Unfine fingers

(what finally pushed me to write something was this gorgeous personal essay: do read!)

In ancient Tamil poetry, the flame-lily is a recurring metaphor. The lovestruck male compares his lady’s long and slender fingers closing his eyes to “a fine bunch of fragrant flame lilies”, in the 293rd verse of the Ainkurunuru, an anthology of 500 short poems. In verse 4279 of the Kambaramayana, wilting flame-lily flowers are employed as a metaphor for Lady Earth folding her fingers in wonder at the change of seasons. Folding and closing: performed by fine and nimble fingers, these actions acquire a sensual nature.

Like all fingers, mine are incredibly busy. When they are not scratching hair or running across a phone screen, they are turning pages of books half-read or simply huddled under a blanket as the AC continues slogging through unnervingly hot Chennai afternoons. 

According to my dad, who chanced upon me working late on an essay about Shelley (or was it Blake?) at the dining table, my fingers flew over the keyboard as I typed. According to my best friend, my hands are warm and nice to hold – my fingers fit so very snugly into theirs. According to my grandmothers, my fingers are unnaturally long and thin. 

My fingers are many things to many people; but they are not flame lilies. They are not fine – they are not even handy, a lot of the time. They don’t fold or close or open elegantly and properly; more often, they spill and struggle and feel clumsy and unequipped to deal with the world, this world of locks and surfaces and things. 

During a conversation, a friend told me that science had built a world premised upon fine-motor skills. If there’s one thing I have been sure of in life through these years, it is that I don’t like science. As a science-hating humanities graduate, here are tales of unfine fingers in a world of fine-motor skills: stories where some pieces fall and other pieces refuse to give way. 

Spilling #1: scalding coffee  

Paper is the culprit. Paper is very useful in college: to spread over dusty shelves, to write birthday cards, to pick hair off the drain, to leave sticky notes on your roommate’s wall. The problem started when the college canteen started using paper cups for hot coffee. (Incoming wannabe environmentalists defending paper (mostly paper straws), fuck you. Paper doesn’t always work for disabled people. Go read Pollution is Colonialism, where the author explains how different groups have different obligations to the environment). 

Coffee cost 10 bucks, and came in one of those usual paper cups, the same size as the one used for payasam in weddings. And the coffee was hot. Yes, hot coffee was the best on cold rainy Bangalore days, so I should thank the Annas, but the issue is, in the early days I frequently ended up spilling some of it on the way back from the counter to the table. 

Even steel tumblers filled with hot coffee were slightly panic-inducing, especially because coffee came at the end of the serving counter. Already balancing this plate with hot sambar, and to somehow also carry a tumbler of coffee? Disaster. More bad news: I was a pathologically slow eater. Most days I just skipped coffee at breakfast – thinking back, this fills me with a strange longing for all the coffee I did not have. 

With this state of affairs, I gave up trying with the paper cups. The amount of coffee to number of spills ratio may not have been objectively concerning, but it led to overwhelming levels of what Havi Carel terms “bodily doubt”: the skepticism about your body’s ability to do erstwhile simple tasks when ill. The difference being that this was never simple. Hours of physiotherapy and squeezing yellow balls and just living may have better equipped my fingers, but they still very much felt out of place when carrying things, the grip always somehow unfirm, tentative, imperceptibly skewed. 

There was still coffee, though. I learnt to ask friends to get it for me, and this solution enabled a lot of coffee-moments. Like enjoying coffee with K after a great masala dosa, as we soaked in our South- Indianness. Or asking  J to get me a coffee quickly before the counter closed for the night because I had work, and screaming when she managed to. Or the cute Tuesday-coffee dates with S. 

The first time I went by myself to get coffee, I found nobody I knew in the cafeteria, so I ran back to my room and cried about it. The second time I tried to get my own coffee, I spilled it all over my shirt and took the embarrassing walk to the washbasins to clean myself up. In my very last week of college, I decided that I’d had enough of coffee deficits, and started getting my own whenever I felt up to it – and it didn’t spill.

This is not the story of a miracle. My fingers didn’t suddenly decide to get a grip on themselves (pun intended). Rather, success was an outcome of many calculations: Every time I waited at the counter after handing over my green tokens, I would feel a mixture of anticipation and anxiety. I then took my cup carefully to the table nearest the counter provided it was empty, willing myself to not spill even as every step became a maelstrom of uncertainty. 

The one time that week that coffee did spill was when a guy crashed into my table. Think about it: after so many misses, I finally manage to meticulously bring a whole cup of coffee to the table – and then it spills because of something so frustratingly silly. I told the profusely apologetic guy that it really was okay, then looked at the unseemly stain on my pants, chuckling at the ways of the universe. 

(to be continued in installments…)

Ki.Ra- a reminiscence

In March 2020, a friend told me that he was reading Ki.Ra’s கரிசல் கதைகள், saying that I should definitely check him out. It was a pleasant surprise when I found out that we had his கோபல்ல கிராமம் at home. As somebody who’d not really been reading anything serious in Tamil, these first books, these tentative steps into a process of rediscovering the language, will always be cherished. As one of those writers I encountered, Ki. Ra will remain a fond memory of language and the kinship it offered.

I read him on the bus journey back to Bangalore, when only one person was wearing a mask. I continue reading him in college, in that one week of March where so much was happening, the week that I still believe was the best in my life- when everything was falling in place. There’s this brilliant sentence about flowers that strikes me: மனதுக்கு இதமான ஒரு கசந்த வாசனையோடு பூத்து குலுங்கும். That கசந்த வாசனை is one of those phrases that one cannot ever hope to replicate or even explain, beautiful and perfect in itself. I am enamored by his language.

I continue reading him in the latter half of March, in drastically changed circumstances. College has closed and I’m back at home after hasty goodbyes with no inkling of what’s to come. It just seems like an extended break, and there’s even some anticipation at the possibility of reading more things. I get pulled more and more into Ki.Ra’s words in these early pandemic days at home, all the while struggling a bit with the very unfamiliar dialect. Another day, another sentence that leaves me out of adjectives with the searing pain contained in it: நாட்கள் மனப்புண்ணை ஆற்றினாலும் நினைப்பு என்னும் கோல்படும் போது அதில் மீண்டும் ரத்தம் கசிகிறது. The hurt in, and the deep agony of, that sentence leaves me marvelling. 

I thought literature was about language and vocabulary. That was what I found most appealing: what can be done with words and how people manage to do that so well. My professor tried to convince me that literature was more about broader themes now; I was stubborn. But thinking back, I did have some sense of this in the Tamil texts I read, a sense of texts creating their own worlds. So it was that even if his beautiful sentences leapt from the page in sudden moments of joy, when I reviewed Ki.Ra, I emphasized the allure of his world.

This allure did not arise from fantastical elements but from richly detailed folklore and from keenly captured moments of the pastoral- agriculturalist life. His writing was very material : it was about food, animals, hair and flesh. It was tangible, and capable of creating intimacy: as I go back to my review, I see that I have talked about the smell of rabbit blood and how it is imprinted in my mind. The world he wrote into text provided me a wonderful sensory experience in these small moments, even if I was an urban reader in the 4th floor of an apartment complex. His textual worlds were alive, and vibrant.

In his Hindu obituary, there’s a mention of how he embraced the spoken tongue in his novels, arguing that humans have always been oral, and that is what should be replicated in literary texts as well. I love that he chose to write in the tongue of the கரிசல் lands, thereby opening up those cultural and linguistic worlds to the larger Tamil public. His politics shines through in the very form of his writing.

This is from one of his 1966 essays and it perfectly captures the kind of writer he was and what he made possible. 

What did he make possible? Even if it was not my story, not the story of a privileged urban existence, he reminded me of my grandmother’s tales about her childhood, those little moments of family history. Maybe it is the proclivities of urban existence, or my increasingly technological life- but there is this sense of not knowing one’s language, one’s city, a regrettable lack of awareness about the very things that have defined and mediated your existence, the very things that you think culturally root you. Ki. Ra’s words offered this urban reader that sense of rootedness. That this rootedness was found in a culture completely unknown to me, that his portrait of the கரிசல் world managed to evoke certain memories in me, is the function of his artistic flair. That is his genius. 

Thank you for generously sharing your affection for your land and its people, Ki. Ra. Thank you for introducing us to their wonderful life- worlds. Go well.

A Labour of Love

You go to a bookstore and buy a couple of books. You are so excited to read them but the vagaries of daily life intervene. Dust gathers on these paperbacks stuffed hastily into whatever little space there is left on the overcrowded shelf. Then one day, you decide to sort out your bookshelves that are toeing the fine line between an aesthetic disarray and irrevocable chaos. As you haul these huge volumes out and stop to catch your breath, you are fascinated by all these alluring tomes your family has managed to procure throughout a lifetime. This is a still-growing collection that leaves imprints everywhere around the house- books lie about on the bed, on the tables, on the sofa, and in wardrobes and bags. They seem to accompany us wherever we go. What a beautiful legacy to leave!

You sit down and caress the ones that you haven’t read: they seem to hold irresistible mysteries within their faded covers. You make yet another promise to yourself to definitely read them soon. A promise that you probably won’t be able to keep; but what matters is the joy of discovery, the momentary clutch of excitement.

In these 18 years of your life, you have also managed to read a significant number of these books. You have added titles: the random Agatha Christie and Jane Austen, along with the customary collection of teenage dystopian fiction and the lone John Green that you feel a bit embarrassed about enjoying. As each generation habituates into the practice of reading, the collection gradually changes to reflect contemporary tastes. With your brother ravenously devouring fantasy thrillers, there is an explosion of Percy Jackson and hitherto unheard of authors.

Each book that you have read brings up a flurry of memories. You laugh at how you read Erich Segal’s Man, Woman and Child when you were nine years old- and shake your head at your strange impulses when you remember reading it again a couple of years ago. The Alchemist starts you thinking about the belief in dreams and omens- it all seems a bit too naive now. The heart skips a beat when you recall how reading Adultery when you were 15 seemed the ultimate transgression – you only felt at peace after you texted your mom at work that you read it and you didn’t actually like it that much! What an innocent child you were in those days 🙂 You smile coyly to yourself at your little adventure of trying to read Neruda’s twenty love poems and a song of despair, and returning it to its sweet spot because it felt like a secret your heart wasn’t yet ready to uncover.

Some books are milestones. The English Patient taught you what sensuality was and the brilliant things that a writer could do with sparse words. Passion and intensity were all words that you learnt to use in relation with writing through this book. You always found it difficult to choose a favourite book; with its sheer beauty, this novel solved the issue for you. Banville’s The Sea introduced you to other loving things that could be done with words- how sorrow and pain and memory could be conveyed through simple but striking imagery. You feel like you didn’t really comprehend this book though you write and talk about it- you make a mental note to read it carefully again.

Other books give you life goals. You have been wanting to get lost in Calcutta’s back streets, browsing titles in one of those musty second hand bookstores. ever since you read Nilanjana Roy’s The Girl Who Ate Books; Eagleton’s How to Read Literature influenced your interest in English Literature a great deal- you are thankful for that spark even if you have no idea what you’re doing studying this course in college. You want to live a glorious life like that of Richard Feynman and write a smashing account of the same; you want to write history like Dalrymple and describe beautifully like Anita Desai, and your biggest dream in life is to be able to write about reading and books and writers like Manguel in With Borges.

Yet other books in the collection remind you of broken goals, failures, and shortcomings. You have been reading Crime and Punishment from class 9 but still haven’t even come to the punishment part; you gave up on Foucault’s Pendulum long ago. With your absolute lack of geographical sense, Peter Frankopan’s Silk Roads has confounded you time and again. You didn’t persist through Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies because you found the slang too hard, and you reprimand yourself for giving up too easily. But then, Murakami is always there to comfort you with his defiance of meaning itself.

You impatiently gave up so many other books as you grew older- you were constantly distracted by other books. It is indeed surprising then, that you were quite a tenacious reader when young. Was there something about black letters on a paper that fascinated you so much that meaning did not matter? Dad’s favourite anecdote is of you reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull at the age of 7; but you remember reading Tale of Two Cities and the Hunch-Back of Notre-Dame when you were around 10 years old. Of course you did not understand anything, but you completed these books nevertheless. But make no mistake, you could be quite stubborn too. You have still not read Oliver Twist because the first few pages didn’t quite catch your fancy when you first read them.

Some of the most cherished books in this collection are those that invoke shared memories. You had a book swap event at college and thought of giving away the second copy of Love Story; but it struck you as one of those precious memories that have to be preserved. For you, it was just a cute love story, but you have heard both your parents and others in book club meetings speak about it in raptures, and gradually, some of that legacy seems to have rubbed off on you. Stacking the Immortals of Meluha trilogy, you remember how it was one of those rare books that everyone in the family had read at around the same time; the memory of that collective excitement puts a smile on your lips in the sultry heat of this afternoon. Suddenly, with a huge smile, your mom picks up Richard Bach’s A Bridge Across Forever and says that you definitely have to read it. When you reply that you have, a beautiful moment ensues: you smile radiantly at each other. with the mutual joy of acknowledging a fellow romantic. These are the fleeting moments that become deeply memorable later on.

Some of the titles never cease to amuse you every time you chance upon them. At least, when you were younger, they evoked a sort of amused curiosity; now as you grow older and more irreverent, they elicit mocking peals of laughter at the ways of ‘the old generation’. Titles that have this honour of critical engagement include: Rich Dad, Poor Dad; How to Win Friends and Influence People; What Harvard Business School Doesn’t Teach You; The Power of Now: A Spiritual Revolution; Winners Never Cheat; Street Smart; Simplicity (I don’t remember the exact name); A Biography of Ambani Brothers; How to Improve your Vocabulary; and a couple about business tactics or something. Oh, there also seems to have been a thwarted ambition of becoming a freelance journalist- otherwise why would you have a whole book on that? But the ultimate seat of honour goes to Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus– you have always wondered what it was about, and today you finally found out!

But let’s be serious for a moment. Not all of these books were acquired directly for the personal library; some were brought by relatives who left them when they went way (and conveniently wrote their names to make it easier for you to make fun of them!). Others have been borrowed from professional libraries and never returned- the one on vocabulary was borrowed from the Spic Office Library according to the seal that’s still visible. You can almost visualize a young, up-and-coming officer who wants to make a mark on the world, and as a first step, spends nights poring over complex words with an effort to master them. These efforts deserve respect.

But what you’re interested about in this is not only the opportunity to mock your parents (as appealing as that is), but also how the ambitions of a generation is refracted through these texts. These are indicative of both financial and interpersonal goals- as young professionals, people wanted to succeed in their careers and sought inspiration from ‘self-made millionaires’ and business babus; at the same time, they wanted to key in on the growing movements towards simplicity, an uncluttered life aided by spirituality- not as contradictory as it seems at first sight. While focusing on their careers, they also want to be happily married and settle in life: cue spouse communication advice. They want to be such devoted spouses that they read books on spouse communication before even getting married. But they also need to make friends at work and outside so that they can attend conferences, build connections and hold their own in a conversation. Vocabulary texts and Dale Carnegie come to the rescue. Books can really help you succeed in life.

As you go through this lockdown attempting to channelize your own emotional turmoils into deriding Madame Bovary’s foolish decisions, while marvelling at the breathtaking beauty that shines through in Flaubert’s writing at unexpected places (‘the ineffable allure of virtue succumbing’), this afternoon proved to be an enjoyable diversion. A personal library which evokes so much laughter and joy is simply an excellent labour of love.

Change in the Time of Coronavirus

It was last Friday that college sent us an email asking everyone to leave for home by the weekend. I was thinking of meeting a friend, and worrying about the history test that I hadn’t studied for. I had just returned back four days earlier from the mid-semester break and was easing back into being a sleep-deprived student. We had had a great list of speakers and film screenings that week; it was an exciting time.

Sitting at the very end of a long cafeteria table, nibbling at some unsavory vegetable that was part of lunch for inexplicable reasons, I see a professor smiling at me and waving hi. I’m curious because I’m not even taking his class this semester, so what might it be? Then he comes closer and says ‘Go home’. My breakfast-deprived brain does not understand; all of us squeal ‘What?’. Then he explains that college is shutting down until March 31 because of the coronavirus, and that we should all start packing and leave by Sunday evening. Shortly after, we get an email informing us of the same, telling us that we will receive further updates soon.

The message was: we don’t know yet what will happen to academic schedules and tests, but for now, please just pack up and leave this place as soon as you can. I abandoned lunch and rushed outside to call home. I bounded up the stairs to inform my best friend who has this annoying habit of never checking her mail. Suddenly, movie nights and laundry plans were getting cancelled. Everyone was calling home and scrambling for flight tickets. The lazy Friday afternoon had been abruptly interrupted.

One of my biggest worries about going to study in another city was homesickness. It had been very hard for me to leave after the break in December. But this time, when I returned from the mid-semester break in March, I did not feel that bad: the semester was going well, I was making friends and everything was generally great.

That’s why this felt like I was being uprooted, like an unwanted interruption. No one wanted to go home now: we had just finished unpacking from the earlier break! On the corridors, in the cafeteria, in hostel rooms and on the lawns, this sentiment reverberated: ‘it is just so sudden, I did not expect this, I don’t want to go home, why did we even come back?’.

When I came back home, my brother was so happy that his school was shut; while I was whining about wanting to go back to college. I never imagined that I would rather be at college when I was asked to go home; it is a reflection of the weird times we live in!

At home, there is good food and clean sheets. You don’t have to worry about not having decent clothes to wear because you were too lazy to slog up two floors to operate the washing machine. But, at home, all you feel like doing is eating and sleeping. You feel restless and unproductive. Which is a horrible state to be in when you are supposed to be working on a philosophy essay about causation and counterfactuals (don’t worry if you don’t understand, even I don’t), read 4 history chapters, and work on a research project of 2000 words.

But in my defense, it’s not like I have not tried okay? It is just too hard to implant a crazy university schedule into the relatively saner confines of home. For a college kid, the concept of ‘working from home’ doesn’t exist. We inhabit a dual world: college is for work and home is for vacation. (It is another thing that college is also like a vacation, but you get the point no, that’s enough). You should now understand why the virus has completely disrupted the workings of my optimal self. Of course, the other, more plausible explanation might be that I’m this precocious student spewing out some fancy sounding stuff.

So what have I been doing? (other than trying to work, that is). I tried to explain the no-self view of Buddhist philosophy to my sibling, and you know how it went. He called me for a board game and I tried to get out of it by citing my philosophy essay; his response was ‘ask your professor how you can write an essay on your non-existence if you don’t exist in the first place’. Let’s just say I won’t be asking that to my professor.

Upon recommendation, I read Ki. Rajanarayanan’s Gopalla Gramam, and absolutely loved it. Here’s a bit of what I wrote about the book:

சில நாவல்கள்,  அவைகளின் உலகுக்குள் நம்மை இழுத்து விடும். மௌனி போன்று கி.ரா வின் கதையில் இது மன உலகு மட்டுமல்ல; கோபல்ல கிராமத்தின்‌ உணர்வு ஓவியங்களில் அந்த மண்ணும் நிலமும் ஒன்றியிருக்கிறது.
கிராம மக்களின் ஆசைகளும் கனவுகளும் அவர்கள் உழைத்து ஆக்கிய நிலத்துடன் திடமாக பிணைந்திருக்கின்றன. வெண்ணிற பூக்களின் கசந்த வாசனையும், தேனில் தோய்த்த காட்டு மாமிசத்தின் ருசியும் நம்மை கவர்ந்து இழுக்கின்றன.
(I spent a whole day trying to figure out an English equivalent for that brilliant kasandha vaasanai and failed).
Further readings lined up include: more of Ki.Ra’s writings; the Bill McKibben essay
collection that I found at a book swap event on campus; and Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark after an article in The Wire on the protests quoted her. I have come to believe that there’s necessarily some level of serendipity involved in how you find books, or rather, how certain books find you at the right time. Ki. Ra has convinced me to start reading more in Tamil.
But by far the most exciting thing has been reading academic papers for my history research project, which I’m tentatively titling ‘Physicality and Desire As Expressed in Tamil Bhakti Poetry’. I read two papers today : on embodiment of devotion in Andal’s verses, and the sacred geography of Tamil Shaivism, and I’m very fascinated about the findings therein. This fits right in with my broader intellectual preoccupation with the body as a framework of study in itself, with the associated tangents of space, culture and performance.
Family reactions to this intellectual excitement have been on a spectrum from ‘I don’t understand’ to shooting me quizzical and faintly amused looks to saying ‘If you want any poems, tell me now itself’. Of course you can guess who the last one was. But I have very high ambitions for this, and as is evident, love talking about it.


Growing up in the time of such complex political and social uncertainties has to be the most confusing and unenviable life situation ever. I feel like I’m in the grip of a humongous existential crisis, thinking deeply about the point of existence itself. The ongoing turmoils aren’t making things any easier.
This is complicated by burning questions of belonging. I find myself caught in between places and environments, increasingly ambivalent about where I ‘belong’. A college dorm shared with a fellow student is not home. It is an extremely urgent and transitory environment; after I strip every inch of standard furniture of the vestiges of my identity, somebody completely new will occupy the void.
Then there is home. But there has been a gradual realization that home is also, in some sense, startlingly temporary. When I ‘come back home’, it is will be for a maximum of 2.5 months at the end of the semester. I’m practically living out of a suitcase at the moment. I do not belong in the physical contours of home in the same way that my sibling does, coming back from school to that safe space every day. For him, home is the natural environment, where he ‘belongs’. When you occupy transitory spaces, where do you really ‘belong’?
People say home will always remain home no matter what. If you’re speaking about emotional landscapes, sure. But what about the physical space itself? This is in a lot of ways, a permanent dislocation (word borrowed from dad). After 3 years, I’ll come back home- but then I’ll again leave to study further, occupying yet another transitory space. Even if I come back to this city to work and stay at this house, it will be fundamentally different: I will occupy my own worlds hereafter. How easily has ‘live’ turned to ‘stay’!
I guess this is why they say ’empty nest’- the chick flies away. It may, and mostly will return; but this return will not be for forever. It has already, irreversibly, ‘grown and flown’.
Appa says every growth involves dislocation. My rational self understands this, but what about the pain and the fear of leaving people and places behind? A few months ago, I wrote that ‘leaving has allowed me to thrive’. I think I believe that now more than ever. But behind this thriving are the invisible hopes and anxieties of a young girl coming into touch with unfamiliar situations and feelings, of growing into an adult.
This journey of growth is fraught with disbelief. It is painful and scary, especially when trying to navigate these trying times. Most of the time, I doubt that I can do it; I desperately want to run away. But there is something to be said about the fact that so many people have managed to do it before me- that means I could too, right?
For now though, writing is a solace. The written page acts as an invisible confidante, a comforting space to confront one’s deepest emotions. Once you put something down, it is real. It exists independently. While this can be unsettling, it can also be liberating. There’s also the hopeful possibility that ten years down the line, I will read this and indulgently shake my head at my younger self!

Democracy…and dissent

When I was in class 10, we had this CBSE textbook called Democratic Politics. It was written in such a way, with cartoons and easy exercises, that you didn’t really need a teacher to study it. For a long time, that was the best example I could give of the kind of education system I wanted to be a part of, the kind of textbooks I hoped to someday contribute to.

The book basically explained the principles behind democracy and democratic struggles around the world, trying to show that however messy this system of governance might be, it was still the best option for humanity. It instilled hope that a democracy could help ensure the cherished ideals of equality and justice.

We threw the book away after my exams. I would be lying if I said I am left with anything more than vague recollections of the content. But I was enamored with democracy. The 14-year old me did not know anything at all about politics or governance; but there was something irresistible about this idea of citizens having a say in how they were governed, of people striving together for a better world.

In university, we have this course called Understanding India. It is compulsory for all students to take irrespective of their majors. We look at this country through four focal points: Space (the power structures surrounding the idea of a particular space and who occupies it), Time (calendars, deep time, a bit of ancient history), Flows (migration of people and goods into and out of India) and Ideas (what influential thinkers wanted this country to be).

At the end, the course reinforced and provided new reasons for why there cannot be one definition of what this country is. But what made a deep impact was the unit on Ideas: sure, we discussed Nehru, but we also read Savarkar. At multiple points in class, I would keep reminding myself of how important it was that we were doing this; how crucial it was to look back at what hopes and fears different thinkers held for this nation.

It felt so necessary to read Savarkar because of the dangerous path the country was taking (not that they are following Savarkar’s ideas of Hindu nationalism to the T, but still). I believed that it was essential to really know what one was advocating against; though it was clear to us that the Essentials of Hindutva was a piece of propaganda that made no sense at all, trying as it was to harness the idea of some nation-wide ‘Hindu’ unity, it was also not difficult to see why and who it might have appealed to.

Therefore, knowledge is the way to fight fascism. But I’m plagued with other questions: is just reading about something enough? Is it acceptable to just write about these things and not actually ‘do’ anything?

I must have been 16 when I first got to know, through an internship I was doing, that the Government releases drafts of policies that are open to stakeholder suggestions for a specific period of time. I was mind-blown.

This seemed to me the ultimate expression of democracy. I was excited; whatever little opportunity I had to be a part of this decision-making process empowered me. In those early days, I felt proud of doing something that I thought made me a responsible citizen; and as an idealist, it was easy to feel as if my one suggestion was going to change the world.

Of course, as time went on and with more exposure, I became more grounded, realizing that policies take a painfully long time to get implemented, and that sometimes, you are never really sure if suggestions are taken seriously enough. But I would like to think that I have still maintained some of that idealism, that belief in the effectiveness of democratic processes to lead to change.

Disability rights is an exciting field to work in. Why? Because the ideas that inform the movement are simple but powerful. Take the beauty of inclusion for example: you create environments that allow every individual to thrive irrespective of impairment or ability, recognizing the fundamental diversity of human beings. You pledge to remove any barriers that restrict persons with disabilities from having equal rights and opportunities as everyone else.

Inclusion is crucial to create a better world for everyone. And you know what? It is not only about disability; it is rather about all the diverse identities you can think of, like religion and ethnicity. I think it is an incredibly important ideal to fight for- because implicit in the idea of inclusion is the fact that no matter who or what you are, you are entitled to certain basic rights, freedom and protection.

The ideals of inclusion and ‘leaving no one behind’ form the cornerstone of Agenda 2030 with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. It is a very hopeful and inspiring document, a testament to what may be possible through democratic cooperation of nations and stakeholders. Sure, it is hard to believe that all of this will be achieved when you look at the Voluntary National Review India did in 2017 and see a picture of Modi meditating under ‘Alternative forms of medicine’, but at least the document envisions a world worth fighting for.

Why am I writing this? I really don’t know.

I have been following the student protests against the CAA and chilling accounts of police brutality the whole day from the safety of home. I’ve always wondered why only some people have the courage to go out on the streets and protest draconian acts; are different ‘levels’ of outrage possible? Or are the rest of us, including me, too scared to stand up when it matters more than ever? These are uncomfortable questions, but they deserve to be asked.

Words have always offered me a way out. And the only thing I could think of doing was writing about this. After all, I’m not a social media influencer with tons of followers who can find some solace even just by retweeting a protest video. Nor am I a reporter for some TV channel who can go and interview these students. And regrettably, I’m just not ready to go to a protest alone, by myself. So I write.

I wanted to tell a story. A story of an idealistic teenager who found democracy empowering. Her country’s textbooks told her that though India had a long way to go to ensure full and effective democracy, it was the most just form of governance and those democratic principles can never afford to be compromised; they told her of the 1952 elections, how we bounced back from the 1975 Emergency and made her believe that despite the innumerable flaws, India was fundamentally democratic. And then the government betrayed this belief inch by inch.

Or maybe it was her fault all along. Maybe she was too naive and paid too little attention to the existing hierarchies within society which would have shown her clearly that India was never wholly democratic. Possibly, she was too idealistic; she has been accused of this earlier. Whatever it is, she knows one thing. That the nation, or whatever is left of it, embarked on a point of no return when it decided to crackdown on peaceful protests against an unconstitutional act, when it showed absolutely no regard for a basic feature of a democracy- the right to associate and raise questions.

She doesn’t have any illusions that her writing is going to change anything. It is rather an outlet for all her anger, desperation and disappointment. She cannot do anything else right now.

In the Cellist of Sarajevo, it is at first difficult to comprehend the reason for the cellist playing music for each of the twenty two people who died due to shelling when waiting in a bread line. What does he hope to achieve? He is not going to bring the dead back, or even stop the war. But possibly this is his way of acknowledging the horrors of war. It probably gave him a sense of agency, of being able to do something, amidst the feeling of powerlessness.

She also does not want to keep quiet. She cares about this deeply, and though it will not change anything, it is her own small way of expressing dissent. By lamenting the loss of a democracy she cherished, first by discriminatory laws, and then, by employing violence on those brave enough to protest against this government. The normalcy that violence has gained in the public sphere today extremely worries her.

She has always wondered if she wrote for herself, or with her low self-esteem, she merely wrote for the validation she gets from people who appreciate what she writes. This has given her sleepless nights. She had to write this post to tackle the uselessness she felt in the face of what is going on; it is for the reader to decide whether even this classifies as a need for validation of resistance.






Coming back home

I returned home from college for the mid-semester break yesterday. After Bangalore, the Chennai heat seemed luxuriant and not the annoying phenomena it used to be before. (And everyone felt it was cold while I was sweating). Entering the hall, I was struck by the fact that it had been 2 1/2 months since I had last been there. So much had changed in these months.

A few surprises awaited me at home. There was a new fridge and I was agitated that no one had told me (though apparently they had- seems like I was too caught up with other stuff to remember). The Wifi password had been changed and no one knew what it was. My brother seemed to have become much more considerate and responsible; heck, he was waking up to his own alarms!

But other things remained the same: his bookshelf was as messy as ever; he was still leaving his stuff all over the place, and I still had to pick out clothes for him to wear. I was nostalgic at the latter fact because I distinctly remembered feeling sad over small things like these when leaving home.

Leaving home. I can’t believe these words have come true. I never thought I was ready to take what was, in a lot of ways, a big step for a nervous and introverted child like myself. I still remember begging my dad to turn the car back, to take me back home. And I still don’t feel ready, to turn 18, to become an adult. Will I ever be ready?

Dreams about coming back made the last week of classes seem agonizingly slow. I was getting up later by the day, and pushing all my assignments toward the inevitable last-minute frantic efforts. I couldn’t wait to get back, to have actual podi dosai, and to be able to eat good, succulent chicken everyday rather than fantasize about ‘chicken day’ and wait in long queues for okay chicken to be served. I have no shame in admitting the gluttonous side of myself. I longed to sleep in a softer bed and have a long shower. And not worry about running out of clothes to wear because I was too lazy to do laundry, then find out that someone hadn’t taken their clothes out of the machine.

But I also surprised myself by feeling that I might actually miss my college residences. I never imagined I would feel like that, not after constantly cribbing about ‘needing more meat’ and the too-early breakfast timings on days when I had no morning class (FYI, breakfast was served from 7.30-8.30 am). Even though I did feel very homesick at times, in some way, college had become a familiar living space. It had its own unique references that I could plausibly long for: waking up at 8 15 and dashing to get breakfast in time, and the university Wifi which wouldn’t work exactly when you were trying to upload an assignment 5 minutes before the deadline and having a heart-attack (though it was pretty shitty most of the time).

Feeling both ways at the same time utterly confused me. What was even more disconcerting was the fact that though most things were the same at home, it felt like everything had changed. The change wasn’t something I could put my hands on or express clearly, but there was a definite sense of something having shifted.

Thinking about it, I seem to be feeling this way because the world I knew has gone on. Like me, the place I remembered and longed for has changed too. I will go back to college in a week, and when I come back, routines at home would have changed a bit more. Home is, and will always be, a cherished place. But it will never be again what it was before I left. As my dad says, it may be because I’m no longer a child, or more accurately, almost an adult.

While I was trying to express this yesterday, my dad quoted Heraclitus: ‘You can never step in the same river twice’. I had encountered this statement in an article I read long ago, but it made much more sense now. Though I think what I feel is better expressed by this Asar Nafizi quote: ‘You get a strange feeling when you’re about to leave a place…like you’ll not only miss the people you love but also the person you are now at this time and this place because you’ll never be this way ever again’- the only difference being that I feel this after going and coming back again.

Because part of my uneasiness stems from the fact that I have also changed a lot as a person in these 2.5 months, though I’m still very much self conscious and not at all fully ‘independent’- I’m still scared to travel alone for example. I console myself saying that each person’s definition of ‘independence’ is different: finally figuring out the washing machine after multiple mishaps is according to me, a major life achievement that deserves to be celebrated.

My lifestyle has changed drastically. Staying up till 1 am gossiping with my roommate about who’s dating whom has become natural, and it has messed up my sleep cycles so much. I have been trying to sleep at a more reasonable time but it is difficult as no one ever seems to sleep in college! I sometimes forget that other people have sane routines and call home at 10.30 pm.

College has been academically very exciting. I tell myself in literature class how awesome it is that we are analyzing together such great texts by a wide variety of authors, from Gerard Hopkins to John Donne (we broke our heads over Canonization) to brilliant Kannada writing in translation (Siddalingaiah and Jayanth Kaikini particularly stand out). My newest obsessions are the concepts of space and place in human geography, and Ramayana performance traditions, particularly the Ramlila of Ramnagar.

I would also like to think that I have grown as a person after coming to college. I attended my first queer- space meeting as an ally here. I have become part of the Ambedkar and Marx reading groups on campus, and we discuss these thinkers every week. One of my bravest decisions was to volunteer to present on the Communist Manifesto without having any prior knowledge of Marxian ideology. I tried my hand at dance and had the bitter realization that I could not dance for my life. I started drawing and music too, activities I have never been strong in.

A couple days back, I attended this two-day public policy course which championed a libertarian approach and left me very overwhelmed at the end, resulting in a major existential crisis as I felt like I wasn’t sure of anything anymore, and longed for my childhood when I could just eat ice-cream and read books and not worry about loaded terms like ideology. My only solace was the fact that I vehemently disagreed with many things they were saying; this assured me that I was capable of having my own opinion on issues. There was a lot to talk about during the car drive back home!

I was never very fond of change. Even now, I feel like everything has changed too fast without allowing me time to process it all. But, after reflecting on the past 2 months, I have to admit that though it has been very challenging, ultimately, it has been for the better. Leaving was hard, and never not painful. But leaving has allowed me to thrive.









ஓர் உரையாடல்

மூர்த்தி அண்ணன் நல்ல உயரம். நேர்த்தியான உடை அணிந்திருந்தார். சுற்றி எங்கும் இருள் சூழ்ந்துக்கொண்டிருக்க , பேருந்தின் விளக்கு வெளிச்சத்தில் தமது கதையை எங்களுடன் பகிர்ந்தார். சாதியை பற்றி பெரும்பான்மையாக வரலாற்றுப் பாடங்களில் மட்டுமே படித்த எங்களுக்கு, அவரது கதை அதிர்ச்சியும் வேதனையும் அளித்தது. ஆனால் எங்கள் மனங்களைக் கவர்ந்தது, அந்தச்சூழலிலும் அவரது வார்த்தைகளில் ததும்பிய பலமும் உறுதியுமே ஆகும்.

மூர்த்தி அண்ணன் ஒரு தாழ்த்தப்பட்ட சாதியை சேர்ந்தவர். தமது சாதியைச் சேர்ந்த மற்ற இளைஞர்கள் சமுதாயச் சூழலினால், சிறு வயதிலேயே பறையடிக்கவோ, காட்டுவேலைக்கோ சென்றுவிட , தம் உழைப்பால் கல்லூரியில் பயின்றவர். அவரது தாய், தந்தை இருவரும் கூலிவேலை செய்பவர்கள். பள்ளிக்கு மேல் படிக்க வைக்க வீட்டில் பணமில்லை. எப்படியாவது மேற்படிப்புப் படிக்கவேண்டும் என்ற உந்துதல் மட்டுமே அவரிடம் இருந்தது. ஈரோட்டில் ஓரு கல்லூரியில் உதவித்தொகையின் மூலமே பயின்றார். மற்ற செலவுகளுக்கு சிறு சிறு பணிகள் செய்து பணம் சேமித்தார்.

அந்த கிராமத்தில் எவ்வாறு தினசரி வாழ்க்கையின் ஒவ்வொரு அங்கத்திலும் சாதியம் பிணைந்திருக்கிறது என்பதை எங்களுக்கு விவரித்தார். தாழ்த்தப்பட்ட மக்கள் கோயிலுக்குள் அனுமதிக்கப்படுவதில்லை, அவர்கள் வசிக்கும் தெருக்களில் ஆதிக்க சாதியினரின் கால்தடம் கூட பதிவதில்லை , ஒருவேளை அவர்கள் ஆதிக்க சாதியினர் பயன்படுத்தும் பாத்திரங்களை தொட்டுவிட்டால், அது அவர்களுக்கே கொடுக்கப்படும் என்று அவர் அமைதியாக அடுக்கிக்கொண்டே போக, எங்களால் மிக்க வேதனைக்கொள்ள மட்டுமே முடிந்தது. தீண்டாமை என்பது இந்த யுகத்தில், அதுவும் தமிழ்நாட்டில் இவ்வளவு தூரம் ஊடுருவியிருக்கும் என்பதை உண்மையாக ஏற்கமுடியவில்லை.அப்போது என் மனதில் நின்றது, ‘தீண்டாமை பெருங்கொடுமை’ என்ற, இவ்வளவு காலமாக தமிழ்ப்பாட புத்தகங்களின் முதல் பக்கத்தில் நான் படித்த வாக்கியம் – அதற்கு என்ன பொருள் என்ற கேள்வியே மனதில் எழுந்தது.

அவர் கூறினார், ‘ முன்பெல்லாம் எங்களுக்கு தனியாக தேங்காய் தொட்டிகள் வைத்திருப்பர் , தண்ணீர் பருகுவதற்கு. இப்போது காகிதக் குவளை தருகின்றனர். தீண்டாமை நவீனமாகியிருக்கிறதே தவிர, ஒழியவில்லை’- அந்த வார்த்தைகள் ஒவ்வொன்றும் சுள்ளென காதில் விழுந்தன. மூர்த்தியின் சொற்களில் சினம் தெரியவில்லை; ஒருவித ஆதங்கம் தான் மேலோங்கியிருந்தது.

ஈரோட்டில் வெளிச்சூழல் எப்படி சமத்துவமாக இருக்கிறது என்பதை கண்டவருக்கு, ஒரு தைரியம் பிறந்தது. ஆறு வருடத்திற்கு முன்பு, ஒருநாள் கிராமப் பால்சாவடியில் பால் வாங்கச் சென்றுவிட்டார். சட்டத்தின் படி, அரசு நடத்தும் அந்த சாவடியில் யார் வேண்டுமானாலும் பால் வாங்கலாம் என்றாலும், வழக்கமாக தாழ்த்தப்பட்ட மக்கள் வெளியில் நின்றே பால் வாங்குவர்; அவர்கள் உள்ளே அனுமதிக்கப்படுவதில்லை. இவர் அன்றைக்கு உள்ளே சென்று பாலூற்ற கேட்டபோது, திட்டவட்டமாக மறுத்துவிட்டனர். தன்னுடைய அடிப்படை உரிமைக்காக அவர் வாதாட, ஆதிக்க சாதியினரால் தாக்கப்பட்டார். இதோடு கதை நிற்கவில்லை. இளைஞருக்கே உரித்தான உறுதியுடன், மீண்டும் ஒருமுறை உள்ளே சென்று பால் கேட்டபோது, தாக்கப்பட்டது மட்டுமல்லாமல், அவர் மேல் வழக்கும் பதிவு செய்யப்படுகிறது. எதிர்ப்பார்த்தது போல, அந்த வழக்கு நீதிமன்றத்தால் தள்ளுபடி செய்யப்பட்டது.

எங்கோ செய்தித்தாள்களில் படித்த கொடூரச் சம்பவங்கள், உண்மையாகவே, இவ்வளவு அண்மையில் நடக்கின்றன என்பதை நம்பமுடியாமல் மனம் தவிக்க, இதயத்தை நொறுக்கும்படியான தகவல் தெரியவந்தது: இன்று வரை அந்த பால்சாவடிக்குள் தாழ்த்தப்பட்ட மக்கள் அனுமதிக்கப்படுவதில்லை.

இந்நிலையை அறிந்தவுடன், எங்கள் மனங்களில் ஆயிரம் கேள்விகள் எழுந்தன. ஏன் யாரும் இதை எதிர்க்கவில்லை? ஏன் இந்த நிலையில் வாழ்கிறார்கள்? உண்மையில் நாங்கள் சாதியத்தின் முழுமையான தாக்கத்தை அதன் வரை அறியவில்லை. அது எப்படி தாழ்த்தப்பட்டவர்களை அதுதான் நிதர்சனம் என்று எண்ண வைத்து , அதில் ஒருவித பாதுகாப்பையும் தேடச்செய்கிறது என்று அப்போது தான் உணர்ந்தோம். இதை புரியவைக்கும் வகையில் மூர்த்தி பல உதாரணங்களை முன்வைத்தார். முன்பு ஆதிக்க சாதியினரின் தெருக்களை கடக்கும் போது, இவர்கள் வேட்டி அணியக்கூடாது. இப்போது அப்படி இல்லையென்றாலும், பெரியவர்கள் அந்த வழக்கத்தை பின்பற்றிதான் வருகிறார்கள். அதுதான் நியதி என்று அவர்களை நம்ப வைத்து, தமக்கென்று தனிமனித உரிமைகள் இருக்கின்றன என்பதை அறியாமல் வாழ்க்கையை கடந்துவிடுகிறார்கள் என்ற கொடூரம் மனதை கலங்கவைத்தது.

மூர்த்தி அண்ணன் தனக்கு ஏற்பட்ட கடினங்களால் கூட வருத்தமடையவில்லை, தனது தாய் தந்தையரின் நிலையை பற்றி தான் மிகுந்த வருத்தத்திற்கு உள்ளாகிறார் என்று அவரது வார்த்தைகள் உணர்த்தின. பத்து வயது ஆதிக்க சாதி சிறுவன் தனது தந்தையை ‘வா, போ’ என ஏவுகிறான் என்று எங்களிடம் கூறும்போது, அவரது குரலில் வேதனை தோய்ந்திருந்தது. அந்த சம்பவத்தை திரும்பித்திரும்பி நினைவுக்கூறுவதின் மூலமே அது அவரை எவ்வளவு ஆத்திரமடைய செய்கிறது என்று பாராட்ட முடிந்தது.

மூர்த்தி அண்ணாவின் வாழ்க்கையில் உடைந்துப்போன கனவுகளே அதிகமாக இருந்தன. சட்டம் படிக்க மிகவும் விருப்பப்பட்டார்; விண்ணப்ப படிவங்களை எல்லாம் நிரப்பியிருந்தார். ஆனால் குடும்பத்தில் பொருளாதார சிக்கல்; உடனே ஏதாவது வேலைக்குச் செல்லவேண்டிய நிர்பந்தம். ஒரு புன்முறுவலுடன் அவர் இதை கூறினாலும், தனது கனவுகளை நோக்கி பயணிக்கமுடியாத அவரின் வருத்தத்தை அறியமுடிந்தது.

அவர் TNPSC தேர்வுக்குக் கூடப் படித்தார். பொருளாதார சூழல் அக்கனவையும் தகர்த்தது. தன்னால் கட்டுப்படுத்த முடியாத சில கூற்றுகளால் , ஒருவரின் வாழ்க்கை எப்படியெல்லாம் பாதிக்கப்படுகிறது என்று நினைக்கும் போது, இந்த சமத்துவமின்மை எவ்வளவு கொடுமையானது என்று முழுமையாக உணரமுடிந்தது.

இவ்வளவு துயரங்களையும் கடந்துவரும் வலிமை அவருக்கு எப்படிக் கிடைத்தது என்பது, ஒரு சுவாரசியமான, நம்பிக்கை அளிக்கக்கூடிய கதை. அவரும் தன் தாய் தந்தையரை போல சாதியத்தை ஏற்றுக்கொண்டு, அச்சூழலியே வாழ்ந்துக்கொண்டிருந்தவர் தான். பத்தாம் வகுப்பு பயிலும்போது, ஒரு தோழர் அவருக்கு பெரியார் மற்றும் அம்பேத்கரின் புத்தகங்களை அறிமுகப்படுத்தினார். அதனால் மூர்த்தியின் வாழ்க்கையே மாறியது என்று சொன்னால் மிகையாகாது. சாதியின் மூலம் தாம் ஒடுக்கப்படுகிறோம், தம்மையும் மக்கள் மதிக்கவேண்டும் போன்ற கருத்துக்களை அறிமுகப்படுத்தி , அவருக்கு ஒரு புது கம்பீரத்தை அளித்தது இவ்விரண்டு தலைவர்கள் தாம். சாதியத்தை தகர்த்தெறிந்து வெளியில் வரவும் புதிய உத்வேகத்தை தந்தது அவர்களே.

பெரியாரைப் பற்றி பேசும்போது, மூர்த்தியின் முகத்தில் அப்படி ஒரு பரவசம். தன்னிடம் இன்று இருக்கும் எல்லாவற்றிற்கும் அவர் தான் காரணம் என்று நன்றியுணர்ச்சி தழுதழுக்க எங்களிடம் சொன்னார். பெரியாரை சமூகச் சீர்திருத்தவாதியாக ஒருக் கல்விச்சூழலின் மூலமே அறிந்த எனக்கு, அவரின் பணிகளின் முக்கியத்துவம் அளவிடமுடியாதது என்பது மூர்த்தியின் கதை மூலம் தெரிந்தது.

மூர்த்தி அண்ணாவின் வாழ்க்கை அவர் கண்ட துயரங்களால் மட்டுமே தீர்மானிக்கப்பட்டது என்று முடிவு செய்வது தவறாகும் . உண்மையில் அவர் தன் வாழ்க்கைப் பாதையை தன் அறிவு, உறுதி மற்றும் விவேகத்தைக் கொண்டு தாமே வடிவமைத்துக்கொண்டிருக்கிறார். ஒரு மருத்துவமனையில் வேலை செய்கிறார். பொருளாதாரச் சூழல் சற்றே தலைதூக்கியிருக்கிறது. முடிந்தளவு சேமித்தப்பிறகு, சென்னையில் குடிகொண்டுவிட விரும்புகிறார். தான் காதலித்தப் பெண்ணை சாதி மறுப்பு திருமணம் செய்து கொண்டார்.

நாங்கள் மாணவிகள் என்பதாலோ என்னவோ, அந்த திருமணக் கதை எங்களை மிகவும் ஈர்த்தது. அவரது மனைவி சற்றே மேலிருக்கும் சாதியைச் சேர்ந்தவர்; அதனால், அவர்களின் வீட்டில் இந்தத் திருமணத்தை ஏற்கவில்லை. இருவரும் கோயிலில் சுயமரியாதைத் திருமணம் செய்து கொண்டனர்.

ஏன் வேற்றுச் சாதிப் பெண்ணைத் தான் மணந்தீர்கள் என்று கேட்டதற்கு, சற்றும் யோசிக்காமல் உறுதியாக பதில் வந்தது : ‘சாதியை எதிர்த்துக்கொண்டு சாதித் திருமணம் செய்வது எப்படி சரியாகும்?’ அவரின் கொள்கையை – பின்பற்றும் குணம் எங்களை கவர்ந்து.

தான் பட்ட அவமானங்களை தன் மனைவி பட்டுவிடக்கூடாது என்று அவர்களைக் கிராமத்திற்கே கூட்டி வராததை அவர் குறிப்பிட்டபோது, நெஞ்சம் கனத்தது.

பண்ணிரெண்டாவது மட்டுமே முடித்திருந்த மனைவியை ஊக்கப்படுத்தி, அவர்கள் ஈரோட்டில் தங்கி செவிலியர் படிப்பு பயில பணம் கட்டிவருகிறார். எங்களுக்கு ஏற்கெனவே அவர் மீது இருந்த மரியாதை இன்னும் கூடியது.

மனைவிக்கு முன்பு கடவுள் நம்பிக்கை அதிகம் இருந்ததாம். இவருக்கு அவ்வளவு பற்றுதல் இல்லையென்றாலும், அவர்களின் விருப்பங்களை மதிப்பதற்காக , கோயிலுக்கு அவர்களுடன் செல்வாராம். தன் மனைவியிடம் அவர், ‘ நான் உன்னைக் கட்டுப்படுத்த மாட்டேன், உனக்கு எப்படி வேண்டுமானாலும் நடந்துக்கொள் ‘ என்றும் கூறிவிட்டாராம். இக்கட்டத்தில் எனக்கு அவரை மிகவும் பிடித்துப்போய்விட்டது. ஆண் – பெண் சமத்துவத்துக்கு இப்படி ஒரு அழகிய உதாரணம் பல துயரங்களுக்கிடையில் உதித்திருப்பது மிகுந்த மகிழ்ச்சியடையச் செய்தது.

‘ ஆனால் இப்பொழுது என் மனைவி என்னைவிட முற்போக்குவாதி ஆகி விட்டார்கள். ஏதாவது தட்டிக்கேட்டால், என்னை விவாகரத்து செய்துவிடுவதாக சொல்கிறார்கள் ‘ என்று சிரித்துக்கொண்டே சொன்னார். அந்த சிரிப்பில், அவர் தன் மனைவி மீது வைத்திருந்த அன்பு, மரியாதை மற்றும் அரவணைப்பு ததும்பியது. வேதனையுடன் தொடர்ந்த கதை, எதிர்க்காலத்தை குறித்து நம்பிக்கையளிப்பதாக மாறியிருந்தது.

இரவில் ஒரு உணவகத்தில் எல்லோரும் சாப்பிட்டு கொண்டிருந்தோம். திடீரென மின்வசதி துண்டிக்கப்பட்டு, காரிருள் சூழ்ந்தது. என்ன செய்வதென்று தெரியாமல் நாங்கள் தவிக்க, மூர்த்தி அண்ணன் தன் கைபேசி வெளிச்சத்தை எங்களிடம் திருப்பி, மின்வசதி வரும்வரை அங்கேயே எங்களுக்காக நின்றுகொண்டிருந்தார். பிறகு நான் நன்றியைத் தெரிவிக்க, என்னை பார்த்து அவர் புன்னகைத்தார்.

அத்தருணத்தில், அவருடனான சந்திப்பு, ஏதோ ஒரு வகையில் என்னை மாற்றிவிட்டதாக உணர்ந்தேன். அவர், எளிதில் மறக்கக்கூடிய மனிதரல்லவே!


Ramblings of a 17-year old

Yesterday I went to school to collect my TC. We met the principal, who, after the well-wishes and queries about college, asked me how I had been spending the holidays. I could only say ‘reading… ( I have finished a single book in these 2 months)’ and laugh my way through the awkward pause, trying hard to not blurt out ‘eating and sleeping!’.

The truth is, I have been engulfed by this overpowering laziness since March 15 (when my board exams ended), a state punctuated by short, sharp bursts of energy, creativity and awesome ideas. The casualties of this semi- couch potato existence are (or is it ‘were’? For someone who writes, I have a pretty low grasp of grammar) many excellent projects discarded halfway, or left in limbo.

If you have a Medium account or read the Times Life supplement, you are sure to have come across articles on the ‘art of doing nothing’ which extol the virtues of taking a break from the urge to do something and sitting back with a cup of coffee. But you know what? ‘Doing nothing’ is really easy- you just need Internet, a Netflix/Prime/Hotstar account (or the password to one) and potato chips.

So what is this post really about? It’s about what I did these 2 months, interspersed with reflections on life (or hot Pakistani actors). But mostly it is an attempt to assuage the sudden existential crisis I found myself in this afternoon: the usual thoughts that go like ‘what the hell am I doing with my life?’ and ‘why am I wasting so much time? I’ll be going to college in 2 months and I don’t know anything!’. I am getting these more frequently than before, probably the pre-college nerves acting up.

If you are reading this because you have been filled with this overwhelming numbness after looking at the results of the exit poll, know that I empathise with you. I can’t promise that this will make life cheerful again (nothing can after this) but I hope it can distract you from the impending doom. Trying out Snapchat filters on your daughter’s face is also a remedy that you can learn from my dad.



‘I love Pakistani movies’ I texted my mom one day. This statement sounds as if I spend all my free time watching these movies but the truth is, I have watched exactly one Pakistani TV drama (Zindagi Gulzar Hai) and one movie (Ho Mann Jahaan). While I have problems with the misogynism in ZGH, I absolutely loved the movie.

While the messages in ZGH left a lot to desire, what caught my attention was how realistic the portrayal of the characters, and the setting, was. People didn’t cook in designer sarees and the house of the middle-class family didn’t look like a movie set. Another admirable thing was the length of the drama- most of these are about 25-30 episodes long. This was refreshing after being used to Indian serials that last for a minimum of 5 years, probably to test how long and in how many different ways you can make the women cry.

Life on the other side wasn’t that different at all. Sure, there were some specific intricacies, like the quaintness of the Urdu words for greetings and goodbye (I still can’t pronounce them properly but find them beautiful), but norms, moral codes, dreams and aspirations of people were all the same.

This feeling intensified after I watched Ho Mann Jahaan on Netflix. I laughed and cried through it and felt a sense of contentment afterwards, especially when thinking of its message of tolerance for people with different beliefs and ways of life. The movie was totally fun and enjoyable.

I could relate to the characters as much as I would have if it was an Indian movie on the same topic. In the post-Pulwama polarised atmosphere, I found myself asking why people so similar were fighting with each other. This might strike some as, and it is, an emotional response that doesn’t take into account the politics, technicalities etc etc but I feel this basic realization is important to preserve one’s conscience through it all.

Going on to lighter stuff, the Pakistani actor Sheheryar Munawar is incredibly hot. He looked so good with that beard in the movie. Now, you must realize that this is a big thing for me- I have never really been a fan of any hero, and certainly never thought that an actor was ‘hot’. The funny thing is that my worst nightmare was being this typical, frivolous teenage kid interested in lipstick and fandom, but hormones can mess up everything unexpectedly I guess?

I discovered Marie Kondo in January through the show Tidying up with Marie Kondo. And you guessed it right, the very next thing I did was throwing all of my clothes in a pile on the bed. I tried looking at each item and asking whether it gave me joy, but decided in my circumstances the practical thing was to define joy as ‘useful and in good condition’- this helped get rid of the really old and torn stuff, and things like a pair of tight jeans I was never going to wear.

Then started the folding. I painstakingly Kondo-ed all of my shirts and pants and anything else that could be reasonably rolled, constantly chastising myself because they didn’t stand perfectly upright like they did when she tried. My clothes seemed especially unwieldy when compared to those of the people on the show. Also, I didn’t have those costly little boxes that made rolled up clothes look neat. Despite all that, when I was finished, everything looked awesome and I resolved to Kondo my clothes for life.

Then I packed entirely by myself (for the first time) for a 15-day trip to my cousin’s. I folded clothes the conventional way to ensure that they fit in the suitcase. Packing them back after the trip was over was excessively tiring, and I burst out wondering why on earth I had so many clothes- I should have been like those businessmen who just have a basic set of clothes to save time.

After coming back home, I was so exhausted that I didn’t want to do anything but curl up in bed all day and gorge on Pringles. I kept procrastinating on the inevitable task of Kondo-ing my trip-clothes all over again. When I finally started, nothing was going right, I just couldn’t roll them up properly. In a fit of rage, I threw all my clothes on the bed yet again, but this time, to un-Kondo them. When it was done, I slept like a log.

That was the story of the rise and fall of my Kondo- obsession. Dear Marie Kondo, you look perfect and everything you do is neat and perfect, but forgive me for saying that I have had enough. Between stress + incredibly neat shelves and peace + reasonably neat shelves, I chose the latter. Because sometimes all one wants to do after a tiring day is to come home and sleep.

Two of my best friends have taken the NEET. Another friend is preparing for JEE Advanced and requested us to reduce chatting in our group because she was not able to concentrate. A relative has enrolled in CA coaching that lasts for 5 hours every day. Heck, a class 9 girl I know is attending AKASH classes 4 times a week for 4 hours, during her summer leave!

What am I doing? In the last week, I have: started watching Mahabharat on Hotstar; consistently woken up at 9 am (yes, I deserve an award) and ooh-ed and aww-ed over Ranveer’s admiration of Deepika’s looks at Cannes. I have absolutely no commitments for the next two months, making me free to do whatever I want.

After the roller-coaster that was Oxford, my other college applications went very smooth and hassle free. I certainly didn’t work hard or anything. I applied to three more places- let’s call them A, B and C. I received offers from A and B and decided to go to A. My preparation strategy for the board exams was relatively reckless, considering how much effort I put in for 10th boards. The results were reasonably good.

Despite everything going well, there was this nagging feeling about it being so easy. Didn’t getting into a good college involve burning the midnight oil? It is true that I didn’t have to take nation-wide standardised entrance tests that require rigorous preparation; but even in the one such test I took, isn’t it true that it didn’t matter if I didn’t get in? (I didn’t. Alas! I was too lazy to do complex math sums, so just randomly chose the options since there was no negative marking :)). I realized that popular media had cemented this notion that you can get into a good place only if you shed sweat and tears.

I read this article on Andy Murray’s almost-retirement. The author was a sports psychologist, and he had written about how we encourage athletes to push their bodies to the breaking point by glorifying hard work, sacrifice and pain. Success through all these is seen as the mark of a true sportsman, thereby perpetuating a ‘culture of risk’ in sports. By doing this, sport neglects their quality of life after retirement. Since one’s sport becomes the identity of a sportsman, many of them feel useless and wasted after retiring, especially if it’s due to injury. Because their whole life has been woven into a ‘performance narrative’.

When I told him about this theory, my dad said that was exactly what I had been made to feel about college admissions. It struck me that what he said was so true. The same qualities of hard work and sacrifice were being glorified in academic success. Why else do you cut off the TV connection during your child’s exams? I have been a victim to this ‘performance narrative’ for far too long in my academic life. Academic success helped me get rid of my inferiority complex; the problem started when I used it to define myself (which is a very dangerous thing to do). Each time I got a low score, I would be shattered.

Due to the support of well-meaning classmates and school teachers who set an example, I have been changing. I still feel bad about a low score, but am definitely more relaxed about exams than ever before. My parents and those of you who read what I write have helped me realize that so many other things define me than marks received in a factual question paper.

This is not an effort to discount the glories of hard work, but merely to question why everything has to be a struggle. I am aware that the definition of a good college also plays a role in this- according to me, it is a place that allows you to explore your academic interests, a place where teaching happens through discussions. We seem to put so much emphasis on getting somewhere. Shouldn’t we concentrate more on what is going to happen once we reach there? I believe your interest in a subject is more important than your ability to get into a top college by cracking a test. And getting there is only a small step ahead in the vast journey of intellectual stimulation; it is not the end.

So dear Vibha (if you don’t know she scored 500/500 you are living under a rock), I am in awe of your achievement- especially how you studied for six to seven hours a day regularly. But I have decided that my choice to binge- watch Good Wife was definitely a better way to spend the tyrannically long study holidays. Best Wishes!

My latest hobby is writing fan-mail to favourite authors. It started when I reread Leelavati, my comfort book for more than 2 years. Written by Nandini Bajpai, it is the simple and charming love story of Rahul and Leela set in 12th century India. With a fiery and brilliant female lead, and a broad-minded male one, it is the perfect young-adult indulgence for a summer afternoon.

When I finished rereading it for the 4th time, I felt this urge to contact the author. Going to her website, I found a contact form. She had made it so easy. I thought of how nice it would be if all authors were like this! I wrote her a message, saying the book hadn’t lost any of its charm 2 years down the line. She replied that same evening, telling me that she enjoyed making up Leela’s world though the book wasn’t a commercial success.

A nice, respectable person would have stopped at that. But giddy with pleasure, I directly emailed her again (profusely apologising like a polite person). She was nice enough to reply again, complimenting me on my subject choices. I replied, spouting some stuff about how I also found them exciting. Obviously, she didn’t reply back. Why would anyone be interested in what my favourite subjects were? Clearly she had better things to do.

Next, I wrote to Amitav Ghosh. He is a great person- his email address is displayed on his website for the world to see. And guess what? Yes, yes, yes! He actually replied. (I feel like shouting this out from the rooftop). It took 6 days for him to respond, and I had almost lost hope. My joy knew no bounds.

It started like this. Ever since I read The Great Derangement, I have been connecting everything on earth from Trump to identity politics to the French protests and the Gaja cyclone to the ideas expressed in the book. Everything in it was so brilliant (especially the literature part) that I couldn’t stop thinking about those ideas. Then I found out that Richard Powers’ Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a story about trees and people who love them. The first thing I thought of was how Ghosh had said in the book that most stories dealing with environmental issues get pushed to the realm of science fiction. But this was mainstream fiction, and it had received one of the highest recognitions possible!

In this rabid state of excitement, I wrote a long email to the writer, talking about this and the other real world happenings that I was able to connect with the book. I waited eagerly for two days; then I lost hope. After all, he probably wasn’t interested in reading such a long letter. On the 6th day, I received a short but sweet thank you note, asking for my permission to post the letter on his blog. Of course I said yes. I was raving about this the whole day. (He still hasn’t posted it on his blog).

But there’s more. After sending him the mail, I go to his Twitter account and find out that just a few hours before, he had tweeted about Overstory’s Pulitzer. I have an email subscription to this magazine called Aeon, and he had shared an article about climate change that I had received in the mail that day. What better ego boost is there than the fact that you read the same things as Amitav Ghosh?

I seem to suffer from this weird disorder suddenly- I am not able to read one book at a time like before. Right now, I have read bits of Homo Deus, Letters To A Young Poet, With Borges and Being the Other: The Muslim in India. All of these are interesting but I have lost focus. I believe there’s even a term for people who read like this. More worryingly, I am just not able to read books some days. I can only console myself saying that this is because I am in a transition phase (nowadays I am blaming this for everything).

The one book I finished reading was Eat, Pray, Love. I loved Gilbert’s wacky humour and wit. I really enjoyed the part of the book set in Italy (the newest addition to my bucket list is going to that divine pizzeria in Naples). The Indonesian part was good too, despite her belief in the predictions of the medicine man (I wasn’t sure if she was really serious about it). I read through the Indian ashram story too, egged on by her enthusiasm. But going to the fourth state of consciousness…wait, what? I really couldn’t buy all that stuff about going to a state of eternal bliss- call me a sceptic if you want. I started reading criticisms of the book, and found out that her Guru was basically a fraud.

This whole idea of gaining bliss or enlightenment seems so selfish to me. It is saying that no matter whatever happens in the world, I will preserve my happiness and attempt to attain an other-worldly bliss. It is more important to deal with the problems of this world first. I do agree that self-care is essential; I am only against this supposed state of ‘bliss’ that doesn’t take into account practical problems. Just imagine going to a poor man and saying if you meditate, you will overcome all your suffering. When you think of this, it is not difficult to see why only some people go and meditate in Kedarnath.

The other book I have been reading is a Tamil translation of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. Reading history in Tamil is quite challenging and it takes me a lot of time to finish a page than when I read in English. But it is also really interesting to read national history in a language you can easily grasp. I love how Guha has used letters and speeches in his narration as I have become passionate about textual interpretations of history. This makes the book an engaging read.

From Nehru’s speeches quoted in the book, I realized how much importance he gave to protecting the idea of a secular India. In a letter to Sardar Vallabhai Patel, he has said something like ‘If even one Muslim is scared of living in India, we have lost as a country’- what a prescient statement! Going by this, we seem to have lost long before. I don’t want to lose anymore. I can’t bear living in a country that has discarded this ideal.

Humanities research is highly exciting. My email subscriptions to The Conversation and History Today started only because Oxford professors were writing in these magazines, but soon became an independent interest, which is why I maintain them even after getting rejected. My recent obsession is with https://aeon.co, a magazine that publishes essays on a wide range of academic topics by philosophy to mental health.

Reading about all this research has strengthened my passion to study humanities. I feel that a humanities education in this era can be highly rewarding; it strikes me as a vibrant and dynamic field, one where I feel at home. I’m going to be studying History, Literature and Philosophy in college.

Aeon sends me one or two essays on a wide range of topics daily. I have read about Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder, about how humans externalize memory by creating ‘networks of memory’ so that not everyone has to remember everything, about how time in prison affects a prisoner’s sense of self, the generation gap in China (which was quite revelatory), this awesome essay about why disorder is important by a professor with both a science and humanities degree and a highly interesting piece about how analytic and continental philosophers define what it is to be a woman differently.

There are some essays I have been forced to leave in the middle or somehow get through them because I have no idea what the acclaimed author is trying to say. This honorary group includes an essay on Descartes and his impact on mental health (I didn’t understand a word), an essay on the origin of nihilism (I got a vague idea of this one) and an excessively cryptic one on how the mind computes which delved into the Church-Turing thesis (needless to say, I was lost).

But when sometimes I try to explain some philosophical concept to a member of the family, I am subjected to ridicule. Like that day, I had read a essay in which the author had said that we define perception only based on vision and objects, therefore discounting the dynamics of movement and events. Her reasoning was that this does not allow us to understand in detail, for example, how human bodies gyrate instinctively to music. I found this essay quite interesting.

She had also written about a simple experiment. We define the present as ‘what is happening in that exact moment’. Then how are you able to see my hands shake even though I don’t show you slide by slide each minuscule step of this movement (like they do in animation)? Does this mean that humans are capable of sensing change and movement, or should we redefine the present?

I found this theory extremely fascinating, and started asking everyone to try the ‘hand shake’ experiment, asking them this question (I was at my cousin’s). Then I learned a bitter lesson: there is nothing like the scepticism of family members to tear down a budding philosopher. My elder cousin thought something was wrong with me. My younger one said I shouldn’t mess up with what little brains she had. And what did my dad do, are you asking? I told him when we were in the car, and he started fiercely focusing on the road.

But fear not; I am not dissuaded. I will reach greater heights when I study philosophy in college. Maybe I should become a philosopher? Seems a great way to detach oneself from the modern dystopia!

Yes, you are right. My next awesome idea is to write two or three more long posts like this and turn it into a book, probably titled The Obsessions of a Seventeen-Year Old. Better title recommendations are welcome.








Lenin and Stalin’s Ideas and Policies Regarding Female Emancipation

The period of Lenin’s rule (from 1917- 1925) was a time of great social change in the USSR. The October 1917 revolution paved way for the ‘rule of the proletariat’. The oppressed classes benefited from wide-ranging social, legal and political reform that enabled them to lead a better life. In this atmosphere, women’s rights also came under attention. Lenin wrote prolifically on the issue of female emancipation. After Lenin’s death, Stalin came to power in 1929. Though he didn’t write much on this subject, one can see a clear shift in policy. There is also a perceptible shift in basic ideas regarding women’s rights.

It is to be noted that Lenin’s writings are more visionary, being in the period of the Revolution. They reflect a discourse on certain basic issues. In Stalin’s time, the framework had already been established, so his writings consist mostly of public statements given at gatherings.


For instance, Lenin reported on the International Socialist Congress (1907) in favour of the resolution that women workers should campaign for suffrage. He rejects the Austrian Viktor Adler’s opinion that until men get suffrage, women’s right to vote should not be considered. This shows that Lenin subscribed to universal adult franchise as a matter of principle.

Lenin shows a remarkable ability to arrive at the root cause of social issues like prostitution. His anger against the international delegates who espouse the use of police force and the influence of religious morality to control prostitution is palpable. In his view, until socio-economic equality is assured, all other measures to tackle prostitution will be in vain. It is a symptom of class oppression. The hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie who react to this view with ‘women do not deserve higher wages’ is unbearable for him, as he believes in equal wages for both genders. But much later, he asks Clara Zetkin why the German Socialists are concentrating on mobilizing prostitutes while they could do so with working women. He dismisses them with strong words. Here, he is not willing to deal with this issue presently when more important things have to be taken care of.

He was also unequivocal in his criticism of the burden of housework for women. He says “Notwithstanding all the laws emancipating woman, she continues to be a domestic slave, because petty housework crushes, strangles, stultifies and degrades her’’. His solution was to set up public facilities like community kitchens and nurseries which will take over the provision of these services. Interestingly, Lenin says that in a system of collective property, there would be ‘large scale socialized domestic services’. He sees women in the role of property guardians in the capitalist system- taking care of individual units without respite. But in a collectivised system, the state takes on the role of service and welfare-provider.

The question of property and its effect on women’s status has been dealt with by Lenin. He says that a system of private property leads to the oppression of women. He means that when there is private ownership, the stewardship role falls on women. Women bear children who become assets in this system, and so she comes under patriarchal control. Lenin encouraged industrial employment of women because it allowed exposure and financial independence. In traditional peasantry, the acquisition of property is given importance, resulting in the oppression of women. He also detested the influence of patriarchal ideas of religion among the peasantry, exemplified by the proverb ‘Each man for himself and god for all’. Here, the belief in divine blessings for all is a convenient excuse to concentrate on individual profit, which translates to vulnerability of women.

Lenin has written about working women and their conditions. He acknowledges the additional pressure faced by them because of having to also take care of the housework and children. His government passed laws allowing for nurseries and kindergartens to be set up in workplaces so that the child could be taken care of. Timely breaks for breastfeeding were made mandatory. All these measures along with relief from housework (see above) encourages more women to come out and work. They no longer have to worry about managing innumerable tasks simultaneously.

Lenin demanded (as part of constitutional rights) prohibition of female workers from any factory work that would be injurious to their health, and night shifts. While at first glance, prohibition as a right seems baffling, it is the result of an entanglement of class rights and gender equality. Factory workers are exposed to unhealthy conditions and women shouldn’t be victims of this blatant disregard of worker-health.

His stance on abortion is intriguing. He supports abortion rights, but firmly disagrees with the ‘Neo-Malthusian’ espousal of contraception that is based on the idea that the future generations will endure poverty and suffering. He says ‘we are ardent optimists in what concerns the working-class movement and its aims. We are already laying the foundation of a new edifice and our children will complete its construction’. Lenin’s ideas about reform originate from belief in what the movement can achieve. He sees Neo-Malthusianism as a tool used by the bourgeoisie to repress the worker’s movement. But he still wants people to make informed decisions and therefore supports distribution of medical literature on contraception. Lenin desires individual autonomy of women within the larger movement.

In Lenin’s time, divorce was made easier. Divorce proceedings were abolished and only one partner’s request was necessary. Lenin felt that these avoided the ‘debasement and hypocrisy’ involved in traditional divorces. He said that opposing divorce went against democracy and socialism, placing a personal matter in the public context of inequality and oppression. The idea was to enable women to escape abusive marriages but it backfired; men used the provision to leave their wives. As it became easier to annul marriages, many children were abandoned on the streets.

Lenin’s view on the issue of illegitimate children was replicated by Stalin. Lenin felt that the bourgeoisie attitude towards this was ‘feudal’, exacerbating divisions in society. He was against the use of discriminatory terms like ‘illegitimate or out of wedlock’ . For him, all children are Soviet citizens who will take forth the movement. This attitude is reflected in Stalin’s aid for unmarried mothers.

Women’s role in public life was immensely valued by Lenin, as shown by his statement ‘If we do not draw women into public activity, into the militia, into political life ..,then it is impossible to secure real freedom, it is impossible even to build democracy, let alone socialism’. He advocates female participation in administration, in decision-making in the Soviets. He demands administrative training for working women so that they can prove their potential in this area.

It is his view that with women decision- makers, ‘the police functions of the state’(welfare provisions like care of the sick) would be more effectively handled. Decision making involves political autonomy, but this seems to reinforce the traditional roles of women as welfare providers. While speaking out against the drudgery of housework, Lenin still advocates women being responsible for the same kind of work in the public sphere. Of course, the work is shared here while housework is an individual burden. But what is striking is how traditional gender roles have become symbols of liberation in the public sphere.

But to be fair, he also thinks military conscription for both men and women (16-55) is a good idea, as it is imperative that women do not merely participate in politics, but also engage in public service; otherwise, ‘there is no use in democracy or socialism’. Here, he understands democracy as everybody having equal rights to work for the common good. It is an example of how the quest to ensure gender equality can subsume previously- held autonomy in some areas. The narrative of striving for the movement and the state makes it a matter of pride. It is an opportunity to help the State and protests will be seen as unpatriotic.

With Stalin’s ascendance to power, the stance towards women’s rights hardened. He emphasized on the family as the basic unit of Soviet society. This was partly in response to the large number of homeless children, due to easy divorces and huge casualties in the World War 1 and Civil War. The state tried to bring them up in orphanages, but due to the economic problems caused by the wars, there was a shortage of funds. These youth formed criminal gangs and terrorized the cities. Studies pointed to family disintegration.
Divorces became harder to obtain. Approval of both parties became mandatory and the costs increased with subsequent divorces. The government actively discouraged divorce with paying married couples a child allowance, which could sufficiently increase real income. Another measure was to increase the amount of child maintenance to dissuade divorces. But it didn’t work that well as fathers were hard to track down. The use of economic incentives to preserve an institution is interesting.

Children were seen as assets of society, as a section of the population that could supply the country with efficient workforce in the future and thereby help in the process of nation-building. Abortion was made illegal in 1936. Seeking to make childbirth attractive, newspapers carried information on methods that could lesson the pain of pregnancy and interviews of enthusiastic mothers. Medals like Mother Heroine (for mothers of 10+ children) and the Order of Maternal Glory (for mothers of 7-9 children) were instituted to encourage and glorify motherhood.

Tellingly, when listing the areas in which women have succeeded, Stalin includes motherhood and it’s ‘honorable role in educating the child’. When all the other instances of success involve external mechanisms, the biological characteristic of women is seen as a success in itself. Motherhood becomes an achievement.

Mothers can also be tools of propaganda. In one instance, Stalin refers to women as ‘a huge army of workers who will bring up our children’. A mother’s role is seen as strengthening the country by feeding children the Soviet ideals in all matters.
The equation of women’s role in administration with democracy reflects a recurrent theme in the Soviet discourse- because the regime stands for the rights of the proletariat, the oppression of women is also granted importance. The award of Stalin medals for women’s achievements in literature, art and science shows respect for intellectual capabilities of women. For a country seeking to assert itself on the world stage, knowledge signified power, irrespective of who owned it.

He reasons out women’s political education by saying that if they are ignorant in this matter, they will drag down the whole state. The negative tinge to the statement points out differences: for Lenin, gender equality was essential for the success of the state. For Lenin, female rights were an essential part of the movement; whereas for Stalin it was merely something to be done so that all the hard work doesn’t go to waste.

The Stakhanov movement was based on the glorification of strenuous physical labour. The existence of woman Stakhanovites and their being acknowledged by Stalin shows that women were taking up challenging physical work and were being recognized for their ability to perform as well as men. But thinking further, it is not really empowerment but rather leads to an increased burden on women because of the emphasis on family. They ultimately end up doing more work. Although nurseries were set up on farms and factories, women still ended up doing most of the work at home.

Stalin’s policy makes a clearer distinction between working-women and peasant women than Lenin, who spoke about urban women’s participation and the exploitation of peasant women, but it was not a recurrent theme. Stalin distinguishes between the development of working women and the still-impoverished conditions of the peasant women.

One common strand of both Lenin and Stalin is that they emphasize time and again on the role of the Soviet regime in woman emancipation, contrasting it with the bourgeoisie system. In a sense, therefore the women’s movement is just a subset in the larger class movement, a tool to mobilize more support.

This essay has explored Lenin and Stalin’s views and measures to tackle women’s issues, while trying to bring out the similarities and differences in their ideas.

1. The bulk of the material for this essay has been sourced from various writings of Lenin and Stalin found in the Women and Marxism section of the Marxist Internet Archive. Link: https://www.marxists.org/subject/women/index.html
2. B. Armstrong’s assessment of Stalin, (was-life-better-or-worse-for-women-under-stalin.pdf) [notes on women in Soviet USSR] was helpful in realizing policy differences
3. Mothers in the Motherland: Stalinist Pronatalism and its Pan-European Context, by David Hoffmann from Ohio State University helped better understand Stalinist policy in the global context.

A Comparative Study of Dystopian Themes in Two Novels : The Handmaid’s Tale & Nineteen Eighty- Four

The literary genre of dystopian fiction is concerned with the depiction of a future that is devoid of basic human rights and freedoms, of a world where poverty, tyranny and terrorism is the norm. The basic tools and themes dystopian novels use are common. The difference lies in their approach. The essay tries to explore some of these common themes through two novels: The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty- Four, while highlighting the similarities and differences in their expression.

The plot of Nineteen Eighty-Four is as follows: Winston Smith, the protagonist lives in Oceania, one of the three main regions of the world along with Eastasia and Eurasia, between which war is constant. Oceania is controlled by the Party and ‘Big Brother is always watching you’. Party members do not have any personal freedom. The story follows Winston’s resistance and his relations with co-worker Julia.

The Handmaid’s Tale follows the story of ‘Offred’ in the fictional republic of Gilead where a theocracy has taken away the basic rights of women. Due to declining birth rates, Handmaids are assigned to a Commander to get impregnated by him. The baby is snatched away. The book depicts the life of those who don’t have any control over their physical selves.

In both these stories, the setting is used to convey the feelings of the protagonist and the nature of subjugation. For instance, in Nineteen Eighty- Four, there is a sentence that says: ‘The hallway smelt of boiled cabbage and old rag mats.’. This evokes a sense of austerity and staleness, of something wasted. Another passage: ‘Down in the street little eddies of wind were whirling dust and torn paper into spirals, and though the sun was shining and the sky a harsh blue, there seemed to be no colour in anything, except the posters that were plastered everywhere.’ The eddies of dust and torn paper signify a bleak existence, a life flapped about by the Party in any direction it wished. Even the sky hurts the eyes with its harsh blue, because they have been bombarded with the ubiquitous black and white posters. That only these seemed to have any colour signifies the effect of the posters: the appropriation of human sight and perception, how Big Brother has taken over everyone’s minds and lives. Winston expresses his frustration by describing the habitations around him as ‘sordid colonies of wooden dwellings like chicken houses’. Sordid accentuates the general air of wretchedness; the addition of ‘chicken houses’ brings up an image of restriction and being cooped up. A ghastly image of the Oceanian regime emerges through this sentence.

In the Handmaid’s Tale, the opening lines state that the trainee handmaids slept in a former gymnasium. Gyms are associated with rigour and discipline and it seems symbolic that they are part of the training area. There is a nostalgia for the engaging atmosphere with its profusion of scent and colour, that would have prevailed there when games were held, in the following lines: ‘Dances would have been held there; the music lingered, a palimpsest of unheard sound, style upon style, an undercurrent of drums, a forlorn wail, garlands made of tissue-paper flowers, cardboard devils, a revolving ball of mirrors, powdering the dancers with a snow of light.’ The images portrayed here signify their yearning for uninhibited expression of joys and sorrows, for the dramatic flavour of these events. ‘There was old sex in the room and loneliness, and expectation, of something without a shape or name.’ Stripped of its former glory, the place feels lonely now; much like how the girls feel lonely after being separated from their loved ones. Old sex feels stale, more so by the fact that they are not allowed any sexual freedom. The formless expectation shows hope in the future despite awareness of the bleak outlook. The mention of a dormitory that is currently used for something else, with its fairy-tale turrets painted white and gold and blue can be seen as a fantasy of escape.

The difference in how the setting is used lies in the tone of the text. Orwell describes it in a way that it mirrors Winston’s despair. But Atwood describes how the setting was used in the past and uses this to depict current feelings. There is a longing for the past in Offred’s words, while only the desolation of the present in Winston’s view.

The attitudes towards sexual activity and freedom are generally the same in both Gilead and Oceania. Sex is a perfunctory act to produce children and is not to be undertaken for any pleasure. There is no sexual freedom. But the rationale behind this principle, the methods used for enforcement and how rules are broken are very different.
In Gilead, due to the rapid decline in birth-rates and a reversion to Victorian prudishness, the handmaid system was formulated. Fertile divorced/remarried/unmarried women are separated from their families and forcibly sent to the houses of Commanders (whose wives are unable to reproduce) to get impregnated by them. It is ritualized with the reading of the Bible and the involvement of the wife in the act. A certain group is oppressed for the benefit of others.

Force snuffs out sexual freedom. The hunger of Offred for consensual sex is brought out in these lines:(with reference to Nick and her): ‘We make love each time as if we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there will never be any more, for either of us, with anyone, ever. And then when there is, that too is always a surprise, extra, a gift.’ This shows the frantic desire that permeates their sexual intimacy. Sexual pleasures are no longer entitlements but rewards.

In Oceania, sex is perceived as a duty to the Party, for raising children to serve Party interests. There is a marriage approval committee which only approves couples who are not sexually attracted. Organizations like the Junior- Anti Sex League, drill the undesirability of the sexual act into the minds of young girls. Winston thinks that the aim of the party is to kill the pleasures of sex. ‘Sexual intercourse was to be looked on as a slightly disgusting minor operation, like having an enema’. Sex is being denied its naturalness and is seen as an invasion inside the body. Why? Satisfaction resulting from it might endanger the Party’s aim of controlling human instincts to fit its purpose.
Winston has no choice but to satisfy his sexual drive by seeking the favours of a prostitute. It only made him feel cheap and ashamed of himself because he associated with the proles. Though the act may seem against the Party, it is not. Winston ends up worse than before. The Party has succeeded in its aim of removing pleasure and there is no danger of change in inter-Party relations.

Sexuality is also used as a tool of rebellion by both Winston and Offred. This is evident in what Winston feels when he and Julia share their first embrace: ‘All he felt was incredulity and pride.’ The astonishment is the result of his dream coming true; the pride from being able to do the forbidden. Winston is more fascinated with the act itself than with individual relations. ‘Not merely the love of one person but the animal instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire: that was the force that would tear the Party to pieces.’ He sees the sexual instinct as something that can be revolutionary. Only by affirming this fact with Julia is he able to yield. ‘It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act.’ It is not the personal satisfaction but the triumph against oppression. The personal has become political.

Offred thinks of the actual sexual intimacy with Nick as a generosity, not as a rebellion. But she feels powerful because of the desire she can induce in young Guardians through her sexuality. It is a more direct act of revenge and rebellion. ‘I raise my head a little, to help him, and he sees my eyes and I see his, and he blushes’. She derives pleasure from tempting him, from being in control. It’s like thumbing your nose from behind a fence or teasing a dog with a bone held out of reach’. She revels in their suffering and derives joy from being the cause of it, from having the power to inflict mental agony. It is a protest, so small as to be undetectable, but nevertheless indicative of the possibilities of rebellion.

There is a glorification of brutality by the government in both Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Handmaid’s Tale. Public hanging of war prisoners and people who have committed crimes against the regime is made out to be a social occasion. This violence becomes internalized to a point that it is no longer abnormal. Public punishments also serve as a warning to other people.

Oceania conducts public hangings of its war prisoners. Syme says ‘And above all, at the end, the tongue sticking right out, and blue — a quite bright blue. That’s the detail that appeals to me.’ This shows an appalling insensitivity towards fellow beings, and worse, a gloating over suffering. The unnerving thing about his statement is that this violence has a social sanction, which renders trust and safety impossible.

The corresponding practices in Gilead are the Men and Women Salvagings. These are ritualized with mandatory attendance and protocol. These are public hangings, but the term used is interesting: Salvaging. It evokes images of rescue and restoration. By death, people are rescued from their own criminal nature. Their pure self is restored. The handmaids are required to proclaim their solidarity with the decision; here, social sanction is explicit and not merely internal like in Oceania.

There is also a practice called Particicution, which celebrates direct violence.The handmaids physically punish a man accused of crimes against women like rape. They can do anything until the whistle is blown. ‘It’s true, there is a bloodlust; I want to tear, gouge, rend. ’The real victory of the Gileadian regime lies in the fact that they inspire such manic feelings against fellow beings- it is a defeat of the human spirit. Particicution is seen as an allowance to handmaids, an opportunity for them to express their repressed emotions: ‘She is about to give us something. Bestow.’

Another similarity in these novels is the absence of personal freedom of the protagonists. In The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s especially pronounced. Offred does not exist as an individual. She is Of- Fred: Fred’s personal possession. She does not even have the right to end her life. Her clothing is selected for her and it is highly restrictive. Her sexual partners are predetermined. She cannot raise the baby she gives birth to. She is not allowed to read or write- when the Commander shows her a magazine, she wanted it with a force that made the ends of my fingers ache. This statement shows the intensity of her yearning; the magazine is precious, when only some years before, it was a mindlessly discarded possession.

In Nineteen Eighty-Four, even a differing thought is a crime. Winston is surrounded by telescreens which endlessly broadcast Party propaganda. They can watch whatever he does or speaks. He is denied the freedom of thought and opinion. His life is controlled by the Party which rations clothing, imposes curfews and regulates physical exercise. His marriage needs to be approved by a committee and he has no sexual freedom. At a point O’ Brien says that the death of the individual does not matter because the Party is immortal. This implies that Winston’s existence is of no use except as a vehicle for fulfilling Part interests.

What’s different about the state of personal freedom in Gilead and Oceania is that in Gilead the absence of a physical sense of one’s self is more pronounced; there is no self as her body is not her own. In Oceania, the absence of one’s mental self is more evident- even Winston’s thoughts are monitored and controlled. What’s similar is the complete infringement of human rights in both regimes, rights that account for both physical as well as mental freedom.

This essay has tried to explore the common themes of the use of setting, attitudes towards sex, the use of sexuality as a rebellious tool, the glorification of violence and the absence of personal freedom in dystopian literature through two novels: Nineteen Eighty- Four and The Handmaid’s Tale. The similarities and differences in the approach of both to these themes have also been discussed.

1. Nineteen Eighty- Four, George Orwell (e-book): https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/o/orwell/george/o79n/contents.html
2. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (e-book): http://www.readbook1.net/The_Handmaid_s_Tale.html
(all the aforementioned quotations are from these books)