Category Archives: Feminism

Ismat Aap Ke Naam*

imageThe name sounded different. There was something about it, though. It kept coming back, in some article or another. I got to know it was a woman and she was usually referred to along with my new favorite author Sadat Hasan Manto. Then another article mentioned something about controversies, and I love such women. The name was ear marked and stored in one of those soon to be retrieved shelves of my memory.

I could never resist the crinkle in his eyes. And there he was, saying wistfully, “if only we can live half the life she lived..,” fondly referring to her as Ismat Apa. Who is this woman? Curiosity got the better of me, as Naseerudeen Shah talked about meeting her, on her controversial short story ‘Lihaaf’ and how he, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba decided to stage their play on her, in Urdu, ‘Ismat Aapke Naam.’ The name was dusted afresh and pushed towards the front of the memory shelf.

Short stories were a genre that I usually kept away from. Maybe the reader in me wanted the stories to go on for ever. With work that never seemed to end, the long form was turning into something that had some hard demands. And I turned towards the ones that took the time of a short break. The stories transformed themselves into an alternative for the banter across the cubicles and long coffee sessions that I were missing, as I worked more and more from home. Pick up one, read a couple of stories. Keep it aside, pick another one, and so it went.

A sleepy mid morning and a dull conference call. The hard bound  volume opened at a random page, there was no bookmark to remind where I’d left it last time. The name stared at my face. It was time, to meet the woman and her ‘Lihaaf.’

The protagonist, a young girl has no name , it would be apt to describe her as a tomboy. Rather than leave her to her fights with her brothers and their friends, her mother leaves her with an aunt as she travel s to Agra for a week. The Begum Jan, married to the Nawab Sahib, ‘essentially a decent man who stayed away from the company of whores and dancing girls.’ He had no vices, in fact, he was so virtuous that ‘he had students staying over at his home – fair, young boys with slender waists – whose expenses were borne entirely by Nawab  Sahib.’

As can be expected in such cases, Begum Jan withered, devoid of attention from husband and family. Until Rabbo arrived with her oil of secret ingredients and the never ending massages. The girl is obviously enraptured by the sensuous Begum Jan, but is old enough to sense something is not right between the Begum and her trustworthy masseuse. As night falls, the tom boy turns into a timid girl who is scared to sleep alone. Having slept off in a small cot in the Begum’s bed room,  she wakes up in the middle of the night to some muffled sounds in the room. In the dim light, the quilt on the Begum’s bed has come to life. To her young mind, it is as if an elephant had got under the silken quilt. The strange noises and the billowing shapes frighten her no end. The story goes on to say how the girl grows up overnight in the Begum’s hands and the animals that she find under the quilt.

And I find myself going back to Naseerudin Shah’s words,

” It’s a story that has given a certain notoriety to Ismat Apa which makes people curious about her. On the one hand Lihaf made her famous; on the other, people read nothing else but Lihaf. It’s not a titillating story, it’s not about lesbians but about child abuse. It’s a disturbing story. She never says a single thing directly, it’s all elliptical. People failed to understand that.”

The real story is between the lines. In the words that are not written, but those you could still read.  Of the stereo types that young girls are expected to be. Of marriages that are not. Of vices that are camouflaged as virtues. Of repression, sexual and emotional. The ways in which women escape, and how, at times drag their own down, along with them. Yet, nothing is overt, not a word is out of place, nothing is even remotely sexual.

Remember Deepa Mehta’s ‘Fire’ and the controversaries it created? One cannot but relate Begum Jan to the characters portrayed by Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das. Women who are forced into marriage and men who find satisfaction elsewhere. And the finding of happiness where they can find it. If ‘Fire’ created so much heat at the beginning of twenty first century, imagine the furore such a story could have created in the Lahore of nineteen forties.

Ismat Chughtai had to face an obscenity trial for this story and was asked to apologize. She promptly refused to do so and defended the case by herself. The prosecution failed miserably in establishing their case, for the story was said from the perspective of a young girl, there was no obscenity whatsoever anywhere, and she had woven the story in a suggestive manner. And she won. Some woman, eh?

As I go in search of her other stories, you can read the ‘Lihaaf’ here:

http://www.manushi-india.org/pdfs_issues/PDF%20file%20110/9.%20Short%20Story%20-%20Lihaaf%20%5BThe%20Quilt%5D.pdf

* Name of the play on Ismat Chughtai, produced by The Motley Theatre Company.

( Naseerudin Shah on Ismat Chughtai – http://www.openthemagazine.com/article/art-culture/naseeruddin-shah-on-ismat-chughtai-if-only-we-can-live-half-the-life-she-did )

‘Infidel’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel

(Disclaimer : Even if I write page after page for weeks, it would be difficult to cover the varied emotions and thoughts that still keeps going through my mind. This is a humble attempt to prod you to take this up and read.)

Those eyes seemed to challenge me from the bookshelf for more than a year. “Come pick me up, if you dare,” she taunted each time I picked it up. Her lips curled into a cynical smile as I kept it back, once again. I pretended that I was not yet ready, that the time to listen to her story had not come, yet. For I knew, she would demand undivided attention once she started her tale. And then, when that stare became unbearable, I picked it up again and flipped it open.

“Who are you?”

“I am Ayaan, the daughter of Hirsi, the son of Magan.”

So started a journey that I am powerless to even imagine, from Somalia to Saudi Arabia, Kenya to The Netherlands and finally to that land where milk and honey flows and people, even women are allowed to speak their mind without fear and inhibitions, the US of A. Brought up mostly by her mother and grandmother, Ayaan  begins her tale in a typical Somalian village, that was yet to see the deep valley of darkness that Islam could be, to a woman. Religion was a set  tales for her, rather than a way of living. All that changes as the family is forced to move to a city, if you could call it that. Her parents are comparatively modern in their outlook, her father insists on both his daughters getting educated along with their brother. She gets her first taste of religious fanaticism, that of blindly following a tradition that is barbarous beyond belief, when her grandmother forcefully submits her and her sister to the age old custom of female circumcision. To ensure the chastity of women, the female genitalia is completely cut off, sometimes even carved out with a knife, the wound is then stitched back together, leaving a tiny hole for the ‘pee could trickle’ down – another proof of virginity. The scar that it leaves is more in her soul and intellect than in her body. And her sister’s life is forever mutilated, the emotional after effects follows her till death.

Ayaan’s early life was totally under the control of her mother, who was strong enough to marry a man of her choice, unheard of in those times and where they came from. Yet , we see Ayaan taking the brunt of her mother’s anger and frustration when her father abandons them for a larger cause and a new family. She is beaten up mercilessly as her mother retracts deeper into her shell. As she learns, or is forced to learn the Holy Book, she starts questioning the tenets that is completely biased against women. For, according to her teachers, women are the cause for all evil in the world. It is no exaggeration that young girls are made to and they do indeed believe that their bodies could even make the world come to an end. At the mere sight of a woman’s ankle, men would be aroused beyond belief, trucks could collide, all work would come to a standstill. Ayaan is hushed up when she asks a question that seems very natural, “Wouldn’t women be aroused by a male body? Following that logic, shouldn’t men cover themselves up as well?”

As war ravages her home land, the family is forced to stay in Kenya, against her mother’s wishes. The questions continue to haunt her. Books are the biggest solace for her and her sister, and even the trashy ones open out a world to the two of them that they didn’t know existed. In her words,

“Later on there were sexy books: Valley of Dolls, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steele. All these books, even the trashy ones, carried with them ideas – races were equal, women were equal to men – and concepts of freedom, struggle, and adventure that were new to me. “

I will leave the years in Kenya and back in Somalia for you to read and gape in open disbelief and horror. The happiness and sense of security that she feels on the return of her father soon comes to naught as he decides the man she should marry, in true Islam tradition. She has no choice, but to agree. The chosen man is from Canada and Ayaan makes the biggest and most daring decision of her life. En route to Canada, she disappears during a stopover in Germany and finds herself in the Netherlands. The second half of the book talks about her coming of age in the free environment, surrounded by a few Dutch citizens who stands by and guides her. The deeper she delves into the teachings of The Prophet, the more she is forced to distance herself from the religion that she was born and brought up into. The more public she is about her views, the more she is hated among her refugee community and among her own people back home. The story goes on to tell us about her transformation,  how she becomes a Member of the Dutch Parliament and finally, how she is forced to leave a country that she has come to love better than her own.

A mere review is too limited a platform to cover all the emotions and thoughts that pass through one’s mind while and after reading the book. She raises some very uncomfortable questions to the so called secularists who still consider Islam a ‘peaceful’ religion in its essence. Freed of the shackles that bound her all through life, she finally denounces the religion that once defined her. The consequences can be imagined. It reaches a point where she has to be guarded even in the privacy of her bedroom following  the brutal murder of a friend, Theo van Gogh. He had to pay the price for standing by her without  compromise and showing to the world what happens behind the closed doors of a typical Muslim family, be it in Somalia, Saudi Arabia,Turkey or The Netherlands.

Even after almost a week, Ayaan refuses to leave me, and I don’t think she ever will, completely. I wonder what is it that prompted her to question the things that were accepted unequivocally by her family and friends. How she started and where she has reached now is something that is beyond the comprehension of an ordinary mind. Where does she get the courage to challenge a whole religion? It is even more intriguing given the fact that it was her sister who was the rebel in their younger days. What is truly inspirational is her commitment and dedication to a cause that she believes in, that of bringing out women like her and showing them that they too have a choice, to live life the way they want to.

Many would say her views are biased. She makes no bones about it. She has seen the worst that her religion could do to her and other women. Even men, for that matter. You may not agree with her views completely. But she definitely induces you to question some of your own beliefs, irrespective of whether you are Christian, Hindu, Buddhist or Bahai. Born and brought up a staunch Catholic, I could easily relate to many a question hers. About after life, the fruits of chastity, how women were supposed to guard themselves all the time and a fierce God who was waiting to pounce upon me the moment I ‘sinned’. The definition of sin is a topic in itself.

One of the most important and relevant issues that Ayaan raises is the integration of refugees into their current country of domicile. She starts by voicing her concerns mildly on the perils of allowing a special status to refugees, especially from Muslim countries and how the basic rights of a citizen could be violated right under the authority’s noses. It takes a huge effort with solid data in place for eyes to be shocked open. Her views and opinions are as relevant to the Netherlands as it is to any other country today.

Sometime ago, there was a discussion in one of my favorite book groups on FB on the ‘one book that you would recommend to your friend.’ A friend of mine had recommended this, strongly. Now I understand why and I agree with her whole heartedly. If there is one book, every young person , especially a young woman absolutely must read, this is it. Without doubt. It forces you to question the beliefs that could even be the foundation of your very being.  It pushes you out of your comfort zone and makes you think of what is really important to you and what should actually matter to you. It shows you how you can raise from your ashes and how a single woman can change the course of numerous lives. So many things that you take for granted suddenly falls into perspective and your soul starts questioning you, “what have you done with your life?” The answer does not come easily.

The movie that cost Theo van Gogh his life. Do watch it

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=neQcqyUAhr8

Verdict : Go grab it and read!

It might leave you disturbed for life. But then , it could also make you question some of your beliefs and show you the way.

5/5

‘Without Reservations: The Travels of An Independent Woman’ by Alice Steinbach

aliceDo you remember that exhilarating feeling when you meet someone and instantly feel connected? Your thoughts seem to be similar, you react to things the same way, you even seem to complete each other’s sentences and you decide, at last, I’ve found someone who totally gets me. Then, you get to know more of each other and a sense of foreboding starts creeping up, the sixth sense that seldom goes wrong tries to warn you that what you see may not be what you get. And ultimately, a sense of resignation, a foreboding feeling of being fooled does you in. That’s exactly what happened to me with this book.

Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer prize winning journalist had always dreamed about chucking it all and seeking out an unencumbered life free of plans and schedules, at least temporarily. And she does just that, her sons having moved out and she herself having reached a phase in life where she could afford to do it. The book is a chronicle of her journey through Paris, London, Oxford and Italy over a period of six to seven months.

The connect was instant. The yearnings and the apprehensions were very familiar. On one side were the years of longing to go out on one’s own, be just who you are sans any limiting definitions of being a daughter, wife, sister, mother, professional and all hundreds of labels by which one is defined. On the other side, the thoughts of whether one could actually do it, that nagging feeling of what would the family and friends say, however sure you are they would encourage you. These were the exact thoughts that seemed to have gone through the author’s mind as well. The beginning was quite exciting. The flutter in your heart as you anticipate the unknown, interspersed with the excitement of finally doing something that you have always wanted to. Adding to the lure was the thought that here is a woman who seemed to have transcended the need for a man in her life, one who could stand on her own and enjoy  life on her own terms.

The fascination started waning even before Paris was done. It was probably a mismatch in expectations. Here I was on one side, with an audacity to think that a prize winning Baltimore Sun columnist’s journey would be similar to a nobody’s week long solo trip to an unknown place. The fault is entirely mine. Instead of on a shoe string budget sojourn across Europe that was expected, what I got was exquisitely beautiful people, exotic shopping and dining in gourmet restaurants. And of course, an adoring and understanding, rich Japanese man who falls in love with you at first sight. Yes, the fault is entirely mine, what right did I have to expect anything different?

Paris is detailed and charming as expected, London a little less so, Oxford is fine and Italy is a rush. More than the places, it is the people and the author’s reminiscences that stayed with me and that is what I loved about the book. I was amazed at the manner in which she strikes conversations people and how she is able to get their stories out so easily. But then, that’s what she’s been doing for a living is a consoling thought. The one thread that runs through is the bonding between women, wherever you go and whatever you do. After a certain age, the rivalry for men is long gone, women gets to know and is comfortable in their own space and they realize that other women are their best allies. The liberated feeling is so well brought out in Jeanne Moreau‘s words as narrated by the author,

She told me that at twenty she was considered ‘unphotogenic’ and that it hurt her to read such a description. But as a woman in her fifties, she had stopped – and this is the way she put it – “looking into the mirror that others hold up to me”

What I found quite unsettling is the fact that in spite of portraying herself as the quintessential woman of today, she still seemed to feel incomplete without a man in her life. Even while writing about the places she traveled to and the people she met on the way, it was as if her mind was revolving around her Japanese love. Everything else felt incidental.

 

Verdict – Loved the language and her insights on places, relationships and life in general. Passing through a similar phase of trying to seek and find who I really am, I could relate to her thoughts. She failed to impress  as an independent woman, though. As mentioned earlier, could be a mismatch of what I wanted and what I got 🙂
An easy read, for a lazy afternoon. You will love it , if you love Danielle Steele novels.

3.5/5

When Dreams Wake You Up – ‘The Awakening’ by Kate Chopin

kateWhen I was carrying our first born, husband used to see pregnant women everywhere. It happens all the time doesn’t it? When the mind is focused on something, consciously or sub consciously, it seem to attract relevant experiences, thoughts and people. Or is it that we become more mindful and aware that we actually start making sense of what is around us? Stories, real life and made up, discussions, real and virtual, all tend to rekindle those once burning embers. As if that was not enough, this  book found its way and added fuel to the already smouldering ashes.

The questions are what every woman would have asked herself at least once in her life. Unless of course, she is single and childless. Is it worth it? What about me? My dreams? Do I even have a choice? Are child bearing and rearing my responsibilities alone? What if I reset my priorities? And family and children no longer held a place there, or they were far down on the ladder? More than ten years into the twenty first century, such thoughts are rarely heeded, then imagine the furor that it might have caused when a woman dared to think aloud on similar lines towards the end of the nineteenth century, even if she was fictional?

Edna Pontellier had no right to be unhappy. Rich husband, tastefully furnished house in the suburbs, holidays to sea side every year, happy kids, customary maids and servants – she seemed to have it all, everything that women like her where supposed to want. Reticent by nature, she seem to further withdraw into herself, the holiday crowd and their shenanigans doesn’t charm her anymore and she seem to search for that sense of freedom that she has experienced once, while running through the fields in her childhood. There is this restlessness that seem to settle over her and refuses to let go. She had always thought of herself different from other women in her social circle, the mother-women,

who idolized their children, worshiped their husbands, and esteemed it a holy privilege to efface themselves as individuals and grow wings as ministering angels

Edna is at first slightly disturbed by the fawning ways of young Robert, the land lady’s son. No one sees anything amiss in it as he is known for his flirting ways with the rich ladies who come down from the city year after year. Yet, for Edna, that might have been the spark that the fire in her was waiting for. The questions start taking complete shapes as she overcomes her fear of swimming. And that could very well have been a metaphor for getting over her inhibitions. And her friendship with the musician Mademoiselle Reisz, who is not too welcome in her group of friends, helps in showing her a way out to her dreams.

Back in the city, taking up the role of a dutiful wife is something Edna finds difficult to come back to terms with. To give due credit, Mr.Pontellier is not a cruel husband, just an ordinary guy,

“a rather courteous husband so long as he met a certain tacit submissiveness in his wife,”

and hence could not understand the changes and the increasingly insolent behavior of his wife. He tries, in his own way, to make her comfortable and to make her see sense. Edna realizes that her relationship with her husband was just that and love was something else entirely that she has just begun to understand. Kids away on a holiday with their grandmother, and husband on a business tour, Edna finally seem to find herself in her art and affairs of heart. It takes her friend Madame Ratignolle’s words to bring her back to earth from the colorful skies that her spirit was roaming around,

“Think of the children, Edna. Oh think of the children! Remember them!”

The mother in her takes over, but the consequences are rather contrary to what we might expect.

The questions continue. I remember a conversation that I once had with a male friend. We were talking about a macho movie actor who was quite well known for his roving eye and abject disregard for his wife and mother of his children. My friend’s response was, “well, he is a great artist. His wife should understand that and respect his life. After all, she is his wife.” There was no clear answer to my counter of what if it was the wife who was a great artist and the husband was just that, her husband. A mumble was the only answer, if that was one.

Society has conditioned us to expect mothers to be the be all and end all of everything related to family with scant respect to what they themselves may really want. She is expected to give up all her comforts and aspirations for the overall happiness of her husband, parents and children whereas men, well, continue to be men. Mr. Pontellier could not have put it better and here he speaks for scores of men and even many women,

“It seems to me the utmost folly for a woman at the head of a household, and the mother of children, to spend in an atelier days which would be better employed contriving for the comfort of her family.”

Edna Pontellier, for me is the sound of many a woman that I see and listen to these days. They know their priorities clearly and perched right on top of the list are their children. They nurture their offspring with single minded passion, protect them like a tiger mom and is ready to give anything that it takes to give them the best. Yet, they know where they will stop, even if it is with a regret or two.

“I would give up the unessential; I would give my money, I would give my life for my children; but I wouldn’t give myself.”

Normally, I am more of a casual reader who might have read about the author somewhere and is satisfied with the bits and pieces of information that might float in with the wind. This time around, I really wanted to know this brave soul who had shocked many an orthodox soul right out of their shoes and even stockings. How could a woman talk about her sexual desires, and so openly? How could she leave her husband, and God forbid, even her children, just like that?

Kate Chopin is now considered a forerunner of the feminist authors of the twentieth century. She has written two novels and about a hundred short stories. ‘The Awakening’ is her second novel and as expected, was a quite a sensation when it was published in 1899. It was condemned, critics gave it all the choicest labels and the publication of her third collection of short stories was cancelled. The novel started getting recognized for what it was, almost sixty years after her death in 1904.

 Verdict – The easy going manner of writing belies the brevity of thoughts. You can finish the book in a day or even less, but it is sure to disturb your thoughts for a few days, especially if you are a woman and a mother, who had and still have some dreams, and whose life is an eternal list of priorities that keeps changing by the minute. Read it.

4/5