The Sanguinarian

The Sanguinarian

Sunday, 23 October 2016

On Chetan Baba, Feminism, Elitist Bullies and Serial Mansplaining

Some of you may ask why I'm writing an article on Baba when I haven't read his latest book and don't read him in general. Well, this is less about his books and more about the man himself. Come on, the man is sort of a personality cult- his tweets, articles  in the Times of India and statements in interviews attract as much attention as his bestselling books. Not to mention his appearance on a dance show as a judge ( I don't know how that worked out though.) So even though I don't read Baba anymore ( I was done with him after Two States) I follow his interviews and other public appearances with interest. He amuses me- the guy's a comedian, a walking trigger for controversy, and he doesn't seem to mind. The controversy helps him sell more copies and he rides the beast called negative publicity with elan ( until, one day, it comes to bite him in the ass, just like it bites everyone in the ass).
Some of you may ask why I call him Baba. Well, it's kind of obvious isn't it? He's a youth icon, someone who is supposed to have captured the Being Indian Youth Experience in his books. And then, through his books, he attempts to tell the youth how to live their lives and deal with life's curveballs- IIT prep, college, ragging, girlfriends, sex, enterpreneurship, inter-community marriage etc. Then there's his TOI articles. I think Baba has taken the title of his first novel way too seriously- almost every Underage Optimist article I've bothered to read ( I don't read TOI anymore) ends with, or is all about, five points Baba thinks can solve any given problem. Every problem India as- political, social, economical, gender-based- can be solved in five points. Since he is a pundit who can hold forth on ANY topic, he's Baba.

So given my fascination with the personality cult of Chetan Baba, I've been following all interviews, articles and reviews around One Indian Girl. And this time I'm not amused.

Baba claims he's trying to explain feminism in a simple, light manner. I'm sorry, feminism in a simple, light manner? Is feminism like a Grade 10 English textbook, the answer key to which Baba wants to provide to his readers? So One Indian Girl is like Julius Caesar Made Easy for the average Chetan reader?
Then there's the thing about a 'likeable' feminist. Who is a likeable feminist? NO ONE. Asking for your cultural, social, political, economic and personal rights does not make us likeable. And I say this as a feminist myself. It makes you a demonized entity accused of being anti-men and anti-family and anti-marriage and anti-lots of things. We're only anti-patriarchy, actually, but hey who cares? Women have been oppressed for so long that now the power center is shifting and dividing equally amongst the three genders, those who enjoyed their privileged entitlement status under patriarchy are becoming scared of losing their hegemony.

So no there's no such thing as a likeable feminist. I you're trying to make a feminist likeable it doesn't bode well. By the time you're done watering down feminism to make a character likeable you'll be left with a plaint doll who's not a feminist but someone who's a pathetic excuse for one.
On that note I'll mention that in all reviews I've read, wheter by friends and fellow writers or in newspapers and magazines- all differ otherwise but agree in one aspect- Radhika has failed as a feminist character. Her decisions, her mini-me thoughts, her actions and her self-perception- all are the opposite of a feminist character as Baba claimed at his book launch.

There's other stuff he's said that I find strange and very unlike a man writing a feminist character.

First of all there's Baba claiming loudly that he got waxed to understand what it's like being a woman. Really? Waxing? What's so uniquely feminine about waxing that Baba thought this will give him the Being Woman Experience? Nowadays men are getting waxed too- chests especially. They're even getting mani-peddies to look good.
There are things which are uniquely feminine. Like, you know, menstruating. Too bad Baba can't implant a pair of ovaries in his abdomen to see what it's like to bleed. Or get pregnant, for that matter. Or he'll never get stared at and mentally undressed by lechers as he walks down a road, whether it's morning or evening. He'll never get stereotyped for wearing too much or too little make-up or being outspoken. He'll never get judged for having short hair, wearing jeans and tees or being a single, independent career woman. He'll never get scoled by parents or morally policed by neighboring aunties for not 'dressing modestly'. He'll never face workplace sexism. Now THAT's being a woman.

Moving on, Baba claims proudly he spoke to 100 professional women, including his wife, as part of his 'research'. And he says he knows these women and none of them are feminists.

100 women is too less a sample size, first of all. Although there are statistical formulae to calculate a proper sample size for serious scientific studies, especially in social sciences, I can still say that 100 is not a proper sample size. Especially when you're researching a complex, important topic like feminism. My friend and critically acclaimed author Sreemoyee Piu Kundu's bringing out a non-fiction on single women and she's spoken to many women across the country. A lot more than 100, I'm sure. Many of these are women she's not familiar with. Even for her feminist erotica novel Sita's Curse she interviewed many strange women and combined their experiences. But then Kundu's a feminist, Baba's not.

Baba also didn't speak to any feminists- the real deal. No, he doesn't have to agree with them or anything but they're experts, they know feminism better than a lot of us. India has so many well known feminists- Nivedita Menon, Flavia Agnes, Urvashi Butalia etc. Why didn't he speak to them to get an idea of what it's like to be a feminist in India? He's very quick to claim that feminists are bullies, 'ultra-feminists', and that having a uterus doesn't make them owners of the movement. He claims feminists bully both men and women and want 100% agreement to call others a feminist.

I'm sorry but how does he know that if he didn't actually speak to feminists? That's mansplaining. Having a prick doesn't make him an expert on who owns the feminist movement or what feminism should be.

That Baba didn't bother to even flip through a book on feminism is amply clear by his poor understanding of it. He's asking questions like- is feminism about not wanting a man, is feminism about telling little girls they don't need a man, is feminism about telling girls not to do girlie things, feminists deride women who apply make-up, are feminists okay with flirting? And he's asking these questions AFTER having written a book with a supposedly feminist character.

Again, mansplaining.

Nobody perhaps told him that feminism is about gender equality. Feminists flirt, have boyfriends, get married and have families. Gender equality means exactly what the words mean- men, women and transgender are equal. Some people wrongly call feminism as 'female equality'. Who will females be equal against? Themselves?

Feminism does NOT say that a woman can't have a boyfriend, pine after a man or feel loss after a break-up or apply make-up. Feminism just asks that a woman doesn't have to be subjugated to a man, or lose herself trying to please him or attain him. Feminism asks a woman to not build her identity or self-esteem around the approval of men but to have an identity of her own; to not feel that she's inadequate if she doesn't have a man in her life. Feminism is about women not wanting men for social or financial security or needing them for validation- it's about women wanting men to love, cherish and find a life with, grow old with. Feminism is about a woman applying make-up to please herself and choosing whether to apply make-up or not; it means she doesn't have to apply make-up to please others or to be desirable to men as such. If she wants to please a man then again, it's her choice to dress and make herself up the way she wants.

So again, mansplaining.

 Baba tried to mansplain, to a female reporter at The Wire, that women want to be taken care of by men. That is, apparently, being a woman. If I'm not in chronic need of a man to 'take care' of me because I believe I can take care of myself, or if I'm lesbian, I'm not a woman apparently. She called him out on the fact that the book is more of a man-trying-to-speak-for-a-woman rather than an autentic woman's POV- and he negated her concern by quoting sales numbers. Mansplaining again. Phew.

Lastly it's Baba's paranoia.

His books are doing exceedingly well. He's top dog on most bestseller charts in the country, people have warmed to his novels and even critics like me have learned to leave him alone. He has amassed a massive fan following which is loyal to him, faithfully buys his books and RT's him on Twitter. Not to mention the money he's made from the novels, film rights for three of his books and scriptwriting assignments.

What does he have to worry about then? An ( imagined) conspiracy against him. Feminists are elitist bullies trying to appropriate feminism ( God knows why he's saying that. What'd feminists do to you Baba? Make you feel emasculated?)
Then there's the old refrain, around the launch of every book, against the 'literary elite'- which are, I think, award-winning authors writing quality books, who either ignore him or publicly dismiss him as a pulp writer. The Old Boys (and Girls) Club which denies him admission. They apparently hate him because he's brought literature out of the 'ivory tower' and made it into a pedestrian thingy. Whose books don't sell as much as his and so who're not connecting to the public ( it's all in the umbers apparently). If you write a quality book for niche readers like me you're not doing it right and don't deserve to write- you should only write populist BS that sells millions of copies.

Or maybe it's the critics who deride him for poor language, languid prose and hackneyed storytelling who are the elitists who deny him any recognition.

But I thought Baba didn't care. I thought he made houses with bricks thrown at him and used the spit thrown at him to shine. And made omlets of the eggs and tomatoes. I don't know what he did with the shoes and slippers thrown at him. He said he's not trying to be good at writing. Then why care when people say he's not good?

Then why claim there's a conspiracy, either by feminist bullies or elitist gatekeepers of literature? Baba's more paranoid than his ideal, PM Modi. Now PM Modi has a genuine reason to worry  because he's a powerful politician with umpteen enemies and the threat of violence looming over him is real.
What threat is Baba facing? What will feminists do to him, even if they're bullies? Why the extreme hostility against feminists? What will the Old Club elitists do to him? Wallop him over the head with a broomstick? Take away his toys? Turn his readers against him?

Seriously, Baba, the whining's getting a bit old. Grow up. Stop bothering yourself and stop bothering us. And stop mansplaining to women about womanhood and feminism. Women can decide how to be women and how to feel about feminism and how to adopt it in their lives should they believe in it.

Baba mansplains feminism to a woman reporter

More examples of mansplaining by CB

Friday, 21 October 2016

Review- Rain- Sriram Subramanian

Blurb: Architect Jai Dubey trusts in reason - not for him the faith and prayer so firmly ingrained in his fellow countrymen. When fortune deserts Jai and his carefully ordered life spins inexorably out of control, Jai stands on the brink of ruin. Only a delayed monsoon can save Jai’s biggest project from disaster, but there are millions across the land praying for the exact opposite. 
Reason seems to have its limits - the weather defies all prediction, let alone control. 
Will Jai relinquish the beliefs of a lifetime? Will he reconcile with the awful ambiguity about his past? Will he be able to save his crumbling marriage? 

Before I proceed to critique the book, let me provide some context. The day I started reading the book on my smartphone, we were moving from Goregaon to Kandivali. The entire day went buy in getting stuff packed and moved- you can imagine the chaos. And yet in the middle of this chaos, I finished to read the entire book in a day! All 200 pages of it were done by the time I went to sleep. I was helping my mother with the movers, and then reading in breaks. The book was so interesting I couldn't put it down. 

This is the story of Jai Dubey and his 'different' ideals- how he has his own construction company, a small entity working for small time businesses and staying afloat. Jai is very particular about sticking to his guns- he won't work for many clients at a time so he can give each project his best instead of taking on numerous projects and doing most half-baked. He knows he could make more money with more clients but quality matters more to him. He loves his wife who has a job of her own, and supports her career. He puts up with his shrill, nasty mother-in-law and brother-in-law Ashok who's a wily politician, jams with his scientist father-in-law and takes care of his employees and friend-cum-business partner. He's an atheist who doesn't fall for the religious mumbo jumbo of his Marathi in-laws. 
I found Jai quite relatable because I found a little of myself in him- independent, rational and solid personal principles.

All this falls flat when his mother in law challenges him to build a proper home for her daughter and not make her live in a rented apartment. Jai goes on to make some major choices...unusual ones that cost him  a lot- his friend and business partner Ravi, his business, and most of all threatens to tear apart his marriage. At the same time he's dealing with demons from his horrible past, most of which he has blocked out and is trying to recover. Then he makes some really drastic decisions and they change the way he looks at life itself. 

The characters are all well fleshed out, but the best is Jai's. His ideals and how they come in conflict with his situation, how he changes his way of thinking overtime, how he fails to make the right choices at the right time...Jai is endearing in his fallibility, his self-doubt, his making poor choices. 

There was also a constant thread of suspense in the book, all created by Jai's actions. What will he do next, and where will his choices take the plot? 

Sriram writes extremely well- the prose is of high quality and he doesn't let up once in language and grammar. The editing is excellent and his skill as a wordsmith shows in the fact that he has managed to write evocatively without using one big word throughout. That's true craftsmanship. That stuff takes practice- reading a lot, writing a lot and then getting your writing critiqued by neutral parties who will give an unbiased review. 

I was a little eager to get through the philosophical parts, and some of Jai's actions are really weird. Enumerating those would mean providing spoilers so I won't talk about them. But needless to say the bumps are few and don't affect on the overall appeal of the story.

Sriram has obviously been through the proper whetting process and come out shining. In a scenario where people who have never picked up a novel in their life before are venturing to write books and become bestselling authors, and where authors deliberately dumb down language, grammar and content to appeal to the mass market, Sriram is a noteworthy exception. In refusing to compromise on quality, he has shown his mettle, his integrity as an author who respects his craft and whose work will endure the ravages of time. 

RAIN is a touching story of a man confused in his ideals, fighting his personal demons, and coming out victorious. This book checks all the criteria for quality literature. Go buy your book and encourage authors like Sriram: RAIN