Immortal love

LOTR The Two Towers 024Valentine’s Day is coming. For some reason, it’s become cool to hate on it, and diss it as a ‘commercial holiday’, because you know, every holiday is so pure and untouched by the reigning force of capitalism (Christmas and Diwali being prime examples). I’ve even seen people calling out the ‘fallacy’ of celebrating it as a day of ‘love’, pointing out that the eponymous St. Valentine was martyred on this day, and hence, we should probably mark it with sadness rather than bursts of hearts and chocolate. I disagree with such folk; as Taylor Swift said, and as St. Valentine would probably agree, the best way to show the ‘haters’ who ‘gonna hate’ is to just shake it off and shove your happiness in their face, proving that nothing’s going to keep your happiness down.

I’ve realised that it’s become cool to hate on the concept of romantic love in general. Or to be cynical about it at least. The pop culture aimed at people over the age of 18 seems full of mixed messages: on the one hand, you’ve got romantic comedies, that promise that no matter how klutzy and socially awkward you might be, you will find true love; on the other, there are the Girls style shows that indicate that from rooms, people will come and go, but you should concentrate on being Michelangelo. ‘True love’, many things tell us, does not really exist; there are people who help you grow or achieve things, but you cannot rely on them to be around forever, nor do they magically solve all your problems, the way a Disney prince once did.

I’m of the latter school of thought. I don’t think there is ‘one’ single soul mate for anyone, and that romantic love is largely a matter of timing. It’s about being in the right place, at the right time, and in the right frame of mind to recognise what you feel, what the other person feels, not to mention a host of other factors that ultimately dictate whether or not a relationship unfolds. In fact, the idea of having just ‘one’ person terrifies me because it automatically lessens your chances of happiness; what if you mess it up, or miss that person altogether? Would you never be happy?

snape and lily

Despite my  reservations about such a thing playing out in real life (happiness= one ‘true’ soul mate), I can see why it holds such appeal in fiction. ‘I like the idea,’ a friend told me, when I expressed some dislike for Snape’s unstinting love for Lily. ‘Doesn’t it seem so special to be loved in that way, like no one else can ever compare?’ Sure, it’s all right if the person is fictional, but as I noted in this post, unrequited love is very poetic, but it is extremely painful in reality.

I think, in some ways, the fascination for the immortals, for vampires and Elves and other such beings, is tied up in this desire to feel ‘special’. Okay, let me try and explain this: people diss Twilight for a number of reasons, and yes, I’m one of those who does not consider it spectacular literature, but I can see why so many people love it. I can see why men and women think it would be amazing to be loved like Edward loves Bella, stalking and vampirish urges and all. The idea that someone who has literally lived for hundreds of years, seen thousands of people, picks you, of all humanity, to love—now THAT would make anyone feel special. The same idea applies to Arwen and Aragorn. Here’s an Elf who has lived thousands of years. She has seen many, many specimens pass through her life, more than a few of whom must have been drop dead gorgeous, accomplished, wise Elves, maybe even a few men. And yet, it was Aragorn, at that point a not-so-well-washed, uncrowned Ranger from the north, for whom she gave up her immortality, and made the ultimate sacrifice.

aragorn_arwen_love_story

In every romantic relationship, I would think, there’s that need to feel special, to feel like though there may have been people before you, and may be others after you in your significant others’ life,  you are somehow different. To be chosen by someone like Edward, or Arwen, or a billion other vampires who go after their mortal prey for reasons other than culinary denotes that you have something more than all those others they have met before. Something does separate you from the herd of humanity, and someone special, who knows what they’re on about (having seen a hell of a lot of the world) has noticed that in you and decided to love or desire you for it.

Okay Twilight fans, now I sort of get what you’re on about. Doesn’t mean I think your ship is a better one than Cersei/Jaime, and that’s saying something.

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This is the Way the World Ends

hp all endsToday I woke up feeling like the world was going to end.

This isn’t the first time I’ve felt it. That honour belongs to a grey, misty day in Delhi, when the world was muffled by a blanket of smog and things were so out of whack that even the Metro, the most faithful and perservering of services, shut down. I knew things were bad when my boss called me and told me not to come in to work because the trains weren’t running.

Given that I’m a naturally optimistic person, I have often wondered where I would be, and what I would be doing, and who I would be with when the world finally ground to an ‘end’. I’ve come to the conclusion that I would most likely:

1) Be on my way home from work, and therefore, stuck in the metro.
2) Texting someone about how blah my life is.
3) Just mildly annoyed when people started screaming and shoving when they saw the big wave of fire/water/industrial waste/kaiju and thinking ‘I’ve got to get the hell out of this city’.

And then the world would end.

Basically, I wouldn’t be doing anything I really loved, or with the people I love. Isn’t that what every disaster/apocalypse movie teaches us? When the shit goes down, you are not with the person who means the most to you, and the rest of the movie is a long struggle to get to them. If you’re lucky, like Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, your  jake_gyllenhaal_1211400943
relatives are very plucky, experienced people who will find and rescue you, even if you are barricaded into the New York Public Library.

Is this fear of the bathetic, the apocalypse being a major cop-out, the result of an overwhelming sense of, I don’t know, annoyance? Since we’ve consistently proven to ourselves that humanity is capable of cruelty and evil on a terrifying scale, we don’t need the hijinks of a God-driven apocalypse to shock us anymore?

I’ve wondered sometimes if the drive and re-turn to fantasy, to staples of heroism and ‘goodness’ enshrined in books like ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and Harry Potter is because it’s hard to find those clear-cut morals in the ‘real world’ anymore. In these books, you have a simple way of setting things right, a set manner that can be considered ‘right’. A saviour will show up and do something and everything will be good again. The end averted, the Darkness dispelled for the time being. All you need is a little faith.

That's how it won't go down.

That’s how it won’t go down.

In fantasy books, the world threatens to end with a bang. You can prepare for it, you can see it coming, and if you’re lucky and dedicated enough, you can postpone it. In the real world, you’ll probably be stuck, complaining about your commute, and your biggest worry would be that your phone service was acting strange.

 

Why Mindy Kaling doesn’t have to be my pioneer

Written in response to the piece ‘Mindy Kaling is not your pioneer’ by Alex E. Jung in Al Jazeera America. Original article here: http://america.aljazeera.com/opinions/2015/1/mindy-project-racetv.html

mindy1‘To be born a woman is to know/That you must labour to be beautiful’

I’m sorry for the pretentious quote (it’s from W.B. Yeats’ ‘Adam’s Curse’ by the bye, for those who are interested). One of my professors gave me a great piece of writing advice in my third year of college: ‘Never open with a quote,’ he said, ‘let the reader hear your voice straightaway.’ Then he paused and added, ‘Also it sounds incredibly annoying.’

I try to stick by those guidelines, but something about the topic today just called out desperately for a quote, and that one has been bouncing around in my head all day, ever since I read this article on how Mindy Kaling, and her on-screen alter ego, Mindy Lahiri, are not/is not a pioneer. The Yeats quote, for some reason, sums up my feelings perfectly, but I would add an extra dash to it:

‘To be a coloured woman in entertainment is to know/ That you must labour to be everything’.

The author of this article has one major problem with Mindy Kaling, and that’s this: she is not a pioneer for Asian-American women. At least, not enough of one. She uses the age-old rom-com formula of ‘ upwardly mobile white Americans whose aspirations are to find love; its women tend to find belonging by marrying the right man.’  And worse, she does this by dating only white men.

Alex Jung (the author) makes a number of good points, I will admit that. He says that Kaling, through this character, is ‘the [perpetuating] the great lie of romance, which suggests that love and marriage are not somehow informed by class, race and gender conventions.’ By dating and settling down with a white man, Lahiri, the character,seeks the ‘ultimate assimilation’ into the American context, a specially white American context.

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

Mindy and her boyfriend, Danny Castellano (played by Chris Messina)

He points out that we know nothing of Lahiri’s parents, that none of her partners or she herself comment on her Indian heritage (even her very Christian boyfriend, Casey, says the reason he cannot be with her is because she is ‘selfish’, not because she is a Hindu) and that she seems to be a ‘character simply born of the imagined community of lovelorn career women whose identities are defined purely by what they buy’. Instead of revolutionizing and reworking the conventions of the 90s rom com, Kaling has adopted it unapologetically, and simply inserted herself into the lead role.

Harsh.

Kaling’s own response to her success has been double pronged: on the one hand, she has gone on record stating that she ‘embraces’ her position as a role model for younger women, specifically younger Indian-American women. On the other hand, she’s also said that refuses to be ‘treated as an outsider’ and made a token representative of her race. In other words, she seeks to beat the majorly white entertainment establishment by ignoring her ‘otherness’ altogether, and thereby urging others to ignore what many might see as a handicap in their own quest for success.

This deliberate negating of her ‘race’ as a potential issue, and thereby as a constituent of her character’s identity in The Mindy Project, is what Jung seems to take offence at. There is a difference between denying something and ignoring it—Jung accuses Mindy of denying the importance of race in something like romantic relationships or professional dynamics; I think Kaling simply ignores that her character’s race and non-white upbringing might be an issue and thereby, in some ways, presents an even more revolutionary perspective. What would it be like to live in a world where it really didn’t matter if you were Indian-American and are unburdened by societal expectations and cultural baggage? That’s Mindy Lahiri’s world.

Second—on the character’s decision to date only ‘white’ men. Mindy Lahiri is NOT Mindy Kaling. Mindy Lahiri is an overblown, ridiculous, gossipy and extremely selfish character—even her creator thinks so. Lahiri’s life and decisions are not something anyone should seek to emulate, except perhaps for her professional credentials (which, in Season 3, she seems to be really working on). It’s the same way no one can possibly look to Michael Scott, Steve Carrell’s character on The Office, for guidance. Is it not possible that Lahiri is an object of spoof here—that her decision to only date a certain kind of man shows more about her character than it does about Kaling’s racial politics?

Can you take this character seriously?

Can you take this character seriously?

And finally—why does Kaling have to face these questions at all? What sort of responsibility does she have to her audience that someone like, say, Charlie Sheen or Lisa Kudrow doesn’t? Charlie Sheen could play a drunken, debauched man on Two and a Half Men and no one called him out on the terrible representation of Malibu residents. The two were not conflated as the same person (which is funny considering that, based on all reports, Charlie is much more similar to his onscreen character than Mindy is). Kudrow’s character on FRIENDS, Phoebe Buffay, dates a series of men over the course of show, but not one of them is non-white. In fact, the only character on that show who dated anyone ‘not of his race’ was Ross, possibly the least popular of the six.

By expecting Kaling to answer questions that other, non-minority actors don’t have to is a form of discrimination. By asking her work to showcase her ‘difference’ from the run of the mill show runner is also ascribing her a ‘token representative’ status, it is implying that she is not like the others. It’s pretty much the equivalent of someone asking you why you made angel cake when you are Indian—can’t you make halwa instead? Maybe you don’t want to make the halwa. Maybe angel cake is what you love and want and damned if you haven’t worked hard on learning the recipe. If you can make that angel cake better than anyone else in your class can, why not go ahead and do it?

Kaling is an entertainer, a performer, and forcing her to handle the unresolved tensions of an entire society is unfair. She is not in her line of work to speak for the Indian-American community, she is there to make a successful career out of it. Kaling’s fun, smart and she’s certainly broken a number of barriers for women in television, but don’t expect her to be a culture-mascot or a politically-correct watchdog; don’t expect her to be ‘everything’.

Four Awesome Ideas for an Indian Fantasy Novel

I admit it. I caved. I want clicks more than I want appreciation of my long-winded, well-crafted, writing. I need traffic so that Google Ads will pay me (apparently they will. They’re not saying no anyway). I nurse ambitions of going viral. I want people to think I’m smart and share my thoughts with the world so I can make my own path to world domination smoother.

Just kidding. I hope it’ll be a while before I write a listicle that is not Tom Hiddleston-inspired.

Aw.

Aw.

I think there are a couple of reasons why I find writing fantasy, as a ‘coloured’, female, non-‘Western’ writer, so hard. I think a couple of those reasons could also be traced to the fact that I am, for all intents and purposes, a Hindu. It’s the one genre that I really, really love and that I can spend hours and weeks and days reading and discussing (as you all know too well), and I really want to write it, but there are a couple of things that trip me up and that, being a good millenial, I blame on my upbringing, parents, and socioeconomic background.

lotr‘Fantasy’, or ‘epic fantasy’ as we know it today has a distinctly Tolkienien feel. Whether it’s the medieval European setting, the formal register of the language, or the prevalence of Elves and uncrowned kings, Tolkien’s left us a legacy we can’t entirely ignore, or escape. I spoke about this in an earlier post (No, It’s not Okay), but left out one important thing:

Tolkien supposedly wrote his epics as a way to build a mythological past for England. He wanted to give to his country what Greece and Italy already had in the form of the Iliad and the Aeneid. He took elements of local folk tales and sweeping Pan-European legends (and Arthurian chronicles) and put together a world where the little Englishman in his pastoral home ventured forth and saved the world (or as much of it as mattered anyway, which was Western and Southern Europe).

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Just your average jolly old Englishman!

Building this sort of mythologized past requires one thing: a distance from it. By and large, most of the Western world, the kind that writes mainstream, Tolkien-derived fantasy now, does not believe that Elves, Dwarves and other fantastic creatures are real. More importantly, the stories that they use and fall back on, including both Greek/Roman myth and denizens of other pantheons, do not influence modern life to the extent that mythology in India tends to do.

Let me elaborate on this. When you write a story that follows, vaguely, the trajectory of Arthurian tales (uncrowned king, bearded mentor, staunch companions in arms, ‘black’ foe), you are using something that has already been sanctified as distant, part of the past, something that is up for interpretation without running the risk of really offending anyone. This distance is what allows Rick Riordan to write the Percy Jackson chronicles, where a goddess like Athena can be accused of having had a child. Imagine if someone were to write a story where Durga has a one night stand with a man and produces a girl child who displays amazing martial skills—do you see people putting up with:

a) The idea that Durga would have a one night stand.

b) The idea that that baby was not worthy of being worshipped herself and could possibly grow up in a state of complete normalcy and not have some grand, wisdomous words to impart to her fellows.

Awesome Idea 1—A daughter of Durga grows up in Calcutta and discovers she has godly abilities. She then rains hellfire upon the mutinous hordes. 

But see, here’s problem #2: how do you distinguish between mythological and fantasy fiction in a country like ours? It depends really on the audience you’re writing it for. For instance, last night I watched a dance performance by Mallika Sarabhai. She performed a piece on Karthikeya, Shiva’s second son. While she danced and described him, I realised hey, Karthikeya is an amazing fantasy hero. He is young, he is martially inclined (being the god of war and beauty), he has a romantic and rather crazy love life, he broke conventions to get his second wife and he puts brawn over brain and gets upstaged by his own brother. Plus, he rides a peacock and was created simply to kill off a demon—the latter being a trait common to most epic fantasy heroes.

If I were to write a book detailing his exploits, I could probably sell it to a non-Indian audience as ‘fantasy’. But here, someone or the other would see through my pretence and call me out on my shit. This is not fantasy, they would say. this is the retelling of a myth, and it’s great because we don’t have anything on this particular god, but could you possibly write Kunti’s version of the Mahabharata next? Personally, I don’t know if I could bring myself to do it: to me, it would be mostly like transcribing the stories I’ve heard from my grandmothers or my dance teacher, and not something I myself have ‘created’.

Awesome idea 2: Write a series of ‘fantasy’ novels on Murugan, and have him be an angsty, tortured hero who’s always wondering if his parents love him as much as they love his brother, Ganesha.

I’m surprised someone hasn’t done this already.

Now this is a problem.

Now this is a problem.

The third problem, again tied to the second is this: how do I make a fantasy novel set in India different from others without resorting to exoticising everything? In other words, how do I please both the big name publishers in New York as well as my poco-pomo-postfem colleagues here in India?

(For those of you not familiar with my casual academese, poco pomo postfem refers to postcolonial, postmodern, post feminist writers and thinkers. No, I don’t know what that really means either.)

I just read this long, insightful piece on the problem with South Asian literature by Jabeen Akhtar, where she speaks about the Western need to see this region in a particular light, as a world of ‘mangoes, spices and monsoons…saris, bangles, oppressive husbands/fathers, arranged marriages, grains of rice, jasmine, virgins, and a tacky, overproduced Bollywood dance of rejection and oppression with Western culture.’ Epic fantasy relies to a great extent on regional stereotypes: Tolkien’s ‘English’ hobbits are bookish, stodgy and love their afternoon tea; Martin’s northmen are hardy men of few words who speak (in the HBO series) in vaguely Scots accents; even Rothfuss’s Adem seem vaguely Japanese (or at least subscribe to ‘Western’ notions of Japanese behaviour espoused in martial arts movies). It’s easy to fall into the trap of exoticising this culture, because people (read: the Western canon) has been doing it for years and we know it works to pull in the publishing bigwigs sitting in their corner offices on 6th Avenue.

So how do I do it? How do I write an epic fantasy that doesn’t rely on ‘Oriental’ stereotypes that might offend the poco-watchers but also stands out as ‘Indian’ or exotic enough to interest the agents in HarperCollins NY? I think Samit Basu managed this with the Gameworld Trilogy , where he actually turned cultural and literary stereotypes of flying carpets and exotic Indian princesses back on the reader, as well as used those tropes to further the story—but even he was relegated to having an elephant headed Ganesha on simoqinthe cover of the German edition of The Simoqin Prophecies. Please note that this is in a book which has no elephants, let alone elephant headed gods, on-screen.

It’s a curse: write what you, as an English-educated, city-bred millennial know and the West won’t take you seriously; write what you’re ‘supposed’ to and don’t get taken seriously by your fellow Indians, who will dismiss it as pandering, and perhaps, rightly so. Who do you please?

And don’t tell me writers write for themselves and no one else because that is just not true in an age where everyone is living on the Imax screen of social media.

Awesome idea 3: Write a fantasy novel where the hero is must save the world, but has to choose which of two worlds to save. Choosing one ensures the complete destruction of the other. Chances are, if he is a real hero, he will choose neither and end up destroying himself so that everyone else can just deal with their own shit.

rivendell

And finally, perhaps the biggest problem facing an Indian fantasy writer: who is going to make the movie version of it? I know it’s really superficial, but hey, all of us want to see our books/stories get the Game of Thrones and Lord of the Rings treatment. We want big budget Hollywood studios to take an interest and WETA to spend months building props and sets. But since none of my main characters are white, chances of them spending millions of dollars on bringing the book to life are pretty minimal.

Sad, but true.

Awesome idea 4: Write a fantasy novel set in an India-like space where all the main characters are white thanks to some genetic accident. These white characters are the ones who will end up saving the world because that’s just how things play out in Hollywood.

Okay, enough complaining. I shall get cracking on writing one if not all of these proposed fantasy novels.

Tuneful Tuesday: I Knew You Were Trouble

So once a week I’m going to analyse a pop song, because I think it’s fun and might be a nice change from the heavy duty fantasy stuff. Also I think pop songs are the future of academic criticism, which has pretty much exhausted everything else. Presenting, example one: Taylor Swift’s ‘I Knew You Were Trouble’,

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNoKguSdy4Y

Taylor Swift’s relationship to feminism has long been suspect, like that of many popstars not named Beyonce. People have dissed her for being ‘conventional’ and ‘anti women’ because of her early song lyrics (pieces like ‘Ours’ and ‘Better than Revenge’ come to mind), and the fact that she’s a white, obviously attractive young woman makes her guilty of incredible privilege. I suppose the fact that she sings about love and heartbreak doesn’t help her either, in more than a few people’s eyes. Whatevs. I’ve loved her and continue to love her and unlike all those hipsters who are discovering her ‘feminist politics’ now, I rather think she’s been at it for a while.

I think Taylor’s first brush with ‘feminist’ lyrics and hitting back at the music industry began with ‘Red’ (2013), the album that signaled her shift from country to pop music. I’m going to analyse one of the songs in this collection, and interrogate its complicated politics.

I Knew You Were Trouble

There are four main points that jump out at me and complicate any reading of this song:

The Fairy Tale trope – Taylor opens with the classic line ‘Once upon a time’, immediately claiming a universal, fairy-tale like space. Her experience, or that of her protagonist, is one that should act as a cautionary fable for all those listening. By using the phrase and literary genre, Taylor also casts herself as a fairy tale character—most likely, based on the events of the song, a princess who’s lost her way. This is not new for her, since she famously used the trope in ‘Love Story’, her first big hit. love story

Taylor’s relationship to the fairy tale has changed considerably—from a naive, waiting–for-rescue princess in ‘Love Story’, she’s become one who narrates her past ‘mistakes’. She should have known this particular prince was ‘trouble’, she says, and not fallen into his arms. The next step in this journey has been taken in ‘Blank Space’, where she’s graduated to becoming the ultimate powerful woman of the fairy tale: the wicked witch.

The audience – Most pop songs are addressed to a generic ‘you’. If you’re a female pop artist, your audience is usually going to try and figure out who the ‘you’ is. This is particularly common with Taylor’s music, thanks to her very publicly-documented relationships with various celebrities. The first comment on many of her romantic songs (or break up songs) is ‘who is this about?’, and the good tabloid journalists (and music critics) will try to provide the answer.

taylor-swift-has-chosen-her-next-victimI’m not going to go into the sexism that’s inherent in this kind of reporting and reception (I’ll save that for some other time). Instead, we should turn our attention to how Taylor, in ‘I knew you were trouble’ shifts between addressing a specific ‘you’ and talking to a larger, general audience. She refers to a ‘he’ who is ‘long gone’, one who’s left her—the same ‘he’, presumably, who she should have known was ‘trouble’. This indicates that she’s already pulled out of her self absorption/heartache (at least in short bursts) to address the larger audience and make a cautionary fable out of her experience. This is pretty strong for a female pop artist, or any artist, who’s writing a break up song.

The ‘I’ factor – What really struck me about this song was how very driven it was by Taylor’s insistence on using ‘I’, on blaming herself for falling for this sham prince. In the voiceover that accompanies the music video, she says, ‘the worst part wasn’t even losing him; it was losing myself’. Taylor is claiming agency for her own mistake—while some may see this as a victim blaming herself for the misfortune that has befallen her, I prefer to see it the same way Taylor does, using it as an empowering experience that she will, in the trouble taylorfuture, avoid, and help her listeners avoid. ‘Shame on me’, she says, for hoping to be a princess again. That won’t be happening any more.

The music video – The video for the song (posted here) is downright disturbing. It opens on a blasted landscape, which we later figure out is the aftermath of a big concert where Taylor was cheated on by her boyfriend. Through the course of the song we realise that this boy came in with problems, possibly owed money to the wrong people, and gets roughed up while he’s out with her. She doesn’t seem to be aware of what exactly is going on in his life—just has a vague idea that he is perhaps bad news, a premonition that’s only borne out later in the song.

enrique heroThe desert-like setting (small town in an arid landscape) and the boy’s evident problems remind me of Enrique Iglesias’s 2003 hit, ‘Hero’. There, a man and a woman have made a break with ill-gotten cash, and the man winds up being dragged away for it while the woman watches, weeping. In ‘Hero’, Enrique asks in a rather sentimental fashion whether his girlfriend will ‘save [his] soul’; in ‘Trouble’, which I choose to read as the female response to this plea, Taylor realises that saving any man’s soul is a hell of a lot of trouble, and probably not even worth the emotional investment. The video shows her trying to help her boyfriend out as he’s being pushed around, and then being cheated on for her pains. So much for trying to be there for him, she should have known he wasn’t a hero worth the saving, just more ‘trouble’ and yet another ‘mistake’.

Jennifer Love Hewitt probably came to the same conclusion after all that broken hearted weeping.

It’s also interesting to note that what really pushes Taylor away from the boy is not his money problems or his evident ‘bad’ company, it’s the fact that he cheated on her in public. What drives her away is this final, physical betrayal. Who knows, if Enrique had acted the same way in ‘Hero’, might JLH have walked away? His ‘trouble’ is also therefore of his own making—not something that he once fell into and then was unable to walk away from. The sympathy the audience, and Taylor, might have had for him evaporates with this final image of his smug smile vanishing into the strobe lights.

Conclusion

trouble 2‘I Knew You Were Trouble’  negotiates a complicated terrain. On the one hand, the break-up song is traditionally seen as a victim’s plaint, the lament of someone who has been left behind to scoop pieces of themselves together, and thus automatically relegated to the ‘weak’ party. In this case, it’s very clear that Taylor is the one piecing herself together, who has ‘lost’ herself along the way.

On the other hand, the break up song, through its very existence and its assertion of feelings, acts as a self-affirmative medium. It gives its protagonists a chance to explore their residual feelings and come to some sort of catharsis, work through the remnants of relationships that sound (from the lyrics) intense and more than a little emotionally draining. The messy clearing away of these feelings is something that the protagonists do individually, engaging in a one-sided dialogue with the absent other in order to come to terms with their own feelings. It is an entirely self-driven and self-rewarding/abusing exercise, with the absent other as nothing more than a convenient prop on which to deflect abundant emotion.

Taylor’s song straddles this contradictory reading, positing her as both victim (the stray princess, the hunted object) as well as rueful learner, the burned hand who ‘should have known better’. She both denies and grants herself agency, veering from stance to stance within a few brief verses. The reading of the lyrics is only complicated by the music video and the accompanying voice-over. Though she starts the video prone on the bare ground, obviously recovering from some sort of emotional and/or physical blow, she pulls herself upright and ends up traipsing all over that site, heedlessly singing her story. Ain’t no one going to trouble her no more. witch taylor

Dipping into the Pensieve: Year Two

siriusIt’s been a strange year, one with lots of ups and downs and much moving around. There have been a number of preoccuptions and considerations and general ‘where is my life going?’ angst. I suppose that’s the lot of most twenty somethings with a liberal education and a certain amount of socioeconomic privilege. I’ve moved cities three times and met an assortment of people. Through it all I’ve had great friends to fall back on, extensive family support and, of course, my books, music and movies.

Where the Dog Star Rages began with no set agenda. I’ve always loved writing, and harboured (still harbour) fond dreams of becoming a published author, one of those hallowed figures like J K Rowling or Tolkien who inspire millions around the world. The problem was, I never really sat and pushed myself to write. I’d begin ambitiously, sure that I had the next best thing pouring out of my fingertips, but then I’d abandon it when I lost enthusiasm, which usually happened quickly. I needed discipline, and someone suggested that a blog would provide that, since I’d have more of a sense of writing for an audience, no matter how small.

So one November day, when I really should have been editing someone else’s work, I opened a WordPress account and made my first post on the James Potter complex. I thought, at first, that I would stick to writing book and movie reviews, maybe pieces on characters from my favourite series now and again, but over the last year, that list has expanded considerably and I no longer think the descriptor ‘A place where I deposit my ramblings on fantasy, literature and the world of the written world’ is all that accurate.

Let’s see: in the past year I’ve written a lot about characters from Harry Potter, but seem to have focussed largely on a) the women b) mentor figures and c) Sirius Black. There have been a couple of book reviews, but those are, again, few and far between. I think I’ve become a lot more ‘personal’ on the blog, slipping tidbits about my own feelings and what I’m doing at any given moment into my posts (those have also largely influence what I write about, such as the Ginny post, or the one on Sirius’s unparalleled ability to love), and yes, pop culture in the form of celebrity write ups and TV has made an entry.

The year has seen other kinds of growth as well. It was a huge deal to me when Mihir Wanchoo, one of the editors of the fantasy review site, Fantasy Book Critic, reached out to me on Twitter and asked me to write reviews of the Harry Potter series. I was so used to writing about these books assuming that everyone had read them, would know what I was talking about, that writing short pieces as teasers more than anything else was quite challenging. Nonetheless, that was a great experience, and it gave me yet another opportunity to explore my thoughts (is it too sentimental to feelings?) on a series that obviously forms such a huge part of my reading life.

And now there’s a new challenge in form of Momentum Books Blog, for which I’ve recently been hired to write a weekly column. It’s my first regular writing job, and it mostly involves me talking about fantasy (thus far). I couldn’t have asked for a better taste of the arts journalist/reviewer life.

I didn’t intend to make this an Oscar acceptance speech, but I do have to thank a very supportive fantasy/blogging community, all those readers who have written comments and encouraged me to keep writing with their thoughtful feedback. Among them, I’d especially like to thank Jeff Coleman, Jeyna Grace, Bellatrix Minor and Brigid Quinn. Here’s to many more years of blog-friendship!

Like I said, this year has been a strange one. It’s had its crazily wonderful moments, but it’s also had periods of intense confusion, self doubt and not a little (wait for it) heartache. I began it with a post on Sirius Black and what he means to me, and I like to think that he still informs a lot of what I write about and also, maybe a little bit of how I’ve tried to tackle things this year. Taking some risks, making some leaps and, who knows, maybe even finding a Remus Lupin at the end of it. 

How to be a Millenial, Ryan Howard style

‘I was the youngest VP in company history.’

‘More recently, he worked in a bowling alley.’

I watch a lot of TV. To be precise, I watch a lot of American TV, as do many people of my socio economic background and ‘Westernised’ upbringing in this part of the world. American TV is our go-to, our comfort food, something we keep up to date with as religiously as we update our Facebook statuses and do Buzzfeed quizzes. In some cases, more religiously. American TV isn’t even considered ‘foreign’ for us any more, in the same way American pop music and cinema has become ours more than its more ‘desi’ counterparts, at least in my case.

So it’s not surprising that I find, as I tend to find in literature, characters and situations from these TV shows that correspond almost uncomfortably well with my life. Recently, I’ve been ploughing through the US version of ‘The Office’. It took me at least half of the first season, but now I’m hooked and find myself turning almost unconsciously to Michael Scott and his band of not-so-merry men and women when I have a half hour to kill.

There’s one character I love watching more than the rest, not because I find him particularly entertaining (if there is one singularly always-entertaining character it’s definitely Kelly Kapoor) but because he is so freakishly close to home. In fact, if me or many people I know were to be slotted into a type and then ridiculed using a character, that character would be, sadly enough, Ryan Howard. ryan 2

Ryan Howard seems to me the classic ‘millenial’, the wunderkid who soared high on expectations, his own and that of others, and then came crashing spectacularly to earth when it turned out he had no idea how to function in the real world. He went to a fancy business school and then got hired on a ‘temp’ basis at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, a job he quite obviously thinks beneath him. ‘I could have gone anywhere,’ he says once, with a rather awestruck look. He could have been placed as a temp ‘anywhere’ in Scranton, and he ended up here, in this office.

Let’s consider Ryan’s professional track record: from ‘temp’, to no longer a temp (but never a true salesmen, having never made a sale), to obnoxious corporate hotshot who pushes for digitalisation in the name of progress (everyone gets a Blackberry when Ryan gets on the job), to fallen star. In Season 5 we find out he’s working in a bowling alley and has bleached his hair blonde. Apparently the sun in Fort Lauderdale is very strong.

What I find most disturbingly close to home about Ryan is his sense of total entitlement. There’s no doubt he’s smart, and at the beginning at least, he has dreams of starting his own business. His number one fan, Michael, disses those dreams straight off by telling him ‘That’s a terrible idea’. Ryan goes from quiet and ambitious to messed up power-hungry and back to temp in the course of five seasons. Ryan takes no one seriously unless they have a job at the corporate headquarters in New York or are validated by a fancy business degree. Ryan ignores the efforts of his boss to befriend him and then takes an obvious pleasure in pushing that boss, and everyone else, down when he gets to a superior position. Ryan then tumbles down and is exposed for the overreacher he is, the fire guy second time temp who can’t even make one measly sale and now lives, once again, with his mother.

I'm doing you a favour, yo.

I’m doing you a favour, yo.

I know The Office is a comedy and we’re supposed to laugh at all this. The thing about comedy is, if the same stories were captured in drama or a slightly more ambiguous genre, like the one Girls occupies, we’d feel more than a little sad, or disturbed. Ryan’s inability to stick with anything is similar to the dilemmas and self-created problems that trouble the characters of Girls. The latter is considered a pretty searing portrait of today’s twenty somethings, adrift in the world and armed only with seemingly unnecessary and unusable degrees and loads of self worth. Does Ryan have lots of self worth? Oh yeah. enough that he can tell Kelly ‘I need to break up with you so I can go on this trip to Thailand. It’s just something I have to do.’ In his own eyes, his personal net worth is huge, and this filters through in all he says and does.

Do I think Ryan is a bad person? No way. I think he’s super realistic. I can sympathise with his desire to have it all now, to not have to wait around for ‘good things’ to happen, and work his way to the top. I can also totally get on board with his need to be on the phone all the time. I think he’s a college kid who didn’t entirely grow up, or not yet at least. I think he’s an entitled twenty something, and a character that I find eerily and perhaps disturbingly sympathetic. After all, it’s taken more than a few of us a long time to forget that we’re not in college anymore.

More’s the pity.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop the Taylor Love

This post has been a long time coming. A couple of months ago I put up a status that shared my newfound delight at listening to Taylor Swift. ‘I’m binge listening to Taylor Swift,’ it ran, ‘and discovering she has some profound things to say about life.’  Surprisingly, quite a few people ‘liked’ it, and it incited a great deal of debate on the topic Avril Lavigne versus Swifty. Of course, I supported Swifty in that debate.

I started listening to Taylor Swift (henceforth, I will call her Taylor because that seems to imply we are good friends, a feeling she totally encourages with her down to earth and VERY insightful lyrics) just about a year ago, coming, as ever, late to the music party.  I’m not sure how it started, what brought me to open up lists on 8tracks that were tagged ‘Taylor Swift’, or how long it took for me to realize I was listening to her not out of a hipster-like sense of irony, but because I genuinely liked what she was saying. Or, even if I didn’t like it, I understood it, in a way I haven’t understood any other singer.

taylor striped

A friend of mine once told me half-jokingly that every girl has a Taylor Swift song. He asked me what mine was. At that time, I hadn’t listened to much of her music. If he were to ask me now, I still wouldn’t have an answer, unless it is ‘All of them’.

What I find incredible about Taylor’s music is how very accessible and relatable it is. Sure, many songwriters have penned lyrics that seem to describe exactly what you, the listener, are going through at any point of time, and there are many I could name, but no one sounds as close to me as Taylor does. Listening to Taylor is like reading pages of an old journal; she is unapologetic, she is ‘emotional’ in the manner that many snooty people deride, she, in short, sounds like she’s talking on the phone to one of her best friends. When you’re listening to her, you feel let in, part of a circle, a safe space where your most vulnerable side can be shared, because that’s exactly the privilege she is extending to you.

kim insta

Lookee! Thanks to instagram we now know what Kim Kardashian is…eating? Buying? Wearing? I have no clue what those things are.

‘Nearness’ is something that popular culture seems more and more invested in emphasizing. What else explains the surge of reality TV, the stardom of Youtube vloggers—people like you and me, broadcasting to the world from their homes and smartphones, the fame of the common tweeter, many of whose followers number in the hundreds?  Despite this revolution however, stars and celebrities seem in some ways, further than ever. It’s easier to get famous, maybe, but the fame of these idols is of a different kind from that of the Youtube cover artist or reviewer-tweeter. Perhaps it’s the vestiges of the almost supernatural aura that once surrounded big record labels and studios, that impossible-to-define something that made someone recognized by one of these powerhouses ‘better’ than his/her peers. Whatever it is, despite their instagrams and tweets, celebs are still in a clime of their own, perhaps even more so for all the show of their accessibility. 

Taylor though, seems to have something genuine in her music. Cynics will sneer (I know a couple of my friends who definitely will) and say that her music too, like that of her fellow pop stars, is crafted to appear so, tailor-made (pun so intended) to convince me that she understands me and thus gull me into buying her songs and overpriced concert tickets. I might believe them, if it weren’t for the fact that Taylor often gets lambasted for the very reasons I find her music appealing. Her ‘emotional’ songs are roasted as being too whiny, too ‘angsty’ and ‘teenybopper’. She’s raked over the coals for writing songs about the men she’s dated, for giving voice to the sort of insecurities that many young women have in romantic relationships. I think the tag of ‘emotional’ is an extremely sexist one— are men ever derided for being ‘emotional’ in their music? I can think of many men who would certainly deserve that ‘charge’, Sam Smith and even legends like Eric Clapton come to mind.

I could ramble on about her half-philosophically, but here Im going to quickly list five Taylor songs and illustrate, through them, five points that make her music so appealing to me:

‘Story of us’: Taylor seems to say that it’s okay to be a little heartbroken when things don’t work out the way you expected. She gives voice to the nagging pettiness and worries that eat away at a person at the close of a relationship and I, for one, find the words ‘This is looking like a contest/Of who can act like they care less’ much closer to reality than beautiful words about wanting to find ‘someone’ like one’s ex. 

Sorry, Adele.

Sorry, Adele.

‘Red’: You can laugh at the strange comparisons in this song (‘Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you’ve never met’?) but there’s something so heartfelt about every single one that I found myself strangely moved and agreeing with her on the choice of words. Taylor manages to do that, more often than you might think. She takes the weirdest of words and jams them together and has them make sense and sound right in a manner that few other people do.

‘All too well’: This is, to me, the most realistic break-up song ever. It talks about navigating the morass of emotion evoked when confronted by an ex, the what-ifs that tangle with memories both pleasant and unpleasant. That one line, ‘You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest’—I thought it was sheer poetry, even before Taylor commented that it was one of those she is proud of. The song winds through a series of emotions, confused and elated and wistful and angry all at the same time, and it astounds me again and again that she is able to pack all that into four minutes of music.

taylor1

‘We are never, ever, ever getting back together’: This song illustrates the fun side of Taylor. Have you SEEN the video? It never fails to cheer me up. It is so ludicrously over the top that you can’t help but laugh along with her. The song seems to say, as many Taylor songs do, that shit happens but you know what? We’re just going to cut our losses and move the hell on.

And dance while we do it.

Also, confession. The lyric that makes me crack up is ‘While you hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s MUCH cooler than mine’. Too close for comfort.

 

‘Begin Again’: This is wistful Taylor, a Taylor who pops up in ‘Cold as You’, ‘White Horse’, ‘You’re not Sorry’—all slightly sad songs that nonetheless end on a note of hope. I love how her music, despite describeing unhappy scenarios, never descends to pure caterwauling or pleading to be taken back. It’s always a sort of wistful ‘I’m sad this didn’t work out’ vibe that plays through them, and they never descend to self-hate or self-doubt.

 

I think that, in effect, is what I love about Taylor. She dramatizes the emotional whirl storm that is a part of growing up and trusting people, but she never lets the bad encounters color her, or your, perception of life. She ‘can’t stop, won’t stop moving’, and will keep shaking herself off and going on. And she does it with such a delicious sense of self-parody, like in ’22’.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn inspirational.

Shake off the doubts yo, shake them off.

                                                               Shake off the doubts yo, shake them off.

An Empire State of Mind

It’s easy to find blogposts and listicles about how important it is to travel in your 20’s. The writers of these posts say inspiring things about how travel builds perspective, travel doesn’t have to be the provence of the rich, travel brings you face to face with people and situations you would never expect. I’ve seen so many of these, some of them with agendas more clearly discernible than others (for instance, there’s one about how girls should travel in their 20’s rather than get married. I have a problem with posts like these simply because they seem to judge those who do choose to get married in their 20’s, which I find a little discomfiting. People should be able to get married whenever the hell they want, and that includes in their 20’s), but rants aside, they all make this one point: travel broadens horizons, and really, you should do it.

I would describe myself as an indifferent traveler. I don’t really enjoy meeting new people all the time, neither do I need to throw myself into particularly ‘exciting’ and ‘new’ experiences in order to find my life enriching and fulfilling (I think I do well enough building and dispensing drama on my own—just ask any of my close friends). Certainly I enjoy seeing famous and touristy places, but my ambition does not include that oft cited by so many people: ‘I want to see the world’.

Having said all this, there are a few places I would like to visit, a short list of countries that includes, for various reasons, Peru, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Morocco, Canada and one particular city: New York.

top-of-the-rock-photo-ispI visited New York for a day in 2009. It was a there and back again trip, consisting of a hurried Chipotle lunch with cousins, a quick trip through the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), three hours standing in line waiting for tickets to a Broadway show at Times Square, hurried gobbling of cheesecake, strolling through a little bit of Central Park—I remember rocks—and then rushing to Majestic Theatre, where I lost my heart to a singing Phantom and his Gothic tunes. We then took a night train back to the domestic haven of New Jersey, and New York and its treats were left behind.

This quick visit was enough to give me what I thought of as a ‘sense’ of the city, and the only word I could use to describe it was ‘life’. The moment I stepped out of Penn Station’s underground caverns and onto the street, I felt an almost electric thrill shoot through me. Here, I thought, is where I want to be. Ever since then I’ve dreamt of walking down fifth, sixth or seventh avenue, clutching a rapidly cooling coffee as I make my way to my skyscraper-housed office. This vision may or may not have been unduly influenced by The Devil Wears Prada movie. Given how much importance that movie and various other NY-based books/TV shows (cough Gossip Girl cough) have in my imagination, I wouldn’t be surprised.

28annehathawaygoldpurseoutfit

Totes going to be me some day.

I finally had the opportunity to stay in the Big Apple. I crashed at a close friend’s place on 125th and Broadway (like a true New Yorker, I have learned to locate places based on street and avenue number/name), very close to Columbia University. I took the Subway on my own—woohoo!—and travelled about Manhattan. I met a range of interesting people, old friends and new as the cliche goes, and undertook the grand mission known as ‘finding oneself’. I walked past humongous skyscrapers multiple times, looking up at the windows and wondering when I would sit inside and look out upon the commuters and tourists scurrying below. I stood outside the NewsCorp office for a full five minutes and plotted takeover, even messaged a partner in crime about how we would one day rule the publishing and television world from there. 

I have very small dreams, you see.

New York was everything I dreamed it would be. Granted, I spent only ten days there and didn’t actually have to brave rush hour crowds, eke out a living and pay a humongous rent, so my picture of the city is rather rose-tinted. But it felt, more than anything, like a bigger, more international version of Delhi, perhaps shinier and the teensiest bit safer, in some ways. In other ways, more dangerous.

Perhaps this, its Delhi-like feel, made me even more desperate to be seen as ‘part’ of the city, a true ‘local’. It’s impossible, at a glance, to tell who is from New York. It houses people from every race, every country probably, ever sort of social, economic and religious background. Given the smorgasbord of humanity, it’s easy enough to blend in, be perceived as someone completely at home here. I figured out the easiest way to pass off as a local, i.e, not a clueless tourist (which, whatever I say, I was) was to plaster a confident, vaguely arrogant expression on my face and just stride off in the direction I thought I was supposed to take. Luckily for me, my face assumes this expression almost by default, and even when I took the wrong exit from a subway, quick glances at the street corners enabled me to reroute myself properly.

Why was I so desperate to blend in? Perhaps I just wanted to extend the illusion of being part of the city, convince myself that yes, I am here and I will be here. If people validate this notion, all the better.

Did traveling to New York give me the much vaunted ‘perspective’? Yes. It taught me how very much I want to be seen as successful, creative, a force to be reckoned with—all images one associates, thanks to pop culture, with NYC. More than that, it showed me that I want to be all those things there. I want the skyscraper-housed office, the overpriced coffee, the snootiness of an Upper East or West side address. Impossible to get? Well, like Jay-Z said, ‘If I can make it here/I can make it anywhere’.

Challenge accepted. 

blair

Bring. It. On.

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.