Little Red’s New Coat, Road Dahl

I was speaking to my mum on the phone today, when my dad came on the line specifically to tell me that he read my post reproducing James Thurber’s retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, and that he enjoyed it very much. My mother added from the background that it was delightful.

It’s a bit unsettling at first to know one’s parents reads one’s blog, but I’m quite kicked, really, to play parent, and introduce them to new things, the way they introduced them to me once. So here is an excerpt from another re-telling of the Little Red fairytale, this time by Roald Dahl. It’s a favourite of mine, despite raising contemporary concerns of gun-violence, the fur trade, and encouragement of cruelty to animals.

The action below begins after the wolf has eaten Red’s grandmother, and is preparing to eat Red once she arrives.

Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf
Roald Dahl

Wolfie dressing up in Granny's clothes. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Wolfie dressing up in Granny’s clothes. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Poor Grandmamma was terrified,
He quickly put on Grandma’s clothes,
(Of course he hadn’t eaten those).
He dressed himself in coat and hat.
He put on shoes, and after that
He even brushed and curled his hair,
Then sat himself in Grandma’s chair.

Little Red Riding Hood comes in and stares. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

Little Red Riding Hood comes in and stares. Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

In came the little girl in red.
She stopped. She stared. And then she said.
“…But Grandma
what a lovely great big furry coat you have on.”
“That’s wrong!” cried Wolf. “Have you forgot
To tell me what BIG TEETH I’ve got?
Ah well, no matter what you say,
I’m going to eat you anyway.”

"Bang bang, she shoots him dead." Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

“Bang bang, she shoots him dead.” Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

The small girl smiles. One eyelid flickers.
She whips a pistol from her knickers.
She aims it at the creature’s head
And bang bang bang, she shoots him dead.

"My lovely furry wolfskin coat." Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

“My lovely furry wolfskin coat.” Ink and watercolour, Quentin Blake, from Revolting Rhymes, Roadl Dahl.

A few weeks later, in the wood,
I came across Miss Riding Hood.
But what a change! No cloak of red,
No silly hood upon her head.
She said, “Hello, and do please note
My lovely furry wolfskin coat.”

Little Girl and the Wolf, James Thurber


NOTE: On the one hand, a tale of cynical ‘empowerment’. On the other, a possible advocacy for NSA’s ‘good guys with guns’ fallacy (or in this case, ‘smart kids with guns’ fallacy, recipe for an even greater tragedy). Either way, this is James Thurber’s all-American two-paragraph version of Little Red Riding Hood.

One afternoon a big wolf waited in a dark forest for a little girl to come along carrying a basket of food to her grandmother. Finally a little girl did come along and she was carrying a basket of food. “Are you carrying that basket to your grandmother?” asked the wolf. The little girl said yes, she was. So the wolf asked her where her grandmother lived and the little girl told him and he disappeared into the wood.

When the little girl opened the door of her grandmother’s house she saw that there was somebody in bed with a nightcap and nightgown on. She had approached no nearer than twenty-five feet from the bed when she saw that it was not her grandmother but the wolf, for even in a nightcap a wolf does not look any more like your grandmother than the Metro-Goldwyn lion looks like Calvin Coolidge. So the little girl took an automatic out of her basket and shot the wolf dead.

(MORAL: It is not so easy to fool little girls nowadays as it used to be.)

Same Old Spilled Blood

This morning, I woke up at 5:30 to be greeted by the news of brutal police assault on Jadavpur University students just three hours prior. One person is in coma, female students had their clothes torn off, and about 30 students are in hospital. Here is a video of part of the violence, and here is a post about it.

In many ways, universities are sites of violence. Mostly, this violence is bloodless, and at an abstract or structural level, teaching young people to think in certain ways that either serve or superficially disrupt systems of power (the government, the market, social mores). In India, however, the violence on campus often takes a more literal form. Inexpensive state-aided universities are where many meet experience diversity for the first time. They meet and socialise with people from different backgrounds, conflicting, discomfiting, debating, resisting, and melding with one another. In a country that offers as much diversity as India to this scenario, this makes the university an institution of great political potency. It is little wonder, then, that most university admins in this country choose to remain authoritarian and ‘traditional'; it provides them with a sense of stability and control, in the face of a community whose very essence, at least superficially, is change.

Generally, this works more or less successfully, because Indian authoritarianism prefers the ‘blind eye’ approach to the ‘ferret and punish’. Students can party, but not too loudly; students can drink, but not too much; students can smoke, if they are willing to pretend secrecy; and students can screw, if they pretend they’re not even holding hands. When students break this unspoken covenant, the administration responds either by ignoring them till they fade, exhausted, or by assaulting them till they drop, destroyed. And then things spring back to their usual form, for life, for all its violence, has great elasticity.

Occasionally, however, this elasticity should be resisted for as long as possible. Life must return to normal, but that must not mean aiding the obscuring of uncomfortable facts.

This is the third (or is it fourth?) time I have witnessed police brutality on campus. The last time things were this bloody, cops had been sneaked into campus at night to disperse a 24-hour non-violent student sit-in. Same story this time. Here’s a brief summary: today at 2AM, the police put about 30 students in the hospital, tore clothes off female protesters, arrested about 40 students, and threatened further violence if the sit-in wasn’t dispersed.

The following is a compilation of the timeline that I’ve managed to construct from online sources.

28th August: during the ongoing festival Sanskriti (note irony), a second year student from the Department of History was allegedly dragged inside a hostel and molested by a group of people within campus premises. Her male friend – not a JU student – was beaten up.

29th August: she gets in touch with the VC. He says that (a) he will need 15 days to act on the matter, (b) she should stay home for that period for ‘security issues’, and (c) he would’ve installed security cameras but students would protest. (NOTE: students did indeed protest, during my MA years, to security cams. Details on that in a forthcoming post.)

1st September: she lodges an FIR at the JU Police Station, identifying one of the alleged molesters. Police remains inactive.

5th September: in support, the university students organise a protest rally to Jadavpur Police Station. Same day, two alleged representatives of the University admin. pay the alleged victim a visit at home. They refuse to show identification and question her clothing and sobriety on the night of the alleged assault. This is a violation of the Vishakha guidelines that assert that there should be no external pressure either on the victim or the accused during the investigating procedure.

8th September: students organised a protest rally to the VC’s office, demanding to know the Uni’s victim-blaming stance. The ICC (Internal Complaint Cell), charged with the investigation, refuse to make a public statement. The students’ rep to the ICC, also the GS of AFSU, (Arts Faculty Students’ Union), resigns from her post in protest, citing a biased investigation. In response, the students decide they will not let the ICC leave campus till they’ve opened dialogue on the matter. Finally, three student reps are allowed an audience with the ICC. The ICC denies bias, and urges the students to not sensationalise the matter by speaking to the media.

9th September: speaking to a daily, an ICC rep. claims she was assaulted (kicked, strangled) by students while leaving the building. Students, however, claim that they had only formed a human barricade, and that un-uniformed men arrived to provide protection to the ICC, and they assaulted all students, irrespective of gender.

10th September: students decide on an indefinite sit-down at Aurobindo Bhavan, the uni admin. building. Later they decide to petition the Chancellor to set up an independent investigative committe, since the ICC has violated the Vishakha, attempted to pressure the alleged victim, and is accused of bias. The VC states he will ask for police intervention on campus. Police does arrive and attempts to intimidate students sitting in.

Jump to 17th September: news breaks that after a week of protest, police were brought into the uni tonight at around 2AM, with men identified as TMC goons (not sure about the authenticity of this identification). They assaulted the sit-in brutally, landing some 35 students in hospital, including one who is reportedly now in coma. 40 more were arrested. The RAF (Rapid Action Force) was also visible, and the police has threatened further violence if students will not disperse.

Book Quotes: Push by Sapphire

After ages, I have discovered a cache of e-books that were stashed for a suitably rainy day in one corner of an old storage drive, and promptly forgotten. My memory can always be counted upon to keep me from my little treats.

Anyway, Push, by Sapphire, is the first of the lot my finger landed on, and right now I am a sleep-deprived, red-eyed, shaken-and-stirred person who cannot let go of Precious Jones till the last word about and by her has been read. I’m going to keep this post open and record bits of the book that grab me especially hard, so I can have them at hand to read back later. Although it isn’t the entirety of Precious’ troubles, this book drives home the fact that ‘body image issues’ is not just code for ‘I hate that I am not thin’. It is rage against the hierarchy of genetic attributes, self-hatred for involuntary pleasure, and a desire for dissociation from one’s embodied life experience.

p. 13:
It’s something about being a nigger ain’t color.

p. 35:
The tesses paint a picture of me wif no brain. The tesses paint a picture of me an’ my muver—my whole family, we more than dumb, we invisible. One time I seen us on TV. It was a show of spooky shit… And the peoples, well some of them was peoples and some of them was vampire peoples. So it’s five of ‘em sitting on the couch; and one of ‘em git up and take a picture. When picture develop (it’s instamatic) only one person on the couch. The other peoples did not exist. They vampires. They eats, drinks, wear clothes, talks, fucks, and stuff but when you git right down to it they don’t exist.

I big, I talk, I eats, I cooks, I laugh, I watch TV, do what my muver say. But I can see when the picture come back I don’t exist. I know who they say I am—vampire sucking the system’s blood. Ugly black grease to be wipe away, punish, kilt, changed, finded a job for.

I talk loud but still I don’t exist.

p. 35:
Sometimes I wish I was not alive. But I don’t know how to die. Ain’ no plug to pull out.

p. 78:
Thas the alphabet. Twenty-six letters in all. Them letters make up words. Them words everything.

p. 130:
My clit swell up I think Daddy. Daddy sick me, disgust me, but still he sex me up. I nawshus in my stomach but hot tight in my twat and I think I want it back.

p. 135:
Ms Rain say write our fantasy of ourselves. How we would be if life was perfect. I tell you one thing right now, I would be light skinned, thereby treated right and loved by boyz. Light even more important than being skinny; you see them light-skinned girls that’s big an’ fat, they got boyfriends. Boyz overlook a lot to be wif a white girl or yellow girl, especially if it’s a boy that’s dark skin wif big lips or nose, he will go APE over yellow girl. So that’s my first fantasy, is get light.
Then I get hair. Swing job, you know like I do with my extensions, but this time it be my own hair, permanently.
Then, this part is hard to say, because so much of my heart is love for Abdul. But I be a girl or woman—yeah girl, ’cause I would still be a girl now if I hadn’t had no kids. I would be a virgin like Michael Jackson, like Madonna. I would be a different Precious Jones. My bress not be big, my bra be little ‘n pink like fashion girl. My body be like Whitney. I would be thighs not big etc etc.
I would be tight pussy girl no stretch marks and torn pussy from babies’s head bust me open.
That HURT. Hours hours push push push! Then he out, beautiful. Jus’ a beautiful baby. But I’m not.

One For the Books

It’s a rainy, booky, pots of tea day, and so I will finally try and compile that book list I’ve been asked several times to do. The request, if I remember right, was to list books that have influenced me the most. I’m not sure what that means, exactly; Sarat Chandra, for example, makes me cry buckets of easy tears, but I wouldn’t call that emotive affect an influence. And while I disliked the dry sanctimoniousness of Vidyasagar‘s Bornoporichoy [An Introduction to Letters], it influenced me immensely by basically teaching me to read and write in my own mother-tongue.

Here, then, is an exploration of the texts that have, in my rather limited reading experience, ‘influenced’ me in ways I can consciously identify.

1. Aranyak, Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay: the most unpretentious lyrical ode to the eastern forests and life in them, rendered in everyday prose. It is one of the most beautiful books I have been reluctant to read, because which child would willingly read a decidedly non-adventure non-sci-fi type book based in the forests of Jharkhand? In the end I read the book so many times my grandfather – whose copy it was – had to have it rebound, because the spine came off. Apart from the sneaky charm that hooks one subtly by the first twenty pages, Aranyak is also an ethnographic account of the tribal and rural life in the area, as well as a recording of caste-capitalism’s first advances into these now-ravaged lands. It is perhaps a testament to the appeal of this book that the slight factual marring, caused by the author’s social outsider status, is acceptable to most readers, when in other instances it might have been proof of narrative colonialism.

2. “Ghanada” stories, Premendra Mitra: Tenida was the house favourite when I was young, and I loved its “boys adventure tales” humour to bits, but I always, always preferred Ghanada. If one looks beyond fond nostalgia, one finds in Ghanada an enticing mix of fascinating sub-genres that were nearly absent – and certainly unnamed – in Indian literature at that time: secret/alternative history, science fiction, spy stories, political thrillers and action-adventures, with a touch of the con/heist and just a tiny dash of parodic noir. To pull this off this is impressive enough, but what recommends Ghanada even more, in my opinion, is Mitra’s dedication to scientific and historical accuracy. In an environment where even realism was not necessarily required for kishor (young adult) fiction, meticulous adherence to scientific and historical fact is absolutely admirable.

3. Michel Foucault. The structure and functions of power are always, always, at the core of anything social. To Foucault I owe confirmation of suspicions, legitimisation of lower-middle class third-world female frustration, and just the glimmer of change via policy, and policy via better understanding. I’m just going to leave it at that.

4. The Sandman (in particular “Ramadan” and “The Tempest”), Neil Gaiman: my first encounter with the reinvented comic-book format. Visually opulent and intriguingly disturbing in parts, marrying the mundane to the mythical, full of meta narratives and open endings. Absolutely the stuff I eat up every time.

5. All non-detective stories, Enid Blyton: so utterly removed from my cluttered, urban, tropical world, Blyton’s landscape of sea-fronts, tame woods, cosy villages and quaint boarding schools, magically clean and comfy barns, white Christmas, and back gardens with hidden paths enchanted me utterly. Had Blyton only written of the wonderfully strange children who lived in it – children who went to perfect little farms on Bank Holiday, picked berries from the bush, ate delicious-looking suppers at impossible times and called adults by their surnames – the books would have magical enough for me. The brownies and pixies were just an added bonus I didn’t take very seriously.

6. Rabindranath Thakur. I’ll just leave it at the name, because the spectrum of Robi Thakur’s influence on me is varied, and very wide. If I had to name names, I’d cop out cleverly by saying Sanchaita, an anthology of his poems, the collection of all his essays (even though I may not agree with every one of his assertions), and the short stories “Hoimonti”, “Streer Potro”, “Khudhito Pashan”, and for an unusual touch of horror, that story about the old, wealth-obsessed man burying his a young boy alive with all his worldly assets, so his unreleased spirit can guard it till the man’s estranged grandson can come to claim it. He only realises on his deathbed that the child he thus murdered was his grandson.

7. Upendrakishor Shomogro, Upendrakishore Roy Chowdhury: this is an anthology of stories from the Vedas and Puranas, and a summarised, simplified version of both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. This book held me captive for weeks, after which I could quote at will from nearly all of it. This book was why I started talking to my grandfather about religion and Hinduism, and why, a few years later, began reading about ancient Hindu texts. The first-hand knowledge has stood me in good stead, especially in the current political atmosphere in India.

8. Catch 22, Joseph Heller: this book has always seemed to me to be an expanded, enriched, dipped-and-fried in cynical satire version of the essence of Langston Hughes’ much more sincere and direct poem,”Will V-Day be Me-Day Too?“. The book destroys hope in pretty much everything. And yet when you finish, you realise there’s more cause for hope in this dark, cynical book than there ever will be amongst good, subservient citizenry. Here’s a little taste:

“You have deep-seated survival anxieties. And you don’t like bigots, bullies, snobs, or hypocrites. Subconsciously there are many people you hate.”
“Consciously, sir, consciously,” Yossarian corrected in an effort to help. “I hate them consciously.”

9. My old diaries, me: I discovered these while cleaning out my almirahs before moving cities. Give my utterly destroyed capacity for memory, my own young life was a revelation to me, a stranger’s stories with only vague flashes of familiarity. I was slightly disappointed to see the lack of modern identifiers of teenage and childhood from these records. I suppose the person who told my mother “Your daughter was born forty” had it right.

10. (Abol Tabol + Haw Jaw Baw Raw Law + Jhala Pala + Pagla Dashu, Sukumar Roy) + Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll: the absolute delight that is wonderfully-done nonsense and silliness, streamed through a steady narrative. And unlike Lewis Carroll – at least in my opinion – Ray’s work can be read subversively, a response to the political climate he lived and wrote in, even though he was never actively involved in political strife against the British Raj.

And here’s the bonus, because why stop at ten when eleven will bore just as well?
11. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys + Cereus Blooms At Night, Shani Mootoo + The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood + Subarnalata, Ashapurna Devi: dystopic tales centred on violated, exploited, and above all, silenced and marginalised people, most of whom happen to be women. It’s amazing when one stops and thinks how ‘natural’ the absence of these stories were for centuries, how identities lived daily couldn’t be legitimised – or even explicitly recorded – in writing. We are very much a society in denial about itself. If there was such a thing as existential therapy, we’d be on its metaphorical couch right now.

And that’s all for tonight. The dogs need airin’ and feedin’, my soul needs drinkin’, the dinner needs eatin’, and so I’m offski kitchenwards.

An Illegal Citizen’s Letter to Her Teenage Self

I seldom read letters people write to their younger selves. Part of it is because they are something of a fad, and I have an innate aversion to faddish things. (I’m a secret stern-faced fuddy-duddy.) But mostly it is because letters are private things, and reading one not meant for me would probably make me feel like I am stealthily tracking mud through someone’s delicate Persian and porcelain.

However, yesterday, I read a very, very powerful letter written by a young person to her even younger self. I am a tiny part of this letter, but that is not why it felt so wonderful to read it. In fact, I have almost nothing to do with the letter. It is all about her strength, her vulnerability, her acceptance of how she was made, the battles she fought because of it, and the recent loss of her legal identity. And it is about finding happiness, despite it all.

Read the full letter here. It’ll be a wonderful read, and you might just find yourself between the lines. TBelow is an excerpt that is especially special to me, because it touches upon JUDE, the place where our lives intersected. In that time, it was a magical place. You’ll see why.

Dear Rhea,

You will be happy. First know that. You will be happy for three years in JU, which you will feel is home the first time you walk in.

You will read many books and learn many things. You will be taught King Arthur in the original and Beowulf, and Iliad by one of the best men you will ever meet. You will learn how to be friends with people, how to sit down on a patch of grass or a stone step and talk for hours about everything and nothing. The girl you love will break your heart and you will miss her like a wound, but you will be happy.

You will have friends and books and coffee and ridiculous conversations and long walks that will end in you getting very decisively lost. You will get a camera and realise that photography is a sort of solace. Years later you will watch a film and recognise yourself in a scrap of behaviour and the knowledge that others, too, use a camera to create distance will come as a relief.

You will be taught the ethics of photography by the man who will first teach you the Iliad, and Aristotle, and Plato, and then later the ethics of feudalism, and as he tells you that photography has to be an ethical practice, the girl sitting beside you will sneak a photograph of him surreptitiously on her phone.

You shall write and run a magazine and watch films and read comics for a test and your sister will look resentful and your parents confused. You shall have fun studying for the first time in your life and you will have friends.

You will be happy. First know that. Only know that. You are loved and trusted and depended upon, but the knowledge is yet to come to you; you will know it when you can bear the weight of it. For now, know only that you will be happy.


Lost Metres of Childhood

We were playing an intense game of catching squash at home this evening (and having a jolly old time of it), when it suddenly occurred to me that little pleasures like these – randomly throwing a ball at the wall and catching it, tripping siblings down the stairs, pretending to be an aeroplane and zooming about the neighbourhood field – have gone straight out of our small-flat-in-big-city lifestyles. A great many people my parents generation managed to mature and prosper in the locales of their birth, their children playing similar games in similar lanes and almost re-living similar lives. Most of us, on the other hand, have been evicted from the lands of our childhood without moving an inch, because the place we call home have changed almost beyond recognition. Gone are the fallow fields, the ponds, the little clump of woods, the birds and foxes and badgers and rodents. And the broken stone-lined roads, the slippery alleys, dull white tubelights matted with dust, ramshackle tin buses, and powercuts thrice a day.

And with it has disappeared the cache of aphorisms and nursery rhymes we used to carry in our heads, and use in conversations ever so often. No one really does that any more (except the occasional cliché-ridden journalist or internet debater). I’m actually rather good at aphorisms, both in English and Bangla. But my stock of nursery rhymes have been eaten away by years of neglect and grown-up living in these brisk, abrupt, prosaic times. Pooling our resources, my husband and I could come up with only a very tiny number of these, even though both of us had read reams of the stuff in our cuter days. Here are the ones we could recall: noton noton pairaguli joton bNedhechhe; laal jhuti kakatua dhorechhe je baina; khoka ghumalo para juralo, borgi elo deshe; khokhon gaechhe machh dhorte, kheer nodir kuule.

Are there any more you could add to this list? We’d be ever so delighted. We’re especially keen on rhymes with khuki (little girl) in it, since all the adventures are always had by khoka (little boy). It’s khukis who chanted these “chhawras” gleefully generation after generation, memorised them, and passed them dutifully on to their sons and daughters… yet do you see a trace of them in the narrative? No. Indeed, the only presence I remember khukis having is via media, in the rhyme about the whiny cockatoo. Vain cockatoo wants a comb and a mirror, and raises a right to-do about it, whining and whinging. Not only is its wish not fulfilled, however, it is also promptly told that no one’s wants mischievous children [so it had better shut up and behave]. I’d take that at face value, but it never seems to apply to khoka, who gets up to whatever he wishes, and still gets to be the apple of the folk poets’ eyes.

“Khukir Shompotti”, by Jasimuddin


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