Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Journey Home by Radhanath Swami: Impressions

I recently resigned from work, having decided to take a two-year sabbatical to study. I hope to change the course of my career and consequently my life, choosing my passion over a safe, set career. Coming upon the story of Radhanath Swami’s spiritual journey at a time like this was probably a sign. The account of a young American boy’s internal conflicts, his thirst for a higher purpose and his subsequent finding of a spiritual home resounded well with my state. That said, I was disappointed by the literary quality (or the lack thereof) of the book. When I chose this book to read and review, I was expecting something like ‘Autobiography  of  a Yogi’. But I realized soon that this book was nothing like that spiritual classic. (I really want to question that ‘International bestseller’ sticker on the cover of this edition.)

But that’s not to undermine the things I took away from ‘The Journey Home’. Radhanath Swami’s journey is extraordinary to say the least, and mere mortals like us can only look on with awe and reverence.  Born Richard ‘Monk’ Slavin, Radhanath Swami’s childhood was spent surrounded by noble Jewish parents in an American suburb. In his youth, he discovered the counterculture of the hippies and did everything that the flower children did. At the age of 19, he set out to backpack across Europe with his friends to experience the adventure called life. But the call of the divine took him further on from Europe onward to India on a road trip. Travelling alone and often penniless, Monk experienced a number of thrilling, sometimes life-threatening, episodes as he crossed Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. en route.

Once in India, the author roamed the country, especially through the Himalayas and other holy places. He met the most accomplished Yogis and lamas, got a taste of the different spiritual schools and teachers, and spent months as an ascetic, observing strict austerities. He lived in caves, under trees, by river banks and begged for food, living like a true sadhu. But his heart would not find refuge in one place or philosophy, until he landed in Vrindavan. There, he discovered Krishna, the path of Bhakti Yoga, and ultimately his guru in Srila Prabhupada (the famed founder of ISKCON).

While Radhanath Swami’s journey is awe-inspiring, the book often gets boring to read. Whatever else he may be, Radhanath Swami is not a writer. His lack of skill makes even the most fantastic instances sound ordinary, and the spiritual insights he offers – peppered in italics through the book – often sound juvenile. It may be that these ‘insights’ were that of a 20-year-old American boy and hence are the way they are, or it is purely poor writing. I can imagine the editors of this book pussyfooting around the author because of his spiritual stature. Also the testimonials by famous people seem to have been made more because they couldn't turn down a holy man rather than because of the quality of the book. But as a reader and a critic, I find it hard to ignore the subpar literary production. So, unless you are particularly interested in the man and his mission, you can give this book a miss.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Menstrual Cup - a love story

I’ve had a dry creative run for the longest time. Nothing has been inspiring or challenging enough for me to want to write about. But then I came upon the menstrual cup, which has been nothing short of life-changing. I almost feel obliged to share information and experiences with the menstrual cup, with my fellow women. In a country where discussing menstrual anything is a taboo, I find it imperative to let women know about this wonderful product on menstrual hygiene. However, this is for tampon initiates and little virgin maidens who will use only pads and never consider anything ‘penetrative’, this is not for you.

Despite the information overload in the age of the Internet, I am willing to bet that LOT of Indian women have never heard about the menstrual cup. Heck, many don’t even know what a tampon is! I didn’t know about this product either, until a few months ago. One of my lovely Twitter friends from Australia shared a link about the menstrual cup, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that my life changed.

Types of menstrual cups

So, what is a menstrual cup? A menstrual cup is a 3-inch long, 2-inch wide cup made of surgical quality silicon that is inserted into the vagina to collect menstrual blood. This cup covers and sits at the mouth of the cervix, air sealed, thanks to the tiny holes on the cup’s sides. Because the cup is about 3-inch deep, it is able to collect a fair amount of menstrual discharge. The cup needs to be extracted after a few hours, emptied, washed and BINGO it’s ready for reuse. Did I want to try a product that was discreet, did not need disposal & re-purchase and was eco-friendly? Yessir!

I asked around some more, and was told that there are a couple of Indian companies making and selling this product. I ordered mine via phone from Shecup, a Bangalore-based company and the product was delivered to me in a swift couple of days.

While I had looked it up on the net, I wasn’t prepared for the size of the product. It seemed BIG in the beginning and I was like… “I’VE GOT IT SHOVE THAT THING IN?” Especially for someone who is accustomed to using a tampon, the menstrual cup seemed decidedly large and uncomfortable. And make no mistake; IT TAKES SOME TIME AND PRACTICE TO GET USED TO. It reminded me of my first days of using a tampon, when I was too scared to push it far in and sat awkwardly in office chairs, feeling poked, poked, poked all through the day. But as one gets used to all things, I mastered the tampon and thought it was the best thing to happen to womankind… until the menstrual cup came along (with its initial hiccups, of course).

Unlike the tampon, which has a string, the cup doesn't have a pull-out aid. I would initially push the cup too far back in. After a few hours, when it was time to empty out the cut, I would be having panic attacks in the loo because WHERE WAS THE FRIGGIN' CUP? I would gingerly push up my index finger – long nails and all – and not find the cup. Then I would push (not a good idea if you also have the urge to crap at the same time) and grunt and finally extract it from the great dark pits of my hoohah. Jackpot! I’m sure my joy would have rivaled a treasure hunter’s at that moment. Sure, it can make you a little squeamish in the beginning, holding a small cupful of your own menstrual blood. But you can play pretend, imagine you are a witch and throw the blood down the great magic pot-cauldron! Whee! PS: menstrual blood DOES NOT STINK. And this, especially for the chee-chee ladies, it is YOUR OWN BLOOD. Chill.

There is a technique of insertion and removal, which I mastered over the next couple of days and trust me, it’s not rocket science. Fold the cup nicely and gently insert it; just remember to not push it in as far as a tampon. You should be able to feel the stem of the cup; and no, it doesn’t poke. The cup gets pushed in a little more eventually anyway. To pull it out, squat or sit down and relax your vaginal muscles. Use your index and middle fingers to reach it, press the base of the cup lightly to release the air suction and gently pull out the cup. Try it pull it out straight, so that there are no spills. This will take some practice again, and should you spill a few drops of blood, it is easily cleaned up with water of tissues. And in a few times, you will be, ahem… pushing and pulling like a pro!

Once the cup has been pulled out and the menstrual fluid emptied into the toilet (and flushed down), wash the cup with anti-bacterial medicated soap. Wash your hands too before re-inserting the cup to minimize risk of infection. A freshly-inserted cup can easily serve its purpose for close to 8 hours (yup, you do not bleed THAT much), but of course it will change from one woman to another. At the end of your period, sterelise the cup in boiling water for about 10 minutes, and put it away until the next month in a soft cloth pouch. DO NOT STORE IT IN A PLASTIC CONTAINER – plastic tends to harden the cup. Stored and used properly, a silicon menstrual cup is said to last up to 10 years. However, the recommended change time is 1-2 years. Even so, it is highly cost-effective, considering a cup costs you only around INR 800.     

I strongly advocate this product, and think more women ought to know about and use it. It is discreet, comfortable, DOES NOT LEAK, medically safe, eco-sensitive, reusable and generally, a little boon. If you would like to know more, there is plenty of stuff online. And if you have any questions for me, I would be happy to answer them. Just DM me on Twitter or write to me on urmi.chanda@gmail.com.

Stranger to History by Aatish Taseer: Impressions

Many times during the course of 'Stranger to History', I admit trying to find Aatish Taseer's Twitter profile (with no luck). The more I read this book, the more curious I became about the author whose life seems to be an extraordinary case of ironies. I sought inane little details – as a person is wont to give away on Twitter – about Taseer, if only to humanise, 'normalise' him a little. Because going by the book, internal and external conflict is all he has ever lived by. Picture a set of parents belonging to different religions, living in different countries and divorced. Picture a little child who has only just known shadows of his father, forever clutching at straws of identity. It all befell Taseer's lot, and 'Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands' is his story.

Born as a lovechild to a rising Pakistani political activist and an Indian political journalist, Taseer's destiny seemed to bear the fault line of the Indo­Pak border. While his parents got married for a while, they divorced soon after, owing his Muslim father's political ambitions in Pakistan. His Sikh mother raised him in Delhi, with help from a host of Sikh relatives. Once a young man, Taseer is driven by a need to know his father and to truly understand what being a Muslim is. He sets out on a journey that takes him from Turkey to Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran to finally his father's doorstep in Pakistan.

Taseer samples the unique flavours the religion of Muhammad travelling through these Islamic states. Through his journalistic lens, he shows you the undercurrents of radical Islam in the largely secular Turkey, the monied 'Sheikh' culture of the Saudi, the oppressive religious regime in Iran, the constant political unrest in Syria and finally, the imploding state of Pakistan. It's a great bird's eye view of the current state of affairs in these nations and an eye­opener for people like me who do not follow global politics; especially the politics of religion. Because he is a journalist, Taseer's writing is analytical, but it is also delightfully lyrical in places. Through the people he meets during his travels, he personalises the account, without ever getting emotional.

That's not to say the book is devoid of emotion. The book is an intensely personal account of a search for identity. It is hard not to be moved by Taseer's confusion, occasional jubilation and often, rejection. The point of strife between Taseer and his father is the question of identity, with Taseer being Indian yet not, Pakistani yet not, Muslim yet not. His father's reluctant acceptance of him after many years, and a fresh rift owing to difference of opinion are painful to witness.

It is hard not to feel sorry for him, for ourselves and for our Pakistani neighbours, who live in this milieu of political mistrust. Taseer's life could well be an exaggeration of the conflict all of us, who live in the post 1947 world, feel. Pakistan's children, are perhaps in a worse place, having rejected all their shared history with India. It can't be nice growing up with a big black void in the collective social consciousness. Reading this book causes one to ask many questions about one's religious and national identities. These are important questions that need to be asked and for that, I thank Taseer.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Father's Day

I call this quick graphic tablet sketch Father's Day, what else? :)

And here the reference picture I used to make it. Features the two most important men in my life.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Women by Charles Bukowski: Impressions

The Internet is a strange amazing thing, and one without which life seems unimaginable now. One reads and meets the most incredible beings here, who sometimes repulse, sometimes attract and sometimes change one's life. I came upon one such curious creature called Charles Bukowski here. He came as a wave on social media. Suddenly one was seeing Charles Bukowski being quoted everywhere; and by everywhere I mean Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. Anyone who frequents these social media sites will know about waves like these: Rumi has had one, Neruda has had one, Agha Shahid Ali has had one. Lovers go about looking for their words – lovers of people, lovers of words, lovers of love. I am one too. So imagine how struck I was when I read this by Bukowski: Find what you love and let it kill you. No soft wave of love this; it was like being pounded by a big wall of water. And then came more such lines. Naturally, I ran off to Flipkart to buy me a Bukowski.

A prolific American author, Charles Bukowski has written extensively and compared to some of the finest writers of the 20 stood out for its title: Women (and the wonderful cover graphic!). I had to know what the great CB, who wrote brutally about love, had to say about women. So I bought it, read it, and now I am disappointed.

To put it mildly, 'Women' is not Bukowski's best work. Yes, the book is dark and direct, in true CB style, but there are few, if any, flashes of genius that I was seeking. Perhaps I was turned off by the gritty Americanism of the book. Such oppressive superfluousness! American literature has never appealed to me and Bukowski's 'Women' did nothing to change that.

 'Women' is a seemingly autobiographical story about a noir poet, whose new-found fame helps fund his debauched lifestyle. Protagonist Henry Chinaski is about 50 years old, an unrepentant alcoholic and will sleep with just about any woman. Wild women, volatile women, young women, blonde women, black women, fat women, thin women, trippy women, good women, whore women... Chinaski's conquests are endless. There is a love interest called Lydia in the beginning, but once she fades out, the plot becomes a blur. Tammie, Iris, Sara, Katherine, Debra, Cecelia, Valencia, Tanya, Liza, Dee Dee become one indistinguishable blob – a mass of breasts, legs, ass, hair, mouth and sex. They all come, drink, fuck and leave. We find Chinaski waking up at noon with a hangover, puking, gambling at the racetrack, drinking some more, and looking for his next fuck.

Occasionally, we find him flying to one city or another to give a poetry reading. The book almost reads like soft porn, but for CB's existential angst peppering its pages. The story ends with a hint of Chinaski's transformation, but one comes away with nothing.

Because Bukowski is a good writer, you cannot put the book away easily. You go on reading and hoping there will be something of beauty, of substance in these 'Women', only to find hollow shells. His character sketches do not impress, except for one or two. Well, the characters have no real 'page time' to be able to reveal themselves. Chinaski's drinking-­whoring routine reads depressingly dull and monotonous, save for a few occasional insights about the human condition. At the end of it, the book felt like a waste of time, and life's too short for bad fiction. Skip it.

In the Body of the World by Eve Ensler: Impressions

Some authors make you laugh, some authors make you cry, and some authors mean business. Ensler means business, grabbing you by your gullet, making you laugh and cry all at once. But Ensler's business isn't about selling copies (although she happens to be an international bestseller); it is about flipping radical switches. Anyone who has watched the play, 'Vagina Monologues', written by her will know how she does what she does. She glides easily underneath the thick crust of what is considered socially acceptable, and speaks loudly and clearly of things most of us don't even like to admit to ourselves. 'In the Body of the World' is not just Eve Ensler's memoir; it could be the story of every woman, every soul that wears a body, every body that inhabits this world.

'In the Body of the World' is primarily an account of Ensler's battle with cancer, but also of her deeply troubled childhood and her work in the Congo. Everything in this memoir is simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming. Ensler has been around the world as an environmental and women's rights activist, but only when she starts working in war­-stricken Congo does she understand the extent of cruelty humans are capable of. Amidst the cancer of human greed, she is also diagnosed with cancer and from there begins her journey of suffering and healing. Each time she speaks of the physical pain of the treatment, emotional traumas from her past surface.

Her incestuous and abusive father, her detached mother, her drug and alcohol­-fueled wild teenage years all form a flux of pain and are released onto the pages. These fuse with the pain of war crimes and chemotherapy, and threaten to swallow her in an impossible blackhole. But she rises, and rises and picks you up along the way.

Ensler's words are as indomitable as her spirit. There is so much self ­realisation, such brilliant self ­aware writing that it dazzles. But what is most remarkable, most inspiring is the complete lack of inhibition, of shame. The humanness she allows herself, is very liberating. She lets you in on her most visceral truths simply and is unapologetic about it. You could be reading about her exploding poop bags, enemas, incontinence and vomit and be smiling or crying through it; but never cringing. You could be reading about her father raping her, her sex life, or her unconventional views on relationships, but not judging. In baring her vulnerabilities and failures, she allows herself and the reader fallibility and imperfection. And in this, lies her grandness.

Few words that come to mind when I try to describe Ensler's style of writing: clarity, brutal honesty and poetry. It's a lethal combination, really. She is beautiful to the extent of painfulness. Like brilliant light that blinds you. When she speaks, you listen; when she orders, you obey.  I have been shaken and slapped and kicked out of my stupor of ordinariness, by Ensler's extraordinary story.

I've fallen asleep with her words in my blood, and woken up with the taste of cancer, incest and horrific war crimes in my mouth. It is unputdownable, undeniable. Like the cancer and Congo changed Ensler, this book will change you. READ IT.

Monday, May 12, 2014

The Helpline by Uday Mane: Impressions

'The Helpline' will always be among the most special of the books I've reviewed for two reasons. One, because the author, Uday Mane, who is a good friend, sent me the book at the manuscript stage for my opinion and has very kindly put my name on the acknowledgments page; two, because it is a striking story. In fact, it is one of the most memorable pieces of fiction I've read in a long time. And no, I'm not saying this because Uday is a friend. I have a lot of qualms about this book, but we'll come back to that later. Let me talk about why this story is so beautiful, first.

'The Helpline' opens with protagonist Samir Masand in a bad state, battling depression and suicidal thoughts. He is a 20-year-old college dropout, who has shut the world out because of a personal tragedy and the ensuing guilt. Despite the best efforts of his friend, Neha, he refuses to be drawn out of his shell. He is seemingly spiraling out of control, until one day, he decides to call a suicide helpline. On the other side of the phone is Rachel, who will change the course of his life. It is through Samir's telling  of his story to Rachel that his life unfolds before us. We hear about Ria, Samir's love interest, their courtship, and an unexpected climax. But the best part is the climax after the climax! You want to read this book for the part where Rachel's identity is revealed!!!

Mane builds up the plot beautifully, with a not too linear narrative. We come back to the protagonist's present sometimes, but the story is mainly about his past. His characters are well-rounded with attention to detail. Apart from the main characters, the minor ones like Samir's grandpa (Nana), Ria's brother Siddharth – a special child with Down's Syndrome, Parker Chacha, the cafe owner, also become endearing. Two more things that struck me as special in the story are the prologue, which is a dream sequence, and an episode where Samir and Ria go to a lake. The prologue is powerful in its 'subconscious' manner of writing, while the lake episode is extraordinarily romantic. The two climaxes, of course, take the cake.

Mane keeps his narrative fairly fast-paced, but there are parts where it tends to slow down. Mane is a good story-teller, but he has to evolve a lot as a writer. My biggest grouse is against his editor, who seems to have done a lousy job. The plot could have been made tighter, and goodness, the shoddy proofing!  There are too many instances of grammatical ineptitude and not to mention the spelling errors. I hope there will be corrections if a second edition comes out. I also was unhappy with the epilogue, which seemed forced and unnecessary. I don't remember reading it in the manuscript and liking the ending better.

The writer's grip on the language is not his strongest point, but he has full marks for the narrative art. 'The Helpline' is only Mane's first book, and I know it is the beginning of a long journey for him. I've known him for close to four years now and I have enthusiastically followed the short stories on his blog. In fact, he has slyly incorporated two of his best in the novel. He is a gifted story-teller and I know he will only get better with his subsequent works. 'The Helpline' is a wonderful debut, and certainly one of my favourites!

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Servants of the Goddess by Catherine Rubin Kermorgant: Impressions

If I had to pick one work of non-fiction from among the many I've read over the years, 'Servants of the Goddess: the Modern-day Devadasis' would be an easy choice. Author Catherine Rubin Kermorgant has a gift of style that can trump many novelists. She holds the reader's attention from the word go, and who can turn away from a title like 'Servants of the Goddess'? Especially people like me, who take an avid interest in Humanities. When the book came up for a review, the blurb promised me insights on social structures, caste systems, religion, mythology, and tradition surrounding the Devadasi system. And then there was some amount of shock that made me pick it up.

That the Devadasi system should still exist in a big enough way for books to be written about it, shocked me. Living in a metropolis, enjoying the freedom and privileges of education and financial freedom, it is easy to push the knowledge of the oppressed into the recesses of one's consciousness. We don't like to acknowledge our failings as a society, as a government, as human beings. Often, we need an outsider's perspective to wake up to our home truths; and that is exactly what 'Servants of the Goddess' does. The book not only reveals important social issues, but also the author's beautiful spirit.

Kermorgant is an author, researcher and documentary film-maker based in Paris, and she has worked on several projects highlighting social issues in India. She comes to Kalyana in Karnataka in 2002, hoping to make a documentary on the Devadasis of the region, for BBC. Kermorgant recounts her journey in this book, the trials she faced, the prejudices she learnt about, and the friendships she forged. With an astute interpreter, Vani, by her side, Kermorgant penetrates the cloistered society of lower caste devadasis and gains their trust. She understands the religious, economic and social motivations and implications of the devadasi system, often shocked and saddened by the vicious cycle that sustains it.

A few months later, she returns with a film crew and after numerous hitches manages to capture on film the custom of dedicating young girls to the Goddess Yellamma, the implicit sexual slavery, the eventual prostitution and the pitiful social position of these women locked into the system. Kermorgant learns how devadasis choose not to break away from this tradition owing to deep-rooted superstitions/ religious beliefs in the powers of the Goddess. But underneath it all, she is inspired by the dignity and resilience of these women. However, the tables turn during the editing phase, when her co-director distorts the film, failing to highlight the social and economic plight of these women. Angry, Kermorgant, sues the production company, and the film still hangs in a limbo.

Kermorgant takes recourse in this book, telling her side of the story. She gives us a powerful narrative, often exposing the prejudices we live with and perhaps even unconsciously condone. She rightfully points fingers at our lackadaisical system of reforms and unwillingness to bridge the caste gaps. The book is, however, not entirely free of the 'White Man's complex', where (s)he wants to 'civilize us barbarians'. But for the most part, it is deeply insightful and empathetic to the Indian way.  Also apparent is the author's erudition and extent of research. She starts the chapters beautifully with relevant verses from several Indian religious scriptures and ends them thought-provokingly.

It's a beautiful, informative book, really. Read it.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Virgin Gingelly by V Sanjay Kumar: Impressions

For those outside their ambit, South Indians are a mysterious lot, and we know as little about them as say, the Maoris of New Zealand or the tribes of the Rainforest. Bollywood clichés in the form of Rohit Shetty films have done little to change our perception of ‘Madrasis’. The Internet is slowly bridging the gap, but “South Indians” – Tamilians, Kannadigas, Malayalees and Telugus all clubbed together in a mash – remain a largely curious set for people on the other side of the Vindhyas.  And then, once in a while one comes across fascinating book covers featuring an Indianised Michelangelo artwork with dark men in Kathakali masks, and intriguing teasers like this:

A smoky medium.
A viscous oil that marinates gunpowder,
anoints heads and crisps appalams.
An uptight Brahmin.

Before I started living in a society and neighbourhood dominated by South Indians, I didn’t even know what Gingelly meant. It was only after I spotted row after row of gingelly oil – a cooking oil favoured by South Indians, especially Tamilians – that I cared to Google it. Gingelly is basically sesame, and its oil is very highly priced, at least in the supermarkets that surround me. I’ve tried it once and don’t understand what the big deal with it is… much like I don’t understand its users.

And authors like V Sanjay Kumar aren’t helping. Sure he sounds seductive, sure he makes the reader want to go from one page to the next, to the next, but he doesn’t help comprehend. At least not with this book.’ Virgin Gingelly’ is Kumar’s second novel, the first being ‘Artist, Undone’. Kumar’s titles and style of writing are both very intriguing, and I’d best describe Virgin Gingelly as a piece of abstract art. It does not lend itself to easy understanding, and is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

First of all, the title: Virgin Gingelly. Beautiful metaphor there, albeit a little stretched. A medium that TamBrahms like to cook with, cook in. Virgin, I presume, is a connotation for purists – a quality often attributed to that class. The novel is set in Rainbow Colony, a co-op housing society of TamBrahms in Chennai. With Kumar, the reader becomes a voyeur, peeking into the homes and lives of its residents. There’s no plot, really. Just existential slices of writing about characters called Ranga, Murthy, Kumar, Valiban and even a dog. These are old people, young people, people wrestling with their ages, sexualities, relationships and social stations.

Kumar’s use of language is at once irreverent and poetic. I imagine it to be largely biographical, given his background. Some of his characters, like him, are stuck in the identity crisis limbo, having been born in the North and raised in the South. He depicts with tenderness not just this Northie-Southie problem, but also other man-man and man-environment relationships. But it is the lack of linearity that makes the book difficult to keep track of. His first person narratives in random places are confusing, and his characters are sketchy. Throughout the book I would forget who the chapter I was reading, was about. Parallel lives, cryptic dialogue and not to forget the liberal use of Tamil words don’t make it an easy read. But his writing is poignant, terse and beautiful in most places. I have too many favourite lines from the book to recount here. But sometimes, he tries too hard and the effort shows.

‘Virgin Gingelly’ is not so much an exercise in storytelling as it is an act of indulgence. You smile as you see the author toy with words and sentences, and you frown at his purposeful lack of clarity. Kumar teases, leaves beautiful clues and plays hard to get. Like I mentioned above, it is comparable to an abstract art piece, which you know is beautiful, but cannot say how or why. Will I read him again? Yes, ‘Artist, Undone’ stands on my shelf, waiting to be explored.