The Significance of Female Rage in ‘Bulbbul’

bulbbul-review

Advertised as supernatural horror, Bulbbul was released on Netflix a month ago, another movie by a woman director that plunged right into feminist discourse.

The movie is set during the Bengal Presidency, a period during which the British Empire controlled a sizeable portion of South Asia, an economic hub that began in the 17th century with a minor trading post and expanded as the strength of the Mughal Empire waned. It was a time of child marriage, which wouldn’t be regulated until 1929 [1]. It was also a time when the Bengal Sati Regulation [2], passed in 1829, was probably flouted to a great degree.

The imagery of female feet, free at first, then ceremoniously decorated, then shackled, shattered and finally healed into twisted implements that wreak hell, begins with a glimpse of five-year-old Bulbbul’s feet dangling from a tree branch. She’s a child bride, about to be married off to a Thakur, a feudal title given to powerful landowners/rulers. While she’s being prepped for the marriage ceremony by an aunt, she asks her why she needs to wear toe rings. The aunt answers that it pinches a nerve to keep the wife from flying away. When Bulbbul presses her further for an answer, the aunt reveals in a moment of honesty that “it’s to control you.”

I remember buying silver toe rings for myself and my friend once. Her mother was scandalized, because ‘only married women are supposed to wear toe rings’, the issue being that it’s a traditional form of acupressure to improve fertility, and we didn’t need to have babies at that time (lol). Anklets were designed for the mother-in-law to keep an ear out for her daughter-in-law’s whereabouts before they were eroticised in Bollywood films. The tradition of bride dipping her feet in red kumkum and entering the house, leaving a trail of red footprints signifies the arrival of Goddess Lakshmi and prosperity and wealth in the newlyweds home. Female feet represent a lot of things, aesthetically, symbolically, erotically, and if you’re watching a Quentin Tarantino film, you’re probably being subjected to his foot fetish against your will.

Little Bulbbul mistakes the Thakur’s younger brother, Satya, a kid not much older than her, for her husband, and the Thakur explains kindly to her on their marriage bed that she’ll soon know the difference between a brother-in-law and a husband. (Yikes.) He has a mentally disabled twin who is particularly curious about Bulbbul and calls her ‘gudiya’ (doll).

Satya and Bulbbul become fast friends. He scares her with ghost stories about a witch with twisted feet who haunts the forest outside. The plot is set in motion from here on. Twenty years later, there are rumours of an actual witch haunting the forest and evidence of several murders, but it’s attributed to animal attacks. The locals, however, blame the witch.

Bulbbul, decked up in gorgeous silks and fanning herself with peacock feathers, reigns over the thakurate like a queen. Her sister-in-law, Binodini, has lost her husband, the mentally-disabled twin of the Thakur, so she now lives the life of a widow, banished from the palace. Widowhood was taken as an erasure of womanhood, since the only thing that gave a woman status is gone, but Bulbbul is not particularly sympathetic to her sister-in-law’s plight. In fact, her behaviour towards her has an underpinning of spite, of the passive-aggressive mean girl kind. Satya returns from his education abroad and invites Binodini back to the palace for Durga Pooja, and Bulbbul is none too pleased about it.

Her behaviour is explained with a series of flashbacks. Binodini, stuck with her mentally disabled husband, was jealous of the status that Bulbbul has over her as the Badi Bahu (First Wife). Essentially, she was performing the duties of a wife in all areas until Bulbbul came along, and she’s been ousted from her spot as surrogate First Wife. She sensed a consummation nearing and was intent on blackening the rose-tinted glasses through which the Thakur views his young wife, because she wouldn’t be able to compete with the childlike Bulbbul.

It’s obvious that Bulbbul is infatuated with Satya, who is oblivious to her less than platonic affection for him. He likes her, but not in that way. There’s a scene where Binodini is unboxing her gold jewellery and offers some to Bulbbul, who refuses, itching to catch Satya in the courtyard before he leaves. The scene narrows down the reason why each of them are in it for the long haul; Binodini for the riches and Bulbbul for Satya. Binodini plants a sliver of suspicion in the Thakur’s ears. This technique of manipulation, which uses a twisted form of empathy to make sure none of the blame trickles back and finds the OP, has been perfected over thousands of years of female rivalry: “They’re young, it happens, let it be…”

Thakur has had it with Bulbbul. Even after he sends Satya away, any reminders of their attachment, like the burnt remnant of a page with their names on it (which might as well have read “Satya ❤ Bulbbul”) triggers him into dragging her out of the bath and striking her feet with a fire iron until they shatter.The foot obliteration scene is aesthetically done in slo-mo to let the significance of the complete destruction of Bulbbul’s freedom sink in, but I couldn’t help imagining the shot with someone crouching beneath Rahul Bose and throwing  fake blood every time he swung his arm. [3]

They call the doctor, who’s new in town, to fix whatever’s left of Bulbbul’s feet (he seems to be the only woke dude around). Having no more feudal fucks left to give, the Thakur announces his departure. Until then, he used to protect Bulbbul from his more than curious brother, but now, vulnerable and in pain and strapped to a contraption while she’s healing, she has no one to protect her.

Bulbbul’s rape by the Thakur’s twin brother leaves little to the imagination. We can’t deny the representation of rape in the film industry inevitably contributes to voyeuristic pleasure, whether or not its deliberate (uh, well, it’s mostly deliberate) unless it’s a movie like Mad Max-Fury Road, probably the first one that implies that it’s been done but doesn’t show any of it, and conveys it just fine to the audience.

The plot comes way too close to the ‘rape as a rite of passage to supernatural strength’ trope. Well it’s not listed as a trope, but I’ve seen the story fictionalized much too often, so it should be. For every victim that comes out and talks/ campaigns against violence there are plenty more who can’t, owing to the dehumanizing and isolating nature of the crime, so it’s not empowering to be raped (we have to stop this bullshit trope).

The Greeks have Medusa and the Furies, the wronged women and the arbiters of justice who punish men for their immoral acts, especially those who ill-treat women, and WE have Kali and Durga. Bulbbul’s rage isn’t dramatic, it’s controlled, and the villagers have begun to respect her and come to her with their grievances, thus giving her a list of men to destroy. She has no reason to kill women, the social structure of the time period is imprisonment enough.

Binodini tells Bulbbul to stay silent about her rape, and even helps her look presentable. It’s the empathic silence of submissive women who can’t, or don’t, provide anything besides comfort to women who are wronged, thus prolonging collective oppression. It’s obvious by now that Bulbbul is the woman who went apeshit with rage and became the witch with twisty feet, but the images of her bouncing along trees against a “Ruby Woo” red sky reminds me of the bhooth bangla (haunted house) serials on government channels thirty years ago. It gets repetitively kitsch.

But I couldn’t get enough of this movie. The styling and the rich fabrics draped over Tripti Dimri, who does a fantastic job of both the innocent unsuspecting Bulbbul as well as the shrewd calculating Bulbbul, had me slobbering for more. I would have loved this as a series, provided they maintain that level of historical charm and artistic inspiration. We have plenty of traditional India left to show off.

The movie’s short, a mere 1hr 34 min., and the shooting took 33 days. The script is concise, conveying a lot with a thrifty synchronicity of dialogue and visuals. If Anvita Dutt was trying to convey female rage, she did it very well, but there’s a significant aspect of feminine oppression that’s missing from this piece: that of fecundity/infertility, pregnancy and the pressure on women to produce male offspring. To be fair, the story would have been a lot longer if they took this into consideration, so I understand the omission.

[1] To protect Hindu widows against the tradition of self-immolation on her husband’s funeral pyre

[2] Child marriage wouldn’t be banned until 1929, a hundred years later, officiated by Harbilas Sarda, a Rajasthani politician, with much opposition from the British authorities who didn’t want to rile up their Hindu and Muslim base, because cultural relativism and everything.

[3] I think the scene would have stood out if the acting in this part hadn’t been subpar, though the actors do a swell job with the rest of the movie.

Slaying the Dragon – Notes on Productivity and Procrastination

In my last post I talked about the complicated life and personality of children’s lit writer Enid Blyton, but didn’t delve into her awesome capacity to produce 6000-10,000 words a day without any drop in standard. So, what was the secret behind Enid Blyton’s prolific talent?

When it came to the time she spent writing her books and responding to her fan mail, it was the time that she took away from her family, who were mere props when it came to advertising her supposedly idyllic life. What’s wrong with this picture is the fact that women have been supporting men’s careers and tending to the “lesser” job of child-rearing and housekeeping for so long, that this wouldn’t remotely be an issue if she had been a man, even today.

So I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of discipline, because I’ve been disciplined to a fault before [1]. Discipline doesn’t account for nepotism, systemic discrimination, economic slumps, sabotage, having to bear the brunt of another colleague’s incompetence and having to micro-manage a reputation so that your work experience doesn’t go to waste. It doesn’t account for the choices that you’re forced into making that lead to derailing your career, how much ever you try to prevent it. It doesn’t account for having deal to with the self-sabotage of being the “nice” person which, considering all the pitfalls mentioned above, is a useless endeavour. After taking all this into consideration, I’ve gotten cynical as hell about hard work and living a balanced life.

80-if-hard-work-pays-show-me-rich-donkey-80-29282792

Self-Discipline, ey?

To quote ace motivational speaker Mel Robbins, “You’re never going to feel like it”. I like to call it ‘starting trouble’. She’s right, of course—you’re never going to feel like it. As a solution, she gives this miraculous five second rule that shuts off the self-sabotaging voice that makes you avoid basic, boring or strenuous tasks, but it’s a rule I’m too terrified to apply, because I hang on to my self-sabotage like a warm cozy blanket on a winter morning. I get things done when the pile is so high that I have no choice, then spend even more time recovering from the effort. If it sounds like a cyclical nightmare, but there it is. It’s not perfect but it gets things done, at a price. I hang on to my abhorrence for discipline to a fault, because I lost my faith in it for the aforementioned reasons. To put it simply, productivity is just a lot more complicated than self-discipline. Moreover, when you wake up in the morning and you’re surrounded by a candy-shop of wonderful choices, why would you want to eat spinach?

Procrastination

Mel Robbins recommended the book Originals by psychologist Adam Grant, who is a proponent of procrastination, which is strangely the opposite of what she preaches. When I’m not being cynical, I’m a proponent of both self-discipline and procrastination, but to break this down: which one of them it is, depends on the task at hand. Chores need to be gotten over with, but that story you’re working on? You can chew on that a lot longer—Ursula K. Le Guin referred to it as “composting”. You can spend hours planning that giant artwork, in your head, on paper, but stick to a minimum drawing a day when it comes to your sketchbook. The key here is knowing when to do what and the only way that can be achieved is through mindfulness.

Mindfulness

Let’s be honest, most of us are like the supporting cast of The Walking Dead [2], we don’t really question where we’re going. It takes a lot of intense introspection, some uncomfortable epiphanies and a whole lot of self-criticism to take control of your thoughts, your mind and your goals.

I know you’ve heard the ‘M’ word before and you’re probably sick of it, but meditation and stillness actually do help you focus. As for that ‘starting trouble’, it helps to visualize the task at hand. Imagine you are Sigurd or Bilbo and go face that dragon.

Courage Nap

Enjoy that deathlike sleep while you can. It’s how I face the second half of the day, but there’s always a danger of Rip Van Winkling it.

Inspiration

Motivation, according to Mel Robbins, is bullshit (but then she is a motivational speaker.) It’s followed closely by inspiration, which has got a bad rap in the past few decades.

I need my inspiration close at hand, because it makes me feel good, so I’m constantly feeding myself with art and reading. I plug into audio books while I’m doing my chores, because it helps me drag my reluctant, procrastinating ass to the sink and attack that pile of dishes. I’ve managed to finish a long list of books in that manner and I’ve done a lot of cleaning too.

The Anti-Bujo, Retro-Psych and All the Wonderful Things I did Yesterday

I joined the Bullet Journal brigade a few years ago and I’m still refining the original template to suit my needs. Here’s my biggest problem with it though—that task list, that one that resembles a skyscraper ? One look at it and I deflate like a cartoon balloon. My unfinished tasks pile up, the dust grows thick, pretty soon I’m living in a Silent Hill like alternative reality and breathing in spores.

What do I do? I don’t look at the list. Instead I use the aforementioned psychs to tackle the most pressing tasks and then, at the end of the day or the next day, I cross off all the wonderful things I’ve done (like improving the air quality of my home). I call it “Retro-Psych” and it feels awfully good, and I temporarily get over that feeling of dread when I look at another task list.

How Did that Month Go?

On a good day, I can produce 2000 words but there’s no guarantee of those being a usable 2000 words. On a good day I can dedicate myself to finishing my chores, working-out, eating healthy homemade food and reserving at least a couple of hours to my commissions, provided I’m not interrupted by other housekeeping/secretarial/parental obligations, which are an inevitable by-product of having to work at home. I have to customize each day according to the time I have available and unfortunately, that leads to a lot of unfinished projects. But there are tiny goals that you can stick to. The ten-minute sketch, five minutes of conceptualization, two minutes of meditation.

The truth is, there are no balanced days. If you lower your expectations, you’re going to be a lot less stressed about achieving your goals because we all know stress can lead to bad performance. You can also mark your progress by recounting your achievements at the end of every month, like an achievement tracker, or figure out what held you up. If it’s people who are tripping you up, then you need to draw boundaries.

Five years ago, I had an artistic block fifteen years in the making as I had lost my faith in discipline, originality and effort. Waiting for inspiration just wasn’t working (Mel Robbins is right). Following the tiny goals rule, I’m more than over it. Fifteen years ago, I started working on a book that I restarted about twelve times, slacking off for months in between, because I wasn’t happy with the quality of my writing, and must have thrown away hundreds of hours of writing. I procrastinated, but the quality of my writing improved from garbage to passable. [3]

Am I Enid Blyton disciplined? No, definitely not. I don’t have the stamina or the ruthlessness. But this isn’t a how-to about diving gung-ho into a new lifestyle. It’s a journey, and sometimes you will feel like there’s no end in sight.

 

 

[1] I spoke about fear-based discipline in my post on How To Get The Sketchbook Started

[2] Zombies, I mean zombies.

[3] No really—yay!

My Favourite Children’s Lit Author Was a Raging Narcissist. How’s Your Childhood Doing?

(Images copyright enidblytonsociety.co.uk)

Ever been shocked to find out that a celebrity figure you thought you knew might be narcissistic, petty and vindictive??

I felt the same way as I watched the BBC movie Enid, based on Enid Blyton’s life, with sober enthusiasm. Helena Bonham Carter gives a riveting performance, although Enid IRL didn’t sound quite so severe in her speech. Either way, just to be sure, I read a few articles, watched a couple of interviews of relatives, friends and acquaintances and an old documentary on her life and work. They all seemed to add up.

I’m not shattered with the knowledge of her complicated life and personality…. as much as fascinated. It’s worth criticising her sexism and racism, which somehow doesn’t come up in the BBC show. Since she was a product of her time (two world wars) xenophobia and sexism were pretty normal underlying biases. (Heck, it’s normal now.) As much as she loved children, her love for them apparently only extended to her audience, when her own daughters intruded into a very packed schedule of 6000-10,000 words a day. Yes, she was a terrible mother. If she was still alive, in today’s cancel culture she would have been cancelled into oblivion.

In any respectable library in post-colonial India her books were in high demand, so the children’s section was always stacked with Enid Blyton end to end. Her books inspired me to write shoddy stories at the age of nine (may those childhood drafts burn in eternal hellfire). My friends and I swapped and re-read tattered copies of The Secret IslandThe Boy Next Door, The Faraway Tree, The Wishing Chair books and Malory Towers until we parted ways. After that, childhood was pretty much over and so were any thoughts of adventure or escaping one’s overbearing parents. Her writing heavily influenced our misguided attempts at starting our own clubs and, I suspect, our morality. Although her popularity has decreased because of the emergence of new writers and politically correct children’s lit, she’s still going strong.

(copyright enidblytonsociety.co.uk)

To know why Enid was the way she was, the movie connects to her father’s abandonment of the family when she was thirteen. The psychic trauma ran deep because it lead her to turn cold and distant towards her brothers and harried mother, who had a lot on her plate after the father left. This didn’t seem to garner much sympathy from Enid, who left at nineteen to make her own way in the world. She never attempted to connect with them again and also chose not to attend either of her parent’s funerals. She made, according to her husband’s second wife, an opportunistic move when she married someone in the publishing industry. Whatever they did worked, and soon she was the country’s most beloved and bestselling children’s author.

I don’t want to get into the tawdry details of her affairs or the parties. Although her kids were well-cared for by nannies, it’s safe to say that after she had them she wanted to have nothing much to do with them, unless it was for a photo op. Her husband insisted on enlisting for the war effort which she resented. She eventually divorced him when he failed to live up to her expectations and to save her reputation, manipulated him into an agreement where she could initiate a divorce based on his adultery with his assistant, as long as he could see his daughters. After that, she went back on her promise, and he would never meet his daughters again.

Here’s where her vindictiveness runs really deep: she used her clout to have her husband removed from his contract with their publisher. All this behaviour points directly to the transference of her rage because of childhood abandonment, which her poor husband unwittingly had to pay for. Her father, whom she adored, initiated her psychic trauma, leading to her mental fantasies of endless childhood, leading to her single-minded pursuit of a career, leading to the books we read as children. Without Enid being the way she was, she would never have had that career that she did, and she was smart enough to know that regardless of her hard work, success rested on her being perceived as a maternal figure. If she had been a male author, the question of paternal worth would not even have come up, she would have just been accepted as a good children’s writer.

We have a tendency to be less forgiving with women especially when it comes to this issue. Just to put this in perspective, here’s a list of male writers whose behaviour is comparatively egregious:

1) Norman Mailer stabbed his wife with a pen-knife twice at a party, nearly killing her. She denied the incident in the hospital bed, possibly to save his reputation. He appeared the next day in an interview where he spoke of the knife as a symbol of manhood.

2) Leo Tolstoy – his wife Sophia Tolstaya birthed 13 children, cared for them, transcribed and edited his massive tomes and got his books published and also put up with his affairs as her health suffered. In return he gave his money away, which left his family impoverished.

3) French author Colette’s husband, Henry Gauthier-Villars (Willy), locked her in a room until she had produced a satisfactory amount of work, took the credit for it and spent the money  because the copyright to her books rested with him.

4) Lewis Carroll took not-so-innocent photos of little kids. Plenty of people have defended these photos as a product of their time.

I’m sure there’s more examples where I’m going.

Enid Blyton was unreasonably protective about her reputation because the persona of the maternal figure was a necessary one. Leaving her family at the age of nineteen too, saved her from the predictable tendency of the eldest female child being pushed into becoming a secondary mother to her younger siblings, putting their needs above hers. Instead, she put her needs above all and if she hadn’t been this ruthless, her books would never have taken off or endured the way they did and instead, become remnants of the past.

How to Get That Sketchbook Started

If you’re a sketchbook stalker, like I am, you must have heard that story about the art teacher who made all his students pile up their sketchbooks on a table and then, to their horror, poured a cup of coffee all over the pile.

The art teacher was trying to make a point to his students about detachment, practice and the misguided urge to create the perfect drawing while learning.

That is a great lesson in itself, but I’m not going to ask you to do that. I believe sketchbooks should be cherished because they serve more than the purpose of skill improvement: they’re a fellow traveller, the silent mirror that accompanies you on your journey that you can open up a year later and reflect on how far you’ve come. It’s not going to judge you and it’s like talking to an old friend.

So…do you have a problem lifting a pencil? Does your imagination resemble a vast wasteland? Did the bright idea you had five seconds ago, after you finally picked up the courage to put it down on paper, look like a bonfire of grawlixes, when the original idea looked considerably more polished in your head?

Let’s be clear, it’s not a lack of motivation that got you here, it’s probably a series of cynical messages, bad advice and possibly some traumatic incident. Imagination, especially in artists (or writers), doesn’t have a timer on it. We even conceptualize when we’re sleeping, whether it’s world-building or thinking about what to make for breakfast the next morning.

So, do you feel like you have this giant cork stuck in your mind, blocking all possibility of creative thought ever finding a resting place on an analogue surface any time soon?

If you looked for this topic, you might have dealt with a lot of wet-blanketing, with people who don’t believe art serves any purpose, or who believe that unless the outcome is perfect, it’s not worth producing. You and I know that both of those are false notions, but, depending our respective environments, whether you were always discouraged all your life or whether you were told you were special (and found out recently that you aren’t), you’re here, and you need to stop wasting precious time.

Let’s talk about where that is. It’s not the worst place to be, but close if you’re supposed to make a living out of it. Remember the times, long ago, when you fearlessly lifted a crayon and scribbled a masterpiece in a few minutes without fear of consequence, opinion or grades? Don’t you wish you could be there again?

In that, grawlixes are useful: they help loosen you up. If you’re short of a large enough surface, pick a newspaper and a crayon or piece of charcoal, sit yourself down and scribble away. Scrawl larger, scrawl smaller. Keep at it for five minutes or more if you like. Ooh? Is it a masterpiece? Should we give it a name?

No.

Throw it away. The purpose of the exercise is to empty your mind and build the connect between your mind and your hand through touch, that deadweight that, under the worst circumstance, you’re so disconnected from. Do this exercise a couple of times a day until you feel empty or rather, clear-headed enough, to start an actual sketchbook.

How do you start?

I find sketchbook prompts highly dissatisfying. For one, I feel disinclined to do what people want me to. Secondly, some of the vague ‘draw an emotion’ prompts annoy me. I’m not ready to dig that deep! So, what do I do?

I know you want to fill your sketchbook with fantastical imagery like a pro-artist. I know you’re want to get that blood pumping, but trust me, you’re not ready yet. Why? Because you’re heading for disappointment. The purpose of this sketchbook is not achievement, it’s stillness. Focus on the mundane, not the fantastical. The magic will arrive on its own.

I begin with a list of mundane objects. A coffee cup, a pen holder, a fork, a spoon or a knife.

If you’re comfortable after a couple of drawings, move on to more complex objects. A chair or a table. Feel free to embellish it with flowers, polka dots, in or around it. Feel free to write down your mood after finishing the drawing. You’ve started a sketchbook. If you’re done with your first drawing, feel free to sit back and admire it. Congratulations, the cork is being wedged out, bit by bit.

The next stage is discipline. I know, discipline is boring. You don’t like reining in your imagination, you want to be free!

I was brought up on discipline, the dronish, robotic type and it helped me through a lot of dark days, because it was fear based. Once real adulthood came, the fear was gone and I was lost. True discipline, the kind that comes with freedom and from within, is a lot harder. That’s why constraints are going to help you.

I believe it was Leonardo da Vinci, the ace procrastinator, who said that “art lives from constraints and dies from freedom.” How can one bloom within constraints? Here’s the deal, the constraints are the shackles and you gotta work within them. What’s going to help you do that? Your imagination.

Aaah.

The first constraint is: Pick one, or maximum two mediums and stick with it.

The second constraint is: Draw mundane objects. Don’t rush it.

The third constraint is: do one drawing a day, minimum. If you feel disinclined, the grawlix exercise will help.

The fourth constraint is: stick to one sketchbook and don’t abandon it till the last page.

These are very basic rules. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes puts it, get the river flowing again.

Let me know how it goes.

Depictions of Childhood Trauma in ‘Jeremy’, ‘Daughter’ and ‘Bee Girl’

TW for mentions of suicide

At thirteen I felt sorry for Jeremy. I figured he had been screaming at those frozen figures of his parents, caught in the middle of an argument, because no one was listening. He’s bullied by his classmates and wildly sketches out his frustration/masterplan, imagining his enemies lying beneath his triumphant ‘V’ atop a mountain  (The dead lay in pools of maroon below). The national flag wrapped around his body signifies the telling problem of gun violence in American schools, leading to the last scene where the camera moves over the frozen, blood-spattered bodies of his classmates. In the unedited version, Jeremy pulls out a gun, puts it in his mouth and pulls the trigger.

The fictional Jeremy is a bit of a delinquent, and though he triumphs through his act of self-inflicted violence, the message, according to Vedder is that: “[…] it does nothing … nothing changes. The world goes on and you’re gone. The best revenge is to live on and prove yourself. Be stronger than those people. And then you can come back.”

The real Jeremy was quieter and had a habit of passing notes to his friend during class, eerily signing his last note with ‘Later days’ instead of his usual entreaty to ‘Write back’. He was the victim of a broken marriage and insufficient counselling. His suicide is the basis for this song, combined with memories of a problematic kid Eddie Vedder knew in school. I confess that the more I learn about the source of inspiration of such songs, the less I like them, but such is the nature of writing.

The childhood stories are telling, as if Eddie himself has been there. Daughter describes a scene in a spartan room, with a mother trying to teach her child something that’s beyond her capabilities, and when the shades are drawn, the abuse begins, hidden from the neighbours. Eddie talks about dyslexia and how “They have to live with that abuse for the rest of their lives. Good, creative people are just fucking destroyed.” The message hits way too close to home, where I’ve witnessed such perfectly “good, creative people” become shadows of their original selves. With daughters, it’s a twofold blow when sexism and parental narcissism intertwine. The estrangement (Don’t call me daughter, not fit to/ The picture kept will remind me) is an active desire to cut the cord, while maintaining a bare reminder of the relationship.

There’s actually a thick line between self-indulgent victimhood and true expression of trauma and grief. If you were a teen in the 90s you might know how relevant Pearl Jam was to your life with each musical release. The band has an uncanny skill in writing profound songs about these themes without slipping into sappy sentimentalism. Musical genius, combined with lyrical genius, produced something that can wrench at your gut even thirty years later.

Bee Girl, written in 1994, was supposedly an ode to the little girl who played the central role in Blind Melon’s No Rain, but in actuality is about Eddie Vedder warning Shannon Hoon, lead singer of Blind Melon, to rein in his drug habit.

No Rain [1] is an ambivalent take on loneliness and depression, because it’s almost chirpy and heady, and if you danced to it as a teenager you might have misheard the lyrics (macabre in my version). The star is a chubby and adorable misfit who is laughed at and rejected after a dance performance, displaying her (less than adequate) skills to random people on the street because, obviously, she loves to dance. I’d interpret the first half, beginning with “You’re gonna die” as a warning, referring to the death of the Bee Girl’s unique self: You don’t wanna be famous/ You wanna be shy/ Do your dances/ Alone in your room/ Becoming a star/ Will become your doom. Although, to be honest, No Rain, video and all isn’t about stardom, it’s more about finding friendship amongst misfits. All the same, the song warns her darkly that: those who can be trusted/can change their mind.

I’d say the lyrics covers both of them as Shannon Hoon, sadly, died in 1995 of a drug overdose.

[1] The song was written by bassist Brad Smith, inspired by a girl he knew with depression who slept through sunny days and then woke up, asking why it wasn’t raining yet (because she’d have to go face the day).

Monstrous Fathers and Wayward Sons: ‘Tumbbad’ is More than Just a Parable About Greed

Director: Rahi Anil Barve

Producers: Sohum Shah, Aanand L. Rai, Mukesh Shah and Amita Shah

Vinayak’s mother, head shorn and red sari clinging to her frame, cuts a lone figure in the pouring rain. She’s waiting in the courtyard of an ancestral home at the command of her feudal lord. The gold coin sitting in the hands of the infant god in the altar is her reward, provided he is satisfied with her service. It’s a chance at a second life for a widow if she serves his sexual needs indefinitely.

But it’s been twelve years and Vinayak is old enough to know that his mother has no status and therefore, neither does he. A lack of status here means poverty, and the only way out of this dual prison of inferior social rank and bondage is the acquisition of wealth: quick, unearned and cursed with suffering.

The sons of Tumbbad are defective creatures. Hastar, beloved offspring of the Goddess of Prosperity, has a craving for his mother’s gifts of gold and wheat. When the other children have had enough, about to destroy him and scatter the pieces across the firmament, his mother comes to his rescue and traps him inside her womb, promising them that he will be forgotten. The promise didn’t last as the Sarkar of Tumbbad builds an altar to Hastar, again, angering the other gods. As punishment for worshipping the delinquent god, the village of Tumbbad is plagued with incessant rain, giving the backdrop a gothic, parochial feeling that could make any indie movie-lover weak in the knees.

Life is complicated for the unacknowledged son. His father doesn’t care if he exists and the knowledge chafes at his psyche, mutilating it over time. He’s intelligent and looking for a way out, but he has no legal rights to the dynastic property. He has to fill that growing void and even when his brother dies, it’s all he can think about. His impotent greed surfaces the same way it has plagued the family for generations, and the four-hundred-year old matriarch hidden away in a dingy house is the only one who knows where the rest of the treasure is hidden. She’s ancient, monstrous and cursed with immortal life, and she warns him about what’s to come.

The mothers: the goddess, the old matriarch, Vinayak’s mother and his wife, are all moral gatekeepers in this story but have no power over their wayward sons. Vinayak, so excellently played by Sohum Shah, has no qualms about becoming the very thing he despised. He softens at the sight of the woman clad in the red sari, rescued from sati the same way his mother was and turns her into his mistress. His son Pandurang follows suit, his clubfoot is his own psychic mutilation and he tries desperately show his father his worth by outdoing him at every vice. Tumbbad might sell itself as a parable about greed, but its flawed characters outshine the principal theme.

The monstrous feminine has a significant presence here. The movie employs several aspects of maternal horror: the dark, claustrophobic recesses of the goddess’s womb, her son’s entrapment, the festering bodies of victims putrefying against its walls, but the true villain in this movie is the father figure. The timeline follows the chronological events in a country that takes any shape its conqueror moulds it into: the British Raj builds itself onto a feudal base it found convenient to exploit and the central government continues the rampant acquisition of land after Independence. Any which way, Vinayak has to serve a more powerful master and his access to Hastar’s secret gold is about to end.

Hastar, named after Hastur, borrowed from Stephen King’s short story Gramma, with the black entity from Lovecraftian Cthulhu Mythos, formed the inspiration for this story. It doesn’t fail in the originality of plot and character design and to add to that, it’s set in the past with charming antique props that further establish the time period [1]. The soundtrack has is its own story, adding to the dizzying tilt from the entrance of the goddess’s womb through the pulsating enclosure of the live, sinewy red walls. A dramatic element that comes into play à la Chekhov’s gun, defines the beginning and end, and I’m sinking into my seat and watching through the gaps between my fingers. I’m overwhelmed, unable to bear the abject horror… and I don’t want anything bad to happen to these wayward sons.

 

[1] I have a tiny issue with 1940s British women traipsing through a bazaar in ankle length gowns.

 

Review by Rhea Daniel. 

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.

In 11th grade, a group of girls from another girl’s school joined our class—perfectly nice girls by my opinion. After sizing them up, a friend of mine 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 again, 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 is 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 remaining belong to a non-domineering subgroup which 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?

Marianismo and The Aunty™  

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 is, regardless of faith, 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 honour killings).

Slut-shaming begins early, around the time of menarche, which is coming at an earlier age on an average, and punishment is based on the potential for ‘wrong’ behaviour before it even happens. The proud carriers of this great tradition, the Aunty™, prides herself is producing this long line of submissive girls in the service of men and boys through surveillance and grooming and public shaming. I don’t think men realise the extent to which they’re protected by women.

Now we have the term Marianismo which was coined nearly fifty years ago that fits the problem, and we can’t acknowledge it often enough. Women and girls benefit from slut-shaming, because they get to be on top of the purity ladder, especially in India, and I don’t think they know that this is a system that very few can win. Ironically, even Aunties are sexualised (there’s a lot of Aunty porn out there).

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.

The Truly Independent Female

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.

Millennial Cat Ladies

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’.

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.

Screenshot 2019-10-25 at 11.06.26 AM

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 (blaming mothers for the violent actions of their male children.)

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

Water, Not Oil: A Case for James Bond

Scannable Document on 03-Sep-2019 at 11_01_06
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.

IMG_0154
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 :D.

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 their plans 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.”

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 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. No, not really…

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 by a people’s movement.

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

(2) Link leads to a documentary which is worth seeing.

Drowning in the Wonders and the Was

IMG_7509

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

IMG_7442.jpg

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.