short story

You’ve been warned

This is my review of the short story anthology Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman.

One notable thing about today’s children’s/YA authors is that they’re approachable, and celebrities in their own right. John Green has a vlog and is active on social media, JK Rowling expresses her political opinions freely on Twitter, and Neil Gaiman- Neil Gaiman is basically the hero that my emo, pretentious, teenaged self needed but did not deserve. He is unabashedly geeky and frequently drops nuggets of inspiration that probably keep tired young writers plugging along for an extra edit, or a few hundred more words.

The reason this stands out to me is that many classic children’s authors took a very different stance- they tried to teach us lessons or preach morality. Enid Blyton got a lot of criticism for her depiction of naughty black golliwogs, since the original toys were overtly racist. I’m inclined to see this as a sign of the times, rather than deliberate spite towards people of colour. I’ve read conspiracy theories on homosexual undertones in Noddy and Big Ears’ relationship, but that’s unlikely. CS Lewis intended his Narnia books to be a religious allegory, with Aslan representing Jesus, but the metaphor flew over my preteen head. Herge’s Tintin in America has several pages that so offensive to Native Americans that the book was not published for several decades. It was re-released in the 2000s with a disclaimer, and I was shocked to see panels of ‘foolish’ brown natives worshipping Tintin as a god.

With all these precedents, I’m glad to see authors being more responsible about the influence they wield over young minds.

Trigger Warning refers to the warning (D’oh) on content that may be frightening or emotionally disturbing to people who have experienced trauma, or who are sensitive to gore or violence. Say, PTSD sufferers or rape victims. Gaiman points out that very often, literature is meant to take us out of our comfort zone. The experience is not always pleasant, but almost always educational.

Funnily enough, Gaiman himself does not venture far out of his writing comfort zone. He sticks to urban fantasy for the most part. I found that after a point, the stories sort of blended together until I felt like I was slogging through the same twists again and again- not an accurate impression, but one that I just couldn’t shake off.

There are some gems in there- The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury hit me right in the feels. For best effect, listen to the audio version. There’s an interesting take on Sherlock Holmes and his bee-keeping efforts (remember, after he retires he takes up bee keeping in the country!). There’s an interesting Doctor Who story as well. But most of the rest of them were Gaiman’s usual fairytales. The book starts off with a sort of meta-description of how he developed the ideas for each of the stories. This little peephole into his brain is sure to delight any wannabe writers. As a casual reader, however, I found that it disrupted my reading experience since I couldn’t map the anecdotes to the right story and had to keep flipping back and forth.

Or maybe I’ve just outgrown his writing (the horror!)

I would still recommend this if you’re a fan of urban fantasy, or you want some short stories to dip into from time to time. 3.5/5

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Will the Adivasi dance?

‘Adivasi’ is how most tribes in India identify themselves, at least as far as names go. Adivasis or Tribes have long confused the Indian State and her non-tribal people. Indeed, the diversity among tribal groups is astounding. While the Nagas tribes were notorious for head hunting, and the Andaman Sentinel tribes are brutally protectionist about their territory, the Nagas are also a political compact of people who aspire to political autonomy from/within the state, and the Dhongria Khond people are one of the most notable nature conservationists.

The non-tribal people (non scheduled tribes (ST), that is) can attribute their knowledge about tribes mostly to films that depict a colonial viewpoint of tribal people, as brutish, terrible, and uncivilized. On the other hand, the State knows just how powerless these groups are, and in far too many cases, exploits them due to it. For instance, in P Sainath’s book, we saw a tribe was asked to move out of their land and were subsequently ‘rehabilitated’ four or five times in a single generation; for such is the authority that the state commands with eminent domain (right to acquire private land for public use).

In the spectrum of perspectives that one may have on tribal groups in India, there are two that have been made into books recently – one, in the form of short stories, speaking of the lives of some tribal people, and the other, a book on the history of a violent struggle waged by many tribes against the State. This is a review of The Adivasi Will Not Dance and Hello, Bastar.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015, for his book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of stories set in the mineral-rich Jharkhand. The book includes stories about a young man who migrates to Gujarat only to find that eating meat is subject to heavy social sanction, a young girl who is moving to West Bengal in search of work who has to sleep with a policeman at the price of two soggy bread pakoras, a Troupe-Master who is beaten up because he refuses to dance for the President of India, a prostitute who falls in love etc.

These stories are written with a sardonic tone of a man who seems to have seen it all; the raw human desire, the vulgar display of power, the chill of fear, the gnawing hunger for wealth, love, power, status. His stories are not meant to entertain as much as they are meant to help you introspect, such as when you read of a young woman being thrown into prostitution as a way of life, you wonder why there is no alternative for her. But his stories are also slightly over-dramatic in their style. It might just be my personal preference talking, when I say that too many of the women in the stories exclaim and over-react altogether too often,  making the narrative seem like it’s meant for a play rather than a poignant story book. The best part about this book, however, is the diversity of issues Hansda brings out, ranging from religion, tradition to persecution, patriarchy, and what not. They mostly feel like a collation of stories out of a newspaper, and hence must be read that way, with some piping hot chai or coffee in the garden. 2/5

Hello, Bastar, written by Rahul Pandita, on the other hand is a whole different ball game, while still being on the subject of tribes; but this time, it’s the tribes of Bastar, in Chattisgarh. The book steers away from the topic of tribes and traces the history and life of one of India’s biggest security threats. The essays (or stories?) in the book describe the beginning and acceleration of the “Maoist” movement, the crackdown on the movement in Andhra Pradesh, the infamous Salwa Judum, the capture of the (in)famous leaders of the movement etc. More importantly, while doing so, the book also allows us to pore over the motivations and simple ambitions of the armed men and women.

Rahul Pandita travels and lives with the “Maoists”, and provides us this chilling tale of their lives. The offhanded tone and the apparent normalcy of the movement makes the essays all the more disturbing. The repression of the state and the ideology of the Maoists is described in the book to give us a perspective other than that obtained in the mainstream media, and that’s reason enough to read it, in my opinion. What the media doesn’t always tell us, but which Pandita covers eloquently, is that the movement is a mixture of ideology, repression and revenge, unattended peoples, lacunae of the state, and army-fatigue clad Naxals who fill that void. While one might hear people say that there should be no sympathy for such “Naxal movements”, I don’t think not listening to them will solve this security threat either. Understanding what troubles them, their motivation, and their wishes, is an important part of our democracy. To that end, this book serves one well. 3.5/5

The Adivasi Will Not Dance may seem like a cute book on the lives of faraway people, and Hello, Bastar, may seem like a war-memoir. The beauty of both the books is that they have a subtext that is intensely human and pleading with us for attention. The exploitation and treatment of Adivasis, as if they’re meant to be in zoos, must give way for a decent and “good life” for them as well. An emerging economy like India cannot afford to continue to watch her Adivasi children die of malnutrition related ailments (death by starvation, some call it) or wither due to lack of education; and she cannot shell and persecute her people in the name of internal security, without incurring heavy damage to her democratic psyche. We, as a people who choose our politicians, have a moral duty to understand the Adivasi’s dreams, persuade the state to guarantee her the right to life with dignity, negotiate with her if she’s upset, and not wait long enough that she takes to army-fatigues and gunfire.

Miscellany

2015 was disappointing, reading-wise. I didn’t reach my paltry target of 30 books, and more upsetting, didn’t read as many good books as I would have liked. The downside of only reading light novels. Anyway, be prepared for more random non-literary posts; it’s either that or reviewing technical papers.

  1. RIP Alan Rickman. Currently, no fewer than 5 of my WhatsApp contacts have “Always” as their status message- this frustrates me so much. I’ve heard that the greatest achievement of an actor is to be mistaken for a character they’ve played, but come on, he has done better than Harry Potter for sure… Hasn’t he? I reviewed Sense and Sensibility a while ago, and he was certainly good there. And if you’re looking for something offbeat, check out the insanity called Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
  2. Guts by Chuck Palahniuk. I dare you to read it without feeling queasy- I finished this short story a couple of hours ago and am dreading the thought of lunch. It’s a short story revolving around masturbation that ironically was published in the Playboy magazine. It’s awkward and gross and may just go over the line unless you have a stomach of steel- try it here.
  3. South Indian cinema today. I finally got around to watching Bangalore Days and Premam, two recent Malayalam movies that have done much to shatter the pretentious artsy image of Mollywood (?!). While they’re very modern and amazingly well-made, they have a few ridiculous plot twists that remind you that this is a south Indian entertainer.  On the other hand, the Tamil movie O Kadhal Kanmani is a brilliant film that deserves your time, even if you must use subtitles. Its portrayal of two couples- one young and modern, one old and even more modern- is sweet without being unrealistic or annoying. Plus A R Rahman’s music, need I say more?

Pretentious Literary Review

Anyone who has studied a second or third language in school is likely to be familiar with amateur literary reviews. The literature section of the syllabus usually consisted of short stories in a variety of different settings. Watered down stories about child marriage in South India, unemployment in the USA during the Great Depression and Norse mythology provided nuggets of insight into different cultures. Also, the stories invariably had hidden, ‘inner’ meanings that were beyond my limited imagination. And linguistic skills, probably.

After years of writing half-hearted analyses of how lamp light is a metaphor for wisdom and how the cutting of one’s hair symbolizes an escape from social norms (or a loss of social status, depending on the context- why can’t these things be consistent?!), I was glad to embrace a career in engineering. Unambiguity is essential in computer languages, a fact that provides me with much reassurance. I remain firmly convinced that all literary devices- similes, metaphors, personification and whatnot- are concepts cooked up by language teachers to harass gullible students. Don’t try to convince me otherwise.

But once in a while, one comes across a piece of work that works clearly and flawlessly on multiple levels.

The other day I came across The Yellow Wall-Paper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman on someone’s to-read list, tagged as a literary classic. A Google search told me it was a psychological thriller in 6000 words, so I abandoned my buggy code for a while and read it then and there.

On the surface it is a commonplace story of a young mother’s descent into madness during a ‘rest cure’ for what is diagnosed as nerves- post partum depression, maybe. Her description of the unpleasant yellow wall paper in her bedroom serves as an indicator of her weakening grip on reality. It begins with a mild irritation with the vivid colour, and ends with hallucinations of a woman trapped behind the garish patterns on the wall.

So why is this review accompanied by a rant about literary analysis? This story has a real life context that gives it a whole new dimension. Its author, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, suffered from depression for several years. A renowned physician, Dr S Weir Mitchell, prescribed what was then known as a rest cure- an extended period of time without any intellectual or physical stimulation. After a couple of months of this, Gilman felt herself sinking further into mental illness and began to work on her writing once more. She intended this story to be a warning to Dr Mitchell and other patients.

Gilman was of the belief that the concept of the rest cure stemmed from the patriarchal structure of society at the time. Men were unwilling to allow women to do anything that might eventually allow them to carve an identity for themselves, so they were actively discouraged from writing and painting. Portraying women as having delicate nerves or fragile mental health was an indirect way of subjugating them.

Whether you view the story as a feminist work, or a public service announcement, or merely a psychological thriller is up to you. It works well at any level and makes a good short read, despite the obvious datedness of the language and setting. It is available in the public domain (legally, for a change) at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/1952. It’s worth a shot. 3.5/5