My latest book is The One Who Swam With The Fishes.

"A mesmerizing account of the well-known story of Matsyagandha ... and her transformation from fisherman’s daughter to Satyavati, Santanu’s royal consort and the Mother/Progenitor of the Kuru clan." - Hindustan Times

"Themes of fate, morality and power overlay a subtle and essential feminism to make this lyrical book a must-read. If this is Madhavan’s first book in the Girls from the Mahabharata series, there is much to look forward to in the months to come." - Open Magazine

"A gleeful dollop of Blytonian magic ... Reddy Madhavan is also able to tackle some fairly sensitive subjects such as identity, the love of and karmic ties with parents, adoption, the first sexual encounter, loneliness, and my favourite, feminist rage." - Scroll

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29 October 2019

The One Where I Realise I Was Always A Phoebe

How many times do you think you've watched Friends? For me, I don't even think I have a number. Friends wasn't so much watched as it was absorbed by osmosis. It was a late night TV thing, back when I still had cable TV. Somewhere in the world, there's always a Friends re-run on, and somewhere in the world, someone is watching it. I dressed to Friends, letting the actors be my background noise, letting the jokes roll over me as I read a book on the sofa. Sometimes I'd pause what else I was doing, look up and truly laugh--laugh again at the same bit that I might have not found funny the last time I saw it, but this time, the humour landed perfectly. I think that's the nice thing about a show you watch over and over again, you keep finding new things to delight in. It's why I re-read so much. Apart from being comforted that the words are exactly the same no matter what my life looks like at the moment, it's also discovery again and again. A sentence that may not have held your interest the last time, emerges now as the thing that the whole chapter rests on. Similarly with Friends, each time I watch it, I have a different reaction.

In Super Woke Twenty Nineteen, there are a lot of things that Friends gets wrong. The gay jokes. The trans jokes. I mean, the first time Chandler Bing takes Monica to see his father in the cabaret, and he's like, "Theeeeere's Daddy!" I laughed. The third time, I waited for the joke, still enjoying it. The final time, two years ago, I cringed as the laugh track exploded. Monica's fat phase was funny too, until it wasn't. Obviously she has internalised her lack of control over food and now it shows in her obsessive cleaning, her need to stay on top of everything. Remember when she decides to train Chandler and goes running every day with him? How is Monica a good chef who still eats absolutely nothing? As the show goes on, Monica gets thinner and shriller, by the end of it, Courtney Cox's face is all eyes, she's baking Phoebe's grandmother's cookie recipe and she is the only one in her kitchen who is not affected by the smell. She makes jam and hands it out. She is always cooking for her friends, always feeding them, and never eating anything herself. Ross makes jokes about how much she used to eat, and Monica shrivels away from that version of herself.
Now before you tell me none of the female Friends ate anything, that's not true. Rachel is frequently seen eating: remember the time her and Chandler find the cheesecake that's been mistakenly delivered to their door? She eats a sandwich with Joey (and gets yelled at for wasting food), she describes Emma's birthday cake with love, like someone who's actually eaten it. (Sidebar: Monica too talks about this birthday cake, how she used to hitchhike in school to get to their frosting. What happened to you, Monica? Did you lose your joy along with your appetite?) Phoebe frequently went on about being vegetarian, so I assume she ate something--remember when she was pregnant and wanted to eat meat and kept making herself massive sandwiches? So Phoebe ate. And Rachel ate. And Monica cooked, and presided over her kitchen, never stopping to feed herself at all. (You can tell me if I'm wrong, which I'm sure you will!)

ROSS. Now Ross is both the worst of the Friends and also, sometimes, the only Friend that makes any sense. You see Chandler (my personal favourite, everyone's personal favourite) the Jim Halpert of Friends, the one who mocks them along with us. If Friends was a break-the-fourth-wall sort of show, Chandler would be turning to the camera all the time and making faces at us like Fleabag. But Ross is a cipher. He's friends with everyone because of his sister, and his college roommate. The Friends, we understand, have no other friends. (Except for Phoebe, and in a world where PHOEBE is the Friend most like your regular friends, you know times have changed.) But Ross doesn't seem to like his gang so much. He has a science-y job he loves and wants to talk about and they're always shutting him down. He tries to take risks in his personal life, they shut him down. At the same time, he is an A1 Doucheface. Being extra possessive with Rachel? The whole thing with his male nanny? Being upset that his son was playing with a Barbie? EMILY? Come on, Ross. Why do we like you again?
Joey, however, was the anti-Ross. Reassuringly stupid, and SO stupid that you wondered how his friends made conversation with him, let alone how he got all the smart and sexy women to want to be with him. Joey starts out skeezy, but the writers of the show course-corrected and soon he was just a human Cookie Monster. All Joey talks about is food and sex, and after watching him with jam all over his face or spouting nonsense words in lieu of French, you wonder how anyone could find him sexy at all. He became sexless, even when that ill-advised Rachel hook-up storyline happened, you thought, not oh my god but kinda ew. Like kissing your much younger brother. However, Joey was not afraid to be himself, unlike Ross. He embraced his stuffed penguin and his jam face and his sheer dumbness which makes him much more appealing to watch than Ross, fucking it up over and over again.

And now to Phoebe, who I think should have gotten her own spinoff, not Joey ffs. Phoebe with the evil twin and the exciting back-story and the random skills she just pulled out of her pocket. Phoebe who was essentially the most feminist Friend. She did not give a shit about societal rules. Want to have a baby for your brother? Go right ahead. Want to sing your songs for a whole coffee shop even though your voice isn't conventionally pretty? YAS QUEEN. Phoebe was a "you do you" before "you do you" was a thing. (Sidebar: please watch the amazing Lisa Kudrow in the amazing HBO show The Comeback if you haven't already.) When Friends was first popular in India, not 25 years ago, but closer to 15, when it became a byword because of all the re-runs and so on, obviously my friends and I would try and divide up the female Friends. Everyone was mostly a Monica. Rachel was harder to categorize, though now in retrospect, I see that we were definitely more Rachel-skewed than Monica, though no one wanted to admit it. And I? I was always a Phoebe "because you're so vague sometimes." I used to be a little insulted. Monica and Rachel were more my idea of what women should be, so beautiful, so perfect, so conventional. But now I wear my Phoebe badge with pride.

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