Classes (and Jokes)

I do believe that the faculty who teach us are well aware that we, as a batch in the final semester, are paying very, very little attention to what they are teaching. The subjects aren’t core papers, or as necessary as to amass widespread inherent interest among every student. One would understand the number of students whose interests are captured falling, especially given that we are on the cusp of completing our degree – but they’re dwindling. They’re so low, you can see people falling asleep or deciding to do their own thing in the classroom within 5 minutes of attendance being taken. I digress though. The force of this paragraph was meant to convey that the faculty know this information. They know that we care very little – but that we will pay attention if something is being communicated about portions, internals, or something else that’ll genuinely concern us.

Sometimes they adopt that strategy to get us to look up for a few minutes. Very unexpectedly, someone will say the words “Continuous Evaluation”, and for a couple of minutes everyone’s heads will shoot up. If nothing, to memorize the date when it’s due so you can ask the batch what is actually due the evening before the deadline – sometimes even the morning of. Or they’ll say the word “Internal” and all of a sudden you’ll be awoken from any slumber to try to understand if there’s an added component of work they’re going to make you do in final sem.

Some faculty are genuinely trying. We’re allowed to take laptops into class for drafting, which keeps you interested because there’s a bigger screen to stare at. That faculty is being super innovative. Apart from his usual quirkiness and sharing thoughts of the day with us (which are genuinely nice to watch), he’s been using technology to keep us engaged with what he’s teaching. Even if it doesn’t get the whole class hooked; it’s worth applauding the effort.

Today, however, I saw something that I think I’d like to practice if I ever get a teaching job. The art of the poor joke, executed to perfection. You see, a part of being in the last semester is a bunch of people leaving class citing various excuses – and not returning because there really is no incentive to return once you’ve left and veered out of class. One faculty sensed someone leaving – catching them just as they shut the door, and exclaimed “yeh dekho, pehli wicket gayi”

Now you see; there is no way for me to explain how fantastic her comic timing was on this joke. It was perfect. She also chose a cricket joke – which is universally understood in India. The best part was that she kept following it up with other cricket jokes: she drank water in the middle & called it her “drinks break”, and when she caught someone unsuccessfully sneaking out, she called it a “dropped catch”.

As you can tell, the jokes got worse as the class progressed. Nonetheless, it gave me material for this blog post, and caught my attention sufficiently such that I missed my mid-day snooze.

I wonder what the faculty will try tomorrow.

Snow | Orhan Pamuk

Snow,
by Orhan Pamuk, translated by Maureen Freely
Published by Vintage International (2005)
Rating: **** 

Snow is essential reading.

In two distinct parts, the book follows the story of Ka (the shortened form of Kar, which is “Snow” in Turkish).

The first part follows Ka’s discovery of Islam. It begins as Ka reunites with Ipek (a woman he once loved), who has recently divorced Muhtar, owing to his interest in political Islam. Ka meets Muhtar, and is introduced to Muhtar’s experience with Islam. During that meeting, he is accused, alongwith Muhtar, for a recent public shooting for which an Islamic extremist group claimed responsibility.

Ka begins to write, composing a poem, “Snow”, and several other poems. Ipek urges Ka to visit a Sheikh, and they have an astounding conversation on the value of organized religion in an individual’s life. Ka, although hesitant to accept religion – claiming it to be “backward”, chooses to accept instead, that his poetry is a gift from God – an unnamed entity. Following this interaction, Ka continues to meet people with different experiences of Islam. He meets a self-identifying Muslim radical as well as Islamic feminists.

Reflective of a newly independent Turkey, there are growing tensions between secularists and Islamists, which ends up blowing out of proportion at a televised event. The police and military impose martial law, and Ka is taking in for questioning once more. Upon his release, he meets an actor who identifies as a Turkist Republican, who ends up orchestrating – in a spectacular sequence, both a coup d’état and a coup de théâtre.

The second part deals with a denouncing of the coup. True to Pamuk, there is a post-modernism in his introduction as the narrator of the book. We fast-forward four years, and explore Turkey post-Ka’s life, and reconstruct events leading to his demise.

You’ll notice that my plot summary elaborates one part of the book far more than it does the second. This is intentional. If you’re intrigued by what the first part holds, the second part is a deeper dive into all things so related, and I would recommend reading the book to find out more.

The characters are phenomenally crafted. My usual criticism of Pamuk involves a comment on how characters are just one-dimensional individuals. But here, every single character is developed well, with backstories that keep you hooked, and motives that you find yourself questioning at every turn. There is no black-and-white, only grey, and it’s very easy to fall in love with, and hate Ka and his crew.

A truth that has been fundamental to Turkey has been its struggle with who it wishes to be, who its leaders wish to represent, and how to unite a population that has such fundamentally different beliefs. Pamuk’s reflections on this struggle is a driving force behind Snow’s plot, and is an exposition both in Turkish society, and a commentary on the ability of speech – to propagate messages of peace and unity, as well as violence.

One star is docked again for Pamuk’s staunch refusal to allow us to fully immerse ourselves in the world of his characters. Similar to the New Life, he reveals nothing of Ka’s poems – making it difficult to fully relate to Ka’s perception of the world, and more crucially, fully appreciate certain scenes that Orhan the narrator weaves for us.

However, an understanding of Western Asia would mandate a reading of Snow. And I would force it upon people as well.

The Astonishing Colour of After | Emily X.R. Pan

The Astonishing Colour of After,
by Emily X.R. Pan
Published by Little, Brown Books (2018)
Rating: ***** 

Don’t let the number of chapters or pages in this book fool you. It’s a fast-read. Page-turning, emotionally engaging, and gripping, you’ll find yourself wondering where the time went as you finish. If you’re looking to get out of a reading slump, and fall in love with good writing again, this is a great starting point.

The story follows Leigh Sanders, a half-Taiwanese, half-American girl, as she struggles to cope with loss. On the same day she kisses the boy she’s pined over for years, her mother, Dory, commits suicide. At first the grief is overwhelming. She feels trapped in her childhood home with her distant father and the bloodstain marking her mother’s demise haunting her thoughts. Then, the night before the funeral, Leigh is roused from her nightmares by a huge crimson bird calling her name. She knows immediately the bird is her mother, the whys and hows brushed aside in the face a daughter’s longing for her mom. The plot then takes us to Leigh’s discovery of family she never knew, and her journey of “moving on” from an event she struggles to talk about or understand. All the while, her desperation to make contact with her mother once more drives her between the fantastical and the real, making this a journey unlike any other.

There’s a lot of plot depth to the book, which deserves a bit of analysis.

The first is the theme of identity. Leigh’s identity is clearly complex – she’s half-Asian and half-white, and Pan brings this out by describing how society views her. The Americans call her “exotic”, while the Taiwanese call her “hunxie”/”mixed blood”. Through these individual instances, Pan is able to portray the otherization that mixed-race people usually feel, without a strong connection to either cultural group. This conflict is also given a new layer by the presence of Axel, who is half-Filipino, and half-Puerto Rican. Their friendship and understanding, and their journey of family discovery points to the fact that both characters find comfort in each other – because there’s no other place they fit in.

The second, is how Pan tackles mental health. Now, the conversation on mental health has improved drastically – people are now more comfortable to discuss it in society, but Asian countries are notorious for their inability to accept diagnosed mental health illnesses as being real. There’s an ignorance in Asian society, which Pan is able to describe very realistically. Leigh struggles to use the word “depression”, unable to admit to herself that her mother suffers from the same. The suicide that takes place is without a note, and is committed by OD-ing on antidepressants, and several episodes are described in great detail in the novel. Pan is able to explain depression as it really is – difficult to understand, tough to explain and articulate. The biggest thing Pan achieves is that she doesn’t display “continuous sadness” as equal to depression, something I admired after I finished the book. Another achievement lies in steering away from psychonalysis or patient-blaming/patient-shaming. There’s no sugarcoating of the condition, or of death. It’s difficult, but the truth of depression is just that, and Pan’s judicious use of words deserves credit.

The third is art. Now, I wasn’t sure whether to highlight this as a theme within the book, but there’s layers to this which deserves some amount of description. Leigh, Axel, Caro, and Dory, are all artists. Each, unique, and each, with a different connection to their art. Leigh’s father, is an American academic. Stereotypes lead us to believe that strict Asian parents undermine art, viewing it as being a gateway to University, or a skill that deserves mastering purely for the purpose of mastery. What Pan does is flip the stereotype, by showing a large majority of Leigh’s social circle being pleased with art as a career choice, while Leigh’s father attempts to track her to become more “serious” and asks her questions about her future. That narrative was one I found incredibly interesting to read. It creates a tension in the familial relationship that persists throughout the novel, right until the very end. Why I believe art is a theme is also because of how well Pan is able to use colour throughout the entire book. Just like shades on a palette, I learnt about emotions I didn’t know I could ever feel – and the correlation between colour and emotion will strike a chord with any reader. It’s use as a device for me was not distracting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Finally, the fantastic imagery and fantasy elements deserve a lot of praise. The plot is very tight, and the fantasy weaves very smoothly with plot developments taking place in reality. Pan’s conclusion hits the heart hard, describing the truth of experience and memory unlike anyone else I’ve read. Reading the book reminded me a lot of the Disney movie Coco. It incited similar emotions in me, I guess.

My only qualm with the book was the romantic side of the story. Romance sells, but in parts, the romantic uneasiness felt out of place. The conclusion to the romantic arc within the book was predictable and well built-up. It’s pace at the end, however, was rushed, and artificial. No natural love story progresses like that. There’s a lot more conversation – one that I would have loved to see the protagonists engage in. The book leaves a few things unsaid, which might annoy some readers.

All in all, a must-read, quick-read. Will make you feel things. Would recommend.

Sadie | Courtney Summers

Sadie
by Courtney Summers
Published by Wednesday Books (2018)
Rating: **** 

This is an atypical read for me largely because it isn’t a book that I would buy off of shelves if I merely read the blurb. The reason I chose to read this book is that one of my friends absolutely loved it, and recommended that I give it a try, which is never something I’m averse to. This is a fast-read, but there’s a couple of warnings I’d like to put at the start of my review, so you can stop reading in case you get triggered. The book isn’t happy in any sense. It is not a book that builds up to a happy ending, and there is no moment where I caught myself smiling while reading it. It’s an incredibly serious read. It discusses several themes that are difficult to speak about in society. Rather, it highlights experiences that contain social stigma attached to them, and lead to victim-shaming culture. My trigger warnings include: murder, suicide, child prostitution, paedophilia, sexual abuse, and drug abuse.

With that being said, let’s examine the text.

Sadie follows the story of one dead girl, one missing girl, and a quest for revenge. Nineteen-year-old Sadie is determined to find who she believes to be her younger sister Maddie’s killer. With few clues to go on, she decides to embark on a journey to find him and make him pay for what he did. This is what the overarching plot is.

It seems pretty straightforward, and perhaps a story that could simply be described as a mystery – with Sadie acting as detective. But Summers manages to achieve a lot more with her writing. The novel is told in two distinct time-periods, and distinct points of view, which help with how the plot is built. The first is Sadie’s point of view, told in the past tense, with her tracking down her sister’s killer – a man who knows how to disappear better than most. The second is West McCray’s true crime radio show transcript called The Girls, where he attempts to find Sadie by following the little information the police offer him. These are very, very unique points of view, which help draw a very human connection to everything that transpires – something that stuck with me at the end of the book. Society reports events like these very narrative-like and with a victim-blaming angle to most of the reportage around it. By choosing to give the “victim” here a voice, and providing the voice of somebody trying to find her, desperately, Summers is able to portray nuances in emotion, and engage the reader in a way that makes you question every character’s motive and motivation. This sense of anticipation and suspense is really heightened in the last 20 pages, which I think could have been published separately – they’re the most logical (albeit dreadful) conclusion to a story of this kind.

The conclusion of the book is worth the read because of how realistic it is. It’s the only thing that makes sense in a world like ours. And you’ll hate yourself for knowing how Sadie’s story ends, but Summers’ manages to draw you in, page after page.

What I’m most impressed by is Summers’ ability to write a podcast transcript. I like true crime podcasts and shows as much as anybody – and most media houses seem to thrive on the market. Very few are any good. Writing a podcast transcript is an art that this author really nails down. The idea of a podcast like narrative really set the tone for West McCray’s voice. I often found myself reading the narrative the way I’d narrate a true crime podcast – which added a new layer of engagement to the reading experience. McCray is an underappreciated character on Goodreads – and I would’ve appreciated a bit more about him in the book. I also docked a star because in places, Summers’ writing style can lead to a frustratingly slow pace and a lot of artificially manufactured tension.

Overall, I think it’s worth reading because it forces you to think about society. It’s also a book that’ll make you pray that we become better as a world – because it seems ridiculous that we’ve got so much nonsense going down. The book is raw, which means that it forces you to accept the truth – no matter how uncomfortable that may make you feel.