Sunday, August 06, 2023

Bewitching Barbie and Bread Pudding for Brains

The feminist dream of a world where women and men work together to reduce and gradually topple unequal social structures to ensure equal rights and social justice for all is an improbable fantasy. Too many men and women are too committed to the existing status quo where the benefits are manifold for those who sell their souls and silence their conscience to better kowtow to entrenched patriarchy. It is also the reason crimes against women and minorities persist with alarming regularity with no hope of justice for victims; wars continue to be fought in the interest of preserving the interests of the oligarchy; global warming and its implications for humanity will be brushed aside, because plastic needs to be used and sold so that fat cats can grow fatter and so on and so forth. 

It takes gut wrenching effort and soul crushing sacrifice to bring about lasting change. Who the hell can be bothered with all that when it is so much easier to be a part of the problem in a benign way? Where you can bow down before the Gods of capitalism in exchange for their benevolent assurance that you remain ever wrapped in the cold embrace of materialistic excess. When it is okay to lean into your inbuilt narcissistic tendencies and call it individualistic altruism because PC lingo is everything. Where it is perfectly acceptable to allow your brains to become bread pudding from the constant bombardment of exquisite imagery on your preferred screen crafted by those who have been paid to tell you what to think.
In this climate, of course Barbie – the movie would be a humongous blockbuster. Even though the explosion of pink, which despite being my favourite colour makes me feel like I have been chained and imprisoned in Dolores Umbridge’s basement. For the uninformed, she is a character in Harry Potter who uses pops of poisonous pink and a sickly sweet manner to disguise the extent of the hatred, intolerance and cruelty that actually defines her. While I have no intention of watching the movie, thanks to Greta Gerwig, who made the extraordinary Lady Bird, I have no doubt that Barbie is now funny, smart and endearing but pernicious as ever. 
After all, the truth is women, like Barbie herself, can be whatever they want to be as long as they expend all they have to be pretty and perfect as a doll. It is the surest way to guarantee success and be valued. Talent, intelligence, and aspirations count only if it is wrapped up in a glittering package that includes a gorgeous smile, great hair, glowing skin, a hot bod and overall compliance. It is only to be expected in a world where the feminist dream has been traded in to sell IP for Mattel and the rest of their ilk. Now if you will excuse me, I am off to buy a pink dress, shoes and accessories. Later, I’ll watch La La Land and let Ryan Gosling do his thing, so I can just stop thinking about impossible dreams. 

This column was originally published in TNIE magazine.

Book Review: Mandodari


Koral Dasgupta’s, Mandodari, fourth of the Pancha kanyas in her highly acclaimed Sati series attempts to rescue from obscurity, one of the most fascinating characters in the Ramayana who has traditionally been eclipsed, by her infamous husband, the mighty Ravana. Born to Maya, the architect of the Asuras and Hema, a celebrated apsara, Mandodari went on to become, the Queen of Lanka and the mother of the invincible Indrajith. Not much space is allotted to this enigmatic character in Valmiki’s Ramayana or the umpteen versions that followed and Dasgupta does a tremendous job of making up for this oversight. In her deft hands, Mandodari reemerges as a force to be reckoned with, blessed with extraordinary powers of her own and a fierce will, committed to bringing to life her husband’s impossible but unimaginably daring vision.

Narrated with insight and imagination, Mandodari’s tale is captivating. Forced into a union with the magnetic, masterful, and magnificent Asura King, though all it would have taken is persuasion, Mandodari is not without agency. For Ravana knows that his dreams would remain just that without her creative powers, architectural genius, and inspired innovations to see them take shape as the impeccably sculpted and Golden Lanka. Theirs is a caring relationship but also a fraught one, which is gradually pulled apart by conflicting ideologies, which come to a head, when Ravana makes the ill – fated decision to kidnap the wife of another man, who just happens to be an avatara of Vishnu, born for the express purpose of slaying a Rakshasa King with colossal ambitions and the reckless skills and preternatural talent to realise them.

Not one to pamper the male ego and enable rapacious conduct, Mandodari is a clarion voice who doesn’t hesitate to call out her husband when he breaches the code of Dharma. She speaks up for the rights of women in general and Sita as well, becoming an unlikely ally for the beleaguered Princess. It is thanks to her efforts, veering between the compassionate and conniving that the worst excesses of her husband are undone, ultimately preserving his legacy as a fatally flawed but innately admirable soul.

Dasgupta’s treatment of Surpanakha is far from sympathetic though. This much – maligned and often misunderstood character is further villainized as a spoilt, savage creature with an outsize appetite for lust and deceit without a single redeeming trait. Though the Princess of Lanka was treated abominably and horribly mutilated by the Princes of Ayodhya, when she frankly declared her desire for Rama, Surpanakha is subjected to a bit of victim – shaming here. This is a pity, and it feels unfair to cast poor Surpanakha as the evil antagonist to Mandodari.

This complaint notwithstanding there is much to recommend Mandodari with its lyrical prose and philosophical moorings that conjures up visions of a mesmerizing world where so much is made possible by a lone woman’s resilience and unswerving commitment to do the right thing not just in the interests of her loved ones but the greater good.

This book review was originally carried in TNIE Magazine