A 19th Century Gujarati Ghazal in Translation

The ghazal is a poetic, lyrical form that captures the depths of the human heart in fleeting, poignant ways.

The renowned Gujarati writer known by the pen-name of Amrit ‘Ghayal’ once described the ghazal in a memorable couplet:

લીટી એકાદ નીરખી "ઘાયલ​"
હલબલી જાય આદમી તે ગઞલ​.

In glancing through a line or two, Ghayal,
If a man is shaken to the core, then that is a ghazal.

Gujarati as a language has a significant heritage from the Perso-Arabic tradition and the ghazal is much more than a loan form, taking its own shape, and cadence within a vernacular context. In this post, I translate a ghazal by Balashankar Ullasram Kantharia (May 17, 1858 –April 1, 1898), a 19th century Gujarati poet known for introducing the ghazal form in Gujarati. Kantharia also served briefly as an editor of the magazine Buddhiprakash which documented the literary and intellectual life of Gujarat in the 19th century. Although the ghazal had been written since the 17th century, since the time of Vali Gujarati, the Gujarati ghazal came into its own only much later. Known for his pen-names Kalant Kavi and Bal, Kantharia was acquainted with the ghazal tradition through his father, who served as an administrator and was familiar with Persian. Kantharia was also a prolific translator who translated Sufi Ghazals of Hafez into Gujarati.

In this post, I translate one of his best-known ghazals ગુજારે જે શિરેતારે into English. This ghazal, which almost became something of an anthem, advises the reader on how to navigate the deceitful ways of the world and to find happiness on one’s own. One can see a variety of words coming from Urdu (કાજી, દિલ,ભલાઈ, બેવફાઈ, કીમિયા),Sanskrit (ઉન્મત્ત,નિર્મોહી, શિરે) and Gujarati. Even the words જગત and દુનિયા both of which refer to the world, have slightly different roots. I am still not very sure about the line ‘From unfaithfulness, you will climb into censure.’ If anyone has any suggestions, please feel free to leave a comment.

ગુજારે જે શિરે તારે જગતનો નાથ તે સ્હેજે
ગણ્યું જે પ્યારું પ્યારાએ અતિ પ્યારું ગણી લેજે

Whatever the lord of this world casts upon you,  endure it
Whatever is beloved to the Beloved, adore it as a treasure

દુનિયાની જૂઠી વાણી વિષે જો દુ:ખ વાસે છે
જરાયે અંતરે આનંદ ના ઓછો થવા દેજે

If the deceitful utterance of this world causes you pain
Let your inner joy not lessen in the least

કચેરી માંહી કાજીનો નથી હિસાબ કોડીનો
જગતકાજી બનીને તું વહોરી ના પીડા લેજે

Here, the judge in a court is worth only a pittance
Don't invite suffering by passing judgement on the world

જગતના કાચના યંત્રે ખરી વસ્તુ નહિ ભાસે
ન સારા કે નઠારાની જરાયે સંગતે રહેજે

The truth of things cannot be seen through the lens of this world,
Keep not the slightest company of the good nor the wicked.

રહેજે શાંતિ સંતોષે સદાયે નિર્મળે ચિત્તે
દિલે જે દુ:ખ કે આનંદ કોઈને નહિ કહેજે

Always remain with a peaceful, content and pure mind
Tell no one of the sorrow nor of the joy in your heart

વસે છે ક્રોધ વૈરી ચિત્તમાં તેને તજી દેજે
ઘડી જાયે ભલાઈની મહાલ્રક્ષ્મી ગણી લેજે

Anger- that adversary who lives in your mind- abandon it.
When a moment of goodness passes you by, cherish it as a blessing.

રહે ઉન્મત્ત સ્વાનંદે ખરું એ સુખ માની લેજે
પીએ તો શ્રી પ્રભુના પ્રેમનો પ્યાલો ભરી લેજે

Remain euphoric in your own happiness and take that as true bliss,
Fill your glass to the brim with the Lord's love

કટુ વાણી જો તું સુણે વાણી મીઠી તું કહેજે
પરાઈ મૂર્ખતા કાજે મુખે ના ઝેર તું લેજે

If you were to hear harsh words, speak sweet instead,
Because of another's foolishness, bring not poison upon your tongue. 

અરે પ્રારબ્ધ તો ઘેલું રહે છે દૂર માંગે તો
ન માંગે દોડતું આવે ન વિશ્વાસે કદી રહેજે

Fate is erratic! What you ask for is kept from you,
What you don't, comes running to you. Never put your faith in it.

અહો શું પ્રેમમાં રાચે? નહિ ત્યાં સત્ય તું પામે!
અરે તું બેવફાઈથી ચડે નિંદા તણે નેજે

Oh! What is there in love? You will not find truth there!
From unfaithfulness, you will climb into censure

લહે છે સત્ય જે સંસાર તેનાથી પરો રહેજે
અરે એ કીમિયાની જે મઝા છે તે પછી કહેજે

The truth that is desired by worldly life- stay above it
And speak later of how amusing this ruse is

વફાઈ તો નથી આખી દુનિયામાં જરા દીઠી
વફાદારી બતાવા ત્યાં નહિ કોઈ પળે જાજે

In all this world, I have not seen the slightest faithfulness
Don't go there at any moment to show your loyalty

રહી નિર્મોહી શાંતિથી રહે એ સુખ મોટું છે
જગત બાજીગરીના તું બધા છલબલ જવા દેજે

Being unattached, staying in peace is great happiness indeed,
The world's sorcery and all its trickery- let go of it all

પ્રભુના નામના પુષ્પો પરોવી કાવ્યમાળા તું
પ્રભુની પ્યારી ગ્રીવામાં પહેરાવી પ્રીતે દેજે

Stringing flowers in the name of God, offer as devotion
This garland of poems around God's beloved neck

કવિરાજા થયો શી છે પછી પીડા તને કાંઈ
નિજાનંદે હમ્મેશાં ‘બાલ’ મસ્તીમાં મઝા લેજે

You became the king of poets-what pain is there now?
Always relish and take joy, 'Bal,' from  your own happiness.

Selections from ‘Eating God’

Selections of Bhakti poetry from Arundhati Subramaniam’s collection called ‘Eating God.’ These poems by different poets cover a variety of languages, regions and styles in English translation.

Here are some exercises in pure and sustained literary immersion from this week’s reading! Here are glimpses from Arundhati Subramaniam’s collection of Bhakti poetry called Eating God which I have been reading and which stunningly reflects the breadth and depth of the devotional tradition in all its regional and linguistic diversity.

That Strange Disease Called Bhakti

Don't you take on
this thing called bhakti:

like a saw
it cuts when it goes

and it cuts again
when it comes.

If you risk your hand
with a cobra in a pitcher
will it let you

(Basavanna: A. K. Ramanujan)
Like a sharp arrow
Is the love of Rama.
Only someone struck by it
Knows the pain.

You look for the wound,
But the skin is not broken.
You bring out the ointment,
But there's nowhere to rub.

When all the women
Look the same,
Who among them
Will the lord choose?

Fortunate is she,
Says Kabir,
In the parting of whose hair,
And hers alone,

Is put vermilion.

(Kabir: A. K. Mehrotra)
She lingers out of doors.
She rushes in
And she rushes out,
Her heart is restless.
Breathing fast,
She gazes at the kadamba wood.
What has happened
The elders chatter
And the wicked gossip.
Is she possessed
By some enchanting god?
Forever restless
Careless of clothes,
Startled, she jumps in her dreams...

Her desire inflamed
By passion and longing,
She reaches for the moon.

Chandidas says that she is caught
In the snare of Kaliya, the dark.

(Chandidas: Deben Bhattacharya)

The spotless being depicted holding a silver
conch in his left hand will not show his form

to me. He arrives through an underground
spring to liquefy my house's foundations,

to seep into the walls and overflow my heart:
pure torture. Warbling kohl-bird drunk on

honey from the twitching stamen of magnolia
blossoms, intercede to the lord of Venkata
 on my behalf, murmur, get him to come.

(Andal: Ravi Shankar)

drunken clouds
no message 
from my love

the cuckoo

lightning flashes
in the dark
I want him

the wind is
cool and musical
the clouds
are pouring rain

where are you

your absence 
is venom
in my veins

(Mirabai: Rahul Soni)
Were I given a hundred thousand tongues instead of one
And the hundred thousand multiplied twenty-fold,
A hundred thousand times would I say, and say again,
The Lord of all the worlds in One.
That is the path that leads
These the steps that mount, 
Ascend thus to the Lord's mansion
And with Him be joined in unison. 
The sound of the songs of Heaven thrills
The like of us who crawl, but desire to fly. 
O Nanak, His grace alone it is that fulfills, 
The rest mere prattle, and a lie.

(Guru Nanak: Khushwant Singh)
Restless mind, don't infect the heart with fear.
That virus is not for you.
The Infinite knows what you hunger for. 
Ask Him to carry you across.

And one day
Death shall arrive

to evict this squatter
from his fragile hut of bones

Then as the spirit
quivers, buckles,

hurry, Goddess Abhirami-

you that are the primordial note
plucked by the strings of the veena
at the dawn of time


with the soft clink
of braceleted wrists


with your flock of handmaidens
of the sky


extend a bejeweled hand
utter the words I need to hear

Reassure me, say, 'Do not fear.'

(Abhirami Bhattar: Arundhati Subramaniam)
This body that you're fussing over,
this body that you're dolling up,
this body that you're wearing to the party,
this body will end as ash.

(Lal Ded: Ranjit Hoskote)
beware, your life is in danger:

the lord of gardens is a thief,
a cheat,
master of illusions;

he came to me,
a wizard with words,
sneaked into my body,
my breath,

with bystanders looking on
but seeing nothing,
he consumed me
life and limb,

and filled me,
made me over
into himself.

My lord
who lives in the city
of names
came here today

said he'd never leave
entered me
filled my heart

I've caught him
the big-bellied one
not content yet
with all that guzzling
on the sevenfold clouds
the seven seas
the seven mountains
and the world that holds them all

I've caught him
I contain him now

(Nammalvar: A.K. Ramanujan)

Translating French Poems: For Love

Translations of 4 French love poems from public domain poets such as Sully Prudhomme, Victor Hugo, Sophie S’Arbouville and Arthur Rimbaud.

In this post, I translate four French love poems from poets available in the public domain. The first poem called ‘Le réveil’ (Awakening) is by René-François Sully Prudhomme (1839-1907), a 19th century poet and essayist who is known for winning the first Nobel in 1901. The next by Sophie d’Arbouville (1810-1850) called ‘La grand-mère’ (The Grandmother) describes an old woman’s nostalgia for youth. The third is the well-known ‘A Une Jeune Fille’ (To a Young Girl) by Victor Hugo in which the poet gently chides a young girl for wanting to grow up before her time. The last one is Arthur Rimbaud’s lyrical ‘Sensation.’ In many cases, I have not followed a literal translation as I have preferred to render the meaning, cadence and nuance rather than just the literal sense. This has also been a great way for me to spend time reading French and catch up on beautiful poetry. The source for most of these poems has been the very resourceful Poésies Françaises.

Alors à bientôt et bonne lecture!

Le Réveil par René-François Sully  Prudhomme (1839-1907)
Recueil : Les solitudes (1869).

Si tu m'appartenais (faisons ce rêve étrange !),
Je voudrais avant toi m'éveiller le matin
Pour m'accouder longtemps près de ton sommeil d'ange,
Egal et murmurant comme un ruisseau lointain.
J'irais à pas discrets cueillir de l'églantine,
Et, patient, rempli d'un silence joyeux,
J'entr'ouvrirais tes mains, qui gardent ta poitrine,
Pour y glisser mes fleurs en te baisant les yeux.
Et tes yeux étonnés reconnaîtraient la terre
Dans les choses où Dieu mit le plus de douceur,
Puis tourneraient vers moi leur naissante lumière,
Tout pleins de mon offrande et tout pleins de ton cœur.
Oh ! Comprends ce qu'il souffre et sens bien comme il aime,
Celui qui poserait, au lever du soleil,
Un bouquet, invisible encor, sur ton sein même,
Pour placer ton bonheur plus près de ton réveil !

Awakening by René-François Sully Prudhomme (1839-1907)
Collection : Les solitudes (1869).

If you belonged to me (let us but dream of this for a moment!)
I would like to awaken before you in the morning
To lean over and watch you awhile in your angel's sleep
Gentle and murmuring like a faraway stream.
I would go in hushed steps to pluck wild roses,
And, unspeaking, full of a joyful silence,
I would half-open your hands that find repose on your chest,
Slip my flowers into them and kiss your eyes.
And your startled eyes would come to know the earth again
In the sweetest things that God may have made,
Then they would turn their nascent light towards me,
Moved by my offering and moved by your heart.
Oh! Understand how he suffers and feel how he loves,
The one who will place, at the glint of dawn,
A bouquet, still invisible, on your breast,
To bring your happiness closer to your awakening!
La Grand-Mère par Sophie d'Arbouville (1810-1850)
Recueil : Poésies et nouvelles (1840).

Dansez, fillettes du village,
Chantez vos doux refrains d'amour
Trop vite, hélas! un ciel d'orage
Vient obscurcir le plus beau jour.

En vous voyant, je me rappelle
Et mes plaisirs et mes succès;
Comme vous, j'étais jeune et belle,
Et, comme vous, je le savais.
Soudain ma blonde chevelure
Me montra quelques cheveux blancs...
J'ai vu, comme dans la nature,
L'hiver succéder au printemps.

Dansez, fillettes du village,
Chantez vos doux refrains d'amour;
Trop vite, hélas ! un ciel d'orage
Vient obscurcir le plus beau jour.

Naïve et sans expérience,
D'amour je crus les doux serments,
Et j'aimais avec confiance...
On croit au bonheur à quinze ans!
Une fleur, par Julien cueillie,
Était le gage de sa foi;
Mais, avant qu'elle fût flétrie,
L'ingrat ne pensait plus à moi!

Dansez, fillettes du Village,
Chantez vos doux refrains d'amour;
Trop vite, hélas ! un ciel d'orage
Vient obscurcir le plus beau jour.

À vingt ans, un ami fidèle
Adoucit mon premier chagrin;
J'étais triste, mais j'étais belle,
Il m'offrit son cœur et sa main.
Trop tôt pour nous vint la vieillesse;
Nous nous aimions, nous étions vieux...
La mort rompit notre tendresse...
Mon ami fut le plus heureux !

Dansez, fillettes du village,
Chantez vos doux refrains d'amour;
Trop vite, hélas ! un ciel d'orage
Vient obscurcir le plus beau jour.

Pour moi, n'arrêtez pas la danse;
Le ciel est pur, je suis au port,
Aux bruyants plaisirs de l'enfance
La grand-mère sourit encor.
Que cette larme que j'efface
N'attriste pas vos jeunes cœurs:
Le soleil brille sur la glace,
L'hiver conserve quelques fleurs.

Dansez, fillettes du village,
Chantez vos doux refrains d'amour,
Et, sous un ciel exempt d'orage,
Embellissez mon dernier jour!

The Grandmother by Sophie d'Arbouville (1810-1850)
Collection: Poésies et nouvelles (1840).

Dance, young village lasses,
Sing your sweet refrains of love:
Too soon, alas! a stormy sky
Will darken the loveliest of days.

Seeing you, I remember
My own joys and my triumphs;
Like you, I was young and beautiful,
And, like you, I knew it.
Suddenly my blond tresses
Showed me a few white strands
I saw, as in nature,
Winter follows spring.

Dance, young village lasses,
Sing your sweet refrains of love:
Too soon, alas! a stormy sky
Will darken the loveliest of days.

Naive and without experience,
I believed the sweet vows of love
And loved with abandon...
How we believe in happiness at fifteen!
A flower, picked by Julien,
Was the pledge of his faith;
But, even before it had withered,
The wretch no longer thought of me!

Dance, young village lasses,
Sing your sweet refrains of love:
Too soon, alas! a stormy sky
Will darken the loveliest of days.

At twenty, a faithful friend
Nursed my first chagrin;
I was sad, but I was beautiful,
He offered me his heart and his hand.
Too soon did age catch up with us;
We loved each other, we were old...

Death broke our tenderness...
My friend was the happier one!

Dance, young village lasses,
Sing your sweet refrains of love:
Too soon, alas! a stormy sky
Will darken the loveliest of days.

Don't stop the dance, for me;
The sky is pure,
The grandmother still smiled
At the bustling pleasures of childhood.
May this tear that I efface
Not dampen your young hearts:
The sun shines over the ice,
Winter preserves a few flowers yet.

Dance, young village lasses,
Sing your sweet refrains of love:
Too soon, alas! a stormy sky
Will darken the loveliest of days.
À une jeune fille par Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Recueil : Odes et ballades (1826).

Vous qui ne savez pas combien l'enfance est belle,
Enfant ! n'enviez point notre âge de douleurs,
Où le cœur tour à tour est esclave et rebelle,
Où le rire est souvent plus triste que vos pleurs.

Votre âge insouciant est si doux qu'on l'oublie !
Il passe, comme un souffle au vaste champ des airs,
Comme une voix joyeuse en fuyant affaiblie,
Comme un alcyon sur les mers.

Oh ! ne vous hâtez point de mûrir vos pensées !
Jouissez du matin, jouissez du printemps ;
Vos heures sont des fleurs l'une à l'autre enlacées ;
Ne les effeuillez pas plus vite que le temps.

Laissez venir les ans ! le destin vous dévoue,
Comme nous, aux regrets, à la fausse amitié,
À ces maux sans espoir que l'orgueil désavoue,
À ces plaisirs qui font pitié.

Riez pourtant ! du sort ignorez la puissance
Riez ! n'attristez pas votre front gracieux,
Votre oeil d'azur, miroir de paix et d'innocence,
Qui révèle votre âme et réfléchit les cieux !

To A Young Girl by Victor Hugo (1802-1885)
Collections: Odes et ballades (1826).

You, who do not know how beautiful childhood is,
Child! Envy not our age of sufferings
In which the heart takes turns being a slave and a rebel,
In which, laughter is often sadder than your tears.

Your carefree age is so sweet that we forget!
It passes, like a breath to the vast expanses of air,
Like a fleeting joyous voice that swiftly fades,
Like a halcyon upon the seas.

Oh! do not hurry towards ripening your thoughts!
Cherish the morning, cherish the spring;
Your hours are flowers intertwined one with the other;
Do not pluck them before their time.

Let the years come! Destiny will bestow upon you
Like on us, regrets, and false friendships,
These hopeless evils that pride disavows,
These pleasures that are pitiable.

Laugh nevertheless! ignore the power of your fate.
Laugh! do not sadden your gracious brow,
Your azure eye, a mirror of peace and innocence,
which reveals your soul and reflects the skies!
Sensation par Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)
Recueil : Poésies (1870-1871).

Par les soirs bleus d'été, j'irai dans les sentiers,
Picoté par les blés, fouler l'herbe menue :
Rêveur, j'en sentirai la fraîcheur à mes pieds.
Je laisserai le vent baigner ma tête nue.

Je ne parlerai pas, je ne penserai rien:
Mais l'amour infini me montera dans l'âme,
Et j'irai loin, bien loin, comme un bohémien,
Par la Nature, - heureux comme avec une femme.

Sensation by Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)
Collection: Poésies (1870-1871).

In the summer-blue evenings,
I will go to the paths,
Prickled by the wheat, to tread upon the fine grass:
Dreamer, I will feel its freshness beneath my feet.
I will let the wind bathe my bare head.

I will not speak, I will think of nothing:
But infinite love would ascend in my soul,
And I will go far, quite far, like a bohemian,
By Nature,- happy as with a woman.

El Supplente (The Substitute) and What is Literature For?

I resurface on this blog after an eternity. But I saw a film recently that made me want to sit up and write. Since many months, and through the course of my own teaching, I have felt that literature as a discipline and the humanities more generally are dying a slow death. This may be a controversial statement and there could be many to contest it, but the way we read and consume literature is not the same as we used to even a decade back. With the advent of the Kindle and social media and ubiquitous gadgets and the insta culture, we no longer have the leisure or the capacity to read, to savour an experience and to even tell or listen to stories the way we used to. Students just don’t read anymore. This has been extensively written about in the US and maybe here in India reading is not that easily done away with but certainly one sees a change in attention spans. But my concern here is not only reading but specifically the role of literature as a discipline. It seems to me that now more than ever we are called to justify its purpose in a social environment and culture where it appears to be increasingly obsolete.

In one of the scenes of the Diego Lerman-directed Argentinian film El Supplente (The Substitute, 2022), a sophisticated literature professor Lucio finds himself in the daunting task of teaching a class of disinterested and irreverent students in dusty, suburban Buenos Aries. “What is literature for?” He asks his students on his first day of class. “To make us sleep” says one adolescent, while another dozes at the back. “I don’t read” confesses another. “To tell stories.” “Literature is of no use to us.” The look on the professor’s face tells us how difficult it is for him to circle back to a question that he has taken for granted in his intellectual pursuits. His plight in bridging this gap also becomes the journey that he embarks on in connecting with his students and understanding the context of their difficult lives- lives that are caught in the crossfire of state violence and local druglords (reminiscent of Freedom Writers in so many ways). “What is literature for” seems even more difficult to answer when schools are unsafe spaces, where police machinery can barge in to do drug checks and arrest minors without following protocols of minor rights, where hospitals are unsafe and patients who seemed to be doing well, mysteriously deteriorate and even die. What use of is literature in places wired for survival, surveillance and violence? Can one have the leisure to sit and read and talk about feelings? To talk about the nuances of paradox, metaphor and simile? To discuss genres, styles and canon? It seems a tasteless luxury, an outlandish hobby.

Although I am fortunate enough to not face the perilous environment of Lucio and his students, the question “What is literature for”? is still not easily answered. More so, when people still look for tangible results, concrete life-changing metrics and quantifiable returns. Literature is of no use in that sense. Justifying the discipline at the level of an educational set-up especially when competing with other quantifiable disciplines is one thing. But increasingly one finds that there is a dissociation between discipline and the values that were once taken for granted to be a part of it. Literature was for building character, for cultivating human values and empathy, for understanding the human condition in its beauty and terror, for making sense of one’s own journey, for understanding the frailty of human morality, the violence of the human heart and mind. To understand the expanse of that endeavour, required if not leisure at least deliberate thought, pause and reflection. This was certainly not a luxury. It was the characteristic of an inquisitive and balanced mind. But today being called to justify the purpose of this discipline speaks both of the erosion of those values as well as the changing cultures of intellect and what we hold in prestige today.

As Lucio becomes more and more a part of his community, shares the grief of losing his father, saves one of his students from a druglord, he becomes less interested in asking his students what literature is for. Instead in one of the final scenes, he brings a chart with the figure of the human body and asks the students to identify different parts. Once they do that, he points: “Now show me where the soul is” The students reply that it is not visible. “When we use phrases like ‘It hurts my soul’ what do we mean?” asks the professor. “It hurts in places you cannot see.” says one student. “that feeling is beyond pain,” offers another. “It hurts me to pieces.” “I love you with my soul.” “It is underlying, inexplicable.” The dozing kid is wide awake now. The question ‘What is literature for?’ is suddenly redundant.

Frame Narratives of Abuse: Notes on Maid

The recent Netflix web series Maid is the kind of brilliant series that comes in silently without fanfare especially in the general gloom of the pandemic and leaves acclaim in its wake almost as if by accident.

The recent Netflix web series Maid is the kind of brilliant series that comes in silently without fanfare especially in the general gloom of the pandemic and leaves acclaim in its wake almost as if by accident. This exquisite series with breath-taking writing and story tackles difficult and complex issues like addiction, mental health, emotional abuse and the pitfalls of the American social security system in ways which are powerfully stark, understated yet poignantly effective. Based on Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, this 10-episode series follows the incredible journey of Alex, a young woman who leaves her emotionally abusive and alcoholic partner in order to start a life from scratch as a cleaning maid and provide a better life for her three-year-old daughter Maddy. This is not just the story of a young mother fighting to survive but also of the ways in which women from different classes, races and social walks of life can come together to create a support system against the machinery of non-physical abuse.

The series star real-life mother-daughter duo, Margaret Qualley as Alex and Andie MacDowell as Alex’s mother Paula, and other A-listers such as Nick Robinson as the abusive Sean, Anika Noni Rose as the wealthy and childless Regina, Billy Burke as Hank- Alex’s abusive father. The creator of the series Molly Smith Metzler in casting Qualley observes in Collider that what was required for the role of Alex was a genuine human being with “an incredible lack of vanity and a great sense of humour”- a quality that was raw, unaffected, and unstudied,  “not someone trying to win an award, just genuine commitment to the material.” All of this comes through amply with Qualley. The series stands out for its subtle portrayal of emotional abuse and of a woman who is consistently let down in terms of all the support systems that she should have been able to count on from family, friends, partner to the government and in the end has no option but to rely on herself to support her daughter.

Emotional abuse as a subject although increasingly discussed and talked about today has been difficult to show accurately on screen. From earlier films like Gaslight, Sleeping with the Enemy, to Provoked to more recent ones like The Great Indian Kitchen, Out of Love or Criminal Justice Behind Closed Doors in the Indian context, Maid follows an already extant trend in films to explore the nuances of this subject through the visual medium. Maid is certainly one of the most stunning and balanced representations of emotional abuse and the messiness of its internal dynamics. Emotional abuse is slow and corrosive; it happens over time and through a terrible grind. It cannot be portrayed through one violent incident of physical harm. This series takes the viewer on that slow, grinding journey and unsurprisingly, there have been a lot of online responses about women writing how they have been triggered and how accurately the series resonates with the crazy-making, the self-denial, the erasure of self, the learned helplessness, the PTSD and all the other symptoms associated with abuse. The series also takes the trouble to show as Metzler says, that the bad guys “don’t have twisting mustaches, they don’t look like villains. They could often be victims of their own experience.”

Alex’s relationship with Regina, her former boss whose house she cleans and who eventually ends up being her friend and gets her a lawyer, is an interesting one. Their relationship reverses the traditional idea of employer employee along class lines and also opens up motherhood as a common trope for bonding. Denise, the woman who runs the secret shelter for abused women is perhaps the only support system that Alex can count on and who consistently supports her journey in finding her way out of abuse. Alex’s mother Paula suffers doubly not only at the hands her former abusive partner Hank but also due to her own mental health issues that prevent her from staying out of abusive relationships. This series while showing multiple frame narratives of abuse, of abuse within abuse, presents a complex yet compassionate picture of abuse and survival in interpersonal violence, and the need for awareness around coercive control.

In one of the most beautiful scenes in the series, Alex enters a fake boutique at her shelter. The boutique experience has been created (with fake tags and cash counters) to help women remember what it feels like to exercise choice, and to reclaim their selves from the stupor of long-term abuse. At the fake boutique, Alex, who initially doesn’t even remember what she likes and what her preferences are, comes back the next time and quickly picks out a blue sweater and says ‘It’s sky blue, my favourite colour is sky blue.’

On Happiness: Notes from Pamuk

Brief reflections on reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is an interesting piece of work that creatively uses the novel as a museum of stories. The novel itself which is scant on narrative but rich with life and insightful musings, spans across several years, sometimes a lifetime and even a generation. The story of Kemal who falls in love with a poor distant relation when he is already engaged to Sibel, follows one man’s obsession with love, loss and a lifetime of longing and yearning which finally result in his undoing. Yet, what in the eyes of society is a life wasted and ruined, is triumphantly countered in the end by Kemal’s assertion ‘Let everyone know I lived a very happy life.’

Through this novel, Pamuk delves upon the notion of happiness and in a strange way this happiness is so closely associated with innocence that the novel might as well have been called ‘The Museum of Happiness’ and it might not change the spirit in which the story has been told. Happiness for Pamuk is a retrospective feeling. One always realizes one was happy only when one looks back. Happiness in this sense, can never be lived in the present. And yet, when one looks back it is always through the prism of memory. Happiness and memory seem to be interlinked for Pamuk. The idea of the museum, is then a way of preserving memories through objects and their stories. These objects become portkeys (using a term from Rowling) to the past and one can re-live the emotions associated with them. The reason Kemal steals objects from the Keskin household is that he wants to preserve the time he has spent with Fusun and her family. A museum, Pamuk remarks, is the place where Time becomes Space. The objects are not only a way of preserving the past but of preserving a world into which one can escape. The museum of innocence that Kemal founds with his collection of objects through more than half a decade, create a world in which ‘the living can live with the dead.’

Pamuk interestingly uses the museum as a symbol of difference between the cultures of the East and the West. In the West, the concept of the museum is often associated with a collector’s pride in displaying his collection. In Istanbul, Kemal and other collectors like him are seen with disdain as their passions are regarded as an eccentricity that can only serve as negative examples to deter others. But Kemal decides to build a museum with the hope that he will be able to cope with the shame of collecting these objects throughout the years. It becomes a way of turning shame to a collector’s pride. It becomes an empowering act as he can finally put his story before the world.

Pamuk seems to be more of a feminist than has ever been acknowledged. In recounting the whole story from Kemal’s point of view, he reveals all the misogyny, chauvinism and hypocrisies of a privileged Istanbul male with a Western education. Through the specific male and highly biased perspective he also seems to reveal a lot more about the women characters than he would have been able to as an impersonal third person narrator. Pamuk’s women characters, both the modern Sibel and the traditional rebel Fusun are both stronger than Kemal who follows in the footsteps of his father in his obsessive love for a younger girl. While Kemal’s father wilts away his days in the memory of this girl, looking at her black and white photograph and drinking, Kemal’s story is also similar. The only thing different, as Vecihe, Kemal’s mother remarks, is that while Kemal’s father ‘did it’ quietly, Kemal’s story was fodder for gossip to everyone. One wonders how Vecihe, aware of her husband’s adultery, accepts it for the sake of keeping the family together in the eyes of the society and also still loves her husband. This is also seen in the way Kemal frequents the Keskin household in spite of Fusun being married to Feridun. Everyone knows of Kemal’s true intentions but everyone turns a blind eye and the situation becomes one in which a rich man comes to inquire about his beautiful, poor distant relation.

Fusun remains mysteriously unresolved as a character. We see her mostly through Kemal’s mind through the major part of the novel. In the beginning when Kemal has an affair with her, she is nothing more than ‘a girl who is taken advantage of.’ Kemal is perfectly happy having both, a mistress and a fiancée, at the same time. He even invites Fusun to the engagement party. His selfishness in wanting her to be close to him even as he cannot leave Sibel is likely to irk every female reader. He does not think of Fusun’s reputation or future. But in her resolute will to keep distance from Kemal and not encourage him when she is married, she becomes very much a woman of her own mind. She also punishes him by withholding from him that she found the earring he had left for her on his first visit to the Keskins after her marriage.

She never passionately proclaims her love for him, the way he always does. Her desire to become a film star and make something of her life is more important for her than a life of love. And in this desire we see her need for independence, a need that is thwarted by both Feridun and Kemal who prevent her from interacting with the ‘wretch’ of the film industry even though Fusun is clearly able to handle her share of anything in life. But it is perhaps this desperation, of not being able to achieve anything that she had wanted, of being ‘used’ by Kemal that ‘she could kill him’ and finally of not being able to hate him completely either that she deliberately rams the car to her death in an impulsive moment. Even in the moment of the crash, Kemal romanticizes the death of two lovers dying together. One wonders whether he has really ever understood Fusun. In spite of her tantrums and her moodiness, Fusun remains a character we empathize with, while Kemal although his suffering is strikingly poignant at times, remains in general ‘a sloshed lover’ who needs to be shaken out of his obsession and megalomaniac self-pity. Sibel as a character also commands admiration in the way she stays with Kemal in the hope of helping him out of his desperation. When she realizes her efforts are in vain, she has the courage to break off the engagement even as Kemal cannot. In the end, this monumental story about love, loss, innocence and happiness transcends its superficial love story of a jilted lover and comes alive in the details, in its nuances which contain the world and the human condition in its most vulnerable rawness.