Saturday, May 19, 2012

Tittering on the edge : Thoughts on 'It's your move, Wordfreak!"

Wordfreak aka Aryan and Worddiva aka Alisha hit it off as opponents in an online Scrabble game. Several steamy chat sessions later, they decide to meet and find – oh happy fates! – that neither is a fat, hairy, psycho/ serial killer/ rapist.  Even better, they are both impossibly gorgeous, breath-takingly tall,  super rich, conveniently single  and utterly besotted with each  other .    And I haven’t even mentioned their socially useful careers yet - Alisha helps  women escape abusive marriages, while  Aryan builds green homes by day, swings with Mumbai’s swish set by night and sweet talks them into financing his rural projects.  

One gaudy Punjabi wedding  straight out of a Karan Johar film- and several  bouts of  coyly described sex – later,  Aryan and Alisha seem all set for the happily ever after. Except that Scrabble is promptly replaced by Squabble.  Alisha is attacked by a client’s disgruntled ex, and Aryan chooses the opportunity to unleash his inner caveman. He yells. She weeps. He disappears.  What is a smart , independent no-nonsense girl with a successful career , to do?

Drop everything and follow in his manly and troubled footsteps, according to Kothari. For despite Aryan revealing himself to be a chauvinist, alarmingly violent and contemptuous of the law (all in the name of love, cries Kothari), Alisha packs her bags and hares off to London with his Nani , where  she helps her true love confront his troubled past, patch up with his estranged father and half-siblings,  and realize just how badly the plot needs another gaudy Punjabi  wedding  - sorry, how much he loves her.  KJo  would approve.  I don’t.

Wordfreak is a book that tries to be a lot of things, in a half hearted sort of way. The first half swings from ‘hot (well, tepid actually) Mills and Boon choli-ripper’ one second, to ‘ sensitive look at a modern day relationship’ the next; the second aims for  full blown Bollywood melodrama.  It also  offers up randomly scattered observations about everything from gender equality and  India’s spiraling divorce rate, to green design  and differing skin tone ( “the quintessential difference between them – he was a North Indian Aryan, and she was a South Indian Dravidian.”) .  The book does have some interesting characters – Diya, Uncle Sam, Alisha herself – but they soon disappear in this unreal  world  where everyone is thin, beautiful and  loaded, and loyally served by a retinue of smiling servants. Also slaves to filmi stereotype - The North Indians are perennially overdressed ,  swinging at weddings or travelling abroad; South Indian Alisha  seems to eat nothing at home  besides idlis and dosas . 

Wordfreak  managed to annoy me with repeated references to Alisha’s “chocolate eyes”, as well as her various pet names – “Lee-sha” and “Sunshine”.  There is also  plenty of unintended humour, thanks to the prissy –or downright careless-  wording in all those sex scenes. Sample – “He groaned, loving what she did to him..How was he supposed to moderate this?”  Where are you, dude, at a high school debate?  Or, “He aroused them… until they tittered (sic) ..on the edge of annihilation.” I tittered too. 

And what is one to make of all the misplaced snippets of information throughout the plot? Why, in the midst of an emotional moment, do we need to know the details of Aryan’s post graduate studies? And why, after a deluge of ‘kuttis’ and ‘sahodarans’ – not to mention all those idlis – are we helpfully informed that Alisha speaks  Malayalam, exactly  two pages from the ending? 

Your move, editor?

This review is a part of the" target="_blank">Book Reviews Program at "">

Monday, May 14, 2012

No dots on this forehead

Un Lun Dun

Written and Illustrated by China Miéville

China Miéville is best known for the bleak, dystopic worlds he creates in his books. I discovered his work after reading ‘Kraken’, a dark and gripping tale of a London under siege from rival gangs of supernatural forces fighting for control of – wait for it! – a gigantic pickled squid preserved in the British Museum. After that surprising take on Cthulhu, I have read his short stories and am slowly working my way through the Bas-Lag trilogy – all of it impressive, but undeniably dark, disturbing and exhausting . Imagine my surprise, therefore, to discover “Un Lun Dun”, a YA fantasy  by the creator of all that Baroque grimness. It is a wild, whacky pun-a-minute tale with  a crackling pace, and is definitely one of the most inventive books I’ve read in a while, as it busies itself with cheerfully subverting just about every trope you can think of in the YA fantasy genre - starting with  the Chosen One.

It’s just another day in the life of twelve year old London schoolgirl Zanna Moon – until animals start paying her homage, and perfect strangers approach her and call her “Shwazzy”. With best friend Deeba  Resham  by her side, Zanna  finds out that “Shwazzy” may in fact be “choici” – French for “the chosen one.” Soon after, Zanna and Deeba travel through a mysterious portal to UnLondon , a bizarre alternate version (or ‘abcity’) of the metropolis  they call home, peopled by some of the most inventive characters to have graced fantasy fiction in recent years. Zanna’s glorious destiny is revealed to her, and she steps forward to claim it. And why not ? She is tall, blonde, striking looking, troubled to just the right degree, and singled out by UnLondon’s  book of prophecies – enough, by the rules of popular kidlit, to justify her place n the pantheon of fictional world saviours, right?


For Zanna is vanquished in her very first brush with the evil plaguing UnLondon – Smog, a poisonous sentient cloud  banished from London, that is bent on consuming everything in its path before moving back home.  What now, you ask. Why, time for the loyal sidekick to step forward and get her moment in the light. For as UnLondon quails in the wake of Zanna’s failure, it is unassuming Deeba – short! dark! plump! Asian!! – who steps forward to shoulder Zanna’s responsibility when no one else will. Faced with an entire city of strange creatures whose very leaders seem to be conspiring against them, a bunch of prophecies that progressively turn out to be wrong, and even high level intrigue from the human world ,  Deeba  becomes the UnChosen One.

Leading a band of some of the most unlikely warriors to grace the pages of an adventure story – a couturier with a penchant for paper, a sarcastic half-ghost who periodically goes nude, a bungee-jumping bus conductor , an animated milk carton, even the aforementioned Book of Prophecies who spends most of the book in depression before finally redeeming itself – Deeba sets out  to defeat Smog and his cronies. Along the way, she strikes a blow for the marginalized and voiceless as well – repeatedly through the book, we find her inspiring all manner of enslaved critters to liberate themselves. And even as she discovers the hero within herself, she inspires her ragtag crew to do the same as well for, by the time the final confrontation trundles around (the one trope Miéville is happy to pay homage to) they have evolved from scared and skeptical sidekicks into valiant  individuals in their own right.

Un Lun Dun is frequently funny, sometimes sad and always breath-taking in its imagery and wordplay. Sample -  an army of dustbins adept at martial arts called, quite aptly, binja. Skool, who isn’t a person at all but a group of plucky fish populating an ancient diver’s costume.  A Manifest Station that takes citizens of UnLondon to  other abcities like Parisn’t, NoYork, Lost Angeles, Hong Gone. Entire houses made of human rubbish , using MOIL technology (Mildly Obsolete in London).  Words  literally coming to life when uttered by the fantastic Mr. Speaker. And did I mention the carnivorous giraffes? Miéville doesn’t just create these strange and wonderful creatures – he draws them for us as well. Un Lun Dun contains some excellent black and white drawings, made by the author himself, that bring some of his weirder creations to life. 

If you’ve worked your way through the Harry Potter series, or the brooding ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy by Philip Pullman, this is a book you will enjoy.  It is a book brimming with ideas, surprises and wit. In a world plagued by that other trope - the multi volume saga -  Un Lun Dun is a refreshing respite.  Gaiman fans might draw parallels to London Below, the weird citadel under London’s streets that features in ‘Neverwhere’. Indeed, Miéville acknowledges both the series and its author in the afterword to this book. But rest assured, Un Lun Dun is entirely child appropriate and  far more cheerful and wholesome than Gaiman’s (or even Rowling's)  vision. It is not childish, however; Miéville weaves in a lot of sub text and some political commentary.

Foremost of these is, of course, the whole idea of a child hero predestined to save the world. Nonsense, says Miéville. The best heroes aren’t born that way;  they are ordinary people who risk their necks for a cause that they may not even believe in. By the end of Un Lun Dun, practically everyone of its citizens – not to mention umbrellas, fish and ghosts - feels like a  Shwazzy. As for his choice of an Asian girl as hero - Huzzah, I say! Especially one devoid of all the twee cultural stereotypes so beloved to mainstream Western fiction (no dots on this forehead!)  Miéville, a noted socialist, takes some potshots at British bureaucracy as well. He gives both Londons incompetent and manipulative bureaucracies to deal with.  People in power deliberately side with Smog, others try to strike deals with it. The Concern, a shadowy group of individuals trying to profit from the presence of Smog are clearly a caricature of the carbon emissions trade. There is even a  sharp take on the racism that  tinged  Western anti terrorism measures  post 9/11 - a bunch of policemen from London attempt to arrest Deeba for being a terrorist (because she ‘terrifies’ a corrupt official), and threaten to harass her family in London if she resists. 

It’s hard to miss Un Lun Dun’s  environmental message either – London may think it is rid of Smog and all its rubbish simply because these have been sent to UnLondon. But Smog clearly has other plans. Sooner or later, Miéville seems to warns us, your rubbish will return to consume you.

So recycle.  Walk to work. Be your own Shwazzy.  And if unconventional fantasy is your thing, read Un Lun Dun.