Tag Archives: controversy

Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Arabian Night(mare)s

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 27th June 2011.

Once upon a time, in a book rife with lies, Princess Scheherazade spent one thousand and one nights in bed with Prince Shahriyar… talking.

Poor child. Not a single glass of cool sherbet was offered to soothe that lovely throat that may have gone hoarse as she spoke to save her life.

Princess Scheherazade. Of noble birth and noble poise. She gladly gave herself up to satisfy the prince’s twisted sense of humour where he took virgin brides to bed one night, and had them beheaded the next. His reason was fuelled by a fear of infidelity on their part. Notice how he sacrificed virgin brides after he had deflowered them. Ironic. No one ever questioned the prince’s virginity. Or, sanity, for that matter (I wonder if he was afraid that he wouldn’t get his seventy-two virgins after death, and was trying to make up an equivalent in human numbers).

But Scheherazade? Did her heart pulsate wildly as she made a careful note to appeal to the prince’s mental libido, while keeping his physical libido at bay? Did the imagined swish of a sword at the guillotine haunt her dreams, as she struggled to maintain the veneer of an artful storyteller, with apt tincture pauses at the exact moments in order to create an illusion of drama and mystery? Or, did she just inwardly maintain a running record of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” as a talisman against fear?

Was it perhaps a girlish infatuation that led her to his bedroom of doom? Did she secretly hold a special place for the prince, to willingly walk into a death trap? Or, were her motives more selfish and lay in her desire to be immortalised in history? Perhaps, she lost herself in the somnolence of a utopic fantasy where her tormentor would fall hopelessly in love with her storytelling skills (and… other things).

I wonder if even once in those one thousand and one nights, she regretted her decision. Did she ever daydream of taking the prince by his beard and shaking his face, out of frustration and rage?  Or, was she one of a perverse mentality whose kink lay in a masochistic self-torture where she fed off from the dread evident in the flutter of her heart? Did she ever in those long, long nights mistake that flutter for… love?

Love, indeed. The bane of life. Look at Sita. She insisted that Ram come save her from Raavan, and what did she get? Two counts of fire acrobatics to prove her chastity.

Look at Europa. Ovid’s Metamorphoses etched her “rape” by Jupiter for centuries to come. But if Jupiter’s fulfillment lay in plain ravishing, then why make Europa his queen? Why choose her to rule Crete, with a special place right next to him? What if “love” was all they really had?

Tabitha Vevers' "When We Talk About Rape" (1992), based on the myth of Europa's rape by Jupiter

But Scheherazade and love? Was she in love with a murderer who had a trail of massacred damsels on his hands?

Myths and historical myths are often interpreted (and misinterpreted) at will. I could give you a lecture on the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi controversy manipulated by political parties that led to unnecessary bloody communal riots. But let’s stick to simple things.

Think. For once.

If just like Ovid’s possible misinterpretation of a possible love story, there had been no pointy sword hanging over Scheherazade’s neck? Maybe, her stories were just sweet nothings between two lovers after a very “sexy time” in bed (a commonplace substitute for the modern-day post-coital cigarette, perhaps?). Then, the massacres could have been a lie. A cover-up made up over time to spice up the origin of the one thousand and one stories. Spice sells. And, love stories are trite and common, anyway.

But let’s ask an expert on relationships. Freud, darling? What do you think?

He takes a long drag of his pipe, strokes his beard, and says, “Love, shove, nothing! What really happened was: once upon a time, a woman fell in love with an infantile man, and told him bed time stories to fulfill an unfulfilled Oedipal complex. By being able to do so, his love for her was unshakeable. And, tell me this, how could he let go of that mother figure, once he had her?”

Maybe, the guy has a point.

So Scheherazade, forgive me. But your tales are all you have. The rest will be reworked again and again in an infinite loop, till we have exhausted
the possibilities of your life. Truth comes in many versions, and maybe some day, we will hit upon the right one.

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Marriage Aaj Kal*: An Ultra-Feminist Take on Arranged Marriages

From the Kamasutra

*Today and Yesterday 

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 3rd March 2011.

Chanakya of the Mauryan dynasty, and a prime minister of his time, is said to have remarked, “A good wife is one who serves her husband in the morning like a mother, loves him in the day like a sister and pleases him like a prostitute in the night.” It’s impossible to confirm whether he actually said this, but it isn’t too difficult to imagine based on the time period he hailed from. What I find strange is that after all these centuries Indian men still harbor a similar attitude. This attitude can be traced to the Kamasutra as well that he allegedly wrote (many historians assert that Vatsyayana, author of the book, and Chanakya are the one and the same). As mistakenly understood by many, the book is not just about the art of making love, but also about the male art of making love to women without committing sin. According to the ancient text, it is perfectly ok to sleep with another woman if there is an ulterior motive involved. For example, in an English translation by Deepak Chopra, a rule states that: “I love another woman, who is this woman’s best friend. If I sleep with this woman, I can get to the one I really want.” Another example, “By winning this woman over, I can kill her husband, whose riches I covet”. Note that these rules apply only to men, and deem it tolerable to objectify women in order to satisfy personal again.

But I don’t want to refer to ancient texts (or their translations) to give you the picture of unrealistic expectations of Indian men. Gayatri Gopinath, a queer theorist of diaspora, in her article “Nostalgia, Desire, Diaspora: South Asian Sexualities in Motion”, points out that patriarchal attitudes of men towards women not only exist in the homeland (India), but also in the diaspora. The female gender is viewed as “the symbolic center … [for] … “home” and “family””, and heteronormative female sexuality can only exist “within the familial and domestic space”. Thus, it is acceptable to be sexual if you are married and only with your husband, while homosexuality is either criminalized or ignored. Gopinath cites a real-life example, where the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA) was denied the right to march in the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) sponsored annual India Day Parade, in New York City, both in 1995 and 1996. Consequently, the FIA is run by a group of Indian immigrant businessmen.

All this only leads up to the question of ‘why’. Why would these men be so hind sighted to ignore that women nowadays are free, independent agencies, who are not confined to traditional gender roles whether in India, or outside of India? The only answer, in my opinion, is their false sense of entitlement. They appear to believe that they have this ancient right to have these equally ancient expectations. As the SALGA example would suggest, men outside the “homeland,” have been unable to evolve beyond their view of traditional gender roles, as applied to women back in the homeland. Maybe, it can also be attributed to parental and societal pressure that plants the seeds of such inane ideas into their heads at tender ages, so that they grow up having expectations that only become more traditional with time. For example, this summer, when I was in Calcutta, a neighbor subjected me to a volley of questions. She is currently on the prowl for a bride for her younger son (who never wants to leave India). Some of her questions were:

Do you know how to cook?
Don’t you want to settle in India?
Do you know how to wear a sari?

All her questions were addressed with a smile. It was as if she hoped I wouldn’t see through her façade of “innocent” questioning. Instead of being mortified, I was faintly amused. Really? Do I represent the ideal future daughter-in-law for your “modern” son, who also expects to have a very traditional wife at home (ironically, chosen by his mother. Really, you can’t get more traditional than this!)? I had some questions for her too: Does he know how to cook? Doesn’t he want to settle abroad? And, why on earth does he talk with that put on accent? It sounds neither British, nor American. Just an Indian trying very hard to sound “foreign”!

Source: Meera Sapra's blog at http://lifesacomicstrip.blogspot.com/

However, don’t castigate me yet. I don’t have a problem with arranged marriage. On the whole, I find the concept very gratifying. It’s really very similar to set up dating. You say ‘yes’, only if you feel you are compatible. Yet, with the unrealistic expectations of Indian males (and in this case, their mothers) all around, it’s difficult for us women to find someone to “live” with.

To assuage the attitude of men here in Canada, I had a discussion with some of my male friends on the topic of marriage and what kind of qualities do they want in their future wives.

“She must know how to cook!”
“She should keep the house nice and tidy.”
“She should be a virgin!”

I was faintly aghast at such pronouncements. These were Indo-Canadian men living here in Toronto for the past ten-twelve years. Were they actually hoping to find the “wife” described by Chanakya? The irony was that not all of them were virgins, and none of them had any experience with cooking or cleaning.

In the case of my parents, I believe they got lucky when they found each other. Their’s was a love marriage. And, even though, my father is not exactly the most liberal man alive, he definitely didn’t hope for the ideal Chanakyan wife. And, since my mom works hard at home, and at the office (she is my dad’s business partner and they work together), I can only imagine her staring scornfully at Chanakya, if he had made the mistake of making that comment in her presence.

In my case, I too have the image of an ideal man in my head. He may not be THE ideal man, but ideal enough for me. He would be someone: who looks decent (this might appear a little vain on my part, but if I had to choose between the frog and the prince, the frog would probably end up dead face down in a pond somewhere); can clean, if not cook; and has a tolerant nature, since I tend to get impatient and lazy at times. He need not be a virgin. Most people I know of my age, are not. He need not be super intelligent. However, I wouldn’t tolerate a super idiot. And definitely, he must not have too many unrealistic expectations of my abilities. I cannot speak for other women, but my girlfriends also harbor similar “attainable” attributes within their future spouses. Yes, I do believe that we are the more rational gender, but that’s my personal bias.

So, I ask you, where do we women expect to find our men? And, where and when exactly do these men of today expect to find their women? With distorted realities clashing into each other, the answers may be “in our imaginations” and “never”.

I think I have come to terms with that reality. The question is: have you?

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Amber Dean on Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group

I conducted this interview on 15th November 2010. It was published by The Ally on 24th January  2011.

An exhibition held at the end of summer in 2009 at the You Me Gallery in Hamilton sparked controversy and gave birth to Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group when it showed photographs of street based sex workers taken with surveillance cameras. Amber Dean, founding member of Big Susie, explains further about the exhibit that sparked the idea for the group, “The owner of [The] Pearl Company… put together an art show that exhibited photographs and surveillance images that he had taken of women doing street sex work outside of his gallery and theatre. And, he exhibited these [photographs] without their knowledge and… consent”.

The artist in question is Gary Santucci, whose exhibition was described on the You Me Gallery website as “turn[ing his] lenses on the city’s underbelly and [his] mind to the immense question of how we can make positive social change”. Dean, who has done academic work in the area with her PhD on representations of women doing sex work in inter-city neighbourhoods elsewhere in the country, considers that Santucci could have been “well intentioned but he ha[s] absolutely no analysis about sex work”. He had “no concern for the kinds of risks that he was exposing these women to when he… put up these pictures”. 

The uglier picture behind Santucci’s “well intentioned” art exhibit lies in his personal agenda to secure zoning permits for his art gallery and theatre. Santucci wants to be seen as a “moral crusader… who wanted to shine a bright light in the dark corner of Hamilton that nobody wanted to look at”, but either fails or refuses to take into account the consequences of his art show. According to Dean, “[t]here has been a real increase in hostility towards these people who do street based sex work in Hamilton, especially in the last year that started with [Santucci’s] art show, but has mobilised with some neighbourhood groups that have gotten involved organizing with the police out of a desire to just displace street based sex workers to push them out of residential areas into somewhere else”. Big Susie aims to counteract the negative attitude that has been in place since Santucci’s exhibition. Dean contends that “there… was nothing in Hamilton that was specifically doing advocacy for sex workers on a sex positive basis and was advocating decriminalizing”. As recently as last fall, Big Susie came into being with their five board members and a mailing list of a large number of supporters drawn through their past two events, and through support and funding from CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees).

But coming about even as a small collaborative group wasn’t easy: “We received some positive… and negative press. Some of that negative press suggest[ed] that by promoting sex work, [we] are also promoting violence against women”. However, after having received funding from CUPE  and overwhelming turnouts at their last two public events, Big Susie has been optimistic about their growth. Currently, the group hopes to have new people join their board and help build the organization, as well as, hold workshops specifically for street based sex workers on “harm reduction” and “basic safety and first aid”. 

To know more about Big Susie’s Sex Worker Advocacy Group, or to get involved, email bigsusies@live.ca.

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The Great G(u)tsby

Cover painting by F. Cugat (1925)

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

I believe that Fitzgerald’s quote refers to the resilience of the human spirit to fight against a past that threatens to define our future.  Whether we admit it or not, there is always a danger of becoming our parents. Sure, we rave and rant about our independent spirit, but throw us into an ocean of unknown faces, and we will find ourselves mimicking the very people we swore not to become.

In an alternate universe, Freud and Fitzgerald would have had a great conversation over tea (or scotch) discussing how we cannot escape our past. Freud would say, “primal” incidents from our childhood shape our egos, and subsequently, the people we become eventually. While Fitzgerald would nod saying, no matter where we run off to, there is no way to avoid our “destiny”, which in many ways have been shaped by our past.

And, their pronouncements would be akin to death for any writer aspiring to be a great one. Like me.

The art of writing is carefully interlinked with the art of controversy. A truly great writer is one who has absolutely no inhibitions, is completely shameless and is unafraid to take risks. Shall I cite Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses that almost had him killed, or Taslima Nasreen’s Lajja that had her banned from her own country? Both writers dared to write about issues that were off-limits. The most recent example would be of Trey Parker and Matt Stone (creators of South Park) who faced death threats from Revolutionmuslim.com (now offline) for depicting Prophet Mohammad in a bear suit in their 200th anniversary episode.

These are writers who knowingly (or, unknowingly) used shock value to sell their products. In my belief, real writers will take risks, death threats or not. They refuse to be pulled back into the vortex of their past, or to be held down by inhibitions and fear. Of course, the question of whether these writers are “real” or not is quite another different matter altogether. It is also possible to rely on good prose, instead of titillation to sell books (take note, Shobhaa De). A really good example would be Jeffrey Archer.  However, it remains true that the ability to break boundaries will end up opening avenues for an aspiring writer (sadly, even for De).

The question is: Do I stand a chance? Do I have the “guts”? I will know when I break the current instead of get taken for a ride.

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