Sputnik Sweetheart: Of mirror worlds and split souls

To my companion in all things Murakami (and many others),

You are a storyteller yourself. So tell me,have you ever just picked up your pen and written down something, seemingly normal,  and begun to realize its depths only much later?

A little under two years ago, I penned down a story called ‘The boy and the mirror’. It was written within an hour, reflected some of the very conventional romantic turmoil in my life at that moment and it was a concept that just flowed, without much thought being attached to it. It is fascinating how much your own mind can conceal from you. I see that story now in ways I hadn’t even thought about earlier.

Sputnik Sweetheart refuses to leave my brain, and this is, in particular, because of one specific incident that ties in to these other thoughts. One of the women, Miu, is trapped in a Ferris Wheel at night, and she happens to have a pair of binoculars. With nothing much to do except wait, she trains her binoculars on her bedroom window visible in the distance. And then she sees herself inside her bedroom. I won’t give you details lest it ruin the book for you. But to cut a long story short, it is as if her consciousness is split into two. She is in two places at the same time, if you know what I mean. And no, it isn’t a time-turner story.

Which brings me to, Horcruxes. I know it isn’t quite the same idea. But I have always wondered if there are other ways to create horcruxes, accidentally perhaps. Is it only murder that can tear one’s soul? Perhaps love can as well. This is a good question to research- does love in facts rip the soul, and if so, is the rupture permanent or temporary? But that is for another time.  (By the way, it is interesting how Riddle’s diary would have had fifty percent of his soul, and it was created with the murder that is perhaps the most justifiable out of all that he committed- that of the man who abandoned his mother.)

Moving on from that detour into Harry Potter,  I don’t know if you’ve felt this way- torn, between parts of yourself. I have, on occasion. It is interesting because of late, I have been reading some bits of spiritual philosophy that are focused on considering oneself whole, as an integrated being. You aren’t torn, or split, or divided, it claims- it is a construct of your mind. Well, of course, it is. But I do need to live with my mind. I cannot arrive at a certain destination in my mind-map before it is time.Perhaps the process can be accelerated, but honestly, I have a feeling that conflict leads to the best stories.

So coming back to you, the storyteller, would you keep the peace or the stories?

Sputnik Sweetheart-Of dogs, women and writers’ block

This is not a review of Sputnik Sweetheart

I read Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart in three and a half hours today. Not my personal best, but hey, it’s over two hundred pages and I have had, of late, a chronic inability to finish anything. (So well done me!)

It is a book about a woman. Two, in fact, and a man. Except it is not what you are imagining it to be. If you are indeed imagining anything- if you aren’t, well done you, you haven’t given in to certain stereotypes, mostly accurate though they might be.

This is not a review. I hate reviewing books. Perhaps hate is too strong a word because I do not hate anything. But reviewing a book, while a necessary, practical thing seems to me to be a crime in some ways.

Before I explain why I think so, I must point out that I had not intended for this piece to be written in sets of three lines. Now that it has happened, it doesn’t seem a bad way of doing this, which basically means that I shall do it this way until I get bored.

Moving on to book reviews. I think somehow, that no matter how rational you are, a review tends to colour your perspective of that book, even if it is to a really infinitesimal extent. Try loving a book if a person you absolutely hate recommended it.

Well, this might also turn around the entire premise and make you not hate the person ever again. That has been known to happen- books recommend people nicely, don’t you think? But basically, here I am trying to say- this is not a review.

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Dog credits: Yours truly Rest of the picture credits: http://www.dreamstime.com

This is a ramble. This is the fourth Murakami I’ve read. Like all the others, he picks the oddest of things to make one sad. For example, for years, I have known that the dog, Laika was the first animal in space.

What I didn’t stop to wonder was if she ever made it back. Well, as things turn out, she didn’t. The Russians left a dog out there all alone in space. I wonder why. Seriously, I’d possibly be okay if it were a cat or a goldfish. But a dog?

One thing I like about Murakami is that his women aren’t what you’d call normal. Sometimes, they’re a bit too esoteric but most of the time they’re real, confused women. The girl in this book, Sumire, reminds me of me.

I do not know if the above fact makes me happy or sad. That is possibly why I chose a Murakami book to finish in three and a half hours. It doesn’t decide for you what you need to be. The characters are too busy dealing with their mess to pay any attention to you.

One thing does irk me though. Amidst all the discussions of people who’re only half  of themselves in the book, one never gets to find out the male character’s name (he’s called K). Given what a fascinating man he is, it is rather a shame to know his innermost fears and not his name. I believe I shall name him after my friend. They do resemble each other after all. I don’t think Mr. Murakami would mind.

Savitri Bai Phule

They say television is inspired from reality, although a large proportion of our Indian TV shows might compel us to believe otherwise. Many members of the audience who have gotten teary eyed whilst watching “Balika Vadhu” might not know of the real-life personality who went from being a child bride to one of the most prominent social reformers of her time.

Described by Tiffany Wayne as one of the “first-generation modern Indian feminists” Savitri Bai Phule was born in Maharashtra in 1831. Like many others of her generation, she was married off to twelve year old Jyotirao Phule when she was merely nine years old. Taught to read and write by her husband, it marked the beginning of a tough but remarkable journey for the nine-year old girl who went on advocate the social rights of women, especially in education.

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Source: India Today

She was the first female teacher of the first girls’ school in India, standing up for widows, unwed mothers, and untouchables, segments of society that were treated worse than dirt by the upper-caste patriarchal system. In what must have been at the time, a mammoth rebellion against conservative mindsets, she founded a care centre for pregnant rape victims. Facing severe ostracism from orthodox members of society, she refused to give in. She was supported in her endeavours by her husband who was a visionary himself and believed in equal rights for women. It was owing to Savitri bai’s efforts that a Mahila Mandal (Women’s Association) was founded in Pune in the 1850s.  She died while caring for underprivileged victims during the Third Bubonic plague pandemic in India.

Rise, to learn and act

Weak and oppressed! Rise my brother

Come out of living in slavery.

Manu-follower Peshwas are dead and gone

Manu’s the one who barred us from education.

Givers of knowledge– the English have come

Learn, you’ve had no chance in a millennium.

We’ll teach our children and ourselves to learn

Receive knowledge, become wise to discern.

An upsurge of jealousy in my soul

Crying out for knowledge to be whole.

This festering wound, mark of caste

I’ll blot out from my life at last.

In Baliraja’s kingdom, let’s beware

Our glorious mast, unfurl and flare.

Let all say, “Misery go and kingdom come!”

Awake, arise and educate

Smash traditions-liberate!

We’ll come together and learn

Policy-righteousness-religion.

Slumber not but blow the trumpet

O Brahman, dare not you upset.

Give a war cry, rise fast

Rise, to learn and act.

Savitri Bai Phule

 

Ismat Chughtai

I first read Ismat Chughtai’s highly acclaimed and highly controversial “Lihaaf” as a teenager, relatively ignorant of the intricacies of gender and sexuality. I read it again several years later when I was not quite so innocent, or perhaps, ignorant, anymore. Chughtai’s work has a quality most young authors, including myself, would dearly wish their work to possess- each time a reader revisits it, they come away, absorbing something new, a hitherto unknown perspective in their mind.

One of the fiercest feminists of her time, Ismat Chughtai was an Urdu author who did not mince words when it came to writing about relevant social issues. An inspirational figure for women, many of her books were often banned at some point or the other. Her stories were incredibly honest about things usually kept under strict wraps, such as homosexuality, child abuse, and conflict in middle-class society.

How as a young girl, Ismat Chughtai convinced her father to excuse her from learning how to cook, and give her instead the opportunity to go to school and get an education:

“Women cook food, Ismat. When you go to your in-laws what will you feed them?” he asked gently after the crisis was explained to him.

“If my husband is poor, then we will make khichdi and eat it and if he is rich, we will hire a cook,” I answered.

My father realised his daughter was a terror and that there wasn’t a thing he could do about it.”
Ismat Chughtai

Facing harsh criticism to the point of having a law-suit filed against her for blasphemy (which she later won), Ismat broke the shackles of orthodoxy that conservative Islamic culture was associated with. She was an active member of the Progressive Writers’ Association, and a front-runner for politically conscious literature. She lent a unique woman’s perspective to issues like the Partition. “In Ismat’s hands, the woman became a flesh-and-blood creature, with all the flaws and failings of a human being but also thoughts and ideas that did not necessarily limit her to the zenana.”, writes Rakshandha Jalil.

Read the full text of Lihaaf here.

The Women of Madhubani

The district of Madhubani, Bihar has become famous as a centre of extraordinary art, thanks to the efforts of several ordinary, yet highly talented and determined women. Traditionally used to decorate houses, these paintings have now gained worldwide recognition. Materials such as cowdung, mud and natural colours are applied to create intricate designs consisting of geometric shapes, symbols, figures of nature and gods and goddesses. Initially encouraged as a source of income after the drought of 1960s, this art is now reproduced commercially to create a variety of products made of cloth, paper and canvas.

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Artist: Mahasundari Devi

Three generations of women in Madhubani’s Ranti village have been the foremost proponents of this art. The journey began with Mahasundari Devi, a talented artist with no formal education, and was continued by her sister-in-law, Karpuri Devi. In the earliest years women were confined to their homes, restricting their artwork to the four walls of their households. Mahasundari’s work was first acknowledged in 1976 with a felicitation from the Bhartiya Nritya Kala Mandir, following which their work came into the mainstream. It has also been showcased in Japan.

Dulari Devi, who is a pioneer of the next generation, is a shining example of the Guru-Shishya tradition. Beginning her journey as a household help in the home of the above mentioned women, she became one of their best students. Belonging to a lower strata of society, the Mallahs (fisherfolk) she actively works for the upliftment of children from her community.

The third generation of artistic young women are more articulate, educated and confident, although they still have to battle societal pressures. Some of them are recipients of scholarships from the Ministry of Culture, using their art to showcase social conflict and discrimination that is prevalent in modern society.

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Artist: Jamuna Devi

Apart from these women, who have primarily represented the upper strata of society, there are also talented artists from amongst untouchable communities such as Jamuna Devi and Mitar Ram who are lending a new dynamism to the art form. Almost as if to unshackle themselves from the historical constraints imposed on them, their concepts are fresh, doing away with the conventional designs, almost wild in their expression.

In recent times, Madhubani has transcended the boundaries of art and has transformed into a form of collective expression. The artists have been addressing problems such as deforestation by painting treespainting trees with the images of Gods and Goddesses, not only saving them from being chopped down, but also adding to the tourism potential.

Watch

Mary Anning

Followers of the iconic TV show  F.R.I.E.N.D.S might remember laughing every time Ross’ profession as a paleontologist is mentioned. Indeed the picture that comes to mind is either of an intrepid Indiana Jones like figure who goes on expeditions or a professor covered in mud and dirt. However, as early as the 1800s, Mary Anning was creating ripples in the world of geologists by discovering a series of fossils that would form the basis of our present-day knowledge of dinosaurs.

Born in a poor family in Lyme Regis, Britain, part of the Blue Lias geological region that abounded in fossils from the Jurassic period, the Anning family collected and sold fossils to supplement their income from carpentry, which was often a pittance. The family was never given their due until Lt. Col Thomas Birch stepped in on their behalf to hold an auction of fossils.

Over the course of her life, Mary discovered the skeletons of the ichthyosaur, plesiosaur, pterosaur, even though she did not actively participate in the scientific community. She was also responsible for the discovery that coprolites, or Bezoar stones, that are used as trace fossils to analyze behaviour of the species, are fossilized faeces.

As a woman, and a working class woman at that, Mary was almost never given her due, and she was unable to become a part of the Geological Society of London. Her expertise in finding and assessing genuine fossils, however, won her respect among professors working in this field. Several celebrated fossil experts visited her to learn from her practical experience. After her death at the age of 47, Charles Dickens wrote of her,

“The carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

Watch this animated documentary about the life and work of Mary Anning-

Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran but better known by her pseudonym, Nellie Bly was a firebrand journalist, industrialist, inventor and activist, making waves in American journalism in the early 1900s. Her career began when she wrote a vehement critique of a particularly sexist article published in her local newspaper that called the “working woman” a “monstrosity”.

“I have never written a word that did not come from my heart. I never shall. “

Nellie Bly, The Evening-Journal; January 8, 1922

Turning a typically male-dominated profession on its head, Nellie’s most famous journalistic achievement was her expose of mental asylums in the nation, a feat she achieved at age 23 by getting admitted into an asylum on pretence of insanity. Her report, Ten Days in a Mad-house brought to light the terrible conditions within mental institutions that were likely to drive even sane people mad. It caused a sensation, and helped to bring about several reforms in the public mental health system. Nellie was a journalist who took on investigative journalism head on and lived up to her reputation each time. She further created a stir with her ‘Around the World in 72 Days’ expedition. Reminiscent of the Jules Verne novel, her journey was completed in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating  Phileas Fogg’s fictional record.

After getting married to an industrialist, Bly retired from journalism, only to make a name for herself as one of the prominent female inventors and industrialists of the time- she had several patents in her name for iron manufactures. She returned to journalism during World War I, also covering the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She died unexpectedly at the age of 57 of pneumonia.

“Energy rightly applied and directed will accomplish anything.”

Nellie Bly’s Motto

Watch this short documentary on Nellie Bly’s life-