Tuesday, 24 February 2015

On Compassion




I missed writing for a day I had pencilled way in advance. February 20th saw thousands of bloggers the world over write on Compassion – the satin ribbon that binds, should bind, one creature’s comfort to another’s pain, one human’s fortune to the other’s need. I checked the exact meaning before deciding to write this. It was always a big word for me, but it became humongous after looking at what it meant. So much bigger than all the big words I like to keep as friends. Way beyond mere Politeness, surpassing stray acts of Kindness and occupying a pedestal next to felt Humanity, no less. 

Even though I was saddened that the bus full of beautiful posts on compassion had long left, leaving me and my pending work behind, on the desk still, I caught myself wondering aloud if at all I would have had anything to say about Compassion. That unconditional giving of what you have and what the other doesn’t. At all times, under any circumstances and without the slightest hope for reward. The emotion that makes you feel one with the other; human, animal or even an old oak. The ideal definition of compassion. 

And then I think, what about in life?

Every Tuesday the scene outside our neighbourhood temple is like it is on no other day. A mini-fete. There’s a balloon-seller standing alongside the Kwality Walls cart, together and away from the two parallel lines of beggars sitting lining the holy walls. A flute-seller plays devotional tunes, but the hungry stomachs hear no music. They beg for alms. For prasad, orange over-sweetened balls, from those visiting the temple. People walk in and out, and some passers-by dig into the newspaper packet to give some around. Often without looking who they are showing concern on, with measured hands. Three grape-sized pieces per hand. Deed done. Then they scurry on. Away from the house of God to their own homes where piping hot chapattis are being rolled. Leaving behind a question hanging in the air to be plucked by those like me, sitting and typing away their thoughts.

Is this compassion, pure and simple, or an automated ritual? Can the feeling of real concern be fleeting as the blink of an eye, or last the time it takes to brush the dust off the pants where the hungry-dirty hand tugged, in askance for food? Pity is short-lived, for who has tears to spare in such evil times? Or guilt. It vanishes quicker than grass thrown in the wind. But then, does it matter? Someone gave something. Shared. 2 seconds, 2 minutes. The heart opened. So, does it matter – how real how staged how in return for extra blessings?

The idea of giving, material or in thought, to the other has to stem from some degree of compassion. Or so I wonder.

Closer home. 

I don’t have half the number of compassionate bones as, say, my own mother. (I’m still checking dictionaries to see what it means!). My mother. So many times I get bugged at her idea of “doing good” at the cost of her own well-being, time, energy, health and bank balance too. What could have made her ‘adopt’ a student and sponsor his studies through school? What makes her spend her holidays teaching girls and boys from schools we never went to about the natural wonders of planet Earth? What makes her keep bowls of food and water for strays who lose their path into our driveway only to find a home in the verandah till their dying day? I used to think she is in love with the idea of charity but I corrected myself when I realized I’ve never heard her talk about it. It doesn’t make it a better version of being compassionate but it does make it seem more real in a world which we love to consider a stage, and all acts our performance to a gallery.

To feel and do silently is beautiful because compassion sings then in the highest note of the octave. I’ve heard that music through others in my life. The most fortunate ones hear it. See it. Learn to emulate it too, perhaps. 

Have I learnt? I don’t know.

Sure, I feel empathy for feet whose shoes bite, like mine. So many people’s failures are mine and cries of grief emanating as if from my lungs. I don’t hurt with rude words, even less with actions. I do try, at least, unless you hurt me or mine. Those who work for me never leave, those I have worked for are kind enough to call me caring. But what do I do in deed which can confirm to me that I am a compassionate person? No alms giving, no adopting. No routine cause-hankering, no fancy charity fairs. No impulsive gifting, no unaffordable donating. I could almost be the most apparently cold-blooded person on your friend list who moves not a finger till she feels. Gosh! What do I do to prove that I am compassionate? 

Mumma, wipe my nose please, or puppy will get a cold from me’ and the thoughts break with a prick. Oh no, not again. Please let it not grow into congestion. He feels so uncomfortable. He even thinks his stuffed toy will get a runny nose.

And then I realize, just like charity begins at home perhaps compassion begins right there too, along with answers and definitions to big words which need have no absolute versions. Just like the thousands of bloggers who wrote so passionately on the 20th of February, I too was looking to get in touch with the compassionate corner of my heart… 

Spent sleepless nights when he slept hot with fever, feeling the heat in my every bone. Spent impatient days when I knew he’s burdened in office, and today he needs a respite, he looked so. In tending to their needs, keeping mine aside or feeling loved when the pain was mine, this time. One feels towards toy animals and dolls, the other towards everyone who touches his life. And as I admire those compassionate acts done by my loved ones, I learn on-the-go to see what compassion really, truly means. I also realise where we discover true compassion breathing silently is what we call home, because real love breathes alongside. And there can be no compassion where there is no love.

Is that a selfish kind of compassion I feel, unable to fully grow beyond the hearth, and embrace all in one unconditional hug? 

I don’t know. 

Do I want to know right now? 

No. His nose is running, and him I need to be with. Or his puppy will get a cold, and he will then be 'hurt in the heart'.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Book Review – Kamadeva; The God of Desire by Anuja Chandramouli




I was sitting and reading Anuja Chandramouli’s ‘Kamadeva; The God of Desire’ on a peaceful Mahashivratri day when I read Shiva being called ‘an uncouth, unwashed ascetic who reeked of corpses, blood and decay’. I laughed a scared laugh. If reading a quarter of this book had not confirmed my fear already, I knew for sure now that I’d be damned! Unless of course the Gods and Goddesses (though mostly Gods) enjoy the same sense of humour that Anuja has so delightfully put to use in telling us the story of the ‘boy with a toy bow’, Kamadeva. I hope they do, because in this book wit is just one of the many subversive weapons this writer employs to create a thoroughly entertaining and proudly sacrilegious story. 

Chuck the blurb. ‘Kamadeva’ is not just about the juicy Kama’s journey from the magnificent Kingdom of Amravathi, through the preordained Third Eye curse and to the destiny where form or no form he is nuzzling Rati’s neck ever-so-gently. This book draws within its satirical folds the complete pantheon of Hindu gods and demi-gods (okay, the pop ones anyway!) and makes a running commentary on their polygamous lives full of lust love but times wrought with mindless wars and ill-tempered curses. The goddesses, in the meantime, take the sassy cake for speaking our minds, albeit in clothing, context and with husbands we wouldn’t exchange in this lifetime. 

This book is, thus, an antithesis to mythology as we know it, or as Anuja lovingly calls it ‘pages upon pages of philosophical, pleonastic gobbledegook that will easily take entire lifetimes to comprehend’ which our grandmothers tried their best to make us swallow, whole. Remember? This slap-n-stick satire I’d like to call “mythology told from below”. Yes, yes, what subaltern means too. 

How was this grand irreverent swim across the Milky Way successfully achieved? 

Damn-it Wit

Kamadeva’ is an exemplary book to see how language can be a tool for subversion. Anuja has used colloquial and slangy language on sacred clouds and meditative mounts. This intentional juxtaposition not just takes the sheen off the divine but replaces it with a wit’s-eye view of what is traditionally sacrosanct. She has not just humanized the Gods but has pulled them down to earth with such might that you would believe it is your libido talking, not just theirs. Brahma, Indra, Shiva, Vishnu right down to Arjuna haven’t escaped her arrows of satire. Her sweet wit is a kitten’s paw hiding the claws. Or not.

Brahma has been ‘injudiciously indulging his coarser passions’, with his only ‘saving grace’ being that he took his job of creation very seriously. Kama candidly admits to Vishnu that his father has ‘repressed sexuality and anger issues’, which, to be fair to Brahma, most of them seem to enjoy. The ‘duplicitous prick’, Indra is the ‘bloody bugger’ who has ‘shamelessly manipulated, cheated, lied, killed’. Krishna is always encouraged to ‘conjure up more evil plots that masquerade as universal truths or some such jazz’. And Arjun? ‘One of the most annoying men that ever lived with his incessant demands on Krishna’. Phew! ‘What say you?

That was a time of such love that Kama and Rati ‘explored every conceivable and inconceivable kind of sexual union in addition to honing the skills of kissing, embracing and the oral arts.’ That was also a time of much stress, for Indra always said ‘We are in deep shit!’ and many a time ‘underwear in a bunch’ were the norm. There is so much conspiracy hatching that letting 'nature run its course’ is akin to ‘get down on my knees and pry open my butt cheeks to allow (enemies) easier access’, as Indra puts it. Women like Maya were doing ‘Godkind and mankind a big favour’ by not letting go of their perky breasts and ‘normal sized privates in order to push war-like sons Shambara so desired’. And there are prophesies which ‘reek of bullshit’ and ideas of beauty in a woman which meant ‘hypermammiferous or possessed of an exceptional rear’. Of course, it was ladies like blind-folded Gandhari who had ‘amassed a sizeable amount of ascetic merit’, in the end.

And I've not even begun with the examples. Really, you’ll be damned!

Asura Speak

The book has given fair space to the opinions of Asuras who had been vanquished by the Devas in the epic clash. Akhirsen, the demon king, enlightens Maya about the ‘pathetic inbred rodents… puny bastards… Devas’ who tricked them into losing the Amrita and relates to her the ‘diabolical propaganda engineered' by themThe demons tell us of Devas’ tales of ‘debauchery and perversions that would make a rock blush’ and the reader secretly nods, and then blushes. Shambara, Maya’s husband, wisely pronounces how there are ‘no good guys or bad guys’ and while history is written by the victors ‘only death ever makes a killing’. He even says ‘I fight because I will not be anybody’s bitch – and that is about as honourable as I can be’. We hear you, Shambara!

Women, wo-man!

Make no mistake. The ladies of the Three Worlds in ‘Kamadeva’ are no chip of the old block. They are endowed with features that make divine loins shiver with excitement and also a tongue which when afire make bladders shudder. Except, the menfolk enjoy their temper troubles so much that pronouncing a curse to turn them into stone or mere mortals, or ‘using’ them as seductive baits to tempt ascetics out of merit are activities with no qualms attached. Even Krishna tells Pradyumma to help him for ‘there is a beautiful young maiden to be had as a reward’. Still, listen to this! 

Kama’s heavenly wife Rati goes on record to say ‘illicit sex trumps a violent self-inflicted death any given day of the week’ but is clear as crystal when she states ‘I cannot and will not take second place to anyone’. Why, she even dares Shiva to ‘admit that you behaved despicably  … or I will strike you’. After a long journey to Earth and back, with Kama/Munna, her final word is that ‘I am sick and tired of all the fuss over the bloody soul’. Your thoughts too?

Rati is saddened to think how poor women have to remain trapped in stone when there ‘are people who have sinned simultaneously in thought, word and deed and they are free to roam’. Rambha, herself ‘stoned’ for a thousand years, forces Kama to hear her story of downfall and ‘don’t you dare roll your eyes at me, your Majesty or I will dump this jug … on your royal head!’ Kama of the cute-butt fame butts in to remind all of Goddess Durga ‘a mighty warrior despite her sex or even in spite of it’ and we know instantly why women loved him so. No jug was emptied on his head.

But if I were to love a woman it would be Maya, Kama’s Munna’s divine/earthly mother/wife. ‘All men are nothing but giant pricks’ and ‘not everybody has what it takes to be a good mother’ are applause-worthy. I also screamed an orgasmic yes, yes, yes when - ‘My dearest husband, I pray that in our next life, there will be a much-needed role reversal and I’ll be the man to your woman … I sow my wild oats with gay abandon and marry as many women as I feel like’.

Yeah!

 In all of this, Kama, where art thou? 

Everywhere. He’s the confident God of Desire whose ‘mind does seem to match the perfection of my butt’ up above the world so high where love is equal to ‘desire met sexual delight’. He’s not just important and relevant but intensely needed, really. His role in the book is of a hinge around which this window to divinity is opened for us by Anuja. His role in ‘his life’? Well, if the Lord of Heaven is to be believed – ‘you get to be exhibitionists without actually being exhibitionists, voyeurs without actually being voyeurs and willing partners in exploring the limits of your libido, while genuinely believing yourselves above that sort of depravity.’ How lovely, no! Even in his mortal avatar, in Munna’s ‘company the other boys found even cleaning latrines a fun thing to do’.  Such a charmer!

Not all is hunky-dory for him, though. Often, he’s the ‘sacrificial goat’ at the altar of political conspiracy, feeling like a piece of ‘dog turd’ even though not looking it. As Munna with his two wives, Maya and Rukmavathi, life is interesting – ‘One would drink the nectar of immortality and call it piss, the other would drink piss and thank the Gods.’ Sandwiched!

I would say Kamadeva should be feeling fortunate for all this, for had he not mused – ‘I will be lucky if I am remembered enough to be featured prominently in pornographic material; worse … lampooned as the divine pimp!

Thanks to Anuja, we will remember him as all of that and more!

I should stop… 

All the Three Worlds are on a stage, and Anuja the sole puppeteer-cum-ventriloquist of it all, with naughty Narada her sutradhaar. She has loaded the book with velvet-edged wit and loaded those witticisms with her opinions on everything that sacred texts stand for, and fail to stand up for. Towards the end of the book, the events as we know them take over and Kama, along with his enjoyable wit, hurriedly recedes to the background with a sagging narration and death of brevity. But that doesn’t take away from the book, or its neck-nuzzling end. Interestingly, the topicality of women's roles, marriage, idea of love, mothers-in-law, society, vamps, MCPs, sex, adultery, big breasts, etc. would magically transport you to your own society and its true-life reflection in TV soaps. With an ‘almighty dose of poetic license’ Anuja has truly shown how one uses laughter to make a point about the laughers themselves. 

This book should be well-received by anyone who enjoys a good sense of humour and keeps touchiness at bay when it comes to discussing matters divine. Subversive, subaltern, sacrilegious, soppy Gods, sassy-seductive-Goddesses and lots of sex. If this doesn’t make you pick up the book, God help you! 

[PS - I do wonder how those parents who have named their children after these Gods and Goddesses will receive the epithets lovingly reserved for some of their favourite deities here. Oh, I’ll be damned!] 

'Kamadeva; The God of Desire' by Anuja Chandramouli is a Rupa publication, 2014

[This review was commissioned by Rupa Publications. Views are my own.]

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Book Review – A Second Spring … brings new hope by Sandhya Jane


Sandhya Jane’s debut novel ‘A Second Spring … brings new hope’ reminded me of some novels by Indian women writers that I have read in the recent past. It also raised in my mind the same questions as contemporary women-centric works bring to the fore. Which is not to say ‘A Second Spring’ has been done before. It enjoys its own story-line and characters. Yet, it fits into the thematic mould of modern Indian women's writing rather well.

Avantika is a doting single mother and a successful investment banker, juggling her two roles with determination and discipline. Her confidence awes her colleagues and even more her juniors; Rohan, the attractive and smart aspiring banker, being no exception. Except, the handsome Rohan catches Avantika’s fancy in return too. The story proceeds as dual narrations alternating between Avantika’s thoughts and Rohan’s; their individual struggles with the idea of unconventional love yet their slowly growing dependence on and attraction for each other. Fate and free will both play a role in shaping their lives and easing the story onwards. Both protagonists speak directly to the readers throughout the book, spread over many years of their lives, but by the end of the novel the reins of the story are entirely in Avantika’s hands. Her ideas come to occupy centre-stage, eventually leading to the book's pleasantly surprising end and painting the aforementioned themes of women-centric novels in mature hues. Even though the blurb plays spoil sport by laying bare the whole story of ‘A Second Spring’, this review promises to say no more about the story.

The contemporary relevance of ‘A Second Spring’ lies in the issues that the book deals with. Marital troubles, single mothers, working professionals, younger lovers, tough decisions, opinions, power struggle between the sexes and how the presence of children defines and gives difficult dimensions to unconventional love affairs. 

The appeal of the book lies in the character of Avantika – the way she has been created and the manner in which her thoughts and mental conflicts are portrayed, in her own voice and through Rohan’s narrations. What is also charming is the unhurried pace at which this love story progresses, especially in Part I of the book. That both the protagonists speak directly to the readers keeps the readers involved, often feeling like confidants into their secrets. 

Avantika – the characterisation

The first predominant image of Avantika is of a mother who ‘wasn’t sure how I was going to manage carrying a child on my shoulder, three bags, and a travel mug of chai, but somehow I managed. I always did’. Strains of motherhood dot this working woman’s workaday as we see her chairing board meetings and rocking her son to sleep with equal ease. She does manage, knowing ‘small things counted big time’ with ‘the only man in my life’, Aarav, her son. 

Sandhya managed to create a calm and complete life for Avantika, up until Avantika develops feelings of concern (and more) for another man, Rohan. Reality dawns – ‘At my age, at that time and level of success, one tended to fool oneself into believing that one had outgrown the need for admiration and excitement’. Being a woman who took risks but always on her own terms, dreams of unhindered love are always qualified with restraint. In the meantime, the fire is burning as brightly for the ‘boss-lady’ in Rohan’s six-years-younger heart, whose ‘basic innocence that people like me had lost along the way’ makes Avantika realize a part of herself which no longer exists. In keeping with everything about her, it is Avantika who opens her arms to Rohan, literally, in a scene beautifully rendered and expressed as ‘it was a bit awkward, but it felt so good, like this was just how it was meant to be’. Avantika makes the first move. 

Each chapter gives voice to the conflict that is tearing at the unconfessed lovers’ insides. While Avantika’s somewhat maternal love for Rohan occupies her existence, to the extent of putting her time for her son at stake, Rohan cannot keep the thoughts of his conservative family away from his unconventional love story and though he ‘loved her too … (but) was confused by her’.

The maturity with which Sandhya has created Avantika make her doubts and dealings extremely real – ‘Soon, he would have no time for me. I could see the lonely road ahead of me’ – she muses, with age, marital status and professional success in life throwing up barriers to what she saw as wanton lust but knew as affection like never felt before. But her strength of character rules when things go amiss. ‘I had no intentions of waking down that path again just because the great man had had a change of heart’, and all feelings are sent into ‘deep freeze’ when Rohan walks out of the scene. Avantika is a thinking woman, and a doer too. 

Interestingly, this is where Part II begins, and this is the exact point where we see Avantika maturing up into a content woman, in touch with herself and one who has come to terms with the reality, albeit many miles from Mumbai, in a foreign country. Some beautiful scenes of contemplation, as one spring leads to another and Aarav grows up, offer us peeps into this woman’s evolving mind, still a mother first. She is alone, but not lonely, living in a community where ‘those sweet little homes looked happy to me – the very embodiment of family life. At least, this was the closest I came to it.’ Her child is a constant presence in her life, as are her studies, a friend who is ‘a sounding board for my deepest thoughts’, meditation and spiritual writing. 

And Rohan? Reconciliation has seeped in with his absence, and so has belief in destiny, a destiny which throws up another surprise her way. This time however, Avantika is far from what she left behind. ‘Do I need to forgive him? Do I need to accept him?’ You need to read to find out what happens, but I’ll leave you with these last words of a wonderfully created character and who makes an excellent life-choice in the end – 

These days, the highs and lows of life don’t get to me and I wonder if it’s acceptance or just indifference. Either way, I don’t get too involved in things beyond my control and that includes people… these days, words like passion, commitment, and forever sound strange to me.

I couldn’t help but wonder how much of Sandhya’s own life’s philosophy has been used to create Avantika. It has to be the author baring her own mind through her character’s. The portrayal is so straight-from-the-heart that it cannot be any other way. Or can it? That the language has been kept simple and conversational, and devoid of heavy philosophy and lyricism that love stories are wont to have make it seem as if Sandhya knows these two people, for real.   

Slow unfolding – the pace

Sandhya did remarkably well in keeping the pace of ‘A Second Spring’ slow. Also, there is no noise of too many characters. How else would the thoughts of the two main characters occupy prominence and keep the reader listening, attentively? Avantika and Rohan’s love is not in a hurry, and the plot unfolds in tune with that speed. Part I shows us their connection building in strength, slowly but steadily. From ‘strange chemistry’ to ‘living in his company, unknowingly’; from entering a pub after six years to finally catching herself opening her hotel door to him in her nightdress, this book is as much Love’s story of growth as it is a love story. Of course, ‘the power struggle is an inevitable aspect of the man-woman relationship’ and so while I insist on calling it ‘love’, the story is a sweet, romantic rendition of the former too. 

In Part II, even though the linear narrative often skips many years together, the plot’s crests and troughs are kept limited to the central theme of the book; although by now we are more interested in Avantika’s story and Rohan calmly recedes to the background.

Ifs and buts

Of course, there are some. For instance, why has Sandhya felt obliged to explain every Hindi term in parenthesis right in the middle of the narrative? I thought it was unnecessary and also successful in breaking the reading flow. A glossary at the back of the book would have done just fine!

Then, at some points near the end of the book I realized how the readers are still being introduced to characters’ traits through the two narrations. It was not just late in the day but also  not required, because by then we knew Avantika and Rohan like the back of our hands. After all, it had been them talking about each other throughout the book.

Rhea’s reality (read to know more) was an unnecessary thread and I so wished Aarav, at the end of the book, got a chapter to voice his life. That would have been a fitting way to see a mature mother’s hard work in flesh-and-bones. Maybe, in a sequel to the book? 

Conclusion

A Second Spring’ is a tale about love with two protagonists but only one who manages to leave a mark in our thoughts. The book is how the story unfolds around her musing – ‘Thank God for normalcy. Thank God for family. I didn’t need anyone else, did I?’ and how she realizes that she does need someone only to re-examine her own decision, yet again. Overriding it all is ‘my sense of survival’ and a fantastic end which comes like a ‘Pleasant shock; joyous, explosive, unbridled’ making you wonder why the subtitle reads ‘It’s all about destiny’. Because this book is more about a mature woman’s bold, brave and wise decision-making ability rather than the fickleness of Fate alone. 

An easy and enjoyable read for lovers of this genre.


'A Second Spring ... brings new hope' has been published by Sandhya Jane, 2014

[This review was commissioned by the author. Views are my own.]
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