Soaring on the Other wind

The tale of puberty, that difficult, awkward phase of a person’s life, has been told many times. I recall it with alternating flashes of embarrassment and nostalgia. There are some parts of it I think of fondly—the suddenly much more serious friendships, the whispers of crushes and romantic interest—and others I prefer to forget.

Why do I begin with this? I’ve read, somewhere, that the books we read in that phase, or as young teenagers, are the ones that affect us most, that stick with us and mould what becomes of us later on. I don’t know where this was, or even whether it’s scientifically proven, but I’ve often thought of it, and wondered at its validity, especially in my life. It’s true, for me at least, that the books I read in those years, 13 to 17, are the ones that have stayed with me longest, and still feature on my ‘top ten’ lists, even now, more than a decade later.

leguin_ursula_kUrusla le Guin’s books were among those.

I still remember it so clearly. When I hit 13, and my body began its weird, inexplicable morphing towards adulthood, my mother made me start ‘exercising’. This was very strange to me, since I was a fairly active child, attending dance classes and karate classes. True, I spent most of my time between those classes lying around and reading, or walking around and reading, but this emphasis on ‘exercise’ mystified me. She would make me, and my sister, go upstairs to the terrace, and do ‘something’. Skip, I assume. Or run. I’m not sure, mostly because, the moment I reached the terrace, I would pick up my book, and walk around, reading.

It was exercise of a sort, I suppose.

One of the books I picked up was Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Quartet. I was coming to it fresh from The Lord of the Rings, and I knew, already, that I liked fantasy. I was more at home among dragons and Elves and heroic ideals than I was in any other place (like near a skipping rope, obviously). Being a smug little 13 year old, I thought I knew what I was in for, and being a smug little 13 year old, I was surprised.

The world of Earthsea was nothing like Middle Earth. It was dirty, and it was corrupt, and its residents smelled bad and lost control of their bowels. I distinctly remember a description of a princess—a princess—gasping in fear and the narrator commenting on the snot dangling from her nose. I was so scandalized by this; I was coming off fresh from the Arwens and Galadriels, who probably never had to sneeze, let alone leave mucus dangling from their noses.

But I loved it, and most of all, I loved the women in it. Two of them, specifically. I worshipped Tenar, the priestess in her tombs, who turns her back on everything she knows to flee to freedom and the outside world. I loved how she became wise, and venerable, and that I’d been able to watch her do it, in a way I never had with Galadriel. She felt reachable, closer to me than any woman Tolkien had created.

And I adored Tehanu. I’ll always remember The Other Wind for its last scenes, the victory and sheer power that accompanied Tehanu’s departure. I wanted to be her, and it’s with only the smallest bit of embarrassment that I admit wishing I was part dragon, so I too could transform in  a blaze of glory, and sail away from everything on the other wind.

rebecca-guay-the-tombs-of-atuanLe Guin’s world, and her women, were complicated, and messy. They were not an escape from reality. Puberty is a strange time. I remember feeling terrified, of everything, of myself, of inexplicable, hard to name things. Life didn’t seem neat and tidy, the way Tolkien’s world was at the end. There were darknesses in every corner, and I think, at that age, I was just beginning to realize it. At least, I was beginning to realize the dangers that accompanied my existence as a girl, and learning to cultivate a very particular kind of fear.

And strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, le Guin’s fantastical world reflected that darkness. It had at its root a greyness that Tolkien’s didn’t, a reckoning with the fact that many lives are haunted by danger, and dread.  And yet, her heroines managed to overcome it, whether by jumping madly across chasms, trusting to the words of a stranger, or reaching their arms up into the heavens. They struggled and they made mistakes, and they faced horrors, but they won through a hostile world.

They endured, perhaps with grey in their hair, or burns on their faces. But importantly, they endured, fighting on, or flying into, another day.

the other windAnd I guess that’s what she’s done, enduring in a genre traditionally hostile to women, living life with a grace and fortitude that she infused in her characters. I’d like to think that she crossed that crumbling, horrible wall, and found it waiting on the far side. That Other wind, that swept her up, and took her to lands more fantastic than we, lingering behind, can imagine.

A Crown of Wishes

If given space, I could wax eloquent about Indian and Indian-inspired fantasy for days on end. I can tell you all the  problems that (I think) beset it, and how these are not any fault of the  writers, but the  curious definition of ‘fantasy’, such a Western one that depends on a certain severance from belief and faith. Can you write Christian fantasy, for instance, without running into trouble and the waters of offence? Philip Pullman tried, and succeeded, to a certain extent, but I’d argue that the  moment he waded into Bible-heavy streams, his books lost much of their magic and power to dazzle, instead walking along the  edge of becoming transparently ‘agenda’-driven. Same with C.S. Lewis, who did it a trifle more hamfistedly decades ago. Myth fic in India is plagued by the  same troubles, with few authors managing to break the shackles of received wisdom and create something new from the  bricks of the  old: Samit Basu is a notable exception, and some of the  newer authors, like Shweta Taneja and Indra Das, have made strides here as well.

crownAnd so has Roshani Chokshi. Here, I reviewed her debut novel, The  Star Touched Queen. I called it a ‘fairy tale that strides through the  cosmos, refusing to be bound to one particular location, though it is quite culturally rooted in a Hindu setting/tradition. Her follow up, the  literal ‘sister’ to the  first novel is A Crown of Wishes, which tells the  story of Gauri, princess of Bharata, and Vikram, the  Fox Prince of Ujijain. It is, like its predecessor, a love story, but it also bears some of the  more recognizable elements of the  fairy tale, especially given its reliance on that staple: the  tournament, and its related, seemingly impossible, tasks.

Betrayed by her brother and cast out from her kingdom, Gauri finds herself at the  mercy of Vikram, the  prince of the  neighbouring empire of Ujijain. Vikram has just received an invitation to compete in a tournament held by Kubera, the  God of Wealth. He must enlist with a partner, and the  prize, should they win through the  three tasks set for them, is a wish apiece. Desperate to prove himself a worthy successor to the  throne, and not remain the  ‘puppet king’ his father’s council seeks to make of him, Vikram convinces Gauri to partner with him. Not only will she escape the death that awaits her in Ujijain, but this way, she can see to winning a wish of her own, and seeking vengeance against her brother, who holds her kingdom and her friend, Nalini, hostage.

What unfolds is an adventure story that moves between worlds and kingdoms, from the  glittering harem of Ujijain to the Otherworldly Night Bazar (the  site of much drama in TSTQ), from the craggy fortress of the  vanars to the  glittering wish-granting fantasy of Alaka, the  kingdom of the  Lord of Wealth and his consort, the  Kauveri River. Gauri and Vikram find themselves tested in increasingly harrowing ways, and learn truths about themselves and each other (well, it’s a fairy tale—that’s sort of de rigeur). But along the  way, they also make a friend, who is perhaps the  most compelling character in the  book: Asha, a conflicted vishakanya, who dreams of living a life unmarred by poison. Asha kills everything she touches, and can see through to a person’s deepest desires, but she cannot do something as simple as bathe her feet in water, or stroke a bed of grass without someone or something else paying the price for her actions. She longs, like the  Little Mermaid, to be part of a world that at once lusts after and fears her, and out of curiosity, befriends and helps these two strange humans, who are so lost in her magical world.

A Crown of Wishes carries forward Chokshi’s worldbuilding, her creation of a place where Hindu myth comfortably divests itself of the  ‘religious’ overtones that both distort and elevate it, instead using its characters and some of its concepts in creative ways to populate and push her story forward. The  vanars of Ramayana fame here become an abandoned people, left behind by their queen Tara on her pursuit for vengeance. The  Serpent King, a descendent of Kaliya, become a pathos-ridden, Hades-like figure, scorned for his alleged rape of the  Kapila River. Their story becomes a tale within this larger tale, and a mirror to that of Maya and Amar, one of misunderstanding and secrets, and a desire to reach out to another, alien soul.

In an interview with Bustle, Chokshi speaks of writing for ‘second culture kids’, those who are not native Indians, but children of the  diaspora. These are kids whose ‘exposure was different, but whose claim to those tales is the  same.’ ‘It’s a weird limbo’ she acknowledges, but it definitely works well in her case, if this is the  result. Chokshi’s ‘limbo’ state might have allowed her to free herself of the  derivative prisons that myth, and adherence to its, so often imposes on writers, giving her free rein with the  colourful figures and plots that are so rife in Hindu mythology. As a native Indian reader myself, I can only enjoy this liberated look at what’s so often churned out unexamined, and hope that there will be more to come. While Chokshi may have moved on to different projects (her next series is set in ‘a darkly glamorous Paris’), there’s plenty of space for other authors to take up the  challenge, and continue the  task of building an Indian fantasy trove that works both here and for kids of second, indeed, third or entirely ‘other’ cultures. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Mild spoilers for Disney’s live-action Beauty and the  Beast ahead.

beauty-and-the-beast.16844I don’t remember the  first time I watched Disney’s classic Beauty and the  Beast, but my parents do. My mother tells me we had a pirated version of the  movie, recorded off a broadcast on Indian television, and my sister and I would watch it over and over. When we moved to the States, apparently one of the  ways in which the  first world proved its awesomeness to us was through this very same movie. It played on TV, and, my mother says, we sat before it entranced, exclaiming over how beautiful and bright the  colours were.

What a fitting way to open my relationship with the West. No wonder I continue to be so entranced, if that was my introduction.

Anyway, that should give you some idea of what an important role Beauty and the  Beast and its fellow Disney movies played in my life. I’ve written about this more than once, but today an occasion arose yet again, in the  form of a revisit to an old classic, the  movie that’s been ruling the  box office the  world over, Disney’s live action remake of one of its arguably best ever creations.

Let’s get right down to it. Yes, Emma Watson is a good Belle, even if her singing isn’t as full throated as Paige O’Hara’s. Yes, Dan Stevens, who’s doing such amazing work on Legion, still holds my attention as an actor to watch and possibly follow (my broken heart still needs fixing after Hiddleston trashed it). Yes, Luke Evans is arguably the  best of the  three, because he throws himself heart and soul into his role as Gaston and looks like he’s having a blast. His table-dancing, bar thumping number, ‘Gaston,’ made me wonder how much fun the  crew had filming it. It definitely looks like the  kind of thing you’d want to be there for, everyone embracing this ridiculously normal villain, whose evil is so mundane you can almost forgive it until it unmasks its more sinister side.

So yes, I really liked the  movie. Certainly much more than I expected to. I went in with cautious optimism because well, it’s not the  original you know. It’s not the same hand-drawn animation. It doesn’t have Angela Lansbury crooning ‘Tale as Old as Time’, and it’s missing the sheer audacity of its predecessor, which made its heroine one of the  first recognisably ‘feminist’ Disney princesses. This version is revamped, a little better updated, with a Belle who’s not just a reader, but also an inventor. Her father is an artist, the  more traditionally ‘sensitive’ profession of the two, still suffering from a trauma that keeps him silent on what exactly happened to Belle’s mother. Indeed, when she takes his place in the  Beast’s castle, Belle constantly worries about her father and tells the Beast, ‘He’s never been alone.’

belle

#SubvertingExpectations, right?

Sure, the  movie has its flaws. Some of the  new songs are meh, and pale sadly in comparison to Menken and Ashman’s original work, which they have the  (mis)fortune of standing beside. I’m not sure what exactly the  knowledge of the  Beast’s mother’s death had to do with anything, unless it was done to show yet another (tragic) similarity between the  two outcasts. The  lyric ‘Life is so unnverving/For a servant who’s not serving’ has not aged well, and for the  first time I found it a bit weird. Oh, and the ‘gay moment’ is not as in your face as some people, notably certain drive-in owners in Alabama, would have you hope. Or maybe that’s because our glorious Censor Board went ahead and did the  needful for us, protecting our delicate sensibilities. Who knows.

But for all these nitpicky little details, I enjoyed myself. Disney has a magic that no one can touch. Time beautyand again, they churn out these perfect stories, and create characters who, in the  span of literally 90 minutes, become immortal. Perhaps I’m biased, because I grew up worshipping and wanting to be these women, craving that ‘adventure in the  great wide somewhere’. But it’s not just me; literally thousands of people across the  world love and worship them too, and find themselves turning to these retellings of old stories in low times and good alike, so clearly, there’s something there.

If only I could bottle that magic, and figure out what it’s made of. Oh the power I would have.

Clearly Sauron was doing it all wrong, seeking dominion through brute force and the  One Ring. He should have been working towards writing magical, musical movies stuffed with feisty women and singing household utensils instead. Bet those Elves would have been humming ‘Be Our Guest’ even now, like the  rest of poor unfortunate souls.