Written for Yahoo Originals. The original, slightly different version appeared here.
I started living in a girls’ hostel after working as a journalist for two years. When I worked I’d had a house, a pancard, a non-SBI bank account, a gas connection, a fridge, a life(ish) and most importantly a thoroughly co-ed social life. Suddenly, by some monstrous twist of fate, I arrived in JNU to study history. Studying was the best alibi I could think of to avoid working life. I also thought it might give me time to deal with personal crisis. My reasons for joining the hostel were utilitarian. I wanted to live cheaply and avoid asshole landlords in Delhi. I was not, by even the most generous account, a very adventurous or adaptive person.
In my head, the hostel was a bi-weekly dormitory, not home. I didn’t know much about girls’ hostels. There was the story of Sundari the female dog that bit all men that came near the girls’ hostel in CIEFL, Hyderabad. I thought girls’ hostels as some of sort of patriarchy imposed zenana, an antiquated institution that had no business existing in this Era Of Progress. I also, I’m ashamed to admit now, thought it was a place one goes to without volition, only if all else fails. I thought my social life was too fluid, too “queer”, to really imagine living somewhere where men were not allowed. A girls’ hostel felt like a an unnecessary return to the gratingly firm ground of gender and sex. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong about what was in store for me.
I’ve been kicked out of my girls hostel for the last three months. I feel both existentially dislodged and relieved. I’m not sure when I’ll get back in. I’d been in and out to get my things, but I hadn’t stayed a night. I had to pull myself away; rip out the bandaid swiftly. I live elsewhere now and I’m trying to process what I miss and what I don’t.
I don’t miss the feeling of of being surrounded by budding academics who talk too much about their teachers, their work and their departments. Students conjugally bound to academic disciplines begin to lack the power to self-narrativise. Everyone chit-chats about the desultory circumstances that surround us (cats, grades, and mess food) and internal lives malinger unaired. Why construct a backstory and a personality when the world is offering the chance to research, publish and teach about not-you. For the rest of your life.
by Gauri Deshpande
For One Who Will Recognise the Poem on Sight: A Cyclical
After such want and futile willing
when at last we meet
and want to weave the web
of wishes around each,
find its bright delicacy
broken, bruised again
by the spiny arrow we are forced
to wear of straight-spined
and doing-without cheer.
Only as we are parting we see
we haven’t got to hammer it on once more
till the next time.
Don’t believe anyone who tells you that Dabangg 2 is better than its prequel. Everything is worse — the costumes (Sonakshi Sinha’s unicolour saris have the most unfortunate borders), dialogue, pacing, action, character arcs (the first movie has some), songs, villains, side-characters. Everything.
You’d think that Arbaaz Khan, the director, would have absorbed something — anything — even by osmosis from his studiously film-obsessed predecessor Abhinav Kashyap. But, I am saddened to announce that a Kashyap-free Dabangg is a hot mess. I will give Rs 100 to anyone who can prove it was secretly outsourced to Anees Bazmee.
I know Shobhaa Dé doesn’t need me to defend her honour. But, I’ll do it anyway. And now I’ve given away what I originally set out to do with this blogpost. The joke, as it so often turns out, is on me. Not all reviewers are literary snobs and killjoys. I counted two reviews of her new novel Sethji that work past the now-tautology that Shobhaa Dé produces ‘bad writing’. One is by Sagarika Ghose and the other is by Anuja Chauhan (who has written a far better political novel than Dé’s).
Apart from these two exceptions, I’m exasperated with the standard Shobhaa Dé hatchet job. I’m not getting into the rather pointless genre v/s literary fiction debate and I don’t particularly care whether Dé suits an individual reviewer’s taste. I just want a review to alert me to things other the badness of the book. The thumbs-up or thumbs-down model of cultural writing is, to quote the Black Eyed Peas, “so two thousand and late”.
Do “good head” and George Eliot go together?
George Eliot’s anti-heroines are not flawed in an easily comprehensible way. Eliot is certainly not one of those authors who makes a dent in their characters so ‘normal people’ can relate to them. Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda (I will conveniently forget about the other books) contain two of the most contorted female protagonists.
Dorethea Casuabon from Middlemarch has a strange orgasmic relationship with religion and men who think high thoughts and this leads her to a disastrous marriage. Gwendolen Harleth from Daniel Deronda manages, rather improbably, to find her bad marriage through enlarged self-regard.
“Words could hardly be too wide or vague to indicate the prospect that made a hazy largeness about poor Gwendolen on the heights of her young self-exultation. Other people allowed themselves to be made slaves of, and to have their lives blown hither and thither like empty ships in which no will was present: it was not to be so with her, she would no longer be sacrificed to creatures worth less than herself, but would make the very best of the chances life offered her”.
So when shit hits the fan and continues to do so until Gwendolen trusts “neither herself nor her future”, her self-exultation is clearly to blame.
“The brilliant position she had longed for, the imagined freedom she would create for herself in marriage, the deliverance from the dull insignificance of her girlhood — all were immediately before her; and yet they had come to her hunger like food with the taint of sacrilege upon it, which she must snatch with terror. In the darkness and loneliness of her little bed, her more resistant self could not act against the first onslaught of dread after her irrevocable decision”.
Eliot is not cutting about her characters in a touchy-feely we-are-just-a-bunch-of-misfits way. An almost overpowering empiricism seems to drive her detailing of Gwendolen’s shortcomings — from her ego to her hatred of her mother to her dependence on men. Yet, it is not satire or parody or anything remotely resembling a cheapshot. Many of Daniel Deronda’s 800 pages clearly outline why Gwendolyn is a glaringly inadequate person and why the scope of her growth will never exceed self-delusion. .
Middlemarch is a slightly more hopeful novel. The inexorability of self-deluded people only simmers through this book instead of lighting it on fire. It has near perfect length, pacing and structure. The premise is quite simple: Eliot topographically tracks and zooms her way around the village and uses a set of couples as her lab rats. What follows are the most cut-down to size characters I have ever met in a book. Not only are their current mindscapes up for scrutiny, but every change in their lives (even ones they don’t know about) is tracked meticulously.
Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life was published in 1874 and now holds an all too cute, ‘quintessential village novel’ place in literary history. If the novel has indeed moved out of the village into the city, Middlemarch offers a template for the perfect city novel. The actual city might as well recede into the background. Effort must be directed at drilling into characters heads. If people are captured at the centre of their shimmering interpersonal net, the city will have no choice but to come alive. Of course, the other Eliot trick is to include a woman who has fits of sexual ecstasy when she catches a glimpse of an unreadably dry manuscript — a woman who is turned on by Good Heads.
What kind of flirting would George Eliott approve of?
Not the kind where the plight of women is sexual banter.
Gwendolen’s unhealthy relationship with maleness comes up early in the book. She wants to be a man — she even manages to romanticise it. Lest this be read as proto-queer energy working its way up in the novel, Gwendolen has no interest in the aesthetics of being a man. She just imagines (not without reason) that she would have more access to the world if she were male. And this particular grouse she uses to flirt with the man who will eventually torment her.
“We women can’t go in search of adventures–to find out the North-West passage or the course of the Nile, or to hunt tigers in the East. We must stay where we grow, or where the gardeners like to transplant us. We are brought up like the flowers, to look as pretty as we can, and be dull without complaining. That is my notion about the plants: they are often bored , and that is the reason why some of them have got poisonous. What do you think” Gwendolen had run on rather nervously, lightly whipping the rhododendron bush in front of her.”
There is an early cautionary feminist tale somewhere here. If you sell out your own sex to flirt with a man, you will get married to an evil rich man and have to go through the humiliation of learning that everyone who says “I told you so” really did tell you so. (Incidentally, that more of less covers Daniel Deronda).
When Gwendolen develops feelings for the pious Daniel Deronda out of wedlock, she uses the oncoming awareness of her own flaws to flirt with him.
“‘I think what we call the dulness of things is a disease in ourselves. Else how could any one find an intense interest in life? And many do.’ said Deronda ‘Ah I see! The fault I find in the world is my own fault’ said Gwendolen, smiling at him.”
“‘I wonder whether I understand that’. said Gwendolen, putting up her chin in her old saucy manner. ‘I believe I am not very affectionate; I believe I am not very affectionate, perhaps you mean to tell me, that is the reason why I don’t see much good in life.’”
This is probably not a surprise, but her flirting wasn’t very successful.
George Eliot has exploded my empathetic reading universe. Reading her is not about meeting tortured souls like me. I’ve come to the scary conclusion that reading George Eliot is about meeting the victims of cruel literary takedowns. In other words, its about coming face to face with George Eliot characters.
All of Eliot’s psychological probing and endless outlining of what boundaries her characters will not transcend has not bridged the gap between people and Eliot-book-people. The truth is more disconcerting. Her book-people are realer and more mistake-prone than me and my friends. In fact, one of the side-effects of reading Eliot will be turning to the next person you meet (this could well be your own self), greeting them with a cold flash of insipiration and deciding they are terminally prone to self-misjudgement.
Through her laser-like etching of people, George Eliot has even stolen the one sureshot thing her readership has: human error. I, the poor reader, can’t even be inadequate as well as her characters. I have 2D flaws while they have 3D ones. Bastards.
What would George Eliott do with reticence?
She would judge it.
Eliot’s characters are forced to have an explicable, shape-shifting internal life for her to run a narratorial magnifying glass over. Perhaps, this came from her love of philosophy. Characters can be airbrushed by kinder authors who occlude them from analysis. Gwendolen Harleth wasn’t so lucky.
“Gwendolen would not have liked to be an object of disgust to this husband whom she hate: she liked all the disgust to be on her side”
I am jealous of George Eliott’s characters. In the muddle of my own head, I want someone to note from afar all that is and all that is changing. In a move that will get rid of therapy altogether, I propose that someone invent a George Eliot Android app. It will listen in on your life and deliver its scathing verdict over hundreds of pages. Then, the battle for dispassionate self-mapping will be forever won.