Review: These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

71fKALPSo5LThese Violent Delights is a deeply engrossing and disturbing novel about two young men who fall in love and decide to cement their love by committing murder.  Nemerever was inspired by the Leopold and Loeb case, in which two wealthy students from the University of Chicago kidnapped and murdered a fourteen year old as a demonstration of their intellectual superiority, which they believed allowed them to get away with the perfect crime.  As he writes in his “Author’s Note”, he was fascinated with the Leopold and Loeb case ever since he learned about it as a teen. He writes: “I recognized enough basic similarities that I could see them as what I feared becoming. I was queer, Jewish, isolated, and both too smart for my own good and nowhere near the visionary genius I thought I was–and for a time this let me imagine that my own misanthrophy could spiral out of control in the same way.” (Nemerver 461).  Though the book is inspired by Leopold and Loeb, the actual plot and characters are entirely invented by Nemerever. He writes: “With the skeleton of the plot squared away I was free to write about queer alienation, the provisional whiteness of Jews in America, the lonely arrogance of clever young adults” (Nemerver 461).

Set in Pittsburgh in 1973-1974,  the novel revolves around the relationship between Paul Fleischer and Julian Fromme.  Paul and Julian meet at university during a seminar on Scientific Ethics.  Paul is fascinated by Julian and their friendship eventually develops into a romantic relationship.  Both boys are extremely troubled in their own ways. Paul’s father has recently committed suicide and he lives with his mother–who is incapicated by grief– and his two sisters. Julian, who comes from an upper-class background, is estranged from his parents for reasons that are kept ambiguous (but the reader can guess have to do with his homosexuality).  The boys eventually develop a toxic relationship. They are codependent yet also enjoy physically hurting each other.  The decision to cement their bond by murdering someone is almost a logical outgrowth of this dynamic. Continue reading “Review: These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever”

Review: The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi

6304264._SY475_Ali Sethi is one of Pakistan’s most popular musicians, known for his covers of famous ghazals on Coke Studio and more recently for his original song “Pasoori”.  Relatively few people know that Sethi is also a published author. His debut (and so far only) novel The Wish Maker was published in 2009.

The Wish Maker is a bildungsroman– a novel dealing with the protagonist’s formative years or education.  Set in Lahore during the 1990s and early 2000s (with occasional flashbacks to earlier eras in Pakistan’s history including the Partition of 1947 and the military rule of General Zia in the 1980s),  the novel tells the story of Zaki Shirazi, who lives with his widowed mother Zakia, paternal grandmother (Daadi) and older cousin Samar Api.  His father, a pilot in the Pakistan Air Force, died in an accident before Zaki was born.  Zakia is a journalist (as is Sethi’s mother) who is progressive and a supporter of Benazir Bhutto.  In contrast, Daadi is conservative and a supporter of Nawaz Sharif.  Sethi skilfully brings in major incidents in Pakistan’s political history such as the nuclear tests in 1998 and General Musharraf’s coup in 1999.  In one early incident, Zakia takes Zaki and Samar Api to a demonstration in support of Benazir Bhutto, who had been removed from power by the President of Pakistan.  They are arrested and detained in the police station. After their release, they find Daadi waiting for them at home. She confronts Zakia and asks where she has been. Zakia replies that she doesn’t need permission to go anywhere. This prompts Daadi to remind her that it is her money that runs the house and that she was never good enough for her son. Sethi then goes into a flashback of Zaki’s parents’ courtship and describes how Zakia–who is from the muhajir community( people who immigrated from India at the time of Partition) and originally from Karachi– came to be involved with this typical Lahori Punjabi family.

Continue reading “Review: The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi”

Hindutva Music: Didi Maa Sadhvi Ritambhara As an Example of a Female Sadhu

(This essay was originally submitted  in 2018 as part of the coursework for my M.Mus in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London . I was reminded of it recently when I came across Professor Brahma Prakash’s article on Scroll.in entitled “Why the toxic beats of ‘Disc Jockey Hindutva’ are so dangerous for India”

Unfortunately, the YouTube video analyzed in the piece no longer seems to be on the site.  I hope the essay can still stand on its own merits. I will include a representative YouTube video of Didi Maa at the end of the essay.) 

Didi Maa Sadhvi Rithambara
Didi Maa Sadhvi Rithambara (representational image)

Bhajan is the major genre of devotional singing in Hinduism. It is a loosely structured song, usually performed in regional languages. It can be sung by an individual or by a congregation.  Themes typically include ideas from scriptures, the teachings of saints and loving devotion to a deity. 

Since I am from a South Asian background, I am familiar with bhajans. However, I have previously approached them through Hindustani classical music, in which the focus is on aesthetic beauty and using the bhajan’s lyrics to develop the raga. In a devotional context, in contrast, the words and the message of the bhajan can often be more important than the musical content. 

In this essay, I will discuss Didi Maa Sadhvi Ritambhara’s performance of a Krishna bhajan “Aaj Gopal Raas Ras”, and compare her to the female sadhus studied by Antoinette Elizabeth DeNapoli in her monograph Real Sadhus Sing to God: Gender, Asceticism and Vernacular Religion in Rajasthan (Oxford University Press 2014) .  One of the major contrasts is that Didi Maa is involved in Hindutva politics, which would seem to contradict the role of the sadhu as someone who has renounced worldly life.  DeNapoli’s informants, on the other hand, are focused on singing to god as a way of serving humanity through seva.  

 As can be seen in the YouTube clip, Didi Maa performs the bhajan while seated in front of a large congregation, composed mostly of women.  In front of her chair is a portrait of Lord Krishna and his beloved Radha.  She is supported by an instrumental ensemble including violin, flute, keyboard, harmonium and pakhawaj. There are also two background singers, one male and one female.  The bhajan is about Lord Krishna and his flirtation with the gopis and particularly with Radha.  It has an uplifting mood and several members of the congregation can be seen dancing. 

It seems difficult to reconcile the spiritual and uplifting nature of this Krishna bhajan with Didi Maa’s political activities.  She has been associated with various right-wing groups including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. She was the founding chairperson of the Durga Vahini, the women’s wing of the VHP.  She was also one of those accused of involvement in the demolition of the Babri Masjid (McGirk 1993).  Although she can be seen smiling and clapping during her bhajan performance, there are other videos in which she is preaching to a crowd  about how those who don’t love India (a “dog whistle” for  reference to the Muslim minority) have no right to live in the country. This involvement of a renouncer figure with a divisive political agenda needs further exploration. Continue reading “Hindutva Music: Didi Maa Sadhvi Ritambhara As an Example of a Female Sadhu”

Review: Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah

desertion gurnahWhen Abdulrazak Gurnah won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2021, he was comparatively little-known.  I must confess that I had never heard of him.  This is despite the fact that I am an ardent fan of English literature and am also deeply interested in issues of colonialism.   I have read most of the fiction concerned with British colonialism in South Asia including Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children,  Scott’s The Raj Quartet and Forster’s A Passage to India.  Perhaps part of the reason that I was not familiar with Gurnah’s work was that I have not focused much on Africa as a region (except for North Africa, which can be said to be more of an extension of the Arab world than the African continent proper).  However, even within the domain of African fiction, Gurnah is an author that is unfamiliar to most readers. For example, school curricula in the US often include Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country.  I very much doubt that any curricula so far has included Gurnah’s works. Hopefully, that will change now that he has received the Nobel Prize.

Gurnah is a British citizen of Zanzibari origin. He grew up at a time when Zanzibar was a British protectorate separate from the colony of Tanganyika.  After both colonies achieved independence, a revolution overthrew the Arab elite in Zanzibar and the region later merged with Tanganyika to form Tanzania.  Gurnah had left to study in the UK before this revolution broke out and he describes himself as a refugee.  He completed his Phd in Literature and served as a Professor at the University of Kent, from which he recently retired. His academic work deals with postcolonial literature, including that of Rushdie.

Desertion is set in two time periods– 1899 and the mid-20th century.   The novel opens in a small town on the East African coast, north of Mombasa (now in Kenya) with the encounter between a British officer, Martin Pearce, and a “native” woman, Rehana Zakariya.  Rehana’s brother, Hassanali, finds Pearce in a state of collapse and brings the injured man home. There, he is tended to by Rehana and by Hassanali’s wife.  When he recovers, he comes to thank Hassanali and is attracted to Rehana. She, in turn, is also attracted to him and they begin an affair.  These details are recounted to us by the narrator, whom we later learn is a young man called Rashid, who is a Zanzibari academic living in Britain.  In the modern portion of the novel, set as Zanzibar is about to become independent, Rashid’s brother Amin enters into a relationship with a woman named Jamila, who turns out to be Rehana’s granddaughter. This relationship is not acceptable to Amin’s family, partly because Rehana had been the mistress of an Englishman, and they force Amin to stop seeing Jamila.  Rashid learns the details about this much later when he receives Amin’s notebooks. Continue reading “Review: Desertion by Abdulrazak Gurnah”

Characterization in “Heartache”

This essay was originally written for AP English Literature during my senior year of high school

Chekhov's_Misery_1903_illustration
Original 1903 illustration of Iona and his horse

 

 

 

 

Every work of fiction has a theme which the author expresses through his use of the elements at his disposal, such as narrative perspective, characterization, setting and dialogue. An example of a story in which characterization is used successfully to communicate the main theme is “Heartache” by Anton Chekhov. Through his characterization of the main character, Iona Potapov, and the people he encounters on one particular evening, Chekhov shows that although the human need to communicate emotions with others is strong, society is too busy and self-absorbed to be able to do this. 

Iona’s son has recently died, and he is paralyzed by his grief. Chekhov describes him as follows: “As hunched as a living body can be, he sits on the box without stirring. If a whole snowdrift were to fall on him, even then, perhaps, he would not find it necessary to shake it off” (Chekhov 94). His grief is so overpowering that he is completely impervious to the cold winter evening. 

Iona feels a profound need to share his emotion with others. The only people that he is able to access in his daily life are his passengers. Throughout the evening, while taking people from one place to another, he tells them that his son has died and hopes to receive empathy from them. Each time he tries this, however, he is met with an unsympathetic response. For example, when he tells his story to the hunchback, the man responds: “‘We shall all die,’…. ‘Come on, drive on. Gentlemen, I simply cannot stand this pace! When will he get us there?’” (97).  Although the hunchback is not sympathetic to his sorrow, the conversation is at least some type of human conversation. Chekhov writes: “He hears abuse addressed to him, sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to lift from his heart” (97). Iona is so desperate to communicate with others that he is willing to suffer abuse in exchange for not being left alone with his grief. Continue reading “Characterization in “Heartache””

Review: The Peacock Throne by Sujit Saraf

peacock throneSujit Saraf’s The Peacock Throne is an epic work of historical fiction that exposes the dark underbelly of democratic politics in modern India.  The novel is set in Chandni Chowk–a major commercial market in the heart of Delhi’s Old City– and spans a period of fourteen years, beginning with the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 and ending with the legislative elections of 1998. In contrast to a novel like Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, which is limited in time (taking place over the course of a year and a half) but ranges all over India, The Peacock Throne is expansive in time but limited in space, restricting itself to one neighborhood in Delhi.  This restricted geographical scope serves the novel well, allowing the reader to develop a vivid picture of all the different areas of Chandni Chowk over the years.

The time period that the novel covers was a turbulent one for India. Two prime ministers–Indira Gandhi and her son (and successor) Rajiv Gandhi were assassinated. Indira’s assassination led to major riots against the Sikh community (since her assassins were her Sikh bodyguards)– riots that many claim were engineered by the Congress Party.  In addition to these assassinations, in 1992 a historic mosque, the Babri Masjid, was demolished by Hindu nationalists who claimed that the mosque had been built on top of a temple to one of their deities–Lord Ram. The last section of the novel takes place in 1998, the year that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) first came to power. 1998 was also the year that India and then Pakistan officially became nuclear weapon states, though this is not something that is focused on in the novel.  While South Asian readers will already know much of this context and thus be able to better relate to the novel, the lack of this familiarity should not put non-South Asians off from reading the book, since Saraf has created intriguing characters, whom the reader can engage with.

While the main character of the novel is ostensibly Gopal Pandey, a middle-aged “chaiwala” (tea vendor), the book is really about the various people that use Gopal for their own schemes.  These include Hindu traders who aim to get into politics, chief among them Sohan Lal (who owns the sari shop outside which Gopal has his tea stall) and Ramvilas, a clerk in a perfume shop who is scheming to get ahead. There is also their Muslim equivalent–a venal politician named Suleman Mian.  Another major character is Kartar Singh, who is impacted by the anti-Sikh riots that followed Indira’s assasination.  The major characters are rounded out by Gauhar Muhammad, an illegal Bangladeshi migrant who becomes a child of the streets as well as a male sex worker. Gauhar also becomes Gopal’s adopted son and also ends up being involved in the Babri Masjid issue.  These major characters allow Saraf to represent many of the major fault lines of Indian society. Continue reading “Review: The Peacock Throne by Sujit Saraf”

Review: The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon by Brian Thompson

It seems hard to believe that–as recently as the late 19th century in Britain– a woman could be placed in a mental asylum if her husband managed to get the signature of two doctors to certify that she was mad.  Once a person entered an asylum, it was almost impossible to be released.  This was a time period when a married woman had almost no protections against her husband .  She could not file a case against him for theft, assault or even rape because the law treated man and wife as one unit.  This situation no longer holds in Western countries, though in regions of the world such as South Asia marital rape is still not considered a crime (the issue is currently under debate in India).  One of the people most instrumental in revealing the flaws of Britain’s Lunacy Laws was Georgina Weldon, who herself just barely managed to escape the “mad doctors” who had been sent by her husband Harry Weldon.  Mrs. Weldon managed to use the new legal rights given to women under the Married Woman’s Property Act of 1882 to take her husband and the “mad doctors” to court.  She later became one of the most famous litigants in Victorian Britain, representing herself in most cases. 

Mrs. Weldon’s story is told in Brian Thompson’s deeply engaging The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon.  Though a work of non-fiction based on Georgina’s own published memoirs (published in France to avoid libel laws in England), the book reads like a novel.  Mrs. Weldon was certainly a disaster. Born in 1837 into a family that belonged to the landed gentry (but without much money), she was expected by her parents to marry a man with a fortune of at least 10,000 pounds. Instead, at the age of 23, she ran away with a penniless army officer named Harry Weldon and was subsequently disowned by her family.   She leapt from one scheme to another, from trying to become a famous soprano to opening a music school cum orphanage in Tavistock House–her and Harry’s home (which had previously been owned by Charles Dickens).  Continue reading “Review: The Disastrous Mrs. Weldon by Brian Thompson”

Review: Alec by William di Canzio

alecE.M. Forster’s Maurice–written in 1913 and published posthumously in 1971–  is one of the classics of queer literature. The romance between the middle-class Maurice Hall and the working class Alec Scudder has imprinted itself on generations of gay and bisexual men, especially after the enormous success of the Merchant Ivory film adaptation.  It was thus extremely ambitious of William di Canzio to decide to retell this story from Alec’s perspective and to imagine a future for the two lovers. If he had fallen short of his goal, readers may have felt his novel was equivalent to bad fanfiction, which can be found on websites all over the Internet.  However, this is not the case and di Canzio succeeds in retelling and extending Forster’s story.

Forster’s novel-as is evident from the title– is mainly about Maurice (in fact Alec doesn’t even enter the narrative until the last quarter of the novel).  Alec’s character mainly serves as a foil and a contrast to that of Clive, Maurice’s first great love. While Clive, the upper-class English gentleman, describes his sexuality by quoting Plato and eventually enters into a heterosexual marriage, Alec (referred to in the novel mainly as “Scudder” as befits his status as a servant) has no qualms about sharing his body with Maurice.  Forster describes the scene when Alec climbs up the ladder into Maurice’s bedroom at Penge as follows:

 But as he returned to his bed a little noise sounded, a noise so intimate that it might have arisen inside his own body. He seemed to crackle and burn and saw the ladder’s top quivering against the moonlight air. The head and shoulders of a man rose up, paused, a gun was leant against the window sill very carefully, and someone he scarcely knew moved towards him and knelt beside him and whispered ‘Sir, was you calling out for me?…. Sir, I know… I know,’ and touched him(Forster 192).

Thus, in some ways, Alec serves as a fantasy figure in Forster’s novel. He is simply the working-class man who awakens Maurice to the physical side of homosexuality.  His own character is not particularly well developed and he merely serves a narrative function. Continue reading “Review: Alec by William di Canzio”

The Hijras of India

This essay was originally written for a Cultural Anthropology class at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) during the 2005-2006 academic year

hijra
A representative picture of a hijra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the West, it is generally believed that there are only two sexes, male and female, and that each sex has its own particular role in society. However, in their ethnographic fieldwork across the world, anthropologists have noticed that the roles of men and women vary significantly across societies. This has led them to distinguish sex, which is based on biology, from gender which is defined as “the cultural construction of beliefs and behaviors considered appropriate for each sex” (Schultz and Lavenda 237). In addition, anthropologists have also noticed that several societies around the world have supernumerary (e.g. more than two) sexes. These include the xanith in Oman, the Native American two-spirit and the Indian hijra. Appropriate behavior for these “third-sex” groups is defined by a third gender role, which is distinct from traditional masculine and feminine identities (Schultz and Lavenda 238).

In fact, even the hegemony of the Western “two-sex model” is a relatively recent development. Prior to the eighteenth century, the dominant way of understanding sex was Plato’s “one-sex model” which emphasized the similar nature of men and women’s sex organs and viewed women as “inverted, inferior versions of men” (Potts 4). Thus, it is clear that the “two-sex” model is not unquestionable and is just one out of several possible gender classification systems.

In this paper, I will focus on the Indian hijra. I will be examining various Western constructs such as “homosexuality” and “transexualism” that are used to define hijras and I will contrast these with how the hijras define themselves. Secondly, I will compare the hijras with examples of “third-sex” groups in other societies. Finally, I will discuss the relationship between the hijra community and mainstream Indian society, specifically the two main roles of the hijras as ritual performers at weddings and births, and as homosexual prostitutes. Continue reading “The Hijras of India”

 Porgy and Bess: A Groundbreaking Work in American Music

This essay was originally submitted as part of my B.A. coursework at the George Washington University  (All quotes were footnooted in the original version).

porgy and bess
A Metropolitan Opera production of Porgy and Bess

 Porgy and Bess is a groundbreaking work in the history of American music. First performed in 1935, it is an opera composed by George Gershwin with a libretto by Dubose Heyward and Ira Gershwin. Considered one of the first American operas, it is often referred to as Gershwin’s most ambitious work. Additionally, it blends jazz and blues elements with the European art music tradition.  Several of the songs, including “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” have gone on to become standards in jazz and blues. For example, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong have recorded a famous version of “Summertime.” 

This paper will explore two major debates regarding Porgy and Bess.  The first debate concerns the genre of the piece. Since the work’s premiere, there has been much controversy over whether it is truly an opera or should be classified as a musical.  It was not widely accepted as a legitimate opera in the United States until 1976 when the Houston Grand Opera production of the complete score established it as an artistic triumph. The work is now considered part of the standard operatic repertoire and is regularly performed internationally. 

The second debate is focused on the “racist” nature of the work. Many African-American critics have condemned the piece for presenting demeaning stereotypes of black people. Some black singers, approached for roles, have refused to appear in it. Paradoxically, however, the success of Porgy and Bess has led to greatly increased visibility for African-American artists and musicians. Continue reading ” Porgy and Bess: A Groundbreaking Work in American Music”