What’s a woman to do? Thoughts on sexual harassment and Book #9 Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing

THERE are certain everyday occurrences that you, as a woman, probably never really pay attention to. They are, after all, as everyday as dal-rice. It could be the balding old uncle, respectably dressed for his government job, who just can’t stop staring at your breasts on the bus. Or it could be the idle college boys, propping themselves up against a wall, who pass certain comments as you walk by. You’re not sure what these comments are, because by now, they’re part of the noise of life, much like traffic. But if you stopped to listen, you probably won’t like what you hear. Or take the many men who, as you rush towards your fast train at Churchgate station, go out of their way to brush against your arm. Or better yet, feel the soft press of your breasts. God alone knows what pleasure they get out of it, you wonder casually, as you dodge them just enough to merely let them scrape your sleeve.

But if you pause and really, truly think about it, you probably won’t be so dismissive of it. Really…what do these men get out of pinching the bum of a girl they don’t know? Is it sexual pleasure? What pleasure can come out of that momentary encounter? And it’s clearly not going to be a mutual thing – the man may pinch the girl’s bum, but its highly unlikely that she’ll respond with any pleasure and give him a kiss. Or a blowjob. Or even a smile. What he is likely to get is either feigned ignorance or, if the girl can raise herself out of her apathy and/or terror, a slap in the face. Or at least a glare. Where is the pleasure in that?

It only proves, as you have no doubt read, that sexual harrasment is less to do with sexual desire and more to do with a exerting power. These reprehensible acts of pinching, prodding, shoving, squeezing are all part of a desire to reduce their victims to mere objects. A woman may be independent, she may earn more than you or have more respect in society that you, but if you reduce her to being a mere recepient of all your sexual acts, what can she be, except a victim? She’s reduced to less than human stature and by default, your stature rises.

These are just guesses of mine, of course. I don’t really claim to know or read the minds of all those men who mouth obscenities at me as I pass them by, or those who feel they have to show their acknowledgement of me as a woman by feeling me up. Or flashing their penises. But I do know how I feel. I feel rage. I feel bitterness. And I feel very very helpless. Often, I’ve found myself musing if there will ever be a day when I won’t be forced to face the fact that just because I happen to be female, I have to walk with my bag held protectively in front of me. That I have to stick out my elbows when I make my way through a crowded bus. Or that I jump at the slightest touch – even that of a young child, just trying to push her way through. I feel saddened by the thought that some of the most basic pleasures of life are denied to me. I can’t just walk, lost in my own thoughts, along Marine Drive because that would be an invitation for catcalls or unapologetic staring. I can’t sit quietly on a park bench, reading a book or simply staring into space, because that would mean I’m ‘soliciting unwanted attention’. My only refuge is my home where I can feel safe from unwanted attention. [FYI: this is a topic that has been dealt with in a new book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. It’s on my ‘To Read’ list.]
For some women, though, even that little comfort is denied. One girl is pimped out by her father to local policemen. One girl is raped by her father and, many years later, by her son. We can’t count the other rapes in between. Another woman is forced to take the virginity of each of her male cousins, while the rest watch and videotape the acts. It was a shock even to me, aware as I am of how prevalent sexual harassment is, to learn of these stories.
You’ll read all these and more in Sonia Faleiro’s Beautiful Thing. It’s the story of a beautiful, charming dance bar girl, Leela, movingly told by the author. The first, brutal sexual violation, the determination to get the better of her circumstances, the first harsh days in Mumbai, the brief triumph and then the downward spiral into desperation. For Faleiro, it started as a reporter’s article, but she clearly got emotionally involved with the subject. I heard her say at her Kala Ghoda book discussion earlier this year that as she talked to Leela, she realized that there’s a book in there. I’m not surprised. Leela has a fascinating story of her own, but she’s ultimately just Faleiro’s, and the reader’s, gateway into this whole other side of life that we’ve never really bothered to think of. Or maybe, we were just too scared to devote much thought to it. Who knows what unpleasantness we would unearth should we delve deep into the subject?
Mercifully, Faleiro is free of such apprehensions. She’s gone down to all the brutal details, but she’s not been heavy handed about it. It isn’t one long litany of miseries that she lists. There are some moments when Leela and her friends seem truly happy. Like when they attend a birthday party in Kamathipura. Or during their nights at the dance bar where they’re showered with attention and compliments. But it’s by no means an easy book to read, neither is it uplifting. Read it if you’re interested in not sticking your head in the ground anymore.

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Book #8 The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault by Angela Carter

When I picked up The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault by Angela Carter, I must admit that I was very much swayed by the stunning cover and by what I had read about Carter as a feminist writer who subverts classic fairy tales. Here, I must give a brief history of my relationship with fairy tales. As a child I had a big, fat book – the kind with gorgeous illustrations that you just don’t find these days. It was a compilation of all sorts of fairy and folktales. There were the stories collected by Charles Perrault (Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Puss in Boots), the Brothers Grimm (Rapunzel, Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Rumplestiltskin), Madame Leprince de Beaumont (Beauty and the Beast) and Hans Christian Anderson (The Little Mermaid). There were folktales like The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Dick Whittington and His Cat, and some which were taken from the group of stories referred to as The 1001 Arabian Nights. These latter included Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp and Sinbad the Sailor.

The great advantage of having read these stories before I found out how Disney and other generators of frothy, mind-numbing fare for children, had mangled them is fairly obvious. In the versions known to me, to give one instance, the Little Mermaid does not get her Prince. She loses her ability to speak, having sacrificed her tongue to a hag in exchange for a pair of legs. Each step she takes in them feels like she’s walking on knives, but that’s nothing for the mermaid, who even dances to please her friend, the prince. Her sacrifice, however, comes to nothing because the prince eventually ends up falling in love with another princess and marrying her. The tale that I read ended with the mermaid flinging herself into the sea from which she had come and turning to foam.

I was, perhaps, 7 or 8 when I read this story. I wasn’t traumatised by the heroine’s suicide. In fact, the poignancy of her situation and her deep love for the prince moved me so much that for a very long time, it was my favourite story. So you can imagine my horror when I saw Disney’s Little Mermaid, with the feisty heroine who wins her man. This happy ending seemed quite unnecessary to me. It lacked the poetry that the original had. The excuse that children cannot digest the harshness of original fairy tales seemed quite thin to me. Hadn’t I read, and accepted, the original story here? I had even loved Beauty and the Beast, where there was no complication of the magical rose or the comic relief of servants turned into pots and pans. My Aladdin was Chinese, not Arabic,had a fraught relationship with his genie and not the genial relationship as seen in the Disney movie.

Of course, when I say ‘original’ I mean what Messrs Perrault, Grimm or Anderson had heard and written down. From what I’ve read, the version they put down on paper for the consumption of a more educated class were fairly sanitized versions of true-blue blood-and-gore folktales. For instance, Little Red Riding Hood’s consumption by the wolf is meant to stand for a man’s seduction and rape of a young girl, who was thoughtless enough to talk to a stranger. Perrault, who wrote this tale, meant for it to be a cautionary tale for children. But he was also talking to adults through it, telling women what their proper place in society.

Anyway, that’s enough of my reminiscences. Coming back to The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault: these are not stories re-written by Angela Carter; rather, they were ‘rediscovered’ by here during the course of her translation. The French writer had meant to provide a guide to life in civil society for women and men and given that he lived in 17th century Europe, it had a fairly patronizing view of the female sex. Women, he counsels, should be docile ( a la Sleeping Beauty), patient and charitable (like Cinderalla) and shouldn’t be so bold as to make conversation with strange men, like the unfortunate Red Riding Hood. He was straight and to the point, and not fanciful at all, as most Fairy Tales compilations would have you believe. The points of his story was not to feed the imagination of child, but to instruct her/him on how to behave in the adult word. Carter has remained faithful to that vision here. Tom Thumb is a ruthless killer, Red Riding Hood is a silly girl, Cinderella has presence of mind, Sleeping Beauty may be madly in love after waking up from her snooze of a 100 years, but as her servants remind her, eating after a century of starvation is also important.

Carter injects a bit of her own wicked humour here: In Cinderella, she points out that while beauty might get a woman certain concessions, what really matters is a powerful patron. In Little Red Riding Hood, again, she says that the real wolves are hard to see as they are ‘smooth-tongued and smooth-pelted’.

Between Books

I’m taking a bit of a break after having read two books that deserve really long posts. The first one was The Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault by Angela Carter and the second one was Beautiful Thing by Sonia Faleiro. The respective posts will be up soon; in fact, my post on Fairy Tales is almost ready. I just need to tweak it a little. Beautiful Thing will take a bit more work. It was a lovely, heart-breaking read and a wonderful piece of journalism. I haven’t felt this weighed down since I read In Cold Blood last year.

Anyway, I felt I needed a bit of a break and I couldn’t quite decide what to pick up next. It’s not like the books were bad; they were terrific, in fact. and pulled me in a little too much. So my next choice would obviously have to be something relatively impersonal. At the moment, the best option appears to be Samanth Subramanian’s Following Fish – an exploration of Indian coastal cultures through the centrepiece of all their culinary traditions: fish. Sounds light and fun, without being too flippant and deals with one of my favourite topics ever, food.

Book #7 The Quilt by Ismat Chughtai

Perhaps the reason I was not shocked by Ismat Chughtai’s frank depiction of female sexuality was because a close friend, PD, told me about one of her short stories The Quilt (Lihaaf), back when we were in college. “It’s about Lesbianism” she told me in that straight-to-the-point manner that most students have, when confronted with something out of the ordinary. It’s not that lesbianism was a new concept to us; it was just that we had never before read any stories where it played a part. But back in her days, as everyone knows, her openness about female sexuality got many of her works banned in the subcontinent.

It’s been many years since I first read The Quilt. My next encounter with Chughtai’s work came through a staging of Motley Productions’ Ismat Aapa ke Naam. Naseeruddin Shah, his wife Ratna Pathak Shah and daughter Heeba Shah, gave a splendid performance of one story each. Naseer performed The Homemaker (Gharwali), Ratna did a fabulous job with Mughal Bachcha and Heeba performed Touch Me Not (Chui Mui). What struck me immediately was the irreverent tone of the material. The performances were all solid, of course, but the text was riveting and I had to pick up a volume of her short stories.

I ended up picking up The Quilt, when I bought my eight Penguin Evergreens, which I wrote about here. Three of the stories – The Quilt, The Homemaker and Touch Me Not – were already familiar to me. But that didn’t make them any less interesting this time round. What struck me forcefully was the piquancy of her tone and the underlying humour in all her observations. To use an analogy that may seem out of place, her writing struck me as good cheese. The more it ages, the more its taste sharpens.  One particular favourite was Quit India, which I think is one of the most lovingly delineated portraits of an Englishman gone native.  I love The Homemaker too. It’s one of the most humorous and sharply observed writings on a romantic relationship that I’ve ever read.

My only regret is that I haven’t read any of these stories in the original Urdu. I’m sure the beauty of the prose stands out even better in that language. Still, there’s no doubt that this is one of the best short story collections I’ve ever read. I’ll definitely be picking up more of her work.

Book #6 Mortal Causes

I once again took a bit of a break from heavy reading by plunging into the thrilling Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin. This was my first Rankin book and I confess that I wouldn’t have thought to pick it up if it hadn’t been for my dear friend DND (My Secret Santa ditched me last Christmas and DND very nicely stepped up and gifted me this book). I’m glad she gave it to me though, because after very long, I read a book that actually kept me awake past my usual bedtime. Most books, no matter how well-written or judiciously plotted, can’t keep me from nodding off after I’m in bed and have read more than four or five pages. With Mortal Causes, I thoroughly enjoyed staying awake and had to force myself to get some shuteye as the book progressed towards its climax.

Now my thoughts on the book. Highly enjoyable, as I’ve already mentioned. As far as the plot is concerned, I couldn’t do better than direct the curious towards its Wikipedia page. It had nice meaty murders, plausible causes and a deeply satisfying conclusion. The characters were among the best I’ve encountered in genre fiction. Especially memorable is Inspector John Rebus, who I imagine with a tired, cynical face and the beginnings of beer gut (If these books had been written in an earlier time, I can see Humphrey Bogart playing Rebus to perfection).  He’s so believable, unlike other sleuths like Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot – who also I adore, but for entirely different reasons. Rebus’ world is more like the one I know; grimy, with uninterested people and crime lurking in the most ordinary of places and hearts.  The dialogue was wry, well-observed and, thankfully, never with too many footnotes. Rankin knows how much information to give out, without leaving his readers groping in the dark.

Another reason I relished the book was the crash course in Britain’s many identity faultlines. I’m very intrigued by the history of the Ulster Loyalism and Northern Ireland’s fraught relationship with Scotland. The Festival Fringe in Edinburgh forms the backdrop for this particular novel and I had never imagined that the place where one of the world’s foremost cultural festivals takes place has such a violent underbelly. Of course, Islamic Extremists and Hindu Fundamentalists are just two kinds of terrorists and it would be naive of me to imagine that other kinds don’t exist in the rest of the world, but reading a book which uses this different face of terrorism puts things in perspective.

Even if you don’t find your interest piqued by this bit of history and politics, you’ll certainly relish the sleuthing in it. I highly recommend Mortal Causes to those who want a good, reliable page-turner, and I will certainly be reading more Ian Rankin.

Love at First Sight

With certain books it is just that. Love at first sight. Check out the lovely new Evergreen Classic series by Penguin. You’ll fall for it too.  And at Rs 99 per book, it’s a relationship worth investing in.

In the meantime…

…a few of my favourite articles on books and reading

Roger Ebert’s essay on his habit of hoarding books, which he may or may not read, but with which he’s loth to part in Books Do Furnish a Life

Sonya Chung’s article on writing about sex and why James Salter is one of the best in this regard, immediately made me place an order for A Sport and A Pastime. Read Sex, Seriously: Why James Salter Trumps the Great Male Novelists

Jessica Francis Kane’s search for the ‘perfect desk’ mirrors my own attempts to do the same. Are we just putting off our self-imposed task of writing because of a fear of failure? Read Where We Write: The Merits of Making Do