Dissecting Arranged Marriage, Part III: Female Bonding, Marianismo and Millennial Cat Ladies

For someone who had to play social charades to fit in at a young age, I was an outsider who was allowed inside access because I was considered harmless. I found that applying logic to human interactions was a failing endeavour. Knowing I had no influence, I kept my observations to myself.

A group of girls from another school joined our girl’s school in 11th grade—perfectly nice girls by my opinion. After sizing them up my friend singled out one of them and told me she was a ‘slut’. Why? Because a boy in their friend group had confirmed it. Really? Why? I asked and she tried to convince me by repeating exactly the same thing, because he had said so. The word of a male teenager was above everyone else’s.  I’m pretty sure they knew the power in ordaining select women and girls with that word, because of personal vendetta or just because they could.

It was always an enigma to me as to why women put so much energy into managing their reputations, but after a couple of decades I began to notice a pattern. This phenomenon repeated itself across college, work and in the dating arena. A girl was a slut if a male confirmed it and other girls, some with active sex lives, clucked the ‘s’ word or implied it until she felt it in every other gaze, gesture and word. I realised it had a lot do with status, and status was handed out according to looks, class and behaviour, so the word was not always dispensed according to the crime—it also depended on who (supposedly) committed it.

Girlhood friendships come in two forms, one a bonding experience of mutual mothering and comfort, the other in the form of status-oriented ranking. The ones that fit into conventional beauty standards (read—light skin and thin/ish) and/or come from a wealthy background usually got to be at the top. In school, academic or athletic excellence usually seals the deal, but aren’t absolutely necessary. These girls might be dominant females but they weren’t necessarily domineering and are usually nice because they have little reason to be insecure or mean. Sometimes they don’t even have to try. The downside–unless you’re spoken for—is having a long line of fools falling for you.

Domineering females come in a variety of shades. They usually don’t fit into conventional beauty standards and join the pecking order by attaching themselves to people with power or status, in the hope that they will rise in rank. The domineering female has strong submissive traits, she is either raised to respect the power hierarchy or accepts it on her own. She keeps other females in their place through bullying or manipulation and places the dominant class, i.e., boys and men, above them all. That in itself is a kind of power. Even if she didn’t begin as a domineering-submissive, she eventually learns to become one. The non-domineering subgroup to which the rest belong usually keep other women and girls in their place through the gentle art of persuasion and faux empathy.

Herein lie your patriarchal mothers, mother-in-laws, your brothel madams, female OBGYNs, your Mother Superiors and your headmistresses and teachers, your female bosses, in varying levels of domineering/gentle. It doesn’t matter, the net is spread far and wide and through all manner of class, caste, race and religion. They hand out purity badges and are generally unsympathetic of gendered trauma resulting from sexual assault, forced marriage or forced motherhood, or persuade you to get used it. Patriarchal machinery wouldn’t run so smoothly without their valuable contribution.

It doesn’t sit well with feminists to be repeatedly confronted with the evidence that women are willing participants in their own oppression, because it also gives misogynists a reason to pass the buck. There are plenty of reasons to fight such an assumption: internalized misogyny, poverty and lack of options being the primary ones. These reasons are valid, but don’t extend to the educated middle class and certainly not to women who have power over other women, generation after generation.

The rich are heavily invested in dynasty because they prefer to pass on their riches through hereditary, since they have a lot of accumulated wealth and status to lose. The middle-class have more freedom, because essentially, it’s a way of life that supports an adherence to laws, education and conventional family life. Within that framework, variations of choices and behaviour are possible. And yet, they sneer at the #MeToo movement, shame other women for expressing the pain of childbirth, silence women who’ve experienced sexual assault and routinely line up to ruin women’s reputations for experiencing sexual freedom (or hand out purity badges according to status).

Why do women continue to manipulate other women and girls through shame?

There is a phenomenon in Latin American countries known as machismo, which can be described briefly as aggressive masculine pride, and today it’s not an uncommon word. [1] In 1973, Evelyn P. Stevens examined the reverse phenomenon in the sphere of Latin American female relations, coining the term marianismo.

Marianismo, in short, is the invisible system of values accorded to, specifically, the behaviour and worth of females. Although it refers to the religious figure of the Virgin Mary, its application, regardless of faith, is justified across ethnic communities throughout the world. The uniquely feminine values attributed to ‘good’ women and ‘female strength’ are predictably: chastity, motherhood, compliance and self-denial, easily attributed to the mythical feminine divine, which manifests in slut-shaming and forced marriage, forced pregnancy and forced abortion, and in the worst cases sati, dowry deaths, witch burnings [2] acid attacks and honour killings (although, domestic violence homicides in the US are akin to the same thing).

We’ve already established that slut-shaming begins early, around the time of menarche, which is coming at an earlier age on an average, and that punishment is based on the potential for ‘wrong’ behaviour before it even happens. We’ve also established that girls and women benefit in having power over other girls and women, in the service of men. Now we have the term that was coined nearly fifty years ago that fits the problem, and we can’t acknowledge it often enough.

Forced marriage is the great fixer-upper. It neutralizes the threat of the single, financially independent, fertile woman who is capable of making her own choices. The spectre of this archaic tradition follows immigrants all the way to developed countries, where cultural relativism gives it a less barbaric hue. After marriage, provided all goes well, you will have a child or two. Relatives warm to you. Your body’s not a threat to society anymore, your bomb’s been defused, your sexuality has been neutralized. Marriage comes with another set of restrictions and rules, plus you have another set of extended relatives to dishonour with disobedience. Motherhood is valued in pop-feminism without adequate dispensation of responsibility to fatherhood, which is rewarded in media on a regular basis for smaller efforts.

Then there’s that other ugly thing that happens: divorce.

Divorce used to be the greatest possible sin and not to be considered lightly. The reason why it initiated so often now is because many women have gained the strength to walk out, without falling for myths like: having kids fixes everything, submissiveness and niceness resolves friction, various relatives will die of heart attacks if you bring such a dishonour to them. The process is rarely a clean break, so it requires strength and conviction.

That strength was drawn from a brief glimpse of the sky. Our ancestors had figured out that submissiveness needed to be bred to create the slave mindset, but generation by generation women began to realise they had choices. Late GenXers still got married and maybe had kids, making the process of divorce more devastating, but now there’s a growing single population in the country who know exactly what they’re compromising when they decide to get hitched. It came as no great surprise to me when 75% of my friends divorced early in their marriages.

There’s a third category of women that I didn’t mention, littered across the centuries and up to present day. The truly strong female who doesn’t fall into the pecking order, isn’t particularly liked because she is independent and doesn’t buy into the patriarchal mindset. Now, I don’t know if these women learnt this at an early age or it’s some sort of personality trait, but they exist and I’ve met a few of them. They also have little sympathy for women and girls who can’t muster up their own strength and this is their main flaw: they may be good at advice but they are not good at mothering. They hand out truth bombs in whispers at appropriate times, wisdom that’s often ignored because they don’t pursue status. They roam in the sidelines and function in the middle ground. They mother themselves because they don’t bond with other women on conventional terms, avoid identity politics and navigate social pitfalls adroitly, until they’ve gathered a hoard of skills and reserves to live life on their own terms.

Imagine if they got together instead of functioning independently.

The patriarchy can’t exist without the slave mindset, and now we know that even women benefit from it, whether it comes in the guise of friendship or mothering or various versions of ‘feminism’.

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Which brings me to the millennial cat ladies and in smaller numbers, anti-natalists. Whether millennials cat ladies choose not to marry for financial reasons or because marriage has lost its allure (which, for a time represented the promise of true love through the influence of fairy tales and chick flicks and the vision of the perfect wedding), they’re doing it without the insecurity of the MGTOW movement. They hoard their degrees with pride and appreciate the love and low maintenance of their chosen partners, i.e., cats.

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Interestingly, while male atheists and anti-natalists might owe their philosophy to rational thought, women have more concrete reasons like misogyny and reproductive freedom in order to opt for these identities. Anti-natalism is attractive at its core (sans the drama or the inclination to lecture) because of the timing, the advancing irreversibility of climate change, the lack of resources to go around and it also gives one room to self-actualise without authority figures defining that for you. Women should be able to experience it without the necessarily negating potential relationships. If they do make the choice to reject marriage or childbirth, there’s no doubt that it’ll be a difficult life, because as much as we may praise women for their strength in mainstream culture, living a life without the legal safety nets and the social approval that traditional marriage provides can crumble one’s resolve.

To look to the future however, there is strength in numbers, and even more strength that can be drawn from mutual mothering and friendship.

 

[1] In India I would add ‘infantilism’ to ‘aggression’. Evelyn Stevens made a relevant observation that these men were brought up primarily by women, which is not to be equated with mother-blame, that is, blaming mothers for the violent actions of their male children.

[2] All of these involve burning a human-being alive, and might have something to do symbolically with fire being a medium of purification.

Dissecting Arranged Marriage, Part II: Girlhood and Other Crimes

Sharam
Artwork by Hatecopy [1]
We’ve established that arranged marriage has more to do with behaviour codes and dynasty rather than romantic commitment, but we haven’t talked enough about the societal ploys, pressures and grooming that lead us into making these ‘voluntary’ choices.

I worked with a fellow designer who spent her early childhood in her grandparent’s village in northern Rajasthan. Strict behaviour codes were imposed early on: she wasn’t allowed to play, laugh or make any loud noises because it would ‘distract’ the male family members. After five years her father took their family to the city, saying he couldn’t raise his daughters in such an oppressive environment. From then on, they lived a life unfettered by gendered social restrictions, by Indian standards anyway.

My early childhood was the opposite of hers. Granted the freedom to explore and learn, balanced with more than adequate nourishment and care, it made me question a lot of restrictions as they piled up, one upon the other, as time passed by. Women were alien beings, as established by visual media; their bodies elicited both lust and ridicule, in real life their positions were subordinate to the men in their lives, their primary joy seemed to be drawn from the care of their children, who involved a very painful process just to be brought into this world.

I always dreaded the thought of growing into one of those ridiculous, inferior creatures. I was protected, so the only way I could learn about womanhood was from this (much-derided) government channel before cable came along called Door Darshan. I eagerly watched skits on the lives of both working and stay-at-home moms and the trials of women trapped in archaic rural traditions, before the glamourised renditions of saas-bahu dramas came along. Magazines were a great source of info, one of them was this artsy magazine called The Illustrated Weekly, and some of the content was excellent. It’s where I read my first article about female infanticide with the curiosity of a kid who was slowly realising that life ain’t so pretty outside these walls. They also published an ancient poem by an ardent bard who had captured the rape of a princess with erotic verse, waxing eloquently about her voluptuous hips and her ‘sharam‘. According to his bio he was punished eventually, but telling from the details in the poem, he seemed to think it was worth every minute.

It wasn’t the first time I’d come across eroticized rape, I’d seen enough Bollywood films by then and there was no child friendly rating back then. Everywhere we looked women’s virtue seemed under threat. We got a vague rape talk before the marriage talk, but still no one would actually blame the perpetrators for it. We were silenced, routinely, whether it was to complain about the thirty-year-old bachelor in the rented apartment opposite who tried to talk his way in when my parents weren’t home, or the thrashings we received from adolescent male relatives who were supposed to be our ‘protectors’. Neighbourhood aunties hovered over us like watchful dogs, one who patted my back once in a friendly way and then, discovering the bump of my bra hook, began running her hand up and down my back, giving me this knowing look the whole time (I was thirteen). Then she leaned over and whispered what she thought was well-meaning advice, which was to wash my crotch with disinfectant. Honestly, the only people who were interested in watching you bud were the thirty-something bachelors peeping through the window, men who grabbed your ass in public and creepy aunties like this one. I wasn’t allowed to voice my anger, because at any point in time, it was bad manners to even acknowledge such behaviour. Middle-class parents zone out when such topics come up. The only recourse is to blame the cause of all this attention. By the time you were thirteen, your body was already your enemy, and no amount pop feminist PSAs in women’s magazines are going to undo your internalised misogyny.

There was another story I distinctly remember from The Illustrated Weekly that was, again, inappropriate material for a ten-year-old. It was about the daughters of a professor who lived on a college campus and a group of horny college boys. The boys had dared each other to talk to one of them and one managed to steal a bra from the clothesline, but it turned to be a bit too big and probably his wife’s. Another managed to accost one of his daughters but she got frightened and ran off. Her dad saw the whole thing. The writer peeped inside a window and watched Dad whip her bare buttocks—and because he couldn’t help himself—described the red streaks on her white skin. I thought of this story when a GenXer friend of mine recalled the childhood trauma of being whipped by her own dad, with a leather belt, after a male cousin took her to the shop down the road to treat her to some chocolates.

She didn’t deserve the punishment, of course, but why this paranoid association of puberty in girls with something calamitous, some impending sin that can’t even be named?

The answer is fecundity. If they could put blinders on us like horses, they would, because our bodies were ticking time bombs. At the same time, being attractive to boys was super important. We were told that boys didn’t like flat-chested girls and “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses.” My GenXer friend who was whipped by her dad for that brief outing with a male cousin, recalled her grandmother’s hurtful remarks with reference to her flat, 2D frame: “With a body like yours, no man will want to marry you.”

The word dichotomy [2] comes to mind, at multiple levels. The promise of fecundity, or lack thereof, are both problematic. The pre-punishments were based not on our behaviour, but on the potential for either of these things occurring in the future. You’re living your very own Minority Report prison, but your parent’s, relatives’ and neighbours’ magical precog ability somehow doesn’t extend to policing potential rapists, a solution that’s never occurred to anyone since the birth of the patriarchy.

And yet, all the rules and pre-punishments don’t provide any safety to us at any point. Work has to be done, we risk our safety because we have to prove ourselves as adequate or better. If you’re attacked on your way to work, the degree of blame is a little lighter, but if you were on your way back from a party, you’re likely responsible for your own assault.

Silence? More like wise choice. Vocal? More like shrew. The solution of course, is marriage.

 

[1] Buy the art print here

[2] Sure, there are girls who saddle up and sit astride this dichotomous horse with seeming ease and I’ll get to why in the next post.

 

End of Part 2

Dissecting Arranged Marriage, Part 1: GenX Supermoms and Mama’s Boys

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Artwork by Hatecopy [1]
When professor of sociology, Maria Mies, was taking German language classes in India in the eighties, she saw that most of her students were female. After asking some questions, she found out that they were taking on course after course because the Indian middle-class has the utmost respect for education, and for these women it was the only acceptable way to delay marriage, which they saw as some sort of inevitable prison sentence.

I like talking to accomplished Gen X women, especially those who have managed to hold together a respectable career while raising families. One is an ophthalmologist, two are paediatricians and the fourth is my dentist. They speak at least four languages each and run their own clinics, and they did it while raising kids with husbands who probably wouldn’t be able to locate the kitchen sink if they tried.

I’m exaggerating, of course, but then I’m also not. The phenomenon only occurs when there’s a woman in the house to perform such impossible tasks. Again, I’m joking, GenX men are not that bad [2], but the number of used tumblers and plates that have dropped off of their field of vision are probably floating in another dimension in one immense mass, waiting to find their way home.

The thing with Gen X feminism is, they forgot to tell women that to have a great career and family life, you need a supportive partner, and by this I mean someone who doesn’t think tasks like cooking, cleaning and child-rearing are a woman’s job. It’s exhausting doing both, and I’ve witnessed the toll it took on both baby boomer moms and GenXers.

Women’s labour is inferior. There is no better example than childbirth: the foetus draws nutrition from the mother’s body regardless of the state of her health. Under normal circumstances, she carries it for nine months, gives birth safely and then Dad, who did all of five seconds of labour gets to put his name/stamp of ownership on it. If Dad is missing, depending on the social environment, unpleasant under the circumstances, the product of their union has no status because the worth of the mother’s name is nought. That is the essence of patriarchy: the worth of every human is decided at conception by males. Before anyone gets on some idealistic bandwagon of sixth grade Civics and how all humans are equal, better get back in your bubble.

Let’s go on to other forms of women’s labour: keeping a house, cooking, cleaning etc. It’s disposable work, to paraphrase Simone DeBeauvoir: the cleaned floors get dirty again and the perfect cake gets eaten. It’s cyclical, endless, is considered inferior and it’s unpaid, so it’s not a good addition to your résumé. Giving up your career to raise a family is a decision that plagues mostly women, because it’s a decision that only women have to make.

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If a larger percentage of men were house-husbands, then and then only would it have actual value. In fact, a study shows, when women enter fields in greater numbers, pay declines — for the very same jobs that more men were doing before. But with the advent of feminism in countries where feminism actually works, men have been importing submissive wives for a while now. So as long as women or a cheap labour class are around to do it, house-husbanding isn’t going to be the next big thing.

My dentist has an opinion though, she’s complained about how she grew up in an egalitarian household in which her brother was so amazing, that “he was practically a woman”. When she got married, she was shocked at how damn useless her husband was around the house. She said this with a wary glance in my direction, just in case I intended to judge her. GenX women born a decade earlier than me didn’t expect to partake 3/4th of the burden because baby-boomer parents failed to train their boys.

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For baby boomer moms like mine, the question didn’t even arise–they knew exactly what they were getting into. I’d figured this out only because I’d observed the dynamic between my parents and other married couples and decided at a very young age that marriage, for women, was not only a career killer, it was sure road to premature aging and neurosis. I formulated a plan for myself: get good at your work, sail across the ocean and keep as much of a physical distance as possible between your parents and yourself. Buy them nice things with money your career made you in order to make up for it.

Fast forward around two decades and a potential mother-in-law, impressed by my bio-data, asked my mother whether I can keep a house. Why this need for a housewife with a Masters and/or equivalent amongst the middle class? Well, number one, your contribution to the family income, two, to birth and raise geniuses and third ofcourse, to keep a house while your husband, who’s older than you, gets ahead in his career. That’s the Indian middle-class marriage in a nutshell. How did these women that I mentioned earlier manage to raise families with careers? By the skin of their teeth, with excellent household help (which is very difficult to find) or may be, if they were lucky, a mother or mother-in-law who was willing to help out with the kids. Your last option is sending your kids off to boarding where someone else does the raising, but that depends on the child-rearing standards of the family you marry into. What’s the point of having kids then? Well, so the cycle can start again. Procreation and dynasty—that’s it. It’s a pretty bleak and passionless vision for life, but no one was going to listen to advice from a ten-year old.

I knew that respectability counts more amongst the middle-class than freedom and happiness, but I didn’t know the extent to which they’d fight tooth and nail for it. Firstly, the tentacles are long, so I was effectively fooling myself by formulating my stupid escape plan. Secondly, the time constraint until you earn enough so that you can live independently without borrowing from your parents are severely limiting, you have until you’re 21-23, because biological clock and everything. The only reason why I managed to avoid it till my late twenties is because “no one wants to marry a designer”. For the first time, I was thankful of the general opinion that my chosen profession was inferior, just around the time I had managed, painfully, to win the respect of my bosses.

There is a lot of pressure on boys to be good providers and academic excellence is paramount, but ambition is rewarded and submissiveness isn’t bred into the them the way it’s bred in to girls. Traditional wifehood is a high-performance role and involves giving without getting under the guise of gender norms and mother-love, and when it finally takes its toll after decades, it ends in all kinds of repressed neuroses, just in case you’re  wondering why older Indian women can be such fucking aunties. What still puzzles me is that I was hard-pressed to find any other woman who would see my logic. My friends, educated women like me, wanted to get married because it was a legitimate way to leave home without upsetting one’s parents (the other was work, and few of us had lucrative job offers magically dropping into our laps.) Baby boomer moms, in spite of having, in my opinion,  miserable fucking lives (they were the first generation that had to do both), wanted exactly the same thing for their daughters, knowing full well what it would entail. In fact, it put a rosy glow on their cheeks to see their younger counterparts go through the same thing, rejoicing in every new premature grey hair that sprang out of our scalps, but since the standard of living was better it’s supposed to ameliorate that bullshit. Schadenfreude, but the wait is about 20-25 years.

After all that education, all those museum trips, all the picnics, all those nutritious meals served by anxious mothers and all that trouble to better oneself, you’re wondering why your parents are playing passing-the-parcel with you. They don’t want you happy, they want you safe [3]. Any protest on your part garners accusations of selfishness, pride, delusions of grandeur, arrogance and, last but not least, wantonness (she doesn’t want to get married because nudge-nudge, wink-wink) from relatives. All these ‘insults’ pale in comparison to the devaluing of your worth, which began way before that. By the time you’re twelve your head has been filled with impurity myths and notions that your looks, your education, your career, your personality all amount to impressing a high-quality mate. They’re being considerate by rejecting families that have a reputation for wife-beating or ask outright how much you’re earning. His parents or relatives check you out first as you serve tea and snacks (very cliché, but fucking accurate) while inside you silently rage against the system (your parents have been begging you to behave yourself) and smile.

Once the selection is made (his opinion matters more than yours) there’s an official engagement with extended family and a priest and you sign a contract. In a few months, after a long and stifling marriage ceremony plus wedding reception, when your fake-ass smile is in danger of disintegrating, you have to leave home, leave your job and get a new one in the city of your husband’s residence, and reproduce before you hit thirty. What they don’t really tell you is that you have to overhaul your entire personality as well—with arranged marriage your primary assets are your education, your looks and your earning capacity, and not much else. You’re expected to settle for someone even if you have nothing in common with them, or probably know he’s a typical man-baby who doesn’t want to eat his vegetables and basically looking for a second mom.

When you’re female, malleability is greatly admired. The golden rule is never to fight with your mother-in-law, which is what you’ll hear over and over from your parents. Your strength only amounts to how much crap you can take without complaining [4]. If you’re handling this well, it’s because you’ve  managed to completely mask your true self, a mask you have to maintain 24 hours when you’re constantly surrounded by family.

Every single one of the middle-class GenX women I’ve met have embraced this with a sigh, and never understood why I fought it so hard. To them, marriage had always been about doing the right thing. I don’t even try to convince anyone anymore because the general notion is that if you agreed to it and went through that whole performance, you must have made the choice to do it. If that’s not enough, the guilt of potentially hurting the people who nurtured and raised you and publicly humiliating them with your refusal is the key that locks the door to the cage. You’re a project that has to be completed before they can finally retire. They apologize for your faults and thank your new FIL and MIL for taking you [5]. It’s the antithesis of the unconditional affection you grew up with.

If you’ve made an informed choice without ogres breathing down your neck, which is rare, it’s not really arranged. If someone just hooked you up according to your preference list, it merely amounts to brokerage. Let’s not forget tolerant portrayals of arranged marriages by that other curse on earth, Western liberalism. With arranged marriage, traditional arranged marriage, the priorities are money, status, pedigree and dynasty, at the expense of one person, and if you support that, you are perpetuating an archaic patriarchal system that isn’t really an act of commitment as much as it is a lucrative business deal.

End of Part 1

[1] Trust No Aunty by Hatecopy.

[2] Baby boomers are worse.

[3] From yourself

[4] This is where I draw parallels with liberal feminists, male feminists and the ‘strong woman’ dichotomy.

[5] Extra thanks and monetary gifts if they don’t take dowry.

 

Water, Not Oil: A Case for James Bond

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Artwork by Rhea Daniel

There’s no hope for James Bond, he’s a narcissist caught in a cycle of revenge. His love has all the appeal of fly paper, it’s sticky and it kills. Almost every woman his penis touches dies in some gruesome way, but to cushion the impact she’ll die in a visually pleasing manner. He’ll avenge her to bolster his ego, because if he turns inward into that empty shell he’ll find nothing to go on. He’ll do this until, invariably, another unwitting woman stumbles onto his killer penis.

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Ew

But today, I’m going to defend him. Don’t get me wrong, words cannot express how much I hate this guy, but after several years of sibling peer pressure and many hours invested in trying to understand the appeal of this egotistical, racist male chauvinist, I found a movie of his that I kinda liked.

Quantum of Solace is named after one of the shorts in the collection For Your Eyes Only, it refers to the level empathy one human has for another in a relationship. The plot of the movie revolves around the shady organization known as Quantum that’s up to all sorts of villainy in Bolivia. Dominic Greene is this billionaire environmentalist who wants to purchase a seemingly useless piece of land, but the CIA (who never got up to any shady business like, EVER) believes he’s after oil, so they’re okay with it. They assume that he’s courting a potential puppet dictator, but Mr.Greene, who seems to be interested in helping the environment, actually wants to harvest all the water in Bolivia and sell it at exorbitant rates to the Bolivian people. Stealing water in a parched country is as evil as it gets, y’all, and he definitely fooled everyone with that greenwashing name.

Bond sets out undo Greene’s nefarious plot. With him is Camille, who has spent her life planning to wreak revenge on the aforementioned dictator who had killed her family and has been using Greene to get to him. Greene is smart enough to figure this out and tries to derail them both through Quantum, but James, haunted by the line of ghostly lovers behind him (including Ms. Strawberry Fields, who touched his magic sceptre and died) is going to bulldoze his way through this movie with a level of violence that’s higher than any other 007 movie. He lets Camille seek out her own revenge, however, with a few words of advice, “The training will tell you that when the adrenaline kicks in you should compensate. But part of you is not going to believe the training; because this kill is personal. Take a deep breath. You only need one shot, make it count.” Camille gets thrashed badly but succeeds in killing the man who murdered her family.

Of course sexism is JB’s USP (1). M has been reeling him in for the past fifteen years with some eloquent guilt-tripping admonishments, but he’s also grown over the years. He’s not just a douchebag with a swagger; he’s become this broody, Byronic, stoic dude and this is the one movie where he’s is not a total sexist prick. Look at him, biting back all those feelings—it almost makes me like him.(2)

So let’s step back a bit. What if all those greenwashing European villains were real and what if Bolivians had really been screwed over by their leaders? What if all that water privatization coming to the rescue was actually a ruse to exploit a weak political system and rake in profits? What if this could be done, legally, all over the world, at great human cost? (3)

I was curious to see how this movie played out because of the source of inspiration. Quantum and the real-world water-profiteering companies are the same: neutral evils only interested in profit. To quote Dominic Greene: “We deal with the left or the right, with dictators or liberators. If the current President had been more agreeable, I wouldn’t be talking to you. So, if you decide not to sign, you will wake up with your balls in your mouth and your willing replacement standing over you.”

To avenge the death of Strawberry Fields, JB leaves Mr.Greene in the middle of Atacama Desert with nothing but a can of engine oil. His body is found with the engine oil in his stomach, a symbolic death/suicide as fossil fuels cannot replace the need for the life-giving water he was planning to monopolize. Somewhere in a village in Bolivia water begins to trickle from a common tap. JB saved the day——–except he didn’t. The real-world Quantum was kicked out not by some white saviour spy, but through a people’s movement. The problems still continue.

(1) Okay, it’s mostly every Hollywood action movie’s USP, but JB perfected the script on fridging.

(2) To quote a friend of mine, “James Bond doesn’t cry, and he’s supposed to be an a-hole.”

(3) Link leads to a 1hr.41min. documentary which is worth seeing.

Thoughts On Digital Art: Whatever Happened to Linda Bergkvist?

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Artwork by Linda Bergkvist

When I first ventured into the 2D digital art world, there were already several well-established artists on the scene flaunting a variety of techniques. Linda Bergkvist, going by the handle Enayla, was on the honour roll with her delicate, almost photorealistic renditions of fairy art with underlying gothic themes. When I first saw her work, my first thought was: I want to get that good, so I religiously began following her tutorials.

…Which was a terrible idea, because following a tutorial to draw an eye or a pair of lips, the kind that came in the art technique books of yore, will not help if you haven’t learned to look at the world as an artist. For that, you need to go back to basic anatomy, foreshortening, lighting, perspective, colour theory and a whole lot of life drawing. Digital technique can be learned side by side.

Linda was always courteous in her interactions with her adoring fans, forthcoming with her feedback on technique and as far as I remember, held a few live workshops on digital art. She had built a large fanbase and her work had been published in several digital arts magazines. She worked in the art department for the film The Golden Compass (2007).

Enter this massive troll who, most assume, was terribly jealous of her art.  He accused her of photo manipulation (for those who don’t know how that works, this is an example) and copy-pasting from copyrighted images. This is the image that began his virulent tirade, the cover of American Dining & Entertaining Etiquette (Enayla’s artwork on the right):

It’s obvious that the bench from image is identical. The position of the model, folds on the dress and the lighting are obviously used as a reference. The troll followed her online doggedly, crashed her threads on CGSociety, argued about her ‘cheating’ and used multiple handles to press his case, leading him to be banned from several forums.

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Another user in her defence

I use the word ‘reference’ deliberately. Back then there were no obvious set rules in the concept art community; references were used without necessarily sharing the source, but Enayla had always been straightforward about using refs. The fact that a ref image might be copyrighted is, of course, an issue, but one primarily between the copyright holder and artist. What’s crazy is that it went from copyright issue, to paint-over, to photo-manip, to copy-pasting to full blown reputational ruin, for over a year, somehow pushing her into hiding. The silence from her was so sudden and prolonged that it’s been several years and the comments on her DeviantArt page now read like obituaries.

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As far as I know Enayla never dignified the troll with an answer, but the entire incident caused enough damage for her to back out of the digital art world, which is far too great a price for using a few ref pics. (There could be another reason for her disappearance, but this is the most obvious one.)

To address this issue in particular: the digital/concept art industry holds a lot of methods as perfectly acceptable. If you’re in the market and need to produce work quickly, there are stock images available just to serve this purpose, but no established company will employ you on the regular unless you have skills to keep up with the demand. For an artist working freelance, photo-manip may be a perfectly respectable thing by itself and any artist who uses this technique usually makes that clear, but compare it to creating composition and lighting from scratch and there’s a world of work and knowledge that’s different. Paintovers are unacceptable if you’re trying to pass them off as 2D digital art done from scratch. Copy paste—egregious if you’re stealing bits and pieces from other artists.*

I get it, the need to be considered a great artist with an adoring fanbase can be seductive, but sooner or later, if you use the previously mentioned methods, you will get caught.

Also, it hurts other artists. I was designing a book cover on 99designs, a site which acts as a platform for designers to present their designs for specific client briefs. The brief was to design a sci-fi book cover and it came down to me and another artist. It seemed obvious to me that the brush strokes were different in one part of the illustration and the artist had done a copy-paste-paintover job with the design. This artist got selected and I seriously considered telling the clueless client that he was paying 300$ for a 1/3rd stolen book cover. I realised I’d have to prove it by spending hours on finding the original artwork, possibly attract the ire of the ‘artist’ and look sour and petty in the process.

For Enayla, although the said troll was called out and banned, she got the raw end of the deal. During her short stint in the industry she had left an impression on many aspiring artists and if she had fought back and stuck around, I cannot imagine the volume of work she would have produced by now. She is not one of my favourite artists, but definitely the first whose technique and skills left me awestruck, as it did many others.

 

*sadly, cases of blatant plagiarism continue to plague artists.

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.

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, 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 struggle with a lack of identity. 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. For the same reasons, Aspies are also narcissist magnets. They misjudge intentions, trust easily and can’t really read between the lines.

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. They can train them in body language and facial expressions. 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.