In The Sandbox

The mud is not inanimate as she had thought it to be; out of the corner of her eyes, she sees it move in a sleek file. Pushing back the mass of curls out of the way with her chubby fingers, she squats down in the corner of the sandbox. On closer look, she finds that this moving piece of mud is different from the rest. For one thing, it is green. She puts out her hand to feel the cylindrical body wriggle, protesting against her hold. She puts it back on the concrete path beside the sandbox and observes.

The worm makes its way quickly towards the opposite side of the narrow path, towards the swings and slides where the older kids play. The playground is usually filled with boisterous children of all ages. But not today; today, it is just her. The knowledge emboldens her, and she crosses the path to follow the worm.

There is a little growth of grass here, with weeds scattered here and there. The worm quickly scuttles over behind one of the weedy leaves. The leaves interest her more; they are different than the grass around, and different than the full-shaped ones in her book. They are carved and designed like the stencils that she has for her colouring books. Bending over the tiny plant, she carefully plucks out a leaf. The mud around immediately becomes a sea of motion; ants and worms all in chaos. She takes a few sharp steps back; they are all like Chico dog, unhappy to be disturbed from their slumber.

The swings are too high for her to get on by herself; she had fallen trying yesterday. Can she try again today? In his usual bouncing excitement, Chico dog had jumped on the swings last week, only to land flying on the ground; shocked that the seats moved. She had been amused by his horrified look.

She stands in front of one of swings, set slightly lower than the rest. The seat is in line with her chest. A rush of struggling limbs; arms tightened on the metal ropes, legs flailing about in the air, and she is flat on the ground. She settles down on the lower seat of the see-saw to rest.

worm

Photo by Jairo Alzate

 

The insect hole, hidden behind the shade of the small plant, has gone back to its peaceful existence. She sees lines of ants following each other in and out of the hole. The worm that she had followed has climbed over on one of the intricately patterned leaves. It is soon joined by a friend, and together, they cut out a pattern across the midrib, somewhat like the lace on the socks that she is wearing.

She is distracted by the sound of laughter coming from the street, and looks up to see two boys enter the playground. They are slightly older than her; she has seen them sit on the swings by themselves. They make their way to the see-saw.

“Get up, we want to play.”

She obliges, and toddles back to her sandbox, vaguely aware of the chatter behind her. One of the worms has escaped from its leaf house again, and joins her in the sandbox. Her shoes have left a pattern in the mud, and the worm follows the crevices. This fascinates her. She creates a gateway out of her shoe’s print, and begins tracing a path with her finger for the worm. The worm is slow, and by the time it reaches the gateway, she has already created an elaborate labyrinth over half the sandbox. Settling down cross-legged in the middle of the sandbox, she watches the progress of the worm, engrossed.

A heap of mud lands directly over the worm, burying it. The two boys are standing over her, their hands muddy.

“Go away. We want to play.”

She looks back to ground. The worm has managed to find its way out of the mud, and is gliding down the tiny mound.

Before she can point this out to the boys, she is showered in fistfuls of mud. The mud pies are strong, hard enough to hurt her. She covers her face, but her hands are already dirty. Tears spring from her eyes, streaking across her muddy face. She does not understand.

“What the mother must be thinking, leaving her girl playing about in the mud like that!”

She opens her eyes to find the women, the boys’ mothers scrutinizing her, distaste plain on their faces. She looks towards the gate for comfort, her red house visible on the other side of the pavement. Chico dog had been roaming in their garden, but now has come to the playground to investigate. He gives her a lick. The women look on in disgust. One of the boys takes a fancy to Chico and makes to pet him, but is pulled back by his mother.

She wants to tell the boys that Chico will not bite, wants them to know that the worm climbed out of the heap of mud. Chico tugs at her pinafore.

*

She is in the tub, telling her mother all about the worm, how she fell down the swing, how the boys were scared of Chico. Her mother smiles, asks her questions about the stencil leaves, and gently washes the mud out of her hair. Inwardly, she thinks of the articles she read that morning, about prestigious science awards going only to men, of glass ceilings that would not break. She thinks of her own hard-earned tenure, her patronizing colleagues, her difficult journey. She tries to quieten the guilt that is seeping through her; guilt of being a few minutes late, caught up in a work call. She looks at her bright, inquisitive daughter, and wonders if mud is enough to sow seeds of doubt and hesitation.

As the mother tucks her into bed, her daughter tells her that she will go and see the worms tomorrow. She hopes that they will have new patterns on their leaves. A relieved sigh escapes the mother. Today, at least, was not the day.

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The Human Demon

Photo by Volkan Olmez

“You ruined me!” And with that, I demonized the human he thought he was.

His touch on my body felt like he was skinning me, bit by bit, ripping out my soul.

I screamed silently, choked on my own tears, felt trapped in my own body.

 

“But you belong to me!” He was flummoxed.

For what was his mistake, when all he did was something that was taught to him?

The shape changed again in my mind; I humanized the demon.

It was like breathing to him, wasn’t it? Ruining me, suffocating me, owning me in body and mind.

 

I couldn’t bear to love him, and yet, for what could I hate him?

 

Note: An attempt at prose poetry.

Women’s Writing: Pride and Prejudice

I have taken a Women’s writing course this semester. I have to admit that it’s a welcome relief after the hectic, super-technical courses of the last year; I can’t get over the idea that I get to read so much as a part of a course! Plus, the idea of reading and discussing women authors is all me.

I wrote the following response to Pride and Prejudice as a part of our course. I hope you enjoy reading it. 🙂

***

Introduction

I first read Pride and Prejudice some four or five years ago. Having been a mystery-thriller reader, and not being used to the old sort of English, I quickly dismissed it as a slow, boring read. I read it again after some time, and presumably after reading great reviews about it which considered the book to be great literature. I suppose a part of me wanted to really like the book better because of the above mentioned reviews. And re-reading it definitely made me look at some of the things that I had perhaps missed the first time.

About the book

Simplistically speaking, Pride and Prejudice is a romance novel; “chick-lit” of the nineteenth century. Digging deeper, we find Austen talking about a wide range of concerns. It is a critique of the vanity of people of those times, the limitations and problems of the social and economic systems that were in place.

pnp

The characterization

The deftly etched characters are the best part of the story according to me. Each character is thoroughly described. Also, each character is flawed, which is what makes the story interesting. The protagonist is not perfect, but human, and it is great to see her introspect on her follies and prejudices. She grows throughout the course of the novel, examining her conscience and changing. The change is gradual, for Elizabeth as well as Darcy, which makes it real.

Apart from the main characters, I especially liked the character sketches of Mr. Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

The former seeks dry humour in every situation, be it annoying his wife, or the prospect of his family being turned out of their house by Mr. Collins. Only at one point do we see him truly anxious, trying to be a guiding father to his daughter, Elizabeth, when he talks to her about the cons of marrying Mr. Darcy. The part where he says that Elizabeth should be able to respect her partner is especially touching and shows that Mr. Bennet, though pretending to be unfeeling, actually understands his daughter very well. He quickly lapses back to his old self though. When he is told about Darcy’s role in Lydia’s wedding, this is his response:

“… I shall offer to pay him [Darcy] tomorrow; he will rant and storm about his love for you, and there will be an end of the matter.”

 Mr. Bennet seems to have made peace with the chaos surrounding him in the form of his wife and his daughters. His dry humour seems to be a tool for staying sane.

Lady Catherine is the personification of the arrogance of the privileged class. She serves the purpose of depicting all that Austen mocks or despises in her society. Completely overbearing and domineering, she has always got her way. Her love for dictating the terms to everybody is hilarious; especially when she takes such an active interest in the internal affairs of Collinses (and everybody else, for that matter).

The following quote says it all:

What is that you are saying, Fitzwilliam? What is it you are talking of? What are you telling Miss Bennet? Let me hear what it is. Of music! Then pray speak aloud. It is of all subjects my delight. I must have my share in the conversation, if you are speaking of music. There are few people in England, I suppose, who have more true enjoyment of music than myself, or a better natural taste. If I had ever learnt, I should have been a great proficient…

The love stories

The love story of Elizabeth and Darcy has become a cliché now; a battle of wits. But more than that, the gradual change that happens for both, Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, is beautiful to watch.

Darcy is shown to be reserved with his feelings; his pride is his only folly. In my opinion, barring his nature to speak arrogantly, there is nothing wrong with him. Meaning that, I admire that he does not engage in unnecessary pleasantries. He does not waste his time in small talk.

Bingley on the other hand, does not do justice to his independence; for a person so wealthy and educated, he is quite easily swayed by other people. He is pleasant of course, but too mellow. The same is true for Jane Bennet; although her determination to see only the good in people stems from natural goodness, not weakness of mind. Both of them are non-confrontational and would like to keep everything pleasant. Bingley and Jane Bennet’s love story therefore is not very appealing.

Sarcasm and humour

A lot has been said about Jane Austen’s sarcastic wit. I have greatly enjoyed reading the way she mocks some of the social norms while remaining part of the society. The characters of Lady Catherine and Mr. Collins are excellent examples of this.

The writing is funny and entertaining. Mr. Collins’ proposal to Elizabeth is one of the most hilarious scenes of the book. His utter lack of comprehension when Elizabeth declines his proposal is priceless. The almost immediate proposal to Charlotte Lucas afterwards also shows his fickleness.

The banter of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet is also very enjoyable.

Feminism and social standing

The novel presents many feministic ideas and criticisms of classism, albeit in a very subtle manner. Austen talks about various important matters, such as the need to marry “sensibly” (for men and women, both), the entailment of estates only to a male relation, the perceived notions of trade as a slightly less respectable profession.

Elizabeth is shown to have a mind of her own; she is not afraid to have opinions. I like that she is disappointed when Charlotte marries Mr. Collins for financial security and status. Even though her disposition is to let bygones be bygones, I think she never really regains her respect for Charlotte completely.

Let me draw attention to the highly entertaining conversation in which the qualities of an accomplished woman are discussed. Through Elizabeth, Austen says that expecting women to be perfect is unrealistic. Women should be allowed to be flawed and human; the expectation of a goddess is as bad as generalizing women as less intelligent.

Although Austen’s thoughts are in the right direction, the novel loses some of its charm for me when it comes to everyday sexism and classism. A disappointing amount of importance is given to outer appearance. For example, the Bennet sisters are shown as deserving good marriages because they are beautiful. Men are also expected to be rich, handsome and of a high social standing.

A whole lot of attention in Pride and Prejudice is given to women finding or trying to find husbands. And even in this endeavour, there is a lot to be considered apart from love. For instance, the character of Mr. Collins is caricatured in such a manner that as a reader, I cannot help being repelled by him. Austen tries to show that despite being wealthy enough and having a respectable position in the society as a clergyman, he is undeserving of Elizabeth because he is boring and insensible. But at the same time, when we come to Darcy, we also consider his wealth and rank while deciding his worth. The following quote makes this evident:

“In spite of her deeply-rooted dislike, she [Elizabeth] could not be insensible to the compliment of such a man’s affections…”

I wonder why Austen is so critical of her own gender at times. Of course, she considers women to be equally competent as men. She would not have written a character like Elizabeth Bennet otherwise. But she too plays into the stereotypes about women. Mrs. Bennet is shown to be foolish and ignorant. Mr. Bennet, while appreciating Elizabeth’s intelligence, remarks that she is “not like other girls”, thus generalizing that all other girls are silly. Lady Catherine de Bourgh, the only woman in the novel who is financially independent, is horribly arrogant and interfering, and takes an inappropriate amount of interest in others’ lives. This confirms to the stereotype of the problems of giving power to women.

Conclusion

Even after reading the book several times, and at different points of time, I am still unable to decide whether I like it or not. It is definitely an easy, light read. The “tragedies” are not exactly earth-shattering; one can read it in a detached manner, without becoming too involved in the story. That can be a positive or a negative point depending on the mood. The story and the characters do bring a smile on the face. The unintended, subtle sexism makes it somewhat less enjoyable. But I can make allowances for it, as the book was written two centuries ago. The book remains a beautiful satire on the hypocrisies and drama of the English gentry.

Is Feminism My Hobby?

The semester is officially over. I’m home, and have caught up on the lost hours of sleep. It’s good to be blogging again!

I took a Game Design course this semester. By the end of the semester, all of us were supposed to have made a simple game using Panda3D (the game engine) and python. No, wait! The technical part of the post is over, I promise. Hang on.

Being engineering students, all of us were doing the project at the last minute; finishing it an hour before the demo. My game is basically a Treasure Hunt in a farm-like environment. The final treasure is a book, reinforcing the moral that “Knowledge is the greatest treasure”. It is also  in sync with the book-lover that I am. 🙂

game

After the demo was done (which went well), all of us were discussing each other’s games. As I explained  our concept to a fellow classmate who happens to read my blog, and knows of both, my love of books and my “feminist tendencies”, he exclaimed, “Well, at least it has nothing to do with feminism!”

I was flabbergasted, to say the least. I recovered myself then, but I kept on thinking about it later on. Is feminism something that I merely dabble in, as a recreation, or as a fleeting interest? As far as I understand, the person in question isn’t a chauvinist. But it re-emphasises my belief that there’s still a lot of confusion regarding what feminism is all about.

I made a gender-neutral game. Sure, the player’s character was a male. I didn’t have a lot of choice in the models to be used. But the rest of it? The farm, the creatures, the treasure; they had nothing to do with gender. I can see why the person thought it had nothing to do with feminism. No elements in the game were regarding “Girl Power” or “Injustice” or “Inequality”. The challenges in the game were simply to find gemstones hidden around and not fight for women’s rights.

But you know what? I’m going to claim that it is a feminist game. Why the surprise? Because I used the expressions “gender-neutral” and “feminism” in the same post?

Let me tell you why I claim so. The final treasure is a book, not a sexy lady objectified as a trophy. The game’s concept talks about education, for anybody and everybody. And that is feminism, isn’t it? That I don’t focus on the gender, but instead talk about more important things like knowledge and education.

It’s a pity I still have to say this, feminism is simply about considering both as equal, about both having the same choices. Yes, some may say I’m simplifying the matters, but it really is that simple. The reason that feminism is mixed with women’s rights and inequality is because there is an imbalance. People tell me one should talk of equality and not feminism. They don’t realise it’s the same thing. The word for it is “feminism” because the imbalance is hindering the female population, not the male population.

The way I see it, feminism doesn’t happen to me bursts, or in specific scenarios. It’s not something that I’m interested in at the moment. It’s present all the time. It’s there in whatever I do. Or at least, I hope it’s there, and that I’m not a hypocrite. So yes, my game is feminist. Sorry for the confusion. My actions are feminist. My thoughts are feministic. And if you’re to be politically correct at the very least, yours are feminist too.

It isn’t an interest, or a hobby that I may mention to somebody. It’s so obvious that I don’t have to mention it. Why is that so difficult to grasp for people?

Have you ever been told that feminism is “too strong” a word? Have you noticed the confusion surrounding the word? How do you deal with that?

Note: I’m not bashing the person in question. I’m addressing a general confusion regarding the way feminism is perceived.

Eyes Speak

abuse

The innocence spoke through the eyes.

She didn’t have a clue.

Confusion spoke through the eyes too.

This wasn’t normal.

Hesitation spoke too.

Was she supposed to stop this?

Would she be able to?

She was a child and he was so huge.

 

The hands were strong and sturdy.

The intentions were clear too.

The eyes searched for the familiar.

The nice lady was nowhere to be seen.

Pain spoke through the eyes now.

He was hurting her.

Fear spoke through the eyes now.

She worked up a scream.

 

No sound came.

But the nice lady was there!

She detached herself.

And ran outside the waiting room.

“There you are!”

The mother caught her outside.

“What happened?”

No answer came.

 

“I got your chips. Look!”

No hand came up to take it.

“I’m hurt,” she said, “He hurt me.”

“Who? Where?”

The mother dropped on her knees to see.

The eyes full of concern.

She kept quiet.

The mother coerced more.

 

Gathering courage, she motioned.

No response.

Thinking that mother didn’t understand,

She motioned again.

Silence. A pause.

“Who?”

“Uncle X.”

Another pause.

Then: “Hush, child!”

 

She was hurt,

Not physically this time.

“Don’t let your father hear this!”

The tears spilled on her cheeks.

What had she done? Was she wrong?

She kept asking herself this for years to come.

But she had learnt almost immediately

That she should keep silent.

Get Me Another Sandwich, Woman!

“If you love a guy, let him go. If he comes back, the other woman made lousy sandwiches.”

This is what was printed as the “joke” of the day in a supplement of a leading newspaper recently. Here is what it implies:

1. Guys are with you only because of your cooking skills.

2. Guys are incapable of making good sandwiches by themselves.

I don’t like cooking. I’ve been avoiding learning it for five summer vacations now. I don’t enjoy it, and it doesn’t come easily to me. The reason is that it involves winging it. “Just a hint of the flavour” type of instructions are not my cup of tea. I’m a major believer of exact proportions.

My parents worry about how I’ll manage once I live alone. I tell them I’ll figure it out like everybody else does. And I will, I guess. It can’t be that difficult to cook edible meals for one person, can it? I agree though, that I’ve got to learn it some time.

Here’s my point: Cooking is a life skill. A life skill, I say. Not a woman-specific skill. Which is why the above joke is highly offensive to me.

Feminine stereotype

This is a “feminine” woman in her rightful place; the kitchen

I remember, in primary school, we had a picture in one of our textbooks. It showed a family in their home. The husband was sitting on the sofa, reading the newspaper. The children were playing around. The wife was in the kitchen, cooking. I remember looking at it and getting irritated. Even though I wasn’t old enough to know fancy terms like “stereotypes” and “gender-based roles”, it still made me mad. Because of one simple reason: I felt like an outsider. Someone whose family didn’t fit into this established norm. I felt that the picture wasn’t showing everybody’s reality.

My mother likes getting up early in the mornings and reading the newspaper over her cup of tea. My father is fond of eating as well as cooking, and he’s an excellent cook, “hints”, “flavours”, and all.

But I agree that this doesn’t happen in most households. When my mid-day snack was appreciated by my classmates, they said, “Be sure to complement your Mom. This is great!”. My response, that the said snack was actually made by my father was met with awkward silence, and sometimes outright amazement. Rarely did people say just “Oh” and left it at that. Really? Do no men cook in this country? I refuse to believe so. I’ve got proof. Most famous chefs are male.

Sanjeev Kapoor

Sanjeev Kapoor

Talk about a male-oriented world! But that’s for another post.

My problem is this:

What was government-approved textbook doing, re-emphasising these stereotypes?

What is a national newspaper doing, normalizing the utterly ridiculous idea of dumping all responsibility of household chores like cooking or cleaning?

What happened to social responsibility?

I know that the role division is as above for the majority of the population. I know that most children, if not all, saw the depiction as a familiar setting. But for once, I would like to see a depiction in a textbook where the husband is helping the wife around the house. I would like to see a depiction where the wife is being handed a briefcase by the husband. For a lot of children that I studied with, most of these ideas were foreign. But isn’t that what education is all about? Introducing new worlds and ideas to children when they have an impressionable mind.

I don’t say that division of work should happen in a certain way. There is no right way. Every family figures out there own rhythm. But there’s no wrong way either. People, especially children, should be made aware of this fact.

We have grown accustomed to reading about such notions. Or listening about them in songs. And at some subconscious level, it does have an impact. We grow used to the idea. And that’s where the problem lies.

The Other Life

Then she woke up.

She didn’t want to. She really didn’t. For a few minutes, she tried putting herself back to sleep, tried to dream the same dreams that she had been having. But alas, that wasn’t to happen. Sighing, she got out of bed to make herself a cup of tea.

As the tea brewed, she sank back into the chair, closed her eyes and relived those dreams that had left eyes minutes ago.

Girl on chair

Photo via Pinterest

The girl was six. It is strange how in dreams you just know these things; age, feelings. She was sitting on a swing, laughing, while her parents looked at her lovingly. What was surprising that nobody told the girl to get down and let her brother sit. Nobody told her not to laugh so loudly. Dreams were so abstract sometimes, she mused. It was as if it didn’t matter that she was a girl.

The dream changed the scenes suddenly, as dreams usually do. One moment she was giggling on the swing, a mere child, the next moment, she was twelve. She wasn’t really afraid of the stain that she had found on her bed sheet that morning, just curious. Her mother was smiling at her, carefully explaining her the red, but she didn’t say anything about keeping away from others. She didn’t say that for five days every month, she would be untouchable. She didn’t say that her childhood was suddenly, brutally over. Dreams glossed over the truths of everyday life.

Time passed so quickly in dreams; it was the one quality that dreams shared with reality. The dream began to gather speed now. She saw quick frames of her school, her university, the scholarships, her office. Dreams had an uncanny habit of concentrating too much on the minute details while breezing through the major happenings. She saw her home, her own home, with cream curtains and bookshelves that scaled entire walls.

Only, it was a lie. All of it, the school, the university, everything. She never went to school after she got her period. She helped around the house, minded her younger brother. One evening, she was told to wear that new sari that she had got on her birthday. Some guests were coming. Six days later, she was married.

The dream didn’t show those initial days after marriage, nor the subsequent years of abuse that followed. It didn’t show that endless wait for something; anything; the wait for life to happen. She was still stuck in the same heartless, loveless, bourgeois marriage. It was strange; all she saw was an alternate life, the life that she could have had, but didn’t.

For five whole minutes, she allowed herself to go over each minuscule detail of that other life. She roamed about her house. Lovingly, she browsed through her books. She felt the smooth silk curtains in her hands. She admired the artwork on the walls.

Then the tea was made.

The husband woke up then. He came to the kitchen and grunted for tea. She poured him the cup and started brewing some for herself again. Her husband wasn’t an evil man. He just never knew any other way to live. She looked at him for a long moment before turning away with regret and helplessness.

She went to the window sill to feed the pigeons. Then suddenly, she gave a wry smile. At least she had her cream curtains.