Wednesday, 22 July 2015

C for Chuckle in D for ‘Dating, Diapers and Denial’ by Rachna Singh

In a big, bad globe spinning around the mundane, both the home and the world often feel like the weight which shrugged Atlas, and not just on Mondays. (Sigh) Then comes along a book like a cylinder of fresh laughing gas. Rachna Singh’s ‘Dating, Diapers and Denial’ is that. It left me giggling like a 4-year-old (even though I am 16 now!)

The book is a mock-self-help, with 15 lessons which Rachna learnt or which she wants us to give serious thought to on a good-humored day. It is about men, women and children, but mostly about them together in one tea cup, stirred while juggling their roles and messing Rachna’s seldom-combed hair. 

Her imagination is wild, but this is clearly her real life and so candidly shown you would wonder if your family would cook you if you threw open your house’s back door for a ‘comical view of life from a woman’s perspective’. She has done exactly that, in an organized and fair manner. Organised because the chapters (Lessons) follow a neat chronology of homely phases of evolution – dating to diapers to denial (about age, you know). And fair, because she’s not lampooning just men but boys all ages! 

On men and marriage

For some of us marriage happens. As suddenly there are men growing out of our couches. The husband variety is a particularly interesting species. Lesson 1 itself tells you that ‘You will learn that real men really forget’, but when women dig mushy memories they ‘insist that the recall and recall alone is evidence of true love’. Why shouldn’t they? Men, however, with an ‘inner mind … operated via a TV remote’ never meet our memorable expectations!  

All roles that men have to play are important. But none as much as the one ‘to record your performance on the video camera’ during the society celebrations for Independence Day or selection for Teej Queen. Successfully? Not in this book, no.  

But men are human too, even though one may believe they’re half-man half-remotes. They age just like any normal human and go into denial. What do they do, apart from getting ‘multiple gym memberships’? They buy, like Rachna says, motorbikes, which:

they park in the garage, or … under a tree. They clean these bikes, talk to them, and pretend to repair them with expensive tool-kits. Of course, they don’t ride the bikes because a) the wife has made it clear that the roads are not safe. b) the doctor has told him that his back cannot be subjected to this extreme stress. The spare parts are expensive too, so these men try to sell their kidneys for them. But by now, the only place accepting their kidney is the National Institute of Fossil Sciences.’ 

When age sets in for a woman (obviously much later than men!) and she has found her voice, the man at home mutates into 'a casual observer (who) has just woken up and turned up the volume of the cricket match and is, at best, vaguely aware, that there is some blurred silhouette of a mid-to-large-sized female in the corner of his eye. It seems to be saying something.’ No surprise then that our maids and support staff not just help us but ‘are used as role-models during spousal fights’.

We can't blame women. Do you know what we go through to bear kids?!

On childbirth and parenting

And here’s an excerpt:

‘Childbirth was not easy! In fact, our first-born, Aisha, was born in extremely alien conditions: at a hospital in Kawasaki in Japan. The only English term those guys knew back then was ‘curry and chutney’ used while ordering ‘curry and chutney’ at any Indian or Pakistani restaurant. And, the only Japanese word we knew was ‘Sayonara’ taught to us by Asha Parekh. Combining the two, one could not do much except have dinner and part: both activities not quite directly relevant to childbirth.

The Japanese government was very kind to us and provided us with the services of an interpreter. We were grateful till we read the fine print: we had to pay her by the hour. The thought of it gave both of us severe uterine contractions. In both cases, it turned out to be a false alarm, since I never went into labour, and Alok discovered he didn’t have a uterus.

Since I did not go into labour, and it was seven days over the due date, they finally decided to operate. It was a unique c-section operation conducted with the help of placards to communicate:

I must have laughed a lot through the procedure, perhaps giving them an inaccurate cross-cultural lesson: ‘Indians laugh a lot during childbirth’. Maybe, it’s part of the curriculum of the Tokyo University for International Relations now.'

Rachna has a wide array of experiences to share as a parent, and lessons learnt too. Say, how new age parents cannot rely on threats of ‘Budhdha baba’ anymore. Kids know there is no old man out to get them, ‘and the old man you point to is Ram Jethmalani, in conversation with Arnab Goswami. And he is not out to get them. At this age, there are few things he ‘gets’.

So, with kids you need to be ready. With new-age treats, with threats, with non-organic vacations and with answers especially for the ‘acid test’ questions, which feature God. Rachna helps.

Through anecdotes from her own childhood to what our kids consider their childhood, Rachna manages to paint two generations in two different contexts (with Bobby, the male doll in moulded plastic band-master’s dress … ‘who had socks that just grew on him of the same material as his legs were’ making a guest appearance and marrying many female dolls!)

On women, and everything about them!

A lot of feminine ground is covered in ‘Dating, Diapers and Denial’. That is, the various issues which beset women at myriad stages of their lives. From keenly observing ‘increased political activity in a group of girls’ during playtime to later in uncannily similar kitty parties, Rachna gives us a peep into social behavior that we see when more than one women are put together in a tea cup, or in a gym. She even shows us the hilarity of being a work-from-home mother.

She loves meeting old people, ‘but if I peel the layers, it’s really about being addressed as “you youngsters” by them’. She stands at that ‘awkward age. Older cousins are becoming grandparents; younger ones are still getting married.’ 

I feel it’s time to start a movement for equal, non-discriminatory facilities at discos. I ask, why are there no wheel chairs at Tito’s? Why can’t they have ‘Geriatric Nites’ as well?’

I agree!

India, and abroad

India as we know it emerges; as a land where ‘according to the Book of Indian Politics, if you can walk around and breathe, unassisted, you are young.’ Where a doctor’s entourage 'comprises doctors, nurses and some MNS volunteers, who are on a project to uphold Indian values in wards.’ And where prime time can be rather confusing, thus:

During the news telecast the TV screen is sliced into several disconnected sections … For instance, Mayawati behenji wagging a finger and making a stern point is not to be linked to the scrolling line below: ‘Breaking News: Salman Khan decides to marry his dream woman’. And certainly not to the animated ad ‘I-pill set them free.

Lesson 8 insists that ‘You will want to come back to India’, especially if you are in Japan where there are too many words to denote ‘apology’ from ‘I am sorry’ to ‘I-am-appalled-at-having-offended-you-can-I-bear-your-child-as-an-apology’? NRIs don’t escape her wit. ‘Irrespective of which country we were in, our lives seemed to be under a cloud. On closer inspection, it was found that the cloud was a mass of soap bubbles, under which we washed dishes, day after miserable day!’

Now if only she had elucidated on the gifts NRIs get for their “poorer cousins” in the third world, I would have stood up on my chair and applauded. 

So, what did I learn? 

That for my forgetful husband I will do as Rachna advises; create events: ‘Remember you promised on our anniversary I could buy that bracelet if I stuck to my diet plan? The combined effect of ‘remember’ and ‘anniversary’ will get you more than the bracelet.

That out of the ‘two options, one is to find a good parent role model whom you can emulate or a bad parent contrast against whom you can look very good’, I pick the latter. 

That I swear to free women-folk from oppression. ‘And what better way to do it than to mete out the same treatment to the men, giving them a taste of their own medicine?

That other people’s husbands too have a super colour palette of ‘stone grey t-shirt and stone grey shorts, embellished fashionably with a stone grey belt and stone grey party sandals.’ (On this note, I forgive him!)

And, that if writing humour is tough work, reviewing it is even more. This here has lengthened like a rubber-band and I haven't told you half of it yet …

Dating, Diapers and Denial’ is Rachna’s “autobiography” but you realize it is a one-size-fits-all stand-up comedy act about our everyday lives. We women will relate to the anecdotes and enjoy, and men are requested to have a good sense of humour. The humour is warm not dry, and with witticisms delivered with a straight-face and right when you are not expecting them. 

This was a fun and funny read.  

'Dating, Diapers and Denial' by Rachna Singh is published by Alchemy Publishers, 2011.

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

Saturday, 18 July 2015

Why I do not review books for free

Recently, an author with a book warm and fresh from the press mailed me. He wanted me to review it. Came down straight to the point in a two-lined mail 1 itself – ‘Where should I send you a copy?’ No, he did not ask me what the procedure is, he did not want to know what I charge as a fee and he certainly seemed to assume it’s going to be a ‘yes’ from my end, as if Richard Gere were asking for my hand in marriage! 

Is this because he thought he was sending a copy of his book, free, so which sane woman in her write mind would refuse an offer such as this?

When I mentioned that I do commissioned reviews only, he sent a shorter mail saying ‘Sorry, I’m not comfortable with paying for a review.’ If he had explained more, I wouldn’t have said a loud Punjabi ‘Hain?’ to denote anything from ‘Why in Jupiter’s name?’ to ‘What the Pluto does he mean?’ Since he did not, I felt free to call him stingy, secretly, and then sit and simmer over it. 

Simmer. Simmer over the fact that some writers, who themselves must have ranted against doing free assignments all their lives, are not ready to pay for your date with their book – reading it, reviewing it and then expectantly so, sharing it in their social media networks. They are, ahem, ‘uncomfortable’. 

Their view, I assume? If we pay you you will write a biased review. And we want an honest review. (Another assumption that the soul is sold if they pay in cash for our glass of lassi!)

Okay. But then – 
- A free book may be reward enough for someone to sing your praises?
- The possibility of a contact for a fancy literary fest could be incentive enough to call your book            a best-seller? 
- That overuse of ‘dear’ and ‘I love your writing’ and ‘lovingly yours’ may make someone fall in            love with your book as much as your nature, enough to make the love flow cover-to-cover?
- They may admire your nose and ears combination and may translate that 5 star attraction into a            10/10 review?

My story. 

When I began reviewing on my blog, I did a handful of reviews without charging a fee. I was a new name, no one had read my reviews before and I had an old-school idea of ‘let them get a sense of how I review and then I’ll charge a fee’. In short, I wanted to earn my right to ask for and earn my buck. I was testing the waters in the blogging world while giving a taste of my wine to prospective authors.

I was putting in everything I could to review in my own way. To be different, successfully or not. And to be independent of popular schools of review methodology, very successfully. But ‘different’ is not an idea which gets accepted too fast. While writing the reviews was enjoyable, hearing ‘your reviews go over my head’ or ‘who are you reviewing for?’ or ‘give a star rating, please’ from readers was so discouraging I would feel conscious simply thinking about charging a fee. 

Till some friends (and one husband) took me by the shoulders, shook me awake and told me to not do any book reviews for free, or any writing either no matter how much you enjoy it, you idiot! Not in the name of friendship or family friends; not in the name of their God or your dog. This is your work. This is what you do! So, there were 3 and a half people who pushed me off the sagacious cliff of ‘let me earn (read justify) my buck’ to the waters of ‘you have earned your buck, crazy!’ And that was that!

Looking back, I thank them for that plunge, even though the first time I mailed my fee to a commissioning author I didn’t breathe for a while. I am glad for the push because subconsciously I was becoming what so many authors and publishers want book reviewers to be – Professional but unpaid means of publicity, which they politely call ‘feedback’. 

They convince you they trust you, implore they value your feedback, they assure you they cannot do without it before their next book and then they knot their brows in incomprehension, clear their throats and shuffle off if you say ‘Okay, I charge 1 million dollars per review.’ Or so the numbers seem to them. ‘We’ll find someone else. There are plenty around’ or worse ‘I thought she was my friend. Sob sob’. 

A friend who should not dare to contribute to her family income, or collect funds towards her next hair cut? Hm. 

Why I do not review books for free?

1. Time – Just like you, I don’t have a big slice of this cheesecake just to myself. Of course, I have no office to go to, but there is a reason I work from home, right? A book review typically means reading the book 8 am – 11 am (apart from bathing, minding house, managing maid, getting ready for school to pick up my kid) and then 3 pm – 5 pm (fighting bone-tiredness, sleep, heat, lethargy, season’s vagaries, empty stomach sometimes since after feeding kid who wants to cook for oneself?). I have tried to read post-dinner, but I have a family. And I never can extricate myself from the bed-TV madness that we like to indulge in. It's valuable "personal time" to me. One book may take three days to read and another three to write review. Weekends included! That is a lot of time, considering I could have written a few articles for my column, done some posts for the blog or simply trimmed my nails, shaved my head or joined a meditation camp and laughed my lungs out. I did not. I had a book to review. And I spent a good amount of time at it. 

2. Effort – c.f. Point 1. Add a few thousand units of Horse Power to it.

3. Respecting another’s worth – And this is the most important thing we are missing in our lives. Even if we recognize another’s work’s worth, we don’t want to respect it. Yes, I am linking respect to money because a fee acknowledges your talent and encourages it too. Some authors who mail sing my praises, but zip it up when I say ‘all reviews are commissioned’. They go away, feeling ‘uncomfortable.’ There are many who do not even respond to the mail mentioning the fee. Why do we want services for free, when we ourselves wouldn’t sit on a television panel like a famous authorial voice on human liberty without asking ‘Do you pay an honorarium?’ Is the idea of availing cheap/free labour so built into our systems that we cannot acknowledge worthiness over nothing? Or is it, rather disturbingly, that we have created invisible pyramids of socio-professional hierarchies in the writing world too where the author is just below the publisher but far, far above a puny book reviewer. And grass can’t be a tigress, how dare she roar and decide to be a chooser!

[I look at that poor sarkari driver my neighbour feels comfortable to call, even on Sundays, assuming he has nothing to do with his own family, but take the officer's out for a picnic in the Lodhi Gardens. All day. Assuming he doesn't need personal time. And then, what compensation can suffice for taking a husband or a dad away from his chutti at home, or a man away from his bed? I look at him, and I empathize. He's not expected to ask for that compensation. It rings a bell.]

Authors are putting in sacks of money to promote their books. They forgo royalty, pay literary agents to polish and pitch their books, hire digital media experts to promote it and sell a few family heirlooms (or wear them) to stand behind their books like a mother would behind her chick running the first race in KG. I can understand that pride, and wish someday my pen gives me the opportunity to feel it too, but I cannot fathom the ‘discomfort’ in paying for another’s time, effort and worthy work to do with something so dear to them.

Am I trying to convert those book reviewers who, like me once, are too afraid to ask for a sum? No. But do I wish them to get converted to this side of the fence, where remuneration for writing and reviewing should reflect the effort, time and even talent that they put in? Yes! 

The season’s or its end’s sales are in the malls. Your souls won’t read ‘sold’ just because you asked for a fee. Let there be no ‘discomfort’! 

On either side of the fence. 

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Kirthi Jayakumar's lament, in ‘The Dove’s Lament’

Kirthi Jayakumar begins ‘The Dove’s Lament’ with a very telling ‘Author’s Note’. Kirthi makes known how she got acquainted with the idea of war and conflict, and with teeming curiosity to ‘cut the small talk and go right down to know what happened to the people’, read and researched beyond the spoon-fed parts of  world history. She also makes clear her solidly rooted aim behind writing stories based in myriad conflict zones. ‘An attempt to present facts through fictitious stories’, by not just following each story with a short history behind it, but also, and most essentially, by showing us the human face of universal conflicts.  Thus, what began as a personal attempt to put to rest questions plaguing her mind evolved into a larger idea of raising the same mature questions in the readers’. 

Symbolically speaking, the dove flies over many countries to make us see through its eyes. And lament, alongside. From the genocide in Rwanda to war-stricken Bosnia; from child marriages in India to prostitution in Columbia; and from Bachi Baazi in Afghanistan to the fight of faiths in Kashmir, Kirthi shows us the different hues of gory tragedy. But what she also shows is how the unvanquished human spirit shines in the same glorious colour across oceans and seas.

But before anything else, we need to see the ‘conflicts tearing people apart’.

War – within and without

Kirthi finds people like you and me (‘just two ordinary people forced into conflict by circumstances’) – mothers, fathers, friends, sons, daughters, neighbours and creates around them a story, which is mostly an episode; like a scene of crime and coincidence, crying or deathly calm. Sometimes loud with bullets and other times deafening in their sneaky silence, these scenes of bloodshed and tension have been visually described to the last sob. Or the last breath, whichever comes first. If this sounds dark to you, it should. Because no attempt has been made to paint conflict in any colour other than the most real one. And neither the characters nor the author make an attempt to disguise reality. 

The genocide in a church in Rwanda is ‘the unholy sacrifice at the altar of hatred and contemptuous perceptions’, which is what most wars are. War, ‘the anger, residing in the crust of few, engulfs the core of many, denuding and destroying the very fabric of humanity, in its wake.’ You will meet a soldier in Israel to whom ‘it didn’t matter … that he had done the very thing that was done to him’, because men are caught in a vicious cycle of giving and receiving, even hate. Young boys in Afghanistan being traded for entertainment and sex know ‘we were just that: currency’, like girls being married at the age of seven. And even in the ‘Desiccated Land’ called Kashmir ‘people fought on borrowed hate’ and mobs ‘wore their ideologies on their sleeves’. 

Kirthi is giving human voices to what remain mere statistics on television. What Kirthi is also doing, and which wonderfully adds poignancy to her lyrical prose, is basing each story around familial bonds and relationships - based on birth, loyalty or even the basic need for love. 

Kith, kin and strangers

It is hard to miss the recurrent theme of parents and children in each of the 12 stories. Conspicuous by their presence, two generations are seen witnessing, perpetrating or suffering together the outcomes of ‘plans hatched in comfortable offices’ and those sinister ones forced down from family councils. Often, the narrations shuttle between the past and the present, each by a parent or a child. These are perspectives, of the same families or different ones, about immediate circumstances or like notes in a diary, written in retrospect. 

You will see how a father worries for the safety of his son, but a page away another father sells his off for someone’s fun, and some money. A young boy’s tale contains the trauma of seeing his ‘mother-like sister’ being shot and yet another school boy in Peshawar gets saved by a ‘sister’ he knew not of. A baby with brittle bones is ‘perfect’ for his parents, as for their childless neighbours. 

And it is through coincidences of connection or those inescapable bonds of birth that these characters cross paths to create (or to destroy) the pure fabric that we believe Humanity must remain clad in. It is also through these characters that we see shine out in this otherwise disturbing book, the ‘unvanquished human spirit’. 

A tribute to the Human Spirit

The bugles don’t trill to announce and honour the indomitable human spirit that looks danger in the eye in ‘The Dove’s Lament’. That is because the dominant note is the somber one of death, and every page is grieving for a mindless loss. But, each story also vouches for the existence of the will to not just survive but to save, to shelter and to safe-keep a fellow sufferer amidst hopelessness. After all, ‘what does it matter who you are, or where you are from, when the pain you feel is from a wound that is collectively inflicted?’ Says the father being bundled up into a van with his son, for his son, during the Srebrenica Massacre:

When I look at my son, I marvel at him. I marvel at him not because he is mine, not because he is the youngest son, not because my other children are any lesser. I marvel at him because he survives. He is like a creeper … growing spectacularly against adversity by winding itself tight. He uses his every last tendril to suffocate difficulty with his power to survive, to strangle challenges with his gumption to defy. I watch him with amazement…

To tell you how the stories celebrate this spirit would be to reveal too much. It would take away surprise from moments when Hope makes a misty presence in this book. Likewise, it may not let you feel enough the tragic irony that Fate ends some stories with. The book is about the dark tunnel, but it also shows you a hint of light at the end of it.  

Faint, but there, this light. The author’s presence in the book, by contrast, is much more pronounced.

The Omnipresent Author

Kirthi Jayakumar is everywhere in the book. Through various characters, or even directly to us, Kirthi makes her opinions known. Perhaps, the clear-set aim behind the book led to this. Sometimes simple adjectives in the right places, like ‘brutally thrown out of their own homes when the occupation began’ tell us about her political bearings. But mostly, she’s showing both sides of the coin. Violence, though, is always ‘brutal’ or ‘mindless’ in her eyes.  

Her language bears her glorious stamp and you can sense it from a mile away. It soars with its symbolism, it impresses with its imagery and it makes us connect with her characters’ pains. Very few can make pain read so pretty or write about war-torn human hearts with this poignancy. The result is something very important. You find yourself empathizing with most of the characters. The book involves you in their stories, relating your pain to theirs and making their loss your own. 

That being the strength of Kirthi’s language prowess. And that being a strength not many books can boast of. 

Which also means …

 … separating Kirthi’s style of speaking from each of her narrator’s became impossible. Do most of the narrators sound the same? Yes. Is Kirthi’s philosophy on life, death, pain, loss, violence and war mouthed by every character? Yes. So, are the characters speaking in their own, ethnic styles in keeping with their contexts? No.

And this becomes a problem area for the book. There is much of Kirthi in all the mouths and each narrator’s language and style is unmistakably Kirthi’s. There is beauty in every speech, no doubt, but is there Rwanda in Habimana’s mama, or Israel in Amal? No. Perhaps not describing the characters in their physicality added to the effect of them all merging into one large entity – suffering, narrating and hence documenting. But then, some may argue, this may be the author’s way of giving one universal voice to sufferings of those who have a ‘scarred history uniting them’?  Like a lament that fits all!

Also, I couldn’t feel the geographical context as much as I wanted to. You know, the smell of food, those typical speech words, and descriptions of clothes that are peculiar to specific countries. While the intent was to make us aware about problem areas by travelling the world, the former happened but the latter did not. So while the scenes were powerfully created, the context remained weak.  

Kirthi began by asking herself: 

What about the people in the country themselves? When would they get to choose what they wanted? When would they get to paint the picture of peace that they liked best, with the colours of their choice?’ 

These stories don’t answer that. No one story can. ‘The Dove’s Lament’ is what Habimana’s mother laments – ‘I wanted the dead back. The silence around was too loud for me.’ This being Kirthi’s idea of re-telling history, a human version of history. While the stories don’t come together as ‘alternative history’ they do offer an explanation of how things were behind the scenes, or how they came to be , or how we are all bound with a rope of tragic irony. How often do you hear ‘what happened to you is why this is happening to us’ in history texts? ‘The Dove’s Lament’ becomes an attempt at understanding, apart from unearthing, newer truths in a world ridden with conflict. And all of this is done in a voice so mature and profound that it belies the author’s age.

A must read collection of stories, especially for those who like faithful representations of reality, no matter how bleak, put together in a well-written literary book.

'The Dove's Lament' by Kirthi Jayakumar is published by Readomania, 2015.

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

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