18 August 2019

Literary Heroines and Necklaces of Tears

The second instalment of my TVOF column Shelf Life, in which I look at literature through the prism of clothing.
From coveted possession to unfulfilled desire, jewellery has had a starring role in fictional women’s lives.
There is something brilliantly non-functional about jewellery. Clothes, no matter how attractive, always also serve to protect our bodies from heat and cold, rain and sun. Jewellery, in contrast, is so wholly useless that that fact has been enshrined in the English language: it is, by its very nature, ornamental.     
Or is it?
Humans have a way of imbuing the things we make with meaning, and jewellery seems right at the top of the symbolic value heap. We will never know exactly what the 46,000-year-old kangaroo bone nose ornament found in Australia in 2016 meant to its prehistoric wearers, or what powers were attributed to the 75,000-year-old shell beads discovered in South Africa's Blombos Caves in 2004. What we do know is that we've travelled some distance from those likely gender-neutral beginnings. 
As societies grew more complex, jewellery increasingly became something women wore. That gendered cultural history runs alongside a socio-economic one, in which women are pushed increasingly out of the public sphere into the domestic, private sphere of unpaid labour. In a world in which upper- and middle-class women didn’t have their own money (and were not allowed to earn it), jewellery was often the only financially valuable item a woman possessed—something that could be exchanged for money, provide a woman security when the patriarchal family did not. 
Sudha Koul’s The Tiger Ladies, an elegiac memoir of growing up in Kashmir, describes how Kashmiri Pandit weddings involved fathers giving their daughters solid gold ear ornaments called dejahor, so long that they hung “all the way down to their nipples”. Appalled at her as-yet-unpierced upper earlobes, Koul’s grandmother (Dhanna) hopes she might yet restore her modern grandchild to the way of tradition by explaining the socio-economic purpose of jewellery: “When women needed money, or when their daughters got married, they would cut off one dejahor, sell it, and make two of the other one. The size was the same, but it was hollow inside and no one would know that they had troubles.”
The Tiger Ladies by Sudha Koul
Dhanna’s ear ornaments remained solid till the end; it was her husband's Lahore University gold medal that was melted down to make ornaments for their daughters (“The fact that he stood first was enough—they knew it and everyone else knew it”). But few marriages are as well-adjusted, few households as equitable. And where there is familial strife, jewellery is frequently at its centre. Late 19th to mid-20th century Bengali literature is filled with women (especially widowed old aunts) guarding their jewellery from rapacious relatives: from Leela Majumdar’s children’s classic Padi Pishir Barmi Baksho (Aunt Padi’s Burmese Box, also a 1972 film by Arundhati Devi) to Shirshendu Mukhopadhyay’s Goynar Baksho (made into a 2013 film by Aparna Sen). 
Hearts Made of Stone
The woman obsessed with protecting her jewels appeared in a much darker register in Rabindranath Tagore’s 1898 story Manihara, translated as The Lost Jewels. The horrific vision that ends Tagore’s tale—and Satyajit Ray’s film version, since it forms part of Ray’s 1961 triptych Teen Kanya—is the wife as a ghostly skeleton, whose “bones glistened with gold and diamond ornaments”. 
The female ghost who preys on unsuspecting men is an old folktale trope from Kashmir to Japan. But Tagore is no simplistic misogynist. The narrator of Tagore’s tale pours scorn on Phani Bhushan for belonging to a “new race of men”, so without “a trace of masculine barbarity” that he “was quite incapable of saying bluntly to his wife, “Dear, I’m in need of money, bring out your jewels.” But he has also told us how things came to this pass: because the misguided Phani Bhushan demanded nothing from Mani Malika—he only gave, and “imagined that by giving, he would receive”. “The wife had no particular fault, yet the husband was not happy. And so he went on pouring diamond and pearl jewellery into the cavity of her heart, thereby filling her iron safe but leaving her heart as empty as ever.”
A still from Satyajit Ray’s 1961 triptych Teen Kanya

Not Quite a Girl’s Best Friend

In two famous European stories, jewels are used to pillory women's desires for other lives, other loves. If The Earrings of Madame De is about its married heroine's fickleness, Guy de Maupassant’s famous 1884 story, The Necklace is a brutal tale of comeuppance for a pretty woman who wallows in self-pity because she has “no dresses, no jewels, nothing; and these were the only things she loved.” The necklace she borrows for one grand party becomes a lifelong noose around her neck—and her loving husband's.  
Indian fiction seems to have been more forgiving of the unhappy wife, perhaps because it contains few loving husbands. To end on a classic example, think of the tragically neglected Choto Ma of Bimal Mitra’s Saheb Bibi Golam, who became Meena Kumari’s Chhoti Bahu in Guru Dutt’s classic 1962 film. Half-mad with loneliness, she accosts her dissolute zamindar husband, asking what she should do while he is entertained by his tawaif mistress. His response cruelly suggests the dispensability of both her jewels and her feelings. “Gehne banwao, gehne tudwao,” he sneers. “Get jewellery melted, get new jewellery made.” 
An English translation of Bimal Mitra's Bangla classic, Saheb Bibi Golam
Perhaps, in the end, that is what makes jewellery such a powerful fictional symbol. It stands in for money, and somehow that means people keep trying to make it stand in for love.

Published in The Voice of Fashion,  6 Aug 2019.

10 August 2019

Acrobats of the Upper Canopy

Don’t be fooled by the name or the sharp canines, the endangered lion-tailed macaque
is a shy, fruit-eating primate that inhabits the upper canopy of the rainforests of the Western
Slug: Narr
Don’t be fooled by the name or the sharp canines, the endangered lion-tailed macaque
is a shy, fruit-eating primate that inhabits the upper canopy of the rainforests of the Western

Slug: Narr
Reporting and researching this piece was a joy, though it also made me tragically aware of how we're ruining the earth for other creatures. It's my first piece for the nature and environment website Roundglass Sustain (please click link for all the superb pictures). 

Don't be fooled by the name or the sharp canines, the endangered lion-tailed macaque is a shy, fruit-eating primate that inhabits the upper canopy of the rainforests of the Western Ghats.

It was April 2014, and I was in the Western Ghats to meet an endangered primate. We drove on, the way the man had pointed, our gazes fixed on the tangled canopy. There! A group of monkeys with black faces, black bodies, and light facial hair. But Erinjery chuckled. This wasn’t the monkey we wanted. The Nilgiri langur we’d met has glossy black fur and a striking mane, similar enough to be confused with the monkey we were looking for. But what distinguishes our chosen primate is its shorter, tufted tail.

Fewer than 4,000 lion-tailed macaques — locally known as simhavaala or singavaal kurangu, literally ‘lion-tailed monkey’ — exist in the wild. They are, Erinjery informs me, divided into approximately 47 subpopulations across at least seven locations in the Western Ghats. These wet evergreen forests are also home to an impressive array of endemic plant and animal life, including over a dozen mammals found nowhere else in the world. The lion-tailed macaque, fondly abbreviated to LTM, is one of those: so perfectly adapted to these forests that conservationists are convinced it can function as an umbrella species. Protect it and you protect the whole forest ecosystem.

And it needs protection. The Ghats run about 1,600 km from north to south, but according to the research of wildlife biologist Dr. Ajith Kumar, forests now cover only about 25 percent of the slopes. The British began felling as early as the late 19th century to create cardamom, coffee and tea plantations. Agriculture, dams and human settlement have only speeded up the depletion. Since about 2004, though, Nelliyampathy’s macaques have benefited from an unusual land use shift: at least three plantations have been reclaimed by the state forest department and begun a slow return to wilderness. By Erinjery’s estimate, Nelliyampathy in 2014 had some 200 lion-tailed macaques living in 14 groups, making it one of the best places to see LTMs in a somewhat natural environment. But LTMs in the wild are shy. As soon as they spied us, they would move deeper into the jungle.


Usually found climbing and leaping through trees some 60 to 100 feet tall, the LTM leads its arboreal life with a lithe grace that belies the astounding height of its acrobatics. Its style is poise, not display. It barely ever descends to the ground even for water, managing on fruit sap and dew.

Unlike the Nilgiri langur, whose whooping ‘hoo hoo hoo’ calls are among the most frequent sounds of the jungle, it rarely makes much noise, devoting most of its energy to the search for food. The only thing you might hear as it travels through the upper canopy is a gentle ‘coo’, helping keep the group together.

When Erinjery and I finally found the LTMs, a silent feast was in progress. A group of about 40 was scattered across a clump of jackfruit trees on either side of the road. A large oblong fruit, fibrous yellow inside and ribbed green outside, the jackfruit originated in these forests. So it makes sense that it is one of the favourite foods of the LTMs, the oldest of the Western Ghat macaques. But the jackfruit is the largest tree-borne fruit in the world, weighing up to 36 kilos, while LTMs are among the world’s smaller macaques, reaching a head-body length of only 16 to 24 inches and an adult weight between 2 and 10 kilos. It’s quite a sight to watch: an LTM balancing itself between two branches, using its forelimbs like arms to immobilize a jackfruit larger than itself, then tearing into it with sharp front teeth. I even saw a sub-adult carry one away to eat in peace, climbing with its back limbs while holding the fruit with the front two and its teeth.

Like other primates, LTMs have forward-facing eyes and excellent vision, as well as opposable thumbs dexterous enough to manipulate fruits. Other than jackfruit, they eat figs, spiny green wild durian, elephant apples, and mangoes, supplementing this frugivorous diet with insects: caterpillars, spiders, cicadas and mantises picked off leaves. A juvenile LTM is likely to spend more time foraging for invertebrates than a grown one. Like human children, they need more protein.

Also like human babies, LTMs take time to grow up. The more common bonnet macaque, often found in close proximity to the LTM, has a similar lifespan, of about 20 years. But while a bonnet macaque starts reproducing at age 3 and gives birth every year thereafter, an LTM female is, on average, 6.6 years old when she first gives birth — the oldest among all macaques. And she will have only two or three infants in her lifetime.

LTMs usually live in groups of about 20, with a single dominant male. Where do the other males go? The answer is a fascinating one. While adult females remain in the group they were born into, an adult male LTM must migrate when it turns five or six, and enter another group to mate. An anti-incest rule!


Nelliyampathy’s 736 sq. km. of fragmented forest has begun to redevelop the connectivity needed for LTM males to migrate. But a full third of the world’s LTMs now live in privately-owned forest patches crisscrossed by plantations and human settlements. For every LTM in Nelliyampathy, there is at least one living in Valparai, 130 km away. There, I watched in disbelief as two male LTMs ambled across a busy road to investigate a heap of trashed plastic plates for leftover rice and dal. Returning to our jeep, I found another macaque peering out of it cartoonishly, as if to say, “What guys? No food?”

But the state of LTMs in Valparai was no joke.

Like Nelliyampathy, Valparai began as a colonial plantation area. Today, though surrounded by the protected forests of Anamalai Tiger Reserve, Valparai is a much larger urban settlement. Also, unlike the shady half-jungles of coffee and cardamom that play host to LTMs in Nelliyampathy, Valparai is dominated by tea estates, whose greater tree-clearance amplifies the habitat fragmentation that is the biggest long-term threat to these macaques.

Two of the largest Valparai groups, comprising 160-odd LTMs, are living a strange new life: isolated from other groups, hemmed in by human habitation, spending 30-40 percent of their time on the ground instead of the four percent normal for the species, and consuming new foods.

In Valparai, it is tragically common to see LTMs by the roadside, making an easy breakfast off local cultivars like the guava. When a car stops, a daring male can get a still easier snack. I saw three different monkeys show up for their fix of fried, salty processed food.

Ananda Kumar, a scientist at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF) in Valparai, suspects that growing construction and tourist traffic has increased human-animal interaction, changing LTM behaviour and causing conflict and roadkill. To help, Kumar and his team had built fire-proof canvas bridges to link the tree canopies on opposite sides of the busiest roads, and hired two staffers to track these two groups daily. Between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., they held up placards telling drivers to ‘Go Slow’ and tried to persuade day trippers — many from a rising tribe of amateur photographers — not to feed the monkeys.

These are emergency measures. Long-term conservation needs plantation owners to work with the NCF. Restoring forest fragments and planting connecting tree corridors across a nude expanse of tea bushes would help create a self-sustaining habitat, in which migrating males from one LTM group can find a mate in another.

The growing number of LTMs in Valparai can appear a good thing, especially since hunting remains a threat elsewhere. But the larger group has 120 individuals, more than six times the size of an average group in the wild. Both groups have become multi-male, and Mysore-based primatologist Mewa Singh says the biological effects of the inbreeding “will only show themselves in several generations.” And given radically altered diets and exposure to human diseases, a ballooning population could suddenly crash.

What I’d learned about the lion-tailed macaque in the wild was that they were almost entirely arboreal, uni-male societies, dependent on the fruits of the rainforest and its connected canopies. In Valparai, all of this had changed. But unlike bonnet macaques and rhesus macaques, known to commonly snatch food and act aggressively with humans, the LTM’s forced engagement with the human world has not yet changed their essential temperament. As one of the placard-holding NCF trackers said, “Sometimes they come and touch us gently on the shoulder. They’re soft-type animals. If you don’t disturb them, they don’t disturb you.”

I can only wonder how much further we intend to push them.

9 August 2019

Redeeming Men

My Mirror column:

The Malayalam film Kumbalangi Nights, now streaming on Amazon Prime, casts a warmly human look at 
not-so-eligible men -- while undercutting the ones we usually lionise.

Soubin Shahir, Shane Nigam and Sreenath Bhasi as brothers in Kumbalangi Nights
There's a scene midway through Kumbalangi Nights when an abashed son-in-law apologizes if he's put his mother-in-law to too much trouble by mentioning that he hasn't eaten pooris for a while. Then, still smiling under his perfectly trimmed moustache, Shammy pulls the protesting old lady to sit down in the chair next to him, calling out to his wife to serve her mother a poori. In a few minutes, the three women of the family are sitting down with him at the dining table. “In future, we should all eat together like this,” declares Shammy expansively.

In almost any other Indian film, such a scene would be a picture of domestic bliss. An educated, modern Indian family man, fondly requesting a treat from his new mother-in-law, and making sure that he eats his dinner not before but alongside the “three hapless women” he has taken charge of by marriage. But in Madhu C. Narayanan's directorial debut, we see the layers that would ordinarily be covered over. When Shammy – played masterfully by popular Malayalam star Fahadh Faasil – calls out for the poori, the film cuts to his wife and sister-in-law in the kitchen, making us note who is actually doing the cooking. We see the two women turn to each other, as they do often in the film, their eye movements and gestures an often silent commentary on the tension that actually animates life with Shammy.

Syam Pushkaran's script offers clues to Shammy's dangerousness right from the time we are introduced to him. He is the new occupant who has the neighbourhood children afraid of playing football near his house; the new husband who makes his wife nervous; the young man whose response to an older man's cooking for him is to mock him for time spent in the kitchen. Pushkaran's dialogue is brilliantly subtle, every unpleasant remark delivered with a smile, twisting the knife even he seems to be passing the butter. And so perfect is Faasil's delivery of it that it seems utterly believable when the film's simpler, more transparent characters take his statements at face value. In one superb scene, Bobby and his brother Saji come to Shammy's barber shop to ask for his sister-in-law Baby's hand in marriage. Shammy mocks the proposal with such finesse that Saji can't even see what's hit him. But we do.

“Cheta, this Ramayana was written by a forest-dweller, right?” says Shammy, which Saji takes as suggesting that anyone is capable of anything: his unemployed brother Bobby may yet get a job that makes him husband-material. But in fact it is proof only of Shammy's disdain. And that disdain extends beyond the poor Christian family of fishermen that thinks it is his equal; it extends to the law that allows women the freedom to decide their own fates: “Mr. Saji, you know, a girl can marry any scoundrel she wants. Unfortunately that's the law of the land.”

When the film begins, we see Bobby and Saji through the disappointed eyes of their youngest brother Franky, who has returned from school just in time for their father's death anniversary. But even as the schoolboy cooks a fish curry and waits for their fourth brother, Bony, to get home and eat together, Bobby and Saji have begun their usual brawl. It is a household of men – unkempt, unemployed and entirely unmotivated to any activities beyond drinking and fighting.

But by pitting Shammy's outward respectability, his perfect clean-cut exterior, against the dishevelled, largely unemployed bunch of layabouts that make up this family, Kumbalangi Nights achieves something quite remarkable. It shows us that men can redeem themselves, even those who seem beyond that hope. Sometimes the agents of that redemption are women, the promise of love and family, the softening -- if also demanding -- influence of children. But sometimes – as the remarkable arc with Saji and the therapist suggests -- the agent of redemption can be grief itself. Sometimes women refuse to be mothers, and men learn take care of each other.

Glossing over it

My Mirror column:

The real-life story of Anand Kumar and his free coaching is incredible, but Super 30 feels like a missed opportunity.

A still from Super 30, directed by Vikas Bahl. 

Kya baat hai bhai, ki film hamaari aa rahi hai toh sab log lag jaate hain? [What's going on, bhai: is everyone piling on to me because a film is coming out?]” asked the renowned engineering coach Anand Kumar during a video interview to BBC's Hindi correspondent Saroj Singh in January this year. The biopic he was referring to released last week, but it answers few questions -- not even Kumar's own.

Directed by Vikas Bahl (known for Queen and for the serious #MeToo charges against him that led to the dissolution of Phantom Pictures in 2018), Super 30 stars Hrithik Roshan as the Patna-based Kumar, who shot to national fame a decade ago, when all thirty students in his Super 30 class 'cracked' what might be the world's most competitive entrance examination: the Joint Entrance Examination to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT JEE).

Every year since 2002, Anand Kumar has selected thirty students from underprivileged families for his free coaching, also providing them free lodging in Patna and home-cooked meals. How Kumar arrived at this vocation is a fascinating tale. In the early 1990s, Kumar's handwritten submission to a UK journal of mathematics was followed by an offer of admission from the University of Cambridge. The backward caste son of a poor postal clerk, Kumar couldn't arrange the money. Then his father died, and he spent some years in penury before finally hitting his stride as a teacher. The idea of using his abilities to improve the lives of talented poor students like himself came later, and their continued success has been his, too.

It isn't unusual for Bollywood (or for that matter, any commercial film industry) to pick a big star to play a real-life hero. Many recent biopics have done it: Farhan Akhtar as Milkha Singh, Priyanka Chopra as the boxer Mary Kom. Others have cast a known face who's also a good actor: Nawazuddin Siddiqui has appeared as Urdu writer Manto, Shiv Sena politician Bal Thackeray and everyman road-building hero Dashrath Manjhi, while Irrfan Khan was superb as the runner-turned-dacoit Paan Singh Tomar.

But there seems to me something about Super 30 that outdoes these previous instances. I do not refer only to the blackface that Bollywood unabashedly carries out in the name of make-up, literally covering the taller, more muscular Roshan's fair skin and light eyes with an artistic tan. I mean also the way that Bahl's film covers over the facts of Anand Kumar's life.

What's strange is that the facts of Kumar's life are already full of drama. Interviewing Anand Kumar for his 2013 book A Matter of Rats: A short biography of Patna, the US-based writer Amitava Kumar wrote, “When Anand describes the events... you watch his tale of woe unfold as if in a black-and-white Hindi film possibly made by Raj Kapoor.” The fact that his father's sudden death took place by choking, that the streets around their house were flooded by rain, that he had to put his unconscious father on an abandoned vegetable cart to wheel him to a clinic – all this is in Amitava Kumar's book. But in the film, there is no choking, no flooding, and Anand has a bicycle. The film depicts the papad-selling business that his mother and he supported themselves on, but there is no mention of the fact that the postal department sent Anand 50,000 rupees after his father's death, or the fact that he needed to stay on in Patna to support a family that included a grandmother and a disabled uncle. It almost feels like the facts are too extreme for the film.

Instead, Bahl's version wishes to distract us with not one but all of the following: a youthful love interest who marries another man (Mrunal Thakur, from Love Sonia); a hard-drinking journalist who makes confusing interventions; an overly villainous coaching competitor (Aditya Shrivastava); a buffoonish politician (Pankaj Tripathi). Worse, it gives us a whole first batch of Super 30 students, some with 30-second backstories that could be potentially devastating – the manual scavenger, the construction labourer, the girl with the alcoholic father -- but not one gets a real personality. The camera is so focused on Roshan's as-ever exaggerated performance that the kids don't have a chance.

Attempts have, in fact, been made on Anand Kumar's life. But the film makes these about overly chatty hitmen, and the last episode – where his coaching competitor plans to blow up an entire hospital in order to wipe out the Super 30 – has the students turning Kumar's science formulae into a bizarre combination of religion and magic. A Vedic chant about vidya is the aural backdrop to an elaborate game of smoke and mirrors to outwit armed goons. Meanwhile the villain warns: “It should look like a Naxal attack, no-one should suspect that it is meant to kill Anand Kumar, otherwise he'll become a martyr.”

The BBC interview is filled with allegations it thinks are controversial. How many students does Kumar take on in his (paid) Ramanujan classes? What fees do those students pay? Why does he not reveal the names of each year's Super 30 students until the IIT JEE list is out? Kumar answers them all, though he sounds victimised.

The film, meanwhile, refuses to even engage with the last decade of Kumar's life, involving the complexities that come after the Happy Ever After. We dearly want our heroes to be saints, and we are happy to erase their real selves to achieve that.