Stories of joy, pain and everything in between, of ordinary people overcoming life’s challenges!
Of Swans and Songs
Releasing on 5 August 2019
Some days ago a friend and I were chatting philosophically about our ability to let go. Later, as I pottered about the house, the two catch words flitted in and out of my mind, playing hide and seek as it were, raising questions. What exactly did they mean? Forgoing our claim to who and what we believe is ours? Stop wanting things badly? Freeing our personal spaces of emotions, attachments, habits? Of the way we live? And can we really do that?
This chain of thought actually had its origin in an earlier, prosaic question: what when we grow old? Our physical strength waning, would we still want to or, for that matter, be able to live the way we do now?
Some years ago my husband and I had built a moderately biggish house, and ever since we settled in we have been collecting bits and things, pieces of furniture, curios, paintings, souvenirs from our travels, new pots for the garden and varieties of plants. Walls and spaces change appearance and character, welcoming new additions and new arrangements. And all the while getting stamped with us and our evolving stories.
I look around today and I see all the history and sentiment. That corner table, that brass pot came from my grandmother, that paper-weight used to sit on my father’s table, that stone Vishnu stood with pride in my parents’ house, those copper vessels belonged to my husband’s grandparents, that creeper grew out of a sapling that had first been planted by my mother in her garden, that Diwali lantern had been picked out by our daughter, that delicate glass egret had been her gift to us. We had picked this mosaic frame from our holiday in Jordan, that vase from Beijing, these figurines from Athens, those platters from our year in Sydney. Every single thing has its own story. And I wonder, after us, where will all these witnesses of our lives, our history, our journeys go?
Well, as we know, ancient Indian philosophers defined four stages in a human being’s life. In the first, as a student, he gathers knowledge and skills. In the second, as a householder, he plies his trade and tends to his family. In the third, he prepares to detach himself from all worldly pursuits. Finally, in the fourth, he leaves behind all that he has created and collected, material and abstract, in search of his own creator. And while I believe that I am still in the second, there are times when I think I hear the call of the third. Loud and close.
I remember my mother attending discourses on the Bhagwad Gita and Upanishads, poring over her copy of the Dnyaneshwari much before she was of the age I am now. I remember her parting with some of her sarees, her jewellery, giving this one to this daughter, that to that grandchild. I would look on, noting the changes in my parents’ lives, their hunger for things abating, their own personal collections dwindling, happy with less and less. I recognise and appreciate similar symptoms in my friends and contemporaries. They are handing over charge to their future generation. And I ask myself: am I ready?
There are also times when I have an urge to surrender to practicality, to ease and convenience, to move into a smaller, compact space, one that I can manage simply on my own even with my sulking knees and temperamental back. But something in me resists, tenaciously clinging to this house and all it holds.
So how does one really let go? A favourite teacup chips and breaks and I am morose. A book bought and read long ago is misplaced and I grow restless. An old family recipe is lost and I despair. We invest so much of ourselves in things around us, and they in turn brighten our lives, satisfying some need or other. Parting with them is like parting with old dear friends.
But part we must. Or so they say. We have to let go, of both people and possessions, our family, our friends. Through the relentless cycle of life children are born and the old die. We celebrate, we mourn, we move on.
My daughter holds my hand and learns to step out in the world. I am her mother, teacher and guide. Slowly but surely, she blossoms into a beautiful adult, with a mind of her own, her own opinions, her own tastes, her own view of life. And then she needs me less and less. So I have to school myself to lessen my claims on her time and attention. I have to let go as she has to leave. Her bedroom in our house looks empty and forlorn. Her smiling pictures adorn the niches in the cabinets along the wall and I look at them longingly. Her breakfast cup still catches my eye every morning and I wonder whether she has had her tea. I routinely wash her towels and bed-linen, fluff out the pillows she used to rest her head on, keep her room in readiness. And I cling to the few days she spends with us when she visits, to the sound of her laugh, of her voice humming the latest song, her light step, her loved face.
My parents grow old. I watch them die. I have to let go. I have no choice. But I cling to their memory, the sounds of their voices when they called my name, their furrowed brow reading the newspaper, the pleasure in their eyes when talking with me. I have my father’s old handkerchief, a bottle of the eau de cologne he was partial to, his copies of P.G. Wodehouse, photographs of his bespectacled wise face. My mother’s old sarees, her copies of Kalidas’s oeuvres, her favourite Ikebana vases, the glass she would drink water from and which I still reach for first thing in the morning. My dear sister suddenly leaves her earthly space but her smiling face greets me from my bedside table when I awaken every morning, the echo of her voice still ringing in my ears, as if calling from the faraway land she probably is in now, reaffirming that close bond that was once exclusively ours. All mementoes of them, of their wonderful time on earth, their wonderful stories, their love for me that still endures, magically transcending space and time. Still nurturing me.
People come and go. Relationships form and break. Friendships wax and wane. Life goes on. I treasure every moment, every memory, every association. I treasure all that was then as I do all that is now.
I treasure this house, its walls which have seen us grow as a family, has heard our story, of the turns our lives have taken, of the choices we made. Its rooms where we have loved, laughed, dreamt, wept, argued, fought and reconciled. Its floors where we stood resolute, rooting ourselves in our origins while aspiring for the new. The door that steadfastly shielded us, held us safe from the storms that battered the world outside. My space, where I claim me for myself, for us and ours.
I treasure all my family heirlooms, my family portraits, my father’s wristwatch, my beautiful mother’s beautiful photos, the diary my sister gave me to scribble in, the saree my husband bought me on our first anniversary, the little egret our daughter gifted us, the books and artefacts, pots and pans that relatives and friends have gifted us, the little knick-knacks we have collected. I am in them and they are in me. Leaving them, detaching myself from them is like closing chapters, locking away the memories we made, putting them in boxes never to be opened again, denying that we lived thus. I cannot do that. I do not want to do that.
I cannot and will not let go of all I have gathered, all my people, all my memories, all my experiences of all my yesterdays. I want them with me as I walk into my tomorrows. And, happily, they too choose to stay with me. They don’t let go either.
Today, 10th of July, would have been my mother’s 88th birthday. It’s only befitting that I share pictures of her daughter’s creation, Of Swans and Songs, on this day.
Happy birthday, dearest Ai!
Ever since I started writing I have been questioned off and on about my choice of language, English. There are those among my circles of family, friends and acquaintances who are puzzled as to why a person born and raised in a Maharashtrian family, who has been living in Pune for the past several decades, and who is reasonably capable of articulating her thoughts in Marathi should opt for English when formalising them in print.
I try when I feel patient enough, which is rare, to explain the linguistic particulars of me and myself. I grew up in Jamshedpur where my father worked for Tisco, now known as Tata Steel. I went to school there with my older sisters and many other children from families that hailed from different parts of the country. All working in a town far away from their native origins, all building a cosmopolitan community or a prototype of an integrated nation, all happily melding their respective ethnicities in one melting pot. Our mothers would speak in different native tongues at home and all of us young children searched for the one bridge that could effectively and happily connect us all. Our parents opting to send us to a school that taught in English, that bridge was forged and we were joined.
So that was that. English came home and stayed. But not as a guest. Rather, as one of our own. On par with our own maternal languages. My mother befriended languages as we do people and soon she too was reading Shaw and Cronin and Maugham and Christie and Wodehouse just as we were, and as easily as she still read her Marathi litterateurs and the Sanskrit verses of her favourite Kalidas. While we were and still are fluent in Marathi, Hindi and English, the last soon became our default medium of discourse, of all debates and discussions. At home and outside it.
English still is my language of thought and action and emotion. And thence of writing. Of course, I’ve borrowed words that belong to our own soil and have blossomed under our own sun. I still adhere to calling our ubiquitous aromatic kadhi limba or kari patta by their Marathi or Hindi names, rarely referring to them as curry leaves, and most certainly not when I’m actually tossing them in hot oil. Or, jhootha/ushta is just that and I know no English equivalent that expresses its exact or entire intent. Just as chit, loot, pyjama, bangle, bungalow, veranda and so on were incorporated by the British into their dictionaries, I’ve added my own selection of Hindi and Marathi words and catch phrases to my everyday parlance in English. My own version of fusion.
But I look around me and I find a peculiar paradox.
On the one hand, I see an increasing embracement of English as one of the necessary tools in today’s economically imperative globalisation. With the ongoing technological revolution and its windfall of information access on devices that can fit into our palms, it wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate to say that we hold the world in our hands. But that world doesn’t necessarily speak nor understand the languages we grew at home. The ones we call our mother tongues. Out there we have Chinese (Mandarin, as its most popular variant), Spanish, Arabic, German, French, Russian and Japanese. And, of course, English, with which we are already familiar and have heard spoken in our midst since the past couple of centuries and more. From which words like officer (afsar), hospital (aspatal), captain (kaptaan), bottle (botal) and so on had already been lifted, modified and made our own. And from which today words like enter, search, like, copy, paste, send, share and such similar virtual commands have swiftly slid and seeped into our native tongues and are used indiscriminately even by those who have never stepped into a school and would hardly appreciate the foreign origins of parts of their everyday lexicon.
On the other hand, I also come across a bristling resentment against the very same language. It is seen as an obdurately surviving relic of our unhappy colonial past. A need to refute a language that was once taught to the ruled subjects to produce men that could effectively serve their royal British Majesties. A vestigial emblem that reminds us of of our political enslavement and economic plunder. That we should choose to express ourselves in that language could, according to resurgent nationalists, only indicate an abject but resilient colonised mind-set, a reluctance to right past wrongs, and an apathy in restoring pride and prestige to what was and is home grown. Moreover, they remind us, English was and is essentially elitist, a dividing tool, the separator of the socio-economically and politically powerful classes with high prestige quotients from the masses who are more comfortable expressing themselves in their own respective vernaculars. The still entrenched divider between the rulers and the ruled, perpetuating cruel condescension. A passport to vacuous snobbery. Shame! Times have changed, they remind us. Be Indian. Speak Indian.
But I have never regarded English as un-Indian. On the contrary, it is to me my means of communicating with my Gujarati, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Kashmiri, Bengali, Bihari, Odiya, Malayali friends. All kaleidoscopically Indian. To easily understand and be understood. To share. To bond. To commit. My national integrator. Very early on I could guess who was a Tamilian, who a Bengali, or a Gujarati, or a Punjabi, just by hearing their unique accents, their elongation of certain vowels, their suppression of certain consonants, their distinguishing phonetics, diction, typical mix-ups in syntax, their own respective native tongues stamping their identities with authority on the adopted one. But that just added bags and bags of fabulous flavour. And helped us appropriate what was once foreign as one of our own. Indian English.
And what exactly and uniquely is it to speak indigenous Indian? Tamil? Bangla? Dogri? Marathi? Which variant of Marathi, the one spoken in Mumbai or Nagpur or Kolhapur? Or the one that Pune superciliously believes to be its sole chaste avatar? Our much touted diversity could actually become a stumbling, if not dividing block, if we chose to revert exclusively to the homespun. Hindi, that was once adopted as our national lingua franca has really not made the inroads expected. There are those that disdainfully look down upon it or plainly refuse to speak it, much like the French refuse to speak English, fearing that giving way to the language of the northern plains may swamp their own particular ethnicities. Linguistic roots are a matter of ethnic pride and nobody can or should be expected to surrender that. And the longstanding power tussle that festers beneath the stitched bonhomie of states comes up front and close, because yielding precedence of one’s language to another’s is as susceptible to tensions as relinquishing water from rivers. The lingual divides flare up and subside intermittently, either spontaneously or deliberately, depending on who is looking to catch the eye and ear of the public and therefore looking for an inflammatory grouse to vent.
Then, what to do? How does this paradox get resolved? I can switch easily between Marathi and Hindi and English. But can we all? And is that even enough? How do I gain access to the ideas that could enrich my life but have been expressed in languages beyond the reach of my comprehension? Much is lost in translation, I agree, but that remains my only realistic hope of understanding what, for example, the farmer in that remote corner of the northeast thinks about the rest of his country and countrymen. On the other hand, the local municipal school’s watchman’s daughter who aspires to be a computer scientist was stumped by the standard of English in her text books. Why have not our books been written in my language, she asks in frustration. Really, why haven’t they? Or, for example, why hasn’t that Bible of medicine, Gray’s Anatomy, been translated into all our regional languages yet? Why should a girl who has studied in Marathi all her schooling life suddenly be expected to improve her English skills just so she can pursue her specialised academic interest? But the committed and motivated girl that she is, she buckles down and does, confidently melding her learned English medical jargon with her instinctive Marathi when giving instructions to the nurse assisting her in getting our babies born. Like that only.
And so this conundrum of languages continues and we trundle along speaking bits of this and bits of that. And get by. Make do. Our language jugaad. I chat with my neighbours in Marathi, sing in Hindi and write in English. And when I tell the weaver in distant Kanchipuram who has been modestly making ends meet while always gloriously making Indian that I want a beige coloured saree with a dull gold temple border, I know that, for all our proud espousal of our linguistic roots, he and the traders representing him are familiar with all the key English words. So I don’t need to learn Tamil, nor he Marathi. It’s business, baba! Just click on picture, press like and send. Simple.
THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT
by Elena Ferrante
There sometimes erupts in our midst a voice so powerful that it cannot be ignored. That speaks in words rooted in reason, yet appeals unabashedly and undeniably to emotion. That questions and answers, pleases yet puzzles, appeases then assaults, scorns and shocks. That carries us aboard a roller coaster of discovery and sensation, motoring relentlessly and ruthlessly through the tortuous bends not only in the story that it is narrating but in our own lives as well, revealing us to ourselves. And that continues to echo in our minds long after it has spoken its last.
Elena Ferrante is one such powerful voice of contemporary fiction. A voice that I had been hypnotised by in her Neapolitan series, leading me on to The Days of Abandonment. A comparatively slim offering but just as compellingly hypnotic.
The storyline is threadbare. One April afternoon, Olga, a woman of 38, finds herself suddenly and inexplicably dumped by her husband Mario. A man whom she had loved sincerely, for whom she had put her own career on hold, with whom she had two young children, and who had grown to become the fulcrum of her existence, exits. At first in denial, she persuades herself that this is at most a temporary aberration, or an “absence of sense” as he had occasionally shown in the past, and that he would inevitably return. His wilful duplicity is however revealed when she discovers that a pretty young woman has been in his life for some years. Age supplanted by youth in man’s quest for (carnal) gratification.
Grappling with her changed reality, she is frequently accosted by the memory of the poverella from the neighbourhood where she grew up, the abandoned wife who slides from happy well-being to impoverished desolation and ultimately commits suicide.
The days and months that follow are a painful but failing struggle to retain a semblance of normalcy, to go through all the routine steps of living each day, both for herself and for her children. And then one horridly hot day in August, the day after a bizarre sexual escapade with her cellist neighbour, she finds herself physically and mentally trapped in her apartment. Suffering from a deep derangement, disturbing hallucinations, a spiralling down into a dark abyss of rage, anguish and despair, she battles through and thankfully resurfaces to retrieve her sanity. This newfound mental equilibrium, though precarious, is supported by a clear realisation that she no longer loves her husband, and by a desire to return to the essence of her earlier self by effacing all of his impressions on her personality.
Ferrante places the woman’s psyche under a gigantic microscope, ferreting out with forensic precision its multiple layers, facets and complexities. There were several instances in the first half of the book when I felt like screaming at Olga in frustration. Woman! Get a grip! And a life of your own! But therein lies Ferrante’s genius, ruthlessly exposing the man centric whorls of the protagonist’s life, her pitiable lack of self-esteem, her defining her very raison d’être through her husband, and her abject confusion on desertion, and then delving so deep into her agony that one suspects it to be her own. One needs to have both loved and lost to depict in such elaborately textured and resonant detail all the nuances of that suffering.
The writing is brilliant. Simple language, raw at times in matching Olga’s naked pain and anger, hard-hitting in the portrayal of man-woman relationships, examining the mother and child dynamics without placing motherhood on its customary virtuous pedestal, and rutally explicit in describing sexual episodes. Little actually happens in terms of events or narrative, Mario and his girlfriend hovering mostly on the periphery of her real space though completely swamping her mind and heart. Yet there is a pace in the writing that keeps in step with Olga’s accentuating mental turmoil, shifting gears from an even rhythm in the opening chapters, upping the momentum when she gives in to a maniacal rage on seeing Mario and Carla together, and then hurtling through during the crescendo of her near breakdown.
Yes, there were times when I felt it all to be a relentless onslaught of details, when I (prudishly) squirmed at the sexual imagery, when I wondered, good so far but where exactly is this headed? But this isn’t the usual narrative. Nor is it a new one, this track has been trodden many a time before. No, this is a mirror that shows a woman what she truly is, how and why she thinks and feels the way she does, how and why she submerges her own persona to accommodate another’s, how and why she is confounded when the anchor that she has moored herself with is suddenly wrenched away and she is cast miserably adrift, and what then. The mirror is neither flattering nor sympathetic.
There were so many concepts thrown up, so many expressions and phrases that made me go, Wow!
Cutting oneself to pieces to look for something within, which could, in fact, be a calling card for Ferrante’s writing.
The preference for stability in affections and the threat of sinking through the security net of relationships.
Or, disparagingly describing grief as gaudy.
Or again, reality without rouge.
What is the face, she asks, but a disguise of our living nature?
Or again, her crazed fear that the “odour of motherhood” had ruined her appeal.
Or then the passage where she comments “What a complex foamy mixture a couple is,” assimilating each other’s attributes.
Her brooding that her children would become a “half-caste din”.
The casual remark that she loved the dog Otto but only after his death.
So so many….
Hold that mirror and look if you have the appetite for reality. Reality without rouge.
THE SENSE OF AN ENDING
By Julian Barnes
I remember falling in love with The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes when I’d read it a couple of years ago. I also remember realising as soon as I’d finished, that I needed to read it again (which I did for a book club), slowly, carefully, with more attention to every word, understanding and savouring the ideas that Barnes subtly, almost insidiously, puts across. Ideas and concepts that I had probably let slip by in my hungry pursuit of the narrative.
Well, the narrative is what it is and I’m a firm believer in all possible sorts. Your story can be anything. It’s how you tell it that matters. Convince me. Barnes did. Retired, well-settled and, perhaps, a tad placid Tony Webster receives a letter and a bequest of money from the departed mother of his ex-girlfriend from college, Veronica. And this triggers a chain of memories from his distant youth, each unfolding gradually in its interpretive shades and details as we read on. Memories of the prodigally gifted and deeply reflective Adrian. The somewhat unreadable Veronica and his weekend with her judging family. Her mostly reticent and yet once curiously chatty mother. And, of course, the suicides. The earlier one from school founding the basis of understanding and comparing with the one from later on. All characters, all turns and twists in the plot, all interpretations and re-interpretations of events, chains of causation, utterances, attitudes, expressions, all seem completely plausible. And through the remembering and recounting of them all is Tony’s sympathetic but pragmatic ex-wife, Margaret, listening to his ramblings, shrewdly pinning the source of his agitation and smartly moving on. And Tony continues to sift through his memories trying to fit them coherently with the reality he sees today.
We all know time to be malleable, sometimes treacherously so, as we are forced to learn during moments of huge emotional turmoil. We also know our memory to be fallible at best, patching together the snatches and snippets that filter through time’s subjective sieve, leading us to construe or misconstrue according to our own predispositions. We know that history is written differently by victors and the vanquished, and again by the survivors of any period of turbulence. We know that each experience of every relationship determines not merely the progress over time of that particular relationship, but of all others as well, for we are but the accumulation of all that we have experienced. We know that while we could fantasize about life imitating art, many of us let life simply happen to us, that our innate inertia leads us to choices that render us peaceable and comfortably settled.
But here is a writer that takes all of this and more and pushes the envelope further and further and even further, until we are gasping drenched in the power of his ideation.
Every word, every observation, every analogy, every metaphor is apt. Just so. And they all impel you to question yourself, to cross check against the parallels in your own personal history, in your own sets of predilections and prejudices, in your own dwelling over personal pettiness and thence missing the larger picture, your own shuffling and reshuffling of cards from your memory to come up with a hand that suits you best at that particular moment.
Barnes’ style of writing is deceptively simple, chatty, homely, but it packs in huge punches, especially when you’re not looking. There’s dry humour, recourse to satire, and an ability and willingness to look at people and things, ourselves included, square in the eye. To me, Barnes is like a wise old owl, nestled comfortably and seemingly stoically in his favourite tree, staring into the darkness around and deciphering nuances in the night as only owls can. He peels the darkness that we hide within us and then pierces right through. Illumination.
Well, this slim little book, more novella than novel, is packed with power and will probably prove to be timeless in its appeal.
(Image Source : Google Images)
I also watched Riteish Batra’s film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending. I was extremely sceptical as to how such a reflective and nuanced piece of writing could be faithfully translated to visual celluloid. But I was happily surprised. Batra has, of course, tweaked the storyline, ironed ambiguities into definitives and fleshed in a character more than in the original. Well directed, well scripted and well performed, it was a rewarding experience. Of course, less so than the book. But I’m not really complaining. Batra has impressed with Lunchbox and Our Souls at Night as well. And am happy that we have a young director who handles human sensitivities with such grace. And quiet confidence.
There are days and there are days. Just like that. On some days I feel as if life sucks, and that everything I do turns awry. My best laid plans go kaput and I am either frustrated or angry or disheartened. I might wake up with an uncomfortable foreboding that things are likely to go terribly wrong, and I go to bed with the notion of zilch, of having achieved absolutely nothing or, worse, having ruined some. Yet, mixed with that is a strange relief that I’ve managed to survive. Phew.
It is odd how on such days I don’t even notice the things that are quietly going on as they should, the little parts of my routine that carry on undisturbed, allowing me to focus my energies on the ones that are not. They figure nowhere on my radar.
And then there are those days when I awaken with all the positive energy possible. When everything I do succeeds, and when I attempt something really difficult, pushing my luck just a tad further, that succeeds as well. I don’t see the things that are amiss, the little spokes in my wheel that I toss out with scant ado. I smile and power through them all, going to bed with that feeling of being uniquely blessed and a happy conviction that all’s wonderfully right with my world.
Of course, there are plenty of normal days, the mixed bags of the moderately good and bad. The ones that I live on my own, with no extra help or interference from any real or imaginary supernatural forces, as if I have escaped their attention and hence their benevolent or malign influence altogether.
(Image Source : Pinterest. The Art of Black and White Photography: Techniques for Creating Superb Images in a Digital Workflow Hardcover by Torsten Andreas Hoffmann, 2008)
There are those I know who put it all down to my mood, an innately temperamental disposition. As if it were an entity on and of its own and that I choose to succumb to it instead of harnessing it to my will. That I allow myself to be pulled up to dizzying heights or plummeted to dismal lows like a capricious self-indulgent yoyo, instead of rolling along that even keel that typifies the consistent and serene. That all days, they argue, are essentially alike and that it’s just over-imaginative me that’s reading more into the calendar than there really is, deflecting the source of my own internal flux on to powers that may or may not even exist. Hyper, is their favourite word of accusation.
Spontaneous and passionate is how I would prefer to describe myself. But, really, who is buying? And who am I kidding? Yet, to encapsulate all my hurtling through my highs and lows in that one rogue ambiguous word, mood? Bah!
In fact, my specially bad and good days have been happening ever since I’ve been a child. I remember getting punished for reaching school just a little late, getting stumped by a particularly foul Chemistry test, not finding my voice in my music classes, quarrelling over absolute trivia with my sisters at home, getting hauled up by my parents for something that I hadn’t really done, and so on, a cumulative series of miseries. And then there were superlative Maths tests, followed by rare periods of lucid Chemistry, creating magic in music, finding that book that I had always wanted to read, spending extra time with friends, reaching home atrociously late yet going happily unnoticed and unscathed.
(Image Source : Wikipedia)
I also remember my mother poring over her Panchaang, the Hindu almanac, sifting through the auspicious and inauspicious days and hours. Amavasya, she would shake her head, and we would avoid travelling or wait one more day before trying out or buying something new, as the moon had played truant and we had to await its return to our skies. And, of course, there were those days when our planets, moon and stars were all supposedly well aligned, when we could confidently undertake new ventures and forge new beginnings, for they were destined to succeed. I was, and still am, rather sceptical, and I would, and still do, vehemently hold that any day could be a perfectly good one, and that every day carries the potential of turning out to be a perfectly nasty one, regardless of the moon’s and planets’ itineraries. I neither believe nor disbelieve in astrological charts, I simply prefer to disregard them. I suspect that my good and bad days have their own endogenous logical cycles though unfathomable to me, and will occur regardless of what is or is not foretold by my horoscope, palm lines, tarot cards, numerological configurations, etcetera.
Of course, there are periods of deep anxiety and wretched vulnerability when we may be sorely tempted to decipher that cycle and read beforehand the end of its troughs, containing the dark gloom within a manageable finite, looking ahead towards the predicted upswing and keeping ourselves afloat till then. But would that not then rob me of whatever autonomy I believe I have? Make me a willing puppet of forces unknown to me? Or alternatively, try to second guess everything and sidestep the given trajectory of my life? Is that even possible? Who really knows? I don’t. And I would rather struggle with my frustrating ignorance and swallow my perhaps pitiable abhorrence of uncertainty than lock my belief in another human’s soothsaying prowess. Steer clear of clairvoyants.
So I muddle through my calendar, acknowledging days as superb, horrid or just average, but in retrospect. And while the last category may be what life is mostly made up of in terms of sheer volume, it’s the challenges of the other two that really get me going, make me walk that extra mile, spurring me to explore that mysterious fork down the road. Think. Feel. Create. Live. Giving full vent to my spontaneity and passion. With a clear understanding that the knowledge of the yoyo’s lows can be just as powerful and productive as that of its highs. And bounce between the alternating nadirs of despair and zeniths of bliss with an abandon as uninhibitedly exaggerated as these words may sound. For I know not how to be otherwise.
Whenever the movie The Help surfaces while I’m surfing across TV channels, searching for something to settle on, I find myself watching at least a couple of its scenes before moving on. My first viewing, several years ago, had been against the backdrop of all the noise and hype that usually accompanies awards ceremonies, where it had featured brightly, bagging a few trophies. But my scepticism had been blown away, it was all it had been touted to be, a well-crafted film with a solid subject and story.
(Image Source : Vanity Fair)
The random re-viewings remind me of its narrative and appeal and, unfortunately, of the relevance of its subject even today. Employing people of colour for the drudgery of ones’ domestic chores may be frowned upon and perhaps politically unthinkable today, but there clearly was a time when it was an accepted practice, accepted by both whites as well as blacks. By whites because they were blinded by privilege, an entitled belief in their natural superiority over other races, their legitimising backbone of exploitation. By blacks because they had been oppressed and hence conditioned for centuries through slavery and systematic segregation, because any expression of their dissent had been stifled, even ruthlessly snuffed out over generations, and because otherwise they would have had no bread on their tables. They also accepted not being allowed to sit with the whites, pray in their churches, eat at their tables, relieve themselves in their toilets. And while The Help portrays the animus between the two communities while largely following the eyes and voice of its rebellious white protagonist, it does give sizeable footage to the disgruntled yet helplessly acquiescent black voices, exposing the symptoms of the divide if not its deep-rooted causes and reminding us of the flagrant injustice of it all.
The discrimination and implicit segregation insidiously endures. Even at home. No, we don’t really have blacks as such, we are all different shades of brown. But we do have our own caste hierarchies, and Gandhian philosophy, and Ambedkar’s, Phule’s and many other notable social reformers’ persistent painstaking efforts notwithstanding, we still have obnoxious relics of caste-job correlations. The Annihilation of Caste seems to be but a distant pipe dream.
Yes, we have a kind of ‘upward’ migration, where people of the so-called inferior castes can dream of and realistically aspire to occupying places originally reserved for the upper echelons. Doors, spaces, jobs and homes are now thankfully increasingly open for all, a slow but perceptible dismantling of caste barriers. And, of course, it would be politically incorrect to not do so. In fact, as the original ‘upper’ castes are quick to point out, there is a reverse reservation in place today, a system that is edging them out of dominions that had traditionally and exclusively been theirs.
(Image Source : The Hindu)
But, frankly, I have yet to see Brahmin men and women cleaning toilets in non-Brahmin homes. Every day. For a living. Or toiling without any decent protection in the stiflingly dark and dangerous sewage drains that run under the bellies of towns and cities. Or carrying the euphemistically termed night soil on their heads towards the designated waste disposal dumps. Manual scavenging has, since decades, been declared unacceptable because of its caste quotient and thence illegal, but has nonetheless survived in regions and communities that obdurately and inhumanly look the other way. Watching their videos on the internet fills me with repugnance and shame. And anger.
I remember watching Fandry, a Marathi film made by the director of the hugely popular and successful Sairat. I had been bowled over by its sheer beauty, showing it as it is, sans embellishments, sans melodrama. A simple story simply told. But again in that apparent simplicity were embedded layers and layers of social complexities, those that we have inherited from over centuries ago, and that seem to doggedly and successfully resist change. Here again there were jobs that only Dalits in the village could do. Like snaring pigs that were proving to be a menace. That was their birthright. Theirs alone. So an adolescent Dalit boy who has a crush on his upper-caste schoolmate must go through the angst of being watched by her along with a mocking, jeering village crowd, when he and his family are chasing and entrapping the disgusting but elusive pigs. Heart breaking.
(Image Source : IMDb)
There also comes to mind a documentary, The Children of the Pyre, made a few years ago, that raises similar questions. Simply brilliant with scant playing-up of the inherently and obviously gruesome subject. Getting the stark horror of burning body parts done with and out of the way in the first few frames, we are allowed into the private worlds of the underprivileged children who work to ensure that the fires are well stoked until the bodies burn through. We see their natural innocence jostling with their grotesque reality, a reality that they have inherited by birth. So while a Brahmin chants the mantras and officiates over the funeral ceremony, it is the Dalits who stick around long after the mourners and priests have left, to ensure that the cremation is properly complete, else as one of them warns, the scavenging dogs that prowl the Benaras Ghaats will feast on the remnants of the corpse. One of the many lines that stayed with me as I walked out of the auditorium was, if we are untouchable and can’t share your space, then how are we allowed to burn your bodies in your funerals? So, does the ‘choot-achoot’ distinction melt away on funeral pyres? According to convenience and expedience or because our souls that supposedly outlive our burnt bodies had never been stamped with caste in the first place?
Yes, 12 Years a Slave, The Help, Hidden Figures and many more such well-made films show us the dark side of what society once used to be like in the west. Yes, racism is still an inescapable fact of life there even today. But its face isn’t as absolute as it was a century ago. These films don’t deal with the subjects of today. But the horror that befell the people of colour then, still torments the underprivileged in India today. If The Help were to be adapted and made in India it could be a film about today. Fandry and The Children of the Pyre are about today. I dare not imagine how ghastly it all must have been a hundred years ago. Our inheritance of our caste related socio-cultural history clings on tenaciously and still surrounds the accident of our birth. So while we may mark Labour Day on our holiday calendars with officious fanfare, the underlying idea of the dignity of labour has been reduced to a mere lip serving platitude.
So, going back to the movie The Help, the question poses itself: what about the help we have at home? Where does it come from? Which social strata? Do we treat them on par with us? Do they sit at our tables, on our sofas, use our toilets? Mostly, the answer is a circumspect no. If I ask this question directly there is some squirming, a wish to deflect the issue, or a nervous half-baked response which says “they themselves won’t be comfortable with that”. Or there is a blunt dismissal of their ‘worthiness’ to do so, to be treated on par. And the question is then redirected towards me, “Do you do that? Treat them as complete equals? Sit with them on your sofa to watch TV? Eat your meals with them at your dining table?” Regrettably, the answer is still sometimes an embarrassed no.
I remember stepping out of the Dachau concentration camp when touring around Munich, physically numbed by what I had seen, then revolted and enraged by it all. Beginning with the promise emblazoned along the arch at the gates: Work will set you free. Forced labour from an incarcerated race but sanctimoniously dressed up with a mirage of freedom. I remember thinking that the cruel monstrosity was not the creation of a solitary mad man, but that it involved the active participation of plenty of other mad men and women, and also the tacit complicity of a people who were willing or complacent enough to cover their noses to escape the foul stench from the burning of the socio-politically despised, no longer fruitful and hence redundant dispensable flesh. And I remember feeling guilty of belonging to a human race that revels in inflicting suffering on its own. I felt ashamed that I belonged to a human race which despite its astounding mental and social evolution, just doesn’t do enough, doesn’t step up to protect its own, doesn’t fight for its neighbour’s rights. The right to exist with dignity.
And today I feel the same shame. For I am often but a passive, even blind observer of human indignities and travails in my own backyard, for I am so wrapped up in my social apathy, that it takes films like these to jolt me out of my comfortable stupor, my entrenched unseeability of their apparently ineffaceable untouchability. And I hold myself guilty of not doing enough.
(Image Source: Wikipedia)
Oh! What a twisted and tortured world it must be out there in modern day Kashmir. Where truth and lies overlap and blur and lose themselves in each other. Where everyday breaths are stolen against the everyday din of screaming bullets and pelted stones. Where the lakes freeze over the memories of stifled lives and the flickering hopes of those that yet live. Where blank eyed women queue up in front of their local constabulary or their visiting ministers, holding placards of missing sons and husbands. Where men of God become men of insurgence and violence and where mosques are centres for both prayer and propaganda. Where the echoes of clarions from the plains beneath and beyond rouse men, women and children to their patriotic duty. And where the chinar reaches out higher and higher to the skies, carrying with it tragic cries for help, for shelter, for peace, and for that ephemeral, traitorous or glorious azadi, only to fling them all back unheard on the blood soaked ground beneath.
Hamid is a cinematic ode to this present day Kashmir. A tale of cruel, irredeemable loss. Of a local boat maker, Rehmat, who goes missing one night. Of a father and husband who leaves his boat, his wife and his child suspended in limbo. Of his forlorn wife, Ishrat, who staunchly averts her face from the grim prospect of widowhood, losing herself instead in a frenzied search for her missing husband, forgetting even how to be a mother to her little boy. Of that little boy, Hamid, who telephones Allah at a miraculous configuration of the magical number 786, berates him soundly for his sorry situation, and orders him to return his father, Rehmat, to his rightful home and family. Of that telephone connection that crosses political divides and stirs concern and compassion in the beleaguered and tired CRPF jawan Abhay’s heart, spurring him to play along as Allah, offering sympathy, help and advice to the little boy. And keeping him afloat.
But above all it is a tale of lost innocence. As the seven-year old Hamid steps up to take charge of his life, his mother and their home, he simply squares his shoulders and grows up. He learns his father’s trade and completes the boat that he had been crafting. And then rescues his mother from the abyss of blind denial, bringing her back to life, teaching her how to be his mother again.
The beauty of Kashmir is breathtaking, but we see it as in a mirror cracked, the shards reflecting remnants of what must have gloriously been. The gentle splish-splosh of oars paddling along a peaceful lake, the hum of wood being sawed, the tender thrusting gold green of the chinar, the narrow roads winding through steep mountains and verdant valleys, the firans and the walnut, the light eyed Kashmiris and their peculiar sing-song intonation, the smoke billowing from wooden houses and the snow piling in the distance. The picture postcard of yesteryear now creased with barricades, soiled with gun powder and stamped equally as terrorist and terrorised.
Hamid stole my heart completely. Reshi as the little boy is heartbreakingly endearing. His confusion, his impatience, his stoicism, his humour, his beliefs and his doubts, all come through so cleanly and clearly, it’s hard to believe that this is actually a child acting. Rasika Duggal, whom I’d loved as Manto’s wife in the Nandita Das film, impressed me yet again as his distraught mother. Sumit Kaul makes your heart leap with love and joy in those tender nostalgic scenes between father and son. And Vikas Kumar as the stressed out jawan chafing against the killing of his comrade and aching to go back home to hold his newborn baby girl, makes me want to hold his hand and tell him to just breathe. All such mesmerising, eloquent performances.
But the one who stands above them all is the director, Aijaz Khan, who pins you down to the narrative of the little boy, to his dilemma and his resourcefulness, and his innocent heartwarming conversations with Allah. The strife that tears through the region remains firmly as the backdrop. There are no loyalties or partisan sentiments that are stoked, no jingoistic calls parading as patriotism, and no glorification of the call to azadi either. The canvas is what it is, and the lives painted in the foreground are those of Hamid and his family.
(Image Source: Reuters UK)
The cinematography is vivid, making the lake pristine and pure or dark and secretive, the mountains menacing or friendly, the people opening up or clamping up, all as the mood of the story may be.
The music is haunting, and the Kashmiri song that the father and son sang together, plays on as the credits roll and leaves you ruing the loss of the melodic serenity of that land.
Oh! For what may have been. If only.
Oh! That it may still be. Inshallah!