“Do you realize? To dad, you are Chomsky and I am Prada”, said my sister A.
My father had just asked her for some fashion advice over my head. Earlier in the day when he asked me for some political opinion, I had provided it. And this was what prompted my sister to make this observation.
Neither of us were flattered by the compartments my father had, oh so conveniently, set us down in. A didn’t want to be just a fashion house . And I, definitely, didn’t want to be compared to an ageing geek (no offence to either the ageing or the geeks). But this wasn’t new to us. When I showed faint interest in History during high school, my desk was inundated with history books. When I studied Literature in college, all the English novels that my father bought, found their way to my room. And when A studied Math, everything to do with mathematics were delivered to her table. Once, in a fit of passionate protest, A took all the novels to her room and I was left with books on science and mathematics. The mother was not excluded from this bracketing exercise. When she did a course on Instructional Design, she found many books on ID on her work space. Sometimes, the straitjacketing can be complimentary. My father appreciates A’s wit and humour so much that he calls it a ‘brand’.
But all this says something significant about stereotypes. And no it isn’t that they are here to stay. That we all know. But, more importantly, stereotypes are caricatures. And caricatures are fun. But that’s also all they are.
The freedom of expression is well and truly under fire. All our national debates seem to revolve around some form of freedom of expression or the other. With social media, much of our personal debates also seem to centre around the freedom of expression.
Take, for instance, this reprimanding email (from an aunt) that my sister and I received for quarreling on my Facebook wall. For the record, the quarrel was in jest. And yet the email told us off for fighting in public. Just to put things in perspective, I have been an adult for more than 10 years now and my sister is 5 years my junior. I reassured my aunt that it was indeed in jest.
But what if it wasn’t? What if I did have a public spat with someone? Wasn’t it my right? What was it that made someone wag-a-finger-scold us? What I concluded was this. Yes, I had the right to have a public spat. And yes, it is none of my aunt’s business. No, there is no question about it. And yes, I have wasted my time and energy thinking about it. So does this mean that my freedom of expression is not important? It is only as important as my aunt’s scolding has made it out to be. The freedom of expression debate sticks us into a polarized world of pro-against that, in reality, exists only in the minds of those against.
The recent Salman Rushdie controversy is a case in point. Here are the facts. Rushdie might have written blasphemous fiction. However, you cannot issue fatwas and threaten to kill him. He is free to move anywhere in India including Jaipur. If the government cannot provide enough security, it has to acknowledge administrative failure. Period.
No need for Chetan Bhagat’s pompous sound bite imploring the media not to make a hero of Rushdie. No need for Justice Katju’s comments about the poor and substandard nature of Rushdie’s novels. No need, in short, for the media brouhaha that ensued. What else was read and discussed at the Jaipur Literary Festival, we will never know. And all this for a book that was published more than 20 years ago.
I am reminded of a year ago when Aditya Thakeray, that philistine offspring of Udhav Thakeray and undergraduate student at St. Xaviers college, decided that Rohinton Mistry’s Such a Long Journey should not form part of English Literature course. I will not go into ‘why’ because, like Rushdie’s blasphemy, the ‘why’ is immaterial. And yet, he wields so much power ( so bad for one so young) that the university vice-chancellor removed it from the syllabus effective immediately.
Like my aunt, these numbskulls have been allowed to determine the contours of the ‘freedom of expression’ debate. The truth is I don’t want to ever defend my right to free speech ever again.
And with that, I am off to read The Satanic Verses (a book that my country has deemed unsuitable for me), a PDF version of which was posted on Facebook by an ever resourceful friend.
I picked up The Gaze after listening to a speech by the author on TED talks. I usually give a book 50-100 pages to draw me in. And the first couple of chapters were bleak. I didn’t quite understand what was happening and where the plot was headed, mostly because I was busy deciphering a rather confusing narrative. But instead of putting me off, it challenged me to stay on as if to say, ‘see if you can make sense of me’. And I was equal to the task. I decided to let go of the plot- one of the reasons I was getting bogged down was because I was trying to tie it up with the back cover blurb- so I let go of what I had read there. And I just focused on deciphering the narrative. Which was the best thing I could have done. Shafak has a delicious narrative style that sometimes makes you want to re-read sentences/ phrases and sometimes read them aloud (making everybody around you think you are slightly cuckoo). She effortlessly goes back and forth in time and space and has us surrounded not only by people who are stared at but also the quintessential voyeurs i.e. all the rest of us, both men and women.
And it is in this circumstance, when the reader is surrounded by all these fantastic –cum-terrible-cum-wonderful creatures and voyeurs, that she introduces the Dictionary of Gazes. And who better to obsess over it than B-C, the dwarf. The words that go into the Dictionary of Gazes now appear intermittently throughout the novel.
So, in short, I loved reading this novel. And here’s why. The narrator of the story is nameless. This is a brilliant way of telling you that this character is a ‘nobody’. When you name something, you give it that much more importance. In this case, the idea communicated that the character had a really low self-esteem not least because she was obese. The only other place that I have come across the use of the nameless narrator is Ghosh’ s The Shadow Lines.
There are a couple of chapters that go to 18th century Siberia and 17th century France. Shafak is describing the origins of two spectacles that form part of an exhibition of spectacles in 19th century Turkey. Before delving into these background stories she introduces a caveat in the previous chapter suggesting that the reader can skip the following chapter completely if she so wished. I didn’t. Personally, I loved both chapters because it gave a background to something I wasn’t quite comprehending. But more importantly, both of them was talking about some violation that had taken place that had led to the creation of these spectacles. But I also think that her suggestion was interesting. Towards the end she says there are many ways of telling a story and repeats the stories without the key violation. There is no spectacle that is created, rendering both stories useless. One is left wondering if the reader could really have left out those two chapters in her reading. I will never know.
Finally, her language is full of imagery. I also found some ( not too much) similarities with ‘magical realism’. Both of these made the reading so much more engaging. Sometimes imagery is easy to get but this kind of imagery was challenging, and so there was a continuous dialogue with the reader. Her language was also whimsical at times. This was one of the things that took time getting used to. But in the end, it was also one of the things that made the reading challenging and interesting.
A final caveat- this is a translation from the Turkish original. I am not sure how much of the ‘challenging’ aspects of the language of the book comes from it being Turkish and how much from it being an inefficient translation ( if it is). Perhaps someone who knows both languages can tell. But I do wonder how much was lost in translation.
When I was 18, I wrote a short story for my college magazine. With a first person narrative, it was the story of a commercial sex worker from a ‘respectable’ middle class background who ‘chose’ to sell sex in an attempt to run away from her boring and rather predictable life. When I wrote it, the first people to read it were family and reactions were as varied as could be. My mother loved it but as usual had lots of inputs for me to improve it. One cousin was ‘relieved that your description of Kamathipura (the commercial sex district in Bombay) is sketchy’. Another cousin felt I was ‘trying too hard to shock’. And my 13 year old sister, who couldn’t disassociate the ‘I’ of the narrator from her sister, was in tears. She couldn’t understand why I would feel this way about life!
Many years later, I wrote a short story about an old man. A friend read it and her immediate reaction was, ‘I don’t like it one bit’. A week later, she called to say that she might have been mistaken. Perhaps she just wasn’t ready for what the story was trying to tell her. Later, she thought there were some great ideas that were in there and that she must be open to them. A writer aunt loved it from the beginning and gave me inputs to improve it.
My friends reaction would be how I would describe my own reaction to Meena Kandasamy’s poetry. The first poem I read of hers was
Rather crass, I thought! To the extent that it mocks the caste system, it is political. It is also full of sarcasm, hatred and irreverence- all conducive for making great poetry. And yet, to me this was and is very very mediocre stuff. Then I read,
Again, I wasn’t impressed. Don’t get my wrong. The questions are all legitimate. And yet, theres so much concern with the content, that the play with new structure i feel is a half-hearted dabbling. This is when I start feeling that ‘here is a woman with all this legitimate anger and has decided to use poetry to express it…but what next?’ This is also where I feel that there is more ‘activist’ in her than ‘poet’. And then I read this delightful piece,
Beautiful, powerful, political, angry, and indignant! This was just what I wanted to read. I could now see the ‘poet’ in her. And then this,
oh haunting poetry at its best. Loving it…anger, despair, the injustice of it all with a skillful wielding of words. And then I read this,
By now I am converted. I love Meena! I decide to go back to the first 2 poems. Give them another chance. I tell myself, ‘Perhaps I am not ready for their hard-hitting candour. Perhaps I don’t like them because they are, infact, threatening my caste. Perhaps I am a casteist after all.”
But no! I am not liking those even now! And now I am thinking may be for someone churning out poems by the dozens, Meena is entitled to a few crass ones. Literature serves two purposes for the writer- to communicate and to be therapeutic. Sometimes the therapeutic side takes precedence and the general aesthetic of it is thrown to the winds. Either way its legitimate poetry.
Like my story on the commercial sex worker…however unlikely, i think the story is today, it just had to be told because all my commentators were right. I was trying hard to shock; I was talking about something (Kamathipura) I didnt know; and I was writing from the perspective of an 18 year old middle class predictable girl who was literally no different from me!Funnily enough, all this ‘criticism’ is exactly why the story needed to be written.