Monday, December 29, 2014

A Winter trip to Kodaikanal

Kodaikanal. If translated literally, it could mean several things - a place to visit in summer, the end of forests, the forest of creepers or the gift of the forest. Can one word have so many meanings? Well, yes. That is the beauty of Tamil, that is the beauty of Kodaikanal.

My second trip to this serene hill station started from the deep south city of Tirunelveli, in the winter night of 26th December, 2014. Making rendezvous with the rest of the touring party in Palani, we started climbing the Kodai hill the next day. The plan of the tour was for two days - a day of sightseeing and a day of trekking - an utterly insufficient duration to completely enjoy an hill station in winter, but still with better planning and a dedicated tour guide, we were able to visit most of the places of interest and have utmost fun.

Day 1 - Sightseeing
Beginning of the tour was the Kodai lake, an artificial lake credited to Sir Vera Levinge. We chose for pedaling boats, although rowing boats and public ferry were also available. With two in a boat, one can freely explore the beauty of this star shaped lake filled with tranquility. Cool breeze from the misty mountains on a winter day in a lake. What else could I ask for? The next spot was the Upper Lake view, from where the same lake could be seen from a distance. The enormity of the blue lake with its unique shape and white trails of boats was a visual treat.
From there we moved on to the Coaker's walk, a long stretch of view points running along the edge of steep slopes from where one could see the Dolphin's nose, pambar river valley and the birds eye view of the town of Periyakulam and other hill villages along the mountains in a cloudless clear sky. It could well be the paradise for nature photographers. Unfortunately, a mist covered winter day spoiled the pleasure of viewing all these beauties. But still the walk treated us with local fruits and dishes sold along the sides of its narrow path.
Moving on to the suicide point, our tour guide gave an interesting information that the suicide point, that is open to public access, is a ruse and the real suicide point's name is changed to avoid suicide fatalities. As in Ooty, suicide point here is a major attraction (I still wonder why!), that it was the most crowded place to be visited by us. The more deadly Guna Cave was fenced and prohibited from public access, may be to avoid accidents. Probably due to its portrayal in the film Guna, it has also become a major attraction next to the suicide point. Both these points could be potential photographic spots if they are not so swarmed by tourists.
Pine Forest of Kodaikanal is small but beautiful, with hundred to thousand year old pine trees. If one avails the horse ride service, the whole forest could be covered in hardly about 15 minutes. We preferred to walk than take the horse ride. Once we went into forest, we felt kind of lost our track amidst the evenly spaced trees. However tracing back is easier in this small forest than one thinks to be. While returning back to the hotel, we could see the pillar rock, a giant monolith with steep cliff tagged with a thin water falls, quite a mesmerizing view.
One aspect of visiting an hill station in winter is that one can have a challenging and thrilling night walk. A ten kilometer walk with various view points where we could see the lights of towns downhill was the first such experience for me. The dark road, with the sounds of strange animals and insects rhyming with the howling cold wind, could kindle the deepest fears of anyone, for a moment convinced me that the stories of ghosts in the hills are true.

Day 2 - Cycling and Trekking 
At the insistence of our tour guide, the second day of the trip started with a brisk session of cycling around the Kodai lake. From kids to old-timers, there was a large number of cyclists pedaling around the lake in the morning mist. Joining them, our fun gang could experience the morning freshness of the hill rejuvenating our hearts and body.
Once the cycling session was over, we started our trek towards the Dolphin's nose. Walking through the dense tropical forest, crossing rivulets, getting drenched in small falls, climbing small cliffs and rises, it took two hours to reach the Dolphin's nose. It is a flat rock projecting over a breathtaking chasm of almost two kilometers deep. When we arrived there, the mist played spoilsport covering the valley and hiding the actual depth. To our surprise, once we were standing at the edge of the nose, mist cleared slowly and made us realize that we were standing on a cliff of two kilometers high. It was an adventurous as well as dangerous moment, where any person would certainly experience the fear of falling. After enjoying our time in the high cliff, we started returning to the hotel through steep slope (I realised what an uphill task really is..!), thereafter bidding adieu to the princess of hill stations.

The beauty of Kodaikanal is not confined to the places mentioned in this post. Several aspects of the hill is not explored here. Lying in the edge of a vast rainforest, Kodaikanal is one of the spots where the human-nature interaction has been sustaining for centuries. Village life in the hills and tribal life deep inside the forest are illustrations of such sustainable interactions. The whole town and adjoining tourist spots are in fact a sample of what lies to its west. It is the start of the great Western Ghats, that shelters millions of unique fauna and flora. It is the paradise for wildlife enthusiasts, photographers, conservationists, ornithologists etc,., and certainly Kodaikanal is the Gift of these Forests.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Half Girlfriend (novel)

"...a simple and beautiful love story that will touch your heart and inspire you to chase your dreams." - Goodreads

Before starting the actual review, I just want to clarify that I am not one of those 'I hate Chetan's stories' guys. I really enjoyed reading Five Point Someone and 2 States. There has long been a criticism that Bhagat unnecessarily includes social problems that are not related to the core of the novel. I do not agree with any such statements because it is his style of writing. None of us question Dan Brown for going into the intricacies of Roman Architecture, or criticise Khaled Hosseini for elaborately describing the beauty and nature of Afghanistan. Ultimately they intend to make the readers aware of these details, so does Chetan Bhagat. However, lately he seems to have forgotten the most essential part of a novel - the story. Story is the most attractive element of a novel that drives the reader to immerse and grasp the intended message. When the story is repetitive, monotonous or predictive, the novel fails, as happened in the case of Half Girlfriend.

A Bihari boy, Madhav Jha, gets admitted into the prestigious St. Stephen's College and befriends a rich Delhi girl, Riya Somani. He falls in love with her, she agrees only to be his "half-girlfriend", his lust betrays him, resulting in "half-break up". She discontinues studies, marries a rich family friend and moves to London. With a broken heart, he follows his dream and starts running a school in his hometown. She gets a divorce, flies back to India, meets him, helps him, but disappears. He finds her journals, searches for her, finally finds her in New York. They live Happily Together.

On the positive note, the story deals with the characters we see in real lives. Chetan Bhagat writes in a simple and understandable language, that can easily reach Indian masses. Within the story line he has beautifully highlighted some of the social problems like the class disparity of Indian society, regional differences, false pride of high society, child abuse, corruption in politics, etc.

Half Girlfriend is more of a movie script than a novel, to the worse, it is an half cooked one with loads of logical flaws. There was no real necessity for Chetan's presence in the story. Why would the lead character bring his dead girlfriend's journals to a writer, whose novels were read by him for the sole purpose of learning English? Wouldn't he want to know what his girlfriend wrote before dying? A guy, who tried to decode her every expression during each moment together, who had clinged on to the past for two years by thinking about her everyday, yet is not curious about what she has written in her journal. It doesn’t seem realistic. Riya cuts off from the world with utmost perfection, but forgets about her journal! These logical flaws clearly shows the lack of caution and realism from the author's side.

The intent to weave social issues inside the story is appreciable, but real content is missing. Neither the causes for class disparity, overemphasis on English, false pride etc., are explored, nor their effects are discussed. Author could've done some research and given attention to the deepest intricacies of the problems. Without doing so, the intended effect - reaching the readers, is not possible. Given the experience Chetan had in writing relationship stories, the whole novel should have taken a maximum of three weeks to write. One surely can not expect better reviews for such minimum input.

This disastrous failure clearly shows that time has come where Chetan Bhagat should stop writing relationship stories - he has written six such novels including Half Girlfriend. With the reach he has achieved through his first few novels, he can directly deal with social issues, not under the cloak of love stories. His fans deserve better novels, not half baked film scripts.

Half Girlfriend - deja vu.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Third Gender

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something… transgendered? If you are an Indian in need of some luck on your wedding day you could do no better than seek the blessing of one of the country’s estimated 400,000 male to female transsexuals or "transgenders". Yes, the same section of the society, which was abused and ill treated in public places, discriminated in the society at large, expelled from home for being one, would bring an average Indian luck, provided he buys their blessings for ten or twenty rupees. And of course the same average Indian would later scold them and complain about how they stole his money by begging and spoiling the business by roaming in front of his tea stall..! After all, we are all hypocrites by nature..!!

A vulnerable lot
Transgenders have a recorded history of more than 4,000 years. Ancient myths bestow them with special powers to bring luck and fertility. Despite this supposedly sanctioned place in Indian culture, transgenders face severe harassment and discrimination from every direction. They have been facing years of crushing social stigmatisation, abuse and general derision from the wider community.

The uphill struggle for the transgenders first begins with finding acceptance within the family. Once the truth is out, transgenders are usually forced to leave the family home. Yet the society they must take refuge in is equally as unwelcoming. Transgenders have few rights and are not recognised by Indian law. This denies them the right to own property, the right to marry and the right to claim formal identity through any official documents such as a passport or driving licence. Accessing healthcare, employment or education becomes almost impossible. In the face of such odds they are forced to earn money any way they can, for many transgenders the method of making ends meet is prostitution, ultimately becoming vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases.

A law misused
As is the case for all gay, lesbian and bisexual people living in India, simply by being sexually active transgenders are breaking the law. Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) outlaws any “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” − in other words, any sex that is not between a man and a woman with the aim of reproduction. Brought in by the British in 1860 to try and curb the “heathen customs” of the local population, it carries with it a potential life sentence. Whilst attitudes in the UK have matured considerably and such legislation has long since been removed from the British statute books, it still remains very much part of the Indian system. Even the Supreme Court of India, recently upheld its constitutionality. Although convictions are rare, it is in the name of such a law that the police are able to carry out their worst abuses against the transgender community. As well as the police aggression, gangs of local thugs known as “goondas” frequently rob and sexually assault transgenders on the street.

Apathy and bias
These attacks are rarely prevented or reported by the locals. They don't really care about what happens to this section of the society. Until very recently these attitudes were mirrored and strengthened by the Indian media which itself seemed to suffer from a certain amount of gender vertigo. Transgenders were routinely portrayed as wily tricksters who led unsuspecting men astray or half-man half-woman freak shows, almost devilish in their customs and practices. In 2003, an HIV/AIDS and human rights research centre in Lucknow was raided and the coordinator jailed under IPC 377 for "conspiracy to promote homosexual activities". An English language newspaper ran the headline: Gay Racket Busted- 2 NGOs Caught in the Act.

Towards an attitude change
Something, however, is beginning to alter in the traditional Indian mindset as right now there seems to be both subtle and appreciable changes taking place in terms of how this group are being treated and recognised by mainstream society. Over the last few years India has seen its first transgender fashion model, a transgender television presenter and in the recent Bollywood epic Jodhaa Akbar a transgender, instead of hamming up the usual comic role, was portrayed as a trusted lieutenant of the female lead. Thanks to a large number of internationally funded support groups that are gaining considerable momentum in many big Indian cities, transgenders, as well as other sexuality minority groups, are slowly starting to get a better deal.

Even the government seems to be finally recognising that transgenders exist. In March 2000 Shabnam Mausi, or “Aunt Shabnam” as she is affectionately known, became the first transgender to be elected into Indian parliament and since then many others have taken her lead by successfully entering the political arena. Since 2006, transgenders in the state of Bihar have been employed by the government as tax collectors, singing loudly about the debt outside the defaulter's premises until they are shamed into paying up − one of the most effective tax recovery methods ever used in India. In 2008, the state of Tamil Nadu allowed transgenders, if they wish, to be recognised as “T” rather than just “M” or “F” on ration cards with the same being planned soon for passports and driving licences.

Justice for the Other
Ultimately, the apex court has stepped forward on their account in the recent NALSA case. It recognised the transgender community as a third gender entitled to the same rights and constitutional protection as all other citizens. Further, the direction that they should be treated as ‘socially and educationally backward’ and given reservation in education and employment, is a far-reaching contribution to their all-round development. The Court has also noted that Indian law treats gender as a binary concept, with sections of the Indian Penal Code and Acts related to marriage, adoption, divorce, succession, and even welfare legislation, being examples. Through this astounding verdict, the Supreme Court has put in place a sound basis to end discrimination based on gender, especially gender as presumed to be assigned to individuals at birth, and also extend the global principles of dignity, freedom and autonomy to this vulnerable population. The jurisprudential basis for the judgment is that sex identity cannot be based on a mere biological test but must take into account the individual’s psyche.

With this landmark verdict, Now is the right time to end our hypocritical attitude to exclude the transgenders from the mainstream while sanctifying them as the luck-bearers of the society. For those complaining about the transgenders begging in trains and hampering businesses in kiranas and tea stalls, I would like to remind that it was us who led them to such misery, it was us who deprived them from the chance of leading a normal life. It is our responsibility to  treat them with care and love they are entitled to as a fellow human being.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

P.S. I Love You (novel)

"A novel about holding on, letting go and learning to love again." - Goodreads

P.S. I Love You, a debut novel by Irish writer Cecelia Ahern, deals with a love that a man leaves for his wife even after his death and how he eventually convinces her to fall in love again. This man Gerry is so unreal and romantic that he leaves bunch of letters to his wife Holly, meant to guide her out of grief and loneliness. Starting from trivial tasks such as buying a bedside lamp, these letters gives her hope and a new outlook at the society. In the tenth and final letter, Gerry gives Holly confidence to fall in love again and a task to open her heart and follow it.
Highlight of the novel is the order of these letters. The author has stood upon the shoes of Holly and found out what would be needed at what time for her recovery. By doing so, the author has represented Gerry as a husband who has completely understood the feelings of his wife.
The story is more focused on emotions. Sometimes, even the letters have lost prominence to emotions. The author has more focused on how Holly feels upon reading a letter than to what the letter actually says and how important the task in the letter is to Holly's recovery. This has lead to a monotonous story-telling at times, although the storyline had the potential to diversify.
The characters centered around Holly are diverse in nature and add life to the story. Opposite to the main plot which deals with sad emotions, these characters and their little life episodes make the readers feel light hearted. The author could have used more such funny episodes to cut the monotony.
Overall, the storyline is good but the narration could have been better. Not bad for a debut novel.