The Price of Freedom

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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.

 



WORKS CITED 

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000–1887. 2d ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin & Co., 1888), 126–39, 146–54, 210–19, 224–31, 262–71.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Dispossessed. Gollancz, Orion Publishing Group, Great Britain. 2002. 

I Feel, Therefore, I Am: The Role of Reason in the Houyhnhnms’ Utopia

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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.



WORKS CITED 

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.

You shan’t have both: Beauty and Sovereignty in “The Wife of Bath’s Prologue” and “Tale”

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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 The Wife 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 The Wife 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 The Wife 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.



WORKS CITED 

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Translated into Modern English by Nevill Coghill. Penguin Classics. Published by the Penguin Group. 2013. 

The Hall of Mirrors: Reflections and Ruptures in “Bajirao Mastani”

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Mirrors play a significant role in Bajirao Mastani. When Mastani is informed that Bajirao is allegedly sick, she rushes to Shaniwar Wada to see him. They find each other in the Aina Mahal — i.e., the Hall of Mirrors — and passionately embrace. In this moment, they are reflected in the thousands of mirrors which surround them, and their reflection is further projected onto the blank tapestry hanging in Kashibai’s bedroom; where Kashibai sees them. I read this moment as a queering of the public-private binary. By reflecting Bajirao and Mastani in Kashibai’s bedroom, the mirrors blur the spatial boundaries present between the private space of Kashibai’s room and the public space of the Aina Mahal; and by reflecting a private moment between the lovers to an outsider, the mirrors disregard the lines between their private and public selves—here, the private becomes the public. The mirrors in Aina Mahal repeatedly facilitate this crossing-over and queering. How then, do we read the mirror itself—is it private or public? How does its positioning shape the bodies which interact with it? As spectators, how does this interaction influence our viewing experience? In this essay, I explore these questions by reading Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s film Bajirao Mastani alongside Sara Ahmed’s text Queer Phenomenology. I also consider the implications of queering the public-private binary, and the effects of “reflections” that cross over from the private space into the public.

The mirror is usually relegated to the background. As a result, it mostly goes unnoticed. In films, directors often place the burden of consequentiality upon the mirror, and queer this familiarity. Shots seen in the mirror and monologues spoken in front of a mirror carry weight, and significantly influence the film. In Bajirao Mastani, the projection of Bajirao and Mastani’s embrace into Kashibai and Bajirao’s bedroom is the watershed moment which disrupts the film’s “straightness”. In this scene, the blank tapestry in the bedroom acts like a screen on which the reflections from the mirror in the Aina Mahal are projected. The tapestry also serves as a device which is the effect and the tangible manifestation of the foggy spatial boundaries in the film. It is a liminal object; for while it is present in Kashibai’s room, it shows public images reflected in the mirrors in the Aina Mahal. These mirrors queer spatial boundaries; and in this scene, enable the crossing-over of Mastani from the outside of the bedroom into the inside. In this regard, Kashibai’s burning of the tapestry reads as a reassertion and thickening of the lines between her private space and the public space of the Mahal. The queering of these boundaries is uncomfortable and heartbreaking for Kashibai; and because she cannot destroy the cause of these blurry boundaries (the mirror), she burns the effect.

What is the use of mirrors? In Queer Phenomenology, Sara Ahmed writes: “It is not just that the object tends toward something, where the tendency supports an action, but that the shape of the object is itself shaped by the work for which it is intended…The thing would be a thing insofar as it is being used as the thing that it was brought into the world to be” (46). Mirrors are supposed to merge with the background of every space in which they happen to find themselves, but they also reflect and therefore (re)produce that space. This active production of a private space fosters an unintended intimacy between the object of the mirror and the subject; which further shapes that particular space to feel safe for the subject. However, if mirrors are expected to be peripheral, then by perceiving private reflections to be publicly significant we change the way mirrors are used. Subjects would then either cloak mirrors, remove them, or intentionally turn away from them. Films, however, by revealing the import of reflections only to spectators and by hiding it from the characters, are able to integrate these fault lines of queerness seamlessly, without interrupting the diegesis of the film. 

In Bajirao Mastani, the reflections seen in the mirrors of the Aina Mahal are recurrently enabled to cause an effect. It is in the Aina Mahal that Mastani reacquaints herself with Bajirao. In the song Deewani Mastani, Mastani dances in the centre of this hall, and her image is reflected in every mirror of Aina Mahal. In one shot, we see Kashibai gazing at Mastani’s reflection in these mirrors; and appearing significantly perturbed by them. Here, I read Mastani’s golden lehenga (which encourages the illusion of her reflections merging with the Mahal), and the careful shooting of this song as an impactful use of reflections: Mastani’s performance is rendered even more forceful by her numerous reflections in Aina Mahal which make her appear ubiquitous, and discomfit Kashibai and Bajirao’s mother. In this scene, the foregrounding of the object of the mirror unleashes the torrential power of reflections. 

Mirrors and their reflections are noteworthy, primarily because we often fail to notice them. They are usually present in the private domain, i.e., the bedroom. As an effect, they are often witnesses to the private self (the vulnerable self, the uninhibited self, the desiring self); the self which is, more often than not, unrestrained by social boundaries. In films, they are consequently useful devices to reveal characters’ interiority to spectators. I argue that this familiar positioning makes them private objects. Consequently, their movement from the private space into a public space, like the Aina Mahal, is ripe with destructive potential. The mirrors in Aina Mahal repeatedly reflect private intimacies being shared in public spaces. This invasion of the public space by the private selves causes a rupture, and creates a fissure in social order. In the second half of the film, this is repeatedly exhibited by Bajirao’s wanton countenance, which overshadows his former public self (the dutiful self, the brave self, the noble self). Here, desire overtakes duty — the private becomes the public — and the subject gives into chaos. 

What does it mean for our reflections to become public? In Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed writes: “So the space of the study is shaped by a decision (that this room is for this kind of work), which itself then “shapes” what actions “happen” in that space. The question of action is a question then of how we inhabit space. Given this, action involves the intimate co-dwelling of bodies and objects” (52). The private space is familiar. In this space, our bodies co-dwell alongside objects like the table, the chair, the bed, and the mirror. Our interaction with these objects shapes a space which is comfortable and secure. Here, the mirror quietly watches our unobserved selves; while harmlessly remaining in the background. But, when we foreground the mirror, we both change the way our bodies interact with it, and the shape of the private space. The familiarity which previously offered safety then becomes a source of threat. However, unlike films like Bajirao Mastani where the onus of “reflecting” and the crossing-over of public/private boundaries lies with the object of the mirror, in our everyday lives, this role lies with a different object: the camera. The camera conveniently captures our private reflections, and allows us to throw our private selves into the public abyss of the internet. The internet then becomes the ground where the public space is laid siege to by the private. Here, the queering of the public-private boundaries lends itself to effects like surveillance, and urges a redefinition of both “privacy” and the “private self”. It also begs the question: Today, what does it even mean to be private? 



WORKS CITED 

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press, 2006.  

Bhansali, Sanjay Leela, dir. Bajirao Mastani. Bhansali Productions. 2015. 

it rained /

when the trees look like thunder paused in time it becomes easier to unclench my fists and dream of streets soaked in rain future people laughing dancing hugging and music spilling from behind every half-open door / it should be so easy to walk up leave and not look back everything’s dying and i’m crying sitting in the traces of my lightning decked date because nothing touches me gently anymore nothing touches me / anymore / please let me leave i will find a little empty corner and not say a word can i not / have one soft thing?

Of Mafia Films, Bollywood and India

In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur I, there’s a moment when Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) looks into a mirror, catches the spectator’s eyes, and pretends to fire his gun. He makes all the appropriate sounds — the pull of the trigger, the deafening moment of impact. On watching this scene, I’m transported back to my schoolyard where the boys would run around playing chor-police and fire their makeshift guns in a similar fashion. Consequently, it reads to me like a mimicry of our childhood days when kids would spend hours upon hours playing Don and outwitting the world. Siddiqui’s acting here then becomes an imitation of an imitation of an imitation; and besides advancing the film’s plot by positing Faizal as the child within the family business, this scene also cracks the reality of the film by reminding the spectator that it is all an act. By creating this crack, the suspense of the film is not allowed to overwhelm us.

Gangs of Wasseypur I

In Hindi mafia films, the cracks are always visible. This genre of movies self-consciously shatters the mirror, assuring that when the spectator watches these films and identifies with these characters, they can ignore the reflection as a funhouse image and walk out of the cinema hall in peace. Creators continuously hinder this identification through various techniques. In this regard, songs are an extremely popular element. They interrupt the diegesis and, for the duration of the song, pull the spectator out of the film’s particular space and time. Their presence at opportune moments within the film acts like a semi-colon; it cuts through the tension (romantic or comedic or violent) of the preceding scenes, and allows the spectator room to breathe. Consequently, when Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur is shot to death by the Qureshis, the spectator flinches in their seat — however, the speakers immediately start playing “Jiya Ho Bihar Ke Lala”, and the fear evaporates. Songs place the film’s characters upon a “stage” and draw a clear line between them as performers and the audience as spectators; effectively fogging up the lines of identification we feel with these film’s unsavoury characters. Satya’s director Ram Gopal Varma had in-fact intended to leave songs out of the film; however, he changed his mind because it would have been quite difficult to promote a song-less film. As a result, the Indian cinema witnessed an intense, brilliant story; packed with enough romance, drama and amusing songs to please the mass spectatorship. 

Humour is also utilised in these films to diffuse the tension. High-powered scenes like Vijay in Don (1978) fighting off innumerable goons are not served to the audience without comedic quips (like Vijay asking the goons to allow him to rest for a minute) and a peppy background score. These moments of comedy slice through the thrill of the fight, effectively soothing the spectators’ jitteriness. Comedy is also generated through extremely unrealistic fight scenes in which the singular antihero fights off dozens of goons by performing almost superhuman feats. Here, quirky sound effects and over-the-top violence titillate the spectators. Stunning shots like Karan and Paro’s murder in Parinda, which posit the violence as something beautiful, are quite rare because they discomfort the viewers. 

Parinda

This urge to protect the spectator seems to speak to India’s film culture, which desires intensity, but with huge spoonfuls of masala and a dash of a hit-single. Here, a film which tries to hang its hat on only one hook seems destined to fail (consider: Bombay Velvet). Even an expectedly dark and ghoulish mafia film like Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai liberally utilises romance, punchy one-liners, sizzling confrontations and blockbuster dance numbers to grow into a feel-good movie which appeals to the whole family. 

This family-friendly platter of Hindi mafia films also serves justice. These films rely heavily on boldly drawn lines between wrong and right to disallow any dubious moralities to seep into their realities. The politicians might be corrupt, but the police are doing their best to defend the public from these menaces. Conversations centred around morals are a common trope in these films–as if they are self-consciously portraying dubious characters and lives while also making certain that the “good” guys would always win in the end, placing the film’s fictional universe firmly on the side of the “light”. Plus, the lack of any clear set of laws (code of ethics – omertà) and organisation within the mafia in these films makes it even easier for the spectators to divide moral grounds and carefully step only on the white tiles; and since the mafia’s law here seems to be a breaking away from the country’s laws, it becomes even easier to villainize them. Hence, the ‘found family’ trope always fails in Hindi mafia movies because usually, the mob collapses because of inner disloyalties and back-stabbings. This vindicates the spectators because, by the end, almost everyone else seems to fall and only the police are left standing. A film with dubious moralities which sees the ethical in the immoral does not seem to work in Bollywood. Consequently, even when the anti-hero wins (Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai), the credits roll in with an apology. So, while these films encourage identification by humanizing the villains and allow the spectators room to vicariously live the thrill of their lives, they cut these ties themselves before the climax sweeps it all away and restores justice. This effectively appeals the film to the spectators by fostering enjoyment; and nip any questions regarding the protagonist’s morals in the bud. 

These self-conscious attempts at playing safe are also reflected in the protagonists’ backstories, and the utilization of character foils to soften the antihero’s edges for the Indian spectators. Even within a clique of antiheroes, there’s still always a single ‘don’ who’s early on established — through an impactful display of physical and/or mental prowess — as the antihero of the film, like Kishen in Parinda, Sultan in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Satya in Satya, etc. This makes it easier for spectators to connect with the characters. Their backstories, more often than not, situate the mafia as a phoenix rising out of the ashes of a pitious childhood spent swallowing poverty. Every mob boss has an origin story, and it usually narrates a turning towards crime because of bad fortune. Hence, it immediately becomes absorbed into the larger poverty-crime nexus of the country. Again, the mafia becomes an avoidable consequence, available to self-rationalisations by the comparatively richer spectators as to why this reality is so very different from theirs; and they can unhesitantly enjoy the movie. However, if this antihero’s backstory is not a sufficiently convincing reason to have pushed them into a life of crime, then an alternate character is placed to enhance their kindness and “straight” morality for the spectators, like Anna and Karan in Parinda, Shoaib in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Bhau in Satya, etc. Unlike Johnny in Bombay Velvet who chooses the life of crime instead of being thrust into it; spectators aren’t usually forced to identify with a protagonist of dubious morals. The rationalisation is always present. 

[image source] Sultan Mirza & Shoaib Khan, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai

Through their attempts to integrate real-life social issues, mafia films give people a point of reference for conversations around police and crime. The police are always forced to abandon restraints of justice, because that is the only way to deal with these criminals — “laato ke bhut baato se nahi mante” (Stubborn menaces cannot be transformed through mere language; they require violence.) By ensuring and repeatedly reinforcing the mafia’s position in the country’s history by harking back to the real political environment, it becomes easier to blur the lines between fiction and fact for spectators. This influences the way people perceive police brutality, and convinces them that they should be allowed privileges in order to deal with the Dons and Annas of this world. 

Natural illnesses are liberally portrayed: Vidya’s ailing father in Satya, a prostitute in Bombay Velvet suffering from gonorrhea, Anna’s mental disorder in Parinda, Rihana suffering from heart disease in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Rohit’s friend suffering from bone cancer in Hathyar, etc. These exhibitions allow the threat of human fragility and mortality to humble the mafia’s invulnerability. In the films, women play a similar role. By showing quirky domestics between the mighty dons and their wives — in which the latter always wins — these films find resonance in the Indian familial culture. It also becomes a way to further reinforce the normalcy of these dons and their presence within the Indian milieu. To establish the mafia’s presence as “realistic” within India’s space, Hindi mafia films are also prone to consistently referencing other Bollywood movies, and comparing their own actions to being imitations of cinematic mob dons. Shots of newspapers, mentions of the year and date, and other attempts like exhibitions of cricket to evoke “Indianness”, and to weave the film’s narrative into the temporal space of the country’s history are ever-present. This lends itself to a continuous push-and-pull which simultaneously makes the mafia feel “real”, while constantly reminding the spectators that they are watching a film. 

This tug of war is the most important and fascinating element of Hindi mafia films. Any attempt at integration with the spectators’ reality would fall apart without simultaneous efforts to distance themselves from their lives. The “cracks” become pivotal here. These films allow us to graze our fingers across the mafia’s thrilling lives; but pull us back before we can be tempted to question their choices. They create enjoyment by validating our moralities and good beliefs about the world; and by providing us with other fun elements like romance, comedy, music and drama to focus on, the mafia is relegated to a mere singular piece of the larger patchwork of the film’s universe. Through this, Bollywood makes certain that the mafia will always be the bad guys in the spectators’ quieter lives and the mirror remains cracked. 

What of Art?: Reading Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray”

image source: Guide Ireland.com

In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian indulges in a flirtation with three (3) women: (1) Sybil Vane, an actress whose spirit he murders by rejecting her; (2) Hetty Merton, a village girl whose life he effectively ruins by giving her a taste of the cultured pleasures of the upper classes and then snatching it away; and (3) Gladys, the married Duchess of Monmouth. The Duchess is a quick-witted woman who when asked by Lord Henry if she was “very much in love with him [Dorian]” (Wilde 376) replies, “I wish I knew” (Wilde 376). This effectively makes her the only woman in Dorian’s life who doesn’t immediately fall in love with him. The Duchess of Monmouth is also the same woman who when asked during a conversation by Lord Henry “What of Art?” (Wilde 357) replied, “It is a malady” (Wilde 357). Art, is a malady. A “malady”, as defined by the Cambridge English Dictionary, is “a disease, or a problem in the way something works” (Cambridge). Reading Dorian’s various romantic and platonic affairs in conjunction with the Duchess’ unsure response about her feelings for him, I posit that in the novel Dorian himself is Art, and he is a potential malady for every person who engages with him. I further also question in this paper, through an interpretive reading of Oscar Wilde’s preface to the novel, if all art is a malady. 

Dorian is first introduced to the reader as “a young man of extraordinary personal beauty” (Wilde 9-10) who is the subject of artist Basil Hallward’s in-progress portrait. Basil is impassioned in his admiration of Dorian and informs both Lord Henry and the reader how everyone who comes into contact with him is utterly enamoured. I read Dorian here as a charming young man who has just begun to find his footing in the world. However, when the portrait is finished and Dorian passionately states “how sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young…If it were only the other way!…I would give my soul for that” (Wilde 52-53) I argue that in this moment Dorian unknowingly strikes a deal with the Devil in which his soul is bartered for eternal youth. This is the moment in the novel which I read as the transformation of Dorian into Art itself. A reversal takes place here between the object (the picture) and the person (Dorian): the object is personified and made human, while the person is objectified and made material. By selling his soul to the Devil, which represents to me his morality and goodness, Dorian effectively becomes a blank canvas who in the following years is painted into the very symbol of hedonism itself: gorgeous on the outside, but rotting on the inside. The loss of his humane conscience removes the self-restraint which would have restricted him when he was being excessive, and over the years, multiple influences act unchecked upon him — the artist — to shape himself into the perfect art piece; the most principal of them being Lord Henry and the yellow book he had sent him. 

Dorian’s transformation into a perfectly dazzling and magnetic art piece serves to continuously pull different spectators into his orbit; and like the recipients of a malady, they all succumb to his charms. For the innocent actress Sibyl Vane, Dorian is Prince Charming: a perfect love who will become even more perfect once they marry each other. His presence and his promises serve to charm her reality; and consequently, she stops living her life through her imagination. Before she met Dorian, “acting was the one reality of her [my] life” (Wilde 162); I read this as her imagination being the reality of her life, i.e., because her life wasn’t charming enough before she had met Dorian, she used to satisfy herself by living multiple different lives through her acting. In that sense, she was a true artist. However, meeting Dorian transformed her from an artist into a spectator: instead of producing her own scenes on the stage, she was perfectly satisfied by simply looking at Dorian and finding in him the sum of all the lives she had lived through her craft. He stirred her imagination; but even more significantly, he promised her that he would translate all of her dreams into reality. But once Sybil had allowed her reality to overtake her imagination, she lost the vitality and passion she used to bring to the stage and consequently, Dorian felt disappointed and told her that “you have killed my love” (Wilde 164). And so, he left her. His leaving marks an extremely significant moment in Sybil’s life: to her, Dorian was perfect (and consequently, more object than human); and he was supposed to be her Prince Charming and love her and fulfil all her dreams. His ‘leaving’ is the departure of her charmed reality and pushes her to take solace in her imagination and acting again. However, how does one satisfy themselves ever again with mere what-ifs once they’ve tasted the possibility of them being fulfilled? Sybil isn’t able to cope with losing Dorian, an object and a piece of art she had invested so much of her imagination into, and ends up killing herself. Thereby, Art has its first victim. 

The most frightening aspect of Dorian Gray being Art is the fact that he is alive: he is soulless, gorgeous, but alive. Art works as a perfect receptacle for people’s imaginations because it doesn’t possess the ability to use our desires against us. It keeps our secrets and successfully provides us with the experiences we lack and long for in our own life. But, Dorian is alive. Spectators would see his perfectly unmarred form years upon years and begin to unconsciously perceive him as more of an object than a person; however, once someone dares to “go beneath the surface” (Wilde 8) and “read the symbol” (Wilde 8), they would find in him pleasures and indulgences that they lack in their own lives. But, because he is alive, like the spectator he can also evolve according to what the situation demands. That’s terrifying, and that is exactly why he is a malady — a spectator can never move on from a piece of art if the art continues to grow and evolve with them. 

After Sybil’s death, Dorian discovers the peculiar “alive” quality of the portrait and starts upon his path of indulging in unrestrained pleasures. Everything comes easy for him because “even those who had heard the most evil things against him…could not believe anything to his dishonour when they saw him” (Wilde 235-236). Consequently, most people still were sucked into his vortex by his charming physique and personality. The only ones who weren’t either had learned better, or were already satisfied with their lot in life; and hence, saw in Dorian either something vile or something uninteresting. Like Basil put it to Dorian, his friendship was fatal: Alan Campbell committed suicide; a boy in the Guards committed suicide; Sir Henry Ashton had to leave England with a tarnished name; Adrian Singleton met a dreadful end; Lord Kent’s son’s career was destroyed; and the young Duke of Perth was shamed. Dorian defended himself to Basil by saying that he was not the one to “teach the one his vices, and the other his debauchery” (Wilde 276). I agree with this assessment: people do have individual agency and Dorian can’t be blamed for the bad decisions that they made. However, even if these incidents do not implicate Dorian directly, his influence on these young men is undeniable and does act like a malady in their lives.  

A few years later, Dorian falls in love again. “She was quite beautiful, and wonderfully like Sibyl Vane” (Wilde 384): Hetty Merton was a simple village girl who also fell in love with Dorian, and everything he represented to her of the upper class indulgences and fantasies. However, he left her for he was “determined to leave her as flower-like as I had found her” (Wilde 384). But, as Lord Henry very eloquently put it, the damage was already done for “do you think this girl will ever be really contented now with anyone of her own rank? I suppose she will be married some day to a rough carter or a grinning ploughman. Well, the fact of having met you, and loved you, will teach her to despise her husband, and she will be wretched” (Wilde 385). Like Sybil, Hetty had invested her imagination and emotions into Dorian and for the rest of her life, she would judge all her future suitors against Dorian and they would all inevitably fall short. Hence, the malady of Art has another victim. 

One of the most significant victims of Art is Basil. I read Basil’s murder as the disappearance of the artist of the picture of Dorian Gray, and consequently, the disappearance of an artist of Dorian Gray himself. The death of the picture’s artist signifies the final departure of the innocent and charming young man Dorian used to be, and who Basil had still wanted him to be. It also signifies another, if not the very first, victim of the malady. The first time Basil had laid his eyes upon Dorian, “a curious sensation of terror came over him [me]” (Wilde 18). I read this moment as a premonition felt by Basil of what could happen if he dared to engage with Dorian. In fact, Basil had even attempted to escape the party without meeting him. However, fate intervened and they met. 

I posit that the deal Dorian made with the Devil was this: Dorian would have eternal youth, in return for his soul. However, it doesn’t hurt Dorian in any way to indulge soullessly; unless, his conscience is present in his life — always looking at him, and reflecting to him the truth of his soul. I read this as the tripartite model of Dorian’s psyche: the super-ego is present only externally, the id is perfectly indulged, and the ego continues to protect his consciousness by rationalising all his decisions (Basil’s murder was integrated into the consciousness as something “that Dorian [he] had suffered” (Wilde 295)). The final, and arguably the most significant, victim of Dorian as Art therefore is Dorian himself. In the last few scenes in the novel, Dorian admits that the picture “had been like conscience to him” (Wilde 407) and hence, “he would destroy it” (Wilde 407). He stabs the picture with the same knife that had killed Basil and consequently, dies himself. In the end, the portrait regains the exquisite youth while Dorian himself shrivels up and dies. I read this final death as both a long-drawn murder and a suicide: Art ends up consuming even Dorian’s humanity (and effectively murders him); and to such an excessive extent that he attempts to excise his conscience (kill a part of himself) to be able to fully indulge in hedonism. 

Art can consume the spectator. However, if as Wilde writes, “it is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors” (Wilde 7), then the fatal nature of art in the novel can be attributed to the characters themselves and should be seen more as a reflection of the people of the time than the art. In this reading, art would not be a malady: it would be the spectators and the milieu of the time who enabled a significant psychological lack and provided space for the social rot to settle in; all art did was “show the world its own shame” (Wilde 399).

Art is not a malady; it is not a cure: it is, as Wilde so eloquently put it, “quite useless” (Wilde 8). 

I argue that art is to the non-believer what God is to the believer: Both serve like lighthouses for a ships on troubled waters. They provide faith. They fulfil a lack in the subject’s psyche, serve as an object through which they can feel powerful, and allow them to believe in something bigger than themselves to successfully make sense of their realities. It is not a coincidence that trauma survivors always turn to either spirituality and/or art during their recovery process to project their desires onto them and deal with their feelings of powerlessness. Art (and God) act like receptacles for people’s imaginations’ to invest themselves into. It is not art that counts; it is what people make of art that really matters. 

The Duchess of Monmouth replies to Lord Henry’s question if she was “very much in love with him [Dorian]” (Wilde 376) with, “I wish I knew” (Wilde 376): I read this desire as the unconscious self-preservation instincts of a brilliant woman who was consciously completely attracted to the utterly charming Dorian Gray; but whose unconscious mind knew something wasn’t right with him. I also read her reply to Lord Henry’s question “What of Art?” (Wilde 357) with “It is a malady” (Wilde 357) as a critique not of art, but rather a very accurate commentary on the social space of Oscar Wilde’s brilliant gothic novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.



WORKS CITED 

“Malady.” Cambridge Dictionary. www.dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/malady.com.  Accessed on 17 August 2020.

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Project Gutenberg. 2008.  

The “Great” Gatsby

image source: SkyMinds

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby is considered to be one of the best written novels of all time. However, unlike the novel itself, its protagonist Jay Gatsby is not even half as adored among the milieu presented to us in the novel and yet, the title reads “The Great Gatsby”. Why? I’ve attempted to answer this exact question in this paper: What is it about Gatsby’s character that justifies the epithet “great” written before his name. I posit that there are two distinct reasons which can be attributed to this association: (1) Gatsby’s own vivid imagination, and the quality which makes him an attractive receptacle for other people’s imagination; (2) the social rise of the non-Anglo-Saxon Jay Gatsby in 1920’s America when nativism was the accepted policy. 

The epithet associated with Gatsby can be read as a manifestation of the novel’s narrator Nick Carraway’s perception of the protagonist. Nick first met Gatsby at a party in the latter’s house. I posit that his house is a manifestation of Gatsby’s imagination and dreams in reality, and in the novel served as a space for other people’s imagination to run free. It is here where Daisy displaces her fantasies of a different reality where she is both loved and socially and fiscally secure onto Gatsby’s “beautiful shirts” (Fitzgerald 99) and sobs at the wide distance between her imagination and reality. The house’s vivid resemblance to a French chateau, its towering staircases, grand libraries, free-flowing drinks, large variety of conversations and open invitation appealed to the imagination of both English and American party-goers. The Nordic aristocracy from East Egg found in Gatsby’s house a space which reminded them of home while simultaneously satisfied their desire to look down upon the immigrants; while the latter found in Gatsby’s house a space where they could let loose and indulge in the obscene drinks and conversations in the presence of the socially superior nobles. 

The conversations at Gatsby’s parties often centred around the elusive host himself. People had all kinds of theories about him ranging from him being a spy in the war to having killed a man. I argue that the mere fact that there was such “romantic speculation” (Fitzgerald 48) about him speaks to the vivid way in which he captured the people’s imagination, and the reason he captured people’s imagination so thoroughly was his elusiveness. Author Barbara Will writes in her paper “”The Great Gatsby” and the Obscene Word” that “while Gatsby is a “mystery” for those who attend his parties, he is even more, as Nick Carraway notes, “an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words” (Fitzgerald 1999, 87). With his “unutterable visions” that lead to “unutterable depression” and ultimately “incoherent failure,” Gatsby is constantly vanishing on the horizon of significance” (Will 128). This “vanishing” of Gatsby in his unfinished sentences juxtaposes the “coming” of Gatsby through his static stories (e.g.: having gone to Oxford, spent his time like a rajah in different luxurious cities, etc.) which contributed to the aura of mystery surrounding him, and this in turn inspired people’s imagination to fill in the blanks themselves. 

I assert that Nick started finding Gatsby to be “great” when he first heard his and Daisy’s story from Jordan. Being a rational, fiscally inclined man himself, Nick found in Gatsby something he had unconsciously yearned for all his life: a vivid imagination; and when he heard his tale of love, Gatsby “came alive to me [him], delivered suddenly from the womb of his purposeless splendor” (Fitzgerald 85). At this moment in the novel’s time, Nick’s imagination also became invested in Gatsby. 

Gatsby asked Nick “what was the use of doing great things if I could have a better time telling her what I was going to do’” (Fitzgerald 160)? I assert that this rhetorical question starkly underlines the impetus which was driving Gatsby to manifest his imagination into reality. Gatsby could have lived a satisfactory life as a common man if he had had Daisy; but he knew that the dreams he was weaving for both Daisy and himself were impossible at the time of their conception and consequently, he spent almost five years dreaming his way into Daisy’s reality because of which Gatsby’s entire image was a lie. From his house to his origin story, everything about Gatsby was “real” only as long as Daisy’s absence casted a shadow on it; and through her absence he could justify his lies as a ceaseless yearning to grasp the green light across the bay. Even the way Gatsby first met Daisy at Nick’s house is a scheduled and fake encounter—he acted like he simply stumbled through Nick’s door when Daisy just happened to be visiting; as if it was fate and stars themselves colluding to set up their reunion. Yet, Gatsby is still the most authentic character in the novel, for he loves with honesty. It is equally possible for Gatsby’s feelings for Daisy to have been either a fervent obsession or passionate love; however, what made Gatsby so real was his eagerness for the entire world to know of his love and how precious Daisy was to him. His enthusiasm became even more apparent when placed in contrast with Daisy’s husband Tom who, according to Myrtle’s sister Catherine couldn’t “stand the person they’re [he’s] married to” (Fitzgerald 37). It is of course extremely plausible that she had this impression because of a perspective biased towards her sister’s happiness; however, the mere notion of such a thought implies that Tom must have said or done something for this idea to have even existed. We do learn in the immediate few passages in the novel that Tom had deliberately placed the blame of the impossibility of marrying Myrtle onto Daisy’s Catholic faith, and this can be read as his unwillingness to part with Daisy; and yet, to me, Tom’s deliberate unfaithfulness highlights a greater obscenity than Gatsby’s alleged unsavoury past; for while the latter could have easily been a consequence of hereditary station, the fiscal demands and traditions of the period, and a desire to rise above societal class inequalities; Tom’s infidelity was an intentional and avoidable choice. Following this, Daisy’s bizarre refusal to marry Gatsby, a man who wholeheartedly loves her, for a man who had cheated on her and consciously hurt her speaks to her very firm handle on her id and a propensity to gravitate towards safety and zero frustration situations, which acutely explains how she managed to refuse her imagination and stuck with her reality. And yet here, Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope, [and] a romantic readiness” (Fitzgerald 4) becomes even more highlighted and provides his character with a depth that makes him even more humane and endears him to both Nick and the readers’s imagination and consequently, makes him “great;” for what is life without dreams and a willingness to hope? 

And this is what fascinates me the most about Gatsby: his willingness to jump into his passions with both feet. He loved Daisy, and consequently, he gave her everything he had: his wealth and his heart. Unlike Tom and Daisy, he did not displace his emotions onto attainable objectives to avoid frustration; he fully invested his imagination (and consequently, his emotions) onto what he really wanted. In the end, it did leave him hollow; but at least he tried, and for that, he attained a brief period of satisfaction which was far more brilliant than anything Tom and Daisy had experienced in their entire lives.

I argue that the narrator also found Gatsby to be “great” because of his social rise in 1920’s America — a period when nativism was the widely propounded policy — as a man who “does not feature any overtly immigrant or even particularly ethnic American characters” (Railton). Nick viewed Gatsby’s house on West Egg as “a factual imitation of some Hôtel de Ville in Normandy” (Fitzgerald 7). This intimates me to the idea that even the house was a pretentious object which had been built to serve Gatsby’s image. Plus, the presence of a house which resembles the French chateaus of old on West Egg is especially fascinating to me, because Fitzgerald establishes the distinction between Old and New Money clearly in the very first chapter itself when he describes the West and East Egg as a “pair of enormous eggs, identical in contour and separated only by a courtesy bay” (Fitzgerald 7). Gatsby lived on West Egg, “the less fashionable of the two” (Fitzgerald 7), while the Buchanans — the prototype of Old Money in the novel — lived on East Egg. Here, Gatsby’s belief in “the unreality of reality, a promise that the rock of the world was founded securely on a fairy’s wing” (Fitzgerald 106) inspired him to recreate his past in his imagination, manifest it firmly into reality, and successfully cross the “courtesy bay” (Fitzgerald 7) into the top echelons of American society; and that is exactly why the “contemporary legends” (Fitzgerald 104) surrounding him “were a source of satisfaction to James Gatz of North Dakota” (Fitzgerald 104) because for a story to be a legend, it needs to shed off the ever evolving fragile skin of history and human memory, and if James Gatz ceased to exist in human memory, Jay Gatsby could successfully secure his place in American legend. 

The night after Daisy left with Nick, Gatsby waited and waited for Daisy’s message. But it never came. I posit that if Gatsby would have lived through the day, his story would have never transcended history and became legend. Daisy’s loss would have created “a new world, material without being real” (Fitzgerald 172) for the imagination driving his reality would have died a slow, pitiful death. His lies would have unraveled and his house of glass would have collapsed. But, instead of his imagination, he himself died and “an endless drill of police and photographers and newspaper men” (Fitzgerald 174) went in and out of his door and immortalised him through ink and paper. No one from his human life showed up at the funeral except for his father, his neighbour and the owl-eyed spectacled man who had occasionally attended his parties. In the last few pages of the novel, some boy scrawls an obscene word on the white steps of Gatsby’s house and Nick erases it. I read the erasure of the obscene from the utter white as the death of ‘Gatsby the human’ in memory and the endorsed survival of the ‘great Gatsby’s legend’. Here, Nick’s erasure can be read as the author’s erasure of the obscene parts of Gatsby’s history and a rewriting of his past as the story of a brilliant man who “believed in the green light, the orgastic future” (Fitzgerald 193) and ran straight towards it; and in his never-ending yearning in the face of “something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (Fitzgerald 193) retold the story of the American Dream. Fitzgerald’s transition from “he” to “us” in the last page of the novel testifies to the presence of the metaphor of the the Great American Dream in the novel; and Gatsby becomes the Great Gatsby because he successfully grasps that dream.



WORKS CITED 

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Planet eBook. 

Railton, Ben. “Considering History: The Great Gatsby, Multicultural New York, and America in 1925.” The Saturday Evening Post. www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2018/04/considering-history-great-gatsby-multicultural-new-york-america-1925/. Accessed on 27 July 2020. 

Will, Barbara. “”The Great Gatsby” and the Obscene Word.” College Literature, The Johns Hopkins University, Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 125-144, 2005. www.jstor.com/stable/25115310. Accessed on 27 July 2020.

“Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo”: The Anatomy of Patriotism in the 1960s

Lata Mangeshkar singing the song for the first time on 27 January 1963. Source: Akmal Hussain/ Facebook.

Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo is an iconic song which was first sung by Lata Mangeshkar, written by Kavi Pradeep and composed by C. Ramchandra in 1963 to honour the fallen soldiers in the 1962 Indo-Sino war. It was first sung by Mangeshkar on 27 January during the Republic Day celebrations. Since then, this song has been revered as one of the most patriotic and heartfelt odes to the Indian nation. 

However, alongside the inherent brilliance of the song, it was also the anxieties and fears of the Indian public in the 1960s which influenced the way they consumed and produced this text. Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo was first sung to an India fumbling the ball with international relations and defense strategies. The overwhelming defeat in the unexpected 1962 war with China had put India on the back-foot and made the recently decolonised citizens anxious and looking for someone to blame. Honourable defence minister Menon had to resign, and P. M. Nehru barely escaped with his dignity intact. Amidst these anxieties, the song came as a perfect articulation of the emotions of the masses, and eventually became the marching band for the heartbeats of a million Indians in 1963.

Therefore, the object of my analysis in this paper is the song, which I plan to analyse by placing it in the middle of its social, political and historical context. I also plan to analyse the song using the tool of the “period rhetoric” mentioned by Roland Barthes (1961) in his text “The Photographic Message” by drawing a contrast with the connotations the song held in 1963 vis-a-vis those it holds in 2019. Barthes (1961) also mentions that a text “clearly only signifies because of the existence of a store of stereotyped attitudes which form ready-made elements of signification” (p. 201). Therefore, I acknowledge at the outset that the nationalistic fervour, its associations with the army, and the anxieties of the Indian polity in the 1960s created this store of stereotyped attitudes which influenced the emission, transmission and reception of the song. Barthes’ (1961) claim that a “…. second meaning, whose signifier is a certain “treatment” of the image (result of the action of the creator) and whose signified, whether aesthetic or ideological, refers to a certain “culture” of the society receiving the message” (“The Photographic Message.”p. 196-197) is utilised in the paper through an analysis of Mangeshkar’s voice and the ways through which her distinct tenor influenced the reception of the song. 

In the first four lines of the song “ऐ मेरे वतन के लोगों / तुम खूब लगा लो नारा / ये शुभ दिन है हम सब का / लहरा लो तिरंगा प्यारा” (O! People of my country! / Keep on chanting the slogans [the slogans praising India]. / This is an auspicious day for all of us / Unfurl our beloved tricolour) the use of “mere” (i.e. “mine”) in the first sentence immediately binds the singer and the listener as a part of a collective whole, where each and every citizen feels the same way. The use of the term “watan” (i.e. “country”) instead of “desh” or any other term signifying “country” is really interesting here, for it harps back to its original meaning of “motherland” and “homeland” in Arabic over simply “country” and thereby establishes a deeper familiarity with the listener. The phrase “Unfurl our beloved tricolour” employed as a synecdoche for the entirety of the Republic Day celebrations is an acute exhibition of the relevance of the Indian flag, and symbols and images like the charkha and khadi used to connote nationalism in newly independent India (Virmani, 1999), especially on the auspicious day of Republic Day. The reference to the fallen soldiers in the next few lines “पर मत भूलो सीमा पर / वीरों ने है प्राण गँवाए / कुछ याद उन्हें भी कर लो -२ / जो लौट के घर न आये -२” (but don’t forget that at the borders / brave people have lost their lives. / Remember those / who never returned home) establishes the main spirit of the entire song: commemoration of the martyred. The call to not forget the warriors who have lost their lives on the border plays into the cultural context of the time wherein the memories of Indo-Sino war were overshadowing the entire country, and even an occasion as joyous as the Republic Day couldn’t be isolated from it. The repetition of the last two lines further reiterates this point. 

The most famous four lines of this song “ऐ मेरे वतन के लोगों / ज़रा आँख में भर लो पानी / जो शहीद हुए हैं उनकी / ज़रा याद करो क़ुरबानी” (O! People of my country! / Shed a few tears. / Of those who were martyred / Remember their sacrifice.) have over the years come to represent the spirit of this song. The call to shed tears over the fallen and remember their sacrifice remains till date an appeal with heavy overtones of patriotism. The connection presented here between the army, their sacrifice, and nationalism is an association born of its social and historical context, wherein the people who had laid down their lives in the independence struggle, the 1948 war with Pakistan and the Indo-Sino conflict are true patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice for their watan. In the next stanza “जब घायल हुआ हिमालय / खतरे में पड़ी आज़ादी / जब तक थी साँस लड़े वो / फिर अपनी लाश बिछा दी / संगीन पे धर कर माथा / सो गये अमर बलिदानी / जो शहीद…” (When the Himalayas were wounded [by Chinese forces] / when our freedom was in peril / as long as they had any breath left in them / they fought… ), the usage of Himalayas to represent the Aksai Chin border and North-East Frontier Agency (Arunachal Pradesh) becomes extremely important when placed within its historical context wherein it has served as the first insurmountable line of defense and a symbol of grandiose for India over the centuries. The wounding of the Himalayas, hence, connotes the wounding of India’s primary line of defense and therefore poses a serious risk to India’s security. Hence, the next line “खतरे में पड़ी आज़ादी” represents the overwhelming fear felt by the Indian populace post the conflict with China wherein a singular defeat is equated to a risking of freedom. The next five lines reemphasise the willing sacrifice of the martyrs, and how their conscious laying down of their lives for our country has brought them eternal glory. 

The lines “जब देश में थी दीवाली / वो खेल रहे थे होली / जब हम बैठे थे घरों में / वो झेल रहे थे गोली” (When it was [the festival] of Holi / they played [it] with their blood. / When we were sitting in our homes celebrating Diwali / they were being pierced by bullets.) brings out the theme of civilians living comfortable lives in their homes while the soldiers get their hands dirty in the process of defending the country and protecting the former. The contrasting usage of the festivals Diwali and Holi to present specific different scenes is based on the associated eliteness and purity of the festival of Diwali, vis-a-vis the “dirty” festival of Holi where regular social norms are suspended and “playful reversals of gender, generation, class, and caste are enacted in a variety of ways.” (Copeman, 2013. “The Art of Bleeding: Memory, Martyrdom, and Portraits in Blood.” p. 7) The trope of symbolising bloodshed with the fun festival of Holi — where brightly coloured substances are thrown as a part of celebrations — is quite common in pop-culture. It has famously been used as a part of a dialogue in the film International Khiladi (dir. U. Mehra, 1999): “Bachpan se aaj tak maine kabhi Holi nahi kheli … magar ab kheloonga khoon ki Holi” (“I’ve never played Holi all my life … but now I will play Holi with blood.”) and as the names of episodes in the TV shows Adaalat (2010-): S01e103 and in C.I.D (1998-): S01e933.

The next stanza “कोई सिख कोई जाट मराठा / कोई गुरखा कोई मदरासी / सरहद पर मरनेवाला / हर वीर था भारतवासी / जो खून गिरा पवर्अत पर / वो खून था हिंदुस्तानी / जो शहीद…” (Some were Sikh, some were Jat and some Maratha / some were Gurkha and some from Madras. / Whosoever died at the border, /every such warrior was an Indian. / The blood that fell on the hills of the Himalayas / that blood was Indian.) harps back to the 20th century theme of ‘unity in diversity’ wherein the boundaries between regions and regional backgrounds fade away amongst the bonds of army solidarity and ultimately, every fallen soldier on the enemy lines is an Indian. This denotation connotes the claiming of every martyr by the nation (and the state) as a feather in its own hat. The sanguinary visual of bloodshed of Indians on the mountains reflexively evokes intense feelings, which are usually associated with feelings of patriotism. This sanguinary visualisation continues into the next stanza where the denotation of “थी खून से लथ-पथ काया / फिर भी बन्दूक उठाके / दस-दस को एक ने मारा / फिर गिर गये होश गँवा के” (Their body was covered in blood / yet they picked up the rifle / each soldier killed ten enemies / and then fell to the ground on losing consciousness.) blends into the connoted idea of the ideal soldier who is aggressive and fights for his country till his last breath. This aggressiveness was even more pronounced in the aftermath of the 1963 conflict where India’s unpreparedness and submissive complacency had led to global embarrassment. This idea of the ideal soldier continues into the next few lines “जब अन्त-समय आया तो / कह गये के अब मरते हैं / खुश रहना देश के प्यारों / अब हम तो सफ़र करते हैं / क्या लोग थे वो दीवाने / क्या लोग थे वो अभिमानी / जो शहीद…” (When the moment of their death arrived / they said, “We are now going to die / be happy, my fellow countrymen / now we will go on this journey.” / They were brilliant men, / they were proud men.) where with his dying breath, he greets death like an old friend and wishes happiness for his fellow countrymen. The last two lines reemphasise this ideal by describing the men as brilliant and proud (alternatively: arrogant), and the connoted message transmitted to the public represented these traits as one and the same. 

The last stanza “तुम भूल न जाओ उनको / इस लिये कही ये कहानी / जो शहीद…” (Lest you forget them / this story has been recounted) reiterates how important it is to not forget their sacrifice. Following this, Mangeshkar ends the song with “जयहिन्दजयहिन्दकीसेना”(Victory to India, and victory to the Indian armed forces). The association between the victory of the army and victory of the nation is reestablished here. The usage of the lines “जो शहीद हुए हैं उनकी / ज़रा याद करो क़ुरबानी” (Of those who were martyred / Remember their sacrifice.) at the end of every single stanza (post the third stanza) in the song further emphasises the significance of this idea. 

A song, alongside its lyrics, also credits its reception to its tone and composition. The soulful, “shrill, adolescent-girl falsetto” (Sundar, 2008. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.” p. 6) of Lata Mangeshkar, “”cleansed” of all those qualities that would in time be read as markers of decadence, immodesty, and by extension, in the warped logic of Indian nationalism, Muslimness” (Sundar, 2008. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.”p. 7) is one of the most important reasons for the evergreen nature of this song. The increasing influence of fringe groups like the Hindu Mahasabha on the INC during the freedom struggle (Bose and Jalal, 2004) and the retention of this power can be credited for the overwhelmingly positive reception of “Mangeshkar’s “good” Hindu voice” (Sundar, 2008. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.”p. 7). Her image as a simple, devoted and religious woman, placed alongside her unmarried status and refusal to sing “vulgar” songs had paid credence to her “virginal” status and thereby, represented her as a culturally positive symbol for the Indian state. Even today, the vocal style of “Lata didi” (big sister Lata) is mimicked by contemporary playback artists such as Alka Yagnik and Kavita Krishnamurthy. 

The connotations associated with the song in 2019, when analysed using Barthes’ tool of “period rhetoric” are revealed to be analogous to those in 1963. The similarity between these connotations over five decades can be credited to the resurgence of the influence of Hindu groups like RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), BJS (Bharatiya Jana Sangh) and BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in the past few years post BJP’s victory in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Plus, the escalating emphasis on “nationalism” over globalisation has led to an increasingly reactionary approach which is in line with militant Hinduism as “…in the minds of many Hindu nationalists, the ability to use force is intricately tied to India’s self-image as a nation.” (Vaishnav, 2019. “The BJP in Power: Indian Democracy and Religious Nationalism.” p. 79). This has been accentuated in instances like 2016 Uri attack, 2017 Doklam standoff with China and 2019 Pulwama attack. These events have contributed to the reemergence of a culture wherein military might is intricately tied with national glory, and ““pure” voices” (Sundar, 2008. “Meri Awaaz Suno: Women, Vocality, and Nation in Hindi Cinema.”p. 7) like that of Mangeshkar are deemed acceptable to represent the Indian nation. 

Therefore, the chosen text till date connotes deep-seated patriotism and inspires nationalism in the Indian populace. It is also an acute exhibition of the influence of a country’s hard power over its soft power, and how they interact to produce feelings of solidarity and pride in a suitable environment (i.e., culture). The production and consumption of art deemed “patriotic” in the 1960s was heavily influenced by the social, political and historical context of that decade of which the iconic song Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo is a prime example. The recent resurgence of BJP in the last few years can be credited for a similar reception of the song in 2019, thereby illustrating the utilisation “of the existence of a store of stereotyped attitudes which form ready-made elements of signification.” (Barthes, 1961. “The Photographic Message.” p. 201).



WORKS CITED 

Barthes, Roland. “The photographic message.” A Barthes Reader, edited by Susan Sontag, Hill and Wang, 1961. 

This paper argues that alongside on-the-surface denotations, an image also transmits various connotations. It also argues that these connotations are prone to influence by various elements prevalent in the image. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised the concept of the “period rhetoric” mentioned in Barthes’ text, and the following two quotes:

  • “clearly only signifies because of the existence of a store of stereotyped attitudes which form ready-made elements of signification” (p. 201)
  • “…. second meaning, whose signifier is a certain “treatment” of the image (result of the action of the creator) and whose signified, whether aesthetic or ideological, refers to a certain “culture” of the society receiving the message.” (p. 196-197)

Bose, Sugata and Jalal, Ayesha. Modern South Asia. Routledge, second edition, 2004, p. 117.

This book is an analytical text on the political happenings in India since the coming of the Mughals through Partition. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised the idea in this book which states that fringe groups like Hindu Mahasabha had started pressuring the Indian National Congress during the freedom struggle. 

Copeman, Jacob. “The art of bleeding: Memory, martyrdom, and portraits in blood.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, Blood Will Out: Essays on Liquid Transfers and Flows, 2013, p. 149–71. https://www.jstor.org/stable/42001734

This paper analyses the genre of the Indian blood painting, and how different art forms are used to depict patriotism. It focusses on the sanguinary element in these art pieces, and its relation with preservation of memory of martyred soldiers. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised Copeman’s translations of the Hindi lyrics Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo into English and one quote:

  • “playful reversals of gender, generation, class, and caste are enacted in a variety of ways.” (p. 7)

Sundar, Pavitra. “Meri awaaz suno: Women, vocality, and nation in Hindi cinema.” Meridians, Vol. 8, No. 1, Duke University Press, 2008. https://www.jstor.org/stable/40338915.

This paper analyses how playback singers’ voices contributed to the construction of a national identity post 1947. For the purpose of this paper, I have used four quotes:

  • “shrill, adolescent-girl falsetto” (p. 6)
  • “”cleansed” of all those qualities that would in time be read as markers of decadence, immodesty, and by extension, in the warped logic of Indian nationalism, Muslimness” (p. 7)
  • “Mangeshkar’s “good” Hindu voice” (p. 7) 
  • ““pure” voices” (p. 7)

Vaishnav, Milan. The BJP in Power: Indian Democracy and Religious Nationalism, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2019. 

This text analyses the rise of Hindu nationalism and its influence on BJP’s policymaking. It also talks about the relevance of these conversations on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised one quote:

  • “…in the minds of many Hindu nationalists, the ability to use force is intricately tied to India’s self-image as a nation.” (p. 79)

Virmani, Arundhati. “National symbols under colonial domination: The nationalization of the Indian flag.” Past & Present, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 10-11. https://www.jstor.org/stable/651278.

This paper argues that during the freedom struggle various symbols gained prominence and became associated with nationalism, especially the national flag. For the purpose of this paper, I have utilised the examples of the charkha and white khaddar mentioned in Virmani’s text.

The Religion of Cricket

image source: sportskeeda

India used to be known as the “land of benighted heathens and lesser breeds” (Singer 11) across the West during the pre-colonial and colonial periods. Gradually, these archaic “scratches” (Singer 11) on the minds of the Europeans and Americans have been replaced by the flamboyant images of PM Modi, the sensational Bollywood film industry, and undoubtedly, our cricketers: the Men In Blue. 

In contemporary India, the image of ‘cricket’ is intimately interwoven with the image of the nation. Historically, the English colonisers introduced this sport in our colony, and soon the game became a way of beating the British at their own chosen sport — a way for the slaves to one-up their colonial masters. Today, India has wholeheartedly embraced this piece of colonial legacy.

This image is of Kapil Dev, the then-captain of the Indian cricket team, receiving the World Cup trophy from Robert Carr (also known as Lord Carr of Hadley; Carr was the chairman of Prudential Assurance, the company that sponsored the World Cup in 1983) (Quora) in Lord’s, England. The Prudential World Cup victory of 1983 was the first appearance by an Asian nation in a World Cup final and the first time in the history of this tournament that India had won the world cup.

The inclusion of Indian cricket in class IX CBSE Social Sciences’ syllabus and its prominence in Indian cinema is a testament to the power of its image. The film Lagaan (dir. Ashutosh Gowariker, 2001), the most popular representation of cricket in India is a stark portrayal of the caste system in the country, and racism during the British Raj. “Cricket-fever” is also visible through newspaper headlines (‘The Dream of a Billion Comes True’; carried by a leading Bengali daily on the opening page after the Indian cricket team completed a Test series victory over Pakistan) (Ray 1637), radio shows, and advertisements, including the Kamla Pasand pan masala’s advertisement during the 2019 World Cup which ran with the tagline “Ek Aur Baar”; which coincidentally holds an uncanny resemblance with BJP’s tagline for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections “Phir Ek Baar”. These sources are also an exhibition of the overlapping sentiments of cricket aspirations and nationalist feelings in our country.

A longitudinal study of Indian cricket brings to light a trajectory very similar to that of Indian civilisation: Along with the gradual progression of Indian images in the minds of Europeans and Americans from a peace-loving, stuck-in-the-past, democracy-promoting nation, India has grown to be acknowledged as a vibrant, rapidly technologically advancing, aggressively dominant nation; who holds a firm hegemony over cricket. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is the richest and most organised cricketing board in the world. This transition in India’s cricketing image is in synchrony with the shift from the image of “Nehru, the intellectual world leader” (Singer 11), to Modi, the shrewd politician. This shift can be further exhibited through the ‘Monkeygate’ scandal of 2008 (Scroll.in), where Indian bowler Harbhajan Singh insulted the Australian all-rounder Andrew Symonds — a man of West Indian descent — by calling him a “monkey”. This incident is a stark portrayal of India’s evolution from a formerly-oppressed nation, to a country with the soft power to be the oppressor. 

Today, we have moved far ahead from this image of Kapil Dev — humbly accepting the World Cup trophy from a White man, wearing a standardised white shirt with a dark-blue overcoat; to the immediately identifiable bright blue of our jerseys, and to the image of six-sixes in an over by Yuvraj Singh, the “God of Cricket” Sachin Tendulkar, and boldly brilliant Captain Kohli. In our modern India, even today superstitions and pujas become the rage when a cricket match is on. It’s certainly not far-fetched to claim that in contemporary India, cricket is held to the standard of a ‘religion’: only what remains to be seen is how strikingly these Gods will continue to live up to their image in the upcoming years, both within the country and abroad.



WORKS CITED 

Quora. “Who presented Kapil Dev the World Cup in 1983?” www.quora.com/Who-presented-Kapil-Dev-the-World-Cup-in-1983. Accessed on 6 March 2021.

Ray, Somshankar. ‘The Wood Magic’: Cricket in India – A Postcolonial Benediction. The International Journal of the History of Sport. 2008.

Singer, Milton. Passage to More Than India: A Sketch of Changing European and American Images. New York: Praeger Publishers. 1972.

Scroll.in. “The ‘Monkeygate’ scandal and how it strained India-Australia cricketing ties”. scroll.in/field/902884/the-monkeygate-scandal-and-how-it-strained-india-australia-cricketing-ties. Accessed on 6 March 2021.