It’s an old story: a large number of people collectively fall in love with a male act, create a fandom, and over a series of logical leaps conclude that his wife is a criminal who is forcing him to stay in a sham marriage with her. Also, their babies are fake.
Here’s the twist: this story is not about the act; it’s about the fandom. Fandoms are interesting objects of study because unlike acts they never perform; they react. They react with love and they react with hate and you can be absolutely certain that they mean every single grin and scowl they send your way. The anonymity which fandoms offer to individuals provides fans with a unique opportunity to indulge themselves; and these indulgences range from full-out sobbing in the middle of a concert to vicariously living more luxurious lives. The combination of these high levels of affection and obsession with their favourite acts inevitably results in a sense of ownership; and in fandoms, this possessiveness and need for control can sometimes manifest itself in a strange form: conspiracy theories.
In the summer of 2014, Benedict Cumberbatch and his now wife Sophie Hunter were spotted together for the first time. By November, they were engaged. This sent the entire Cumberbatch fandom into a meltdown. Sides were quickly chosen, and there emerged a small group of skeptics of this quick engagement. At this point, the first of the many theories surrounding Cumberbatch’s marriage started popping up: fans started believing that Hunter was a criminal who sold drugs and was utilising Cumberbatch’s wealth to further her own means. However, fast-forward eight years and they are still together with three children. And yet, the frenzy surrounding this theory has only grown. Social media platforms are saturated with “evidence” corroborating the conspiracy and explaining exactly why fans believe that Hunter is a criminal and their babies are “fake”.
Obviously, it’s all lies, but what’s fascinating here is why people buy into these conspiracies. Cumberbatch’s fans have convinced themselves that Hunter is forcing him to be with her. This cruelty stems from a response to the shifting social status of women recently. The slow march of women towards a more equal status has given rise to a trend in which they become subjected to seemingly similar standards to those of men (or, the old “Feminism isn’t real because I can slap a man but I can’t slap a woman”). This makes it convenient to crack lewd jokes objectifying other women in their presence, pushing them to give up time with their children to invest more in their jobs, and arguing that they do not need special conveniences like extra sick leaves or half-days because, “it’s not “equal” then, right?” And when a woman actually manages to overcome these disadvantages and carve a niche in her chosen industry—the demonisation of her self and barbs directed at her personal life begin. Consequently, concerns like Hunter’s role as a wife and a mother become subjects for public scrutiny; and fans find it acceptable to posit that her babies are a PR stunt.
The ”Babygate” conspiracy is an old one. In 2016, One Direction singer Louis Tomlinson’s son was also declared “fake” by some of his fans. However, the Tomlinson Babygate ties into an even larger conspiracy theory which has been alive and kicking since 2011: Larry Stylinson. ‘Larry Stylinson’ started off as mere shipping by the band’s fans, and was collectively understood to be a form of sexual expression. However, it eventually snowballed into the pervasive idea that Tomlinson and his bandmate Harry Styles are actually in a relationship. This move from imagination to reality also reflects a social shift: the visible rise of pro-LGBTQ+ movements in the past decade across the world both on-ground and on social media. The reason almost 60% of the fandom still believes this theory is possibly because they want it to be true: fans crave idols who can represent them (i.e., who also identify as queer), and provide a wishful template for their own lives. This want, alongside the presence of a dense evidentiary archive surrounding the band in an interpretive community like the One Direction fandom, has resulted in a collective loss of perspective. Any contrary evidence is treated like deliberately created inconsistencies whose presence only testifies to the forced closeting of Tomlinson and Styles by their “management”; and any suggestion of closeness between the two only serves to fuel the alleged non-platonic fire. This has resulted in the creation of a different (and more favourable) internal reality for these fans, one in which Tomlinson and Styles’ romantic relationship is a foregone fact.
Conspiracies are deceptive yet attractive because they represent a reality in which random coincidences don’t exist and everything has a meaning. They provide fans with a sense of control since celebrities become cherished objects over whom fans exert control by having them act in line with their collective fantastical stories. Today, social media provides fans with illusory unfettered access to their idols’ lives and consequently, makes it easy to translate this collective possessiveness into a sense of ownership. However, many times, the sheer influence of fandoms as social groups on the internet creates pockets of actual access, through which fans gain power over celebrities’ real-life events. The Cumberbatch conspiracy hurt both Cumberbatch and Hunter, and the Larry Stylinson conspiracy imposed norms of rigid masculinity, suggesting that casual intimacy between two men always implies a romantic relationship, and eventually (according to Tomlinson) led to the breakdown of their close friendship.
Despite their harsh effects, such conspiracies are sometimes shrugged off as whimsical yearnings of young teenagers. However, it becomes hard to shrug off conspiracies like the recent Sushant Singh Rajput suicide which took on a life of their own and eventually (and evidentially) enchanted a dangerously large number of people. Besides abject misogyny, the SSR conspiracy reflected the increasing tendency towards mythologisation in India. This inclination led to cherry-picking of facts by Rajput’s fandom to finally arrive at a flattened product which conveniently fit the prevailing overarching, national narrative: a rich, extremely adored male actor died in India; he was a self-made man who had worked his way up the ladder in big, bad Bollywood; he was a hero, and consequently, when he died, it could not have been a suicide. Heroes do not commit suicide. Heroes are murdered, and the story is firmly closed off as a tragedy. Therefore, the person to blame for his death is obviously his girlfriend; a woman who’s a brilliant artist, and who occasionally likes a cigarette. However, in the myth of today’s India, when all our heroes are broad-chested men who endorse the women-are-distractions party line, a woman who is self-sufficient, and occasionally likes a cigarette immediately becomes a temptress; and is hence, seen, and regarded as a threat. Here, the urge to indulge conspiracies becomes a cause for much more harm than the relatively mild effects of internet trolling.
Conspiracies have always existed (‘Paul McCartney is dead’) and chances are, will always continue to exist. The feeling of superiority and satisfaction that fans experience by believing that they are privy to some information which the rest of the world isn’t, is golden. However, today it seems more pivotal than ever to analyse conspiracies in fandoms because, over the past few years, the relationship between fans and artists has changed significantly. Fans have moved on from the thought that they owe artists gratitude for providing them with gorgeous art and entertainment. Instead, they argue that artists owe them their gratitude for their continued devotion and efforts to keep them “relevant”. This shift in power, compounded by conspiracy theories, can become dangerous when fans encourage artists to live the lives that they want them to live.
And that is one story with no happy ending on the horizon.
Umrao Jan Ada is a seminal nineteenth-century (published in 1899) Urdu novel by Mirza Mohammad Hadi Ruswa. Ruswa’s novel tells the story of a courtesan and poet from 19th-century Lucknow, named Umrao Jan Ada. Born as Ameeran, the protagonist is kidnapped and sold into prostitution where she eventually grows into Umrao Jan Ada. Umrao Jan Ada: Umrao, a signifier for the girl young Ameeran was forced to become; Jan, a signifier for her deflowering and entry into the profession of prostitution; and Ada, the pseudonym under which she writes her poems, and the only name she chooses for herself. In this paper, I seek to investigate this title ‘Ada’, Umrao’s poetry, and the work it does in Ruswa’s novel as a socio-economic currency. I then explore the ways through which these couplets shape the form of the novel. Ultimately, I argue that the couplets in Umrao Jan Ada fundamentally delineate Umrao as an individual, hence, constituting as a principal technique through which Ruswa achieves realism in this novel.
In her essay “Women of ‘Ill Repute’: Ethics and Urdu literature in colonial India,” Sarah Waheed provides an etymology of the word ‘Adā’:
“Adā in Urdu has two meanings. One is from the Arabic, and has to do with exchange, execution, and transaction, that is, to fulfil a contractual obligation; the second meaning is of Persian etymology, and refers to the manner, style or ways specific to one’s personality; it is also closely tied to coquetry, alluding to emotive gestures, though not exclusively, and the sensual and sexual space of one’s body.” (1001)
Poetry is repeatedly posited as a currency of exchange in this novel. In their first meeting itself, a mere verbal, in-absentia appreciation of Ruswa’s ghazal is deemed as an unsatisfactory display of admiration; it can only be through her presence that Umrao adequately “honours” (Ruswa v) his poetry. This form of transaction occurs recurrently through the text: “in exchange for the pleasure of his company, Ruswa procures Umrā’o Jān’s story” (Waheed 1011); and in exchange for his presence, Ruswa is able to ‘buy’ Umrao’s story. For Umrao is seeking a willing audience; someone who will listen to her story and indulge her performance. In this first meeting itself, Umrao wonders aloud: “Who will listen to the tale of my woeful heart…I have much to impart” (Ruswa vi); and this incites Ruswa to ask Umrao to narrate her life story. “Impart” [Latin impartire, from in-‘in’ + pars, part- ‘part’] (Online Etymology Dictionary) literally means to give in part i.e., in pieces; a share of something (away). The use of this word here reveals that Umrao wishes to not only tell her story, but give it away. Here, then, in their first conversation itself, her tale is “commodified” (Waheed 1001), and posited by Umrao herself as an object which she wishes to give away. Also, the use of the article ‘the’ instead of the possessive pronoun ‘my’ while talking about this tale is also revealing — Umrao is already distancing herself from the story, treating it more as a commodity which she can sell and less as a narrative story-telling experience which she will choose to share with Ruswa, but will ultimately belong to herself. The authorship i.e., the ownership of Umrao’s story passes (is sold) from Umrao to Ruswa in this first meeting; in exchange for the indulgence of her poetic performance through Ruswa’s willing presence.
The recitation of poetry is showcased as a performance from the preface itself: the performing poet is described as spotlighted by the “candle flickering in a glass shade” (Ruswa vi). This ties in with the second meaning of ‘Ada’, evoking an investment with the “emotive gestures…and the sensual and sexual space of one’s body” (Waheed 1001). It is notable, then, that the first—and only—instance when Umrao performs a poem which incorporates her “poetic name” (Ruswa 81) ‘Ada’ is outside of Khanum Jan’s kotha; in the Raja Sahib’s mansion. Umrao sings of her freedom: “Like a pet singing bird let out of its cage / My bonds are loosened when I love my bondage…‘Ada’ from love’s prison there can no freedom be / Prisoner in love with captor can enjoy no liberty” (Ruswa 81). This verse reveals Umrao’s anxieties about freedom: while on one hand she refers to Khanum’s kotha as a “Prison-house” (Ruswa 100), on the other she also declares that she “loves her bondage” (Ruswa 81). Plus, it is the first—and only—instance in the novel when it can be ascertained that the perspective Umrao is borrowing for her performance is her own — through the claim she stakes on its expression through her usage of her pseudonym ‘Ada’. This, then, is also the only moment in the novel when Umrao’s performance is not simply intended to entertain her audience but also to express herself. The fact—and, perhaps, ability—of her desire to ‘express’ outside of the kotha is telling of her relationship with her performance — outside the “Prison-house” (Ruswa 100) ‘Ada’ can express herself; inside it, she will only entertain, wielding her poems as a socio-economic currency.
The presence of these couplets queers the form of Ruswa’s novel. It repeatedly shatters binaries; collapsing time, spaces and perspectives. The appearance of the couplets through the novel repeatedly interrupts the prosaic narrative, and enables the form of the novel to flit between the spaces of the interview (the multiple sittings across which Umrao recounted her story to Ruswa) (Ruswa vi), the mushaira, and the courtesan’s stage. In these moments when the novel-form is framed within the space of the interview, the mushaira or the stage, the narrative of the novel which, as the translators describe it, is “one long looking back” (Ruswa xi) is interrupted, and the movement is anchored in the here-and-now: the couplets, spoken and performed perpetually in the present, are not (can not) looking back but looking towards. They repeatedly demand, invoke, and create an audience—an ‘other’—for themselves. In Umrao Jan Ada, the role of this ‘other’ is fulfilled by the character Ruswa who recurrently provokes, interrogates and applauds Umrao’s performance. Multiple times, he also performs couplets himself; throwing the narrative back into the preface’s space of the mushaira wherein it is through the repartee of poetry that the conversational bridge is built and traversed. All these instances, however, unfailingly queer the line between the ‘I’ and the ‘you’, throwing the ‘self’ and the ‘other’ into flux.
In this regard, Ruswa’s choice to create the character Ruswa who converses with Umrao through the novel can be understood as an effect of his investment in the project of realism and realistic writing. Ruswa “did not believe in creating characters that did not exist” (Ruswa vii). He believed that “the most paying and interesting subject of study in this world is what happens to human beings…[which] can be depicted through a novel provided an effort is made to present the picture truthfully” (Ruswa vii). The success of a realistic novel is contingent on a “truthful” (Ruswa vii) and believable depiction of individuals for realism, “the dominant mode of the British Victorian novel—the model immediately available to the Indian writer” (Mukherjee 76), was constituted through “the ideal of individualism” (Mukherjee 76). This was extremely difficult in 19th century India. Meenakshi Mukherjee, in her essay “Reality and Realism: Indian Women as Protagonists in Four Nineteenth Century Novels” points towards this challenge, and elucidates that the Indian writer’s “primary challenge was the achievement of realism while remaining faithful to the reality of his social order which generally inhibited individual choice” (Mukherjee 76). How, then, could the Indian writer write an individual? I contend that in Umrao Jan Ada, Ruswa delineates his individual i.e., the protagonist Umrao through distinction. Formally, Ruswa constitutes Umrao’s ‘self’ in the Hegelian dialectic — Umrao is posited in contrast with the character Ruswa himself. It is through conversations with Ruswa that Umrao’s character is delineated and her perspective as the individual protagonist is clarified and cemented. It is also through these conversations that the structure of the novel is fundamentally twisted; effecting a temporal, spatial, and perceptual movement which allows Ruswa to lay claims to the authenticity of Umrao’s life, declaring her as a woman whom he “had known well many years before” (Ruswa vi). Ruswa is able to, hence, assert that his novel is realistic, and his account of Umrao’s life “truthful” (Ruswa vii). The character Ruswa is the first listener of Umrao’s tale; and Umrao is the first reader of Ruswa’s recounting of her story. This enables the framework through the novel which posits Umrao Jan Ada as a realistic narration.
Ruswa also distinguishes Umrao from within her social milieu. Mukherjee, in her essay “Reality and Realism: Indian Women as Protagonists in Four Nineteenth Century Novels,” comments on the social world of Umrao Jan Ada: “Umrao Jan Ada hardly mentions a character that is not Muslim…This homogeneity of the fictional world was not very conducive to the development of the novel as a genre which in the West had in its early stages thrived on the clash between moral and social values of different classes” (82). Umrao is not unlike the other courtesans. However, the craft of her performance sets her apart. She recounts to Ruswa that “I was famous for my songs of lamentation as no one knew as many arrangements as I did. The most celebrated professionals did not dare to open their mouths in my presence” (Ruswa 48). Without her craft, Umrao would have also blended into “this homogeneity of the fictional world” (Mukherjee 82), dissolving into the masses. However, it is precisely this ‘setting apart’ which enables Ruswa to achieve realism while “remaining faithful to the reality of his social order” (Mukherjee 76). By showcasing Umrao as an accomplished poet, Ruswa creates a believable fictional world in which through education, an individual can steal pockets of free will.
The novel often turns towards these linkages between education and free will. In one conversation between Ruswa and Umrao, Umrao says: “I find it very hard to talk about the subject you have in mind. Women of my calling are usually immodest, but that is only during the time they are engaged in the profession…with the years one learns to curb these instincts to keep a proper sense of proportion” (Ruswa 25). Ruswa replies: “If you were not a woman of culture, these excuses would be acceptable and I would not be so insistent. Educated people should not be unnecessarily prudish” (Ruswa 25). “Modesty” [French modestie] literally means “freedom from exaggeration”(Online Etymology Dictionary). Here, Umrao draws a link between her profession and modesty. She contends that courtesan-women are “usually immodest” (Ruswa 25) i.e., prone to amplification and attempts to stand out — but only until they are “engaged in the profession” (Ruswa 25). Once they are not employed as courtesans anymore, they attempt to blend into the social milieu, “curbing their instincts” (Ruswa 25). Ruswa, however, draws a different line of link: one between education and modesty. Instead of agreeing with Umrao that it is the profession of courtesans which makes these women immodest, he argues that it is “education [which] destroys one’s sense of modesty” (Ruswa 25). He also does not limit his linkage to women; he seeks to make a claim about all “educated people” (Ruswa 25, emphasis mine). Character Ruswa’s, who can be seen as a stand-in for the author Ruswa, opinion about education and modesty is revealing about the project of this novel, and the cluster of anxieties vis-a-vis modernity that Ruswa is seeking to unravel and interrogate through the character Umrao. Since these conversational interruptions in the novel frame the primary narrative, they render a peculiar protagonist; one performing at the intersections of a myriad of tensions. This peculiarity is reflected in the title of the novel itself in which the names ‘Jan’ and ‘Ada’ are linked in a consecutive chain of last names; drawing ‘Umrao’ into a lineage of both prostitutes and poets. Umrao, the educated courtesan, becomes a curious figure: disgraced, disruptive; but ultimately, the master of her will.
Repeatedly through the novel, Umrao’s poetry grants her power beyond the influence of a courtesan. In the preface, her poem arrives before, and without herself: her presence is first indicated to Ruswa, his party, and the readers through her singing; “the only indication that someone lived in the apartment” (Ruswa v). Like all texts, Umrao’s poetry effectively extends the reach of her fame and influence; allowing Umrao to be present even in her absence. Hence, even while restricted to the “Prison-house” (Ruswa 100), Umrao can send rousing couplets to Nawab Sultan and “rekindle the dying embers of the fire in my heart” (Ruswa 45). Ruswa, hence, outlines an individual who, while being subject “to the reality of his social order which generally inhibited individual choice” (Mukherjee 76) is able to embody “the ideal of individualism” (Mukherjee 76) and free will. Umrao is an obedient subject of the demands of Khanum’s khota; but through her poems is able to gain measures of monetary and social power. During one of their conversations, Ruswa highlights Umrao’s poetic prowess even more starkly: on the recitation of one of his couplets, Umrao responds with an alternate way to rhyme the same couplet, and suggests, “Why not make them rhyme like this” (Ruswa 24). The act of her suggestion and Ruswa’s unhesitant acceptance depicts the power of her couplets to create a level field for both poet Ruswa and courtesan-poet Umrao. Furthermore in the novel, Umrao is “invited to the court of Queen. His Majesty the King praised me and rewarded me handsomely every year at Mohurram. I was appointed as one of the court singers” (Ruswa 48). Near the end of her life, when her admirers began to “drop out of her life” (Ruswa 150), Umrao “acquires a taste for reading” (Ruswa 150) without which, she contends, that she “would not have been able to live very long” (Ruswa 150). Her educational accomplishments, hence, are posited by Ruswa as Umrao’s saving grace, and the currency which she spends in different ways through the course of her years to make her life more convenient.
Through Umrao, Ruswa articulates and interrogates these tensions and new strains of ideologies which are emerging in nineteenth-century India like individualism, fate vs free will, religion vs science etc. His project of writing is invested in realism and reality; and hence, inevitably, is a social and moral project. Waheed writes in her essay “Women of ‘Ill Repute’: Ethics and Urdu literature in colonial India” that “Ruswa’s novel is praised for being acceptable reading material for the zenāna (women’s quarters)” (1000); and it is not difficult to gather why. Through Umrao Jan Ada, Ruswa delineates an accomplished courtesan-poet. However, he also provides moral commentary on her virtue; ascertaining that his readers will not regard Umrao as an ideal. Through Umrao’s perspective herself, he has the entire tale deemed “shameful” (Ruswa 141), and the purpose of her telling and his recounting as a “hope that this tale of my life will do some good to some people” (Ruswa 151).
Umrao’s poetic prowess is a distinguishing feature of her character, facilitating Ruswa to outline and set her apart from her social milieu. Through her performances, Umrao effects power and influence in multiple ways; utilising her couplets as a currency to ease her movement through the world. Ruswa’s concern with realism and realistic writing is reflected in his choice of the figure of the courtesan as the protagonist of his novel — a disgraced figure who is able to carry the tensions Ruswa seeks to interrogate, and bear the burden of free will. Through this figure and the queer, hybrid form of the novel, Ruswa is able to utilise his performative narration as a technique to achieve realism in Umrao Jan Ada.
Mukherjee, Meenakshi. “Reality and Realism: Indian Women as Protagonists in Four Nineteenth Century Novels.” Economic and Political Weekly. Economic and Political Weekly,Jan. 14, 1984, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Jan. 14, 1984), pp. 76-85.
Ruswa, Mirza Mohammad Hadi. Umrao Jan Ada: Courtesan of Lucknow. Translated from the Urdu by Khushwant Singh & M.A. Husaini. Orient Blackswan Private Limited, 2009.
Waheed, Sarah. “Women of ‘Ill Repute’: Ethics and Urdu literature in colonial India.” Modern Asian Studies. Cambridge University Press, JULY 2014, Vol. 48, No. 4 (JULY 2014), pp. 986-1023.
I should begin by clarifying that McLennon is not the same as ‘John and Paul’ or ‘Lennon/McCartney’. It is often interchangeably used with ‘John/Paul’, which does come pretty close to capturing it; but not quite. For where ‘John and Paul’ is used to refer to the personal relationship between John and Paul; and ‘Lennon/McCartney’ is used to refer to the professional relationship between John and Paul; and ‘John/Paul’ is used to refer to the potentially romantic relationship—McLennon is the referent for both: (1) the John/Paul relationship, and (2) the fandom community surrounding the John/Paul relationship. These lines definitely often blur into each other; but I think it’s still useful to begin this conversation by delineating McLennon.
Despite popular belief, the fandom community McLennon did not spring up out of the blue in 2013 with the advent of Tumblr and “fanatic” “teenage” “fangirls.” According to Fanlore (a wiki about fanworks and fan communities), the McLennon fandom has been around for almost as long as the Beatles themselves. Just like other fandoms, McLennon fans also used to indulge in writing stories (fanfiction), creating fan art, and publishing their creative and critical pieces in fanzines. Today, you can find pockets of this community on pretty much every social media blogging platform like Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, etc. The fan practices of this community often slightly vary on each platform: while people on Twitter lean more towards curating sources, facts, and photographs; people on Tumblr are slightly more interested in critically (analysis pieces) and creatively (fanfiction) interpreting the original source material (John/Paul photographs, interviews, songs, letters, stories, books, etc.). This variation is nothing more than an indirect effect of the different features each platform offers; and even then, all these practices can often extend across platforms.
Like all fandom communities, McLennon has a particular object of fascination; and that’s the John/Paul relationship. Fans in this community are particularly interested in reading and analysing the not-quite platonic aspects of this relationship. These readings can range across locating a certain eroticism in their photographs, discovering hidden emotional layers in their songs, plotting similar points of emphasis and diversion over multiple interviews, to digging up sources to further nuance their understanding of this relationship. This fascination often works against the orthodox narrative about the John/Paul relationship, which usually posits that even though Paul might have been “in love” (in awe, devoted, dependent) with John, John was just too cool for him. There are other groups within Beatledom who are also interested in this relationship. However, what separates McLennon from these groups is: (1) the visible non-platonic slant in their critical interpretations, and (2) the creative endeavours like fanfiction, fanart, and fanvideos which this community regularly undertakes.
Two of Us
When I write ‘non-platonic’, I do not necessarily mean sexual or romantic. That is a part of it, yes, but it’s not the whole meaning. Non-platonic within the McLennon community usually means erotic; and that is a popular interpretation heavily backed by comments like making music with each other turned us on, and admiring each other’s physical attributes, and often John and Paul comparing their relationship to a marriage themselves. Hence, the non-platonic slant in the community’s critical interpretations is a minor concession to the various nuances and facets of John and Paul’s relationship; a quality of passion which does fascinate everyone within Beatledom alike.
However, yes, the rumours are true: a section of the community does prop up and heavily endorse the idea that John and Paul were romantically involved with each other. And this, folks, is what we call a conspiracy. This slice of the McLennon fandom believes that John and Paul really, truly had a romantic relationship in the ‘60s (which might have extended into the ‘70s); but had to hide their love away because of period-typical concerns like homophobia, a female-dominated fanbase, and John and Paul’s images as straight, masculine, virile sex fiends. This conclusion is based upon a reading of the same shared source material; only, the process of interpretation and meaning-making is influenced more by certain source materials than others, like claims of John being bisexual, stories of people at Apple HQ referring to Paul as “John’s Princess,” Paul’s bizarre inability to give a straight answer to the question was John in love with you, the sheer ambiguity of the happenings of the Rishikesh trip, etc. Again, it’s not a completely incorrect method of interpretation; it only—like we all are prone to do, to a certain extent—privileges certain source materials over others and arrives at a far-fetched conclusion.
The Lovers That Never Were
I love fan works; and the McLennon community is particularly good at them. Creative works like fanfiction, fanart, and fan videos offer fans the chance to imagine and reinterpret the John/Paul relationship in their own unique ways—which is an absolute treat. I am aware that fan works often get a bad rep for “sullying the sanctity of the holy John and Paul relationship” (whatever that means!) but I think they are quite cool. Fan creators are (almost always) very careful about adding disclaimers, clarifying the completely fictional nature of their works; and beyond that, I think it becomes the responsibility of the reader to be discerning enough.
However, there is always the potential tendency within every fan community for stereotypes and rumours to be perpetuated through fan works. Creators can sometimes fail to add clear disclaimers; or audiences’ memories can fail and they can create similar associations with both verified stories and fanfiction, and both can then get afforded a similar level of veracity. It happens. Especially within a fandom as large and old as the Beatles; the tendency for the lines between apocryphal stories, fanfiction, and verified tales to blur into each other is even higher.
With that said, I still think fan works are really awesome and, if consumed with a keen eye, can be a source for great pleasure. Here are some of my favourite fanfics:
“Stand by Me” by Penny Lane and Jenny Wren | Summary: John survives.
“Widow” by abromeds | Summary: If Paul had died in 1980 instead of John; and how John deals with that.
“I said something wrong” by frogchorus [work in progress] | Summary: In 1965, The Beatles performed on the ‘Blackpool Night Out’. It’s fairly well recorded that John and Paul had an argument pre-show, and this fic explores that.
“new york woman” by peculiar_mademoiselle [work in progress] | Summary: A series of loosely related one shots about Yoko Ono.
I think that brings us to a close of this guide. For further reading, you should definitely check out:
The notion of freedom is depicted as a foundational ideal in both Edward Bellamy’s and Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopias in their texts Looking Backward and The Dispossessed respectively. It’s presented as unassailable, a cornerstone of the utopian societies of the year 2000’s Boston and the fictional planet of Anarres. However, in both these societies freedom is understood and defined in different ways: while Bellamy’s utopia sees freedom as the right to be free from hunger and want, Le Guin’s Anarres sees freedom as the right to free will. These different delineations of what it means to be truly free create extremely different utopian societies in both these texts: while Bellamy’s utopia has a centralised authority with complete administrative and executive power, Le Guin’s utopia is modelled as an anarchist state with no formal structure of power. The differing definitions of freedom in these societies also raise questions about the different types of freedoms themselves, and the compromises each of them demands. Hence, in this essay, I compare and contrast the divergent ideas of freedom in these utopian societies, and explore what these variations can tell us about the concept of utopia itself. I further question if it is possible to create a seamless utopian society which would demand no compromises of its citizens.
Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward presents a communist, utopian society set in the year 2000 in Boston, Massachusetts. In this society, the entire division and regulation of the various forms of labour, industries, and commerce is entrusted to the nation state; for all the citizens believe that individuals are inherently self-serving, and the common interest can be effectively served only by “a single syndicate representing the people” (Bellamy 241): the centre government. This utter concentration and extension of the government’s power is disconcerting and is understandably questioned by the protagonist, Julian West, who believes that a government’s true responsibility is to protect and defend its citizens. On his prompting, the representative of the utopian state, Dr. Leete, explains: “We have no wars now, and our governments no war powers, but in order to protect every citizen against hunger, cold, and nakedness, and provide for all his physical and mental needs, the function is assumed of directing his industry for a term of years” (Bellamy 242). Dr Leete’s response throws light on what this utopia’s citizens believe to be the most important tenet of freedom: the freedom from hunger, cold, and nakedness. Plus, while he uses the word “function” to refer to the control imposed by the government over citizens’ industries, Dr. Leete uses the word “powers” while talking about the government’s role during war times. This difference in word choice suggests that the citizens view the government’s economic tasks more as a laudable responsibility than an opportunity to harness power and influence. The government’s extension of “powers,” hence, is more a necessary taking up of utilitarian responsibilities to efficiently allow their citizens to be free from hunger and cold.
However, in order to provide all its citizens with this particular freedom, the government encroaches upon another kind of freedom: the freedom of free will. In Bellamy’s utopia, the exercise of free will is seen as an absurd and complicated notion. The act of work “is regarded as so absolutely natural and reasonable that the idea of its being compulsory has ceased to be thought of” (Bellamy 244). Hence, it is completely unconceivable to the people here that someone might want to exercise their free will and refuse to work. This contradiction of freedoms renders a complicated utopia in which while people are never hungry and cold; they are also not provided with the space to choose to serve themselves over the community, and derive pleasure from that act. It is, hence, commonly accepted that individualism, “which in your [West’s] day was the animating idea of society, not only was fatal to any vital sentiment of brotherhood and common interest among living men, but equally to any realization of the responsibility of the living for the generation to follow” (Bellamy 272). Here, serving the community is seen akin to serving the self.
Le Guin’s Anarres, on the other hand, depicts a stateless, anarchist utopia. Their society is founded upon the right to exercise their free will unperturbed by the power and influence of any kinds of governments. They have no governments; they only have a singular production and distribution coordinating system (PDC) which oversees the work groups and labour assignments, in which every person is regarded as a replaceable tool whose job is to assure the smooth functioning of the PDC’s ideological apparatus. In Anarres, ideally, while the community is still paramount, the individuals are supposed to retain the freedom to propose individual ideas and execute them; and the only court they are answerable to is that of public opinion. This is drastically different from Bellamy’s utopia in which the notion of individual, novel ideas is a foreign concept. Since their entire society is founded upon an effective regulation of work, Boston’s citizens find that there is no need for new ideas which herald change, and to ever consider “any new laws of consequence” (Bellamy 266) because “the fundamental principles on which our society is founded settle for all time the strifes and misunderstandings which in your day [West’s year – 1887] called for legislation” (Bellamy 266). This exhibits the stagnant nature of Bellamy’s utopia; a quality which is in stark contrast to Anarres’ ideals which posit individual creativity and revolution to be foundational values and, hence, yield unceasing strifes, conflicts, and arguments.
Unlike Bellamy’s utopia, which is founded upon an efficient division of labour and resources, Anarres was born to stay free—people “didn’t come to Anarres for safety, but for freedom” (Le Guin 295). This is an important distinction which yields two utterly different utopias. For the people of Anarres, free will is more important than safety, i.e., freedom from “hunger, cold, and nakedness” (Bellamy 242). This yields a utopia in which even when people are ravaged by famines and droughts, the citizens do not turn to the PDC to regulate their resources more efficiently. Instead, they locate the fault in the PDC’s policies itself, and believe that they can achieve their ideal, equal anarchy only through a restructuring of the PDC to further reduce its influence and reattain their freedom. The people of Anarres are disconcerted by any sign of influence or power. In a conversation between Bedap and Shevek, Bedap exclaims:
We have no government, no laws. But as far as I can see, ideas were never controlled by laws and governments, even on Urras. You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush them by ignoring them. By refusing to think, refusing to change. And that’s precisely what our society is doing! Sabul uses you, and prevents you from publishing, from teaching, even from working. In other words, he has power over you. Where does he get it from? Not from vested authority, there isn’t any. He gets it from the innate cowardice of the human mind. Public opinion! (Le Guin 138, emphasis mine)
Anarres has no government—here, a lack of a government is the primary influence which shapes their society. Faced with a crisis, the people of Anarres always turn towards the path of more free will and lesser regulation. Bedap argues that there is no “vested authority” (Le Guin 138) in Anarres. Therefore, the only source of the increasing rot in Anarres’ society is the court of public opinion which, to a large extent, resembles the court of law; and conveniently allows people to suppress new ideas by ignoring them. And hence, he suggests that the court of public opinion, alongside its far reaching power and influence, should be destroyed.
I argue that by suggesting that the citizens of Anarres not place any value in public opinion, Bedap attempts to remove the sole locus of influence within Anarres. However, I question if it is possible to create a utopia with no centre of power; i.e., a completely seamless utopia, with perfect freedom from influences and zero compromises. Consider: Bellamy’s utopia flourishes, and provides its citizens with the freedom from “hunger, cold, and nakedness” (Bellamy 242). However, it chooses to not provide them with the freedom of free will. On the other hand, Anarres chooses to provide its citizens with the freedom of free will, and settles to not privilege the freedom from hunger and cold instead. This yields two very different utopias, with different loci of power. But, if one takes up Bedap’s suggestion and attempts to change Anarres’ society to render public opinion valueless, remove Anarres’ only nexus of influence and refuse to compromise—what would replace it? And if nothing replaces it, what kind of utopian or non-utopian society would that yield?
Both Bellamy and Le Guin depict two very different visions of utopia in their texts. This difference in their societies can be traced to their differing prioritisation of which type of freedom they consider more important. While Bellamy’s utopia holds the freedom from hunger and cold as paramount, the people of Anarres believe that free will is the most important ideal to live by. By reading these texts simultaneously, we can better understand their visions, and further explore the concept of utopia. Bellamy’s utopia presents a flourishing society; but one in which people have no free will. Anarres does the opposite: while people have complete free will, they are cold and starving. This juxtaposition raises questions about which type of freedom matters more, and if freedom always implies happiness—for is happiness the state of being well-fed and warm or the state of intellectual and emotional self-actualisation? It also makes one wonder if a truly seamless and perfect utopia, with no cracks of opportunity costs and compromises, is ever possible.
In Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift juxtaposes the houyhnhnms’ “Reason” with the yahoos’ passion. Through this positioning, he illustrates the completely opposite characters of the houyhnhnms and the yahoos—while the houyhnhnms are perfectly logical and rational, the yahoos are instinctive and impulsive. This contrast allows Swift to depict the full spectrum of human qualities; only, all the traits associated with ‘reason’ and ‘passion’ are segmented and individually attributed to the houyhnhnms and yahoos respectively. Plus, since ‘reason’ is seen as being more virtuous than ‘passion’ in this utopia, the houyhnhnms, who Gulliver idolises, sit higher in the social order than the yahoos, with whom Gulliver locates many similarities with himself, and despises. However, unlike the houyhnhnms and yahoos, Gulliver (and the human race for which he is a stand-in) does not have a similarly divided character. He has both reason and passion, and this makes him a poor fit with both the houyhnhnms and the yahoos and their vision of utopia. Therefore, in this essay I explore the rigid nature and effects of the houyhnhnms’ Reason in their utopia, and I, hence, argue that the houyhnhnms’ utopian society is incompatible with human nature.
The utopia depicted in Gulliver’s Travels is a facsimile of a socialist republic. Here, all the houyhnhnms live democratically, share all the resources with each other, and lead perfectly harmonious lives. They do not have the words (and familiarity) for concepts like “Courtship, Love, Presents, Joyntures, Settlements” (Swift 149); they do, however, understand the logical and useful notions of friendship and benevolence. These unemotional traits allow the houyhnhnms to uphold the ideals and laws which ground their vision of utopia; a vision which is founded upon “their grand Maxim [which] is, to cultivate Reason, and to be wholly governed by it” (Swift 148). There’s no place for passion in this utopia.
It then follows that there is no place for the yahoos in this utopia either. The human-like yahoos in this society are solely governed by passion; a characteristic which places them in stark contrast to the reasonable houyhnhnms. In the text, the yahoos are depicted as lazy, selfish, greedy, and violent—the absolute antithesis of the “noble Houyhnhnms” (Swift 147). Because of their lack of Reason, the yahoos place below the houyhnhnms in the social order, and are treated by the houyhnhnms much like other animals like cows. On festive days, “the Servants drive a Herd of Yahoos into the Field, laden with Hay, and Oats, and Milk for a Repast to the Houyhnhnms; after which, these Brutes are immediately driven back again” (Swift 149). I locate the effects of the houyhnhnms’ cold Reason in this harsh treatment of the yahoos. I argue that even though the houyhnhnms claim to strive for friendship and benevolence, they only offer its gifts to the houyhnhnms themselves—the yahoos, with their differing desires and lifestyles, are relegated to “brutes” (Swift 149). Plus, this entire passage and specifically, the word choices of “a herd of yahoos” (Swift 149) and “brutes” (Swift 149) depict a lack of consideration for the ‘other’; a feature which makes it impossible for the yahoos—and, in this model of utopia, for any creature different from those in power—to find a respectful place in the houyhnhnms’ utopia.
Based upon this familiar quality of passion and the yahoos’ human-like bodies, Gulliver and his houyhnhnm master classify himself (and humans) as more similar to yahoos than houyhnhnms. They conclude that all humans are similar to yahoos; only, “by what Accident he [Gulliver’s houyhnhnm master] could not conjecture, some small Pittance of Reason had fallen” (Swift 141) upon them. Despite this similarity, humans are completely different creatures for while they have passion, they also have enough reason to temper those urges. This amalgamation has curious effects: while talking about a lawsuit between the yahoos, Gulliver comments that “the Plaintiff and Defendant there lost nothing beside the Stone they contended for; whereas our Courts of Equity, would never have dismissed the Cause while either of them had any thing left” (Swift 143). This statement highlights a stark difference between the yahoos and humans: the presence of the ego, or an awareness of the self in the latter. Hence, the remark, “whereas our Courts of Equity, would never have dismissed the Cause while either of them had any thing left” (Swift 143) depicts both the yahoo-like quality of possessiveness and ownership which is also present in humans (a feature completely absent in the socialist houyhnhnms), and the value humans ascribe to material objects, and the associations they create between these objects and their own self-image. Therefore, the humans would fit even worse than the yahoos into the houyhnhnms’ utopia for, unlike the yahoos, they are not impulsive and egoless. Hence, it would be quite tough for them to forget slights, and tolerate the houyhnhnms’ derisive behaviour and their oppressive culture.
The amalgamation of reason and passion also has other effects, namely the presence and optimum utilisation of imagination. In the text, Swift only uses the word ‘imagination’ once, and solely with regards to the yahoos (Swift 146). This specific word choice reflects Swift’s ascription of the quality of imagination to the yahoos and, as it follows, to humans. The lack of this quality in the houyhnhnms is a particular choice, one I see reflected in the houyhnhnms’ engagement with poetry, astronomy, and architecture in which they always use “a Kind of Tree, which at Forty Years old loosens in the Root, and falls with the first Storm…(for the Houyhnhnms know not the Use of Iron)” (Swift 150). The houyhnhnms’ lack of knowledge about iron, alongside their elementary knowledge of astronomy and uncreative poetry, reflects this lack of imagination and the consequent lack of motivation to discover new ideas. This is very unlike humans who are wont to build non-utilitarian, beautiful buildings just for the sake of beauty and architectural advancements, and who plan expeditions to space and unravel astronomic mysteries to satiate mere curiosity. This characteristic of efficient imagination then sets humans apart from yahoos and houyhnhnms, and finds them incompatible with the houyhnhnms’ utopia.
The houyhnhnms’ language also reflects the unimaginative nature of both the houyhnhnms themselves and their utopia. Their language has “no Letters, and consequently, their Knowledge is all traditional” (Swift 150). This supports their ideal of serving objective Reason; for without letters, no subjective interpretations can occur. The lack of differing meanings is also depicted in the houyhnhnms’ lack of understanding of the word ‘opinion’, “or how a Point could be disputable; because Reason taught us to affirm or deny only where we are certain; and beyond our Knowledge we [the houyhnhnms] cannot do either (Swift 148). This, alongside the lack of a word in the their language for lying, exhibits their lack of comprehension and consequent lack of regard for differing perspectives. Because they tell everything as it is; they give up on the potential to envision a different world, a world which could be both better or worse. This stagnation allows them to create and preserve an isolated world which is not perfect, but utopian—primarily because it precludes conflicts by wielding rational Reason.
The houyhnhnms’ utopian society, hence, is incompatible with human nature which is always on the lookout for imagining, executing, and satisfying novel ideas and conflicting desires. Unlike the houyhnhnms for whom whenever there’s “any Want (which is but seldom) it is immediately supplied by unanimous Consent and Contribution” (Swift 150, emphasis mine), lively humans have both unending wants and the creativity to fulfil them. This renders them severely unfit for the houyhnhnms’ Reason-governed utopia—a lifeless space in which death seems no different than life itself.
Swift, Jonathan. Travels into several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver [pseud.]. Volume 3 of Works (Dublin: George Faulkner, 1735) 315–52, 356–60. Originally published 1726 and better known as Gulliver’s Travels.
In Geoffrey Chaucer’s verses “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” from The Canterbury Tales, the readers are told that the thing that women most desire in the world is sovereignty. However, the possession of sovereignty in Chaucer’s verses is a complicated chain of control, in which only the husband or the wife can possess sovereignty and be sovereign at any moment in time; and because these characters are habituating a patriarchal social space, sovereignty is usually held by men—until and unless the woman intervenes. In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, the wife is depicted as a gap-toothed, handsome woman who consistently strives to dominate all her husbands. Similarly, in TheWife of Bath’s Tale all women—beautiful queens and loathly ladies alike—are shown as yearning for and seeking sovereignty. In this social space, there are very few ways for women to intervene for all of the usual routes—economic power, legal settlement, etc.—are the paths of the establishment and the state, and hence, inherently patriarchal and designed to facilitate the suppression of women. Effectively, the only—and most—useful tool in women’s arsenal becomes their physical appearance, both ghastly and lovely. Their ‘beauty’ and ‘ugliness’ become both a feature and a body of characteristics which can, and in Chaucer’s verses successfully does, disrupt the patriarchal social order and creates pockets of opportunities for women to utilise to attain momentary and partial sovereignty. Hence, in this essay, I argue that The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and TheWife of Bath’s Tale depicts a social space in which the fulfilment of women’s desire for sovereignty is contingent on their physical appearance. I further explore the effects of this relationship within the text, and the similarities between this textual relationship and the treatment of women within the real world. I arrive at the conclusion that Chaucer’s verses present an alternative model of ‘feminist’ rebellion, one in which women resist, and attain sovereignty by exploiting the patriarchal system itself.
The wife from the city of Bath is described in the general prologue as a bold and beautiful woman who has had five husbands till date. In The Wife of Bath’s Prologue, she describes three of these husbands—the ones who are rich and old—as “good” and the other two as “bad” (263). In all these relationships, the wife strives to control her husbands through treachery and manipulation. Here, I posit a direct relationship between the wife’s beautiful physical appearance, and her successful seduction of five different men to convince them to marry her. Furthermore, I interpret the wife’s assessment of her old and rich husbands as “good” as her recognition of what they can provide her—sovereignty—in exchange for her ‘beauty’, which can be utilised to satisfy their sexual appetites. In this text, it is repeatedly implied that women can only gain sovereignty through their husband’s power and status in society. Here, then, the wife of bath’s relationship with her “good” husbands presents a stark exchange economy, one in which women can exchange their ‘beauty’ (physical appearance) for a measure of sovereignty. The wife in the text further clarifies this relationship when she sets out an ultimatum to one of her “good” husbands: “You shan’t have both, you can’t be such a noddy / As think to keep my goods and have my body” (267). These lines paint a vivid picture of this exchange economy within the marital relation, in which the husband can only enjoy her “body” if he lets the wife keep her “goods”/possessions i.e., provides her with a measure of economic freedom. Unlike her fourth “bad” husband who is young enough to keep a mistress and hence, does not need the wife of bath severely enough, and her fifth “bad” husband who the wife was desperately in love with and consequently, unable to coldly manipulate into capitulating through ultimatums, the wife’s first three relationships present models of marriages in which, by the virtue of their lovely physical appearance and resulting sexual power, a wife can earn sovereignty from her husband.
Besides beauty, ‘ugliness’ is also depicted as a tool to attain sovereignty in these texts. While a beautiful woman can earn sovereignty from her husbands by trading sexual favours, an ugly woman is deemed unworthy of being ‘chased’ by men and of participating in this exchange economy and hence, is always positioned as the active agent who desires and pursues various men. The wife in The Wife of Bath’s Prologue rages at one of her “good” husbands for holding these views, and explicates that “if she has a pretty face, old traitor, / You say that she’s game for any fornicator” while “if her looks are foul you say that she / is hot for every man that she can see” (265). In these lines, the wife states that a beautiful woman is ‘game’ i.e., the hunt/hunted while an ugly woman is “hot for every man” (265) i.e., the huntress. The word choices here depict a transfer of sovereignty between the man and the woman depending upon the woman’s physical appearance. While a beautiful woman can only be the ‘hunt’, and later attain a measure of sovereignty by trading sexual favours with the man, an ugly woman is in the position of the ‘huntress’ i.e., she’s—by virtue of being able to choose her object of desire—already sovereign. The wife further clarifies her husband’s notion by declaring, “You say it’s hard to keep a girl controlled / If she’s the kind that no one wants to hold” (265). These lines throw light on the power of ‘ugliness’ to make a woman invisible and hence, untethered by the patriarchal rules of society which seek to possess and control beauty. Through her loathsome physical appearance, the woman effectively attains sovereignty.
The tale of the loathly lady in TheWife of Bath’s Tale further complicates this relationship between physical appearance and beauty by presenting a woman who can choose to appear either beautiful or loathsome. In this text, a knight is morose because he has been forced to marry a foul-looking lady. In response, his ugly wife offers him two choices: to either have her old and ugly till she dies, but still be a loyal, true, and humble wife; or to have her young and pretty, and in turn, risk her loyalty to him (291). On hearing his options, the knight significantly does not make a choice himself but tells the wife that “you make the choice yourself…Of what may be agreeable and rich / In honour to us both…Whatever pleases you suffices me” (291). In this moment, the knight seemingly offers the loathly lady sovereignty i.e., the freedom to choose either beauty or ugliness. I, however, argue that by virtue of offering her husband these choices itself, the wife loses her sovereignty. The lady who, until then, could have freely chosen to appear either beautiful or ugly binds herself to her husband’s desire by offering him this choice. His offering of free choice to the lady then is not a transfer of sovereignty to the lady, but a transfer of a measure of sovereignty (and control over herself) to her husband. Before marrying the knight, the lady had appeared as an extremely foul-looking creature; and by sheer virtue of her ugliness, she had maintained her sovereignty in the patriarchal society which values, commodifies, and exchanges women on the basis of their physical appearance. In essence, she would have been invisible to others; and hence, free to look at everyone. However, by “cast[ing] up the curtain” (292) of her ugliness, and by transforming into a young and beautiful woman (which makes her husband ecstatic), the knight’s wife loses her sovereignty. By further vowing to her husband that now he shall find her “both fair and faithful as a wife” (291), the wife even gives up the power of her beauty to potentially manipulate him for favours, and completely binds herself to a life of partial, and eternally earned sovereignty.
The instances of the wife of bath and the loathly lady in Chaucer’s verses present similar but distinct situations where sovereignty is attained by women by wielding their physical appearance. While the wife of bath trades sexual favours to earn her sovereignty, the loathly lady depicts a woman who was originally sovereign—for she chose to appear ugly and hence, was invisible and positioned outside this exchange economy—but gives up a measure of this sovereignty by both turning beautiful and vowing to stay faithful to her husband. These women, then, present a model of ‘feminist’ rebellion in which women attain sovereignty by exploiting the patriarchal system itself. By successfully wielding ‘beauty’, a quality which is highly valued and priced by social agents in patriarchy, especially in association with women, these women posit a pattern of protest in which women steal slices of freedom without any grand, explicit revolution, and while staying within the patriarchal system itself. This depicts a form of disobedience in which women exploit the fractures in patriarchal societies; and turn sexist notions on their head to avail benefits for themselves. Plus, it reconfirms that while women need to earn sovereignty through beauty (or, as in the twenty-first century, by proving themselves as effective cogs in the capitalist hierarchy); men in patriarchal societies are always already sovereign. These notions urge me to ask then if this form of resistance is even desirable, for does it not effectively prompt women to surrender to the patriarchy, and repeatedly re-earn their sovereignty? It also makes me wonder if any other form of revolution is ever possible in a social space principally shaped and regulated by men.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated into Modern English by Nevill Coghill. Penguin Classics. Published by the Penguin Group. 2013.
hi. i wrote an essay about family, last summer, & The Beatles. It’s called “Put It There” & it’s been published in issue-9 of the fantastic The Teatles Book. you can get yourself a copy through @Teatlemania on twitter.
hope u like this. cheers.
p.s. the title is inspired by the song “put it there” by paul mccartney. it’s lovely, & it pairs really well with this essay. you might want to check it out. have fun!
I was in a restaurant with my parents when I learned that my university was indefinitely sending us all back home due to the pandemic. It was the middle of March. I was home for the weekend. I read the email out to my parents over plates of spaghetti & chilled beer; & they were ecstatic. My mother ordered another plate of rice, & my father started calculating how many games of chess we could fit alongside my daily classes.
March through June, I spent my days lolling about at home. Classes came to an end at the beginning of May. My hours were now filled with mangoes, ice-cream sundaes, cooking pizzas at home, & playing Ludo every evening (my mother had grown tired of watching me & my father play chess). I watched too many period dramas & didn’t listen to a single song.
In July, I took a class called “Trauma and Event”. For one of our lectures, we were assigned Hideo Furukawa’s book Horses, Horses, in the End the Light Remains Pure. In the beginning passage of his book, Furukawa writes, “What if there were this extraterrestrial, and they are in their UFO, and you could pick just one Beatles song for them to listen to, what would you pick? Younger brother answers immediately: “Strawberry Fields Forever”; the answer suggests no other possibility”. Strawberry Fields Forever — that was the first song I listened to in three months. I liked it.
I liked it enough that I decided that the most optimum use of my time would be to listen to the Beatles’ entire catalogue. & so, I spent the summer of 2020 writing poems about loss, re-reading Harry Potter, & sobbing to The Long and Winding Road. The speaker in my room would emit sounds of John & Paul harmonising all day long. My father loved my new-found obsession. He would repeatedly tell me stories of how when he was a kid, he & his cousins used to listen to classic rock, despite not understanding half the words. It was the cool thing to do.
It’s easier now than it was then to imagine him as a teenager, gorging upon crime thrillers & his father’s collection of cassettes. When my grandfather died, my father & I divided all of his stuff amongst ourselves. I kept his iPod, he kept the pictures. My father could always read the stories written in the objects we choose to surround ourselves with. The first time I heard McCartney sing Junk, I was standing again besides my father emptying his drawers every eleventh Sunday, & still struggling to decide what to throw out. I opened his cupboard the other day & found two broken phones & faded pictures of my mum.
He turned 53 last November. My mother fried potato bonda for breakfast & I burned my upper lip on my first bite. That month, I was working on a terrible short story titled The Walrus, whose main plot was an anxiety attack in an aeroplane & whose sub-plot was a sufficient sprinkling of Beatle references. I’ve never been very good at writing stories about others; therefore, I decided to create a character who was stuck, feeling anxious all the time, & constantly humming A Day in the Life. For the past month, I had been constantly feeling on-edge. I attributed my nerves to turning 20 next January; pinned beneath time, running head-first, & getting nowhere. On his birthday, we watched a film, ate cheesecake & drove back home.
It had not rained for a few days. The chill was seeping into the walls, & we were doubling up our blankets at night. Every morning, I would wake up & curl into my hoodies. My parents had just gifted me a new sweatshirt with Robin Scherbatsky’s face. I can’t remember the occasion. It does not matter. It never mattered. I grew up within a home where it was never uncommon for me to wake up to baked cookies or presents hidden in dusty nooks. I have been loved. I knew every night going to sleep that if I did not wake up, it would not be okay — because I’m loved.
It was the first Sunday of December & I was gearing up to submit my class assignments. We had a delicious breakfast at home & my father flipped the channel to Aap ki Adalat. Muting the TV, he took my right hand in his palm & traced the calluses on my fingertips: “They still haven’t healed?” — “No, I keep typing & forget to bandage it”. He talked of Switzerland. & Italy. & New York & Vietnam & France & every place he had never seen but longed to. We made plans that morning of flying to Europe in the summer of 2023. He grinned at me, & turned up the volume.
That night, I went to sleep envying Derek Shepherd his perfect hair. Next morning, I woke up. He didn’t.
The first time I heard McCartney sing, it was 4:00 a.m. on a cool August night. It was the first week of my college & a group of us were sitting around a tiny speaker playing our favourite songs. I played A. R. Rahman’s Luka Chuppi. Someone else played Hey Jude. I sang along. Of course, I sang along. It’s surreal to remember that I knew the lyrics to that song, for I can’t remember ever having heard it before. There’s a picture on my Instagram of my parents & my mamu on a beach in Goa from October of 2019. The caption reads, “Hey Jude, don’t be afraid” but before that August night, I cannot remember ever having heard the song. It’s terrifying to look at my skin in the mirror and see faded outlines of leaves & scratches from trees when I have never been to a forest since I was four. It’s terrifying to think of all the conversations I don’t remember having & all the carnival posters I don’t remember seeing & waking up on a Wednesday to find one clinging to the back of my knee.
When morning dawned on that cool August night, it did not matter that I could not remember listening to Hey Jude. We were drunk on the music & the conversations & the yawning blue sky. I heard “Hey Jude, don’t be afraid” — & I did not look back.
In If You Knew, poet Ellen Bass poses a question: “What if you knew you’d be the last / to touch someone?” I measure that December Sunday in his touches. His fingertips caressing mine, our hands stumbling into each other over a bowl of carrot halwa, our elbows knocking together as we sang & danced circles around my mum. Me touching his black & white Sherlock Holmes cufflinks as he dressed up to meet a friend. Him hugging me as we crossed paths in the kitchen at 12 a.m. Some mornings, I expect to wake up & find violets blooming everywhere his skin has touched mine. If I knew I would be the last person to touch him, I would have hugged him longer. If I knew this was the last time I was touching him, I would not have stopped.
The only Beatles album I was familiar with before last summer was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — & by familiarity I mean knowing its name. My favourite song has always been She’s Leaving Home. I could empathise. I yearned to run head-first & get nowhere; I never ran far enough in my mind to realise that I always ended back home. Yesterday, I was rummaging through my cupboards when I came across my father’s stamp collection. I spent the afternoon flipping through its yellowed pages.
In the streets of Switzerland in 2023, I feel the snow whisper across my socks. I hold my hand out. An old stamp falls into my palm.