For the last couple of months, there has been quite the lover’s spite between my writing and I. Perhaps our egos came in between; perhaps my muse wasn’t particularly inclined to make me “bleed” over the paper, like I often hold an obnoxious proclivity to describe it as such.
You see, I had commenced on a journey, both physical and mental, and at the end of either, I have found myself beyond exhausted, my bones broken by the weight of the world I have always carried on my rather fragile and useless shoulders.
I realize it takes courage, takes courage to finally admit today that I am so, so, so very exhausted. Perhaps I can only say this out loud because I have no desire to publish this little piece of writing on any public forum. Maybe that little luxury makes me spill my metaphorical beans.
I had been somewhere between 13 and 14 when I had first desired to be a writer, and that didn’t occur in some grand epiphany. There was, sadly, no drama involved. Just me, an awkward adolescent then, scribbling my heart out in my rather weather-beaten journal, only to realize by the end of the night, that I had actually started writing a full-fledged story instead.
Now that I look back upon it, perhaps I was more of a realist back in the day than I am now. I knew that being a writer wouldn’t be a particularly easy journey; that I would require a stable job, so to speak, to fund my rather arduous literary quest. But somewhere between getting diagnosed with clinical depression and a whole lot of substance abuse (rebellious teenage stands to be my favorite part of my rather young life, till date), I guess I started believing in dreams. I believed that the world had a tiny alcove for dreamers too, frozen in time between all the practical realists that loiter day in and day out of our lives. Maybe that was the first mistake of my ordinary life.
Love has a funny way of finding you in the most inopportune of times. My love stories are interspersed as such, I believe. I do not remember where exactly it all went wrong, with all my “what-ifs” sewn together like a garland of reminders of how truly, irrevocably lonely life is. Was it with the boy who found me too late in life, when he had already found the woman he called his lover, or was it the broken girl whom I constantly sought out to build a home for, even in my brokenness? Whatever be the case, as I sit on a rather dreary day at my favorite café, reminiscing about my incomplete love stories, I cannot help but feel like the picturesque twin of the bejeweled woman who waited for decades, pining for a lover who promised his return. I realize I feel closer to a painting of a fictitious woman in a rather cliché film than any real human I have encountered in my life. Maybe flirting with fiction all my life, instead of staying faithful to my reality, is the second mistake of my ordinary life.
I wish I could tell you my blunders number only to a measly trifecta, but the truth is that I have lost count over the years. Maybe my mistakes have been piling up, one on top of the other, like walls that surround me, hide me, choke me from the world outside. Maybe I waited too long to be called the home to someone’s world, maybe I waited too long to find the world in someone. Whatever be the case, I believe the bricks are the mistakes I made, and the mortar my own regrets. You see, I am quite capable of building a home with my miseries.
So I had decided to run away from it all. Run away until my feet bled, until I crossed borders, until faces changed, until I found a place where no one knew my name. I thought I could outrun my past, I thought I could walk away from my old life, and build something new, but I also realize I am a petty dreamer who believed too much in her storybooks than her singular reality. Perhaps only in books the protagonist is given the luxury to walk away from his/her past and build something new. Perhaps only in books we can find an Edmund Dantes or an Amy Dunne. We are never truly gone, we are never truly changed. We are just effigies of our old half-burned selves.
And now that I have come home again, a little more broken, a little more battered, older, wearier and weighed by the corpses of my dead dreams, I realize that I finally know what endings look like. When I had first scribbled and completed the first draft to my still-unpublished novel, when the last words had fallen off from my mind and into the MS word document, I had thought I had known what endings resembled. I had thought that the peace I had felt was the end of the journey. But the truth is I had only been waylaid into believing sweet-nothings by the childlike euphoria of finishing a story. Stories never end, they live on, sometimes when we trace their spines and read their words off the pages in years to come, and sometimes in just redolence of its memory.
But life does end. Life needs a full stop at the end. And there is no peace there. No closure, no solace, only a raging numbness that threatens to drown you under. Sometimes, you give in, sometimes you fight. Whatever be the case, we always turn into dust buried underneath an ocean. Endings aren’t peaceful, endings aren’t formed of bittersweet smiles and half-lidden eyes. But endings are beautiful, just the same. After all, they always said sunsets are breathtaking, didn’t they?
100 minutes into Madhur Bhandarkar’s Heroine, Shahana Goswami proclaims with blithe arrogance, “I mean, for god’s sake, I am not a lesbian.” And in the wee hours of dawn, I am thwarted by the force of a realization. The entertainment industry that has encumbered me since my earliest memories of a sun-kissed childhood has been patronizing homophobia for decades, sometimes with casual mockery wrapped in rib-ticklers, and sometimes rather insidiously.
Oh Bollywood! So pretty with your sparkling clothes, your larger-than-life stories and those fantastical songs that have led to every other citizen in this country to dream about romancing with their Prince Charming or Dream Girl in the exquisite beaches of Santorini or in the snow-laden mountains of Switzerland. And like every other parched romantic soul, I too have grown around the colors of Bollywood, having spent a childhood merrily dancing to Sri Devi’s “Hawa Hawai” and Karisma Kapoor’s “Le Gayi”. But the minute when all the pretty facades crumble into dust, its flaws are left for all to be seen, or mostly in our case, sadly unseen.
Take for instance the tear-jerking blockbuster that Karan Johar produced in 2003. Kal Ho Naa Ho was heralded as the film of its generation, with its dreamy montages of New York and the Brooklyn Bridge, Preity Zinta in her pretty red dress, and a charismatic Shah Rukh Khan, as always, stealing the thunder from everyone else as he essayed the role of Aman. However, rip all the fanfare, and you remember a forgettable character that went by the name of Kaanta Behen, the maid at Saif Ali Khan’s apartment, who was openly homophobic. Presented as nothing but a comedic subplot, this woman kept misunderstanding the two men as lovers, and when the homosexual DJ came by in the song “Maahi Ve”, I remember quite clearly the horrible shove she gave to the poor fellow when he was merrymaking with the others. And to think that Johar, an openly gay man at present, would endorse such an instance of blatant homophobia in a film he produced. You can always say that times were different in 2003, but when is the right time to endorse homophobia?
Now fast-forward half a decade into 2008, when Johar’s next venture, Dostana, released.Unlike its sentimental predecessor, Dostana was a slice-of-life comedy where two young bachelors (played by Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham) are looking for an apartment to settle into in the thriving city of Miami. In a “hilarious” twist of events, they finally rent an apartment with the film’s oblivious female lead, played by Priyanka Chopra, where they pretend to be homosexual lovers, while incessantly trying to win the affections of Chopra in reality. This, perhaps, seems a normal plot for a romantic comedy, until of course Kirron Kher, who plays the mother of Bachchan, appears on the screen. An openly homophobic character, her caricature is presented with item numbers where she sings of the torment that she is cursed with as her son is supposedly homosexual in “Maa Da Ladla Bigar Gaya” (trans: Mommy’s Boy Got Spoiled). And suddenly, the entire theater joins in to this so-called laugh riot of normalizing homophobia.
Perhaps such examples appear almost minuscule, however, the latent truth underneath is petrifying. Bollywood is one of the most thriving industries in India, and its socio-cultural reach and influence is unrivaled by any other. As a peddler of art, I understand that mainstream cinema is the strongest weapon of expression of thought in contemporary society. From its widespread reach of audience to its presentation, cinema heralds a double-edged sword of influence upon the human mind. Identities are often constructed on the cornerstone of its aesthetics. Generations after generations are thus influenced by mainstream cinema in more ways than one. And desensitizing the mass toward blatant homophobia is nothing short of a harrowing blunder in the part of the entertainment industry. Remember that time when Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai released and suddenly all the barbers where busily snipping away to make sure all the boys looked like Hrithik Roshan? Or the time when Goliyon ki Raasleela Ram-Leela hit the theaters one winter morning, and suddenly, all the shops were bustling with the hoards of cacophonous women, young and old, in their bids to buy the “Leela” earrings that Deepika Padukone wore in the film? That’s the extent of influence Bollywood holds in our daily lives. From the bell-bottom pants that can still be found in the concealed corners of almost every middle-aged man’s wardrobe, thanks to Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s, to that hideous turquoise bracelet that adorns the wrist of every other neighborhood bad boy, thanks to Salman Khan, Bollywood stays inoculated in every contour of our daily lives. So when such a colossal industry endorses, and in some cases repeatedly validates, something as toxic as homophobia, the consequences are grievous indeed.
In 2004, a B-grade film called Girlfriend, starring Isha Koppikar and Amrita Arora, released in India. Perhaps the inconsequential plot was written solely to promote generic hatred for the opposite sex and objectification of a lesbian relationship. The film, although a box-office dud thankfully, has stayed in the minds of the thousands of folks who tune in to channels such as Zee Cinema or Set Max for a lazy afternoon of watching films on television, thanks to its repeated telecasts. In the film, Koppikar’s character is a man-hating possessive homosexual who is hell-bent on destroying her lover’s heterosexual relationship. Hitherto less known about the concepts of homosexuality in mainstream cinema, this film set certain devastating and downright delusional standards about the on-goings of lesbian relationships. Furthermore, the trivialized objectification of women, and thus lesbians, led to a generation of men and women conceptualizing lesbian relationships as nothing but a toxic and lust-driven experimentation between two women. And thanks to its constant telecasts, this insidious delusion still finds its audience in television almost every other week.
Bhandarkar’s blockbuster venture Fashion (2008) cemented Priyanka Chopra’s position as the most sought-after actress in Bollywood. However, the film also planted the seeds for the pathetically concealed homophobia that Bhandarkar kept promoting in his following directorial ventures. Aside from the fact that the film’s female protagonists instigated their partners to begin homosexual relationships with the designers they wished to work with, the film’s third lead Mugdha Godse had a disastrous plot where she married a fashion designer, who was a closeted homosexual, in order to publicly maintain his appearance as a heterosexual man. In a country like India, with its easily impressionable audience, this acted as the last nail to cement a delusion in the minds of the common man that most of all male designers who worked in the fashion industry were actually homosexuals. This stereotype also led to the shallow portrayals of multiple homosexuals who acted as supporting characters in the film to be presented as effeminate men for the sake of comic relief. In that context, every third Bollywood film in the 90s finds a mention as the go-to comic relief in that era was an effeminate man or a masculine woman (think Raja Hindustani).
But somewhere, I still believe that all hope is not lost. Our present generation, although influenced by a thousand Bollywood stereotypes, are not as desensitized as their predecessors. Perhaps Dylan was correct, perhaps “The Times They are-a Changin'”, even if the cynical side of my psyche refuses to stake her hopes upon such romanticism. Because for the past half a decade, Bollywood has been flooded by films that speak otherwise. And ever so gradually, they are seeping into the undercurrents of mainstream cinema. Although considered art-house films by word of mouth, these films are finding their youthful audience silently, no longer considered as ostracized celluloid such as Fire (1996). Films such as Margarita With a Straw (2014) or Aligarh (2016) are gradually coming into the limelight, if not immediately, but gradually just the same. There is surprisingly a new-generation audience that is ready to accept films such as these, and they are not shelved into the moth-eaten corners of forgotten films immediately after their screening at some film festival. Even a mainstream jewel such as Kapoor & Sons (2016) starring Alia Bhatt, Fawad Khan and Siddharth Malhotra, where Khan portrayed a homosexual author, received accolades in mainstream award ceremonies such as the 62nd Filmfare Awards.
Of course there is always a backlash, as is always wont to be. Films such as Unfreedom (2014) that was based on Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poem “Ye Dagh Dagh Ujala” bit the dust when the Indian Censor Board staunchly refused the release of this film . Similarly, Aligarh, based on true events, faced its fair share of censorship and counterblast because of its content about a closeted homosexual professor (Ramchandra Siras) of Aligarh University whose privacy was compromised when two men forcefully entered his premises to catch him having consensual sex with a man. After all, the journey was never meant to be easy. And change always comes at a price.
Cinema is the mirror that reflects the lives we lead, the choices we make, the desires we possess. And as we choose to change, perhaps it does too. We have come a long way from apologizing for villains, abusive relationships and stalkers from the 90s (looking at you, Shah Rukh Khan), and yes, the journey keeps getting harder by the day. Women with dusky skin are still considered outcasts in the Indian entertainment industry more often than not (Tannishtha Chatterjee, here’s hoping I see you in another wonderful film after Parched), the search for the fairest and the skinniest heroine still continues, and sexual objectification still churns the easiest money at the box-office (Mastizaade, Jism 2, Hate Story 3, the list goes on). You see, there are a lot of problems, and we are only beginning to think of possibilities of a solution.
But the times perhaps change, the faces change, the cities change, and life goes on. And suddenly, you wake up to a reality where hundreds can march proudly in the city streets, the colors of the rainbow raised high for all to see, unashamed, undaunted, and free. And yes, it is not easy, there are still those eyes that look at you with disdain, but revolutions weren’t won in a day and all you have is your choice to still believe. Perhaps that very faith keeps me going on as well. And so I write a thousand words, hoping to connect to every person who reads them, and give this world whatever little I can.
Summer has long since dwindled into the cold heart of winter, and I have found my home once again. The blues of the skies are now hidden, Calcutta busily robbing me off the luxury of gazing at infinite azures once again, dazed as she is about her overt familiarity. Sometimes it is the trees that I like to blame, the ones that pepper the sky with their mystifying green. Most of the time, however, it is the city’s blasted white noise that wraps me in this unwanted cocoon of ordinariness.
So as I sit in my favorite cafe, unable to differentiate between a Monday and a Saturday, the days now missing their individual gleam, moments chained into infinity loops of the same tasks over and over again, I drift off to New Orleans.
Between copious cups of piping hot tea, my only tether to reality, I travel 8, 801 miles effortlessly, I chase the sound of some nameless street musician’s saxophone as she plays ‘La Vie En Rose’, I chase the street magician who befuddles his crowd with lovable parlor tricks, and I chase the girl that I had been in those sleepless 48 hours in the Big Easy.
New Orleans, an aging city, where the past lingers in every by-lane of the present, isn’t perfect, far from it. But then again, she never made promises of painting a pretty picture, did she? You see, you can find New Orleans in the French Quarter, in Bourbon Street, in the high roofs of St. Louis Cathedral or perhaps in the blowing winds by the Mississippi river. But then again, you can find her in the unnumbered potholes in her cobblestone streets, in the Southern lilt of her citizens, in the old beagle that sat with her older masters in Jackson Square and in the intoxicated homeless musician who played his saxophone for me sometime before dawn colored the skies.
I am no travel blogger. I cannot give you an inventory of the places you must visit in a city that is perhaps as confused as me. I cannot tell you that you must visit the French Quarters right before the sun sets and see all the voodoo witches reading the palms of tourists, or that the best time to addle your senses is at midnight in Bourbon Street. Because, you see, in my sleepless 48 hours, I have lived an eternity in the Big Easy. I have sat by the steps of some stranger’s house at St. Charles Avenue, only intending to do so for a few minutes, and I have let hours pass by instead, watching a couple in their seventies dance like unabashed adolescents to the blues of a traveling band. I have walked by the cobblestone street behind St. Louis Cathedral when the summer rains had decided to shower upon me, only to be saved by a stranger with green eyes and his red umbrella. I had spent hours standing underneath that crimson canopy and I remember falling in love with him. But when the sun shone saffron, us coincidental lovers had parted once again. And I have lived lifetimes sifting through the pages of moth-eaten yellowed books in the tiny haven of Faulkner Books, only allowing myself the luxury of a recess when the pangs for a Gelato set in. Because I went as a traveler, but New Orleans had made a home for me instead.
And when I no longer wished to be lost in the crowds, I had walked by the hundred miniaturist shops that litter the city, tiny remodels of the American Civil War standing proudly in their ornate shelves, with my sister. I had feasted on prawns and craw fish in restaurants that charged a fortune, and I had devoured the delightful beignets, those sugar-coated warm pastries, at Cafe Du Monde, a cafe that had once seen the works of Tennessee Williams come to life in her little tables.
And now as I sit scribbling snippets of my memories, I wish I had more montages to travel back to, I wish I had stayed in the Big Easy a little longer, I wish I had lived a little longer. Because I have only a handful to offer you; because spending only an hour at the Saint Louis Cemetery, trying to remember the names of the dead is not enough. Because spending only half a twilight in the river-walk, begging to board that ship which sailed across the Mississippi is not enough. Because spending only a couple of hours standing on the deck of the Carnival cruise ship, the tunes of Ellington’s ‘Star-Crossed Lovers’ fleeting toward you, is not enough. Because a lifetime spent in the Big Easy is not enough.
You see, I am still in love with New Orleans. I am still in love with the stranger with those green eyes. I am still in love with the old couple dancing like the world would end the next day to a blues song. I am still in love with the artist who paints pictures of Mr Rabbit and His Three Red Balloons in the streets of the French Quarter. I am still in love with the three ladies who stood by a pink Cadillac on the Easter Parade. I am still in love with Cecille Robelet, a woman who slumbers in her grave in Saint Louis Cemetery. And I am still in love with the man with the sleeping dog, a man who would pen you a story for a dollar. And perhaps, just perhaps, I am still in love with the girl I used to be in the Big Easy.
Father had always taught me to look at the bigger picture.
I would come from school, the itch of my dried-up tears begging to be scratched out of existence, my mangy hair disheveled from the hours spent in fighting my bullies.
Father would say, “One day, these memories will drown, and you will only remember its littlest fragments.”
Of course I refused to believe him then, stubborn little wild child that I used to be.
Now I only remember the strands of brown in her black hair, her raging beady black eyes, and the scratch of her nails in my arm, the scars long gone.
I was a miniaturist long before I discovered love.
I was searching for memories long before I lost myself in remembrance.
The little lane behind the assembly hall of my school, the one that witnessed me devouring the words of a hundred stories,
The golden intaglio of a hardcover’s title, its touch still sheltering the first moments of a childish smile that would often bloom in between my lips,
The taste of the first fruit in summer, its yellow-orange pulp finding little corners to hide in between my still-milk teeth,
I realize I have been collecting pictures long before I knew how to capture them.
So when he strode in between sixteen and seventeen, his towering frame overshadowing my little self effortlessly, I remembered the warmth of his embrace, his ever-encompassing arms still etched into my skin.
The love has long departed from my home, only its dwindling memory sometimes knocks at my doorstep, unwelcome yet unrelenting.
Yet Love never failed to thrash upon me after,
Sometimes, it was the lingering smile of a beloved,
In another, it was the lilt of his voice when he called me Red.
Time, my enemy in each story, has robbed me off the fervor,
Choosing only to leave a heart-shaped box of memories in his wake.
But the faraway caress of a past lover,
The kisses shared in the lovelorn lonesome evenings of an age-old staircase,
The softness of a lover’s wrist, wrapped in a hairband, the one never used to tie her crimson curls,
They have remained.
So when you arrived today,
My new guest, my newest curse, my new reason to crumble once again,
You asked me, “Why do you say you shall be gone?”
And I wished to offer you a thousand words,
I wished to tell you that I will remember the rebellious brown that glimmered underneath a golden street lamp in your black beard,
I wished to tell you I will remember the hapless smiles you would often offer me in between my chaotic words,
I wished to tell you I will remember you in the million similarities you found in me and the phantom memories of women you once knew,
I wished to tell you I remember the sound of Red, the color of her raging mane, the warmth in his arms, the image of her bare feet upon grass still covered in morning dew,
I wished to tell you that I have long since loved pieces of you,
Yet, I could only say, “A miniaturist’s curse, my friend. You shall be another memory I once knew.”
I was seven years old when my father had brought us the DVD of Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. Films, a privilege in my childhood, were something left to be seen in an unforeseen future, thanks to the strict instructions of my mother. So when the family would find a temporary haven in the various towns my father would be posted in due to his profession, the textbooks were imprisoned in the cupboards, and the fascinating “color” television, with its cable connection, would be the showstopper every evening.
In such an evening, I watched my second Bollywood film (the first being Taal) with my sister. Truth is, I didn’t much care about the story then, perhaps because at seven I was ill-equipped to understand it, or perhaps I was too intrigued to swallow in the visual art of every frame in a Bhansali movie. But even at seven, I knew that Aishwarya singing with a sitar on a palatial marble terrace in ‘Albela Sajan’, or a lovesick Salman chasing a lehenga-clad Aishwarya across the amber courtyard in ‘Aankhon ki Gustakhiyan’ were frames to remember.
Days later, I would find myself in silent afternoons, dancing to ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’ and ‘Dholi Taro Dhol Baje’, my mangy bob-cut hair never stopping me from reveling the essence of my then-untouchable womanhood. That was the power of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s films, it could even bring a wild child to desire of waist-length hair, doe eyes and blooming crimson lips, all wrapped in the silk of monochrome sarees.
Of course, I grew up after. I realized that a woman can be just as much a feminine goddess in a bob cut as she was in her flourishing raven mane, her unending braid twirling with every bounce of her hips. Of course, I grew up to know that every single one of these images in my head are just constraints that social standards set women to fit into, to box into, in order to comply individuals into set identities.
But then again, how can you ever outrun childhood?
How can you outrun the stories you read as a child?
In our little ways, we always find our way back into the altar of our childhood. A certain song, the lines of a poem we had read oh so long ago, perhaps even a quote from our favorite childhood novel, and suddenly the world around us deconstructs itself to reveal the pictures of our days of yore. After all, we are just children hiding under the masks of adulthood.
So when I saw the trailer of Padmavati, Bhansali took me down memory lane. Perhaps it was the hauntingly beautiful background score, perhaps it was Deepika Padukone gracefully walking in those decadent Rajasthani sarees as the jewelry weighed her down, perhaps it was Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji, roaring and laughing menacingly, and sending the subtlest shivers down my spine; whatever it was, the stories that my mother would read me by my bedside enlivened before my eyes once again.
I remembered the nights when Mother would read about Rani Padmavati, a fearless Rajasthani queen who burned herself alive with her hundred handmaidens, in order to escape a brutal fate in the hands of the Sultanate emperor Alauddin Khilji. Mother had described to me jauhar, the custom of immolating oneself alive in the name of honor, she had told me about sepaku, the custom of the Japanese samurai, and I remember how petrified I had been that night. I remembered my dreams of faceless women jumping into pyres, of men stabbing themselves with their swords before surrendering to their enemies. And I had held onto my mother’s arms in my dreams, and she has protected me ever since.
I do not know if Rani Padmavati truly existed in reality. In my adolescence, my cynical self had gone on to read a translated version of Malik Muhammad Jayasi’s epic poem Padmavat and almost laughed at the descriptions of magical talking parrots and women so courageous that their ideals seemed borderline delusional. And in my adulthood, I had realized that Padmavat, if not anything, was a brilliant piece of Sufi literature, and a pioneer in the genre of magic realism (and here you were thinking that only Marquez in the West and Murakami in the East were scribbling about talking cats and worlds with two paper moons).
But the past month, I had waited eagerly for December 1, when Padmavati would grace the theaters in my city. I was already assured about the the thousand criticisms it would receive, how every one of the magazine critics would fall upon the film’s cadaver like ravenous hyenas and cut it open with a milieu of complicated phrases. Yet, the child in me could not wait to see her most memorable folktale come live on screen.
And then the media hit with the news of the film’s ban, all at the behest of a religious extremist right-wing group called Karni Sena, who seem to be under the belief that by banning this film, they would be protecting the respect and honor of women. Suddenly, the newspapers, the news channels, even my Facebook news feed, are littered by the updates about an extremist group wanting the heads of Deepika Padukone and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.
Films, at the end of the day, are the expressions of art, and my country, as much as I love her, has imprisoned art. Suddenly, the censor board is no longer the only patriarch in judging the quality of films. Suddenly, sentiments of every extremist group need to be satiated for the release of a film. Suddenly, art is an adulterous woman being stoned to death in a field of sand and blood.
An anecdote here, India has no dearth of raunchy, borderline sexist, slapstick sex comedies that are home to a hundred double entendres. Most of them do not even include a single ‘A’ certificate. Yet, the minute when a film is aligned by any form of political agenda, it bites the dust, a recent example of that being 2016’s Udta Punjab.
And this petrifies me. For I am a peddler of art, I live in words, I find stories in between the lingering silences of conversations and I dwell between the precipice of dying utopias and merging realities. So today, something has died inside of me. Maybe it is the memory of the lilt in my mother’s voice as she described Rani Padmavati’s beauty, maybe it is the image of a seven-year-old me dancing to ‘Nimbooda Nimbooda’ in one maudlin summer afternoon; whatever it is, I know a fragment of my childhood was still here until this moment. And now, it is gone.
I remember Netflix seducing me to start watching BoJack Horseman as my writer’s block thwarted me into a literary oblivion in one of my nights at Texas. One episode, two episodes, three episodes later, I was hooked to the show. The character sketches, the hilarious caricatures, the sarcastic quibbling and the bouts of existential dread seeping into the general narrative of every frame of reference was my home turf. So, of course, like every other privileged millennial (I say privileged because my father still pays for the bombastic internet bills that I generate every month, thanks Netflix), I jumped the train and binge-watched all three seasons, my sluggish side dominating over every nuance of the headstrong, ambitious feminist I consider myself to be.
And yes, like every other fan of the show, I subconsciously picked my favorites too. Being a writer, and suffering from a lovable bout of existential crisis every morning before I brush my teeth, I connected to Diane immediately, although I could admire the ambition in Princess Carolyn. There was always the randomness of Todd in between, and especially since he is voiced by Aaron Paul, I immediately adopted him. But the character that I despised with every cell of my being was our self-loathing equine protagonist, BoJack.
And that brings me to the subject of today’s blog post. As is the proclivity of most friendships in this era of internet boom, the general discussion of things among a pack of garrulous friends usually turns towards the slug heap of the TV shows or movies we have been watching for the past few months. And that is when I noticed a rather dangerous, downright toxic, idolizing of our familiar equine. Suddenly, it is the “cool” thing to do, to idolize or relate to a self-loathing, validation-seeking, destructive man in his forties, and excuse your wholesome stupidity with a couple of quotes by the man of the hour, in every aspect of your life.
You romanticize your mental health issues? Quote BoJack.
You romanticize your inability to work on your relationships? Quote BoJack.
You romanticize your fanatical bouts of alcoholism? Please quote BoJack.
And suddenly, BoJack Horseman has become the iconic excuse for your misdeeds, for your inadequacy, for your general lack of trying to be a better human being.
BoJack Horseman is a parody. The character sketch of the protagonist mirrors the flaws of our generation and it makes a well-made show out of it. Yet, a huge section of the audience decides to validate every one of his toxic actions through their dealings of their personal lives. Remember Fight Club? Yes, the déjà vu is immense.
The question then arises, obviously, as to why this character deserves to be a lesson, instead of an idol. BoJack cannot handle his singularity, socially or personally, simply because he is confused about his identity. That is not something inherently toxic. Honestly, most of us hail from a generation of confused romantics. But his way of handling his identity crisis by impulsively harming his personal relationships, pathologically setting about a chain of events that will indelibly hurt or ruin the people around him, perhaps even force them to their graves, is noxious.
His regular insults towards Todd, his fanatical ways of trying to sabotage Diane’s already failing marriage, his general disregard towards Princess Carolyn’s constant loyalty, his lack of empathy towards his mother, and most importantly, his actions that led to Sarah Lynn’s death are only the few instances where he has proved himself to be a harmful friend, partner, son and human being, whose absolution in the end of every other episode appears to be an over-stretched epilogue, unreal and unneeded.
And if these examples are not enough, let us not forget his actions in Tesuque, where he had gone to visit his old love Charlotte Carson. For the oblivious, she was the deer-headed woman whom BoJack had once loved during his youth and still fantasized about having the tranquil humdrum life of a married man and father in some nondescript city in the American heartland.
However, when he lands at her doorstep, he is shocked to see her settled, wholesome, and happy with her family of four. So, BoJack, being well, BoJack, proceeds to have a rather controversial, and mutually destructive, encounter with Charlotte’s daughter, Penny (Somewhere in the afterlife, Yash Chopra is taking notes for his sequel to Lamhe). Of course, you can defend our clueless protagonist and say he did not know the grave consequences of his actions, that he did stop himself and Penny from committing the irreversible act, but I ask you, how oblivious can a man in his forties be? Does he not know the consequences of sitting underneath the stars with a precocious and impressionable teenager? BoJack was a fingernail away from committing statutory rape. Let that sink in.
The entertainment industry, especially the self-aware TV shows that have been releasing for the past half a decade, is a mirror to our flawed selves. They raise a finger to our debaucheries, and repeatedly act as triggers for our self-introspection sessions. Instead, as is the superficial proclivity amongst the most of us, we validate our failed actions through them. We use the impotence of our inaction by claiming ourselves to be the seekers of anarchy, either by idolizing Tyler Durden or Nolan’s Joker. We validate our lack of empathy by idolizing Rick from Rick and Morty. We excuse our lethargy of trying to become a better version of ourselves by claiming to be a damaged and misinterpreted character, and BoJack Horseman feeds our ego. And so, narcissism wins the day. The act of idolizing becomes a ode to our constant search for seeking a sanction for our inabilities.
In the end of my rather passionate rant, I remember BoJack scribbling a note to his former colleague, Kelsey Jannings, and his words went along the following lines:
“Kelsey, in this terrifying world, all we have are the connections that we make.”
And yet, he failed to respect every single connection that he made. He failed to respect Diane. He failed to respect Todd. He failed to respect Princess Carolyn. He failed to respect Sarah Lynn. But most of all, he failed to respect himself.
And so his words faded amidst the motley of blotted ink and soaked paper in the ocean’s azure depths.
And in every turn, in every new love, in every new touch, I think some part of me has been searching for words, and forever shall.
Richard Linklater’s trilogy came into my life in such a way, when I had traveled across the lanes and by-lanes of the city, sitting for hours at cafes or by the banks of the city’s mud-worn river banks, it had come to me in silence, in fleeting nudges and somehow I had found myself engrossed, enthralled and enlivened in a matter of some ninety minutes.
Some movies you grow with, some movies come find you in their own time, and only a few grow with you. The Before trilogy consisted of those few movies that grew with me. Somewhere between watching and re-watching them in the wee hours of the morning, being entangled with Celine’s beautiful accented English and Jesse’s lovelorn eyes, I discovered the secrets of the universe.
The idea that even a day, even a moment, is enough to live a lifetime, when encumbered solely of words, mesmerized me. And perhaps I grew up romanticizing the very idea of it, that two days (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) are enough to decide you want to live with someone till your very last breath, because all you need to do is take the leap.
My words, I realize, are unmeasured in this moment. It lacks the competence of a generally well-researched blog post, but the truth is that no matter how many times I try watching these three films as research, I fail miserably.
From the evening lights of Vienna to the sun-kissed Seine of Paris, I traveled every time with Jesse and Celine’s words, with their reticence, with their longing, with their cynicism, with their dreams.
And the best part of this trilogy is that it is not fictional, not really. It has the coarseness of mundane reality, it lacks the magic of falling momentarily in love with a person instead of their memories, and it profoundly glistens over the hesitation of two adults fearing to believe in happy endings again.
Before Sunrise was a prelude to the swansong of their love story, it still existed in the mystic land between dreams and reality, of two people connecting intimately without having to touch one another just yet, all for a snap of serendipity. But Before Sunset was rawer, grounded further into the heart of reality, almost lost like their souls, but still withstanding the barrages of cynicism. Yet it is Before Midnight that most lingers in my heart. A film where Linklater masterfully exposes the bare intricacies of the so-called happy endings, of failed loyalties and burgeoning insecurities.
I remember the moment when Celine talks about her fears, how she feels that now, in her fifties, if she sat by the same train to Vienna, Jesse would never come and speak to her, never realize the story that awaited them. And I knew that Linklater’s voice was clear, resounding, and hollowed by the truth that happy endings don’t really exist, that endings are just the oversimplifications of moments still left un-lived and unexplained.
Because Before Midnight thwarts you, it thwarts you to rethink the rose-tinted glasses you cannot stop wearing while watching the two preceding films. And those moments, when Celine confesses that she no longer loves Jesse, or the one where she acutely realizes how very different they are, and their togetherness is just a freakish absurdity, it makes me believe that crumbled realities are still art.
And love doesn’t really win in this love story, not by a far shot. Reality takes that victory cake, sometimes even at the cost of leaving a bittersweet aftertaste in your mouth. And it is not perfect, it is not the ending you wanted, it is not even something you wish to see, but believe me, you need to. I needed to, because even imperfections can be excruciatingly beautiful.
And this is me. This is you. This our reality. This is flawed. But for now, it is enough. Because in this moment, it is, “Still there. Still there,” until tomorrow, when it is “Gone.”
Somewhere in Jandy Nelson’s book, Jude gives the trees, the stars, the ocean and even the sun to Noah, her twin brother, all in exchange of a face, of a portrait. And in that moment, as I read across the lines, once, twice, thrice, and over and over, I realized in some 400 pages, that for a moment, even for only the briefest speck of time, the sun was all that could be given and yet, so much more, so much warmth, so much brightness and infinite love could be gained in exchange.
Nelson spins a tale stuck in the melancholia of opposites, of dichotomies that crave to touch one another, only reticent for the underlying regret and self-loathing that lies in between. With overarching narratives of identity crisis, fragile familial bonds, the discovery of one’s sexuality and the undying passion towards one’s art, Nelson stems out a simple plot that covers the perspectives of two congruent narratives in alternating timelines, only to fluidly intermix the two in one wholesome concoction of masterful completion, something which I admit is extremely hard to achieve when the para-text of a novel is the size of a gigantic universe that spitefully looms over the characters and their unique voices.
Beginning the story with Noah’s narrative, a voice that is woefully subtle and loud about its desires at the same time, Nelson tells the story about a young adolescent boy who is passionately in love with his art (drawing portraits) and discovering his homosexuality through his bubbling puppy love towards the neighborhood boy. Mixing magnanimous quotes with the touch of innocent erotica, Nelson brings the mind of a homosexual softly, slowly and most importantly, with empathy.
The narrative then shifts to show Noah’s perspective towards his wilder twin, Jude, who is freer, feistier and the apple of their father’s eye. Jude is reticent to expose her art, yet hedonistic enough to freely surf in the California bay, drawing the lustful eyes of all the male residents in the area.
But the point of contention gradually emerges as the twins’ mother, Diana, comes into the plot. Battling to gain her attention, the twins fight in every sphere, from art to their secrets; everything is an act of winning the love of their art-loving mother.
Intermingling with this sibling rivalry, Nelson blooms an innocent, almost intangible, love affair between Noah and the new neighbor, Brian. Perhaps the most iconic sequence in this narrative is how Nelson beautifully pens a scene where the two adolescents watch the constellation Castor and Pollux through a telescope one night. The voice of Noah’s longing, intermixed lonesomely with his hesitation, brings out a splendid nostalgia, an ode to the memories of first love.
The novel then sweeps over and falls into the narrative of Jude, the wilder twin, and the timeline too speeds over to a couple of years later, leaving unanswered questions that intrigue the reader to the fullest. Unraveling mysteries from the previous narrative, while simultaneously weaving the inner dilemmas of Jude, Nelson walks a fragile line that might bias the elements of the narrative and unbalance the scales at any moment. Yet, the writer succeeds in maintaining the brittle balance between the past and the present, and even brings to life the words of the supporting characters.
Continuing the theme of conflict, Nelson then shows a more mature version of adolescent love through Jude’s narrative, as she spins a more reluctant love story between the quintessential bad boy Oscar and Jude. Shoving into it, she plays the underlying dwindling passion of Jude towards her art (making sculptures) through the interactions with her mentor, before she begins the face-off conflicts between the twins, inadvertently beginning the vulnerable climax of the plot.
I’ll Give You the Sun packs in a strong narrative, overarching themes, scaled characters and the sine curves of rising and falling character development. It makes a poignant effort at a social message with the subtlest undertones, but never lets that overtake the voices of its narrators. Jandy Nelson stays to the core of most tropes used in a coming-of-age novel, but her greatest credit is how she uses her well placed twists to build a new visage in a seemingly easy plotline.
However, the one thing she fails at is to bring out the deliverance of certain characters, especially the twins’ father, with relevance to the actual plot, therefore creating questionable loopholes at times. Although this creates holes in the layer of the voices, she does make up with her own narrative in the end, at times through dragged descriptions and sometimes through incomplete information.
Nonetheless, the novel rises above all else as a poignant read, with its textured characters and unique narrative skills, with a far more fleshier sketch than her debut novel, The Sky Is Everywhere. It is interesting, therefore, to see the author’s development too through the consecutive readings of both her books.
Finally, reading I’ll Give You the Sun is very much like its soulful quote, “Meeting your soul mate is like walking into a house you’ve been in before – you will recognize the furniture, the pictures on the wall, the books on the shelves, the contents of drawers: You could find your way around in the dark if you had to.” You would know the flow of its story, and yet seek out its journey just the same, as if finding your way around the dark in a home that resides in your bittersweet memories.
I like to think of you as a basket of starlight lilies. Sure, it is not the most beautiful flower that blooms prettily for her admirers. But so are you, with your half-scathing words that are lathered in sarcasm and served on a platter to fool the rest of the world.
I like to think of you as two hands holding when the sun is not looking at them anymore. I like to think of you, as the warmth that is enclosed in between those embracing palms, remains like the remnant of a story left unspoken. They are not sweat-kissed anymore, not like they were last afternoon when they laid, conjoined, each line, with its separate destination, congruent to the other, as if right there, in that very moment, they whispered to their destinies, fuck you.
I like to think of you as something akin to the bite-marks on my lower lip, the ones that I spend a lifetime giving to myself, when I catch you looking at me, as I try to look away, only hopelessly gazing at you once again.
What would they say? What would they say if they ever read my eyes, peeped into my thoughts, turned a blade through my heart and bled out its secrets?
Will they be ashamed?
Or more importantly, would you be ashamed?
I like to think of you as the interludes between Madonna serenading to some bearded Mexican fellow to ‘La Isla Bonita’, when those unknown instruments go tip-tap-tipper-tapper to the tone of something tangibly untouchable.
I like to think of you as someone I have touched, in some forgotten dream, perhaps in another lifetime, and now, I am just a ghost, retracing those old roads, hoping they would lead me to you. Who knows? Perhaps we will meet somewhere in between and lie to each other, saying they were crossroads, before walking away.
I like to think of you as a forbidden fruit, one that I have already tasted. But the gods were cruel. Their punishment was to make me forget how you did taste in the space between my lips and teeth, the warmth that I must have felt when the droplets of you trickled down onto the flesh below my teeth, warming my mouth, warming whatever was left of my soul.
I like to think of you as the secrets friends share when even the moon hides in the night. I like to think of as those secrets that the stars steal away from them, when those shining tricksters peep out of their cloudy caverns to listen to their words.
And I would keep counting, counting endlessly, until I remember all that I think of you, until you remember that maybe, just maybe, I like you to think of me too.
A wise woman once said, ‘Even being alone, it’s better than sitting next to a lover and feeling lonely,’ and I wouldn’t have discovered her words later in life, wouldn’t have been none the wiser if I hadn’t walked out of my home that day and watched a movie alone, forever igniting my passion for watching films by my lonesome.
On a drizzling day of February 2012, when the lovers strode past me, huddled in each others’ arms, towards the theaters, I had taken my cynical self for a movie, something that I would laugh about in the coming years, thinking how I had specifically used the term—“Dating Myself”—to describe that incident in future dinner-table conversations.
I had been bitter, and chewing the corner of lips, as is my habit and that of the characters that I end up writing about. Cursing every last of these oblivious fools, for they were oblivious to life and her many woes, for they were oblivious to the incumbent sadness of never really belonging anywhere.
Because I had never belonged to anyone, especially not to myself.
After all, even my self was just as temperamental as I was. When I tried to woo her, she had made it abundantly clear that she needed to be courted, loved, adored, and given a sense of belonging before she would let her secrets be known.
And so, when all hope was almost lost, I had taken my self to a date.
I had got myself a bucket of the most cheese-infused popcorn, not to mention the overpriced glass of Coca Cola.
Now that I think about it, I don’t remember the name of the movie I had watched that day. I am sure it must been something absolutely horrendous. But I do remember that I had decided to “date” myself on Valentine’s Day ‘12, as is the cliche of every stubborn heart in the world.
The results had been horrible—I had cried buckets over some character dying, I had spilled Coke on my new tee shirt, and I had wasted almost half a bucket of those tasteless abominations when I tried to get up from my seat at the end of the movie.
Soaked and poorer by five hundred bucks, I had returned home from the disaster, promising myself that I shall never let myself be tortured in this way.
Suffice to say, I never really kept my word.
As the years passed by, I befriended myself. And in turn, she showed me my loneliness could be turned into something akin to a pleasant solitude. She gave me words, filled me up with characters from books and movies, and strung up the emptiness of my otherwise silent world with music, even if I was quite disinclined towards the new addition.
Inside us is another person, another self that is waiting for you to only ask, just ask, to show themselves. And believe me, even if you drag them through the worst movie dates, the most tasteless of dinners, and even the worst of heartbreaks of your life, they will never abandon you. They will never say goodbye.
I see myself, I see her and I saw the empty unfurnished room inside my soul that had existed before she welcomed me in. It was a greyscale box of nothingness, with no heart and no memory to treasure in the darkest of times.
And together, we had colored it, painted it with a thousand more colors that the spectrum still hides from our eyes. We had furnished it with love, hope, even our sorrows, and our most secret of memories.
Sure, there were heartbreaks after. My self and I found ourselves decorating our home for guests who wouldn’t stay long enough to call themselves family. That they would sometimes leave with a piece of our furniture, stealing our memories, our hopes, perhaps even our belief that we could love again. And sometimes they would be kind, kind enough to leave a piece of themselves for our safekeeping, a memory, a memento of a scent, a voice, or a phantom touch. And she and I, we would caress it, keep it safe, locked inside the most secure corners of our room until they came to claim it again.
But for you to see all of this, you would have to know yourself first.
Know how beautiful, how wonderfully, heartbreakingly priceless you are.
I found that when I had taken myself to see some film in a lovelorn theater.
Perhaps you would find yourself in the midst of words, or perhaps in the unread corner of a storybook, or even in the melody between choruses of a song.
But that is your story to discover.
So find yourself.
And love yourself.
After all, you are your soulmate.
Hold onto yourself when the storms rage, when the sea seduces you to leave out the rest, when the mountains call you to leap forth, when life whispers your last goodbye.
Hold on, because your strong and fragile heart needs you.
Hold on, because that soul is yours to keep, to protect, and to cherish until it is time to depart, together.