It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken: A Picture Novella – Seth

November 16, 2019

It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken: A Picture NovellaIt’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken: A Picture Novella by Seth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Seth’s ‘It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken’ is a brilliant example of mpelling argument on why no serious lover of literature should miss out on this medium. Here’s the thing about this book – it is the perfect antithesis of the typical idea of the comic book that we have. It’s not about masked or caped superheroes and their exploits, nor about the darker, more complex explorations in to the superhero/fantasy themes that such virtuosos’ like Alan Moore and Frank Miller created. It’s not even a grown up exploration of themes of crime, punishment and morality that have provided some beautifully poignant works like Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’. On the surface, this book is just a meandering exposition of one man’s thoughts, doubts and insecurities and his exploration into a private obsession. But what this creates is a masterful journey of subtle but powerful emotional heft, grappling with questions of mortality and meaning, which is so affecting primarily because of its seeming ordinariness. These are questions which any of us could have pondered upon during the course of our lives, and yet maybe none the wiser for it.

The central premise of this graphic novel is Seth’s (his real name is Gregory Gallant) chance discovery of a gag comic by an obscure cartoonist called Kalo in the New Yorker of the 1950’s and his subsequent search for this author who intrigues him so much. However, apart from a few erratic strips in some eclectic publications, there isn’t much for him to go on with. He decides to pursue his slowly burgeoning obsession and tracks down the seemingly reclusive author’s early dwellings and his surviving family, all with the vague idea of finding more about this enigmatic cartoonist. Along the way, there are asides to describe his easygoing and yet very perceptive conversations with his friend Chester Brown (a reputed cartoonist in his own right) as well as relationships which have the possibility of a happily-ever-after. But what is the end to the means? What does Seth hope to accomplish with his unlikely quest?

To answer that question, one would probably have to be an obsessed lover of some form of art themselves. This is an unapologetically slow book which ruminates on the various small mysteries life has to offer as Seth makes his way across small town Canada in his search. In fact, one could say that the quest for the fictional author (it seems to have been confirmed in the years subsequent to the comic’s publication that Kalo was just a fictional character) is just a device; the primary point of the story is Seth’s search for some meaning behind a regular existence. I don’t know if one has to be of a specific mental makeup to appreciate his meandering journey, but it spoke vividly to me at various points. Seth’s narrator is a perpetually disillusioned man of his times, who constantly harks back to a nostalgic past which doesn’t even really exist in his own reality. This constant yearning for the vintage, whether it is on seeing old dilapidated buildings or perusing photographs from an earlier time, is a defining feature of his ruminations which I could most identify with. His harking back to the 40’s and 50’s (from a present timeline in the book of the mid-1980’s) remind me of how the current generation of adults long for the pre-social media and smartphone eras of the 80’s and 90’s. Considering his distrust of anything modernized in the 80’s one can only imagine what he would be thinking of today. However, he also has the self-awareness to realize that there is a very good possibility that he may not have enjoyed a lot of aspects of life in the more constrained past. An example of this would be the restricted freedoms that most sections of society faced. This is something each of us have to be careful of too, when viewing the rearview of time’s march on us with our weary rose tinted glasses of the present.

His constant alteration of moods between introspective self-depreciation at one moment and a casual superiority complex at another is another feature of the novel. While he is quick to point out and sneer at what he perceives to be superficial in other people, he also comes to the realization that he may not be much better in some respects. This mild haranguing of himself extends to what he considers are his failures in maintaining a long term relationship as well. In these passages and other similar ones, he transforms the story to one of a personal journey for truth which many of us would be able to recognize from unresolved mysteries of our own lives.

I also liked his depiction of his friendship with Chester. Unassuming and quietly forced into the narrative, it is a glowing example of the kind of non-judgmental relationship which two friends are capable of, but achieve only rarely. It’s in the almost soliloquys he has in these parts of the book that we get to understand much more about the man behind the façade of the novel and his misgivings and insecurities on life and love.

The art in the book is simple, yet unique in its style. The tones used are mostly blue, black and white and this helps to maintain a relaxed and retro feel to the book. It doesn’t assault our senses; instead, it helps drag us in gradually into the slightly melancholic and thoughtful feel the story aims for. The book was first published as a series of comics in the comic book Palookaville and is now available in this graphic novel format. It’s obvious he is intrigued by the art of comic book collecting, as other books of his also attest to. But, irrespective of this, this work of his is a collectible in its own right which anyone who is even remotely interested in exploring different genres should delve into.

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My Sister, the Serial Killer – Oyinkan Braithwaite

September 14, 2019

My Sister, the Serial KillerMy Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

My first instinct was to give this book a wide berth. The theme appeared to be more of a gimmick than of substance. However, after this became some kind of flavor of the season and found a place on the Booker longlist I figured it wouldn’t hurt to try it out since it is quite a slim volume.

I guess I should have stuck to my instinct. This is not a bad book, but the huge acclaim seems a bit misplaced. The dark comedy starts off interestingly enough but the premise remains frustratingly under-explored and characters frustratingly obtuse.

The book starts off with Korede receiving a call from her younger sister Ayoola, informing her she has killed her boyfriend in a fit of ‘self-defense’. Korede has unfortunately become adept at helping her sister clean up the scenes of her crimes and she leaves her carefully laid out dinner to go to Ayoola’s aid. Once they dispose of the body, it is up to Korede to ensure that Ayoola understands the social (and social media) etiquettes of a grieving girlfriend. Korede, forever the uglier sister to Ayoola’s beautiful one, has becomes accustomed to taking care of Ayoola’s eccentricities and seemingly uncaring behavior to her fellow persons. Ayoola, on the other hand, has been doted on by her mother and any of the numerous male admirers she has had. There is a violent father in the background of their lives, but his story is brought out in intercutting recollections to the present strand of the story. At the hospital where Korede works as a nurse, she pours the hidden darkness in her heart to a long term comatose patient whose own family appears to have given up on him. There is an attractive doctor, Tade, at the clinic who Korede has been secretly in love with. However, when Ayoola turns up unannounced at her hospital and Tade catches a glimpse of her, Korede’s world starts unraveling. Will she stick by her sister if the inevitable happens, or will she try to save the life of the man she loves?

One of the problems I had with the story was Korede. The tale is narrated from her point of view and this gets annoying after a point. Granted, she has been put down upon by her parents and overshadowed by her attractive younger sister all through her life, but you do wish she acts on at least some of those repressed emotions. Instead we get the spiel that she has known she has to protect Ayoola from since they were children and that family is more important than anything else. This just doesn’t fly with respect to these characters though. And Ayoola has been made into the clichéd femme fatale who none of the men can resist as she lures them to their inevitable doom. Keeping with the general theme, the book ends on a frustrating, incomplete note. I guess a little more exposition on this potentially absorbing theme could have helped.

The good thing is that this is a very quick read. The pages rushed past once I started. And I got to know that it is usually three murders which classifies a person as a serial killer. Apart from this though, there isn’t too much to recommend for me here. The theme is audacious and brimming with potential, but the execution fails to live up.

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Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

August 7, 2019

MiddlesexMiddlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”

One of the more captivating opening lines of a novel I’ve read. I can imagine quite a few people would have been tempted to delve into this further, purely based on their reaction to that first line. And if they followed up on their instinct, there is very little chance that they would have been disappointed.

Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel ‘Middlesex’ is a sprawling and intensely emotional saga of one family, and its genetically ambiguous narrator. It doesn’t really let you go once you’re hooked from that first page. There are multiple themes at work here, from memories and ancestry, generational genetic makeup and incestuous relationships, to the decay of the quality of life of both people and cities (Detroit, in this case). However, if I was asked to describe its primary theme, what struck me was the central protagonist’s self-awakening and all the pain and magic that brings about. Finding our place in the world is tough enough for most people, but for someone born with a recessive intersex condition that went undetected till puberty it can be a nightmare.

To trace this rare genetic condition which expresses itself in the narrator, Calliope/Cal Stephanides, we have to go back to the start. Or, more precisely, the start of things which ended up with the 5-Alpha-Reductase Deficiency Syndrome manifesting in Cal. In the early part of the twentieth century, in a mountain village in Asia Minor, a sister, Desdemona, lives with her brother Lefty. Circumstances are forcing the Greeks and Armenians in this part of the world to flee from impending doom. The burning of Smyrna in 1922 is vividly recreated amongst this backdrop.

Lefty and Desdemona were always close since childhood, and as they make their perilous way to new hope in the USA, they enact a drama of intense longing to fool even themselves of their true relationship. Having left their home as siblings, they arrive at their destination as a newlywed couple. Their only contact there is Sourmelina, a cousin, who having her own perceived shame which she ran away from, is quick to accept and keep their secret. Sourmelina takes them to stay with her and her husband, the initially repellent but later enigmatically interesting Jimmy Zizmo, at their place in Detroit.

It’s a turbulent time for the country as a whole and especially for Detroit, a city which underwent massive upheavals in the twentieth century. The vivid descriptions of the once gleaming automobile manufacture center takes us into the life of the numerous factory workers, who eke out a dreary, functional existence in environments which are not very salubrious for their wellbeing in general. Lefty initially works at one of these mechanical towers while also getting involved in the shady doings of Jimmy Zizmo. However, after events turn for the worse, he being of an enterprising nature starts his own underground home drinking salon during the age of prohibition. Meanwhile, Desdemona is petrified by the perceived sin of what she and Lefty are doing and of what will become of their offspring. Almost reluctantly, she gives birth to a healthy boy and girl. The boy, Milton, grows up to be Cal’s father. Another bit of inbreeding ensures that Milton marries his cousin, thus further bringing Cal closer to his fate.

Cal’s elder brother is referred to throughout as Chapter Eleven, a narrative device which is not explicitly explained in the book, but which on further reading I found may be related to a US statute. When Calliope finally enters the world, her gender ambiguity is not inferred by the aging physician friend of the family (a character Lefty and Desdemona saved and brought to American with them), and she grows up as any young girl. Unfortunately, the onset of puberty and the various hormonal changes it is supposed to entail in a young woman, brings out the problems which had been undetected till then. These scenes of Calliope’s hesitation and confused frustration at her body and mind is sensitively evoked – it treads successfully the fine line between the comic and the serious without stooping to mockery. Her conflicting feelings of attraction and love for a fellow classmate, amusingly only referred to as ‘The Obscure Object’ only heightens her sense of not understanding her own body.

The final portions of the book do tend to seem a tad too dramatic and extreme before things finally wind up, but then again Cal’s situation is in itself an extreme scenario – a life affirming change which most people would not even be able to comprehend, let alone experience.

I approached the book expecting it to be mostly about Cal’s life and times, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is an inter-generational saga of an immigrant family and their Grecian roots. The pathos and despair of leaving a cherished homeland because of unfortunate circumstances, the hope and anticipation of a new dawn, the drudgery of settling into and building a new life; all this is captured in remarkably fluid prose.

The city and time that Lefty and Desdemona end up in, leaves great scope for a historical tour, and is made use of well. There is a section devoted to the initial days of the Nation of Islam which remarkably captures the impact of the organization on the underprivileged and frustrated neighbors around it. Another part of the book rather vividly portrays the infamous Detroit race riots and its repercussions. It could all have appeared to be historical grandstanding, but the author infuses it well into the life of successive generations of the Stephanides family. The style is reminiscent of one of my favorite authors, John Irving, and his tragicomedies but Eugenides leaves his own mark.

After an acclaimed debut, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides took a decade to come out with this book, and it satisfied all the lofty expectations it had set. Winner of the Pulitzer prize in 2003, it is a story which is timeless in its theme and structure.

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My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1) – Elena Ferrante

July 18, 2019

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A publishing phenomenon, not just in the original Italian, but also in its translated versions, this is the first book of Elena Ferrante’s famed Neapolitan quartet. Based on the lifelong and complex friendship between two girls growing up in a tough, poverty ridden neighborhood of Naples, Italy, the books were made even more famous because of its author’s recalcitrance- Ferrante is a pseudonym for an unknown person, who some feel may even be a male. However, a recent investigation by a magazine does purport to trace the truth of the mystery behind the author. But I honestly believe that it isn’t too important to know her true identity. Above all, if the anonymity does, as she also claims, help her come up with her impressive tomes by aiding her creative process, then maybe we should just let her be.

The book opens in the present day, with a frantic exchange between one of the protagonists, Elena, and the son of the other protagonist. Lila, his mother and Elena’s lifelong friend, is missing; behavior which is not entirely unexpected from her. After this brief prologue, Elena narrates the story of their lives starting from the time they were pre-teens and forging their friendship. This takes us back to 1950’s Naples and the years after the war.

It’s a friendship which had its share of challenges, but one in which the two girls kept pushing each other to better themselves and subtly impress the other. The neighborhood they grow up in, in Naples, is a tough, spare and violent place. Public spats within and among families is common, and physical abuse in families is so common that it is almost a norm. There is a certain hierarchy and code of honor which everyone almost imperceptibly follows and deviance from it is considered a sin. Lila is from a family of shoemakers and is a bright, enigmatic and at times nerve wracking child. Elena’s father works as a porter at the City Hall, and she too is a bright kid, though more conventional in appearance and behavior. However, as they play their games of one-upmanship in class and outside, it becomes obvious that Lina is a prodigious talent, and yet one who could be restricted by her modest and conservative circumstances from achieving further formal education beyond primary school. As Elena makes her way through middle school and high school, Lila joins her father and elder brother in the shoe shop where they make their living. Even there, she decides to come up with a path to glory. Elena, meanwhile, decides that her life may just be driven by the desire to appear acceptably brilliant in Linl’s eyes, and she keeps up on her schoolwork if only to impress Lila initially.

The reality of their circumstances don’t escape them though. The violence, poverty and assumed codes of honor pull them back from time to time, yet these girls persevere through growing pains, love, sexuality and heartbreak. While initially Lila appeared a scrawny kid who just wouldn’t look grown up, soon she is the cynosure of the neighborhood boys. One of the Solara brothers, who virtually lord over the neighborhood, takes a strong shine to her and starts a courtship which she just cannot imagine giving into. Then there is the son of the former don (murdered by someone known to the girls), who is now a well off grocer trying to change the ways of the neighborhood. Elena, on the other hand, has a growing insecurity about her own looks and limited forays into romance. The culmination of the book sees a marriage, and a throwaway line which sets up an interesting, almost cliff hanger-ish) prelude to the second book of the series.

I have to admit, my knowledge of Naples is limited to hearing about their football team and of the exploits of a certain Diego Maradona in the late 1980’s for them. But, here the tough neighborhoods are brought to vivid life in simple, understated prose by the author. There is also always the lurking presence of the feared Camorra gangsters on the fringes of the tale. This is far away from the glamour and grandeur of the average Italian vacation dream, though I heard tourism to Naples in general has increased after these books became a global phenomenon. I liked the way the author brings us into the mind of a growing adolescent girl and let us view things from a perspective not necessarily familiar to us. In some ways I found it to be the grown up equivalent of the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. While those beautiful books could allow young boys to experience life from the perspective of mostly girl characters, these could allow the same for grownups. The complex ambiguities and the warmth of a lifelong friendship started in childhood is also intricately captured and allow us to feel for these people and their city. I am intrigued enough to give the second book of the quartet a go.

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Map of the Invisible World – Tash Aw

June 1, 2019

Map of the Invisible WorldMap of the Invisible World by Tash Aw
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tash Aw’s debut novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, was an impressive affair set in 1940’s British Malaya that offered a beguiling case of unreliable, multiple narrative viewpoints. This one, his follow-up effort, is set mostly in the Indonesia of the 1960’s with quick detours to neighboring Malaysia in between.

It starts off promisingly enough. The story is around two orphaned brothers who were brought up in entirely different lifestyles. The elder, Johan, was taken in by a wealthy Malaysian couple and is wracked with guilt on what he perceives to be an unforgivable abandonment of his younger brother, Adam. It is from Adam’s perspective that most of the story unfolds. He is brought up by an Indonesian painter of Dutch origin, Karl, in a remote seaside village in Indonesia in a simple but mostly content existence. However, it is the age of Sukarno’s leadership and the threat of violent rebellion and communist uprising is never too far. There is also a lot of pending resentment against the erstwhile colonial masters, the Dutch, and anyone linked to the place. Karl is taken away by soldiers and Adam is left fending for himself and trying to figure out where his adoptive father has been taken to. In a parallel narrative track, we have Margaret, a now world weary woman who had moved to this side of the world when she was young and full of life’s possibilities. She works at the university, but is aware of the growing restlessness of the students studying under her. And what of her associate, Din? Is he the simple local guy he portrays himself to be or is there another darker story there?

Adam unearths an old link between Karl and Margaret and sets off in search of her as the only tenuous link he has in finding Karl. But the city and his fragmented memories of his brother hold many uncertain promises for him. Will Margaret be able to provide the help he so desperately needs? As the country heads towards civil war, these disparate characters try to find succor and a vague sense of belonging to anything they can cling on to but, in Adam’s case at least, this could be the very thing which leads them onto a path of no return.

The start of the book and the world building were wondrous in their enactment. The intricate descriptions of the squalor and smells of Jakarta envelop and effortlessly transports the reader to the world the story is set in. The characters are well defined and deep insights provided into their mental makeup, particularly Margaret and Adam. Johan’s portions, while brief, do provide an insight into the self-destructive path he has allowed himself to drift into. However, after a point, the story seems to get stuck in a curious stasis, almost as if the author couldn’t figure out how to take it to a satisfying destination after setting up the premise. Adam’s arc especially is not always relatable; the drastic shift into almost criminal perpetrator is supposed to be a product of his confused identity but doesn’t play out effectively enough on the page. And a couple of passages of physical intimacy appeared forced into the narrative, a familiar problem of a lot of literary authors who can’t seem to envision their main protagonists without some sex thrown in.

That doesn’t mean this isn’t worth a read though, just that it isn’t as good as his winsome debut. This is still a decent enough read, especially for the carefully constructed sense of place and time.

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The Cornish Coast Murder – John Bude

May 22, 2019

The Cornish Coast Murder (Inspector Bigswell)The Cornish Coast Murder by John Bude
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A classic British mystery novel which seems tailor made for the oft-repeated reader’s cozy spot of a warm blanket and a cup of tea on a cold winter’s night. This was the first novel of prolific crime fiction writer Ernest Carpenter Elmore (pseudonym John Bude) and in its setting and theme reflects the tropes of the British crime novel of the early to mid-twentieth century. It’s a slow burning, warm concoction which readers can pleasantly dip themselves into without challenging their literary senses too much. That is in no way a dig at the novel; being easy to read and yet retaining a sense of integrity in prose is not an easy feat.

The Reverend Dodd is the vicar of the quiet Cornish village of Boscawen and spends his evenings reading crime fiction by his snug little fireplace and discussing these animatedly with his friend Dr. Pendrill every Thursday at their regular weekly dinner appointment. However, he knows he probably wouldn’t have a chance to put his own detecting skills, gleaned from these books, to any worthwhile use since his sleepy village was hardly a place for any gruesome crimes. While happy with this peace, he does wistfully wish for a little excitement on occasion. And that is when the proverbial penny drops. A murder not too far away from the vicarage. A dark and stormy night. Julius Tregarthan is found shot at his house and his niece, Ruth, is at her wits end. Soon, the constable Grouch and Inspector Bigswell are at the scene and lay out their plans for investigation. The vicar himself, though not actively involved in the initial part of the investigation does provide vital help to the Inspector and also takes in Ruth to stay at the vicarage while she recovers from the shock.

But is Ruth herself a suspect? What was the intensity of the ill feeling between her uncle and herself that they had a major argument the night of the murder itself? What about her intimate ‘friend’ Roland Hardy, a former war veteran still suffering from the effects of shell shock and prone to unreasonable fits of behavior? He very suspiciously disappears on the night of the murder and cannot be traced. And what of the housekeeper and her husband? Surely, it’s not a case of ‘the Butler did it!’? Inspector Bigswell finds himself at all kinds of loose ends and is desperate to prove that the local police can crack the crime without the help of ‘the experts’, as Scotland Yard is called. Meanwhile, the Reverend finally comes into his own in developing some interesting theories which can completely alter the course of the case.

The book has evoked comparisons to Agatha Christie’s more celebrated works, but since I’m not acquainted well enough with her writings, what struck me was that this reads like a grown up version of Enid Blyton with just that little bit of scandal added in to make it more suitable for adult readers. The beautiful setting of the atmosphere and the lovely cover art on the edition I read all add up to this. We have an inside look at police investigations happening in a simpler time where forensics and its ilk were not well developed. There are the suspects, the questions and the inquisition by a coroner. Inspector Bigswell is a genial enough man to have no issues in forgoing pride to work with the theories provided by the vicar and together they do get to the bottom of the crime in a reasonably satisfying conclusion.

It’s not up there with the best of crime fiction for sure, but what it does it does well. For the uninitiated this is a good window into some classic British writing of the early part of the last century and is not too taxing on the mind either. I quite recommend it.

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The question of LGBTQ in Indian cinema

April 19, 2019

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I recently had the chance to watch the Hindi film, Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga (dir. Shelly Chopra Dhar). While it would be an exaggeration to call it great cinema, I did enjoy it enough to think about the progression of mainstream Bollywood cinema over the last couple of decades in the LGBTQ sphere.

There probably has never been a film with the theme of same-sex love in the rom-com commercial film space in India. Sure, there have been some notable efforts in the serious or parallel cinema space, but the closest we get in big budget Bollywood is the gay friend or exaggerated posturing in the name of humor. In the latter category, I have to admit that 2008’s Dostana has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure – the kind of film I know I shouldn’t enjoy but, for the most part, did.

But what Shelly Chopra Dhar’s film does is bring out the idea of the central romantic pair in a mostly lighthearted film being a lesbian couple. Yes, it doesn’t ask too many uncomfortable questions beyond this premise, and it skirts over the question of physical intimacy between the two lovers, but it still does enough. And more to the point, even if it may not be appreciated much by hardened critics, it brought it out in the stage, almost camp melodramatic fashion that conventional Bollywood specializes in. This is important, as it would invariably help it reach a bit of a wider audience with such kind of treatment; the same way Akshay Kumar’s well-intentioned ‘message’ films are packaged in a family friendly manner – it may not appeal immensely to film connoisseurs but will help the general public appreciate its message a little bit more perhaps by speaking in a language which the film going audience in the country understands.

This thought brings me to another facet of this kind of cinema. There have been some good films made in this space in the past, but their treatment as serious cinema may have left them with little in the way of exposure to many film lovers. Of course, the most famous of these was Deepa Mehta’s Fire, the release of which in 1996 stoked public displays of fury and resentment at what was perceived as a dishonor to ‘Indian Culture’, that ubiquitous epithet for anything outside the bounds of ‘normal’ middle class social etiquette. Considering that kind of ignorance, the acceptance for Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga over the space of a couple of decades is laudable. But even Fire, I felt, diluted its message a trifle by suggesting that it was the lovers’ dissatisfaction with their cloying marital life that led them to each other.

This all brings me to an interesting Malayalam film I had caught around a decade ago. This was prior to the post-Traffic 2010 re-invigoration of Malayalam cinema which brought the industry into a brave new world. The period of 2000-2010 was a bad time to be a fan of Malayalam cinema. Inane superstar based vehicles trying to ape similar fare of the neighboring states ruled the roost and good films or interesting premises were few and far between. One of these few interesting films was ‘Sancharram – The Journey’, a film written, directed and produced by Ligy J. Pullappally, someone I hadn’t heard of before and haven’t heard about since. She appeared to have come across, by way of an email forward, the story of two girls in Kerala who went through emotional turmoil because society wouldn’t let them be who they were, a sadly recurring theme among the LGBTQ community in our country. In her own words, which I came across in an article around the time:

“On January 25, 2000, I received an email about a young woman at a university in the South Indian state of Kerala. She and her girlfriend had fled the school, presumably under the threat of expulsion as a result of the rumors of their love affair with each other. The women were recovered and sent back to their respective families. The next day, one of the young women’s body was found floating in the reservoir of a dam. It was a tragic loss of young life and potential, a suicide. It was, I would learn, an all too familiar circumstance in the South Indian state of Kerala.”

Despite the film getting some appreciation at the Kerala Film State Awards of 2004, it’s not been remembered or viewed enough in wider film circles. The story focuses primarily on two adolescent girls in a village in Kerala. Together since childhood, they gradually realize that they have feelings for each other. How they and others around them in the conservative Kerala village deal with this, forms the rest of the story. It beautifully evokes the alternative sexuality the girls had to come to terms to, and captures their confusion and mental ambiguity in a lingering build up. The physical intimacy is not explicit here, but the quiet sensuality of some of the scenes are sure to stay with the viewer. The shattering of childhood innocence and the mortification that accompanies adolescent awakening is captured particularly well in the predicament Kiran finds herself in, as she comes to understand the nature of her desire for Delilah. The culmination of the characters’ journeys are not as clean cut as Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga, and we know there is going to be perennial angst and guilt here.

That doesn’t mean that a film like Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga is not important in its own way. As I’ve already said, we need films which will reach more of the general population in its simple exposition of a complicated situation. But it would be nice if that leads people on to watch the smaller, more personal works like Sancharram which would not have got anywhere near the kind of audience it deserved in India. Personally, perhaps because the cultural milieu is more recognisable, I find them much more appealing than their foreign counterparts. And this relatability is the key to understand why such films need more exposure and support.

Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street

April 10, 2019

Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the StreetTransmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street by Warren Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wild and wacky ride through a dystopian future society as seen through the lens of renegade journalist Spider Jerusalem. Apart from having one of the coolest names I’ve come across in fiction, this guy is a certified nut job who seems like he can go off at any given moment. However, the mastery of the writing ensures that he also elicits some level of empathy and sympathy from the readers. And the world built up here definitely needs all the help it can get to elicit something other than a general sense of disgust.

The comic opens up with a wild a feral looking Jerusalem, who has been living up in the mountains for the last 5 years to get away from the city life he grew to despise, receiving a call on unheeded contracts for which he had received payouts 5 years prior. Reluctantly, he realizes he would need to return to the city and start working in order to pay off his debts. He walks back right into an even more depraved society than the one he left, and in no time finds himself smack in the middle of a riot involving transients (humans who want to live as other animals and are in the process of transforming) and the police force sent to put them down. The resulting coverage gains him new stardom and an assistant from the paper. The rest of this volume is made up of the ensuing adventures of the two with various aspects of this world. This includes a highly entertaining one where all Spider does is watch television, streaming between hundreds of channels and despairing at the gist of the broadcasts. Another one, which felt a bit over the top in its sermonizing was one where he and Channon attack a religious convention set up for the rapidly burgeoning number of new religious leaders. Though, in principle, I agreed with his rants.

The point is, apart from still being relevant (perhaps even more so now) and topical, it is also incredibly entertaining and engrossing. The world building is not laid out to us immediately, but through the stories we can piece together the varying levels of debauched sensibilities which exist. And Spider is a genuinely interesting protagonist (or antagonist?) for the most part. I would love to indulge in a few more volumes of this fascinating series. Highly recommended. But a word of warning. The language, while amazingly innovative in its vitriolic usage, can get a trifle too colorful for those of weaker disposition. Oh, and watch out for the bowel disruptor too.

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The Invisible Ones – Stef Penney

March 27, 2019

The Invisible OnesThe Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Stef Penney’s first book was a critical and commercial darling, the riveting ‘The Tenderness of Wolves’, which was set in the remote Northern American territories in the nineteenth century. She did the world building there with just the research done in the closed confines of libraries, a pointer to her considerable talent in the genre. I enjoyed it enough to give her another go with this one.

Metaphorically, this one is also set in remote communities, though not in terms of geographical isolation. Rather, it is set among the vanishing Gypsy tribes of 1980’s England and the internal politics which manifests in a certain Gypsy family. Primarily, it is about private investigator Ray Lovell, a half Romany himself, who is tasked with the case of locating a long lost young lady, Rose. The case is brought to him by her father after she has been missing for years. A side effect of the custom that gypsy women usually belong to the family they marry into and it not being very unusual for family members to not meet each other for a long time.

The family that Rose married into, and the ones under suspicion on foul play in her disappearance, are the Jankos. Fiercely protective of the pure Gypsy blood, the Jankos appear a powder keg about to go off at any point. There is Ivo, the husband of Rose, and their child Christo who is sick with a mysterious illness which affects most of the Janko boys. Ivo’s father Tene is also along with them, as is his grandparents. Another part of the coterie is Ivo’s cousin and her son JJ. The story alternates between the differing perspectives of Ray and JJ, and it is an effective narrative device skillfully handled. As Ray tries to get close enough to each Janko family member to try and understand something of his mysterious ward’s disappearance, JJ is painfully disturbed by the growing suspicions he has of his family and that a lot of things are just not right. Ray is also haunted by a failed marriage to someone he is still in thrall to, and the situation is further complicated by his growing affection for one of the Janko’s. JJ is caught between conflicting feelings of love and devotion to his quirky family, while at the same time wondering about the practicality and weirdness of it all. But how dangerous are the Jankos? Will they resort to the ultimate crime to cover up something, or are they just a misunderstood lot who mean what they say? Is Rose even alive? Ray’s and JJ’s furtive attempts at resolving these questions forms the pulse of the story and it’s anyone’s guess as to where it will all lead to.

The language is deceptively simple and quick to read thus making it a book which can be sampled by any level of reader. However, the author is a master at working the intricacies of the tale and characters and kept me on tenterhooks for the most part. The various characters and their stories are developed well enough to make us invest in the story which unfolds. And when it does finally unfold, it’s definitely a wild twist which may be seen as outrageously impossible by some, but the skill at which the story is developed will probably win most of the readers over. Personally, I loved it. I highly recommend this thriller set in slightly unusual surroundings to everyone.

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One Part Woman – Perumal Murugan

March 13, 2019

One Part WomanOne Part Woman by Perumal Murugan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is a famous but unfortunately notorious novel by the Tamil auteur, Perumal Murugan. Understandably famous because of his proven quality in writing in his language. Notorious because of the controversial theme which the self-appointed guardians of our morality took umbrage to, to the extent that he vowed to give up writing further, saying the novelist Perumal Murugan is dead. Luckily for his readers, the novel is available and has been translated to English too.

It’s the English translation that I read obviously, and I’m not sure if it has translated well from the original Tamil. The prose is simple enough to follow, perhaps at times too simple. But the main issue is that the feel of time and place seems largely lost and I couldn’t get a feel of the situations which force the protagonists into decisions they may otherwise never consider.

The story revolves around Kali and Ponna, a couple in a remote village who have an extremely loving and satisfying union, except for one obvious drawback; they do not have kids despite twelve years of marriage. The lack of offspring is a burning social question to any couple even in today’s supposedly advanced climate, so one can imagine the predicament of a couple in a remote village in what looks like the pre-independence era. The villagers’ social life and daily gossip revolves around the dissection of each individual and couple and are replete with superstitions guiding various aspects of daily life. Kali and Ponna, despite having a much more satisfying marital life in a lot of respects than the other villagers, are made painfully aware of only their lack by daily surmises, taunts and gossip by neighbors and family members alike. Spurred on by the snide comments, they try every form of country remedy and superstitious temple visit known to them, some even at risk of life and yet remain childless. Eventually, the families of the two, convinced that for a normal social life and happiness a child is a necessity, decide on a drastic last resort of action – a temple festival held every year for fourteen days, on the last day of which the normal social restrictions of male/female interactions do not hold true (The protests which erupted around the book were mostly because of this aspect). But will Kali and Ponna allow such a potentially relationship breaking act to come in between them?

There are some nice descriptions of life in the village, made up mostly of farmers whose lives are shaped around their crops, animals and local festivals which are in commune with the changing seasons. The lack of access to meaningful education and medical facilities is obvious, and in their absence people make do with hearsay and local remedies masquerading as medical advice. Kali is shown as a person in love with his fields and animals, apart from consumed by an unquenchable thirst for his wife. He aspires at times to modern thought, but surrounded by the pressures around him, does not really object when various ‘treatments’ are pushed onto his wife. Ponna, on the other hand, is a fiery character who can give back as good as she gets. However, as the years go by, her desire for a normal social life in the village increases in intensity and she almost reaches the point where she is willing to undergo anything to fit in. As probably with many couples throughout history who had to bow to social pressures, do they give up what they have, an intense and loving relationship, for what they don’t have based on outside pressures?

The premise is great and very topical for our culture, but as I said earlier I’m not sure if it has been lost a little in translation. Apart from the basic descriptions of the place and activities, there wasn’t anything which imparted the unique feel of the era and place. On top of that, the ending was pretty frustrating for a book like this. I’m all for open endings when the theme demands it, but this kind of story hardly seems like one for it.

I’m sure the original book is well worth the appreciation, but the translation I would only reservedly recommend.

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