan somewhere in the background. The lady is allowed to wear silk sarees or salwars with no fuss. She is allowed to be who she is - a highly skilled professional - instead of being reduced to a bundle of token symbols or rituals that add up to a visual and aural portrait that screams 'Muslim'. She is allowed to love her man and demand love from her man.

And their problems are human problems. A dead child. Depression. Work. Friends. Leisure. Club memberships. They don't sit and 'pray' in times of trouble. They roll up their sleeves and try to act. And when they make friends with people from other cultural backgrounds, they don't feel like a misfit. They can go to parties and ask for a soft drink instead of alcohol, and that's that.

How hard is it to write and make films where people of a particular community are people and not slaves to communal identities? It must be very hard, indeed, for this one film has come after such a long time. But it came, and I am glad I saw it. And that's about all I want to say.


Thursday, December 26, 2013

Low drama, low conflict

For a while now, I have been thinking about the need for 'drama' in stories, especially scripts. It is taken for granted that for a film or play to work, there needs to be a steady escalation of drama. That conflict must be established early on, that we (or rather, the audience) must be worried about the fate of the principal characters, and that the level of 'difficulty' in these characters' lives must rise, reaching a 'climax', after which there is a resolution.

Of course, it is taken for granted that we are talking about a particular moment in time, or rather, a phase in someone's life. It could be 24 hours or one night (eg - Gateway of India, starring Madhubala), or a few months (most films we watch), or over twenty years (eg - Amar Akbar Anthony). Very occasionally, the story may span two or three generations (eg - Jasmine Women, or Gangs of Wasseypur) wherein it is understood that the protagonists change, and our investment in their future might shift at any point.

Which means, we pick out a slice of someone's life, a slice that is full of difficulty, and further dramatize it for the purposes of... well, for the purpose of drama. Because what else do people want from storytelling, right?

That is what we're taught by books, by theatre and film practitioners, and in most of the entertainment options we've had. This is not wisdom I wanted to challenge. Until recently.

I read a short story a few months ago (I'm forgetting the story title and the author's name) and was left a bit unsettled at the way it ended. It was the story of a man and a woman who are in bed and perhaps trying to figure out what they will do with each other. They are not a married couple. I'd assumed that some form of marriage or a commitment angle would work itself into the story. There must be conflict, because one of them will not agree to the other's terms. There would be tears or resentment, and eventually, they'd make up or part ways forever.

But the story never left the bedroom. There was a vague discussion, skirting the edges of disagreement. No major drama though. There was an assumption of desire, and a call for truth. And then what? Well, nothing. That was it. The writer allowed the characters to stay untroubled. There was no violence, not even of the emotional kind.

And it left me stumped. Because I'm conditioned to expect 'high' drama. In stories, there's a lot at stake: life, limb, sanity, social security. My reading and watching life has prepared me for troubled situations escalating to fever pitch, usually ending in violence. If not blood and gore, then at least a kidnapping-rescue situation, a gentle-slide-into-fatal-disease situation. At the very minimum, an I'm-going-to-die-without-you situation.

I still remember the face of my little niece as I was trying to tell her a story. I'd created some animal characters and set up a chase. My niece was about four years old then, and she was not liking the dangerous direction my narrative had taken. She interrupted me twice, and each time, added bits to the story to 'save' the protagonist. She wanted things to be 'alright'. The problem was, I did not know how to tell a story in which things were just alright for everybody.

I realize now that this is not because I am so aware of the wrongness, the tragedy and danger in people's lives. 'Real' life is fairly dull. People are bored, but not bloodthirsty. Many of them accomplish things without coming to grief. Are those stories not worth telling?

I clearly remember being bewildered by this film Happy Go Lucky . It is the story of a school teacher who is very optimistic. From the first scene on, I was expecting that character to come to grief. Why else would you make someone so cheerful, right? I was so sure that her cheerful, trusting outlook would be destroyed (or at least, severely tested) that I got really tense, biting my knuckles in the dark theatre. But although she is walking about at night, alone, she comes to no harm. 

Then she meets a nice-looking man. I thought "Ah! Now comes the conflict!" But no. The man likes her back. They get together. All is well. So then?

So then, I felt a bit annoyed. I thought, 'What kind of film is this? Nothing really happens.' But then I calmed down and thought some more. It is not that 'nothing happens'. There's a lot happening in every scene.; I wasn't bored at all. I was actually very involved with this character and her life. The thing was, nothing bad happened. Sure, some people were mean to her. But I felt pity for them, not for the protagonist. She was fine, handling everyone's stress quite well.

The best part is, three years later, I remember every other scene. That actress, her smile, her eyes, her ability to trust, to not be overwhelmed by sadness, to wait for happiness. So now, I must admit that it's a good film. A memorable film! 

What was the script doing? It was not escalating the drama quotient. It was negating the need for a drama quotient. Not every story needs drama, and not all dramas need to end in either tragedy or comedy.

These days, I am more and more convinced that 'high drama' does not lie at the heart of entertainment. Most people are actually looking for happy sights and sounds. We fear death and destruction - ours as well as other people's. That's why so many people prefer watching 'hulka-phulka' cinema. When we watch 'action' films, we prefer violence that has no resemblance to real physical violence. It is not messy. We do not feel the pain or guilt that is inevitable in real life. When we watch thrillers, we want to walk away with something at the end - a sense of justice, at least, and restored normalcy. When we watch romance, we want to melt and have faith that people actually want - and get! - each other.

In a story, things must happen. In life too, things happen. But must those things be violent? Does every sadness or disappointment have to lead to depression? Why are we so very reluctant to tell stories of normalcy, of dull aches and quick recoveries? Why are we not more vigilant, more resistant, more open to what a good story is, and how it must be told?


Friday, December 13, 2013

Other loves and lives

Had recently reviewed 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' for Time Out. Sharing the text below, with some personal additions.

A brief anecdote first: I had wandered into a tiny bookstore in Lokhandwala where I frequently drop in, just to browse. I had no intention of buying anything that day. I was picking up books at random and reading the first couple of pages before putting them back on the shelves.

And then I found a book that I didn't want to put back. I was fifteen pages in. The staff was starting to give off cold vibes. So, I did put the book back in its place and moved off to another section. Half an hour later, I had returned to the book and opened it somewhere in the middle of another chapter. I still wanted to go on reading. So I bought the book. Only to realize that I already had a review copy of the same book waiting to be read at home.

I ought, therefore, ought to state upfront that 'Alternate Realities: Love in the lives of Muslim Women' is a good read. The publisher's description of the book – 'a travelogue, a memoir, a satire and a feminist critique of Muslim women's lives, interwoven with the author's own ongoing struggles as a Muslim woman' – proves to be correct. It is indeed all of that, but it is not weighed down by the sort of presumptuous rhetoric one might expect.

Critiques of Muslim women's lives, however honest, can get tiresome. What helps this book is the fact that the author is poised to speak from a position of complexity and nuance. She begins by laying bare this complexity – the overwhelming love of a happy childhood, the power of the memory of such love, modern education, changing ideologies, political upheaval, power games over pizza. Oppression is never a simple process, and freedom never an obvious choice.

Allowing the reader to look at this intimate portrait of her own life and the force that led her to break with convention, Gandhi turn to her subject – love. She sets out to examine the ways in which Muslim women seek love, demonstrate love, or resign themselves to living without love. She populates the book with a cast of characters from Bangladesh and Pakistan, both nations she used to live in, and India where she now lives.

These stories are 'alternate' in the sense that Gandhi has chosen to write about Muslim women who do not quite fit into the stereotype. Ghazala is an educated, independent Christian woman in Pakistan who has converted to marry an already married man. Laila is training to be the first Lady Health Visitor in her village in the NorthWest Frontier Province. Firdaus is a writer and Reiki healer, in her seventies. Nahid is a teenaged telemarketer in Allahabad. Tara is single at thirty, hoping for a better job in Dhaka. Ayesha is a journalist-activist-poet, still single in her late thirties, and living by herself in Ahmedabad.

Almost none of the women interviewed seem to be wholly, passionately in love with their current partners (except Nusrat and QT, who are a lesbian couple). Gandhi approaches romantic love from the fringes of society. Marriage and motherhood are not at the heart of these women's lives. This allows a wider range of ideas about love. One of the most straightforward lines comes from Nisho, a transgender dancer in Hyderabad (Pakistan). She says, “Love is like cream in milk. Love always rises to the top.”

The author constantly reflects upon politics, sufism, language. She describes a mugging in Karachi (her chain was robbed by two men on a bike, one wearing a burqa. There was apparently a ban on two men riding bikes after a bomb attack). She describes railway stations, dargahs, her own impatience with certain people. These diversions from the core theme are not uninteresting, but they do leave lesser room for a wider, more inclusive cast of characters.

The title suggests that the book speaks of Muslim women in general, althought it is limited to Pakistan, Bangladesh and India. Muslim women are culturally as different from each other as women from other religions, so one cannot help but wonder how their lives and loves are different from that of a Chinese or Indonesian or French Muslim woman. A greater emphasis on geographical or cultural representation might have been useful. Alternately, the title could have mentioned that the book is limited to the subcontinent.


The main triumph of the book, however, is that it allows a range of Muslim women to speak of emotional hunger, of disappointment, of politics and money. Religious identity is neither irrelevant nor all-important. Gandhi has done well to neither ignore it nor be intimidated by it.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

New poem

Another poem in another poetry magazine, Cordite.
 "Sometimes I wonder if..."

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The rare poem of hope

 'Swiss Lace Blouse' was the 'poem of the week' at The Missing Slate recently.
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