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Unveiling the layers of elusive Mohini

Anuja Chandramouli’s novel Mohini: The Enchantress intends to bring back a poignant LGBTQ character into the mainstream consciousness that was obliterated in Indian mythology. She talks to The Daily Guardian about her new novel. Excerpts:

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Q. How did the idea of writing Mohini: The Enchantress struck you?

 A. I was completely out of ideas and wasn’t feeling inspired or motivated. Then, Mohini just popped into my head and never really left. Is there a more alluring character than the enchantress herself? Like many before me, I was completely smitten and became obsessed with her. Initially, I was a little apprehensive about doing justice to this complicated character, particularly due to her unique position in the Hindu pantheon and her popular perception as little more than a crossdressing temptress and hustler. But my friends and fellow authors in the mythology genre — Anand Neelankantan and Kavita Kane — encouraged me to go for it. It turned out to be a remarkable experience which I will always treasure.

Q. The story intertwines the theme of gender, love, lust and desire. Tell us about reinterpreting the female avatar of Vishnu who is a symbol of beauty and sensuousness and the challenges of exploring a mythical character?

A. In all the stories featuring Mohini, she tends to come across as onedimensional. An exquisite creature who beguiles her way into getting what she wants, wielding her irresistible sensuality like a devastating weapon. I wanted to dig deeper and present fresh insights into her head and heart. She is a significant character in Indian mythology and one of a kind.

Not many people are aware that several LGBTQ characters in Indian mythology have fallen by the wayside and it is necessary to bring them back into the mainstream consciousness. And what better start then Mohini? She is not afraid to go where her desires take her and her gift to humanity is the magic of enchantment. It was fascinating to note that her unabashed sexuality and amoral approach to everything was never intended to hurt or harm but to take the sting out of the suffering from many mortal and immortal alike.

Q. In this work, you have underlined men being preoccupied and intoxicated with the notion of beauty and women devoting their time on enhancing their appeal, flaunting it like a crown of achievement which symbolises superficiality. Do you believe it holds relevance in contemporary times?

A. Throughout history, beauty has been highly valued but in contemporary times it has gotten worse as we don’t value integrity, moral fibre, talent and good qualities unless these it comes gift wrapped in a delectable package. The current fixation with beauty is most disturbing. We have been conditioned into thinking that if one is not thin, fair, perfectly groomed, coiffed and perpetually Instagram-worthy then they are losers for whom success, happiness and all good things will remain elusive. So people devote more time and money than is wise towards looking their best without expending a tenth of the effort towards more meaningful and useful pursuits.

We can’t carry on pretending that this preoccupation with good looks, commitment to narcissism and all things frivolous at the expense of everything else won’t have devastating consequences. Thus, in my interpretation of Mohini, her ability to bring her unique gifts of love and sexual fulfilment to bear in fraught, apocalyptic situations that bring her victory without bloodshed is what defines her.

 Q. Although Mohini is mesmerising and possesses autonomy, men want her to a point of desperation but she is elusive, alone and impervious to love, lust and toxic hate. Do you view her incapability to love a character flaw or a much-needed shield?

A. There is far too much emphasis on romance or sexual passion in all the art we consume whether it is books, paintings, movies or TV shows. I believe romantic attachments are overhyped and overrated and don’t get the fixation over it. Since the enchantress has a certain raptorial quality given the profound and mysterious reason for her very existence, it seemed reasonable that she would bring a certain clinical detachment to the work as she draws the fortunate into her web of enchantment, filling their very being with heady thoughts of love and lust. Also, her grit to avoid the sticky snare of dark desires allow her to enjoy the splendid beginnings typical of love stories without having to suffer through the squalid endings which are inevitable for most but not Mohini!

Q. Having received both admiration and acclaim for your work, do you sometimes feel pressure of the readers’ expectations?

A. My writing has always been a personal odyssey and I am determined to keep it that way. Having penned 11 books in eight years, I have received much love from my readers and the occasional fusillade of brickbats. I am grateful for each individual who has reached out to praise or dismiss me but I keep the response to my work separate from the creative process.

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Of blossoming hope & constructive work

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Usha Mishra Hayes, a career UN staffer, in her new book, Social Protection: Lands of Blossoming Hope, tries to give an insight into the positive impact that UN agencies like the World Food Programme (WPF), which was recently awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize, and the UNICEF have on economically developing and socially fragile countries.

 Hayes, who has served with the WFP in Bangladesh and Ethiopia, and in several more with UNICEF, gives a peek into the workings of organisations that have rightly, through rather belatedly, been recognised for promoting world peace. The book is rather unusual in many ways. First, it talks about ‘hope’ — a rare perspective in today’s world which is full of grim news and increasing apathy and frustration. It presents the possibility of national reform by the UN and by zealous, committed UN staffers. Second, it provides an intimate insight into an otherwise obtuse world of the workings of the UN, in general, and the work of influencing policy, in particular. 

The book recounts the workings of governments and their interface with the UN with a breathtaking sweep — from the tropical plains of Bangladesh to the ocean-flanked scenic Tanzania, and from the stable, upcoming Cambodia to the fragile, exploding Afghanistan. These countries have been brought to life by the author with stories of how the governments considered bringing in policy to deal with the problems of street children, as in the case of Ethiopia, or when elections were used as an opportunity for creating positive news for the government while achieving important policy reforms on lagging issues, as was the case in Tanzania. Each country covers a different aspect of policymaking, making each chapter uniquely interesting and rich in insights, which are shared casually and effortlessly, without much ado. 

 Important alliances get formed among the World Bank, UNDP and UNICEF in a casual meeting by the residents’ swimming pool, as in Cambodia, and highranking secretaries’ break into open verbal warning, aiming to draw in UN officials, as in Afghanistan. The book shows how arriving at decisions regarding the scope and design of programmes for the poorest is often made in the UN offices, using extremely sophisticated analysis and planning tools. 

  The book is easy to read and leaves you asking for more when it ends. It also makes us wonder as to how much of policymaking in the developing countries is inspired by the Good Samaritans within the UN. Whether we are supporters or critics of this international entity, one cannot but acknowledge that the UN does provide free, high-quality technical expertise for many countries that will find it difficult otherwise to mobilise such talent. This book recounts some of the deft ways in which this expertise aligns with or challenges the national policy agendas to make it more pro-poor. It is a book of hope and a constructive take on international efforts at addressing some chronic national challenges.

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It’s never too late to start writing: Jigs Ashar

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Treating voracious readers who love being kept on the edge through a host of fascinating tales, award-winning and India’s bestselling storyteller Ravi Subramanian launched a series of mystery-driven short novels titled Shortz. The book series will see Subramanian collaborate with a variety of esteemed authors from the thriller and suspense genre. For those avid bibliophiles of fiction and action, the book series will consist of 20 short and pacey thrillers that are sure to leave them wanting more. As part of the book series, the first two thrillers, Insomnia and A Brutal Hand (Westland) respectively, have been co-authored with Jigs Ashar, a banker-turned-consultant. Excerpts from a candid conversation with Jigs Ashar:

 Q. How do you juggle the two worlds— writing and banking? 

A. There comes a time when one has to pause and think how to balance work with things you really want to do — what you love. Work is a part of my life, and an important one at that; but sometimes we let work become our only life. I have consciously tried to change that over the last few years. I took up running and now am an avid marathoner. I play the guitar. And of course, have taken to writing quite passionately since 2017. 

Q. Why and how did writing happen?

 A. You know, a phrase that really resonates with me is, ‘You do not choose writing; writing chooses you.’ I was pursuing a part-time course on Creative Writing, and loved the process of writing. Around the same time, in September 2017, I read about the Times of India Write India Season 2 short story contest. Coincidently, the advertisement I saw had Jeffrey Archer — one of my favourites — as the judge for that month. Just the possibility that my story might be read by Archer was hugely exciting for me. That’s how I wrote my first thriller short story: The Wait is Killing. And to my absolute delight, I was one of the winners! In the same season, I submitted my second short story — Make(up) in India — and that, too, was a winner! This time around, the judge was Shobha De. The genre I explored with this story was humour. Later, in mid-2018, I also wrote another thriller short story called Duel, which was short-listed in the ‘Short Story of the Year – 2018’ by Juggernaut. And it’s been an amazing journey writing Insomnia and A Brutal Hand.

 Q. Why is writing thrillers so easy for bankers? 

A.Writing is not easy, especially thrillers. But it is an immensely enjoyable experience — developing the plot, the graph of the story, the conflicts, the characters, the dialogues, everything! I think thrillers as a genre has always fascinated me; and I try and write what I, as a reader, would like to read. I have grown up reading Agatha Christie, Jeffrey Archer, Frederick Forsyth — still do. As for bankers turning thriller writers, on a lighter note, one look at the newspapers and you will know that deriving inspiration for thrills and mystery is not difficult for a banker. 

Q. When do you find the time to write? 

A. One has to make the time for what one is passionate about. I can write anytime and anywhere. My way of writing is very structured. Once I finalise the plot in my head, I start writing a brief summary of each chapter — how does each chapter take the story forward, who are the characters that appear in the chapter, etc. I do this to ensure the flow of the story is clear and at the pace I have envisaged; and, also to ensure each character comes in at the right time to take the story forward. Once this is done, I start writing the manuscript. And if I am stuck at a point, there is nothing like a good run to clear your head. 

Q. Your experience of working with Ravi Subramanian. Did he interfere a lot in the plot?

 A. It has been an absolute pleasure collaborating with Ravi. It is a dream come true for a debut author to co-write not one, but two books, with one of India’s bestselling writers. In the last two-anda-half years, during which time we co-wrote Insomnia and A Brutal Hand, we had a lot of brain-storming sessions on the plots, characters, their back-stories, etc. We especially spent a lot of time discussing the finale of Insomnia. It has been a lot of fun and creatively, a very satisfying experience. Ravi has been very open and discussed possibilities, but never imposed any ideas, which made writing with him very enjoyable.

 Q. Any anecdotes you would like to share… 

A.Before I started writing, or even expressed a desire to write a book, my wife, Vidya, always believed that I could write a book. She is the one who actually planted this idea in my head. And in early 2017, she actually did a lot of research and almost forced me to enrol in the creative writing course. That was the first trigger that’s gotten me where I am. So, in a way, it’s thanks to her that I am here with you. Another incident — a funny one — is from the first day of my writing course. When I entered the classroom, it was filled with other students who were almost half my age. So, when I entered, they assumed I was the professor and greeted me, and were shocked when I went and sat down next to them. The message is, it’s never too late to start! 

Q. What’s next?

 A. Currently, I am writing a thriller novel, which is almost 70% complete. The working title is The Strike of the Serpent. It’s an international thriller, with an assassination plot at the core of the story. I also want to develop my award-winning short story, The Wait is Killing, into a full-fledged novel.

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Not truly an insider’s account

Delivering reforms is often not about ‘what’, but about ‘how’ and ‘when’.
Bimal Jalan, with considerable experience of working within the executive
and even within legislature, could have written more about the ‘how’.

Bibek Debroy

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“This book is being published after the Lok Sabha elections held in May 2019. The previous government has been re-elected for a second five-year term (2019-24) with a substantial majority… This is a relatively short list of agendas for the re-elected government.” 

Bimal Jalan is a respected economist. Having held several positions in government (Finance Secretary, Chief Economic Adviser, RBI Governor) and quasi-government (Chairman, Economic Advisory Council to PM; Chairman, Expenditure Management Commission), he is indeed a “government” economist, warranting use of the word “insider” in the sub-title. He also had a stint in Parliament, as a nominated MP. 

Post-1991, I can reel off names of half-a-dozen important books written by Bimal Jalan: India’s Economic Crisis, 1992; India’s Economic Policy, 2000; India’s Economy in the New Millennium, 2002; The Future of India, 2006; India’s Politics, 2008; and Emerging India, 2013. There were others, pre-1991 and edited. This book is on India, then and now, with eighteen essays classified under three heads of “The Decade of Industrialization”, “The Decade of Liberalization and Globalization” and “India in the Twenty-First Century”, with six essays under each head. “Then” implies historical and is subject to interpretation. One definition of “then” might be that “then” means pre-1991 and “now” is anything that came after 1991.

 A couple of decades ago, that might have been an acceptable interpretation. But the 1991 reforms occurred almost thirty years ago. An alternative interpretation, one that Bimal Jalan implicitly seems to have adopted is that “then” means the 20th century and “now” means the 21st. At least, that is how the essays have been classified. For the twelve essays under the first two heads, everything said in this book has been stated in a much better way by Bimal Jalan himself, in the earlier books I listed. What’s the utility of revisiting the themes again, though, with the passage of time, one might have a slightly different perspective? The answer is given in the Preface. “As a witness of India’s economic trajectory through the decades, I decided to put together for the readers my writings that reflect how India has progressed since Independence to the present times. In doing so, I was principally guided by two considerations: the first was to cover different subject areas that may be of interest to the general reader in addition to experts in economics, politics and administration.” In other words, the target audience is different, perhaps one that is unlikely to have read his earlier books.

 The third head is different and has six essays on exchange rates, the role of Parliament, ethics of banking, politics and governance, a prosperity template and a future agenda of reforms. (Those aren’t exact titles of the essays. I have paraphrased them.) These themes remain topical. But the question to ask is: When was this book completed? As the quote at the beginning illustrates, the manuscript was certainly completed in 2019, perhaps even in 2018. This is a dilemma several authors and publishers have faced and continue to face. Covid-19 has made publications schedules go haywire, with few books published in calendar year 2020 and many publications postponed. This raises a couple of problems. One, the book doesn’t recognise and factor in government initiatives since May 2019. Two, with Bimal Jalan’s experience and expertise, one would have liked essays on — indirect tax reform (read GST), Union-State fiscal relations (read Finance Commission), government expenditure management and fiscal policy and health sector issues (broader than Covid-19 alone). Reading a book published towards the end of 2020, with no mention of these issues, leaves one dissatisfied.

 If one is especially interested in the “now”, the relevant essay is the last one, titled, “The Future is Ours”. In the various agenda items, we have, “It is also desirable to reduce the political powers of ministers and their vested interests in the allocation of public resources… In practice there has been substantial erosion in the ability of Parliament/ legislatures to hold ministers responsible, either collectively or individually, for the decisions taken by them on behalf of their ministries… Similar autonomous institutions should be created for the allocation of all valuable national resources, including oil and gas. The government, even at the highest level, should refrain from giving directions to such institutions… 

A further measure for the greater empowerment of civil service personnel, while reducing their number over time, is to reform the procedure for launching vigilance inquiries and the number of agencies involved in such investigations… The basic issue that needs to be tackled to improve the morale of civil servants is that of the ‘separation of powers’ within the executive — between ministers and civil servants — in so far as postings, transfers, promotions and other similar administrative matters are concerned… In order to reduce the present built-in incentive for the fragmentation of parties and to improve governance in the future, it is of utmost importance that the anti-defection law be made applicable to all parties and the so-called independent members who choose to join a government in power… Over time, the number of ministries and departments involved in regulating almost all segments of the economy, society, foreign affairs, defence and border security have expanded enormously.” 

Bimal Jalan has considerable experience of working within the executive and even within legislature. Delivering reforms is often not about “what”, but about “how” and “when”. There is a political economy of reform and a political economy of resistance. All reforms are fundamentally grounded not only in the executive, but also in the legislature and the judiciary. There won’t be substantial disagreement with the statements just mentioned (within quotes). Why has it been so difficult to bring about change? How was it managed in 1991, when some change was actually introduced? Bimal Jalan is no ordinary academic economist. He has been a practitioner. Yet, in all his books, including the present one, he has been reticent about the toolkit for reforms. There are others who can write about the template, not too many who can write about the “how”. 

Bibek Debroy is the Chairman of the PM’s Economic Council.

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Gangster on the Run: The True Story of a Reformed Criminal

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Puja Changoiwala HarperCollins India, Rs 399

This is the extraordinary story of a hitman who became a de-addiction counselor and outran his demons. Rahul Jadhav took the name Bhiku from ‘Satya’, a gangster who was everything he once wanted to be. Capturing his don’s attention as a tech-literate criminal, running his extortion ring over Skype, Rahul found himself shouting threats down the barrel of his gun and became one of the most wanted gangsters of his time. He was arrested in 2007, dealt with drug abuse and went into a near schizophrenic state. Today, he is an ultra-marathoner who has covered nearly 10,000 km.

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Extraordinary: 51 Surprisingly Simple Ways to Get Extraordinary Results

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Ketan Krishna Notion Press, Rs 375

Extraordinary’ is about the author’s experiences in the form of short stories about how ordinary people with eXtraordinary dreams get eXtraordinary results. This book is for people who deep inside have committed to becoming a better version of themselves. The book aims at providing personalised learning to each reader. If you are looking at inspirations, and nudges to help find answers for yourself, this is the book. It has the author’s points of view and his version of the truth. The author believes in action, so this book will be effective if you work on the action section crafted at the end of each chapter.

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Tales from the Himalayas

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Priyanka Pradhan Rupa Publications, Rs 295

Award-winning author Priyanka Pradhan takes you on a journey into the Himalayas through her stories. You will find tales of snow leopards and mountain ghouls, bagpiping girls and itchy herbs, and stories even as old as 500 years! See the beautiful state of Uttarakhand, resplendent in its colourful customs and traditional costumes, taste the sweet-sour wild berries, feel the chilly autumn wind on your skin and smell the musky pine forests, in seventeen stories. Welcome to the mountains. She is the recipient of the ‘Ruskin Bond Promising Writer Award 2019’ at the Dehradun Literature Festival, held in October 2019.

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