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Mother’s Day 2020

Mother’s Day

Second Sunday of May

Is a cynical commercial capitalist American ploy 

To get us to pay for cards and flowers and photo frames

With heartstrings.

Everyday is Mother’s Day, I’ve heard myself scoff tritely more times than I can count,

Even as I’ve changed my Whatsapp DP and written Facebook tributes.

 

But this Mother’s Day feels different.

No physical cards or flowers to be sent or received for love or money.

No countdown to a flight or play or holiday together. 

No tangible sense of the next hug or kiss.

 

So, this Mother’s Day is an opportunity

For the prickly cactus in me to shed its self-important, cynical thorns,

And add to the uplifting, melancholy tributes and homages I see everywhere –

This little homage of mine.

 

To the woman who –  

 

Painstakingly hand-painted invitation cards for birthday parties,

Helped me learn every world capital for school quizzes and Trivial Pursuit,

Showed me all the real Capitals – Justice, Duty, Feminism, Self-Worth,

Taught me to befriend and fall in love with fictional characters, 

Quizzed me on flower types in a way that makes me stop and smell them now,

Gave up the marrow bone of the mutton curry, 

Got to know every friend I’ve ever had (till she’d out-populared me),

Refused to hear arguments for laziness, 

Fought my cold, rational teenage tantrums with raw, potent emotion,

Navigated the line between ‘tough’ and ‘love’,

Choked back tears as I flew the nest, but held open the door.

 

And in the present, however tense – 

Questions the choices I make,

Accepts the choices I make,

Enables the choices I make,

Fiercely defends the choices I make.

Revisits and evolves her perspectives,

Voices and devolves effusive praise (when my self-worth is at its lowest),

Is there for me, emotionally, mentally, totally…

 

And soon, hopefully, physically.

 

Brentry (or London Through the Eyes of Yet Another Post-Colonial Neo-Immigrant)

Every little fibre of my people-pleasing, externally-motivated, self-doubting being is cringing as I write this, screaming out – choose something else. Something, anything. What could I possibly have to say on this subject that any number of modern greats – Amitava Ghosh, Arundhati Roy, Zadie Smith, Adichie – haven’t already said more profoundly, more beautifully, more originally?

But, you know what? **ck it. I’m trying to break a thirteen-month bout of writer’s block. This is top of mind. (Lazy) beggars can’t be choosers.

 

 

God Save the Anglophile

 “What? This is your first time living in London?”

I’ve been asked this question at least twice as many times as the months (ten) I’ve lived here. My answer has depended on how long or deeply I’ve wanted to engage the interrogator, falling in a wide spectrum from “Yes” to “Yes, but I’ve visited several times before” to “Yes, but owing to a combination of personal privilege and my country’s/city/family’s postcolonial hangover, it feels oddly familiar.”

After three years across the pond, it’s been exhilarating – to replace curve balls with googlies in work emails, to laugh with comediennes who make snide remarks about America, to put the u back in colour and the self back in deprecation. A holiday to the States last month, bathed as it was in sunny nostalgia, reminded me how much easier and more familiar everything in London feels.

Much like the Shadow Lines protagonist who arrives in London knowing every street from books he’d read as a child, I recognise hollyhocks (which I’d never actually seen before) from Enid Blyton’s vivid descriptions of the fairy-families that lived in them. Posh old Chelsea and Kensington looks like a dozen Poppinsy Cherry Tree Lanes stitched together. On my way back home after a big night, battling the soporific wine coursing through my system, I search for Gaiman’s Neverwhere stations on the Underground map. And, ‘Count the brown faces’ is a much more engaging game on the London Tube than it is on the New York Subway.

 

Familiarity breeds contempt

 Yet, despite the convenient familiarity of it all, there’s a discomfort. And it catches one unawares.

Sometimes it’s tinged with irony and nothing else – like when an English boss says – “So, let’s divide and conquer” and I giggle about this faux-micro-aggression on Whatsapp to my friends. Sometimes, it’s a much more visceral indignation (of a kind I didn’t feel towards Americans) – like when an Oxbridge-educated fellow on whom you would think it’s incumbent to know better, asks, “So, was your college degree taught in Indian?” Sometimes, I can even make myself enjoy this, revelling in being reverse-condescending – “So let me tell you how the British made the caste system worse.”

When the discomfort is in relation to the other, it’s easy enough to contend with, to mock, to analyse. As Kamila Shamsie (sigh, yet another reminder that one should stay away from this topic) writes – “He used to think it was humility, this readiness of the English to acknowledge ignorance. But he had come to understand it was the exact opposite – to be English was to move through the world with no need to impress or convince. Was this so because they had an empire, or did they have an empire because this was so?”

 

The conversations with one’s own identity are much more discomfiting.

 

A couple of months ago, I stayed back late after a work trip in Bristol to watch a musical production of Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers. For those two hours, I was transported to a different world of midnight feasts and pantomimes. Just after, I was hit by a nostalgia both happy and painful. Happy, because I remembered how I felt when I first swallowed up the series as a precocious eight-year old – as confident as Darrell, as witty as Alicia, as dependable as Sally, as cool as Bill. Painful, because I can’t remember the last time I felt that way. Somewhere down the line, innocence was lost and self-doubt was gained. Looking around at the 200-strong audience, I saw only one other person of colour, and shifted my gaze both sheepishly and longingly away from my silly, naïve, colourblind Ghost of Childhood Past.

About a month ago, a visiting friend and I allowed the familiar title music and inaccurately sun-drenched landscapes of the new Downton Abbey film to wash over us. When this gave way to the subtle glorification of Empire, our nostalgia turned to self-loathing for being there. When this in turn gave way to a tautological defence of maintaining a servant class because it relies on the masters (arguments we’d heard in our own drawing rooms) our embarrassment turned to guilt for being the Wretched-But-Really-Not-That-Wretched of the Earth.

 

 

Here’s where every little fibre of my people-pleasing, externally-motivated, self-doubting being begs me to tie up these thoughts in a neat little bow, or at least pretend at a resolution with a sleight of pen.

But I’ve decided instead, in this new city, to aim for authenticity. And I’m afraid the truth is – my senses have been so captivated by this city, so distracted (and occasionally frustrated) by my corporate existence, and so overwhelmed by my new life, that I’ve forgotten how to read and reflect and write. So, despite my deep commitment phobia, here’s my public, pre-new-year resolution to do more of that.

So, as I head into my first winter here – and a potentially-disorienting world of Bridget-Jonesian Christmas parties and Dickensian Christmas productions – stay tuned for more musings, and maybe, someday, if I’m lucky, a Resolution.

 

 

Delhi: A Rather Difficult Stream of Consciousness

It may have seen a dozen empires rise and fall over a millennium. It may be the capital of the world’s largest democracy. It may only grow in global influence in the decades to come.

But, to me, Delhi – old and new because I’m still not sure where one ends and one begins – will always just be the college town where I really grew up.

Don’t get me wrong. Calcutta (or Kolkata, for those who aren’t in a constant and significant state of postcolonial confusion) is still home. It’s where I’ve spent the longest length of time (though I’m old enough now for thirteen to not be a simple majority), where most of my family is from and lives, where I return for the holidays, and where much of my cultural and political identity was born. But, Delhi is the city I first learnt to navigate on my own… 

 

Navigate, of course, is a term that’s open to interpretation. For even though I graduated from college metro-commuter to yuppie Uber-customer, I still view the city (fine, whatever, call it National Capital Region if you must) as two horizontal parallel lines.  

 

The first line begins at North Campus, which housed bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Malini after she left home at 18. This is a mass of brick buildings full of mostly-boring Eco classes and grass-is-always-greener English classes, manicured lawns full of politically-charged students and improv exercises, a wooded area full of stoners (of the serious variety) and monkeys, girls’ hostels full of conservative wardens and inedible brown gravies, and bachelor-turned-party-pads full of cheap whiskey and supine bodies. Then, in ascending order of importance, is Majnu ka Tila, the Tibetan refugee colony (yummiest thukpa and now-banned chilli beef dry), the Chandni Chowk Karim’s/Al-Jawahar (yummiest brain curry – or mutton korma for the fainter of heart), and Jama Masjid + Red Fort (those majestic buildings where Malini of all ages takes touring foreign friends rickety-rickshaw-rides, and never fails to hold her breath with them).  

 

The second line is a long one. Those familiar with the truly world-class and ever-expanding Delhi metro system, will recognise it as a spatially-impossible hybrid of the blue and yellow (and now I’m told there’s a pink?) lines.    

It starts in Noida, whose cows and crowds prepared 22 year-old Malini for any metropolis in the world, and moves to Mayur Vihar, where 21 year-old Malini spent over a year with the best uncle, aunt, pork vindaloo, and market momo sauce. It cuts through CP, where an unfortunate band of 18 year-old college boys and girls first got ID-ed (and summarily expelled), before rebelliously smoking cigarettes, and CSec, where a more respectable 23 year-old Malini attended her first government meeting in the corridors of intoxicating power.

It then enters Bourgie Bar Territory – Khan Market (posh bars and Big Chill), Def Col (darker, seedier, Olypub-reminiscent bars), and GK, where 19 year-old Malini went for her first ladies’ night with an irresponsible gaggle of to-be best friends and semi-responsible chaperone-cousins. (She had told her parents that she would be at a Barkha Dutt talk in college – her first and last big lie – only to be informed by her father amidst her free mojitos that Ms. Dutt was reporting live from Telangana.)

From here, the metro slides into that Probashi-Bangali haven CR Park, where Malini aged 21-25 grew closer and closer over Old Monks, fish fry and pillow talk to a cousin who had hitherto seemed way too cool for her. Then, Hauz Khas Village, where more best friends were made over cocktails and coffee, and Sarvodaya Enclave, where from years 23-25, professional, social, and residential lines among boss-mentor-confidantes and colleague-roommate-best-friends merged inextricably.   

Onwards into the capital region’s Capitalist District – Saket, Vasant Kunj and Gurgaon – there were mall visits with an exasperated visiting father, casual but not-uncomplicated situationships, and fancy house parties in the fancy houses of Delhi-ite friends’ parents…

 

 

Now, I could write a separate essay on my experiences in and impressions of each of those locations, but I shall spare my ~17 loyal and unconditionally-biased readers the self-indulgent vignettes. Mostly because, unlike with Calcutta which forms the nostalgic basis of the majority of my blog posts, I find it too difficult to write about Delhi.

I’m still trying to work out why.

 

Perhaps it’s because I can’t structure my thoughts into a cogent narrative. I’ve been too many different people in my seven years there – pupil and faux-activist, armchair-critic and power-broker. I’ve spent oodles of time (to varying degrees) with people of (almost) every political leaning, social stratum, party pastime, and work ethic. To coherently put down everything I’ve learned, unlearned, allied and resisted in relation to these identities and groups is a task that I just don’t feel cut out for…     

 

Perhaps it’s because my conflicting feelings about the city make me feel like a hypocrite. In my interactions with Uninformed Un-desis, I’ve built up the capital as a bustling, powerful, opportunity-filled melting pot, often minimizing its rape statistics or comparing it with those of other Indian metros. In social groups dominated by Condescending Calcuttans, I’ve talked of the city’s drive and ambition. Among Bumptious Bambaiyas, I’ve raved about its willingness to quickly move past tinsel-talk to gritty politics. Among Indignant Indians-from-Southern-States, I’ve shared personal anecdotes of openness and cosmopolitanness to counter their experiences. However, insert a few vociferous Delhi-ite defenders into any of these groups, and I’ve found myself hating on the city’s aggression, affected name-dropping, and addiction to power…  

 

Perhaps it’s because I’m guilty about the privilege that allows me to experience mostly the best that the city has to offer – among others, the access that being in at least three different Delhi institutions has given me to varied groups, the class (and caste) privilege that lets me move effortlessly between these groups (both in terms of physical safety and social acceptance), and my Bengaliness which allows me to willingly accept the stereotypes (too political, too bookish, too mild-mannered) that are thrown at me vis-a-vis the ones which are thrown at others…  

 

Alas, procrastinator that I am, I’ll postpone this exposition to another day. It has to happen though. Because, wherever I am in the country or world, there are two stock responses I have to two critical questions, and I need to figure out why –  

  1. So, where’s home for you? Calcutta. But, in some ways, I grew up in Delhi
  2. So, which city in the world are you most likely to settle in? Delhi

 

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Photo Courtesy: Tarang Doshi, Chandni Chowk, 2012

HOW THE NEAPOLITAN NOVELS MAY CHANGE MY LIFE (Or, Self-indulgent Incoherent Ramblings about Feminism and Female Friendship)

Dedicated to the women who have shaped me…

The Neapolitan Novels may change my life.

I say “may” because I’m perfectly aware of the countless variables that I’ve omitted in making that predictive causal link. Not least of all, the fact that devouring the four novels in Elena Ferrante’s pseudonymous series in ten days has very likely put me in a temporary bubble where nothing else seems significant. (Seriously, even reading the blurbs of other books is making me feel like a guilty ex-lover who’s rebounding too quickly.)

I can’t remember the last time I read fiction that forced me to examine so many aspects of my inner self in such an enthralling, frenzied way. Through her detailed, intricate, unabashed, lifetime-spanning musings about herself, her best friend Lila Cerullo, the men that traipse in and out of their beds, their working-class families, their city Naples, and Italian politics, the narrator Elena Greco has made me put – sometimes consciously, often subtly, and always uncomfortably – my own thoughts and feelings under the scanner. For lack of a better structure, I’ve organised these under two buckets – “feminism” and “friendship”, but alas, no one will be fooled by this consultant’s sleight of hand. My musings are as non-MECE (mutually exclusive collectively exhaustive) as it gets.

So, here goes…

 

Feminism (Or, My Continuing Singledom and Bourgeois Guilt)

 

In the first few pages of every edition are quotes from established reviewers, lauding the novels as “feminist” fiction. Here, Ferrante, is described as “the best angry woman writer ever” or an “angry Jane Austen”. At first glance, these seem to refer to the several passages in which Elena and Lila take patriarchal, discriminatory, violent matters into their own hands by threatening to stab adolescent male assailants, or throwing philandering lovers out of their houses, or confronting abusive bosses. However, while I do feel personally vindicated by this retaliatory violence, their rage is even more potent to me when it is less radical (To explore in a later paragraph: what does this say about my personal brand of privileged feminism?) No, the passages that really hit me at the core are contemplations such as these:

 

Of course, the explanation was simple: we had seen our fathers beat our mothers from childhood. We had grown up thinking that a stranger must not even touch us, but that our father, our boyfriend, and our husband could hit us when they liked, out of love, to educate us, to reeducate us.

The Story of a New Name, Book 2

That day, instead, I saw clearly the mothers of the old neighborhood…They had been consumed by the bodies of husbands, fathers, brothers, whom they ultimately came to resemble, because of their labors or the arrival of old age, of illness. When did that transformation begin? With housework? With pregnancies? With beatings?

The Story of a New Name, Book 2

The waste of intelligence. A community that finds it natural to suffocate with the care of home and children so many women’s intellectual energies is its own enemy and doesn’t realize it.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Book 3

 

That her women characters often make self-destructive choices – limiting marriages, foolish affairs, unprotected sex – despite their ex-ante, self-aware, incisive critique of the patriarchy is what makes Ferrante’s brand of feminism so utterly devastating. There’s a particularly heart-breaking and seemingly minor scene in which an Elena, who is about as old as I am, is going out to meet a man she wants to impress. As she applies her make-up, she is embarrassed that for all her credibility as a feminist intellectual, she is submitting herself to the male gaze in an effort to best the other woman who will be present.

 

.All that struggle, all that time spent camouflaging myself when I could be doing something else. The colors that suited me, the ones that didn’t, the styles that made me look thinner, those that made me fatter, the cut that flattered me, the one that didn’t. A lengthy, costly preparation. Reducing myself to a table set for the sexual appetite of the male, to a well-cooked dish to make his mouth water.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Book 3

 

But, very simply, the clothes and make-up make her feel good and she is loath to take it off. This small, almost-prosaic dilemma is a reflection of a much larger and cruelly interlinked struggle between the personal and the systemic, one that I (and countless other women probably) can relate to.

Just scrolling up and down a Facebook page of wedding announcements by scores of women from school, college, working life, university, I wonder — how many would have preferred to wait a few years but said yes because that’s the only way their parents would allow a live-in relationship? Did some say no to a different lifestyle because they were held back by the Game of Life (first designed in 1860) which insists that they first have a spouse and then little blue and pink stick figures at the back of their car?

I sound condescending about this bundle of “conventional choices” because, for once, I haven’t edited my first instinct. Over time, I have learnt to more and more effectively paint over this base instinct with the empathetic nuance I’ve picked up. But, in the last few months – and even more now thanks to Ferrante – what has truly begun to erode that base instinct is the growing understanding that the struggle between personal and systemic applies, perhaps just as powerfully, to the converse bundle of “unconventional choices”. How much of my inability to commit to a stable romantic relationship comes from repeatedly ranking systemic visions of future career compromises above current, what-the-cool-people-call-cliched considerations of “does he make me happy?” Do I think the “boyfriend” label has cooties because of an age-old “Malini doesn’t have time for boyfriends” identity that I have created? What pulls and pushes from parents, friends, family, teachers, pop-lit, memes and hashtag movements have cemented that identity? I’ve spent so long priding myself for going against one perceived tide of social expectation that I haven’t bothered to question what new systemic tides I’ve floated with or what personal tides I’ve ignored.

 

While I can deeply connect with this struggle between the personal and systemic, the part of Ferrante’s feminist exploration that I cannot intrinsically relate to, owing solely to our respective accidents of birth, is the gender-class intersectionality that she sears into the narrative. Her women are born into families without the luxury of bookshelves, esoteric political conversation, or university connections. They not only have to contend with the patriarchy, but also with a lack of opportunity, surfeit of bourgeois condescension/pity, and a resulting dose of self-doubt.

 

I would always be afraid: afraid of saying the wrong thing, of using an exaggerated tone, of dressing unsuitably, of revealing petty feelings, of not having interesting thoughts.

The Story of a New Name, Book 2

I said to myself every day: I am what I am and I have to accept myself; I was born like this, in this city, with this dialect, without money; I will give what I can give, I will take what I can take, I will endure what has to be endured.

The Story of a New Name, Book 2

 

Their struggle is real. Ferrante reminds me that although my sex may occasionally put me at a disadvantage, the magnitude of that disadvantage pales in comparison to what a woman without an inherited membership into the bourgeoisie would face in that same situation. I am implicitly reminded of white feminism in America or savarna upper-caste feminism in India when she describes the self-serving, assumption-riddled traps that catch most of Ferrante’s cameo (upper) middle-class women as they swoop down to “rescue” the main characters.

Unfortunately, the novels are less clear about what women born with such advantages should be doing to ensure that the demands of the feminist movement are equitable. But I sheepishly realize as I write that it isn’t fair for me to expect that. It isn’t the job of working-class Elena to educate her elite well-meaning female professors and peers; instead they themselves should ask questions and test their hypotheses about what they can do. For example, of the several questions I need to get to the bottom of, this is top-of-mind: how and when do I start moving along the spectrum between moderate, incrementalist feminism (which my Bengali, centre-left, privileged origins afford me) and radical, resistant feminist?

 

 Friendship (Or, Will She Stop Being So Darned Superficial?)

 

It’s hard to explain to someone who hasn’t read the books why Ferrante’s account of the relationship between Elena and Lila from childhood to old age is so unique. For women like me, who feasted in teenagehood on bildungsromans like the Anne of Green Gables series or Little Women series, but have excluded from their millennial diet more contemporary examinations of fictional female relationships (for that unfortunate reason of “I just didn’t have the time”), the Neapolitan Quartet may be a revelation.

 

“Not for you,” Lila replies ardently, “you’re my brilliant friend, you have to be the best of all, boys and girls.”

My Brilliant Friend, Book 1

She did her best to make me understand that I was superfluous in her life.

My Brilliant Friend, Book 1

Now that I’m close to the most painful part of our story, I want to seek on the page a balance between her and me that in life I couldn’t find even between myself and me.

The Story of the Lost Child, Book 4

 

This, above, is just a small sample of the kindness and meanness that the narrator Elena believes her friend oscillates between. And it is this chiaroscuro that makes The Economist call the fourth book “a great novel of female friendship, one that reveals admiration and envy, competition and self-sabotage, emotions that many women experience but do not discuss.” My conflicting reactions to this quote might encapsulate how the nuanced, psychological exploration of the darkness within the friendship has left me feeling.

For some reason, even though as usual I know nothing about the Economist writer’s identity, it feels vaguely “mansplainy” to me. Who is this person (or “he”) to suggest that women hide these negative feelings? Just because the Elena-Lila dynamic is messed up, doesn’t mean “many women experience but do not discuss” the darkness in their relationships!

But, why have I been triggered by this hypothesis? What is making me so defensive? Thinking about my discomfort has made me realize that there are two factors at play in my psyche – one personal, and one systemic (though of course the lines blur between the two.)

 

Here’s the personal stuff (and I apologise for the even ramblier rambling). My background and origins, in some ways, couldn’t be more different from Elena’s and Lila’s. For most of my life, I have been in female-dominated settings, in numbers and spirit. The part of my extended family I’m close to is numerically skewed towards women by a 3:1 ratio, and all the cousins I speak with are women. For thirteen years, I studied in an all-girls’ school. My class in college had 42 women and 8 men (a ratio that gives me great pleasure because it’s a fairly quantitative economics program in a premier institution that only started admitting women in the 1970s, almost a century after it was established.) My team at my only job had roughly one man for every three women at the junior level (albeit one woman and four men at the senior level). For this reason (among others), I have always found it easier to forge friendships with women than with men. Although my outer circles of friends have plenty of men, of the twelve “best friends” with whom I share deeper secrets, thoughts and feelings (in varying degrees), only two are men. And since my family, school, college, workplace and university are privileged ivory towers, most of the Whatsapp groups on which I share political views are either women-only or majority-women, and all are dominated by liberals/neo-liberals/snowflakes such as yours truly.

Therefore, unlike Elena who had to carve her feminism out of a proximately patriarchal environment, I have been fed and willingly swallowed large doses of liberal feminist perspectives for as long as I can remember. Like with Elena, the women in my life – particularly my mother, closest girlfriends, certain cousins, an older mentor figure or two – have had an immeasurable impact on my life. Unlike Elena, I have always acknowledged all of them and their views as a wholly and singularly positive influence. While I naturally admit a disagreement or transgression as a fleeting thought (“I can’t believe she didn’t tell me immediately.” or “How can she of all people believe that?”) I don’t peel the negative layers like she does.

Yet, I would be lying to myself if I said that I’d never felt envious of this friend’s stable romantic relationship. Or anxious that I haven’t had another friend’s character-forming dalliances through my twenties. Or conflicted because I disagree with so many of a mentor’s political and social ideologies. Or uncomfortable that I have subconsciously moulded my identity to be the antithesis of certain family members’.

And here’s where the systemic forcefully collides with the personal. Dwelling on the darkness in my individual relationships with these women would of course risk putting those indispensable relationships in jeopardy (I get now why the author does not reveal her identity to the world). For example, I might risk subconsciously eroding the intimacy of a particular friendship if I begin to feel embarrassed by my envy, anxiety, political conflict, or discomfort. But it’s more than that. I would also feel like I’m being disloyal to “the sisterhood”. With male friendships (even those uncomplicated by romantic or physical benefits!), it’s easier to dwell on the darkness – ascribe one mentor’s fondness for personal pronouns to male pomposity, put down a friend’s occasional “fat jokes” to the patriarchy’s obsession with the female body, and so on. With female friendships, however, I’m hesitant to firstly, throw under the bus the conglomerate that has been my lifeline, and secondly, play into patriarchal portraits of backstabbing women, female scorn, and petty jealousy.

 

But the Neapolitan friendship begs the question – by pushing these negative feelings away, am I always lying to myself by omission?

Probably.

The more difficult question though is: would it do any good to bring these feelings to the surface, just because that’s Elena’s natural tendency?

I don’t know but I’d like to figure it out.

 

Every intense relationship between human beings is full of traps, and if you want it to endure you have to learn to avoid them. I did so then, and finally it seemed that I had only come up against yet another proof of how splendid and shadowy our friendship was, how long and complicated Lila’s suffering had been, how it still endured and would endure forever.

The Story of The Lost Child, Book 4

 

The way I see it at the moment, putting my closest female relationships under the scanner will be a rather painful process. But, perhaps getting to the bottom of why certain resentments creep in, or analysing mutual patterns of engagement and disengagement, or realizing my traps and triggers, could counterintuitively strengthen my relationships and help me be a better friend. And perhaps for the sake of its own identity, it’s important at one stage or another, to divorce each friendship from the pressures of agglomerated sisterhood, to resist its counter-dependence on the patriarchy.

Of course only time will tell. But it’s liberating to give oneself the permission to change, and to recognise that every view expressed in this ramble will have to be held up to rigorous lifelong editing by my future feminist self and her various female friends.

Excerpt from a rare interview by the mysterious Elena Ferrante to Vanity Fair:

Interviewer: Friendship between women can be particularly fraught. Unlike men, women tell each other everything. Intimacy is our currency, and as such, we are uniquely skilled in eviscerating each other.

Ms. Ferrante:Friendship is a crucible of positive and negative feelings that are in a permanent state of ebullition. There’s an expression: with friends God is watching me, with enemies I watch myself. In the end, an enemy is the fruit of an oversimplification of human complexity: the inimical relationship is always clear, I know that I have to protect myself, I have to attack. On the other hand, God only knows what goes on in the mind of a friend. Absolute trust and strong affections harbor rancor, trickery, and betrayal. Perhaps that’s why, over time, male friendship has developed a rigorous code of conduct. The pious respect for its internal laws and the serious consequences that come from violating them have a long tradition in fiction. Our friendships, on the other hand, are a terra incognita, chiefly to ourselves, a land without fixed rules. Anything and everything can happen to you, nothing is certain. Its exploration in fiction advances arduously, it is a gamble, a strenuous undertaking. And at every step there is above all the risk that a story’s honesty will be clouded by good intentions, hypocritical calculations, or ideologies that exalt sisterhood in ways that are often nauseating.

 

More Self-indulgent Calcutta Blogging

Like every good Bengali, I whine too much. And in this last month – the longest time I’ve spent doing nothing since my ISC exams seven years ago – I’ve found plenty to whine about.

Uffff, the roads in this city are getting from bad to worse. 1.5 kilometres in 15 minutes! Arre, do the math – that’s, like, 6 kilometres per hour. Aabar bomi pachhe.

Uffff, what a bilious shade of blue that bridge is! What is Didi up to? The bulk of public expenditure here is on paint and football clubs – tai jonye toh there’s no proper infrastructure.

Uffff, I thought Uber drivers in Delhi were bad but here they don’t even know Park Street! And they unabashedly refuse to use the app. Trust a new-age technology-based service to have to put its hands up here.

Uffff, can you believe that the cops are hushing up the murder? Arre, it wasn’t murder, it was an accident. But why are they interrogating the guards and liquor shop owners then? For God’s sake, can we change the subject? I’m sick to death (oops, I swear I didn’t mean to be punny) of debating this.

But like (almost) every probashi Bangali – I frequently (and sometimes just after I’m done whining) get hit by those all-too-familiar bouts of nostalgia.When school kids who were still in junior school back then sing their good mornings in the identical pitch and key. When the parking attendant on the road that I traversed for thirteen years stops the car to ask how I am. When the Cello Kebab tastes the same. When dalmut that is as old as the nation is served with my hundred-rupee rum and coke. When the drawing rooms are abuzz with passionate denouncements of the Left, the Right, everything-in-between, selfies, college cut-offs, Trump, and video games. When Delhi (another city that I’d grown to call home) is suddenly too busy and far, but Calcutta is steadfastly and comfortingly around.

I’ve said good-bye to this city so many times before that I really shouldn’t feel these stomach-lurches and throat-lumps. But thanks to these parents (how do they switch so effortlessly from infuriating to endearing?), family (how do they have the energy to already plan the next get-together?), family friends (how are they always more excited about the next phase of my life than I am?), old, old friends (how is the conversation the same even though we’re now smarter?) and teachers (how do they manage to store all these memories and memorabilia?), the lurches and lumps are pretty damn inevitable.

I sometimes wonder if I force myself to write these self-indulgent nostalgia-trips because I’m always looking for neat emotional closure before leaving Calcutta for the next big adventure.

I should know better by now, shouldn’t I? Oh well, I guess I’ll keep watching this space.

 

Of Porcelain, Peacocks, Painters and Patrons

On a humid Saturday, after a typical DC brunch, a friend and I decide to attend a seminar at the Freer Gallery (one of the city’s wonderfully free Smithsonian museums). The session titled “Stories of Art and Money” has been designed to discuss and answer some complex questions. What is art worth? Who determines its value? How does the transactional relationship between the patron and the artist affect the latter’s work?

As the conversation progresses, we learn that it has been set against the backdrop of a new installation at the nearby Sackler Gallery: the deliciously named “Filthy Lucre”, a modern recreation of The Peacock Room. The session is a little boring and difficult to follow so we decide to go see the art being discussed.

The Peacock Room, purchased by Charles Lang Freer in 1904, now stands in the gallery that he established. My friend and I walk through it. To us, it’s beautiful but too ostentatious. There’s too much porcelain crockery on too many golden shelves. The portrait of an Eastern princess and a pair of fighting peacocks are interesting but just another Westerner’s depiction of the Mysteries of the Orient.

Next, we head to the Filthy Lucre. Here, we are greeted by much more than we’d expected – a sordid tale of art and money. A fascinating, macabre, thought-provoking tale, which I can take no credit for but only retell in the hope that, it will send shivers down your spine too.

(For those of you who miss tales of vengeful fury and/or stories with pictures, look no further.)

We’ll start with a spot of trivia…

Who painted this?

Whistlers mother

(A) Diego Velazquez (B) Pablo Picasso (C) James Abbott McNeill Whistler (D) Mr. Bean

Scoring scheme:

A. Zero points (Close, though. The artist was influenced by the Spanish baroque painter.

B. Negative fifty

C. Ding, ding, ding. Right answer. 20 points. Whistler was an American-born, British-based artist active in the late nineteenth century

D. 500,000 points because clearly you were an erudite child who watched (and now remember) that jewel of eponymous cinema, “Bean

Anyway, I self-indulgently digress. Now for the story.

London, early 1870s:

It has been two decades since James Whistler has crossed the Atlantic. He has already spent significant periods of time in Paris and London. He has painted a wide array of subjects – his mistresses, the Thames, Thomas Carlyle, himself, his mother. The quintessential American expat has been gallivanting in the exalted circles of realist painters – Courbet, Latour, Manet – and the inimitable Charles Baudelaire.

One of his chief patrons in London is now a wealthy businessman named Frederick R. Leyland. Whistler is clearly fond of this Chopin afficionado who inspires (and pays) him to paint his “nocturnes”:

I say I can’t thank you too much for the name ‘Nocturne’ as a title for my moonlights! You have no idea what an irritation it proves to the critics and consequent pleasure to me—besides it is really so charming and does so poetically say all that I want to say and no more than I wish!

Under Leyland’s patronage, Whistler continues his portraiture, adding to his repertoire two renditions of the patron and his wife. In “Arrangement in Black”, Whistler ensures that Leyland cuts a majestic figure – tall, distinguished, full of Victorian gravitas.

Leyland

London, 1876:

Leyland, the art-collecting ship-owner, has acquired an enviable collection of Chinese porcelain that he wants to display in the dining room of his expensive Kensington home. He commissions a talented interior architect called Thomas Jeckyll to design it. Jeckyll does, what he believes is, full justice to the porcelain – a carved lattice of shelves for the porcelain crockery, and antique gilded (what could better befit the early years of the Gilded Age?) leather wall-hangings. Whistler’s La Princesse du pays de la porcelain (The Princess from the Land of Porcelain) occupies pride of place above the mantelpiece.

Jeckyll now consults Whistler about the colour to paint the shutters and doors, Whistler offers to make a minor alteration to the hue of the walls to ensure that they do not jar with the his Princess. Meanwhile, Mr. Leyland leaves to tend to his business in Liverpool, expecting to return to almost the same room he left behind.

But Whistler does not think full justice has been done to either the porcelain or the Princess. He sets out to change it completely – he covers the ceiling with gold leaf, gilds Jeckyll’s walnut shelves and paints four splendidly plumed peacocks on the shutters.

This is his Peacock Room, his grand vision of the Orient, his magnum opus.

Well, you know, I just painted on. I went on ―without design or sketch― it grew as I painted. And toward the end I reached such a point of perfection ―putting in every touch with such freedom― that when I came round to the corner where I started, why, I had to paint part of it over again, as the difference would have been too marked. And the harmony in blue and gold developing, you know, I forgot everything in my joy in it.

Like Pygmalion, Whistler is in love with his creation and is in no doubt that his patron will be too. “I assure you, you can have no more idea of the ensemble in its perfection gathered from what you last saw on the walls than you could have of a complete opera judging from a third finger exercise!” He begs Leyland not to return till it is completely finished.

Peacock Room

London, a year later:

Alas, the painter is erroneous in his prediction of his patron’s reaction. When Leyland sets his eyes on The Peacock Room, he does not behold its lavish, striking beauty. Instead he is incensed by Whistler’s presumptuousness and audacity. A bitter quarrel ensues and Leyland refuses to pay the two thousand guineas that Whistler demands.

I do not think you should have involved me in such a large expenditure without previously telling me of it.

Adding insult to injury, he pays Whistler half the amount – and in pounds instead of the higher valued guineas.

It is now Whistler’s turn to be incensed. He manages to access the Peacock Room one more time and vengefully coats Leyland’s expensive leather with dark blue paint. He then makes some finishing touches: opposite his Princess he paints a mural of two golden peacocks, one angrily lashing out at the other. On the aggressor’s neck are silver feathers, an allusion to the ruffled shirts that Leyland wore. The “victim” peacock has a silver feather on its head that curiously resembles the painter’s own white lock of hair. Strewn at the angry peacock’s feet are the silver shillings that Leyland refused to pay.

Before leaving his magnum opus behind forever, Whistler titles the room “Art and Money, or the Story of the Room”.

Curiously enough, Leyland keeps it as it is.

peacock room 2

London, two years later:

The saga continues. Whistler is forced to file for bankruptcy and Leyland is his main creditor. When the creditors arrive to liquidate the painter’s home, another portrait of the patron welcomes them.

But in this one, the tall, distinguished gentleman has been transformed into a grotesque monster. Half-man and half-peacock, he ominously crouches at a piano. So focused is he on the keys that he does not notice the butterfly (Whistler’s signature motif) venomously aiming for his throat.

The caricature by itself cannot contain Whistler’s bitterness. He calls the painting “The Gold Scab: Eruption of the Frilthy Lucre”, a pun on the patron’s proclivity for frilly shirts.

He later prophesies: “Ah, I have made you famous. My work will live when you are forgotten. Still, per chance, in the dim ages to come you will be remembered as the proprietor of the Peacock Room.

frilthy lucre

Washington DC, 136 years later

Darren Waterston’s “Filthy Lucre” is now open. You walk into his room and come into contact with an alternate dystopian universe that is reminiscent of the Peacock Room but destructively different. Porcelain vases are in smithereens. The shelves are broken or in disarray. The shutters are coming apart at the hinges. Gold paint oozes out into the hallways. The princess has a black face. The two peacocks are disembowelling each other. Discordant music fills the room.

Slightly disturbed, you walk out. Hanging in a dark corner is the portrait of a tall, distinguished gentleman. You walk ahead and encounter an animomorphic peacock-man at a piano.

You retrace your steps and read the writings on the walls. The story of the porcelain, the peacocks, the painter and the patron unfolds. You walk back into the Filthy Lucre. You can’t help yourself. It’s disturbing but addictive. Like a child who can’t stop picking at her scab, you are drawn into it again and again and again.

And this time, as you stare at the shattered porcelain and fighting peacocks, you realise that both painter and patron have had the last word. The prophecy has come true – the patron is known only because of the painter. But the painter has not quite emerged the virtuous hero: he is also just a vain, fighting peacock.

Robin and You

The first time you watched him, you didn’t even know it was him. You gaped while Ali Baba’s nemeses emerged from his nails and his head emerged from a plate of chicken. And when he and Aladdin (on whom you developed a little crush after a few years and several viewings) parted ways, you realised it was true: you’d never had a friend like him.

The second time you watched him, he was a woman. His jokes about his padded 38D chest offended your delicate, eight-year old sensibilities. You were too young to understand divorce but somewhere, in the middle of all that situational comedy, he managed to make you feel inexplicably sad.

The third time you watched him, you weren’t impressed. No one but Disney deserves Peter Pan, you thought.

The fourth time you watched him, his manic whooping freaked you out a little. When the floorboards began to swallow him alive, you willed the annoying-even-back-then Kirsten Dunst to save him.

The fifth time you watched him, you fell in love. With poetry, with learning, with the movies, with him. When he cried head in hands for his student who had killed himself, you cried for your friend too.

The sixth time, when he put on a red nose for the terminal kids and read out that mushy poem for his dead girlfriend, you fought back the tears. Of course you’d become too cool to cry.

The seventh time, while he rattled off different voices faster than you could look up ‘Vietnam War’ on your Britannica CD ROM, it dawned on you that you were watching one of the greatest comedians of all time.

The eighth time, when he described art and love to a kid who was even more of a Smart Alec than you, it dawned on you that you were watching one of the greatest actors of all time. Period.

And now, many, many times later, he is gone. And it hits you that the actors who are dying are the ones you’ve grown up with, not just the Peter O’Tooles or Richard Harrises who were always so much closer to your parents. And as you bid goodbye to the hero of your past, to the quintessential sad clown with a painted smile, all that’s left to do is carpe diem, talk about you, find your verse.