Month: February 2015

So what, exactly, is a half-girlfriend?

Half Girlfriend- Chetan Bhagat

Don’t get me wrong. I have read all of Chetan Bhagat’s books so far. Lazy engineering students who spend more time listening to Floyd than attending class? Yes! Not so subtle regionalism and Mickey Mouse underpants? Amusing.

The problem here is that the character development has been replaced entirely by stereotypes, clichéd ones at that. The hero, Madhav Jha, is from Dumraon in Bihar. He goes to St Stephens in Delhi to study Sociology, and finds he can’t fit in because of his poor English. The heroine, Riya Somani, is a rich Marwari girl from Delhi pursuing her BA in English. So how do they even meet? They’re both sports quota admits, and basketball brings them together. This convenient plot point is forgotten almost immediately.

So boy meets girl, boy pursues girl, a tentative relationship ensues. Enter the clichés…

Poor little rich girl finds it hard to open up, because apparently privacy is a concept known only to the rich. Insecure village boy pressurizes her to get physical, and they break up. She promptly discontinues her degree to marry the first rich brat who comes along. Meanwhile, our hero heroically returns to his hometown to run a school.

A few unbelievable plot twists later, and our hero manages to learn English and moves to NYC to find Riya- on a hunch of course. Here the author takes pains to make sure the jump is not ridiculous. (‘Cause you need a visa to get to Amrika, everyone knows that!) So Madhav gets an internship with the Gates Foundation (!) and gives a visa interview before flying out.

Needless to say, he finds her, even in a city as huge and crowded as NYC. They return to hero’s hometown to run the school and live happily ever after.

1/5. Sir, you can do better.

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Who’s the Real Monster?

There’s been some radio silence here at WeTellATale, partly because the only writing I’ve done in a while has been in the interest of self-promotion (aka shameless bragging). Anyway, here’s the recommendation for the day.

Many of my friends are die-hard manga+anime geeks. They tend to disappear into dark rooms with a laptop and a large packet of cookies, and emerge 36 hours later with dark circles and a manic look, having just read/watched a couple of series non-stop. Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

The first manga I tried was Death Note, because that’s where newbies usually start. After getting adjusted to the right to left reading style, I really enjoyed the story progression. It is no less detailed than a text-only novel would be, and can convey ambiguity a lot better; more of the plot is left to your imagination.

Death Note is about an overachieving schoolkid, Light Yagami, who finds a notebook that is capable of killing anyone whose name is written in it. He sets out on a mission to eliminate all ‘evil people’, with the company of a shinigami- death god- who was the previous owner of the book. Not surprisingly, he goes power crazy, and his murders attract the attention of an eccentric detective, L. A cat and mouse game ensues. L is a genius, but Light is no ordinary high schooler, and evades capture by assigning a new dummy killer. There is an incredible plot twist about halfway through, and it looks like Light has won, until two new detectives, M and N (so creative!) join the team. Unfortunately, at around the 70th chapter (out of around a 100), I began to lose interest in the story. Much like the soaps we see on TV, the writers seemed to have resorted to arbitrary plot twists to increase the page count.

Despite the fact that I skimmed through the last part of the book, I would still recommend this manga. 3.5/5. A good manga, and an even better anime, I’ve heard.

Recently, I discovered the MangaRock app. It’s awesome. It has some features of an eBook app- screen dimming, page search and so on. Its homepage has updates on new chapters of popular manga, and allows you to pick a list of websites from where it aggregates the chapters. You can also download whole chapters to read offline. I recommend this, because downloading pictures on mobile 2G is slow and expensive.

So the first manga I downloaded was Monster. The protagonist is Kenzo Tenma, a Japanese surgeon working in Germany. He’s a very promising doctor, and is engaged to the hospital director’s daughter. What more could he ask for? He’s unhappy though. The hospital shows a preference for rich and powerful patients, but he believes that all lives are equal. One day, twin children come to the emergency room. The boy has a bullet in his head, and the girl is in a state of shock. Turns out that she witnessed the murder of her parents and has been traumatized. Tenma is asked to operate on the town’s mayor, but chooses to treat the boy, since he arrived earlier. The mayor dies, they boy is saved, and Tenma is in trouble.

Here’s where the story begins. Tenma’s fiancee dumps him, and his future at the hospital is looking bleak. Then (luckily?), the director and another senior doctor are murdered, and in time, Tenma becomes Chief of surgery. Another murder takes place in the hospital. Suspicion falls on him, but he discovers that the boy, Johan, is behind these killings and many others across Germany. Meanwhile, his sister Nina has repressed her memory of the incident and now goes by the name Anna Liebert.

Our hero is wracked with guilt because he saved a child who turned into a ‘monster’ and sets out to find him. Anna, who has gradually regained her memories, joins him in his hunt. It is revealed that the twins had a horrific past, and this has contributed to Johan’s insanity.

The themes of this book are child abuse and negative social conditioning. Johan spent some years of his childhood in Kinderheim 511, an orphanage where a ‘social experiment’ was being carried out- the children were being trained to be murderers. In the course of his search, Tenma encounters the original planners of the experiment (who are still in business!), plus a new neo-Nazis, prostitutes, and other victims of child abuse.

This book has an ambiguous ending, and unlike Death Note, kept me hooked till the end. Like any story of this length (165 chapters!!!) it had many parallel plots that were added halfway through. While they didn’t really contribute to the story, the child abuse theme kept them tied together to some extent.

A very very good, well researched story. Read it for some good entertainment. 4/5

One Part Woman and Charlie

December 2014 was a bad month. Cartoonists were gunned down in Paris and a novelist declared himself to be “dead” in South India. They were unrelated, but they both breathed their last, one literally and the other virtually (and ironically, more significantly) because they were radically so different in the way they expressed art and literature, that their readers were threatened and angered. The difference of opinion between them and their readers bubbled into resentment and violent action.

Charlie Hebdo was bold, and was read by people who disagreed with the editors and cartoonists because their fundamental beliefs were ridiculed. Perumal Murugan was creative, and was read by people who were too comfortable in the present to care to listen to a story, about a past that they don’t want to be confronted with.

paris-je-suis-char_3160192k perumalmurugan

If Je Suis Charlie, then, in India, Naanum Murugan. (“I am Murugan too,” in Tamil)

The book that was withdrawn, One Part Woman, is a translation of a Tamil novel written by Perumal Murugan. It talks of a couple who belong to a lower caste in a little village in Tamil Nadu, in early 20th century. The couple finds that they are unable to have children, so they go to a temple during the annual chariot festival – to pray, and to be “blessed” with a child, in God’s temple. In a custom that involves consensual impregnation, a woman may bear a child in the temple festival, with one of the random men who have come to the temple for the very purpose of helping women. In other words, this was a ritual in which the woman engaged in consensual sex in the temple with men who have surrendered their bodies for the purpose of helping these childless women become pregnant. Remember, the novel is set in the early 20th century. Also, the ritual did exist in real, and is documented too. For small farming communities with tiny landholdings, having an heir is considered very important and for the woman, too, it is essential to have a child to escape the stigma of being barren. So, desperate, the young lady in the story, persuaded by her husband’s family, goes in search of a partner for the ritual during the festival, assuming her husband’s endorsement of it. It is this part of the story that has created an avalanche of resentment from the Hindu fundamentalists.

The Indian right wing public (the right wing fringe elements) were irked by the reminder of their horrifying past. So what if it is based on truth? The ones that disagreed burnt his books and protested loudly. They even threatened violence against the writer. Perumal Murugan was coaxed by the District executive to withdraw his book. He was called for a public meeting, where he was made to apologise to the irate public. He was then offered no protection by the police. He was instead told to leave the district, for his own good. The fundamental right of this writer has been scrunched up in a ball and thrown out the window.

Paris rose in chorus, against extremism, for a magazine that they felt represented them. But India has not even noticed this writer who has been so brutally mentally assaulted. India, for that matter, would never even entertain a magazine of the Charlie Hebdo kind, simply because we really are over-loaded with sensitivity in the fault-lines of our distinct identities. Besides, India cannot be seen to protect a magazine that routinely ridicules “values and principles” of various institutions. India is a melting pot of cultures, and throwing spices in the brew will lead to cracks in the pot.

Why is there such an imbalance in upholding citizens’ rights in a strong democracy like India? To answer this, one must simply look at the history of the evolution of the democracy itself. We are a diverse country, whose peace is guaranteed by pacified sentiments and cultural safeguards. While the French can associate themselves to a common culture way back into history, Indians can’t. We were born different, just like our forefathers were. The very idea of India, in fact, is based on cultural diversity which is revered by one another. Maintenance of public morality, decency and public order dictates the extent to which the Fundamental Rights can be exercised. In the melee, constitutional morality is lost.

Constitutional morality, in the backdrop of Perumal Murugan’s case, can be studied as the protection offered by the State to the right to freedom of speech and expression, and the constitutional ground being created (or protected) for constructive debate which balances cultural activism and creativity. Unfortunately, the Indian democracy lacks in both areas of constitutional morality. While she protects the rights of a community (to express itself – in the form of policing, or violence), she is powerless in the sphere of protection of an individual’s personal right to express himself or herself. While India seems to offer a ground for constructive debate on various topics including this one, she has failed to address the issue of balancing community rights and individual rights (or for that matter, of establishing the criteria for a book/art to be deemed unfit for public consumption).

The immediate way forward is for the Supreme Court of India to issue guidelines on what constitutes immoral literature or art. In the future, constitutional morality has to be deliberated upon, debated and a law must be brought out, to keep a check on over-zealous practitioners of both, freedom of expression and maintenance of public order.