On Elena Ferrante

Finally, finally, finally. Sat down and wrote about reading Elena Ferrante. This is my first piece for The Open Dosa and I’m thrilled that it’s about Ferrante. My students and I were just dying to talk about her at Meta this year. The following picture is from the day of the panel.

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For Drishti, Ila, and Vismaya. With Louu.

This is my favourite picture from Meta. These girls and I have bonded over many other things – struggling with writing, reading, life, classes, clothes, and shoes. Now that we have Ferrante in common, these peeps will always be a part of me.

Read the piece here.

Gestures

I was 12 when I taught myself to be angry. When I refused to make tea one afternoon, dad picked up his leather belt and whacked my thigh. It left a thin line of red that I sat and traced all through the week. That evening when he took us to Pizza Corner, I sat in a corner and sulked. But I made sure he didn’t see.

Every time after that he asked for tea, I hid in the bathroom and faked menstrual cramps. It was in the bathroom that I learnt to sense his demands and navigate my way out of them. When I wore capris another day, he threw a fit and yelled at ma. Ma drew a blank expression on her face — it was calm. It is the same face that will meet me every time she knows that he is wrong but can’t do anything about – at least not right away. The doing anything about it will happen in private – when she will explain to him why he needs to back off. Like the time she took him to Jain College one day and showed him that he should be grateful that I am wearing capris and not halter necks and minis. That’s what she says but I am sure nobody who went to Jain College wore minis and halter necks. Not then, not now.

When I was 20, I sat with all the men in hall waiting for food. I had decided that the only way to kill patriarchy was by being the men. I didn’t like that every time there was a Pooja at home; the women would sit in the kitchen – even the ones who didn’t have to be there while the men poured into the hall and made loud small talk. Women I had occasionally seen at other poojas would turn up quite early to help in the morning. Their husbands and fathers and brothers would come later in the day- an hour or two before dinner. Two bed sheets would be laid out in the hall and they made a neat L.

That evening, I sat in the corner next to my cousin Prashant. Nobody said anything and this made me very angry. I had practiced a speech that wasn’t needed now. Crueller than that perhaps was the realisation that when the women started bringing in vessel after vessel of food, I didn’t quite feel the way I thought I should/would feel. It wasn’t liberating to sit with the men and eat food while the women served. But I also didn’t want to help the women. This continued to be a very big, very real dilemma for me. I would find myself asking this question to a whole lot of people – in classes, conferences, seminars, and in conversations. But there is no set answer to this question.

Until one day when I read NS’s piece on Feminism. It’s called ‘Feminism is why I don’t hate men’. When I finished reading it, I felt like I had just slapped all the assholes in my life – one giant slap across all their faces in one quick motion. It didn’t matter that I didn’t write it, it didn’t even matter that some of these assholes aren’t even in my life anymore. It was just comforting to know that at some point, she too had the same dilemma that I did.

Sitting in the auditorium at NGMA one day, Z asked me if I often wonder what NS would do in certain situations. I rolled my eyes – ‘all the time’, I said. Over the years, we have come to see NS as a rock star of sorts, somebody who has answers to everything. This may not be fair to her but I want to believe it’s true.

At 27, I have learnt more about feminism from stalking her writing than from any of the theories I was given to read. For somebody who believed aggression to be the only suitable response to assholes, NS’s ability to use humour to piss people off was both unsettling and intimidating. This was an approach that was new and confusing to me. What can be more aggressive than humour? What can the assholes say when you have taken a nice, long fart in their faces?

Over glasses of brandy in K, I pester NV to teach me to become independent like her. She lives alone, walks alone, rides like a maniac, cuts in between heavy vehicles, says no just as easily as she blushes and drinks like a fish. ‘Parents need to be taught how to grow up ya’, she says. In five years if I am anywhere close to living my life like NV, I will be a proud feminist.

The list of women I am trying to catch up with is growing. I don’t know some of these women personally. But I stalk their blogs and read them more than I read anybody else. The women that I do know personally are harder to emulate because I don’t want to freak them out. The child in me will only want to buy bags like theirs and clothes like theirs. In a simpler time, feminism just meant looking like the women I wanted to be like. And maybe now that I can look back without anger, it’s ok to derive inspiration from looking like them.

NM walks like she owns not just her body but everything and everybody around it. ‘Dress well, laugh and let them see you laugh’, says NM.

S and I often talk about Goddesses. The Goddess is an independent woman. She laughs sensually and cuts men down to size with humour and sometimes just a killer look. She isn’t beautiful but she has personality. Every time we deal with a situation using humour, personality, aggression, and style – we call ourselves goddesses. So far, we have never been able to do that.

I have doubted myself far too much in the last couple of months than I have in all my life. I have pondered over meanings and meaning -making, gestures and behaviours and how seriously I should take each of these. I have, at various occasions chided myself for over thinking and then wondered if I have in fact been over thinking. I guess what I am trying to say is that I am tired. I am tired of wanting to become the woman who knows exactly how to deal with assholes. I want to be that woman already.

Girlfriends

Too often I have had girlfriends in my past I couldn’t stand to be around. They were all kinds of dreadful and the only defence I had against them was to be mean to them or ignore them completely. I just wish I had done something I have learnt to do only recently– Laugh and laugh loudly. There were so many of them. I resisted, fought, cried, got insecure, pitied myself and kept doing it repeatedly until they disappeared from my life. Too much was at stake then. I was trying to balance my new found feminism with going gaga over a man I loved whose approval I strongly sought. Things fell apart– I slapped one of his friends because he was a sexist hog and spent months crying over it. Now I look back and laugh because all it took was one tight slap and he was gone from my life.

The cooking girlfriend made my life difficult because she cooked and believed all women should cook. She pampered all the men around, including the love of my life, whom I didn’t mollycoddle usually but when I saw her doing it, I got sucked into the madness and pampered him crazy. Yes, I was insecure. No, I don’t feel stupid now because I am convinced I had to cross all of that to stand here and laugh.

I am a different person now which doesn’t mean I am less insecure about stuff. I just wish I hadn’t spent months fussing over my reactions to each of these shitheads. When I look back at the women I fought with, I miss them. Because minus feminism is important, I had a nice time with them. I was so busy trying to give them gyaan about how they should instead live their lives, I didn’t realise how nicely they would fit into my stories. I could have written then, when my anger was less funny and my writing, forceful and lame yet ambitious in a way it is too scared to be now.

I wish I was more invested in their lives and how they came to think the way they did. Despite all the irritation they harboured for me, which would come out only in moments, they were nice to me in a motherly yet real way. One of these women I am in touch with now is married and has just given birth to a boy. Around 8 months ago over a fury of whats app chats, she told me she didn’t want the baby. She was confused. She thought it was too early but was too scared to tell her husband. The final verdict came from her mother who convinced her that a year into the marriage is not too early to have a baby and that in some cases; it is the perfect time, especially if you have been living abroad.

This got me thinking of the many things I had chosen to ignore over my squabbles with her. Even so, I am not in a very forgiving place right now. I just wonder what she is doing now, at this moment. Feeding the baby or trying to shut it up because it has been howling all day.

Then there was another bored housewife up in arms against the F word, whom I laughed at 3 months ago on Facebook. That was fun but I felt really bad later because she was paavam and struggling with marriage issues, you know like spellings and stuff. Not fun.

I am listening to the soundtrack of Amelie now and wondering whom to think of fondly while I smile shyly. Not that there are many. It’s just that I want love to be perfect only in these moments — when I am listening to a nice song and don’t have to fret over whom to think of. This is the only time where Polygamy = 0, Monogamy =1.

Dedh Ishqiya aur Ek Lihaaf

This year’s general rule has been limited consumption of all that is good. Good food, good movies and good weekends. That explains why after Dedh Ishqiya, I haven’t watched a good Hindi movie this year, well except Queen. Somewhere in the middle of January this year, I caught Dedh Ishqiya at Rex. I hadn’t watched its prequel but that wasn’t a strong enough reservation to not watch the sequel. Real problems like tickets and transportation were the pain and bane. Somehow, a bunch of us made it a full 10 minutes after the movie had begun.

I caught it again on Sony Max today. Apart from rekindling forgotten desires for Huma Qureshi, I finally understood why I liked the movie so much. It’s what they say to each other in the movie. So much like watching a live version of ‘Sex without Love’, only better, because of the language. Launde for guys, and bang in the middle of this Hindiness, Qureshi says, “Yehi toh problem hai tum aaj kal ke laundon mein. Ishq aur sex mein farak nahi karpaate na tum?” Immediately after this, I noticed how he slapped her, pushed her hard on the ground, beat her. I also noticed how neither the women nor the movie spent much time in reacting to this violence. It didn’t need to. For all the ‘junoon-oons-ibadat-sex-mohabbat-ishq’ dialogue between Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi, the women spend very little time talking about love.

That and Chugtai’s Lihaaf scenes. Shah casually slipping intelligent lines to Warsi – ‘Thand lag rahi hai, lihaaf maangle kya’? The yellow backdrop working itself out like the lihaaf behind Naseeruddin shah as he sits tied up and slumping while the two women in front of him become one shadow.

Something very unburdening about not being in love with the opposite sex. It’s like being in love with yourself. I don’t know what that means yet. But maybe it’s finally a relationship where you don’t have to bargain for anything with anybody – either for commitment or for space. A very mellow in-between-ness that isn’t certainly removed from insecurity but strongly grounded in real conflicts.

As the men are left to fend for themselves, the women drive off into the sunset in a red maruti, just like that. Something about strongly encircling their lives without the need for anything male. I missed the Lihaaf bits when I watched it the first two times, because I was too distracted by Arshad Warsi’s brilliant comic exploitation on my jaw. But now that I have watched it again on a more personal level, I feel unburdened every time I remember Huma qureshi’s quizzical expression after Warsi declares love for her or the way she doesn’t fall off track after a night of passionate heterosexual sex.

Here is a link to ‘Lihaaf’ – the short story by Ismat Chugtai –

http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/PDF%20file%20110/9.%20Short%20Story%20-%20Lihaaf%20%5BThe%20Quilt%5D.pdf

And here is a link to Lihaaf – the short film based on Chugtai’s story-

Sonal and some menstruating women

Sonal had to cook rotis for all of them today because she was the only woman at home who wasn’t menstruating. She cursed when the roti landed on the far end of the tava, leaving a thick, black line of coal on her wrist. The hob wasn’t being used today. A choola is normally used this time of the month.

Lunch is a grand affair in the Jain household. Menus are prepared in advance, telephone calls are made to husbands and fathers and brothers at the shop, to check what they wanted for dessert. The choice was between Elaichi Kheer and Shrikhand today. I sat on the slab and watched her as she rolled out more dough for a family of 13 people. 

‘Kai boliyo’ – ‘What did he say?’ asked a grandmother from a passageway that appeared to lead to the bedrooms on the first floor. ‘Kheer’, said Sonal, in a voice that wasn’t too different from her outside voice.

I had stopped wondering why North Indians call chapattis ‘rotis’ when I was distracted by colourful little vials that looked like they had all manner of Rajasthani spices in them. The Jains’ had a very interesting looking kitchen. They had an island slab in the middle of the kitchen, which was where I was sitting, dividing it from the dining area and the rest of the house. The wall was decorated with Mahogany shelves that held sets of white crockery. Above the hob was a red chimney separating lines of cupboards. The cupboards had all manner of interesting things in them. I was tempted to take a peek. I kept looking at a yellow box with a picture of a baby on it. Next to it stood a porcelain bowl, to which Sonal kept going every now and then, to retrieve chunks of rock salt.

Sonal stood next to me chopping beans now.  I looked at her standing all delicately in her white kurta – not her main clothing really. She was donned in a sleeveless white vest and jeans at the movies this morning. She had many white Kurtas that she wore outside of the clothes she wasn’t allowed to wear. It made me proud to be the only one to know what she wore inside.

This was my second visit to the Jains’ house. My first had been interrupted abruptly by Sonal who took one look at my knee length skirt and hurried me out of the door even before her mother could open her mouth properly. As we rode to college, she didn’t offer me either an explanation or a distraction. We usually rode in silence and apparently nothing had happened to change it that morning, three weeks ago.

I don’t know much about her. Except that she doesn’t laugh very much or talk very much and smokes a lot. I grew more and more curious of her with every unanswered question and every distant shrug. That’s why I had planned the day with great delight and I think I could have broken this sea of a woman if it weren’t for half her family who had to menstruate all at once today.

I yawned miserably hoping she would see that I was sleepy and would send me to her room to nap for some time and I could finally see her bedroom and where she slept and where she sat and how her mirror looked.  I yawned again. I may have overdone it this time. She looked at me with her usual bare expression and then went back to cooking. I sighed and thought of other nice Rajasthani things like the smell of her home and the paintings of Rajasthani women that adorned the walls in the dining hall.

‘Who paints?’ I asked.

‘I’, she said and coughed.

It seemed stupid and pointless to say ‘Wow, I didn’t know you painted’ but I wanted to. Something told me she knew I was withholding the urge to shake her and ask her who she was. When we ate, her shadows on the walls of Chinese restaurants looked more animated then her. Soon, it was lunchtime and one by one, all the men arrived. She looked like a carousel balancing hot rotis, easing her way from one male to another at the dining table.  I was still sitting on the slab and watching her, and them. I wasn’t unhappy or uncomfortable about the fact that none of her family members had noticed me, much less asked me to sit for lunch. I was as invisible as her in this house.

After an hour, I was watching Sonal carousel around the ladies sitting on a special white cushion arranged next to the sofa in the hall. The cushion was pulled out more than once every month for menstruating women to sit on during lunch and dinner. All breakfasts on all 5 days were served in bed, perhaps the only luxury that was offered to them all their lives. We ate on the divan and watched reruns of Comedy nights with Kapil. It was funny. Sonal snorted her way through all the moments that I wanted to laugh my ass off on so I paused and reconsidered the jokes.

Clearly, whatever it was that we shared did not last. She stopped coming to college and nobody knew why, nobody cared, actually. It was as though the last couple of months had never happened, as though all that remained were memories of a woman I wish I could have held and touched and knew. Her house was locked up when I went looking for her. The watchman said that they had gone off to Rajasthan. I didn’t miss her but it bothered me that she never thought of me as somebody who could have saved her.

I moved to another city after my graduation and forgot all about Sonal, until one evening 2 years later I saw her for the last time. She was in what seemed to be her wedding saree, a bright red. Face decked up like homes on Diwali; her hair, a giant turban of beads and silk.  If I didn’t know her, I probably would have laughed at her. She was sitting at the bus stop and smoking. She looked the same – distant and rueful. I didn’t stop to say hello or maybe I would have if she hadn’t climbed into the next bus that stopped in front of her, and just like that, in seconds, she was gone.

Plot calling the kettle black

Kitty’s life had just changed 

I am going to write a short story about a girl whose life is just about to change 

The eagle is a majestic bird 

I have never been so happy in my life 

How do people find things to write about on days like these? Do I write about how happy I am to be 25 and free? Do I write about the relationship that was stable and different only moments ago? Do I write about more conversations overheard at Parisian Cafe? Do I write about my fears and how they keep changing?

I am scared about a lot of things. I am scared about life and the faint chance that I may not be able to live it the way I want to. The villains who feature in this plot are my father, the boyfriend and the family, largely.

Plot I

A lot of violence makes itself appear dramatically in these plots. The father becomes obsessed with using his power as the father to control rebellious daughter’s life; tries to get her married to some IAS officer who is, as the plot demands middle aged and supports Modi. Daughter fights. Father fights harder. Slaps her. Daughter escapes. Teary phone calls from grieving mother move her into making swift negotiations. But eventually she moves out and has a life of her own.

Plot II

Daughter has been accepted to some university exchange program and she is on her way to become the greatest writer of her generation. It’s miraculously an all expense paid program. Father doesn’t approve, protests strongly, wants daughter to be married off before she leaves home. Daughter runs. Dad and his goons chase daughter in government cars to the airport. They are late, she escapes. After a year of learning and travelling abroad and becoming hot, daughter returns. Dad and goons wait for her at the airport. Dad yanks her to the ambassador car and slaps her. Some really cool women protection service people come to her rescue and get her to file a restraining order against the father.

She moves out, continues to work where she previously did and all is fine.

A sadder alternative plot on days that I wake up with a bad mood always ends with the father or the boyfriend successfully enslaving her.

Plot III

Daughter rebels for as long as she can and finally gives in. She marries the IAS officer and torture ensues. The forgotten feminist in the daughter emerges and she kicks ass. She divorces the chutiya IAS officer and pursues a PhD abroad.

Plot IV (The scariest of all)

Feminist daughter wakes up one morning to realise her life’s been a farce so far, sees a betraying pointlessness in all her rebellions and decides that she has lived her life crazily enough and wishes to get back ‘on track’, you know, wanting a husband and kids and the whole fucking pack. She marries long term boyfriend – moves in with him and his family. Soon,  she quits her job to become good bahu and bestest mommy. One morning, as she stands by the big black gate, holding hubby’s lunch dabba and waiting for him to get his car out, she sees all the housewives on the street doing the same. Realizing the horror, she throws the dabba on her husband’s car and runs screaming back into the house. She divorces the husband, moves into an apartment and pursues independent life.

Such are the plots in my head, this is how they thicken when I am showering or cleaning my goddamn bathroom. If I were to live in my own head, which is what I do most days, I would be a full zombie by now.