Thursday, May 30, 2013

Reflections: Tess of the D'urbervilles

The hypocrisies surrounding virginity are tiresomely common to some of us, especially to women like me who come from cultures that place inordinate amounts of significance on being “good”, that even adjectives such as “good”, “moral”, “pure” and “virtuous” are mindlessly linked to something that’s laughably insignificant in the rich landscape of human life. Tess of D’urbervilles is a classic story that heart-wrenchingly picks apart the prejudices and cruelties that an honest and sincere, and may I add, wholeheartedly pristine woman goes through on account of losing her virginity due to unfortunate circumstances in a Victorian, patriarchal society. As is still the case now in certain societies, Virginity is only precious for women, that too women of a certain section of society. Men have no such standards or expectations of course, no matter their social class. Ostracized by her community, Tess is constantly searching for acceptance, even forgiveness, to bury her past and lead a better future. Wronged by one man, she nurtures hope for another. But, even the idealists among men, the most educated, progressive and cultured of them all can be hypocritical in their personal lives. Abandoned again by the man she trusts and loves the most, Tess wanders in a society that offers little consideration, even protection, to women like Tess who have no “men” to safeguard their dignity. Everybody knows this is a story that is doomed for tragedy. However, the brilliant and beautiful writing and the wise discussions on morality make this a worthy read.

This is a story that is still relevant in so many parts of the world, and that’s saddening. How cruel these societies can be in labelling victims and pushing them further into tragic situations. Tess represents every young girl in a poor family that’s struggling to put food on the table and support her large family. She represents the strong-spirited, beautiful girl who gets heedlessly exploited by men with power and money and then repeatedly abandoned and shunned by hypocritical idiots who don’t understand the basics of compassion or morality.

We all know many such stories, and are painfully aware of many more stories waiting to be born. And I’m not going to offer any new insights on the subject. People need to crack open their minds and begin questioning the convoluted dictates stemming out of an outdated patchwork of religion, tradition, and culture. There is a scene in the book where Tess feels her pregnant belly and is genuinely amazed and happy at the prospect of new life. She then quickly catches herself and wonders why she does not feel guilt or sorrow at that moment, why she has to remind herself to feel guilty, why deep down her natural instincts don’t find anything morally wrong with her state, and how she can’t understand why everything in her life has to derail and be doomed. It was a powerful scene to me, still vivid after so many weeks, and the writing elevated Tess’s genuine wonderment and innocence. It touched me.

Thomas Hardy’s writing needs no mention from someone like me. His writing carries grace, eloquence, beauty, and such perspicacity to articulate the angst of an innocent and troubled woman’s mind. He describes his characters and their psyche with so much depth of insight, verbalizing their every subtle feeling and emotion. I also love how he interweaves the roles played by religion, conscience, and morality into the story and the characters without letting the discussion of the themes dominate the characters. I can write essays on each of the characters and what they represent, but since this is not a literature assignment, I will just say that everything about the book is just deeply beautiful. There are so many layers and symbols to every character and setting.

I love books that beautifully narrate poignant stories of social injustices, especially from the viewpoints of morality and religion. This book is one such a classic and it has my high recommendation.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall...

Sometimes, I don’t understand the point of rigorous scientific studies, like the one referenced in this article. The title of the article says it all - “You are less beautiful than you think”.

Really? Someone would actually go to such great lengths to emphatically state that our perception of our beauty/worth is way more bloated than reality? That we, in fact, look uglier than we think?

That’s all we need today, isn’t it? Someone to justify our qualms that the reflection we see in the mirror is way more unflattering than some of us already imagine.

I see a fundamental issue with this study as well. If you were to tell people that their pictures are morphed and then give them several choices from which they are asked to pick the image that they believe to be un-morphed, of course, people start with a strong bias. All of us want to strongly believe that we look better than how we see ourselves. If a researcher tells us that most images are morphed, we would hang onto that piece of evidence like a life-raft! Everybody innately wants to look good and be their best. Obviously, people would mostly gravitate to a picture that looks slightly flattering, especially if they know the pictures are altered. Nobody would pick a negatively enhanced picture after they are warned by the researchers. Besides, we humans can’t identif minor differences between images (such as a 10% slight change in facial features etc.). As an objective reader of the paper, even I couldn’t tell the difference between the 10%, 20% and 30% positively and negatively morphed faces.

But, does it really warrant such an extensive study (and an emphatic article) to state the obvious - that we humans like to feel good about ourselves? It’s common sense that most of us don’t like to be masochists. The fact that most participants in the study did not select their original image, but picked an image that was slightly positively enhanced is very telling - most people are not happy with how they actually look and want to believe and hope that they look slightly better. We all nurture the idea (not the belief) of an ideal-self. This illusion of an ideal-self is necessary (to some degree) for self-preservation, and even self-realization.  But it doesn’t mean that we all believe to have already realized this “ideal-self” - we are constantly striving to attain that perfection and idealism, and that’s where the issue is. If women (and men) mostly believe that they are far more better looking and equipped with desirable traits, why are so many of us so insecure and lacking in confidence all the time? Why is every other woman unhappy about some aspect of her physical appearance? Why do brightly lit restroom mirrors scare the living daylights out of (most of) us?

How do such studies corroborate with the realities of the world outside the science labs? And what do they achieve or hope to achieve with this piece of knowledge?

Dove’s recent campaign might be a little stretched. Yes, it has its scientific lapses, but I think it bolsters something way more positive and constructive than certain scientists that resolutely continue to miss the forest for the trees.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Reflections: Trimalchio

I usually don’t care about early editions or first editions or special editions of books - even my most favorite ones. But, I readily invested in this early and unedited version of The Great Gatsby because the book/story managed to capture me enough to want to read the early, “unedited” version, as it were. The story of The Great Gatsby is one that grows on the reader. The reader should let it wash over them and let it slowly sink in. As with most classics, I realized that ruminating on the story and re-reading it brings out nuances and perspectives that really underline why it is a classic. My first read of this classic was interesting, but I was more absorbed in the mechanics of the story. It was palpable that I had missed something. My second read intrigued me, because I was reminded of something my husband (or rather Lisa Simpson) often says -  “listen to the tunes not played to understand the beauty.” Fitzgerald's slim and edited version is full of these unplayed tunes. While it seemed to give the story an almost abrupt and forced brevity the first time I read it, it was beautiful and intriguing during my second read. Given this, I wanted to read Trimalchio, the first version of The Great Gatsby and take in all the played and unplayed tunes.

I loved this version. Seriously, I can’t understand why Fitzgerald would want to re-work and edit a perfectly excellent book! Since you expect “more stuff” in this book, you assume it would run longer than its trimmed and hemmed successor. But this version is as slim as the other! I didn’t do a page-by-page comparison between the two books (because that would categorically make me obsessive), but I realized the additions, and yet the math doesn’t line up!

In any case, since this early version provided more context and content, I appreciated it much more. However, the subtlety and mystery that the edited version provided is still present in this one. There are so many more beautiful passages that could be re-read and interpreted with every read. The metaphors, the symbols, the predictions, and the moral underpinnings are so much more eloquently and insightfully written. The characters are more fleshed out, their motivations and influences more honed in, and the withering bitter sarcasm toned down. Most importantly, there is more emotion - in the narration and the characters, and that makes this version more soulful. The emotions make the excesses, the materialism and the moral and philosophical implications stand out that more.

I have to agree that this is an American classic. It paints America in all its glory and decadence. The insight and relevance is what makes it a classic. The beauty and poignancy of the writing will stay with me. 

Monday, May 06, 2013

Reflections: The Reluctant Fundamentalist

Everyone’s been talking about this book and movie lately. And of course, the timing of everything. Yeah, timing is something, because I came across this book a few weeks ago by chance, and after reading the first page, I checked it out, came home and read it all in one sitting. It is that much of an intense and interesting book. Only later did I realize that it was soon coming out (well it has come out as I type) as a movie, adapted and directed by Mira Nair. Coincidence, really. Timing again.

Since everyone’s been talking about this book/movie, dissecting and articulating all the powerful themes questions, I am now at a loss for words Everything has already been said. Anything I say now is going to seem paraphrased, regurgitated from captions and headlines. So, keeping aside the themes, here are some thoughts about the book itself. It is beautifully and intelligently written. Its narrative structure is extremely unique and very well handled.

At a quaint cafe in Lahore, Changez, a smart Pakistani, strikes up a conversation with a mysterious American man about his life and experiences in America. Actually, it is much less of a conversation and more of a monologue, especially how the narrative is, but despite it being so, it is one of the best monologue-esque narrative pieces I have read. It is crisply written with wry humor, sarcasm, intelligence, and eloquence. The American on the other side is never described, only implied. Yet, his character assumes a definitive personality - perhaps tinged with some generalization, but vivid and realistic for the reader to place him. The subject of torn identity/loyalty between one’s country of origin and the country of promise & opportunities is at the core of the book, but that’s not all there is to it. And thankfully, the story doesn’t take us down trite and beaten paths on which several books and movies have ventured. It explores the complicated net of issues surrounding identity, racism, patriotism, capitalism, and fundamentalism as perceived by a Pakistani Muslim post the pivotal turning point of 9/11. The author compellingly drives home the point that anything in its fundamentally extreme state is unfair and dangerous - be it religion or capitalism.

The story moves at a taut and gripping pace. Almost all of us can relate to Changez’s angst, regardless of where we come from. It raises all the hairy and complicated questions that we try to evade and ignore as we go through life just focusing on our little bubble and making sure it stays afloat. But when our bubble gets pricked or comes dangerously close to being destroyed by political forces beyond us, it’s only then do we pause to confront and deal with the difficult questions. According to me, these political questions are far more relevant and thorny than just the socio-cultural dilemmas frequently discussed in this genre.

The ending is ambiguous, yes, but it fits in line with the book’s character. The few characters, and the minimal number of words and pages belie the impact of this book. It’s a very interesting read that I recommend.