Father Archetypes in Guillermo del Toro’s Films

The original version of this review appeared in BitchFlicks in 2014.

There are patterns in Guillermo del Toro’s dark fairy tales, one of the obvious ones being the ease with which he puts children in harm’s way, some of their trials being so painfully harsh that one can’t help suspecting that he puts them in his stories just to tear at our heartstrings. Thankfully, the stories of childhood loss are balanced with protective Nurturer figures, some women, some men, but I’ll be focussing purely on the men because of the clichéd figure of the female nurturer.

The Father archetype takes the form of king, tyrant, judge, doctor, executioner, devil, god, priest, take your pick, anything that traditional male roles offer. In real life as on reel, if their characters slip into the feminine role of nurturer (which should not be mistaken for saviour) we gush with praise, because he’s done something so contrary to his nature. On the other hand, we hold up the Mother to some very exacting standards, and are less likely to let her deviate from her primary role. While I’ve examined women’s roles in movies (because I felt there was such a dearth of complex ones), it jumped out at me how many men in Guillermo del Toro’s movies fit into archetypal Fatherhood roles, their characters too being complex, sometimes contradictory.

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The Tyrant – Captain Vidal from Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Vidal fits perfectly into the role of Tyrant. Part of Ofelia’s trial is escaping his oppressive clutches and trying to save her mother at the same time. The Tyrant is your model patriarch; as a fascist, he represents the worst of the patriarchy. He values sons over daughters, females are only valued as hosts to create the next generation of tyrants. In fact, the entire movie is ridden with imagery and subtexts of the oppressed feminine battling the militaristic autocracy of the tyrant. While he was willing to allow his wife to die if it allowed his son to live, his Nurturer side, though selective, surfaces when the child is born.

A patriarch deigns to give his name only to those he prizes as legitimate offspring, the age-old system of the patriarchy wields its power as long as its descendants hold its dynastic title, and by being denied the right to perpetuate his name just before his death, The Tyrant is truly defeated.

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The Mage-The Faun in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

The Faun’s role is significant because his character displays the duality of the Mage/Trickster archetype. As an ancient being, with ‘old names that only the wind and the trees can pronounce’, he occupies the noble archetypal roles of the Mage – a Magician, for he is capable of magic; Holy Man for his ancient wisdom; Guide – because he helps Ofelia find her way home; Nurturer–for the advice, comfort and help he gives her when she needs it.

When Ofelia bungles her tasks, however, he shows his ugly side by turning into Tyrant, and finally when the time arrives for the final test, he turns Trickster by posing a moral dilemma to Ofelia: if she allows her brother to be harmed she would gain entry to her father’s kingdom, if she doesn’t she will lose that chance forever.

Ofelia proves her worth and gains access to the fairy kingdom through unintentional sacrifice. In the real world children might be rewarded for their bravery but not for their innocence, and the director sure rubs that in.

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The Alchemist – Trevor Bruttenholm in Hellboy (2004)

The Alchemist can be wizard or scientist, he represents transformation and change. In a negative context, he nurses a destructive ambition to exploit the natural world for profit. Trevor Bruttenholm as the occultist is the positive Father-Nurturer, transforming a demon-child, a monstrous thing born of another dimension, into a force for good. Rasputin on the other hand represents the other side of the Alchemist’s persona, destruction and change for the sake of personal gain.

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The Sage – Dr. Casares in The Devil’s Backbone (2001)

This movie is also set in a militaristic background, the orphan children are again victims of tyrants. Dr. Casares plays a true Nurturer figure in The Devil’s Backbone. As a man of science, he is a rationalist who denies the existence of Santi, the ghost child that tries to warn them of a coming disaster, emphasized by the unexploded bomb in the courtyard of the school.

His impotency might portray him as half a man, since virility is a necessary part of the Patriarchy, as it symbolizes power and regeneration. Casares is anything but a cold rationalist. When he takes a sip of the panacean Devil’s Backbone elixir, at first glance it’s a half-hearted attempt to cure his impotency, but by being teacher, guide and saviour to the fatherless children, he ultimately sacrifices his life while performing the role of Father-Nurturer, a role that requires the strength and willingness to put oneself in harm’s way to give one’s progeny a chance to survive.

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The Knight– Stacker Pentecost in Pacific Rim (2013)

The Knight is a warrior with a code. He fights for justice, for the innocent, for the weak. He is chivalrous and stoic and that contributes to his sexism. The argument between blind obedience and freeing oneself of the Father-Tyrant is explored several times in the movie. The ability of the Knight is limited, he can’t always protect his children, so to avoid becoming the hated archetypal Tyrant, the Knight has to free himself of the glory of his saviour role and acknowledge his limitations. Stacker Pentecost learns to let go, his eventual acknowledgment of Mako’s maturity shows his growth. He does not have to let go of his gallantry however, to “clear a path for the lady,” so she can make her own choice whether to risk her life in the battle.

 

 

 

The juxtaposition of the characters of Giles and Colonel Strickland in The Shape of Water (2017) continues this exploration of father archetypes, Giles representing the peace-loving Sage and Strickland the Tyrant. Giles’s reaction to the Amphibian Man after he mutilates poor Pandora, his cat, is that of a father-nurturer extending his forgiveness and understanding to a disobedient child. Strickland on the other hand, quite obviously, represents the Tyrant, exploiting and punishing the child for smallest slights and perhaps, just for being unacceptably different.

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Short Story – The Kila

A woman stood at the ramparts of the Bhangarh ka Kila. She peered over the walls as if looking for someone, then wept despairingly into her hands.

The crowd picked up by mid-afternoon. She had long given up waving and shouting at them because she had realized that though she could see them, they could not see her.

It was always bright daylight in here, whatever this place was, this invisible place she had entered when the sun had set. It was a dream, though not quite so, it was the only way she could describe it. Her dream-prison would not allow her to leave.

She had been to this country before as a child but had not taken well to the unbearable climate. Back then there had been no air-conditioned cars, the mosquito repellent cream had given her a rash and she had fainted twice from the heat. Short of stuffing an air-conditioner in her backpack, she had carried every possible preventative this time, including anti-biotics and toilet paper.

 “Oh they have toilet paper in India, Grace.”

Beth hadn’t been pleased with the sight of these ridiculous items. She was particularly sentimental about India and possessed the sort of florid openness that annoyed Grace: everything about this country was beautiful, even the homeless person knocking on your shoulder and the complete disregard for personal space. Part of her annoyance was because she had not taken as well as Beth to the dirt and poverty, considering she was the brown one and had prepared for this trip for years.

She didn’t expect the full force of the heat, flies and mosquitoes. One had to watch the ground for poo while dodging the traffic, and the pair of open sandals that she had brought with her weren’t enough to protect her heels from turning cracked and crusty. She didn’t want to admit that she hated everything about it, hoping that there was perhaps something, some incident or experience would make it all worth the discomfort.

It hadn’t been the child prostitutes in Jaipur.

“Please, please Aunty!”

They rubbed their bellies and tapped their mouths with the universal sign for ‘food/eat.’

Beth had taken to them like a lost mother and the day’s program had to be scrapped because the kids had refused to leave them. After every one of them had turned their bags inside out for candy, the day ended with dinner at a ‘footpath’ shack and many tearful hugs and goodbyes. In the morning, everyone’s heads were itching with lice. There was a further delay as someone went to the pharmacy to buy anti-lice shampoo. Beth had wept all night and had to borrow Grace’s Tylenol.

The travel-writer had warned them beforehand not to eat any raw food, but seven of them, except for Laetitia and Grace, spent two days in and out of their hotel bathrooms despite following this rule.

It reminded her that she hadn’t eaten in three days, according to her watch.

Though she did not feel a trace of hunger, the smells and taste of the aloo paratha of her last meal hadn’t entirely faded from her memory. It brought a mental longing for hot, wholesome food to place in her mouth. In that respect, the Indian part of her had acclimatised quiet well, she had discovered that she loved spicy food–after that first bout of diarrhoea she hadn’t had much of a problem.

She pulled herself away from her dreams and back to the heavy nothingness of the Kila.

The ghosts passed by, not acknowledging her, acting as if they were just taking a stroll through a crowded marketplace. Their voices lingered long after, the noises fading and rising in her ears, sending her into a spiral of confusion.

Her habitual politeness kept her from completely breaking down, she was sure she was just lost or someone had slipped her a drug of some sort, but the damned place had no exit, how many ever crumbling stairs and passageways she thought would lead her out.

“Go madam, not safe,” he had said.

“Yes,” she had replied with a patient smile. She hadn’t missed the look of concern on his face. It was already dusk. Dusk was dangerous and this was a lonely place after dark, but had she wanted to, so she had ignored the warning.

Oh she had heard enough about the assaults. Sleazy men surrounded their group at every other train station, propositioning them, even in German and French, but their group leader was an ace at barking expletives and that seemed to keep the worst of them at bay. Laetitia complained that many of the older women were actually flattered by the attention and that made a mess for the next set of female tourists that passed through.

Gracy wondered who in their right mind would be flattered by that sort of attention. They seemed to ignore her for the most part because she was a brown as a coconut, until she opened her mouth and spoke in an accent.

She stuck to the group. No matter how well she blended in, she wasn’t about to do stupid things like wandering off on her own in a lonely area…which she had done. Exactly that. To catch a perfect sunset over the hills, the ancient India that she had actually come here to see, sans the kitsch and the yoga and tan-tie-dye hippies who had effectively ruined the place. It was a gross appropriation of the culture she had at least half-rights to, she told herself, as she thought of the authentic embroidered purses she had bought off a textile dealer in the Rann of Kutch, stuffed into a backpack in her hotel room.

She sat down on the stairs and stared dry-eyed at the ghosts, a pantomime designed to drive her crazy. Two ancient goatherds with spider web wrinkles across their sun-darkened faces passed by, wearing giant turbans, holding crooks that they tapped the stone floor and talking to each other in Marwari. An elephant ambled through their fading forms and walked right through a black, moss-ridden wall and disappeared.

She had actually tried to talk to some of them, on the first day when the sun had set. She had gone down the steps, turned a couple of times, ducking to avoid the bats perched on the narrow archways, and then emerged into bright daylight. No path seemed to lead her out. It was bright, bright-night-day. Early morning came and it was soon teeming with people, but no one heard her, not even the ghosts.

“Oh God!” she had wept, “What’s going on? Please, please can you…? Excuse me, sir….madam..?”

But they had just passed her by, walking into walls like cheap special effects.

She touched the wall, it was hard, because it was supposed to be. Her fingers left an imprint on the moss. She rubbed it away on her shorts, not bothering with a tissue.

She heard giggling behind her.

She turned to see a schoolgirl, may be nine years old, standing behind her and blinking in the sunlight. Round face, dimples, pigtails, wearing a blue sweater and a grey checked skirt and adorable Mary Janes on her feet. Probably North–Eastern. She was sucking at the runny lollipop clutched in one hand.

“Why hello!” Grace exclaimed, forgetting her predicament for a moment, “And what’s your name?”

The child responded to her question with another giggle. Relief flooded her being. Someone was acknowledging her existence.

“English? Angrezi?”

The child nodded solemnly.

“Can you show me the way out?”

The child nodded again.

“Yes? Oh thank God!”

The child giggled again and began to walk towards the exit, then turned around and waited for her to follow. She led her down the stairway with the bats clustered on the aperture, then on down a smaller passageway where she had to crouch to prevent her head from touching the ceiling. It opened to a danker hall lined with windows, the sky grey was cloudy outside the windows as if the weather had changed in the short time they had made it down the stairs. The brush and creepers grew thick outside, crawling over the walls. It was raining.

She followed the kid down the corridor and then up a darkened stairway that she hadn’t seen before.

The child gestured for her to follow and giggled once more, then ran up the stairway, shoes going clackety-clack on the stone steps.

“Wait!” she cried out. She ducked and ran up the crumbling stairs and emerged panting into bright day light, her hair covered with cobwebs, then swung around wildly looking for the little girl.

It was the same place she had left five minutes ago, the sunny afternoon, familiar crowd outside and the dust kicked up in the air.

“Helloooo!” she screamed, running towards the battlements and waving. No one seemed to hear her.

“It’s just noisy, that’s all…” she assured herself.

She placed her hands on an edge and pushed herself up with all her might, then slung a leg over it, scraping her shin on the stone.

“Helloooo!” she called, waving her free arm, “Helloooo!”

Nothing, no one so much as looked at her even though they were so close. A mad idea took hold of her as she gauged the distance it would take for her to  jump.

And then she heard the giggle behind her again.

She turned around slowly, eyes wide with recognition and fury.

The child’s silly smile turn upside down as she backed away warily. Gracy leapt down, landing a foot away from the shiny Mary Janes.

“Was that funny? Did you think that was funny? No wait, wait—I didn’t mean—oh—“

Mary Janes ran away, clackety-clack on the stone floor, right through a wall.

Grace collapsed on the floor, weeping and wailing.

“I’m dead, I’m dead! Oh God!”

Eventually, her tears ran dry and she settled into a sniffling, sans the headache she normally felt after weeping for so long. No pain, no physical pain at least. Her scraped shin didn’t burn. It was just a feeling of utter desolation.

She wailed a bit more. Who cared? She was invisible, no one could see her, and she had chased away the only ghost who could. She wondered whether there was a search party out for her, or whether they had filed a missing person’s report, or had informed her mother.

Mom might take it hard.

Her cousins might just do the right thing and pursue her disappearance for a while. They were incredibly good if incredibly dull middle-class kids who had grown into duller adults, studied hard, gone to good colleges and busted their nuts all the way to good positions. And then they had filled the generational quota of two kids. Gracy was the cousin who hadn’t taken advantage of anything that had been provided her. Her salary was enough to keep her from borrowing from her mom and she had been one of those girls who would rather not go to any parties she’d been invited to, because the embarrassment of being a wallflower was worse than the self-imposed isolation of her room. Due to the distance between the countries she didn’t have to answer the dreaded questions as to why her career graph remained a horizontal line…The three-star hotels she stayed in because she couldn’t afford the five star ones.

Her relatives didn’t bring it up, but she knew they whispered behind her back.

She realized how incredibly dull she might have appeared to them. No career, no husband and no kids.

She didn’t know why she had no ambition. She knew it would be great not to scrimp and save for once, but with every small change in her life she settled into a complacency that she found difficult to shift out of.

She knew technically that she was a failure and had stopped trying to convince herself that it didn’t bother her.

A noise and vibration of a vehicle woke her. A pair of chubby policemen in khakis revved up on one of those loud bikes that chugged up a big cloud of smoke. She rose and clutched her bag to her side, heading for them purposefully. She picked up speed in the last three metres and rammed into them, the fatter policeman taking most of the collision. He steadied his bike and stared at her with a look she recognized well.

“Sorry madam,” he said, clutching her hand and speaking in an oily voice, “Yes madam? Yes? How can I help you?”

She wrung her hand out of his and ran through a doorway. A stone came loose and she slipped and tumbled down the narrow stairs. Her knee bent inward and she rammed her heel into her crotch while thumping her way down the stairs, kicking loose several more stones. The pain was momentary and forgettable.

She landed at the base of the stairs, dazed.

The corridor was lit up and the floor lined with an intricately woven carpet. Men in royal livery, the kind with big moustaches that open doors to five-star hotels, held feathered fans. The blast of trumpets hit her ears as if she were at a wedding.

Even in the dim light of the flickering torches she could see that the stuff was authentic. Real feathers, real Kutchie embroidery, hand stitched angrakha, camel-leather mojris, the belt at his waist holding the curved sword made by artisans who had passed on their craft from father to son for generations. She stared, mesmerized, as the din rose and the Rajput prince stepped through the archway, his black eyes glossy and soft as a colt’s, the eyelashes framing them long and lustrous, his cheekbones cut so magnificently that she was tempted to reach out and draw a finger down to his jaw. She had seen parts of this face, in the cowherds and the priests and the camel drivers. His eyes passed over her, the carpet taking the firm tread of his heel as he made way down the hall with his entourage continuing on until, she knew, they would disappear just like the rest. She sighed as the last trumpet faded, alone again.

For a moment she wondered which one of the girls would have loved this short display as much as she, Laetitia perhaps. Beth generally despised opulence of any sort. Laetitia was German, Kali worshipping, guru deifying relic of the sixties with plenty of stories to tell.

“The masseuse, his name was Baby. Nothing great you know, moustache, woolly hair, chubby. And he asked me, madam, would you like to take off your top? So I thought, what’s going on? He asked again, and I was like okay, let me try this. And I tell you, Grace, I have never ever—“

She covered her face, shaking her head and giggling.

Never, in all my years and all the hundreds of men that I’ve slept with… It’s the heart chakra, ya? It released, like a volcano! Really, if you’re ever in Goa…”

I’ll pass, thought Grace. Why would she want some man’s grubby hands all over her? And all this hooey about the chakras and the nudity reminded her of the absolute disregard tourists had for the locals. At the same time, she envied Laetitia’s ability to enjoy herself so easily. Release was the word she had used. She craved it too, not the limp surrender that allowed her to be swept along with the tide, but an unburdening.

She rose to her feet and stumbled up and out into the sunlight and the familiar sight of the crowd. Clutching her bag to her side and clambering up the ledge again, she shouted hoarsely to the crowd, “I promise, I promise I’ll do something with my life if you just get me out of here!”

Why hadn’t anyone sent a search party, geo-located her, anything, just anything? She began to wail again.

“Oh! Fuck you, cousins! Fuck you Beth, you sanctimonious bitch! Fuck you Laetitia, you stupid hippy!”

She collapsed on to the floor and curled up into ball and wept and shivered.

Nobody actually cared. Her initial fears were just panic, this was living proof.  She was disappearing, becoming non-existent. She remembered the times she had sung along to Joan Baez alone in her room, imagining who would miss her if she died, and who besides her mother would attend her funeral. Stupid, pathetic Grace! No one missed her, no one would search for her!

A pair of boots stopped by her face and one stepped right through her head. The feeling was of dipping one’s head underwater and then out again.

“….Must we build another house, Gerald? How many houses do we need?”

A woman in the grey and blue dress, holding a green parasol, spoke with exasperation to a man in uniform.

“It’s just vulgar!”

“Vulgar? Are you joking, darling? Have you any idea how long and hard I’ve worked for this?”

“Oh!” The woman scoffed and turned way, leaning over the parapet, the ribbons on her bodice fluttering in the breeze.

Gerald, an balding man with a thick greying moustache, dressed in red and black military gear, looked extremely hurt by her dismissal.

“I don’t know what you want, Emma, really,” he said gruffly. “You married me when I was an average soldier and now that you lack for nothing, you choose to complain. Do you want to go backwards?”

“Of course not, Gerald!” exclaimed the woman. “But could we not flash our wealth around like a pair of nouveau riche upstarts?”

“How dare you accuse me of such a thing!”

“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that! It’s just hot here and the children and the disease and the—!”

“Hot? That’s precisely why I’m building a bloody house in Ootacamund!”

“Stop swearing!”

“I’m not swearing!”

He stuck a forefinger inside his collar and pulled at it.

“You know it’s considerably more expensive to maintain ourselves there?” he sputtered. “With your parties and your ayahs and gardens and two bloody carriages!”

“Don’t raise your voice at me, Gerald!”

“I will do as I bloody well please!”

Emma began to weep bitterly into her handkerchief. It didn’t seem to far from any present day relationship. It seemed rather typical, actually. She sat up and watched as they faded, still arguing. She wondered if they had ever made it out of here and what happened to them. The story of Emma and Gerald, a sweeping tale of a disgruntled British couple who couldn’t decide where to splurge their ill-gotten gains. She had definitely dodged a bullet. Most couples fought about money, and it made her glad to be….be….be….

Who was she? The gap in her thoughts hit her forcefully, as if it ran right through her brain. She felt her memory vanishing as quickly as smoke.

“You are…” she said purposefully shoving each word out of her mouth, “You are Grace. Jeyraj. Your. Friends. Call. You. Gracy.”

Her brain was having the toughest time wrapping itself around it: her identity, like it was a tough math problem or a vague memory. She repeated her name, over and over and began to touch her hands to check if she felt real. Her skin felt solid to touch but with little feeling, sparking between her fingers, a dread running through her soul.

“I’m alive. I’m still alive. I’m Gracy. I’m—”

The sky grew dark so suddenly that she trembled a little. What’s that she felt, a chill? Goosebumps?

It began to pour as if hundreds of buckets of water were being emptied from the sky. She rose to her feet, her shoes soaked with cold water. It lapped at the ramparts and poured in through the gaps in the wall. The wall began to crumble. She rose to her feet, water lapping at her ankles, knees wet. The world beyond the crumbling wall of the Kila was a sea of dark green.

She turned and ran inside the nearest doorway available to her.

It was pitch dark. Her shoes were wet. At the bottom of the stairs sat a group of men, blocking her way out of the stairway, a bonfire lit between them. They were sort of men you wouldn’t want to meet if you were walking alone down a dark road. She retreated back into the darkness of the stairway, hoping they hadn’t seen her.

They were passing something between them, a cigarette. No, a syringe.

“I had a dream last night.”

The man with the syringe in one hand grinned as he pierced a forearm already pockmarked with old injection scars. He rolled his eyes upwards and sighed.

“Tell me, bhaiya, was it God again,” asked the man sitting the on opposite side of the bonfire.

“I was outside. I met my mother and sisters. I got out.”

“You got out? It wasn’t a dream then.”

“What do you mean?”

“Because we’re not really here,” said another man, “And if we’re not here then we can be anywhere.”

“You’re delirious again.”

“I’m not. There’s been nothing in that syringe since we’ve been stuck here. So what are you getting high on?”

They were clearly speaking in Hindi, their voices and laughter bouncing off the dappled yellow walls, and she understood every word even though she didn’t know any.

“Do you even remember your name?”

“My name is Ramesh, you’re Pravin.”

“Or am I Ramesh and you Pravin?”

The dreamer sobered briefly, then grinned again, but the existentialist looked angry and upset.

“That fire, does it even warm you?”

“It will if you want it to,” said the guy with the syringe, “Such a place it is. You have to embrace it.”

He reach out and held his hand over the fire, then withdrew it. It smoked briefly and he held it up for them to see.

“It’s the memory of it. Of the pain.”

“Shut up!” shouted the other guy and punched the wall with his fist. It crumbled.

“It doesn’t hurt!” he shouted and jumped to his feet, “Why doesn’t it—-”

His eyes fell on her moccasin clad foot, innocently revealing itself like a furry brown rat in the darkness, and then rose up her bare leg towards her face. Their eyes met, and she saw the same desperation she felt—-that this was not all, that this wasn’t the end. He lunged towards the opening of the stairway, but his friends jumped up and held him back by the arms.

“That woman—”

He pointed towards her.

“She sees me! Ey! Ey! Madam!”

Gracy tripped over backwards and then crawled up the stairs. The last thing she heard was the man shouting, “She sees me! She knows!”

As she ran through the opening back from whence she came, her mind was already preparing itself for a completely different time and weather.

The sun hit her hard. The terrace was bone dry and outside, beyond the wall the dust rose high in the air with clamour of the crowd. There were so many people! More than usual.

As she raised her hand to hide her face form the sun, she caught sight of the transliterated tattoo on her forearm. She couldn’t remember how she had got it, whether it had always been there and why she hadn’t noticed it before.

“Gracy…”

Someone was named Gracy. Her name. Her name as Gracy.

The crowd was swelling, enormous. Sanskrit prayers blared from a loudspeaker on a pole. Women with ghungats covering their heads were holding plates of marigold flowers and burning diyas, singing in shrill voices. It was some sort of festival.

There were white people amongst them, tourists, jostling their way through the crowd and trying not to lose their partners. The sight of them gave her hope for some reason, as if she knew them. She had been one of them. A woman caught her eye, her poofy auburn hair thinner than the last time she had seen it, her face older. She knew that woman.

“Let—Let—Laeticia!” she shrieked without thinking, but the noise of the loudspeaker and the crowd drowned her voice.

The woman stopped and turned about, looking confused.

“It’s me! You know me! Please help!”

Laeticia frowned, shook her head and looked about again.

“It’s me!”

Me who? Who was she? Her mind was empty. She had no past, no future, she existed. The only thing she knew was the urgent feeling of panic. To leave, to get out of here.

“Please help me!” she cried out again.

The woman named Laeticia took an unsure step towards the Kila, as if she could hear her voice, but unsure about where it came from.

“Don’t leave me here! I’m inside! I’m stuck in here! Come find me!”

The crowd surged around the woman, who looked even more confused now, shoving her way towards entrance of the Kila, upsetting a train of women who were holding offerings. The clouds pulsed rapidly in the sky, moving like someone had clicked fast forward on a video. The sun dimmed.

The woman at the ramparts noted the weather changing and her entire being was filled with dread. Her rescuer would never reach her in time.

She lifted her foot over the gap in battlement of the wall, scraping her bare thighs on the sharp stone and pushed herself up. She took a second to gauge the forty-something foot drop. The noise of the crowd merged into a dull babble, and the people began to fade. She stepped off the edge, tripping as a sticky, invisible mass held her with back with ghostly hands. Her body fought back, hurling itself downwards. She felt as if her entire being was being stretched, like she was bungee-jumping on a rope that would pull her back no matter how far she fell.

“NO!” she shrieked, reaching towards the woman, whose eyes widened as she stretched a pair of trembling, blue-veined hands into the bright afternoon sky. “Om Namo Bhagvate Vasudevaya—–” she murmured, as if reaching for a benediction from the gods. Confused worshippers peered at her from under their veils and then at the sky.

“I’m alive, don’t leave me here! Let me live! Let me live!”

Gracy’s shrieks echoed against the walls of the Kila, mixing with the Sanskrit prayers. The women raised their voices under their ghungats and joined the chant– the gori mem was holding a ball of pure divinity, everyone could see it. Their voices rose and the world cracked between the bodies of the living and the dead….

 

The End

 

Hindi words:

Kila – Fort

paratha – unleavened bread

Angrezi – English

Angrakha- Traditional upper garment worn by men in India

Mojris – Handcrafted leather footwear

Bhaiya – Brother

Ghungat – veil

Gori Mem – White lady

Some info on the actual Bhangarh Fort:

Located at the border of the Sariska Tiger Reserve in the Alwar district of Rajasthan, Bhangarh Fort is a 17th-century fort, infamous all over India for being the ‘Most haunted place in India’. Because of the numerous ghostly experiences and happenings in the fort premises, villages have sprung up far away from the fort, due to the fear of what lies within. Even the Archaeological Survey of India or the ASI has forbidden the locals and tourists from entering the fort at night. This completely ruined, haunted fort of Bhangarh does have a very eerie, negative aura to it. Several legends have attested to the paranormal happenings inside the fort.(x)

Story by Rhea Daniel, please do not repost, copy or plagiarise. You can share the link if you’re interested but that’s it.

 

 

 

Could Newt Scamander Be the Neurodivergent Hero We Need?

 

 

*For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s explained very well in this post by Nick Walker.

Disclaimer: I possess zero expertise in the field of psychology, these are thoughts and observations, that’s all.

Let’s rewind a few decades. Nerds are social undesirables. They get bullied by jocks and the other guardians of conventional masculinity. They eventually triumph by using their innate abilities and upturn the conventional masculine hierarchy and are rewarded with a trophy, usually a cheerleader.

The problem with this nerd power fantasy is that it actually does nothing to subvert traditional masculine hierarchy[1]. It also reinforces the notion that to be accepted you have to be at the top of the food chain. That zero to hero fantasy that any social reject can nurse while they dream of justice or revenge is getting stale, because nerds are already some of the richest most powerful men on earth and are worshipped in throngs by the average crowd, so there’s plenty of nerdy male role models to go around.

So let’s leave that Hollywood fantasy behind. Instead, let’s look at this brilliant dissection of Newt Scamander’s ‘fantastic’ masculinity by Pop Culture Detective, explaining just why I was able to watch Fantastic Beasts with more enthusiasm than the Harry Potter movies. While the video does bring up the tropes in Hollywood movie portrayals of masculinity, I have to clarify that in real life, if a man displays the more ‘feminine’ qualities of compassion and talent in conventionally female professions, he is usually rewarded for it, so let’s just stick to Hollywood portrayals for now.

As I watched The Crimes of Grindelwald, I had my own assessment to make of Newt’s behavior. Sure, he’s socially inept, has strong notions of justice, possesses an in-depth knowledge of magical creatures, prefers animal company to human though he does cherish one-to-one human relationships—–but this is when I turned my head a little sideways in the theatre… he can’t seem to make eye contact. There’s a lot of tick marks on this list, but the last one sealed it for me.

Could Newt Scamander, I thought, be an Aspie[2]… and did Eddie Redmayne just brilliantly portray one? Turns out I’m not the first person to notice. (I’d encourage the reader to follow the link to the article because it is far more nuanced than my post.)

Let’s consider that a small group of people at some point in history when the knowledge of people within the autism spectrum was less widespread, were just problematic kids who didn’t fit into the standard school system. We assumed then that humans are a social species and thrive in groups, so social dyslexia was stamped as a disorder. Due to the stigma attached to behavioural problems, they were an embarrassment and their disability needed to be kept hidden, leading to more misconceptions about neurodivergents. (Let’s consider Dr. Hans Asperger himself, who might have sent innocent kids with social disabilities to their doom.) They grew up thinking there’s something wrong with them, some managed to mask their ‘disability’, but many problems persisted and couldn’t seem to be fixed. There’s nothing physically wrong with them, they just fail to perform like neurotypical people for whom the standard educational structure is designed. A few manage to bloom intellectually or make a stamp in their chosen professions in their adult years[3]. Newt Scamander is a good example of one such adult, but he is also an excellent example of a self-assured neurodivergent. While he possesses all the traits that would mark him as a weirdo, he lacks the self-doubt of one who grew up constantly comparing themselves (or being compared to) the neurotypical model. He has long embraced the neuro*a*typical traits that he’s used to aid the ‘fantastic’ masculinity explained so well in Pop Culture Detective’s video.

Also, as mentioned in the article I linked to, it’s refreshing to see a neurodivergent character with the movie revolving, not around their ‘disorder’, but the remarkable contribution their skills and personality can make to the ultimate goal. Without any intention to appear different for the sake of it, neurodivergents are truly wired differently, and while they do need the life skills required to function in a standardised setting, their disorders need to be considered not as disabilities, but as unique skills and contributions coming in from an array of neurodiverse peoples.

And when I say different I mean weird, and when I say weird I mean not in a ‘cool’ way. Shacking up with an Aspie has to be done with serious consideration beforehand. The quirky parts stop being cute after a while, they’re part and parcel of the Aspie’s mind and they’re not going to go away, though they can be worked on: the ‘mask’ can be perfected through practice–but also realizing one’s limitations, drawing strict boundaries and last but not least, occasional isolation to recharge from mental exhaustion (or whatever works). In a search for identity, the Aspie’s personality can be comprised of the things they love  and no more and that’s okay.

Aspies have a tendency to be bullied and become codependent, and I’ve noticed how common it is for people, including women, to be social predators and to feed off of the lack of identity that the Aspie struggles with. An NT can choose to view this as a weakness on part of the Aspie, and after observing NTs all my life the justification wouldn’t surprise me. Some people, regardless of the fact that they are neurodivergent or not, haven’t yet learned to draw boundaries, and the tendency of NTs to feed off social humiliation, says more about them than it does about the neurodivergent. Predators pick the weakest victim, they’re experts at body language, and the lack of ability within the Aspie to recognize facial expressions and social signals can be, depending on their environment, extremely dangerous for them.

So NTs can  help, they can use their amazing normative abilities to sense when an Aspie has reached saturation point—the lack of social propriety or a meltdown usually gives it away—and gently point them in the right direction or stick around and comfort them instead of abandoning them, especially if the condition is known. Since there’s fewer neurodivergents than neurotypicals, it’s a guess that they wouldn’t have to deal with Aspies very often. In supportive environments, Aspies bloom, and they can turn into self-assured Newt Scamanders on their own.

[1]Evil nerds (Dr. Evil or the rejected kid from Incredibles) are a mostly a joke, besides they fall into the Brain Evil, Brawn Good trope.

[2]I’m using the outdated term of ‘Asperger’s’ for convenience, I prefer it to ASD or High Functioning Autism for the specific symptoms. For those interested in Aspie girl traits, please see Professor Tony Attwood’s excellent talk.

[3]Link leads to longish talk by Temple Grandin.

 

 

Thoughts on Kerala’s Ecology, Pre and Post Floods.

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Kerala’s vibrant heritage and ecology failed to impress me as a child. I never liked going there, usually driving down in our cramped Maruti 800, forced to acknowledge the beauty of the Western Ghats or else. My only thoughts were when do we reach, and after we get there, when do we get back home? It was hot, the well water tasted funny and the ancestral cottage was home to every exotic critter: pointy millipedes, great big pregnant spiders, neon caterpillars, vicious red ants, fuzzy moths and house lizards that had fattened up on them.

The middle room, the one that my cousins claimed was haunted because it had once housed a dead body, was occupied by Kalama, the housekeeper who was too old to perform any duties but still shouted instructions from her bed. The electricity would go out at 7 p.m. every day and we would light candles, then we would wait for the whizz and snap of a kamikaze hoard of beetles to come through the windows and hit us like hailstones. The ones that didn’t die underfoot crawled under your shirt and stayed with their legs firmly hooked though the cloth. If you wanted to make sure you were sleeping alone, you had to turn over the sheets to examine them first. If you wanted to wee in the middle of the night, the toad from the garden, who was a regular night time visitor to the bathroom, would croak at you like a melancholic drunk. The red ants made a meal of you even if you were minding your own business. The people shook their heads at my lack of knowledge of my native tongue and well, general lack of, and stared at us everywhere we went like we were prize zoo animals. I was repulsed by Kerala and the lush, uncontrolled natural life that spilt into the sacred confines of the home.

What I didn’t know then, and would have been the least bit impressed by, was that the plump red rice we ate came from our own fields, that our ancestors had been farmers, and that every harvest my grandma would be cooking vats of food for the hired field hands after they’d returned from the fields. I didn’t know that the rabbits I made friends with were destined for curry, that the fried chicken on the table came from our hen coop, and the eggs we ate came from the train of emerald-necked ducks that waddled around happily with their ducklings. Coconuts fell from the sky and so did a variety of ripe mangoes. I also failed to be affected by the fact that we literally cooked food over a fire using coconut husks as fuel—everything my hippie ass would be just fascinated by, had I lived there now.

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Front yard Mangoes.
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Turmeric plant in my Aunt’s backyard

My last couple of visits were not as bad as I’d anticipated. I decided to keep an open mind while visiting a different set of relatives who still lived off the land and were very happy to see me, despite my complete lack of comprehension as to what they were saying. I was thoroughly enchanted by the small home business one of my aunts owned, the industrious use of everything that grew there, the uncle peeling nutmegs in the garden, the cow in the backyard and the compost pit where we threw our leftovers after eating on banana leaves, from the turmeric plant to the pepper creeper to the exotic fruits brought in from South East Asia that grew cheerfully in Kerala weather. This summer I came home with a treasured haul of mangoes, organic turmeric, pulli (‘sour’), organic pepper, and organic coconut oil from the backyards of various aunts and uncles. We had even been convinced to carry some eggs with us, no surprise to the airport authorities, who are used to passengers trying get through all manner of odd things out of the state.

So let’s say, from my personal observation, Keralites have managed to stick to the old ways despite the influx of multinationals and haven’t completely sacrificed their ecology for the sake of progress. The post-flood analysis says differently, and there are several pockets of poisoned groundwater due to the overuse of pesticides that the state has addressed multiple times, but have come to no concrete application despite the attempt to ban 20 known toxic pesticides several years ago.

And just look at what the Malayattoor river turned up after the flood:

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Let’s say a major win was kicking out Cola-Cola, a supreme effort on the part of the tribals of Plachimada, Palakkad being known as the rice bowl of Kerala, in a protracted legal battle that took up to 12 years. If they actually had to pay for the ecological damage that they caused, business wouldn’t be as profitable and cola not so cheap. I speak from the pov of ancient respect for land and staple food sources: the water in the paddy fields, as my dad told me, is never to be touched. They touched it.  Pepsico, hopefully, would be next.

But what about the rest? Let us consider the hydel power project in Athirapally which required the clearance of several hectares of forest but which is neither economically nor ecologically viable. Progress isn’t any good if the eventual costs are too high. We have less than 12 years to act on climate change, and what’s sad is we’ve had the means within our hands for several years.

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The capitalists meanwhile, the uber-rich, the ones who have us convinced that it’s all good, are planning an escape hatch to sky and I’m imagining a scene from A Canticle for Leibowitz, one of my favourite sci-fi novels, or possibly every disaster movie that predicted that a patriarchal hegemony that loves war, thrives on the accumulation of wealth and hates the planet, plans to leave us all behind.

I think about those pesky lizards, the neon caterpillars and melancholic toads thirty years ago that were perhaps the signs of a healthy planet and I think of me, repelled by it yet concerned about its possible, eventual demise, and wonder what’s in store for all of us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Secret Life of Cats

Cats are the queens of the internet, supposedly because in its nascent days the people behind all those web sites were socially inept cat lovers. Another theory goes that we never really stopped worshipping them.

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The internet is playing favourites with a lot of other animals now. My daily feed consists of adorable animal gifs and videos, mostly cats, but also ‘birbs’, dogs and an assortment of zoo animals. I could while away half an hour every day watching Reginald get his first mani-pedi or Lo on guard duty, safe from behind my computer screen.

Discovering that I was a cat person took me a good many years. My neighbours owned seven cats with eyes like emeralds and shiny, black sinewy bodies that would have been apt next to a witch’s cauldron. My parents considered them a nuisance because they turned our balcony into their toilet and the cacophony of demonic mating calls in the middle of the night could make anyone grumble. I secretly petted them and fed them cream from my hand.

I was told that cats weren’t just dirty, they were bad luck, so when I tried to bring one home from an abandoned litter that my friends had found, the answer was no. We had to deal with the demise of the litter at the claws of an adult cat. Turns out in cat world, the law of the jungle prevailed.

I was pretty much done with kittens… or so I thought.

Turn the clock a couple of decades and I rescued my first stray. I was still clueless as to how to look after animals and poor Moon-Moon (named after a popular Tumblr meme) had to deal with being kept at arm’s distance for two months before I found an adoptive family for him.

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Moon-Moon

While the local animal feeders preferred to deal with dogs and ignored the kittens, I managed to find a couple of people who were willing to help: one nice lady who accompanied me to all his x-ray appointments and another nice lady who gave me sample size kitten food, a litter tray and lots of much needed advice. I visited her house to see her prized rescue cats: Sheru, Chutki and Lola Kutty, well-fed beautiful things with shiny coats and glimmering eyes.

Sheru had been a miracle kitten, delivered to Mrs. R a week after the untimely death of her original cat, a white stray to whom she had been very attached and whose demise had left her feeling so depressed that she swore she would never keep another pet. She was a regular animal feeder in the area and the guard on duty called her to say one of the building dogs, Sir Sits-a-Lot (or something, I forgot his name) was hiding something and not allowing anyone to come near him. He did allow Mrs. R however, and between his paws nestled a little ginger male that she was compelled to adopt. She swore Sir Sits-a-Lot had gifted the kitten to her because animals are capable of sensing depression. Chutki came along after that and then it was Lola Kutty, who had been run over by one of Mrs. R’s relatives. After many visits to the doctor, Lola managed to recover completely, her slightly misshapen ribcage the only evidence left of the accident. Mrs. R’s relative was ready to take Lola Kutty back because they felt responsible for her after the accident, but she couldn’t be separated from Sheru because ‘they were in love with each other’.

Cats fall in love?

“Yes!” Mrs. R insisted emphatically.

Lola Kutty was maturing and Sheru had been sterilized, so he had to bear the rage of her frustration—scratches, swipes and bites–because he couldn’t perform. Chutki, meanwhile, was intensely jealous of Lola because she didn’t understand why this new young thing ought to have any hold over her old mate Sheru.

I liked to think cats possessed as dramatic a love life (despite the missing parts) as we humans did and began to sense the tension in the room with the three cats in it. Sheru began to paw at me and Mrs. R told me to leave the room before Lola Kutty went apeshit with jealousy.

So Moon-Moon, by a stroke of luck, got adopted by a lovely Bengali family who lived five minutes away and happened to be looking for a kitten on the internet.

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Flash

 

My second, Flash, was rescued from the gutter where he had been hiding from the neighbourhood strays. When I brought him home I left him in a cardboard box on the stairs, but he meowed so loudly that a local tomcat came to investigate. I opened the door to the stairwell and found Mister Tomcat staring intently at the cardboard box in which I had hidden Flash. After a long staring match between us, he turned around and left, much to my relief. I didn’t think I could take the sight of another mauled kitten.

Flash turned out to be so feral that it was impossible to handle or feed him without two layers of jeans on and pair of thick gloves. He was built for the streets, ferocious little kitty with the sharp little claws that had to be unhooked from one’s flesh. I managed to keep him for three months before he got too big to handle and then, failing to find a family for him, I got him vaccinated and let him go in the fish market, hoping that perhaps he would find his way back to me with a promise that he’d behave himself.

Well none of that happened.

By that time my family had had enough of my animal social-service and luckily, I didn’t come across any more abandoned kittens to prey on my conscience. For a brief time, and because I had plenty of cat food left, I fed a cat name Pookie who turned out to be the most adorable stray I’d ever met. He’d take a bite of his food, return to rub up and meow lovingly against my ankles, then take another mouthful, return and rub up again and so on. He loved a good petting, but I didn’t like the idea of taking him away from the territory he’d gained in a colony overrun with strays. Plus, if I came home with a full grown unneutered male stray I was pretty sure my family would lose its marbles.

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Pookie

After that, I was packed up and ready to move cities when I heard from my vet that a nearby Persian had whelped a litter of furballs. I couldn’t resist and just had to pick one. Timo was welcomed because he was a domestic breed and cute as a button. He is the worst of the kittens I’d dealt with when it comes to potty manners and I had to change his feeding pattern several times before I figured what his delicate inbred constitution required.

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Timo

I heard from Nice Lady No. 1, who had helped me rescue Moon-Moon, that Pookie was, of all things, fostering a male kitten and sharing his food with him.

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Pookie’s foster son

This was unusual for a male cat and just proved that Pookie was angel sent from heaven in cat form. The youngster that he fostered didn’t make it though, and I’d like to think Pookie might have mourned his death just like Mrs. R had done for her beloved kitty.

Drowning in the Wonders and the Was

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Back when we were in our late teens the future hung on a precipice and one’s mental health as well. What we made of ourselves was our primary focus and some handled it better than others. Some were born with silver spoons in their mouths and weren’t as obsessed with success as the middle-class kids. We didn’t have an open relationship with our parents, there were things you just didn’t tell them: failure, harassment, the decisions we made purely ruled by tranference; kids who came from divorced parents, the ones who had lost someone important along the way, the lower middle-class ones with no money to spend, the targets, the narcissists.

Books and music were a substitute for therapy. I still have a tender spot for all the musicians from the 1990’s who saved me but I don’t do that anymore, not so compulsively. If I had a time machine I’d go back and tell myself and everybody else to chill, but I do miss the riot of emotions and the solipsism that came with every indulgent music binge, lyrics from the cassette case clutched in my fingers.

I’m gonna make a mistake/ I’m gonna do it on purpose/ I’m gonna waste my time…

An artwork of a woman with her calves crossed to the viewer, playing with her tresses and the lyrics to Fiona Apple’s Mistake scrawled around her body adorned the door of my room, scandalizing my hostel warden, and when I moved back home, my dad, who asked me to take it off the wall. When she played, I’d have someone begging me to turn her off. Others, mildly interested, pointed out how this woman seemed to have been through every kind of relationship on the planet. The moodiness, the sound of her piano was like tumbling down the stairs of a haunted mansion–her crooning was both sonorous and soft and somehow effortless.

Oh, you creep uplike the clouds/ And you set my soul at ease/ Then you let your love abound/ And you bring me to my knees

Many years after I had gotten over my rock/pop obsessions, she managed to find her way into my Tumblr feed. This post was a quote from an article on her in Spin magazine, 1997:

[…]She’s standing there, staring hard at the photographer, who’s saying, “Give me sexy, seduce me.” I can see why she hates photo shoots.  “There’s no hope for women, there’s no hope for women, there’s no hope for women,”she says during a break, like she’s the white girl rapper speaking out for her homies[…]

The reporter tries hard to fit her into a box. He is, however, perceptive enough to point out how no one is really in control of their own exploitation, or how their sexualized image will be perceived by anyone who sees it. Now that I’m smarter about that sort of thing, the Criminal video resembles an American Apparel ad: Fiona vulnerable on the kitchen sink, Fiona vulnerable inside the closet, Fiona in the middle of motionless teenage bodies in their underwear. Fiona in her underwear in the backseat of a car that reminds you of a flashy paparazzi shot.

She was way too young to be in any sort of control of that image. So what purpose does Criminal serve anyway?

These ideas of mine/ Percolate the mind/ Trickle down the spine/ Swarm the belly, swellin’ to a blaze/ That’s where the pain comes in/ Like a second skeleton/ Tryin’ to fit beneath the skin/ I can’t fit the feelin’s in

Let’s say you’re drawn by the wink of a diamond in a deep dark cave. That’s Criminal. You go closer and you discover the cave is stacked from corner to corner with gold, rubies, emeralds and diamonds. That’s what Tidal was. They did try to package and sell her like a pop star, but the waif-like sexy image faded quickly because her music was so strong. Now I see her, twenty years later, banging away at the piano or dancing with her dog and being the genius weirdo that actually she is.

The Terror – TV Series

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On 19th May 1845 a crew of 129 men set out to brave the icy chill of the Arctic in an attempt to find a shorter sea passage to the orient. The voyage of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror was doomed to fail, as, caught in the ice for years, the journey ended with the remaining crew ridden with lead poisoning and scurvy who eventually, as the marks on the bones found in 1997 suggest, resorted to cannibalism. The location of both wrecks were accurately theorised by Inuit historian Louie Kamookak, who died this March at the age of 58, with information gleaned from oral tales told by his elders about the white men and their ships.

If the mystery of the doomed voyage is not fascinating enough, add a supernatural element and a brilliant cast brought together in the TV series, based on the book by Dan Simmons. I loved it so much I binge-watched the first five episodes on Amazon Prime until I was fog-brained and would have ploughed on had the remaining episodes been available (and when they did arrive I watched them with extra dedication). I googled a few screen shots to put together the fan art in the image above. Jared Harris, whom I remember as one of my favourite characters from Mad Men, brings a layer of charisma to the role of Captain Francis Crozier. I can’t say any of the other actors failed to live up to the their characters either, especially Adam Nagaitis, slinking about as the thoroughly unlikable Mr.Hickey.