Tag Archives: non-fiction

Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories

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In “Karaikal Ammaiyar And Her Closet Of Adornments”, I write about personal style as a mode of self-expression, and self-concealment. I write about the pleasure of the perfect drape, the passion of red lipstick, and the heartache of living in a time when beauty and power cannot always co-exist. This essay is in the new anthology Walking Towards Ourselves: Indian Women Tell Their Stories, edited by Catriona Mitchell. The book is out now from HarperCollins in India, and Hardie Grant in Australia/the UK shortly.

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Book Review: One Hundred Names For Love by Diane Ackerman

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I wrote about Diane Ackerman’s memoir about her partner Paul West’s astonishing near-recovery from global aphasia, One Hundred Names For Love, for Cerise Press. Global aphasia is a stroke-induced condition that leaves the sufferer bereft of vocabulary. The review is here.

Book Review: Apradhini: Women Without Men by Shivani (trans. Ira Pande)

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In the alluringly subheaded Apradhini: Women Without Men, the late Hindi writer Shivani turns a spare and elegant eye towards the lives of women on the fringes of their societies: prisoners and mendicants, domestic helpers and viragos, those whose existences are rarely registered as anything other than pitiable ciphers or outright contradictions. Shivani, however, seeks them in more liminal spaces, quite successfully avoiding the tropes that usually jaundice narratives of subalternity. She seeks them, most of all, in the liminal space of conversation: of what one woman will say to another when no one else is around.

It’s necessary to mention upfront an issue that does the book a disservice, however. We understand, if only from a brief note somewhere on the back cover, that this collection of sixteen sketches is a mix of non-fiction and fiction. One surmises upon reading that the book’s final section, of three pieces, contains the short stories, if only because of a detectable nuance in tone. But no indication is given otherwise as to which category any given piece falls into. This is a glaring oversight, doing justice to neither the author who compiled or created these stories nor the women whose lives they are. To deny credit to the former for works of the imagination is less grave, however, than to deny the latter the basic dignity of being read as a person and not a character.

This begs the question of whether one must approach the reading of what is presented as fact and what is presented as fiction differently. The succinct answer is yes – good literature will illumine the world no matter which medium it appears in, but to pass off the imagined as the experienced is an act of questionable integrity. The decision of Shivani’s estate, translator (her daughter Ira Pande) or publisher to make no distinction between works of fiction and non-fiction is a pity, casting unnecessary confusion over a book of tremendous strength and sensitivity.

The women we meet in these pages, these eponymous women without men, would have suffered at the hands at a writer concerned with sensationalism or self-interest. They could very easily have been rendered one-dimensionally as superficial objects of pop or pulp, driven by their sexuality and selfishness. But Shivani etches them so delicately that even the most lurid of their stories is full of empathy and nuance. We meet several of them behind bars, most often for murders. A few, like alms-seeking travellers Alakh Mai and Rajula, live without address. “There is no jail on earth that can shackle a free spirit and no spirit so free that its feet cannot be bound in chains we cannot see,” writes the author, and this line underscores the spirit of the collection on the whole. Unsentimental yet compassionate and peppered with enjoyable, slightly humourous moments without becoming tasteless, Apradhini’s most victorious effect is that it assigns such importance to the vagaries of fate – how arbitrary it is, in the final reckoning, that one is only someone who reads about such lives, and not a person whose life such is.

And not, for instance, the deeply sensual Muggi, who left a trail of fourteen conned husbands behind her before falling in love with the fifteenth and who eats terracotta to assuage her sadness. Or Janaki, who helps her brother-in-law murder her husband as he sleeps in the same room with their children. Or Alakh Mai, a child-bride who pushed a buffalo, her husband and his mother over a ravine before turning to the spiritual life, the only option available to her. Or Deshpat, who enjoyed the power of being a gangster moll till the love of one piece of gold ruined her life. In these lightly-etched but strikingly powerful vignettes, we feel intimately connected to their lives, and appreciative of their agency – not, as would have been the case with a more emotionally manipulative author, feeling badly for or towards them.

There are, however, a few pieces that miss the mark. The first is “Ama”. a recollection of the author’s own mother; in this instance, the subject seems to cut too close to the bone and thus comes across as slightly too maudlin. But the more notable failure is that of the three pieces that consist of the book’s final section and are most likely to be fiction, two – “Shibi” and “Dhuan” – are both about high class courtesans who fall from grace. This line of storytelling carries far too many shades of regressive, parochial cautionary tales on female immorality – a big disappointment in an otherwise obviously feminist collection.

Thankfully, the book closes on a less judgmental and far happier note: “Tope”. Ironically, one of the book’s most notable figures is hardly a woman without men – the flamboyant and excitable Christina Victoria Thomas rabble-rouses right from “the historic time when she really spewed fire and brimstone” all the way into old age. Fiction or non-fiction, heroine or harridan, we could always do with more women like her.

An edited version appeared in today’s Hindustan Times.

Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish

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At a certain point in his piscine-inspired circumnavigation of India, Samanth Subramanian does the one thing that seals the deal as to his dedication to his research: he swallows.

Although he contends, in conversation before the Chennai launch of his book, that he could have written the remarkable non-fiction debut that is Following Fish even if he were not a fish-eater, his swallowing of a live murrel fingerling (not to mention the utter relish with which he describes the seafood he consumes on his travels), suggests otherwise. For someone who spent a decade getting over the disgust of seeing a whole steamed fish as an adolescent, this book is a more than satisfying penance for the deficit.

But rarely is this exploration of fish purely epicurean, although some of the most evocative segments of this book are precisely about this aspect. In Kerala, for example, fish becomes quite literally a side dish in the pursuit of toddy. In Mangalore and Kolkata, searches ensue for different variants of the perfect fish curry. But there’s much more. The live murrel fingerling is ritually swallowed whole in Hyderabad hardly as an adventurous challenge to the palate, but as a cure for asthma. Mumbai’s fish curries are first marinated in the tensions of migration and the question of whom a city could truly belong to. And these are only some of the kinds of fish he follows – even the fishes he encounters that are released back into the water upon capture, or never even seen but understood as the linchpin on which a story pivots, serve as introductions into ways of life and coexistence. In nine eloquent chapters, Following Fish casts lines all along India’s peninsular coast, from Bengal to Gujarat (Orissa is given a miss as two strong leads presented themselves in Maharashtra), and at each place, its author seems to reel in a completely different catch.

Asked what the fish would be to him if it could be only one thing, Subramanian says, “a window”, then apologizes for the clumsy metaphor before continuing. “But it’s multiple windows isn’t it? Every place you open a window, you get a glimpse of another world.” Clumsy or not, it’s a neat capsule for the many narratives that emerge: food and culture, sport and commerce, history and change.

There is much to admire in this collection, not least among them a particularly assured writing style. The narrator himself surfaces infrequently; as far as possible, the stories are about everyone other than himself, and its spare sentimentality is one of its greatest strengths. This is doubly commendable not only for having eluded the modern tropes of the confessional voice, but also because in spite of it being a work with an certain detachment, there is no sense anywhere that this is a dispassionate project.

“I would still classify a lot of this work as journalism, or perhaps narrative journalism” says Subramanian. “And of course, the first rule of journalism is to put yourself outside the story. You have to go there knowing that you have zero knowledge and everybody else is relatively an expert.” Marketed as the first travelogue in the nonfiction narrative genre in India, Following Fish sets a high standard in its reportage and the perfectly balanced pitch of its reserved yet engaged voice.

Nowhere is this skill more evident than in two captures dealing directly with dying cultures. In what is arguably the book’s richest chapter, a community of Catholic fishing-peoples in the Tuticorin district are brought alive in an account that is at once part anthropology and part farewell tribute. Elsewhere, Subramanian lets down his characteristic objectivity in his documentation of the effect of tourism in Goa, where he says the loss of a fishing culture is particularly poignant, because “everybody fishes – not just commercially”. Modernization and its impact on fishing communities troubles him, but he labours under no delusions of activism: “The eternal plight of the journalist is, can he change things? A journalist can only write things. The next step depends on others. In every single state I visited, I heard this complaint. It’s probably the single uniting factor among the communities. The displacement is happening everywhere and in a lot of cases it’s a particularly poor state of affairs”.

Among the many things that this book might be, it stays truest – and does proudest – the purpose the author has intended: a travelogue. “A travel book should not be a how-to-travel book,” he says later at the launch. ‘It should just be a log of what was experienced – that’s where the word travelogue comes from.”

And travel writing in this age is significantly different from its predecessors (Subramanian pegs the beginning of the genre at the writings of the 5th century Greek historian Herodotus) by virtue of how easy it has become to actually cross distances. “Earlier, the journey itself was about the story. For Marco Polo to go to China was difficult. Now it is so easy to get on a plane – so the work becomes focused on the destination itself.” Following Fish was not, as its structure might indicate, a faithful journey along the coastline, but the culmination of a series of trips over around two years to locations along it. In this sense and in others, it is a methodical book, tightly plotted and cohesive, yet with possibly more charm than a more meandering exploration might have.

Following Fish is a highly accomplished debut, the kind that makes it tempting to assume it as a barometer for the future of its genre in this country. While so grandiose a proclamation might best be withheld, suffice to say: the splash this book deserves to make should have quite an interesting ripple effect.

An edited version appeared in today’s The New Sunday Express.

Metroplus Chennai On The Sangam House Reading

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The Hindu has a write-up today on Sangam House’s recent event in Chennai. It’s a good article, but I wish my name was spelt correctly. Read it here.