CS Bhagya

Writing Portfolio. Mostly.

(Re-)Chronicling a death foretold

Angela at the Window

Angela Vicario sat by the window the day after her marriage, watching the bay which lay like a slit of eye-white beyond the sandy shore, where just yesterday the bishop had arrived, refused to step down from his grand boat-escort, and blessed the air, slashing his hands as if torching the sign on the invisible door of the village, and all for what good?

The marriage had left town on its whiskery blue, night wings and along with it Bayardo San Roman. Now, all she could remember was her violent wedding night, his moving figure above her, almost a hovering guillotine. She thought it was her will that caused it; her refusal to listen to her friends’ sage advice on how to raise a screen to protect chastity which did not exist. Was all the pretense that necessary? What was this question of virginity? But maybe she had no right to ask that question. She had not protested.

Now his face would haunt her always. Bayardo, with his angel-demon gaze, with his alien footfall, how he had placed each fingertip on her bare skin as if testing with the cold steel tip of a blade how fast it would yield, how close to the surface her blood ran. And immediately her ears were filled with the noise of her wedding gown ripping, ripping –and looking around she could see the shreds splattered all over her childhood room – into feathers, the white blooming the mildewed walls, and the feathers on the walls could as well be the ones littering the seashore fallen from roosters on their death sail. And behind this noise, a lesser hum of Bayardo’s hands tracing circles around the edges of the silver he carried everywhere he went. Now she couldn’t listen to the chink of coins without experiencing it in her very heart, as if the sound deliberately took the shape of a sharp tear – slicing her up – such jagged, ungainly cuts. It disturbed her that what disturbed her, more than the pain, was the inelegance of the cuts. Her mother had taught her to cut the chicken, the rabbits, the lambs, the cows with a certain cruel neatness: it added to the taste, she always said. Now all her advice was still, as if another kind of silent beating in the night.

Angela had been looking out of the window when Bayardo walked past her house, guiding his servants to take the luggage to the pier, he had looked at the window where she had been standing, and the curtains shifted to reveal her weary silhouette. But he had turned away, just like that.

Was it so easy to turn away?

Around her the Vicario house stood like a mausoleum. When she stepped back she tripped on a slab of stone on her bedroom floor which had risen up, like several other slips of concrete or decayed sand, stippled with dust under the roof – after the centuries it had spent bearing the grudges of the Vicario household. She didn’t try to turn around, if she did, she was almost certain she would set to motion an unstoppable inertia, she would keep spinning and spinning until the house heaved on her, groaning, and would split at the sides, as if collapsing. But it wouldn’t collapse. At least f it did, she felt she would have some relief from the guilt.

Outside her room, she could hear the shuffling of feet: she was used to these sounds. Over the years they had entered her bloodstream, and she could even tell who each footstep belonged to. The long, dragging shuffle was her mother’s, who always walked as if in tune with the impossible weight the house carried, as if she bore the pain of all its millennia on her shoulders; it was a shared burden. And along with the heavy footfall, she sang tinnily, an incongruous hum, as she bustled from the kitchen to the cavernous dining hall which contained a table like a slaughterhouse stoneboard, setting the dishes for the evening meal. The other heavy trudge was the cook’s, who hated her mother, but lived there because she loved her kitchen. Leaving, Angela was almost sure, would cut a cord in the cook’s heartstrings. But the kitchen was kind, it swallowed up their fights: the cook’s and her mother’s, in its raging fire-centre. But if you examined the walls carefully, you could see long scrawls of ripped whitewash, scars of bitter words.

And in the half silence, she walked to the door of her room, stood an inch away from the scumbled woodwork, breath easing on the brown, and when the noises outside her room ceased for a moment, she slipped out to staircase at the east end of the house. The energy of the house was sexual: transferred from the bodies of the women who lived there, doing nothing but attending to the household chores all day. She peered into a crack which revealed the interior of a room on the first floor of the house overlooking the kitchen. A whiff of cold breeze hit her face; inside, her sisters sat like monks, sewing cloths of so many colours she lost count, and the evening shadows lengthened. As they looped the needle in, the cloths they were holding continued into piles on the floor and lay like casual carcasses. Their sewing was slow, deliberate, and steadily in the dim, gradually fading light of the evening, it set up a calculating rhythm, as if the sewing was a null prayer, and the room an old, disused cathedral singing the evening out of itself into an impregnable darkness.

It was all the same, always. She tried to remember, and all that her memories brought back was a picture of her sisters always sewing; they could be a portrait, or life-size dolls, not human at all.

Along with these pictures, secrets. She tripped on the way upstairs, and when she peered into the other room now, she realized she was no longer surprised at what she saw: Pablo and Pedro’s room was swathed in a soft light which fell at just the right angle on the criss-crossing gauze curtains, and underneath – Pedro’s swift arm rushing across the careful torso of Pablo, leaving delicate shadows, and between the cove of their necks a compression of space, skin folded tight and snapping, and as her gaze shifted to their faces, suddenly there was a shocked stillness as Angela met Pedro’s agile, glinting eyes hovering in a sphere of semi-darkness like a knife. Sensing this, Pablo spun around. Angela twisted and flew down the stairs two steps at a time, fingers brushing against the damp walls, splinters in the paint cutting lines of red, and her skirt nearly caught between her feet at the bottom stair and she stumbled, but somehow, out of her fear and apprehension at being discovered, after all these years – not her fault, she protested, that they had become so careless and brash as to leave their door open – she executed an impossible pirouette and dashed towards the open backdoor, and when she burst into the empty yard behind the house, the air was silky and the sky the deep blue of death, and the sun was leaning its way out of the breadth of the village and the sea was the sea so bloodshot it was difficult to tell it was beautiful, salty, life-giving water, not a massacre.

As she walked out of the backyard, crows fought for a scrap of meal in the boughs of a tree; sand filtered through her toes and some residue remained there even as she walked, kicking her feet occasionally, towards the edge of the sea. In the distance, to her far right, she could see the hazy outline of a mob outside Santiago Nasar’s house, and the high, shrill notes of his mother crying her heart out. She felt no remorse.

She walked to that place on the seashore where she had spent all the childhood summers she could remember gathering driftwood, digging out holes for baby turtles, and building the biggest sandcastles the village had seen. She sat down in the sand, right next to a trail of newly hatched turtles which were struggling to gain use of their new limbs – such freshness, and how that must feel the first touch of each grain of sand, and the undiscovered longing of water and a first, effortless swim in the sea built into their bones, like flight. For a few years they could be birds. Above, eagles circled.

Angela thought of what she had to do. Already, she felt an irresistible longing for Bayardo, but that was, she soon realized, only a longing for someone who had rejected her outright, without compunction. She wondered what it was about women – even men? she wouldn’t know – that always drew them back to pain, with that pathetic, clinging need to be needed and desired and loved. She could imagine her whole future now, where she would, perhaps, write letters to Bayardo, first cautious, an undemanding wife, then whining, raging for her rights, for his one glance back.

He had not looked back, that was what broke her heart. She would spend countless days imagining the experience: his glance would have struck like lightning, perhaps, or something exploding inside her, and she felt the explosion unhappening in her very soul, it seemed, and the ache, such a piercing, unrelenting ache of a life just squandered away, brought tears to her eyes.

He had chosen for her, so now she would choose.

She took back that life of letters which she would never write, that life she would never lead as a solitary woman, waiting all the time while each day wrapped itself around her, its teeth bared, scratching out wrinkles on her forehead, adding silver hairs to her jet-black mop, imposing a stoop on her graceful profile; the life where at some remote point of time years away, he would be generous enough to return, and reclaim his right over his woman; a life where she would have to be thankful for his charity.

The night was upon her, and the village moved like a thief. It seemed too tight for her now, the village always hovering by her neck, waiting for her to miss a step so that it could extend it gold bars around her and cage her in. The village was a noose. The incessant noise of the sea thumping against the rocks was some perverse reflection of the village men’s sexual ministrations, their insistent, and unabashed fucking – she wasn’t supposed to use the word.

Above the sea, a full moon blazed, and despite its tug the sea was strangely still, gurgling only infrequently, as if in the middle of some bizarre attempt to retain a record of the bishop’s boat. Angela thought, if she waited now, she would soon convince herself that she was in the side wings again, abandoning the stage for some forgotten god to arrive and rescue her, such was the power of delusion. But she knew, as well as every other woman in the village knew, no impossible god would be kind enough to stray into this part of the world, and even if by accident he did, he would never step out of the hallowed waters for fear of sand in his boots, and she would have to walk into the storm, holding on to nothing, and what would she leave behind? Just a shift in the sand perhaps, as if she had never existed.

Angela decided. Some stories were better off untold, because, see, the danger was, more often than not they would come together all wrong, and like a wrecked compass, would veer directionless, chopping off the important parts: the long years of violence and neglect. To her far left a cluster of trees thrashed in the night wind. Distance distorted. It made them appear to be a hazy green mist shimmering in the air, a seductive mirage. She sprang up from where she sat, and paused to watch the last of the baby turtles slide into the frothing lip of the sea, and turning around, walked into the blessed silence of the forest. She took the stories with her.

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This piece was a creative writing assignment for an English (World literature) class. We were supposed to write a new version of some part of Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. A highly presumptuous exercise, but I thought if I had to recast bits of the story, Angela would be a good place to start. (January, 2011)

A Chocolat spectre

For the little French village which forms the highly atmospheric setting of the film Chocolat (directed by Lasse Hallström) tranquility is defined by abstinence, order and a rigidly Christian sense of morality – until the arrival of the aberrant Vianne Rocher shatters this carefully maintained veneer. Vianne, with her tow of an illegitimate daughter and her imaginary pet kangaroo, also ushers in the sorcery of the North wind and the seductive power of chocolate. Much of the trajectory of the film is governed by the ensuing conflict between Vianne and Comte Paul de Reynaud, the village mayor, who struggles to persuade the village to continue practicing its old rituals and remain faithful to the church.

Chocolat discusses themes of gender, sexuality and religion, and one can argue, posits them in a Gothicized framework. Joanne Harris’ book of the same name, on which the movie is based, aimed at emulating the literary/ horror genre, and the genre manifests its marks architecturally in the film: the Church is the central image, not just in the film text, but also as a topographical location from which everything in the village seems to emanate (or conversely, recede). Thus the Church is the most definitive, defining entity in the village which structures normativity in the community. The notion of a stable society is generated in conjunction to Church regulations and beliefs of which Reynaud serves as the primary mediator. Consequently, people in the village are evaluated by the degree to which they adhere to or depart from this value system: Caroline, the pious, rule-abiding daughter of Vianne’s eccentric landlady Armande, falls closest to the purview of Reynaud, while Armande, who hosts Vianne and her chocolaterie, and Vianne herself are pushed to the far end of the spectrum as they gradually upturn these notions.

The film text is invested with a characteristic Gothicized aura, to the extent that Vianne assumes the figure of the witch/ sorceress who breaches the powerful religious harmony (or the attempt at this harmony) of the village and creates points of rupture which increase exponentially as the film progresses. Chocolate becomes an object which is transferred insidiously and clandestinely throughout the village, something of a spectral presence which works in opposition to the order of the Church.

Vianne is constructed as the “other” on the basis of several counts of exclusion: space, gender and expression of sexuality being the most prominent ones. She is an outsider who enters the community uninvited, carrying a multiplicity of potential transformations into a space previously insulated from any form of change. Pitted against the presiding authority figure of the village – Reynaud – she is immediately apparent as the “other” due to her gender, and perceived as a threat because she has no qualms about expressing her sexuality: by way of clothing, which by the standards of the village immediately seems promiscuous, and ultimately, because of her illegitimate daughter Anouk about whom she is never even remotely apologetic. Her “otherness” is conflated when she associates with a group of gypsies who arrive at the village by river; these gypsies who are already marginal to the community further aggravate the hostility of the village toward Vianne.

The film yields to a reading in terms of colonizer/ colonized binaries interestingly by positing Vianne not as the colonized “other” forced into a new space culminating in surrender to that space, but as a colonizer who enters the new space willingly and succeeds in winning over the community. Sexuality is the most powerful disruptive force which systematically disempowers the Church – right from the chocolaterie (“What’s the décor? Early Mexican brothel?” comments Armande when she first enters it) to Vianne’s sexual liaison with Roux the gypsy, and even Josephine’s emancipation from her abusive husband which relaxes her socio-sexual confinement and expressiveness.

Despite the reversal in the colonizer/ colonized binary (the film portrays the ingression of pagan ritual into a Christian milieu, albeit with the pagan figure in the position of the colonizer), the trope of the colonizer/ colonized remains largely unaltered, following a predictable arc of the colonizer’s initial entry into the potential colony, reactionary hostility, vulnerability to the ideas of the colonizer, and the process of imbibing the semiotics of the colonial regime into the native culture. Hence, by employing binaries of Christian/ pagan, good/ evil, deprivation/ excess, Chocolat posits that a society, however problematically organized, is always deformed by the introduction of the “other”, and the manner in which society reacts to this breach governs what kind of society is consequently synthesized.

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This piece was a class assignment: a film report on the gothic postcolonial.

Books and other places

Picture this: A low window overlooking a looming garden, light peering in through the jigsaw of the canopy to drop gently on the makeshift window seat where you are sitting, and in the light like an inverted cone, dust swirls. Underneath this play of light and shade, you sit cross-legged in your summer shorts, a book lying open in your lap carelessly, soaking up the dust filtering through trees, dust which could almost be the stories in your book unclasping themselves from the yellow hold of paper and taking off in swift, elated flights.

Some of our earliest– and for a few, happiest – memories are those involving books.  The sheer thrill of books, their grand potential for escape. Some of us dreamt of an idyllic vacation spent huddling between ominous, grandfatherly shelves sagging under the weight of paper and words, so much of it that they threatened to spill out of wood. Who doesn’t have memories of libraries, time stolen out of a homework hour or a class hour to read a book discreetly tucked away within the folds of pages and pages of boring, handwritten notes? I think, at one time or another, we have all desired the consolation of a finely-spun story, the assuring weight of a novel – illustrated or unillustrated, static and yet so dynamic – to make reality negotiable for one uplifting, ecstatic span of time.

Flash forward to the future present: Time and tense have rearranged your room. The bookshelf which occupied a place of honour has been shifted to make way for a compact, deftly hewn table which accommodates your state-of-the-art computer and its accompanying gadgets. Gradually, where once you heard the rustle of paper, you hear a pervasive electric hum – a repercussion of artificial bees. How unfortunate, you complain, that it suffuses every inch of modern space. What is distressing is this evolution has changed paper, changed the very texture of words, and, in turn, changed even the warmth of a good read. Now there is no escape.

Okay, I’m being dramatic. But there is no denying that the arrival of technology and all this riff-raff (the Kindle, the multitudinous e-book readers, the blogs and what not) has created two worlds – that of the book, and that of the, well, non-book. But the real question is, in the inevitable, ensuing tension between these two worlds, is there a compulsive tug to conform to tradition? To reject the new media completely? Or become converts, give up and transfer to the other side? Perhaps this anxiety is not worryingly tangible yet; people who read books, still read books. Highly tensile beings, we’ve learnt to shuttle between two worlds and pick the best of both. But again, a nagging concern emerges: all these new avenues for obtaining information, the manufacture of such devices has in turn manufactured a new, irrevocable generation of readers who will never know the romance of the book, never understand, why, according to some older readers, you don’t read if you don’t read from a book.

But must our present engagement with books always be so elegiac? Does the transition from the book to the screen have to occur at the cost of the book? Isn’t there some way to find a middle-ground between the two? True, we’re all living in a space where there is no conception of the separate any more – we’re all interconnected – living as if in a giant, pulsating organism, the internet, and it’s sucking all of us in.

But how to let go? There are so many things about the book that I do not want to forget. A book, unlike its modern counterparts, doesn’t light up annoyingly, or crackle and die on you. A book doesn’t beep. A book isn’t cold in your hands.

What I love most about the book is its promise of silence. I’m not just talking about the auditory silence – a book delivers there, too, but more importantly, a book is relevant because it assures solitude – it doesn’t carry the weight of the world with it like the internet does, with its great, dizzying information surge behind each word.

Perhaps, this is all an entirely misplaced nostalgia. Perhaps we will never lose the book. But perhaps it isn’t?

Extraordinarily, though, with the transformation of the page to the screen, our social interactions are becoming increasingly textual. We seem to be moving from the page to the screen and, suddenly, recreating ourselves in words – fragmented and stuttering, mostly, but occasionally reaching a pure frequency, letting words explode into us.

The self-construction is complete. And perhaps, just perhaps, there is some consolation in the fact that now, more than ever, we are so textually volatile we feel an overwhelming sensation that we are constantly reading each other. That we are all, slowly, turning into language.

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This piece was written for the Mount Carmel College (Bangalore) annual magazine, 2011.

So you’re graduating, huh?

If you’ve entered your final year in college and that deliciously overpowering sense existential gloom hasn’t settled in yet, well, I don’t like you very much. It did on me, resulting in some fabulous “Look, the world is ending!” sort of conversations with friends. I discovered most of the city’s “shady” cafes and side alleys in my final year exchanging shamelessly emo old-Bollywood-movie type of dialogues with friends equally distraught at the impending “parting of ways”, equally lazy to bravely confront the towering pile of assignments. If you somehow manage to survive this onslaught of paperwork, the emotional turmoil of being thrown together with people you thought you would never have to bother to bestow even a fake smile on to work on projects which could decide if you get that old degree or not – what one has to endure for that piece of paper, seriously – you can breathe in peace. Not.

Once you leave college, there will be times when you will think the world outside your room a giant piece of clockwork: you will sense the slowness of time, watch the leaves fall, smell the roses, and, um, so on in that vein. But mostly, you’ll feel things along the lines of: Uh, SHE got a job? SHE got THAT job? What, SHE made it into that university? God, what am I doing with my life? When you’re not dying in the throes of crippling jealousy, the chill of being shut off by those who appeared to be close friends in college, trying to get over feeling like a huge waste of space, getting on your parents’ nerves, you’ll probably read worthless books, turn into an internet (and god knows what other) addict, have migraine-inducing movie marathons, listen to Justin Bieber, basically, practice endless hours of vice and get on your parents’ nerves more.

That’s all very well and, to be honest, having so much time on your hands is not all bad. Very occasionally, you’ll end up doing or discovering something useful. (For me it was the life-altering realization – after thinking covertly for months that Justin Bieber wasn’t that bad – that the girl I thought was Bieber’s singing partner was actually Justin Bieber.)

But, you know, try and do something, okay? (I am not talking to those smug, “I’ve got my life all figured out” types.) After all, it is your life, and you aren’t Moses that the seas will part for you willingly: sometimes you have to hack at the sides of clouds with a sledgehammer to find the silver lining. Do that little bit of work for yourself, then take off on your crazy adventures, and one day when you’re wandering around the city wallowing beatifically in a quagmire of self-pity, inside that great big piece of clockwork that keeps thudding behind your back all day all night, something will click into place.

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This smug little piece purporting to dispense graduation wisdom was written for the Journalism newsletter For Now (Mount Carmel College, Bangalore) in August, 2011, after one of my juniors requested me to write something for them . Obviously, I’m not an expert. Read with caution. 

To read or not to read: Science fiction

Say “Sci-Fi” and the first things that pop into your head are huge spacecrafts, weirdly shaped aliens, intergalactic wars, or an apocalyptic vision of a dying earth – mainly because science fiction has established a position for itself in popular imagination via movie franchises like Star Wars, Star Trek and Back to the Future. But as a literary genre which explores – sometimes in a curiously prophetic manner – the consequences of future (even if imaginary) innovations, it is yet to acquire a large reader-base. Not easy when most readers do not consider sci-fi “proper” literature and are known to advice fans of the genre to start reading “real” books.

While science fiction has always had a dedicated community abroad, inIndiait seems to be witnessing a gradual growth only recently.

Keshav Krishnamurty, a student of St Joseph College of Arts and Science, whose reading includes a generous proportion of science fiction, likes the genre because it is somewhat more ‘believable’ than most magic or fantasy. “There’s something called the Scale of Sci-Fi Hardness. Some SF is so soft that it becomes fantasy, while hard SF is a lot like the world we live in,” he says. “My favourites are Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel, and the Stanley Kubrick version of Arthur Clarke’s 2001 – the book wasn’t nearly as good as the movie. And some of Asimov’s old robot stories, collected in I, Robot.”

Geetanjali Chitnis, a Media Studies student, MCC, who dislikes SF, thinks it’s a very subjective genre that you either really hate or really love. “My dad loves science fiction, so there’s a lot of Asimov lying about the house. I think I tried reading one of his books. But I’m not big on other people’s vision of the future, you know? I believe we have to talk about now, the present,” she says.

Parinitha Shinde, a Mass Communications student ofSt. Joseph’sPost-GraduateCollege, seconds this opinion. “Sci-fi doesn’t interest me a lot. I see it as escapist and improbable. Most fiction has those two attributes, but I would prefer reading about things closer to mundane reality – human complexities and the intricacies of relationships rather than biological warfare or far off galaxies,” she emphasizes.

On the other hand, people who love reading Sci-Fi feel the genre is as good as any other, especially relevant in the modern context due to scientific progress and the ingress of technology into every arena of life. It might be considered the literature that defines what it is to be human, and the various possibilities for the future for an individual, in the 21st century.

Where genre wars and Lit-fic snobbery is concerned, Chandrika Siddhanta Chakaravarty, an avid Sci-Fi reader, feels there should not be any hard and fast rule about what constitutes “proper” literature. “Of course “literature” doesn’t – or shouldn’t – consist mainly of canonical texts. That view is changing now,” she says. But that’s not the reason why people don’t seem to be reading Sci-Fi, according to her. “I think lots of people simply don’t read books any more. And when they do, many seem to prefer something they can go through quickly and don’t need to think about much. Sci-fi takes a little more getting used to. I think most people would rather rack their brains over a film like Inception rather than over a book which takes much more time to finish.”

Despite these factors, Sci-Fi still seems to be thriving, albeit in small, but expanding, communities. Fans staunchly believe that Sci-Fi has a certain something which other genres don’t offer.

“There’s an appeal to technology being used in place of magic,” says Keshav Krishnamurty. “A whole lot of SF stories are set in the future, that means there’s space to think of what could be. Most of it may be wrong, but things like Star Trek’s “tricorders” have turned up in the form of the I-Phone.”

Asawari Ghatage, a final year Journalism student, MCC, agrees. Mixing up impossible technologies and conceptualized artificial intelligence has creates an entire genre of novels that have for long excited readers into wondering about the future of technology, she feels. “Science fiction novels open the readers up to a world of possibilities. They thrust you into futuristic and sometimes untapped aspects of science. They tend to couple the eccentric imagination with the hope for a better future,” she says, adding, “The thrill of reading about a distant future, or an improbable reality is incentive enough for anyone to pick up an Asimov or a Wells and plunge themselves into an entire world they didn’t know existed.”

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This piece was written for the Mount Carmel College Journalism Department newsletter For Now. February 2011. 

Twilight woes

To think we’ve come from Bram Stoker’s spine-chilling novel Dracula to this:  not one or two but four whole books on the unbelievably boring escapades of a bunch of reclusive and predictable sissy-vampires good for nothing except, well, sparkling.

The narrator of the Twilight series, one Isabella Swan discovers on moving to sleepy Forks that, for all her clumsiness, she has landed a jackpot in the form of Edward Cullen. He is a century young vampire who can’t help but look at her with his smoldering (or replace with suitable synonym from nearby handy thesaurus, quite like Meyer does, every few paragraphs) topaz eyes which egg her on to embark on a mission to somehow make her way – stumbling, falling face-first or generally making a fool of herself – into his vampire coven.

The series was, literally, dreamed up by author Stephenie Meyer on June 2nd 2003, an unfortunate day for us, when she spawned her very own Mary Sue in the form of Bella, as her protagonist irritatingly insists on being called. Bella progresses doggedly from Twilight to the very imaginatively named New Moon, and later Eclipse and Breaking Dawn stalking the vampire-prince of her dreams. Edward, otherwise engaged in the heroic tasks of “chuckling” or singing lullabies, is constantly entangled in a game of touch-and-go, sometimes lured by thirst for Bella’s blood and other times by love sublime, and tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to dissuade Bella from haunting his life.

Neither are Bella or others in the books very attractive characters, nor are the books brilliantly innovative, which leads to the question: why is the series so damn popular?  In an article in The Guardian, psychologist Dr Cecilia d’ Felice attributes their popularity to the books being a metaphor for “how much we need love and how much we need to be needed. We see our own vulnerabilities in them,” and says Edward’s character works because, “The vampire is elegant and beautiful. They are Vanity Fair monsters, high-end, aspirational monsters.”

Whatever.

Of course, as with most other bestsellers it was inevitable that movies based on the books followed soon after. Robert Pattinson, previously darling-boy Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, was cast as Edward Cullen.

Incidentally, Pattinson’s first opinion of the books was spot on. He said, “When I read it I was convinced Stephenie was convinced she was Bella and it was like it was a book that wasn’t supposed to be published. It was like reading her sexual fantasy, especially when she said it was based on a dream and it was like, ‘Oh I’ve had this dream about this really sexy guy,’ and she just writes this book about it. Like some things about Edward are so specific, I was just convinced, like, ‘This woman is mad. She’s completely mad and she’s in love with her own fictional creation.”

Admirable, and it wouldn’t be wrong to say he was about the only watchable thing in the first movie. But sadly enough, recent photographs of him make you wonder “Who’s this yucky man?” before you realize it is Pattinson himself, sporting a shockingly unattractive blond beard, blinking out from the photos like a bewildered caveman.

Next arrived New Moon – the movie, which, from beginning to end, amounted to little more than a joyful parade of bare male torsos, especially Jacob Black’s. Edward Cullen was completely pushed to a corner, perhaps appropriately so, because in the one scene he did make an entry (shirtless, of course) he appeared so emaciated you couldn’t help but feel his “vegetarian” diet must finally have taken a toll on him.

The books allow for no plot development whatsoever and seem to circle in familiar alleys – both character behavior and event-wise – where conflict materializes rather reluctantly in the form of feeble antagonists like Victoria or the Volturi who seem to largely prefer lingering in the sidelines rather than make full-fledged appearances lest Meyer be confronted with the insuperable challenge of having to write a coherent, sensible and for once powerful climax without resorting to clichés or other excuses.  Not only are the books populated by atrocious characters but also a complementary ensemble of atrocious character-names, topped by the infamous Renesmee Carlie Cullen (nicknamed Nessie, aka The Loch Ness Monster).

The series finally drew to an end with the controversial fourth book Breaking Dawn which ended on a very disappointing note, with something a friend describes as “an anti-climactic non-battle”. Horrifyingly enough, the ambiguous ending has been interpreted by many Twilighters to be an indication of many more books to come. (Woe!)

Apart from being a criminal waste of paper and print ink, the books are a major source of concern because of the image they project onto the minds of teenage girls who are its primary audience: Bella is submissive to the extent of being masochistic and Edward so fiercely possessive he doesn’t allow Bella breathing space. Then there is the feminist angle. Leaving family, friends, and college education to get married? Pregnant at 18? It reinforces every stereotype of femininity women, not just feminists, have fought for decades to surpass. The issue becomes more serious considering at what an impressionable age the average Twilight reader is.

Already Twilight fans have worked themselves to a point of hysteria and refuse to take any criticism against the books, as was evidenced when popular horror-writer Stephen King recently remarked, “Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn”. Responses to this statement varied from being coldly sarcastic (“King is no Gabriel Garcia Marquez so I don’t understand why he gets to say who is a good writer and who is not”) to hostile (“we twilighters should send him tons of hate mail … just to show him how many twilight fans he just pissed off”) and downright silly (“King doesn’t know what a real book was if it hit him in the face. He’s just a bloody guy who is jealous of Edward’s good looks”).

Getting worked up about some books which are not even good in the first place? Wouldn’t it be more sensible to spend our energies on something worthwhile? Frankly, there are tons of better books out there we’d all be doing ourselves a favor by reading.

*

This piece was written for my college magazine sometime around December 2009. Yes, I actually got through all the books before I came to my senses.

YOU can change your city

We drink tea from saucers, cutlery with fingers and bargain exhaustively with shopkeepers. We are like that only. But we also throw garbage on the road, spit on the sidewalk and leave paan stains on public walls. We are like that only?

With a name aimed at making people aware of these unsavoury habits, The Ugly Indian — a community project to clean up the streets of the city — began as an attempt to understand why we have such low civic standards and tolerate incredible amounts of filth on the streets.

Comprising of a group of Bangaloreans deeply concerned about the city’s environmental health and its public hygiene (they did not want to be named in this article as they feel this was a community effort), the project took off a year ago. Initially, the group spenttime observing and understanding the systems and building trust with the various stakeholders.

The project gained momentum only in the past four-five months once several small experiments had been conducted to figure outwhat worked and what didn’t.

The project kick-started its drive for a cleaner city on Church Street. Probably the city’s most visited “fun-street”, Church Street houses the offices of India Tourism, three media companies, Wipro, several leading restaurant brands and the Pollution Control Board.

The poor management of a street so vital to upholding the image of Brand Bangalore perplexed the organisers of the project.

But if you walk down Church Street today, you will notice how the garbage dumps that occupied a large space of the pavements in several prominent locations have disappeared, the paan-stained walls repainted, potholes closed and even cigarette butts lining cracks in the pavements have been cleared.

Church-street dwellers, many of whom were part of the endeavour, are grateful.

“There were a few pressing issues of cleanliness and public hygiene around Church Street. In many spots, garbage had accumulated in huge quantities, and these people took the initiative to clean it up,” says Anil Chodha, owner of Queen’s Restaurant on Church Street. He finds this a great gesture.

“If citizens at various locations around the city make a similar effort, something good is bound to come out of it.” He also feels that when such an attempt is being made, it is essential to bring it to people’s notice, for they will obviously come forward to help.

Creating awareness for the need of community involvement fueled by individual effort in such issues has been the main focus of the project. They believe that people are extremely keen about improving the condition of their surroundings and just need a spark or catalyst to get them going. The Ugly Indian is about giving people this spark.

Through the project they want to convey that it is possible for any individual, with no authority, money, volunteers or influence, to create a sustainable change in his or her surroundings.

Neelam Teibam, a make-up artist and stylist who frequents Church Street, remarks that the changes are quite evident. “I normally walk up and down Church Street, especially on weekends, and I’ve noticed that the pavements and the road look a lot cleaner. The walls have been whitewashed. Potted plants have been placed beside them, and it certainly makes the street a brighter, greener place,” she says.

Teibam is glad to learn that The Ugly Indian returns regularly to keep in check fresh waste accumulation. “Simply starting such an effort is not sufficient, maintaining cleanliness is equally important. I think they are handling the issue in the right way.”

Making people alert to the results of the project will generate a lot of positive interest, she feels. “Given a chance, I would love to join in with what they’re doing, too.”

So next time you complain about how terrible the state of the city roads are, don’t just brush the matter aside with a “somebody else will take care of it.” Why not play the role of this elusive “somebody else” for a change?

To know more about the project and leave feedback, visit their website http://www.theuglyindian.com. You can also find them on Facebook (search for The Ugly Indian).

Published in DNA, November 18th 2010

Casting the Net for US shows

Do the names Glee, Vampire Diaries, House and Lost ring a bell?

Popular on American Television, these shows find a huge following among 18-25 year olds in Bangalore. As they’re not aired on Indian cable, the shows have sparked off a downloading frenzy among the college-going crowd.

“I have around 20 to 30 shows on my computer right now,” says Diya Ballal from Mount Carmel College, who downloads various kinds of shows on a regular basis. The best thing about watching shows online or downloading them is the absence of advertisements, she feels. “I decide on what shows I want to download based on friends’ recommendations or while browsing the Net. An actor’s performance in one show may have caught my attention, in which case I look for more shows in which he or she has starred.”

Aditya M Rao, a student of computer applications, seconds this. “I stumble upon shows via word-of-mouth or on sites like IMDB,” he says. “I’ve been watching Lost, which just concluded a week ago, Two and a Half Men and Dexter. My criteria for picking out shows are that they must have good reviews, casting and an excellent storyline. I don’t prefer certain genres over others but I usually end up with a good balance of comedy, thriller, mystery and science fiction,” he says.

For Twilight fans, the natural progression from the books and movies seems to be a series called Vampire Diaries. “One of my friends gave me the first few episodes and I fell in love with it,” says Shruti Nayar, who has watched the entire first season. “Vampire Diaries is more grounded thanTwilight, in which the characters may seem too perfect at times. Here, the characters are flawed and a lot more believable.” She also watches the medical drama House avidly.

“Science has always been an interest. It’s great that there’s not a lot of theatricality in House as opposed to something like Grey’s Anatomy in which the lives of doctors and their patients are impossibly tangled. House focuses on the patient’s problems. The story doesn’t sidetrack the main issues.”

But on the top of the most-watched list is the American musical comedy-drama called Glee, which focuses on a high school show choir.

Meera Sankar, a media student, who follows the show keenly, says the reason behind Glee’s popularity lies in the fact that it’s something fresh that appeals specifically to the teenage crowd. “It’s quite similar to a high school drama but quite innovatively done. As the show centers round a glee club, music plays an important role,” she says. “Many wait eagerly for the newest Glee episode just to see what the show has in store music-wise. Some Glee versions of famous songs sound better than the originals. It constantly reinvents its music.”

In addition to Western shows, Japanese Anime also appears to be a rage. “Anime is very interesting and unconventional. I know a lot of people who stay away from anime thinking it’s similar to cartoons. But it can be quite mature with strong enough plots to keep older audiences hooked,” says Chaitanya Hegde, a student from RVCE. “I’m watching Death Note andBleach at the moment.”

Ask them why they don’t watch Indian TV shows and they say it’s because of a serious lack of good ones aimed at the age group of 18- 25. Even if there are such shows, they tend to be pretty lame, they feel. The amount of drama in the shows that exist also puts them off.

“Really, do I want to watch the saas-bahu kind of serials? People sleep with their makeup on, survive fires and several other disasters. They return from the dead or have plastic surgeries, sometimes both — it’s ridiculous!” says Kinnisha Andrew, an arts student.

They resort to downloading shows instead of just watching them on TV only because they aren’t available here or if they are, tend to be aired late at night, making it impossible to watch daily, they say.

“I’ve been watching Supernatural on TV, but the latest episodes get released earlier in the States and take a really long time to be aired in India, sometimes up to a year. Criminal Minds is another show that used to be aired on Star World, but it’s been discontinued, so I download and watch it,” says Andrew. She adds that you have to be careful while downloading. “There are chances of virus attacks when you’re getting stuff off the net, but it’s up to you to check that your sources are safe and reliable. Once you make sure they are, there isn’t any problem.”

But downloading shows in such a large number inevitably means spending an equal amount of time watching them. Don’t parents have a problem with that? “Although it’s great to watch TV shows, doing that all the time can take its toll,” feels Meera Sankar. “Some people watch whole seasons in a day and end up sort of zombie-ed out. You need to know your restrictions. My parents let me watch whatever I want as long as I don’t go overboard. I shouldn’t shirk my responsibilities to sit and stare at my laptop screen 24/7,” she says.

Published in DNA, June 7th 2010

Obstetric success comes to the four in Bangalore

For four years after marriage, Pavanitha was without a child. On May 31, she became the mother of quadruplets, the first such successful case in the city.

When Pavanitha, 25, married to Subramani, 28, failed to conceive for four years, the couple sought help of fertility experts. She underwent treatment for infertility, and three months later she became pregnant. Initially, the doctors told Pavanitha that she was carrying twins. But, later, tests confirmed that she will be delivering quadruplets.

Pavanitha’s joy was, however, tempered when doctors told her that the risk of quadruplets being born prematurely was very high and that their survival rates were also low. She was then referred to Dr Prakash Mehta of Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain Hospital, who is an expert in high-risk pregnancies.

In the 33rd week of her pregnancy, she developed signs of HELLP syndrome, a life-threatening obstetric complication that results in liver problems and increased blood pressure. Dr Mehta decided to have the babies delivered immediately instead of waiting for the normal 40 weeks. A girl and three boys, weighing 950 gm, 1.01 kg, 1.27 kg, and 1.28 kg, respectively, were delivered safely through the Caesarean section.

“This is the first time in the city that four normal babies have been born in one go,” Dr Mehta said. “There may have been earlier incidents of quadruplets in the city, but one or more babies were born with either defects or did not survive after delivery,” he said.

The doctor said that twins were common — about 1 in 90 or 100 births. One in about 5,000 pregnancies resulted in triplets. But quadruplets were rare, with the incidence of normal births just one in five lakh pregnancies.

Bhagwan Mahaveer Jain Hospital is footing a large part of Pavanitha’s medical bill, since she and her husband are from a low socio-economic background. “We also work as a charitable trust. The parents have only been charged whatever they can pay. The rest will be taken care of by the trustees or will be waived off completely,” Dr Mehta said.

The parents had said that they would take care of all the four children, Dr Mehta said. “But, considering their circumstances, they may find it difficult to look after four children. They have a joint family, and they’re counting on support from relatives,” he said.

Published in DNA, June 4th 2010

Capturing the twilight years

Ace Bangalore lensman K Venkatesh has dabbled in a range of diverse subjects in his 20-year career as a freelance photographer.

Be it eunuch models, the aftermath of the tsunami, water crisis in Karnataka or the panorama of Gomateshwara, he has been there and clicked that.

He has worked for Reuters, BBConline, The Asian Age, Outlookmagazine, and is currently employed at the leading Telugu daily Enadu.

Venkatesh naturally gravitates towards subjects with a social context. “Basically, I’m a news photographer. I’m always looking for human interest stories. I consciously choose topics that are of great consequence to the current society.

There are several important things happening around us, which we need to focus on to bring forth a positive change,” he says. “I try to capture these instances and showcase it, therefore, creating awareness.”

His latest offering is an exhibition on the trials of living in old-age homes, which is on till June 10 at ChitrakalaParishath. In this series he has attempted to capture the loneliness and destitution of the elderly who’ve been relegated to old-age homes without choice, as their families have abandoned them.

Migration to urban ghettoes in search of greener pastures has become their undoing, turning them into pariahs of their own nuclear families.

“In Bangalore, there are two kinds of old-age homes. The first type is a commercial venture, where people from well-to-do families pay for good facilities that’ll ensure a good life for elderly family members.

But the other kind is more important. Old people, who are abandoned by their children, are brought to these homes and looked after. But due to inadequate funding, they may not be able to meet the requirements of the elderly,” he says.

“Their children never come back or take them home. Their life becomes dull, monotonous and completely devoid of hope. Through this series I’ve tried to portray their condition and give a voice to their plight.”

These photographs, like most of his other works, segue open in black and white. He believes that dual-toned photographs are best capable of eliciting the essence of the moment.

“Black and white photography reveals the subject powerfully, as it lends more depth and clarity than colour photography,” Venkatesh asserts. In fact, he feels that colour is more of a distraction.

“People tend to concentrate more on the colours than what one intends to evoke in the photograph.”

Even in this series, the play of dark and light, the collusion of brightness and contrast has immense significance. It acts as a metaphor for the old-age home dwellers who’ve slipped into a dark phase in their lives.

The presence of light, however minor, denotes an indolent hope: on the part of the subjects and the photographer.

“Old age homes are becoming increasingly common in India today. The country may be witnessing change at a tremendous pace causing the generation gap to widen, but nothing justifies abandoning parents who have given the best part of their lives to their children,” Venkatesh says, adding, “This is a call for the society to stop and consider; see if what they’re doing is right. Have a heart! — that is my message.”

Published in DNA, June 9th 2010