Totally where I am at
Suzette Jordan, also known as the Park Street rape survivor, died today. Medically it is a form of encephalitis that killed her. But people who have known her for some time now, talk of the toll the incident had taken on her. Publicly Jordan was a picture of a fighter, choosing to disclose her name, her face, in a country where the raped are shamed more than the rapist. Hopefully that is changing somewhat now, though it hadnt changed enough for Jordan. Her friend Harish Iyer wrote in The Newsminute about how the fatal disease was because her immunity was compromised by the depression the incident and its aftermath had caused.
Suzette is not the only one, there are many who are shaken by one seemingly random, violent crime that may not kill them immediately, but slowly sucks the life out of them. In 2012 lawyer Pallavi Purkayastha was brutally murdered by her building watchman. Her partner Avik Sengupta discovered her bloodied body when he reached home a few hours later. Its a sight very few of us can erase from our memories in a lifetime. While the watchman was convicted later, Sengupta was not alive to see it. He died of a brain disease a year after Pallavi’s death. No one who reported then can forget how lost 26 year old Sengupta had looked the day after the murder as he came to register the FIR. He spent the next year trying to forget, making music, appreciating art, trying to work, but the trauma won.
I once had a friend, A, I have written about him before. About a year after a devastating breakup, he rammed his bike on to a truck on a highway, an accident they say. The year he was alive was spent alternating between trying to get the girl back and trying to pretend he was moving on. He was not even 25.
There is a case, still under trial, where grief, or more appropriately depression has manifested much later. For the sake of the trial and those left behind its not appropriate to name this case or the sibling of the victim who is now undergoing treatment. Almost 3 years on, this sibling feels the system has been unfair and his depression manifests itself as online rants to all and sundry. Luckily he has got help now.
Actress Deepika Padukone spoke earlier this year about how waking up everyday was a strain when she was in the throes of depression. She was lucky to have her family support her and got help on time too.
A violent incident, whether physical or mental, can turn many lives into ones of quiet desperation. It could be a single trauma or a death by thousand cuts scenario. Depression really does kill. Sometimes it forces people to take their own lives. At other times, every day seems like just one more form of death, even though most survivors fight hard. Sometimes all the support, all the accolades for having survived dont help. Mostly everyone fights back, mostly the will to live is bigger than the depression. But sometimes there are deaths in quiet desperation.
In the 2002 film adaptation of H G Wells’ Time Machine, the opening sequence shows why the protagonist builds it. The scientist protagonist loses his girlfriend to some muggers. In grief he decides to build a time machine to bring her back. After 4 years when he makes one, he goes to the day of her death and saves her from the muggers only to see that she is killed by a vehicle in the next few minutes. Symbolically, it is a sci fi movie making a spiritual point that life and death and a lot of what happens between them are not in man’s control, no matter how he tries to control them. But the larger point really is that you can’t change your past. No matter what you try to do to it in the present, no matter how you try to manipulate the situation, the past remains the past. A point that should be considered by those, who in recent days, have been trying very hard to rewrite the past or atleast try and give it a bit of a shine here and there.
The entire national focus has been on the past these days; that is if you believe all the statements made by several leaders. Attempts are being made on all sides to appropriate the past for themselves. The internet is a great tool to take credit for a lot of things. By its very nature of being a mass communication medium that is also real time, it lends itself to propaganda. So it shouldn’t be surprising this is happening in India but the reason why it is perhaps alarming is that it exposes how little of what we studied while young do we remember, how little do we actually apply our mind and reason to our heritage and how little do we actually know about it or have cared to know about it.
The right wingers may be right about one point, that we don’t know or don’t care about our own history, yes, that’s true. But the interesting part is if we according to them chose to believe the left liberals unquestioningly at one point, we are now choosing to believe the right wing unquestioningly. What does that say about our cultural disdain for factual history and its preservation? This question was put to a few delegates at the Goa conference of right wing scholars. Their response was that as a society we were so repressed, our self esteem so crushed and our past so belittled that we did not think of upholding our identity and our history. While on the face of it, this argument seems valid, but it doesn’t explain the facts in this article – Gandhi return landmarks in Mumbai becoming history. This article clearly shows how we have failed to preserve the legacy of one of the greatest icons of our history. If we couldn’t preserve the legacy of Gandhi, who lived during the recorded history phase of our country, who died just 60 odd years ago when we were free of all colonial pressure to disown our culture, then what hope is there for the distant past?
So yes, the right wing is correct to say that we don’t preserve or respect our history but perhaps what right wing and left wings scholars will never acknowledge is our apathy towards such preservation. Another reason that no one really touches upon is how even traditionally, Indian culture believed in either passing on history and knowledge orally, that too only within the family or particular caste or simply taking it to the death bed. One has heard several legends of enlightened men who died with the secrets of their knowledge in their hearts. Most knowledge was concentrated with upper class men and once caste systems became more rigid, there was no way anyone from any other caste got access to it. Indian traditions at one point even banned crossing oceans or going anywhere beyond the borders of the country. Someone as distinguished as Swami Vivekananda was denied entry to a temple after his famous Chicago address because he had crossed seas and was now impure. Whatever we learnt we didnt propagate or share with others and because we didn’t go beyond our shores, we never learnt what they were upto. And now we feel shortchanged because people came here and learnt things and then applied and built upon it in their home countries.
To blame all of our failings in preserving history and knowledge on invaders and colonialists is forsaking our own responsibility in the whole thing. And it is a noble intention to try and preserve or enhance what we can right now, but do we know whether what we are fighting for is really the factual history? Or are we fighting to redo the past like the scientist in Time machine? What if we looked at the past and resolved we will preserve our today and our tomorrow better rather than what we no longer have any control over?
I have been late in discovering a wonderful writer like Cheryl Strayed. I haven’t yet read any of her books, but her Dear Sugar columns for Rumpus have been great. She is considered a pioneer in the Internet Existential Advice column genre. Then I started reading about her book Wild, which is now a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. It talks of a time in Strayed’s life when she was still mourning her mother’s death almost 3 years after the fact; a period when she repeatedly cheated on her husband like she was addicted. Finally she goes for a long hike and this book and the movie are about that hike. I was curious to know more, even though I didn’t understand her reaction to the death by cheating. I then stumbled upon this piece she had written for the Sun magazine – The Love of My Life its called.
That article is like a precursor to Wild. She talks about her husband, her incessant cheating (which led her to change her last name to Strayed btw), but most of all she talks about grief, of sadness that cannot be wished away. I still don’t understand her reasons for processing her grief by cheating, but there was something that I caught – is it really necessary or even realistic to expect to move on from certain things? Strayed talks about waking up feeling she couldn’t continue to live and then being afraid that she will have to continue to live, with the loss –
“If, as a culture, we don’t bear witness to grief, the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved, while the rest of us avert our eyes and wait for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, to move on, to cheer up. And if they don’t — if they have loved too deeply, if they do wake each morning thinking, I cannot continue to live — well, then we pathologize their pain; we call their suffering a disease. We do not help them: we tell them that they need to get help.”
Grief can be about any loss, it could be that dream job that you didn’t get or one that turned into a nightmare, it could be that relationship that was never meant to be, or it could be death. But rarely do we come across people being ok with us holding on to our grief or pain for more than an acceptable period of time. One might say acceptable is subjective, but there are apparently rules. A relationship – half the time of its actual duration at the max, a job – the moment you get a new one; death, perhaps a little more complex, but not more than a year they stipulate. And after this time, you are magically supposed to be sparkly new, as if the trauma never happened, the grief never observed.
“WHAT DOES IT mean to heal? To move on? To let go? Whatever it means, it is usually said and not done, and the people who talk about it the most have almost never had to do it.”
Let it go has become such a mantra, one is supposed to let go of everything, to the point of showing some ADD symptoms. But what if some things can’t be brushed off? What if some people, some things, some experiences will always be there, no matter how much you try to move on? What if they are like the wound which left a scar, which you then did plastic surgery for, but you will always know where the scar existed? Does it remind people who see us that they could also feel such hopeless, seemingly ceaseless pain? Do we move on to not look like a freak and then go back home and toss and turn in our beds while replaying tapes of that thing you didn’t really move on from in your head? Do we move on because we are tired of being there, trapped, while everything and everyone has changed?
Strayed concludes – “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do.”
And I wish to ask, is it imperative to move on? I’d like to believe the world has space for the maudlin, the weary, the ones who find other things to do even as they live with grief. Holding on to grief and being open about it may not equal being less than. But then perhaps I don’t really know everything about grief or healing.
I didn’t see the movie, but I finally read Gone Girl and understood what the brouhaha was all about. It is a dark story of two extremely flawed, unstable people in perhaps the most dysfunctional marriage you will ever read or see. And it turns all our understanding of gender roles on its head while flirting with misogyny and misandry. I have the spoiler right here, the wife is the villain, the psychopath who systematically ruins her husband for his infidelity. But much before this twist is revealed all you see is a woman writing in her diary about how abused and disrespected she feels in her marriage, how she puts up with a lot in a bid to be the wife her husband wants. Right at the time when the twist is revealed, Amy Dunne, the wife and protagonist goes on a rant about a recent cultural phenomenon called the “cool girl”. This is that oft quoted paragraph :
“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.
Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)”
Somehow this paragraph resonated with me and a lot of people I know. It really is a malaise this ‘cool girl’ thing and it is just the old please your man repackaged for the 21st century. When we fall into these roles in relationships, sometimes we are not even conscious we are doing it. Sure there are women who love beer and sports, but that is not the point that the author is trying to make. What she is trying to say is about some unrealistic social acceptance norm wherein you are a ‘cool girl’ only if you never show any negative emotion. Anger is a valid emotion, so is disappointment. Elsewhere in the book Amy talks about this outing she has with her friends where the husbands were to join the wives later. Her husband Nick neither calls nor texts and when they meet later in the night at the apartment, she just hugs him and doesn’t make a fuss because well she doesn’t want him to feel forced and because she is the ‘cool girl’, the anti-thesis of another cultural trope – That Girl.
You see the way relationships are sold in the pop culture market, which is where unfortunately everyone learns their first lessons of love, girls are either cool girls or they are that girl. The cool girl waits endlessly for her man to accommodate her in his life; all the while having her own awesome life (hey her life is not on hold really you know, its an open relationship, or she has her career/projects, what have you). She never questions him on his flakiness, she never asks him to sit down and have the talk with her. She is supposed to lovingly let him go after cheating or a breakup. If she doesn’t do that, if she shows her negative emotions, she is That girl. That girl is basically someone who has emotions and expresses them to the inconvenience of the person she is with. Inconvenience could be anything really. Thankfully, Jezebel says both Cool girl and That girl dont exist. (the links – http://jezebel.com/what-does-it-even-mean-to-be-a-needy-girl-1475068866 and http://jezebel.com/the-cool-girl-is-not-fiction-but-a-phase-1642985632). Just girls exist. Period.
Lest this be misconstrued as a misandry rant, it is not as if pop culture is kind to men either. If women are under pressure to be the Cool girl, men are equally under pressure to be like Barney Stinson – rich, suited, always with a trick to get laid and full of awesome stories about how goofily clever they are. The standard trope of any rom com is a commitment phobic womaniser. Recently we had a movie called Happy Ending which was marketed as an attempt to laugh at the cliches of rom coms. We have Saif playing bloke Yudi who cant say I love you, who has a Ferrari, who gets women pretty easy despite a non existent writing career and who is pretty much just Garfield with sex appeal (his alter ego in the movie is somewhat Garfield). Thats one cliche but then the other is Yudi’s best friend. Why oh why do rom coms have that best friend who is married to the woman he loves but finds her over bearing. Its a rom com cliche to have a best friend who is somewhat unhappily married or forever freaking out about how his college days of roaming like a khulla sandh are over. This is to juxtapose and somewhat justify our hero’s commitment phobia, villifying not marriage, but the wife in the process. Is it too much to ask for a portrayal where the people around are just regular couples or singles who havent been reduced to cliches?
Men are also somewhat pressured to have this wild lifestyle. They are supposed to be cool studs too according to pop culture and a lot of guys do buy into it. Its like they want to be Hank from Californication. Its like they are encouraged to be Peter Pan like only the pop culture Peter Pan is always rich and always surrounded by women and booze. If a man seems to be more invested in the relationship than the girl, he is advised it can only end badly. According to pop culture he’d fall somewhere in the wide range of Devdas to those dudes of Pyar ka punchnama with some Honey Singh lyrics thrown in. Ironically, girls are also told not to care more. But relationships are about caring aren’t they?
What I find interesting about all these tropes is that they want us to be in some ways a better, airbrushed version of ourselves. Not robotic, but just devoid of any negatives, devoid of any expectations. That unqualified, unconditional love which if you ask me should only be reserved for children who can’t think for themselves and honestly need our care. Its about never asking, its about seamlessly floating from people to people, things to things, a nonchalant detachment even if you are burning up inside. Self love, self flagellation, self improvement all one large cool quotient industry.
This essay is becoming more stream of consciousness than I thought it would be. But the point I am trying to make is that it is not enough to be human, to have emotions on display these days. Its an era where you seem to have to constantly photoshop your profiles, prune them so that others see you are a breezy person, man or woman. Everything should look as if it was effortless. How did you succeed? You know it just happened. How did you end up having a fabulous relationship. You know it just happened, double gush. There is this constant messaging that what you are is not what you should be. There is also this constant need to be an exhibitionist, to show your best version, over and over again. And each time it should be a more shiny version.
In these times of who has the better profile picture and the first rebound after the breakup, it is tough to ascertain what is about gender politics and what is about a merely flawed understanding of being human seeping into the society.
Back in 2009, I wrote a romanticised take on the Life under the flyovers in Mumbai. I wasn’t in the mood of making any social point then and was just curiously observing an aspect of the life in this city. But a few events in the recent past made me revisit this story.
Two separate incidents of brutal attacks on young girls occurred towards the end of August-beginning of September. The first child a 5 year old was brutally sexually assaulted and left for the dead. She belonged to a family of pavement dwellers in Kandivali and had been picked up from her mother’s side in the dead of the night and brutalised in a chawl nearby. The second was another 5 year old girl whose family lived under the flyover overlooking the Borivali national park. This child too was picked up from her sleeping mother’s side and brutally attacked. Her body was discovered nearby the next morning. There was speculation that these brutal attacks, spaced within 10 days of each other could be relate and so we went to check this Borivali case out.
The national park flyover is a long one. On the city end of the flyover there is a traffic police thana. The cops pointed out to us that the said family lived at the fag end of the flyover, towards Dahisar, around 300-500 mtrs away from this thana. As we walked below the flyover, we saw many jobless men loitering around. We asked some if they knew about the incident, most said they had come there only that day. Then there were families who seemed to have just landed in the city, their bags by their side, sitting under the flyover to escape the weather.
As we proceeded towards the Dahisar end of the flyover, the landscape started changing. The soil was more damp, with the leakage from the dripping flyover or because of frequent urination we couldn’t tell. There were bundles of clothes stacked up everywhere. At some places clothes were put up on a clothesline to dry. A few children were playing about and one man pointed at an old woman, lying on a bed while minding the porridge boiling on a chulha nearby. This woman he said was the child’s grandmother. The grandmother was in a bad condition, her throat was all choked up and she couldn’t speak much, only informing us that the rest of the family was at the police station. Neighbours, also living under the flyover, told us that such a thing had never happened before. They hadn’t yet thought of tying their children to themselves, but hugged them tight while sleeping.
Since the grandmother was unable to speak much and seemed to have smeared some white powder all across her throat, we shot the locality and headed to the police station. There we met the girl’s parents. They seemed to be in their late 30s, early 40s. They had 6 other children who along with a few older ladies of the community were all waiting at the police station to hear about the investigation. Their oldest was about 15 and the youngest was still an infant. The girl’s mother had the same problem, she was unable to talk much and when she did it sounded like a squeal. She also had white powder on her throat. When asked she responded that she and her mother had cried two days straight and now could barely talk; they had applied chuna or limestone to their throats to ease them.
The father held his composure for a long while, telling us about how he and the eldest had been to their native village in Rajasthan the night of the incident. They were labourers who came to Mumbai in the months there was no work in the villages. Rest of the time they stayed back in Rajasthan. For years, their community would come to the same area and stay under flyovers or on pavements as they didn’t know anyone in the city and short term accommodation wasn’t possible on their budget. The wife had discovered the child missing the next morning and after a search they found her body dumped close by. The mother claims to have been sound asleep and says she’d have killed the accused if she had seen him snatching the child. The father breaks down only while describing the child’s condition, her face he wails was completely disfigured. He fails to understand who could do such a thing to a child.
Among the cries of woe also comes the problem of bureaucratic procedure. For 2 days now, they have been at the police station they say and they haven’t eaten since morning, it is around 2 pm. The DCP had walked in for a briefing and the station officers see us and a few local journalists poking around. The family then gets a fresh batch of wada pav. The family tells us their children are being questioned if their mother was having an affair with some rickshaw driver or other frequent visitors of such areas. The husband vouches for his wife’s loyalty. This is the second case I have encountered where the police investigation focuses on the conduct of the women in the family as necessary for investigation. The first one was the death of a Dalit activist in Gondia, where the police arrested the wife and a neighbour saying they burnt the man alive. The man in his dying declaration from a hospital bed named some upper caste members of the village. Investigation is still going on in the Gondia case.
The DCP says that the two cases seem unrelated and that they have some definite leads already in the Kandivali case thanks to CCTV evidence, no such luck though in Borivali. The father keeps asking us and the police to do something soon to find the killer.
A few days after this, the police arrested a suspect in the Kandivali case, showing that both cases are unrelated. The Borivali case is unsolved so far. The child is lost and we haven’t been able to visit the parents again. Most likely, they’ll be under the same flyover, going about their daily jobs, with little time to mourn a life. Maybe days from now, the child will be a distant memory, one they give in to only in the dark of the night, when the roof above their head, the flyover has fallen silent. Maybe, they’ll never return to Mumbai the next season.
In the annals of the Mumbai police, flyovers are known as gambling and drug dens. There is not much policing done though in these dark, damp places because in some ways it is logistically impossible. During the day, the families living beneath it, conduct a very public life. Loud spousal spats, drunken antics, parents physically abusing their children, all this is for everyone to see. At night, these eerie places fall silent. Famished men and women seek succour beneath the flyover in a city where there is no space for anyone anymore. One could say that the solution is to evacuate all these people from under the flyover, hand it over to some corporate who’ll perhaps develop small gardens or other recreation there. But what happens then to these people? Where do they stay? No one seems to have an answer to that. Crime and basic family life co-exist in an uneasy equilibrium under these flyovers. And sometimes, some family, like that of this child get unlucky. As their neighbour put it, “Pehle kabhi aisa kuch bhi yahaan nahin hua hai, par ab kya karein, jo ho gaya, so ho gaya”. (Nothing like this has ever happened here before, but what to do, what’s happened, has happened).
(P. S. The 2011 census says there are 57,416 homeless people in Mumbai, but with the floating population, this number is sure to be much higher).
Kerala’s prohibition jokes on twitter set me off on a different thought process. Thanks to the fact that I was listening to Johnny Johnny from Entertainment when I read the news. You know, I can count on my fingers the number of songs that involved drinking that were big, big hits when in the 90s. The most famous one that I can remember is Zara sa jhoom loon main from DDLJ. That’s all.
Back in the olden days of Bollywood, drinking was something associated with failed love. Most of it was Devdas-ish. You had jilted lovers sing drunkenly about their lost love even as they decried love itself. Ye jo mohabbat hai, remember? Or you had the alcoholic who’d spout philosophy, like in the case of Choo lene do nazuk honthon ko. The song has a lot of gems about the travesty of life. The first depiction of a heroine drinking that I can remember is Meena Kumari in Na jao saiyan chuda ke baiyan, a forlorn, lonely wife, asking her man not to abandon her. So close to her own life. Then there was the inimitable Asha Bhonsale singing Aao huzoor tumko, a seductive song. Mostly only the vamps drank on screen though.
Drunken songs were not a normal occurrence in the movies. They were a turning point in the plot, occurring out of immense sadness, jealous rages and other intense emotions. Very few older songs were about being high for the sake of being high. That somehow seems to have changed in the recent past. Songs these days are all about drinking and the joys (?) of it. They are the opening acts of the movies, they establish the friendships amongst lead stars, they are a sign of the cool life the protagonists lead.
One of the first such songs that caught on is the 4 baj gaye song from Faltu. It had become all the rage and kept playing on the radio all the time. Then came the Honey Singh era. His songs were all about drinking, doping and women, right upto 4 bottle vodka. (What’s with this 4 anyway?). A friend was embarrassed to confess that her barely able to say his alphabets 2 and a half year old sang D for Daaru peete jao with relish. Race 2 did the honor of rhyming Booze and Shoes. There was the sweet Talli hai ye zameen from Ek main hoon aur ek tu. Then there is the most recent drinking anthem I mentioned earlier – Johnny Johnny.
Drinking wasn’t ever shown as de rigeur in the older Bollywood. But perhaps its liberalisation, the proliferation of a night life culture, (or just composers and lyricists composing while inebriated :P), but the number of songs centered on alcohol being the fun factor have grown exponentially. Makes me wonder, if Dr. Harshvardhan’s 10 year plan succeeds, what will our Bollywood use as inspiration for dance numbers? As someone told me on twitter, songs surely won’t be written about flavoured milk. But Bollywood, time for you to start researching.