What I am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow: Conversation With Survivors of Abuse, Nighat M. Gandhi: A Review


When I met Nighat M Gandhi at Svaraj Vidyapith, Allahabad, I knew nothing of her. And that was a great misfortune. Discussing mental health in women, the taboos and troubles associated with it, Nighat’s discussion along with other members of Stree Mukti Sangathan and participants of the discussion group Prabodhan, opened our minds to look at this struggle of women’s azadi (freedom), mispronounced by many, including the government as empowerment, in a context that remains unmentioned. The hysterias, depressions, anxieties, PTSDs, eating disorders that women develop are pushed under the rug rather than being acknowledged.

There is more chance of a woman in India suffering from mental illness to be beaten or tortured by a tantrik as compared to men. Mental illness in women is seen as advent of the Goddess and this Goddess needs to be subdued. She is dragged by her hairs, tied in chains and beaten. Men, on the other hand, get to see a doctor and if the people around him are extremely superstitious, he is worshipped, never beaten or tortured.

Coming back to Nighat, she is the citizen of a nation, divided by colonialism and united by its mutual struggle for liberty. Nighat was born in pre-independent Bangladesh (East Pakistan), her parents moved to Pakistan in 1971 and later she moved to India. As a woman, a mental health counsellor in a smallish town like Allahabad, a Muslim and a Pakistani Muslim* at that, married to a Hindu in India, the questions she might be facing, the suspicious looks and stares and glares she might be getting and the things she might be hearing, and more so in these trying times of nationalistic jingoism would be enough to drive her to become a reluctant fundamentalist or an angry cynic at the least. But she remains a humble and jovial figure, hospitable, considerate and willing to fight for herself and women around her.

But why am I talking about Nighat when I should be discussing her book? You are here to read the review of course not a character analysis. I understand and respect that. This conversational book, both figuratively and literally, has elements of Nighat’s ponderings on her identity, her place in society, her responsibilities as a feminist and an activist and place of spiritualism in her life. And thus it becomes quite important to look at the narrator’s life in respect to her characters. As a privileged woman, compared to those whom Nighat interviews, what are the challenges she faces? And are they same as those of the interviewed? Do they share a spectrum where they both could stand equally as women challenging patriarchy or there are certain subtle differences between them?

What does it mean to be a woman? The question is persistently present throughout the book. It is asked again and again through its eight main characters and other subsidiary characters, through its narrator and writer, who happen to be same, and through the reader who becomes a witness to the lives of nine women, eight interviewed and one interviewing. The question is many-layered and each layer is deeper and more potent than the one before it. With its flexible ideas of womanhood and motherhood, the stories of lives of eight women progress to a culminating point from where they look back upon the journey they took. The milestones that came across their path, the trees that sheltered them and the thorns that pierced their skin, all are laid bare. Do the women smile or regret their decisions? You need to read What I Am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow to find that out.

A woman is not born but made, said so that great sassy feminist Simone de Beauvoir to whom all of us look with reverence when we discuss the feminist issues. Who do we look to in the Indian context? The Indian feminist movement is very different from that going around in the west. The thing to note here is that, by India we mean Indian subcontinent. The struggle of freedom of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was same, same was their oppression and same is their continued struggle of azadi. Indian women did not have to fight for the right to vote like the women in west. It was granted to them. They did fight for independence, no doubt. But like most Indians they were told that they have achieved what they were fighting for. And they believed.

What’s interesting about What I Am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow is that despite being research based it has no academic jargon. It is a collection of wonderful tales of courage, resilience, bravery and strong will wonderfully and simply told. The will to strive, to seek and not to yield these women show once they leave their abusive marriages is inspiring and though not everything these women do is to challenge patriarchy, their struggles against it do define those of women who suffer silently. It gives them hope and a little affirmation that the quest of women’s azadi is not in vain.

This feminist tale of eight women and their struggles to forge a path for themselves is a must read.

If you liked this review, please check others here.

  • After Nighat read this piece she mentioned that she considers herself more of a South Asian than a Pakistani. In her own words, “I would still assert that I am a South Asian…..but if you insist on using Pakistani……you place limits on who I want to be.

“[P]ersonally, I’ve never been subjected to hatred in all the years I’ve lived in India. [T]he subject of curiosity and questioning [I] may be, but hatred, never.”

I agree with her completely.

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An Ideal Wife, Sanjay Grover: A Review


Let’s begin by saying this is not my kind of book. Whose kind it is, we will come to that a little later. Let me first tell you how I came to review this book. Sanjay Grover, the author of ‘An Ideal Wife’ is a Facebook friend and had posted asking if someone wanted to review the book. I volunteered. When the eBook came to me, I was quite busy with my papers and had to wait a little while to read it. And when I read it, I read it in three sittings.

Now, the story begins and a series of jokes are cracked which range from normal to misogynistic to homophobic. There are more jokes to come through the book, and a lot of them would be misogynistic. Let me also point out that misogynism is so subtle and deeply embedded in our society, that many people do not know they are being blatantly misogynistic. [I’ve used misogynism four (now five) times in this paragraph, it’s more deeply embedded than that in our society, and most of the time it’s not, as I said, clearly visible.]

If it was just the idea, I could have still said it was a good book, like most of us agree that despite being blatantly racist and slavery apologist, ‘Gone With The Wind’ is a classic. But the language has some discrepancies as well. It feels too verbose at times, the author tries very hard to be funny at places and the dialogue tags halt you at places. The dialogues are sometimes conversational, at other times, not so much. There is although a redeeming factor about the language. Many colloquial terms, Mumbai terms, and famous Hindi phrases have been added, which add a flavour to the book, which if, would have had been combined with a little sensivity in portryal of ideas and characters, would have made a wonderful book. Which reminds me, the story is good, it lacks sensitivity of course, but it is good.

Another good thing of story has to do with representation of police, criminals and their inter-personal relationships. It is complex and brutally honest.

Sameer, the hero, is a cool macho man. And easily fits into the definition of masculinity which popular media has constructed over the years. Athelete? Check. Handsome? Check? Lover of the elderly and children? Check. Helping collegues? Check. The woman he proposes rejects and ‘friendzones’ him? Check. He is, in short, a typical Bollywood hero.

The story has many troubling scenes to offer (which are supposed to be funny). Example: ‘There was a decidedly feminine flick of his hand as he said this, and I couldn’t help but smirk at that.’ Message: Being feminine is bad, degrading and of course, funny, even in heaven. But the scene is more complex than the blunt statement I made. See, the person who says the above dialogue is a dwarf God, no, not as in ‘less powerful’ but as in ‘physically small’. He is often mocked by other Gods and God aspirants (there is whole lot of politics going on in heaven, which is in quite the similar fashion as of Indian politics and thus a powerful satirical comment on Indian political scenario), yes, even by the feminine male God.

This discrimination reminded me so powerfully of yet another such scene. Minal Hajratwala in her ‘Summer, Manhattan’ writes,

 

“On a doorstep a black man shouts at two white men.

Sitting close together: ‘I dont’t want no homos in my

neighbourhood , go on over to the West Side.’

A white man shouts back: ‘You calling me a homo, you

Fucking nigger.’”*

 

Whether Sanjay does this intentionally or unintentionally is yet another issue, so is the fact that this discrimination is not as explicit to show that it is discrimination but done in such a way as to induce humour. What Sanjay achieves here is that he manages to show, even if unintentionally, that we all discriminate, even Gods.

I’m not sure if I’m revealing the story, my motto is not to, but this story needs to be dissected as it raised many questions for me. Ironically, this was supposed to be a light reading, a fun story. Some of the things which are funny according to author are, a man being touched and groped by women in public, and of course since his wife ‘isn’t jealous’, she laughs, a woman wanting to have sex is also funny, and her husband like a sanskari (cultured/traditional) man is embarrassed by her unsatiable sexual drive, he even wakes up screaming he doesn’t want sex.

The fact that almost all men ogle at women, more so if they are ‘beautiful’ (which is taken to mean tall, thin, white and/or other media advertised characteristics) is present in the book and it is uncomfortable only to the woman’s husband because she is ‘his’ (Grammar lesson, that’s a possessive pronoun) wife. Men can and do comment on (read ‘catcall’) women and again it’s not a problem to anyone. According to the storylne, not even to the women. (Yeah, I know!) But that’s the problem with us. We don’t see the problem.

You may be wondering if the book was as horrible, as I say, why did I even finish it? But then it was, as I had said, not totally horrible. It is funny at places. A Bollywood masala story, not Ekta Kapoor style, thankfully, but of course in the line with those hit stories which claim to be different. I’d like to maintain, however, that the hero is a douchebag and remains that till the end.

Should you  read it? That’s totally up to you. If you are comfortable with what popular media shows, you will love this book. It has that plus Gods and politics. If you can get around the problems I mentioned, you will ‘like’ this book. It is, after all, supposed to be a fun read and to some extent it is. But if the representation of ideas and characters is troubling to you, you’ll be baffled yet again at popular media.

One last thing, I do not know how I feel about using a product name (positively and of course with a view to promote it, and in case you were wondering, a matrimonial website) in a book. But then, market factors are influencing a lot of things. Many movies do that. Why not books?

*Postcolonial Literature: An Introduction by Pramod K. Nayar

Nineteen Eighty Four, George Orwell: A Review


Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.

But what if even that isn’t granted? What if the oppressive regime wants not only that two plus two do not make four but also that if they so desired it would mean five?

Dear friends, Nineteen Eighty Four happens to be the most challenging book I have read so far. Challenging, not in the story or plot structure (though that is very well construed and I will talk of that quite later) nor in the language, which by the way was lucid and fluid, but in the ideas. The ideas are so strong and the world view it represents so scary that no matter how you try to find a way out, you fail. You are bound to fail. And it’s scary because it’s true.

Thoughtcrime, already exists. Not in seemingly undemocratic countries of Middle East or Africa* but even in a fast developing country like India (it does exist in European countries and America but it’s so subtle that many inhabitants fail to see). Don’t believe me? Ask Urdu writers. National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL), has recently asked the writers to sign an agreement which in essence states that concerned writer will not criticize either the government or the nation-state, if they wish to seek its favours.**

 

Let’s although focus on the course of book and not on current political scenarios across the globe which at best could be described quite trumpish. The story begins as many stories often begin with our protagonist’s life and we see the world through his viewpoint and come to sympathize with him. There is love. Not the way we have known it but differently. And love itself is a rebellion, a force potent enough to threaten the Party, to bring it to its ruin.

What Orwell achieves magnificently in the story is that we know this is not a happily ever after story and yet the charm and hope is so strong, the faith in human nature is so strong that we believe that no matter what something good will happen. It is only after three fourth of the book is over that we realize there is no good in this story and all that appeared to be good was a malignant trap.

For those of you who haven’t read Nineteen Eighty Four, my review may seem as absurd as possible because there is too much to say and the story is so complex that you cannot understand or fully appreciate it unless you read it yourself. Oh boy! I sound like the supporter of IngSoc. You cannot, they say, fully appreciate the ideas of English Socialism if your view was formed before the Revolution. The socialism of this dystopian world is not only totally different than the ideals of socialism but in fact opposite and contradictory.

A masterful and savage criticism of the then political scenario and the path it was taking, Nineteen Eighty Four may have spoken directly to all those who speak of freedom and equality. Even today, it stands very relevant. People do get picked up by police and military and are never found. Not in North Korea or Somalia (prejudice again!) if that’s what you were thinking but in America, Russia, Britain, India, China, you get the picture. Precisely the reason why Harold Pinter’s masterful play The Birthday Party remains relevant. (On a totally irrelevant note, I am in contact with someone who has worked with Harold Pinter and next year I may announce something huge. Don’t jinx it though. OK, you can.)

What we see in Nineteen Eighty Four is not only a scathing criticism of the Socialist-Communist regime but it goes a step further than Animal Farm, which showed the evils of a Communist regime, and we face the fact which we somehow always knew that all revolutions are bound to fail to fulfill the promises they made. French Revolution with its promise of equality, liberty and fraternity gave way in the long run to Napoleon, Industrial Revolution with its promise of eradication of unemployment and widespread prosperity paved way for the extreme pollution that we see, Enlightenment with all its Scientific Revolutions made possible the weapons of mass destructions.

I know, I know you will say I am looking at the revolutions from a rather crooked angle but the fact of the matter is that it is true that any revolution which involves violence no matter how subtle and small is bound to fail. Only a completely non-violent, which is rather a negative term, and I am looking for a more positive term which would mean a revolution guided by compassion and love and people who are willing to adapt to different ideals as the time might be; would be able to fulfill its promises.

To the people who have read the book I think I am making sense, to those who haven’t read it believe me I’m not praising the book without meaning. I’m quite vocal about the books I don’t like, I still haven’t read that nightmare of Dickens’s Great Expectations. Even Fifty Shades with all its shitty grammar and horrible writing couldn’t deter me from not finishing it. (Okay fine, that just means I’m a creepy pervert, but still.) I have been thinking about Nineteen Eighty Four predominantly ever since I finished it. Twice. In a row. Even while I was reading Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja, which is a wonderful and powerful narrative of atrocities done by majority on minority.

Though it [Lajja] gets quite boring when it starts presenting statistics. Horrifying of course, but boring. No one picks a novel for a list of names and numbers of people killed, tortured or abused. There are reports for that, more reliable and specific. I pick a novel for story and fluent language. Lajja has a story, not a very outstanding or beautiful one, but a story nonetheless. I can’t say about the language as I read it in English and not in original language it was written, Bengali. And the translator I believe did not do a very good job. All the hype around it maybe because of it has been banned in Bangladesh. I found it an average book and not a masterpiece as has been often claimed.

Ah look! A review within a review. I’m not sorry at all. What did you expect from me? A normal review? Yeah, that’s not happening.

And while we were discussing language, Nineteen Eighty Four has immensely beautiful and poignant prose, almost poetic. It moves stealthily and rhythmically and the reader is captivated in some sort of trance at the choice of words. Here are a few examples:

‘…he sank as suddenly as though the [bullet] holes had let in the water…’

‘It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried the human heritage.’

‘All this march up and down and cheering and waving flags is simply sex gone sour.’

‘The essential act of war is destruction, not necessarily of human lives, but of the products of human labour.’

‘To die hating them, that was freedom.’
So do our characters die hating them? Read to find out! Because this is one book you mustn’t not read.

Like this? Check my other reviews here. Oh and please hit share if you loved this. Or not. Whatever. I’m not desperate. ~makes puss in boots eyes~

*I am not saying that these countries are more undemocratic than others, that’s just a prejudice I am invoking to make a point. And by ‘undemocracy’ I mean violation of principles of equality, liberty and fraternity which happens all over the world.

**This clause was taken back before this article went online.

 

Love in India – With a dash of Politics, Religion and Consumerism


Love, it’s a beautiful word. In all its forms and with all its little nuances, it’s a drop from heaven. The closest we have to God. Love, you hear the word and little butterflies start fluttering in your stomach. Today I will talk about these butterflies. Some of these butterflies are beautiful, some very ugly and poisonous.  I wish to invite you to look at South Asia, in a small village in Haryana, India. Two people were ordered by local panchayat to parade naked in the village. Their fault? They had married because they loved each other, without the consent of their parents.

That’s not a rare case. It’s one of the cases that modern India faces. An India which was home to the world’s greatest civilization and of course its many love affairs.

How Shiva had wept for his Sati? What heart will not fill with grief for their love story? A princess married a wanderer against her father’s wish, he disowned her. The daughter for love of her father still visited him only to be insulted. She bore that. But how could she have bore any word spoken against her beloved Shiva? She burned herself. Shiva in grief and anger killed his father-in-law and wandered across the country with the charred body of his love. ‘Sati!’ ‘Sati!’ I hear his lamenting across time. Sati is born again as Parvati, another princess and reunited with her love.

Krishna! In him we see the Ubermensch of Nietzsche but the one who lifts the poor and downtrodden. The dancing Krishna with his mesmerizing flute stands in almost every Hindu household with his girlfriend Radha. He married Rukmini, that was also a love affair (and a grand one, rest assured). The music of his flute is heard beyond eternity, calling all the lovers to participate in the grand dance of Ras Leela (The Divine Play of Love!).

Will the lovers participate? That my friends is the real question.

Meera, that beautiful and brave queen. She drank the poison and it turned into elixir. The thorns she walked on became flowers. She left her home, her husband, her kingdom for her love and wandered far and far to find her Krishna. (Once she was denied entry into Krishna’s temple. She laughed at the priest. Krishna lived in her heart, how could they have denied her entry their?) Legend has it that her soul found its way into a Krishna idol and the idol burst for two souls couldn’t live in one stone!

And yet the lovers can’t love today. Not in India which is ‘moral’ at least.

What’s stopping them?

Their parents because they don’t want their children to ruin themselves. More than 90% of Indian marriages are arranged and more than three fourth of them without the consent of bride and groom. Dowry plays an important role in these arranged marriages.

Society (people you have never met and yet they influence you). Because love will ruin the moral fibre. Children will go astray when they will see people in love.

Politicians. Yes, they tell people what to do. And they tell people not to love because it is against Indian culture.

Religious/Spiritual Gurus. The worshippers of Shiva and Krishna tell people not to love! It is against Indian culture!

How did love become against Indian culture? Many intellectuals tend to blame British and Moguls before them for this downfall. I will not delve into history. While reading about section 377 (the law that says love amongst two consenting adults is a punishable offence if they do not fit into gendered sterotypes) of Indian Penal Code in a blog post, I read a line, ‘the British gave it to us but we chose to keep it.’ The British scraped it from their constitution in 1960s. We still have it.

I am reminded of another story. The world was engulfed in darkness and only the offspring of Shiva and Vishnu could defeat the demoness Mahishi. Vishnu was born as Mohini and son of Hari (Vishnu) and Har (Shiva) was born,  Ayappa.

An India that worships love in all its forms says love is against its culture.

Then there is another side of the picture. Equally ugly as the first one. Many youngsters ‘love’ but only to have sex. Boyfriends are abusive and rich. Girlfriends are abusive and rich. It’s a race to more sex, more money and more power. And the race is fuelled by consumerism.

According to an estimate, 5.7 billion Rupees will be spent on 14 of Feb, 2016 in India. Valentine, a festival of love is emerging as the biggest market of the coming age. But that’s just one day out of the 365 (366 this year). There are movie tickets, bike/car rides, mobile recharges, cosmetics (which either adds up to, or is usually more than the first three mentioned) and so many other things that go unmentioned and are mostly unnecessary but amount to billion dollar industry.

This youth is not only cut off from its roots but has no sense of growth as well. They can neither count in Hindi nor in Roman and if you ask me, I sincerely doubt if they can in English though they only watch English movies. This is the youth which claims to be educated but has in truth mastered only the art of cat-calling and throwing racial slurs.

There is an old Hindi song which I love:

Babuji dheere chalna, pyar mein zra sambhalna,
Bade dhokhe hai, bade dhokhe hai is raah mein.

Loosely translated it means, ‘Dear sir, walk slower, be wary in love. Too many deceits there are in this path.

So what is the point of all what I have said? Where am I going with this? Nowhere. I have no conclusion to make. I just wanted to put forth some thoughts that had occurred to me in regards to this festival. How it’s almost next to impossible to find love and add to that the parental/societal/religious pressure. Then there are gender stereotypes to be fought with and the corporate’s greed. I am no one to provide a solution. I am raising an issue and wish to start a meaningful discussion which will find a solution. So please join me in this debate and let’s discuss on all the topics I have mentioned.

And what I believe is that love, despite all that surrounds it, is beautiful. Despite all the threats of society and religion, media and market, love will triumph. Do not give hope, but be wary in love.

Image shows Krishna and Radha. Courtesy: Saatchi Art Artist

The Solitary Ant


The solitary ant wonders
Amidst many steps it takes,
Where should it go?
It goes to the right, to the left,
To the North to the South
To the East to the West
And to many more directions in between
And yet it finds nowhere to go.
Its family has gone away,
None of the other ants are close by.
It tries to find the path
Which would take it back
From where it came
Or where it wanted to go.
But the path is missing.
It has been trodden by the dust and wind.
The marks its predecessors made
Are lost to it forever.
It must find its own path,
Make its own road,
Find its own destination.
All other journeys and destinations
Are taken and gone and lost forever.
The solitary ant must go alone.
Alone it must go.