Vol. 5 Num 926 Sat. January 06, 2007  

Of Paan, Parineeta and Parvati

Rebecca Sultana

My 'Women and Nationalism' class was an eye opener. Over the course of the semester we read fiction, poetry and theory analyzing how entwined women's lives are with the nation and thus made all the more vulnerable as they are forced into difficult positions. The success of my class depended on my students. This was an all female graduate class. The lone male student dropped out at the beginning of the semester claiming overwork and other commitments. These were smart young women, who dissected Spivak, Said, Foucoult and Derrida with an acumen that left me breathless. Feminist theories were also discussed, mostly of the Third World variety, again evoking Spivak, Chandra Mohanty, Kumari Jayawardena, Lata Mani and the likes.

But this was not just an erudite and serious class. I brought laddoos, samosas, and jilapees to give them the South Asian gastronomic flavor. When I brought paan to them some were brave enough to take a few nibbles. When I mentioned that nothing beats paan as a deterrent to morning sickness, that really made them interested. They, on the other hand, would bring home-baked brownies and muffins that I would attempt to taste.

Films were an integral part of the class, and I often feared that I might be overwhelming them. Water revealed patriarchal complicity in exploiting religious ignorance for more mundane economic reasons. Tagore's Ghare Baire highlighted the emancipated "new woman" but also her vulnerability in a society not yet at par with the rising 19th century literary and cultural awakenings. During the showing of Earth, Leanne ran out of the class room just before Ayah was dragged out of the house. When she came back and I quizzed if everything was ok, she said that she just couldn't bring herself to watch the scene. Jean Arasanayagam's poetry made it imperative that we learn about the decades-old hostility between Tamils and Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. The bio-documentary No More Tears, Sister, brought tears to our own eyes.

The very last day of the term appeared and I wondered what we should do to wrap up the class. Everybody agreed that after the heavy dose of somber movies, we needed something to perk us up, especially considering the end of semester stress of meeting deadlines. I settled on Parineeta, having found the movie likeable in its simplicity, beautiful music and the happy ending. I was also well aware of its enormous popularity.

After providing them some literary background of the movie, I selected the subtitles and sat back to enjoy it one more time. They were duly forewarned that in a typical Bollywood movie people would suddenly burst out in songs for no apparent reasons and would remain in full makeup during the entire length of the day, but as soon as the first giggle started I realized I was in for a bumpy ride.

I continued to provide tidbits about Bengali culture and to clarify the Shekhar and Lalitha relationship until we came to the scene when the two meet on the staircase on his wedding day. As Shekhar swooped his palm down on Lalitha's face as a slap, Leanne's "Whoa" almost drowned the collective gasps that emanated from the rest of the class. I, too, became troubled. I sat through the rest of the movie not enjoying myself any more. As the movie ended, Leanne asked, "She ended up marrying him? I would never marry anyone who hit me like that." Come to think of it, would I have, given the chances? Heck no! But wait, didn't I just say I had liked this movie? Why did I never think anything about a man's hitting a woman? Was I that inculcated into the dominant ideology of a woman's place in a man's world? Of course, the fact that it was all done through a misunderstanding and that later Shekhar repents, altogether exonerates him in the eyes of his female fans. While most reviewers underscored the refreshing quality of a movie sans violence, what does one call hitting a woman so hard she falls? Misunderstandings or not, let's call what it is - brute violence.

Those who have read the actual Saratchandra novel know that Lalitha is thirteen years old when the novel starts. She is, however, seventeen when the story ends with the prospect of her marriage. By fourteen she had resigned herself to a life without love, and to the fact that she must lose the man she feels married to for no fault of her own. She knows that she will never stop loving him though he is revealed to be a self-righteous coward. Lalitha in the novel is a child without a childhood, the carefree kind that would suit someone of her age today, as she dealt with responsibilities that would appear to us far beyond her years. We must remember though, that it wasn't until the 1891 Age of Consent Act that the marriageable age for Bengali girls in Kolkata was increased to twelve and later to fourteen. But, of course, to show a thirteen-year-old in love, even by Bollywoodian standards, would have made a Lolita out of Lalitha.

In the movie itself, it is hard to see what Lalitha sees in this man not withstanding his occasional buying her trinkets and providing easy access to his pocket money. Girish is, by far, a better choice of a male. Still, all is fine at the end, misunderstandings are sorted out and Shekhar and Lalitha get married, but one wonders if he actually deserves her. Interestingly Shekhar's indecisiveness are remarkable in themselves, in that they disclose the defining role that male ego can play in a relationship, and on the quandary of a generation that, on the whole, had not learnt to stand up to dominating fathers.

Speaking of domineering fathers, no one takes the cake more than Devdas's father. The first and only time I read the novel was just after my school finals when I had all the time in the world to kill. Having already had hearty doses of Mills and Boons and Harlequin romances, I still was not as starry eyed as not to see through Devdas' flimsy fašade. Finishing the novel, I found him to be the perfect candidate for Alcoholic Anonymous, a ne'er-do-well weakling, a sorry example of a grown-up male and as males of this version go, ready to pick on those smaller in size--in other words, Parvati. He hits Parvati hard enough to give her a bleeding wound. The worse thing than the blow is Parvati's glorifying the scar.

In the glitzy version of the movie there are similar glorifications galore. This is a movie as misogynistic as violent towards women. The patriarchal rhetoric of the dialogues justifies verbal and physical violence against women. All the women characters are identified simply by their relationships with men. And again, what is even more difficult to absorb is how women themselves are shown accepting of such behavior. But let me not get started on this one too.

Coming back to my class, there are things that have made me proud. While reading Sultana's Dream, my class marveled at such early depiction of Bengali Muslim women's writing, contradicting the more negative portrayal of women from that area. Around the same time, Dr. Yunus' Nobel prize was especially welcome considering Grameen's reputation of working with disenfranchised women. Caitlin, especially, became an instant fan, updating me with Dr. Yunus sightings on the media. She was especially moved to see him being interviewed on the Jon Stewart show.

This is the show, Caitlin had informed me earlier, that young people of her generation in North America get their political views from, rather than from the more mainstream news channels. Once, in an after class casual talk that veered towards American politics and foreign policy, I vented my frustration at the complete nonchalance of the American public to the current administration. Caitlin protested. It came out that she is American. Oops, I said. "No, no," she protested, "I'm equally frustrated." Young people do protest, Caitlin insisted. What frustrated her was the absolute absence of an impact of such protests. "Look what happened during Vietnam," she pointed out. "No one cares anymore today." Lara, another transplanted American to Canada, agreed. She ventured that it's probably fear, or not wanting to be portrayed as unpatriotic that could be the deterrent to a mass uprising like the Vietnam era ones. It was heartening, nonetheless, to see these young people with conscience. Yet, I still wonder how much clout they carry and whether the rest of the world have patience enough to wait until this generation comes to power. For now, Caitlin is more amazed to see Stewart, who usually cracks irreverent jokes with his guests, spare Dr. Yunus a similar treatment, clearly being over awed himself.

Rebecca Sultana teaches at Concordia University, Canada.