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Somewhere past Magadi, there’s Uttari Betta. Shrubs heavy with yellow blooms appear as the road, its tar peeling like old scabs, winds up the hill to a village. Goats scamper. Sheep walk in herds.

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Old fort walls stand upright in places. The trail moves through seven gateways, narrow paths of uneven stones squeezed between huge boulders, narrower paths hidden by tall wild grass.

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

The summit is all boulders – some covered with pale green lichen resembling peeling wallpaper, grass, and shrubs.

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And there is the view of swathes of green, only a fraction of which was visible on the way here that was paved with the stench of fumes, sewer, and cow dung.

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

Clusters of shade are few. Flies hover and buzz over the grass that bends to the breeze, nearly grazing earth but not quite.

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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“You Beneath Your Skin” is a literary crime thriller that is equal parts whodunit and whydunnit. Set in smoggy Delhi where male aggression is just a snap away, the narrative explores crimes against women – specifically acid attacks, while cutting through patriarchy, corruption, and relationship dynamics.

“Anjali loved her face. She spent hours dolling up. He had never seen her without make-up, not even at five in the morning when she came to meet him.”

Anjali Morgan is a single mom to a son with autism and she is vain about her looks. She is Jali to her friend and landlord, Maya. She is Jelly to Maya’s brother Jatin, the assistant police commissioner who is willing to do what it takes in a skewed-up system to get ahead. On the brink of a scandal, Jatin is eager to work on a case to look good in the media. The case involves slum women who are found raped, disfigured with acid, and dead. The case gets personal when Anjali gets in the line of fire.

“Now she had Jatin: part closet-poet, part patriarchal jerk, enthusiastic bedmate and best friend: exasperating and endearing in equal measure.”

It is the exploration of human behavior that lends the novel its strength and sets it apart from other crime thrillers. The depth attained from the character development, however, doesn’t deter the pace of the novel. Biswas hasn’t shied away from the gritty details of acid attacks and the trauma of it. Her characters are flawed and very human. Anjali and Jatin struggle, especially with their experiences as children of tyrannical parents and now as parents to kids who challenge them and their beliefs. While Nikhil revolts against a perfectionist mother, Varun seethes about his father’s betrayal. Fiery as she is, Maya is always reminded that she is just a woman who needs to be protected by her brother.

“A woman must know what places to stay away from. Didn’t I just say you can’t go?”

The author also brings out the aggressive and male-dominant culture in Delhi – the novel begins in a mall where packs of men roam and can attack women in a beat. Delhi’s smog and traffic along with the contrasting cultures of poverty and power form the perfect backdrop for the novel.

“Delhi put you through extremes: be it with its weather, or its people.”

The author’s interactions with acid attack survivors and her work with NGOs have helped her portray their experiences realistically and with compassion. This, combined with masterful storytelling, makes “You Beneath Your Skin” both an engrossing and substantial novel.

Title: You Beneath Your Skin
Author:
Damyanti Biswas
Genre:
Fiction, Novel, Crime Thriller
Publisher:
Simon & Schuster India
ISBN:
9386797623, 978-9386797629

Note: All proceeds from book sales will go to the NGOs that the author supports.

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

Usually I’m on the other side, getting quotes, not giving them.

A neighborhood social media initiative got some attention in The Hindu

https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/bangalore/documenting-the-changing-face-of-indiranagar-through-its-residents/article29419513.ece

and something on FRIENDS in Gulf Today’s culture pages

https://www.gulftoday.ae/culture/2019/09/22/all-time-endearing-tv-sitcom-friends-turns-25-today

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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image: via pinterest

It was summer. Of that and only that Mer was sure. It could have been any time of the day but sometimes she put it at noon, other times just before day touched dusk in a game of touch-and-go. The sun was bright and black kites were wheeling in the sky, coasting on air currents.

Mer skipped down the steps, clutching her laundry basket lightly. Too lightly as she found out as the basket slipped and clothes scattered and lay in heaps across pleated steps turning a corner. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” she said, stooping to pick up the clothes. Instead she sat down on a step covered with muddy traces of foot prints, now imprinting her bum, rather large, that her grandmother would point at proudly and tell women with appraising eyes, “Now, these here are child-bearing hips.” Mer would demurely stay put waiting for the expanse of her wide hips to register.

He came up the stairs and peered at her from behind brown-rimmed glasses. His hair was spikey, just-mowed grass springing back. There was a strange familiarity in his gaze. Who knows? He may have been a lover, a brother, a husband in a past life. There was comfort in his presence as his feet wove past the strewn clothes and the upturned basket on his way up, he oblivious of the recognition that struck her, intense and urgent.

“Didn’t you feel it?” she asked before she could stop to his receding back that paused and turned around. She was struck by the efficiency with which her spongy brain, lungs, and larynx came together as one. Too efficient, maybe. A shadow of stubble had sprung across his jaws, strong and angular. Her grandmother would have approved. Angular jaws hold a man’s age up, she always said.

“That we know each other,” Mer added.

“I’d think so. You called my wife a whore,” he said.

Something like a memory fluttered its eyes open in the depths of her spongy and too-efficient brain. A thin-hipped pixie woman telling her to watch it. A swaying and belligerent Mer telling her a thing or two or three, whore being one.

His eyes slid down the steps and stopped a little way from her feet.

“You may have been talking about yourself,” he said.

Her eyes followed his. They rested where his eyes rested. A used condom nestled in the cup of her bra. So that is where it had disappeared. Not inside her vagina where it would grow unique flora and do what plastic did to those turtles. Mer would have liked to say something, caustic preferably and sulfur laced. But that bespectacled god was already a blur turning the corner.

Implicated thus, she sat, a buddha, a moment in time, a time in moment. Perspiration bubbled on her forehead and slid down its side, halting and losing momentum too soon. It had been summer. A high-pitched whistle fell in a sharp, straight note as a kite dived. The sky lay bare and blue.

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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image: via pinterest

She was as old as he was new. She watched him jump on the bed, Maria asleep next to him, her form rising up and sinking down at the waist and rising up again before stretching into a long slant. A slant that twitched now and then to the rhythm of a dream. The few drops of milk that were left in his fallen sipper disappeared, seeping into the blanket. A spot, moist and heavy with the smell of sour, its only evidence. He didn’t notice. If he did, it did not matter to him.

She trudged toward the bed just as Maria let out a low snore. Her arthritic knees were creaky. The little boy jumped again, his knees like oiled spring. He bounced. She creaked. She made to grab him.

In the deep recesses of her sleep, Maria heard a loud and surprised squawk of protest, a rising wail that settled into whimpers between a hip and the curve of an arm, whimpers that quieted under a palm, its skin liver-spotted and wrinkled. It was a hand that knew time, a hand that patted its seconds. Time slowed to a stop.

Maria awoke to his tiny body huddled next to her, an expression of mild surprise still etched on his face. In the periphery of slowly returning consciousness, she saw a silver form glide into the twilight that stained the world outside just as a flash of chill exploded in her heart. She blamed it on her sleep-ridden eyes, her wine-addled blood. The clock in the drawing room chimed six times. In the echo of its last chime curved an old smile.

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

Nrityagram is a banquet of monsoon-moist earth, rain-washed greenery, and the raucous cries of wild and hidden peacocks.

The dance village/gurukul is silent without its dancers who would ordinarily be practicing Odissi till early afternoon.

At the entrance is an old Beetle, a relic from the past, and a terracotta temple dedicated to the elements. The temple blooms out, encircled by standing stone slabs, Stonehenge-style.

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

Paths weave between yurt-inspired cottages – homes of residential and visiting dancers, sculptures, thatch-roofed sitting areas, dance halls, and an amphitheater. A pair of dogs lounges in one of the verandahs, silent spectators.

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

A stray dancer walks by briskly, a backpack slung over her erect spine, her eyes dancing, her lips smiling.

In its early days, the dance village which is the vision-turned-reality of model and danseuse Protima Gauri taught different Indian dances. Today, it is just Odissi that is taught here.

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

Close to the gated dance village is the grasslands, now closed to the public and once the venue of illegal but ecstatic activities.

If so inclined, there are many opportunities to trespass – it isn’t completely fenced. Mostly it is a large expanse of land with young and short trees, wooly grass, and slender granite pillars boring into the earth making a zig and zag of boundaries. Tampered by these markers of human activity, it isn’t as natural as i had expected.

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

Nearby is the lake with a walkway whose length is punctuated at one end by a temple. The lake is completely dry now. A line of women stoop, their brown backs making commas, as they pick something off the grassy bed. Teenagers ride in on their motor bikes.

A strong breeze blows over the walkway. We bite into sourdough bread topped with chopped tomatoes tossed in olive oil and cheese slices. Under a bench close by, a stray dog. He rasps, what little life is left in him, clings to him, not letting go just yet.

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

The tranquil and slow pace of Hesarghatta is hypnotic, lulling me into a state of somnolence which the city shakes off with indifference and without apology when we return into the reach of its ever-extending tentacles.

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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it was an interesting weekend full of art, talks, and books at the gender bender 2019.

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a talk on the history of women and gender in comics and a performance on gender and data later, there was a zine workshop.

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as someone who never bought into the whole establishment narrative, i loved the concept of zines as a platform for personal, social, and political expression.

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we flowed free on day one while day two revolved around the theme of gender/bender.

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© Anuradha Prasad 2019

among other things, there were pop-up libraries, menstrual-themed tarot cards, gender-focus posters from around the world.

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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Hello, my name? H.
Your good name?

He tilts his head and
awaits my good name.

Me? I am engineer.
Software field, he adds.

What do you do? I write,
I say, a touch smug.

Perplexed, he freezes:
processing, searching.

Just as I fear a shutdown,
a reload!

Eyes screwed, he asks,
um, writing?

Ya, I affirm.
Copy, you know.

He runs his fingers along
the air between us, a piano.

So you are a typer?
No! I am a writer.

But you type, no? Again,
his fingers play the air.

Yes, I reply.
So you are a typer!

That declared, a pleased
smile sits on his lips.

I acquiesce.

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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image: penguin india

I’m more familiar with literary movements that swept the US and Europe than the ones closer home. The first that I heard of the Hungry generation was in this book (they figure in Jeet Thayil’s The Book of Chocolate Saints too). The Hungryalists, as they were known, were a revolutionary band of poets who originated in West Bengal. They questioned the rigidity of form and exclusivity imposed by upper-class poets, the bourgeoisie. They rubbed shoulders with Allen Ginsberg when he visited India. In fact, shocked by the legal action slapped on the Hungryalists for obscenity by a few righteous literary leaders of that time, he did his best to help the Hungryalists by writing to various people in positions of power that he knew in India. The poets received recognition and support from the international community while back home, they faced harsh and unforgiving judgments.

Much of the poets’ work was destroyed. However, Chowdhury has featured what could be found through her research and interviews in the book. She has interspersed the account of the literary movement with copies of translated poems and reproduced letters exchanged between the poets and others. Their passion and urgency are still intact in these letters. Even at the worst of times, despite the persecution, their love for poetry held them strong. Chowdhury has written an engaging narrative with prose that ebbs and flows, rich in lyricism, apt for the subject.

Title: The Hungryalists
Author: Maitreyee Bhattacharjee Chowdhury
Genre: Non-Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2018
ISBN: 9780670090853, 0670090859

© Anuradha Prasad 2019

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I’m still reeling from this novel which is disturbing, funny, and heartbreaking. Trite as it sounds, it also offers us the triumph of human spirit. The novel dives into loneliness, trauma, and the struggle to integrate with what is considered as normal. It goes to show how human touch and the smallest acts of kindness can heal and restore a person.

The protagonist is Eleanor Oliphant. She claims she is completely fine. She accepts that her coworkers mock her and that’s okay because she finds them odd and they make her shudder with surprise and distaste. She has a strict routine. Calls with Mummy are on Wednesday. There’s something childish about her talk of Mummy as though the thirty-year-old woman is still trapped in childhood. It is revealed that she has a social worker visiting her. There are scattered mentions of a fire and scars on her face.

And then she falls in love and saves a man and makes a friend. All very unexpected. Eleanor begins to navigate through a normal life and discovers what kindness and affection feel like with child-like wonder. But the edge of a traumatic past is a tricky place to stand on, a fall is imminent, so is the possibility of rising out of it. It begins with Eleanor accepting she is not fine. Not completely anyway.

Gail Honeyman has done a brilliant job in understanding what trauma and loneliness can do to a person. A few details seem far-fetched and as you near the end, you’re left with the feeling that you’ve reached the finish line and you’re still going, looking hither and thither for the end.

Title: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine
Author: Gail Honeyman
Genre: Novel/Literary Fiction
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2017
ISBN: 0008172110

© Anuradha Prasad 2019