Monday, February 06, 2017

Attending the Jaipur Lit Fest

Some self promotion, for those of you who are not on Twitter. I made it to the Jaipur Lit Fest for two days--I was supposed to go for four, but had some misadventures. I wrote about it for Women's Web.

I attended the mansplaining and manels session which had Suhel Seth (just to troll us, I suspect):
Suhel Seth was asked a question on the HeForShe campaign and said, “I have no opinion.” Everyone wishes he would say that to all questions. (“Do you want sugar in your tea?” “I have no opinion.”)
I interviewed Ruchira Gupta on her work towards ending human trafficking, her views on the feminist movement, and on building a feminist workplace:
We have tried to have over-representation of women in our organisation, so more women are employed than men. We have also tried to feminise the workplace itself; in most of the offices there’s a bed with nice colourful rugs and cushions, so that women can bring their children and children can play there. Our work hours have become more flexible based on the needs of the women working there.
And my most personal piece, about listening to women:
Almost everyone I met or talked to at any depth (barring volunteers, service workers, and so on) was a woman. Most of the people I heard from on stage were women (not that there were more women speakers — on the festival website, I counted around 130 women and over 200 men, including six men called David). But I was amazed at the number of feminist voices around me.
Women warn women about skeevy men. There are things you don’t say in a larger audience, but are murmured to each other when women meet. Men of power and privilege who are sexual predators. Women warn each other with stories: this happened to a friend.

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Books I read in late December and in January

I took a month long holiday in Jan and traveled to four states. (It was more sedentary than it sounds: I focused on people rather than places and didn't travel a lot within the states. But it was an amazing break.) Pictures, if you are interested, are on Instagram.

Anyway, reading. Since I was staying at friends' and family's homes, most of these books were borrowed. (Very grateful for my friends' well-stocked libraries.) I read a lot, so am categorizing the books into literary, romance, and children/YA.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Books I read in November and half of December

I meant to do this in early December, I did. And here we are and it's Christmas week. So I might as well do this now and do the next one early Feb.

It's a tiny bit embarrassing how much of my reading is romance, even though I say it's not my favorite genre. Nice to have found out something about myself. Also, I read less in November but I'm beginning to cover up for it now.

Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai
I hadn't read any Anita Desai except the Village by the Sea when I was in college, and the last few pages of that book were missing (I still remember my disappointment). This book did not disappoint me, meandering around the lives of a family, going to unexpected and still familiar places. Our two protagonists and point of view characters are Tara, the younger sister, the baby of the family who was supplanted by the arrival of their brother. Who was unambitious and only craved a normal life, which she got and seems vaguely dissatisfied with. And Bimla, the older sister, friend and closest companion of awe-inspiring older brother Raja. Raja declares he wants to be a hero when he grows up; Bimla promptly follows suit. Tara says she wants to be a mother, and invites the others' ridicule. Yet as her aunt consoles her, Tara is the one who gets what she wants most unambiguously. Though I found Bimla pretty damn heroic in her determined singledom, her stubbornness, her fierce protectiveness of her family.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
I had started this a few years ago, but I was depressed at the time and couldn't somehow get on with it. Thankfully I kept the book, and this time I was pulled in by its power. The book is an uncompromising attack on beauty standards and racism, especially internalized racism. It's a feminist look at how young girls are stripped of their self-esteem and victimized. And all of this in Morrison's beautifully poetic language.

Just William by Richmal Crompton
I heard of the William series on Twitter a few days ago, and was skeptical. How can a British schoolboy be anything but annoying? But this book was actually great fun. William is like an older British version of Dennis the Menace -- only more interesting. And it's free for the Kindle, so try it out.

Coolie by Mulk Raj Anand
This is a longer novel than Untouchable, following a young boy who is sent off to town to work, and moves from one job to another. It's more of a story, and reads a bit like the episodic sagas of Dickens. But I found Untouchable the stronger story, maybe because I really liked the protagonist Bakha, and he seemed a fully realized, interesting character. Munoo remained a bit elusive for me, even though I spent more pages with him.

Hold Me by Courtney Milan
Milan's latest novel is probably her best so far.  We have an Asian American hero, a Hispanic heroine, and a sensitive portrayal of trans people. But most importantly, we have a hero who is interesting and flawed and good. The heroine is as awesome as all of Milan's heroines -- rather more so.

The Dagger in the Desk by Jonathan Stroud
This short story is part of the Lockwood series and is available free on the Kindle. It's just an episode where Lucy and her companions go ghost-busting, and is a fun, light read.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Things to do when the world seems especially scary

Hide from the world. Opportunely be sick through the apocalypse, so you are behind on the horrifying news, and have less energy to care about impending doom. Take your time getting better, watch lots of Gilmore Girls and Elementary and Jane the Virgin.

Spend time with friends. Argue and try to make sense of the world that has stopped making sense. Or just breathe in each other's company. Do something together and be glad that you have this. That you are not alone.

Have sex. Masturbate. Revel in your imperfect body. Derive pleasure that is forbidden to those incapable of understanding consent or love.

Read. Read think pieces, read how things went wrong, read how bad they are going to get. Face your fears. Hold them in your hand and look at them. But also read the funny stuff. The jokes that maybe aren't so funny, the ones that make light of serious business. The enemy is too scary to laugh at, but we can still laugh at ourselves.

Build solidarity. Learn about how it's affecting others, even if due to a combination of laziness, illness, and selfishness, you do this mostly by reading online. Shake off your usual curmudgeonliness to ask your household help if she has enough money and food to get by. Give her the one Rs 100 note you had (with a 500 and the promise of more soon as you can get some) and rummage through your packed food to find stuff she can use. At the ATM, after you and your partner finally get some cash, offer some to a woman standing in line with you whose card didn't work. She refuses, and you continue to worry about her. You feel guilty again for your luck and privilege.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Gilmore Girls is the only show I’ve ever wanted to live in

(Minor spoilers for the first four seasons)

I didn’t watch Gilmore Girls back when it first aired. I remember watching a few scenes back when I had a TV (some six years ago), but I found it a bit boring and never got hooked. But it kept popping up as a pop culture reference. A few weeks ago, after the umpteenth tweet by people whose judgement I respect, I decided to give it a try. 

I started at the beginning, and have been binge watching my way through (season 4 episode 18, so you know not to spoil me). And while the show still gets boring at times (I don’t bother to hit pause when I get up to get food or do the laundry), it is probably the nicest thing I’ve watched on TV, in a long time. (Jessica Jones was the best, but I wouldn’t call it nice.)

It’s boring enough that I don’t obsess over it. But when I’ve had a bad day at work or I’m sick, it’s perfect. (Boring might be unfair: but there are lots of episodes when nothing much happens, just like life! Lots of times when the main characters are being even more self-absorbed than usual, and you don’t care that poor Rory might actually not be the best in her class for a few episodes!) 

I usually don’t bother to read about the show either (compared to when I was watching the Good Wife, and would obsessively read everything I could find about it), but did read a couple of recaps recently, and the reviewer said something about how the Gilmore girls don’t treat their men well: that is, Luke and Dean. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

Books I read in October (and the last week of September)

This month had a vacation, so I got lots of reading done. Much of it was frivolous.

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell

A Harry Potteresque fantasy but with more interesting protagonists (gasp, my blasphemy!) A school of magic, a "chosen" hero, a supervillain, a rival in school, a smart girl best friend, a love interest that slowly devolves into a love triangle, it's got it all. A thousand times more fun than the Cursed Child.

Lockwood and Co.: Four books in the series by Jonathan Stroud

Another fantasy YA series by this author, this one lacks the brilliance and depth -- particularly the class consciousness and social commentary -- of Bartimaeus. However, it's a fun set of books. Our very young protagonist, Lucy, and her team (Lockwood and George; the three of them form the firm Lockwood and Co.) find and eliminate ghosts. The characterisation is a bit lazy (Lucy is Kitty from Bartimaeus, Lockwood is a nicer Nathaniel -- or Nathaniel who had a loving family and is therefore less screwed up, George and another character make up Bartimaeus), and there seems to be little personal growth: the main characters behave and speak much the same as they did in the first book (even though they were tweens in the first book and should have changed a lot by now). But hey, girl who fights ghosts and has no personal demons (these belong to the eponymous Lockwood), fights with swords, and is brilliant at what she does. Also, as the series is for children, the ghosts aren't scary (I can't read actual horror). If you are interested, start with the first book.

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

The announcement of Roy's second novel and some related tweets praising this one made me want to reread it. This time (my fourth read, probably), I really slowed down (I read really fast and often skim through and miss stuff). This time, I noticed how outrightly feminist the novel is. I also noticed how very fatphobic and generally appearance-focused it is. Good people are beautiful. Bad people are ugly. It's actually that simplistic. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The atheist at the festival

What's the etiquette around being an atheist during Diwali or Durga Puja or any of the big Indian festivals? How do you handle it?

I'm not friendly with the neighbours and have no family around who would want me to visit or do something special on a festival. But there's so much minor stuff to deal with, so many ways in which you always feel like an outsider, whether you're an atheist or a religious minority (I assume). Like having to refuse prasad when a kind colleague offers it (I have dietary issues and need to be extremely careful what I put in my mouth). Or wondering if you should dress up in Indian clothes because everyone else is or dress extra casual, just to signal you're not celebrating?

We always stay home, never visit family during the season. We don't want to participate in the rituals, and it would be rude and awkward to be there but refuse to participate. (I have once or twice made an exception for Bihu, because the few God-worship-type rituals around it are easy to avoid: Bihu is mostly about eating and meeting family and buying or gifting clothes.)

In any case, that doesn't matter because if I'm in Mumbai, no one else around me celebrates Bihu, and the two of us aren't home alone wondering if there's something better we should be doing. Even reading or watching TV is difficult because of the noise (I'm not sure which is worse: Diwali crackers or Navratri music).

I have more or less solved Diwali by staying home, lighting candles, and sitting in the balcony for a while to watch others blow up their money in fireworks. (Hey, as long as we can't avoid the pollution and noise and exploitation of workers, might as well enjoy the pretty.)

But sometimes, I wish we had more people to do this with. I think of families gathering and then snuggle closer to my one-person family. Even friends are all too busy with their families at this time. So I guess we'll just go in, turn on Netflix with the volume way up, and decide to make plans with our friends soon, once they are free.

Or maybe this year we could go to Marine Drive and watch the fireworks from there. I've heard it's beautiful.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Friendship, Writing, and #inktober

I can't draw to save my life. Or that's what I always used to say. I always wished I could draw, even a little bit, and I look at people's sketches and water colors on social media with wonder, and wish someone would gift me one.

Now I've finally decided I'm going to try. I'll be bad at it, but who cares. I don't want to be an artist, I just want to have fun.

So I'm participating in Inktober. Where you make ink drawings through October.

Recently, I've been putting up handwritten drafts of poems on Instagram, so starting today I'm going to try and do one a day, and do a bit of drawing around it.

Here's the first. Don't mock me.

Follow me on Instagram for more.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Books I read in August and September

I was so late  I thought I might as well combine these, even though I expect to read a few more by the end of the month.

Changes (The Magic Jukebox Book 1) by Judith Arnold
You know what I thought of this one.

A Civil Contract by Georgette Heyer
I reread a bunch of Heyer, because I wasn't well for a few days and a Twitter conversation sparked some nostalgia. I have reread this book at least twice because I didn't remember reading it earlier, which is not much of a recommendation. I get Heyer's going for how some life partnerships can be reasonable and practical rather than romantic and passionate, but fuck that. As usual, the heroine is much better and smarter than the hero, and she deserves a man who's wild about her, not one who is vaguely condescending and thinks she's not pretty and doesn't have the right background, but after all she's really nice and her father gave him a lot of money so he could continue the upper class life he's used to and even become a gentleman farmer because he's not one of those idle rich. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

On A Magic Jukebox and Other Romance Novels

I am constantly disappointed by romance novels. I want to love the genre, and I really love a few -- Georgette Heyer's Cotillion, PG Wodehouse's Jill the Reckless (don't tell me that's not a romance, it totally is) -- but most make me want to throw it across the room (which is a problem, because I read on a Kindle).

This one had so many things wrong with it:

a) The hand of fate: a magic jukebox that plays what someone needs to hear and changes lives. Here's the thing: I like having control over my life. It's the thing I've fought hardest for: the right to make my own decisions, even if they are stupid. And falling in love with someone because a magic jukebox made me: that's the stuff of nightmares, not dreams.

b) Conflating love and lust. Just because he's a good kisser -- yeah yeah, it's the best kiss you've ever had -- doesn't mean it's *true love*. You can lust after someone and not want to marry them. There's nothing wrong with enjoying sex with someone you don't want to spend all your life with.

c) Moving fast: a few days is all it takes to fall in love? Who are these people? I bet they spend the rest of their lives convincing themselves they are in love, after all magic jukebox matched them. (If they don't split up in a few weeks, which the author wouldn't allow.)

d) Why can't a woman break up with her boyfriend/fiance just because she's bored of him or had fallen out of love with him or doesn't want to spend all her life with him? Why does the author need to stack on evidence for why she's awful -- he's a snob, he's domineering, he's boring, he doesn't listen to her, he doesn't kiss well... And then, finally, he is violent towards her. His only positives: looks, wealth, success. Is our heroine that shallow or that lacking in self esteem? Seems like the latter, but then it seems a poor decision to jump headlong into another relationship, especially with a man she barely knows.

d) Where are their friends? Why does she have no one to call but her fiance when she's had a success at work? Or anyone but her sister - who she doesn't seem close to - who she feels safe telling about her decision to dump her fiance? If they don't have any (or more than one between them), maybe that's something to fix first instead of diving out of one engagement and into another. (Did someone say rebound?)

e) Given that the characters don't value friendships, it's maybe less of a surprise that they don't try to make friends with each other. And this really annoys me. When you decide to be with someone, it's both the really little things and the really big things that matter. Big things like - does she want kids? Does he believe in equal rights for everyone? Is she homophobic/racist/transphobic? Is he a saver or a spender? And little things like, is he a morning person? Will he understand her need for alone time? Will she expect him to accompanying her on runs? Is he tidy or messy? Will he do the chores? Does she like going out or staying home? Who will cook breakfast? What kind of food does he like? What kind of music does she like? All the things which seem unimportant at first but are essential to peace in the home.

f) How do things get resolved magically? One conversation, that too instigated by and in the presence of an outsider - isn't enough to change a parent-child relationship that's been screwed up for decades.

g) This is almost like asking why the sky is blue, but why do romance protagonists have to be good-looking? Less good-looking people deserve -- and find -- love too.

But here are a few things I loved about this book, though it's hardly enough, given the other problems:
a) the hero is working class and works with kids, trying to give them the support and opportunities he lacked
b) both have really flawed, even horrible parents

I get that fiction isn't always supposed to reflect reality. That this is escapism. Or maybe I don't really.

Because you know what, many of us do draw lessons from fiction into real life. The best literature - whether it's fantasy or romance or some other genre fiction or highbrow literary fiction -- helps you learn more about life. And romance books like this - and I'm talking about books that are supposed to be well written, and read by intelligent, feminist women (since those are the only ones whose romance recommendations I heed) -- can teach all the wrong things. That lust and love are synonymous. That you don't need to know someone to fall in love for them and change your entire life to fit around theirs. That you need a man to change your life and make yourself happy. That adult children should always make peace with their parents, even if the parents don't care for them or were abusive.

In contrast, the very few romances I have read that I've truly loved, have featured protagonists I respect and who get to know each other before they decide they are in love. Yes, decide. Because however swiftly you're swept off your feet or however overpowering your lust for the other person, deciding to share your life with someone (even if it's not for forever) is always a decision. And it's most romantic when you make it willingly, wholeheartedly, with your eyes open.