Oh, Aronofsky! The Art of Perfection

As an adolescent, I had nurtured myself with the idea of being an over-achiever. And whenever my dissatisfaction wedged gaps between my desires and my dreams, my father had always calmed with honey-sweetened words, such as, “Perfection is an unreachable concept. It is a state of imprisonment that you are constantly searching.”

At the age of fourteen, such words didn’t hold much worth to me, laden with insecurities as I used to be, and I do not proclaim that I understand the magnanimity of them a decade later. All I do understand is the innate need of the human species to achieve something more than their present state, call it perfection, call it a mere rise from the summation of mundane moments. Whatever be the case, we are constantly in an act of motion, in an act akin to thriving. Perhaps that was what attracted me the most about Aronofsky when I had watched Black Swan for the first time.

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The one sequence and quote that propounds the psyche of Black Swan

Aronofsky’s capability to create a monument of over an existing art form has always attracted the audience. In Black Swan, he enlivened Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, only to modulate it with realism and a touch of obsessive surrealism. Lacing what might superficially appear as nuances of the psychological thriller genre, he constructed Nina (Natalie Portman) as a character suffering from schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder. In my very first watch of Black Swan, I was too lost in the artistic visuals, frames and the lithe grace of Portman to actually comprehend the audacity of Aronofsky’s ambitions. Afterward, I was flabbergasted by the conceptualization of Nina’s character sketch, of course. Aronofsky creates a schizophrenic protagonist to deconstruct Nina into two separate mirror halves, just as Tchaikovsky’s Odette (White Swan) and Odile (Black Swan) were. But instead of two separate entities, he merges the two into a climactic conjugation of ballet and sequestered cinematography, thus giving a resolution to the eternal trope of postmodernism, that of the unreliable narrator.

Aronofsky repeatedly plays with the motifs of doppelgangers in Black Swan, and even though the presence of an unreliable protagonist is constantly upheld through Nina’s interactions with her mother and her ballet academy director, he still toys with the audience as to whether the mirror halves are created in lieu of the original Swan Lake or for the psychological thriller genre of the film. But where does the presence of a mentally disturbed protagonist collage into the bedrock of perfection? Perfection, after all, is supposedly an unreachable linear concept, right? Sadly, wrong. And that is what Aronofsky sews in through the leitmotifs of not one, but two of his films. Perfection, to him, is an act of completing a full circle. Nina starts as a partially formed canvas, but when she performs her dramatic fall in the end, the myriad spectrum of colors and feathers now completed, she still etches herself on that canvas, only this time, the canvas holds itself grounded into realism. Does this break the fragmented narrative, so very salient in postmodernism? Yes, it does. And hence, conflict arises. From flaying herself to actually stabbing a version of the Black Swan (Mila Kunis), Nina breaks ground that is structured enough to uphold her perfection, the open ending only propounding the act further. The sheer genius of Aronofsky, however, does not lie on the fact that he could present a psychological thriller inspired from Swan Lake, but the fact that he could present the original in a postmodernist narrative and still break each of its tropes in the end. Perhaps the same concept applies to his newest and most ambitious project till date: Mother!

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The convergence of a thousand emotions through the eyes of “her” (Jennifer Lawrence) along the film’s narrative, accompanied with the haunting silences, create a sequence of ongoing circular patterns throughout the plot.

Aronofsky sped eons into the past with Mother! He unraveled biblical allegories, studied them intently and then presented the same through the simplistic narrative of his newest film. The question, however, was the passage of time. Unlike Black Swan, which can easily be characterized through its modern-day setting, Mother! dwindles between the the past and future, taking bits and pieces throughout the ages. The fact that “Him” (Javier Bardem), the only character with a capitalized pronoun for reference, is a writer, suffering from writer’s block, that he is being celebrated by his mob of followers and publisher (Kristen Wigg), entail that the setting is contemporary. Yet, the structure of the house Him and her live in, its surroundings, the absolute silences succumbing around them, also alienates the setting from the passage of time, as if the place of narration is a sentient being in itself, freed from the constraints of time. Now, what does that remind you of? Well, with all his biblical allegories, simply put, the house is a representation of Eden.

The plot of Mother! is an act of decay. The story begins in silence and ends with rage and fire. In other words, Mother! is a deconstruction of chaos. But, where does, once again, Aronofsky’s perception of perfection fit into the narrative? Mother! is a story of Mother Earth’s (referred to as her. Notice, without any capitals) death. But if it is a case of death, why is it an act of perfection? In old-school pagan philosophy, perhaps death is considered the beginning, and that itself denounces the concept of perfection. But Aronofsky fiddles with the idea further, through Bardem’s Him (in capitals, because he is represented as a version of God, the creator), and makes endless cycles out of a single narrative. Does this, on a higher dimension, construct a singularity? Perhaps, because what is super-intelligence, if not sentient human thought? In the house of Eden, Him and her exist in marital bliss, until uninvited guests come and crowd their home. Adam, referred to as man, (Ed Harris) ushers in Eve, referred to as woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and they usher in Cain, referred to as the oldest son (Domhnall Gleeson), and Abel, referred to as the younger brother (Brian Gleeson). The rise of human thoughts, ranging from lust to greed to wrath, each encompassing the concepts of sin, thus find themselves existent in Eden sequentially. Satan, if exists, dwells, therefore, in the lingering essences of each emotion felt. The stage is thus viscerally set. So, when the guests start increasing, and the house descends into chaos, mother cannot take it anymore. She is suffocated, broken and an alien in her own skin. And when their child, the fruit of the mother, is murdered, his flesh eaten by the intruders, the climatic collapse is thus reached. She brings down the house in flames, something akin to the natural disasters that the planet’s species has often faced. And perhaps that should have been the message, that we, as a species, are murdering the mother, something that any other director would have blindly followed, in order to ingrate into the audience’s minds about a social message. However, Aronofsky, being the mad genius that he is, would have none of that plaintive one-dimensional storytelling.

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The last smile: A laughing Him recreates the world again.

So, he once again inoculates his concept of perfection, wherein after the mass burning, only an unscathed Him and a now broken, burned and near-death her survive. And once Him obtains the crystal inside her’s ripped-out heart, he creates Eden once again, with a new mother. But the question is, what does Aronofsky propound through this act of repetition? Is God inherently merciless? Is God a sociopath who refuses to mourn the death of the mother? Or is God only an idea, who himself is chained to the act of an infinity loop? Whatever it is, he imbibes the deconstruction of Him’s character sketch into the very perception of perfection, once again piecing together the concept of visualizing perfection as a closed circle, an ouroboros, if you will.

Perhaps perfection, thus, is a singularity of a milieu of philosophies in itself. It rises from cogito ergo sum and thwarts upon the boulder of Sisyphus’s curse. Whatever it is, Aronofsky paints upon Black Swan and Mother! his endless shades of fragmented thoughts, and creates something akin to infinity, a place where I believe perfection happily dwells.

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Padmavati: Death of a Childhood

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.

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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.

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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.

 

The Grand Arrival: Mahalaya

Somewhere in the wee hours of dawn, when the night melts into the first blues and saffrons of daylight, Birendra Krishna Bhadra starts his litany about the goddess’s arrival.

 

In a city that boasts so much life at every given moment of any day, listen to Bhadra’s magnanimous voice on any other day of the year, and you’ll feel no warmth, no goosebumps that wake something up in you, perhaps, you will feel nothing.

 

And then, come the morning of Mahalaya, the same voice arouses something from the very depths of your soul, and no matter how indifferent you are about Durga Pujo, you cannot help the warmth in your bones, the nostalgia tangible in innocent childhood memories, of waking up to the usually unnoticed radio being tuned to the right frequency by your father, or the one where the Bengali channels begin with a rather long show about how Devi Durga defeated the evil Mahisasur, how she became Mahisasurmardini.

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Mahalaya mornings shall never be complete without catching an early show of the most potboiler presentation of Mahisasurmardini, filled with its horrible special effects and laughable depictions of the gods. (© Image from Google Images)

The story is simple, really. Without bludgeoning you with a thousand details, it goes something on the following lines. A megalomaniac Asura (demon), Mahisasur, wanted nothing more than to rule Swarg (Heaven), Morto (Earth) and Patal (Underworld, not to be confused with Narak, which is Hell). Armed with his glorious ambition, he committed himself to years of Tapasya (meditation) towards the Lord and All-Father Brahma (think, Odin, the Norse god, only stupider and with far less insight about the future, although Brahma is the god of all that is existent and non-existent). Some information here, no one talks about the severe concentration capabilities of Mahisasur, but honestly, it deserves admiration, because, hell (pun intended), I for one cannot even concentrate in a two-hour exam.

 

So, finally, after years and years of austerities, in which Urvashi (the greatest dancer in the heavens) herself came down to seduce Mahisasur and break his concentration, albeit in a futile effort, Brahma finally came to the earthen soils to grant him a wish. And, of course, in spite of achieving infinite knowledge, Mahisasur jumped the gun and asked for a simple wish—“Make me immortal. No man or animal shall ever be able to slay me.”

 

Of course Brahma, being the brilliant philanthropist, granted him the wish, and soon the tyranny of Mahisasur began, as he went terrorizing the gods (Devata) and mortals alike and conquered the earth, the heavens and the underworld with his huge Asura army. Helpless and ousted of their home, the Devatas (something which, in every story of the Hindu myths, you will find the gods, especially Indra, of being) fled to Mount Kailash, where the dude of all gods, the ganja-smoking Shiva resides. Somehow breaking his tapasya (let’s be real, he was just high and tripping on the weed he was smoking), the gods begged the divine ascetic for a solution. Also an information here, although the Hindu pantheon consists of the Devatas, who are basically divine royalty, the real power lies in the trifecta: Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswar (Shiva).

 

So, in this divine conference, where Vishnu and Brahma also come by, and Parvati, Shiva’s wife, is also listening, they discuss about the tyranny of Mahisasur. Finally, Vishnu (who I suspect is the biological father of Tyrion Lannister for his brilliant diplomatic skills) finds a fatal loophole in the wish. You see, Mahisasur mentioned he cannot be killed by any man or animal, but he never said anything about a woman, right? Depend on Vishnu to target on the insidious sexism of most power-hungry folks in the Hindu myths. Using that, the divine trifecta channel their greatest energies into creating a source of ultimate feminine energy, something which is called Shakti, or power. Now, Shakti, in spite of being a source of infinite energy, cannot exist freely, or it shall ravage all known universe. So, Parvati becomes the savior of the day, and accepts this infinite energy source, and becomes the incarnation of Shakti, ergo Durga, herself.

 

In Sanskrit, Durga essentially means that which is invincible or inaccessible. However, the same can be interpreted as one who destroys all durgoti, which means danger or harm. Combining the two, Durga, the ten-handed, three-eyed, trident-wielding incarnation of Parvati, is a symbolic representation of goodness, infinite energy, feminine power, a universal mother and the lesser known concept of the state of motion. The last bit can be explained in the following way: Shiva, Parvati’s consort, is the state of asceticism, mysticism, stability, and rest, and on the flipside, Durga is the state of motion, of uncontrollable power and an All-Mother, hence, Maa Durga.

 

Now, armed with several weapons in her ten hands, from the Sudarshan Chakra of Vishnu to the Trident of Shiva, she mounts on her vahana, the king of the forests, a lion, and rides off to battle Mahisasur. She calls for war with Brahma’s conch and razes his armies first, destroying all that stands in her way with her mace, her sword, and her bow and arrows. Then she begins her one-on-one battle with Mahisasur, who of course underestimates her for her sex (how stupid can he really be?). This battle marks the perennial battle between good and evil, between light and dark, between day and night, between dharma and adharma, and rages until the end of Time. Durga battles the shape-shifting Mahisasur in several incarnations, from the darkness-removing Kali to the blood-consuming Chandi, and finally, she defeats him when she is in the form of Devi Durga, or Adi Shakti, the incarnation of light, as she stabs him in the heart with her trident (as Arya Stark would say, “Stick ’em with the pointy end”).

 

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Chakyudaan: The ritual of painting the goddess’s eyes on Mahalaya (© Image from Google Images)

But the big question lies, what exactly is Mahalaya? The direct translation of the word from Sanskrit literally means grand arrival. On that note, Mahalaya is essentially the onset of the hour of the goddess, something called Devi Paksha, and the end of Pitri Paksha, the hour of the father. It is in this period of time that Durga Pujo occurs in the city, and Kolkata dresses herself up to welcome her beloved daughter home.

In spite of being considered the universal mother around India, West Bengal stands as the one exception to this rule, where the residents of Kolkata consider Durga as their daughter, who comes to visit her baaper bari (father’s home) with her adorable brood of children, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Karthik, from Kailash. And so, the celebrations begin, there are smiles stuck on the lips of the young and old, and food seems to overflow in every corner of the city.

 

But on this day, on Mahalaya, the final austerity of idol making is done, when the eyes of the goddess is drawn as Devi Paksha sets in, a ritual called Chakyudaan. In the heart of the city, at Kumortuli, where thousands of idols are made every year, several sculptors busily paint the three eyes of the goddess, their art and their passion pushing them to give life to an earthen mass of a woman.

And suddenly, the corny ads on the television and radio do not feel so out of place anymore, the silly GIFs sent on WhatsApp from your older family members bring a foolish smile on your lips, the videos that are shared and re-shared on Facebook does not make you think that they are spamming your newsfeed, the sound of dhaak seems like it belongs right here, here in the City of Joy, and the shopping bags filled with meters of shapeless cloth, from sarees to churidar pieces, do not feel so heavy in your arms. Suddenly, the world appears a bit more colorful, like seeing the city with rose-tinted eyes and in high definition, and everything is so very alive, like our home breathes in happiness.

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Kash Phool (wild sugarcane grass flowers), the symbol of Mahalaya and the Indian autumn or Sarat Kaal (© Image from Google Images)

Because, you see, you feel, and you know that she is here, and she will color your home, your soul, with smiles and delectable sweets and recipes. She will not judge if you steal a bit of sweetmeat from the platter, and she will definitely not rain hell upon your soul if you dare eat meat as the city celebrates in full galore. For we Bangalis, we don’t just pray to an unattainable goddess. Instead, we celebrate the homecoming of our beloved daughter. And right now, she is home, and so are you.

For Whom Does the Goddess Arrive?

When I was a child, Durga Pujo did not come with calender dates, not really. It came when suddenly in the middle of a dreary September, the first bamboos were hoisted by the workers, a sign that the pandals would arrive soon enough, when the huge advertisement billboards of innumerable brands were strung up all around the city, from shampoo to food, when the first issues of Anandomela and Anandolok came to fill up the entirety of the newspaper and magazine shops in the streets.

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When I was a child, Durga came with the last half-day at school before the holidays came ringing in, she came when the last pages of the mid-term exams were submitted to a solemn class teacher, she came when my friends and I half-heartedly trudged towards school to attend the compulsory last day on Panchami.

 

When I was a child, Pujo came with bittersweet happiness, with silent excitement, with innocence not yet lost.

 

If someone would have told me then, that the goddess would be strung up in the city, bartered in the name of religion, and questioned for her affiliations, I would have looked at that person with a blank look of astonishment.

 

When I was a child, my next-door neighbor and resident best friend in the locality was a Muslim girl of my age who would always accompany me, along with her little brother, as my father took all of us to buy the endless paraphernalia required to dress ourselves with in the Pujo.

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And then, after the odyssey of shopping was finally completed, my sister and I would curl up with an issue of Anandomela and laugh her heads off as the different caricatures of the goddess with her brood of children colored the pages of the magazine, portraying her as she begun her southward journey from Mt Kailash.

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There used to be so many colors then, the goddess traveling on a water jet with her children, her son Karthik obviously standing like a king on the deck, pictures of the divine family ready to celebrate Pujo with guitars, drums and cellos, and even some where her husband Shiva would come to drop the family off on his bike. I remember how those evenings were the best part of pining and waiting for the Pujo days to arrive, the days where I was excruciatingly excited to wear my new dresses, munch on every unhealthy street food I could get my hands upon, and see as many idols in the pandals as possible.

 

And then there were the newspapers of course, when come the morning of Panchami, the incredibly long list of pandals around the city was published by Anandobazar Patrika, and my sister and I would stoop over, red sharpie gripped on hand, marking which pandals we would be visiting in the coming days, my mother of course muttering something along the lines of how her hooligan children would eat till their stomachs burst.

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But now, the sounds have departed, the smiles have become cajoling diversions and the warmth in the embraces have long left our limbs. Because, somehow, somewhere, someone asked the question: Who does the goddess come for?

 

Is Durga for us Hindus, is she for the Muslims, or is she for the Christians? If she is a Hindu goddess, why does the Muslim children in our localities buy clothes that are assorted for Ashtami and Nabami still? Why do the younglings still visit Bow Barracks and Park Street and gaze at the glittering evening lights? Pardon my french, but why the hell does Chetla Agroni Sangha and Mohammad Ali Park are still allowed to host their own Durga Pujo, when clearly the leader of one community is a Muslim man and the other is named after a Muslim himself? After all, as someone says, Durga is a Hindu goddess.

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So why, I ask, rather plaintively, does Mr Jawed Habib dare to have the audacity of insulting our Hindu goddess in his marketing campaign, and produce a caricature where the goddess and her children are happily getting ready for the Pujo? Why is Durga allowed to wait while Karthik gets a facial and Ganesh a pedicure? After all, Mr Habib is a consumer of beef, a Muslim, a criminal, an utter disgrace to all us great Hindus and their exalted goddess. He should never be allowed to commit the blasphemy of so much raising an eye to our Hindu goddess.

 

I am a sinner too. You see, I have been going to his chain of parlors for the last decade. I started out as a silly brat at fourteen who wanted nothing more than the long flowing tresses of our Hindu goddess and now I actually do have that hair, all thanks to the years of undying persistence of my favorite hair stylist in the parlor. I remember the number of times I broke bread in the shop of this Muslim man, the number of times I drank his water, the number of times I visited every new branch that cropped up in Calcutta during their grand openings.

Furthermore, I remember one of my father’s closest friends, a tailor in the heart of Metiaburuz, a Muslim man, I confess, who would send the most beautiful bunch of colorful frocks for my sister and me, every year, a man who would send the most delectable shimui as his blessings for Eid, and how his son, a man I grew up calling my brother, would come to bless us during Pujo, break bread with us once the austerities were over with the prosad our family cooked for our 150-year-old Durga Pujo. I remember how beautiful his wife, my boudi, had looked when on one year, my mother had lovingly colored her cheeks with sindhur (vermilion) during the last hours of Dashami.

 

And yet, no one in my family, not my loving father, not my usually strict mother and definitely not my crazy-as-the-Mad-Hatter sister told me that I was a sinner. No one told me that Kaku or Dada were Muslim, untouchable, unwelcome, and somehow, I grew up considering them just as we were, humans.

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Perhaps that was my childish foolishness, but in a world where goddesses are cut open, their intestines spilled out to see the color of their blood and count the faithfuls they cater to, maybe the opinion of a child is the only thing that can save us all.

 

And maybe, just maybe, Durga is not a Hindu goddess, maybe her brood of adorable children are not only for the ones who pray to cows, maybe she is for all of us, for our families, our friends, our acquaintances, and even our rivals. Maybe, just maybe, Durga is for every Bangali across the globe. Just think, what a beautiful world that would be.