All posts by The Rebel Conformist

…on childhood books with Indian characters

They made me perceive my own culture as exotic; little boarding school white girls in pinafores more familiar to me than the brown girls on my playground. My people were relegated to spicy kitchens and turbaned attics, were given magical yogi powers and the ability to calm all strife with the word “ohm”. We were no longer simply “men and women”, we were “rajahs” and “ayahs”. We did not understand any greeting but “namaste”. They reduced the entirety of India to a single, farcical character replicable as a Bengal tiger-owning fakir in every children’s novel and bedtime story. They did not understand us, and so they reinvented us to suit their understanding.

(And through their understanding, we understood ourselves, and we understood that we were different – strange, abnormal – and did not belong in normal society. We were exotic.)

restraint

There are words I stop myself from writing

not because they don’t make sense or because they don’t make enough

but because they make too much But also because they are visceral, superficial, the dramatic outlashings of a pubescent mind, One who screams to be heard

Whereas I want to scream without screaming

for my voice does not have the energy to want to be heard louder than a whisper

Mother

Hand smoothes hair back

halts at the frizzy bun

draws back again

to caress the dear one on her lap

wailing gently on the folds of her churidar

 

There are no words of “hush”

for these are the sounds of expression

where words do not exist

 

– She brings her hand once more

to the strings of her electric guitar

and together they hum

 

The clothing conundrum: double standards in Malayalee culture

If you’re a Malayalee (or Indian, actually) girl reading this, you already know what I’m talking about.

If you’re not, this comic sums it up pretty well:

Brown-paper-bag-sari-hypocrites
Credit: brownpaperbagcomics https://www.instagram.com/p/BHHBJYygMp0/

Sounds like fun, eh?

The trouble with growing up in a society that is increasingly influenced by Western cultures and standards is that your parent culture will attempt a confusing mix of both trying to adapt to change while retaining its own traditions and values. This results in confused parents, confused children, and a generally confused society as a whole. Let me explain a little further:

In many Indian communities, things such as being a respectful (read: submissive) woman, behaving and dressing modestly, abstaining from premarital sex and non-platonic fraternisation in general, and doing as your parents and male relatives tell you, are all considered very respectable actions in a woman. These things align with the traditional Indian values of respect towards your family and culture, and to stray from them would be to dishonour your family and culture. (Of course, this does depend on where your family falls on the conservative-liberal scale, and what specific aspects of life they choose to be conservative or liberal about. Malayalees tend to fall on the conservative end, with some exceptions.)

Indian women have long been breaking away from these conventional expectations in order to do as they please. Unfortunately, this self-liberation is not appreciated for its progress, but is often condemned for its departure from Indian values.

To come back to the topic of clothing, what this means is that an Indian girl who wears Western clothing, or clothing that does not align with Indian standards of beauty and modesty, becomes a target for accusations of “forsaking our culture”, being “loose” or “improper”, and generally undesirable, both as a woman and as a member of society. Simultaneously, a girl will be looked down on by her peers for not assimilating to mainstream (read: Western) standards of beauty and fashion. Result: Severe identity crises exacerbated by puberty, volatile emotions and damaging formative experiences.

unnamed
Remember when Sanju became desirable the second she ditched her denim skirts for a churidar?

One of the biggest problems with this lovely contradiction is that you have the older generation telling girls not to dress a certain way, whereas the environment these girls are growing up in are telling them the opposite. Do you listen to your elders and mute yourself, or defy them for your freedom of expression?

A lot of it boils down to what we perceive of culture and tradition: our parents, having grown up in India, are accustomed to a certain environment, and so believe a certain lifestyle to be appropriate to their values. However, to expect their children (especially those of us who grew up in countries other than India) to adhere to the same lifestyle in an unsupportive environment becomes quite an unreasonable expectation. The question “Why should I?” can no longer be answered satisfactorily with “Because it’s our culture” – it may indeed be our parents’ culture, but not ours. As hybrids of the then and now, we are constantly building our own culture, and to confine us to action without function simply for the sake of doing things the way they have always been done, is what will keep us stagnant as a society. Furthermore, values and clothing choice do not have to be mutually inclusive: a girl can wear a strappy dress or an above-the-knee skirt while still retaining her dignity and her Indian ideals. A hemline does not a personality make. Or break.

TL;DR: Girls throw your crop tops away, wear a churi and get yo mans (but only after marriage)

Main-hoon-na 2
Mmm, those #IndianValues

asdf

I thought the next piece I put on here would be another social critique type piece, but apparently not. This isn’t going to be a discursive piece – it’s just the flotsam of my thoughts regarding one matter in particular.

Depression is something that’s rarely confronted in conventional societies, or environments where studies, marriage, the formula to happiness, are the top focus above everything else – where the strain is normal, and “everybody else has it worse”.

I have been fortunate enough to have parents who understand and sympathise with the concept of depression. Not once did they tell me, as countless others have been told, that “everybody else has it worse”. Their support alone has kept me going countless times, and I struggle to think of where I would be now had they not been with me then.

Even though the worst of it has lifted (and has been lifted for over a couple of years now), I still have my bad days. My bad weeks.

This has been a bad week.

There is the guilt, that I’m not doing well enough. That I’m not doing enough. That I will never be enough.

There is the crippling feeling of inadequacy lying just below the surface of apparently calm waters, that whispers loudly to let self-doubt be my guide.

There is the overwhelming temptation to run from whatever makes me healthy and happy when I feel that things are going too well.

I can’t explain the silent panic that overtakes me when I think of something that I have left too long, too late, out of fear that it won’t turn out well. I can’t describe the anxious wreck my body becomes as it jitters with the feeling of not knowing the future.

Mostly it’s just fear. Fear and cowardice, coiling together in a giant snake of terror, with its tongue forking viciously at me – I will make you scared to move again.

And yet, I tell myself, there are better ways to handle life. One way is to live it, rather than merely exist.

I will move.

blur

the inside of my everything is
terrified of my nothing and
no matter how much i see inside of me i
fear it will never be outside of me and
the everything i am will
turn
(away)
to
nothing

Taming the shrew? – Why slapping women should not be normalised in Malayalam media

There is a particularly disturbing trope that has spanned through Malayalam films and serials since the beginning of their conception: slapping a woman to “teach her a lesson” or to “make her behave”. This trope often manifests in Malayalam media as a man slapping his wife, sister, daughter, love interest (or even in some cases, a woman he barely knows) when she doesn’t fall in line with what he wants.

Malayalee communities are still heavily patriarchal, where the alpha male (whether that be the father, the son, or even grandson) is “head” of the household. Although this obviously isn’t the case for every single family, it happens more often than not that this can translate to the man of the house being able to dictate the lives of his female family members simply because he is male.

In Malayalam media, when a woman steps out of line in some way – she could be flirting with the neighbour’s son, talking to boys at college, behaving like a “Western girl” (more on this in a future post), or arguing with her father or husband – it isn’t questioned when her father or brother steps forward to “slap some sense” into her. In fact, characters and viewers alike will often agree that “she deserved it”.

Sometimes it’s hard for us to counter this idea – sometimes the sin she’s being slapped for isn’t that she was going around with her father’s enemy’s son, but instead that she’s the villain of the story who destroys someone’s marriage on purpose, or is found engaging in criminal activity (Malayalam movies can be dramatic, yo). Some punitive measure is necessary in these cases (although that’s what the justice system is meant to be for); but the problem here lies in the idea that “one hard slap from a man” will be all a woman needs to regain reason and a sense of dignity and/or morality. This is a horrible concept for numerous reasons.

Firstly, slapping someone is not going to magically give them sense – it is a means by which to exert dominance and power over the person being slapped by making them experience pain and fear. Secondly, the idea that women cannot be rational beings without a man’s intervention is a terrifying notion that has dictated how women have been mistreated, marginalised and excluded from positions of authority for centuries. Thirdly, allowing yourself to believe that slapping a woman is justified is allowing yourself to believe that man-on-woman violence is acceptable under certain conditions. That opens a shady window: under what conditions is it acceptable to perpetuate this violence? That leads to even further questions: Does the severity of the violence depend on the severity of the crime? How severe is too severe? Is there such a thing as too severe if the woman has done something terrible? Who defines terrible? What is the man’s subjective definition of terrible? Is he justified in escalating his violence based on how wronged he feels?

It’s a slippery slope.

Furthermore, although slapping is the most common action, this trope does not limit itself to just that. Depending on how enraged and entitled the male character teaching the woman a lesson feels, the violence can range from anywhere between a slap to a full-on beating. Please note how this mindset is more than capable of leading into domestic violence nightmares.

Domestic violence is not where it ends. I’ve outlined how making violence against women an acceptable manner of “discipline” allows men to think they are entitled to do as they like with women’s bodies. Copy this over into real life, and you get people saying that a woman’s husband should “beat her” for not listening to him. You get women talking about how other women “had it coming” because she didn’t respect her husband.

Why do these justifications all sound familiar? They sound like the victim-blaming that is rife when someone is sexually assaulted or raped. Because so often, we hear about men* who rape to “teach women lessons”.

Men who rape to teach a woman that she need to stay at home instead of going out by herself. Who rape to teach her that she needs to stay away from boys. That she needs to be heterosexual. That she needs to behave, that she is not the boss of herself.

Oftentimes, the men we see beating up rapists in movies are the same men who will go home and slap their wives/daughters/sisters for not behaving as they want, without realising that they themselves are enabling a pro-sexual violence agenda at the grassroots level.

This trope is not present in every single film, obviously: there are films (both new and old) with progressive characters who abhor violence in every way. However, the trope has a ubiquitous enough influence that it continues to make itself present in both media and real life today. Women have enough trouble as it is without film tropes encouraging harmful and casual misogynistic mindsets.

Violence is never okay. Nobody “deserves” it.


*I have deliberately used man and woman instead of gender-neutral (pro)nouns here because the primary discourse in this post is centered around man-on-woman violence.