Wednesday, June 24, 2009

torture garden

Octave Mirbeau (1848-1917) was raped as a child by the Jesuit priests who were supposed to educate him.

He wrote, "The universe appears to me like an immense, inexorable torture garden. Passions, greed, hatred and lies; law, social institutions, justice, love, glory, heroism and religion; these are its monstrous flowers and its hideous instruments of eternal human suffering."

Not surprisingly, he embraced anarchism, which aimed to sweep away organized society, and replace it with a culture of equals. He did so, despite the fact that as a businessman, investor, journalist, novelist and dramatist, he was extremely rich.

Mirbeau claimed that he wrote 'The Diary of a Chambermaid' to expose the plight of French domestic servants,  preyed on by employment agencies and brutalized by their owners. He used his inside knowledge of the upper classes to attack them.

Celestine, the protagonist of the book, is a cheeky, voluptuous maid, exploited by men and women alike for their sexual fantasies. Celestine moves through various upper class homes, with barely concealed contempt and disgust for her employers. She sees it all - shoe fetishes, women with dildoes, a dying boy's sexual urges, sadomasochistic frenzy, pornography, bestiality, never losing her own perverse sense of humour.

In a scathingly cynical end, Celestine chooses to marry Joseph, a gamekeeper, a virulent anti-Semite, a sadist and probably a sexual murderer. Joseph steals their last employers' silver and uses the money to open a bar in a small, seaside town. Celestine and he settle down, become rich, and Celestine with 'upper class' fastidiousness, begins to complain of her "thieving, shameless" servants.

In 1900, the book was taken as erotica rather than crusading fiction. Celestine was too robust a heroine to be identified as a victim. She took too much pleasure in the cruelties perpetrated on her.

- Taken from John Baxter's introduction to the HarperCollins 2006 edition of 'The Diary of a Chambermaid'.

While I was reading the book, a daylight robbery occurred in our housing complex. Four men knocked on a door, entered the house by force, and holding up an old woman, went off with her jewellery and cash. The fact that they entered this particular house on a Sunday afternoon, indicates that they must have inside knowledge of it, they must have known that they would find only an old woman there, and plenty of loot.

Security was beefed up, the security agency got a stern warning, the lift-men and watchmen were scolded harshly for failing to provide adequate security. I am sure all the residents wondered at least once, secretly or openly, as to which one of the security personnel was party to the robbery.

What surprises me about Indian society today is not the amount of crime, and violence that exists, but the fact that there is not more. One only has to look at the inhuman conditions that the people who work for us live in, particularly in cities like Mumbai; their unfairly low wages which ensure that they will never get out of those living and work conditions; the day to day treatment meted out to them, usually rude indifference coupled with an expectation of gratuitous politeness or humility from them; a 365 days per year work schedule; to know that there is something skewered in our system, and sooner or later it has to collapse.

As for sexual exploitation and abuse, there is no dearth of that either in our society. Is there? Sexual needs in our employees, particularly those who live with us, make us uncomfortable. We actively discourage the girls working in our houses from having boyfriends and turn a blind eye to the measures taken by the male workers to fulfill their needs, most of whom live away from their families. However, our own sexual need of our servants is taken for granted. When found out, it could be understandable, forgiven as a momentary lapse or condemned, depending on the manner in which it comes out. The shame is in the nature of the proof, and not the deed itself.

The relentlessly unforgiving stance of Celestine in 'The Diary of a Chambermaid' makes for an effective critique of the bourgeoise, their grotesqueness hidden under a thin veneer of respectability. Perhaps in 1900, the book did shock French society out of its complacence.

But does Indian society today react any more to such expose´s? Has not the intrusion of the media in every aspect of our lives, made us more insensitive to any portrayal of stark reality? Does not every new expose´ make us more cynical, more thick-skinned, even abetting us in our own evasions of morality?

Each employer that Celestine works for, insist that they will call her 'Mary', as 'Celestine' is a name too fancy for a servant. What they of course seek to do, is stamp out any trace of her identity apart from being a maid. While in our society, we do not change our maids' names, a 'Sunita' is easily replaced by a 'Lalita'. Extreme poverty ensures that there will never be a shortage of servants in Indian society, at least in our lifetimes. The few days of hardship suffered by us while the turnover takes effect is to be grumbled about, a calamity rocking our domestic peace.

The hardship of our servants is perhaps pitied if we are sensitive souls, but usually dismissed as their 'karma' even by themselves. We all know that the poor are poor because they drink, because they are superstitious, illiterate, lazy, stupid. If only they had been clever enough to be born as us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

hopelessly off-key

"You don't have to be a Bengali to resonate" - Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, Observation 1 on making 'Anuranan' after years of ads for Britannia and the like.

"I'm not so sure about that." - Banno, Observation 1 on watching 'Anuranan', having relinquished the habit of ducking Britannia biscuits into tea since years, in a bid to count calories.

"There is a certain kind of film making that seems to be peculiar to Bengali cinema. Mystical talks about nature, emotions sublimated in abstractions, poetry posing as ordinary dialogue between people in the most humdrum situations. Visual elements include Kanchenjungha, intellectual women in spectacles and handloom saris, moonlight, old trees, old houses, a copy of 'Love in the time of Cholera', whisky being quaffed in every other scene, a living room party where everybody dances and people air kiss each other. While the protagonist looks at bookshelves." - Banno, Observation 1 continued.

'Anuranan' is meant to explore the resonance between two individuals, between man and nature, between freedom and marriage. An architect Rahul prone to spouting poetical observations into a dictaphone (Rahul Bose), a wife Nandita, who is loving but childless (Rituparno Sengupta), a cold, indifferent business man husband Amit (Rajat Kapoor), a romantic yearning wife Preeti (Raima Sen). The four meet each other in various drawing rooms, and the empty space outside marriage, between Rahul and Preeti begins to resonate. It takes them first to an old tree, that Rahul calls Kanchenjungha and then to Bagdogra where Rahul is designing a resort for Amit's company. Rahul is moved by the moonlight on the mountain, and Preeti follows him there in her quest to be a bird.

"But why does resonance happen only between two intellectual souls? Why can't Amit and Nandita resonate? Why does the businessman necessarily have to be unfeeling towards nature? Or relationships? Why can't the poetry spouting architect actually be cold and cruel to his wife, as in many instances of real life? Why must the wife suffer only because she cannot have a child? Why can't she be just fed up and bored of his philosophical allusions and his relationship with his dictaphone?" - Banno, Questions 1 to 7, Observation 2.

The film brings to mind Satyajit Ray's 'Kanchenjungha', perhaps is influenced by it. Of course, the master's touch is in the completely identifiable characters, dialogue that reveals the innermost workings of their minds without being facetious and unreal, the use of light, shade and mist to enhance the human drama, nature in fact colluding with man to create an unique narrative of a particular day in the lives of several people.

"Is there a single Bengali film made in the history of cinema without reference to Tagore or Satyajit Ray?" - Banno, Question 8, Observation 3.

"If so, can anyone please tell me about it?" - Banno, Question 9, Observation 3 contd.

"It is tough enough to sustain the interest of the viewer in a hyperlink film, as there is no one character or plot that one can identify with. To create a further disenchantment by making the characters unbelievable is to be deliberately yawn-inducing." - Banno, Observation 4, full and final, on 'Anuranan'.

Am racking my brains to remember what Rahul's full and final observation was, the night he died, before he reappeared as a ghost meditating before the Kanchenjunga. Rahul died with his dictaphone in his arms.

I cheered myself up with Anjan Dutt's 'The Bong Connection'. Raima Sen seemed more believable as the rich, young strong-headed girl, Sheela than she did as a bespectacled suffering wife.



Ray and Tagore did come up, but in a palatable way. Except when Apu's (yes, Apu!) boss says with grudging admiration of him, after a huge showdown between Apu and himself, "Aparajito".

Anyway, this is what I get up to while Dhanno has a posh dinner with her friends, and Teja earns a living. Watch films that no one will ever watch with me. I remember as a young woman emotionally blackmailing my boyfriend to go to a re-release of 'Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje' with me. My mother, usually indulgent, refused to go see this one. She as a rule, disliked actresses with flamboyant facial expressions and heavy duty 'ada's. I, on the other hand, loved flamboyance in all its forms, and sulked and sulked until I did get the requisite company for the film.

"With the years, I've become kinder to my loved ones and don't expect them to prove their love for me by seeing all the films I would like to inflict on them." - Banno, Observation 5, in vain attempt to resonate.

* ada - accomplished, beauty, blandishment, charm, coquetry, fulfilled, grace, paid, performed, posture

Monday, June 15, 2009

a memo to old people

Old people should age gracefully.

If we are expected to sacrifice part of our busy, important lives to taking care of them, then the least they can do is not be miserable, cranky, bad-tempered, depressed, moody or ill.

Under no circumstances should they emit embarrassing smells, fluids, vapors or other substances from their bodies.

If they had any sense of decency, old people would pass away quietly in their sleep before they actually became dependent on anyone for their physical or emotional needs.

Unless of course, they have the money to take care of themselves. On the other hand, even that money is actually going down the drain.

If they have to go in a few days, the earlier the better, so that the nest egg they leave us is all that more substantial.

Of course, we are justified in expecting this much of old people.

After all, when we were little, did they not teach us always to behave in a particular way, not to be naughty, or selfish, or violent, or lazy?

Did they not scold and beat us till we learnt to control the flow of our bodily emissions in a socially acceptable way?

Did they not push and prod us to spend the better part of our days in institutions?

Did they not make us aware of the money they were spending on us, and how we ought to repay them?

Oh, old people are cunning. They'd like to forget those days when they stood over us with a controlling hand, and appeal now for pity.

But how can we forget that we need to pay them back?

(I'd written this a while ago, when I found myself irritated at the demands an old friend was making on me. Or angry at the unreasonable behaviour of my depressed mother. It came back to me when I read this a couple of days ago. And added the following footnote.)

And as for old people seeking sex, love or companionship, even the thought is reprehensible. And punishable. For didn't they teach us to repress our sexual feelings when we were young? And didn't they punish us for loving inconveniently?