Month: September 2019

The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin

This is a review of the book, The Courtesan, the Mahatma & the Italian Brahmin, by Manu S. Pillai.

The book is a compilation of 60 diverse essays from Indian History. Almost all the essays have mostly quirky trivia as a common thread between them. They’re broadly arranged as “Before the Raj” and “Stories from the Raj” (maybe because the stories have little else in common?). The essays begin by reminding the reader of the conventional views held on the topic, Manu S. Pillai then goes on to alter that view, and finally ends with a shrewd comment or dry observation.

His observations, though, are outrightly critical of the school of thought subscribed by the right wing junta of India today. He does not make any apologetic disclaimer to that effect. For example, the afterword reads as an opinion piece in a newspaper, cautioning against a majoritarian dispensation. In addition to this risky enterprise, his essays on the women whose roles have been blatantly ignored by our textbooks stand out for quietly trying to supplement, and change, the story of India’s past. That said, the essays are not prejudiced as far as yours truly could tell, and have more than a hint of scholarship throughout.

My favorite essays were the ones on the mistakenly aggrandised historical figures. For example, there’s the story of Nangeli, who cut off her breasts in anger against the tax collectors, in a rebellion against caste and feudalism that suppressed those at the underbelly of society. But today she’s seen as a virtuous goddess who stood for “womanly honor”. Such heroes, Pillai clarifies, were ordinary people whose messages and ideas have been distorted to suit the narrative of the historians of the day.

That said, I thought the essays could have been better edited. For one, the writing style differs across the essays. Some are written colloquially, and some others as if for the District Gazette. It’s distracting when binge reading! Also, why were the essays sequenced the way they were? Chronology? Dramatic effect? Themes? I don’t know.

The illustrations in the book are excellent! No less. Every one of them is exquisite, and perfectly fits the essay. If I may say so, it was the better part of some essays! The featured image for this review is an illustration from the book (credits due to Priya Kuriyan).

While the book kind of wavers and stumbles here and there, by being a collection of unmoored stories, it has its positives, aplenty, ranging from the sheer research put into the essays and the effort it must have taken to compress the grand stories into such short and crisp essays.

Most significantly, the book excels by being a bold contrarian point of view on many historical figures and happenings. And, as the writer himself doesn’t miss an opportunity to say, that’s important in this age and space.

With that hope, I hope more such offbeat history books come forth. Mind you, not fictionalized poor stories or propaganda garbed as a history lessons. We need to discuss our history more, in order to not let any single narrative lead the way. And Manu S Pillai’s book is a step in that direction.

3.5/5, maybe more!

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High School Writing 101

This is my review of Push, by Sapphire.

I want to emphasize that this book is a work of fiction. In some of my other reviews, I’ve noted that I don’t like rating memoirs, because it feels like assigning a numerical value to someone’s life and experience. I have no such qualms with this book. And now that this disclaimer is done, on with the review!

This is the story of Precious, a teenaged girl who is a victim of social injustice. She is an illiterate 16-year-old, but is determined to make something of herself. As the story progresses, she makes new friends from different walks of life, and builds a happier life for herself through sheer willpower, and with the support of her teacher.

I listened to this book as an audiobook, and was very engaged throughout. The pacing is consistent, and the story and language are not too subtle to appreciate through narration. My problems with the book are mainly from a storytelling/ fiction writing perspective. There’s simply too much going on in this plot.

For instance, here are the Problems that Precious faces:

  1. Her father and mother both sexually abuse her.
  2. She is pregnant with her father’s child- the second child that  they’ve conceived
  3. Her first daughter by her father was born when Precious was twelve. With that combination of risk factors, her daughter is born with Down’s syndrome.
  4. Precious is functionally illiterate, since she does not have a good family support system, and her studies have been disrupted by pregnancy.
  5. She is kicked out of school for being pregnant (not clear why this should only be an issue with the second pregnancy)
  6. She is obese, as she tries to numb her emotions with food. Her mother is also morbidly obese and forces food on Precious often.
  7. She is a racial minority (African-American), which shapes her image of herself. She often claims that her life would be better as a white woman, and that men are more attracted to lighter skin tones.
  8. She and her family are poor, and her mother tries to manipulate their living situation to make sure that she receives benefits for both Precious and Mongo (her first daughter)

Any one of these problems would have been a challenge; all at once just seems unconvincing. Here are some more unrealistic plot points:

  1. Precious shows extraordinary enthusiasm and determination towards learning, and progresses from the alphabet to reading and writing poetry in the span of six months. However, she has been going to school her whole life (minus a couple of years of pregnancy) and never learned to read, despite being fond of some of her teachers in the public school system
  2. Said teachers in the public school system failed to notice that this 16-year-old could not read, and did not report to child services that a 12 year old (and later, 16 year old) was pregnant
  3. Noone asked Precious to see a doctor during her pregnancy, or took her to see a doctor, even though she was a minor whose previous child had a serious genetic abnormality
  4. Precious’ grandmother was willing to take in an infant with Down’s syndrome, but did not ask why her 12-year-old granddaughter had had a child, or try to look after her
  5. Precious’ homophobia was unrealistic given that she was exposed to a lot of diversity- the fact that she came round to the idea so quickly was also odd

I did enjoy this book. But if Sapphire had gone for a less over-the-top description of tragedy, I’d have appreciated it all the more. Precious could have done better. 3/5 from me.