asura

When I first picked up Asura – Tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelkantan, I was moved by the title. This was because I have always found Ramayana to be very uninteresting compared to the Mahabharata. It’s all black or white; Gods are Gods, demons are demons. Rama the dutiful ideal son, ideal king, ideal husband (some would say otherwise and I stand with these)… Ravana the evil unrepentent Rakshasa (demon). The fight versus good and evil; and of course, evil doesn’t stand a chance. Strictly for the books, but there it is. It felt good overall, save for the ending that has been made popular – the thing about Sita being asked to prove her chastity, Rama abandoning his pregnant wife, asking his younger brother Lakshmana to take her away. Unsavoury, of course, and untrue, as many say. Well, true or not, the story does take forward the morals and societal norms prevalent in those times and endorses  the same. Which is why I was drawn to Asura.

Some hope tingled somewhere of finding an alternative to Valmiki’s story, fiction or not. You must have already guessed that I have no particular affection for Rama the good and no particular disaffection or judgment for Ravana the evil. It was all a story to me and I do identify with Sita’s plight after the ordeal she went through as every modern woman would but I understand that the book is a product of a man’s world and that I am living too, in a man’s world. And therefore, picking up Asura was not an exercise in being biased on either side. Ramayana is a good read the first time, and I was hoping something along those lines from Asura as well. That’s all. Basic expectations of a general reader.

I can’t say how historically accurate and faithful the Ramayana is, so there was no such expectation from a work of fiction based on the Ramayana either. But, I did expect some logic, excuse me, for that expectation proved unreasonable as I went along with the book. This book is 600 pages of class apathy, wallowing in self-pity, denial, guilt, and worse, poor prose, terrible grammar, little or no drama, pathetic imagination, and basically inflated book reviews everywhere! It made me realise that maybe when VS Naipaul made a certain comment about Indian writers, he had a point; a part of that point might go to this work. Although I’d rather die than side with the man. He still has a point!

Now, spoiler alert**: Anand Neelkantan, I doubt, is an author with logical scruples. You see, according to Asura, Rama’s wife Sita is actually an Asura princess, the daughter of the high and mighty Ravana. Yes, read carefully: Sita is Ravana’s daughter. And this Ravana, who killed his sister Soorpanakha’s husband because he was conspiring a rebellion in his kingdom, slapped his own mother in front of his courtiers, absolutely humiliated his own father, a learned Brahmin, always trampled upon a commoner Bhadra who was instrumental in helping Ravana every step of the way… that Ravana who abducted a Deva widow on one of his military exploits, that Ravana who raped a maid in his palace while his wife was next door, fathered an illegitimate son he never cared for or properly acknowledged… always humiliated his own Prime Minister and other senior ministers, he made a concession for his one daughter Sita. The daughter whom he had left behind when she was a baby, overcome by the thirst for power and lusting afte a Deva widow Vedvathi. This daughter he suddenly thinks of when time has come for her to be married. He wants to bring her back because he thinks Devas are backward people, treating women like lowly animals, while instead Sita should have the riches of the world and should live as an Asura princess, choose her own mate rather than be handed over to a prince as if she were some prize money in a contest where men had to string Shiva’s bow.

This, while we read about Ravana’s own contempt for his widowed sister (widowed also thanks to his overreach), who is said to take men as suited her whim and fancy. So much for talking about uncultured Devas when Ravana himself treats women like shit. Shit is the word my friends, for he hits his mother, insults her, insults his sister, rapes a maid when his wife Queen Mandodari refuses sexual access, rapes his maid and fathers child with her, never caring about her fate. There are references to the debauched lifestyle of all Asuras all over his kingdom and somehow every Asura fears being taken over by the Devas, losing their great culture to a civilisation that veils its women, that uses and abuses its women. I simply don’t ever get the sense that Asura kingdom was any different from a Deva kingdom. And this Ravana abducts his daughter Sita to save her from Rama, when he knows nothing about the man! He is concerned she has to spend a life of exile in the forest – coming from the man who left this baby daughter unattended in the Asura military camp when he was busy running after a widow?

There are unending laments against the Devas’ Brahmanical culture seeping into Lanka, with their rules on untouchability and class segregation. But then, Bhadra, an Asura commoner, to whom would go the credit of helping Ravana dethrone his cousin Kubera in order to usurp the kingdom of Lanka, cries time and again, often tears of blood and sheer despondency, of the class war. He was treated as a cur and so were people belonging to his class by the ruling class of Asuras who held all the power. I wonder how was this any different from the Brahmanical cult in the Northern plains of India. What exactly were the Asuras so proud of!?

I did not encounter one single character who had even the most basic wit, intelligence, competence, knowledge, basically any aspect of personality other than selfishness, greed, fear, pity. Not even Ravana. Of course not Rama. There’s hardly 4-5 paragraphs dedicated to Rama, the opponent who vanquished the protagonist. The writing style is bereft of any imagination whatsoever.

Ravana as we know from stories so far, was a great devotee of Lord Shiva, who had bestowed upon him many boons; Ravana was a learned man, he was a great musical exponent, he was extremely knowledgeable. He was shrewd and was good at administration. None of these qualities come out in the story. In Asura, Ravana’s world was full of anger and resentment when he was growing up, he was an angry and irreverent student in adolescence, he was an angry and desperate leader of his band of Asuras seeking to seize power from Kubera, an angry, stupid, misguided, ruler wallowing in self-pity and seriously lacking in self-esteem, an egotist who took decisions not to impart justice but to humiliate his senior ministers by overturning their decisions and by undermining his council of ministers at the first opportunity, a selfish, lowly-minded brother, son, and husband, basically a sorry, ungrateful leader whose attitude made him deserving of the fall he took thanks to Rama and his band of monkeys.

Asura basically turns into the story of Bhadra, a common Asura man. A farmer who loses his family to a babaric horde of a Deva conqueror, vows revenge and grovels in front of the despicable Asura start-up, Ravana, despite hating him from the very beginning. The story is interspersed with comments that may have come from simple opinion pieces of any modern day newspaper, all standing by the commoner whose face is Bhadra. All sad, depressing harangues with not a modicum of linguistic or dramatic flair.

Logic, passion, skill, is all wanting. Now suddenly even that fantastical version of Ramayana where the earth opens up miraculously to reclaim its daughter Sita, is rendered far more interesting. Asura is for me 15 days of my life I’ll never get back!

Bahu as Beti? – no thank you!

“Tum hamari beti jaisi ho!”

is a line in-laws often use to console and reassure a daughter-in-law. You are just like a daughter to us. All those married women who have found a healthy replacement for their own parents in their in-laws, read no further. Please continue on your search for unicorns instead! I, on the other hand, am more interested in exploring the myriad hues of the great Indian culture which seems to have trouble respecting people without overstating a relationship and/or without forging a relationship where none is required.

Don’t believe me? Have you seen how we Indians make uncles and aunties out of everyone older than us even if this is the first time we’ve ever met them – it don’t matter that uncle’s vehicle scratched yours; don’t matter either that you only needed to “excuse” yourself as aunty was blocking the entry to your flat with her veggie basket in tow. What to say, we are a respectful lot!

India is a land where we make bhaiya (brothers) out of cab drivers, milk vendors, vegetable vendors, even shopkeepers. But, what’s interesting to note is that no salesman in a mall is called bhaiya. There, bhaiya morphs into ‘excuse me!’. Our politicians are didi (Mamata-di), behenji (Mayawati), Amma (Jayalalitha)… but Soniaji is Madam. Got it? Bhaiya versus Excuse me. Didi versus Madam. Same difference, you see!

It’s normal for us to be bhaiya and bhabhi to our drivers; as it is for our maids to call us bhabhi or didi while our husbands become ‘sir’. As people, we are always guaging our distance from others in all walks of life and these addresses present a key to the whole web of our relationships.

So, coming back to the question of bahu as beti, is that promotion or demotion? Well, let’s be sure – the way Indian daughters are treated, yes, even in progressive families, this is not consolation. Modern Indian families may not neglect the girl child, may not discourage her from her pursuit of studies but I haven’t met many whose parents have granted both their sons and daughters equal inheritance. In fact, I haven’t known even once such case here except where parents had only girl children. Girls may study, they may be seriously encouraged to perform well academically, but they are also reminded how important it is for them to be able to perform household tasks well. Again, I haven’t met many boys who are told to do so. Agreed, these issues are not the same as what we have seen in the gruesome past; but, society also works to rob our girls of many advantages that modern Indian families provide their girls. As a daughter you may dress up any way you want within the limits of your home but stepping out, especially using public transport independently, is always a challenge. Always. I cannot stress this more.

So, I seriously doubt that being a beti rather than a bahu is a sweet deal. Another major problem this implies is that of distance. Indian parents suffer from the So-what-if-I-am-60-and-you-are-30-I-see-only-my-little-son-in-you-still syndrome and what’s more, pride themselves on it. It’s probably a major reason why most Indian men have a lot of growing up to do. Why do I isolate men here, you say? Well, because it’s boys who are treated as babies even well into their 40s. Girls, as young as 16, are advised to grow up, behave in a mature manner, take responsibility, learn how to manage a home… So, back to meddlesome. I am afraid that this tendency of meddling in their children’s affairs be it their income, financial management, family planning or even the clothes they wear would exponentially increase if a bahu becomes beti. They draw you closer with the result you’ll suffocate sooner as a beti than you would have as a bahu.

It goes without mentioning that since they’ve elevated your status to beti from bahu, your JD involves more “seva” than before. That reminds me eerily of the time when I won a promotion without any actual increment to my salary bracket. Only the title changed. Well, at least the title changed, I thought then. I could at least join competition. Here, you don’t even have that edge. You only compete with the bar you have set. So, you thought you wanted to be the best bahu? Well, you are a beti now, take that. And you get to do that by upping the seva quotient! I don’t what’s with Indian in-laws that they (especially men) can’t have a glass of water without the bahu serving them. Sorry if they feel thirsty 16 times a day. You must be there with a glass on a tray. Enjoy!

Don’t even get me started on the family planning lectures. The best and the most preposterous charade is when they actually talk as if they are not talking about sex at all! Your sex life that you share with their very own son. I wonder how many in-laws will actually go through their lectures were they to be reminded of their endeavours in such crude but real terms. We just want a beta! (shrug!) Of course you do, don’t you… Let’s go tell your “jigar ka tukda” to lay off the condoms for a bit… Of course there are times when many of your friends and near & dear ones will hint at the prospect… some even in good humour, some to make you blush… it happens in every culture, I get it! The intensity I am talking about w.r.t Indian parents is a whole other thing. They will sit you down, ask what “exactly” your problems are, will threaten you with the fear of a lonely future, questions from the society, will remind you of your duty to the society, will emotionally blackmail you saying “we’ll die without seeing the face of our grandchildren?”, and may even humiliate you by hinting at the poor quality of your relationship. They may have never had “the talk” with their own son about bees and birds at any point of time in their lives but when it comes to “this talk” with their bahu-turned-beti, they take to it like a duck takes to water.

I’d much rather be a bahu, if it constantly serves to remind them that I am a woman, an adult, married to their son. I have a husband, I have a family of my own, and he is the one I share the closest relationship with. If I am related to them, it is through him. It means that there are boundaries they must respect, even if they are not dying out of love and respect for me, per se. I don’t want to be a daughter to them. I am already a daughter to someone. I have a set of parents already. I am in their lives as their daughter-in-law and that’s perfectly fine for me. There is something iffy somewhere if they have to make me “like their daughter” in order to be able to respect me as someone their son has committed to.

In the name of nationalism, when they can do nothing about the terrorists, they go after artists. Your brand of nationalism devoid of humanity is noxious to the very idea of this nation and the entire society.

Artists may seek to express, artists may seek to provoke, they may seek to celebrate, they may simply seek to entertain. But, there is no doubt they walk a foot higher than all the rest. They create, they comment, they criticise, they lampoon, they hurt, they laud… they explore our humanity and put it up on their tableau, opening themselves up and making themselves vulnerable to our judgments, criticism or worse, indifference. No matter what their creed, religion, school, nationality, they walk higher than the rest.

– people blinded by a rabid type of nationalism may be forgiven for not being able to appreciate this.

Hey Megha, Lose Your Boss, na…! – Silly Tanishq Ad

I don’t remember the Tata group coming up with great ads. And this one isn’t either. Analyse the confused messages here:

Let’s go over the sequence. The boss’ appreciation and compassion for a junior who had ‘been working late last night’… to the last minute advice – “Hey, Megha, lose those na…! Let’s have the client concentrate only on the presentation.” Which means, in the boss’ estimation, the earrings would distract the client from the presentation.

Megha begins taking them off, moping over a piece of jewellery rather than concentrating on a presentation she was to give; she finally decides to put them back on. I don’t understand what’s the deal here. Danglers can’t be any more distracting than a well-dressed guy in a suit. But for the boss lady (LADY, please note) the danglers seem to be as distracting as BO. I stand vindicated here as later when Megha enters the conference room, the guys don’t even look at her danglers.

When she enters the room, she gets into presentation mode but her boss seems much more interested in her junior’s defiance to removing the offending (distracting?) piece of jewellery.  In fact, so much so that instead of letting Megha concentrate on the presentation, she asks her why those earrings were still there… through gestures, of course. Talk about priorities! All this while, the client is busy staring at the screen in front of him.  

That’s when Megha assures her, “Don’t worry, the presentation looks even better than me”. That wins her boss over and it’s back to the presentation that everyone seems to admire. And all is well. Thank God Almighty the bosswoman can go back to work for a change!

Mia’s line is “As beautiful as your work”. Going by the ad, it seems to be aimed at working women who may want to wear jewelleryat work. [D-uh, which woman doesn’t want to wear jewellery! Let me rephrase that: what kind of an Indian woman wouldn’t want to wear jewellery! ] Of course, there is no guarantee that your woman boss, if you are unlucky indeed to have one, may find it too jangly-dangly-disturbing and may go so far as to not let you make presentations in it. God forbid! – next time she may find your clothes, your face, even YOU, all of YOU, too distracting.

Most ad campaigns hinge their success on how much more distracting they can portray their product as being: Man DEOs that make women drop everything they are doing (or wearing), Cars that distract men away from even the pretty looks of a platinum blond model (human female in skimpy clothes), Anushka Sharma’s Nivea enriched white underarms that distract her beau from keeping tabs on time, there are so many of these…

But, well, Mia, just blends in. Probably it’s in the design philosophy: it draws inspiration from cross-sections of fruits such as kiwis, lemons, oranges, etc (from its official website). Which is perhaps why the ad looks straight out of a fruit basket. Somewhere down the line the Marketing at Tanishq decided that they wanted to aim their product at the working woman who wants to wear jewellery that is not so loud as seen on Ekta Kapoor’s serials. Well, then, there’s some telling when a fellow woman and boss gets so bloody distracted by it. The client doesn’t. What happened to ‘The boss is always right’?

And of course, Megha is just a woman who wants to look as good as her presentation. After all, that’s what matters. So she mopes and drags till she finds the courage to go against her boss’ missive. And she wins the day for all of us who want to sport danglers at work. Yay!

Technically analysing the ad, you see that no product promotes itself by negating its own USP. Example: Samsung Galaxy ad where the old boss is shown as “outdated” when his phone doesn’t do the things his young junior’s phone does. The boss is out of step with times, and loses out on a key function while the trendy youngster with the smartphone trumps him. If Mia were this phone, the boss would have asked his junior to keep it aside since the phone is to “technologically advanced”.

With Mia, the boss lady is shown as having a very logical, professionally driven concern that many corporate houses do (which is why we have formal dressing), which she furthers to make her case against the jewellery. In her opinion, it’s too loud, too distracting. The Mia ad tries to prove that it’s not. That instead, it’s as beautiful as Megha’s work.

I just don’t buy it.