Of hunting and devouring erotica


When I was working on finalizing my dissertation topic during my Masters, I was quite apprehensive about what I would choose. I knew that the topic I was about to choose would eventually be something that I would be voluntarily giving two years of my life to. It had to be exciting, interesting, and maybe even controversial to keep me glued and engaged. Sex was an obvious answer that fulfilled all these criteria. And since I had graduated specializing in literature in English, erotic literature emerged as an option I was more than happy to pursue.

While I knew that it is contemporary erotica that I wanted to focus on, the reason for stressing on writing that was recent was to test how much I could relate to the contextual realities. It is only after I finalized my area of research that I began hunting for writings around sex, preferably fictional writings, in English language emerging from South Asian countries. Of course, it was much more difficult than I had imagined. This wasn’t romance or tragedy or even tragicomedy. This was erotica coming from a land that looked at sex as a tabooed, sinful and hushed subject. Of course, this is also the land that gave us the ‘Kama Sutra’ and the Khajuraho temples. It is this hypocrisy in allowing some and dismissing other manifestations of the erotic that I sought to address through my research. And my first hurdle began in looking for the texts.

A visit to the bookstore resulted in judgmental looks, sniffed remarks and, eventually, ‘Fifty Shades…’. Some bookstores proudly offered me newer translations and versions of ‘Kama Sutra’ again, while some others simply refused to entertain my preposterous demand. A simple Google search came to my rescue. I discovered Tranquebar Press whose four volumes of erotica had emerged in recent years*. Each of these anthologies consisted of fictional pieces penned by writers from South Asia. I was relieved as well as surprised at its easy presence and access on the web but complete ignorance among bookstores (I am talking about two years ago, maybe things have changed now). I ordered all four volumes online and I was more than happy to devour them for the (ostensible) purpose of conducting research. While the genre of erotica is burdened by several challenges — not being seen as ‘literary’ enough, charged of being cheap, trashy and pornographic (the thin line between what gets constructed as erotic and acceptable, and, pornographic and dismissive remains a crucial question to explore), accused of objectifying its characters, especially women—the books that I read as part of my thesis writing were both brave exceptions and happy clichés.

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While conducting my research, I divided these stories on the basis of themes. But the one theme and aspect that I had a keen eye for was that of sexual fantasies and the kinds of sexual fantasies that these fictional worlds not only allowed but also gratified in a justified manner. Interestingly enough, ‘Blue’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories from Sri Lanka, which doesn’t claim to be heterosexual (and neither is), has scope for sexual experimentation and fantasies only in those stories that move out of hetero normativity. Marti’s ‘Room 1716’ is the story that describes lesbian fantasies of the protagonist, while also incorporating the use of a vibrator (a sex toy) to enhance the sexual experience—a privilege otherwise not given to other heterosexual couples in this anthology. Again, it is in ‘Me and Ms J’, a story about lesbian desire, where the protagonist fantasies a sexual relationship with her teacher. Sexual fidelity takes a hike in Shehan Karunatilaka’s Veysee which is a story about a married man who seeks sexual pleasure with a sex worker. There isn’t much light thrown as to why he seeks sex outside marriage but the story does present a view of Sri Lankan society and its perception around sex. The country is represented as one where sex is available ‘freely’ only if you possess good looks, good money and power. Of course, sexual fantasies are not limited to the realm of the man. In ‘Undercover’, Ameena Hussein narrates the story of a married woman trapped in a physically and mentally unsatisfying marriage. This story brings in the element of sex as an avenue of escape when coupled with exploring sexual desire outside marriage.

In ‘Blue’, sexual fantasy is linked to either homosexuality or tasting the forbidden (in the case of ‘Undercover’ and ‘Veysee’). ‘Close, Too Close’ (The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica), on the other hand, gives immense space to fantasies. Perhaps in keeping with the stereotypes associated with the queer world being bold, daring and experimental (the flip-side being unnatural, shameful and confused), ‘Close, Too Close’ has employed and given space for several sexual fantasies, including using a vibrator, dreaming of intercourse with a minor boy (inter-generational sex), queer games, conference sex and threesomes. Perhaps, unconventionality and varied fantasies go well with the definition of what it means to be ‘queer’ – weird. People play queer games (‘All in the game’), a middle-aged gay man –fantasises about having sex with an underage Kashmiri boy (‘Dreams and Desires in Srinagar’), two women engage in conference sex (‘Conference Sex’), a gay man and a straight feminist (as she calls herself) engage in a threesome with a seemingly heterosexual guy (‘Screwing with Excess’).

In ‘Alchemy’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II, ‘Mouth’ by M. Svairini explores the many sexual fantasies, including those that may be categorized as queer, set in the context of sexual role play and orgy. Stylistically, the story stands out in its use of several literary tools like analogy and personification. Participants involved in the orgy are all named after specific erogenous zones like the mouth, the cunt, the cock and the ass. The choice of the body part is extremely interesting and perhaps even deliberate in being both accurate and ambiguous at the same time.

In ‘Electric Feather’, The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories, Sheba Karim’s ‘Heavenly Ornaments’ explores the shame and dangers associated with being public or open about one’s sexuality or sexual desires. This shame gets doubled if it is that of a woman and more so if that of a single, deserted or divorced woman. Concepts of purity and impurity are highlighted. Another story that was striking was ‘The First Time’ by Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan’s that traces the coming of age of its protagonist, Aditya, a twenty-seven-year-old advertising executive, who goes through a journey of sexual discovery. It narrates the journey of its protagonist from his dorm days, when he accidentally enters a room of two boys helping each other masturbate. Disturbing as it may have been to him, Aditya longed to replicate what he just saw as the pleasure that he observed in the two boys seemed genuine and true. However, later, he understands, through watching porn, that masturbation was not the only way of attaining sexual ecstasy. The story is not only significant in foregrounding sex education and sexual education; it also highlights the importance of one’s peers in shaping (almost permanently) one’s attitude towards sex.

It is interesting to note, here, how something deemed as private and intimate is actually shaped in one of the most public and open fashions – in peer group discussions, by hearing about it from friends and acquaintances and by observation in popular culture and social media. This is exactly why this genre gains importance. Erotic literature serves a culturally and socially significant role not necessarily in opening up sexual possibilities for its readers but by giving that required space for the reader to embrace and be comfortable with his/her sexual desires – something that is otherwise openly denied in accordance with social dictums. Erotica may or may not question normative ideas about sex and sexual experimentation. However, in its very act of talking about sex in the most direct and detailed manner in a deeply prudish and hypocritical world, it plays a transgressive role.

*The anthologies I studied were as follows:

  • Joshi, Ruchir ed. Electric Feather: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press, 2009.
  • Hussain, Ameena ed. Blue: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories from Sri Lanka. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2011.
  • Karim, Sheba ed. Alchemy: The Tranquebar Book of Erotic Stories II. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2012.
  • Meenu and Shruti ed. Close, Too Close: The Tranquebar Book of Queer Erotica. New Delhi: Tranquebar Press 2012.

All these texts have published erotic stories in the form of prose, poetry and graphic art. The contributors are from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This post was originally published on TARSHI‘s E-magazine ‘In PlainSpeak’ here.

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Of watching plays and observing the audience


Despite my likeness and affinity towards watching plays, in general, and the fact that I’m currently based in a city that boasts of a strong and rich theater culture, I have rarely had the chance to watch a play. Partly because of my hectic schedule and nonchalance but more so because I’m usually unable to find company to watch it with. But this time I did and probably because of the star cast of the play that I went to see. Between the Lines is a 105 minute-long play starring Nandita Das, who has also co-written and directed the play. Interestingly, the play has only two actors-Das and her real-life husband Subodh Maskara-who shoulder the entire play playing the role of an affluent lawyer couple, Maya and Shekhar, also briefly playing the role of the clients they represent in a case that affects their personal and professional lives deeply.

A little on the plot first: The lives of lawyer couple Maya (Das) and Shekhar (Subodh Maskara, Das’s husband) are thrown out of gear when both end up on opposite sides of a case. After years of not practicing, Maya decides to defend a woman who may or may not have accidentally shot her husband. Shekhar, a celebrated lawyer who never loses in court, is the prosecution. In the course of the case, Maya perceives parallels between her life and that of her client, a woman from a conservative family who is physically abused by her husband. Maya realizes that patriarchy exists not just in the home of people of the lower classes but even in the homes of well-educated folk. Shekhar might not beat his wife but he is embedded with regressive ideas of womanhood and wifely duties. (Source here)

Picture courtesy Chhoti Productions

Picture courtesy Chhoti Productions

The story is simple, the plot has some amount of creativity and innovation. A story that deals with the idea of womanhood (if at all it is something that can be categorized) and gender disparity can never grow old. What particularly impressed me was the finesse with which the two actors played their roles and didn’t make the audience feel that the 100 minute play had no more than two actors. It didn’t need any more actors; they filled up the void (if any). Das, as always is brilliant and exceptional acting is anyway expected out of her. My takeaway was Mr. Subodh who floored me with his strong stage presence, dialogue delivery and acting. As a debut performance, this was one par excellence.

But the story-telling lacked tight editing. The second-half seemed stretched and prolonged. A lot of scenes could have been done away it and the only reason they were tolerable was because of the two actors’ fine acting. A lot of the play’s flaws were covered up and easy to ignore owing to the use of props on stage and the interesting choice of background music, especially when Maya muses on her life as a married, employed woman. While some of the dialogues are clichéd and lack an element of surprise  the play works well with its dependence on dry humour. However, it was surprising to see an audience of about 500 people in that huge auditorium (Tata Theatre, NCPA). Not just because of the sheer turn out, which was very heartening, but because of their response during the play’s performance. In scenes that spoke of Kavitha’s (Maya’s client) domestic violence and her resignation to it as something that she deserves, the audience welcomed her ignorance with peals of laughter. If not anything else, it was disturbing to witness a set of elite and middle class people (presumably well-informed on issues of gender violence and gender discrimination) laughing at misogyny and sexism, when the play, actually, set out to achieve the opposite.

Nevertheless, it is a recommended watch. My rating: ***

Read other reviews here and here.
Nandita talks about her acting, co-writing, directing, producing and acting along with her husband.

Agneepath : The Path of Fire


It’s been a while since I saw an action-packed, violence filled movie and actually enjoyed it. Well, not in the voyeuristic sense but in terms of film making, art, direction and of course, acting. For once, the dishum dishum didn’t bother me. But before I begin, it’s important to confess, and sadly so, that I haven’t seen the original Agneepath (1990) starring Amitabh Bachchan. Neither have I seen Kala Pani, starring Dev Anand, which is said to be the actual inspiration behind the original Agneepath.

Agneepath (Path of Fire) has revenge at its crux. An honest schoolteacher, Dinanath Chauhan, who personifies principles, discipline and righteousness, is executed in full public view for a crime he never committed by Kaanch Cheena (played by the versatile Sanjay Dutt), who personifies evil (only to face competition in the extent of his evilness from Rauf Lala, played by Rishi Kapoor). Chauhan’s son, Vijay, sees the brutal murder of his father as seeds of revenge are borne at an early age. The movie attempts to show how Vijay plans to avenge the wrong that was done to his honest father and the pain and anguish he goes through during the course of time. A decent plot. An ordinary plot. What makes it stand out? Power packed performances from almost everyone and impeccable direction by Karan Malhotra. Hard to believe this is his debut movie. Some shots are too good to be directed by a first-timer. Especially those that portray Mandwa, the village that the story is set in.

Since the movie is set in the 70’s, the drama has to be borrowed from yesteryear. So, in that context, dialogues like “Mai ishwar se prarthana karungi ki agle janam me tum hi mere bete bano” shouldn’t be welcomed with a frown. A review by Rubeena Khan points out how the movie is factually wrong as it portrays Mumbai and not Bombay, as it was called then. There are other obvious mistakes, too. Since there is a time lapse in the movie and the chracters grow in the course of time, we see a grown up Vijay (Hrithik Roshan), Kaali (Priyanka Chopra) and even Suhasini Chauhan (Zarina Wahab) with her more wrinkled and weary look. But our villain Kaancha (Dutt) remains the same. Well, there is no scope of greying his hair as he is essentially bald. But even so, there is no difference, whatsoever, in terms of his looks now and 15 years ago. Perhaps, they don’t really matter as his appearance, that has been maintained throughout the movie, is as deep, dark and black as it can get. While critics have unanimously praised his Big Bad Guy look, Anuj Kumar in his review ponders how a man in the 70’s got all those tattoos in his arms.

Leaving such common sense aside, the movie promises pure drama, melodrama, emotion, fear and horror. A special mention for Rishi Kapoor who plays the role of Rauf Lala with extreme fineness. In his own words, he plays a filthy, fucking bastard, who sells young girls’ flesh and cocaine and is the undisputed Mafia king of Mumbai, and hence an arch rival to Kaancha whose territory ends in Mandwa. Perhaps, flawlessness runs in the Kapoor blood, evident from the tremendous acting potential in both Rishi and son, Ranbir. In a scene where Lala and Kaancha are pitted against each other, when Lala calls Kaancha ‘badsoorat’ (ugly) and says: “Tere chechre se toh ghin tapakti hai” (Scornfulness drips from your face), one wonders whom to hate more. They’re both brilliant in depicting pure evil, with a lining of horror added in Kaancha’s case, which probably arises due to his physical appearance (that bears a very obvious resemblance to Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter series).

Hrithik as Vijay Deenanath Chauhan is impressively powerful. In a movie where both the bad guys are giving you some serious competition in terms of impact and acting, Hrithik manages to create a niche of his own. A scene where he says he brooded in turmoil for 15 years just to taste his mother’s food, his acting prowess come out beautifully. Of course, director Karan Malhotra has utilized his six pack abs and bulging biceps to the fullest in large parts of the movie, particularly his entry, fight scenes and a not-to-forget climax, where melodrama overpowers drama and like a typical Hindi movie hero, he survives several cuts and bruises to avenge his father’s death and kill the villain, before finally surrendering to death. Priyanka, as Kaali, is definitely not mediocre in her performance but seems so when pitted against other actors in the movie, including the ever-talented Om Puri.

My rating: 3.5/5

Footnote: It’s common knowledge that the movie’s backbone lies in a poem by the same name by renowned Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan. For those interested, here is a link to the actual poem. Bachchan’s Jo beet gayi so baat gayi has always been one of my favourite poems as a kid. Post Agneepath, I feel I really need to read more of Urdu and Hindi poetry.

Of movies, masti and magic


As many of you may already be aware, I’m currently residing in Madurai, a small city/town in Tamil Nadu, popular for its temples, rituals, culture and tradition. The “City of Temples”, as it is commonly known, boasts of all these and more. And yet, I feel like a fish out of water since the time I landed here to make a career of my own six months ago.

We shan’t go into the pros and cons of Madurai. That shall occupy an entire post. Let’s save that for the later.

I wish to narrate an experience that I never really hoped I would ever get to see/feel/know in a place like this. Perhaps, it would be an exaggeration to call it an “experience”; it wasn’t any epiphany or a Eureka moment. It was as simple an act  as watching a movie in a cinema hall (as the title of this post may have suggested). What made it extraordinary was the fact that the movie was in a language (I assumed) no one speaks/understand here: Hindi

I was wrong. And I’m more than happy that I was proved to be so.

The film I’m referring to here is Rockstar, starring Ranbir Kapoor and Nargis Fakhri. Most of my readers, I’m sure, are aware of the movie (and have probably even seen it, provided that they live in a land that offers them the luxury of watching a Hindi movie in a cinema hall). I shall come to the review in a while…

Madurai boasts of some excellent movie halls. It is home to one of the oldest cinema houses and the city is filled with movie lovers and die-hard Rajni fans. But that’s where the bubble bursts. There are hardly any halls that take the risk of showcasing a Hindi movie—the common excuse for the same being that no one really ‘understands’ it, as Tamil and English are the city’s official languages. To spot a Hindi-speaking man/woman in Madurai is akin to finding an Indian in Brazil. The population exists. But, sparsely so.

Do not misunderstand me. It isn’t that people do not ‘understand’ the language. They probably do. I know that for a fact because in the first few months of my stay here, I spoke in Hindi, despite the fact that I knew Tamil, only to see if people make sense of what I say. And they did. But when it comes to speech, they do not go beyond Haanji, naaji, paisa and kitna.

It all began with the poster that I saw yesterday on my way to office. It was a huge one that proudly displayed a beautiful sketch of the lead actors romancing away to glory at the backdrop of the image of an electric guitar. It was a different matter altogether that the site of the poster was a little less romantic—adjacent to the government pay-and-use toilet.

I did not want to jump into any conclusions that since the city had posters of the movie, they were probably also showing it. This was because when Ra.One released during Diwali, the city was filled with its posters, too. The movie was even put up for an anxious audience: but it was dubbed in Tamil. The thought of watching Ranbir Kapoor lip syncing to Tamil dialogues made me feel nauseous and I dropped my high hopes.

But, curiosity got the better of me and I Googled my half-knowledge anyway only to see that Big Cinemas, a popular chain of multiplex in India, were actually showcasing Rockstar in Hindi (I double-checked—once with my naked eyes and once bespectacled). I couldn’t sit still in the office any longer. I knew I had to watch this. I didn’t care how the movie would be but the fact that here was an opportunity to witness a sizeable number of Hindi-speaking people (considered to be a rarity, perhaps even miraculous) turn out in public was enough to make up my mind.

The next step was to get company, which was tricky, as most of my colleagues are Hindi-handicapped. One of my immediate seniors—let’s call him O for name’s sake—saw my restless state of mind at work, enquired about the same and kindly offered to take me along. I wasn’t sure if that was a good idea. To watch a movie in a language one doesn’t know sans sub-title would be foolishness, I thought. Until when he informed that Hindi had been his third language in school; that he knew how to read and write Hindi. I couldn’t believe my ears. I was watching a Hindi movie. I had got company. And a company that claimed to understand the language. My ecstasy had reached its anti-climax.

The movie was to begin at 10.45 am show. Given the odd hours that I work in, I reached home yesterday at 3 am. Worried I might miss the advertisements (showcased five minutes before the movie starts) that I never like to miss, I hardly slept through the night. I got up early, wore my sweatshirt (that had been lying abandoned so far due to lack of usage), got some cash and headed for the hall. O was supposed to be there by 10 am.

O was late by a few minutes, which gave me the opportunity to scan the crowd carefully. For one, it was a real ‘crowd’ and not just a “sizeable number of Hindi-speaking people,” as I had so conveniently assumed. Interestingly, they were all male. (In fact, my joy knew no bounds when I spotted a Sikh at the ticket counter. Madurai has no Gurudwara to my knowledge. Readers, please correct me if I’m wrong).

I waited a few more minutes but I was never blessed with the sight of a person of my sex. They were all men, some could be categorized as boys, and they all looked like college going students. I didn’t really go into their looks deeply to gauge their age. Frankly, I couldn’t. I was too busy trying not to feel out-of-place in a (literally) male dominated space. O arrived and expressed his complete surprise at the crowd turnout. He claimed that in his 2-and-a-half years in Madurai, he hadn’t seen such a huge population of Hindi-speaking people together, as a group, in the same platform. Ah! I was witness to a rare occurrence. I winked at God.

The movie began amidst extreme hooting, whistling and comments—a common occurrence in most reasonably priced cinema halls our country. The tickets, here, were priced at Rs. 85. Just about enough to invite an audience that had complete knowledge of most rustic slangs to be used efficiently, in a calculated way during the movie’s progress. Again, something I never imagined I would witness in Madurai. The hooting and whistling triggered as the movie paced forward. The frequency of slangs grew as the movie reached towards its closure. In short, my knowledge of the profane had increased by leaps and bounds by the time the movie ended. And I couldn’t be more thankful! My ecstasy had reached its climax. 😉

Here’s my take on the movie (FINALLY):

First things first: Rockstar is Ranbir. Ranbir is Rockstar. The movie belongs to him. It’s his and no one else’s. And rightly so. Agreed that the female protagonist fuels his character. Agreed that director Imtiaz Ali is the brain behind the concept and script. Agreed that A R Rehman is the composer of a movie that rests its foundation on music. Even so. It’s Ranbir Kapoor all the way. And he does not disappoint. Let’s take a moment and thank God for that.

*two minutes silence*

The story is simple, and even known once the narration begins. It follows the life of a man who wishes to be a great musician but doesn’t have a clue how to go about it, until his college canteen owner explains him the Sufian philosophy of art and music. How music is all about creativity. And that there can be no creativity if there isn’t any pain. It is pain, anguish and the pangs of an unrequited enterprise that becomes the catalyst of originality and creativity that all artists, painters and musicians swear by.

Our rockstar (JJ initially, Jordan later) begins to follow this religiously. He hopes to get his heart-broken so the ache would fuel his ambition of becoming the biggest musician. And that is when our female protagonist enters the picture. Heer (played by Nargis Fakhri) is a Kashmiri girl who comes from an elite, conventional upbringing only to jump into the pools of unconventionality in the last few days of ‘freedom’ that she wishes to enjoy before she gets married. She boozes, watches porn, goes to strip clubs, cheap pubs, sleazy bars and discotheques. All with Jordan, of course. Their romance, if it may be called thus, grows, faces trials and conflicts and remains unrequited till the end.  A word on Nargis: A pretty face devoid of any knowledge of dialogue delivery. Blessed with some powerful dialogues, she could have done so much more than merely shout with inconsistent voice modulations. At times, you wish there would have been a better female actor with as much a promising acting potential as her screen presence.

The music is the spine of the movie. It comes and goes in various pitches and genre, though the same voice. (Mohit Chauhan and sometimes, A R Rehman himself). Chauhan is mesmerizing, as usual, and has probably re-launched himself as a playback singer, thanks to Rockstar. Rehman’s music is a relief, especially in the second half, when one faces the disappointment of Ali’s convenient escapist route of Bollywood-izing a movie that had the potential to be unconventional, going by the genre it had chosen to explore. Most of the songs are worth humming and add the needed flavour to the script of the movie. The pace with which the movie begins is a complete contrast to the way it fizzles post-interval. But, by that time, one is so enthralled by Ranbir’s screen presence that one doesn’t really sulk in anger. I didn’t!

The movie promises some great dialogues, breathtaking cinematography (especially when they show the Kashmir valley), decent music (though, Sadda Haq, fast gaining the tag of a “cult song”, still hasn’t managed to impress me) and a very memorable performance from Kapoor. Watch out for his powerful entry, the scene in which he is shunned by his lady-love and the one in which he confesses, amidst roaring fans, that despite his stardom, he could not bring himself to feel what they call true happiness. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to conclude that the movie makes you contemplate, if not understand, the importance and essentiality of pain in life.

My verdict: ***

The heart of darkness [Book Review]


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The fate of Lucie Blackman is so intense, deep and unimaginable that perhaps even a book written about it does little justice to it. In 2000, a 21-year old tall, blonde, British woman decided to go to Japan, one of the world’s most expensive and populous countries, with her best friend Louise Philips in search of economic and job security and found herself working as a “hostess” in a night club in Roppongi district. Months after her arrival in a country so different from her own in culture, cuisine and colour, Lucie disappears under mysterious circumstances. Police investigations follow, under strict media and international pressure, until the killer is finally nabbed only to be convicted of every murder except that of Miss Blackman. There is no doubt about Parry’s rich and riveting story-telling technique that keeps you glued throughout the narrative. But it would be unfair to not acknowledge the Blackmans’ awful fate and trial that helped him in some ways by providing him with a story and plot replete with mystery, intrigue, darkness and horror. 
The story of Lucie Blackman isn’t unusual. It is her awful fate that stands out. There is always the lingering feeling of what would have happened had she not fallen into debt, gone to Tokyo, accompanied Joji Obara, the serial killer and rapist, on that fateful day. And that is what makes the story poignant to the core. The complexities attached with the Lucie’s job as a “hostess”, particularly in the context of Japanese society and culture is well-explained by the author. Lucie’s job mainly involved talking to the client and be simultaneously flirtatious with them, unlike what a traditional bar girl or dancer is expected to do. Pressured to get dohans—dinner with the client—Lucie was simply doing her job when she accompanied a mysterious man to his apartment at Zushi Marina, the man who would later be responsible for her rape, death and slaughter.
The pace of the police investigations that follows is almost as bizarre as Lucie’s fate. Undeterred by the amount of media coverage that the case garnered both in Japan and Britain, so much so that Tony Blair pressured the then Japan Prime Minister to look into the speediness of the case, the police did its work and did it well in its own slow fashion. Parry is openly critical of the Japanese police, not the people who run the system but the system itself that is so nonchalantly caught in a web of lethargy, complacency and complete indifference. Ironically, as Parry points out, Japan has one of the world’s least crime rates; a possible explanation for the police’s lackadaisical attitude, as he observes, is sheer lack of practice. The frustration of a missing case taking so long to uncover is conveyed well, inviting the readers to feel the same.
Narrating every minute detail about Lucie’s early life to her adolescence, Parry tries hard to sketch a picture of a woman who met such ill-fate. The story is narrated like a tale, except that the reader already knows what happened and what is possibly going to happen assuming that he/she was following the case and media’s coverage of it.  Ample space is given to her childhood, her years in Britain and in Tokyo, her mysterious disappearance, the police investigation and the courtroom drama that followed. Parry has been successful in generating a feeling of extreme annoyance and impatience while one reads through the novel, one of the many feelings the Blackmans and Ridgways might have felt when they themselves underwent the trauma. The author ensures that the reader doesn’t make any assumption and that is visible in the enormous amount of research, reading, observation and notes-taking that went in the making of this book.
As a journalist, perhaps Parry is expected to have reasonably good observational skills. However, the vividness of his style that describes the view of Tokyo, the night life on the streets of Roppongi and the colourful and extravagant bars and clubs adds a touch of novel-writing in his style. However, Parry has been careful enough not to write in a dramatic or melodramatic manner else the story slip into the oblivions of fiction. Right from the beginning till the end, the story remains true to the genre it claims it belongs to—true crime. And truth, as is narrated and absorbed, is stranger than fiction. 
The author has made a commendable effort to understand the psyche, if one may use the term, of Lucie Blackman’s killer, Joji Obara, the man who refused to confess and lived a life sans friends and companions. Abstaining from associating the term ‘psychopath’ with the serial killer and rapist, the author has described Obara’s history of sexual crimes in the most graphic manner. Belonging to the community of Zainichi, ethnic Koreans of Japan, and perhaps a victim of the historical strife between the two nations, an attempt to understand Obara’s life and the way he lead it is almost as impossible and unfathomable as understanding why he committed such crimes. 
It would be unfair to not mention Parry’s biasness, if any. Lucie’s father, Tim Blackman, was and has been collectively accused by friends, family and the media itself for being the “unconventional father”, for being so media-savvy in moments of private grief and withdrawal and for accepting money from Obara, to bury the case. Parry raises a significant point at Tim’s critics who label him as “immoral”, stating that one who hasn’t been through the kind of trauma that Tim and the Blackmans went through, will never know how to react and behave in such a situation. While there is enough credit in this, Parry falls short of any justification or explanation for Jane’s behaviour, Lucie’s mother accused of being possessive, overprotective and violently reactive of her daughter’s disappearance and death. Instead, he gives us quotes from Sophie, Lucie’s sister, who, from the very beginning as it has been stated, never got along with her mother.
Early on in the story, Sophie, a product of a marriage that went horribly wrong, makes a profound statement: “A divorce makes you question everything.” This sets the tone of the story and what is to follow; how much the bitter marriage of the parents is going to affect the trial that the broken Blackman family is going to undergo themselves. The dismemberment of Lucie’s body, as revealed later, ironically and poignantly, becomes a manifestation of the dismemberment of the family that forces desperately to be with each other with the knowledge that that is never going to happen. Lucie Blackman’s fate is disturbingly compelling. And so is Parry’s writing.
Disclaimer: Rough draft. Badly needs editing. Would appreciate comments.

Draupadi re-visited


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My first experience of watching a play in Bangalore and I’m glad it turned out good. In hindsight, the last time I saw a play was two years back during our college fest, when we were forced to watch the rehearsals lest we lose our attendance.
Well, it’s not that I’m not interested in watching plays. Just that I’m too lazy to brush off the rust of complacency that has formed around me ever since I started reading plays. It’s a shame I never saw a play when I was in Delhi, apparently the hub of drama and theater. Whenever I got a chance, something or the other came along to prevent me from watching the play (my own laziness being the prime reason, I confess). This time, too, I nearly missed watching this one due to multiple reasons I wouldn’t want to dwell on. Let’s just say we somehow made it to the play and enjoyed it thoroughly.
Here’s something about the play first before I begin my critique:
Name of the play:           Draupadi—Will my spirit live on?
Language:                       English
Duration:                        90 minutes
Directed by:                   Tina Johnson and Shivani Pasrich
Music by:                       Shubha Mudgal
Costumes by:                 Ritu Kumar
Sets:                              Aman Nath
Venue:                          Chowdiah Memorial Hall, Malleswaram
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Synopsis:
Centuries have gone by since the Mahabharat war, yet Draupadi is still here. Stuck between heaven and earth, roaming the streets and pondering her fate and her choices, her only confidant is Lord Krishna. She tries to resolve with him why women must continue to suffer as she had in the past. Krishna, the orchestrator of fate, leads her to Maaya – a woman of today, who has suffered much abuse at the hands of society. A distraught Maaya attempts suicide, but Draupadi stops her and offers her help in return for a favor.
Maaya treads through her life in Draupadi’s footsteps, and in the end she too must make a choice- will she choose revenge or resilience? Will she be Draupadi’s salvation? Will Krishna be able to address centuries old smoldering wounds?
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Choosing the Mahabharata as the core of a story in any form (play, prose or poetry) is always an intelligent yet risky thing to do. Intelligent because, even after centuries have passed since the writing of the great epic, it still offers multiple aspects to explore and re-visit, Draupadi’s humiliation and the great war that followed being the central theme of this play. Risky because the audience, it is assumed, already knows the entire plot. Hence, one can’t really mess around with the basic structure of the story. So, it’s a challenge to tell a story whose plot is already known, and re-tell it in a manner that’s new, different, and contextualize it in the contemporary context. In so far as this play is concerned, the challenge has been met with much alacrity and finesse.
As the synopsis suggested, the play revolves around the spirit of Draupadi (played gracefully by Shivani Pasrich) who has been cursed of wandering between heaven and hell as a punishment for having caused the Kurukshetra War and can achieve moksha only if she rescues a woman Maaya (played by Charu Shankar) from being similarly victimized by patriarchal forces of society. Though the modern context is entirely different, the sense of victimhood is largely the same. Pasrich, who is a trained Odissi dancer and has also conceptualized the play, has incorporated dance sequences within the play at right intervals to add the required musical touch to it. Mudgal’s music is easily recognizable and her powerful voice fits in well with the situational demands of the play.
It’s interesting how the scriptwriters have de-constructed the character of Lord Krishna, the giver of wisdom. In the epic, Krishna is the lone supporter of Paanchali throughout her period of trials and imparts wisdom from time to time to her and the Pandavas. In the play, Krishna (played by Dilip Shankar) is shown in multiple roles (a sweeper, a sariseller, a wanderer, and even a lawyer) who enrages Draupadi and instructsher to help Maaya, a woman of today, who is in a similar situation of complete victimization and exploitation, if she wants moksha. Some of the best, most dramatic and memorable speeches are reserved for Krishna and he plays the role with extreme brilliance, spontaneity and witty humor. Some lines from the Bhagvad Gita are timeless. And these are cleverly re-iterated in the play. For instance,  Let not the fruits of action be thy motive
The play succeeds in conveying the message of how an individual is responsible for his/her own consequence that is directly related to his/her actions. If Draupadi represents the woman who was wronged and humiliated, she is also revenge personified. Her anger, her pride at her lineage and her persistent desire for vengeance are traits of her personality that are equally given importance in the play that eventually prevent Maaya from repeating the historical mistakes that Draupadi committed—fuel the fire for another war. Ninety minutes is a deceptively long time for a play that has the task of not only refreshing the audience’s mind with what Draupadi underwent mythologically but also depict Maaya’s character in a similar context. The play has a fast pace, and rightly so. It’s a thumbs up from me.
Pictures courtesy India Stage
Rating: **** (4 stars)