Tag Archives: Patriarchy

Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitaray

Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitaray, does a couple of things which no other Bollywood movie has done so far: it normalizes sex (especially awkward sex) in  ordinary relationships, and deflates the ridiculously overblown representations in mainstream Bollywood of manly hunks and hot babes being transported to some nebulous heaven by the act. It also normalizes the notion that women, especially married women, are as deserving of sexual satisfaction in life as their male partners.  

These are pretty revolutionary ideas for Indian culture, and the secret of this movie’s appeal. 

Shrivastava has established herself as a sexual anarchist in Indian cinema. Her previous offering, Lipstick Under My Burkha, was a fierce jab at the patriarchal, social and sexual norms that still govern most Indian women’s lives. Dolly and Kitty push the envelope further and bring us the mundane realities of sex and sexual liberation, not in a big, glamorous neon-lit city, but in the sprawling, congested, middle class suburbia of Noida.   

Radha Yadav, known as Dolly (Konkona Sensharma) is a housewife who lives in a tiny, unattractive Noida flat with husband Amit, and who works in a tiny office, where one of her principal duties is making tea for her boss and her coworker – the infamous patriarchy is shown reflected in these innocuous, everyday things.  Her cousin Kajaal (Bhumi Pednekar), who has fled her small town home to escape a stifling arranged marriage, comes to stay. 

The movie hooks you rightaway.  At a local fantasia land, Amit’s straying hand fondles Kajaal, who tells Dolly about her lecherous  husband. When Dolly dismisses it as a misunderstanding, Kajaal insists, “Woh meray saath sex karna chahtay hain, Dolly di.”

That line sets the tone of the film. It’s about women who recoil against being abused or exploited or disappointed in their relationships, sexual or otherwise, and are not afraid to say so or take the risks associated with their boldness.               

Kaajal moves out and finds a job with Red Rose Romance, a company which offers soft-porn phone companionship to lonely men.  Her cover name is ‘Kitty.’

Meanwhile, Dolly juggles her dreams of owning a beautiful, brand new flat by employing a little skullduggery at her office, to help fund installments on her future home. Matters are further complicated by a frigid sex life at home and a budding romance with an attractive, young Muslim college student who is the local food deliveryman; she has a potentially trans-gender son and a mother who abandoned her when she was eight, but who now wants back into Dolly’s life.  

Konkona Sensharma and Amol Prasher

If that isn’t enough, events take an exhausting turn as Kitty makes friends with a bold, sexually opportunistic coworker from Red Rose who introduces her to a sleazy world of sex and money, where she narrowly escapes being deflowered by paunchy, alcohol guzzling, real estate developers.

Kitty ends up ‘falling for’ a phone-sex client, Pradeep (Vikrant Massey). She begins to explore her first real relationship with a man, whom she imagines is her boyfriend and decides to give her precious, patriarchally protected virginity to Pradeep.

Bhumi Pedneker and Vikrant Massey

From then on, the movie tumbles through a series of concocted situations which try to make points it just keeps missing. The problem is it tries to address too many social issues at once: a parent trying to deal with her child’s transgender proclivities, sexual dissatisfaction in a marriage, abandonment by her mother and lecherous behavior in her husband. Thrown into the mix are repressive gender roles in the workplace, sexual chauvinism and double standards in Indian men, a sexual coming of age story, religious chauvinism and bigotry, and the ugly, entitled, violence of Hindutva advocates.      

The movie lingers fleetingly on these subjects, like loose threads unwoven from the larger tapestry of a meaningful message about sexual liberation and the average middle-class Indian woman. 

Perhaps that’s because Dolly and Kitty are far from average. They are strong women, trying hard to fulfil what they imagine are their dreams, except that their dreams reach into the murky depths of social prejudice and pulls scum out into the damning sunlight.

They’re bold enough to take sexual risks and live with the consequences of their actions, while still trying to retain what they value as good and real. Kitty cries to Dolly when she confronts her with her promiscuous behavior, “I’m a good person, Dolly Di. I really loved him. I didn’t take a paisa for the sex.”

There are some wonderfully nuanced moments in this film, which highlight the mundane ordinariness of everyday, middle class life and love in suburban India – one is when Kitty’s lover helps wash bloodstains off a sheet in a bucket of water after she loses her virginity. Another is a drunk session between Kitty and Dolly on the rooftop where they touch on almost every defining issue in Indian sexual hypocrisy. 

“I said tata, bye bye to my virginity and I didn’t feel a thing,” Kitty tells Dolly, and her honest, reflective disappointment deflates the sexist virginity myth as surely as air hissing out of a balloon.

“Wouldn’t it be great if there was a Red Rose Romance site for women too?” Kitty quips.

Konkona Sensharma and Bhumi Pednekar bring their usual excellence to their respective roles. Amol Prasher as Osmaan, Dolly’s younger lover, and Vikrant Massey as Pradeep, Kitty’s Red Rose boyfriend, fit in perfectly as supporting cast to this very female centric movie.

I would give Dolly, Kitty Aur Woh Chamaktay Sitary four Chamaktay Sitaray out of five for its entertainment quotient, but two and half for the muddled feminist message it tries to deliver. 


Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing Editor at India Currents

 

Is Dad Doing The Laundry?

As families celebrated Father’s Day in June, I was reminded that a month ago when moms were being feted, some dads were playing true to type – and not the kosher kind.

On Mother’s Day my WhatsApp group chats were overflowing with fulsome messages from male high-school friends who were paying tributes to motherhood and to schoolmates who were mothers. 

Messages ranged from simple salutations like ‘Happy Mother’s Day to all the lovely moms in this group,’ to warm, fuzzy images of new moms holding babies.   

The very next day, the same Whatsapp chats were overflowing with contradictory comments; ‘Party over, back to the kitchen ladies!’ and clever little jokes about ‘witches going back to their brooms.’  I must confess some were funny and made me laugh.  

But without exception all these comments were offensive to women.

In India I went to a small, progressive high school with a small, somewhat homogenous student body. Many of my schoolmates, though well-intentioned, came from relatively conservative and old-fashioned families. In our class of forty, perhaps just two mothers drove their own cars and maybe three mothers worked outside the home.

Given this context, I put the whole Mother’s Day kerfuffle down to ignorance or lack of exposure and moved on.  Over time, I thought to myself, as the younger generation gets more educated and aware, things will change.

But the COVID crisis revealed some uncomfortable truths.

As families were forced to quarantine and share close quarters as well as household chores, I began to realize how deep and enduring the sex-based biases are.  

My Whatsapp chats closely mirrored the reality of real life between men and women, roles and expectations.

There were the usual jokes about men being imprisoned with their wives and corporate big-wigs being stuck washing dishes.   And yes, they had a comedic element and ought to have been taken with a pinch (or mountain) of salt. But nonetheless, the comments struck a nerve, especially as women have long borne the greater burden of child rearing and housework, even in so-called equitable societies.

Many of my liberal friends who went to college with me have competed head-to-head with women, fully respecting their talents and abilities. They have been nothing but supportive of their wives having an independent career and life and have raised their girls and boys to be equally empowered. 

And yet the same open-minded individuals posted artless comments that left me wondering about unconscious biases.  Several complained about helping with household chores that were now a big part of their daily routine. Arguably, in many of these households, couples are taking on responsibilities that usually are left to their domestic help who are now sheltering at home themselves, and who normally are a luxury taken very much for granted. 

But the underlying assumption was clear – household chores were the wife’s responsibility; the husband was only expected to help when he could (even though both spouses had equally demanding jobs), and they were all uniformly proud about being great husbands.

Closer to home, my ex-husband was visiting our children at my house and started offering me tips on loading the dishwasher – he said he had picked them up from ‘years of experience’ loading that particular appliance.  I was fully cognizant of his dishwashing skills during the course of our marriage and asked how he came by that expertise.  His response – he had done a lot of thinking about the matter (unlike me), while doing the loading during the lockdown, ‘over five days!’

In another astounding episode, a friend who is a longstanding human rights activist and a self-declared feminist, announced on a webinar about the impact of COVID-19, that while he appreciates the many men who have stepped up to help their wives at home, corporations should do more to support the women in remote working environments, as they are primarily responsible for the household. 

He meant well I suppose, but his assumption left me absolutely shocked.  Even as COVID upends roles and responsibilities at home, why is the basic presumption that domestic work is a woman’s job?

This is a man who looks after his own home and cooks for his family. He is fiercely proud of being married to an independent woman who is a highly placed corporate professional.  Coming from a man who sees himself as sophisticated feminist, I expected differently.

Perhaps deep-seated biases are embedded in our cultural DNA. It made me wonder – will things ever really change?

While society seems to have moved forward when it comes to equality between the sexes in the household, some men who espouse liberal views appear to remain fundamentally sexist when gender roles are disrupted, especially in a crisis like this one.  

But then, something extraordinary happened.  Recently I was helping a male friend ‘G,’ with a home renovation project. The building contractor was dismissive of me and flatly refused to answer my questions unless G asked them. He was extremely responsive and respectful to G.  

I asked G to deal with it.  He looked straight at me and said “why do you need me to talk to him?  You have straightened out dozens of people in your life who have been disrespectful.  Give him a piece of your mind – you are no victim.”  

So I did exactly that.  I told the builder that I liked his ideas and budget but his attitude made me hesitate.  If we were to work together, he had to learn to cooperate with me or he was not getting the project.  It took seconds to assert myself and for the builder to reset his attitude, and after that the project went on smoothly 

In the face of deep rooted sexist biases women need to move the needle by asserting ourselves and being firm and direct. The pandemic has created an imbalance in what may have been a level playing field for some but it’s also presented an opportunity to reset our roles and expectations. 

I am used to asserting my position in professional settings but this casual incident was a revelation. As a woman, had I absorbed the same biases myself? It’s not always easy to combat sexism in one’s inner circle, whether it appears in schoolmates, my contractor, my feminist friend or my ex-husband. But it’s important to command respect in all settings in life.

We must take a stand and stick to our guns – not wait for someone else to do it for us.  


Photo by Félix Prado on Unsplash

Go Women Ninjas!

I stepped out for a walk with my elementary school son. He was telling me about a program that seems to be the craze among his friends: Lego, Ninjago.

Ninjaaaa—goooo!”, said the little fellow and spun around on the spot kicking his legs up in the air. “ I wonder why they need to say Ninjaaaa-gooo before doing spinjitzu, but they always do that.”

“Maybe it is a spell. Why do they spin so much anyway? Is it like ballet?”, I asked.

The horror of my ignorance made him open his eyes wide in disbelief. “Amma! It is not like ballet. It is spin-jit-zu.”

I often prance into these gaffes. It was clear that the Ninjago masters did not appreciate being called ballet dancers, even though their spinjitzu-s looked like ballerinas who had stubbed their toes.

Knowledge is the antidote to ignorance

He set about enlightening me after taking a deep breath. “They do spinjitzu to use their powers. Everyone has a power. Jai has?” he looked at me expectantly.

I knew the answer was somewhere. I had nodded along on several occasions when he explained the powers of Ninja masters. I took a sip of humility and came clean. “Oh! I can never remember these powers. Why don’t you tell me again, and I will do my best to remember them.”

Professors can rarely resist such a humble seeker of knowledge, and so my little Professor launched on his ‘Amazing Superpowers of the Ninjago Masters’ class.

A few minutes of Walk-Walk-Talk-Talk later, “Then, Lord Garmadon was bitten by the Evil sorcerer and Evil coursed through his veins.”

“Oh no! His parents must’ve been so sad!”, I said. “What did his mother do?”

The fellow stopped with a quizzical expression on his face. “Umm…he has no mother. I don’t know why, but he doesn’t.”

Women Ninja time?

It was as we continued toeing the Ninjago-Spinjitzu line that I asked him why there were no Women in the Ninjago world. His face crinkled with thought. “ Nya is there. Cole became a Ninja to save his sister Nya.”

I looked at his sincere face, and took a deep breath. I saw it was time for me to become a female Ninja.

I asked him what he thought of his sister. “Do you love her?”

A look of awe crept into his eyes. His older, taller, wiser sister?  She looks after him, plays with him, and tells him the most amazing Greek myths. “Of course I do!” he said, stung by such a blasphemous question.

“How about Amma? Do you like me?”

Affirmative.

I kicked it up a notch. I asked about his friends. There were a few girls in the list. I asked him about his teachers, grandmothers and aunts? Duh! He laughed and said that he liked them all.

“Now”, I said, “I want you to imagine how you will feel without any of these girls in your life! “

“What?! Why?”, he said.

“Because that is what those poor Ninjago master-fellows seem to be going through. Don’t you see? “

His face dawned, and then he gave a sheepish smile.

Gender Stereotypes

Research shows that our attitudes regarding genders are formed between the ages of 5 & 6. Maybe this is the time to look at all our entertainment choices with a critical eye. If Superman does everything by himself, why do we think our sons will discuss their problems with us? If in most shows Men save the world by going to War, how can we hope for future peace and diplomacy? Every evening, homes are flooded with soap operasthat glorify women who suffer at the hands of those who should be their intellectual partners and friends.

The effect spirals over time as well. If you look at the average amount of time spent in unpaid housework, women spend a significantly greater amount of time than men do. In some countries, they spend almost double the time doing unpaid housework as men.  

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation recognizes the extent of the problem and has dedicated $1Billion in 2018 towards empowering Women. They recognize that every aspect of life (lower poverty rates, increased health care & life expectancy), improves when women are empowered. In the introductory chapter of the book, Moment of Lift, Melinda Gates writes: Sometimes all it takes to lift women up, is to stop pulling them down.” 

International Women’s Month is here and we will be celebrating all the great achievements of Women in Science, Literature, and Leadership; ​​instead of stopping and acknowledging the Women in our lives. The ones who make life what it is with their friendship, camaraderie and companionship.

Biases sneak in sometimes without our knowledge, and setting it right may start with the simple step of recognizing its existence.

 “Wait!”, said the little fellow. “Nya also became a Ninja later in the series. She is a girl-Ninja now.”

“Good!” I said, and peace was restored in our world.

Saumya Balasubramanian writes regularly at nourishncherish.wordpress.com. Some of her articles have been published in San Francisco Chronicle,  The Hindu and India Currents. She lives with her family in the Bay Area where she lilts along savoring the ability to find humor in everyday life and finding joy in the little things.

“As a Small Brown Woman With an Arabic Name” – Ramiza Koya

The Royal Abduls depicts the cost of the anti-Muslim sentiment in the United States, through the lens of an Indian-American family in post 9/11 America. The novel tells the story of eleven-year-old Omar and his aunt Amina, an evolutionary biologist who moves near her brother’s family in Washington, D.C.after years of working on the West Coast. As Omar tries on an exaggerated Indian accent to impress his schoolmates, Amina struggles to focus on her study of hybrid zones while working in a male-dominated lab. Omar cycles through outlets for his vast curiosity and gets in trouble at school. His parents’ disintegrating relationship leaves only independent, career-minded Amina to look out for him. The Royal Abduls engages with the struggles of women in the workplace and the difficulties of maintaining relationships in a fragmented America.

Ramiza Shamoun Koya tackles subjects such as racism, misogyny and being other in America, having faced some of that herself. I had the pleasure of reading an advanced copy of this wonderful novel, and it really resonated with me. My debut novel, The Atlas of Reds and Blues, addressed similar topics and I felt equipped for our dialogue. Her book is set to publish on May 12, 2020 and can be pre-ordered online. Here I am in conversation with the talented Ramiza Shamoun Koya. 

Devi: What led you to start this book? Did it start out as a short story?

Ramiza: It started out as a short story called “The Hybrid Zone”; I intended for it to be the lead story in a story collection. But then I was blessed with a two-week residency at MacDowell Colony.  The first day I sat in Wood Studio, looking out a huge window into the forest, I typed the words “Omar was happy” almost without thinking. And then I knew I had a novel on my hands.

Devi: As I read your book, I was struck by its realism. I felt there was an autobiography in this book. And yet it is a novel and not a memoir. 

Ramiza: I never intended for this to be autobiographical per se.  There is autobiographical feeling in the search for identity, in some of the experiences that Amina and Omar and their family have. But my own personal autobiography is much more complicated than anyone in The Royal Abduls!  And to be honest, I had never been interested in writing memoir until very recently – I see myself as a fiction writer and always did.   

Devi: I loved that Amina had her say and that at times Omar had his say in the book. I was particularly struck by the child’s POV in the post-9/11 world and the contrast to Amina’s and Mo’s experience. Can you discuss your choices there? 

Ramiza: Omar became very important to me. I think young Muslims were real victims of this shift towards anti-Muslim sentiment. And Omar is very much second-generation; that interested me as well.  There is so much writing on the immigrant experience. I wanted to focus on someone who was born here and feels it’s natural that they should be treated as other Americans are. When he is denied that, it’s not just confusing; it’s nonsensical.  His struggle is so very common among brown people in America, and facing up to that means facing up the essentially racist structures we live under. As I wrote the initial short story, I did not foresee that Omar would become a major character in a novel; but his voice, once I started writing in it, became so absorbing, so easy to slip into, and each new reader told me that they had fallen in love with him. So he earned his place!

Devi: I felt as though your novel was in conversation with my novel, especially as it addresses the immigrant experience one generation removed, and also by having children who were mixed-race. 

Ramiza: As I’ve gotten older, I am convinced that if we write about women, we have to write about misogyny.  To leave it out is to leave out something essential to all female experience. I wanted to have Amina face that and struggle with that and live it down.  I wanted her to find her way in spite of it. When we underplay this essential difference between male and female experience, we’re enabling it to continue.  I wanted to write authentically about sexual politics in the workplace, but I also wanted to connect some of that misogyny to Amina’s brown skin. As a small brown woman with an Arabic name, I have felt how connected misogyny and racism are.

Devi:What books have influenced you, make you want to write? What books propelled you to finish The Royal Abduls? What books have you read recently that have excited you? 

Ramiza: Books that influenced me when I was younger were by Richard Wright, Malcolm X, James Baldwin: coming of age stories by African-American writers moved me deeply.  I related to them; they made me feel like I had a story too. Then I was all about Indian literature: Midnight’s Children and Sacred Games and books by Arundhati Roy, Amitav Ghosh; these helped me understand my own identity, my origins a bit more, and inspired me to travel in India.  More recently, I have loved Elena Ferrante, Min Jin Lee, Jesmyn Ward, Ruth Ozeki, Julie Otsuka, William Dalrymple, Hillary Mantel. The poets Ocean Vuong and Ilya Kaminsky have deeply influenced me this year. 

Devi: Did you find your book cathartic to write? I personally don’t believe in catharsis. I think I changed as a writer in the intervening years, and what I felt was relief it was to be able to write at all.

Ramiza: Yeah, no catharsis!  It’s hard work and then you never know if it’s good or bad or if it will ever be read.   

Devi:And tell me about your next book, a short story collection. Right? How has the experience of putting that together differed from writing a novel?

Ramiza:The short story collection includes my very first publication (“Night Duty” in Washington Square Review) to my latest attempts, many of which are unpublished. I’ve been building it over many years, and it’s nice because unlike a novel you can play with the order easily.  It does need an editor, however.

Devi:What is the one thing you want readers to take away after finishing The Royal Abduls?

Ramiza: I think the change in perspective, the ability to imagine life in someone else’s shoes, is one of the greatest gifts of fiction; I hope that any reader feels like they lived along with this family and gained insight into their experiences.

Devi S. Laskar is a native of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and holds an MFA from Columbia University. The Atlas of Reds and Blueswinner of the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature and the Crook’s Corner Book Prize—is her first novel. A former newspaper reporter, Laskar is now a poet, photographer, essayist, and novelist. She now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.


KOYA, RAMIZA SHAMOUN. ROYAL ABDULS. FOREST AVENUE PR, 2020.

Thappad: The Slap That Confronts Patriarchy

Zero, one, two, three, four, five… how many slaps justify the end of a marriage? Whichever numerical digit you picked or didn’t pick after watching Thappad, if introspection is your thing, you will feel guilty for being a part of a system that feeds patriarchy, enabling men and women to diminish a woman’s status.

Thappad does a fine job of meticulously and neatly unpacking layers of permissiveness, hypocrisy and privilege which runs through Indian society and its people. How all of us casually, unknowingly, knowingly chip away a woman’s respect with words, sentences, action, inaction, behaviours, interactions and deathly silence. How the tolerance level for failing men is way higher than women and why they get away with worse and beyond, without many murmurs.

Marie Shear defined feminism as the radical notion that women are people. The writers don’t let this window of opportunity slip even for a nanosecond to prove it right. They even place the blame for the one slap where it belongs, which by itself is a monumental step, with the man. Yes, you heard that right! Not his work, not his mood, not his whim, not his fancy, not his mental illness, not the woman. Him. We live and perpetrate inequities to such an extent that even questioning bad behaviour or inhumane treatment becomes an extreme act or rebellion, when really it’s a justified fight for a little space, voice, breath, expression of emotion, and most importantly, respect.

The movie starts simply, Amrita (Taapsee Pannu) frantically stretches herself to manage the home front while her husband Vikram (Pawail Gulati) races up the corporate ladder, losing her own identity and desires in the process. At a party meant to celebrate his success, Vikram involuntarily slaps Amrita in front of guests forcing her to introspect and examine her place in the marriage. Is she happy, is she respected? The answer seems to be painfully obvious even though Vikram himself fails to comprehend the real issue. As in real life, not one person questions the man on the slap but some of them do expect that Amrita should let that pass. 

Breaking the mould of the Hindi cinema heroine with gusto is Amrita, who refuses to play the sacrificial lamb or be bullied into a happy ending. She takes her time and space to question the routine of her marriage. She rightly asks: why did he feel comfortable enough to deliver that slap in the first place? Such a relief to see a determined woman in the face of opposition by people around her, starting from her mother Sandhya (Ratna Pathak Shah), mother-in-law (Tanvi Azmi), brother Karan (Ankur Rathi), even her own lawyer Nethra (Maya Sarao) before she takes up her case. Supports include her father Sachin (Kumud Mishra), maid Sunita (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan), sister-in-law Swati (Naina Grewal) and neighbours Sania (Gracy Goswami) and Shivani (Dia Mirza).

I loved the subtle ways in which the writers bring out the vagaries of everyday existence and our own blind spots. That moment when the progressive father realises he has been an ignorant husband is a hallmark scene. The dilemma of the lawyer who benefits from her in-laws repute, lives within an abusive relationship even as she fights for women’s rights. The maid who has no one fighting for her, the way she battles her own violent husband with spirit. The moves in the legal chess game, as the story progresses, with a delightful cameo by Ram Kapoor who plays Vikram’s lawyer Pramad. Many, many such satisfying moments to cherish in a balanced, exceptional movie.

It is a must-watch not only for its message but for some stellar, well-rounded performances from an ensemble cast. Taapsee Pannu delivers her career best performance, supported strongly by Geetika Vidya Ohlyan (the Soni actress, outstanding, once more), Maya Sarao (effective), Pavail Gulati (excellent, he dishes his final scene sincerely), Dia Mirza (graceful), Ratna Pathak Shah (layered), Tanvi Azmi (natural), Kumud Mishra (superb) and Ram Kapoor (entertaining).

Hat tip to Anubhav Sinha (co-writer, director) and Mrunmayee Lagoo (co-writer) who deliver a living, breathing master stroke, conveying a crucial message with the balance, love and dignity it deserves. Every character is layered, living a dichotomous existence, highlighting our systemic and collective responsibility effectively.

Thappad is subtle yet strong in its message, devoid of unnecessary drama, yet sends the message loud and clear that we jointly tolerate, contribute and benefit from patriarchy. The spunky female fights the good fight and no justification is offered for privileged male behaviour. This slap is designed to fight patriarchy and it does.

rating: 5 out 5

Hamida Parkar is a freelance journalist and founder-editor of cinemaspotter.com. She writes on cinema, culture, women and social equity.


Thappad (2020). Director: Anubhav Sinha. Writers: Mrunmayee Lagoo, Anubhav Sinha. Players: Taapsee Pannu, Pavail Gulati, Geetika Vidya Ohlyan, Maya Sarao, Dia Mirza, Ratna Pathak Shah, Tanvi Azmi, Kumud Mishra and Ram Kapoor.  Music: Anurag Saikia, Mangesh Dhakde. Theatrical release: Benaras Media Works, T-Series.

Nirbhaya Rises from the Sea of Fantasy

The Oscar winning movie The Shape of Water (2017), has a scene where a merman and his human paramour swim in a bathroom filled to the ceiling with water;  her hair streams like elegant seaweed and his fins expand in a glorious, orchestrated dance – a dreamscape that crashes to earth as water leaks through the barricaded door and gushes onto the street.

Raj Kamal Jha’s novel, The City and the Sea, attempts the same intertwining of two worlds – the fantastic and the functional, reality bleeding into the surreal, as it tries to make sense of the mindless horror that was the rape of Jyoti Singh in New Delhi in 2012.  Public reaction to the savagery of that crime became a national tipping point for activism against atrocities on women in India.

The novel approaches the fate of Nirbhaya (or ‘fearless’ as Jyoti Singh became known ), in an alternate universe – a twilight zone of vivid, intriguing imagery. Cross-connecting clues – the cream shirt, black jeans and red scarf – that Nirbhaya wore on the day she was killed, are sprinkled liberally throughout. 

The novel begins when a young boy’s mother disappears one day, after failing to return from her job as a newspaper copy editor. While his father launches a search for his wife and detectives proceed with the mundane task of investigation, the boy is sucked through a metaphysical portal into the fantastical realm of the invisible Sea that lurks in every corner and crevice of the city. Before she went missing, his mother had described this mystical Sea to the boy as a metaphor for all the darker forces that roamed beyond the safe cocoon of their lives. Like the physical sea, with its fascinating flotsam of debris and objects broken by crashing waves, the metaphysical Sea in Jha’s novel is filled with broken souls and bleeding bodies that become visible to the boy only after an otherworldly night creature called December (for the month in which Nirbhaya’s rape took place), climbs in through his bedroom window and takes him on a journey to find his mother. 

The story gets progressively darker as references to Nirbhaya and her ordeal are tossed into the narrative by December, who has become the boy’s guide in an alternate, twilight dimension of his universe.  

Scenes of the boy’s search for his mother alternate with an intriguing depiction of a woman arriving at a cold, empty, German seaside resort set in stark, bizarre surroundings, as if she’s been swallowed by a Dali painting. The two worlds collide eventually, in a sensational, fantasy-fuelled climax. 

The magical realism of The City and the Sea sucked me in with its compelling images and poetic prose, until the narrative fell clumsily to the ground, weighed down by contrivances and clichés like an overdressed window display – a repentant December sobbing in the mother’s lap, a lineup of missing persons with placards round their necks proclaiming their name and age, and a woman, Sonam, who appears and disappears on the same day as the missing mother.

In an attempt to soften the deranged nature of the crime, Jha, like a good newspaperman (he’s Editor of the Indian Express), tries to balance the narrative with “the other side of the story.” But it’s difficult to conceive of anything other than a hangman’s noose for a crime as horrific as the violent rape of an innocent girl whose intestines were ripped out with an iron rod. Jha’s musings about the perpetrator’s motivations are too simplistic and sentimental. The savage, sociopathic nature of the crime is swathed in facile, wordy prose, like a gift wrap that’s empty inside.

Jha’s novel, however, gives us a sense of something important being stirred. It is notable for its creative, poetic attempt to shine a light on an issue which should never be allowed to slip into darkness – the safety of women in India and the social evils of an aggressive, overweening patriarchy that constantly tries to show a woman her place.  

THE CITY AND THE SEA. By Raj Kamal Jha. Penguin Hamish Hamilton, 2019. ₹397. 240 Pages. Hardcover

Longlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2019 and the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, 2019

Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.

Edited by Contributing Editor Meera Kymal