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.

Putting Quill to Parchment: The Magic of Writing in the Potterverse

This last week, I’ve been feeling a strange need to write letters. And not in a romantic, oh what a throwback to simpler times sort of way, but because, genuinely, I think that sometimes, writing to somebody is a much more therapeutic process than messaging them, or even talking over the  phone. This is because, unlike other, more instant forms of communication, you’re not giving your interlocutor a platform through which to respond immediately. It’s impossible for them to interrupt you, or gainsay you, or cut you off midway—all things that happen far too often when we speak to one another. A letter lets you get it all out there in one go, giving you space and, importantly, the  other person, time to absorb your words, and think about what you’re feeling.

It’s for this reason that I really think the  written is the  most powerful, and therefore, to me, meaningful form of communication. Don’t get me wrong, I love heart to hearts with my besties as much, if not more, than the  average person, but in the  absence of that space and time where once those heart to hearts were taken for granted, a letter can step in, and make you feel less alone in a world where we are constantly reminded, every time we log onto social media, that someone out there is probably doing life better than you.

This got me thinking, as many things inevitably do, about Harry Potter, and how the  characters of that world use, so often, letters to share things that bother them. It’s amazing isn’t it, that in a universe where people can literally just pop over to each others’ houses in a blink, where they can roam through fireplaces to more magical locations, they still rely on the  staple of quill and parchment to say so many important things.

harry writing

And letters are hella important in Potter. Letters are what get him out of his Muggle life, for one thing, and the mystery around the ‘letters from no one’ in Philosopher’s Stone is what indicates that Harry is more than meets the eye. Later, letters from his friends are what literally keep Harry motivated, push him through the  horrible summer days at the  Dursleys, even, in a twisted turn of events before second year, tell him that not everything he experienced in Philosopher’s Stone, was a crazy dream. Harry’s friends reach out to him constantly all summer long, for three solid summers, giving him the  support he needs to get through the  days. They even send him literal nourishment and sustenance, birthday cakes and assorted other, healthier food items, coming to him in the  summer before his fourth year in Goblet of Fire.

Letters are also therapeutic in the  series. When Harry is very troubled, woken with an aching scar in Goblet, he writes about his worries to Sirius. Indeed, his correspondence with his godfather is one of the  cementing blocks of their relationship—starting from the  moment when Pigwidgeon arrives, bearing the  note that allows Harry to go to Hogsmeade, to the  last note he reads from Sirius, which, heartbreakingly, talks about the  two way mirror. Sirius and Harry’s relationship, one of, if not the  most, supportive relationships in the  entire series, is constantly imperilled by the  disruption of this form of communication—when it flourishes, before the  start of Book 4, Sirius’s wellbeing is highlighted through the  beautiful, tropical birds he uses to deliver his letters. By the  end, all forms of communication out of Hogwarts have been imperilled, thanks to Umbridge’s snooping, and because of this, this fundamental breach of a channel Harry has long taken for granted, tragedy unwinds.

Riddle_DiaryAnother great example of literal soul baring: Ginny writes to Tom Riddle. She uses Voldemort’s first Horcrux as it was seemingly supposed to be used: as a diary, a record of her innermost feelings. She makes herself so vulnerable by spilling out her soul thus that soon, her body is no longer her own. The implication seems to be that as much as writing can help you affect someone, it can also undo you, pulls a secret, hidden and hence vulnerable part of you outside into a harsh world, where people may not be so kind to it as you hope they will be.

If you think about it, it’s really weird that anyone in the  wizarding world still writes letters, even people who technically no longer have to. You’d think that only the  kids (who can’t do magic outside of school) and those who are under house arrest (Lily, for instance, who writes that letter to Sirius) or in other dire, magic-less situations (Sirius on the  run) would take recourse to such a, well, ‘ordinary’ form of communication. But that’s not the  case. For instance, Bathilda Bagshot, in her scattered interview with Rita Skeeter, mentions that Albus and Grindelwald constantly sent letters back and forth, despite living in the  same village and both (presumably) being old enough to do magic legally. Given what we find out about their relationship later, these letters have a particularly poignant quality, not just the  musings of two, young ambitious wizards but, in the  case of one, at least, also a means to reach out, and unburden oneself, to a fascinating crush.

Paninirdlm023

In the  Potterverse, people do extremely mundane things—fight over petty jealousies, go on disastrous dates, call each other horrible names in the  schoolyard, write letters. These are all ways Rowling uses to humanise her characters, underline the  fact that though they have magic, they are no different from us who don’t. Letters, physically sitting down and creating a message for another, are still the  most magical, meaningful ways to reach out to someone, to prove that the  writer, and the  person being written to, are bound in a matrix of emotion that is real, made tangible by the  creation of this physical message.

 Nothing compares to Harry’s feelings as he looks as Lily’s old letter, drinking in the  sight of her handwriting:

The  letter was an incredible treasure, proof that Lily Potter had lived, really lived, that her warm hand had once moved across this parchment, tracing ink into these letters, these words, words about him, Harry, her son.

Impatiently brushing away the  wetness in his eyes, he reread the  letter, this time concentrating on the  meaning. It was like listening to a half-remembered voice.

alan-rickman-wrote-a-heartwarming-goodbye-letter-to-harry-potter-and-jk-rowling

I think the  greatest example of this, of the  power of such personal writing to wrench feelings about and reduce someone to a puddle of emotion is that last image Rowling leaves us of Snape. A man we’ve always seen as cutting, mean, petty even, is memorialized for readers thus:

…Snape was kneeling in Sirius’s old bedroom. Tears were dripping from the  end of his hooked nose as he read the  old letter from Lily. The  second page carried only a few words:

‘could ever have been friends with Gellert Grindelwald. I think her mind’s going, personally!

‘Lots of love,

‘Lily.’