Jaya Posts

“Still Life” by Sarah Winman

Sarah Winman’s Still Life begins during the Second World War and then the story develops over the next few decades. The cast of characters, more or less, remain the same. It includes a parrot that went dumb during the bombing of London.

Still Life is a large, expansive, slow moving historical fiction. It has the languid pace that one associates with all things Italian. And rightly so as a substantial portion of the novel is set in Italy. Even the sections that are set in England have a very slow pace that is mostly written in the third person. It is an odd literary technique to employ in a novel that could quite easily move crisply if the protagonist Ulysses Temper had had more of a voice. Instead, it’s almost as if he has a very dispassionate connect with the locals. This despite his wife, Peg, and her child, Alys, being part of the community. He is far too accommodating of everyone’s wishes and always does his best to please them. Until, he learns of his Italian inheritance. He has been bequeathed a property by “Arturo” whom he met briefly while stationed as a Private during the war. It is a life changing moment and he moves countries, taking Alys, whom he loves very much.

But Still Life is also about women, women painters, painting, and aspiring to be artists. Their impact upon others lives as Evelyn Skinner, a sexagenerian art historian, has upon Ulysses and later, Alys. Evelyn’s fine talk about aesthetics, artists, beauty ultimately impacts Ulysses life in many ways. This book is about their extraordinary relationship, being kindred spirits who discovered each other during the war and a spark was lit that transcended many social barriers.

Still Life also works as a metaphor in this novel. For its ability to capture a vignette of life as paintings with a “Still Life” theme attempt. Usually still life painting compositions are of the very ordinary elements found in daily life. The intense focus upon these objects by the artist transforms them from the mundane to something exquisite, a precious piece of artwork. This novel is much like this. It is to Sarah Winman’s credit that she takes the very ordinary lives of very common, nondescript folks and through her way with words, turns the novel into a piece of art.

To appreciate this story, the reader needs to zone into that mindset and engage with it; much in the way a painting is appreciated– you stand and gaze upon it, to discover more than the veneer.

At nearly 500 pages, this novel is meant for diehard fans of Sarah Winman. But those who like historical fiction may like it too. Winman has a way of getting the reader hooked from the first page. It works as long as the novel can be read without too many interruptions. Otherwise the large cast of characters can get quite tough to recall.

The book was released on 10 June 2021.

12 June 2021

“Charanik” by Mohanlal Gangopadhyay, translated by Jayanta Sengupta

Writer Mohanlal Gangopadhyay’s Charanik: The Walker was first published in Bengali in 1942. It is an account of his walking tour of Czechoslovakia during his summer break in 1937. At the time, Gangopadhyay was studying at the London School of Economics, London. So he was able to plan a holiday in Europe with a friend, Mirek.

Charanik is a lovely, calm, account of these three months. The writer records their stay in various youth hostels or at the home of hospitable peasants. Along with Mirek, he would walk a few hours every day. They visited beautiful valleys, hills, glacial caves etc. They visited local fairs such as at Uherske Hradiste, visited the worle-famous primeval forests of Ruthenia, trekked in the High Tatras, visited the Demanovska Ice Cave with its magnificent stalactites and stalagmites that had only been discovered twenty years earlier, they went looking for Hribis mushrooms, they visited Poprad Lake etc. They lived off the land plucking wild berries, strawberries, apples, bilberries and mushrooms to eat. Using fresh spring or river water to brew hot tea for their soups or tea. Every night, if possible, the duo halted at a youth hostel, where only basic amenities were provided. Yet, it was comforting to a bunch of exhausted travellers. To the writer, carrying a rucksack with essentials on his back instead of relying on a porter or even halting at these hostels was a steep learning curve as he had no clue how to make his bed, fold his clothes or even wash them regularly. He was so used to having staff assist in domestic chores. But it did not deter him. He learned fast and enjoyed the experience.

The book has been translated by Jayanta Sengupta who first read the Bengali edition as a school student. He enjoyed the book so much that when he visited Europe for the first time, he decided to do so with a shoestring Charanik-like budget.

Mohanlal Gangopadhyay came from an illustrious family. His father was the writer Manilal Gangopadhyay and his mother, Karuna, was the daughter of Abanindranath Tagore. Surprisingly, the writer chooses in this book to not mention anything about Adolf Hitler, who was already in power in Germany. Nor that the Germans in Czechoslovakia were demanding the right to autonomy, which led directly to the Munich Pact being signed between Hitler and Neville Chamberlain in September 1938; as a result, parts of Czechoslovakia would be handed over to Nazi Germany. Despite meeting people every day at the youth hostels, mostly walkers and trekkers like themselves, Gangopadhyay never mentions politics. Instead his descriptions are idyllic. Incredible to think that he had the ability to spend pages describing streams, mountains, forests, views from mountain tops and the unfortunate events of being caught in a sudden freezing downpour, in the middle of nowhere. But as the translator points out that now the map of Czechoslovakia has changed drastically over the past few decades. For one, the Czech Republic and Slovenia are independent nations. Ruthenia had not really existed as an independent nation. Many of the other places referred to in the book can now be found in the maps of Hungary, Poland, Ukraine and other countries.

Charanik is a soothing book to read. It has been translated beautifully. There is a gentle pace to the narrative that is very calming. It is illustrated with black and white photographs taken and sketches made by the author’s wife, Milada Ganguli.

Read the book.

12 June 2021

George Orwell and an 11 yo reader

Today, my eleven-year-old daughter was introduced to George Orwell”s fabulous essay, “Confessions of a Book Reviewer”. The child cracked up with laughter upon reading Orwell’s comments about writing book reviews such as, “grossly overpraising”, “unappetising (books)”, “the complete truth is that this book would be worthless”, and “This book does not interest me in any way, and I would not write about it unless I were paid to”. She hooted with delight when she read that the middle section of a review that constitutes about 600 words is usually avoidable. 🙂 This is the kid who only reads a book cover-to-cover if it interests her, otherwise she tosses it away after reading the first few pages. And when she likes a book, she loves it. She will not stop reading it, till she is done with it. She only relies on her instinct to appreciate a book. Rarely goes upon recommendations or book reviews or by popular trends amongst her peers. So she absolutely gets what Orwell means. Fascinating watching her respond to the essay.

I was thoroughly entertained as she read out passages from it by doing voices, alternating between Inspector Closeau and Count Dracula/Hotel Transylvania.

Seriously, who needs TV, when one has kids!!

28 May 2021

An important Twitter thread by Prof. Sunny Singh, 8 June 2021

This important Twitter thread was written by Sunny Singh after Naomi Wolf was banned from the microblogging platform. Naomi Wolf had been spreading misinformation about the Covid-19 vaccines. Prof. Sunny Singh is the co-founder of the Jhalak Prize.

8 June 2021

Salman Rushdie’s “Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020)

Salman Rushdie’s new book, Languages Of Truth, is a wonderful collection of essays published between 2003-2020. Once you start reading it, you don’t want to finish reading it. All the essays have been revised for this edition.

There is so much to share from it. Here is an extract from the Arthur Miller Lecture, PEN World Voices Festival 2012.

***

I’m here, I guess,, to talk about censorship, but no writer ever really wants to talk about censorship. Writers want to talk about creation, and censorship is anti-creation, negative energy, un-creqtion, the bringing into bring or non-being, or, to use Tom Stoppard’s descriptions death, ‘The absence of presence. Censorship is the thing that stops you doing what you want to do, and what writers want to talk about is what they do, not what stops them doing it.


Liberty is the air we breathe, and we live in a part of the world where, imperfect as the supply is, it is nevertheless freely available, ….Imperfectly free, imperfectly breathable, but when it is breathable and free we don’t need to make a song and a dance about it. We take it for granted and get on with our day. And at night, as we fall asleep, we assume we will be free tomorrow, because we were free today.

The creative act requires not only freedom but also this assumption of freedom. If creative artists worry if they will still be free tomorrow, then they will not be free today. If they are afraid of the consequences of their choice of subjects or of their treatments of those subjects, then their choices will not be determined by talent but by fear. If we are not confident of our freedom, then we are not free. The air supply is turned off, and we cannot breathe.

And, even worse than that, when censorship intrudes on art, then it becomes the subject; the art becomes ‘censored art’, and that is how the world sees and understands it. The censor labels the work immoral, or blasphemous, or pornographic, or controversial, and those words are forever hung like albatrosses around the necks if those cursed mariners, the censored works. The attack on the work does more than define the work; in a sense, for the general public, it becomes the work.

***

“The Windsor Knot: Her Majesty the Queen investigates” by S. J. Bennett

S. J. Bennett’s Windsor Knot ( Harper Collins India) is her first mystery novel in this newly launched series. It is also the beloved young adult author’s debut foray into adult literature. In it, she has the Queen of England, Queen Elizabeth II as an investigator. Rozie Oshodi is the Queen’s assistant private secretary who doubles up as her sidekick investigator. According to the author, “the Queen’s new Assistant Private Secretary. Rozie is a Nigerian Londoner who grew up in a council estate in Notting Hill and went on to serve in Afghanistan as a captain in the British Army. She is quick-witted, brave and somewhat amazed to find the Queen is asking her to do increasingly unusual things.” In fact, the real Queen’s current equerry is Lieutenant Colonel Nana Kofi Twumasi-Ankrah, a Ghanaian-born British army officer. Like Rozie in the book, he’s a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. S.J. Bennett adds:

I’ve always written books with a feminist element to them, and I’m fascinated by the idea of a ‘little old lady’ surrounded by men, someone who is deeply respected, but not always taken seriously. In this series, the Queen (my Queen) has learned that she can trust only certain women to keep her secrets. They are her assistant private secretaries, a role I interviewed for myself after a brief career as a strategy consultant with McKinsey. I’ll never forget walking across the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. I didn’t get that job in the end, and it’s still the one that got away.

The Windsor Knot investigates the mysterious death of a Russian on the premises of Windsor Castle. The novel is set at the time the Queen is 89 and approaching her ninetieth year. She comes across as a sparkling old lady who is very aware of the manner in which she should conduct herself as a British monarch and yet, she seems to exhibit the excitement and enthusiasm of a little school girl in getting to the truth about Maksim Brodsky, the Russian pianist. He had been invited to entertain her guests the previous night at dinner. The manner in which he is found in his room is scandalous and all attempts are made to ensure that the story is underplayed. More so, when they discover a little more about his Russian connections. Yet, those in the know, including the Queen, cannot help but speculate on the circumstances of the death. More so, since Brodsky was known to also run a political blog. So could he have possibly fallen foul of the Russian authorities, especially Putin? ( The eerie parallels of political intrigue to the ongoing story about Roman Protasevich, the Belarus blogger, are purely coincidental. Prostasevich has gone on record saying that the authorities will kill him for managing Telegram channels broadcasting mass protests against the Belarus leader, Alexander Lukashenko. )

Back to the novel. The Queen’s top policemen are investigating the crime. They are Ravi Singh, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police; Gavin Humphreys, Director General of MI5 and the most junior of the trio, Detective Chief Inspector David Strong. They are a motley bunch who are perfect team in this mystery story. The author has everything, diversity, true representation of British society, a peep into royalty, the secret conversations, the investigation, and it is pure delight in reading excellent English, nuanced and truly Queen’s English without having to read mangled words and phrases.

I truly love how the author has set her characters in place. I can just see them develop and if she maintains the pace of creating two novels a year, she is on to an excellent formula. I hope she does not run out of ideas and plot settings. First books in a series are always dicey but S. J. Bennett is on to a good thing with this launch. It is the perfect antidote for the gloom and doom that we are surrounded by. This is just the kind of lighthearted banter, mixed with some detective work, that we as readers need to help us look the other way during theese dark pandemic days. Life goes on despite being reminded of our mortality on a daily basis.

It is the perfect blend of Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. Very English. Very much aware and happy being in the space it inhabits. And makes the best of the scenario. You don’t need to be a Royalist or an Anglophile to appreciate this kind of storytelling. Just go with it and enjoy it. The author has a very tight control on the language. She will hone her point-of-view skills fairly soon, once the characters begin to assert themselves. The first book is always a testing ground for the roles everyone will play and the author figuring out how to manipulate the scene. Soon everyone will find their niche and it will develop beautifully. I am so sure of it. This first book has sufficient glimpses of a good series in the making.

In fact, the first volume has an extract from the opening pages of the second novel in the series scheduled for publication in November 2021. It is called The Mystery of the Faberge Egg. I cannot wait to read it. Just as the webseries, The Crown, inspired this storyline, these books need to launch a webseries of their own.

On a drive one English spring evening, I found myself thinking about an episode of The Crown. The young Queen Elizabeth II had picked up a painted soldier from a model battlefield and absentmindedly returned him to the wrong place. Her punctilious private secretary corrected the mistake. And I thought to myself that, while it made a nice observation about the private secretary, it was something the Queen – the woman I knew – would never have done.
I haven’t met her, but my father has, many times. In the course of a long career in the army, he’s hosted her at the Tower of London, drunk cocktails on the Royal Yacht Britannia and been awarded medals at Buckingham Palace. The woman my father knows is funny, engaged, well-informed and good company. She would have understood that it’s impolite to fiddle with someone else’s model battlefield, and if she’d ever moved a soldier it would have been to put him in the right place, not the wrong one.
That got me thinking, here’s a woman with a lifetime of learning, who is often thought of as not very clever. But she’s recognised as a world expert on horse racing, and there are many other fields besides, such as military history, that she knows extremely well. Also, while we’re all looking at her, she’s looking out. She must spot things all the time that others don’t see.
What a perfect set-up for a detective. The woman I know could do it brilliantly.

Meanwhile, read The Windsor’s Knot — it is the perfect read.

8 June 2021

“Happy Sexy Millionaire” by Steven Bartlett

Steven Bartlett is twenty eight years old. He is a millionaire. When he was eighteen years old, he was living in extreme poverty, scrounging for food and was never sure how the day would pan out. Of course, he had been brought up in relative comfort and his parents were devout Christians, but ever since he chose to drop out of university and forgo his government scholarship, his parents were furious and had distanced themselves from him. One day, he had a 20p coin in his hand. It slipped and fell from his hand and lodged itself in the sofa of the diner he was in. He shoved his hand in to pull out the missing penny and found a one pound coin. He realised that the seats were never cleaned in the cracks, so perhaps if he were in luck, he would find more loose change. Slowly he wound his way through the diner gathering up all the coins he could collect. To his delight he found the princely sum of £13.40. Till date, there is nothing compared to the boundless joy he experienced at discovering this change. Not even the day he received the phone call that his firm, the social media marketing agency, Social Chain, had a market valuation of nearly £200 million.

Happy Sexy Millionaire ( Hachette India) is categorised as a self-help book but it is a fascinating blend of memoir and sharing of business experiences and knowledge. This is a man, like many others before him, who has learned on the job. He had a dream and saw it through. He was focussed and continues to be.

I had no plan. I just had a lot of faith in myself and a lot of faith in the rationale underpinning my decision.

He worked extremely hard at launching a firm. It went bust when he was 21. Then he worked upon Social Chain with his friend, Dominic. It proved to be a resounding success. So much so that one of his dreams of meeting President Barack Obama came true when they were featured on the same panel at an international conference. As a fourteen-year-old, Steven had seen Obama win the US Presidential elections. Barely twelve years later they were on the same stage.

Steven Bartlett sees life as a roulette table — an analogy that even Maria Konnikova spells out in her marvellous book, The Biggest Bluff.

Complicated self-help jargon aside, if you were able to protect your time a little better, become a little more intentional in how you place your chips on the roulette table of your life and develop more clarity on the things that hold long-term, intrinsic value to you, then you probably wouldn’t need to read another self-help personal development book in your life. At the most fundamental level, this isn’t just the most important thing, it’s the only thing. It holds the answer to your mental, emotional and spiritual health, and in my life it’s proved to be the doorway to becoming the happy sexy millionaire I naively aspired to become.

One of his mantras is that time is critical.

Time is both free and priceless. The person you are not is a consequence of how you used your time in the past. The person you’ll become in the future is a consequence of how you use your time in the present. Spend your time wisely, gamble it intrinsically and save it diligently.

He is crystal clear ( one of his favourite phrases) that looking at his “own time habits through a monetary framework” helped him to decide what he should and shouldn’t be doing.

Steven Bartlett highlights portions of his text by enlarging a sentence or a phrase and placing it like an illustration on the facing page of the text. It is an interesting technique but he communicates to be heard clearly. A trait he has honed as a social media strategist but his advice about cyberspace are worth their weight in gold. He emphasizes all that he has learned about social media, the social comparisons, the materialism, the clicks of buttons, the euphoria and the falseness, the gratitude exercises, the neurological impact that gratitude had on dopamine levels, the happiness quotient etc. But he has a warning.

Actively practising gratitude feels so necessary in the modern era because our brains weren’t designed to deal with all this social noise or the algorithms that feed me the prettiest, richest, smartest people on earth every day. Psychologists have often suggested that the slow pace of human evolution and the leap of cultural and technological change have meant that our minds are better adapted to our hunter-gatherer past (where 95 per cent of evolution took place) than to today’s supposedly fast-changing world. In short, digital technology has the capacity to overwhelm our prehistoric brains by exploiting their biases, vulnerabilities and limitations in subconscious, invisible ways. We don’t see it happening, but the astronomical growth of anxiety and other mental health issues in the modern era suggests we’re feeling the consequences.

For him the only worthwhile comparision is “YOU yesterday vs YOU today. If you want to be happy you have to focus on that”.

Happy Sexy Millionaire is an astonishingly gripping tale. It is meant to read in one gulp but remember to keep a pencil handy to underline all the bits and pieces in the text that speak out to you. My copy is dog-eared, top and bottom of the pages, underlined and heavily underlined to highlight text, with commentary scribbled in the margins. This book like many self-help books seems to proselytize but it is not. There is something unique in the manner in which Steven Bartlett writes. It is straight from the heart. He is lucid. He is very sure about what he wishes to share. He shares with a clear conscience and a great deal of faith in one’s abilities. The bibliography he lists at the end of the book is impressive. He probably has honed his skills as a communicator on his very popular podcast, The Diary of a CEO. ( Here is the latest episode where he interviews One Direction band member, Liam Payne. 7 June 2021.)

Read this book. I cannot recommend it enough.

7 June 2021

“The Biggest Bluff” by Maria Konnikova

MariaKonnikova is a journalist who works for the NewYorker. She studied  military theory and history combined with  psychology in college. Ultimately she did a doctorate in psychology where her focus was on decision making. After a horrifically bad year (2015) when it seems as if her life was plagued by ill luck, she set herself a goal to learn poker. This amazing goal was set by a person who had no clue how many cards were in a deck. And she had a grandmother who was appalled at her granddaughter’s decision to learn a gambler’s game that she called “evil” instead of the more elegant game of chess. This was the same grandmother who had lived through World War II, survived Stalin, Khruschev and Gorbachev too. But Konnikova was determined and chose to seek out as her mentor, the Poker Hall of Fame inductee and winner of millions of dollars in earnings, Eric Seidel.

The Biggest Bluff ( HarperCollins India) is an enriching story about how Konnikova sets her goals, works hard, and along the way discovers a lot about herself as she masters poker. One of the facts that stands out about the game is that no player can afford to be delusional and have airs. You are what you are and this is how you will play the game. It is true to the personality of the player. As a result, Konnikova gets brilliant insights into human behaviour. She learns many invaluable lessons about negotiations, decision making, what it takes to be a woman and play as an equal while silencing out the #sexist remarks of the other players at the table, being attentive to the extent of blocking out all other distractions and focusing upon the players hands. This is a game dominated by male players. She learns the value of being confident about the skills one possesses rather than looking to others for assurances or even assuming others are better skilled than her. A crucial piece of information about herself that helps build her self-worth. It is also about developing patience and becoming a better strategist. It is not necessary that the best equipped or skilled or even the most aggressive player will win the jackpot, it boils down to strategy. It is preferable to be the dragonfly whose success rate at achieving a kill is 95% as compared to a cheetah ( 58%), lion (25%) and wolf (14%). So it is also about marshaling your facts together and reviewing the probability, being a critical thinker and constantly living in a state of inquiry. It is also about learning from failures and evaluating what comes next objectively. Never let emotions get in the way. She also learned to question the classic model for analysing behaviour: CAPS, or the cognitive-affective personality system. For decades it had been argued that the Big Five version of personality— openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeableness was fundamentally flawed. Konnikova discovers that people aren’t a combination of traits but a mosaic of reactions to and interactions with situations. She realises that poker is more about psychological and emotional dynamics than physical patterns. And the beauty of this understanding is that it is a dynamic situation that constantly changes depending upon the players involved and from moment to moment. The massive takeaway from this book is that Konnikova realises how many of the learnings she gleaned while preparing for various online and offline games/championships, have lifelong applications. It transformed her in many ways.

And yes, she did win a neat pile of US$300,000.

This book is begging to be made into a web series like the very popular Queens Gambit. It also deserves to be translated into many more languages. Some have referred to it as a feminist telling and others have called it a phenomenal story. It is an astonishing story that confirms that you are never too old to acquire a new skill and get the brain charged up.

There is no denying this is an interesting book but those who know the game will probably benefit more since at times, Konnikova takes deep dives into explaining a table setting and how hands are played. Nevertheless, read it. The strongest point she makes is that the players participate and win purely on the basis of merit and nothing else. She gives the example of talented people being interviewed or losing out on opportunities simply because their attitude/ inquisitive nature etc did not align with the feelings of the powers that be. In that sense, playing poker is a far freer activity as you are judged on the basis of merit. Sobering thought. Much to gain by reading this gem of a book.

7 February 2021

Malala Yousafzai, British Vogue, June 2021

In the June 2021 issue of Vogue ( British edition), Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai has been interviewed. It is a good interview as it puts the spotlight on a young twenty-three-year-old who is at the crossroads of her life, figuring out the eternal question — “what next?” Many questions are asked and a lively conversaion ensues until the silly question of relationships is posed by the interviewer. Malala’s response to it has resulted in a significant amount of trolling on social media platforms.

She isn’t sure if she’ll ever marry herself. “I still don’t understand why people have to get married. If you want to have a person in your life, why do you have to sign marriage papers, why can’t it just be a partnership?” Her mother – like most mothers – disagrees. “My mum is like,” Malala laughs, “‘Don’t you dare say anything like that! You have to get married, marriage is beautiful.’” Meanwhile, Malala’s father occasionally receives emails from prospective suitors in Pakistan. “The boy says that he has many acres of land and many houses and would love to marry me,” she says, amused.

Pakistani author, Bina Shah, wrote a fabulous post on her blog The Feminstani about this interview. Here is an extract:

Well, shit. Pakistani social media alighted upon this quote as if they were kites in the sky who had spotted a particularly tasty scrap of meat. If they were looking for something with which to bludgeon her to death, they found it: in the musings of a young woman who’s still trying to figure things out, things that confound the best and brightest of us, and the stupidest of us. “Should I get married or not, and why does there have to be marriage in the first place” is a question we’ve all asked ourselves, if we’ve got a single ounce of intelligence in our brains. (at 48, I know I ask myself the same question, and up to date neither have I found an appropriate answer nor a suitable candidate. And yet I still hope to get married some day.)

I don’t want to go into the nasty comments, the Z-list actresses who came out with statements against Malala, or the taunts of “un-Islamic” and “Zionist agent” that were showered upon Pakistan’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate, one of its few Oxford graduates, and possibly the only girl in Pakistan to have been shot in the head and survived. They called her ugly, and that of course she wants a partnership because she’s too ugly to have a husband (in her interview, Malala said that men propose marriage in e-mails to her father all the time). The usual round of accusations and bizarre conspiracy theories — it’s a drama, she wanted a foreign passport, she was chosen by Jewish overlords to become Prime Minister of Pakistan — came out. In short, we’ve been on this rodeo before.

Also useless is to point out to the Pakistanis howling that Malala’s remarks on marriage are unIslamic that the concept of marriage in Islam, while strong and emphasized as part of Sunnah, has been fairly flexible over the centuries. A valid marriage contract written down on paper is not actually required; just a verbal agreement with witnesses will do (if we want to be very literal about it). In its early years, Islam also allowed sexual relationships with women you are not married to, but are “those whom your right hand posesses” — ie female prisoners of war, and concubines (for men only, not for women who own male slaves). A practice of temporary marriage, i.e mutah, was allowed at one point, which would then be dissolved after an agreed-upon amount of time had elapsed.

Some of these practices were established for reasons of practicality, and some of them have been abused rather than treated as the exceptions or temporary situations meant to give rights to children born out of the traditional marriage scenario. Some of these practices have been abolished, or outlawed in the modern nations where Islam is practiced. Many of these practices continue in secret. The evolution of a written marriage contract is a modern invention made in order to safeguard certain legal rights of the participants, as well as to be able to register marriages in records and databases. But there was once a time when nothing more was required for a binding partnership than two people saying in front of two witnesses that they wanted to be together as spouses.

Marriage is in short not the solid brick house that Pakistanis want to build and entrap two people in forever, regardless of their feelings, their needs, wants and desires. It is exactly what Malala expresses a little clumsily in her interview: a partnership with a door that either partner can open to leave any time she or he wants, with good reason. The Quran is clear that spouses are meant to be a comfort to one another, to have affection for one another, and to guard each others’ privacy and secrets. But it forces no one to marry against their will. If Malala is not ready to marry, and if she is never ready to marry, then she is within her rights not to do so.

In response, I wrote an email to Bina. Here is an extract from it:

It will be interesting to observe how Malala breaks her childhood shackles and really comes into her own. She is 23. So young and yet has achieved so much. For now the Vogue article has highlighted the struggle that a desi girl of her age has to face. The problem in this particular case is that Malala is a role model for girls across faiths and countries. She is a feminist icon. Whether it is the Pakistani male  or any other Muslim man or any other man for that matter, they simply cannot handle such a confident young girl like Malala. Offering to marry her because the suitor owns immense property is a sham. The man is eyeing the Nobel Laureate as a trophy to forever house in his home and probably improve his social worth. Most desi men, across our fractured borders, have the same conservative mindset. 

If Malala had to truly break shackles and live her life according to her terms, then it is no one’s business to question her sexuality, her choice in partnerships or the kind of arrangements she opts for. Alas, she is caught between two worlds — the public image and the conservative Pakistani Muslim community. She has to straddle these worlds. 

The Vogue question about relationships was unfortunate but it holds true for any celebrity. Journalists cannot resist asking women celebrities about their sexual life and their marital status. It is what makes the papers sell. So for me, this interview with Malala, is more than her being representative of a Pakistani Muslim girl, but being an icon/representative of this new generation of girls. They have been exposed to so much more information about being empowered, what it takes to be an empowered girl, facing the violence, making choices and being articulate. This is what defines these young girls. Unfortunately, the desi girls who belong to this generation are also weighed down by other baggage such as the expectations of their families and wider circle of “settling down”. 

I remember when my Dadi would go on and on about it, I always felt as if being married was like being evicted from Paradise and like Satan as described by Milton in Paradise Lost, plummeting through a neverending blackness. It is as if achieving married status was the be all and end all of life. Whereas in my reckoning, I was just beginning my life and did not need to be burdened by such questions. It really mucked up many years of my life. When I finally chose, I chose on my own terms, no one else’s. Even so, it was a late marriage by everyone’s reckoning. 

You are so right about the backlash Malala has faced for her response. This is the first of many she is going to face. This silly statement of her’s will haunt her for years to come, it will be dissected in polite and not-so-polite circles as how could this seemingly polite, young girl, who (as you point out) covers her head with a dupatta, can have such strong ideas. Well, of course she can. You and I know from firsthand experience that we may dress in our desi clothes but hell, no one can ever mentally shackle us or presume to do so in any other way. It bothers folks. We don’t necessarily strut about wearing the latest Western fashions but we do have some of the most modern ideas of living. I bet you have come across many desi girls who wear the latest hip-hop clothes, but heavens, they spout the most conservative attitudes towards women.

Malala has to negotiate this space on her own but I sincerely hope that she has some good guidance regarding gender. She needs to engage in conversation and figure this out for herself. It was an unfair and loaded question. She should not have been asked it as it seems as if the interviewer was seeing only a young girl of marriageable age. Sad. The kid has won a Nobel Prize, for heaven’s sake. Give her her due. She has survived a bullet wound to the head and has managed to recover sufficiently to attend classes. How many people are fortunate to be able to do that after a head injury? 

Perhaps this is what was needed. A furious questioning of these attitudes, the desire to let the younger generation express themselves freely without being burdened by “traditional” customs and this is beyond the borders of Pakistan. It is a universal truth. In many, many ways, times have changed considerably, especially for girls and women. This is a debate that will rage for some time given that a celebrity like Malala Yousafzai has expressed her opinions about it. But for now, this is accompanied by hashtags such as “Shame on Malala” trending on Twitter.

Instead of shaming the young girl, the journalists posing these prying questions about the celebrity’s relationship status should be shamed.

5 June 2021

“Collegiality and Other Ballads: Feminist Poems by Male and Non-Binary Allies”

Collegiality and Other Ballads: Feminist Poems by Male and Non-Binary Allies is a unique experiment. Inviting people who do not identify themselves as of the woman gender but feel strongly on women-related issues offers a searing perspective on how feminism/women’s movements have impacted civil society. There is a collective anger evident in many of the poems at many of the injustices women face regularly.  It probably stems from the sensitive understanding, empathy and the recognition on the part of the poets, many of whom belong to marginalised communities of society. Majoritarian discourses are blind or completely oblivious to the daily struggles of these individuals who are mostly left to battle an unequal social system. By bringing together these diverse genders, many of whom still inhabit a niche space in society or focussed LGBTQA+ imprints in mainstream publishing, Shamayita Sen ( editor) and Hawakal publishers have in Collegiality created a well-defined platform that may lend itself to more literary explorations in future. 

4 June 2021

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