Evaluation-Way to go
When I was small, that must be some fifteen-twenty years ago from now, there used to be some awesome translations available of fairy tales from foreign lands. Grimm, Hans Anderson, cheap Russian folklore with original gray-scale sketches of wicked kings, walking axes, clever soldiers, Baba Yagas and her shack on a solitary chicken leg, brave princes and dumb princesses. Most of the stories had an appeal beyond nationality (we Indians already possess brilliant mines of fairy tales -a combination of history, myth and bed-time-stories, and I am goddamned proud of them). There was no reason to discriminate our feelings towards Aliyoshka, doomed underwater with a stone tied to her neck by her stepmother, till the handsome prince rescues her, and our very own Prince Dalim Kumar, doomed inside a pomegranate as a victim of the same evil stepmother’s conspiracy, till the brave, pretty princess saves his neck. It is difficult for my usual low level of concentration at one topic, to resist the temptation of a diversion at this point and make a comparative study of feminism between Indian and Russian fairy tales, but I have been accused repetitively of digressing and unnecessarily lengthening my travelogues (which, some of my usually unwilling or unsuspecting readers have even refused to recognize as travelogues, I wonder why!) and also of using long sentences (I wonder where! Because anyone who has ever been able to read two (many have been lured into reading one but were encouraged to be left at that) of my articles, know that I have a clever way of breaking down my sentences in small pieces and organizing them in nested brackets with appropriate commas…) and moreover of some sort of xenophobia to the point of harshly judging the other, while showing whatever I have considered as my own, in apparently often undeservingly fabricated positive light (as one can see here how baseless that is!). However I shall henceforth keep my travelogues short and to the point, starting with the very first para, which is usually the introduction of the topic of my essay, unless I get a bit carried away (as I am consciously not, today), consisting of precise sentences and trite comments.
Okay may be one has a point in evaluating my writing as something narcissistically spiral. Because what I wanted to write about was this ballet performance I saw today evening, weirdly enough, sitting with a hall-ful of foreigners (when I say foreigners I mean Germans and it is quite unfair on them because I am not one, though it so happens that it is me who is in Germany, watching a German ballet), thus if somebody has to be called as foreigner, it is me, not them). But foreigners is a favourite abuse-word in my vocabulary, specially since they were all dressed up smartly or decoratively where as I was wearing the same old jacket (stinking of smoke and guiltily consumed meat) I have been wearing for past two weeks, the T-shirt that I have not changed for past three days, the underwear that…what I mean to say is that I was shabby and smelly and feeling quite out of the place (one of my harsh critics will frown at this point and call me girly, but iamwhatiam.yetanotherutopian). Besides it was raining outside, the same old drizzle that the German sky has been wearing for past ten days, and thus when I entered the hall outside the auditorium, brightly lit, walls covered with mirrors, I could clearly see that my mustache was showing even more darkly than it usually does, under my rough cold nose.
I can see that I still have not been able to reach the principal topic. Now I have started understanding the point of view of people who found it difficult to go through my blog (to the point of hinting that as a parallel of Joyce’s stream of consciousness, mine is a stream of something much more vile, and yellow). So without further ado, let me take a plunge right into it.
I have a vague notion of having said something wrong up there!
I was talking about the fairy tales I read in my childhood. There were a few that were sort of Indianized with the name of the characters more befitting our own. Specially the famous ones, like Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, Rumpleskin etc had no means to escape. Luckily for us, folklores are not copyrighted, and the translations were often very good. For some reason Cinderella happened to be one of our favourites and she took place, among other things, in our everyday games.
I think it was a clever way on my side to come to the point, that is the fact that the ballet I went to attend today was based on the story of Cinderella. I emphasize on the cleverness because at the same time I am trying here to defend my convoluted style of writing, that might have generated from my incessant story-telling to myself since I learned how to talk, even before I stared reading books. Which, in turn, might have generated from my mother’s almost religious habit of reading fairy tales, as she was pregnant with me (is it raining outside!), and afterwards, the infinitely many stories that my father, uncle, grandparents and several grandaunts and cousins narrated to me describing violence, bleakness of life, amorousness and most importantly the hierarchy of implementation of power in society in many fabulous (in the sense of something that is made out of pebbles may be called pebbulous) disguises. I find that I am not a moral person, lacking all sorts of qualities, but most importantly truthfulness. But I like to defend myself (to myself) by saying that I owe my basic dishonesty to a general lack of sense of reality, or in other words an affinity towards fantasy. Unfortunately the key of the incidents in fairy tales are at the hands of the authors. And people like me, who have been exposed to the fairies, without a warning from our naïve parents or other innocent authors and story-tellers, about the dangers of starting to believe in one’s own fantastic world, are left to search for that key in all possible corners of our doom.
Fairies are not too far from Furies, only they are meaner and possess a more twisted sense of humour. And what is worse, though in the stories they punish you for not believing in them, in reality they punish you for believing in them.
There are reasons why I strongly believe in penance. Days when I feel most pained or left out, I remember some of the evil I did to fellow beings, and the earth looks like a more justified place to live in. This particular misdoing of mine, or rather ours, regarding our popular game based on the Bengali version of Cinderella (Shweta!), is not among my well-remembered reasons for serving penance, but incidentally I was feeling down today, and the performance I went to attend was based on this particular story, and I came back home feeling cold and there was nothing to eat for dinner, and all these together led me to the memory, how we repetitively mistreated P, a friend of ours.
P was the smallest in our generally sweet-natured group of girls, staying in an old three-storied housing apartment with a monochrome terrace, smelling of dust, every evening presenting a view of sunset behind the poles of a nearby train-line (a view that every time makes a child grow up a little). We were in a state yet untainted by the sins of adolescence, but very much in practice of the guiltless cold cruelty found among children, like the islanders in Kundera’s unforgettable Book of Laughter and Forgetting. None of us was a bully, none too spoilt, arrogant, greedy or foolish. Still, as was the nature of girlhood those days, we loved acting out stories (punctuating our usual games of chasing, hiding or listless running) – children-stories, fairy tales explicitly hinting on racism, sex and violence. It was inevitably the ones among us, who were already in the upper level of social or financial hierarchy, enjoyed the positions of Power in such enactments.
Talking about violence, I particularly remember one, where a poor Brahmin couple catches a lobster, in spite of its requests to be left free. While the husband is away for a bath, the wife eats it all, and cooks a piece of her own buttock for her husband to eat! Later the Brahmin is informed of this crime by the revengeful soul of the lobster, in the form of a butterfly, singing what his wife has done to him in the coarsest colloquial lyrics. Till today I have not been able to trace back the social or historical background of the story, or even recall who really came up with it. But for some vague gross reason, it was one of our favourites – probably because it gave us ample opportunity to use simple swear words within the sinless boundary of a game. But I suspect it was also because one had the freedom to imagine all possible painful punishments for the wife.
However, for obvious reasons Cinderella (let me use the original name, instead of the Indian version – never liked it) was another hit among us, and we took turns to act as different characters. There were a few of us from the socially lower classes and a few from the upper middle (just the fact that I have the guts to talk about social hierarchy in the same tone as I would have talked about berths in train-compartments proves without doubt where I belonged). But P was somewhere in between. As far as I remember she was the daughter of one of the permanent maid-servants in one of the moderately well-to-do families. These women are ambiguous products of our Indian system of bringing colonialism down to everyday life. They are usually given all the power necessary for running the family (in the form of responsibilities), but just not the permission to actually use it. In the more liberal houses, their children grow up in the confused condition of almost-but-just-not enjoying a fake set of equal rights. Looking back, P fitted the role as smoothly as the magic shoe fitted Cinderella. A tiny kid, looking more like a mushroom than a human, with docile, almost dumb eyes. She was always made (by us, let me not try to evade that) to be one (or both, if it was her lucky day) of the stepsisters of Cinderella. The power of magic and justice of the fairy godmother, the power of sadist evilness of the stepmother and the obvious power of beauty and innocence of the protagonist Cinderella were forever beyond her reach. She was just the comic and irrelevant stepsister, beautyless, sexless, nameless, thousand times more forgotten than the poor orphan heroine in the story, stuck up in her dusty brooms-cupboard. But what was worse, we inserted a particular dialogue, where the stepsister catches Cinderella at desperately trying to sew a pretty dress for herself for the royal party. All she was supposed to say was – Mother, Shweta is making herself a dress, stealing pieces from our old dresses. That dialogue was the peak moment of hideous humour in our play. Oh it was innocent enough, and quite stupid. We would make her twist the dialogue and say – Mother, Shweta is making us a dress, cutting fabric from her old clothes. And we would laugh till tears came to our eyes. Then we would ask her to repeat it, even correct her if she says the right thing by mistake, even pee in our pants while screaming in laughter, till one of us (not her) got tired and moved on.
Point is, it was one of our most involved moments in the play. P was an ideal person for such innocent torture. It was almost like playing with one of those dolls with a clown’s nose and a fool’s hat on their head, that pronounces the same damn funny line again and again. Point is, it was the pleasure of commanding, of moulding a person’s real words in our own twisted fashion for our entertainment. In a way, it was the awful pleasure of dictating others’ lives, and that too lower ones, who did not have rights to dictate their own. Point is, I do not remember P laughing along with us as the game was played every alternate day. In fact I do not remember her laughing at all.
One of the best performers in the ballet troupe was the man, who acted as the stepmother. Yes, it was a male actor, and a quite good one I must say. Very tall and lean, with a horse’s face, accentuated with dark shadows around his eyes, and a tight evil bun on her head. On top of her excellent movements (a compilation of classical ballet with something else, may be jazz, or salsa, but being far from an expert, all I was able to do, was to enjoy the aesthetics without understanding the technicalities), she really made the audience recoil with her expression of greed and also made us feel satisfied as she was finally defeated, dragged down from her position of power, made into a vulgar joke. The dancer acting as Cinderella, was very skillful with straight auburn hair and beautiful legs. Doomed as all painfully positive characters of western fairy tales, her role was moderately insipid. But there were rewarding moments such as the one, where her dead mother appears in her dream, dancing on a green carpet laid by Cinderella herself – a patch of grass, symbolizing a splash of joy in her dreary life. It was touching to see Cinderella holding onto one of her very few worldly possessions, a jar full of blood-red honey dew gifted to her by her parents ages ago. And she clung to it as if it was her heart itself. The jar that she now presents to her mother, and her mother slowly disappears along with the green carpet and the last trace of happy memory that her daughter saved for herself.
I find it difficult to criticize a dance production. The performers take months, or even years to interpret a single story or a piece of music, to make something new out of it. And that is only one hundredth of the world of pain that follows afterwards to choreograph, synchronize, rehearse with accompanying musicians, arrange the auditorium, the lights, the sound system, find sponsors, media sponsors, invite special guests and so on, not to mention the omnipresent continuous conflict of hundreds of human ego involved at every stage of it. It is a mammoth’s task to have every feature presentable to a random group of people called The Audience, who have got nothing to do with even a bit of the agony that the troupe had gone through, but who have all the rights to criticize every bit of the final product mercilessly, and often ignorantly. The performance of Cinderella that I saw might not have been intellectually outstanding, it lacked the Disney-charm of a fairy-tale for one thing, but it was after all their own interpretation of the story, and it certainly was very entertaining -performed with skill and sincerity, along with simple but smart usage of stage and light. The vile stepmother ended up winning all our hearts and got most of the claps. The improvisation, that in her madness to win the amorous competition over the prince’s love, she even cheated her own daughters (also enacted successfully by two male actors), and consequentially was unveiled by one of them to the prince, added to her glory as a successful villain at the end of the play. Justice was served, the worthy got her reward within and without the fairy tale.
When we played Cinderella (or Shweta) during our bitter-sweet childhood days, I was made the stepmother many times and it took me also great pleasure to make P repeat her lines, by now an ugly piece of repetitive joke. It was not too long back I met P, after many years, as I was visiting my relatives living in that same flat, where I had lived once. A smart woman, young and jovial, unlike my own dispirited soul, with an SLR camera in her hand. She was on her way to her solo exhibition in a famous studio. We exchanged smiles and a few words and it seemed she had just done her diploma in photography from the same institute that flunked me a few years back. Justice was served. The worthy got her reward at least outside the fairy tale (or was it yet another fairy tale that i sealed myself in!). She looked happy with her life, and I felt she had reasons to be. May be she did not remember us as dictators, may be she did, but had forgiven. It seemed I had served my penance.
In that case am I not right to call it unfair that I have to go hungry tonight!
It is 4 degrees outside, and still raining. My room heater at the most seems to heat itself, nothing more. So does my head, in its continuous process of fantasization. But my palms are frozen. And feet. Fairies do not forgive.
Midnight just rang at St. Johanes Church. Party over. Time to run and hide in the brooms-cupboard, and dream.