Tag Archives: hindu

Colour(s) of Freedom in Jaggery

Rhapsody by Sanchari Sur

Rhapsody, taken in Kolkata, India, March 2012.

The relaunched Desilit Magazine – now, known as Jaggery – has some of my clicks from the 2012 Festival of Holi in India. They were clicked as a part of a photowalk of sorts (a big thank you to Kolkata Weekend Shoots, and Abhijit Nayak in particular, for introducing me to different parts of Kolkata during my stay in India) at the Jorashanko Thakur Bari (or, the Rabindranath Tagore House). 

You can view them here.

The issue also contains a short story by Mariam Pirbhai, whose article on South Asian diaspora in Canada was the inspiration for my Phd proposal. Which I guess is sort of random and cool.

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Burn Baby, Burn

sati 2

I read about “sati” in history class. My eleven year old mind was unable to comprehend the horror behind such an act. I, who is scared of minor burns (a fact that prevents me from being able to safely fry fish in the present time), couldn’t imagine sitting willingly on the funeral pyre of my deceased husband.

Traditionally, the idea was that of “self immolation” (upheld by examples of goddesses from Hindu mythology, like Parvati); in reality, most acts of “sati” were forced upon Hindu widows (mostly, child widows who had initially been married off to old men on their death beds) in pre 1829 Bengal. The practice wasn’t abolished in other parts of India until much later.

Nowadays, instances of “sati” are few and far between. Of course, you still have modern day versions of the practice where women die of mysterious gas explosions in the kitchen.

Not much has changed, I am afraid.

My poem, “sati,” is in Diverse Voices Quarterly . Read it here.

 

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Some Dirty Laundry with Europa’s Lament

“Dirty Laundry” : Taken on the ghats of Varanasi, India, my photo is in issue # 4 of Black Fox Literary Magazine (page 131).

I came across Europa during my research on rape and trauma. It was incidental. She was a myth. Not the real women of war that I was reading about. One of the many theorists happened to refer to her. Allegedly, this Phoenician princess had been kidnapped by Jupiter, the ruler of Crete, and taken away to be his wife and queen. Ovid had immortalised her rape in his Metamorphoses.

I was curious. She reminded me of Leda. Her rape by Zeus (in the form of a swan) had been similarly immortalised in poetry and art over the past few centuries.

Michelangelo’s “Leda and the Swan” romanticized Leda’s rape.

She reminded me of Raavan. The man who kidnapped Sita, but didn’t rape her. He was condemned anyway, while Sita had to prove her chastity. Twice.

She reminded me of the traumatic events I was researching and how every incident had more than just one side to it.

So in a poem, I attempted to question dominant interpretations of myths, especially by male writers, poets and/or artists.

And, what did Europa have to say? Find out.

My poem, “Europa’s Lament,” is in Black Fox Literary Magazine. Read it here (pages 11 and 12 of Issue 4). Incidentally, my photograph, “Dirty Laundry,” taken on the ghats of Varanasi, India, is also in the same issue (page 131).

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Crossing the Lakshmanrekha, with impunity

A still from Sita Sings the Blues (2008), directed by Nina Paley

An edited version was published by Helter Skelter Magazine on 22nd October 2011 .

“You know your Lakshmanrekha. Don’t cross it.”

Err, mom. Where exactly are the boundaries again? Spell it out, will you?

Any Indian (Hindu) woman growing up will attest to being subjected to this refrain. The meaning of the Lakshmanrekha of course, depended on how “liberal” one’s parents were. It could mean anything from not talking to a guy, to PDAs, to dressing in a certain way, to indulging into sexual activities, to taking drugs, to… anything that symbolised that a nice Indian girl was going out of control. For some reason, the rekha, or line, is mostly seen as a reference to interaction with the opposite sex, and only applies to women. None of my guy friends have even heard of this rekha business.

Yesterday at lunch, Mom was grandly telling me, “Sure, date. Just don’t cross the Lakshmanrekha.”

“What is the rekha? What is it that you don’t want me to do?”

“You know.”

“Umm… no, I don’t.”

“Well, you should.”

See what I mean? The actual boundaries are never spelt out. I mean, honestly, where does the damn thing begin and end? The ambiguity of the rekha is rather baffling.

I think the trouble started when a bunch of Indian Hindu men decided to come up with the Ramayan (Yes, I believe it’s a myth. They call it Hindu mythology for a reason.) that spelt out ambiguous rules and regulations to overlook the Indian Hindu women’s behaviour towards the opposite sex.

[Insert Indian accent]

Man 1: We must do something to protect our women’s chastity.

Man 2: You are absolutely right!

Man 3: Our women must be under our control!

Je-sus.

Think about it. Lakshman, Sita’s brother-in-law, draws this protective rekha (a boundary, if you will) around her to protect her from the lustful nazaar (or, eyes) of unknown men (here, Raavan). Not only is it a warning tale to young women about the consequences of defying the rekha (I mean, poor chick gets kidnapped, then disowned in a pregnant state despite proving her chastity through fire acrobatics… twice!), but the rekha itself symbolises the many boundaries imposed upon female sexuality while growing up.

In my case, the “rekha,” or the allusion to the sacred line drawn by Lakshman to protect Sita, changed meaning as I grew older. In fact, even as recently as 2007, I was not allowed to stay out all night. Even though it was on New Year’s, I remember cabbing it back from Niagara Falls all alone back to my suburban home, just because staying out all night would have been crossing the rekha. And yet, I have been at a crazy bachelorette party at the same Falls in 2010 doing things that would have certainly fallen outside the sacred line. Irony ahoy!

I think parents forget that just like boys, girls will be girls. Seriously, now. Do you think we do not get up to mischief? That we do not cross the goddamn rekha that you have not specified for us? You are wrong. We do. All the time. We are just too damn clever about hiding it.

But why should we go undercover? Why pretend? Why is it such a taboo to flaunt our sexuality? Why can’t I kiss a boy openly if I like him enough to? Do I become a slut? A whore? Such tired comparisons. Why can’t I be compared to a classy courtesan for a change? Or, one of those talented geishas? Hats off to those women for owning their sexualities.

So, when my dad said, “We should not have to spell out your boundaries for you. You should know them by now,”

I said, “If I can face myself in the mirror unflinchingly and without shame, I have no one else to answer to.”

I draw my own rekha. Lakshman can keep his.

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Mindlessness Over Reality: Saas-Bahu* Telly Soaps

This article was published on the CurryBear website on August 17 2010. *For reference: saas= mother-in-law; bahu = daughter-in-law.

Not being brought up in India, I violently reject old fashioned ideas of the stereotypical mother-in-law as projected by the many Indian television shows. Where the daughter-in-law is always obedient, subservient and a total slave to the domestic politics of an almost-always huge mansion-like house. Where the saas and bahu cannot happily co-exist because there is always a tug-of-war over the son. Where there is always an evil, conniving vamp (another bahu, or the unmarried sister, or the widowed aunt; take your pick) in cahoots with one of the servants hell bent on destroying the peace and quiet of their heavenly (and ultra over the top) abode. Where the women are always dressed in their best sarees and jewelery, even if they are only going to bed. To sleep.

I mean, come on! In a world where even Bollywood is changing (no, I am not talking about the increasing number of make out scenes) to imitate real life, why is the audience stuck on watching shows whose storyline hold no close resemblance to reality?

Starting this year, Yashraj films did attempt to come up with something haatke. Something other than the daily drama soaps. However, despite being a hit with the younger generation (ahem, like me), Rishta.Com, Seven, Powder and Mahi Way did not go down well with the saas-bahu shows addicts. After only a run of six months, due to low TRPs, these revolutionary shows died a sudden death.

My grandmother in India didn’t even know what I was talking about when I mentioned the new shows to her. “What? Rishta dot what?” she screeched from the buzzing telephone line. “I am happy watching Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi”. Because mother-in-law was once a daughter-in-law. She went onto regale me with the last episode where the husband’s first wife shows up but she is pregnant with his child. (Don’t ask).

What makes me mad though is not how insidiously integrated these saas-bahu shows are in the Indian telly watching culture, but how often we forget that these are unrealistic “made-up” worlds manufactured to distract us from our utterly normal (and perhaps, boring, for some) daily lives. For example, I cannot imagine my granny calling me shameless if I didn’t wear the traditional salwar kameez while in India. In fact, my liberal granny (who ironically enjoys these aforementioned vile shows) didn’t even bat an eyelid when I told her of my former boyfriend belonging to a different religion. She nodded wisely and said, “As long as he is a good guy”.

The point is, just as I cannot understand and stand the Twilight hype that has taken over the minds of every single girl/woman from as young as eleven to as old as forty and over, I fail to grasp the ever increasing and continued popularity of these shows that barely come close to reality.

As my former high school psychology teacher would say, “Arey, it’s pure entertainment!” I guess, for now, I can satisfy my curiosity with that, except the mindlessness of it all is immensely frustrating. I think I need to go watch my Sex and the City collection all over again.

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Singlehood to Doublehood: Indian Wedding outside India (Part 2 of 2)

It’s somebody else’s wedding (thank god). You breathe a sigh of relief and seat yourself in an inconspicuous corner, hoping to spend the three days of wedding celebrations in oblivion. But deep in your heart you know it’s next to impossible, since you are in your mid twenties and- horror of horrors- SINGLE. Somewhere your mother is conspiring with your aunt to find you a “nice boy”.

Unfortunately for you and other South Asian single women and men, weddings are seen to be ripe opportunistic sites to hook up one’s single sons and daughters. How typically Bollywood.

Imagine this: Boy and girl fall in love over the span of three days where he courts her through sangeet (he sings to her, of course), wedding (eyes meet over the sacred fire and play teasing games) and reception (where they end up dancing together and- in an ideal world- exchanging facebook contacts).

In the real world, aunties and uncles hope to latch onto the next eligible (and hopefully, available) bachelor for their daughter/niece/friend’s daughter/friend’s sister’s cousin’s daughter in India (the combinations are countless).

As it happened to my friend’s cousin, who had come over from New Jersey with his family to attend the wedding.

The aunties and uncles: “Are you single?” (I swear they said this in a chorus)

The single cousin: “Yes, I am happily single and intend to remain this way for as long as possible.”

Polite laughter.

The aunties and uncles: “But why? You should not think like that!”

Embarrassed nervous laughter from single cousin.

Personally, I am happy enjoying the eye-candy. So when the bride’s mother asked me if I was going to be next, I smiled carefully and said, “We’ll see, won’t we?”

Photograph: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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Mehndi Madness: Indian Wedding outside India (Part 1 of 2)

Bride's Mehndi (Hands)

What is it with Indian women and mehndi? Is it the smell (not too bad when its wet, but let it dry, and it really stinks!)? Is it the gooey brown gunk-like texture? The designs that swirl from the plastic mehndi cone, and mesmerize those who are watching on? Or, is it just a stereotypical wedding madness that contributes to the mehndi madness? 

"I want some on my feet too!"

Traditionally, Bengali weddings do not have a henna/mehndi ceremony. However, going with the current trend in the West, where over-ritualization has somehow become an intricate part of simulating an Indian wedding outside of India, not having a mehndi ceremony is almost as sacrilegious as a Hindu slaughtering a cow. 

 

My own encounter with mehndi started in middle school back in Dubai, where I was surrounded by muslim girls, many of whom were (or at least, considered themselves to be) mehndi experts. I have had them work their magic on my hands, as well as, those of the other girls in my class. Watching those 12-13 year old girls deftly handle a mehndi cone to produce designs out of pure imagination was an act of sheer wonder. 

Henna Artist hard at work

Years later, I am here again, at a family friend’s wedding—at the mehndi ceremony. The henna design artist is a young girl who is a fourth year student at University of Toronto. I hear many sceptical exclaims (in hushed tones) around me: “She is the henna artist? So young?” The disbelief is ripe in their voices.

The aunties are silenced, however, once their eyes rest on the henna designs on the bride’s hands and feet.

Bride's Mehndi (Feet)

Soon there is a line of aunties and kids alike waiting to get their hands, feet, arms and (in one lone case) back painted.  The excitement is palpable. 

 

“How long will this last?” 

“How should I remove it once it dries? Should I wash?” 

“How can I make the colours come out darker?” 

There is a deluge of unstoppable questions, while some in their carelessness, end up smudging their designs while they are still wet. 

“Oh no, can you fix this again?” 

At first, I try to stay away.  Pretend to be unruffled. Yet, something magnetic pulls me towards the phenomenon. 

“Fine,” I admit it slowly. “Paint one hand only.”

Photographs: Copyright Sanchari Sur

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