Lipstick Dreams

The last scene of Lipstick Under My Burkha resonates, in a rather curious fashion, with the book I happen to be reading at present, Reading Lolita in Tehran. As the various men in power say their piece and move away, ostensibly to get a good night’s sleep, the women protagonists of the movie are left, quite literally, to pick up the shreds of their existence. They gather around the remains of the forbidden romance novel capturing the sexual fantasies of Rosie, in what is, on the face of it, an impromptu reading session, but in effect, captures the essence of what director Alankrita Shrivastava is trying to say throughout.

What makes Lipstick an engaging watch is that its women are feminist by the sheer dint of being real. The characters range from the college-going Rehana (trying to reconcile teenaged rebellion with her cultural identity) and Leela (the beautician whose dreams are bigger than an arranged marriage in a small town) to the older Shireen (a saleswoman struggling to carve a niche for herself within and outside her marriage) and middle-aged Usha (rediscovering her sexual identity through telephone sex). Each is flawed in her own way, and therein lies her perfection.

Perhaps it is the gift of a stellar cast at the hands of a female director, but Lipstick manages, for the most part, what movies claiming to be pro-women generally don’t — well-fleshed out female characters that make both appropriate and inappropriate choices, and have dynamic personalities extending beyond but not necessarily in alienation of the men in their lives. So, Usha Buaji (aunt)’s desire to read racy romance magazines is not at odds with her solid business sense, and Shireen’s success on the professional front does not erode her desire to keep her family intact at any cost.

Another stroke of brilliance that the script possesses is a fine sense of balance, be it in its portrayal of right and wrong, or in capturing a whole spectrum of sexual desire. So, on the one hand, where you find yourself rooting for the women taking the obligation of a Burkha and turning it around to live their dreams, you also find them facing up to the repercussions of some of their ill-thought out actions. The women of Lipstickknow that all is not well with the world, and thankfully, the director doesn’t sweep in with a magic wand to make the young swimming instructor fall for Usha, or for Shireen’s husband to suddenly realise how much potential his wife has, or for the police to let shoplifter Rehana off with a warning even as Leela’s nice fiancé comes back with a clichéd “Main thaamunga tumhara haath” (“I will take you back”, or some such shit). Lipstick Under My Burkhaconcludes the way such events in life usually do, with a lot of tears, an occasional giggle and a mountain of understanding, collapsing upon you all at once.

The best part isn’t even really obvious until you focus on what’s not happening in this movie. Halfway across the movie, it hits me that these women are, for the most part, all very non-judgemental of each other. In what is a refreshing change from the “A woman is another woman’s worst enemy” trope, we see Shireen helping Usha buy her bathing suit, and Leela acknowledging that Shireen’s need to be touched affectionately by her husband isn’t something she should be hiding. Even as Rehana’s classmate gets her arrested and lashes out at her in anger, we don’t really see the typical “You stole my boyfriend” scene. The anger is directed towards the legitimate recipient, the man who got one woman pregnant before leaving her for another. The final scene is a silent war cry and a flame of solidarity all at once, as the women read the end of the novel and share a cigarette. And as you watch, perhaps you would wonder, like I did, if the next day, Shireen would hand in a resignation at work, and the widowed Usha be sent away to Kashi (a city where abandoned widows live in India). Maybe Leela would choose to not run away to Delhi with her boyfriend, and Rehana would eventually complete her degree through distance-learning. And if you’re reading this, maybe you’re a woman who has the ability to make some, or all of these choices for yourself. The question is- If you aren’t wearing as much (or as little) lipstick as you want, who and what are you waiting for?

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Dear Fellow Traveller,

Like me, do you sometimes sleep through

the safety demo on flights,

firm in your belief that your flight,

of them all, will never land on water,

because nothing ever happens to you anyway.

On other days, do you map out scenarios,

of potential seas and oceans along the way,

and what temperature the water will be,

and if, in the melee, you’ll choose

not to slip the life jacket on?

——–

 

Are you just as fascinated by red things-

tomatoes, boys in ragged capes,

Danger signs, life jacket tubes?

Do you check under the seat with your toes,

to see if they are telling you the truth-

and then laugh wondering if

your life-jacket lovers will ever be

this close when you feel the urge to jump?

——–

Sometimes, when your throat gets

a little too tight, do you reach for

the oxygen masks they aren’t dropping yet?

Is it only you feeling the pressure a little too deeply,

as you face the choice between being a cloud

and longing for solid ground?

When the shadows start getting larger,

and the bottom falls out from under your stomach,

do you, like me, always land a little more blurry

each time? Do you still manage to keep your head

amidst the clouds?

Memories of My Grandfather

My grandfather was an eccentric man. On Sundays, when he had the day off from work, he would get up quietly after finishing his morning newspaper, surreptitiously slipping a nail clipper into his pocket, and declare, “I’ll be back in a while.” My grandmother, long weary after years of marriage, would say nothing, only watch from the balcony as he strode out towards the lane that would lead him to the main road.

He had a fixed route; much like the newspaper boy or the milkman does, covering four to five houses. Each of those houses was owned by a particularly close friend of his, some considerably younger in age. Despite being direct to the point of bluntness, my grandfather had endeared himself to all sorts of people- shopkeepers, the local meat-seller, the affluent neighbourhood doctor and all the little children. It was for this last category of people that he took his long-winded route every Sunday. Upon reaching their houses, he would demand that the children line up in front of him, and one by one, he would carefully clip off their uneven, dirt-stained nails that had strayed to many a prohibited place in course of the week; the muddy school field and the fertilized pumpkin patch in the backyard, were, by far, the most civilized of those places. He would gently chide the ones who’d been exceptionally careless- his favourite epithet for them, and indeed, for careless people in general, was “Holder!” Three decades after his death, the closest explanation I have managed to find for this seemingly random phrase, is that sloppy people reminded him of the flickering tube-lights in our house, rendered vulnerable by their faulty holders.

After completing this ritual, Grandfather would on occasion, stop for a cup of tea and a long chat, most often at the home of his favourite friend, the Doctor. He would hold forth on diverse issues- the rising vegetable prices, the latest policy of the government, the war, the heat in Delhi, the children. Then, suddenly, he would rise from his chair, and in one sweeping motion, rip off the calendar page still displaying the previous month’s dates on the wall and mutter under his breath again, “Holder!” Whether he was referring to the caretaker’s inattention or man’s futile attempt to calibrate time in general, no one knew.

None of Grandfather’s friends and acquaintances minded this periodic imposition on their homes and families. Indeed, they had begun to look forward to the routine, and sometimes, when the sweetshop owner Kalika Babu’s wife forcibly chased her child down on a Friday to trim his nails, her husband would stop her and say, “Oho. Leave the child alone till Sunday. It’s the tradition after all.”

When he retired from his government job at the age of sixty, Grandfather made a few changes to his schedule, and his friends learnt to expect him on both Wednesdays and Sundays. He didn’t linger long on the weekday, but he always made sure to speak to every member of every family. He would listen with great attention even to the youngest child, all of two, who proudly showed off her latest attempt at learning a Bengali nursery rhyme. The lady of the house would say, with an exasperated sigh, “Dada, you must not spoil the children by bringing them something every week.” He would nod seriously, and then sneakily slip a few sweets into the children’s pockets once she’d turned her back. Children loved him as the adult who never ignored them in favour of seemingly important “adult business”.

On what was to be the last Wednesday of his life, Grandfather got up as usual at 5.30 a.m., ignoring the niggling feeling of a heavy stone tied to his chest. He put on his shoes slowly, taking a little more time to tie his laces. “I’m going”, he called out to my grandmother. He’d already stepped out by the time she noticed that he’d not said, “I’ll be back in a while.” He never came back. I think his last thought would have been a gentle regret as he touched the nail clippers in his pocket. For all the little fingers with dirty little nails as they rested on the gates- waiting.

Ode to consent

*Written in response to Nandini Varma (Airplane Poetry Movement)’s prompt “Shall I compare thee…”*

Shall I compare you
To a cup of tea?
And wait for his reply,
“But I only drink whiskey”
Or shall I liken you
To a monosyllable “No”
To be called arrogant or
Plain old boring, just so.

Shall I signal with my frantic eyes
Until he blindfolds himself between tries?
Or shall I scream, and shout, and claw my way,
Losing a familiar ally in an unlikely fray?

Shall I tell you
What you have sometimes meant?
I lie against his body bent,
And after a while, he does relent.
Then I get up to make a cup of tea,
And pen down clever thoughts of consent.

My Grandmother is still not dead

In my dream,

We’re still in the hospital.

There are more people coming,

To pay their respects to the last

Of my grandmother’s shallow breaths

They have enough of their own

To waste in platitudes

They insist that saying goodbye

Is the only proper thing to do,

(for closure)

I tremble as I touch a hand

That raised me to know sunlight

A touch I can remember now

When I hold snow for too long

In my dream,

She’s always alive as my hand meets

Her oxygen mask

And because I know how it has to end

I do it.

In my dream,

She dies.

Is it because I killed her?

 

It’s been seven years since she last breathed

And my grandmother is still not dead.

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.

laika
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.