Tag Archives: fiction

Column: Why we must start a culture of spoiler-shaming

got1

Like in Game Of Thrones, nobody’s innocent.

We’ve all casually — or intentionally — let out details about what someone else may not have seen or read. Sometimes it’s purely inadvertent, like when an intern once called me up, found out I was watching Top Gun and asked “ooh, is Goose dead yet?,” understandable given I was watching an all-time blockbuster decades after it had come out — but a memory that stings, to this day. Sometimes it’s vindictive, like the popcorn-seller a friend’s father dismissed while watching Jewel Thief back in the 70s, only to have him snarl “Ashok Kumar villain hai” during the interval and ruin said gent’s evening. Sometimes it’s friendly, the desperate urge to high-five over a shocking twist. Sometimes, in the zeal to describe or recommend a film, we reviewers go too far and tell more than we ought — this is a tricky line, indeed — and I remember a daft film where, since nothing made sense at all, I took matters into my own hands and started the review off by revealing the preposterous climax in the hope that readers could perhaps watch the film with the end in mind and, as I explain here, find their own puzzle-solving entertainment.

The fact is that spoilers happen and that we’ve all been guilty — to varying degree — of spilling what we shouldn’t. Or, at the very least, what we ought to be more careful with.

Our behavorial approach to spoilers is outdated. It’s convenient to endorse a caveat emptor method — Let The One Who Watches Later Beware — to say it’s your fault you didn’t watch the baskeball game live and now you’ve exiled yourself to a day without newspapers and sports channels with your fingers crossed, but the fact is that in these over-communicated times, the Sensory Deprivator 5000 just doesn’t cut it anymore.

It’s time we started being more considerate.

Exactly one week ago, on the Game Of Thrones season finale, shocking things happened and people died. That could well be a summary for every episode of the show based on George RR Martin’s sprawling fantasy series where leading characters routinely get poleaxed, but this time — more than any other television event I remember — the Internet went freakin’ nuts. This whole week, there have been spoilers everywhere. Twitter, Facebook statuses, even bloody newspaper headlines, all going out of their way to give away huge revelations. Everyone appeared out out to punish the viewer who has a day-job and thus didn’t watch the episode at the crack of dawn Monday morning (the first telecast in India happens simultaneous with HBO in the US, at 6:30 AM our time) and all those who thought they could savour a finale on their own time.

No way. Current social networking behaviour seems to be “You didn’t watch it? Boo hoo, now let me rub these GIFs into your face.” But must we all be such Ramsay Boltons? Is that who we’ve become?

There is something deeply obnoxious about the need to crow about being the first person to have watched a show, seen a film, read a bestseller. We all have the Internet, we all watch stuff, and seeing it first does not equip us with any greater understanding; the head-start isn’t a real head-start. This, by itself, isn’t as problematic, despite the hollow bragging: the main issue lies with the sadistic way we flaunt our latest discoveries instead of letting people discover them on their own.

A television drama is not a sports broadcast and the plot of a movie isn’t a news story; there is just no need to fire up our keyboards to report on fiction as if it’s freshly emerging fact. 

There is a lot to be learnt from readers of George RR Martin’s novel, who experienced the death we are now gasping about in the books four years ago, and yet they have been considerate enough to not rain on our parade but instead let us stagger for ourselves, when our time came.

Do I want to write about the finale, throw in my theories, discuss it with my geekdom? Sure. But I need to write it somewhere two-clicks away where you can come choose to read me — after a clickbaity “You Won’t Believe Which Character Didn’t Really Die” headline, if need be — and I cannot, should not, must not thrust a spoiler in your face, without warning, like an unsolicited dick pic.

And yes, that dick pic — the worst kind of online trollery and harassment — is what I compare the thoughtless spoiler to. As a critic who has routinely been threatened and abused and harassed online for eleven years — before Facebook opened its doors and well before Twitter existed — I know what I’m talking about here. Blankly and ignorantly hurled abuse can hurt, can disconcert, can depress — but it can (and must) also be shrugged off. The worst thing about spoilers is that they come from within the little social substreams we’ve curated for ourselves, they come from ‘our people,’ and — really — do we want to believe that even the little corners of the Internet we make our own are just as obnoxious as say, the commentators on YouTube videos?

There are no rules about this sort of thing. I can file a complaint about a nameless troll harassing me on Twitter, but I can’t call the cops on a smartass making a weak pun about a character’s death and ruining the fact that I was saving up a half-dozen episodes to bingewatch over a weekend. It’s not a crime to give away a spoiler, but it is a rotten thing to do, and I feel we need to police ourselves. Let’s not just groan and move on to the next book or show, in the hopes that this time we’ll watch and read faster. We shouldn’t have to.

Why can’t we all realise that while we really want to discuss something really cool/shocking/unbelievable with someone, there are other people in the room? This is the Internet. There are always other people in the room. Share what you want to on a forum, behind spoiler-warnings, with those who choose to read it and react and have awesome conversations with you about it. Don’t screw up someone else’s day just because you can.

This, then, is a clarion call to start a culture of spoiler-shaming.

We can start by identifying the jerks who are flippantly giving things away, calling them out in public, telling them they’re being jerks — honestly, most of them (us) don’t even know. Often it’s just eagerness to share, to make a worthy GIF, to take our thoughts to the world, to be witty about something that matters to many of us.

But this is when the rest of us need to tap a person — or, indeed, a publication — on the shoulder, and tell them they need to take a post down or delete a tweet or change a headline. We need to inform them that they need to, at the very least, word their thoughts differently because it stings to have something you enjoy ruined for you, and social media does so en masse. A headline or a tweet or a status update should not, in a civil world, be allowed to contain a spoiler. It’s plain rude.

Therefore, I apologise for any such indiscretions on my part in the past, and promise to be far more careful in the future. Like I said, this sickening boorishness might not be intentional, but that is no reason to let it continue unchecked. The rulebook is in our hands, and I say we start by calling out the offenders — and letting them know how offensive they are.

~

First published Rediff, June 22, 2015

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A toast to Terry Pratchett, who christened me a dragon

tp2

Terry Pratchett once named a dragon after me. But that’s not important. (I mean it is, of course. It’s massively cool and thrilling — THRILLING, even — and something I’ll brag about forever. But that’s not what’s important right this second.)

Right now we have to deal with heartbreak, as Sir Terry Pratchett has left us. It is, all things considered, a fortunate thing, for he wanted very much to pop off before that pesky Alzheimer’s got too devastating, and it’s only fair that he left while still working instead of after, say, pottering into silence. There is also the comforting fact that he rather liked Death — his Discworld novels featured Death as a quietly charismatic cat-loving hero with a capital-letter baritone — and the two are probably getting on famously right now.
Yet to us it hurts. It hurts rather like being hit with a piano flung by a hairy librarian, in fact, just to come to grips with the fact that we will have no new Pratchett books every year. Speaking with the gluttonous selfishness of a reader, this feels like a devastating, soul-crushing blow.

What he has left us with, however, is dizzyingly special: a whole new world, one that makes ours infinitely better.
~

A flat planet held by four elephants perched atop of a giant turtle, his Discworld is fantastical, surely, filled with magic and politics and warriors and witches and policemen, but like the world we live in, there is so much more to it than meets the eye. Pratchett’s universe is deliciously imperfect, with crowded cities and racism and bureaucracy and outdated social hierarchy, his novels led by the unlikeliest heroes and heroines. Pratchett takes turns zooming in on some under-explored corner of his very round (but decidedly unflat) disc, and reveals an entire worldview, shrewdly sprinkling just enough magic to make his satire gleam blindingly bright. There have been many fictional universes of note across fantasy literature but — despite Pratchett being labelled a ‘comic fantasist,’ inexplicably considered a lesser thing — nothing comes close to the richness and real-world relevance of Discworld.

Not JRR Tolkien, not George RR Martin, not Douglas Adams, not CS Lewis, not JK Rowling, not Frank Baum, and not even the great HP Lovecraft. Each achieved mastery over a particular fantasy genre, but Pratchett’s work mocked the very idea of literary limitations, going from police procedural in one book to Christmas adventure in the next, from vampires to football, from the birth of motion pictures to the examining of religion itself. The 40 novels that make up the Discworld — the 41st is scheduled for this September — are books that irresistibly transcend any genre convention, with appeal for all. Pratchett’s work belongs, then, closer to the Wodehouse shelf than to the one creaking beneath the Tolkien tomes; these are cunningly clever books everyone can be enchanted by — which makes him, in many ways, the best fantasy writer of them all.

Pratchett is also a dashed clever novelist, filling his books to the brim with stunning insight. Verbal, philosophical and observational gems are scattered about generously, willy-nilly. Picking up any volume at random (and feel free to take up the challenge and make your day instantly sunnier) allows a reader to metamorphose into a delirious treasure-seeker panning for gold.

I have in my lap Unseen Academicals, for example, his hilarious take on football, and every other line is a work of gorgeousness. “Juliet didn’t exactly wash dishes, she gave them a light baptism.” “She read the way a cat eats; furtively, daring anyone to notice.” “Ponder Stibbons had once got one hundred percent in a Prescience Exam by getting there the previous day.” “She had some sort of …relationship with Vetinari. Everyone knew it, and that was all everyone knew. A dot dot dot relationship. One of those. And nobody had been able to join the dots.” “If you flash spells around like there’s no tomorrow, there’s a good chance that there won’t be.” It’s all magnificence and wizardry, and in a Pratchett book it is everywhere you look. Heck, he even turned the caps-lock key into an overwhelming special effect.

Magic.

~
tp1When I met Terry a dozen years ago at the University of Warwick in 2003, he had just given a terrific talk about creating universes. I hadn’t read any of his work at the time, but he wore a most excellent hat in the picture accompanying his author bio, plus I’d heard many a rave, and, inspired thus by topic and speaker, I went along and proceeded to spend the lecture scribbling and giggling.

Here, from an old blogpost, is what happened next:

Terry Pratchett was a fascinating speaker — warm, funny, self-deprecatory and most insightful — and after the talk, I went up to him, he made a pleasant blue-hair jibe [I had blue hair at the time] (which I won’t repeat, don’t bother asking) and I asked if I could buy him a beer and chat a bit. He was most amiable, so we trotted off to the Graduate bar and talked about writing and fantasy.

It was a fun chat, highlighted, I feel in hindsight, by his recommending Good Omens as a good starting point for his work “because I’m sure at least Neil Gaiman’s bits won’t be completely dreadful.” For the record, he also called the first half-dozen Discworld books absolute rubbish — but that could have been because he was, at the time, telling me to go ahead and write a few bad books to find my stride as a writer.

“Write, write, write,” I remember Pratchett saying. “You can always disown the truly dreadful stuff later.” It was a pleasant and greatly inspiring evening, following which I swallowed down his books by the dozen and kicked myself in the shins for getting to the party that late. That, I assumed, was that.

It was much later that a pretty, raven-eyed Pratchett-fanatic gaspingly pointed me to Thud! — his 2005 volume — which happened to feature several dragons but only one, “a young dragon with floppy ears and an expression of mildly concussed good humour”, to be precise, is referred to by name, and his name is Raja.

See? Magic.

~

There is, as a matter of fact, such a preponderance of magical goodness in Pratchett’s work that perhaps Death — which has, I wager, led to him trading tales with Jerome K Jerome up there, or something similarly spectacular — is merely Terry’s way of telling us to halt. To refrain from serially inhaling the magic without pause, but instead to appreciate the world — both the Disc one and this one — and to stop and smell the sublime. With no more new Terry Pratchett books to catch up with, he’s left us a wonderland we can slowly sift through, learn from and be awed by.

What greater legacy could there be?

Oh, and there’s the moral to the story. The moral in the story about my becoming a dragon — and I’m certain this is the reason I found immortal mention — is that one should always buy a writer a beer.

So long, Terry Pratchett, sultan of the streams of story. Cheers, and do PLEASE keep watching over us.

~

First published Rediff, March 13, 2015

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The nineteenth floor.

‘Paanch rupya.’ The dent in the kevlar was roughly the size and shape of a five rupee coin. It was also nearly a crack, and placed where it was, two inches inches below the heart, would be fatal if not for the added fortifications to the chest and rib areas. Even if the shell didn’t find its way past the midnight-shaded armor, the risk of trauma injury was too high. Through the frayed latex, he rubbed the almost-hole thoughtfully with a gloved finger while considering the plan of attack.
He was on the nineteenth floor, by the window. He couldn’t help looking outside, at the sea and the monument beside it. It would have been a lovely night, but for the stench of gunpowder and corpses, and a fog of despair cloaking the Gateway. He took a step inside, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. His boot immediately stepped into something wet, a macabre puddle splashing viscous fluid onto steel-toe.
He fished out a candle-sized stick and snapped it roughly with his teeth, even as his left hand undid a length of cord. The bright neon-yellow glow from the stick instantly illuminated the scene: first his teeth, and then the room. The first body lay two feet away from him, next to the writing desk, whole except for the head. He closed his eyes for a second. Not in silent prayer, but, his fingers flicking a button near his temple, to turn up the infra-red. There’s only that much neon can do, he thought wryly, tucking the yellow stick into his belt, alongside the oval buckle.
He stepped forward towards the bed and looked at the other body. Female, in her fifties. In the red tint of the eyewear, the neon of the stick and the pool of crimson she was lying in, her cotton nightgown was the colour of death: noone could tell what it originally used to be. Powder blue, he sighed, rebuking himself for watching all that sensationalist news coverage. ‘War,’ the bastards on TV called it, giving these nutjobs such a spotlight. An empty Kalashnikov shell clattered near his feet. And there were footsteps outside the door.
He stopped cold, as did the steps. The corridor was dark as tar, and in one swift jerk of the wrist, the yellow tube flew out of the window like a boomerang, right into the jaws of the ravenous city. There hadn’t been any firing for several minutes, making the prevailing silence a dominatingly still one. Convinced he heard a safety-catch being taken off, he crouched to the ground. His breathing slowed, as, he imagined, did his potential assailant’s. He let the cord slip out of his hand as he inched towards the door, slow as the blood seeping through the carpet. He reached near the door and calculated possible scenarios, all featuring the element of surprise. His hand crawled up to the doorknob, gloved fingers wrapping around the brass, when suddenly the door was thrown open, and his left hand pinned to the wall.
His right hand moved quickly towards a switchblade in the belt, but a boot caught him in the jaw. He looked up into the shaking nozzle of a machine gun held by a sweating young Sikh in black-cat outfit. He let out a sigh of relief even as the commando swallowed hard, looking in all the world like he’d seen a phantasm. ‘Who.. Who…?’ The lad stammered as he smiled and reassured him. ‘Yes. And I’m on your side,’ he said in broken Hindi. Usually it took more convincing, but here the soldier withdrew the gun and yanked him to his feet, giving him an awed once-over. He stopped the youngster from apologising, and shook his hand as the still-shaken boy briefed him on the current situation.
They stood in the corridor and waited. There had been sounds in the room five doors down from them, he was told. He handed the soldier his blades, explaining how much more effective than a gun they prove to be, in a compromised-space situation. Young Hartej listened intently, before suddenly glaring and hushing him. There was a crack behind him and he whirled around, barely in time to see a silhouette appear in the corridor unleashing white sparks of machinegun fire in their direction.
His jaw dislocated as soon as he hit the ground. The crack would have been loud in the silence instants ago, but was muted by the current crossfire. He’d been shoved roughly to the ground by Hartej, who was now literally on top of him, covering him on all fours as the firing got louder. He could feel the young man’s shoulder recoil shudderingly even as his arm stayed unwaveringly steady. The infra-red let him see another silhouette pop out behind the first one which was now falling, and he tried to warn the soldier. It was unnecessary, the youngster having already tossed a grenade with flawless accuracy.
It was over. He had never felt more helpless in combat. Or more relieved. Save for the crackle of walkie-talkies confirming the final target, silence resumed. Only this time, it didn’t feel like the air was holding its breath, but like it had finally exhaled.
He rubbed his paining chin as he stood alongside Hartej at the same nineteenth floor window. The soldier tried to stop him, but, ignoring many protestations, he stripped off his belt, gloves and the rest of his blades and handed them to the boy. Then he insisted young Hartej sign a slip of paper. ‘A reciept?’ the confused Sikh asked. ‘An autograph,’ he smiled. He told him that there would surely be more blood, and more sickening, cowardly attacks on the innocent, but that he wouldn’t be needed around. ‘You guys have it covered.’
He jumped even as Hartej gasped. He leaped from the nineteenth floor, eagerly ogling the magnificent, impossible city as he plummeted past the windows. He waited a good ten floors before unfolding his titanium-dipped fiber wings and gliding to a shadowy landing. Gotham needed him, India didn’t. And he really must come back in civvies sometime.

‘Paanch rupya.’

The dent in the kevlar was roughly the size and shape of a five rupee coin. It was also nearly a crack, and placed where it was, two inches inches below the heart, would be fatal if not for the added fortifications to the chest and rib areas. Even if the shell didn’t find its way past the midnight-shaded armor, the risk of trauma injury was too high. Through the frayed latex, he rubbed the almost-hole thoughtfully with a gloved finger while considering the plan of attack.

He was on the nineteenth floor, by the window. He couldn’t help looking outside, at the sea and the monument beside it. It would have been a lovely night, but for the stench of gunpowder and corpses, and a fog of despair cloaking the Gateway. He took a step inside, his eyes adjusting to the darkness. His boot immediately stepped into something wet, a macabre puddle splashing viscous fluid onto steel-toe.

He fished out a candle-sized stick and snapped it roughly with his teeth, even as his left hand undid a length of cord. The bright neon-yellow glow from the stick instantly illuminated the scene: first his teeth, and then the room. The first body lay two feet away from him, next to the writing desk, whole except for the head. He closed his eyes for a second. Not in silent prayer, but, his fingers flicking a button near his temple, to turn up the infra-red. There’s only that much neon can do, he thought wryly, tucking the yellow stick into his belt, alongside the oval buckle.

He stepped forward towards the bed and looked at the other body. Female, in her fifties. In the red tint of the eyewear, the neon of the stick and the pool of crimson she was lying in, her cotton nightgown was the colour of death: noone could tell what it originally used to be. Powder blue, he sighed, rebuking himself for watching all that sensationalist news coverage. ‘War,’ the bastards on TV called it, giving these nutjobs such a spotlight. An empty Kalashnikov shell clattered near his feet. And there were footsteps outside the door.

He stopped cold, as did the steps. The corridor was dark as tar, and in one swift jerk of the wrist, the yellow tube flew out of the window like a boomerang, right into the jaws of the ravenous city. There hadn’t been any firing for several minutes, making the prevailing silence a dominatingly still one. Convinced he heard a safety-catch being taken off, he crouched to the ground. His breathing slowed, as, he imagined, did his potential assailant’s. He let the cord slip out of his hand as he inched towards the door, slow as the blood seeping through the carpet. He reached near the door and calculated possible scenarios, all featuring the element of surprise. His hand crawled up to the doorknob, gloved fingers wrapping around the brass, when suddenly the door was thrown open, and his left hand pinned to the wall.

His right hand moved quickly towards a switchblade in the belt, but a boot caught him in the jaw. He looked up into the shaking nozzle of a machine gun held by a sweating young Sikh in black-cat outfit. He let out a sigh of relief even as the commando swallowed hard, looking in all the world like he’d seen a phantasm. ‘Who.. Who…?’ The lad stammered as he smiled and reassured him. ‘Yes. And I’m on your side,’ he said in broken Hindi. Usually it took more convincing, but here the soldier withdrew the gun and yanked him to his feet, giving him an awed once-over. He stopped the youngster from apologising, and shook his hand as the still-shaken boy briefed him on the current situation.

They stood in the corridor and waited. There had been sounds in the room five doors down from them, he was told. He handed the soldier his blades, explaining how much more effective than a gun they prove to be, in a compromised-space situation. Young Hartej listened intently, before suddenly glaring and hushing him. There was a crack behind him and he whirled around, barely in time to see a silhouette appear in the corridor unleashing white sparks of machinegun fire in their direction.

His jaw dislocated as soon as he hit the ground. The crack would have been loud in the silence instants ago, but was muted by the current crossfire. He’d been shoved roughly to the ground by Hartej, who was now literally on top of him, covering him on all fours as the firing got louder. He could feel the young man’s shoulder recoil shudderingly even as his arm stayed unwaveringly steady. The infra-red let him see another silhouette pop out behind the first one which was now falling, and he tried to warn the soldier. It was unnecessary, the youngster having already tossed a grenade with flawless accuracy.

It was over. He had never felt more helpless in combat. Or more relieved. Save for the crackle of walkie-talkies confirming the final target, silence resumed. Only this time, it didn’t feel like the air was holding its breath, but like it had finally exhaled.

He rubbed his paining chin as he stood alongside Hartej at the same nineteenth floor window. The soldier tried to stop him, but, ignoring many protestations, he stripped off his belt, gloves and the rest of his blades and handed them to the boy. Then he insisted young Hartej sign a slip of paper. ‘A reciept?’ the confused Sikh asked. ‘An autograph,’ he smiled. He told him that there would surely be more blood, and more sickening, cowardly attacks on the innocent, but that he wouldn’t be needed around. ‘You guys have it covered.’

He jumped even as Hartej gasped. He leaped from the nineteenth floor, eagerly ogling the magnificent, impossible city as he plummeted past the windows. He waited a good ten floors before unfolding his titanium-dipped fiber wings and gliding to a shadowy landing. Gotham needed him, India didn’t. And he really must come back in civvies sometime.

~

Unpublished. Written November 29, 2008.

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