Wo(e)men’s Day

Disclaimer: This is just a cynical rant. Troll if you *don’t* like. 

Image courtesy: Womens Web

I haven’t written anything on Women’s Day in all these years of existence, probably for the simple reason that I’m thick enough in the head to believe that anything would change. So, after having frittered away three and a half decades, what did I realise about Women’s Day or International Women’s Day? That it’s mostly a day of SOC (Show Off Chutiyapa) from men and women alike in my country. Yes, women would love the cupcakes and roses any day at work but equal wages would be more welcome. The discounts and spa vouchers are awesome too, but what about freedom of choice?

I’ve spent most of my years in Bengal, surrounded by middle-class people, not financially but temperamentally. One of my acquaintances believes in getting his college-going daughter married right after graduation because they have labelled her as ‘mediocre’, not having the potential to make it to higher academics or land a good job. Since she has reached the capability of just providing basic education to her future kids, it’s time to get her married to a decent bloke so that her life is ‘set.’ What if she chooses to glide further in academics? What if she doesn’t want to get married? Well, that’s rarely a choice for women in our country. I know just a handful who chose not to get married and I don’t believe that their relatives fail to troll them offline. It has been a hellish journey for me having dropped a degree and deciding to choose an alternate career (read *doing nothing all day*). 7 years later, it’s still about ‘why doesn’t she have a kid, she’s not doing anything anyway.’ The peanuts from home-based freelance work don’t matter until you go out in the sun and still earn peanuts. Middle-class SOC, I’d say.

Take a look at the Bangla television serials and you’d know. It’s still all about shankha-sindoor-swami-songsar-pujo and domestic abuse, not in a way to inspire women to fight back, but airing such violence from women characters in the story. And these screenplays are mostly written by women. If you behave like crabs in a ship, how’d you expect your women folk to reach out and explore the world? This television industry has employed thousands of men and women and I wonder how each of them puts up with the atrocious scenes they have to present. I haven’t watched a single episode where women are encouraged to be financially independent but there’s at least a segment where they would don a saree and fast for their husbands while they bring the other woman home. This commoditisation has become a part of our integral lives and it is quite pukeworthy.

The day women will have a little more freedom of choice, we’ll celebrate every way you’d want to.

P.S. The television is airing Women’s Day wishes from the lady chief minister who had admonished a gruesome gangrape as ‘sajano ghotona’ (staged incident). Happy that.

Saraswati Pujo

Writing an article around Valentine’s Day invariably leads to the celebration of love and such stuff. With the advent of Spring comes Saraswati Pujo, technically on the fifth day of the season, called Basant Panchami. Saraswati, the goddess of Arts and Education is worshipped diligently across my part of the world. From miniature clay idols at home to medium sized idols at various schools and finally the larger versions at the barowari (public) pujo, the goddess is more revered than actually loved. I’ve often perceived Saraswati as the lonelier, geeky goddess among others, akin to the bespectacled girl in school, bypassed for prettier ones (like Lakshmi). My loyalties have been and will remain for the ivory goddess, who I believe has lent me the few words that I can write. Retracing to Valentine’s Day bit of the story – Saraswati Pujo is termed aptly as Bengali Valentine’s Day for the past half-a-century. I think it’s barely been 50 years that Saraswati Pujo began to be celebrated in schools around Bengal. The stern iron gates of each mono-gender school would be open to everyone only on this day, creating leeways for teenagers. Each teenage boy, clad in pressed and clean white or yellow Panjabi-Pajama would peer around Girls’ schools in the neighbourhood for saree clad beauties. Thus began an era of seeing each other, diligently asking for prasad, going out for a date in a group and stealing furtive glances.

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Four Years, 200 Posts Later..

It’s my fourth blog-versary with WordPress and well, it’s been a long journey. From book reviews to rants, poems to contests, I’ve written a few posts compared to well-maintained blogs. I know it’s not much, but there’s a sea of gratitude in me for every reader that ever stepped onto the page.

Keep reading, keep coming back and I promise to write more and better this year.

Cheers to writing!

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Best Reads of 2016

This year has been good in terms of reading, though I couldn’t fulfill my target of 70 books. Nonetheless, combating reader’s block once in a while, I can safely assert that my reading mojo hasn’t gone anywhere. The lot had been a mixed one this year, quite a few mediocre books were moved from the bookshelf to obscure cartons that are sealed and stored. Others were neatly arranged in the already overwhelming array of books. Here are the ones that kept me hooked this year.

animal-farmAnimal Farm – It’s a pity that I hadn’t read this George Orwell classic so far. The book is iconic and doesn’t need a description. I began reading it after getting bored with a few sub-par books in Indian English. That made this classic all the more endearing. Written in very simple language, laced with rhymes and innuendos, Animal Farm makes for a very interesting read. If you can decipher the hidden meanings, metaphors, and references to the erstwhile politics in Europe – there’s nothing better!

jojoMe Before You – Rave reviews about Jojo Moyes’ writing and hype about this book being made into a movie were reasons that I wanted to read this one. Fortunately, my Secret Santa had gifted Me Before You last Christmas and it was on my TBR since then. It took a holiday and the reader’s block to get me start this beauty. Of the contemporary British women writers, Sophie Kinsella has been my favourite and Jojo Moyes came quite close with this book. I love the dry humour and ample sarcasm that the Brits expertly exude in their style or writing. It goes very well with me and I can entirely relate to the darkness. Me Before You makes you embark on an emotional journey that you wouldn’t want to end. Trust me, it isn’t a sob story.

grassThe Grass is Singing – I had bought this book (as the Secret Santa for my angel) based solely on the theme of Apartheid. It’s a subject that had occupied a part of my childhood, reading about it in the newspapers, watching the cricket team of South Africa and criticising them. I didn’t know about Doris Lessing then, but I’m glad that I discovered her writing. This book has had a profound impact on me; it had put me into a completely dark zone while I was reading. I couldn’t imagine that the verdant fields of Rhodesia and their vastness could create such a void and mess with the psyche of a perfectly normal woman. This book is a must read if you want to know about madness, fantasy and stark reality.

honestseasonThe Honest Season -I hadn’t read Kota Neelima prior to this one, but she managed to enter this list alright. A very complex plot, coupled with good writing and great journalistic measures makes an engaging novel. It is the correct mix of politics, romance, lobbying, ethics and rain. Yes, rain is one of the main protagonists of this novel and I loved the way Kota Neelima played with this element. It managed to bestow a wonderful lyrical quality to prose and that’s quite a rare trait to be found in contemporary Indian authors.

dragonThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo – Stieg Larsson’s magnum opus is by far the best book (& series) I’ve read in the last few years. This is the best one in the Millennium series and a fine book by itself. I was quite aware that it belongs to translated literature and the best way to read is not to judge it based on the language. Lisbeth Salander impressed me immensely and I am still in awe of her. The story is obviously very intriguing and so is the hero Mikael Blomkvist. One of the best thrillers I’ve ever read. But it isn’t just a thriller, it’s a labyrinth of family ties and pervert psychological experiments.

Do let me know your best reads of 2016. 

KiKiRa The Great

I’ve been fortunate enough to be nestled into the world of Bangla Literature in my formative years. I had begun reading magazines and novels for children even before I turned ten. The joy of holding a freshly printed periodical magazine at least once a month and glancing through the pages to skim the content before rushing off to school was incomparable. Calcutta has carried a rich tradition of interesting magazines for children, young adults as well as adults. The ones, especially for pre-teens were a huge treasure of informative articles, short stories, poems, comics and sports. Anandamela, Shuktara, Kishore Bharati, Kishore Gyan Bigyan, Sandesh – there were so many to choose from each fortnight! The most popular among these, Anandamela was from the ABP house of publications – it was bourgeoisie, glamorous, rich in content and had great print quality priced at Rs 10 for each issue.

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The annual pujabarshiki Anandamela 1996 and the Kikira novel published in it (on right)

The fortnightly and annual Pujabarshiki issues of Anandamela introduced me to Kikira The Great by Bimal Kar. No, he isn’t Japanese and is almost not a detective. KiKiRa stands for Kinkar Kishore Ray, a brilliantly crafted pseudo-acronym to enhance his identity. He is a self-proclaimed magician who had a target of at least a hundred magic shows in his lifetime but was stopped short at only thirty six of them due to an illness. A sudden bout of disease disabled one of his hands and made it impossible for him to perform on stage again. He called himself ‘Kikira The Magician’, ‘Kikira The Wonder,’ ‘Kikira the Great,’ and still had a few tricks up his sleeve that effervesce in all of his cases. Kikira has two assistants, a young clerical fellow named Tarapada and a doctor of medicine, Chandan. The evolution of this apparently lopsided friendship between the three occurred during a case for the first time. The first story in the Kikira series – Kapalik-ra Ekhono Achhe (Tantrics Still Do Exist) – began with Tarapada and Chandan as the main protagonists, Kikira only making an entry later with a burly introduction! I think the author wanted to experiment, improvise and give a trial with the readers to see if they accept such an offbeat character.

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The Legacy of Sunday Mutton

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To elucidate the aroma of mutton curry wafting from the kitchen, especially on a Sunday afternoon is nearly impossible. It’s easier to cook the mutton than even give a try to illustrate the labyrinth of emotions it evokes in me, and most people of my race. It’s a phenomenon evolved over a hundred years and a tradition well worth preserving. Before drifting (and delving) into the history of Sunday mutton curry, let me add a cheeky disclaimer that ‘mutton’ refers to goat meat for every instance I write about it. Being raised in Bengal, I had no notion that red meat in general (lamb, goat, pork, beef) is referred to as ‘mutton’. For me, goat cannot be replaced with any other animal for ‘mutton.’

Image Courtesy: Neha Banerjee

Image Courtesy: Neha Banerjee

From lores narrated in both of my families over years and reading old Bangla stories, I’ve formed a hypothesis on the origin of Sunday mutton. In the early 20th century, educated folk from rural Bengal migrated to Calcutta (the only city then) in search of clerical occupation. They stayed mostly in rental accommodations, hostels and as paying guests for five working days. Come Friday afternoon and they’d venture for the ancestral home in different districts of Bengal. When they’d arrive home, mostly late at night, their jholas would carry fruits, candies, sweets for the children, an occasional piece of jewellery or saree for the wife and daughter, and – on frequent weekends – mutton for the entire family. Children would rejoice; I have a sneaking suspicion that they’d root more for the meat than frugal candies, like me. The wife would blush and begin preparations for the mutton curry the night itself or the next afternoon. Of course in monsoons, the mutton is replaced with Ilish, but that doesn’t take away its glory in the other seasons.

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Why Read Manto?

Image Courtesy: Google

Image Courtesy: Google

That’s a fairly easy rhetoric with complicated reasons as answers. There’s been a lot written in recent years about Manto and his writings, which would make you feel pseudo-erudite and jump into the bandwagon of discussions. Manto’s writing is a revelation, yes. He’s been working on such gems of stories while my father was still a kid, and I was just initiated into the realm of his existence about a decade ago! Now I will confess that most of my puny knowledge bank is stuffed with inputs from Bangla Literature, including Manto. I read about him in some Bangla short story, as being referred to what a great writer he was, and was interested in finding out about his writings. It is this lack of awareness I’m not happy about. If an average Indian like me takes two decades to find out about Manto, when will we read and discern his work?

Manto is not just a writer, he’s a phenomenon. The way he did unclad our ‘modern’ subcontinent society of its taboos and prejudices is not only rare, but revolutionary. If we could, even after 5-6 decades, accept a chunk of what he wanted to convey, life wouldn’t have been so difficult. Most importantly, he lived in our favourite Bollywood and thrived there for some time in its initial prime. His views on the then stars of Hindi film industry expose a lot and yet again the hypocrisies that they couldn’t conceal beneath snow, Pometom and kohl. It’s astonishing that he is described as Pakistani in the Wiki page – you can’t contain Manto within the thin air boundaries of greater India. He has been able to shred and imbibe pieces of him through Toba Tek Singh into the hearts of all. He is indeed, the Toba Tek Singh that neither countries can digest even after decades. Banned, discerned, condescended, abused – he went on writing to his heart’s content. I think that’s what any writer dreams of, not in these bloody days of slaughter though.

41oEIR9oh3L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve read more about him than actually his stories as they’re in Urdu. The English translation by Aatish Taseer was brilliant and yet lacked the little something that makes Urdu resplendent. Since I believe in reading as many books in their original languages as I can to grasp their flavours, especially the lyrical Urdu, I will read Manto’s books in Hindi now. And may be someday in Urdu too. I’ve learned Hindi (actually Hindustani as a language) in school and college for 14 years and the beautiful Urdu words mixed in Premchand or Nirala’s stories made me fall in love with the discourse.

I’m not an expert coaching you about why read Manto. Just read, get a sneak a peek of our society some odd sixty years ago, which still hasn’t changed much.