My Pen Is The Wing Of A Bird: New Fiction by Afghan Women — a fabulous anthology of short stories translated from Dari and Pashto. It is the culmination of a two-year project initiated by Lucy Hannah, funded by the Jan Michalski Foundation and managed by an editorial team led by Will Forrester. Bios of the authors cannot be printed in the book for their safety especially after the takeover of #Afghanistan by the #Taliban in August 2021. ( Hachette India)
Akwaeke Ezmi’s (They/them) You Made a Fool of Death with your Beauty is an incredibly old-fashioned love story in modern trappings. They explore love after experiencing intense grief in this novel. It is unexpected as Ezmi is known for writing about the gender fluid spaces within an African social context, sometimes even with autobiographical elements. But this novel is freer, it is about Ezmi growing as a writer and not being confined to a single narrative, based on firsthand experience. ( Faber Books )
Acclaimed poet Ngyuen Phan Que Mai’s debut novel The Mountains Sing is an astonishing account of the Vietnam war. Is it fact? Is it fiction? Is it faction? Just read it even though it is not always easy given that it is based on meticulous research and oral histories too. I began it months ago, finished it this weekend. It needs long pauses between reading spurts. ( HarperCollins India)
The Betrayal of Anne Frank by Rosemary Sullivan is the account of a cold case. Who betrayed Anne Frank to the Nazis? How did her family get on to the last train to Auschwitz? Why do people betray their own? Decades later, with the rise of fascism in many nations, this book is deeply disturbing to read but also essential. I think you should read it now. It is imperative that you do. Learn about operations that have not gone out of fashion. They still exist. The betrayal by one’s community is the most devastating betrayal ever. Judases exist. Even now. And that is what is extremely disturbing. (HarperCollins India)
‘It must have been five or ten years ago,’ Akshat began, unprompted, ‘when Holi fell on a Friday.’ If Chowk ki Holi was famous for its booming processions and rowdy play, then the Chowk Masjid delivered the most teeming morning prayers in Allahabad. The Holi procession was to pass next to the masjid at midday for the muezzin’s call. On the day of, a sea of white kurta’s hesitated as they approached the masjid. From the other end, a colourful brigade staggered forward. A handful of gulal and there would have been blood.
‘It was such a beautiful sight,’ Akshat declared proudly, ‘for the ten minutes, as soon as the azan began, all song-band was immediately halted. People … all people stood in silence. They came, went in for the prayers, came out, the songs began at once.’
One story followed another, as if they were waiting to be summoned. Akshat told me about the parade of horses (‘Duldul ke ghodhe’) that is taken out during Muharram, and the uneventfulness with which a Hindu family (Bachaji’s) paid for it. I learnt that if Muharram and Dussehra fall on the same day in Allahabad, the Muslims don’t lift the bad taziya ( a procession carrying a giant replica of the tomb of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussain) that year. Akshat’s great-grandfather was the only Hindu landlord in the Muslim neighbourhood of Chail. He had such a good relationship with the residents that they gave him the title of Asharfi Lal. Even Akshat grew up referring to him as Asharfi Lal. When his great-grandfather passed away, Akshat remembered, his Muslim neighbours didn’t let his family light a stove in their household. They brought all the food. In fact, for most of his life, Akshat had seen Hindus and Muslims playing Holi together. Even on that fateful Friday years ago.
‘And now?’ I asked him.
‘These days …’ Akshat snapped in anger, ‘Jai Shri Ram slogans are shouted like a rallying call in the same celebrations.’
What were these stories about? And how hadthey disarmed Akshat?
In his treatise Awadh Symphony, Aslam Mahmud describes the cosmopolitan fabric of Allahabad under the Mughal empire:
Ganga-Jamuni culture [was] the culture of the plains of Northern India, especially the Doab region of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers, regarded as the cradle of the fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures. […] While the diversity came with the migration of different groups who settled in this region, the unity came from the peaceful coexistence of these varied communities and cultures. There [were] no fault lines and the mixed social fabric [was] not brittle or fragile. […] Festivals were shared and there was mostly an atmosphere of conviviality.
Allahabad or Prayagraj as it has now been rechristened is going to the polls on Sunday, 27 Feb 2022, in the fifth phase of the Uttar Pradesh state elections. It is a crucial election since it unclear whether the present chief minister will return to power with a simple majority or will he and his ruling party, the ultra-nationalist espousing Hindutva politics, the BJP, be given a decent fight at the polls by the opposition especially the Samajwadi party? Will caste be a significant factor or will the rise of communalism affect polling? Will the rising prices of basic commodities be a key factor or will the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya surpass all other considerations of daily existence? No one knows. Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state. It sends the largest number of members to Parliament. It has tradionally been a state that is keenly watched by politicians, psephologists, journalists and of course by Indian citizens themselves. The idea of Indianess is a conundrum. The sub-continent is known for its syncretic culture. Can a hegemonic narrative tear this intricate social construct called India apart? Again, no one can tell.
Allahabad is a city known for hosting the mahakumbh mela, every twelve years. It is also considered to be the site of the confluence of three rivers, triveni sangam, of the Ganga, Yamuna and the mythical river Sarasvati, mentioned in the Rig Veda. It is also known for being the city of rich cultural tradition, a centre of learning, literary stalwarts, origin of many schools of poetry and literature, language and much else. But today, the emphasis is increasingly on its Hindu characteristics, which as political scientist Udbhav Agarwal points out in A for Prayagraj: A Short Biography of Allahabad is only aspect of this incredible city, “…this place, a centripetal force that spools you back?…Yeh shehar kasturi re.”
A Sip in Time: India’s Finest Teas and Teatime Treats by Pallavi Nigam Sahay is a fabulous collection of easy-to-make recipes that are paired with different kinds of teas. It has been published by Hachette India. The recipes read like a handwritten recipe book that is passed down generations within a family for its mad combination of dishes. To have Amaretti biscuits, pakoras, kathi rolls, scones, gur ke parathe, raisin bread, spicy macaroni, chicken nuggets, theplas, Kerala Golden Sev, and sponge cakes in one place can only be the handiwork of a practitioner. Otherwise most cookery books are organised due to category of dishes. Whereas in this case, the excuse for pairing dishes with teas, is the perfect springboard to put together favourite dishes. The teas that she refers to are perennial favourites in India at least, probably elsewhere too — Assam tea, masala chai, phalap, Assam orthodox, English Breakfast tea, Darjeeling tea, Alle Sang, Earl Grey, and Munnar. The descriptions of making tea on the tea estates to offering tips on the best way to brew a cup of tea is easily shared. One of the gems is not to pour boiling water over tea leaves as it excessively boiled water implies that the oxygen in the water is reduced; thus affecting the flavour of the tea. Ideally, simmering water should be poured over tea leaves / tea bags and let it stand for the time stipulated. And voila, it works!
The no fuss manner in which every recipe is explained is a delight. It makes it convenient to understand a recipe and figure out the time required to prepare the dish. The idea of having snacks accompanying tea is an old fashioned one but this book ensures that a wide variety of recipes are presented while recognising the new reality — many popular ingredients are available worldwide. So it is relatively easy to assemble these dishes. Offering titbits of advice such as some of these dishes make wonderfully wholesome breakfast or ready-to-go meals, is an excellent touch. Hopefully, it will inspire more people to cook healthy homemade meals rather than rely on takeaways. Sadly, as with most Indian cookery books, food photography is always not up to the mark. But it should not deter anyone from buying the book and using it extensively. A Sip in Time is a great gift for beginners and experienced cooks. It is easy to carry. It has wide margins and generous layouts, making provision for plenty of scribble to scribble upon.
Uncle Pai: The Man Behind the Iconic Amar Chitra Katha by Rajessh M. Iyer— I began reading this biography of Anant Pai with interest (published by . Instead it borders on being a hagiography and capitulating to modern sensibilities. It would have been a tremendous effort if the author had made an attempt to make it a biography with gravitas, researched the period, the genre and the subject of his book a little more diligently. For instance, elaborated upon the debate triggered by well-known historian Sumit Sarkar in 1993 as the comics promoting a Hindu cultural ideology that helped fundamentalist organisations. The author dismisses this as “this couldn’t be farther from the truth”. It is at such points in the book that the reader wishes a little more effort had been made to research the history of ACK and the phenomenal role of Anant Pai. Instead frustratingly, nothing more is forthcoming. Plus, added a bibliography of materials consulted. I am disappointed as I enjoy reading biographies and always hope to learn more about the period of time in which the person lived. With Anant Pai, it is always a pleasure to read about his legendary contribution to India’s publishing history with the creation of the Amar Chitra Katha comics. These are a series of illustrated stories in the comic book form that are synonymous with tales from the Hindu epics but slowly evolved into also sharing folklore, tales from Indian history, Jataka Tales, stories about Akbar & Birbal, Tenali Rama etc. They were known to be simultaneously published in multiple Indian languages using the model of syndication. Some of the earliest artists and writers who were commissioned to create stories were not amused as their copyright was taken away. Whereas Pai himself stood to gain from the sales of the comics as per the deal struck with the owners of IBH. He was offered a monthly payment as well as a percentage of the sales, making him part-stakeholder in ACK. A win-win situation with hindsight but at the time of signing, Pai accepted the deal on pure faith that he had a good idea of making perennial favourite stories available as comics, modelled upon the popular American series “Classics Illustrated”. Unfortunately, I abandoned reading this book when I came upon the chapter on “illustration styles and Anant Pai’s background”. In It, the author, chooses to dwell upon the Hindu cultural sensibility, the influence of Raja Ravi Verma and calendar art as being some of the prime motivations for ACK’s characteristic style of drawing mythological figures. Years ago, I read a comment by Uncle Pai in an essay where he categorically stated that there had been innumerable influences upon his artwork but there was no denying that he also turned to the big names of Hollywood of the day as models for his characters. “Uncle Pai” does not even so much as have a passing reference to the popular cultural references that may have impacted ACK’s sensibilities. The book could easily have soared as a publishing history but it seems to lumber on. Plus, the boxes of information scattered throughout the text make it very cumbersome to read. They are tantamount to throwaway lines that are too laborious to develop as ideas in the main narrative. Ideally the points and comments made in these boxes should have been incorporated as one text. It would have made for a smoother narrative.
Here’s hoping that the second and revised edition of this book is much improved for we could do with a good biography of the legend Uncle Pai.
…the fundamental knowledge that is acquired should be transfered to the next generation through our genes. When animal instincts are thus transmitted, why aren’t intellectual capabilities inherited?” “That is because mankind’s collective intellectual achievements are monumental. Only a very small part of the immense knowledge gained by society is stored in the brain of an individual. Most of us retain only relevant information about our chosen field of expertise and even that would be a tiny percentage of the existing knowledge in that particular field. Even an extremely intelligent geologist or a doctor would have assimilated only a small part of all existing knowledge. Knowledge is recorded and preserved in millions of books and computers to be used when needed. A man who learns to drive a car doesn’t genetically pass on this ability to his progeny; he has to teach them. In the same way, education from a qualified teacher is an important aspect of growing up. This limitation of the human brain has been confirmed by this experiment. This is a problem for geneticists. Even if a highly intelligent person’s cells are used to create a baby, knowledge needs to be imparted to the child as it grows up. The human brain might be a supercomputer that works quickly and as accurately in relation to the available data. So if you deliberately do not feed the computer of data or deprive it in a language that the computer understands, it will helplessly deteriorate just as the evolved modern-day humans will become like cave people.’ p.116-117
Alphaby award-winning T. D. Ramakrishnan ( translated from the Malayalam by Priya K. Nair) is his debut novel about thirteen people who live on an island called Alpha for twenty five years. It is published by PanMacmillan India. It is an experiment conducted by anthropologist professor Upelendu Chatterjee at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The twelve members of his team were from different Indian states and faiths. The experiment was unique in that the investigators had to be their own subjects. The professor had discovered this remote island that was not to be found on any published map. The people he took on this experiment were academics, bureaucrat, artists, painters, doctor etc. They were young, knowledgeable and were enthusiastic practitioners of their discipline. The professor was clear that if they were to accompany him to Alpha, then “They would have to give up all knowledge gained since the uncertain emergence of their lives. Go back to zero — the beginning — and from there start once again. In other words, alpha, beta gamma.” The professor plans the experiment meticulously. So much so that he leaves instructions with one of his students to search for the island in twenty-five years. Unfortunately, the student, Professor Satish Chandra Banerji, himself falls ill and is paralysed, so he persuades in turn one of his students, Avinash, to go in search of this island and ascertain if there are any survivors. When Avinash arrives at the island, he discovers three of the original team have survived. But there is also a small community of forty-seven people — men, women, and children. He brings home the three survivors — Malini, Santosh and Urmila.
Alpha turns out to be an experiment that went horribly wrong. The participants had to follow strictly the rules imposed by the professor including avoiding all learned language, speech, and therefore communication of ideas. They also had to forget all their knowledge about medicine, anthropology, science, arts etc. It made for a very chaotic but also carnal form of communal living. There were no rules for social and moral conduct and yet there were the rules as stipulated by the professor. Also, over a period of time, a peculiar hierarchy had come into place, where the professor by virtue of being the seniormost by nearly a generation was given his special cave dwelling and accorded a respect that was not necessarily reserved for the others. All individuals were meant to be treated at par. When the next generation was born, they had no knowledge of the previous generation’s skills and accomplishments, nor did the parents deign to teach their kids any skills. They were left to fend for themselves. It was back to a primeval form of living. Base. Violent. No rules. No authority except for the authoritarian professor.
T. D. Ramakrishnan wrote this book in 2003. The author is an Indian Railways officer. Perhaps it is a coincidence that this novel was written soon afer the Godhra riots of 2002 that were sparked off by the burning of a railway carriage. Yet, the story itself is set between 1973 and 1998. It begins at the time of the former prime minister, Mrs. Indira Gandhi. But the lens that fiction provides for contemporary society cannot be ignored. The uneasy commentary provided by the author that centuries of learning, culture and knowledge are completely disrupted by authoritarianism is a worrying idea. Once the damage is inflicted, how does society recover? Is it possible? Or does the island in the story become a metaphor for real life that such a society if forever marooned, it regresses and will take a long time to recover or be at par with rest of civilisation.
Interpreting Alpha as an allegory is perhaps doing it a disservice but it is hard to read it in any other manner. Otherwise reading it as a straightforward story results in asking many more questions than the story itself posed. The author pushes the limits to every boundary, especially that of time, knowledge, life skills, and brain development in speculating its impact on the individual and society and what does it mean to be human?
Alpha is a peculiar story. It is powerfully told. No wonder it achieved the success that it did in Malayalam. This is the first time it has been translated into English. Read it. It is going to be talked about for a long, long time to come. It is not going to be easy to forget. Try it.
Farah Bashir’s memoirRumours of Spring: A Girlhood in Kashmir( Harper Collins India) is an extraordinary book. While keeping vigil by her grandmother’s body, the older Farah Bashir recounts her childhood memories of living under siege in Kashmir. These events are interspersed with stories that her grandmother told the young Farah.
I read Rumours of Spring a long time ago but there are some books that make it impossible to write about immediately. This is one of them. This book brought back memories of my trips to Kashmir. I was able to travel to the state with my father as he was a Customs & Central Excise officer and his beat included Jammu & Kashmir when he was posted as Chief Commissioner, Customs, Amritsar. We visited places in the state that were mostly inaccessible. Those trips were unforgettable. The stunning beauty of Kashmir are of course talked about but what really struck me in those trips were to see signs of conflict everywhere. For instance, the empty bottles and tin cans that were strung at regular intervals on barbed wire fencing. These could be around fields or properties or simply rolled up wire being used as barricades. The idea being that if anyone tried crossing these wires, there would be a clatter and a bang and the security forces on patrol would be alerted. The normalisation of this constant state of alert was unsettling. We would only visit the state for a few days at a time but I could never get over the fact that this was the way the locals lived 24×7. There have been many firsthand accounts of living under siege in Kashmir. It never fails to disturb. Farah Bashir’s book is a fine addition to the list. It is particularly unnerving to read it as she recounts much of what is in our living memory. At the same time, it brings back memories of other similar situations. For me, for example, it is witnessing the riots of 1984 in Delhi, after the assassination of the prime minister Indira Gandhi. Recalling the anxiety of my grandparents who had lived through Independence and the subsequent riots. So the moment, news broke, my grandmother sent my brother and me to buy provisions and stock up. My grandfather, N.K. Mukarji, who was a young ( and the last) ICS officer of the Punjab cadre in 1947, helping government teams manage the division of Punjab, was suddenly remembering incidents of 1947 that were eerily similar to 1984. Later, we were staying with our father in Shillong and we witnessed the flag marches the Army carried out and how society was brought to a standstill. Buying basic provisions became a feat to achieve. Much later, I recall watching the demolition of Babri Masjid on television on 6 Dec 1992, followed by the maha artis in Maharashtra and the rising communal tension in Delhi. Then of course, we have had many more incidents of violence that are too horrific to recount. Reading Farah Bashir’s book during the pandemic brought it all back in flurry. But it also made apparent the parallels between our pandemic way of living with that of life in a conflict zone. Without sounding callous, the difficulties in trying to manage daily life while constantly living with uncertainty and never too sure when systems will be brought to a grinding halt, makes the individual anxious. Yet, there are even more chilling parallels between what Farah Bashir witnessed as a child in Kashmir with Nazi Germany. For instance, security forces pulling out men from their home and making them assemble in large fields in an attempt to identify “militants”.
It was during one winter morning in 1990. Ramzan Kaak had gone out to buy bread but was sent back by the troops even before the announcement was made. The announcement, usually made twice, in Urdu and in sometimes Kashmiri, sounded more like a threat: ‘Apne gharoon se baahar niklaliyey. Koi aadmi ghar pe na paaya jaaye.’
Mother, Bobeh and I huddled in our living room, while Ramzan Kaak and Father left the house to be assembled in a large ground of a public school nearby, alongside all the other men from the neighbourhood. The morning passed in a daze, punctuated with the abrupt thuds of doors being slammed and the sound of steel utensils being flung about. Later, of course, these would become the all too familiar ‘crackdown noises’.
That morning we felt completely numb, unable to move around; we didn’t get any work done, nor speak to each other. ‘The trepidation of our turn being next induced a sickness. I felt completely nauseous. Towards afternoon, the troops walked into our courtyard. Mother and Bobeh turned paler upon seeing them. I too must have looked like them. I do remember feeling dizzy and light-headed.
Suddenly, the appearance of our frail neighbour, Ghaffur, added some confusion to the already tense situation. Why was he with them? Both Mother and Bobeh wore a quizzical expression upon seeing him.I too was thoroughly puzzled to see Ghaffur with the troops. But I didn’t dare to ask anyone anything. The expression on his face was unforgettable. He looked almost dead, like a body that was breathing. His face had ashedned, and his lips were taut and white.
After the troops walked nitou our kitchen wearing muddy boots, soiling everything, they flung open the cabinets. Upon discovering the trapdoor on the floor –the voggeh — they went berserk! They ran amok with suspicion, as if they’d unearthed a tunner to the other side of Kashmir, in Pakistan. Quickly, they broke into two batches: one group cordoned off the house from the outside in the courtyard and the other lot disappeared into the voggeh, into what they seemed to assume to be an imaginary escape tunnel. They did not expect it to be an ordinary floor of an ordinary home with ordinary things. They ventured into the ground floor vehemently, and because they couldn’t find anything there, they ransacked the gaan. Suspecting militants to be in hiding behind the gunny sacks, they poked the bayonets of their rifles into them. They slashed upon the large rice bags, callously unleashing rivers of grains on to the part-stone, part-mud storeroom floor. They scattered chunks of coal that were hoarded in large tin drums by overturning them. Perhaps it was the adrenaline from discovering the mysterious door that led them nowhere, or their hurt pride and disappointment for not having recovered any arms, ammunition or even militants from our home. When they left, they left behind nothing but misery that was pasted on to the floors and walls of our house. A misery that couldn’t be wiped away.
Since that first time, Mother remained stoic when the troops searched our house. Soon after they’d leave, she’d take stock of the destruction and then, break down. That afternoon, however, seeing our storage room turned upside-down, we succumbed to a deep despair after. To clean up after the crackdown wasn’t easy. While the scattered wooden logs could be picked up and stacked backinto tall columns, the task of separing bits of coal from rice grains brought me to tears of helplessness and frustration.
That day in 1990, when Father and Ramzan Kaak returned in the evening, we heaved a sigh of relief. Father didn’t speak much. Ramzan Kaak told us how the men were paraded in front of a Gypsy that had an informer sitting inside, whose job was to identify militants and militant suspects. The latter could be anybody. All of this would be routine in a few month. That day, as Father locked the house, he remarked onthe uselessness of bolts and doors. Even I had understood by then that their safety was by no means guaranteed and that just because the men had been assembled, there was no assurance that they’d return together or return at all.
Each time a house was searched and found ‘clean’ — that is, no arms or ammunition was recovered — a date was inscribed on the facade of the house, usually near the main gate. Our house, being in the heart of downtown, had accumulated nine such dates in less than four months. (p.96-99)
There are many more passages that I can quote but this long extract is sufficient. It gives a sense of the violence that Farah Bashir and rest of Kashmir faced on a daily basis. The disruption to normal life. Living in constant fear. Living in constant anxiety. Living with uncertainy; not knowing what will come next. Feeling nauseous. This is a neverending cycle that has not as yet come to an end. Decades later, on 29 Jan 2022, Farah Bashir said in a conversation organised by the Hyderabad Literature Festival that for the first time, the various aches and pains she had been experiencing were greatly reduced. The trauma of constantly living in fear had had its physical impact on the child and later adult but writing this book was therapeutic. It had literally helped ease some of her pain. Small mercies in otherwise bleak times.
Read Farah Bashir’s Rumours of Spring. It is unforgettable.
To write well you need knowledge that is specific. (p.67 The Blue Book)
…the writer’s job is to reveal where the experiment in living goes wrong.” (p.40 A Time Outside this Time)
It is a privilege to be able to read a writer’s journal soon after reading his latest novel. Amitava Kumar has a way with words. More than that. It is his ability to be able to pour his creative energy into whatever he is writing; it could be a social media post or an essay or a novel. Every piece of writing seems to be written with equal thought and care. This holds true of his latest offerings. Published a few months apart in India, by two different publishers — Aleph and HarperCollins India.
The Blue Book: A Writer’s Journalhas a slow, meandering feel to it. The writer takes the reader through a lovely amble of his musings on writings, his encounters with other writers, the discipline it requires to write, and nuggets of wisdom that other writers may have shared with Amitava Kumar. The book is beautifully illustrated by his watercolour paintings — an art form that he took up during the pandemic. The paintings are vibrant, pure, and he uses bright colours. Curiously, he is constantly experimenting, so there is no fixed style to his compositions. It is impossible to gauge what will come next. But it is the specifics in the painting, whether the detail of a tulip flower or the painting across a newspaper that shows young girls celebrating Holi just above a photograph of the poet, Mahadevi Verma that make Amitava Kumar’s creations all the more interesting. It is his ability to make the reader share immediately his perspective. His way of seeing. Whether the reader has to agree or not is an entirely different matter. But at least the artist has been persuasive enough to highlight his viewpoint. But The Blue Book is also a pandemic journal. Irrespective of all the name dropping and truly wise advice that he shares, it is the astonishing discipline, clarity and peace that is exuded through the book which shines through. It is the gift of time that this wretched pandemic has given to many individuals. It is possible to channel one’s energies into an activity, discover new talents and blossom.
A Time Outside This Timecould not be further from the calm The Blue Book exudes. The novel is scattered. Its structure mimics the shattering experience it is to live in this world of fake news and post-truth. Amitava Kumar opts to tell a few stories, blurring the lines between fact and fiction. It is at times hard to tell if the narrator Satya is Amitava or just Satya. Sometimes it is impossible to tell if this is fiction or a diary of events. It is almost as if it is left to the reader to piece together the narrative and make sense of it. The stories that exist are fine by themselves but interspersing them with Satya’s childhood memories of communal violence or of his adulthood, his marriage, his wife Vaani’s conversations makes it dizzying to read. Apparently, this book is an attempt by Amitava Kumar to write in fiction the challenges caused by fake news and truth. It is unclear whether this is meant to be reportage or a novel. At the best of times, a good writer is deeply dependent upon real experiences. It is the author’s craftsmanship that presents the world to the reader through the prism of fiction. Whereas in A Time Outside This Time the preoccupation of the writer to discuss this new post-truth world where fake news dominates is not very convincing since it is the role of the writer to use art to present reality. Isn’t that a form of artifice, fake news if you will? So how does one read A Time Outside This Time? It is not easy to say.
Influencing may soon be the internet’s most-saturated hustle, but it is one that on closer inspection looks like a giant pyramid scheme. Its real beneficiaries — the companies and shareholders reaping the highest rewards — are hidden by those desperate to take centre stage.
Journalist Symeon Brown’s Get Rich or Lie Trying: Ambition and Deceit in the New Influencer Economy ( Atlantic Books) is an investigation into why and how do ordinary people, especially the young, use social media to improve their status. In principle, there is nothing wrong in anyone having ambition, but what really bothers him is the degrees to which people will go in order to look positive, beautiful and portray a lifestyle and a body image that is couldn’t be further from the truth. What is it that prompts peope to do this? What is this bug about getting rich quick? Why hustle in this manner? Are they not afraid? Do they not have a perspective on their lives? Or how in the process of attaining these goals, they are dragging their family and friends down too? One of the most disturbing statistics that Brown shares is that 1 in 5 children want to become a social media influencer when they are older. They have not a clue what lies in store for them but that is what they aspire to. These ambitions are fuelled by such news reports as The Forbes listing of the highest paid You-Tubers such as MrBeast, Jake Paul and Markiplier who earned millions. ( “The Highest-Paid YouTube Stars: MrBeast, Jake Paul And Markiplier Score Massive Paydays“, Forbes, 14 Jan 2022). The mistake many youngsters who idolise these social media gurus is that MrBeast, Jake Paul and Markiplier have teams working for them. They are not one-man/woman shows. There is a lot of effort and slick production that happens behind the scenes.
Brown’s terrifying and at times sad book documents these dreams that ordinary youngsters chase. How many times these efforts are horribly ruined. Sometimes the individuals are staring at financial ruin or have harmed themselves through cosmetic surgery in order to look as good as everyone else wants them to be. Yet, extraordinarily, many of the people Brown interviews refuse to give up hustling. They persist. What is astonishing is that they do it at the cost of telling lies such as white influencers passing off as blacks. There is a term for this — blackfishing. There are women who mistakenly perceive the choices they make to use apps to show parts of their body, sometimes bordering on soft porn, as being an empowering move; little realising that if she had some perspective on herself, she would see that she has fallen into the age-old trap of being objectified. Using technology or a snazzy app does not in any way mitigate the fact that it is what it is at the end of the day, a form of sex work. There are many more examples that Brown shares such as of youngsters hustling merchandise by setting up fake websites with authentic digital payment portals. Once they have collected sufficient cash, they close operations and move on.
The sleaze, the aggressive aspirations, and the anxiety with which many individuals live is a trait across socio-economic classes. This has been exacerbated by the coronavirus epidemic and compounded by job insecurity. It was brilliantly documented by Barrett Swanson in Harper’s magazine, “The Anxiety of Influencers: Educating the TikTok generation” ( June 2021). Brown tries to uncover many such stories but more importantly makes the ugly connections that exist between the tech behemoths and ordinary users. It is an entangled web of deceit and suffering for the individuals trying to be influencers while the shareholders and owners of the tech companies, the capitalists, mint money because of the increased advertising revenue that comes with a spike in engagement amongst users. The depressing fact is that these rapid transformations in society and social behaviour are so recent that it is impossible to tell what the future holds. Earlier it took at least one generation or approximately twenty-five years for a change to be brought about in society but with the techonological advancements, these changes are taking place in less than a decade. It is an alarming thought.
Read Get Rich or Lie Trying but more importantly, find a way to get the youngesters to read it. They should. It is a wake-up call to stop being mesmerised by click baits, financial mirages etc. Bills in the real world can only be paid by hard cash that is earned regularly and not through online hustling.
“As we like to say,” Dr. Vidal continued, “Love is particular. You’re an individual — you’re not a ‘type’/ You deserve to be with someone who appreciates you for your idiosyncrasies, and vice versa. What it comes to love, we want you to believe that anything is possible.“
Torey Henwood Hoen’s debut novel The ARC is about a dating agency of the same name ( Corvus imprint, Atlantic Books). The protagonist, Ursula Byrne, a successful architect, pays a hefty fee to subscribe to their services. Eighty percent of US$40,500 is to be paid upfront and twenty percent after eighteen months of the client having spent time with the partner they were introduced to via the dating app. Ursula is introduced to Rafael and they have an immediate connection. But it takes them a while to recognise that they are meant for each other, while being plagued by doubts about the dating agency. The ARC is a crackling mix of light romantic fiction with some literary fiction qualities and a magnificent dose of a strong, independent woman. Increasingly commercial fiction has stronger women characters who are phenomenal role models for their readers. It is a segment of readers that are probably less than thirty five years and are probably not as well versed with the intricacies of various women’s movements but are benefitting from the many freedoms won. Reading The ARC confirms this viewpoint that Ursula is very capable of standing her own in any kind of a corporate set up but her vulnerability is visible when she is alone at home with her adopted cat. The ARC has a very predictable ( but extremely satisfying) conclusion but it is probably exactly what we need to read in this neverending pandemic. It reminds us of the joy that can be experienced in simple acts such as finding the right person to love.
And when coincidentally, tweets like this pop up on Valentine’s Day when I was reading the book, you know that such books like The ARC will exist for a very long time. Dating apps, matchmakers, dating websites and matrimonial sites will never go out of fashion. Nor will literature based upon romance. Everyone wants to experience it at least once.
A friend of mine told me on the school bus, when we were returning home, that the “Anne of Green Gables” series was available at The Bookshop, Khan Market. I came home and told mum. She immediately bundled us into the car and drove straight to Khan Market and bought the set. I think the last book in the set came a week later. Each paperback cost the princely sum of Rs 45, so I was taken aback when mum insisted on buying the series. Mum never stinted on buying us books and many of our books are inscribed by her as an “unbirthday present” but even by those standards, this was an expensive indulgence. But mum was right. These stories have given us all so much joy over the years.
I still remember where the late K D Singh had placed these on the bookshelves. It was in the wooden shelf, middle aisle, closest to him. It is where he usually kept the Puffin books. It was the first set of books that mum bought for me in one fell swoop. She remembered them from her childhood when her grandmother had brought it from USA.
Now I am trying to persuade my daughter to read the series. Unfortunately the wretched TV adaptation has ruined the story for her. Trying to persuade her to read the books. Let’s see if I am successful.