“I think the willfully unimaginative see more monsters.” J.K. Rowling
Last night I lay thinking, my overactive imagination going back decades, memories suddenly dredged up by a film I saw. It had been fifteen years since I had left my city, ensconced in history, myth and folklore, a repository of a thousand fairy-tales and their insidious antecedents. But my years of being a New York writer, teacher, women’s rights activist and now research scholar hadn’t been able to erase the power of those images deeply embedded in my unconscious. The new Netflix supernatural flick, Bulbbul set in Bengal Presidency in 1881 somehow dug up stifled screams and reverberating silences of the beautiful young women who had been my kin, trapped in old mansions, their stories buried with them. But, they had filtered into my liberal, time-strapped existence even in the confines of Manhattan, a reminder of the fact that voices of injustice haunt us forever.
The story was simple enough: a child’s marriage to a much older man and a little girl’s curious love for ghost stories which was related to her by her younger brother-in-law on her way to her new home. But much like a gothic narrative, the events unfold for the young girl in a big castle, the tale of the witch enmeshed with her own life in its tumultuous currents. Deprived of a mother’s wisdom much as I was my transgressive youth, she too makes mistakes that lead to violent consequences. She is left with limbs broken and sexually abused even as the women in the household are complicit in her downfall. It was not the breakdown of a little girl’s innocence and her hurt that was so striking to me but the cruelty of the women who were collective victims of a patriarchal system where men held pervasive power. I had often wondered in the power inequalities of the society I spent my childhood, how the weak often preyed on the weak. In stories of survival that I told my students, I had always spoken of togetherness and support, harnessing the capacity of the group to bring about healing and often, happiness. But, in a country of a billion and where resources filtered down from the most powerful to the most powerless, women were weak alone and weak together.
Bulbbul’s story of heartbreak and exploitation much like many women in Bengal broke her and built her again — she fell on her fractured legs till she walked and her lips silenced by centuries of honor spoke with fearless conviction. But, the powers that be never relinquish their status quo so easily for hegemony holds within it its own allure and perhaps its potential for destruction, question her her erratic behavior. In the show, where everything began with a marriage immersed in shades of vermillion symbolizing her honor and her limits it also becomes an ominous color of violence. The perpetuation of an age-difference between men and women in marriage ensured the hierarchies were maintained, where a woman’s position was defined by the color of her clothes to her accessories. Not much has changed till today’s color coded garb of the Handmaid’s Tale for women are still signified by color and function within patriarchal norms of coded conduct.
I tried to lose myself in the beauty of the narrative, the silks that adorned the women and the jewelry that weighed them down, much reminiscent of the packed away mounds of fabric that tied me to another era of my life. And yet, within those folds of satin lay hidden stories of summer afternoons where a woman’s pain mingled with flavors and aromas, her tears which were wiped away and her scars that were doused in velvet and basra. The stories never left those lips again because the audience was as silent as a mute witness of rape and violence through centuries, ones which the brick and stone walls never forgot even if others did. It was always a wedding day and night that unfurled the fairy-tale and its vicious characters, when a girl stepped away from childhood to becoming a woman no matter what her age or experience. It was a coming-of-age story mingled with trauma and memory that marked the female psyche forever, a betrayal of parents and social laws that never stood up.
Recently, my particular research in the subject of the female subaltern with Spivak’s translation of Mahasweta Devi’s Draupadi led to me to many questions. Yes, the narrative of an indigenous woman was far removed from my existence in the developed world where I worked and wrote with ample resources and support. Yet, somehow there were resonances that dated far back and beyond the present. The ability to empathize and put oneself in another’s shoes is a uniquely human ability that sets us apart. Being a willfully imaginative child who escaped into the inner recesses of her mind when the outside proved to incongruous, I always believed in our power of imagination to enable us to cross our thresholds of power and comfort to understand another’s pain and struggle. And that, concepts of injustice are common to us all, embedded deep in memory — it is conscious to us as children when violated in body, mind and spirit, and as adults when wrong is universal across borders. Yet, in my own personal journey of success and failure, I have often chosen to identify with the powerful and powerless alike perhaps being left unafraid having seen too many monsters in the flesh. It also left me with the awareness that just by being human, it is our collective experiences that tie us together beyond circumstances. I understood that injustice was endemic and entrenched in all societies and that one had to fight monsters themselves to put them away.
Our fights can look like Black Lives Matter, a haunting that doesn’t leave the annals of a developed world because it does not leave our minds. When we despise and fear the Other, we create inequalities that perpetuate violence whether personal or institutional. When we see difference as something that divides us more than the commonality of our pains and pleasure, our concepts of justice and progress, monsters do truly come home.