My thoughts about Americanah

Image courtesy: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s FB page

Some time last year, I happened to see ‘Good hair’ at the Vikalp screening at Prithvi theatre in Bombay.  The documentary was eye opener because I never knew about the million dollar hair styling industry that had only the African American women as customers. It showed various ways by which black women tried changing the way their natural hair looked using techniques like relaxing, hair weaving etc. It was an introduction to a world that was unfamiliar to me. It made me wonder when was the last time I saw a black woman in movies/sitcom/music videos etc with her original nappy hair.

The documentary made an impact on me as I kept thinking about issues related to body image. I talk about this documentary now because I just finished reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. In one of her recent interviews while promoting Americanah, she spoke about how ‘Hair is political’ for her. And I was fascinated. I really wanted to know how she incorporated this issue in her book. I first came to know of Adichie when I saw her talking about the dangers of a single story. I was quite impressed with her speech and made a mental note that I need to read her books.

The story in Americanah is mainly about Ifemelu and her life in Nigeria as a school girl to her life in the United States and her subsequent journey back to her home country after 13 years. Adichie also fleshes out beautiful romantic relationships that Ifemelu shares with Obinze (her first boyfriend), Curt and Blaine. Ifemelu’s relationships with these three men form a crucial portion of the book.

Hair forms an important part of the story. A lot happens at the hair salon where Ifemelu goes to braid her hair. While she doesn’t think much about her hair in Nigeria, it attains focus of her attention in the US. Adichie is delightfully political and I thoroughly enjoyed the way she weaved her politics while narrating the story of Ifemelu. It is an important book because Adichie makes a political statement about loving one’s body when there is a billion dollar industry that tells you not to! The story resonated with me because we, in India, also face similar body image problems, especially since we have social traditions and a huge industry constantly telling us that, “You are beautiful only if you are fair-skinned.”

Nigeria’s unsettling political climate affects Ifemelu’s life deeply and becomes a major reason why she ends up going to USA for her further studies. Questions about identity owing to migration in our globalised world form a major part of the story. Adichie has spoken a lot about how she became black and African only when she went to USA. It is interesting because it highlights how Africa is homogenised when it is in fact a huge continent filled with people belonging to different nationalities, ethnicities, tribes among others. Also, the African-American community in USA trace their origins to slavery in the US whereas people belonging to different countries in Africa don’t necessarily share the same history. That they belong to the same race is the extent of the commonality they share. However, the common racial identity ends up bundling all the black people as African-Americans and the character of Ifemelu constantly tries to fight this imposition. Even though Ifemelu isn’t an African American, she becomes one purely on the basis of the discrimination she faces like the other African Americans. She ends up speaking a lot of about race but also reiterates her own identity of being an American African by starting a blog and writing extensively about it.

The book is mainly about the middle class society in Nigeria. The similarities between the middle classes in India and Nigeria are striking, especially in terms of aspirations, values etc. Also, Nigeria forms a major part of the book, almost like an important character. Adichie talks about her country with lot of warmth and love. Her observations about Nigerians both in Nigeria and the USA are laced with wit, irony and compassion. Before this book, I knew precious little about the country. Sadly, I only knew of Nigeria in context of email scams. I thank Adichie for changing my mental image and triggering an interest in her country.

I am sure Americanah will be taught in universities to introduce students to the complexities of race and gender. I loved reading it. There were such delightful moments that I couldn’t stop tweeting about it even when I was reading it, because I badly wanted to express and share the joy I felt. Americanah might be the story of Ifemelu but it also gives a glimpse of the kind of person Adichie would be. She seems to be the kind of person I would love to have conversations with over endless cups of chai. In one of her interviews, she mentions that she teaches writing in Nigeria. Now that is one class I would love to take!

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English Vinglish

In 1982, Amitabh Bachchan in Namak Halal delivered this popular dialogue: ‘English is a very phunny language.’ I guess it is. However, I think it is not English that is funny but the context that makes it so popular in India that makes it tragically funny. I will come to that later.

The premise of English Vinglish, that of a married middle-aged Indian woman wanting to learn English, was something that personally appealed to me. Add Sridevi to the equation and I was hooked! As expected Sridevi was a joy to watch. She was just spot-on as Shashi, the slightly under confident middle aged married woman, who doesn’t know English very well. Besides, I agree with Laurent (Mehdi Nebbou) when he says, her eyes are like two drops of dark chocolate in the sky. What expressive eyes! Sigh! Anyway, I am digressing here. This piece is not my love letter to Sridevi.

Shashi is this quiet, efficient house wife who is also a small entrepreneur. She sells delicious laddoos. However, she constantly faces ridicule from her daughter and her husband, who seem to be ashamed of the fact that that she doesn’t know English. So, in order to earn respect from her family, she goes on to learn the language.

The graph of Shashi’s character in the film stays constant. When she meets the handsome, charming, sensitive (and absolutely drool worthy) Laurent, who shows interest in her, Shashi does not have a relationship with him. I would have been surprised if she would have done that. I could also relate to her need to please her family, a need that comes from low self confidence.  It is not easy to fight with one’s own demons but Shashi was doing just that and I was rooting for her.

The build-up of the plot is such that Shashi had to triumph in the end. And what can be a better showcase of the triumph than a speech in the climax, in a language that she was struggling all along! So Shashi gives a speech to her newly married niece and her husband about marriage, togetherness and family. To her credit, she gives the speech in halting English that had lines like “Sometimes you will feel less and sometimes the other person might feel less in the relationship.” But what followed after that totally stumped me when she said, “Your family will always support you when you are low. Your family will always give you confidence when you need it.”

I suddenly stopped caring for Shashi because it all seemed like one big farce. It seemed so hypocritical to see Shashi giving this speech, when her life was anything but that. Shashi’s family members did not do many things for her. Despite that, here she was selling the new couple, the idea of an ‘always supportive’ family! That was inherently dishonest writing by Gauri Shinde.

Many people I know felt that the character of Sridevi was being sarcastic but I did not feel the sarcasm. Even if I assume she was sarcastic, there is a problem. Sarcasm always conveys dual messages. Her speech was intended for two different sets of recipients— her daughter and husband and her niece and her husband. While she reserved the sarcasm for the former, it was a straight forward speech for the latter and that really put me off!

What does it mean to keep parading and selling this idea of an “ideal” family? There is no ‘ideal’ family. ‘Ideal’ families do not exist. Given the current scheme of things, despite the problems, families are a support system nevertheless. But they are far from ideal! Quite often one’s family will not be there for them when one needs them the most. Sometimes one’s family will not offer support when it is needed the most. Families have problems and it is best if those are accepted and acknowledged. Not acknowledging them is violence in itself because by constantly talking of the ideal, the real problems are quite often brushed under the carpet.

Shashi is shown wanting respect. I wonder how can one demand respect. Does one get it in exchange by acquiescing to the demands made by the people we are seeking it from? Or do we gain respect on our own terms?

If it would have been on her own terms then she would have got it just on the basis of the way she is—Hindi speaking, delicious laddoo-making entrepreneur. Instead love and subsequently respect seem conditional here.

While she is shown as triumphant in the end, not much is questioned about so-called demands put forth by her husband and her daughter. Apart from the feeling of shame that the daughter and the husband experience post her English speech, nothing much is said about the very nature of their expectations at all. It is just accepted as a common norm, which needn’t be questioned, now that success has been achieved.

The point is despite her judgemental family members, she was a successful woman. She wasn’t losing any business because she was not a bad cook. Nor was she less appealing to others because of her lack of knowledge of English, as was evident from her interaction with her daughter’s school principal. She was constantly belittled and made fun of because of her lack of understanding of English, which seems like an end in itself.

Why do we learn English? Of course, many learn English because they love the language. But many of us also learn English to ‘succeed’ in the job market. So that we can earn good money as opposed to many others, who cannot owing to their poor English. So that, we can have that ‘respect’ that comes from being successful in the society. But when one is successful in their own right without knowing English, why do we need English? Whose validation are we seeking? What does the associated prestige that comes from knowing how to converse in “good” English reflect about us? Why is nothing being said about the underlying assumptions so many of us have about lack of knowledge of English being equal to lack of sophistication or lack of class? Would we feel the same way if we did not know another Indian language, say Tamil?

The director has shown Shashi’s triumph but through that she has ended up reinforcing our collective low self worth. No, those populist dialogues— ‘Ab Angrezon ka nahin, hamara waqt hain’, and ‘Just as you survive in our country without knowing Hindi’— don’t help. They further reinforce the notion. Shashi’s success seems to be emerging from this need to please others for approval. The success also adheres to a standard that is based on low self esteem steeped in insecurity and lack of confidence.

English Vinglish unintentionally brings to the fore our collective low self worth regarding our need to know English in order to be considered successful and sophisticated. Shashi might have had her little triumph but I think her victory represents our collective failure of accepting ourselves the way we are.

First published here.

Slutwalks and the besharmi of it all…

Cambridge dictionary’s defines ‘slut’ as a woman who has sexual relationships with a lot of men without any emotional involvement. Now think of the word ‘slut’ that regularly is used as an abuse. What is wrong if a woman wants to live life this way? Why should she be subjected to such a judgement? Who are the people calling her a slut? Where did the meaning develop? The answers to this question pretty much determine the genesis of the word.

I dislike the word not because of what it denotes but because of the way it is used. The word slut has stopped bothering me now. At the end of the day, it is a choice made by a woman to live life the way she wants to. I hate it that that her personal choice carries along with it so much hate, disgust and humiliation that it makes so many of us cringe. It also makes so many of us be on our toes all the time lest anyone regards us as one. Besides, why should there be pressure on a woman to prove the whole world that she is not a slut? This is just another way of curtailing a woman’s sexuality. There lies a very close association with the so-called sluttishness and then the following justification if she undergoes violence. It is like saying…. Be a slut and violence will follow. So, better toe the line.

Given this context, ‘Slutwalk’ does sound revolutionary. It definitely is. But then I guess it is not for everyone. I also wonder if the idea of ‘Slutwalk’ in India works for me.

Ever since I read about Slutwalks, I have been confused about my stand regarding it. My first reaction was that of discomfort. Discomfort not just with the term but about the idea in general. But then I did find myself agreeing with everything they stood for. Why this discomfort? The answers weren’t easy.

Firstly I thought the campaign just touched the surface of the problem. Also for better or worse consists of only women from an upper middle class English speaking background. Now there is nothing wrong with this target group starting something. But it definitely is problematic when the issue just becomes an issue of that class alone.

So what is slutwalk all about? Where did it start from? Slutwalk has its origin in Canada where a policeman in a speech asked women to not dress like sluts in order to avoid violence.

“Slutwalk might be one of the more provocatively named events of 2011, but that’s the whole point. Founded shortly after a police officer participating in a safety forum at York University’s Osgoode Hall remarked that “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” the protest seeks to re-appropriate a term that has been used historically not just to limit and stigmatize female sexuality, but as a rationalization for sexual assault.”

More here and here.

In Canada, the police officer told women to not dress like sluts if they wanted to avoid violence. In India, people tell us to dress ‘decently’ in order to avoid molestation and rape. Dressing indecently doesn’t always mean dressing like a slut. Dressing like a slut comes much later. It can also mean pushing the boundaries of being a good girl, just a bit. So, why is this important? This is important because of the major difference in the way the word ‘slut’ —in all its regional variations—is used in India and in other countries.

It is not when you are dressed as a slut that you are molested or raped. “Good girls” from “good families” with no trace of dressing like a slut are molested too. School girls wearing uniforms, Muslim girls wearing burkha, women wearing salwar kameez, baggy pants and loose shirts get molested too. Yes, a slut gets molested too, so does a prostitute. There is no discrimination here! So it is not just when you are dressed as a slut that you are molested, you are molested if you are a girl/woman. It is as simple as that! Given this context, the very word ‘slutwalk’ seems very limiting. If the victim were ‘sluts’ alone, then ‘besharmi morcha’ makes so much sense. But since the victims are not sluts alone, what do they plan to do then? How does being besharam help? What is the point of all this ‘besharmi’? The whole thing just seems like a very direct import from the West. As Tamura A. Lomax, a black feminist says in this very well writtenblog post that, the need to want the freedom to dress the way we want is a demand made by women in privileged positions. Indeed, to proudly claim oneself a “slut” (meaning, to boldly and explicitly claim one’s sexual liberty), with little to no socio-political consequence, is (sort of) a privilege—Lomax.

My right to public space in denied to me NOT because I am a slut but because I am a woman. And I want to demand my right to a safe public space as a woman and that includes rights of sluts too. There are many things that are denied to me because I am a woman. So, basically the struggle is to reclaim all my rights as a woman and that encompasses rights of a good girl, rights of a bad girl, and rights of a “slut” among many others. For me the fight is to be treated as a human being. The situation in Canada is considerably different from that in India. If I dare say so, their fights and struggles are not as basic as it is here. Our daily fight is for the world to consider us a HUMAN BEING worthy of living a life. As Lomax says: “This reality, which significantly impacts African American women and girls’ day-to-day experiences, makes it difficult to fight for “slut-hood,” particularly when one is still demanding to be seen as a full-fledged person with innate dignity and worth.”

The thing is, if a girl is molested, she would be advised not to roam out at night alone. Case in point being the Delhi police commissioner who advises women in Delhi not to roam at night all alone. Not always are woman chided for being’ besharam’ (shameless). Is the ‘besharmi morcha’ (a rally of shame) going to address these attitudes or is it just about the freedom to dress the way they like? I am not implying that freedom to dress is trivial. I really wish I could dress the way I want to without having to worry about people, setting and countless other things. But then when one talks about that without factoring in various other social realities, the whole exercise just seems like a blind import from the West without contextualization. The use of words like sluts, or besharmi would I am afraid alienate a lot of people because not everyone would want to be considered a ‘besharam’ to just walk on the road freely. This is a struggle that is common across womenfolk. But ‘besharmi morcha’ doesn’t seem like addressing that. It is self-defeating if it doesn’t unify women who more or less face the same problem across the society. The bottomline is if your desire (for a safe public space) is alienating women from different classes, then your effort is just pointless.

The main thing with ‘Slutwalks’ is the close connection it has to the way women dress up. Nothing wrong in it. But then in India, slutwalks should go beyond dressing. The point is to crowd streets. The point is to fill up the streets with women. The point is to reclaim the right to public space that has been denied to us. What is the point of dressing in any particular way if a woman doesn’t even enjoy a right to be on a street whenever she wants to be? We need a safe space for a slut, for a burkha clad woman, for a sari clad woman, for a school girl…for everyone.

Oh yes, the girls will get media attention for sure. ‘Sluttishness’ is sexy! Dressing slutty will definitely make for sexy images on page 1 or page 3. It will make for a sexy copy too! But then, what beyond that? Will it address the issue in a deeper way? In my opinion, the issue should be to address issues of street sexual harassment, safety of women in streets, reclaiming public space for women in a holistic way. How do the organisers of the ‘besharmi morcha’ even plan on doing that?

Recent interviews by the organisers have them clarifying again and again that women can dress in whatever clothes they feel like and that there is no pressure to wear anything skimpy. Now what is the point of calling it besharmi morcha? *puzzled*

The campaign (with all its contradictions) is at best a shock raising event. I guess, at the end of the day, even they play a role in a city that is notorious towards women.

Also, NO WOMAN ever asks for it!