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The Writer

“When I grow up, I want to write a book, pa,” she said. “About a girl who saves rainbows.”

“Why do rainbows need saving?” her father asked. 

“Because they get killed.”

**********

For someone who had always wanted to be a writer, she was very reluctant about taking up the apprentice job. She had applied along with her friends when they had seen the advertisement. “It’s a great learning opportunity!” they’d said. He was a bestselling author with a broken right hand. He needed someone to type his next book, ‘Adrenaline’. 

She was not a fan of his work. But the job paid well and he’d picked her from thousands of applicants.

Standing in front of his apartment, though, she felt excited. She was about to meet a celebrity author. A published author. An author of books loved by tens of thousands. It has got to count, somehow. 

He opened the door with his left hand. He gave her a tight nod when she stated who she was. He had a workstation ready for her: laptop, ergonomic keyboard, notebooks, post-its, pens. As soon as she took her seat, his words flowed. He was describing a fight scene in a cathedral far far away. But the passion in his voice made it sound like a love poem. 

He tested sentences and words with skill. He had a keen sense of rhythm and limitless vocabulary. When her three-hour session ended, she asked to visit the bathroom before she left. He pointed at a door to her right without a word. She locked the door behind her and cried. She could never be as good a writer.

The next day was the same, and the next, and the next. They never exchanged pleasantries. He nodded and she got to work immediately. When she asked him to repeat something or slow down, he listened. His silence signaled the end of the session. She coughed once and there was a glass of water on her desk every day after that.

They completed three chapters that week. On the eighth day, she thanked him for choosing her. She told him she always admired him. He had a hint of a smile when he said his first words to her. “It’s no big deal.” His humility surprised her. 

Then, there were more words. “Where are you from?” he asked holding the door open. “You are not from here.” 

“I am not,” she said. “I am from down south.”

“Did you always want to be an author?” she asked after a session.

“Only since I learned that it’s where the money is,” he joked and winked. She laughed to hide the thrill she felt.

Her friends were jealous. “What did she do to get the job?” She overheard someone saying once. “I heard he’s a big flirt. She probably did what she had to do,” said another. “I could never!” said the first one, outraged.

“Why did you pick me?” she asked him the next day.

“Because you are pretty.” He said simply. She blushed. 

Once she saw a woman walk out of his house. Her throat constricted so hard it pained. A number of women called him during their sessions. When they came to his apartment directly, he ended the sessions early. Her heart broke every time. 

“Who are all the women?” she asked one day. He put down the coffee mug he was holding in his right hand. It was still in a sling but it was getting better.

“They bother you. I noticed,” he said.

She turned away to hide her face. He bent down and pulled up her chin to make her meet his eyes. She held his stare with some effort. Whatever he saw in her face made him kiss her. 

Hours later, she placed her palm on his bare chest. His heart was still pounding. His eyes were closed and he was breathing deeply. He looked vulnerable. She knew she can weed out his secrets if she wanted. Instead, she told him hers. 

“I didn’t think you’d be any good.”

“Mmm?”

“I lied when I said I always admired you. But I admire you now.”

He turned to look at her curiously.

She continued, “Your love for words…” she smiled, “I don’t have words to describe it.”

He scoffed. “My love for words? I thought you were a smart girl.” 

She pulled the sheets to her chest and sat up. “What do you mean?” 

He looked at her with pity. “I told you I was just in it for the money. But that was a lie.” He beckoned her closer and kissed her neck. “I am also in it for the women.” 

“But you have so many fans that love your work.”

“My fans are fools. People are fools,” he said, with no hint of humor in his voice.

This changed things, she thought. 

But she could detect none of the derision in his narration the next day. As always, he coaxed the exact word he needed from the depths of his brain. He cradled his favorite phrases with his smile. He repeated sentences he liked, enunciating a different part every time. It was like a caress or a kiss. An appreciation for being perfect.

There was a different man behind the mask he was putting on, a man who loved his words. She knew it in her heart. 

She reacted to his words as she typed them and he noticed. He was pleased by her nods of approval. Her frowns made him rethink sentences. He laughed openly at her look of surprise when the big suspense was revealed. 

She was his date for the book launch party. She’d never been around so much adoration. Some of it was directed at her. She was his muse, his fans thought. 

‘Adrenaline’ became his best bestseller and as a thank you, he took her to Paris. He called her his lady luck. When they returned, she started living with him. She had no possessions of her own. He provided for her. “What’s mine is yours,” he told her.

She typed his next book too. “I like this arrangement,” he whispered and kissed her shoulder in the middle of a session. She typed that out and deleted it. “I am making mistakes,” she whined. “Let’s make more,” he said.

Her friends were even more jealous. “They’re fucking,” she overheard one of them say. 

He was describing a wedding when she asked, “Am I your girlfriend?” She felt silly, but she wanted to know. He grabbed her face with both his hands and said, “You are so much more.”

She agreed. He was so much more too. He was her whole world.

“Have you ever thought about writing something different, something from your soul?” she asked as they took a midnight stroll in the city. 

“It’s not what I do.”

One morning, she pulled him out of the bed to show him her manuscript. “I was up all night finishing it,” she said. “It’s about a girl who wants to save rainbows!” she said in a sing-song voice. His face was blank. “It’s a coming-of-age novel about a girl who wants to become a scientist,” she clarified. She’d used his laptop to write it, bit by bit, every night after he went to sleep.

She was suddenly nervous. The words on that page hadn’t come to her as easily as it seemed to come to him. What if he hated it?

“Say something.”

“No one will read it,” he declared. His words stung. “Your hands must be so sore from typing so much,” he continued. He took her hand and kissed her fingertips. “You are my lady luck and I just want to protect you.”

“But…”

“People really are fools. Don’t you believe me?”

He had published fifteen books. He was a veteran in the industry. Of course, she believed him.

“We are a team,” he said, wiping away her tears. “My books are yours. My successes are yours,” he said as he deleted her manuscript from his laptop and shut it down.

She had a sense of déjà vu as she typed the next book. It was different than the previous one but it was also the same. He still enjoyed narrating it. New words were used to prop up the same plot. The fight scene this time was set in an Aztec temple far far away. When it launched, it was sold out in a matter of minutes. 

“Why don’t you make the protagonist a woman in the next one?” she suggested when they were lying in bed. She’d overheard one of her friends calling him a misogynist.

And he did. Same characters, different gender. Another fight scene, this time in the dark alleys of Mumbai.

That book made him a millionaire. He was called a ‘feminist’ and a ‘game-changer’. He was invited to panel discussions on gender. In the privacy of their home, they read reviews lauding his progressive values and laughed. They watched videos of his fans gushing about the book. 

They made love to the voices of the fans he had no respect for. 

They churned out the next book in sixty days. But it did not sell out in minutes or hours. For the first time in many years, his name was not on the bestsellers list.

The reviewers called him a ‘regurgitator’. “No one has plagiarized his work as much as he has.” He brooded and moped. He blamed himself. “I should not have edited that last chapter. I should have let your lucky fingers do it.”

She massaged the back of his neck in the bed. “Luck’s got nothing to do with it. You are more popular now so your work is coming under more scrutiny.”

“It’s the same dumb people reading it.”

“We just need to write another,” she said and they brainstormed ideas.

His fans turned against him in online forums. He saw them make cruel but accurate predictions of what his next book was going to be about and abandoned the project.

She didn’t like his name being dragged through the mud. Not now, when they were tied in more ways than one. He had so much love for the words he wrote. His was raw talent. If she could just convince him to let his mask down…

She put on her best persuasive voice, “Write something from here,” she said and pointed at his heart.

“I can’t,” he whispered. 

“Your fans are telling you they want something different.”

“My fans are fools!”

“Then write for her,” she said tenderly and place his palm on her belly. She smiled and raised her eyebrows meaningfully. Comprehension dawned on his face and he jumped out of the bed, suddenly energetic. She knew this news would make him feel better. 

“What was the timeline? Was it in you during the last book launch?” Seeing her look of confusion, he explained, “The thing, the foetus, the baby?”

“Yes, I was pregnant when our last book launched,” she said, confused.

“While I was writing it?”

“Yes, when we were halfway through the book.”

He clapped his hand loudly and made her jump. “This is it! This is it!”

“What?”

“This thing is bad luck.”

“It’s not about luck.”

“I never failed before.”

“She is not the reason we failed,” she said and made as if to touch him.

He jumped out of her way. “You remove that thing. I don’t want it near me.”

“I am not going to remove anything,” she said and stepped away from him protecting her belly. 

“I don’t want it!” He yelled. “You need to go. You and that. Get out of here.” He shooed her with a book as if she was contaminated. “Go… go…” he wedged the book painfully in the small of her back.

Tears streamed down her face. She took one look at his deranged face and left. He’s just in a bad place now, she thought to herself. He would come to her one day.

She came to his place every day, instead. Until he acquired a security guard to send her away. She was left penniless, possession-less. 

Years later, her daughter called out. “Ma, he’s finally written another.”

She sat up in her chair. After he kicked her out, he’d written five books. ‘Same shit, different cover’ as reviewers had called it. All of them tanked. He last wrote a book ten years ago. 

“I saw it in the store today.” her daughter said and handed her a book colored like a rainbow.

“It’s called ‘Rainbow girl’,” said her daughter. “I like the title.” 

She read the reviews on the backside.

“An evocative, heart-warming story.”

“What a comeback!”

“A masterpiece, unlike any of his others.”

She opened a page in the middle. She stared at the words. Her words. The only words she’d typed that she remembered from all those years ago. She still felt the pain it had caused her to write. Each word was a frustration. Each sentence, fleeting. She remembered the day she felt so much rage that she wanted to throw his laptop out the window. She’d cried when she finished her final draft. After what felt like an eternity of struggle, the words had felt just right and she’d shown him. He’d deleted it without reading them.

She wondered if he’d kept her dedication too. That would be laughable. He’d hated his father.

She flipped the pages. Copyright details, Praise for ‘Rainbow Girl’, Praise for ‘Rainbow Girl’, Praise for ‘Rainbow Girl’, and then:

“To my fans, for showing me the right path. I love you.”

She flung the book across the room. 

“THAT RAT BASTARD!”

 

Kurunthokai – 32

“If aware of time, my love is false.” ❤️

Old Tamil Poetry

காலையும் பகலுங் கையறு மாலையும்  
ஊர்துஞ் சியாமமும் விடியலு மென்றிப்
பொழுதிடை தெரியிற் பொய்யே காமம்
மாவென மடலொடு மறுகிற் றோன்றித்  
தெற்றெனத் தூற்றலும் பழியே
வாழ்தலும் பழியே பிரிவுதலை வரினே.

Dawn or daytime or wretched dusk,
dead of the night or daybreak –
if aware of time, my love is false.
To get on a palm frond horse*
and make our affair public
is a shameful act;
but it’s a shame to live too,
if we’re apart.

*Riding a palm frond horse – மடல் ஊர்தல் .  This is the last resort by a man who cannot marry his love, either because her parents don’t accept or she herself is not ready to accept him. He gets on a horse made of palm fronds, which is dragged to the town center by his friends. He carries a drawing of the woman who has caused him to do this. The townspeople then ask the girl and her…

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Permanent Record by Edward Snowden – A Review

Permanent RecordPermanent Record by Edward Snowden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Recently I, like the world, have been thinking a lot about online privacy. My gadgets-loving husband owns both Google Home and Amazon Echo. He encouraged me to back up all my photos on Google Photos. Our TV is connected to the internet and during some paranoid moments, I have wondered if the TV was watching us just as we were watching it. I am on all social media platforms – but I was more worried about computers reading between the lines and knowing my location than the content I actually put out for my friends to look at. But I cannot imagine a world where I don’t use the TV or Google Photos or Social Media.

So when I picked up this book, I did so under the pretence of learning to be safe online. But the truth is I wanted to learn the steps I can take that makes it okay to use the gadgets. In other words, it is okay if someone in the NSA is reading this review and watching me mouth the words as I type it but how do I make sure that them having this data doesn’t harm me. There lies the problem.

I have become so dependent on the comfort that all these platforms give by invading my privacy that I didn’t for a second think of it as a violation of my fundamental rights.

Unlike what I expected, this book wasn’t more groundbreaking revelation about the US surveillance program or 10 Ways to be Safe on the Internet. This was a story about a boy who grew up with computers in a time when the internet was free. Free of government interference, free of corporate greed, and full of people seeking a connection with people all over the world. It’s the story of a patriotic man who very quickly understood that serving the government and serving the country are not one and the same.

Edward Snowden gives us a detailed account of his life to show us why he did what he did. He talks about how he joined the IC to serve the country post 9/11 and about the feeling of betrayal he felt when he discovered how the tools and programs he built for the US government were being used. He talks about how he went about stealing the files that later shocked the world. And he talks about how he felt when he put his affairs in order and said goodbye to life as he knew it for the last time.

This is a deeply moving, well-written memoir about a brave man who also happened to be smart. It gives me hope to know that people like him exist. And yes, he has taught me to value my privacy, which is the first step.

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My favourite things from 2019

I like a good story. I am always on the lookout for it. It doesn’t matter what genre or form it takes. I want to be swept off my feet. I want to be transported to a different world. I want to love like a crazy person, be addicted to work, cheat, make mistakes, and mourn the death of people that are not real. I want to be so into it that I want to cry just because it ended.

Fortunately, 2019 was a year I found great stories in the form of books and TV shows and I want to share them with everyone.

Mad Men

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Mad men is the sexiest show I have ever seen. Did I say sexiest? I meant sexist. Set in the 60s, it showcases some of the most cringe-worthy opinions that Americans used to have and openly talked about. I specifically say American because it is an American show through and through. Whether it is the sexism or the racism or the workplace culture or the enlightenment, it is so rooted in the 60s of the US. I mean, India was still so new at being a country that some states were only formed in the 60s!

At the heart of Mad Men is a mad man called Don Draper. He is a bag of contradictions. He is smart but arrogant. He is handsome but sleazy. He has compassion but treats his employees poorly. He is vengeful and petty but he is always looking to improve. He is interesting enough to make the show compelling but he is also so messed up that I was completely repulsed by him at times. Under the contradictions is a man who does not know who he is. He is one of the best-written characters on TV and he is excellently portrayed by Jon Hamm.

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I’ll be honest, Jon Hamm’s hotness was the reason I continued watching the show after the slightly slow pilot episode. But the clever writing and the amazing performance by all the actors took me to the finish line. The fact that the show happens in a marketing agency was just a cherry on top for me.

The Dark Forest

81kLBS8j1QL.jpgEven as I listened to The Three-Body Problem, I was looking forward to reading its sequel, The Dark Forest because Reddit told me that it’s so much better. And it didn’t lie.

The Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, of which both books are a part, is an alien invasion story spread across multiple generations. Though the first book was gimmicky, the unique way in which the aliens’ world is explained (through a game), really appealed to me. However, the second book was so much deeper and poignant that I had trouble believing that it came from the same author.

The Dark Forest is an amazing blend of a survivalist drama, science, and philosophy. I guess they always go together. The survivalist drama is the humankind preparing to take on the all-seeing, all-knowing alien race by tasking four men to come up with ideas to save the world, separately. The science part is what the four men (called Wallfacers) come up with and the eponymous theory which is an effective counterpoint to Fermi paradox (Where are the aliens?).

For me, the philosophy part was the most intriguing. You are invited to see the side of the aliens too. It pits the technologically superior aliens about to invade earth as both humanity’s enemy and its reflection, albeit a much smarter one.

P.S. I listened to the audiobook version of this series and a handful of other books. This is my first foray into audiobooks and I am really enjoying it. If you want to try it too but are worried that it won’t really feel like reading, here’s my advice — yes, it is different than reading and I for one can only listen to it when I am doing other things (like cooking). But the end result is more or less the same. You will truly enjoy listening to a good book just like you would reading it. Find out what genre audiobooks work for you though. You might have a very different taste for books while listening to them.

Mistborn Trilogy

Mistbord 001.jpgAfter Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, this is the first fantasy series I read with a unique, well thought out magic system that got to me. Unlike Harry Potter and LOTR, when the series begins, the dark lord is not plotting his comeback. He is already ruling over an empire where the sun and sky are red, vegetation is brown, and the ground is constantly being covered under black volcanic ashfalls. In this bleak scenario, the people who are affected the most are, you guessed it, the working class. The series is about the working class, called skaa, overthrowing the nobles and the dark lord (called the Lord Ruler in this case).

What I greatly appreciate in this series is it’s ending. Funnily enough, I read this around the same time Game of Thrones was wrapping up and there are a lot of similarities in the themes between the two endings. Except, the ending of Mistborn series didn’t make me wanna fling my shoe at it.

Circe

a-flat-front-1.jpgCirce is one of the most powerful female characters I have ever read. But the character and the story only come secondary to the writing that flows like a river. It feels like a sweet story someone’s telling you just as you are falling asleep.

The thing is, the prose might be beautiful but Circe’s life story isn’t. Circe is about struggle. The struggle of being an unimportant daughter to a powerful father. The struggle of being empathetic in a selfish world. The struggle of a single woman, even a god, living alone. The struggle of being singled out for thinking differently than the herd.

I don’t usually like to read anything related to Greek Mythology. I don’t find them entertaining at all. But Circe, that has so many characters from Greek Mythology, is very close to my heart. I am not familiar with a single myth, but I enjoyed the book.

Ants Among Elephants

ants among elephants - sujatha gidla.jpgIf you want to educate yourself on caste-based oppression, you should start here. This book is a powerhouse. Sujatha Gidla, the author who was born in an untouchable family in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, writes about her incredible family. Incredible because of the strength and their hope for a better tomorrow no matter what life throws at them.

The author focuses mainly on stories about her mother and her uncle. Not only will you learn about the plight of untouchables in India but you will also see how the experience differs for a man and a woman. They are diametrically opposite. Her uncle goes on to become a poet, a voice for the downtrodden, and a revolutionary. While her mother struggles to keep down a job, enters a loveless marriage, and undergoes domestic abuse.

There is a blunt and resigned quality to the narration of the struggles this family faces that made my stomach turn. It’s the most straightforward horror story ever told.

Somewhere Only We Know

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It was a Friday evening and I was trying to watch something warm, fuzzy, and nice on Netflix. I skipped the autoplay trailers of shows I never want to watch. I was digging deeper and deeper across genres, across languages. After a while, Netflix started throwing adult content at me assuming that was what I was subtly searching for.

I was so desperate that I decided to watch one of the Korean shows that were all the rage when I was in college. So I went into the Asian TV shows section and found a Chinese show called Somewhere only we know. I’ll be honest, the only reason I clicked on this show was that the poster was pretty and because I haven’t watched a Chinese TV show before. I started watching.

I am recounting so many details about how I found it because it could have been so easy to not find it at all! That thought itself saddens me. The story is that of four roommates in college and their lives separately and together. It has such a lived-in quality to it that it is hard to believe that they were actors acting in front of the camera, that their room was a deliberately decorated set, and that the dialogues were written and not just said from the heart. This show is hands down the most beautiful portrayal of love and friendship I have ever seen.

I recommend this show to anyone who wants to watch a genuine relationship drama. The fact that it’s so cute is just a bonus.

So, these are my favourite things from 2019. You might have noticed, maybe with disappointment, that it’s not just books and shows released this year. I am not that great at keeping up with these things. However, isn’t it great that they are standing the test of time?

 

The Three Body Problem by Liu Cixin – A Review

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 stars for being a book that was nothing like anything I have ever read.

The first few chapters in this book are filled with hooks. A scientist is beaten to death during the cultural revolution in China, his daughter is pulled into a secret mission involving a massive parabolic antenna that repels lifeforms, her daughter and many other scientists kill themselves declaring that science is dead. If this is not enough, another scientist begins seeing an alarming countdown but has no idea what it was counting down to.

But what followed was so different than what you’d expect from these hooks, and not in a good way. My husband, who was forced to listen to parts of the book now and then because of me, remarked that it felt like he was listening to a different book each time. It almost felt like the author, Liu Cixin, knew what story he wanted to say but was confused about how to say it. For example, many chapters are dedicated to suspense building but it fell flat because the synopsis of the book already gave away the suspense! This lead to important plot points being resolved in a very unsatisfactory manner. In the final chapters especially, it looked like the author had given up ‘showing’ completely and just stuck to ‘telling’.

What he was telling though was astounding. There were many moments when I stunned by what I was hearing and stopped what I was doing. Clearly, what Liu Cixin lacks in storytelling, he makes up with his imagination. Whether it was the creepy countdown, the nano-material blades slicing a ship into 40 pieces, or the creation of supercomputers using one tiny proton, I was awed by his ability to imagine something so fantastic.

The three body game within the book is another great feat of imagination. It was engrossing and educational. The environment the game is set in takes seemingly familiar elements and turns it into something terrifying – like the gigantic tidal waves in Miller’s planet from Interstellar. Not only was the game a great way to learn about the alien planet but it also taught me a lot about how civilizations developed and how scientific progress happened.

In spite of all the problems I spoke about earlier, this is by far the best science fiction I have consumed. I am looking forward to reading the next two books in the series which are supposedly better than this one.

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The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin – A Review

The Dark Forest (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #2)The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

 

“If I destroy you, what business is it of yours?”

The second part of the epic saga that is the Remembrance of Earth’s Past is far, far better than the first.

The human civilization has 400 years to prepare for an attack from a far more technologically advanced civilization called Trisolaris. What can you do to defend yourself against an enemy that has better weapons and is privy to any and all defense strategies you can come up with? What is the psyche of the people living their life knowing that a few generations down the line, their descendants will face certain death? The Dark Forest is an imaginative exploration of these questions. But I liked that it was not simply an alien invasion story. We learn so much about Trisolaris and their unpredictable weather in the first book that their threat, though dangerous, seems reasonable. They want to survive and they have nowhere else to go.

200 years after the discovery of the Trisolaran threat, we see a world that is supposedly modern. The new generation thinks that they are so much more advanced than their ancestors but the hibernators, who lived through the initial threat, know that the advancement is just not enough. I found their patronizing attitude towards their ancestors as believable as it was misguided. For some reason, I identified with the hibernators and felt a weird sense of satisfaction when the harmless-looking Trisolaris probe destroyed half of their space fleet. But when I got to this point, the helplessness of the humans made me suffocate a bit. I had a vivid dream where I had to come up with a solution to save humanity and failed. And this is why the book wins. No matter how wild the author’s imagination was, the dangers felt so real and disturbing. Kudos to Liu Cuxin for setting up the dangers slowly throughout the book rather than suddenly flinging it at you for shock value.

The first thing I noticed when I started reading was that the main character, Luo Ji, was much more interesting compared to the MC in the first book. He is an aloof and a bit narcissistic astrophysicist and he is suddenly thrust the responsibility of saving the world. It was a little surprising but also interesting to see that the ‘chosen one’ trope was being perpetuated in a science fiction book. But overall, the growth of Luo Ji as a character throughout the book was remarkable and believable.

I have not read enough science fiction to really know what good sci-fi is, but I can recognize a good story. And The Dark Forest is one hell of a story. I also loved the stories within the story like Luo Ji falling in love with a character he creates or the incredible story of Zhang Beihei who always did the right thing even if it was wrong.

The pacing was slow now and then but it’s not really supposed to be a page-turner; this book wants you to stop and think about the complexity of the problem. I appreciate the science and the very real way in which this unreal story is told. I recommend this book to everyone who appreciates a good story.

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton – A Review

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn HardcastleThe Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Phew! That was a fun ride. I have been listening to the ‘7 deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle’s audiobook version for months now. It took months only because I had a strict ‘listening only while cooking’ rule. There were 2 hours of audiobook left when I was done making lunch today and I just could not wait till dinner to finish the book. So I snapped and ended up purchasing an ebook version because reading is quicker than listening. Yes, the book was so interesting that I paid for two versions of it.

‘7 deaths’ is two mysteries in one. The first is the mystery of Evelyn Hardcastle’s murder and the second is the mystery of the premise itself which is – who are the people trapped in the loop trying to solve a murder and why. I enjoyed the solution to the second mystery a lot more than the first as it was original and much deeper than I’d thought.

From the beginning, when you are introduced to this nameless person (eventually revealed to be Aiden Bishop) trapped inside a host he has no respect for, you start rooting for him. Every time he sleeps or dies, he wakes up as another person, in another host’s body. He has little memory of who he is and he loses a bit of it every time the host changes. At times, I felt as helpless and frustrated as Aiden because he was made to try and solve a murder to which he seemingly has no connection in order to go back to his own life that he doesn’t remember. It was reminiscent of a very different book I read about memories called Elizabeth Is Missing.

I was worried that the author would pull the rug from under me in the end and reveal that I’ve been rooting for a horrible monster. Interestingly, knowing the ending, I realize that it wouldn’t have mattered.

I loved how distinct and interesting each host was. The whole book was the reader processing the world of Blackheath through these different minds. And I thoroughly enjoyed that Aiden, just like the readers, learns what it means to be good from even the worst of them. Jot Davies, the narrator of the audiobook version, had the difficult task of making these host characters sound distinct but similar. And I must say, he pulled it off. So much so that when I read the final chapters, it sounded like his voice in my mind.

The ending was not as clever as the premise and in my opinion, Evelyn’s murder mystery was not very convincingly solved. But with 7 deaths, you’d come for the time-loop, body-swap murder mystery but stay for lessons on morality, forgiveness, and justice. I’d recommend listening to the audiobook version for a better experience.

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Ants Among Elephants by Sujatha Gidla

Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern IndiaAnts Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India by Sujatha Gidla
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My friend and I were talking about reservations in the Indian Education system when we realized that we don’t even know the right vocabulary to discuss it. Both of us were going on about it based on hearsay and assumptions. Neither of us had experienced the horrors of caste first hand nor read about it. That’s how I ended up reading this book.

I went in knowing that this book was going to make me uncomfortable. That, it did. But it was so much more than that. The story was very engaging and it helped me learn parts of Indian history that I never gave much thought to – like the Telangana struggle and the birth of Naxals. It made me realize that for every high-level book about policies I read, I need to couple it with a book written by someone who is affected by the policy. Because the former rarely gives the complete picture.

Though it is not explicitly discussed in the book, I can see that the author herself and her family are beneficiaries of the quota system. And this book is going to be my recommendation to anyone who is against it.

Caste oppression is something that the society rarely wants to talk about because it is a can of worms that once opened can never be shut. But ignoring it is not the way to go. Pretending that our ancestors did not come up with this dehumanizing system is not going to work. The first step to fix a problem is to acknowledge that it exists.

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Nicknames

My husband calls me Cookie and I call him Boo. These nicknames are not very imaginative, I agree. But every time we call each other this way I get a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart.

Anyone who knows us in real life would have a hard time believing that we have such ‘cute’ nicknames for each other. We used to be so anti-cute when it came to our relationship that even our close friends didn’t know we were dating for the longest time.

I am a very straightforward person. I can be awkward around people who wear their emotions on the sleeve and hugs are a big no-no for me.

My husband is awkward in a very different way. He is robotic and finds it hard to read human emotions. Our friend A once theorized that the only way he’d reproduce was by undergoing mitosis after eating too much Fried Rice.

I can’t pin-point when we gave each other these nicknames. But I remember how it happened and it’s quite dumb.

When we were dating, we used to text each other a lot before we went to sleep. I was often sad during the nights because it was when the worries and anxieties I had accumulated throughout the day would come crashing down on me. He would try his best to make me laugh through his texts. He’d joke around or send me cat videos. He’d also send me random emojis.

But one day he sent me the ghost emoji (👻) and that made me laugh like an idiot. The emoji itself is funny but there was an added context for us which was that I often called him a ghost because of his pale skin. After that, he acted as though he had found a key to my happiness. He would send it every time I was even mildly unhappy. ‘Boo 👻’ became the way he signed off every night. That’s how I started calling him Boo.

He started calling me Cookie for an even stupider reason. He has an unexplained hangup over my name. He can never call me Prashanthini. My name is long and he has never attempted to shorten it either. So for a long time, he just called me ‘Hey’ or ‘Oi’. Both of us felt that it was ridiculous and we just couldn’t go on like that. When I came up with a nickname for him, even when I had no hangups calling him R, he started to feel more pressure about the name situation. He was in dire need of a nickname for me or else he might have to start calling me by my actual name.

He was inspired by the fact that I derived his nickname from an emoji. So he tried his luck with different emojis. Obviously, animal emojis were out of the question so he moved on to food groups. That’s when he stumbled across the chocolate chip cookie emoji: 🍪

After a deep discussion, we decided that that would be how he’d call me moving forward.

Since we were keeping our relationship a secret back then, using these nicknames in public was out of the question. Even when no one was around, we felt too shy and uncomfortable to call each other ‘Cookie’ and ‘Boo’ in person. Somehow, during those days, we were very open and intimate over text and we could not be the same way when we spoke in person. So we continued calling each other ‘R’ and ‘Hey’. We carried on this tradition even after we confirmed our relationship and got married.

But things changed when we started living in the same house as a married couple. Our intimacy grew and we used our nicknames freely in the house.

Later we started making creative modifications. When he is looking for me around the house, he would literally be cooing “Cookie coo, where are you?” Whenever he eats too much, I would call him “Boos” (in the plural) to indicate that he has become bigger. We went to Dubai once and the whole time I called him DuBoo. Whenever I am sick, he would call me Sickoo or Sookie.

All this happened strictly within the confines of our house. Even after marrying me, he couldn’t call me by my real name outside. His awkwardness was hilarious to me and I would make fun of it often.

But one day, we were standing near my workstation surrounded by my team. We were having an argument about something or the other when he said, “That’s not how it works, Cookie.”

I was so stunned that I became quiet. There was no doubt that my team had heard it. They had never seen the gooey, relationship-y side of me. I became embarrassed and expected him to feel the same way. But he continued making his point as if he did not even notice that he was calling me by my nickname in front of so many people. I didn’t say anything to him after that but I felt like we had taken a giant leap forward in our relationship.

We had always been uncomfortable with showing affection in public and I had always attributed it to him. But on that day I started to wonder that maybe it was my reaction that was making him hesitate.

I am still not completely open but nowadays we freely call each other ‘Cookie’ and ‘Boo’ no matter where we are or how serious the situation is. I don’t exactly know what I expected but not one person among our friends, colleagues, and relatives have ever commented on it or made fun of it. The normalcy of it pleases me to no end.

The Women of Ponniyin Selvan

“Our empire is now governed by females; we have a veritable Alli Rajyam on our hands. How do we rectify this terrible state of affairs?” 

Periya Pazhuvettarayar, Book 1, PS

I have never loved a book with so many flaws before.

Like most readers, I’ve gotten used to reading books with uninspiring and unreal women characters. I have even read a book that has zero women. So naturally, I get excited when I see even a small hint of a personality in a female character. Especially when that character is not the protagonist. That’s why Hermione Granger blew me away when I first read Harry Potter. She is smart, helpful and resourceful, and sometimes more of a hero than Harry. But she is also an annoying know-it-all who follows rules to a fault. Even with a wand in her hand, in an imaginary world, she felt very real to me.

I felt the same delight when I read Ponniyin Selvan.

Just to clarify — all of Kalki’s characters, male and female, are brilliant. I could tell that he was a huge believer in the good of humanity and that he was a romantic. The men are handsome and the women are goddesses walking on earth. They are too good to be true but I liked Ponniyin Selvan in spite of that. It’s partly because of the gripping narration and humor in his storytelling. But the key reason is that I was completely taken in after I met the first formidable female in the book. This kind of equality in the attention given to male and female characters is what, I thought, the world was moving towards. But never did I realize that it was done and dusted sixty years ago.

Note — Though Ponniyin Selvan (PS) is based on real events, for the purposes of this article, I am treating it as complete fiction. So what you’ll call history, I call spoiler. Though I have tried to steer clear of the must-never-know spoilers, you will get some nice-to-not-know spoilers by reading this. You’ve been warned. Now, let’s meet the women.

Kundhavai, the patriot

Princess Kundhavai does not wait around for her prince to arrive on a white horse. In fact, she hopes that such a prince never arrives because marrying him would mean she’d have to leave her beloved Chola Nadu. She’s a patriot through and through.

To the Chola citizens, she is a benevolent benefactor who uses her wealth to build hospitals all over the country. But she is so much more than that: Her father, the king, is bed-ridden. Her elder brother and the crown prince, Aditha Karikalan, is busy battling his inner demons. Her younger brother, the eponymous Arulmozhi Varman, is disinterested in politics. So at a young age, she takes up the responsibility of navigating the kingdom through dangerous times. She is ready to risk anything to save her land and her people.

But every day, she meets men who ask her to keep her nose out of politics because she is a woman and she hasn’t fought wars, unlike them. She knows how to expertly deal with them and get her way without hurting their ego. But words can get to even the strongest among us. When her plans go wrong, she wonders if they are right. Whether she, as a woman, is not fit to handle matters of state.

What I like about the way Kundhavai is written is that Kalki doesn’t go all out and make her sword-wielding, kick-ass warrior. Nor is she a saint. She has plenty of flaws. She wants to control the lives of the people she is close to and this leads to some disastrous consequences. She strong-arms her brother in the name of love and wishes for him to be the king when he doesn’t want to. She is even called out for being casteist and hypocritical at one point. And that makes her as real as real women get.

Kalki describes by invoking flowers, stars, and celestial beings, but what you will end up admiring is not her beauty but her brains and benevolence.

Mandhakini/Oomai Rani, the lifesaver

When prince Arulmozhi is born, astrologers predict that many dangers will befall him but he will be saved from each and every one of them, and go on to do great things. The predictions come true. He does get into many life-threatening situations and a strange forty-year-old deaf and mute woman saves him from most of them. In fact, the name of this series comes from an incident in which she saves the five-year-old Arulmozhi from drowning in the river Ponni.

She is nameless when she is introduced to the readers. In the beginning, she feels like a deus ex machina — a guardian angel who goes around pulling the prince out of tricky situations.

As the story progresses, Kalki decides to call her Oomai Rani for the time being and she reveals a few things about herself to the prince. This makes her less of a plot device but more of a mystery. She cannot understand what people are saying but she can sense dangers before anyone else can. She is scared of people but she can tame exotic horses and ride them. She is always around to save the prince, but no one knows where she lives. She looks fragile, but she is like the wind and cannot be captured by force.

When Kalki gives us her real name and a flashback, we understand Mandhakini, her motives and how she is a force of all that is good. Throughout the series, Kalki explores different kinds of love. At one point, Kundhavai’s suffocative, self-serving love meets Mandhakini’s selfless, protective love for the same person and it changes Kundhavai for good.

Vaanathi, the damsel

When Vaanathi is introduced, I struggled to understand why she is given such importance. I did not know if I was supposed to like her. She is the very personification of every cliche about princesses. She is a ditzy damsel in distress. She faints at literally everything.

Vaanathi is privileged but without agency. She lets things happen to her. She is supposed to marry the prince by virtue of her family’s close ties to the Chola kingdom. She dreams about him and falls in love with him without giving a thought to who he is as a person. She is even ready to kill herself on receiving the news of his death.

It’s hard to side with her or even empathize with someone like her. But she made it to this list because she taught me something valuable: There’s depth to every person, however vapid they might seem at first glance if you care enough to find out.

As the story goes, we see Vaanathi grow into someone stronger and take her life into her own hands. We learn why she is the way she is. There is a backstory to what seemed like a love of convenience in the beginning that makes it more organic. When she attempts suicide, it looks like it’s because she is dependent on a guy who she has barely spoken to. But later, we see her ready to sacrifice herself to protect the living prince from danger out of love, not dependency.

When she realizes that she is pitted against another woman, a commoner, in her efforts to gain the prince’s affection, instead of pulling that woman down, she lifts herself up. She is even ready to give up the throne just to prove that her love is not shallow. I never really warmed up to her, but I got to a place where I could understand her.

Poonguzhali, the rebel

Poonguzhali is the definition of a strong, fiercely independent woman. As a boat woman, her favorite thing to do is rowing her boat to Sri Lanka and back, braving the high tides, alone. She does what she likes, says what she wants and doesn’t take shit from anybody. I loved her spunk and I loved how she was the exact opposite of Vaanathi.

She is a misanthrope. She especially hates royalty and not without reason. Her aunt, she learns, was wronged by the king and cheated out of the throne she deserves. Poonguzhali’s hate increases when the only man she’s ever liked, the prince, doesn’t like her back. Even saving him from drowning in the hurricane-stricken seas is not enough to bridge the gap between a commoner and a prince, she realizes. This makes her spew venom at Vaanathi, the princess Arulmozhi is supposed to marry. She belittles her love and mocks her fragility. She bullies her incessantly and she inadvertently ends up making Vaanathi stronger.

The reverse of what happened with Vaanathi happens with Poonguzhali. You love the character in the beginning for her uncouth, wild ways. But the vindictiveness she develops, though understandable, makes you like her lesser and lesser.

Nandhini, the siren

Nandhini, the mysterious, seductive, femme fatale, is the single most important character in Ponniyin Selvan. A woman like her, in any Tamil movie now, is usually killed or tamed by the hero in the end. What happens here is refreshingly modern.

She lights up a scandal by marrying a sexagenarian strongman of the Chola Empire. But her eyes are set on the crown prince Aditha Karikalan, with whom she has a love-hate relationship. Meaning, she loves him but also wants to kill him. She thinks she is haunted by the ghost of a man who was killed by Adithan while under her protection. Was that the only reason she goes after the Cholas, though? We are never really sure.

She patiently plans the downfall of the empire. She is single-handedly responsible for the rise of Pandiya nationalists.

Here, we again see Kalki dig deeper into her motives and make her less of a caricature. Though it seems like she is power-hungry and vengeful, we understand that she is a product of her circumstance. Repeatedly wronged by the Cholas since her childhood, she turns the very thing that held her back into something that could destroy them from within — her looks. Every man who meets her wants her and is ready to do anything to get her. And she uses that power to get closer and closer to her goal. She goes from being an outsider and a nobody to someone who can influence policy and incite wars in a short amount of time.

Men who are ensnared by her say that her beauty is her biggest weapon. But what they overlook and eventually pay for, is a sharper weapon that she is constantly honing — her mind. Just like Kundhavai, while her beauty was what she was known for, it’s her mind that gets her where she is.

Nandhini, I must say, does much better than the hype surrounding her character.

In stories with male protagonists, rarely do you see women who set plots or even sub-plots in motion. They only have moments of awesomeness. Even in Harry Potter, all the powerful women are sidekicks. Hermione is Harry’s. McGonagall is Dumbledore’s. Even Bellatrix Lestrange is Voldemort’s. There’s nothing wrong with that. These characters are still awesome. But it is very unlike real life where women make decisions for themselves and move their own lives forward.

Whereas in Ponniyin Selvan, it looks like all of these women think and talk about men all the time. The series might even fail the Bechdel test. But by the end, it’s hard to shake the feeling that sometimes, all the male characters are just pawns in a giant chess game that Nandhini and Kundavai are playing.

As for the men in this story, there are plenty and they are amazing too. I will write about them someday.


Many thanks to Shruthi Venkatesh for turning Kalki’s imagination into beautiful illustrations. He’d be proud! Follow her art on Instagram at shruthi_artgram to add more colour to your day 🙂