Jun 11, 2012

Dushyanta and Other Whitewashed Men

Remember the romantic story of Shakuntala and Dushyanta? The one where they fall in love and Durvasa curses them apart, but they have a happy ending anyways? Well, guess what? Appears this story has other, not so romantic versions.  In Mahabharata, after marrying Shakuntala in the forest, Dushmanta (no, that was not a typo. This king’s name is spelled with an m instead of a y, and I could find no explanation) returns to his kingdom and decides to forget her. When Dushmanta doesn’t return for long, Shakuntala goes after him. Dushmanta refuses her outright. “Get out of my sight, rustic village woman, how dare you accuse a king of fathering your bastard child?” he roars. Ashram educated Shakuntala lectures Dushmanta on the value of truth, but Dushmanta pays no heed. When Shakuntala is sadly leaving his court, suddenly there is a sound from the sky: “Shakuntala is your lawfully wedded wife and you know it. Accept her, Dushmanta, or bear the consequences!” Terrified, Dushmanta accepts Shakuntala. 
Raja Ravi Verma's painting of SHakuntala
I was puzzled by this story because the Dushmanta I knew was much more pleasant. After some research, I found that Mahabharata is the oldest source of this story, while Kalidasa later wrote a romance based on it. In Kalidasa’s melodrama, Dushmanta forgot Shakuntala because of Durvasa’s curse. Kalidasa also introduced a token ring that would revive Dushmanta’s memory. Shakuntala conveniently loses the token, but all ends well when the token is found. 
Durvasa and Shakuntala
This saccharine version was so much more appealing that the entire universe conspired to popularize it, through constant refrain in art and literature. Even Mahakavai Devkota’s Shakuntal contains the same refrain. Apart from merely changing the story, this version exonerates Dushmanta of falsehood when he was no less than a cheat and an opportunist. Besides, it also reduces Shakuntala from an educated, resourceful woman who dares speak up to a king, to an incompetent whiner.
Even before Kalidasa’s romantic version, Mahabharata had still managed to justify Dushmanta’s actions. Dushmanta echoes his ideological predecessor Ram, and tells Shakuntala that he had just been testing her fidelity. There are other such high sounding justifications in Mahabharata that whitewash male behavior, and sometimes for much more serious offences. For example, sometimes children were born when venerable men “discharged their sperm at the sight of a beautiful woman.” Among many such children is Drona, whose father ejaculated into a drona (vessel) when he saw apsara Ghritachi bathing. Kripacharya’s father similarly ejaculated upon weeds at the sight of apsara Janapadi. If we accept a simple premise that no child could be born of ejaculated semen alone, we also acknowledge the existence of women who carried these children to term. Why were they not mentioned? Mahabharata gives us no clue, but educated guesses can be made from the words “could not help themselves” which describe the rishis’ actions.
Even today, the explanation that men cannot help themselves is used to justify anything from men’s visible expressions of sexuality (as opposed to women’s subdued or nonexistent expressions), men’s voracious sexual appetites, and most importantly, men’s sexual violence and use of force upon women. The fathers of Dronacharya and Kripacharya are both well known rishis, Bharadwaja and Sharadwan, but the bearers of their children are not even recognized as human. They were probably unworthy of mention because they were just receptacles (dronas) for rishis’ “seed” and had as much status in society as clumps of weeds. The logic follows that these women were forced upon, because the rishis “could not help themselves”. The rishis then conveniently abandoned them. Instead of portraying these indiscretions realistically, Mahabharata chooses cryptic symbols.
In another occasion, when apsara Tilottama is created, gods are unable to take their eyes off of her. Restricted by norms of civility, they could not turn their heads to stare at her. To solve this problem, Lord Shiva pops out four new heads, and Lord Indra pops out hundreds of eyes all over his body to see Tilottama from all angles. (There are older, more authentic explanations for Shiva’s heads and Indra’s eyes, but Hinduism is nothing if not multi-layered.) This story is treated as an amusing anecdote. That would not be a problem, except that women in similar situations are not treated quite so indulgently. Renuka who so much as cast her eyes on a king is killed by her own son, on the orders of her husband, no less. Vrinda, a woman who sincerely failed to recognize her husband, was rewarded with her husband’s murder. In contrast, Dushmanta who pretended not to recognize his wife got away with a warning. And of course, any woman who “cannot help herself” and pursues a man for sexual favors sets herself up for the worst ridicule and derision, like Surpanakha.
All this would not have been important if they were just stories. But when stories are worshipped, they set standards for our behavior. Kalidasa’s romantic Shakuntala tells young women that in case of unwanted pregnancy, a woman should wait for a fantastic solution. The situation was certainly not a playful test for Shakuntala, but Mahabharata glosses over her pain and sides with Dushmanta, allowing men everywhere to suspect women’s fidelity. The explanations for rishis’ uncontrolled sexual behavior allow the same explanation to pervade through society, leaving women to suffer the brunt of force and violence. And finally, amusing tones used in stories of men’s licentious behavior encourage the belief that such behavior is quite natural. In order to create a more compassionate world for women, it is time these biased stories were viewed just as stories, and no explanation of behavior be borrowed from them.

Published in the kathmandu post: http://ekantipur.com/2012/06/10/opinion/whitewashed-men/355352.html

Nepal: Not on the brink of collapse

Recently, there was an article in the New York Times titled “Nepal, on the Brink of Collapse” that became wildly popular on the internet, shared, tweeted and retweeted by a lot of people I know.  This article seems to have touched many  chords. Upon reading it, I found a lot to disagree with.

Many months ago, I had done a study for class and come up with the conclusion that international media points out Nepal’s poverty and underdeveloped status even if it is not relevant.  It is amply proved by this article where phrases like “impoverished”, “poorest countries in the world”, and “unemployment at 45 percent” are scattered around like garnish even if they add nothing to the article. A blog called Nepali Jiwan has rightly lashed out at this portrayal, arguing that the western world’s standard of earning cannot be foisted on Nepal, and that 45% unemployment does not take farmers into account.  Other than politics, life has progressed in Nepal. Today we have better roads, better phones, better education, better values, than we had ten years before (some of them marginally, some of them astronomically), and yet none of this gets mentioned in the article. When I protested that international media maligns outsiders, no matter what, my friend Kaishuv argued that they have portrayed us negatively because this situation is negative. Easy to say, but one look at international media’s write ups in favorable times is enough to confirm that international media does not wait for unfavorable situation to condemn us.(The focus simply moves to social issues or values in more favorable times).

Besides this thoughtless stereotyping is the graver issue: of calling Nepal an almost failure. For the record, no country has made the transition to a radical new constitution in an entirely peaceful manner. England had to massacre two kings before it established the current model of democracy. France, likewise, massacred its royalty, and still ended up with a dictator. All that violence, and still no radical constitution. Still, nobody called these nations a failure. They did not have to live with the intense media scrutiny that we do, where each and every step is measured. (Sorry for my Eurocentric knowledge, but I am sure that any other country that has promulgated a radical constitution went through this period of intense labor pains). History confirms that chaos is nothing surprising or out of the way for Nepal right now, and yet it is being touted as something unique to Nepal and somehow the fault of Nepalese people alone.  From a sleepy little hill station, Nepal has reached this state of intense intellectual debates in about two decades. A revolution has brewed in the time span that other revolutions could not brew their coffee on, and yet Stakeholders lie in wait, eager to pounce on every “failure”.  In the same breath the writers recommended withholding foreign aid, and that is such a regressive statement that it knocked me out. In my understanding, aid is given to those who you want to help, not to those who toe the line according to your ideology.  Using aid as a punitive measure just overturns the whole concept of humanity that aid stands for; it classifies aiders in the same category as militant missionaries who help only those of their own faith.

Why is it important to refute this viewpoint of Nepal as a failure? Because this article is being taken as the final verdict on judgment day. The responders on Nepali Jiwan’s website all argued vociferously that Nepal is indeed failed. Everyone who shared this article shared similar sentiments, calling it a "must read", and a simple google search will tell you that this article was carried by several other news sources as well. We Nepalese have a great respect for international media, for us, what New York Times says is not just opinion, but fact. Having our fears spelled out by the international media just reified them for us. This article is being heralded as the signal of doom, instead of being discussed as just another viewpoint! Everywhere people are citing it to prove that the situation is hopeless.Give us a break!  Everything that the article pointed out - corruption, crumbling institutions, squabbling, has happened a million times worse in other countries, most notably in the Western countries just prior to embracing democracy. We have come a long way, we still have long to go, but we will do it our way, and we will take our time with it, thank you. The judgment of whether or not we have failed should be left to the Nepalese people, and no one else.

Original New York Times Article
Response on Nepali Jiwan
My analysis of media's portrayal of Nepal
Dr. Abhi Subedi's article with a similar viewpoint

Jun 3, 2012

Book Review: City of Bones



Ever since Harry Potter created a stir with its unusual blend of magic and maturity, the children’s books that came out after it have been trying to do better than this formula by making their stories more magical and more mature. Twilight is a prime example of this phenomenon, a magical story that has pretensions of being mature. City of bones is another book in the same vein, much influenced by Harry Potter. However, it carries its influences off with much more élan than most of the flotsam and jetsam of post Harry Potter literature. First of all, like Harry Potter, it has done away with boring descriptions of a new magical world. The fantasy books of an earlier generation would be full of pages and pages of description, but today the information is provided only when the reader is clamoring for it, so that the reader really understands what’s going on rather than being overloaded.

The Harry Potter effect starts off quite early, when the protagonist Clarissa starts seeing and hearing things that others can’t. Remember the boa at the zoo, anyone? Clarissa is then pulled suddenly into the conspiracies of a worlds she has never heard of. These conspiracies include a man rumored to be dead for sixteen years who had a band of followers called “The Circle”. This circle’s main mission was to maintain the purity of their blood. Any resemblance to He who must be not be named and his death eaters? And wait, the man is now searching for something called a mortal cup, which will help him to make a new army – anyone remembers Voldemort wildly searching for the elder wand? And then the writer further increases the similarities by squarely dumping unpleasant facts about Clary’s parents.  There is also Madame Dorothea, the squib in place of Mrs. Figg, who is Clarissa’s neighbor. Even the ordinary people are called mundies, short for mundane, which is very similar to muggles, which means kind of foolish.

The book follows the structure of Harry Potter in many other obvious and subtle ways. Sudden plot turns? Check. Unexpected characters suddenly turning up in weird situations? Check. Secrets hidden in parents’ love life? Check. Division of secret community? People going over to the other side? Coming back and having to prove their fidelity? Check, check, check.

Remember, this woman used to write Harry Potter fan fiction. But despite having so many elements similar to Harry Potter, this book has a lot going for it. The City of Bones weaves the web of lies and deceit even closer to home. It even deals with the one thing that Harry Potter doesn’t – betrayal. The web of loyalty, faith, love, and lust are drawn very very tight in this book, as everything revolves around the protagonist Clarissa’s family. And the in the effort to make it more “grown up” than Harry Potter – it plunges headlong into the one thing that Harry Potter stayed clear of – sexuality. From early on, the characters make jokes about who wants to sleep with who. As you are thinking that this may be a little too much for a children’s book, the writer dumps some shocking nuggets of family history that has the main characters reeling.

Unlike Harry Potter, which is intensely emotional right from the first page. The emotions come only in the last half of city of bones. The emotional punch is there, but quite feebly. Clarissa merely draws our interest, and not our sympathy, throughout most of the book. That is because the writer handles the book with a lot of blaseness that has become today after Harry Potter  - addressing magic as normal. When Izzy and Alec and Jace decide to go hunting demons, they all agree that it is going to be fun, even though they all know that their life is in danger. Now, this kind of language is the language of superhero movies, where a cocky, smart-aleck guy kills demon after demon without seeming to raise a sweat. Fun read, but not very emotionally connecting. Remember how Harry is terrified about facing the dragons in the fourth book, and about going to face Voldemort in the sixth book – well, there is no such emotional connection with the characters here – they are all insanely beautiful and witty and smart and seem to waltz around in a shadowhunter glow of their own.

What keeps the book sparkling, despite the super easy fights, is its wit. Jace, specially, is very amusing. Clarissa asks him a question about a Latin inscription in their institute which is the home of demon hunting shadowhunters dressed in black. – “Shadowhunters, looking better in black than the widows of our enemies since 1243” says Jace with a wink. A tight plot gains a few more brownie points.

All in all, a smashing good read for the lovers of fantasy. Read only if you like fantasy.

P.S. I wrote this review after reading the first book of The Mortal Instruments series. After reading two more books, my respect has grown. The writer has shed her HP influences and just grown and grown. The action is extremely fast, and story becomes emotionally gripping. Most of all, it introduces intellectual ideas and themes that are by no means childlike. The villain Valentine Morgenstern might be one of the most interesting characters I have seen, and certainly the most attractive villain.  Double thumbs up, one of the best of Post HP plethora.
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