How Fair is Fair?

I’m not sure what’s with the Asian obsession with fair skin. Fairness creams are all the rage. Fair skin makes you a better person, more successful: Bollywood figures  endorse these creams.

The Asina craze for fair skin

The fairness craze in Asia

This craze isn’t limited to India though, where you do see dark people, but also in Singapore, where the populace is generally fair-skinned. Some whitening creams I’ve seen here cost more than a few months’ worth of groceries. Having never been fascinated by fair skin (quite the opposite in fact), I haven’t tried out these creams, so can’t comment on how effective they are– but as a writer, the  obsession with ‘whitening’ seems rife with fictional possibilities.

Especially when I see the contrast with Caucasians: they throng beaches and swimming pools in Asia when the sun is at its peak, getting their ‘tans’ (for which they use ‘tanning beds’ in their native countries). The Asians emerge only after the shadows have begun to fall, careful as ever of the fragile ‘fairness’ of their skins.

Wherever I’ve traveled in Asia, I’ve seen young women tagging along after a (usually) elderly male gone to fat, pushing prams containing, you guessed it, ‘fair’ kids. (It could be love too, or economics, and I’ll perhaps have a gang of Asian ladies ready to slit my throat for daring to suggest otherwise.)

But the following article in one of India’s leading newspapers takes the cake:

Mayuri Singhal, 36, married into a fair-skinned family. She herself is what is often described in matrimonial columns as ‘wheatish’. When she couldn’t conceive, she walked into an IVF clinic with her demand: a ‘white’ baby. “I had read on the internet that one could access a donor who is fair. I decided to opt for one so that the child blends in with the family.”

According to the World Health Organization, there are close to 19 million infertile couples in India and their numbers are growing. “Couples who come for in-vitro fertilization (IVF) list out specifications — the egg or sperm donor should be educated, fair, have blue eyes,” says Dr Rita Bakshi, an IVF expert. Dr Bakshi says roughly 70% clients ask for fair donors.

Say what? Not happy with the dark skin you’re born with, you actually want a custom-made ‘fair’ baby with blue eyes? I can see a collection of stories set around an Indian IVF clinic, or even an Indian sci-fi horror saga.

Have you ever seen the obsession with a different  skin tone play out at a location near you? What did you think of it?


Vikas Swarup’s Six Suspects

Random House India sent me a bunch of books quite some time ago, but what with my novel, the A to Z Challenge  and deaths in the family, I haven’t posted many reviews. I read Six Suspects a few months ago, so my memory is a little hazy. I stuck in post-it notes though, which are now helping me remember details as I browse through the book again.

My Declared Bias: I read and write Literary stories and novels — so mysteries are not my favorite genre.


 Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup Random House India

Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup

The blurb will tell you what the book is about: Seven years ago, Vivek ‘Vicky’ Rai, the playboy son of the Home Minister of Uttar Pradesh, murdered Ruby Gill at a trendy restaurant in New Delhi simply because she refused to serve him a drink. Now Vicky Rai is dead, killed at his farmhouse at a party he had thrown to celebrate his acquittal. The police search each and every guest. Six of them are discovered with guns in their possession, each of them steaming with a secret motive.

The novel looks at these suspects in flashback, elaborating these very motives. The resulting chapters make for easy reading, though the writing is somewhat stilted.

This is from one of the suspects, a mobile thief, who has taken a job as a servant:

I too, have taken my revenge on the Bhusiyas. Mr. S. P. Bhusiya, the adulterator, for instance, has no clue that the chicken curry he has been eating at dinner time is also adulterated. I spit in it liberally before laying it on the table.”

The plot held my interest at the beginning because Swarup tells us how each of the suspects is related to the other through strange and (increasingly) implausible circumstances. He also uses the backdrop of real events that made headlines in India. But the sub-plots soon entangle themselves into a tropical jungle thick with liana, and the only way to make sense of things in the end is to hack through it, which Swarup does, without much subtlety. I had the feeling this book could lose a few plotlines, and make better sense as a story.

The characters are told, not shown, and they’re not only cardboard, but also melodramatic. Couldn’t bring myself to care for them, one way or the other.

But Six Suspects does a good job of exposing the corruption which India continues to suffer from at all levels of bureaucracy, politics, media and business. Swarup does boil a vile cauldron of these, which stinks as much and as ‘authentically’ as India’s pandemic of corruption does in reality.

The book would have done better with a good editor, who could have balanced story and plot– as it is, Swarup fails in the project he seems to have taken up: write a mystery while highlighting the problems facing Indian society.

Why you could read it: It is an ‘easy’ read once you make your peace with the quality of the prose, and if you are interested in the new, ‘shining’ India, you could do worse than read this book. Some of the voices are interesting, and a few facets of this country, especially the difference between the appearance and reality of its ‘progress,’ have emerged rather well.

Why you could give it a miss: If you like your mysteries to be plausible in their telling, this book is not for you. The plot is riddled with twists and turns, but some of the coincidences are too convenient, and they happen to stock characters with no layers or complexity.

My crib: The editing. Not only do the book’s plotlines need better handling, but also the voices. The most inauthentic, (unsurprisingly, coming from an Indian author), is the Texan forklift operator who speaks British English instead of American– using words like air hostess instead of flight attendant, and pavement instead of sidewalk.

Bottomline, I wouldn’t recommend this book unless you snag it for free someplace and are interested enough in India to want to trawl through it.

What would you like to see any  changes in the  review format? Was this review helpful? Would you read this book?


Never Mind Yaar #atozchallenge

The A to Z April Blogging Challenge 2013   is  sailing ahead, and I’m trying to keep track of the lovely new bloggers I meet each new day! I’m co-hosting it on Amlokiblogs, so drop me a comment there if you have something to say about the challenge itself. On this blog, I’ve been featuring mostly indie-published book excerpts for all of April. I love reading, and supporting author-friends, and this is a good way to do both.

Never Mind Yaar

Never Mind Yaar

Today, for N, I give you a literary novel : Never Mind Yaar by K. Mathur.  According to Graeme Lay, reviewer, Write Right, NZ, “The author’s perspective and insider information draw in both, the Indian and Western reader. Conflict, both ideological and physical, is constantly present, lending tension and drama to the narrative.”

Elevator Pitch: Never Mind Yaar follows the lives of friends Binaifer, Louella and Shalini, women of diverse backgrounds—Hindu, Christian and Parsi—who meet while attending college. The novel’s main plotline surrounds Shalini who, against her family’s wishes has fallen for an impetuous student activist, Bhagu.

Will Shalini listen to her heart or mind? Will tradition triumph over love? 

Excerpt: Dr. Naakwaa of Gyan Shakti College couldn’t help smiling to himself as he looked at the sea of eager, animated young faces. They all seemed to speak at once, or so it seemed to an old man like himself, their ceaseless chatter outdone only by sudden bursts of loud laughter.

Even as they talked and laughed in their own groups, he saw their eyes covertly watching the others. An air of breathless expectancy hung about them, as if something momentous would sweep them up on a wing and fly them away to an unknown destination. Without exception, they all clamoured to go, even the ones standing at the periphery, hesitant and slightly lost though they appeared to be.

Buy the book the author’s website, Amazon and Best Little Book Store.


Manto, and Why Indians and Pakistanis need to read him

I’ve been reading the books sent to me by Random House India, but what with life, and my novel and the A to Z Challenge preparations, I haven’t posted reviews. I read Manto about four months ago, so my memory is a little hazy. I stuck in post-it notes though, which are now helping me remember details as I read some of the stories again.

My Declared Bias: I read and write Literary, and love short stories.


It is possible to review some books without a mention of the context in which they were written, but it is impossible to do so with the works of Saadat Hasan Manto, a writer born in undivided India, who died in Pakistan.

Had he lived, he would have turned 100 last year, but he drank himself to death at the age of 43, eight years after the Partition that created India and Pakistan, after a series of trials where his writing was charged with obscenity. This was  one of the best periods of his work, but one of the worst in personal and financial terms.

Manto: Selected Short Stories

Manto: Selected Short Stories

As such, a lot of history and context is  (rightly, or wrongly) read into his work, and one of the simplest ways to understand this in a short span of time would be to read the introduction by Aatish Taseer, Manto’s grandson, who has translated the stories curated into this book.

Taseer has taken great care to retain the rhythm of the original Urdu in his translation, and no reader can deny the resonance of Manto’s voice that comes through. The originals might, I imagine, have a certain colloquial touch to them, like this example from the story, “My Name is Radha“, one of my favorites from this book:

The studio owner Harmzji Framji, a fat, red-cheeked bon vivant of sorts, was madly in love with a middle-aged actress who looked like a transvestite. His favourite pastime was sizing up the breasts of every newly-arrived actress. Another Muslim hooker from Calcutta’s Bow Bazaar carried on affairs simultaneously with her director, sound recordist, and scriptwriter. The point of these affairs, of course, was to ensure that all three remained in love with her.”

While this reads clunky in English, I can hear it spoken in Urdu (a language I don’t speak, and understand very little of,  but admire nevertheless) with a sort of cheekiness and a common touch, which is, imho, fairly impossible to translate.

Manto was writing at a time when a preachy morality was important in the entire sub-continent, and frank sexuality was frowned upon. So it is quite obvious why the author’s matter-of-fact emphasis on the body was interpreted by his contemporary society as lewdness.

Of course a few of his stories can strike us as sentimental, especially those playing heavily on the drama of the Partition of India (and Pakistan), because our sensibilities are used to the spareness of modern fiction.

But the irony of a stray dog in “The Dog of Tithwal” that befriends both enemy camps (Indian and Pakistani) at a border post and is subsequently shot, is not lost on the reader, nor is the pathos of a madman’s refusal (and subsequent death) in “Toba Tek Singh” when an attempt is made to ‘return’ him to his native town, which, after the Partition, no longer lay in Pakistan, but instead in India. In stories like these, Manto questions the very definitions of ‘country’, ‘borders’ and ‘sanity.’

Why you could read it: It is an easy read, and if you are interested in the Indian sub-continent and its history, you could do worse than read this book.

Why you could give it a miss: If you like your fiction to be spare and unsentimental, this book is not for you. As with most translated fiction, the beauty of the original does not fully translate into English, despite the sincerity of the translator.

My crib:

The typos strewn through the book bothered me (e.g. Pg 28- ‘smoth’  instead of ‘smooth’). The book has some instances of repeated words ( e.g. Pg. 20 “fed fed up”) and other proofreading howlers. If they come up with another edition, they need a better proofreader who would do justice to such an important writer of the Indian sub-continent.


Saadat Hasan Manto

Saadat Hasan Manto

I enjoyed this book, and if you happen to pick it up, the least you should do is read the introduction, which is a modern piece of extremely educational writing, and no less poignant for it. You would not be disappointed, I promise you that.

After I read up on Manto, I realized that he has been marginalized in India, to the extent that I had never heard of him growing up, or even as an adult, and had not read him before this book.

All Indian and Pakistani readers deserve to read more of this writer, because the issues that informed Manto’s work continue to be relevant in the society and politics of both these countries.

It is a shame that this author is not better known in India, and kudos to Random House in attempting to change that.

Only, the next time, I wish they would hire a proofreader worth their time.

What would you like to see any  changes in the  review format? Was this review helpful? Would you read this book?


In Which I Look Back in Anger #India

The following post is for the Insecure Writers Support Group hosted by Alex J. Cavanaugh.


I’ve spent most of the last month of 2012 being angry. It is the January of a new year and I’m angry still. It simmers right beneath the surface, ready to lash out at an unsuspecting victim. I keep it in check, but it seems like it’s waiting in ambush.

In case you’re wondering what this is all about, you might have heard of the gang rape in Delhi (yes, it unfortunately has its own wiki entry), where a woman was raped and sodomized using an iron rod in a moving bus by 6 men, so much so that her intestines fell out and she succumbed to her injuries after a battle lasting almost two weeks. Warning: I suggest you do not read the details if you intend to have a peaceful morning, afternoon, evening, depending on where in the world you are when you’re reading this.

Other people have written about it, some in moving words I myself would’ve chosen to express my very personal feelings on the subject, so I won’t go into the other ramifications here. Since this is an insecure writer’s group — I’ll march straight on, selfishly, myopically, towards my own individual anger.

(As I write this, India still protests against the crime that has left people grasping for words, and made the government and its police beat up its own people. People are angry with the establishment, some of which has been accused of crimes against women, others who advice women that it is their own fault they get molested or raped, and yet others whose commentary on the protesters will make the blood of any sane human being boil.)

Since the incident first came to light, I’ve been wanting to bash something, somebody, getting migraines — my peace of mind poisoned, like a scorpion stinging itself.

Everyday I see the girls and women (and some menfolk) protest in New Delhi’s freezing winters, (initially braving brutality from the very police that’s supposed to protect them), I remember the number of times men have tried to grope me or my friends in buses, passed humiliating remarks, hit me on the road, once causing me a sprain and at another time, a concussion.

I watch the protests become politicized, and I want to drink the blood of those who want to exploit the death of this girl. A girl whose name I do not know, who did not want to be a hero. She only wanted to watch a movie with her fiance’ and go home, and get married this February. That girl could be me, my friends, my sibling. (Yes, it is always the one that resonates with you that makes you angry — hundreds of women get raped in India on a daily basis, but the one I identify with most fuels my anger. I admit the hypocrisy — a writer has to be honest, or give up the pen.)

I want to fly out to New Delhi and get somebody, bash in a few heads. If this is hate speech, so be it.

Meanwhile, the rapes continue, even as we discuss them. Even in New Delhi, even as women protest on its streets. To 3-year olds, 16-year olds, 65-year olds. The protestors themselves are groped and molested.

I’m an angry writer, and after a few days of drought, I’m on a flood of fire. My dialogs spit venom, the guilty are tortured, not merely punished. I fight men on twitter (flouting my own vow of internet hiatus), who blame rape on women’s immorality. I chide friends who make sexist remarks. I debate with people who call it India’s “rape culture”. I even defend India’s men against a mass epithet of “rapists.”

I need to get a handle on this, calm down not only for my own sanity, or validity as a writer, but also because anger needs to be directed to be effective, or it is so much impotent rage. If I want to make a difference, boiling blood won’t help.

Or, perhaps, as an author I respect suggested to me on Facebook, perhaps it is the only thing that would. A writer needs to stay angry.


Have you ever been this angry about something that has happened outside your own personal acquaintance? Has it affected your writing? What have you done about it?

Have You Heard of the Economy of Trash?

Goonj Recycling urban waste

Anshu Gupta: The voice of Goonj

If you haven’t, you should.

I met Anshu Gupta last week, the face behind GOONJ, whose organization has won many awards for his social entrepreneurship: the Economy of Trash — where one man’s waste is recycled into another man’s object of need, even desire. I realized how one man, with good entrepreneurial skills, an insatiable curiosity for inconvenient problems and the ability to innovate in order to solve them, can create a revolution.

The New Yorker says it better than I’ll ever say it , but what you essentially need to know is this:

1. Goonj takes urban waste in India (clothes, blankets etc ), and recycles it into commodities (schoolbags, sanitary napkins) for the rural poor. If you want to see what real, intensive recycling looks like, take a few minutes to watch this video.

2. The Goonj drive to create affordable sanitary protection for Indian rural women addresses a big gap in demand and supply, and starts off a dialogue on a topic that is taboo in most Indian living rooms. “Many Indians possess only one or two items of clothing….a woman with one sari must conceal herself while it dries after washing. And many women stay hidden indoors during their menstrual cycles because of orthodox religious beliefs and because they have no proper undergarments and only a piece of cloth to serve as a sanitary napkin.” (Here’s how you can help these women through Goonj)

3. The clothes are given in exchange for development work in the village, which gives the receivers the feeling that they earned it. This might seem strange, but we’re talking about a scenario in some parts of rural India where people become indentured labor just in order to buy new clothes.

4. Most of Goonj’s operating costs come from individual contributions, because the urban dwellers are made aware of the dismal state of their rural counterparts, and contribute their unwanted, but still usable items in order to help out. What lies unused in the wardrobes of the urban middle-class and the rich, is turned into pure gold for the rural poor via Goonj’s process of value addition.

What I loved about the Goonj approach is the open-ness towards innovation, the dignity afforded to those who receive donations, and  the readiness to let others replicate the organizational model.

With an annual budget of $550,000, 150 employees, and hundreds of volunteers, Goonj is growing apace. What it needs are folks who see the beauty of its concept, nurture it, and contribute towards its upkeep, because it is a win-win, no matter how you look at it.


Would you like to be part of this economy of trash? Check the IndiChange site and ISB iDiya contest page for more details on this post.

Pictures and Words: Rains in August

A lot of rain, a green-washed village, a storm, rain, a walk on metaled roads amid lush fields, no internet, no electricity, no phone calls…the clock turned into an hourglass…this was my day yesterday. I leave you with a few photos taken by my husband as he walked out and about. I know they’re not enough to bring you with us on the journey, which I’ll do some other time.