Sometimes I think of them, Who were once too familiar, I think of them, I think of them, behind a curtain of laughter, a smile I want to shake them, I want to shake them, and ask Remember? Don't you remember? Perhaps with every shake they'll only rattle like a broken wooden doll that can no longer sing, And I'll look at my fingers And find they are not my fingers anymore...
Wednesday, June 24, 2015
Three words. Stumped, I stare at the screen over and over again. I sense my mind zoning out, helpless I watch the words unsettle my universe. I have the cosmic mute button pressed on my face. What do I say? What is there left to say anyway.
I am reminded of the hot Adyar Sunday afternoons. Sweltering heat, narrow sticky walls, brown steps stained with beetle juice. And you at the end of it, smiling, waiting for me to come after class. Cycle rides. Honks. The Sun. Weary faces caught in their routine. Distracted flower sellers carelessly sprinkling water on their wilting roses. My feet inches off the burning tar. Sweat spreading on your back slowly like a coloniser’s army. The uncomfortable steel poking my bottom. Saltiness. Why do people say love is sweet? It fails to make sense to me. Love is salty like the sweat you broke giving me cycle rides when there wasn’t enough to spare for an auto. Like the finger tips, dusty, tired. Like tears we coaxed out of each other. Like blood. If love has to have a taste, it has to be salty. Not sweet.
Love is given so willingly when it is given. No complaints, no resentments. I would have come walking, or shared a ride and felt the same about you as always. But I suppose that is where love hides, in that extra mile, that extra bit of trouble that is no trouble at all. The chappals that were mended. Photostats taken. Deadlines met. I was the scripture, you were the religion. Purpose, meaning, the crux of life, the summary.
Where do feelings go when they die? Where are the bones I can bury? The ashes I can blow over the wind? I see the narrow line between death and disappearance. But I don’t know what is easier to handle. If there was a way one could squeeze out meanings from words, what do we call what is left? What do we do with all the alphabets sticking on our fingers like obstinate chunks of glue? The phrases broken in half, shapeless.
This old city must have witnessed countless encounters of that which is believed to be love. A million cycle rides over 100s of years. A thousand smiles flashed on a faceless mass that is all those of who have ever fallen in love here. Patriots. Britishers. Workers. Kings. Theosophians. Over years. And so the wind that blows here tastes salty like love. A saltiness that is beyond that of the Besant nagar beach or the sun broken sweat. All that love forgotten and fallen into oblivion. Two more people into that endless nameless pit. Where now only forgetfulness kisses obscurity. No more warm embraces, no impatient waitings.
My mind races back. Eyes narrow down on the words on the screen. From a stranger that was once you. Somebody who knew how I was better than I myself did. Somebody others asked how I was when they wanted to know how I really was. So strange. I am now estranged from my own words. Stranded on an island. With a lonely smart phone. Not smart enough to wheedle a word out of me.
Friday, June 12, 2015
The last year of my college was pretty much spend in isolation. Me alone with my illness and worried family members unknowingly intruding into my solitude with their impotent concern. As a child, I was never prone to sickness. Even the once in the year fever was never prolonged for more than a day or two. So the whole hospitals-doctors-injections-xrays-multi coloured energy draining tablets thing was a pretty new scene for me.
I was terrified of injections back then. Was till two years ago, to be more truthful. I remember getting into IIT and wishing I hadn’t when I saw the list of medical tests and precautionary vaccinations I had to get. And the look on the nurse’s face when she was about to inject me and I already had tears rolling down my check. It looks so funny in retrospect. The illness changed things. Gave me plenty of opportunity to fight the fear. Got injections even on my neck. LOL. I am not scared of injections anymore. That’s the best part, the only good part I sometimes feel, about having fought and recovered. I am still scared of spiders though.
One never knows when the seed sprouts and the sapling sees the sky. Or when the minute hand moves from five to ten. Changes happen when we aren’t looking. Things that grow in our absence have a surprising power to change the course of our lives. So many things happened while I was in college yet it was the things, the invisible litte roots and webs that grew in my absence that choked my peace to a sudden and violent death.
Confined in the four walls of a room it is hard to measure the distance that grows between you and the things that matter to you. ‘Cause inside your head, in your memory they are only a touch away, waiting on the other side of the wall for you to return. But when life is disrupted and then you return to life you may not find things that you left behind as they were.
To me it changed so much that after the return I often found myself wishing I had given in. That a peaceful sleep was better than a broken reality. Like the proud emperor who won the war and returned to find piles of dead bodies waiting for him in the battlefield pointing to the emptiness of his victory. I wish I could turn to Buddhism or any ism that would take me far far away from the battlefield I was forced to return to.
But walking out on life and freeing yourself from everything that define you is hardly ever that easy. When you come back physically drained from an illness and see that solace is still far away it can weigh very heavily on you. Last year has been so difficult for me. I deserved a treat for having overcome my fear of injections. Instead life gave me a year to teach myself how not to fall into depression. I don’t know how far I have been successful. But from where I stand now,I feel have come a very long way.
I am more than healthy now. And thinking of ways to shed some extra health specially around the waist lol. And I am not really sad, though occasionally I feel bad about things. But I am drained. Drained is what I am but there are so many things to be done. Exams comings. At least 50 books left to be studied. Fuck. People are going to be asking me what the hell I have been doing the past one year when they see my results. Which I can pretty much guarantee will be awful. Everything is so easy when you look from the outside.
WHAT IS INDIA AS SUCH?
Things of greatness are often hard to decipher. Understanding India therefore is an exercise that echoes the upanishadic story of the son who is asked by his father to find the tree within the seed. Will Durant, the American philosopher, while showering praises and acknowledging contributions of India to philosophy, science and religion concludes that “Mother India in many ways is the mother of us all”. However, for an Indian on the other hand it might be harder to conceive let alone articulate what India actually is. For someone who dwells in the belly of a whale, while knowing its essence, and being in many ways, one with it unfortunately misses the bird’s eye view.
Everything that India is now is a culmination of over 5000 years worth of History and the meanings and contradictions that come with it. To understand India, therefore one must dig deeper than ‘India’, deeper that ‘Bharat’ and stand at the doors of the Indus Valley Civilisation. From there on the veins of our history like rivers spread into the ‘Saptasindhava’- the land of seven rivers, the cradle of the Vedas. Like a canvas that has been painted over and over, again and again, India witnessed a splash of colours through multiple invasions, immigration and fusion of races and ethnicities. The Aryans, Scythians, Parthians, Huns, Turks, Mughals, Portuguese, Dutch, French and finally the British came to India, enriched India and in return were enriched by India. Until in the end the painting abstract and indiscernible, glowed in the enigmatic beauty that only blurred boundaries and shapelessness can give.
WHAT REALLY IS INDIA?
Demographically, India is 29 states and 7 union territories with a population of 1.2 billion people who are mostly harmless. In geometric terms India is a quadrilateral. The gleaming white Himalayas on its upper end can put Colgate to eternal shame. Down south, on either side the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea caresses India tenderly while in the West the sands of the Thar await the footprints of weary travellers. The scenic East is home to the Khasi, Garo and Jaintia hills and happy tribesmen who are really into flute music and rice wine. Rivers and mountain ranges run across the Indian heartland. The age old Aravallis, the Vindhyas, the Eastern and Western Ghats stand tall and proud, silent spectators of the many stories that played out on this soil. With the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Godavari, the Narmada and many more rivers flow centuries of faith, belief, customs and worship. Indians share India with some of the world’s rarest plants and animals such as the Crinun lily, Himalayan snow leopard, the Bengal tiger and the great Indian Bustard. Apart from the rare and the exotic we also have the monkeys, lions, buffalos and crows. While it is true that the geographic and the bio- diversity of India adds to its splendour as the French historian Ernest Renan says, mountains hardly carve out nations.
India resides in the heart of the multiple races and ethnicities that dwell in this country. It is a cobweb of religious, political, racial and linguistic identities. A confluence of celebrations and conflicts. India celebrates Diwali, Holi,Pongal, Onam, Bihu, Christmas and Eid. India also fights about who worships who, whose God is the real God, who speaks the best language, how much river for the neighbouring state to drink and so on and so forth.
India is Hindu. India is Muslim. Christian, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist. India is black, and white. Dravidian, Mongoloid and Aryan. India worships Cows while a good percentage of its population feasts on its delicious God. India venerates the Shiva Linga, the symbol of cosmic birth while those of ordinary men are things of great taboo. The temples of Khajuraho stoically watch as the couples get beaten here on Valentine’s Day. India claps when women their clothes off on screen and frowns at the slightest display of skin in real life. India tucks in Giordano nicely and preaches how the Vedas are the home of all knowledge. India is the speeding BMW and the sweat broken on a rickety horse cart. India is rasmalai. India is thairsadam. India is also chicken biryani.
SO WHAT IS INDIA REALLY?
On the surface India is another country in South Asia holding a lot of promise on the path of economic growth and political strength. The erstwhile land of snake charmers and elephants now replaced by IT professionals and BPOs. In the international scenario India is definitely the next big thing. To the world, India is the land of yoga, the soul of Mahabharata, the origin of shoonya (zero), the inventor of Chess. To the average foreigner India is where Gandhi comes from and one of the quintessential places the Hollywood protagonist has to go to for spiritual uplift. India is all this, the legends it gave birth to, the stereotypes plastered all over it.
While it is true that India is inside the head of every Indian, India is more than what Anderson would call an imagined community, a social construct. It is more than Renan’s collective memory and collective forgetfulness. Finding India requires more than an atlas. Maps can’t lead one to a nation. India is a feeling that dwells in the sultry April heat and cold January mornings. The fine balance between overcrowded trains and empty school buses. India is Mangalyaan, India is also the coconut that is broken for the safe journey of the space shuttle. It is honour and honour killing. The majestic peacock and also the crow that idly sits on an ox. The glorious tiger and the hungry street dog.
Sunday, March 29, 2015
“She [the young girl] learns that in order to be happy she must be loved; in order to be loved, she has to wait for love. Woman is Sleeping Beauty, Cap O'Rushes, Cinderella, Snow White, the one who receives and endures. In songs and tales you see a young man departing adventurously to seek the woman; he slays dragons, he fights against giants; she is confined in a tower, a castle, a garden, a cavern, chained to a rock, captive, sleeping she is waiting. One day my prince will come . . .Some day he'll come along, the man I love .. ..Woman's supreme necessity is to charm the male heart; they may be intrepid, adventurous, this is, however, the reward all heroines are striving for, and most often the only virtue they are required to possess is beauty. Therefore, it is comprehensible that care for her physical appearance may become for the young girl a real obsession”
Simon De Beauvoir (The Second Sex, 306)
Fairytales have existed among us for centuries, across cultures. They amuse children, stir their imagination and shape their perception of life and reality. Imparted orally and through books fairytales are inseparably interwoven with the idea of childhood. They have a deep impact on our psyche and stay with us for a long time. It is precisely for this reason that these tales that we come across when we are young stay with us through adulthood and till old age.
Stories of Cinderella, Red Ridinghood, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Beauty and the Beast and so on are read and told in almost every part of the world. They are global and universal both in their readership and appeal. They mould children’s understanding of many dichotomies such as good and evil, beautiful and ugly, man and woman etc. Therefore to look at these popular fairytales from a feminist point of view is of utmost significance.
This paper looks at some of the most popular fairytales by The Brothers Grimm and Perrault and the idea of womanhood that they perpetrate. It also looks at some of the Disney versions of these fairytales considering in today’s times that is the easiest and most common way in which children come into contact with these stories. Critical theory, feminist reworking of fairytales and criticism of the feminist criticism have also been looked at.
ALISON LURIE AND FAIRYTALE LIBERATION
Though Beauvoir predicted it decades earlier a real feminist engagement with fairytales happened post 1970s after the publication of two landmark articles Fairytale Liberation (1970) and Witches and Fairies (1971) by Alison Lurie. Through these articles Lurie argued that fairytales can become a true source of female empowerment. She stated ‘ that strong female characters could be found not only among the classic fairy tales, but also among the much larger and more representative corpus of lesser-known tales. The presence of these competent, resourceful, and powerful female characters, Lurie concluded, ought to make fairy tales "one of the few sorts of classic children's literature of which a radical feminist would approve”’. (Haase,2).
Lurie’s articles were met with widespread acceptance as well as criticism. Fellow feminist critic Marcia R. Lieberman opined that the point that Lurie was trying to make was “beside the point” in her response to Lurie 'Some Day My Prince Will Come': Female Acculturation through the Fairy Tale’ (1972). According to Lieberman the presence of strong female characters in the not so popular fairytales didn’t make a difference since "Only the best-known stories, those that everyone has read or heard, indeed, those that Disney has popularized, have affected masses of children in our culture”( As qtd in Haase 2). ‘She was neither sympathetic to Lurie's main argument that fairy tales portrayed strong female characters, nor receptive to her important qualification that liberating stories had been obscured by males who dominated the selection, editing, and publication of fairy tales’. (Haase,2).
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS: TROPES IN FAIRY TALES
Fairytales are a rich source of archetypes and tropes. We have the damsels in distress, the jealous female (who is often a step mother, a friend or a sister), the Evil Witch, the Evil Step mother, the Good Fairy and of course, the Prince Charming. Most of the princesses or the central female characters are either orphans or only has a single parent. This holds true for Cinderalla, Rapunzel, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty who all also happen to damsels in distress waiting for rescue. No one of them possess any kind of agency nor do anything apart from waiting to alter their destiny.
On the otherside you have the femme fatales- evil step moms and witches to be precise, who have agency but are evil. It is interesting to note how women with power and agency are portrayed to be corrupt, ugly , undesirable and evil. They are never the role models for young girls. The role models are always the passive beautiful princesses waiting for Prince Charming. Infact in many cases these princesess don’t have much to do with the story at all even though they are the title characters. They don’t alter the plot. Their purpose in the story is to be the passive trophy that the prince eventually achieves. The slaying of dragons, killing witches, defeating robbers and armies are all left for the men.
Upon a closer look we can see the Madonna-whore syndrome playing out in these fairytales. The women are never painted in shades of grey. They are either pure as white or evil as black. Beauty is good and ideal, and ugliness is Villainy. To quote Dworkin,
There are two definitions of woman [in fairy tales]. There is the good woman. She is a victim. There is the bad woman. She must be destroyed. The good woman must be possessed. The bad woman must be killed, or punished. Both must be nullified. . . . [the ending of these tales] tells us that happiness for a woman is to be passive, victimized, destroyed, or asleep.. . . It tells us that the happy ending is when we are ended, when we live without our lives, or not at all. Andrea Dworkin (As qtd in Kuykendal, Sturm,2)
Disney has adapted almost all of the most popular fairytales into movies. In doing so, the stereotypes often have been over played and the violent versions by the Brothers Grimm are either toned down or eliminated altogether. Be it Cinderella or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty these movies seem to suggest that beauty is everything and the only thing a woman can possibly excel at is housework. While The Little Mermaid hints that the only way you can win a man’s heart is by having the perfect body, Beauty and the Beast suggests that only beautiful people can be good, and true love is worth an abusive relationship. The Little Mermaid, the movie and the fairy tale alike is particularly problematic. The mermaid trades her voice for a pair of legs. She is symbolic of the woman who is eternally silenced. While in the original tale her heart is broken and she is turned into foam, Disney tones it down to a happily ever after.
In between such stereotypes Disney’s Mulan comes across as a sigh of relief. Inspired from a famous Chinese ballad this movie challenges stereotypes and breaks down gender roles. Mulan takes the place of her ailing father in the Chinese army under the pretense of being a guy. She through her intelligence and skills defeats the Hun, wins the trust and love of the prince who initially throws her out upon discovering that she is a woman and saves China. The romance develops slowly and is earned. They don’t fall in love because they are both pretty. They fall in love because they appreciate and value each other as human beings.
HERO VS HEROINE
Often men and women found in fairy tales are polar opposites of each other. Passivity and obedience is prescribed for women whereas action and adventure is prescribed for men. In his work A Closer Look at Literature Discussion Groups: The Influence of Gender on Student Response and Discourse K.S Evans opines that ‘Fairy tales define women as beautiful objects, powerless to alter the events in their lives, while fairy tale men are powerful agents of their own destiny. There are characters within these tales who defy these descriptions; however, their defiance comes with a price. Powerful women in fairy tales are generally ugly if not also evil’ ( As qtd in Kuykendal, Sturm 2 ) Michael Mendelson in Forever Acting Alone: The Absence of Female Collaboration in Grimms’ Fairy Tales extends this argument when he points out that ‘the exception to this rule is the wise woman or fairy godmother; however, these powerful women are still separated from traditional fairy tale women in that they are not truly human.’ (ibid.2)
If a woman was anything other than beautiful, obedient, passive and patient she couldn’t expect to be a princess. The only thing she was expected or required to do was to look pretty. There is no felt need to develop as a character because she was already perfect to begin with anyway. However ‘Heroes succeed because they act, not because they are. They are judged not by their appearance or inherent sweet nature but by their ability to overcome obstacles, even if these obstacles are defects in their own characters’ (Stone,5)
GENDER ROLES AND SEXUALITY
Fairytales act as a medium to familiarise children with the way they are expected to behave in the society. And they clearly give two different, often opposing behavioural patterns for either gender. Psychiatrist Eric Berne considers fairytales to be actual programs for behaviour. ‘The cultural norms represented in fairy tales play a large part in the socialization processes of the child who reads them. Contained within these cultural norms are the shared beliefs about gender roles held by the child’s society’ (Kuykendal, Sturm 3) Therefore fairytales in a way instructs the readers how to behave and how not to behave, what is desirable and what isn’t etc. The unhealthy importance given to beauty and physical appearance especially for women in the society that we live in today can be considered to be reflective of this.
Overt sexual references, if they even find their way into original collections, rarely appear in children's books. Translations of the Grimms, for example, usually omit the fact that Rapunzel's initial encounter with the prince resulted in twins. The Grimms' "other" Cinderella, "All-Kinds-of-Fur" is usually left out altogether.(Stone,6) Many Freudian readings of fairytales have also been done. It is curious to observe that be it Rapunzel or Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, the girl is locked or cast away during puberty. Phallic symbols such as Rapunzel’s tall tower, or the sharp object that pricks Sleeping Beauty there by putting her to sleep are all suggestive of entrapment of female sexuality by patriarchy. Women are also often not allowed to discover their own sexuality. King Bluebeard’s wives are executed for looking into ‘forbidden rooms’ and in very many stories girls are punished for breaking jugs and pots.
There are ofcourse certain fairytales where we do see the women have virtues other than beauty as well as agency. These women use their wit to change their destiny and triumph over the evil. One such story is that of Hansel and Gretel. Gretel successfully kills the witch saving herself and her brother. She is one of the very few heroines who actually slay the antagonist. Then there is the story of Molly Whuppiee who tricks the giant into killing his own wife and daughters instead of her and her sisters. Also she accepts the King’s challenges and gets her sisters married to the princes before she herself gets married. The story of the Clever Peasant Lass is also a popular fairytale where because of her intelligence a girl from humble beginnings ends up being the queen.
MODERN FAIRYTALES AND REWORKINGS
Over the years feminist writers and others have reworked many of the old fairytales and have also come up with new ones more suitable to our times. While many writers resort to role reversals with the prince being passive and wimpy and the princess being the rescuer others try to be more egalitarian in their approach. Disney’s 2012 movie Brave tells the story of Princess Merida who is determined to change her destiny and that of her family. She runs from marriage, is impulsive, finds her own partner, slays the bad guys and brings change. Robert Munsch’s The Paper Bag Princess, 1980), Alison Lurie’s Clever Gretchen and Other Forgotten Folktales (1980) Ethel Johnston Phelps’ The Maid of the North: Feminist Folk Tales from Around the World and James Thurber’s Fables for Our Time are some other examples of modern fairytales.
CRITICISM OF FEMINIST CRITICISM
Most feminist criticise popular fairytales of today as gendered and not representative. ‘ Kay Stone calls it an an unfortunate source of negative female stereotypes . . . [and] . . . one of the many socializing forces that discouraged females from realizing their full human potential’ (As qtd in Kuykendal and Sturm,2)
Feminist critics and fairytale writers however are themselves criticised for blindly reversing the traditional gender roles than bringing in any real change. Many scholars are of the opinion that in order to be a feminist tale a mere reversing of patriarchal values won’t do. The story has to be re-visioned and rewritten. A truly feminist children’s story has recently been defined as one in which the main character is empowered, regardless of gender.(Kuykendal,Sturm,3). Otherwise the story would become more fractured than feminist. Writers like Donna Jo Napoli have been hailed as authentic feminist fairytale writers for abstaining from role reversing and successfully reengaging with the story. In her version of Beauty and the Beast, titled Beast, the beast is devoid of voice while the reader is exposed to the thoughts of Beauty. The story also successfully shows that even not so beautiful people can be good.
Fairytales are an unavoidable part of childhood. And children shape the future of the society. Not all girls are “princesses” nor are all boys “prince charmings” and many of them may not want to be what these traditional fairy tales prescribe for them. When they put pressure on girls to be beautiful they force boys to be adventurous and outgoing. Children should be made to understand that they can be whatever they want to be and it is okay for girls to want to slay dragons and okay for boys to want to look good, or like unicorns. Therefore it is of utmost importance that they are exposed to stories that truly inspire them to achieve their complete potential and not perpetrate gender stereotypes. Only then can there be a happily ever after for everyone.
1. Haase,Donald. ‘ Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship: A Critical Survey and Bibliography’ Marvels and Tales, Wayne State University Press, 2000.
2. Kawan,Christine Shojaei. ‘ A Masochism Promising Supreme Conquests: Simone de Beauvoir's Reflections on Fairy Talesand Children's Literature’, Marvels and Tales, Wayne State University Press, 2002.
3. Kuykendal,L.F ; Sturm, W.Brian. ‘We Said Feminist Fairy Tales, Not Fractured Fairy Tales! : The Construction of the Feminist Fairy Tale: Female Agency over Role Reversal’, Children and Library, 2007.
4. Stone, Kay. ‘Things Walt Disney Never Told Us’, The Journal of American Folklore, University of Illinois Press, 2009.