The Sanguinarian

The Sanguinarian

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Sleepless in Serpentabad #1: What the hell is this Serpentabad?

Serpentabad was a strange, strange name, for a place whose queerness defied imagination, in a part of a country in the South Asian peninsula which didn't attract a lot of attraction.

Until, of course, Serpentabad happened.

How did Serpentabad happen?

That is a story for another time- we'll come to that.

The peaceful folks of Naga Pradesh weren't happy that this mystical place, found hidden, perhaps for centuries, deep in the bowels of the Naga jungles, be named Serpentabad.

They found it weird and embarrassing, as they would tell the media in countless interviews later on.

But the Naga people might as well as had been talking to the wall.

The rest of the country had better things to do than listen to them.

They were aliens with almond-shaped eyes and flat noses, after all.

But wait.

Wasn't this about Serpentabad, and what the hell it is?

Serpentabad is more of a fantasy-land than a real place- something you're more likely to find in a fable or a mythological folk tale.

A land where there are human beings. With everything same anatomically as other human beings, except that their skin is scaly and rainbow colored. They wear snake-skins of various hues, eat gourmet snake meat food ( they have special chefs for that), follow weird sexual practices and live in houses built in the shape of a snake's wide open mouth. With foot-long, real life fangs sticking out of the entrance. They called themselves the Serpentines and grow a modified version of Rauwolfia serpentina

A land ruled by the 12-headed Serpeconda, the Emperor Lord of serpents, who lives in the Constrictor Sea. Named so because it is the official residence of the boa constrictors, the family who rules the snake kingdom.

This place was pretty much shrouded in obscurity till discovered by a mad entomologist from France. Who, by the way, went actually mad with exhilaration after discovering Serpentabad- no one knows why.

But the over-excited Jacques Risseau, now locked up in a mental institute in Paris, where he talks about his discovery from morning till night, didn't go fully mad before he had revealed Serpentabad to the world. Much to the chagrin of Serpeconda, as he would later tell awed news reporters.

How Jacques found this place, we will come to later.

But now that Serpentabad is on international radars, a team from India's biggest news channel is set to visit Serpentabad. Varnab Boast-wami the Crazy Anchor and his team, to be precise.

We will start on their story next week.

PS: Serpeconda is rolling his eyes, and sighing warily, at Boast-wami's name. He has a long and wary fight ahead of him with the Crazy Anchor.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Review- Maya's New Husband by Neil D'Silva

Blurb: In the suburbs of Mumbai, the atmosphere is grim. There is an evil shadow lurking around staling and snatching able -bodied people. The hapless victims are never found again,their bodily traces lost forever in the unknown reaches of the city. In the midst of this is Maya Bhargava, a schoolteacher with a troublesome past. Her career looks promising though.She is learning to pick the broken pieces of her heart and move on. While still trying to cope, love comes her way. It comes most unexpectedly, from a man named Bhaskar Sadachari, who is despised and even feared for his weird ways. The sensible Maya has her head in the right place,but it is her heart that refuses to pay. She chooses the new husband. And the horror begins to unfold.

Horror in the traditional Indian context- in both movies and fiction- has been about bhooth, pishaach, dayan, chuddell, athmaas and the like- supernatural creatures that haunt peepul tress and old havelis and palaces, and terrorize men and women who dare to encounter them. Unfortunately, this horror theme has been so done to death by writers and filmmakers that it has lost its zing. Let's talk about horror novels. The same old, lame old story is thrown at the wary reader- the old, decrepit haveli or palace, the same Rajasthani locales, the same myths about ghosts wanting vengeance haunting the Earth decades after dying. Lame. Boring.
Therefore, kudos to Neil for going down the path never taken- for writing a horror story based on cannibals and crime. For bringing out the horror that resides within the human brain- aka Thomas Harris in his excellent Hannibal series, and Arnab Ray in his novel, The Mine.
I liked the concept about exploring aghori babas- ascetics who reside in Hindu cemeteries, cover themselves in nothing but ashes of the dead, worship Lord Shiva and eat the flesh of the dead.
I remember Aghoris from a documentary I saw on a news channel years ago- where I came to know that cannibalism, ordinarily punishable by law and stomach-churning for a normal person, is practiced as a ritual by some ascetics, and it has religious sanction.
The pivot of Aghoris on which the novel is based makes it all the more intriguing, because of all the mystery these people have built around them- their uniqueness, their weird practices, their staying with chutzpah in places we consider haunted.
The characters are interesting too. Especially Maya Bhargava- the female MC. My feminist self liked her independent, headstrong nature- she's professionally successful, bold enough to teach at an all boys' school despite the stares she gets from the teenage, hormone-struck lads there, and stubborn enough to live life on her terms.
I also liked the character of the sister Namrata- also an independent lady living life on her terms.
I didn't, however, like the character of their mother, Anuradha. I understand that the author meant to portray her as a traditional Marathi woman struggling to come to terms with an increasingly modernizing society around her, but sometimes the descriptions are excessive. Here, my feminist self thinks it's horribly regressive for a woman to think the only thing that gives her value is her ability to cook sweets on Hindu festivals. A woman who measures her worth on such ridiculous benchmarks is a female misogynist. Anuradha is way too regressive and dogmatic for a woman who has two headstrong adult daughters who march to the sound of their own drums.
Also, it is  a little surprising that all three women living in the same house are excellent cooks. Why do ALL women HAVE to be great cooks all the time? That is quite an offensive stereotype. Coming from someone who is an average cook at best- and whose mother is an excellent cook.
I would also add that I had a problem with what Maya did after marriage. When she found herself in dire straits, why didn't she lift a finger to change her circumstances? A strong, intelligent woman like her could have easily managed. Why didn't she stand up to her husband's temper problem? Why didn't she force him to move out of the dumpster they lived in? Why was a tough lady like her so scared of her husband- whom she married out of love? Why did she stay in a marriage where she and Bhaskar had no communication except violent sex at night? Why didn't she bother to find out where he went during the day? How could she stay put in a cold turkey of a marriage? I can understand the stuff about compromising for love and all that, but there's a limit. And how did a working woman like her settle SO quickly into domesticity? How can an intelligent, lively woman not care where her husband goes and what he does? If she was so scared of asking, then why'd she bother to remain his wife anyway?
I also liked the character of Bhaskar Sadachari. I liked the way his past and present has been stitched together to explain his behavior- if I say I'll be essentially giving away the plot.
But wait.
That gets me to my main grouse with the story. Despite having an excellent theme and base, MNH reveals the suspense too early. Now here comes my 'experience'- whatever little it is- with crime novels. Because this novel also has crime- murders, cannibalism- as essential themes.
As a crime writer myself, I know that psychopaths, like the one in this book, are charming people on the outside. They dress, live and present themselves in a way that makes the world believe they're good people. Look at Hannibal Lecter- genius psychiatrist, great culinarian, gifted with excellent social skills and a charming personality. Who could have thought he could turn out to be a cannibal?
But in MNH, that there is something wrong with Bhaskar is revealed too early. It's obvious from his looks, from his behavior, from his dressing sense. Everyone- Maya's mom and sister, her friend Padma and other school students find Bhaskar off-putting. That took the 'shock' element out of the novel- stole its punchline and rendered it less potent than it could have been.
In a crime-horror, you never reveal anything wrong with the character who is the antagonist till the last or second-last scene. You detail the crimes- which Neil has done very well, there are some genuinely puke-inducing scenes- but you keep the identity of the murderer secret.
You reveal it at the last- when the climax comes. Here, if Maya had found out about her husband later- through her own investigations or a tip-off from, say, her friend Padma, who accidentally found out Bhaskar's reality, then the novel could have gone BAM on me. Like, WOWIE! The adorable gentleman, the loving husband Bhaskar is not what he seems?
The writing is good, the prose is eloquent but a bit too verbose in places. Sometimes, too much description and similes spoil the fun of reading.
In some places there are grammatical and typo errors. Some of these grammar errors have been caused by neologisms creeping in- like at one point the author writes 'it was the neighboring woman'. Now I think adding the 'ing' is redundant- it is a result of what some call 'Indian-ness'. Actually we just say : It was the neighbor. Gender can be specified later, or in a different version of the same sentence.
Other redundancies are the love scenes between Hemant and Namrata. There is no other background on these two except that both are horny lovers. It would have sufficed if the author had shown Hemant as Namrata's boyfriend in the beginning, through a meeting between him and her family, and then, at last, they both could have come to Maya's rescue.The sub-plot describing the sex was not necessary. The reason for Namrata not taking Maya's calls- she was busy with her boyfriend- could have just been hinted at.
That brings me to my last nitpick. Initially, I praised MNH for choosing Aghori Babas and their cannibalistic practices as the basis for the plot.
The thing about novels on cannibals and other psychopaths, like the Hannibal series, is that they describe a deviation, a warped mentality, an illness that is all too real.
Ghosts are scary, true, but it's not clear whether they actually exist or not.
Much more chilling than evil spirits and demons are the real life serial killers, rapists and other such samples. Because they detail human depravity, something that comes from the darkness within us.
Their depraved actions can chill you to the bone and make your blood run cold in your veins- that's the effect of the aftermath of psychopathy and criminal behavior.
That's why, in a novel about cannibalistic psychopaths, you don't bring in an Aghori who can predict the future and trace his dead comrade through his 'senses' alone. It sounds like some plot out of a Ramsay movie- and it is ridiculous. It's out of place in a gritty novel showing human depravity.
Yeah, you could show such people as delusional fools masquerading as ascetics lost in grandiose delusions of their greatness.
But you don't bring in supernatural stuff in a novel on criminal psychopaths. Never.
Unless it suits the story. Or you are a genius like Stephen King, who can write a horror combining hardened criminals and evil ghosts with fantastic smartness and skill. Read his Bag of Bones, Dolores Clairborne, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and Black House.
But very few authors can write horror like King. So when you're writing a gritty thriller about a cannibal, stick to portraying characters of the cannibal- something the author has done very well. Full marks on that.

I wish the author, whom I know personally as a writer, all the best for his next book. He is genuinely talented, and I have critiqued him a bit harshly because I expect the best from him- he is among the best.

But please do read the book if you want a breather from boring, lacklustre Bollywood matinee movies like Alone, Creature and Ek Paheli Leela. And boring horror novels too.

You can order the book here:

Happy Reading!!