Category Archives: India

Lipstick Under My Burkha

The movie Lipstick Under My Burkha is a brutal attack on patriarchy. No wonder the CBFC had a problem with it. But thanks to the controversy it generated a huge buzz and many people are in theatres to see it, who would have missed it (besides perverts that is). It is doing good business even in small towns (How do I know? I live in one). The movie is exceptional because of the way it shows women as they are. Messy, emotional, pliable, virtuous, out of control, not always keeping it together, and certainly not perfect but beautiful, flawed creatures.

Four women in different stages of life. It is set in Bhopal though it could be any small town in India. Ratna Pathak Shah is outstanding as ‘Buaji’, an identity slapped on her for so long that she has forgotten what her name is. She rediscovers romance and wants to live and love a little but at her age it’s a taboo. All the other leads are spot on too. A college student played by Plabita Borthakur, Rehana, longs to leave her burkha behind and dance with abandon. A beautician played by Aahana Kumra, Leela, wants to live life on her own terms unafraid of societal diktats. A tormented housewife, Shirin, played by Konkona Sen Sharma, is saddled with an abusive husband.

We see the different ways women are subjugated. It was depressing the way they go about trying to fulfill their desires in secret. The only way to live out their dreams and fantasies  is when they are hidden from the world, from their families, neighbours, everyone. It is an inhospitable environment for their dreams. They go to immense lengths to conceal their true selves just to live in this world with their sanity intact.

It is always women who lead lives of quiet desperation. Mostly. There wouldn’t be a woman in the country who wouldn’t identify with at least one of the characters.

There are many comic moments in the movie and most of them unexpected. For example, fiancee sounded like fancy. Continue reading Lipstick Under My Burkha

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Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom

The first thing that struck me about A State of  Freedom is it’s cover. The book jacket has a large bear on the cover, which is unusual and arresting but surprisingly aesthetically pleasing. When I began reading A State of Freedom, it reminded me of Lahiri’s oeuvre because of the way it started and the themes it deals with. But I soon realized Neel Mukherjee’s book is quite different.

The book is edgy and each section ends with a cliffhanger. You want to gallop ahead and connect the dots, and at the same time, you want to take your time to savour the way it’s written.

A State of Freedom has a large canvas and deals with many issues in only 275 pages. The book is divided into 5 sections and the events that unfold are in different geographical locations. The way the stories of these characters are narrated gives them depth, and makes them appear real.

In the first section a man wants to familiarize his increasingly Americanized son with his roots. So they visit Mughal monuments like Fatehpur Sikhri and Taj Mahal. Originally from Calcutta, he has been living abroad for two decades, and now feels like “a tourist in his own country”. He wants his son to see India, and understand the culture he was born into. But they are like aliens from another planet.

I felt disoriented as the first section ended and wanted to stop but I urge you to read on (and not be put off by big words).

The second section flows more easily. A Bengali couple, the Sens, live in Mumbai and their son, a young writer, lives in London. He returns to India periodically to visit them. He is working on a cookbook which will contain authentic recipes from India as cooked in Indian households. The cooking at their home is done by Renu, who works as a cook in many households in Mumbai. Their son is curious about Renu because of her surly manner and tries to draw her into conversations but she doesn’t respond.

Treating the domestic help as a lesser human being is perhaps a relic of the Zamindari system. The son now straddles both worlds, old and new, and finds it  increasingly difficult to deal with the way things continue to be done in India.

The love of food intersperses this section. If you pay attention, many a recipe can be mined out from these pages. While exploring India for recipes, he also visits Renu’s home at her insistence. It is here he witnesses the divide between the classes.

Another woman, Milly, comes to clean the Sens’ house. She reappears as a major character in another section of the book.

The third section is the longest, and is the soul of the book. Motherless twins brought up by a father, who dies in a forest fire. One brother leaves home to find work. This section follows the other brother, Lakshman, as he attempts to eke out a living. He finds a bear cub and keeps it to save it from being killed. He names it Raju. With his brother gone, the responsibility of feeding his wife and children along with his own family now falls squarely on his shoulders.

The way the bear cub is handled, in an attempt to tame it, is barbaric. This, in a country where cows are ‘worshipped’. It makes you question who is really savage, man or beast?

They are animals their pain doesn’t last. All these animals that live in the wild, in the forest, on the streets, you have never known them to need a doctor, have you? They heal quickly, they are strong. It’s we, humans, who are weak.

With hunger gnawing their insides, their lives are foremost about survival. They are largely unaware of the world outside of their existence. They have no time to understand the rights of animals. Lakshman has trouble believing bear dancing is a crime one could be sent to jail for.

Lakshman tries to train Raju to be a performing bear and wanders from place to place living like a nomad, trying to earn money by making him dance. Though Lakshman is cruel to Raju, he is aware that he is at the mercy of the ‘helpless’ animal. Lakshman depends on Raju; the bear can forage for food and fend for itself. It makes you think about freedom, who is actually free.

The book shows how leaving home in search of a better quality of life works out differently for people, and the price they pay for it.  (Warning – Animal sacrifice is described in this section.)  Continue reading Neel Mukherjee’s A State of Freedom

Thoughts on The Heat and Dust Project- How (not) to tell a book what you feel about it

 

 The Heat and Dust Project is a travel memoir and not just a travelogue as the title says. It is about the two people who are married to each other and how their relationship changes when they are travelling through India, to discover it and themselves in the process. It is about the feel of the place and the people they meet there, more than the place itself. They themselves along with the places they visit are the main characters in their own book.

They have dared to show things as they are, and shown themselves in less than flattering light many a time. Their relationship is there for everyone to see and that can’t have been easy. Two writers in the house and both fiercely opinionated and stubborn. It must be have one hell of a writing and editing process. I, for one, would have loved to be a fly on the wall to see how it came to be the book it is.

Reading the book  shortly before an impending trip, it fell into my lap at just the right time. I bought the book a few months back and hadn’t gotten around to reading it. Then one fine day it struck me that it would make a great gift for a friend of mine who has the wanderlust and frequently travels with her better half. I read the authors’ interviews to know more about them and their project and I thought I will read  just  the author’s note to get a feel of the book. Then to get a better idea I read the introduction and before I knew it I was reading the book.

The strange thing is, whenever I read nonfiction (which is not very often) I only want to read more nonfiction. Initially it was a slow read, I was savouring every moment and nonfiction is more powerful in the way one experiences it, probably because one feels that it is something which has actually happened, real and tangible. The writing is conversational but still literary. A good balance I thought.

Anxiety is a strange but not uncommon response to beauty. It is mostly exhibited by people with a talent for stress.

 Devapriya or D as she calls herself says this when they were going gaga over the beauty in Jaisalmer and thought they might not be able to do justice to its breathtaking gorgeousity (yes that is a word). At times like these I wished the book had some photographs.

I finally found someone, to whom dusk matters and affects, in equal measure. Finally a person who has a relationship with the setting sun, a person who has revelations at dusk. And just like me, dusk is a harbinger of hope for her. How a moment captured during twilight becomes perfectly stored in one’s memory has always been a mystery to me. A marker which nature gives us every single day, to take stock of the day, to pause and reflect.

When I had started the book I was feeling lonely and unsure, everlasting solitude doesn’t seem like a good idea now that I am wallowing in it. It’s true. Everything in excess is bad and solitude in large doses can turn into melancholy, as I have often experienced. I actually shed tears seeing them begin a life changing journey. I did not know that by the time I finish I would have tears in my eyes too.

Few pages into the book, I am enjoying the journey along with them and back in my, if not happy then, content place, where I can once again live with myself. The golden days of solitude and unhurried activity. Of short naps and long silences, punctuated only by the cries of birds and the sound of wind swaying branches and rustling the dry leaves (which have a characteristic sound) and occasionally people. Now I am more accustomed to the book, attuned to its needs and it to mine. And I am excited to be travelling with them.

Continue reading Thoughts on The Heat and Dust Project- How (not) to tell a book what you feel about it