Politics

Queen

“Will you be my Queen?” asked GMR.

“Yes,” she replied.

And, the rest, as they say, is history.

This is a review of the TV series, Queen, directed by Gautham Menon and Prasath Murugesan, which is based on the book, Queen, by Anita Sivakumaran. The book itself is loosely based on the life of the Ex-Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, Ms. J. Jayalalitha.

The TV series has what it takes to ensure the viewer binge watches for hours on end. Though, at points, it seemed necessary to fast-forward the show to cut to the chase. The drama quotient is high. The cinematography is a healthy mix of old school and the modern. It’s old school in that it has the tried and poorly tested acting style of overacting. But it has the modernistic style of cinematography in that most frames are carefully choreographed, and, as an added bonus, the make up and lighting is subtle.

The storyline is largely based on the true story of the former CM. However, there are some obvious deviations in the interest of creative ingenuity, and for the sake of averting too much scrutiny by having a “fiction” card pinned to the sets. In the TV series, it is the story of Shakti.

Shakti is the State Topper in her 10th boards. After that, she’s forced to quit studies to slip into a career of acting, to support her family, after which she didn’t get the opportunity to return to her apparently true calling, which was academics. She hung on, especially after her crucial and much talked-about career with GMR (acronym comes to mind?), the megastar of Tamil Cinema of the 70s. She is shown as someone who excels at everything she touches. She is shown to be a person who is constantly yearning for the simple joys of friendship and family. Her turbulent relationship with her mother is much reason for her worries in life. Soon after the hold that her mother held on her were released, she was caged under the close watch and overwhelming “care” of the superstar that she pledged her life’s course to.

Love, betrayal, trust, disloyalty, are the underlying themes. Feminism is at the core of the narrative, which was highlighted by the excellent acting by the three leading ladies, Ramya Krishnan, Anikha, Anjana Jayaprakash, who play Shakti. The idea that a woman can be “controlled” by others, is displayed and dispelled within the same season. The panache and smoothness with which the character transitions from being a pawn to being the Queen, is stunning.

Though I’d rate the show high for satisfying a long standing need felt in the “decent Tamil TV show” niche, I’d still call it out for some of its shortcomings. The biggest one, as mentioned previously, is the overacting by the otherwise capable actors. Likewise, some storylines within the show went unstitched, like that of the friendship with Alamelu, which was all important in Episode 7, but fully forgotten by Episode 10 (and replaced by Suryakala (ahem)).

While the idea behind the episodes and the various sequences may have been to highlight the nuances of Shakti’s life, the highlighting was rather skewed, I thought, to allow the protagonist to play the victim card rather than to celebrate the achievements she made despite the odds. For example, we know too much about her schooling, and almost nothing about the political decisions she made, save for a couple teasers that the show offered. Not enough, Gautham Menon. The feeling that Shakti is an enigma is still abound, and that has to go if she should be likeable, and isn’t that the point of a (fictionalised) biopic? If not, then, well, haven’t we found ourselves a little piece of treasure in Tamil TV?

I’m looking forward to Season II, and hope to fast-forward less. Shorter and crisper scenes, and less sermoning by the protagonist, please. I don’t want the gyan, I want to know what happened, how, and why.

So far so good okay. 3/5.

PS: I hope the title makes more sense, in the context of our democratic polity, in the coming seasons.

Take off those rose coloured glasses

This is my review of Hillbilly Elegy, by JD Vance.

Isn’t the whole point of a book to change your worldview? I remember hearing, and reading, that books can expand your horizons, but it has been a long time since I’ve gotten that feeling from a book- until this one. I’m happy with this selection.

JD Vance is an Ivy league educated lawyer, but he didn’t come from a background of wealth and privilege. His upbringing represents an America that is often underrepresented by the news and the media. The global audience- and indeed, the rest of the USA- are often unaware of the struggles of the lower-class in the midwest.

This book does an excellent job of educating people while avoiding falling into the trap of buying sympathy. He is patriotic without being jingoistic. The analysis of how his Republican leanings were influenced by his childhood and family is almost academic, and helps to understand his perspective. As an ethnic minority, and a woman, and an immigrant, and an engineer on the west coast, it’s sometimes hard for me to relate to the experiences of red-supporters in the midwest.

I appreciated this book because it showed me that I may be a minority, but I’m definitely not underrepresented- I have money and safety and am not disadvantaged. Just having the ‘right’ skin colour does not make life easier in this country. The USA has its own social evils to overcome, but democracy can help the country take steps towards equality and prosperity and good health for everyone.

5/5, recommended for anyone who is curious about the lives of others, and the lives of ‘others’.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is written by Arundhati Roy, who is famous for being the winner of the Man Booker Prize Award for her previous work of fiction, The God of Small Things (and is famous still for eliciting vile hatred among the gatekeepers of Indian Nationalism and Patriotism).

Anything to do with Roy becomes political, as might be the case with this review. Even though I’ve tried to be apolitical, how can I seem to objectively review this book? Roy is, after all, a woman who stokes the deepest fears in people who admire her, detest her, or, who try to be indifferent to her. I’m aware of the political speak that the review of this book can seem to exude, just as the book itself did. After all, as Roy says, the personal is political, and vice versa.

Before the book was released, commentators commented on the political undertones of the novel. I was intrigued. When I purchased the book, I mulled over the meaning of the poem on the book jacket for a long time.

"How to tell a shattered story? By slowly becoming everybody.
No. By slowly becoming everything."

What does the poem mean? Are people shattered in the course of their lives? Are the shattered people reduced to things? Are the people reduced to things after being shattered? Will knowing the stories of shattered people’s lives leave me shattered too? Can’t I tell a shattered story without being affected? Should I be stoic and unreasonably tree-like in my attempt to tell the shattered story of the dehumanised shattered people? I didn’t know, and I still don’t know. Such angst is a hallmark of Roy’s works, especially now, when she’s weaving metaphors through every sentence.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, I figure, is the place that the (shattered?) people of the periphery congregate to; and if it had to be a physical location, it would be the shrine of Hazrat Sarmad, an ascetic Sufi saint who was executed by the Mughal King, Aurangzeb, for the crime of blasphemy, being naked, and mostly for being a nuisance. The enigma of the saint shines through in all the protagonists – eccentric people from the fringes who live their ludicrous lives with aplomb.

One of our protagonists, Aftab or Anjum, a transgender person, or a Hijra, as she likes to be called, was introduced to the Sufi saint by her grief-ridden mother (for having given birth to a Hijra). After many years, during which time Anjum discovers her sexuality, moves out of her house, into Khwabgah (a place where Hijras stayed, and which literally translates to “a house of dreams”), attains fame, etc., she finds her daughter at the Shrine. Anjum’s life changes as tragedy strikes soon afterward, and she goes off to live in a grave yard.

Saddam Hussein, a security guard who rides a pony, is another such eccentric character. He, too, ends up living with Anjum in Jannat, the palace in the grave yard.

Another main protagonist, Tilotamma, is an architect who is possibly modeled after Roy herself. In her life, everything is a metaphor. As a young graduate student in Delhi, she falls in love with a passionate and handsome man, who goes on to become a Kashmiri militant fighting for Azaadi, and who calls her Babajaan. She is also romanced by a idealistic hardcore investigative journalist who is soon absorbed into the State’s news mill. She loves him for a brief period, but then falls out of love gradually. She’s also the love of a man who joins the Intelligence Bureau; a true patriot who thinks they can never really be together, for reasons ranging from her being “rootless” while he belonged to an “upper caste”, him being married to a woman of his parents’ choice, to her being as aloof as she is, etc. And towards the end of the book, or somewhere in the middle (it’s hard to say when), she also adopts an abandoned child born to a raped Maoist militant. Tilo’s story, or multitude of stories, was my hook.

Endearing characters apart, the book traces some of the most seminal moments in Indian history, like the partition, the emergency, the 1984 sikh riots, Godra 2002, Kashmir 2010 and 2016, Maoist movements in Andhra Pradesh, the India Against Corruption movement 2010, to name a few. But these events are scattered across the book like bread crumbs, in a jumbled up time-line, which only a keen reader can keep track of.

When the reader turns the last page, though, she wonders why this is no more than a work of fiction. Is it not an argument made through fiction? Argument or not, the very obvious references to the Indian leadership and polity can make the book more of a political memorandum than a piece of literature.

In an interview, Roy was asked why she resorted to fiction when the reality, or Duniya, is so starkly fantastic and mildly dystopian. She said, “To me, there is nothing higher than fiction. Nothing. It is fundamentally who I am. I am a teller of stories. For me, that’s the only way I can make sense of the world, with all the dance that it involves”. That declaration pretty much sums up this book: an attempt to make sense of the world – of the dance of the world – by threading together the shattered tales of a shattered people.

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, happiness is redefined and is free of the crutches of social norms and facts. It’s written with a luxuriant flow of words and with the ragged edge of a penmanship that seeks to speak directly to the reader. If you read the book as a work of contemporary fiction, it may be a 4/5 experience. If not, I can’t say.

Infinite injustice

This is my review of The Algebra of Infinite Justice by Arundhati Roy.

In her fight for rights, Arundhati Roy is compelling. Her book of essays (8 of them) makes her sadness, pleas, anger, and righteousness crush you a little with each paragraph that lays bare the injustices perpetuated by protectors and guarantors of freedoms and livelihoods.

In the essay, The Greater Common Good, which she wrote during the Narmada Bachao Andolan, she blasts the lid off the scam and scandal behind the worst planned damned dam in the world. She exposes the scam through numbers that tellingly don’t add up. On recognition of the shoddy engineering and planning, the World Bank (the happiest lenders in town, when they have lending targets to meet, that is) was shamed into withdrawing funding. Nothing can be “for the greater good” if it displaces and destroys millions of tribals. And especially nothing good will come of Big Dams, a concept that’s been abandoned for scientific and economic reasons, but still pushed for in third world countries like India (because it’s a great way to grease the wheels…).

In her essay Power Politics, she says that capitalism works because there are greedy givers and moneyed takers. And lost in these vicious transactions are the have-nots, in line to be swallowed into the belly of the monster. Her sarcasm, dry and twisted (twisted is the world, she’d tell you), is a little difficult to digest. She is extraordinarily bold in her accusations, but some of her broad accusations are flawed. Markets are decried so much that I was beginning to think her suspicion for market economies was ideological. The State’s promotion of privatisation is not always bad, Roy. It’s just bad if it’s business-friendliness, not liberal and (then) privatised. It’s the difference between the State supporting an Ambani and allowing a Silicon Valley to grow. One of them reeks of corruption. But the other is transparent, accountable to consumers, and responsible to its stakeholders (who are in the thousands, and hence also provides for shared welfare). It is no good throwing missiles (she hates those from the bottom of her big heart) at them. Take the case of social capitalists, for instance. I know, it sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s not really one, as proven by social capitalists themselves. Schools (that are run at a no-loss, no-profit basis) are an example. Nevertheless, Roy is right in this essay. She describes a disgusting nexus between bureaucracy and greedy capitalists – in building a dam that helps no-one, but manages to destroy millions of people’s houses and large forests. A dam that is likely to be built by a textile trader and a garbage incinerator (go figure!).

Another essay that I found poignant was The End of Imagination. Nuclear weapons’ Disarmament has become a joke, and nuclear weaponisation has become a dance that the powerful perform; around the pyre that they will create, of people and countries that they will inevitably destroy. “No, nuclear missiles are created to prevent such destruction”, they’ll tell you. Arundhati Roy allows you to laugh at them. Sadly.

The essays are powerful, exposing the great lies told to us today, that we are confused by. How can a dam be good for us if it displaces a million people? It is for the Greater Good. Of course. Of course. Naturally…

Roy hits you hard across the face and tells you not to believe them. That, I think, is what makes her a powerful writer. Waking up your readers from a slumber (intoxicated and hallucinating) is no joke. With the tools of grassroots work, and relentless pursuit of truth, she helps us with a point of view wholly different from what we’ve been fed by the drunken mainstream media. She’s good. But she also leaves you unsettled. She tells us to fight for specific causes in specific ways (like joining the NBA). But is that feasible for lay people like me? Moreover, will that not result in insufficient change? Should we not work upstream? How can we institutionalize participatory democracy? These are some unanswered questions. Perhaps one will be angry enough to figure them out oneself.

3/5

To work upstream is to abandon the shelter of grassroots, and to foray into the unknown elite groups, of bureaucracy and politics. It is arduous. Also, horrible as it is, the truth is that well meaning men and women who enter politics and the bureaucracy are converted into leeches and leprechauns, blood sucking and bribe seeking. Perhaps Roy has seen too many of that ilk. Hence the disillusionment. Hence the well placed anger.

Quick epilogue to the essays:

  • Since the NBA’s struggle, the World Bank withdrew from the project. Despite that, the project went ahead. The Supreme Court, however, ordered that the implementation of the dam project, especially the resettlement and rehabilitation of people, should be done in a participative and democratic manner. This end of the struggle has been held as a way forward for many more specific struggles to be waged in specific ways.
  • Nuclear disarmament is still a dream, and dream it will remain for generations to come. However, there have been significant agreements signed between the more powerful nuclear armed countries (US, Russia) to not expand the nuclear arsenal but only to modernize it (make it more potent, powerful). This is a joke, to be honest. They already have enough missiles to obliterate the earth and the moon. Now the buzzwords are non-proliferation of nuclear technology.