Book review: Asura: The Tale of the Vanquished

This is perhaps the first time I’m actually writing a book review. That the book is so bad, is what spurred me on to actually writing this review. As a reader, when I pick up a book to read, I expect it to be interesting, engaging and internally consistent. Sadly, this one is none of the above. Having read Ajaya: Roll of the Dice, I expected a much better book from Anand Neelakantan. It’s always interesting to read the story from the point of view of the underdog and the story of Ravana, the Asura king is no exception. It is this curiosity that made me buy the book. But, this book is so disappointing at so many levels, that I don’t know where to start.

The plot & storyline

The success of a good writer is in sticking to the accepted plot of the traditional telling and still managing to convey a radically different viewpoint. This is what books like Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Ajaya by the very same author manage to do. Those books do not radically change the plot of the traditional telling in an attempt to justify the doings of the antagonist. This is Asura’s primary failure. It overlooks basic attributes of Ravana’s character in Valmiki’s Ramayana to paint an entirely different picture of who he is. The writer conveniently sidesteps Ravana’s parentage, his knowledge of the Vedas, his love for music and his devotion to Shiva. Instead, Ravana is portrayed as a rejected half-caste, suffering in poverty and burning with the ambition to become the feared Emperor of Lanka. Towards the end of the book, the author tries to make some amends by mentioning, in passing, the codification of musical notes and Ravana’s expertise in playing the Rudraveena. Unfortunately, the mention is too brief and unsatisfying to add depth to Ravana’s character.

Secondly, this entire sub-plot of Sita actually being Ravana’s daughter seems to exist in the book solely to justify her abduction by Ravana. Given the context and the narrative, this sub-plot falls flat on its face, failing to really rouse the reader to internalising that relationship. At one point, Ravana seems almost apologetic that Sita is his daughter, unwilling to disclose the true nature of that relationship to Sita herself. To me, Ravana did not make a very convincing father.

As for internal consistency, the writer seems to be in love with the idea of the oppressed dark-skinned masses belonging to the Dravidian Asura race. First of all, the Valmiki Ramayana barely distinguishes the good and the bad on the basis of skin colour. Rama, the hero, is dark-skinned, as is his wife. Ravana, the principal antagonist is fair-skinned. The heroes and the villains in the traditional telling possess an entire range of complexions between these extremes. Somehow, this portrayal of an Indian apartheid just does not cut it.

The narrative

For any good book, a good narrative is essential, as is a good editor. Neelakantan seems to have lost out, not because his editor was bad, but because he doesn’t seem to have one. Sentences are long-winded and repetitive. The narrative is complicated for no reason. And to make things worse, grammar and spelling errors abound. If I’m paying 300 bucks to buy a book, I’d at least expect basic typos to be corrected.

Then, there is this character called Bhadra. What purpose does he serve really? All he does is lament his own fate, rant about the rape and murder of his first wife and child, and the rape and impregnation of his second. When he’s not doing that, he is grovelling at Ravana’s feet despite the fact that it was Ravana who actually raped his second wife. Why exactly do we need him in the book? The alternating points of view are actually tiring to read and add absolutely no depth or value to the story.

The characters

Practically every character is frustratingly unidimensional. Ravana is arrogant and foolish, rejecting all so-called Deva traditions, and not really upholding too many Asura ones either. Then pray, why is he our hero? Vibhishana is a coward and a traitor with no redeeming factor. Rama is a coward too, not to mention suspecting his wife of infidelity. Kumbhakarna is a drunkard, addicted to opium to boot. Sita is, well, either dumb or a complete idiot. I can’t quite decide which one. Bhadra shouldn’t actually exist in this book, for he has no role. What more can I say?

For the first time in many years, I actually skipped about 50 pages of a book in an attempt to just finish the book. If you want to really read a good book on mythology, don’t pick this one. Palace of Illusions is a better choice. Or Karna’s Wife. Or even Valmiki Ramayana.

The freedom to choose…

Today is unique. The day will be remembered for all the wrong reasons by those who stand by freedom of choice, no matter how difficult it may be to accept. I will refrain from commenting on the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the IPC, not because I think the courts are above criticism, but because I believe much has been said about it since morning by people more qualified to comment on it than me. But, what strikes me as representative of Indian attitudes is the constant reference to Indian culture, as if by speaking of sexuality in the public realm we somehow compromise on values.
The very fact that the judgement is today being criticized in the public sphere marks a step forward in Indian critical thought. It was not very long ago that the very mention of sex and sexuality in public was hushed up with moral indignation. The very crux of our problem with homosexuality is the reluctance to acknowledge and speak of some issues, especially sexual and gender-related in public. The Supreme Court in its judgement mentions “minuscule minorities” while referring to the LGBT community in general. And evidently, the rights of this minuscule minority are insignificant when compared to the sensibilities of the ignorant majority. For a country that prides itself on affirmative action for minorities, the LGBT community obviously does not qualify. They find little or no support from political parties who run to support minority rights for every other conceivable group. Perhaps because the community lacks the organization present in many other countries and because they do not form a vote bank?
As many commentators pointed out, the belief that homosexuality, bisexuality, transsexuality and transgender are against Indian culture is completely false. There are umpteen examples of homosexuality in Indian mythology and still more examples of the fluidity of gender in our socio-cultural fabric. Yet, we refuse to acknowledge these very truths in our everyday life.
We like our lives to be neatly ordered and fit perfectly into slots designed by society. When someone refuses to be slotted and classified, we have a problem. We label them as unnatural and abnormal. When such labelling occurs in private, the impact is relatively limited. But, by clubbing homosexuality with issues such as bestiality, rape, incest and child abuse we do a great disservice both to those who fight for gay rights and to those who deal with violent sexual crimes. Even in public discourse we fail to distinguish between what goes on within closed doors between consenting adults and unpardonable violence against men, women and children against their will and without their consent.
Unless we learn to speak of issues as sensitive as gay rights and sexual violence with a modicum of common sense, we are doomed to find extreme and contradictory views in public discourse. As long as our public debates remain superficial and limited in world view, we are doomed to live in a society that is both hypocritical and ignorant.

Infidel – Ayaan Hirsi Ali – some thoughts

I just finished reading the memoirs of Dutch feminist activist and politician, Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I found it honest, refreshing, and very bold. This is not a review of the book, and my thoughts appear in no particular order. This is just a compilation of how I felt when I was reading this book.

I find that Hirsi Ali is completely honest about her feelings about Islam, even at great risk to her life. She has been accused by many of being neocon in the garb of feminism, but some of her questions strike a very deep chord in my heart, as a reader, as a feminist, and as a woman. Her repeated questioning of the logic behind obviously unfair practices such as segregation, veiling, and the demand for complete obedience of wife to husband stay relevant in contemporary, non-Islamic cultures as well. If God (whatever name you choose to give him) is indeed merciful and compassionate, why would he demand that women submit at the cost of their self-respect, their individualism and sometimes even their life? We have no answers.

Hirsi Ali’s account of her genital cutting when she was six is cold, detached and dispassionate. She almost sounds like she is narrating something that happened to someone else. And that makes it even more chilling. The idea of FGM is so repulsive, so depressing and so utterly cruel that you can’t help but develop respect for a woman who has made it through it all and is now fighting for women’s rights. Her turning away from Islam, and questioning the very existence of God is entirely understandable, even if you don’t agree with her. Maybe, just maybe, I would have been atheist too, had I been so brutally cut in the name of religion, and made to marry a stranger without even my presence being required to solemnise my wedding.

Finally, her struggles, against men, against the religion which demands nothing but submission, against forced marriage, against female genital mutilation and for women’s rights make us respect her immensely for the work she has done so far. As for the book, it is definitely worth reading for the many insights it provides on the wide variations in the practice of Islam, on the increasing influence of the orthodox Brotherhood and the political climate in the Somalian peninsula. Read it! You won’t regret.

Condemned to be free…

Man is condemned to be free, says Jean-Paul Sartre. And sometimes, I cannot help but wonder if that’s true. After all, we are all liberals forever defending free will. But sometimes, my conservative side takes over and I wonder if free will is not overrated. After all, if we were completely free to choose, we would also have to bear the burden of that choice. Perhaps burden is not the right word. Perhaps it is responsibility. But, that responsibility is absolutely massive. Maybe this is why Sartre and other existential philosophers were all atheist. I myself have never tended towards atheism. Perhaps it is because my faith is too strong to be shaken. Or maybe, just maybe,  as many atheists claim, I just do not have the courage to deny the existence of God.

Sometimes, it is easier to leave everything to destiny. Sometimes, it is easier to allow yourself to be taken care of. I realize as I grow older that I do not need to be in control of everything all the time. I realize now that some things are just meant to be. While I have always believed that everything that happens in life, good or bad, happens for a reason, I have found myself questioning the rationale behind my suffering during the worst times of my life. Looking back on those times, I realize that those experiences, however painful, have only strengthened character. Yesterday, reading an extract from Arun Shourie’s new book, “Does he know a mother’s heart?” I wondered how someone who had gone through so much suffering could stay a believer. Then, I realized that it was probably that suffering that had strengthened both his belief and his character.

I am at probably the same state now. I am living some of the happiest moments of my life right now. But, it was not so long ago that I felt like I would never be happy again. What got me past that stage and onto this one…I don’t know. I probably never will. But I am willing to bet that religion had something to do with it. Maybe it was the deep-seated belief that everything is transient, including this sorrow. Maybe it was Nandini’s words, repeated ad nauseum, all those years ago, that “This too will pass.” I really can’t say. In hindsight, I probably needed to go through that phase to be able to appreciate all that I have today. Maybe I would have taken all this for granted had it come to me five years ago. And maybe, just maybe, I would have been too immature to hold on to this happiness.

In any case, I am no atheist. And I don’t think any amount of suffering will ever make me one. After all, everything that happens is for the better. The pain, the heartbreak, the frustrations, and the failures have only made me a better person, a better daughter, and a better human being. May all things to come be this good. I can only hope.

Some totally unconnected thoughts…

I have been meaning to put something down in words for a week now. But, every time I put my fingers to keyboard, I realize I don’t have enough material for a blogpost. You know? It’s one of those times when you have too much to say to fit into a tweet of 140 characters, but not enough to make a blogpost of! So, I decided to put all my random thoughts down into one single blogpost, instead of waiting forever to elaborate on them and basically kill the expression!

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The census guy was at aunt’s place last week. With apparent boredom he quizzes aunt about the names, ages, dates of birth of the members of the family. Getting to language, he asks what the mother-tongue was. My aunt says Kannada. He noted it down and asked, “Vera baashai?” Aunt said, Hindi, English, Tamil, and Sanskrit. The lady accompanying the man tells him, “Just write Tamil and English. Others are irrelevant.” Aunt insists for a moment, then gives up because the milk boiling on the gas is more important and the man taking the information down is refusing to relent. Then comes religion. He asks, “Hindu, Christian or Muslim?” And my aunt says Hindu. And that’s that! After a few more questions, he thanks us and leaves. This incident left a bitter taste in my mouth. First things first, you cannot and must not restrict the number of languages recorded in the census. For me, there would be at least 4 apart from my mother tongue, in which, incidentally, I am not fluent. Secondly, the issue of religion. Religion is a personal affair. People must not be forced to select their religion from a drop-down list, figuratively speaking. As an adult, I must ideally be allowed to declare myself as atheist, agnostic or Bah’ai if I please! Also, the religion of my parents must not automatically become mine! What about inter-faith marriages? The children should be allowed to remain sans religion until they are old enough to decide what they want to be. I don’t know if the census take into account such special cases, but I do know that the officials coming to collect information are very often quite rigid in their approach.

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On a different note, I finished reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Gut-wrenching, yet hopeful. Some scenes describing the Taliban era are scary, intense and hit you like a ton of bricks. What it must take for a man to write so sensitively about two female characters! For a minute, I was transported into a world where being a woman is the biggest curse of them all. I was so emotionally affected at times that I had to put the book down and do something else. But, the book is so gripping that you can never stay away for too long. I would like to read it again, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to stomach that again.

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Finally, now that the euphoria of President Mobarak’s exit has died down, can we please get a bit more practical? Egypt has a long way to go before it becomes a fully-functional democracy. Gloating over successes even before the success is total is not only premature, but also carries with it the risk of people losing focus on the task at hand. Let’s not forget that it is still the military that is ruling. And a military in power is never a good thing. For now, the only thing we can do is wait and watch. And hope that for their own sake, the Egyptian people manage to set up a functional democracy.

The Immortals of Meluha – A Review

Despite strong recommendation, I almost passed up this book at Odyssey the other day. You see, I have a problem with book recommendations. The last time I listened to someone, the book turned out to be a waste of my precious 300 rupees! So, I took every book on the list Praveen sent me with a pinch of salt. I picked each up, carefully read the blurb, then a couple of pages and then decided to buy…or not! But my! What a book this one turned out to be! It’s after a very long time that a book has delighted me the way this one has managed to. So much so that I have actually decided to write a review! This is perhaps the first time I am writing a review of a book, since book reviews have always reminded me of that horrible time in school when the librarian would insist we write one for the books we borrowed during the weekly library hour. I hated the chore and invariably copied the blurb down, like everyone else, even if I had actually read the book. But this time, reviewing is straight from the heart.

The story starts at the Mansarovar lake at the foot of Mount Kailash, and depicts Shiva staring thoughtfully at the orange sky. The first few pages, his conversations with his best friend Bhadra, his confusion about the right path, his determination to do his best, whatever that might lead to…all of these immediately appeal to your senses. Actually, the idea of a God being nothing more than a common human with common flaws, is quite delightful. I have spoken of my discomfort with the deification of Ram before, but in this book there is nothing of the perfection that we tend to so commonly associate with a God. If anything, Shiva is a normal man, not even a perfect one. He is an average Indian male with his share of insecurities, his problems, his fears… yes, his love for Sati, his desire to get her, and even his mischievous sense of humour, often laced with a subtle sexuality (oh! the scandal!) and a clear-thinking, rational mind. As a reader, I couldn’t help falling in love with him simply because he is so normal. As someone who is tired of perfection in Gods, this book was a total delight! The first of a trilogy, you don’t see Shiva as the God of Gods. You see him as a man, a passionate lover, a perfect dancer, a fierce warrior, an expert swordsman and a fair and honest human being. In fact, he even has a troubled past: as someone who ran away from a call for help!

The second character that appeals in the book is, undoubtedly, Sati. Forced to be an outcast for no fault of hers, she silently bears her fate with a certain stoicism. But, there is nothing resigned about her demeanour. She struggles to contain her attraction to, and eventually love for Shiva. She fights to retain the delicate balance between passion and duty. She is an extraordinarily beautiful woman, well-read, compassionate, a consummate dancer and an expert warrior in her own right. Anything Shiva can do, Sati can do better! Except, as the legend goes, dance. There is even a reference to the legend with Shiva offering to teach Sati dance.

Then there are the Chandravanshis, painted from the outset as a vile race, ready to consort even with the wretched, sub-human Nagas for victory. The vision we have of them at the end of the book, however, is completely different. They are the very antithesis of the Suryavanshis: their motto being: Shringar, Saundarya, Swatantrata as against Satya, Dharma, Maan of the Suryavanshis. The passion of the Chandravanshis, their temperamental nature, their confidence about their sexuality; all of these contrast sharply with the somewhat prudish, rule-obsessed and extremely disciplined Suryavanshis. Together, they form the Yin and the Yang, the heart and the mind, the masculine and the feminine. Each of the characters, while drawing heavily on mythology, is also a complete human in his/her right. Each has his flaws, his problems, his strength and his weaknesses. And the author stays faithful to the original myth, while still managing to make his characters look believable.

The book is definitely a page-turner, written as it is, in the manner of a thriller. No high-brow stuff, thank you very much. The author sticks to simple English and does not try to cater to an elite audience. This simplicity of narration is perhaps the strength of the book. It managed to catch your attention without descending to the level of pulp fiction. He manages to tackle the complex concepts of divinity and duality, of Dvaita and Advaita in simple terms. Our hero comes across as someone who believes in action rather than in obtuse philosophy, while still appearing extremely intelligent. In fact, in several instances, Shiva ribs the Suryavanshis and their priests, asking if they never talk in simple terms, if they always believe in talking in riddles!

The plot is simple, and the author seems to have made a conscious effort to keep it that way, shedding all the flab that mythological stories inevitably accumulate over the years. There is a sense of coherence in the plot, even for someone who grew up listening to the sanitized, TamBrahm version of Hinduism where every God had to be perfect and where there was no room for vices such as anger, fear, desire, or lust. Also, there is a certain lightness about the tone of narration and you chuckle with a quiet delight when the Chandravanshi king responds to the Suryavanshi request to hand over the terrorists in a letter through an emissary. “Please accept my deep condolences for the dastardly attack on Mount Mandar,” he says. Denying that he has any role to play in the attacks, he offers every help possible to investigate the case and help in bringing the criminals to justice. At this point, you are so sure that the vile Chandravanshis are the terrorists, that you can’t help remember our neighbours’ being charitable and offering to investigate the Mumbai attacks!

If you like Indian mythology, but are not so religious or dogmatic that you would object to humanizing a God, you should probably read this book. At the end of the book, you may not be as devoted a follower of Shiva as you used to be, but you will certainly see in him a friend, a philosopher, a fantastic dancer and perhaps even a man as near to perfection as one is likely to find in a real world! Definitely recommended, even if it is only as light reading.

Tanjavur

I leave for Tanjavur by car from Srirangam on Thursday morning. A long night on train, a freezing cold air-conditioned coach ensuring I get hardly any sleep and the fact that the train arrives in Trichy at an unearthly 4 AM result in me falling asleep barely fifteen minutes after leaving Srirangam. About 50 minutes after our I fall asleep, my mother shakes me awake, prompting me to look out of the window and says we are almost there. We only just enter the city of Tanjavur and the 13-storey high Vimana of the Big Temple looms majestically on the horizon. The minute I set my eyes on the Vimana, I instantly wake up, forgetting that I haven’t slept properly for more than 24 hours. Our driver, presumably atheist, mutters under his breath about how nobody ever decides to go on a 4-day long pilgrimage from temple to temple. I decide to ignore it and get ahead with the task at hand: that of visiting the famed Big Temple, a decade-old dream, getting more and more irresistible over the last few months.

We stop right in front of the Rajarajan Gopuram, the main entrance. We get out of the car, leaving the driver to park and wait. We offer that he comes in with us. He refuses. Mom and I decide to go ahead. My first reaction on seeing the Gopuram is one of awe. I am awed that someone could construct something so exquisitely beautiful and so immensely grand a thousand years ago. It then strikes me that the temple is celebrating the thousandth year of its consecration in 2010. In fact, that was one of the reasons that took me all the way to the place this year. It’s still early in the morning, about 9 AM. The sun is mild and the skies are blue without a trace of cloud. I decide to make the best of the weather. I enter the first Gopuram and spot the elephant, standing guard over the Lord. I continue my way, telling myself the elephant can wait. The temple beckons. I can’t seem to wait to see the temple itself.

I enter through the second Gopuram and spot the Nandi, blocking my view of the great God. Mom asks me if I want to look around first or enter the temple. She obviously wants to enter it first, but doesn’t want to spoil my enjoyment of the architecture. I decide that there is something so profoundly spiritual about the temple that the priority is darshan. When I enter the sanctum sanctorum, I feel a sense of all-pervading peace, a peace that seemed missing in my life these past months. Something assures me that everything will be ok. Now, I am not particularly religious and ritualistic, but there is something about Tanjavur that makes even the sceptic in me believe. When I left Chennai on Wednesday night, I told myself everything would be ok if I just saw Tanjavur. As I enter the temple the next day, my belief that I will see a silver lining to those dark clouds is only reinforced. I go up the inner prakara and the ardha-mandapa right up to the inner sanctum. What I see leaves me speechless. A Sivalinga, about 20 feet in height I am guessing, looms ahead. There is nothing small about this temple. From the Vimana, to the entrance, to even the Sivalinga itself, everything is massive. It is at this point that I truly realize the meaning of the Tamil saying “Iraivan miga periyavan.” God is unimaginably big. Every sculpture, every carving, ever pillar seems to scream these words out to me. God is omni-present, omnipotent and omniscient. There is a sense of majesty and royalty about Tanjavur that I haven’t encountered in any other temple as yet.

My second reaction, much better thought-out and patiently analysed is that this temple is a masterpiece. I feel a sense of pride in belonging here, to this soil where kings thought of making temples that would last a thousand years. I begin to slowly regain the power of thought and overcome the initial sense of awe. I realize that the very existence of such a structure is symbolic. Men may come and men may go. But certain things are permanent. Like the Tanjavur Big Temple, like the power of the almighty, however we may choose to represent him. I recover and continue my exploration. I wonder if Arulmozhi Varman knew his construction would last so long. I wonder if he knew that a thousand years on, a 28-year old who first discovered his existence through the fictional world of Ponniyin Selvan would wonder what his intentions were in building this. I remember my teenage crush on the fictional Arulmozhi of Kalki’s novel, and wonder how he would have conceived something so beautiful and how difficult it would have been for him to realize that dream.

As I continue to look around, clicking tens of photos from every conceivable angle, while trying desperately to remember the temple plan from my art and architecture course of 7 years ago, I notice that everything about the temple is masculine. Even the intricate carvings that figure on the Vimana have a certain masculinity about them that is impossible to deny. Every stone of the temple seems to reassure the visitor that nothing can happen without the sanction and approval of the God Almighty. “Don’t worry because there is no greater power than me,” he seems to tell me through that structure. I come back to the Nandi Mandapam after taking close to a hundred photos and sit down next to my mother. I turn around and tell her,“I don’t know why Ma, but there is a strange sense of peace that I can feel right now.” My mother smiles and says, “Perhaps it’s His way of assuring you things will be ok!” Maybe. Just maybe.

This time last year…

…we had no idea that in 12 hours, our world would be turned upside down. This time last year, terrorists were getting ready to attack the Taj, the Trident and the CST. What seemed to be a two-hour operation for our elite National Security Guards, turned out to be our worst ever encounter with terror. I can’t get the memory of that day out of my mind. I can’t get those television images of Karkare, Kamte and Salaskar out of my mind. Nor can I forget the young and handsome face of Sandeep Unnikrishnan, who along with dozens of others lost his life to those terrorist bastards. Men, no older than 19 and 20, who decided to right all the perceived wrongs by randomly killing off innocent civilians whose only crime was to have been born in a non-Islamic country.

On second thoughts, did Islam, or any other religion for that matter, even figure in their thoughts? Or was it simply the blind faith that by killing a hundred civilians, they would get their 72 virgins in heaven? Did even their own religion matter when these men, who weren’t even old enough to be called men, killed off those people waiting to catch trains and get back home to their loved ones? I don’t know. I don’t want to know. All I know is that but for those men who laid down their lives trying to save others. If Karkare, Kamte, Salaskar and Sandeep were men in uniform who knew their lives could end this way some time, the staff of the Taj and the Trident took the word customer service to new heights that day. They died trying to protect their customers.

I could go on like this for the next 10 pages, but nothing would diminish the pain we felt on that day. I wouldn’t say that my heart bled for my country that day, one year ago. But, sitting in faraway Chennai, I suddenly felt more insecure than I ever had previously. I suddenly felt terrified for the lives of those I loved and cared for the most. What if my parents, my friends, or even the lady next door were at the Taj that day? What if tomorrow, I were to lose one of these people I cherish and adore? What if one day, I had to sacrifice a son, friend, husband or brother like Sandeep? It is too terrifying to contemplate.

Having said all this, we still keep the men who perpetrated this crime alive. I argued passionately for the right of Kasab for a fair trial. But, I also say that justice delayed is justice denied. How much longer are we going to have to wait for the trial to end? How much longer are we going to allow the media free access to him and listen to that man say he regrets what he did, and hear his laments? I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know why or how he became a terrorist. I am, even a year later, in no position to conduct an academic inquiry into the motives behind a man turning into a terrorist. All I want is justice; justice for the wrongs; justice for the killing of the hundreds of civilians who only wanted a good night’s sleep. Unless we, as a nation act firmly and quickly against the perpetrators of terror, we will remain soft targets. First, it was Delhi, then Jaipur, then Mumbai, more than once. Tomorrow it could be Chennai, or Hyderabad, or Bangalore. Are we going to wait until every one of our cities, major and minor, becomes targets of terror attacks? I certainly hope not.

Feminism…with a bit of religion and atheism thrown in!

This post is an outcome of conversations with many people. Added to this, is the fact that I just started reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ atheism and my already firm convictions on feminism are making me pensive.

My conversation with a friend (let’s call him SK for convenience’s sake) was the start of my reflections. He was appreciative of the fact that I am a feminist, and don’t hesitate to be called one. Yes, I am. Not the bra-burning, man-hating feminist, but if feminism is about equality of opportunity irrespective of gender, if it is about being free to choose what you want to do, then I am a feminist. His questions set me thinking.  Why am I a feminist? First, because I see that there is injustice. Injustice in the way the world treats women. I see double standards. I see that what is sauce for the goose is not sauce of the gander. And this, my dear readers, violates my sense of justice. As I said sometime earlier, I can ignore, or choose to fight. I choose to fight because ignoring would mean silent acceptance.

SK is an atheist. At least, he calls himself one. I would prefer to call him a rationalist who doesn’t see the rationale behind religion. Indeed, there is absolutely no rationale behind matters of faith. He said he saw religion as the major stumbling block to the emancipation of women. Do I agree? I honestly don’t know. It is true that practically every major religion discriminates against women. But then, I have a problem with the word in itself. Religion is made, nurtured, organized and promoted by men. I don’t use the word men as a generic term for human being. I mean it as a term to denote the male of the species. Most religions are male-friendly because they were invented by men. Women are often incidental in the making of a religion. In fact, their existence is a bit of an inconvenience, conflicting often with the concept of God the Father. So, it’s pretty normal that they be discriminated against and be treated like second class citizens.

That brings us to the fundamental question. Since we know that all is not well with religion, and that it is often used to justify oppression, do we shut up? Do we sit back in quiet acceptance in the name of faith? I think not. Don’t get me wrong. I am a believer. I’ve always been. But, my God is not an old man sitting somewhere up there and controlling my every action. My God does not discriminate against me because I was born female. My God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be doing much about the rampant injustice we see. Maybe he wants us to sit up and take things into our own hands! Isn’t it time we did just that?

Ram – the perfect man?

Mahabharata from a woman’s perspective…the conversation with S yesterday set me thinking. I am not familiar enough with the Mahabharata to comment, but the Ramayana? When I first read the Ramayana at the age of 8, I was quite impressed. A dutiful son, a benevolent king, a handsome prince. A perfect man. I was probably way too young to wonder what kind of a man he really was. But, even at that age, I found myself wondering why a prince should give up creature comfort and go to the forest just because his senile and invertebrate old father wanted him to. Obedience is not a virtue for me. It has never been. Discretion however, is a different matter altogether.

When I re-read the epic ten years later, I was less impressed. But unsullied as I was with feminist ideals and ideas of equality, I still did not question the logic behind the epic. But, at 27, it is a different question altogether. Ram, to me, is no longer the dutiful son. He just obeyed his father without bothering to question the logic behind the order. A lack of discretion on his part. How will a man, incapable of analyzing the whys and wherefores of a decision, prove himself capable of ruling a country?

Later in the epic, Ram chases a mirage, the deceptively beautiful deer. He comes back to find his wife missing. She is abducted. Like any other husband, he sets out to get her back. He hunts Ravan down, kills him and liberates his wife. But wait! Something is wrong. Hasn’t the woman spent a good 12 years (Edit: 12 months, not years…) away from him? How does he know she is still chaste and untouched? Sita, like Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion, mustn’t she? Ram makes her undergo a trial by fire. If she is consumed by the flames, she is impure. If she gets out unscathed, she is chaste and virginal. Like most Indian women, Sita does it. For her chauvinist of a husband! But, let me ask you something. Did Ram not spend 12 years away from his wife too? (Edit: Dad says it’s 12 months…) Does chastity and purity mean nothing for a man? Or is promiscuity and infidelity excused because Ram is a man. What is sauce for the goose is most definitely not sauce for the gander.

To add insult to the injury, Ram is portrayed as asking for a trial by fire for the people of his country. Just who are the people of the country to ask a queen to prove her chastity? A husband is supposed to protect and cherish. A king is supposed to listen, explain and convince. Ram fails as both. He brings Sita back to Ayodhya, after the trial by fire. Again, questions are raised about her chastity. Is she pure? Is she chaste? Untouched? By now, she is pregnant. Ram, being the perfect king, exiles his wife, pregnant with twins, to the forest. After all, what is more important for a king that the wish of his people? Here, Ram fails again. As a husband.

It really gets my goat when people call Ram the perfect man. He is an average man. An average Indian male, who neither respects nor particularly cares for the woman in his life. An average Indian male who has been pampered all his life by grandmothers, aunts, his mother, his wife and other assorted female relatives. An average Indian man who will never understand, or even try to understand what a woman goes through at the various stages of her life. To me, Ram is not perfect.