Theon Greyjoy: Fairy tale Prince

Warning: MASSIVE spoilers for A Song of Ice and Fire ahead.

Excerpt from a conversation with a friend a few months ago:

Friend: I like Jon Snow. And Tyrion of course.

Me: Of course, I like them too! But liking them is so predictable. I mean, don’t you think…

Friend: (vaguely amused and partly scandalized) Who do you like then? Wait, let me guess. Theon Greyjoy?

By now she’s laughing.

theon fan art 1Yes, I like Theon Greyjoy. He is, believe it or not, my favourite character in G R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. I’ve liked him ever since he smirked at Jon in A Game of Thrones and pissed him off. This was because it was fun to see that something could piss off the otherwise broody and angsty Jon Snow.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Theon is my favourite, given my soft spot for tormented, good-looking men who mask their vulnerability with wit and martial prowess. Of course, Theon is a bit of a jerk (as most men in ASoIaF seem to be), but that seems part and parcel of being smart, good looking and rich in Westeros.

I think Theon, in many ways, acts as a foil to Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. If you place the three characters on a spectrum, it would range from Jon, loved and respected by his ‘father’ but uncertain of his place to Tyrion, long detested by his true father and condemned to die by his own family. Theon sits in the middle: he was raised by a man he respected, but he could never be certain of his regard (he states that Eddard Stark always made it clear that, if necessary, he would kill his ward to ensure Balon Greyjoy’s continued good behaviour). He returns to a less-than-warm homecoming and feels that the only way to win back his father’s approval is to turn his back on his foster family. Of course, this only ends in disaster with the Greyjoys, apart from Asha, abandoning him.

I thought this last was illustrated powerfully in HBO’s adaptation of the books when Balon Greyjoy, on receiving Ramsay’s grisly present, states that he ‘has no son’.

Another group Theon can be placed in is that of characters who have lost a sense of self, home and family. The theme of familial belonging is one that runs through the series: characters make decisions keeping in mind the survival of their Houses; those who act selfishly are eliminated. ‘Family’ comes first for many Houses, most notably the Tyrells (whose matriarch, Olenna, engineers a complicated murder in order to ensure her granddaughter gets a good marital deal), the Tullys (their words are, after all, ‘Family, Duty, Honour’) and the Lannisters (it’s all Tywin Lannister can talk about, and Cersei and Jaime do a good job of keeping everything in the family). Characters who lose a sense of where and whom they come from are often the most misguided.

In a previous post I stated that Sansa Stark, Daenerys and Theon are among those who ‘lose’ a sense of self in the series. All three make the mistake of trying to be something they are not: Sansa seeking to bury her northern roots and become a ‘true southron lady’ and Dany trying to purge the violence of her heritage by locking away her dragons. Theon is even more complicated than these two: instead of forsaking his roots, he turns to some half-hearted version of them, seeking to earn back his place in a long-abandoned family. Theon’s revelations and upward climb only happen when he accepts and later, gives voice to the desire that has driven him all along. He never wanted to be one of the Greyjoys; he wanted to be one of the Starks.

But for all his conflicts and complications, what I really like about Theon is quite simple: his arc, despite being hellish and terribly painful in parts, is really the most hopeful. At its corny best, fantasy is about hope. It’s about overcoming darkness and fear and living to fight another day. In the world of ASoIaF, it’s easy to forget that basic moral because Martin does such a good job of tweaking our expectations and playing on conventions. Westeros is no Middle Earth, where all you need is an Aragorn-type nobility and steadfast Hobbit courage to win the day. It’s not even Randland, where ‘love’ and willing sacrifice play such a vital role in the Last Battle. Westeros is not an idealized version of our world; it is our world, with all the petty politics, rivalries and screwing around for advantage. Only, it has the added magic of dragons and unpredictable Fire gods, as well as some strange people called the Others. theon fan art 2

In this dreary, depressingly ‘real’ world, Theon stands out. He makes terrible mistakes, but unlike most other characters, he seems to feel a huge sense of remorse, one that propels him to make a painful journey through A Dance with Dragons. Honestly, I thought Theon OWNED that book. He was the one character who quite visibly progressed through its pages: from ‘Reek’ through to ‘The Prince of Winterfell’ and ending, finally, with ‘Theon’. What really got me was that, honestly speaking, there was no real need for Theon’s story that I could see. Like many of my fellow readers, I assumed that, when Ramsay sent strips of skin to Robb in A Storm of Swords, he was dead. To my mind, he had fulfilled his function in the plot: turn against Robb, harry the North, throw everyone into confusion and thus start the Stark fall. And then it turned out he was alive, if barely. I wondered what Martin would do with him. I did not expect the sort of redemption story I got.

Of course, Theon’s crimes are pretty unpardonable. But I don’t think he’s doing any of what he’s doing (saving Jeyne, reclaiming his sense of self) in order to mitigate his actions and earn himself a lesser sentence. This seems, more than anything, a personal quest, a way in which he can die with some sense of peace. In a universe where everyone wants power or vengeance, it’s heartening to come across a character who wants something like this.

Turning the superficial, smirking jerk into this world’s version of an idealist: Theon is Martin’s dark, twisted but ultimately hopeful fairytale.





Ten ways in which reading fantasy screws up your love life

Lo and behold, herein are written the ways in which an overdose of the fantastical can screw up any right thinking, clear headed person. As though the socially accepted form of insanity doesn’t do that well enough anyway.

1) When someone says ‘I can’t be with you’, you automatically assume they are being self-sacrificing and noble and trying to protect you from some darker power.

arwen and aragorn

2) Because of this, you only decide to love them more.

3) You think ‘waiting’ for said person is a wonderful thing and will surely result in a reward, i.e., returned regard.

There is still hope.

                 There is still hope.

4) Even if it doesn’t, literature and the heroes have taught you that unrequited love is the most noble and wonderful thing evah. Just look at all the love Snape got after it was revealed he was crazy about Lily Evans.

5) This is a lie. Unrequited love is a bitch and it would hurt like hell to love like Severus Snape. But you’ve ‘known’ otherwise for so long that it will take you months, maybe even years, to accept that.

snape and lily

‘Always': Not a word to be uttered lightly.

6) When all your friends tell you that someone is wrong for you, is not giving you what you deserve, you think it’s just because they don’t see the nobility and courage the other person hides so successfully from the rest of the world. Only you are blessed with that vaunted ability because you are not fooled by the mundane world and its standards.

7) Also, fantasy heroes and heroines are always ridiculed at some point in their lives for their beliefs, so you think it’s part of the deal to be considered a complete, blind idiot. At some point, like all those heroes, you’ll have the chance to turn around and say ‘I told you so.’

'Everybody thinks I'm lying. That's okay. I'm used to it.'

‘Everybody thinks I’m lying. That’s okay. I’m used to it.’

8) There is no such thing as bad timing, or coincidence, or, for that matter, all-around unbeatable circumstances. There is only Fate and you, the lone warrior who will defy it in order to be with the one you so desperately love. Bring on the shitstorm, universe!

'I can totes handle this.'

‘I can totes handle this.’

9) The more reasons the person throws at you to stay away, the more drawn you feel to them. Because they are just more demons for you to overcome and prove yourself a worthy champion.

10) Fantasy heroes never give up, you tell yourself. No matter how tough the going gets, no matter how terrible they feel, they don’t ever give up. And neither will you, no matter how much it might kill you to flog yourself on.

'I shall carry on until I collapse and even then I will crawl my way up this damn mountain. You shall not defeat me!'

‘I shall carry on until I collapse and even then I will crawl my way up this damn mountain. You shall not defeat me!’

Ain’t no love like tortured, angsty fantasy love.


After all, they lived happily ever after...for a while.

After all, they lived happily ever after…for a while.

Growing up Potter: The Sins of the Father

In the third year of the my undergrad degree, my class studied a play called ‘Ghosts’ by Norwegian heavyweight, Henrik Ibsen. The play brings to life an old adage, ‘the sins of the father shall be visited upon the sons’. Oswald, a bright, young artist is laid low by a congenital disease he’s inherited from his debauched sire, and ends the play (spoiler) mindlessly chanting ‘the sun, the sun’ while his mother wrestles with the weight of a past that has brought them to this.

Now, a lot’s been written about the role of mothers in the Potterverse, how they shape their children, provide a grounding force in the face of evil and sometimes, literally give their kids another chance at life with their sacrifices. In this post, I want to look at the other half of that parenting equation, with a study of how fathers shape their (specifically) sons. I would argue that this shaping is, more often than not, a root cause of several problems that characters face. It seems a negative rather than positive force in many male characters’ lives, a negativity that is only corrected with the application of a mother’s love and influence.

In short, fathers mess up the sons so that the mothers can set them right.

I’ll illustrate this with, what seems to me, the most glaring examples in the Potter canon. By asserting that fathers are often a negative force, I don’t mean to cast aspersions on the integrity and character of the fathers themselves. Some of them, such as Arthur Weasley and James Potter, are no doubt wonderful (in James’s case, become wonderful) human beings, who do all that can be expected, and more, to defend and protect those they love. Nonetheless, their actions, whether meant in good faith or not, often rebound in a negative manner on their offspring. Let’s consider a few examples, shall we?

1)       James and Harry Potter

jamesJames is absent for most of the books, but it was his behaviour in school that, allegedly, caused Snape’s undying hatred of him and resulted in the bullying that Harry faced for six years. If Lily had married someone else, would Snape’s virulence been as pronounced? Idle speculation, probably, but no doubt his hatred of Harry was exacerbated a huge amount by the fact that he was his schoolyard rival’s son.


James is held up as a shining paragon for all of four and a half books—until that terrible moment in Order of the Phoenix where all of Snape’s worst stories seem to be confirmed. The viewing of ‘Snape’s worst memory’ causes perhaps the most profound moral crisis Harry has faced until this point, a crisis that never really gets resolved, given that James, from this point on, begins to lose his lustre (a move that only gets cemented with the death of his staunchest supporter and the strongest link—Sirius) and Lily becomes much more of a player in Harry’s life.


2)      Lyall and Remus Lupin

remusThanks to recently published information on Pottermore, we now know that Lyall Lupin, Remus’s father, was a ‘world renowned authority on Non-Human Spiritous Apparitions’ such as Boggarts. He was unlucky (and bigoted enough) to express an opinion on werewolves to Fenrir Greyback, calling them ‘soulless, evil and deserving nothing but death’. To teach the Ministry man a lesson, Greyback retaliated by biting his almost five-year-old son, Remus Lupin.

You can read the full story here:

Do I really need to spell this out for you? Remus’s whole life has been shaped by that moment, his ‘furry little problem’ dictating both his career and personal
choices for many, many years. Right until Deathly Hallows, Remus is struggling with his identity as a werewolf, his fear of his own strength and darkness prompting him to run away from his pregnant wife.


3)      Lucius and Draco Malfoy

lucius and dracoIf there’s one thing that little Draco knows, it’s the power his father’s name commands in the wizarding world. ‘My father will be hearing about this’ is his catch phrase, and he uses it on everyone, from Hagrid to fake!Moody to Ron and Harry. Lucius is the brick on which Draco rests his own importance, whether it be his facilitating Draco’s entrance into the Slytherin Quidditch team in Chamber of Secrets or cozening up to Snape and suggesting that he take up Headmastership in Dumbledore’s absence. Draco’s near hero worship of his father reaches a head at the end of Order of the Phoenix when he promises to make Harry and his friends ‘pay’ for putting him behind bars. Draco’s unquestioning love of his father extends to a wholesale acceptance of his ideals, leading to an unthinking parroting of conservative pureblood attitudes from a very young age. It also, scarily enough, leads to his acceptance of a position in Voldemort’s circle.

There’s no doubt that Draco’s Death Eater status is a result both of his espousal of their ideals (or what he thinks their ideals to be) and careful bullying from Voldemort’s supporters. Draco’s service under the Dark Lord is marked by a crumbling of illusions; by halfway through Half Blood Prince Draco has understood the reality of his position and the complete lack of glamour it possesses. It’s thanks to Narcissa’s snap decision in the Forbidden Forest that Draco gets out of Hogwarts relatively unharmed. I don’t see him lasting happily under Voldemort’s reign.


4)      Arthur and Percy Weasley

arthurI know, this is an incredible assertion to make: Arthur Weasley, model father in the Potterverse (i.e. the only one who fulfils basic criteria like being alive, being one of the good guys and not running out on his family, unlike the three previously mentioned) messed up his son? But consider this: one of the reasons Percy gives for walking out on his family is that his father was unambitious, that he didn’t do all he could to better the status of the family or his own position in the Ministry. Percy sees Arthur’s lack of ambition and eccentricity as a handicap, something he has had to struggle against in his own professional life. A self constructed sin, perhaps, but certainly something that resulted in Percy’s morally questionable actions and decisions in the latter half of the series.


5)      Barty and Barty Crouch Jr., Tom and Tom Marvolo Riddle

Barty_Crouch_JrFake!Moody/Barty Crouch Jr himself draws the parallels between him and his master at the close of Goblet of Fire. Both are ashamed of/opposed to their fathers; both were ‘abandoned’ by them; both paid the ultimate price for their abandonment. Crouch’s negligence of his home life, the subject of furious gossip after his son’s trial, resulted perhaps in his son’s straying to the ‘wrong’ side. Tom Riddle’s abandonment of Merope resulted in Tom growing up unloved in an orphanage, setting in course a series of events that would see him rise as a vengeful Dark Lord with no desire for forgiveness or understanding. If Tom Riddle Sr hadn’t left his wife, would Voldemort have turned out the way he did? Rowling stated that he was ‘incapable’ of love since he was conceived under the effect of a love potion, but perhaps the presence of a parental figure might have remedied that. Who knows?

And so we have it: the dad’s job in the Potterverse is to pass on prejudice, be the cause for prejudice, or set up skewed morals in his son. There’s a hint of this being carried on even in Harry’s generation: Ron warns Rose against Scorpius Malfoy, telling her that she has to ‘beat him in every test’ and that ‘Grandpa Weasley’ would never forgive her if she married a pureblood. Hermione, strikingly, says nothing.

You have to admit this is a little disturbing: Scorpius is being judged, much like Harry was, on the basis of his parentage and not his own merits or lack thereof. Evidently some things don’t change.





Slytherin the Saviour: How Selfishness won the War

slytherin_crest1 In previous posts, I’ve discussed the Sorting of students at Hogwarts and the ramifications their houses have on their futures. I’ve also admitted that my own placement in said Houses has changed over the years, chiefly because my assessment of what’s really important to me (i.e., how I want to be perceived) has shifted. Last but not least, the idea that you can actually choose which House you go into sort of throws into doubt the whole magical and more-knowledgeable-than-thou air of the Sorting Hat in the first place.

Here though, I want to talk about a very specific thing, and that is the importance of the Slytherin trait of self-interest to the winning of the Second Wizarding War.

We all know the basics, right? Gryffindor is the house of the brave, Ravenclaw of the intelligent, Hufflepuff the hardworking and Slytherin the rich, obnoxious and/or bigoted. In the Battle of Hogwarts, the Slytherins were supposedly evacuated en masse, and didn’t stay behind to help defend their school or the ‘right side’. What defines them is their selfishness, their cunning and their penchant for supporting the wrong authority figures. If anyone won the Battle of Hogwarts, it was the selfless Gryffindors and their staunch allies. Slytherin didn’t do anything—besides start the war in the first place.

I don’t want to take away from the sacrifice of the ‘light’ soldiers, but I believe that much of their effort would have been for naught, if two Slytherins hadn’t done what they did to win the war.

First of all—Severus Snape. If he hadn’t passed on those Harry-is-a-Horcrux memories, would Harry have gone out to face death in the manner that he did? Probably not. He might have continued fighting, surprised when the destruction of the known Horcruxes didn’t have the expected effect. He might possibly have killed Voldemort once, but surely the Dark Lord would have sprung back and AK’d him before Harry knew what was happening. Without Snape’s revelations, Harry would not have walked out unarmed and unsupported to face death and end one more of Voldemort’s connections to life.

Second—this gallant sacrifice on Harry’s part would have, once again, been for nothing if Narcissa Malfoy had not, for whatever reason, declared him ‘dead’. While I think Voldemort was an idiot to send Narcissa and not, say, an unreservedly faithful follower like Bellatrix, this was a stroke of luck for Harry. Narcissa’s desire to get back into the castle and get to Draco outweighed any interest she might have had in figuring out what went wrong with the Dark Lord’s curse, and this lie provided her a deadly revenge on the man-snake who had been terrorizing her family all year long.

Again, if Narcissa had not done what she did, I don’t think Harry would have left that clearing alive.

Why did these people act as they did? Certainly there was bravery involved, but what defines both Snape and Narcissa’s behaviour here is self-interest, the domain of Slytherin house. Slytherins fight not for ideals or abstract concepts, apparently, can follow the dictates of their selfish desires to good ends. Snape, a great example of a tenacious Slytherin, joined Dumbledore’s side because of his love of, not freedom or humanity in general, but Lily. His desire to serve against Voldemort was born of a selfish exchange: so long as Lily was safe, he would fight for Dumbledore. Even after she died, it was in her memory that he fought on, as well evidenced by the gravelly ‘Always’.

Narcissa wants to do nothing but get back to her son. Not for her the politics of the war or the questions of right and wrong thrown up by it: what matters is the preservation of those she loves, and all the rest can go to hell.

I think, with the Slytherins, Rowling proved that you don’t always need sweeping ideals or larger-than-life courage to be a hero. Sometimes, devotion to purely selfish interests does do good. As the Sorting Hat said, ‘Those cunning folk use any means/To achieve their ends’. Not all of those ends, nor the means, are evil.

And in some ways, this makes Slytherin house the most realistic of them all.


My first nomination!

…is for the Liebster award given to me by none other than Isa, a lovely doodler and writer over on Only an Artist’s Way. I am quite touched and grateful. The award involves answering questions put to me by her, talking about myself (which, like any self-important megalomaniac, I love to do) and put out a few questions for my own nominees.

I’m totally pulling a powerful!Ginny pose.


Oh, yeah.


And here are the rules, shamelessly copied from Isa’s blog:

  • Post the award on your blog
  • Thank the blogger who presented the award to you and link back to their blog
  • Share 11 things about yourself
  • Answer the 11 questions given to you by the person that nominated you
  • Nominate 3-5/ 11 bloggers who have less than 200 followers
  • Create 11 questions for your nominees to answer
  • Notify your nominees by posting your nomination on their blog.

So without further ado, here are 11 things about me:

1)       The first Harry Potter book I read was Prisoner of Azkaban, and that was only after a lot of cajoling from my mom. I was pretty sure no British wizard was going to impress me.

2)      The country I most want to visit is Peru. I think this has something to do with Macchu Pichu.

3)      I had a crush on Disney’s Robin Hood, the fox. In my defense, I was five years old.

4)      The song I really want to sing in a crowded karaoke bar is Maroon 5’s ‘Payphone’ because I find the lyrics hilariously angsty.

5)      To this day, I regret not getting on a flight to London and auditioning for the role of Parvati Patil in The Goblet of Fire movie. This missed opportunity has made my destined meeting with Daniel Radcliffe much harder to pull off.

6)      I really want, at some point in my life, to cut my hair short, i.e., above my shoulders. It’s been longer than that for as long as memory serves. I think I’m too cowardly to follow through.

7)      I wrote a trilogy of plays which featured me and my classmates as superheroes with names and powers based on our (rather juvenile) email addresses. I still read it and marvel at the wit displayed, from time to time.

8)      When I started blogging, I had no idea how much I would come to love it. Seriously, no idea.

9)      I wish I had trained in archery and horseback riding. It looks so badass.

10)   My ideal man is a combination of Sirius Black, Remus Lupin and Harry Potter and hence, probably doesn’t exist.

11)    I call myself a Slytherin in some twisted form of wish-fulfillment. I’m actually far too emotional and headstrong and hence, more likely to be a Gryffindor.

My answers to Isa’s questions:

1)     Listen to the Harry Potter theme song (Hedwig’s Theme) the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit theme (The Shire) and the Star Wars theme song. Which do like best?

Easy enough, the Harry Potter one! I love how it can be played to sound either intimate and soft, or sweeping and epic. It can almost be said to encompass the moods of the books. Also, here’s a secret: it’s the music I would love to have playing in the background of a marriage proposal. Yes, rather romantic of me.

2)     What is your favorite book?

Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. I know that’s technically two books, but they usually come as one!

3)     If you could go anywhere right now, where would you go?

New York City, the home of DC and Marvel and all the good things associated with them.

4)     Favorite Piece of Clothing?

I love scarves.

5)     Favorite Animal?

I know it’s almost a cliché, but oh well, I love horses.

6)     What fictional character would you have for a best friend?

Hermione Granger from Harry Potter. Smart, fun (in a within-the-rules sort of way), ambitious and ever so loyal.

7)     Mechanical Pencil, Regular Pencil, Pen or Quill?  :)

A pen. Quills are just so much trouble, plus they tear paper way too easily.

8)     Pick a time in history you would like to visit. Where and why would you go?

I would like to visit Cleopatra’s court in Alexandria. I’ve always been fascinated by her and would love the chance to see her in full, regal action.

9)     Cookies or Cupcakes?

Cupcakes, please!

10)What traffic sign is your favorite and why? (I know it’s a weird one, but answer it)

In a country where traffic signs don’t really exist (and are unheeded), I don’t know. Does a zebra crossing count?

11) Any advice for the people of the world?

Read between the lines.


And, last but not at all least, my nominees and my questions for them!

I hereby nominate:

Jeff Coleman from Jeff Coleman Writes

Jeyna Grace at Jeyna Grace

Eveline Versluys at Fashion, Food and Flirts

My questions for my nominees:

1)       If you could transport yourself to any fictional world, which would you choose and why?

2)      A bear, a boar or an anaconda—which would you rather face off with in a fighting pit?

3)      Who is your favourite superhero?

4)      If you could write one bestselling novel, what would it be called?

5)      Who are the two people you would thank in your Oscar acceptance speech?

6)      If you could bring just one character from a kids’ book to life, who would you choose?

7)      What’s your theme song?

8)      How many languages can you read in?

9)      What has been your most valued birthday gift till date?

10)   How do you feel about the ocean?

11)    If you could pick a character to be in any book, who would you want to be and why?


Ta, and thank you all!





Maya and the Mutants

How do you  know you’re a literary superstar? When you can say sappy things and have people read them as profound and status update worthy. angelou

Last week, Maya Angelou, writer, activist and feminist icon, passed away. As expected, Facebook and Twitter erupted, people outdoing each other in a bid to provide the most thought-provoking quote they had come across either through reading her work or, if you subscribe to the more cynical school of thought, via a quick Google search. I wasn’t surprised, really, given that this was exactly what had happened when, earlier this year, other literary/political greats passed away.

My own reading of Angelou has been very limited: I was introduced to her through a credit course I did in my first year of undergrad. She was part of a collection of writers brought together under the heading ‘Gender’, ostensibly placed there because the piece we were reading, ‘I rise’, was meant to be studied (in that particular course) in its feminist context. Beyond that poem, I have read nothing of Angelou.

Until the status updates appeared.

Among the many beautiful pieces I was thus treated to was one that a friend of mine had chosen to use, for whatever reason, as her display picture on a messaging app. The quote, which trailed above a picture of Angelou, was this:

Have enough courage to trust love one more time, and always one more time.

Now, plenty of people have said similar things. For instance, Auden declared, rather melodramatically, ‘We must love one another, or die’. Singers and songwriters state that love makes the world go around in various ways and Harry Potter, arguably one of the most influential literary icons of the last century, wins because he symbolizes and fights for, at some level, the power of love.

In all these cases, love does not restrict itself to the sense that it has gained in most commercial domains: that of romantic attachment. Yes, this is probably the most lucrative form of it, selling as it does cards, perfumes, books and loads of jewellery, but it is not the only one out there. What a lot of these writers, Rowling included, gesture towards with the term is a sort of universal agape, a feeling of hope born out of the hero’s ability to connect with and care for his fellow beings.

I am at an age where the idea of ‘happily ever after’ and perfect worlds seems laughable, where to even hint at believing in such things is to invite ridicule. The ‘adult world’, I’ve been told time and again, is no place for such escapist ideals. This is a land where to be open with your feelings is to expose yourself as a weakling; where courtship, whether romantically inclined or not, is a game that you play with half your attention on the board, the other half plotting ways of ensuring that you don’t ‘lose’ more than your opponent does. You can’t ever look as though you are completely earnest in what you do or feel or say; that’s just not safe anymore.

So, given all this scepticism and general cynicism that usually floods conversations, it was more than a bit surprising and, really, refreshing to see tributes to a woman who, quite vociferously, argued for the power of love. And argued for it despite having a life that no Disney moviemaker would touch with a ten-foot pole.

Angelou’s words came back with a bit of a bang when I watched the latest superhero blockbuster to hit screens: Bryan Singer’s X Men: Days of Future Past. Unlike its cousin, The Amazing Spiderman 2 (which released a little earlier this year and that I blogged about here), X Men is not halfway as stereotypically feel-good. X Men, arguably, never has been, chiefly because its primary villain, Magneto, is such a complicated, shades-of-grey character whose agenda of a mutant-run-world is all too close to the reality of sentiments that govern (and, to many eyes, justify) the behaviour of the state of Israel.

But Magneto and his almost-Zionism are a topic for another day.

Like any good superhero movie however, Days has its soaring speeches and breakdown moments. At a particularly low moment, young Charles buckles under the pressure of all the ‘despair and pain’ he sees in the world: ‘I don’t want your suffering, I don’t want your future!’ Then comes a heartwarming speech from a mentor figure, about finding the power of ‘hope’ within all that morass, the strength that people like Charles need to exude to their friends and followers. ‘We can bear their pain’, he is told, if he can bring himself to ‘hope again’. x-men-days-of-future-mcavoy-patrick-stewart-636-370

Isn’t that a superpower? The ability to look the world head on, see its evil, and yet find reserves of hope to take it on? Angelou basically said what every superhero movie, even the stylishly dark Nolan-Batman, depict. No matter what dross the world throws at you, what terrible agenda the villain has cobbled together, always trust hope, love, basic human goodness, one more time and always, one more time.

It’s the only thing, apparently, that can save the world.




The Curious Case of Gwen Stacy

Caution: Massive spoilers for The Amazing Spiderman 2 movie ahead.

emma stoneI love my superhero movies. They are (usually) so formulaic, with those dependable bits like hero discovering his powers, hero going through some angst related to parents (this can come before or after the discovery of powers), hero falling in love with plucky, ‘independent’ woman, hero’s nemesis being born, hero’s nemesis pursuing whatever shady goal he has, hero confronting nemesis and being thrashed (this can go for two rounds), hero going through dark phase of self doubt until someone says something inadvertently wise and hard-hitting, and finally, hero defeating nemesis and peace reigning. All set to epic soundtracks, usually crafted by Hans Zimmer.

The latest instalment in Sony’s reboot of the Spiderman franchise, The Amazing Spiderman 2, follows this pattern.  It’s well-made, entertaining and has exactly the sort of humor and emotion that one can expect from a big-budget superhero movie. Spiderman has always been ‘lighter’ in tone than Batman (especially the latest avatar of Batman, Christopher Nolan’s s triplets), so you can expect less philosophical reflection on the state of man’s existence and more feel-good quips and homely spiels about bravery and hope that go well with the popcorn.

What’s different about Amazing Spiderman 2 (and AS 1 for that matter), is the hero’s ‘love interest’, Gwen Stacy. I know it’s unfair to compare Emma Stone’s sassy, smart, science-loving Stacy to Kirsten Dunst’s more ‘traditional’ girl-next-door Mary Jane Watson, but the differences between them, really, is where the former’s importance lies in superhero (comic and especially movie) canon. I, for one, fell hopelessly in love with Gwen in this instalment, and this post is going to function both as an obit and a love letter to her.

Gwen Stacy is a living, breathing negation of the Loving Hero Paradox. She looks it in the face and she seems to say, ‘to hell with it’. At the start of the movie, Gwen confronts a dithering Peter, who is going on about how he ‘cannot lose her’ and hence ‘cannot be with her’. She calls him out on the stupidity of that statement straight up, before going on to say that she’s had enough of it and is breaking up with him. ‘I am breaking up with you,’ she stresses, highlighting who’s taking the final call in this case.

And then of course she goes about her life, meeting her friends, applying to kickass Oxford scholarships, and generally ignoring poor lonely Peter, who skulks about in Spiderman gear spying on her. Finally, it is she who takes the decision to meet him ‘as friends’, she who calls him and says she’s gotten into Oxford and that’s she’s leaving (note: she does this on her way to the airport, stating that it’s ‘easier this way’, reversing the usual equation where it’s the boy who summarily cuts off the beloved with a phone call) and inciting him to come after her and state that he will ‘always follow wherever [she] goes’. It’s her career and location that is important, he stresses; there will always be crime to fight, no matter where in the world he is, so he is completely at her disposal. Amazing-Spider-Man-Peter-and-Gwen

All this is great, and a very refreshing change from the usual girlfriend in superhero movies, wherever the girlfriend does exist. Compare Gwen’s assertiveness, for instance, to Natalie Portman’s Jane in Thor (1 and 2). Jane is a brilliant physicist, doing cutting edge work in her field, very attractive and certainly not lacking in a support circle. Yet, she is the one who is left waiting for Thor to show up, who rails at him rather ineffectually for a while (in Thor: The Dark World) for not calling, and then needs to be rescued because the ‘ether’ has, rather conveniently, infected her mortal system. Jane then gets hauled around the Nine Realms whether or not she wants it, and forced to undergo various treatment attempts.

As far as I’m concerned, Gwen’s greatest moment (in a series of great moments) is when she cuts herself free of the webbing binding her to a car (this after Pete’s declaration about ‘following’ her everywhere) and turns up to help him fight Electro. ‘This is my choice, mine!’ she declares and then proceeds to be as indispensable and instrumental to the villain’s destruction as her boyfriend. After all, it’s she who finally releases the electric charge  that gets rid of him.

And then, after all this rubbing in of her awesomeness and general ability to fend for herself and make her own decisions, Gwen…dies.

Anyone who’s familiar with the comics knows the fate that awaits her. Editors at Marvel remarked that they had ‘killed Gwen because [they] didn’t know what to do with her’ any more. She was too close to Peter, too much of a dependable source of support. The only way in which the relationship could progress was for the couple to get married, and that didn’t sit well with anyone in the publishing house. Marriage, they felt, would be a betrayal of ‘everything Spiderman was about’, dissing the notion of ‘personal tragedy’ that forms the motivation for Peter’s whole superhero gig. Of course, in the comics, there is the added detail that Gwen doesn’t know Peter’s secret identity, and marriage (and greater closeness) would entail divulging this to her, again something the bigwigs at Marvel didn’t want happening.

gwen 2What does this say, really? Here we have a girl who’s willing to take risks, to stand up for herself and not just be the passive following girlfriend, and she gets axed because there doesn’t seem to be a future for the man. Not  Gwen, but Peter. Who cares if Gwen wanted to go to Oxford and be a famous molecular biologist; what matters is that Peter needs more tragedy to fuel his Spiderman-self and the only way we can have that happen is by killing her off.

Considering that the comic is called ‘Spiderman’ and not ‘Gwen Stacy’, this might be expected. But I can’t shake off the feeling that, coming after all Gwen’s insistence and desire to be a part of Peter’s Spiderman-life, her death is more than a little disturbing. Does it add credence to Captain Stacy and Peter’s agreement to ‘leave her out of it’? Does it somehow insinuate that the men were right after all, that they knew better how to police and direct her life than she herself did?

By giving her a degree of agency and then killing her almost as a direct result of her own choices (after all, if she hadn’t cut herself free and come to his aid, Gwen wouldn’t have been around the electricity grid for the Green Goblin to kidnap), the makers and writers of Spiderman seem to be saying that yes, you can defy the Loving Hero Paradox, but only at a great price. You can ‘become hope’, as Gwen says memorably in her valedictorian speech, but only for someone else, and at a great cost. After all, it’s so poetic  when a beautiful, independent woman becomes the fuelling memory for a male superhero and the core of his angst; so much neater than if she lived, went on to do great things in her chosen field and (heaven forbid) married said hero and ‘forced’ him into dreaded suburban domesticity.

Whatever, Peter Parker. I hope you make Gwen’s ‘sacrifice’ worth it in the next movie. I won’t count on it, though. She was and is my favourite part of the rebooted franchise (in fact, the entire franchise) after all.


The Magic of Prague

Earlier this week, one of my cousins came to visit. He lives in Dusseldorf in Germany, and during the course of our conversation, we wandered onto the topic of living in the grand old continent, Europe. My European experience is fairly limited; I spent ten days in and around Berlin, traveling outwards to Prague, Vienna and Salzburg. During that period however, what really soaked into me was a sense of historical weight, the muted but still undeniably present sense of guilt and memory that was laced into every brass square I spotted on the pavements. Each one was a jolt, causing my stomach to drop just a little bit as the immediacy of the World Wars and their consequences was seared into me anew.

I told my cousin that I couldn’t imagine living in a ‘place like that’, where tragedy seems such an inherent part of the city. Sure, Indian cities, especially places like Delhi, have seen more than their fair share of terrible happenings and years, but (for better or worse) those histories are not sanctified and made a part of the everyday in the manner that Berlin (at least) seemed to do for the Second World War and the Holocaust. Perhaps our tragedies are just so overridden by the struggle of making it through a day, with all that dirt and grime and the sheer volume of people and noise, that we don’t really notice it. Or perhaps, as long-term residents, we Indians have sort of immunized ourselves against the daily drama of human suffering that we see every day, and since we already have to shut so much of it out, our senses really cannot take any more in the form of self-flagellation over past sufferings.

But I’m meandering now. What my cousins’s visit, and the conversation we had, really brought back to me was the European sojourn I had enjoyed, and I found myself, continue to find myself, thinking of Prague.


Prague played host to me for two days and one night. My mother and I stayed in a little hotel walking distance from Wenceslas Square, one of the hubs of culture and business in the city. We walked around our part of the city, past old towers and museums and concert halls, took a bus to Prague Castle and St Vitus’ Cathedral, panted up the cathedral’s bell tower, saw the famous Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square, visited a synagogue, cruised along the Vlatva and (my favourite part) visited Franz Kafka’s house. We also managed to watch a production of Swan Lake before boarding the midnight train to Vienna.

Yes, it was all most wonderfully culturally enriching.

I suppose it is natural for me to be fascinated by Prague. I’m a fantasy enthusiast, and Prague is so very rich in the mystical and magical. More than the surreal struggles recorded by Kafka in his work, what tugged at me was the layers of folktale that seemed to cast a mist over everything in the Old Town: tales of the golem, of ancient magics, of powerful words that could make and unmake life, all these secrets hidden away in narrow, stone-paved lanes and shuttered houses. Fantasy writers have of course celebrated these aspects of the city in their work, usually in connection with the legend of the golem, that animated clay-guardian of the Jewish quarter. Jonathan Stroud, for instance, in The Golem’s Eye (the second book of The Bartimaeus Trilogy)has a few chapters set in a slightly altered, but nonetheless recognizable Prague. The sinister, morbid magic of this bohemian capital brings out the melodrama in staid British gentlemen and plays host to life-draining, archaic magics that our hero, Nathanial, can barely comprehend.

Another book that slips in and out of Prague (very quickly) is Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.  Though this is not, strictly speaking, a fantasy book (it’s got very little ‘magic’ or otherworldly stuff happening), there is a kavalier and clayportion— set in Prague—that gave me goosebumps. It’s right at the start, when Jakob Kavalier is smuggled out of the country in a golem’s coffin, with the golem inside. Jakob leaves Prague right before things become truly terrible for the city’s Jewish population, and when he next meets the golem, it has attained quite a different, and rather chilling, form.

Both these books play on that one aspect of Prague: its dark, understated tone of magic, a kind that manifests itself not in flashes and sparkles and tight little spells (as ‘English’ magic seems to in Harry Potter), but one that came into being as a defensive force, built from the viscera of its people. Magic is in the cobbles of this city, flowing in broken currents down the Vlatva, embedded in the stones of St. Vitus’. That was the sense I got from my short visit, standing in the Old Town Square, or even in front of my little tucked-away hotel.

Or perhaps that’s what I saw, since I expected it. Perhaps I just closed my eyes to the ‘mundane’ things: the showrooms, the cars, the people with lives not much different from me, walking to work and back. Instead of light and quick reads, I saw second hand bookstores stuffed with obscure texts written in Cyrillic script. Instead of work-exhausted office workers, I saw brooding café patrons who, no doubt, inspired Kafka.

I think I usually see the world through a patina of literature, anyway, and Prague, being the kind of city it is, fit admirably into that frame. All said and done though, I stand by my statement: I couldn’t live there. Call me a coward, but that kind of magic, that sense of tragedy would do me in all too soon.

This post will annoy Snape fans

It’s always amusing when a character changes (and sometimes, for the better) in the transition from book to film. This holds for Arwen from The Lord of the Rings, Andy Sachs in The Devil Wears Prada and Robb in A Game of Thrones. Actors bring with them an interpretation that you as a reader had never considered, and often do more than their fair bit in cementing a character’s popularity within the fandom.

But what happens when an actor’s rendition of a character is so good, so much classier than how he is presented onscreen (in-book, if you will) that he ends up eclipsing the ‘canonical’ version?

Severus_SnapeI’ve never been a fan of Severus Snape. I was in no hurry to find out which side his ‘true allegiance’ lay with, I didn’t particularly care why he had switched sides at all, and I didn’t think the grand revelations at the close were all that grand. Nor do I think the fact that he was in ‘love’ with Lily Evans excuses any of his behavior. Consequently, I find the popular urge to view him as some kind of martyr or tragic hero rather perplexing.

In the books, Severus Snape is a nasty, greasy, rather out-of-control bully. In the films however, Alan Rickman transformed him into a smooth-talking, dour presence. A lot of Snape’s more manic and truly alarming moments are smoothed over by Rickman’s portrayal. One example I can recall is in Prisoner of Azkaban, where Snape gets truly alarming when presented with the Marauder’s Map. He rages at Harry, ‘baring’ his teeth at him and even acting extremely rude to Lupin when he is summoned. In the movie, Rickman played a far more in-control character, drawling his questions at Harry rather than biting them off in a rage.

I will accept that a great deal of the ‘tragic romantic hero’ tag is due to Rickman’s depiction of the character. Indeed, I think Rowling herself allowed his portrayal to influence Snape’s presentation in the later books. From a yellow-toothed, greasy haired professor he becomes something of a suave intellectual, most notably in the scene in Half-Blood Prince where he serves the aristocratic Narcissa Malfoy elf-made wine and discourses smoothly with Bellatrix on the nuances of his double-agent role. The precariously held together Snape from Prisoner of Azkaban, whose hatred of Lupin was so obvious to Harry, seems to have undergone a sea change here.

And, superficial as it is, Rickman’s handsomeness no doubt played a role in people warming to him. In the books, Snape is far from good-looking after all.

Now, to examine a claim that Harry makes at the close of Deathly Hallows, that Snape was ‘the bravest man [he] knew’. I think this was a completely uncalled for statement, one that has little evidence supporting it in the books and, to be completely honest, paints a far more heroic picture of Snape than he really deserves.

I’ve always found it’s easier to go over things point-wise. It makes the otherwise hard-to-navigate skeins of emotion so much easier to decipher. So here, let’s examine Snape’s achievements, whatever we know of them, and see whether or not Harry’s naming a son after him (and not, say, Hagrid or Remus or even Arthur Weasley) is justified at all.

1)       Snape was a double-agent for the entirety of the Second War, and for about one year of the First (give or take six months). He made this switch from Voldemort’s side not because of principles but because he was sort of blackmailed into it by Dumbledore. When he begs the Headmaster to keep Lily safe, Dumbledore asks him point blank what he will ‘give [him] in return’. In response to this, Snape rather dramatically declares, ‘Anything!’ Note that the spying role was, therefore, something that was extracted out of him by a master manipulator rather than something he came up with and offered on his own.

2)      Now let’s examine that role. What exactly did Snape’s spying accomplish? From what I can see, it did a hell of a lot more to further Voldemort’s cause than the Order’s. He fails to suitably control the Carrows in Hogwarts, allowing them to go ahead and use Cruciatus and other torture on the students. He gives Voldemort the correct date for the removal of Harry from Privet Drive, countering Yaxley’s (mis)information that he will be moved on the thirtieth of July, the day before Harry turns seventeen. Snape, at the meeting in Malfoy Manor described in the first chapter (The Dark Lord Ascending) says that he will be moved ‘the Saturday next’, a much closer date. And since ‘days’ pass at the Burrow before Harry’s birthday, we can assume that he was indeed moved well before the 30th and that, therefore, Snape probably was the one who gave Voldemort the correct information.

3)      Speaking of which, where on earth did he get this info from? Mundungus?

4)      Snape apparently did ‘all’ he did because of his love for Lily. He makes this obvious in that memorable scene where he conjures a doe Patronus and intones, heart-wrenchingly, ‘Always’. But, I have to ask, what was this ‘all’? Did he help the Order make any moves that completely foiled a Death Eater plan? Did he give Dumbledore vital information that brought about the defeat of Voldemort? From what I can see, it was the Horcruxes that played the real role in ending the Dark Lord’s reign, and Snape did not contribute to any of those famous memories.

5)   Snape’s greatest achievements in the series were to protect Harry during that Quidditch match in his first year (when Quirrell was jinxing him), place the Sword of Gryffindor rather inconveniently in the pool (yes, yes, it had to be retrieved in circumstances that required ‘bravery’, and how was Snape to know that Harry, like a complete idiot, would jump into the water wearing cursed jewelry) and finally, to pass on the memory that Harry had to die in order to defeat Voldemort. These are important acts, sure, but enough to exonerate him for all the crappy things he’d done to Harry and company before the epiphanies in The Prince’s Tale?

I find it extremely odd that people dismiss James as a bully but rarely pay attention to Snape’s own talents in this area. I would put this down to the common tendency to sympathize with the underdog (after all, Snape didn’t have the best childhood while James, we’re fairly sure, was loved and pampered), but the problem is, this particular underdog doesn’t learn from his own past—he inflicts the same sort of injuries on underdogs in his turn. The manner in which he treats Neville, for instance, or Harry and Hermione, is quite disgraceful and it’s a wonder that he remained a teacher at all.

If it weren’t for the fact that Dumbledore wanted to keep an eye on him, I’m pretty sure he would have been sacked.

Now, for that last bit—that Snape was the one who passed on the information about the final Horcrux to Harry. Was, in fact, probably the only person Dumbledore confided this information to. I think that is telling. Dumbledore obviously assumed that:

a)      Snape would linger long enough to tell Harry this (which honestly was rather presumptuous, considering it was a goddamn war and Snape, as a ‘traitor’ to the Order, would have been high on everyone’s hit-list. This begs the question of how competent Dumbledore thought his own Order members were. Did he not think any of them capable of vengeance?).

b)     That Harry would trust him enough to believe him (again, rather stupid because, let’s face it, Harry has not exactly been shown to be the type to listen first when he has a grudge. The only reason Sirius survived that night in the Shack was because Lupin turned up and calmed everyone down) and

c)      That Snape was probably the only person who would not get too emotionally overhauled by the revelation and withhold it in a mad desire to protect Harry.

That last point is very, very telling. Obviously Snape, for all his vaunted love for Lily, didn’t care enough about her son for this truth to throw him completely off his game. He even tells Dumbledore this: ‘For him?’ he sneers.snape-and-dumbledore

I find it incredible that Harry, who saw this in a memory, still thinks he should honour a man who blatantly told someone else that he didn’t give a damn about him. I find it alarming that he would excuse Snape’s past behavior based on this one revelation about teenage love. Even this love seems strangely wrong, since Snape is described as looking ‘greedily’ at Lily, a rather disturbing image and not one that really evokes the sense of tragic romance that everyone seems to insist on wreathing around the pair.

You could accuse me of being partisan, I guess. I do love the Marauders, I do  love James and Sirius, so perhaps it’s only natural that I dislike their schoolyard enemy. The thing is, I don’t see why people should pardon Snape all his offences, when they are so quick to call out people like James or Sirius or even Percy for the same things. James and Sirius were bullies—we remember that and we deplore it, but does anyone say the same of Snape? Percy sold out his family and followed his ambition, but then came back in regret—so he remains the most disliked Weasley sibling. Percy, arguably, saw the error of his ways and hence returned to the fold. Snape? Came out of a strange sort of ‘love’ that was ready to accept the death of Lily’s husband and child as a natural price to pay for her.

Snape is interesting, Snape is important in illustrating certain moral dilemmas, and perhaps in a weird way he is admirable (he does remain faithful to an ideal, however twisted that devotion is). But is he worth the blind adulation and ready forgiveness so many people seem to extend him? In my opinion, hell no.

Alan Rickman, I sincerely believe that we owe the deification of this character to you. For that alone, congratulations. It says something about an actor when he can manage to overturn six years of canon with one amazing utterance, Always.





Portrait of a City-soul

ImageWas this the secret of Istanbul – that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward looking monuments and its sublime landscapes, its poor hid the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about the city’s essence, says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no centre other than ourselves. (Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk.)

How do you talk about a city? How do you contain the sights, sounds, smells, emotions evoked by a sprawling tract of land and all the people it holds within a slim (or not so slim) book, imparting to your reader a definite sense of this place? Even more puzzling, how do you do it for someone who has never seen your city, let alone lived on and walked the streets you have described with such haunting immediacy?

My regard for Orhan Pamuk, winner of a Nobel Prize in Literature (2006) has always been of an abstracted sort. I looked up to him as I look up to any well-known, well-regarded author who hasn’t particularly touched me, but whom the ‘literary world’ applauds for stylistic, political or content-related reasons. The only one of his books I’d read was My Name is Red and I have to admit that it didn’t exactly have me gripped. I would take long breaks, pick up other books, return only when I’d refreshed myself and thought that I could handle the long sentences full of paintings that did not seem, even when described with such verve and enthusiasm, spectacular enough for all the hullabaloo.

I have a very close friend who would probably roast me alive for saying all this. But hey, honesty is the best policy, especially when it comes to literature. Besides, I’m sure Pamuk had enough fans before I got my hands on Istanbul. Now he has one more.

What Istanbul really does is take you on a black-and-white stroll down the streets of Pamuk’s neighbourhood, throw into your line of sight the gleaming Bosphorus with all its drowned secrets, reconstruct, painstakingly but oh so lovingly, the half-ruined histories of a capital steel reeling from its loss of political, cultural and economic significance. Caught in a struggle between a desire to ‘westernise’ and at the same time, to hold on to its rich past, Istanbul seems to drift in a haze its flaneur calls ‘huzun’, a peculiar melancholy that seeps through the streets, the air, the faces of its inhabitants and into the pages of a book, far away from the city-space. It is this huzun that defines the experience of this city, Pamuk notes, a huzun that affected, though they knew not what to call it, the Europeans who have viewed the city, the Turkish writers of old who attempted to rediscover it for themselves, and finally, has infected and affected Pamuk himself. Image

Pamuk maps the city out for us through his years there: from his childhood in Pamuk Apartments through his first experiences in school, in love and finally, his all-important decision to abandon art and Architecture and become a writer. He ensures that we hear voices of as many residents and writers as possible: he discusses his debt to the French writers and painters who brought to life the beautiful, ‘picturesque’ Istanbul that he hunts; he pays homage to the builders of an unfinished, exhausting Turkish encylopaedia; he quotes with great amusement Turkish newspapers and periodicals admonishing the residents of Istanbul, seeking to teach them how to behave on the streets. He also paints loving portraits of his family and their adventures in the city, in society, from his fat grandmother eating breakfast in bed and overseeing the apartment to his final conversation with his world-weary mother wherein he makes his vocational choice.

I read Istanbul with a sort of wonder, amazed that someone could paint their home so lovingly and yet so unforgivingly. Pamuk is not sentimental about Istanbul; he emphasizes its dreariness, its dark alleys and darker history, its schizophrenic desire to emulate and yet remain distinct from the ‘West’. I found myself wishing I could do the same for another city, one which I think is, in many ways, eerily similar to Istanbul. Like the Turkish city, Delhi too has its rich cultural history, has seen many, many conquests and peoples come flooding through its gates. Like Istanbul, Delhi seems to both live with and desire to forget its past, crumbling walls of old forts juxtaposed to shining store fronts of designer boutiques and McDonald’s outlets. Like Istanbul, Delhi has seen its fair share of travellers, of writers and artists attempting to capture its magic. And like Istanbul, no one would call Delhi a ‘happy city’. In India, it bears a dark reputation, for a myriad of reasons, but still, that does not besmirch its position as a centre of learning, art and literature.

If I could recreate the magic Pamuk weaves when he talks about the Bosphorus, use his melancholic music to sing songs of Lodi gardens and the wonders of the Red Fort, I would. But I have a feeling that ‘huzun’ is not mine to steal, to utilize to discuss another city. No, huzun belongs to Istanbul, to its beleaguered people. Delhi needs another mood, another term to encompass the many emotions it evokes. When I find it, I will write that Delhi book.

And I will dedicate it to Orhan Pamuk.