Smriti Daniel

Aziz Ansari: Modern Romance (Review)

In Comedians, Open Magazine, Researchers on July 20, 2015 at 4:49 am

I have always loved the story of how my grandparents fell in love.

Thatha was cycling down a street in Chennai, on his way to work, when he passed by Pattima’s house. She was on the balcony, brushing her beautiful long hair. They locked eyes and smiled shyly at each other. The rest – a marriage that lasted 52 years and produced three children and five grandchildren – is history.

Modern Romance, as Aziz Ansari will tell you, is an altogether different beast. In the age of Tinder, my grandparents may have locked eyes for the first time on a computer screen. Would they have both swiped right? Would their banter have been promising enough to make a meeting worthwhile? Would Pattima, in the end, have decided to go with the buff guy further down the street because he had a better grasp of punctuation?

It might feel like every contemporary American comedian has beaten Ansari to the punch. By the point Modern Romance hit shelves this year, Mindy Kaling had already spent three years wondering Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Tina Fey had been a Bossypants for even longer than that, and though she was a little late to the party, Amy Poehler had said Yes, Please – in 2014, the same year Neil Patrick Harris instructed his fans to Choose Your Own Autobiography and Lena Dunham assured us all that she was Not That Kind of Girl.

But Ansari – the Indian-American stand-up comedian best known for playing Tom Haverford in the late, great series Parks and Rec – does something more interesting to justify his 3.5 million dollar advance from Penguin. Intensely personal, yet immediately universal, his new book tackles a seemingly exhausted topic yet, somehow, manages to deliver a quirky, surprisingly smart but above all practical guide to Modern Romance. (One, you’ll be pleased to hear, is also available in e-book and audiobook formats)

In his introduction, Ansari pinpoints the book’s inspiration as being the moment when he realised his phone went from trusted communication device to the receptacle of a ‘tornado of panic and hurt and anger’.  When a message inviting a girl he likes to a concert is ignored by the recipient (his phone helpfully marks it ‘read’), Ansari spends many, many torturous hours trying to make sense of the failure of his one-way text.

’I’m so stupid!’ he writes. ’I should have typed “Hey” with two y’s, not just one!’ The passage of 24 hours of silence only produces more angst: ‘Did Tanya’s phone fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano? Did Tanya fall into a river/trash compactor/volcano?? Oh no, Tanya has died, and I’m selfishly worried about our date.’ (Tanya, you’ll be glad to know is alive and well, just preoccupied.)

We’ve all been there – as Ansari discovered when he incorporated the incident into a well-received stand-up routine. That realisation kicked off an exploration of the intersections of love and technology in the modern world which spanned several months.

Written in collaboration with NYU sociology professor Eric Klinenberg, Modern Romance is an irreverent, informative read for the smartphone generation. There’s plenty of fascinating new data, mined from a forum on Reddit to in-person interviews and focus groups in locations as diverse as Qatar and Argentina. Klinenberg delivers on the analysis of behavioural data and surveys, and a host of experts like anthropologist Helen Fisher and Sheena Iyengar, author of The Art of Choosing, pitch in with their insights.

Ansari functions as a guide to this universe, paving the way with personal anecdotes, irreverent patter (sometimes annoying, most often not), heavy facts and plenty of agony aunt-style advice on finding and keeping love. He is so committed to the process that at one point he even masturbates into a Tenga – a Japanese egg-shaped sex toy – so you never have to. (‘It felt like I was masturbating with a thick, cold condom on…’)

The result of all this is an enjoyable hybrid of an anthropological treatise (‘For women in this era [1960s], it seemed that marriage was the easiest way of acquiring the freedoms of adulthood‘); irreverent geo-social commentary (‘If Tokyo is the capital of the “herbivore man”, then Buenos Aires must surely be the capital of the “rib eye-eating maniac”’); hard-core census data (‘France is the country with the highest rates of infidelity: 55 percent for men and 32 percent for women’); and the very latest scientific advice on how to take a selfie most likely to appeal to the opposite sex (‘If you are a woman, take a high angle selfie, with cleavage, while underwater near some buried treasure. If you are a guy, take a shot of yourself holding a puppy while both of you are spelunking’).

Ansari concludes, ’Technology hasn’t just changed how we find romance, it’s also put a new spin on the timeless challenges we face once we are in a relationship’: the agonies of online dating, whether there’s someone better out there for you, how to keep the passion alive, whether to have that affair or to risk a sext, to snoop or not to snoop on your partner, and crucially, how to breakup.

Modern Romance also succeeds as a variation on the celebrity memoir, with just enough about Ansari himself to whet your appetite. One thing is certain, Tanya really missed out when she ignored that text.

Published in Open on July 19, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

Anuradha Roy: Sleeping on Jupiter Review

In The Hindu Businessline, Writers on July 18, 2015 at 6:54 am

Undertone of disquiet: In Sleeping  on Jupiter the Bay of Bengal stretches as far as the eye can see, its surface ravaged by the monsoon. -- K.R Deepak

Anuradha Roy’s opening line in Sleeping on Jupiter soon proves itself a lie. Her protagonist, Nomita tells us: “The year the war came closer, I was six or seven and it did not matter to me.” But the reader knows better than the little girl — the proximity of conflict always matters. Nomi lives in a kind of paradise, from which she is soon to face eviction, though she doesn’t know that yet. Cast on the mercy of the world, she will find it has little to spare for her.

Roy’s third book, I should tell you right away, is almost relentlessly grim. Her characters, who are complicated and conflicted, are a result of a world underpinned with loss and suffering. Nomi is ostensibly the linchpin on which the story turns. We meet her first, catch glimpses of her journey into adulthood and then return with her to India. By then she is Nomi Frederiksen, daughter to a mother who abandoned her, adopted by another whom she rejects.

In the fictional seaside town of Jarmuli, famous for its temples and ashrams, Nomi’s story arc converges with a small horde of other characters. It is immediately evident that Roy has an enviable sense of place. She imagines into being a temple city crowded with pilgrims, tourists and those who would make a living there. Here, the scent of incense mingles with that of fish — fresh, fried and rotting.

Down by the water, you can dig your toes into the sand, but beware this treacherous coast. The Bay of Bengal stretches as far as the eye can see, its surface ravaged by monsoon winds, its depths offering forgetfulness for a price. It is here that Suraj — ostensibly the fixer for Nomi’s documentary project — goes to swim, and here that Badal, the temple guide, comes to look for Raghu, who he is desperately in love with.

It is here that Latika dreams of simply sitting by the sea and drinking coconut water while on her first real — and likely last — holiday with her friends Gouri and Vidya. These three quickly become my favourites.

Gouri nurtures a deep spirituality, and her warmth and humour provide a kind of tragic counterpoint to her ongoing, inexorable loss of memory; Vidya’s “forty years in the bureaucracy” are paired with a “preoccupied self-importance”; but burgundy-haired Latika is still capable of surprising us all. She is (relatively) sprightly, innately irreverent and about to get drunk for the very first time.

Roy sketches these women with pragmatic compassion and real insight. As an author, this is indisputably her gift, a willingness to pause long enough to provide even the most minor character with a backstory that lends their presence depth and weight. A perfect example of this is the mysterious Johnny Toppo, the tea-seller who sings hauntingly lovely folk songs, as he serves up tea spiced with ginger and cardamom. Out of the likes of Toppo, Roy weaves a bold, sprawling tapestry of emotion and human interaction.

Roy’s other gift is an ability to write in a way that is acutely pleasing to the senses. Her words allow her readers to see, smell, taste. She is so potent that at the end of the book, I still remember a simple description from her first page — of Nomi’s brother cutting down a grapefruit from their family’s tree. The fruit is pale yellow and heavy with juice, its skin is stippled but its flesh is a tender pink, the scent of it is tart and fresh.

However, while Roy writes with assurance and skill, I find that her plot choices sometimes stretch the limits of my appetite for tragedy and reinforce clichés. The same descriptive gift which leaves me with a mild craving for a grapefruit, makes a long series of violently abusive encounters difficult to read: a murder by machete that leaves a father squealing like pigs at the slaughter, the sale and rape of a young girl, the snapping of a man’s sanity and his battery of an animal… and all this just in the first half of the novel.

Even when the book is not exploding into violence, there is a steady undertow of disquiet and grief. What balance exists I find only around Vidya, Latika and Gouri. (I catch myself wishing that I could shed the other characters for the honest, interesting company of just these three.)

But there are other compensations for reading Sleeping on Jupiter, such as its structure. Roy plays with time and place, switching between first person and third person; between five days in the present and a lifetime in the past. Her choice of whose thoughts we are privy to, and whose we are not, are deliberate and clever. Through them, we see a man undone by his deep love for a boy, yet are denied insight into another predator who systematically rapes and abuses his young charges. By choosing when we are inside Nomi’s head, Roy makes her past as real as her present, and allows us to see the unfurling of her courage.

In the writing, I realise it is this courage that keeps me reading through to the end. It is not just Nomi’s; while her courage is perhaps the most considerable, it is also the least interesting. Instead, valour infuses and elevates nearly every character.

Overarching all this is Roy’s own fearlessness as a writer — she is all raw feeling, and vivid life.

Published in The Hindu Businessline on June 5, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. 

Simon Singh: Seeing is not Believing

In Jaipur Literary Festival 2015, Scientists, The Hindu Businessline, TV People, Writers on July 18, 2015 at 6:50 am

Decoder: Simon Singh watched hours and hours of The Simpsons to unearth its many mathematical secrets. -- K Murali Kumar

Simon Singh is immediately recognisable in a crowd — his dramatic haircut riffs on a Mohawk and his oval, gold-rimmed glasses glint in the light. One of Britain’s leading science communicators, Singh left Cambridge with a PhD in particle physics and followed that with a stint at CERN. He then joined the BBC as a producer and director working on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon. His documentary about Fermat’s Last Theorem won him a BAFTA award and an Emmy nomination. He is also the author of five books, notably Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, but it’s the title of his fourth book, published in 2008, that prompts me to ask him about his opinion of homeopathy.

Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial showcases Singh’s penchant for speaking his mind, which he seems more than happy to do again. “All the evidence we have tells us that homeopathy doesn’t work, for any condition at all,” he says emphatically. Describing a lecture he gave the day before at an university, he reveals that in an impromptu poll of his audience, 49 per cent said they thought it effective, albeit less effective than modern medicine, and a mere one per cent said it doesn’t work.

Singh isn’t feigning his dismay when he reports that asking for evidence from the crowd only drew anecdotes. “I think it’s really important that people use evidence rather than personal experience. Personal experience is a good starting point but our personal experience can mislead us. Our personal experience told us that bloodletting was good, our personal experience told us that astrology was good. Our personal experience tells us all sorts of things. In fact,” he says, peering over the terrace where we’re sitting, “the world looks pretty flat from here.”

Singh’s fierce commitment to science runs deep and strong, it’s what saw him through a harrowing five-year battle with Britain’s antiquated libel law. It all began with a 2008 blog published on The Guardianwebsite in which he criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that chiropractors could treat childhood conditions such as colic and asthma. The organisation promptly responded by suing him for libel under Britain’s famously sympathetic laws.

Singh refused to back down, spending tens of thousands of pounds defending himself in court, but the trial galvanised libel reform campaigners and is said to have contributed significantly to the movement that culminated in the passing of the Defamation Act 2013. He and likeminded colleagues have since set up the Good Thinking Society ‘to encourage curiosity and promote rational thinking’. Looking back at the time, Singh savours his victory: “So many people were being threatened and that was ridiculous. We were writing in public interest, and if we can’t write what we want to write, that means that other people don’t hear what they ought to be hearing.”

When pressed for why he’s willing to go out on a limb, Singh lists his many advantages — a wife, Anita Anand, who is a journalist; a steady income from his books; their ownership of their home; the powerful allies they have been able to call on. But later admits ruefully, “I get so angry, I get so frustrated when I see people being ripped off, people being taken advantage of, when I see people saying things are scientific, when they’re pseudoscientific. Those make me so angry and annoyed that it’s easier for me to do something than to just live with that pent-up aggression.”

It seems an uncharacteristic admission from an otherwise even-tempered man, and so it’s perhaps fortuitous that Singh often finds his attention drawn to more playful subjects. His latest book — The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets — celebrates the iconic American TV show’s history of embedding complex theorems and equations into unlikely places: the blackboard in Bart’s classroom or the scoreboard at Duff Stadium in Springfield. (Singh’s favourite episode, in case you are curious, is ‘Treehouse of Horror VI’.) To write the book he watched endless repeats of the show, quizzed the writing team composed of an astonishing percentage of math geeks and pored over commentaries and behind-the-scenes reports.

By following this and other obsessions, the author, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1950s, is giving his son a very different childhood from his own. In March, the family is looking forward to seeing a full solar eclipse from the Faroe Islands — the last one visible in Europe till 2026. In the meantime at home, he and Hari are discovering science together. They conduct experiments where they put soap in the microwave, sprinkle different substances on the gas oven to see what colours result and test the effect acid has on seeds. Singh says he definitely hasn’t set his hopes on his boy growing up to be a scientist, but instead wants them to just enjoy their time together. “He understands what an experiment is,” he says, explaining that the five-year-old is already a proponent of the scientific method. In the process, Hari is already absorbing some of his father’s most profound convictions, not least of which is seeing is not always believing.

Simon Singh is immediately recognisable in a crowd — his dramatic haircut riffs on a Mohawk and his oval, gold-rimmed glasses glint in the light. One of Britain’s leading science communicators, Singh left Cambridge with a PhD in particle physics and followed that with a stint at CERN. He then joined the BBC as a producer and director working on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon. His documentary about Fermat’s Last Theorem won him a BAFTA award and an Emmy nomination. He is also the author of five books, notably Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, but it’s the title of his fourth book, published in 2008, that prompts me to ask him about his opinion of homeopathy.

Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial showcases Singh’s penchant for speaking his mind, which he seems more than happy to do again. “All the evidence we have tells us that homeopathy doesn’t work, for any condition at all,” he says emphatically. Describing a lecture he gave the day before at an university, he reveals that in an impromptu poll of his audience, 49 per cent said they thought it effective, albeit less effective than modern medicine, and a mere one per cent said it doesn’t work.

Singh isn’t feigning his dismay when he reports that asking for evidence from the crowd only drew anecdotes. “I think it’s really important that people use evidence rather than personal experience. Personal experience is a good starting point but our personal experience can mislead us. Our personal experience told us that bloodletting was good, our personal experience told us that astrology was good. Our personal experience tells us all sorts of things. In fact,” he says, peering over the terrace where we’re sitting, “the world looks pretty flat from here.”

Singh’s fierce commitment to science runs deep and strong, it’s what saw him through a harrowing five-year battle with Britain’s antiquated libel law. It all began with a 2008 blog published on The Guardianwebsite in which he criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that chiropractors could treat childhood conditions such as colic and asthma. The organisation promptly responded by suing him for libel under Britain’s famously sympathetic laws.

Singh refused to back down, spending tens of thousands of pounds defending himself in court, but the trial galvanised libel reform campaigners and is said to have contributed significantly to the movement that culminated in the passing of the Defamation Act 2013. He and likeminded colleagues have since set up the Good Thinking Society ‘to encourage curiosity and promote rational thinking’. Looking back at the time, Singh savours his victory: “So many people were being threatened and that was ridiculous. We were writing in public interest, and if we can’t write what we want to write, that means that other people don’t hear what they ought to be hearing.”

When pressed for why he’s willing to go out on a limb, Singh lists his many advantages — a wife, Anita Anand, who is a journalist; a steady income from his books; their ownership of their home; the powerful allies they have been able to call on. But later admits ruefully, “I get so angry, I get so frustrated when I see people being ripped off, people being taken advantage of, when I see people saying things are scientific, when they’re pseudoscientific. Those make me so angry and annoyed that it’s easier for me to do something than to just live with that pent-up aggression.”

It seems an uncharacteristic admission from an otherwise even-tempered man, and so it’s perhaps fortuitous that Singh often finds his attention drawn to more playful subjects. His latest book — The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets — celebrates the iconic American TV show’s history of embedding complex theorems and equations into unlikely places: the blackboard in Bart’s classroom or the scoreboard at Duff Stadium in Springfield. (Singh’s favourite episode, in case you are curious, is ‘Treehouse of Horror VI’.) To write the book he watched endless repeats of the show, quizzed the writing team composed of an astonishing percentage of math geeks and pored over commentaries and behind-the-scenes reports.

By following this and other obsessions, the author, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1950s, is giving his son a very different childhood from his own. In March, the family is looking forward to seeing a full solar eclipse from the Faroe Islands — the last one visible in Europe till 2026. In the meantime at home, he and Hari are discovering science together. They conduct experiments where they put soap in the microwave, sprinkle different substances on the gas oven to see what colours result and test the effect acid has on seeds. Singh says he definitely hasn’t set his hopes on his boy growing up to be a scientist, but instead wants them to just enjoy their time together. “He understands what an experiment is,” he says, explaining that the five-year-old is already a proponent of the scientific method. In the process, Hari is already absorbing some of his father’s most profound convictions, not least of which is seeing is not always believing.

Simon Singh is immediately recognisable in a crowd — his dramatic haircut riffs on a Mohawk and his oval, gold-rimmed glasses glint in the light. One of Britain’s leading science communicators, Singh left Cambridge with a PhD in particle physics and followed that with a stint at CERN. He then joined the BBC as a producer and director working on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World and Horizon. His documentary about Fermat’s Last Theorem won him a BAFTA award and an Emmy nomination. He is also the author of five books, notably Fermat’s Last Theorem, The Code Book and The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets, but it’s the title of his fourth book, published in 2008, that prompts me to ask him about his opinion of homeopathy.

Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial showcases Singh’s penchant for speaking his mind, which he seems more than happy to do again. “All the evidence we have tells us that homeopathy doesn’t work, for any condition at all,” he says emphatically. Describing a lecture he gave the day before at an university, he reveals that in an impromptu poll of his audience, 49 per cent said they thought it effective, albeit less effective than modern medicine, and a mere one per cent said it doesn’t work.

Singh isn’t feigning his dismay when he reports that asking for evidence from the crowd only drew anecdotes. “I think it’s really important that people use evidence rather than personal experience. Personal experience is a good starting point but our personal experience can mislead us. Our personal experience told us that bloodletting was good, our personal experience told us that astrology was good. Our personal experience tells us all sorts of things. In fact,” he says, peering over the terrace where we’re sitting, “the world looks pretty flat from here.”

Singh’s fierce commitment to science runs deep and strong, it’s what saw him through a harrowing five-year battle with Britain’s antiquated libel law. It all began with a 2008 blog published on The Guardianwebsite in which he criticised the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) for claiming that chiropractors could treat childhood conditions such as colic and asthma. The organisation promptly responded by suing him for libel under Britain’s famously sympathetic laws.

Singh refused to back down, spending tens of thousands of pounds defending himself in court, but the trial galvanised libel reform campaigners and is said to have contributed significantly to the movement that culminated in the passing of the Defamation Act 2013. He and likeminded colleagues have since set up the Good Thinking Society ‘to encourage curiosity and promote rational thinking’. Looking back at the time, Singh savours his victory: “So many people were being threatened and that was ridiculous. We were writing in public interest, and if we can’t write what we want to write, that means that other people don’t hear what they ought to be hearing.”

When pressed for why he’s willing to go out on a limb, Singh lists his many advantages — a wife, Anita Anand, who is a journalist; a steady income from his books; their ownership of their home; the powerful allies they have been able to call on. But later admits ruefully, “I get so angry, I get so frustrated when I see people being ripped off, people being taken advantage of, when I see people saying things are scientific, when they’re pseudoscientific. Those make me so angry and annoyed that it’s easier for me to do something than to just live with that pent-up aggression.”

It seems an uncharacteristic admission from an otherwise even-tempered man, and so it’s perhaps fortuitous that Singh often finds his attention drawn to more playful subjects. His latest book — The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets — celebrates the iconic American TV show’s history of embedding complex theorems and equations into unlikely places: the blackboard in Bart’s classroom or the scoreboard at Duff Stadium in Springfield. (Singh’s favourite episode, in case you are curious, is ‘Treehouse of Horror VI’.) To write the book he watched endless repeats of the show, quizzed the writing team composed of an astonishing percentage of math geeks and pored over commentaries and behind-the-scenes reports.

By following this and other obsessions, the author, whose parents emigrated from India in the 1950s, is giving his son a very different childhood from his own. In March, the family is looking forward to seeing a full solar eclipse from the Faroe Islands — the last one visible in Europe till 2026. In the meantime at home, he and Hari are discovering science together. They conduct experiments where they put soap in the microwave, sprinkle different substances on the gas oven to see what colours result and test the effect acid has on seeds. Singh says he definitely hasn’t set his hopes on his boy growing up to be a scientist, but instead wants them to just enjoy their time together. “He understands what an experiment is,” he says, explaining that the five-year-old is already a proponent of the scientific method. In the process, Hari is already absorbing some of his father’s most profound convictions, not least of which is seeing is not always believing.

Published in The Hindu Businessline on January 30, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Jaipur Literary Festival. 

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