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Sunday, 23 July 2017

Small story 'Cheating'

One of my small stories in Kannada Mosa, which means "Cheating" has been published in today's Vishwavani Virama. Here's the link.

Why Iran broke its strict hijab rules for the 'Queen of Math'

Famed mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, who died Friday, was memorialized without the headscarf.

Maryam Mirzakhani will be remembered as a woman who broke glass ceilings in life and in death. In 2014, the Iranian mathematician became the first and only woman ever to win the Fields Medal, popularly known as the Nobel Prize of the math world. And when she died last Friday at age 40, some Iranian media outlets, as well as President Rouhani himself, broke a national taboo by publishing photos in which she appeared with her hair uncovered.

In Iran, women have been required to wear the hijab in public since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iranian women rarely appear without the headscarf in the press. Mirzakhani, who grew up in Tehran but attended graduate school at Harvard and became a professor at Stanford, did not wear the hijab.

When Mirzakhani won the Fields Medal three years ago, Iranian newspapers went to extreme lengths to avoid showing her hair: They either digitally retouched her photo to add a hijab, published dated photos in which she appeared wearing one, or drew a sketch of her wearing one. But this past weekend, when the news that she had died of breast cancer at a U.S. hospital dominated the front pages of most newspapers in Iran, some of them finally allowed her to be pictured as she had lived. Mirzakhani had two things going for her this time: She had become a source of deep national pride. And she had passed away.

“In this case, she is dead,” said Haleh Esfandiari, the Iranian American former director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. “Because she’s no longer around, whether they print a picture with or without a hijab doesn’t make a difference for people. It’s not relevant as a policy issue.”

The centrist state newspaper Hamshahri ran a full portrait of Mirzakhani without a hijab, under the headline “Math Genius Yielded to Algebra of Death.” The reformist daily Donyaye Eghtesad did the same, with an accompanying headline that read “The Queen of Mathematics’ Eternal Departure.”

Another reformist daily, Shargh, showed her wearing a hat and dubbed her “The Queen of Numbers Land.” The Iran daily showed her without a hijab but used photo editing to fade her dark hair into a black background. Only ultraconservative newspapers Resalat and Keyhan didn’t splash her image on the front page, according to PRI; Keyhan printed a photo of her wearing a headscarf on an inside page.

Esfandiari added that the emotion many Iranians felt for their world-famous “genius” and “queen”—pride mixed with grief—was so intense that it overrode modesty rules: “People admire her for her achievements and for who she was … and there is a serious sadness around the country, that a young woman who was so promising died of cancer at an early age.”

Masih Alinejad, a Brooklyn-based Iranian writer known for launching the Facebook page My Stealthy Freedom (the campaign encourages women in Iran to post pictures of themselves without a hijab, and has more than a million followers), suggested there was a different underlying motivation in the way some Iranians are claiming the mathematician as part of their national mythology. She was especially dubious about Rouhani, who was quick to publish a photo of a hijab-less Mirzakhani on Instagram.

“Why didn’t they publish her unveiled picture when she was alive?” Alinejad asked. “Now, when she’s gone, they’re trying to own her, in a fake and disgusting way. They want to publish this to show the world, ‘See, we broke the taboo!’—to use this opportunity to show that they’re moderate.”

A picture taken in Tehran shows the front pages of Iranian newspapers bearing portraits of Maryam Mirzakhani.

Rouhani came under fire from Alinejad and other activists when, in 2014, Mirzakhani’s image was Photoshopped in Iranian newspapers. Alinejad said that her campaign had “named and shamed” the president and the offending media outlets online, and that Rouhani began to feel the heat as he was repeatedly confronted on the compulsory hijab issue over the past few years. In 2015, a journalist in France presented him with one of the My Stealthy Freedom photos and asked if he found it offensive. More recently, at this year’s Oscars, an Iranian TV station’s decision to censor the image of Anousheh Ansari as she accepted The Salesman’s award for Best Foreign Language film ignited social media outrage around the world. The president is facing not only international pressure, but also internal pressure—for instance, in the form of White Wednesday protests, during which women wear white and demonstrate in public against the dress code.

The Rouhani government is facing domestic discontent on another front: Iran’s serious brain drain problem. Mirzakhani left to pursue her studies in the United States, just as thousands of Iranians do every year; despite her having spent her career in the U.S., her death now offers Iran’s government and media an opportunity to symbolically reverse that phenomenon by memorializing her as one of their own.

“They feel that their reputation is ruined around the world, and they want to get it back,” Alinejad said. “Maryam is a big name, so they jump on her to make a name for themselves. It’s a sign of hypocrisy. If you really care about freedom of choice, you have to hear your own women who’ve been shouting for years inside Iran, not a person who has died.”

For her part, Esfandiari doesn’t see the media’s shift on Mirzakhani as hypocrisy so much as understandable self-preservation. “I think the newspapers that [covered up Mirzakhani in 2014] thought they were protecting her and protecting themselves,” she said. “They were probably worried that the newspaper would be confiscated and banned. In some cases it’s a kind of self-censorship by the newspapers, because they don’t want to give an excuse for the censors to come.”

Esfandiari added that some Iranian media outlets use the hijab issue as a way to punish women they have incentive to criticize. She cited Shirin Ebadi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003 for her work on human rights issues, particularly in Iran. “When the conservative press wanted to go after Ebadi, they published a picture of her taken abroad without the hijab,” Esfandiari said. In the case of the beloved Mirzhakhani, however, there is no political incentive to tarnish her, so the conservative papers barely bothered covering her story.

Alinejad said that she considers the less conservative newspapers’ truthful depiction of Mirzhakhani a small step toward women’s equality—and that it’s important to give credit to the vocal activists who protested “Photoshop hijab” until the government and media took notice: “Some people say that it’s an achievement of Maryam’s. I have respect for Maryam and she’s my hero, too. But Maryam Mirzhakhani didn’t protest. Anousheh Ansari didn’t protest either. This was the voice of Iranian women. They were trying to shame the government. And now they have been heard.”

(Source: The Atlantic)

Google’s weird search results for ‘South Indian Masala’ say a lot about the way we use the internet

Did you see the news about what Google throws up if you search for ‘South Indian masala’? Last week, there were lots of outrage-cum-LOLs about the fact that when you type South Indian masala into the search engine, it shows you pictures of female actors in see-through blouses instead of images of molaga podi or whatever. It was also pointed out that searching for ‘North Indian masala’ throws up pictures of chana masala and garam masala, and not pictures of Bollywood actors in transparent clothes.

Shashi Tharoor was so annoyed that he tweeted to Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the issue.

To which the obvious response is:

Exasperating farrago of distortions misrepresentations & outright lies being broadcast by a showman masquerading as a search engine expert!

Just kidding! Google obviously responded saying that it wasn’t like Google thought this was what South Indian masala meant, but that the search results were based on user patterns and Google’s understanding of user intent and happiness. Hilariously, it also offered what we assume it thought was some kind of consolation prize: that searching for ‘Hindi masala’ instead of ‘North Indian masala’ would also yield similar pictures of actors.

@Google: results reflect understanding of intent as wellas user happiness w/previous results4such queries."Hindi Masala"gives film results 
I mean, it would have been nice if Google didn’t show this as the search result, but I think it says more about us and our search patterns than about Google that this is what it throws up. It also makes you think about how much sexism there is encoded into the internet, all of which is a product of who uses it and how.

Take reusable stock images. Anyone who has had to frequently search for freely available stock images would notice that there’s some sexism and racism, or at least reflections of the sexism and racism that exists in the real word, that show up in the results.

For example, when you search for reusable images of pregnant women, you have literally hundreds of images to choose from. Men cooking? Not so much. At best, you’d able to find some images of white men cooking in professional restaurant set-ups, and almost none of men cooking at home, or doing any kind of household chores at all.

There’s something else going on when you search for images of Indian women too. There are plenty of images of women in rural set-ups, doing things like elegantly carrying multiple matkas of water on their heads, and almost none of women hanging out with their friends, working in offices or exercising. Of course, a significant number of pictures of rural women are posted online for free commercial use by what seem to be foreign tourists, and the pictures are often in folders with names like ‘Rajasthan Delhi Agra Goa Trip 2015’.

What does it all mean? Well, it could be a reflection of the fact that more stock images are created outside India than in, and that we need to up our representation in the virtual world, given that these images influence how Indian women are portrayed online in thousands of different place. It also shows that the internet, often considered a new, gender-equal playing field, actually clearly reflects the real world’s power imbalances, and that the nature of technology is a function of who creates it and how it’s used, and so it isn’t immune to sexism and racism at all. Remember when Google Photos tagged black people as gorillas through facial recognition software, as it was programmed to recognise white people as humans?

(Source: The Ladies Finger)

French moms aren’t superior parents - they just have it easier

The world has long been plagued by the myth of French women. We can’t seem to get enough of what makes them so effortlessly beautiful, impossibly fashionable, and perfect in every way.

Reverence for la femme française is on high, now that France has elected a pro-female president who wants to engage the world, not insult it, to tackle climate change, not question its existence, and who sees women for who they are, not what they look like.

Add best baby makers to the list of France’s accolades: French women are the most prolific baby producers in Western Europe, recent data show. While Danes have to try and lure couples to hotels with special deals to spark procreation, French women are producing nearly two kids—1.96 to be exact—per mother, which is just shy of the magical number needed (2.1) to keep its population steady. That compares to 1.35 in Italy and 1.7 in Denmark.

The more children French women have, the better they seem to do. They are sanguine, slim, and well-rested mothers. Their kids eat haute cuisine iPad-free in restaurants, they don’t snack, and they don’t throw temper tantrums.

Explanations for all this typically boil down to cultural differences—which implies that any woman could achieve the same if only she glommed onto France’s elusive cultural codes.

But the reality is, simply revamping our kids’ diets and our sense of joie de vivre wouldn’t make up for all the institutional support French women enjoy. So before latching onto the next do-it-like-the-French checklist, we should acknowledge the following:

French women get paid to have babies. Unlike in the US, new mothers don’t have to take unpaid disability leave to have their kids. They get 16 full weeks of paid leave for the first and second child, and 26 for the third. They also get a government allowance for having kids based on their income, including supplements if they want to go part-time or hire a nanny.

French women get affordable and available childcare. Women can take their babies to a crèche, or high-quality day care center, from about six weeks of age (granted, there are often waiting lists), which helps mothers to go back to work. Families pay on a sliding scale based on income and the centers are highly regulated with national standards. And, perhaps most importantly, the staff are well-paid and have very low turnover, unlike in the US, where child care is treated like the wild wild west.

French women have access to full-time baby chefs. The food in the crèche and school systems is notoriously excellent, which takes the pressure off parents to get it all just right at home. Rather than indulge in rubbery chicken nuggets, kids eat three course meals. They are even introduced to foods in a scientifically proven way to make them less picky. A typical Tuesday? Fresh bread, cucumber salad with cream fraiche, veal sautéed in olives and broccoli, goat cheese, gâteau de semoule fait maison au caramel.

French women send their kids to school at age 3. When the crèche ends, school begins, and it doesn’t have to end at 3pm! Kids in France can start school by age 3. There are three years of preschool and a year of kindergarten, all of which are free. When kids start real school, they can go early to a garderie and stay late, from 4:30pm usually until 6:30pm, according to Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bebe. (At one school in Normandy, the cost for that is €17 ($18.62) a month.)

Meanwhile in the US, families struggle to choose between unaffordable nannies, suboptimal daycares, and the charitable child-minding of close relatives and friends. Women who work long hours are left to choose between squeezing in a home-cooked meal or going to the gym. Parents trade off time with their kids for high-pressure jobs that offer employee-based healthcare, higher earnings to save for college, and little to no vacation time.

We resign ourselves to these big pressures, and focus on the small stuff we feel we can control: the most effective Lego organizers, the best baby food makers, the toddler soccer teams. But it’s the ability to go to work and know your child is safe, and that you can afford that care and even look forward to a real vacation, that’s mind-bendingly life-changing.

To be clear, the French school system is hardly perfect. Andreas Schleicher, head of the education and skills directorate at the OECD, said that there is no research to support the fact that early schooling, rather than free play like in Finland, is what kids need (the OECD is trying to conduct that research). France, he notes, performs poorly on PISA, the test given to 15-year-olds around the world, which is considered a useful measure of critical thinking skills, and has one of the most rigid education systems in the world.

But having an affordable option is worth a lot to parents. And it matters to governments, too. The more women work, the more babies are born. A higher birth rate keeps up the needed balance of people who work and pay taxes to support older people on social security. It’s a “paradoxical situation,” demographer Richard Jackson told Science of Us: “The more traditionalist a culture is about gender roles, the fewer babies people have.”

Rather than idolizing French women for all they do, we should start idolizing French policies that allow for exercise, work, and the personal grooming that make the myth seem like reality.

(Source: Quartz)

Sunny Leone, Daniel Weber adopt baby girl, Nisha Kaur Weber from Latur

The 21-month-old baby has been adopted by actor Sunny Leone and her husband, Daniel Weber; Sunny says it was ‘love at first sight.’

Meet Nisha Kaur Weber, the 21-month-old who is lighting up the life of actor Sunny Leone and her husband, Daniel Weber. The baby girl from Latur, Maharashtra, has been adopted by them, and Sunny says it was love at first sight.

What does parenthood feel like?

Sunny: Right now, it’s all so brand new because it has just been a few days. The moment we got the picture (of Nisha); I was so excited, happy, emotional and [experienced] so many different feelings. We literally had three weeks to finalise everything. Usually, people get nine months to prepare (laughs).

Daniel: Our life is always so crazy. There are no nine months for us. For me, it has just been lots of paperwork for two years and then one day, that’s it. You get an email that you have been matched with a child. It’s so crazy.

When was the decision to adopt taken?

Daniel: We applied almost two years ago, when we went to an orphanage. Those people are doing amazing work. But we thought it would be great to help. Of course, you want to help them all but you can’t. Maybe, one at a time, and that’s how things may start.

Sunny: I truly believe that Nisha chose us, we didn’t choose Nisha.

Daniel: Never in my life did I think that I want to adopt a child. [People] doing such amazing work at the orphanage changed my mind.

What made both of you have a baby at this particular point?

Sunny: We didn’t decide. The Indian government and Cara agency decided when we were ready (smiles). We didn’t know that you don’t get to choose the ashram or orphanage that you adopt from, the ministry chooses for you.

Daniel: There is no right time if you are in the entertainment field because you are always on the road. So when are you going to find nine months or a year to have a child? If someone wants a day of shooting with Sunny, I say, ‘Okay, let me find one hour in the next four months.’ Why we’ve adopted is a different reason but we were ready almost two years ago.

Sunny: I don’t know about everybody else, but for us, it didn’t matter even for a second whether it was our child or she not being our biological child. For us, it was about starting a family and I might not [have a biological child] because of our schedules and so many other things but we both thought, ‘why don’t we just adopt?’

Who thought of the name, Nisha?

Sunny: We didn’t do that.

Daniel: That was her name. They told us that we can change and we had our minds filled with names but she is who she is. Every time, we called her by other names, it just didn’t fit her.

Sunny: We like the name. Her name is Nisha Kaur Weber. It’s Kaur since I am Punjabi, as my real name is Karenjit Kaur. I always wanted that whatever names we choose, the middle name be Singh or Kaur. When I looked up the meaning of Nisha, it’s the Hindu goddess of night.

How was your first meeting with your daughter, Nisha?

Sunny: The day we picked her up, she was great in the car; dancing and having fun.

Daniel: She must have thought she was on a road trip or something or that it’s one day at the circus. Nisha had an eight hour trip (from Latur to Mumbai) and she was perfect. I thought, ‘wow, this child is amazing.’

Sunny: When she came home, I think that’s when it dawned upon her, ‘oh, wait I am not going back.’ But we have read up and consulted our friends about how to cope with her at this stage, and we have accepted that it’s going to take her some time to adjust in this new environment.

Daniel: We are trying to introduce things to her every hour but it’s overwhelming for any human to have new things as until now, she was raised in a different manner. But we have been told that it’s an easy age to be programmed because kids’ minds at this age are like a sponge.

At the orphanage, she was spoken to in Marathi. So, English must be an alien language for her?

Daniel: Till now, she has only been spoken to in Marathi so I think that also needs to be reprogrammed. I am sure whenever I speak to her, she must be thinking, ‘Dude, what are you talking? Speak some legitimate words.’ I can only imagine that.

Sunny: A few days back, she learnt her first English word which was bye bye (smiles).

Would life — on a day-to-day basis — change from now on?

Daniel: We will still be busy (laughs).

Sunny: Of course, we are going to have to adjust a lot of different things but I do believe that God brings people in your life and does things for you only when you are ready for it. She has come to us at 21 months, so she is mobile, can function, and going to be able to communicate with us. Also, we have a great network of people and family around us. She is still a tiny baby right now, so we can structure our lives and figure out how we are going to move forward with projects.

Daniel: You know, we didn’t know that Nisha was coming to us so Sunny’s schedule was completely planned till the end of the year. But it is okay, so now, Sunny has to go to London, and though I would have liked to go with her but I will stay with Nisha here.

Sunny: Well, she doesn’t have her travel documents yet but until that happens; we are so blessed to have this moment.

Do you guys ever feel, ‘it’s a huge responsibility’…

Sunny: It’s a responsibility for the rest of our lives. But we have been ready for that — physically, mentally and financially. We were working really hard because we wanted to start a family, and this is the way it’s going to start, so it’s amazing.

Daniel: We don’t do anything through the normal route or in an orthodox manner. When people ask, ‘why did they adopt?’ our counter is, ‘oh, why not?’ That’s normal for us.

Sunny: We were not brought up here but certain things, on an everyday basis, breaks your heart. While going to the airport, you cross this overpass and see little kids with no clothes, no shoes or no food, and it’s heart-breaking. Maybe, we can’t save every child but can do it for one little girl. They (the ashram) gave her everything that they could but she is still underweight, and still needs a lot of care. And we are ready. Also, we have great people around to help us with everything. I don’t know what her struggle was, and I don’t think I ever will, but I know she was probably starving at some point, and maybe there wasn’t enough food.

Were you guys discussing it (adoption) for a while?

Sunny: Yes, we spoke about it. I have actually always wanted to adopt a child. I just didn’t know that I will find the right partner to do that with and it’s great that it’s Daniel. I believe God sent her to us and said, ‘this is going to be your baby.’

Daniel: At first, we were told that our profiles will be matched with three children and we could look at their medical records etc. But she was one child that was sent to us. They said, ‘if you want her, okay or else she goes back in the system.’ And we immediately agreed. I don’t think you will ever know you are ready for it. So, if two years ago, we were in the middle of a million things, when are we not handling million things?

Sunny: We now live in a generation where parents work and you might have help at home but older-generation parents worked and their kids went to school. They were fine and still got the same amount of love.

Has life undergone a complete transformation?

Daniel: It has just been about a week that Nisha has been with us but I feel like I know her for a month. We are both figuring her out, and I am sure she is doing the same. She has had a certain kind of life till now, so, she’ll take her time to understand that we are her parents. Things are changing on an hourly basis. For us, it’s mind-altering.

Sunny: She is so cute. The moment she looks up at you and smiles, it just melts your heart. I look forward to her growing up to become an independent and being her own woman.

(Source: HT)

Jane Austen banknote unveiled – with strange choice of quotation

Bank of England launches new £10 note featuring a line about reading – said by a character who doesn’t care for books

he new £10 note featuring Jane Austen has been unveiled on the 200th anniversary of the author’s death, complete with a quote about reading – said by one of her characters who has no interest in books.

Austen becomes the first female writer (following in the footsteps of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens) to feature on a banknote.

The note, launched by the Bank of England at Austen’s resting place, Winchester Cathedral, includes an image of the writer and one of her most beloved characters, Elizabeth Bennet.

There are also illustrations of her writing table and her brother Edward Austen Knight’s home, Godmersham Park in Kent, thought to be a source of inspiration.

But it is the quote that will raise eyebrows among Austen enthusiasts. At first glance the line from Pride and Prejudice – “I declare after all there is no enjoyment like reading!” – seems a good choice.

However, the words were spoken by one of Austen’s most deceitful characters, Caroline Bingley, who has no interest in books. She is sidling up to Mr Darcy, whom she would like as a husband. He is reading a book, so she sits next to him and pretends to read alongside him.

Speaking at Winchester Cathedral, the Bank of England’s governor, Mark Carney, explained why Austen was chosen – and the technical aspects of the notes.


He said: “Our banknotes serve as repositories of the country’s collective memory, promoting awareness of the United Kingdom’s glorious history and highlighting the contributions of its greatest citizens.

“Austen’s novels have a universal appeal and speak as powerfully today as they did when they were first published.”

Turning to practical matters, he said: “The new £10 will be printed on polymer, making it safer, stronger and cleaner. The note will also include a new tactile feature on the £10 to help the visually impaired, ensuring the nation’s money is as inclusive as possible.”

It joins the Churchill £5 in the first family of polymer UK banknotes; a £20 note featuring JMW Turner will follow in 2020.

The £10 note has security features that the Bank says make it very difficult to counterfeit. It is expected to last at least two-and-a-half times longer than paper £10 notes – about five years in total.

The new tactile feature is a series of raised dots in the top left-hand corner, developed in conjunction with the RNIB, the charity that supports people with sight loss. This is in addition to the elements already incorporated in UK banknotes for visually impaired people: the tiered sizing, bold numerals, raised print and differing colour palettes.

Austen fans will have to wait until later this year before they can begin to use the notes. They will be issued on 14 September and the public will begin to see them in the following days and weeks.

The Bank hopes featuring Austen will help it counter accusations of sexism for not featuring more women on notes. The author follows Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry in featuring on notes.

Tuesday’s banknote launch is one of a series of events taking place to mark the 200th anniversary of Austen’s death, including the unveiling of a statue in Basingstoke, near her birthplace.

Austen, who wrote keenly about money, might have been interested in research from Aviva claiming that the £10 pound note has a relative purchasing power of only 13p compared with what it could buy in 1817.

(Source: The Guardian)

Saturday, 22 July 2017

I found my soulmate on my wedding day and no he wasn't my husband

Back in the year 2011, during my graduation days, I met Abhi (name changed) through a mutual friend. He was a typical Pisces — loving, charming, caring; a perfect boyfriend for any girl. On the other hand, I, a Sagittarian — flirtatious, funny, and selfish. We instantly connected and started dating.

For him, his world revolved around me, but for me too, my life revolved around myself.

You can call me a narcissist but I had my own reasons. We belonged to different castes and coming from a conservative family, I knew we didn't have a future together. But more importantly, I was a coward who didn't have the nerve to tell my parents about our relationship. I told him about this but he believed that he can change my perspective with his love.

Meanwhile, I kept my options open and started meeting and dating guys. But at every point, he was with me and I was very comfortable and happy with him. He was looking for love in marriage and I was looking for convenience.

During the course, I hurt him numerous times, but all he gave me was unconditional love.

Fast forward to the year 2016. My parents found a suitable prospect and with both families' approval, my marriage was fixed. But throughout the pre-marriage rituals, I had only one feeling – Confusion. I told Abhi about this and he was hurt again but he didn't stop me, for the beautiful soul he was.

I got married but still felt no emotions. Everything was just mechanical. On the day of my reception, I got dolled up and was standing on the stage with my husband. It was afternoon time, and under the scorching heat, I was sweating. All our families and relatives were present and suddenly, at that moment, I started crying. People blamed it on the heat, but I knew what was wrong.

I realized I had made a mistake by not marrying Abhi. He was my soulmate, he was my home, and he was where I belonged. His love had finally changed me.

(Source: AkkarBakkar)

Karna married twice after being rejected by Draupadi!

The unknown story of Karna
Karna is one of the most beloved characters of the Mahabharata; the eldest Pandava who craved for legitimacy and respect, the only man who could defeat Arjuna, the good man who pledged unfaltering loyalty to Duryodhana. Though he is a central character of the Mahabharata, Karna remains an enigmatic character. In all the renditions of the Mahabharata that I have read very less is revealed of Karna’s personal life. Let’s explore some well-kept secrets of Mahabharata…

Vrushali: Karna's first wife
Vrushali was the sister of Duryodhana’s charioteer Satyasen. It is belived that Karna's adoptive father Adhiratha wanted Karna to get married to her. Vrushali went sati on Karna's pyre after his death. Duryodhana also mentions that Vrushali was not an ordinary person but of a very high character equivalent to Karna.

Supriya: Karna's second wife
Karna's second wife's name was Supriya. Nothing much has been talked of Supriya in the great epic apart from the fact that she was a friend of Duryodhana’s wife Bhanumati. Even in the case of Vrushali, very little is known. In the Stree Parva's Jalapradanikaparva, when Gandhari laments the massacre on the battlefield, she devotes four shlokas to one sole woman whom she identifies as Karna's wife, albeit with no name. Gandhari does state the names of the couple's two sons, Vrishasena and Sushena.

In the Tamil literature
Interestingly, a far later version of Karna's story appears in Tamil literature, where Karna's wife is named Ponnaruvi. But since Karna was crowned as the king of Anga by his emperor and best friend Duryodhana, and both Anga and Hastinapura are in North India, most probably, the name Ponnaruvi is an epithet of either Vrushali or Supriya.

Was Karna’s wife Vrushali’s counsel to Draupadi?
The sequence that featured Vrushali speaking to Panchali is something never seen or known before. Clearly, Mahabharata on Television was trying to present the epic with added dimensions. Karna’s wife Vrushali comes to Draupadi and pleads her to leave the Kuru King’s palace and go to her brother’s place. But Draupadi prefers to stay back and face the situation. This time again, Yudhishthir loses himself to Duryodhan and the Cheer-Haran episode happens.

The book ‘Karna’s Wife’ has another story to tell!
Kavita Kane’s book, Karna’s Wife has another tale to tell. It is deeply interesting because is written from the perspective of Karna’s second wife, Uurvi, the Princess of Pukeya; the only daughter of a powerful king, and a favourite of Kunti, the mother of the Pandavas. This book traverses the tale of the Mahabharata, beginning from when Uurvi lays eyes on unimaginably handsome Karna at Drapaudi’s swayamvara. Uurvi falls in love with this low-caste prince and decides that she will marry him or remain unwed.

The love story of Karna and Uurvi
Uurvi’s mother, a childhood friend of Kunti, has promised her daughter to Arjun as this will make a powerful alliance for the Pandavas, but Uurvi marries Karna against all their wishes. Though Uurvi marries the man she loves, the marriage is not without trouble. Karna has an older wife, of the same low caste as himself, and also a slew of brothers — all of whom are suspicious of the noble-blooded Uurvi.

Love or hate?
The novel is set against the background of the Mahabharata; at the centre of the story is Uurvi’s tumultuous and troubled relationship with her husband, who she loves deeply but cannot forgive for what he did to Draupadi. Through Uurvi’s eyes we see a different side of the warrior Karna. He is presented to us as a lonely, unhappy man, who lives his entire life devoid of true happiness, in the quest of rightness and the desire to earn respect and legitimacy.

Uurvi’s story tells a lot about Karna
Although it is Uurvi’s story, Karna comes out as the central character of the book. A righteous man, a valiant warrior, a loyal friend, a dedicated and loving husband, an ideal son and the unsung hero, the book gives another perspective to Mahabharata from Karna’s viewpoint, who perishes in the end due to his ill fate. It also reveals aspects about the great epic such as Draupadi’s love for Karna and many such insights, which are lesser known.

Connection between Karna and Draupadi
The possibility of an unarticulated connection between Karna and Draupadi - both fiery, headstrong people - has persisted for a while in folklore and in regional extrapolations of the epic. It was there in Pratibha Ray’s celebrated Oriya novel Yajnaseni, in PK Balakrishnan’s Malayalam Ini Njan Urangatte and more recently in Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, which ended in a fascinatingly post-war heaven where Draupadi is finally free to express her real feelings for Karna.

Karna and his sons
If Karna can be called the tragic hero of the Mahabharata, Duryodhana is the tragic villain. Both of them had adequate opportunities to get their act together but refused to do so. They become victims of their own destinies. Unfortunately, they both end up losing their kith and kin too. Karna had nine sons; Vrishasena, Vrishaketu, Chitrasena, Satyasena, Sushena, Shatrunjaya, Dvipata, Banasena and Prasena all of these took part in the Kurukshetra war.

The end of a clan
The Mahabharata says Sudama died during the events that followed the Swayamvara of Draupadi. Bheema killed Susena, while Arjuna accounted for Dvipata and Shatrunjaya and Vrasena. Tragically, Karna was the commander of the Kaurava forced when Vrasena was killed. Satyasena, Chitrasena and Susarma were killed by Nakula.

The story of Karna’s eldest son Vrishasena
Vrishasena was the eldest son of Karna. He had successfully staved off a challenge from Nakula during the Kurukshetra war and even ousted him from his chariot. Nakula then mounted the chariot of Bheema. When he saw Arjuna nearby, he called out to him and urged him to kill Vrishasena. Arjuna then requests Krishna who is his charioteer to go towards Vrishasena. “I will slay him under his father’s gaze”, he says.

An eye for an eye!
Vrishasena is undeterred by Arjuna’s reputation as the foremost archer of the time. He showers Arjuna with so many arrows that tem of them pierce his arms. When ten arrows pierce Krishna on his arms too, Arjuna is enraged. Arjuna calls out to the Kauravas, including Karna, that he will kill Vrishasena. He then turns to Karna and exclaims in anger, “You killed my son Abhimanyu in an unfair combat. Today, I will kill your son”.

End of Vrishasena
Arjuna then proceeds to show why he is regarded as the greatest archer of all times. He shoots ten arrows at Vrishasena weakening him even as his father Karna watched on helplessly. Arjuna fires four razor headed arrows, cutting off Vrishasena’s bow, his tow arms and then his head. Karna weeps aloud when he sees the head of his son severed from the body. He curses Arjuna and challenged him to a battle.

The only son who survived
The only son to survive the Kurukshetra war and also Karna was Vrishakethu. The Pandavas then took him under their wing. Vrishaketu accompanied Arjuna in his campaigns against Sudhava and Babruvahana. Arjuna and Krishna, both had great affection to Vrishakethu. He is believed to be the last mortal on earth to understand and know the use of Brahmastra, Varunastra and Vayuastra. This knowledge died with him as Krishna ordered him not to reveal it to anyon. Vrishaketu was killed by Babruvahana.

Karna Moksham: Story of Karna’s Wife, Ponnuruvi
Karna Moksham is one of the most popular plays in the Kattaikkuttu repertoire. It is attributed to the author Pukalentippulavar. Karna Moksham is performed on two important occasions. In the night preceding the sixteenth day of the funerary rites observed by rural, non-Brahmin communities, relatives of the deceased may arrange for the performance of the play. They hope that the staging of Karna Moksham will facilitate the release of the deceased’s soul and allow it to attain Moksha.

Occasion of performance of Karna Moksham
If the deceased is a man leaving behind a wife, the play also marks the transition of the bereaved woman into widowhood. The other important occasion for the performance of Karna Moksham is a Paratam (Mahabharata) festival. The story is one of the conventional themes in the festival’s cycle of plays. The tragedy of Karna’s life and defeat on the battlefield is one of the most sensitive and expressive episodes of the Mahabharata.

The plot of Karna Moksham
The story of Karna Moksham is situated on the seventeenth day of the war. A despairing Duryodhana appoints Karna as General of his army and sends him away with the inauspicious words “Go to the war!” (Instead of using the customary expression “Go and come back”). Before going to the battlefield Karna wishes to say farewell to his wife, Ponnuruvi.

The nightmare of Karna’s wife
Meanwhile, in the women’s apartments, Ponnuruvi admits to her friends that she has had a nightmare, which she is unable to understand, but which, or so it turns out later, predicts her husband’s violent death on the battlefield and her impending widowhood. Her lady-friends inform Ponnuruvi that Karna wants to see her. Upon hearing Karna’s name the Queen becomes very angry. She feels she has been trapped into a bad marriage and she scoffs at the invitation of a Sut-putra (Charioteer’s son).

A snubbed husband
Karna requests Ponnuruvi to give him tampulam, the auspicious gift of areca nut and betel leaves, which symbolizes victory, before he will join the battle. Ponnuruvi refuses to open her door and lets him stand outside on the doorstep to her apartments. Karna then wants to know why she has hated him from the beginning and why she thinks of him with dislike. ‘Since the day we were married, you did not speak to me, my darling’ Karna says.

Karna’s truth
Ponnuruvi tells one of her lady-friends that there’s someone standing outside at my doorstep, calling me ‘my darling’ and ‘my dear’. ‘Ask him to name his parents and his kinsmen clearly, and I will have no objection in letting him in and offering him tampulam.’ Karna decides to fulfil his wife’s rightful request. He reveals that he is the illegitimate child of Kunti and the Sun-God, and begins telling the story of his birth.

Ponnuruvi’s change of heart
Ponnuruvi realizes that her husband is a royal Ksatriya, instead of being of low caste descent as she had assumed earlier. She becomes another woman, asking Karna to forgive her ignorance, and refusing to part from him. In an attempt to prevent Karna from going to the battlefield Ponnuruvi objects against his association with Duryodhana, whom she calls a man of bad character who ordered the disrobing of a woman. What will he gain by slaying the Pandavas, his own (half-) brothers?

A bad omen
In Ponnuruvi’s opinion Duryodhana has ‘bought’ Karna’s love by making him king of Angadesa. Karna says he values Duryodhana’s friendship and loyalty above unreliable family relations — his own mother has abandoned him. At the end of their debate about Duryodhana Ponnuruvi realizes that she is unable to dissuade Karna from going to the war and offers him tampulam. However, in her confusion she does so with the wrong, left hand – another omen predicting the tragic events to follow.

Walking towards the end!
Karna anticipates his own death on the battlefield. He realizes that he will never be able to win the impending battle with Arjuna, because Krishna is his bosom-friend. Krishna will see to it that Arjuna wins. He tells his wife that she should not expect to see him back alive and, leaving her behind crying, joins the battle.

Karna's death
Arjuna and Karna finally come face-to-face, a moment both have been preparing for years, the earth-goddess is instructed by Krishna to grab hold of Karna’s chariot wheel. She does so. Karna tries to release the chariot wheel but Parashurama’s curse manifests itself right at that moment. He forgets everything he had learnt. In a fit of frustration, he throws down his bow and jumps off his chariot and tries to free the wheel himself. Krishna tells Arjuna to kill Karna.

Arjuna’s dilemma
“But he carries no weapons and his back is turned towards me,” protests Arjuna. Krishna goads him nevertheless. He is as helpless as Draupadi was when the Kauravas disrobed her in public, says Krishna. Show no mercy to the merciless, advises Krishna. Arjuna releases the arrow and Karna dies – shot in the back at a moment when he cannot even defend himself.

Why did Krishna kill Karna in such a horrible way?
Scholars say this is God’s way of achieving karmic balance. In his previous life, Krishna was Rama. And Rama had sided with Surgiva, son of Surya, and shot Bali, son of Indra, in the back. As Krishna, it was necessary to reverse the situation. God sided with Arjuna, who was the son of Indra, while shooting Karna, the son of Surya, in the back. Thus the books of karma are balanced and closure achieved.

(Source: Speaking Tree)

10 debut novels that are also their authors' masterpieces

One hundred and sixty years ago today, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary was published for the first time as a single volume—it had been serialized the year before in La Revue de Paris from October through December—and it quickly became a bestseller. Obscenity trials will do that for you! Also luminous, genre-creating novels, of course. I suppose. Though Flaubert would go on to write several more books, including the well-regarded Sentimental Education, he would never top his initial effort—Madame Bovary is universally acknowledged as Flaubert’s masterpiece, and indeed as one of the greatest novels ever written. Which I probably don’t have to tell you is some feat for a debut novelist. To celebrate the birthday of this seminal novel, I’ve put together a list of debut novels that also happen to be their author’s masterpieces—or at least are often considered to be such. NB: a writer must have published more than one book to be on this list—a one-hit-wonder is no doubt also a debut, but it doesn’t exactly suit the spirit of the list (same goes for writers who technically published more than one book, but maybe shouldn’t have—like Harper Lee). It will also skew historical, because lots of stellar young writers still have their masterpieces in them—or so we hope.

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Roundly considered Flaubert’s masterpiece, as well as a masterpiece of realist fiction in general. But it wasn’t as though Flaubert wrote it completely from the (writerly) womb. As Benjamin Lytal noted in The New Yorker, he first completed a play entitled The Temptation of St. Anthony—which his friends promptly urged him to burn. It was, of course, eventually published after decades of work—and still, no one remembers it. Who could be expected to, what with Emma Bovary’s color-shifting eyes winking balefully from the other end of the shelf?

Donna Tartt, The Secret History

It’s true: Donna Tartt has lots of writing years left. But though I fully expect she’ll put out another bestseller every decade until she dies (one can’t hope for her immortality; it’s tempting, but knowing her, she’d end up a Tithonian cicada, and I wouldn’t wish her such an ignoble fate), it will be tough to topple The Secret History—which by the way, she published before she was 30—as her masterpiece (and my own personal forever favorite novel, if that counts for anything). On the other hand, my mother prefers The Little Friend. So I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

Richard Wright, Native Son

Native Son was Wright’s second book, published after Uncle Tom’s Children, a collection of novellas, but the story of Bigger Thomas was his first proper novel and is still his most famous work. As far as the term “masterpiece” goes, that should be self explanatory, but when James Baldwin writes “No American Negro exists who does not have his private Bigger Thomas living in his skull”—well then you kind of know.

Renata Adler, Speedboat

This is something of a cheat, because it’s such a cult classic and because Adler published only two novels—she’s equally, if not more, significant for her nonfiction and criticism. But whatever, because I love this novel, and despite the fact that Adler supposedly prefers Pitch Dark, Speedboat is both a masterpiece and hers—ask anyone.

Carson McCullers, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

McCullers was only 23 when her debut novel was published in 1940, and it was a sensational bestseller that year—since then, it’s been a major touchstone of Southern Gothic literature. To be quite fair, some cite her 1946 novel The Member of the Wedding as her masterpiece, and others prefer Reflections in a Golden Eye, but this only goes to show how truly great she is—and, since those people are wrong, how truly great The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is, too.

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Imagine coining a now-ubiquitous term with your debut novel. Or hell, imagine having your debut novel be consistently listed as one of the funniest novels ever written—not to mention one of the finest literary works of the 20th century. Apparently, Heller wasn’t even trying to write a novel at the beginning—he thought of a few lines spontaneously, wrote about a third of it, and sent it off to publishers. $1,500 and some eight years later, it was a hit.

Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart

Achebe’s Things Fall Apart was arguably the first African novel to enter the Western canon, and it’s still ubiquitous in high schools all across America. It’s definitely Achebe’s most famous and widely read work, and Dwight Garner has officially called it the writer’s masterpiece (“accessible but stinging, its layers peeling over the course of multiple readings”) so I’ll consider that case closed.

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Perhaps it’s because Jane Eyre is actually the second novel Charlotte Brontë wrote (her first attempt, The Professor, did not secure a publisher until later), but this is one of the most assured debuts I’ve ever read—and was erotic enough to send Victorian readers into a tizzy. (Then again, what wasn’t?) Some may claim Villette as Brontë’s true masterpiece, but the fact that Jane Eyre could inspire a response novel that is as much of a classic as the original text proves its enduring importance.

Günter Grass, The Tin Drum

The Tin Drum is by far Grass’s best known work, and certainly his masterpiece—though not his only great book, as Salman Rushdie pointed out in The New Yorker: “If Grass had never written that novel, his other books were enough to earn him the accolades I was giving him, and the fact that he had written The Tin Drum as well placed him among the immortals.” Upon its publication in English, the review in the New York Times cited its reception in Europe as “as a great, wonderful and comic masterpiece” but doubted very much whether American readers would appreciate it—in part because “it is very German.” Well he may not be as much of a household name here as elsewhere, but we still know a masterpiece when we see it.

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

An argument for writing what you know: Allison’s semi-autobiographical debut, which at least one critic called a “world-altering masterpiece,” has been an influence on countless writers since its publication in 1992. The world is better because this book is in it.

(Source: Lit Hub)

Arundhati Roy and her suicidal mission: A conspiracy theory

In The Ministry of Utmost Happiness,
Roy challenges the format of the novel

One of the traditional prescriptions for writing lasting fiction, authenticated, among others, by Anton Chekhov, is to keep politics at length out of the pages.

Writers like Jorge Mario Pedro Vargas Llosa — The Feast of the Goat, a portrait of a despot — have occasionally gone against this recipe of cooking fiction. Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls which, to my mind, is a political novel that is saved from its own implosive, didactic attitudinising by sheer strength of characterisation and details of the drama.

More recent political novels include Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, a novel about America as it confronts the beginning of the sea changes that that 20th century brings and its impacts on a particular family. Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger is another well-paced political novel. There are others, I am sure, that I don’t know about.

Despite Chekhov then, the political novel is an active animal. Recently, Zoe Williams said fiction is a luxury when reality is too pressing. She, therefore, advocated non-fiction.

I do not subscribe to that view. I believe there is space in fiction for non-fiction; but it’d be self-defeating if non-fiction has its share of fictive elements.

Arundhati Roy’s long-awaited second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, is rooted in reality. Especially in Indian reality. It is a teeming, rich, decaying reality; a majestic but rotting corpse faintly breathing; the kind of reality that is hard to distinguish from the comic if morbid imagination. Magic and mayhem await around every corner. The odds favour the improbable. The average Indian’s acceptance level of magic, even black magic, is high. Even a deformed cow, or a strange-shaped tree, could endorse it.

Since just about everybody seems to have reviewed The Ministry, I would only sum up the book as the map of India’s massive shift in emphasis from a reasonably secular, chaotic but democratic history and geography, to a clearly defined Hindu nation, a purity of race concept that empowers the “normal” Hindu to thump his chest at the prospect of believing bloodily a monolithic Cause, whose ways of assertions could include the seemingly harmless folklore, or the direct bullying by a political party that derives its righteousness — even to kill — from ancient myths.

The Cause is both godly and imperial in its dimensions. It’s a certified way of life. This is not an easy thing to achieve in these fraying times. In India the Cause is the unity and consolidation of the Hindus as well. How can you not believe in it if you are a Hindu? If you are an Indian, why are you not a Hindu?

Roy’s novel is about that; and not. The reason for that ambiguity lies at the bottom of the basic ironies guiding the narrative. Kashmir, a central fulcrum of the novel, comes across as a puzzle India must figure out, both in terms of its militancy and its militant excesses. How do you deal with religious nationalism in a country that is not quite aghast at the possibility that it is an oppressor? When did the victim turn a tyrant?

The secular part of the narrative is where Roy’s heart is: the world of the marginalised Muslims, further marginalised by gender and sexuality, the world of the fringe elements, and their shambles of a ministry. In between somewhere, comes the ubiquitous cow, the new animal of terror, divine to the majority, biryani to the minority.

The material of the novel then, as you can see, is plagued by the immediacy of its setting. It is what is happening. What Roy has done for the most part is merely copy-paste the reality she is living day in and day out. There is a reason for it, perhaps even a deliberate, calculated quality to the project she has undertaken. As Tilo in the book says: “I would like to write one of those sophisticated stories in which even though nothing much happens, there’s lots to write about… That can’t be done in Kashmir. It’s not sophisticated what happens here. There’s too much blood for good literature.”

I assume Roy is serious about her pronouncements. Because to read this in one uncharitable way is to say that Roy is bent on writing poor literature, redeemed possibly by the truth that it represents. Wallace Stegner says somewhere (in words to that effect) that truth is a fine thing, and that you must treat it as delicately as an eggshell. That sounds simple, but it demands a sense of balance that is hard to achieve, especially when you are writing a political novel in which the richness of the reality deludes you into believing its reproduction is as good as recreating it in words.

The trouble is that she has chosen a format that resists truth naturally. Fiction is a lie. And that lie has to come across as a truth. This is of course easier said than done. But the fact that Roy knew the dangers attendant on her choice of narration and emphasis are what makes for me a beguiling work; beguiling because The Ministry’s ultimate objective is not only to question the “Nationalist” narrative, but also to self-destruct the myth of Roy herself as a novelist burdened with the task of representing the rights of the underprivileged in fiction. Perhaps this is a self-styled role. But in practice it makes no difference: Roy is serious about destroying her persona as a novelist and has opted for the role of the activist.

The friction of that conflict is evident throughout the book. For instance, the whole idea of seeing magic in the most ordinary things like a horse being ridden through a crowded bylane in Old Delhi. If it is indeed meant to be magical, it comes across as a forced effort at painting squalour pretty. Like romanticising rot. It’s a desperate attempt on the part of the author to impart hope, a flimsy mythical dimension to despair; a last resort of sorts to stay on the side of fiction even as Roy’s writer persona senses the reality is crowding in on her inescapably.

The only way I could interpret Roy’s extended treatise as a novel is if one reads the entire work as a series of extended ironies that finally dissolves the novel into a naturalistic listing of India’s political problems in relation to Kashmir. Admittedly, that doesn’t quite make it first rate fiction. And it has a Borgesian collateral damage: the dissolution of the novelist herself. Of this, later.

The contemporary history of India is so rich in ironies that one would find it difficult to unravel the truth which is at their operational centre. As I write this, there is the abysmal news that Junaid, a boy aged 16, has been roughed up and finally stabbed to death on a train by a bunch of Hindus because they believed he, along with his brother, were beef-eaters. The incident shows the depth to which the at once comic and brutal actors — as in a Stoppard or Pinter play — of Ram’s Caliphate have descended, and the proportionate ascent of the quasi-religious but evolutionary impossibility of the cow as their mother.

Apart from the fact that the boys are Muslims, there is no reason why this need have happened. And this is not the first of such incidents. In the last three years since Narendra Modi has come to power, the very many lynchings this country has seen on account of the cow should equal the toll in a minor war.

But how to turn this real incident into fiction? All the fictive elements of the imagination are already ironically at work in the murder of Junaid. From taking a ticket to fate guiding the two children to a particular compartment, the fact they have nothing to do with cow or bull, Junaid’s last journey would be fiction even for the murdered boy, had he come back to listen to it. It is unreal.

The matrix of Roy’s novel is made of incidents like this which happen now on a weekly basis. Since it is nearly impossible to improve upon the fictional qualities of the Indian reality, Roy’s method could be charitably interpreted as material to work against as much as with, and in that friction and fluidity, bring out the ironies abounding in the texts available even as newspaper reports. But the purpose of the method, as I see it, is not fiction so much as the dispensability of the form itself, as an extra-textual effort to connect with the reality between the covers — which ironically is no different from what’s available outside.

The novel has been described as “hideous” and “beautiful” by Jerry Pinto, and “miraculous” at its best, by Nilanjana Roy and a “ fascinating mess” by The Atlantic. The Irish Times trashed The Ministry, The New Yorker began with praises and then politely distanced itself from the enterprise. Most critics attempted a balancing act out of respect for Roy’s considerable writing talents and her past achievements.

It is a measure of the quality of criticism as an art in our days that we very often are writing about the personality of the novelist rather than the novel itself. We read her into her work. What is criticised is the media-myth, not the work as it is. That goes for the publishing world too. If anyone else had written The Ministry, it most likely would not have seen the light of day.

I do not think The Ministry is either hideous or beautiful. I do not believe for a moment that the book is a ‘miraculous’ work of art, an adjective closely associated with other worldly interventions, an act that defies logic. These adjectives do not confront the problematique that the book offers.

The real problem to my mind — and perhaps the crucial component of the reader’s challenge — is that despite a few adept stabs at satire, the treatment that Roy probably intended, one of awful, endless ironies, does not come across as a sharable trauma. Or drama. That is how the novel fails. But perhaps that is also its success. The complicating factor, as her quote above shows, is that she may not have intended the fictional aspects to get the better of her. She resists the material to be turned into what it’s not: a lie.

Characters like Anjum, who falls clearly beyond the binary gender options and, by extension, the formulaic existential choice paradigm of this or that, either or, are a third sufferance of reality that accommodates, despite the pain and humiliation it engenders, the complexities of the mob — which when it picks on an individual invariably turns him/her into an outsider; the possibility that the fringe offers a fashion forward, and in a hoped-for reversal, turns out to be the new Mother India. An organism of suspect sexuality and splendid squalour; a Bharat Mata of different order, and odour.

But Anjum comes across as too cute an object. A spectacle in ritualistic action, whose conflicts are expropriated by the writer in an effort to lend articulation to the character on her behalf by means of long descriptions. This could be put down to Roy’s ideological identification with Anjum.

The other heroine S. Tilottama or Tilo, a post-modernist witness to the closest that post-Independent India has come to a revolution — Kashmir — is cute, pretty and passive in her passion for a Kashmiri activist, Musa. She bears witness, unable to change history, much like the novel itself, which is why it is one for the record rather than the figment that the fiction predicates on.

Between these two women and three other main male characters the novel doesn’t develop so much as describe what it sees. And what it sees mostly is what the readers are used to seeing outside the book, too. Roy, a constant darling of the upper-class liberal India, and the clueless — when it comes to subcontinental literature— Anglo Saxons (the white Brahmins) who form the crux of the global literary establishment had extended patronage to Roy for close to 20 years. Her cause to a great extent is their cause. It is the cause of the ‘civilised’ values. It is with some grief that they have admitted Roy’s Great Indian Novel is far from the stuff of celebration they had long planned for.

I am an admirer of Roy. To me she is an extremely brave woman, and an inveterate interventionist in India’s unethical and often heartless history. Her compassion for the underprivileged — if I recall right, it was Alice Walker who said that the fierceness with which Roy loves humanity moves her heart — shapes and shades the narrative in almost every page.

And this is what makes me think, that one best approached this chaotic novel — whose reluctant threads Roy just about and with visible labour picks up in the end — may have been written with the objective of dismantling the narrative itself finally. Much like Jiddu Krishnamurti dispersing the Theosophy Movement, Roy has ironically perhaps deconstructed herself, and subsumed the writer in her to the activist in her, just to see what comes of it. In this respect The Ministry is an experimental novel. A self-conscious suicide attempt, an existential choice.

I believe it is intentional. In an interview, Roy recently said that if reality is taken away from fiction, fiction loses. I tend to agree. Especially because in a fragile country like India, it is a luxury to turn away from the real and take refuge in some exotic fictive world, though not quite in the sense Zoe Williams meant, which is one of complete abdication of the form.

And so, the challenge remains. Because fiction demands a narrative and characters who grow with the action, instead of staying on the pages as they are, having been transplanted from reality. Within the covers of a book, the form demands a fourth dimension. In Roy’s novel, to my mind, that fourth dimension is Roy’s own gradual unbelief in her projected personality as an activist, while living very much like a successful author. It is this conflict that the book at one basic level addresses and ends in the assertion that she is after all an activist.

In other words, Roy is experimenting rather fatally with the form of the novel at great risk to herself. Its success could be ambiguously interpreted as the vigour with which she is interrogating herself. And not much comes of it but a shell, a vacuous irony. The novel has turned the author empty, leaving behind the activist looking around in qualified surprise at what she has faithfully reproduced, but not created.

This is in keeping with the thoughts in the novel. Sentences, whole chapters, are exercises to show words mean exactly the opposite. On page 179, for instance, the sub-head says:


“In Kashmir when we wake up and say ‘Good Morning’, what we really mean is ‘Good Mourning.’”
The irony may be empty, but its antonymous emptiness itself is a shake-up inside out.

Here’s another sub-head:


“Manohar Mattoo was a Kashmiri Pandit who stayed on in the Valley even after all the other Hindus had gone. He was…deeply hurt by the barbs from his Muslim friends who said that all Hindus in Kashmir were actually….agents of the Indian Occupation Forces. Manohar had participated in all anti-India protests.… One day an old school friend, Aziz Mohammad, an intelligence officer… said he had seen his (Mattoo’s) surveillance file. It suggested that he be put under watch because he displayed ‘anti-national tendencies.’

… “‘You have given me the Nobel Prize!’ he told his friend…. A year later he (Mattoo) was shot by an unknown gunman for being a kafir.”
“Q 1: Why was Mattoo shot?
1. Because he was a Hindu
2. Because he wanted Azadi
3. Because he won the Nobel Prize
4. None of the above
5. All of the above

“Q 2: Who could the unknown gunman have been?
1. An Islamist militant who thought all kafirs should be killed
2. An agent of the Occupation who wanted people to think that all Islamist militants thought that all kafirs should be killed
3. Neither of the above
4. Someone who wanted everyone to go crazy trying to figure it out.”

That Manohar Mattoo has been thrown in your face is based on Roy’s assumption that her readers know what she is talking about in what is now an archetypal situation. The archetypal situation pre-empts involvement of the reader with Manohar. That is intended perhaps.

The real function of the questions and answer format regarding Manohar’s murder is how the irony of a Pandit fighting for Kashmir’s militants in the end turns out to be emptied of all meaning, because one doesn’t know the truth. An exam modeled in this fashion ensures everybody fails. And India has been failing at this exam for long.
Very often this mode of Brechtian montage technique, which is interspersed throughout the book, gives the impression that involvement is not what the writer seeks from the reader; but action. And it comes at the risk of a novelist, exhausted with the material she is wielding, turns the entire project against her novelist persona, like a gun.

Pretty Tilo, who makes a very late and sparse entry in the book, is in love with a Kashmiri activist. She is subjected to torture. And then allowed to go because of intervention from her connection established early in the book rather tenuously. In the event, Tilo can only bid farewell to her lover Musa, but perhaps like the author — or someone like her — on whom Tilo seems to have been modeled, only stay silent. There is nothing anyone can do, because an action, intervention, is nullified by the reality’s multitudinous contradictions. A zero-sum game.

That sense of resignation — an attitude — is what is described at length in the novel, and in terms of ironies, which cumulatively end up as an objective of deconstructing both the novel, and the extra-textual, existential objective of the author who is no longer certain of the resolution of the subject within the covers and without. This is an author in search of an answer and a plot, let alone characters.

In short, the activist in the author, who, I imagine, must consider herself as a character in the larger drama, has become a witness, someone who records what she sees. And, as a result, the novel turns back on itself as a failed form.

That failure could be partly Roy’s own limitations; or it could be because she intended to take that risk at the cost of her demise as a fiction writer, a role that is of little use in a reality where the imagination is destined to fail, unless it is reinvented.

(Source: The Punch Magazine)