Category Archives: Books

How much do I love this woman

Margaret Atwood, I mean. Her latest book is due this month and as usual, she has her finger unflinchingly on the pulse. This one’s called Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth and it talks about the phenomenon of borrowing and owing as a cultural issue. She weaves in Faustus, Scrooge and Eric Berne to link the US economic crisis with primal human urges to get right now and pay later. She also looks at how Faustus is a generous guy, why we love the reformed Scrooge (“because, true to the laws of wish-fulfilment, which always involve a free lunch or a get-out-of-jail card, he embodies both sides of the equation”) and why we choose to go into debt — as a life script, or even as a ‘fix’.

From the Livemint extract:

In our minds — as reflected in our language — debt is a mental or spiritual non-place, like the Hell described by Christopher Marlowe’s Mephistopheles when Faust asks him why he’s not in Hell but right there in the same room as Faust. “Why, this is Hell, nor am I out of it,” says Mephistopheles. He carries Hell around with him like a private climate: He’s in it and it’s in him. Substitute “debt” and you can see that, in the way we talk about it, debt is the same kind of placeless place. “Why, this is Debt, nor am I out of it,” the beleaguered debtor might similarly declaim.

Which makes the whole idea of debt — especially massive and hopeless debt — sound brave and noble and interesting rather than merely squalid, and gives it a larger-than-life tragic air. Could it be that some people get into debt because, like speeding on a motorbike, it adds an adrenalin hit to their otherwise humdrum lives?

When the bailiffs are knocking at the door and the lights go off because you didn’t pay the water bill and the bank’s threatening to foreclose, at least you can’t complain of ennui.

It’s interesting that the passage from Dr Faustus always made me think of ‘guilt’ as akin to Hell. And debt and guilt are very closely linked, aren’t they?

What’s she also saying here is that debt is, in its own way, exciting. It gives us ‘something to think about’. And it’s probably true. How many joyful evenings in how many households have been spent discussing when the EMI on the car will be over so that the money can then be used for the EMI on a new car?

I’m one of those people who hate handling money. Don’t get me wrong. I love many of the things it can assure — certain kinds of freedom, travel, fast-speed Internet, books — but prefer to never actually have to think about it. Which means, perhaps, that this is a particular type of excitement I don’t have the stomach for. Perhaps, the fear and guilt squelch out the adrenalin. Which I why I strike big blows against feminism sometimes and let A handle the bank work. Or maybe I’m just being a clever feminist (“It’s a dirty job and someone’s got to do it,” as I rub my hands together wickedly.)

In other news, I had four glorious days away from all this vulgar talk of money last week. I was in Pondicherry and besides eating, drinking, walking, mooning at the sea, eating, drinking, I concentrated on spending the little money I have in Pondicherry’s quaint, expensive ’boutiques’ (nothing is just a ‘shop’ anymore, apparently). I like to buy heaps of seemingly small, cheap things rather than big, costly things because this allows me to feel all non-materialistic and virtuous. As a result, I have come back with many aromatic candles and enough incense for three medium-sized temples. Pictures soon. Of the place, not the incense.



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Jane Eyre, power shift and the other mad woman

The mood for period drama struck some time last week and I satisfied it by watching the 1983 BBC miniseries version of Jane Eyre starring Timothy Dalton and Zelah Clarke. Independence is a pivotal theme in Jane Eyre and each reading/watching leads to thoughts on this. Bronte’s concern with this is clear right from the beginning but comes into sharp focus when Jane leaves Thornfield Hall after her marriage to Rochester is abruptly called off. She has to leave him because staying would be contrary to her code of ethics. She sets off into the world with only a few coins and no job. One can only imagine how bereft and alone she must feel at this point. Continue reading


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Gita Aravamudan, Gender and Organised Genocide

A whole gender is getting exterminated. It is happening while we, as a nation, slumber.
– Gita Aravamudan

Gita Aravamudan’s book Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide was recently published by Penguin Books. A scorchingly honest and compelling account of female foeticide in India, the book is an important and valuable study of the problem. Aravamudan has used investigative reporting to explore different aspects of female foeticide, its beginnings and its backlash, the ways it grows and how it can be stemmed. Disappearing Daughters combines interviews, case studies, analysis of statistics and history to present a comprehensive and very human face to this “holocaust”. Continue reading


Filed under Books, Culture, Gender

21 Under 40 and ‘Women Like Us’

I recently covered the release of 21 Under 40, an anthology of twenty-one short stories by women under forty, for Mid-Day. Edited by Anita Roy and published by feminist publishing house Zubaan, the anthology features some interesting new voices including Tishani Doshi. The event was organized by Toto Funds the Arts, a Bangalore-based organization that encourages and supports young writers and artists. Four of the writers featured in the anthology – Anjum Hasan, Adithi Rao, Meena Kandasamy and Ruchika Chanana – were present and read excerpts from their stories. Continue reading


Filed under Bangalore, Books, Gender

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit was British novelist Jeanette Winterson‘s ambitious debut, written when she was 26. The book won the 1985 Whitbread Prize for first fiction and is considered a seminal work in gay and lesbian literature although Winterson disagrees with this narrow view:

“It’s for anyone interested in what happens at the frontiers of common-sense. Do you stay safe or do you follow your heart? I’ve never understood why straight fiction is supposed to be for everyone, but anything with a gay character or that includes gay experience is only for queers.”

~ Jeanette Winterson

Continue reading


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Bookshops, cafes, mood and music

I spent the day with mum yesterday and besides devouring some topshe macher bhaja and malai chingri at 6 Ballygunge Place, we also spent time at the Crossword outlet in Indiranagar. The food at 6 Ballygunge Place was good as usual though richer and oilier than home-made Bengali food. The service was better than usual, which means it was passable. The chhanar malpua was awful and I had a swift vision of my grandmother’s plump little hands churning kheer in a wok to make malpua.

The Crossword outlet has been called claustrophobic by some. It is considerably smaller than other chain book stores and I can imagine it feeling crowded and cluttered on weekends when families from nearby Defence Colony descend in hordes. On a Wednesday afternoon, there wasn’t much crowd though and I enjoyed the rather cozy feeling of being in a bookstore that one can take in with one glance. I tend to feel lost in huge book stores and invariably wander from one section to another, purposeless and a little overwhelmed. Surrounded by abundance, I find it hard to look at the particular. I flit from book to book, unable to concentrate or figure out what I really want. At Landmark, I battle the large bookstore syndrome by singlemindedly heading to the Literature section and not allowing the rest of the store to crowd in on my peripheral vision.

In contrast, Crossword was easy to settle into. There were cozy nooks where one could sit and read and the wooden counter with large cookie jars gave the place a nice, warm feeling. I read a bit, breathed slower, quietened. The only thing missing, in my opinion, was appropriate music.

Places should have distinct moods. A place is not so much about the four walls, the floors and the things in it as the identity it creates for itself through a set of symbols – visual and otherwise. This is what binds us to places. The things they stand for, the things they remind us of, and the parts of ourselves that they somehow open.

Bookshops, for me, are quaint and old-world. Harking back to one of the first things humans discovered. Keepers of history, reminders of revolution, treasure houses of dramatic tragedy and tragic comedy. Like muffins, woolly rugs, warm slippers, steaming mugs, curling up and winding down. In keeping with this mood, the music that plays in the background should be warm, mellow, comfortable.

Shakira and Britney don’t quite fit the bill (although I can’t be sure that’s what was played as they all sound the same to me). I have nothing against popular music. I am the great, original defender of the right to popular culture; I love Bollywood, for chrissake. I like pop in the car and hip-hop on the dance floor. In a bookshop, not so much.

I feel similarly about cafes. Most cafes don’t please me as I have carefully modeled my idea of the perfect cafe on a strange combination of a black and white Italian movie whose name I have forgotten, a dream I once had, and a conviction that I owned a cafe in a past life. Which is why although the Earl Grey was perfect at the Coffee Day across the street, I just could not enjoy it. I almost felt a sense of peace breaking over me every now and then but it always went poof before settling on my head. Then I realized that there was some electronic / techno music (I confess I am unaware of the finer distinction between the two) playing in the background. No amount of steaming Earl Grey can help me feel mellow and relaxed when there is techno music in the aural vicinity.

I know that these places are trying to attract young people with time on their hands and cash in their hip little pockets. Presumably, Shakira and techno kings are the grooves that move their soul. But this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, isn’t it? The store owners play the music that they assume is liked and people don’t hear enough of anything else to figure out if they like it more. Or perhaps, they don’t really like this music and the store owners are assuming things. Perhaps, if Crossword or Coffee Day decided to play jazz for a change, they would suddenly find people looking up and saying, “You’ve got it right finally. You’ve got it right, after all.”

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Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is deceptively simple to read. It is not till the end that the full import of this book – and all its larger questions – sinks in.The story starts with Kathy H., an alumna of a seemingly idyllic boarding school called Hailsham. Reflecting on her childhood at Hailsham and her friends, Ruth and Tommy, Kathy unravels the layers of this devastating story.

As Kathy’s narrative unfolds, the sunny reminiscences of Hailsham hold a darker undercurrent, a sense that something is very wrong. This feeling of discomfort steadily increases till the denouement where everything – all the little details – fall chillingly into place. Continue reading


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