On ‘Pariyerum Perumaal’

PariyerumPerumal_KathirandKaruppi_750There is something Shakespearean about Pariyerum Perumaal—the relentless battle of a young man to carve a space for himself in a world that only wants to drive him into the mud; the slow circling of a killer, coiling around his victims like a python; the villainy conducted in the name of family and honour by men driven to prove their masculinity; and at the centre of it all, a cruel death and an ever-present violence.

In one scene, Perumaal (played by a forever-glaring Kathir), the young Dalit protagonist, carves his name into a desk at the law college he’s studying at, staking his right to be there. The next day, he finds that his name has been scratched out. The movie was excruciating to watch for many reasons, but most of all because it made me uncomfortably aware of how much I take for granted—that I can speak English well, question authority freely, and am encouraged to make my own life choices. I am allowed to exist and claim my place in the world, in a way Perumal simply isn’t. It was a reminder of how strange and small one’s world is—shiny and flaky and fragile, a glass bubble that is entirely cut off from the other reality playing out just outside of it. This is a recurrent theme in the movie: how those around him, though well-meaning, completely fail to understand his experience.

Perhaps what I loved best about this movie was it’s treatment of the romantic arc—while for upper-caste Jo (the female lead, played by Anandhi), her experience of her relationship with Perumaal is one of friendship that blossoms into youthful love, which then leads to disappointment, heartbreak, and reconciliation, for Perumaal, romantic feelings don’t even have the space to exist as he’s engaged in a struggle for survival. It’s as though they are passing through the same physical space, but in different dimensions. While I found Jo remarkably ditzy and clueless, her response to every situation simplistic and childish, perhaps her ham-handed handling of the tensions brewing around her is a commentary on the blindness of well-meaning members of the upper castes who very often completely miss the point. As Perumaal repeats many times in the movie, his relationship with Jo is not about love. It represents everything in the world that is good and beautiful that is denied to him because of his caste, including his bond with his beloved dog, Karrupie. What is a love story for one, is a struggle for survival for another.

What truly makes this film so remarkable is the array of supporting characters. The villain in the movie, an upper caste _thaatha_ (played by Lijeesh) who uses his age, gender, and caste privilege to convince those around him that he’s a genial old man while harbouring and enacting great violence, embodies a deep-seated paranoia handed down without fail from all mothers to daughters—trust no man, no matter how benevolent, and especially those who are benevolent for no reason; stop to help no one, no matter how helpless; keep your head down and carry on because everyone is out to get you. The murderer is not some diabolical, flashy mobster, but a person you’d see on a bus or riding a cycle on a street, an everyday person who is nevertheless capable of great evil in the belief that they’re doing it in service of their god.

The murderer does not work in isolation, but is aided and abetted by the families of the young lovers he murders. Jo’s father and cousin brother find themselves drawn into an increasingly worsening spiral of violence as they react to Perumaal’s refusal to back down—the father driven by ideas of lineage and honor, while the brother by ideas of masculinity and pride. They too are complicit, as much as the hand that actually does the deed. The father (played by Marimuthu) particularly makes for an interesting character—driven by his caste pride on one side, and his morality on the other—he constantly vacillates between the two, his refusal to take a stand doing as much harm as good.

Perumaal is not without his allies. Jo, though remarkably dense, is steadfast and never really sees his caste. (However, it is her clueless behaviour that precipitates much of the violence against Perumaal, and not his own actions.) His best friend, Anand (played by a wonderfully warm and funny Yogi Babu), is the voice of common sense in many scenes, constantly counselling Perumaal to keep his head down and blend in. College professors, completely inept in dealing with Perumaal’s anger, are just regular people trying to do their jobs, their anger more bombastic shouting than any real grudge. But in the end, the only people who truly make a difference in Perumaal’s life is the Dalit headmaster, who gives Perumaal the direction and meaning that has been stripped from him, and his family, who’re the only people who can truly understand his experience.

Though the middle section of the movie relentlessly drives home how the odds have been stacked against Perumaal, the movie ends on a hopeful note. Perumaal, the angry young man, is still frustrated with the slow rate of change, his anger simmering just below the surface now, but you can see that change is already taking place—he sits facing his oppressor at the same table, drinking tea from an identical glass.

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Achievement vs Satisfaction

There’s a very popular narrative regarding achievement I’m seeing pop up across the arts and business fields, particularly in industries with a large self-employed or freelance population. The idea is that happiness is not worth seeking, but rather one should seek meaning through passion, mastery, and achievement. The idea continues: happiness is fleeting, meaning lasts forever. However noble this idea sounds, it can lead rather quickly into a downward spiral. David Burns, one of the founders of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, argues in his book Feeling Good that this belief system stems from capitalism and the Protestant worth ethic, and is designed to make people work harder, accumulate capital, and generally be miserable. In short, “meaning” is an abstract concept and doesn’t add tuppence to your life.

Continue reading “Achievement vs Satisfaction”

Notes on editing tables

Some quick things to keep in mind while editing papers with tables. Will add more when I think of them.

  • Ensure that the inferences in the text match the data in the table
  • Mention the table in the paragraph under which it occurs
  • Make sure it has a title and a source
  • Try to make the source as specific as possible
  • If there are multiple tables, format the titles and sources consistently (same font, bold/italics, etc)
  • Make sure table titles are capitalised consistently
  • Capitalise header row consistently
  • Don’t capitalise the first column
  • If the “total” row or any other row is bold, be consistent across all tables
  • Make sure that the table numbers are formatted correctly (with a full-stop, colon, roman numerals, number order, etc)
  • Make sure all tables are numbered sequentially
  • Make sure all the table borders are formatted consistently across tables
  • Look out for additional notations (asterisk, for example) and check if it has been explained in the notes
  • If there are any abbreviations not mentioned immediately before in the text, explain them in the notes
  • Make sure all the numbers have the same number of decimal points
  • Check if use of comma separators is consistent
  • Right align numbers if possible so that the units line up
  • Glance through the numbers to make sure nothing looks too weird
  • Roughly check if the total adds up
  • If data is unavailable, put in a dash instead of leaving the cell blank
  • If there is a unit, include it in the header row, instead of repeating it in every cell
  • If the numbers are in a particular unit, mention it in the header row
  • Try to be consistent with the lakh-crore system or million-billion system across tables
  • Be consistent with currencies across tables
  • If a notation indicates a significant value, check if the value is indeed significant according to study parameters
  • If one heading is meant for two columns, merge the cells
  • If the data is for specific years, mention it in the title

Does an editor own the text?

I edited my first article for Buzzfeed recently. When we were done—about three drafts later—the article we had crafted only vaguely resembled the one that had been submitted. I had reworked the entire structure, cut out a third, added some extra research, smoothened out the kinks with some extra sentences, and has done my usual heavy line-edit.

When we were done congratulating ourselves, the commissioning editor asked if this is the kind of work I do on all my articles. He was genuinely surprised to hear that academic editing tends to go the other way entirely—you try to evince the maximum effect with minimum intervention, or as a more cynical editor friend once said, “Fix what is wrong, stet what is merely horrible.” The author’s voice is considered all important, and it is the author who holds the ultimate ownership over the work. Or, in other words, if the argument is muddled or structure remains unfixed despite gentle suggestions, on their heads be it.

“Oh,” replied the commissioning editor, “what’s the point of editing then?” If you’re not making a text the best it can be—claiming complete ownership of it, even to the extent of overriding the author—what is the point of editing? Wouldn’t you have to live with the dissatisfaction of having put out sub-par content; or worse, what if your restraint was the reason the message/research/story was not heard? As an expert in the field, is it not your job to interface between the author and the reader, repackaging the author’s ideas if need be, so that it reaches the reader and is received with credibility and attention?

This is a puzzle that has been rolling around in my head for the last year. As an editor a) how much ownership do you have over a work?; and b) to whom do you owe the greatest allegiance: the text or the author? How far do you compromise on one to satisfy the other? When I posed this question to an editors’ forum a year ago, I received a somewhat predictable answer: it’s all about the context.

But it is easy to reach for the historical context to explain why things are the way they are, but it is harder to justify whether they should be. It is a well-known fact that the academic publishing industry is rather bizarre. We’ve ended up in a place where a handful of publishers distribute an ever-increasing volume of academic content that authors are incentivised to produce. (For context: Elsevier published about 3% of the 1.2 million submissions it received in 2015.) But unlike Buzzfeed that can count on an audience of a few thousand for even its less popular content, a significant share of academic content goes entirely unrecognised, except for on the authors’ CVs. According to Elsevier, 400,000 new articles were published in its journals in 2015, which were viewed by 12 million readers; this means each article had a grand readership of 30 viewers. However, the total readership number itself—12 million—is significant, considering that Elsevier also estimates that there are only about 7.8 million active researchers in the world, as of 2015. The company’s success comes not from its ability to generate a readership for each article, but from its ability to create a broad base of knowledge—a “long tail”—that will cater to two thousand tiny readerships simultaneously. In addition, a significant share of the company’s revenue goes towards deciding what not to publish, on maintaining its quality by processing nearly a million papers every year that will never be published in its journals or generate direct revenue. So this entire system can work only if the cost per article is kept as minimal possible, so that it does not outweigh the revenue generated by the few papers (in comparison) that are actually published. Academic publishers neatly duck this problem by not paying authors and peer reviewers, outsourcing project management to India and other emerging markets, subcontracting editing, and charging universities exorbitant fees, all of which they have been criticised for.

Since the entire industry operates on volume, publishers entice vendors to take on increased volumes at a lower rate, and the same argument is used further down the chain, when project managers coax editors to do faster and lighter edits for lower pay in exchange for higher volume. (Most “packagers” to whom copy-editing is outsourced in India pay freelance editors between INR 30-60 per 250-300 words.) All of this is couched within a rhetoric of author ownership: that the author is a specialist and, therefore, it would be unwise to meddle with her content too much. This is, of course, true to an extent: copy-editors are often not subject-matter experts of the material they are editing, and with limited budgets, training is often inadequate. Also, in an effort to reduce costs, the editing process is usually divided between two or three editors, all of whom are short of time and budget, and none of whom feel any real ownership of the text. Publishers reiterate this lack of ownership either by stating that it is the peer reviewer’s burden to identify content errors and not that of the editor, or that there is no time/budget for back-and-forth with the author, so it is better to make minimal edits rather than misrepresent their meaning without permission. Therefore, for everyone’s sake, it is assumed that it is better for a copy-editor to not make any changes that cannot be justified using a rulebook and to ignore bad structuring or an inelegant sentence, rather than introduce a more grievous error by making a stupid edit. And since these publishers are so large and hire such a massive workforce across the world, they have set the pace for the rest of the industry, which follows suit (though there are notable exceptions: hello, EPW!)

While the why is clear, the should is a lot more fuzzy. What is lost when an editor feels no ownership over a text? Have we become complicit in the growth of jargon-ese, in making knowledge less accessible, though our explicit role is to do the exact opposite? This is a line of thought that really worries me, and not just in a broad “what is our role in society” way, but because I believe the more rule-bound we make our work and the more we purge it of creativity, the more we’re paving the way for automation to replace us and participating in our own extinction.

But perhaps the best response to the question came from a writer friend who posed a counter-question: “What’s the point of writing, otherwise?” This was a perspective that I had not considered before. Why write if someone is going to change it entirely and make the work their own? The trouble is, I believe, the worlds of academia and literature see this is in entirely different ways. Particularly in STEM, I’m increasingly hearing the argument that in an industry where everything is changing so fast, it’s more important to get the information out as fast as possible, even if it’s grammatically incorrect. Indeed, if it can be understood by other readers, is the punctuation important at all?

Meaning is increasingly being seen as separable from language, especially in fields that rely heavily on data and visuals. But when the volume of content generated is so high, where does one draw the line? When does an article pass from “good enough” to “not credible”, or worse, “unintelligible”? We’re seeing more and more research from India and other countries where English is not spoken as a first language; very often, good language does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with good research. In this case, the author’s inability to explain her ideas in English is not a sign of her incompetence or laziness, but the work of centuries of colonialism that gave one language an unfair advantage over the others. In this situation, what point is there in doing a “light edit” and saying the responsibility lies with the author? Does the author truly “own” the language of the paper in that sense? And what sense does this system make, that simultaneously says that language is not important, but also penalises authors for it? Perhaps this is why the “author ownership” argument seems a bit bogus me—too often it is used to shift blame to the author, someone whose work a publisher profits from, while simultaneously refusing to take responsibility for the work.

But cynicism and a frustration with academic publishing aside, I’ve seen some truly skilled editors fix the most horrendously written texts by merely rearranging the author’s words. It’s as though they know exactly what word the author was reaching for—or the sentence structure they had misremembered and had reproduced in garbled form—and produce that in the edit. Minimum intervention for a truly maximum effect, but not out of laziness, a lack of knowledge, or budget constraints, but true magic-bordering skill. But if they were to do more than that—rewrite a paragraph, let alone rejig the structure or add a section on their own—that wouldn’t really be called editing. It would be considered “rewriting” or “doctoring”, an entirely different playing field in itself, with its own rules.

Perhaps this is where the trick lies: to claim ownership of a work, but to also remember that this is a shared ownership. It is not one’s own to do what one will, but a collaboration. In an interview, a famous trade editor admitted ruefully that the hardest thing for an editor to learn is that the author has limitations. One cannot make an author write a particular book if she does not have the capacity to do so. So too with academic editing. If the author lacks the knowledge or inclination to rework the structure, add extra research, or demystify the jargon, is it really the editor’s responsibility to do so on their behalf? Because, really, isn’t that their part of the bargain? The researcher brings her knowledge of the subject to the table, the editor brings her expertise on language, structure, and academic conventions. (Of course, there’s also another kind of gifted editor who will point out that a particular technology was invented in 1983 and the story is set in 1979, or that roads are the wrong colour for that part of the country, but that’s an even rarer breed, I think.) Can one replace the other?

It is only when there is a genuine collaboration between author and editor that the real magic happens, when two experts in different fields can come together to create good work. But if it is not an equal collaboration—if one of the two parties is lacking in skill or commitment—the other cannot be held accountable. The author cannot be held responsible for a shoddy editing job, nor can the editor replace the author.

As the old saying goes: it’s all about the context, really.

On the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie

Dear friend, can I borrow you for a few moments to geek out about the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie? I just finished reading “Two Years, Eight Months, and Twenty-Eight Nights” and I am in awe of his mastery. In this version of 1001 nights, the barrier between the land of the jinn and our twenty-first century world collapses, and the dark jinn invade our world, causing havoc. But this is also the story of a battle between two philosophers—Ghazali, who believes that God is supreme, and Ibn Rushd, who tries to reconcile faith and reason. And yet, this is also a story of not-belonging, or of longing for a home or a love that no longer has a place for one. Only Rushdie can so perfectly fold these stories into each other: the novel unravels revealing stories within stories, a loss here balanced by a victory there, each new revelation sliding into place perfectly, and then, when he is finally finished, voila! there it stands, the most beautiful creation, balancing perfectly on the finest point. There’s a great pleasure in reading a book crafted by a master that opens up like Russian nesting dolls—every subsequent layer is equally beautiful, and each encloses the next just so, so you never quite forget where you began, though you may forget how you got here. Even now, I find myself grasping for the names of characters, elaborate back stories fading into the mist—when the air is filled with lightning and there is a jinn in a flying urn threating to destroy the world, does it really matter whose uncle left whom a fortune? Continue reading “On the magical genius that is Salman Rushdie”

On Reading Donna Tartt’s ‘Goldfinch’

The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

Donna Tart’s Goldfinch is a novel that is crafted like a classic bildungsroman—a coming of age story where a young man’s life is thrown off its set path by a freak incident, and in a new and unfamiliar world filled with crime and opulence, he grows into his own. And like a classic nineteenth-century novel, the book sweeps over large portions of time, skipping several years between chapters, but suddenly zooming into the details of a necklace, the finish on an antique table, a long conversation with a returned friend. The pacing is often frustrating—these sudden jumps in time followed by long periods of languishing—and the protagonist, with his brooding amorality, is far from likeable.

I am not the most loyal reader, and I often abandon books midway to pick up others, or I read a few pages on a lazy Sunday morning and put the book back on a teetering pile to never glance at those pages again. What then was it about this book that kept bringing me back—that at the end of some other entirely different book, I would wonder what indeed had happened to Theodore Decker? And like picking up a conversation with an old friend, I would open the book again at the postcard which I used as a bookmark, and away we would go. A hundred pages later, rather predictably, I would abandon the protagonist in his latest drug haze and wander away only to return months later. Continue reading “On Reading Donna Tartt’s ‘Goldfinch’”

This Is Not A Sad Poem

Why does everything have to happen

right now? Why was the report due yesterday

why is there no time better than now,

why not do things tomorrow, why do

them at all? What if I don’t want to

seize the day or eat the bigger frog,

what if I do miss the bus and opportunity

never again knocks? Let the bubble

break, I’m not going to let it go,

what does it matter I only live

once, I just don’t want to

do it — I’ll live in another moment

and make hay when the sun isn’t shining;

I’ll hold on to the past and forget to speak

in a church wedding. Who cares if this the bird in hand

or the other in the bush, I don’t want to smell

the roses or forever hold my peace; I want to bar some holds

and what if I just want to fold?