Not a ‘Veere Di Wedding’ review

Although I initially thought I would write one. But then there are enough articles doing the rounds on whether Bollywood’s latest is a radical statement about the times-they-are-a’changin, or India’s answer to Sex and the City and Gossip Girls, or a completely misguided approach to feminism OR a mix of all of these. So no, this isn’t yet another review. This is me lounging in the despair of my millennial middle-classness.

Let’s face it, most of us twenty-somethings in India belong to two categories when it comes to coming-of-age films. There are those who unabashedly admit that they love them, and there are those who sardonically state that these films set unrealistic expectations, but sneakily watch them at some point anyway. I happen to flit between the two and after having spent a decade watching several of these, I have come to an overriding conclusion.

Self-actualization happens only in exotic foreign locations whilst holidaying with your soulmates and there is no way I can afford it.

Not before another ten years which is too long a time to stay confused in life. For starters, most of my Veeres (closest friends) and I are either broke, struggling between degrees and jobs, or highly paid but so ridiculously overworked that they’re barely holding on to sanity, let alone going on holiday. We’ve all grown up in relative comfort, but not luxury, which places us in the uncomfortable situation of being able to potentially plan that holiday as not impossible but definitely not as easy as surfing a website, booking those tickets and WHOOSH!

We’re twenty-five and unlike these movies, our life problems are just as confused as we are: way beyond deciding whether the Bachelor trip is in Spain or France, or whether to marry a doting partner (who will stay with you anyway) in a villa or a farmhouse, but way more insignificant than BPL incomes, discrimination and refugee situations. We’re twenty-five, all fired up with the thought of making a difference, and still have to ask our parents before planning a trip inside India, for work or pleasure. We’re twenty-five and stuck between once-in-a-lifetime dreams and what is expected of us. And movies like VDW might have funny jokes, and lovely bad-ass women. But on most days, they just make me want to curl up and cry. And I don’t have to go to Thailand to do it.

 

 

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It’s only words…

This is, for the lack of a better word, a ramble. Recently, the man I love asked me what I expect out of the two of us. And I’ve been spending a lot of time trying to figure it out.

Short answer, I want to be the best of myself with him as he grows into the best of himself. For us to have each other’s back through everything- good, bad, ugly, neutral.

Now because we don’t live in an isolated jungle, there arises the issue of names and terms and explanations. I don’t want to call him my boyfriend and have it mean a certain set of things others have pre-decided for us in sitcoms and romance novels. He’s one of my best friends. He’s also my favourite person to sleep with, or gaze at, or work with. A person I talk to when I win a prize or torture myself in self-doubt. Someone I can spend hours in silence with. He mayn’t actually be the only person in some of these categories. But the fact remains that he exists across all of them. Is there ever then a “just this or that” in a relationship like ours?

We’ve spent several hours on multiple days, engaging our author-reader brains to come up with a word that does our situation justice. I am a sucker for neat definitions at times, not particularly for my own self, but because I do not have the energy to be incessantly bothered by a world used to compulsive verbalizing. He humours me in ways that no one does, and so we’ve delved into Bengali and Japanese, English of course, even Thai perhaps, tried and failed to come up with one blanket that covers all our curves and ridges in the fit we prefer between the two of us. The closest we’ve come is Bronte’s Wuthering Heights-

  ‘Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same

The trouble, much like for Catherine and Heathcliff, is that this is a concept a lot of people cross-examine to shreds but precious few understand. Earlier, they would insist on having me tick any one box only- boyfriend or lover, husband or maybe a friend with benefits. Even with improvements, all the 21st century has done is increase the number you can check off- you don’t get to go out of the box unless you really struggle. So, on the one hand, there are your societal markers of flowers and anniversaries, mandatory phone calls and meetings, sex frequencies and cunnilingus requirements, milestones and rings, and eventual babies. On the other, there is a dazzling world of no rules, no commitments, a do-as-you-please-whilst-(mind)fucking-people anarchy. Somewhere in the middle, people like me are left wondering why there doesn’t seem to be a better third option.

In a country like mine, we possibly have one of the largest proportion of science scholars knowing exactly how sex is an evolutionary tool and an act of pleasure, but somehow,  for generation after generation, marriages are still meant to reflect a divine component. You don’t really get to squirm out of it saying you’ve found your heaven in building separate positive lives together. Not even when the Earth is already vomiting humans past carrying capacity and could really use a break from fresh cute-faced angels of doom. Say you don’t believe in marriage and you will immediately be tossed aside into the category of saucy, impertinent “sinners” who live to defy. Apparently you can still only be a binary (mostly) when it comes to romantic relationships, even in an era where gender and sexual fluidity are catching on.

I’m sure he and I cannot be the only people crossing linguistic boundaries in attempts to have a back-up term we can use to tell people how we’re our own brand of normal and yet special. And yes, at some point or the other, because we’ve not perfected social indifference, we do feel like telling some people how there’s nothing wrong with not wanting what everyone’s running after. How it’s not a case of not being able to achieve the targets everyone sets, but more like, how we’ve never seen the point of those targets anyway.

Long story short, I don’t see why the internet still shows up results that equates label less to a lack of commitment, or honesty or hard work. I don’t see why formalized romantic relationships are supposed to be a watertight box of virtue when I’ve witnessed firsthand that they aren’t. I don’t see why friendships should be any less worthy of validation and protection, vis-a-vis romantic relationships, or why they should necessarily even exist in disjoint circles or murky intersections. I don’t understand why love only wears labels, when I’m a thrift-store person anyway.

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?

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.

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.

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-