Of Women: Margaret Atwood

“…women are interesting and important in real life. They are not an afterthought of nature, they are not secondary players in human destiny, and every society has always known that. Without women capable of giving birth, human populations will die out. That is why mass rape and murder of women, girls and children has long been a feature of genocidal wars, and of other campaigns meant to subdue and exploit a population. Kill their babies and replace their babies with yours, as cats do; make women have babies they can’t afford to raise, or babies you will then remove from for your own purposes, steal babies — it’s been a widespread, age-old motif. The control of women and babies has been a feature of every oppressive regime on the planet.”
From Margaret Atwood’s new introduction to The Handmaid’s Tale
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Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams… (A spoiler)

Scene 1 

Onam, 1984 

 “I love Onam, don’t you!”

Malu finished the sentence with an exclamatory mark instead of a question mark, overwrote the ‘love’ and underlined the ‘Onam’.  The ‘you’ at the receiving end certainly shared her passionate love for Onam because Malu was writing her diary.  Malu loved everything about Onam – well, almost everything.  Though a worldly-wise fourteen, she hadn’t managed to outgrow her fascination for the festival. She loved the rituals and the colours, and more than anything else, she loved the folklore associated with it. “It is the most beautiful festival in the whole world.”  Again she underlined and overwrote all the required parts of the sentence.  Her ‘whole world’ extended from the village of Thenapplilly that covered an area of roughly 6 square kilometers, to her father’s village of about the same size that was 20 kilometers away, with her school somewhere midway.

Onam, originally the harvest festival of Kerala, lasted ten days, and included some interesting traditions.  Legend said that Kerala had, once upon a time, been ruled by a benevolent asura king, Mahabali.  Now, asuras were demons who were traditionally expected to terrorize humans and loot the land.  Mahabali, on the contrary, loved his subjects, and was in turn loved by them.  There was enough of everything for everybody in the land, so there was no theft, nor any other crime of any sort.  “Kallavumilla chatiyumilla, kallatharangal mattonnumilla…”  There was no child who had not heard those lines and marveled at the utopia that Kerala had once been.

However, the Gods above – the devas – did not like this state of affairs in Kerala.  They became worried that if this little piece of land became such a heaven, what was going to happen to their own ‘original’ heaven!  They felt that it was time to do some subtle political maneuvers, like dethroning the king.  They approached Lord Vishnu, one of the three mightiest Gods – Trimurthi – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.  Lord Vishnu heard them out, and promised that he’d do something.

At this point, Malu made some slight alterations to the story.  She did not like to believe that Lord Vishnu, her favourite among all the Gods, would do what he eventually did, just to appease some jealous immortals with their serious complexes.  No, he was too much of a man to do that.  It had to be something else.  So Malu clung to a more acceptable version of the story she had once heard or read somewhere:  Mahabali was a great guy, but his sons had not inherited his benevolence.  Lord Vishnu feared that after Mahabali’s time, when his sons took over, they would reduce the land to nothing.  He had to do something before that, so he intervened.  Now, that sounded a reasonable explanation.

So Lord Vishnu took the form of a dwarf Brahmin, Vamana, and came to Mahabali’s court and asked him for three feet of land.  No one refused a Brahmin anything, and Mahabali, who did not refuse anybody anything, told Vamana to measure the land and take it.  The wise men in his court suspected foul play and tried to stop him, but Mahabali, wise as the sages, knew that his time was up, and decided to play along with Lord Vishnu.  Vamana placed one foot and it covered the earth, the second covered the skies, and there was nowhere to take the third foot of land from.  Mahabali bent his head and asked Vamana to place his foot on his head.

Mahabali was thus sent to the underworld, but he was allowed to return to his beautiful land once a year to visit his beloved people.  So his ‘children’ celebrated Onam to welcome him.  For ten days, the people of Kerala, often regardless of the religion they followed, made beautiful flower carpets in front of their houses, and on the tenth day made the traditional feast, sadya, and celebrated the annual visit of their beloved king.

Malu enjoyed preparing the flower bed in front of the old tharavadu – the family house where she lived with her mother and aunt – although growing up had curtailed most of the fun.  When she was younger, she used to get up early in the morning and dash out with her brothers – though she was an only child, she had plenty of cousins – and a few neighbourhood children to pick flowers from anywhere they could; from roadside fences, from temples, even from other people’s back and front yards; Malu firmly refused to call that ‘stealing’.  They would gather as many flowers as they could, rush back to tharavadu, and share the loot.  While sharing, there would be a lot of arguments and fights, but in the end, might was always right.  Malu’s brothers had a standing in the group that was unparalleled, so she was never short of flowers.

And so it goes… Or should I say, “To be continued’?

Delayed Reactions

When I signed my contract with the publishers for Lesser Lives, I was at the top of the world.  I was finally going to be an author, with a book to my name! And when you are a first-time anything, you have big dreams; I too have mine.  I would look through the display windows of bookshops and imagine seeing copies of my book there.  I would hold learned conversations in my head about my book, sign imaginary copies for my readers…in short, I would do everything that a pragmatic, language-teaching, worldly-wise mother of two is not supposed to at forty-something.  But then, like I said, this is my first time!

For the past sixteen months, I have been waiting for my manuscript of 200 plus pages on MS Word to transform itself into a real book.  Life has, since signing the contract, been a roller coaster ride with highs of anticipation plummeting into lows of bitter disappointment. As the gestation period gets longer, my confidence gets lower.  I would have liked my literary agent to keep me updated and reassured, or to check on my literary well-being every so often, but it is not to be.

Long weeks of nail-biting anxiety on my side and utter silence from my agent’s motivate me to message him yet again. I ask him if there is any sign of life on Mars.  Back comes his written equivalent of monosyllabic reply – he doesn’t waste time on niceties or humour; unlike me he’s a busy young man – that the publishing is rescheduled for April 2013.  I want scream, rant and rave at whoever’s out there, but as I have mentioned elsewhere, my front door isn’t exactly sound-proof.  I want to tear up a few things – but then I’d have to pick up after myself… Frustration, thy name is ME!

All you first-timers out there who have not ‘arrived’, you have my deepest respect.  We are blood siblings.  And all you amazing authors who have faced rejection and delay – and survived to tell the tale, you are worth every penny you make and more.  I salute you!