Feminism is the radical notion that women are people said someone famous. That sums up feminism better than any long winded definitio...

Monday, 25 April 2016

Movie Review : Nil Battay Sannata- A Pocket Sized Marvel

"Nil Battay Sannata" is a lovely pocket sized marvel of a film. It tells us old tales of how hard work pays and reinforces the self sacrificing mother trope, yet does it in such a winning way that it leaves you all gooey inside. Debuatant director, Ashwini Iyer Tiwari, take a bow, you've certainly arrived with a splash!

The protagonists are a mother-daughter duo played effortlessly by Swara Bhaskar and Riya Shukla; the latter has to be the find of the year! She plays Apeksha aka Appu, with aplomb. Having missed the promos on TV, I decided to watch Nil Battay Sannata based solely on the rudimentary storyline on its IMdB page. That it featured Swara Bhaskar, was an added incentive.
I've watched her on the big screen and admired her tremendously. In earlier forays, such as Tanu Weds Manu  she has played second leads with little screen time, yet has managed to hold her own.

It was a gamble richly rewarded. Swara, an accomplished actor, proves with every frame, with nuanced gestures, as each pitch-perfect emotion flits over her face, here's a performer to be reckoned with. Here she is in her element as Chanda Sahay, who enrols in the same matriculation class as her daughter so she can teach her maths, and also motivate her to continue her education.

Chanda works very hard at multiple jobs, to save money for her daughter's education. She works as a household help in the home of a rich couple, of whom the wife, is played by Ratna Pathak. Ratna plays a doctor while the husband is probably retired, apparently unemployed. Intrestingly, the gent is ignored, he's not named and barely given two lines in the whole movie. The one time the couple are shown leaving home, it's Rattan's character who drives the car. It doesn't signify much because upper class women drive cars all the time, but somehow this little detail of the effaced husband delighted me :-)

 Chanda, works two other jobs, apparently one as a "dhoban". She's shown washing clothes on the banks of the river, but there's no mention of it otherwise in the rest of the movie. The river bank provides for a stunning, colourful backdrop to a couple of scenes, with clothes spread out to dry. She also holds down a part time job in a shoe factory.

Chanda is shown almost always working or worrying about her daughter. She has no life of her own. Apparently, she has no friends either, save in one scene towards the end when she discusses her daughter with a neighbour. She could be an average middle class parent in her single minded devotion to her daughter's education. The unbroken sequence of self sacrificing mothers of Hindi cinema continue. Probably unfair to expect too much?

At last a movie, in which the central character is not a high flying NRI or the rich upper class! A movie which showcases the struggles of a working class woman and her aspirations. Not sure if the script writers consulted or listened to real people in the making of this movie but the voices sounded authentic to me. Of course, that's not saying much.

Alhough Chanda is depicted as self-sacrificing and turns repeatedly to her employer for guidance, but she is also an independent woman, making her own decisions. Perhaps the lack of a husband was a necessary plot device for this purpose. Towards the denouement, Chanda's employer leaves town, and I heaved a sigh of relief. I'd like to believe the departure is designed to give Chanda complete freedom to decide the future course of action for herself, and she sails through. Here's a glimpse of how good cinema can be feminist, too, and the fact only adds to the sparkle. 

It's far from perfect as a film. I cringed when Chanda visits the Collector played by Sanjay Suri and he assumes she's come looking for a job. It's only a confident Swara with a nuanced performance who saves the scene with the right mix of confidence when she tells him the real purpose of the visit. But then I'm watching the movie from the vantage of an upper class savarna. Did it look jarring to others? I'd like to know.

Where the movie faltered, in my opinion, was in totally ignoring the voice of the child. Appu is a spoilt brat, but which teen would like her mother to infringe on her personal space, enter her classroom and -to her mind- "steal" her friends? Also the physical violence is glossed over. The assumption that parents have a right to hit children, is carried forward unquestioningly.

On balance the movie makes for an immensely enjoyable experience, setting aside its flaws. This is as close to a feminist movie as Bollywood is going to give us in the near future. If you haven't already seen it, go watch Nil Battay Sannata!

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Book Review of Ismat Chughtai's works : A Trio of Collections of Her Writings

Shame on me, for I have only recently realised the full import of Ismat Chughtai's writing and what the heritage of her work means for feminism in India. It is even more astounding to think how much impact her writing must have made on her contemporaries, specially women and girls. Undoubtedly, she must have ruffled many a feather of the establishment!

Admittedly, I don't know much of her position in the Urdu literary pantheon, nor how she was looked upon by her contemporaries. But it isn't too difficult to see that she is a huge iconoclast of her times. What delights me the most about her writing is that she pulled no punches and in essay after essay she has blasted people, naming names and shaming people. I barely suppress a chortle as I imagine her delight in pissing off the establishment of the day.

I base my observations on the three books which I read recently, "A Life In Words-Memoirs" and "Lifting the Veil-Selected Writings" both translated by M.Asaduddin. The third book is "My Friend, My Enemy" a collection of essays, reminiscences and portraits, translated by Tahira Naqvi.

A little personal note here. I read all three books recently over a span of a few days, while on vacation. Having never lived alone, I was now vacationing for the first time by myself, enjoying the absolute solitude this time away from responsibilities afforded me. And here was a woman who lived well over half a century ago, on her own terms when it was unfathomable to do so.
She had courage and grit I could never dream of, setting on her own path from a tender age. A generation ago, she dared to be a non conformist when being one was not only difficult it could literally cost you your life.

She fought tooth and nail to gain an education, telling her parents she'd run away from home if they didn't let her pursue her matriculation. Though from a progressive family, Chughtai's parents were forced to withdraw their two elder daughters from school on pressure from the extended family. Dark hints about the girls' loss of character left the parent perturbed. The final clincher had been "who will marry them?". One relative went so far as to say "better to pimp your girls rather than send them to school" With this background her fight becomes all the more poignant and her courage, more stark. The subversive power of her characters and stories hits you like a blow to the gut.

A lot of her personality is reflected in her writing. Smart, witty and full of satire, her metaphors are at once rooted in the ethos of her times but also lyrical and beautifully evocative. You can see her sympathies lie with the women in her stories and you can't help but be swept along. The poor beggar woman, who, it turns out is also a thief, in "Tiny's Granny" yet leaves you bereft in mourning for her loss. The heartbreaking story of the two women who live and die in the hope of one of them getting married off, in "The Wedding Suit" leave you with a lump in your throat. "Vocation" is a cleverly told tale where the protagonist casts aspersions on her neighbours; she assumes them to be prostitutes. Later, on revelation that they belong to the aristocracy, she's taken aback. This serves to highlight the hypocrisy and sexism of our society in our attitudes towards women.

Some of her most beautiful and thoroughly fleshed out sketches of scenes and characters are of childhood, be it from her memoirs or her short stories like "The Net". Her most well known story "Lihaaf-The Quilt" for which she was prosecuted by the British government, with charges of obscenity, is included in the collection. An account of this trial is also incorporated in her memoirs.

Personally the most searing piece of her writing, to me, remains the short story "Gainda". A poignant tale of how a little girl from a lower caste is sexually exploited by an upper class man, then slut-shamed, and abandoned, once it's discovered that she is pregnant with his child. The psychology of the child and her playmate is brilliantly explored. The image of the frail Gainda in her hovel living in false hope has not left me.

Over five decades have passed and much of our attitudes towards women remain unchanged. That's the sad reality of our country.
 A path breaking feminist of her times and an iconoclast to boot; Ismat Chughtai's works are a must read!

          BOOK : A Life In Words (Memoirs)
                       (Translation of Kaghazi Hai Pairahan by M.Asaduddin)
PUBLISHER : Penguin Books 2012
                         278 pages

          BOOK:  Lifting The Veil (Selected Writings)
                        (Translations by M.Asaduddin)
PUBLISHER : Penguin India 2009
                        261 pages

         BOOK  : My Friend, My Enemy (Essays, Reminiscences, Portraits)
                        (Translation by Tahira Naqvi)
PUBLISHER : Kali for Women 2001
                         284 pages


Saturday, 23 April 2016

The "Superwoman" Syndrome

The modern Indian male, specially the one who sees himself as liberal, agrees that women taking up paid jobs outside the home is a natural progression. What goes unstated is that traditional gender roles inside the home must remain undisturbed.

Middle and upper class women stepping out of the home, entering the workforce, are seen as "liberating" themselves. They would gain economic freedom and hence some measure of liberty. However, in many Indian households individual freedom counts for little and your business is everybody else's business. So often, the money women earn is not even their own. The freedom they hoped for often does not include control of their own finances.

Women born without privilege always knew that "work is liberating" was just an adage without much truth to it. What kept women bound to home and hearth, for centuries, is male domination and that remains unchanged.

It's been a revelation to upper class women that they step out to their jobs only to return to a second shift  at home, doing most of the housework. Of course, most upper class women have the option of hiring less privileged, poor women to do their house work. However, overseeing this housework is almost exclusively women's work. The home and its upkeep has traditionally been the woman's domain and so it remains. We are stuck with binary gender roles and men continue to be the dominators. The power rests with men.

Women may work in paid jobs outside the home, whether out of choice or necessity, but their primary role remains that of the house keeper and the nurturer. Added to this is the myth that the ability to "balance" a professional career while being a nurturing home maker comes naturally to women. Multitasking is now considered a basic virtue every woman must possess. It's the elusive mirage every "working woman" is supposed to seek, if we are to go by innumerable self help books and umpteen women's magazines. Indeed, many women have taken to the "superwoman" tag with great pride.

Where does this leave women who choose to be single or unmarried or childless? When playing multiple roles is the norm, no wonder we as a society see single women as incomplete, flawed, or awaiting the right moment or man to come long, at best. At worst, they are looked upon as scheming and selfish.  

Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that Indian society is still centred around the family. The individual, her choice or her privacy don't count for much. Having restricted myself to traditional gender binaries, I am not discussing lesbian or queer women or the rest of LGBTQI spectrum so far.

If Indian women want true liberation, not just a partial one we must look beyond traditional gender roles. Men need to step into the kitchen, take on the child care and care of the elderly and sick. This will not happen overnight if we suddenly demand it of men. We must begin with mandatory teaching basic life skills, both at home and in schools to children of all genders. May be have a basic qualifying test and link it to issuing of citizenship documents like passports or aadhar or voter IDs? It's time we began in earnest. Women can then finally relax and learn to let go. We don't have to be superwomen. Not all of us, anyway.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Book Review Of Shashi Deshpande's "The Intrusion and Other Stories"

Finally I begin the long planned book review section of this blog. As my reading had slowed down to an almost non-existent trickle, naturally this had taken a back seat. Towards the end of 2015, I set my mind on making a few small changes at a time and hoped the cumulative impact would be something meaningful. Now that it's mid-April, I'm happy it looks like I'm on way to achieving at least one of that. So here goes.

Stories and fiction have so much power, to move and to convey a message without overt moralising. What many a march or occupation may not be able to achieve, art quietly can. Be it a piece of fiction or a play or even cinema, if it is powerful and effective, it leaves its mark on the psyche of the audience without loud declarations of intent. I've been mulling over this as I've restricted my reading- or, as I'd like to put it- opened it up - to the exclusive authorship of women. I will try to read only women's writing in 2016.

A collection that's moving as well as thought provoking at the same time is Shashi Deshpande's "The Intrusion and Other Stories". I've been a fan of Shashi Deshpande for long and I've read most of what she's written. This collection of stories is lovely in the way she conveys in little vignettes the dilemmas and the conflicts of women's lives -the overwhelming majority of protagonists  of these stories are women- all the while providing insights into their minds. The women who inhabit her stories are a varied lot, not just in age and the lives they lead but also their milieu.

She depicts struggles which are exclusive to women and some which are simply human dilemmas. The protagonists of these stories come through the narratives, their voices ringing clear in your ears long after the stories have ended. They may, at times, be beaten, but often the most unlikeliest of characters manage to transcend their boundaries and circumstances.

I was pleasantly surprised to find in this collection, the tales of women ranging from ambitious career women and the lonely new widow who struggles with an empty nest. There's also the widow who will not let all the gossip or even the physical and verbal abuse from her extended family keep her from forging new paths for herself.

The housewife who is on the verge of adultery, or the bored first lady who scoffs at those around her, each bored out of her wits by her humdrum existence or even more interesting, the woman who has given up a full time job to relocate and become a housewife. Yet each woman asserts herself in her own unique way, usually quietly, sometimes not so much! But none of these women sees herself as a victim.

Each story is unique and told with sensitivity. More than a few of these tales left me with a lump in my throat. Vintage Shashi Deshpande and a thoroughly enjoyable read!

AUTHOR : Shashi Deshpande
     BOOK : The Intrusion And Other Stories
Publisher  : Penguin Books, 1993 (Reprint 1994)

Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Bharat Mata and Indian womanhood

The popular, mainstream Indian discourse upholds the twin ideas of the saintly mother and the myth of Baharat mata- both of whom are the objects of not just affection but also worship. These two ladies have been cropping up in our discourse more frequently of late. In fact "gau mata" is probably more revered than the plain old mata as of now, but that's a whole other discussion for another time.

This mythical mother, is at once the ideal, to which women are upheld by the culture, as well as the perfection they themselves strive to achieve.

For sure, the anthropomorphised Mother India is closely linked to this image of the ideal of mother. She, too, is a quiet nurturer, all-sacrificing, and without any needs of her own. What's more, she helps give vent to the hyper-masculiniy of her 'sons'. Mind you, it's always the sons, never the daughters. To wreak violence in her name, shed blood in order to shore up her borders. Let's also remember this image of mother india is never that of a Dalit Bahujan or Adivasi or Muslim or tribal woman or that of any other minority community. She must belong to not only the upper caste but upper class too.

The concepts of these two mothers are closely linked to the status of women in Indian society. A society with such deeply entrenched misogyny, that women have internalised too. These ideals also determine which women are talked about and who are never discussed by people like us. For example, there's been a lot of breast beating lately in the national as well as international media about how there aren't enough  Indian women in the work force. There are worse articles, which seem to suggest Indian women are simply too lazy to work.

The focus of most of these pieces is the educated middle class woman who, if she quits her job after marriage, does so because her family doesn't allow her out of a sense of honour. Or, because the monetary benefits of the job don't compensate for the employing the help to run the household.

What these articles and studies fail to mention is that most poor women who work, whether inside the home or outside it do so as a compulsion, not by choice. At the same time most of this labour is unseen and not paid. Like this article says women farmers are hardly even counted as farmers, let alone their concerns discussed or addressed. These women lead quiet lives filled with hard labour but are never celebrated in popular culture. Do they constitute the fabric of bharat mata?

Many men will tell you they are fine with such "women's empowerment" which involves women going out to work. Because it doesn't involve them giving up any real privilege. They continue to lord it over at home while the woman brings in additional moolah. Simply having been born male gives men the privilege to decide who is the ideal woman.

The elusive idealised Indian woman has nothing on the unicorn. Ordinary Indian women can slog all their lives and do everything in their power to keep their families functioning and happy, but the tag of bharat mata will always elude them. The perfection Inidan men seek in their women will always remain outside their grasp.

In all this, has women's opinion of this idealisation ever been taken into account?  It is time Indian women took up with all seriousness the task of carving out the image of the ideal Indian woman to reflect their realities.

 The ideal Indian woman is not just a lone standard to be upheld. She is a plurality of identities to be celebrated. Let's make her a reflection closer to the reality of the hardworking multitude of women who toil tirelessly everywhere- in our fields and factories and at so many other jobs, paid and unpaid. It's time to time to a more realistic Bharat mata in our own images.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

On Bras and Azaadi

Clothes maketh the man, said somebody certainly affluent. Surely the poor can't afford to be well dressed. I've been thinking of clothes and women's attire, specially. In particular, of bras. As the burning of these notorious piece of underclothing has special significance for feminists. 'Bra burner' -along with man hater is one of the most reviled epithets hurled at women showing the slightest inkling towards feminism.

Bras are a largely nineteenth century contraption built to keep women's "modesty" policed in place. I can see no reason for these other than to keep nipples covered? And the stories belted out of retaining the shape of the breasts, what is it but a piece of propaganda floated by advertising firms in collusion with large manufacturing conglomerates. As with most consumer products sold to us, this too is one whose need has been artificially created?

In the Indian context, women have, for ages, been wearing the bosom hugging choli or, its modern version, the blouse- in large parts of India. In the largely hot and humid climate of this nation of ours, it acts as women's single piece upper garment, usually worn with an accompanying dupatta or chunni, a sort of veil covering not just the upper body but also the face.

So tell me, why do we need perfectly rounded breasts, if not as a function of the images produced industrial capitalist media which men desire and women desperately try to achieve?

An inane body part which probably has the most mundane of all jobs- nursing an infant- has now been sexualised beyond recognition by the male gaze. Ironically, notions of modesty and honour have thus come to be tied to it.

The woman's body has been the receptacle of the honour of the men in her family- be it the breasts subjected to the male gaze or the hymen that has to be defended for virtue and thus continuity and purity of the male lineage. In each case, a woman is denied control over her own her body. Any wonder that men don't see women deserving of respect?

Sadly, women too see themselves the same way. True liberation for women will only come once we break off the shackles of this gaze which has been set upon us. We must reclaim our existence as complete humans. Only then will we have complete azaadi.


I try to stay away from you
and I fail.

each attempt a failure
even before it begins.

each time I try
the misery of failure piles up

a mountain slowly turning
and I stand at the base
looking up.


to dismantle my body 
inch by inch
peel off my skin
unline each muscle 
break every bone.

to carve you into my flesh
lay down a lining of you.
to dissolve you into my blood
imbibe each layer of my being.
with a scalpel  
slice each nerve
splice into each a vestige of you
till all of me is rife
with a thronging
of you,
of your chimes crying out.

and leave it there. 
this heap of flesh 
stay in the earth
smashed into a pulp 
reduced to a red and purple ooze 

and bones of me 
flakes turn into dust 
and shimmer in the haze
lay ground beneath your feet.