Monday, May 25, 2020

From Paatal to Betaal

Image courtesy:

Some genres already have certain benchmarks set so high that it takes an incredible amount of creativity to break the mould or offer something fresh within the template. The templates are so perfect that there’s only so much variation you can wiggle around with. Serial Killers? It’s Silence of the lambs/Red Dragon. Supernatural horror? The Exorcist, Omen, The Evil Dead. Vampires? Dracula and only Dracula. Assassination plots? The Day of the Jackal. Slasher horror? Wolf Creek, The Hills have Eyes. Sci-fi horror? Alien/Predator/Aliens.

I think horror gives one the most space to explore, experiment, and expand the territory – The Blair Witch Project was so superb with its found-footage theme, adapted successfully again in Paranormal Activity.

On the Indian front, the scene is so fertile for horror exploration with our rich folklore and mythology, that the lack of good cinema in this genre is surprising and disappointing. Yes, I enjoyed Bhoot, and to a certain extent Raat, but both these had the usual clichés of horror films. So I was really ecstatic when I watched Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad. It is steeped in the folklore flavour and is quintessentially Indian in mood and story-telling, carefully avoiding Hollywood/Bollywood horror tropes. This was not just the one-dimensional visual horror, but also the metaphorical horror of greed. Every frame in the movie was atmospheric in an eerie, dismal way.  

In the anthology Ghost Stories on Netflix, the zombie story (Story 3) by Dibakar Banerjee was breath-taking in its ingenuity, again infused with that distinct Indian essence. So, I really looked forward to Betaal. For me zombie horror has been defined by World War Z and The Walking Dead (at least the first few seasons). Betaal is backed by big production houses SRK and Gauri Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment and Blumhouse Production (Insidious, Paranormal Activity, Get Out etc)—so of course my expectations were really high. Three episodes down and I’m a tad deflated (I blame myself, perhaps I’ll change my mind by the end of the season). Of course, technically the production is very slick. Even the premise is interesting, although I am bored of the ‘colonial past’ back stories—nonetheless, being hunted by a zombie army whilst your team is trapped in the middle of nowhere is a fantastic starting point. It’s even got its moments for the traditional horror buffs – but it did not work its magic. I tried to figure out why this could be (this is what insomniacs do).

I think, particularly for the horror genre, the most important task for the creator is to ensure that the reader/viewer establishes a strong emotional connect with the protagonist in the first instance (this is true for any storytelling, more so for horror). Then, when bad things start happening to this person, the audience live through the horror vicariously because we really care about her/him. The stronger the emotional bond, the more intense is the horror. If you are unable to manipulate the viewer this way then the plot becomes insipid, no matter how technically brilliant the frame is. Take for example the first episode of The Walking Dead. The protagonist Rick Grimes, a cop, wakes up from coma (on account of a bullet wound), only to find himself alone in a ransacked hospital. As the episode proceeds, you too are processing the shock of this post-apocalyptic scenario – all friends, family, neighbours – gone, some have become zombies. In a weak script this can become incredibly silly and funny. But The Walking Dead was too real and you are fully, unequivocally invested in Rick’s well-being and survival. What is he going to do next? The first few seasons were wonderful in the slow burn – first it was man versus zombies – and then, once that novelty wore off, the writers turned their attention to more sociological questions - what next for a (non-existent) society? Humans must start everything from scratch – there is no government, no law, nothing. Some of the seasons were really an examination of this – and it’s a horror of a different kind, man’s enduring lust for power and cruelty. These first few seasons were such an intense and immersive experience for me that whenever I passed chain link fences, it was too easy to imagine the 'walkers' rattling them on the other side.  

Whilst The Walking Dead was post-apocalyptic, World War Z puts us in the thick of things as the zombie epidemic spreads around the world. The premise is that the zombie plague was caused by a virus, so the resolution of the plot was to figure out a vaccine (sounds way too familiar?) Again, we are fully invested in Gerry Lane’s mission, and the film has some heart-stopping, iconic scenes. The most chilling part of this movie is its scientific take on the zombie illness – it makes it all the more believable.

I think that is what is missing in Betaal (so far). (SPOILER ALERT). First, there is a group under distress – but unlike with Ripley’s team in Alien/Aliens, I’ve been unable to build any kind of rapport with any individual in Betaal. I partly blame myself—some of the scenes are too reminiscent of The Walking Dead – malfunctioning tube lights on grimy walls – so I sort of knew what to expect next. Even the scene where the contingent enters the forbidden tunnel – that reminded me of the scene from Alien where the team enters this abandoned alien ship to investigate a distress signal.   But more than such frames that have been inspired by previous films, I think Betaal’s disappointment is in its story-telling. For me, horror works well when you drip feed information – the addictive part of any series is its hook; it’s ability to keep you guessing – what happens next? In Betaal, it’s a diarrhoea of information. Within the first couple of episodes everything is known – what is this zombie army, who is the leader, what does he want, how does the whole thing work? A supernatural explanation is given, but then, sorry, with that kala jadoo mumbo-jumbo, and inane details like zombies’ inexplicable allergic reaction to turmeric (many eye rolls), the story curdles like spoilt milk.  But I’ll give this season a shot.

I’ve got to say this though—even Betaal is believable compared to the shit some presidents and prime ministers are (not) doing right now—there’s the real horror of Paatal Lok.

© Sumana Khan 2020

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Unnatural Causes - Dr Richard Shepherd

A while ago I was researching about morgues in India for one of my manuscripts. My notes are depressing to say the least—no dignity even in death. So, when I spotted ‘Unnatural Causes’ – a career-biography of Dr Richard Shepherd, one of the leading forensic pathologists, I grabbed the book. Forensic pathologists are specialists in conducting autopsies, a career one rarely gets an insight into. Dr Shepherd has done over 23000 post-postmortems in his long career spanning more than three decades.  

I opened the book with some trepidation, I’ll admit. A subject such as this can be a slippery slope—it’s easy, perhaps tempting even, to give in to grisly sensationalism. But right from the first chapter, the prose is soft, dignified, and the reader is gently led into this behind-the-scenes world. One of the reviewers has described this book as “Heart-wrenchingly honest” – and they’ve not exaggerated. Dr Shepherd is unflinching when he describes his personal conflicts and vulnerabilities, and these honest reflections on his childhood, on his marriage, on his personality where he comes across as stolid (it works well for his profession, not so much as a family man) emotionally bonds the reader with him. As a result the book does not have a condescending tone given the insights it packs—instead, it is like having a heart-to-heart conversation with a friend, who just happens to be at the top of their profession.

There is a danger of going all text-book on the reader when describing the cases, but Dr Shepherd has balanced this well by setting the emotional contexts touchingly; each case is described respectfully with a good a dose of ‘technical’ details. I was particularly moved as Dr Shepherd recounts his early days where the of grief those bereaved affected him profoundly. He decides that he decided to “avoid the bereaved at all costs and stick to the safe world inhabited by the dead, with its facts, its measurements, its certainties. In their universe, there was a complete absence of emotion. Not to mention its ugly sister, pain”. As we get more acquainted with Dr Shepherd’s childhood, we being to appreciate why he felt more at home in the company of the dead, where there was no expectation of him to be visibly emotionally available.

Given the situation we are in today, with countries setting up temporary morgues, I was particularly affected by Dr Shepherd’s description of mass disasters—terrorist attacks and accidents—especially when bodies are dismembered. Dr Shepherd takes us through a number of such sites, the 9/11 attacks, the Bali bombings, boat and train accidents in London. Although he describes the scenes factually and dutifully, you realise the enormity of the work, and the thanklessness of it; the oppressive grief of the entire operation—the meticulous job of labelling every body part, be it a finger or a limb, or just a head; mind-numbing identification process; making bodies whole where possible.

Perhaps what makes this book come alive is Dr Shepherd’s description of the everyday-ness of his job—after a day at the morgue, coming back to a busy household where his wife was studying hard for her med school, so the evenings would go in cooking supper,  helping the kids with their homework, and walking the dog. I was amused when I read about one of his cases where a further brain tissue examination was required—Dr Shepherd returns home with the brain in an organ box in the boot of his car so he could take it to work the next day – little details like these jar you  how much effort it takes to mentally compartmentalise this job and the family life…I don’t know…I mean, there’s a brain in the car… It is no wonder that post-retirement, Dr Shepherd did suffer from PTSD, and this book sort of became a part of his recuperation. 

If you are a crime writer, this book is a great reference; I'd say a must-have. But more than that, for me personally this book is special because it speaks of biological death with the honesty it deserves – neither mystifying it, nor glorifying it. The detachment which Dr Shepherd describes as his personality trait is evident in the writing too, which helps you view the human body with a lot more respect. His passion and commitment towards his profession shines through every page - it’s truly a new perspective when your body is described as “For blood is not just red – it is bright red. The gall bladder is not just green, it is the green of the jungle foliage. The brain is white and grey – and that is not the grey of a November sky, it is the silver-grey of darting fish. The liver is not a dull school-uniform brown, it is the sharp red-brown of a freshly ploughed field.’  What a lovely reinforcement of the description in our Sharirika Upanishad, where the human body is described as the essence of the earth, water, air, fire, and sky.

This is a unique book, and if you are not squeamish, you must read it.
© Sumana Khan 2020

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Year of the Graphs

How many of you remember the red and green graph sheets we used during middle/high school? Do kids plot on an actual graph sheet now or do they use an app? But if you are of my generation, you surely remember making that trip to the nearest stationery shop to buy graph booklets. This was always a sombre journey for me, with Amma exploding like Mount Vesuvius because I would've remembered the homework in the last minute. I think each sheet was 25p or less then. Why am I randomly remembering this…it’s because of all the graphs doing the rounds now.
Those days, just when I thought I’d have a brain aneurysm trying to bisect a line with a compass, this abomination of plotting graphs was introduced in the syllabus. And the thing with graph sheets was that they had to be handled as delicately as the Dead Sea scrolls. Your Nataraj or Camlin Flora HB pencils had to be sharpened to the right point – too blunt and you’ll be off by millimetres, too sharp and for sure the damn lead would break, and that scented eraser would create a smudge…and a tear in the sheet if one got a bit angry about life.
My first brush with the dreaded graph sheet was during Algebra—at least that’s my first memory—when we learned that a straight line could be represented by an equation: y=mx+c. It was only years later that I understood the significance of the equation…indeed if one did a linear regression on the rate of change of my concentration on studies, it would be a steep, negative gradient. But at that point in time, for a girl who was more interested in the affairs of George Michael’s heart during last Christmas and coming Christmas…fat chance convincing her that finding the slope of a damn line is important in life. Nonetheless one had to plod …plot on. Okay, it was not so bad, I reconciled, it was just straight lines…because by then there was something worse round the corner. Vernier calipers. You’d think what’s the big deal—it’s straight forward to determine the least count of the accursed calipers or find out its zero error. That’s because you are blessed with normal IQ, healthy concentration. Some of us were more interested in Jason Bourne’s memory problems and zoned out when the good teacher was demonstrating the usage of this instrument. I couldn’t for the life of me visualise a single situation in my future when I’d be using Vernier calipers, but the more I struggled with it, the more I was convinced it would be my weapon of choice for a homicide. Okay, involuntary manslaughter.
By the time I found myself blinking in a science degree course, I realised the inescapability from graphs…these were surely encoded in my horoscope like some rahu or ketu presence. By then I considered myself a war veteran…I mean I had survived plotting three-dimensional vectors. I had discovered an escape route so to speak, thanks to other fellow sufferers, especially in physics and electronics (don’t do this kids)—most of the time you’d know the shape of the expected curve, so even if your experiment went wonky, you just needed a steady hand to draw that curve, and then mark your readings on or as close to the curve as possible, with some outliers to prove credibility. This probably saved my life when I had to plot the Zener diode I-V curve. Why, just the other day I saw a graph published by NITI Aayog which predicted that COVID-19 cases would drop to zero on May 16th in India. I tell you, I felt a jolt as if I’d spotted a kindred spirit…that artist could’ve been me…I could sense that steady hand and slick turn of wrist in the curve (granted it would’ve been done on a computer but you get the idea)­—poor rookie employee I’m sure, under pressure to show a certain type of scenario…and no one reviewed it till the top man unwittingly presented this.
A few years into my job, my relationship with graphs had totally stabilised—like how we’ve all accepted the reality that coughing in public will be deemed more reckless and threatening than walking around naked with an assault rifle. At work, I was throwing about graphs in every direction, in every meeting. In the corporate world a graph becomes an immutable truth—you can present 20 slides on your argument or you can stick one slick pie chart or bar chart; the graphs won the argument always. You want to convince the customer how you can increase productivity because your team comes with a different DNA strand than the competitor’s? Ha! The jet-lagged customer will probably yawn into your face showing off their tonsils. But present the same information in a graph with all sorts of trend lines…
When I eventually quit the corporate scene, I thought I was done with graphs for good. But no, within a couple of years I was staring at boxplots in preparation for a masters. Again, I thought after all that academic penance, I had sort of exorcised graphs from my life. And what do you know…everyone and their uncle started shouting “flatten the curve!”  If someone had told me, say in the beginning of 2020, “flatten the curve”, I would’ve naturally assumed this was in reference to my overly healthy body, and my response would’ve been on the lines of “which curve exactly, asshole?” Dammit, now it’s a rallying cry to save human civilisation.
I empathise with Charlie Puth when he laments that he’s “just a sucker for a cold-hearted lover”…that sums up my troubled relationship with graphs. These days, graphs go by a sexy name …data visualisation. That’s graphs in high heels and a black number. That's why even the wisest of men are so enamoured with the curves that they forget every point on that seductive bend represents human lives. 
Now, if you'll excuse me, a scatterplot is waiting to be divined. 

© Sumana Khan 2020

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Elevator Pitch - Linwood Barclay

(Book Review)

I admit, 80% of my book shopping is largely based on the book cover and the blurb—I’ve delightfully discovered authors whom I’ve never read before this way. During one of my pre-lockdown bookstore raids, this book titled ‘Elevator Pitch’ caught my attention. Not least because Stephen King has an endorsement on the cover (if King recommends eating lauki, by god I’ll be grating the damn thing before you can draw another breath), but also I’m a bit tired of domestic noir, and murders in an elevator sounded different, promising. I’ve not read Linwood Barclay before (I panic at the thought of how many more authors I’ve missed).

'Elevator Pitch' unfolds in Manhattan where on three consecutive days elevators in three random buildings plunge, killing its passengers, including an influential media head, and a Russian scientist who has inside knowledge of Russia’s bio-warfare programs. When sabotage is discovered, the controversial love-him-hate-him-can’t-ignore-him Mayor Richard Headley must take an unprecedented decision of asking all high-rises in the city to stop their elevators and have them security-checked. The enormity of this seemingly trivial decision dawns on you as Barclay beautifully narrates the disruption—in a city like Manhattan, ordering the closure of elevators causes havoc and deaths, with people living in high-rises stranded inside their homes or in lift lobbies – how do you climb 50 or 90 floors? Reading this book at a time like this I could not stop reflecting on how much quotidian urban lifestyles are shaped by a city’s architecture, and how fragile this dependence is.

In a seemingly unrelated investigation, detectives Jerry Borque and Lois Delgado are working on a gruesome murder case where the victim’s face was pulped beyond recognition and his fingertips were chopped off to avoid fingerprint identification. After a good beat work, the detectives discover that the dead man was incidentally an elevator serviceman. And then, there is the fringe group ‘The Flyovers’ indulging in domestic acts of terror, presumably their way of teaching the rich east coast Americans a lesson. As the reader you weave in and out of these chaotic threads as if you were driving through the bumper-to-bumper Manhattan traffic, and you finally arrive at a dramatic, very filmy climax.

The book is crowded with characters, just like the streets of Manhattan, and how do I put it…every chapter is busy. There’s Headley with his team that includes his son Glover whom he insults all the time; there’s the journalist Barbara,  a pain in the ass for Headley because she never misses a chance to pin him down with uncomfortable questions, and writes scathing articles criticising him; there’s Barbara’s daughter Arla with whom she has a difficult relationship; the two detectives Borque and Delgado, and many other secondary and tertiary characters, some of whom appear only in a single chapter.  

The book is kinetic, not in the sense of high-octane action, but you get the sense of constant movement – every character is on the move – no one is sitting by the window and thinking of things, for example. Everyone is chasing someone or something – Barbara is chasing her story, the detectives are chasing their leads, Mayor Headley is, well, running around in circles. I do suspect this book may not be up to everyone’s taste. The narration has that traditional framework – the story unfolds within a week, so we develop just a nodding acquaintance with the characters presented in third person. Which is rightly so because the plot propels the characters—this is unlike the more recent trend of using several first person POVs to drive the plot, which can be exhausting in its own way. I admit, although I knew this is a crime novel, I sort of expected a bit of a psychological jolt – maybe because action in closed spaces such a lift is a fertile ground for claustrophobic thrillers – maybe I was subconsciously thinking of the horror movie Devil, where the entire story unfolds inside a lift with the occupants dropping dead like flies one by one. Also, the opening of this book does not adhere to the ‘first paragraph should grab your throat’ unsaid rule, (which sometimes grates on me actually) – Barclay takes his time to build the action in the first chapter, even including a quick backstory, defying the myth that ‘the reader will lose interest’; no, I did not lose interest. A well-executed first chapter, even if it just sets the ball rolling downhill slowly, is just as effective as the jolting opening line of The Day of the Jackal - "It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad."  

Actually, 'Elevator Pitch' took me back to my teens and early twenties in Bangalore where I would pick up dogeared, yellowed books smelling of naphthalene from footpath sellers. Most of these were by authors whose names I don’t remember (tragic); the book covers were beautifully illustrated (no computer generated graphics), and these pulp-fictionish books were crime thrillers set in the rich, glamorous boroughs of New York or Beverly Hills—murders, art thefts, and diamond heists sort of stuff. These were fast reads—an afternoon in the sun, eating kaLLepuri or congress kadlekayi. I’m sure like me, others of my yet un-travelled generation of DD era became familiar with those curious American urban architecture terminologies through these books – the ‘blocks’, the ‘avenues’, the ‘streets’, the ‘boulevards’ – yeah, it was in one of those crime books (a mafia don’s girlfriend (invariably blonde, buxom, green eyes) falls in love with the cop chasing them (invariably very Dirty Harry)) that I learned about the NY-Manhattan ‘grid’: avenues run north<-> south and streets run east<->west. Barclay’s lucid description of the lay of the land weaved into the conversations took me back to those although I've read better crime novels, I guess I am partial to this book. 

If the sun is shining wherever you are, and you want to revel in the silence of the lockdown afternoons, give this book a try.

 © Sumana Khan 2020

Monday, April 13, 2020

COVID-19...There's nothing mild about it

I am sure each of us are reacting to this existential crisis in different ways—from positivity, prayers, gloom and doom thoughts, to downright denial “this is all hype, it won’t happen to me”.  Deep down the root of these reactions is anxiety and anger because for once we are truly not in control—an innocuous trip to the store to buy milk could be life-altering. At a time like this the information we seek, consume, and share becomes even more important, not only for our mental well-being, but for the safety of others as well. There are already millions of articles out on the internet on this disease. I write this post really for my own sanity, it’s my own way of letting off steam because I think I will throw up if I see one more conversation about shit like “build herd immunity” or a horoscope that predicts the “disappearance” of COVID-19.

So here are some phrases/questions that have caught my attention time and again, and I have tried to summarise answers, with reference links if you wish to read more. First things first – COVID-19 is the name of the ‘disease’ and SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus which causes COVID-19.

1)      “We are a population with ‘strong’ immunity and so COVID-19 won’t affect us”

It is important to understand how the immune system works at an individual level. Your immune system is programmed to fight against ‘foreign’ bodies, such as bacteria and virus, that invade your system to cause harm. For your immune system to work well it must identify these as harmful bodies, and attack only such cells. Here is a lousy analogy – for your immune system to “identify” an invader, it must have a blueprint or a photograph – like a police station having the wall of posters with mugshots of “most wanted”.  So when you have a common cold (which you’ve had a number of times over your life course) your immune system is already equipped with a “blueprint” or a mug shot of this invader. So it knows the right weapons to use, or in science terms, it can produce the required “antibodies” to kill each and every invading cell.

What happens when the invader is “new”? Your immune system has no “blueprint”, but still, it is programmed to put up a fight, it knows some foreign body has invaded the system. But it is like fighting against an enemy whom you’ve never dealt with before; the enemy has weapons you’ve never trained on, the enemy uses a strategy you are not familiar with. These are bitter battles – some are won, some are lost. Have you seen footages of war-ravaged cities in the recent past where everything reduced to rubble? That’s your body inside, having waged a war with this new enemy. So don’t be under the false complacency that a virus will not infect you because of your ethnicity. Not only will you endanger yourself, but you will also put others in danger.
If you want to learn more about immunology – please go through these lectures - and
You can also follow Peter Kolchinsky, a virologist, on twitter who explains, in a very simple language, how viruses work. Some threads for you –
This talks about what COVID testing is all about –
If you want to understand the virus tree of coronavirus, take a look at this infographic –

2)      “More people die from (insert you favourite common death method)” – the one’s I’ve come across - “Falling from stairs” “car accidents”, “heart attacks”, “regular flu” – so why are we overreacting about COVID-19?

Well, first of all, “Car accident” or “heart attacks” are not contagious. The “regular flu” is seasonal; most countries have an internal strategy to ramp up resources in their hospitals to treat a heightened influx of patients during flu seasons. In the case of the new COVID-19, here are things we know – it is highly contagious; there is community transmission; it can take down even healthy individuals. In this scenario, what does a lockdown achieve? First, it cuts down community transmission – the less people are in touch, the less opportunity for the virus to spread. Second, it gives the medical infrastructure of a country to gear up. In an ideal scenario, the doctors and hospitals should have been kitted out to take on this new and sudden influx of patients. But as we are sadly seeing in UK and the USA – the governments did not understand, and/or they turned a blind eye to the fact that their medical front-line is not protected and equipped. The latest news is that more than a 100 doctors have died due to COVID-19 in Italy ( In the UK, as of now 19 health workers have died and the numbers will sadly climb because our gormless health secretary still has no clear answers about providing PPE to the frontline workers.

So coming back to the question about “why the hype” – the fact that doctors and nurses need PPE to treat COVID-19 patients should alert one to the fact that this is not “just a flu”. The fact that countries have shut down – let me repeat that – ENTIRE countries have shut down despite the crippling effect on the economy, should give you a hint why this is so, so serious. Here is an infographic on how the disease spread in South Korea, which should help you understand why COVID-19 is so infectious, and why social distancing and lockdowns are not a hype  

3)      “It’s just a flu”; “people are whining about a little flu”; “how is this different from a fever and a little cough”

Unfortunately, there are very few newspapers that have documented lived experiences of this flu. So we must be grateful to those brave survivors who have documented their survival on social media, so the rest of us can be aware. Here are commonalities of this plague based on first-person accounts I’ve read–
      a)       Some people experienced skin sensitivity like a bad sunburn or  like having some underlying allergy. Some reported a loss of smell and taste.
      b)      The fever is relentless – 102, 103 – and can last for days. In one case, it lasted for two full weeks. In some cases, the fever is intermittent—you can feel fine for a few hours before the temperature increases dramatically. Fever of such high temperature will obviously cause chills and delirium. In many cases the only way to bring down these dangerous levels of temperature is icepacks, or making the person sit under a cold shower.
      c)       Cough of unimaginable intensity—individuals reported coughing so much that their ribs hurt, and it also induced vomiting. Since the infection affects your lungs, you get breathless – coughing increases this breathlessness till you are literally gasping and rasping for breath. Each breath you take induces another severe bout of cough. Think of an experience of someone pulling a plastic bag on your face and tightening it around your throat.
      d)     When you reach a stage where you are simply not able to breathe on your own because of the spread of the infection in your lungs, you are put on a ventilator to help deliver the oxygen which you are incapable of drawing through the process of breathing.  
      e)      Tiredness of a deadening nature where you are simply unable to move. Your body feels sore, muscles ache. In one case, a husband narrated how he had to carry his wife around the house because all strength had drained off her body.
      f)       Some cases reported diarrhoea.
Here are two first-person accounts you can read -
Bottomline – there is NOTHING mild about this disease. This is not “just a flu”. 

4)      What is “herd immunity”?

In the true sense, herd immunity refers to a situation where a vast majority of a population has an immunity against a certain disease, so there is very little threshold for a virus/bacteria to take a foothold in that populace. How is this herd immunity built? By mass immunisation measures such as administering vaccines to a large population set.  

In the context of COVID-19, herd immunity was a monstrous strategy allegedly adopted by the UK government when it finally woke up to the situation in the beginning of March. At that point in time, a discourse had been built that COVID-19 predominantly affects the elderly and the immunocompromised. Going by various media briefings, it appeared the UK government’s strategy was to allow as many ‘non-vulnerable’ people as possible to get infected, (they called THIS as building herd immunity), and meanwhile, the health services can then cope with the more critical cases. The sheer inhumanness of this proposal, and the decision to simply ignore WHO’s pragmatic advice to test, track and isolate, caused a widespread uproar in the public as well as in the scientific community (  

So now “herd immunity” seems to have caught the fancy of some people, just like pop psychology narratives, especially the antivaxers. The common question is why can’t we just get the disease and build immunity “naturally”? Sure, whatever floats your boat. Why stop at COVID-19? Why don’t you expose yourself to ebola, HIV, or rabies and see how it goes? Stay isolated whilst you build your immunity though.

5)      Is HCQ a cure for COVID-19?

There is no cure for COVID-19 as of now. A ‘cure’ typically would be a vaccine. A vaccine contains a “blueprint” of the virus – like a specific molecular string or its DNA/RNA – it is like submitting a photograph to your body’s immune system – attack if someone who looks like this enters the body. Given COVID-19 is a pandemic, an ideal situation would be if a majority of us can get vaccinated so the disease can no longer spread.

HCQ is used as a malarial vaccine. The active ingredient of HCQ has been known to reduce inflammation effectively. Hence, HCQ is also prescribed for patients suffering from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis, and lupus which is auto-immune disease that causes inflammation amongst other things. Bear in mind HCQ also has scary side effects. In the case of COVID-19 patients, especially those in the critical stage, widespread inflammation in the lungs has been observed because of a phenomenon called cytokine storm, where your immune system goes on an overdrive in the fight against the disease, potentially killing healthy cells as collateral damage. This kind of inflammation is lethal, and this is what is causing COVID-19 deaths.  It is thought that HCQ can reduce/control this inflammation, giving the body a fighting chance to survive. Remdesivir (RDV) is another drug that is considered as a potential treatment. In this case RDV is known to prevent RNA of the virus from replication. Read more here (

World over, all kinds of professionals are working round the clock to beat this pandemic. Unfortunately, the greater cruelty has actually been inflicted by the political class in countries like USA and UK. 

Stay informed and stay safe. And maybe in the next election, swallow whatever racial, sexual, and class prejudices you have, and do vote for a party that wants to increase your taxes so that you and your children get a better health system and education system. Because, god forbid, if you are on that ICU bed, that fancy new bomb your government built is not going to help you, neither is your pseudo- national pride. The only thing that stands between you and death is that selfless doctor who, most probably, hails from a community/class/country/gender that you were taught to hate and mistrust. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

After a period of drowning in hefty academic literature, it feels so good to return to fiction, like emerging from underwater gasping for air. I had been on an insane book-buying spree in readiness for this moment of freedom. What better company can one ask for on the flight than Jack Reacher politely beating the crap out of everyone? I devoured Blue Moon for at least 6 hours straight. During my break in India it was Keigo Higashino’s slow-burning The Devotion of Suspect X. And now back here in the melancholic British weather, instead of preparing for my upcoming viva, I played truant and surrendered to Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party.

It’s been a while since I’d read a well-executed whodunit, and The Hunting Party was sumptuous. What better way to spend a stormy Sunday, gale force winds and rain slapping the windowpanes, than to read about a group of friends trapped in a remote holiday resort in the Scottish Highlands?  This intimate reunion of college friends goes horribly wrong when one of them ends up dead.

There are four couples – Miranda and Julien, Emma and Mark, Samira and Giles, Nick and Bo – and the single woman, Katie in the group. Apart from them, there is Heather, the manager of the resort and Doug, the gamekeeper.

The plot itself spans three days, and Foley must achieve the unravelling of the characters in this tight window. She does so by dedicating a chapter for each of the principal characters, all written in first person narrative, except for Doug, where she pulls back to a tight third person narrative. The plot is non-linear and moves back and forth between timelines ensuring that the plot is never stagnant.

The first person narrative builds an intimacy between the reader and the character; for the reader, the story is being narrated real time by the characters—they provide a shard of their perspective and the readers are allowed to see a piece of the puzzle through the lens of this POV. As the plot proceeds, like a detective, the reader must try to put the pieces together, only to come across another bend in the story. We get to know about the events during this New Year reunion through the voices of Heather, Doug, Katie, Miranda, and Emma.

The only drawback of this multiple-voice technique in this novel (at least for me) is that most of the chapters become exposition-heavy with the back stories. Whilst the characters are drawn out very well, I found myself distracted on some of the chapters because of this. I know this is commercial fiction and the focus is undoubtedly on the pace, but my preference leans towards a narration that leaves things unsaid, and allows me, the reader, to sort of fill in the blanks. I found some of the descriptions jarring; especially when a character explains, I faced this and this, so I am like this. I would have loved to figure this out for myself, rather than the character throwing it at my face.

This book would’ve fallen flat if the setting of the place had been weak – here Foley does a fantastic job of transporting the reader to this remote cut-off location – we can feel the unsettling silence, we can feel the biting cold, and we can also see the wild beauty of this resort by a still loch that mirrors the pine covered mountains around it. I think it was the setting that really elevated this book.

The plot has it’s share of red herrings and I’m not sure the reader would be entirely gullible but unlike traditional whodunits, we don’t even get to know who the victim (although you can guess, and then second guess) is till the end. And that’s what keeps the pedal to the metal on this book. I wouldn’t mind watching a Netflix series or even a film based on this book.

I loved the simple yet eye-catching book cover too – I bought it because of the cover, really. If you’ve got a train ride, a flight, a self-quarantine…reach out for this one. I do have some opinions on the characters themselves, but then I don’t want to give away spoilers. Maybe we can discuss over coffee?

© Sumana Khan – 2020

Tuesday, August 06, 2019

Mahira - Breaking Stereotypes

Courtesy -

When a friend told me about ‘Mahira’, a Kannada movie with a female protagonist, I was wary as well as curious. Wary because I’ve not really enjoyed movies like Shuddhi – the ingredients for a good thriller were all there but I felt the plot was pretty under-cooked. Also, I’m really weary of the sexual-crime backstory, an unofficial hallmark of “women-centric” movies – it would seem this is the only reason for women to go on the wrong side of the law. Invariably this results in poor characterisations that lazily reinforce gender stereotypes. It is the same reason I’ve not watched Urvi either – I’m really sick of rape and trafficking propelling a story – there’s worse happening in the real world.

However, Mahira promised to be different; I did not know much about the plot, except that it was about a mother-daughter duo on the run from assassins. If I’m not mistaken, Mahira is derived from Sanskrit and means skilled/proficient; the root of the Hindi word maahir. Elsewhere I read that Mahira also means a strong woman. Either way, the title is apt for the movie.

I admit that my interest in this film was actually piqued by the fact that the writer-director, Mahesh Gowda, a London-based fellow Kannadiga is an alumnus of London Film Academy. I was more interested in Gowda’s creative process at this point, the fact that he chose to break stereotypes and really push the envelope for his debut project – relatively unknown actors, except for Raj Shetty (Ondu Motteya Kathe); no “mass” elements, and by the looks of it, no romance either; and mother of god, no item numbers. I wonder how many people told Gowda he was staring at disaster in the face. Writing a book one believes in is one thing – you can publish it for free – but making a movie – well, from one nutjob to another I can say with some conviction that only certain kind of people take such pig-headed risks – someone who is absolutely passionate and committed to the story they want to tell. Also, I’d been following the social media word-of-mouth advertisements of this movie; I liked the fact that there was a pragmatic approach to the movie’s release – the creative team was clear of the demographic they wanted to target, they focused on what was different about the movie instead of a generic ‘idralli action ide, emotion ide’ lines.

Of course, the second reason I wanted to watch this movie was because of its genre. So far there have been very few offbeat Kannada movies in crime/thriller genre that I’ve enjoyed – RangiTaranga was fantastic as a psychological thriller, although its subplot was needlessly complicated. Kendasampige was another superb action thriller – for me this is action in the true sense - the chase, and not heroes and villains kicking and flying about. So, really there was no chance of missing Mahira.

Set in the coastal areas of Mangalore, Maya (gorgeous Virginia Rodrigues) and her teen daughter Adya (Chaitra Achar) are leading a seemingly simple life – Maya, the single mother runs a beach café whilst Adya is a student at the local college. Their life turns upside down when a group of men come knocking on the door claiming to be from the “Indian Intelligence” wanting to take in Maya. Maya, who thus far is seen as the soft-spoken working mother, must now revert to her original identity to protect herself and her daughter. In this pivotal scene quite early in the movie, we get to know Maya is an intelligence agent who has allegedly gone rogue, and who has been the target of a manhunt by the “department”. The rest of the plot is about the hunt for Maya that ensues, and in the process, we get to know Maya’s past.

Well, full marks for Gowda for – a) penning a character that explores a different dimension of a female protagonist b) for setting up a mature woman as the central lead and allowing her to culminate the plot. The movie is completely carried forward by Rodrigues and I wish she was the face on the poster and not Raj Shetty, although I understand why this decision was made.

I was told Rodrigues comes from a theatre background and this absolutely shows in her portrayal as this complicated character – she must switch between the tenderness of her maternal instincts, and the ruthlessness of a rogue agent. Her preparation for this role included training in hand-to-hand combat techniques I'm told, and her hard work has paid off - she’s got the perfect body language in all the fight scenes. Chaitra Achar as the pesky generation Z teen puts up a spirited performance. Raj Shetty as the slightly eccentric investigating officer evokes mirth and his comic timing is impeccable – he uses his non-typical appearance to his full advantage – the hallmark of a good actor. I wish he had meatier scenes and sassier lines. Shaukat Ali, who I’m told is Mr Karnataka, is impressive as the menacing assassin hired to hunt down Maya.

I’m not going to look for spiders under the rocks and sort of criticise this difficult-to-direct debut movie. For me, the epitome of “chase” movies is The Day of the Jackal (the Edward Fox one, not the terrible Bruce Willis one). The devil is in the details in all such movies, and that’s where there are slips in Mahira. In some places I could feel Gowda’s conflict - a conflict that every thriller genre writer faces – striking the right balance with characterisation without losing pace. To his credit, Gowda does not lose grip, although he hangs by a thread in some scenes; I would also credit Rodrigues on this – she is understated yet powerful and there are no overly melodramatic scenes. The interaction between mother and daughter are believable and not cheesy. Some of the location shots around Mangalore are simply breath-taking and really made me homesick for the Indian sun. Overall, Mahira engages one’s attention – I’d say a Sunday afternoon well spent.

If you are tired of hero-centric Kannada movies, with their pathetic build-up songs, build-up lines in every scene, a vacuous female lead to give more build-up to the hero, and the mandatory item girl – give Mahira a chance. Women can also kick ass just as well you know, that too without all the bells and whistles.

© Sumana Khan 2019

Friday, June 07, 2019

Hindi gothilla. Bas.

Well, frankly speaking, I passed my high school Hindi exam only because of Doordarshan. That too, specifically because of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. Well I guess that really means I passed because of Salim-Javed.

I can’t remember exactly when Hindi was introduced in school. Middle school? By then I was tying myself into knots over Kannada vyakarna (grammar) – especially those sandhis. As it is the gerunds and infinitives in English grammar was giving me a blood clot in the brain.

By high school, Hindi was real problem. Coming from an absolutely non-Hindi family (although my paternal grandmother held a Hindi vidhwat, and she passed on when I was barely in my primary school) Hindi homework was becoming quite a circus. Nobody in the wider community interacted in Hindi so there was simply no way to develop one's communication skills in the language.

Our Hindi teacher, I remember her as a very beautiful lady, totally sagar jaisi aakhon wali, worked really hard to help us. In Hindi, even non-living things are assigned gender, and this affects the construction of the sentence. As a native Kannada and Melkote Tamil speaker, this flummoxed me no end – see in Kannada and Tamil we don’t give a rat’s ass if a table is male or female. It’s just, well, “it”. But I was losing marks, no matter how leniently she corrected. I was also making a lot of spelling mistakes and she said the only way I can come to grips with the writing is by writing. What on earth do I write in Hindi? My brain would switch off the minute I saw the textbook.

Sometimes it helps if your brain is wired in a very weird way. See, by then I was addicted to Hindi movies – good, bad and ugly – that was aired on Doordarshan. I was always humming songs which are now considered age-inappropriate for 13-15-year-olds by conscientious parents. Like, samandar mein nahake aur bhi namkeen ho gayi ho. Summer holidays meant listening to bhoole bisre geet in the morning, aap ki farmaish in the afternoon, and jaimala for fauji bhais in the evening, all on Vividhbharti. I started to note down the lyrics as the songs played on the radio, and I automatically wrote them in Devanagari script. One listening was not enough to complete the lyrics, I had to wait for the next time it played. By the time summer was over, I'd filled up a diary. When I returned to school, my teacher was quite pleased with my improved spellings and asked if I’d taken extra tuition. And that’s when I started paying closer attention to the film dialogues and songs – I knew who my real teacher was, and my lessons commenced.

Teri zulfen. Teri nazarein. Teri aankhon ke siva...ookay…so the “ee” because it’s in reference to her? Hold on. What about Isse apni jeb mein rakhle Peter. Ab yeh taala mai teri jeb se chaabi nikaal kar hi kholunga? Crap. Is the key female or is the fucking pocket female? I ploughed on. When do you say tumhara, tumhare, tumhari? Okay so, tumhara pyar chahiye; ilakha tumhara hai, aur mai akela hun; hum tumhare hai sanam; yeh pulees station hai, tumhare baap ka ghar nahin; yeh tum nahin, tumhari vardi, tumhari kursi bol rahin hai;  tumhari nazar kyun khafa ho gayi?  

Well, this sort of improved my vocabulary too – as far as Kannada was concerned, “kafa” meant phlegm, especially when you cough. So that didn’t fit in with the question tumhari nazar kyun khafa ho gayi…unless we’re talking some real horror shit here. But Joy Mukherjee and Saira Banu sorted it out with woh hai zara khafa khafa. This was further confirmed by Dev Anand/Rafi …baito na door humse, dekho khafa na ho…

Of course, all this meant my Hindi improved, but not in the intended way. The thing is your language skills can develop only when you speak and interact. In my case it was a bit schizophrenic, having conversations in my head, scripted mostly by Salim-Javed. So, my repository of Hindi skills included an assortment of dialogues - Mai aaj bhi pheke hue paise nahin uta tha.  Hum bhi woh hai jo kabhi kisi ke peeche khade nahin hote. Jahan khade hote hai, line wahi se shuru ho jaati hai. Jab tak baitne ko kahan na jaye, sharaft se khade raho. And an assortment of phrases. Izzat loot liya. Izzat bachaya. Not to forget the iconic and cataclysmic mai maa banne wali hun.

I didn’t progress much on the numerals. I knew ek to dus. Then gyarah because gyarah mulkon ki pulees was behind Don. I knew sola because it was supposed to be baali umar. Bees because bees saal baad. I sort of knew sow, hazar, laakh, karod. And for some reason, now-sow-ninnajji ninnyaanveh.

Guess what? The above repository was pretty useless when it came to answering exam questions – Sita dukhi kyon thi? (5 ankh, prabandh likhiye). This Sita was not Mrs Rama, but if memory serves right, she was a little girl who had lost her pet or something. Well, I tell you Gabbar Singh was yelling Bahut nainsafi hai in my head. I started paraphrasing from whatever songs came into my head. Theoretically, it was a sound approach, already demonstrated by the song mere jeevan saathi. So I started off writing snippets of lyrics and then paraphrasing them. Badi sooni sooni hai. Teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai? Yeh kya hua, kaise hua, kab hua, kyon hua? Kya qayamat hai? Kya museebat hai? Hum bhatak the hai…kyon bhatak the hai? Na koi umang hai. What about tum log mujhe dhoond rahen ho aur mai tumhara…yahan intezaar kar raha hun? Crap. That would be the puppy talking. Which would be creepy. I did think of comparing Sita’s pet-less life to a kati patang, you know, just to add depth to the experience, but something told me that would overcook the essay. Eventually I finished off by describing how her life had become kora kagaz without the goddamn pet. I wonder if my poor teacher had a conniption. I passed though. Big ehsaan. Actually I think it was survival instinct for the teacher. Imagine dealing with me for another year. 

My academic engagement with Hindi stopped after high school, but I continued my film relationship. I picked up some beautiful Urdu words along the way. But being a teenager also meant the world was one big zanjeer around my neck, so I picked up a good amount of maa bhen stuff too.

Years later, I did think of relearning Hindi properly but by then I was seduced by Bengali. Ki korbo? At least I didn't have to worry if the table is mey or chele. 

The bottom-line is I still can’t converse fluently in Hindi, unless we speak in film dialogues. I do have Hindi-speaking friends, but I tend to converse in English lest I refer to the coffee table as female or curtains as male or something. Or worse, get frustrated in figuring out the gender of the coffee mug and then inadvertently resort to maa-bhen vocab.    

You know what, I’m not the only one who’s learnt Hindi this way. I strongly suspect whoever wrote the qatal ki raat speech also belongs to my category. In fact, I think this speaker and his best friend often look in the mirror and secretly say kabhi kabhi lagta hai ki apun hi bhagwan hai.  

Now if you’ll excuse me, I must return to mai aur meri tanhayi …

© Sumana Khan - 2019

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Shape Of You

Breakfast is the time when I sponge up general knowledge about the world and mull over things. Like, all the flurry of weddings for example. That 75-foot veil – that’s the stretch from my home to K & C’s home – I must get something like that for frost protection for the outdoor strip of vegetation. Or, I end up wondering if Deepika’s Bangalore reception had chiroti in the buffet? Or, like it’s 2018 and Bollywood is still making movies titled “Loveyatri” – the reviewer had succinctly summed it up as “pain in the raas” because the hero is a garbha dance teacher. Or, that I’m no longer dark, but “melanin-rich” according to Times of India.

So, one morning when I was viciously stabbing the oatabix brick that wouldn’t disintegrate in the soya milk, I read a headline about how Mark Wahlberg wakes up at 2:30am every day. I thought aiyoo papa. See, that way insomnia is an equaliser; it does not care about bank balance. We have something in common, I told Wahlberg’s photo on the computer screen. I opened the link because I was curious to see if he also lies awake thinking of scenarios like a large meteor falling into the Atlantic and the ensuing displacement tsunami,  or war (most likely), or a new plague-like disease (we are due), or…okay…he probably won’t lie awake thinking he forgot the laundry in the washing machine and he may have to run another rinse cycle so the clothes won’t smell.

Damn it, it turns out he does not have insomnia at all. The man wakes up at 2:30am because he goes to bed at 7:30pm. In my books, that’s worse than insomnia. Why is a grown man going to bed at 7:30pm? Every. Day. Ah. He wakes up at 2:30am because that’s when he exercises. Oookay. Maybe he goes back to sleep by 3:30 or so? No. The dude is properly up and about. Showering, praying (yes), breakfasting etc etc. And in between making movies and earning $$$.

This is where my life is going wrong, I tell The Husband who has a Mark-who? look on his face. I could be making £££, but no. Now that the sunrise time is 7:50am, I can barely string sentences properly even at 8am. And look at this dude. He would have probably finished 150 push-ups by 2:45am. But really, I couldn’t see myself staggering out of bed at 2:30am, the wind howling outside, and doing lunges and jumping jacks. And the only reason I’ve gone to bed at 7:30pm is jet lag after India trip.  

Anyway, after having accidentally stepped on the weighing scale whilst removing cobwebs from the bookshelf, and after confirming the digital display on the scale was A-okay, and also my eyesight was A-okay, I finally enrolled us in a local gym for off-peak hours, which is after 9:30pm. Very Wahlbergish. By the time we return, the lights are off in the neighbourhood and the deer would’ve come out for the nocturnal foraging. On the days we don’t go to the gym, I go stomping around the neighbourhood mostly after dark (well I can’t help it because it gets dark by 4:30pm when every respectable country still has bright sunshine). I’m sure someone will call the cops on me, reporting suspicious movement.  

We’ve even gone as far as eating salads as meals. Not like that spoonful of kosambari placed in the corner of your plate when having anna saaru palya.  It’s a cruel dilemma – do you choose between making memories or counting calories? See on cold, grey afternoons it is criminal not to have piping hot kichdi or bisibelebath. But I’ve sat poking around pitted green olives and goats cheese and walnuts, cheering myself up thinking about all the magnesium and iron and proteins that are getting in, and that someday I’ll be like Okoye. Yes. It was a good thing I did not return that pair of jeggings I’d bought a while ago. Surely, I’ll fit into it before man colonises Mars.

The thing is we are closer to putting humans on Mars. And I’m probably on the brink of causing world-wide walnut shortage. Still, I can’t pull up those damn jeggings beyond my ankles.  Now I’m thinking it’s probably meant for a four-year-old. Maybe the size label is wrong. Yes, that’s a more logical explanation.

Anyway, when K from next door said he wanted to join us in the gym, I thought, ah, perhaps like Wahlberg, we have inspired him. At least something good has come out of rolling olives around in the mouth, even though the eyes are filled with visions of kodubale. I believed in that lofty idea for all of ten seconds. By then I happened to observe The Husband hovering in the kitchen, in the throes of a great mind battle – whether to choose between dry fruits or spicy Bombay Mix. I actually heard his thought – fuck this shit – and he filled up a bowl of Bombay Mix and sauntered off.  

So what’s K’s angle, really? He tells me he’s mainly going to join the gym to tone his abs. Ah. The year-end Caribbean cruise. K wants to impress the ladies with a surprise six-pack. But he’s also human after all. Last week when I asked him to join us for a gym session, he revealed cruelly that he was feasting on biryani.  

Anyway, I can’t be so selfish thinking only about my health all the time. As a responsible citizen I should support local businesses. So, it’s going to be pizza for dinner. With some garlic bread. And wedges. And Narcos on Netflix. 

And suddenly, I feel richer than Wahlberg.

© Sumana Khan - 2018