Sylvia Plath, the fig tree, and chick-lit

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a piece of iconic feminist writing, which is dark, witty and extremely painful, outlining and diving into the experiences of a woman who is mentally disturbed and agitated with antiquated gender roles and stereotypes. There are several wonderful things that the book explains with a perceptive and smart protagonist, someone who is self-aware and yet, a part of a tumultuous society that just will not take her seriously. She is not the heroine of the story; instead she is a brilliant woman who is slowly sliding into the inner depths of her own psyche and losing touch with what matters most to her. Personally, the harrowing experience she narrates about being depressed is all too real, and palpably painful.

41lltvul3sl

In 2013, Faber & Faber came out with a new edition for the book The Bell Jar. The cover featured a lady powdering her face, making it a standard “chick-lit” novel that would be marketed specifically towards women. It hid the actual idea of the book in the recesses of its redness; one of a vehement fight against gender roles and the short biographic account of a ‘madwoman’, the kind that Plath had herself been. Chick-lit is generally defined as literature with a female protagonist whose womanhood is severely thematized in the storyline, and by this definition alone, The Bell Jar is, in fact, chick-lit. Jodi Picoult, author of My Sister’s Keeper and The Pact, says in an interview with The Telegraph,

“If a woman had written One Day [by David Nicholls], it would have been airport fiction. Look at The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. If I had written that, it would have had a pink, fluffy cover on it. If Jenny Eugenides had written it, it would have had a pink fluffy cover on it. What is it about? It’s about a woman choosing between two men. What is The Corrections about, by Jonathan Franzen? It’s about a family, right? And I’m attacking gun control and teen suicide and end-of-life care and the Holocaust, and I’m writing women’s fiction? I mean, I can’t tell you. When people call The Storyteller chick-lit, I actually break up laughing. Because that is the worst, most depressing chick-lit ever.”

The issue with calling books chick-lit is that it gives the false notion that the value of the books is only so far as the audience reading it is a woman. This idea, one that men’s books can be read by everyone, but women’s books can only be read by women, is toxic and unpleasant. When the story of the modern woman is narrated by a female author, the issues it addresses are considered to be frivolous, which is why reading chick-lit authors is a frivolous reading activity. Which brings us back to the definition of what chick-lit is – the fact that a book having a central theme as women’s issues is quickly shelved into “women’s fiction”; a book intended mostly for women to read. There is no real reason why a man should be interested in women’s issues or a female perspective, considering that most of these issues are swept under the rug with an air of silliness.

Shelving Plath’s The Bell Jar in a similar manner angers me. It can no longer be a classic produced by American literature, a testament to mental illness, gender disparities, and female sexuality; instead, it becomes a book intended for women to just relate to and keep men out of. It is a book that I would highly recommend to everyone, not just women, to understand the nuances of how depression can tear down an entire personality, about seething self-doubt in the mind of a brilliant writer, and the quirky enthusiasm of a person to end her own life.

A beautiful representation of one of the best quotes from The Bell Jar appeared in the Netflix original series Master of None, which is created by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang. The show is a gentle reminder of Louie, which kept me captivated with its surreal style of story-writing, exaggerated humour, and the dark wit of Louis CK. Master of None captures the essence of a second generation Indian man living in the US quite well, and addresses issues related to race and ethnography in a humourous manner that I already loved Aziz Ansari for. The show is not merely funny though; the characters seem real and well-thought out, and in one of the episodes they made great use of a quote from The Bell Jar. A man quoting Sylvia Plath as a perfect depiction of what he is feeling at the moment felt to me like a step away from thinking of women’s fiction the way that it is at this point in literary circles.

A summary of what he feels his life could be like is perfectly described in the book with these lines, which is one of the best quotes I have ever had the pleasure of reading:

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

References:

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/01/the-bell-jar-new-cover-derided

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/11/opinion/the-snobs-and-me.html?_r=0

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/books/authors/jodi-picoult-its-really-hard-to-love-America-sometimes/

 

Advertisements

Stories by Rabindranath Tagore (Chokher Bali) (2015)

It is deeply satisfying to see that shows like Stories by Rabindranath Tagore by Anurag Basu are finding their way on television, and are being appropriately judged. This is a show that is now available on Netflix after being telecast on the EPIC Channel in India, and traces a few of the stories written by Rabindranath Tagore into a visual format. Anurag Basu is himself Bengali, and his wife Tani Basu led the team in creatively developing the authenticity of the Bengali atmosphere that has been created in the show. It is set in the early 20th century during pre-partitioned Bengal. Although this particular performance of Chokher Bali (which is shown in the first 3 episodes of this 26-episode long anthology of stories by Tagore) does not dwell too much into the politics of those times, it still manages to convey an idea of Bengal that might have existed back then in terms of the social and cultural commentary.

My perspective on this show is based purely out of watching the show only. Neither have I read the Bengali novel of the same name, nor have I watched the 2003 Bengali film by Rituparno Ghosh. Therefore, there is nothing for me to compare it with. By itself, I found the episodes to be brilliant – in terms of writing, cinematography and acting. The story has been slightly changed as compared to the novel, and that was the only part of the episode that I did not like. While we see Binodini to be a strong, realistically flawed woman with desires like any other person initially, she changes into a woman who sacrifices her desire for the good of who she loves. However, she is my favourite character in this particular story, and for good reason. Her desires take an important role in her life, and she breaks the rules that the society has imposed upon her by the mere virtue of her desire. She feels betrayed by Mahendra because it was him who rejected her hand in marriage because he was not sure, because of which she was destined to a life of widowhood. Her desire to have the life that Ashalata had been served was so strong, especially in the scene where she reads the letter the Mahen has written to Bihari. Binodini is fierce and wants to fulfill her wishes while trying to pursue them in a flawed manner, but you cannot blame her unethical behaviour because you know that her destiny is too bleak for her to accept it without any resistance. The way that Binodini has been shown in the episode is exemplary, especially so because one understands that even though her behaviour is unacceptable in terms of morality, one cannot dislike her for her flaws because they are very real human flaws. While this is the excellence of Tagore’s writing that such a character could be created, it is also important to give the show-makers the credit they deserve, for keeping the soul of the story alive in their episodes.

Radhika Apte is very realistic in her performance as Binodini as usual; she is a seductress who has a deep understanding of the world around her, and knows how to get what she wants, while also being torn when the only man she has shown any real love towards looks at her with disdain. I have always been a fan of Bhanu Uday (from the Aryan Khanna fame of Special Squad) and even though he has been given the role of the pompous Mahendra, he plays the role with great finesse, such that you will dislike the man by the end of it. With Sumeet Vyas playing the role of the good-natured Bihari, I have begun to believe that that actor can play any kind of role with such ease that is only rare in actors. There is some great writing also in the show, with certain scenes staying with you long after the episode is over. The scene with Binodini reading Mahendra’s letter to Bihari is one such scene, and the meeting between Binod and Bihari during the first few minutes of the show is also noteworthy.

The story is beautiful, and one of betrayal, deceit, love and lust. Chokher Bali literally means a mote in the eye, and that is what Binod is in the marital life of Asha and Mahendra, especially so because Binod and Asha describe their valuable friendship with those words. Binod realises the true value of their friendship much later in the film, and it is only Asha who is able to forgive her friend and who is truly good-natured woman in the story.

The music in the movie is sung by great singers like Arijit Singh, Shaan and Shalmali Kholgade, and one such beautiful song from Rabindra Sangeet is Amaro Parano Jaha Chay.

Overall, I would definitely recommend this series as one of wonderment and great film-making. It is definitely true, also, that Tagore’s works break the boundaries of time and are relevant and enjoyable after almost 100 years of its real setting.

Community is cool. Cool cool cool.

People who have already attempted to watch Community must know how difficult it is to write a review on the show, and how important it is that more and more people appreciate the creative mess that Community is. NBC has a good collection of sitcoms, Friends, Fraisier, and more recently 30 Rock and Parks and Rec. Community is just another show on this channel, albeit a less popular one. In fact, a much less popular show, as its very existence is troubled and unsure.

Community garnered a decent fan following and created a cult right after its first season, much like Arrested Development after it came out. It also received generally favourable reviews of its first season. The basic storyline follows a study group of seven identities in a community college – each more whacky and real as the next. Jeff Winger gets found out for having a fake college degree, and he needs to graduate again to resume work as a lawyer. And at this community college he meets the rest of the main characters of the show, good girl turned drug addict Annie Edison who is only trying to be successful at a community college, the blatantly honest and awkward Britta Perry with misguided feminist ideas, the adorable but weird Abed Nadir who cannot get over meta-humour and pop culture references, the prideful Troy Barnes, the loving housewife Shirley Bennett who has more of a kick to her than people assume, and finally Pierce Hawthorne, the old man with the evil ideas but good intentions. We also meet their psychotic Spanish Professor Ken Change and the overly enthusiastic Dean Craig Pelton. I could not even begin to describe each of these characters in one line; it would defeat the whole purpose of the show. What sets Community apart from all other sitcoms, is its ability to create characters which are real and have more dimensionality that a typical sitcom character. We see each of these identities grow and behave differently as time passes, and learn new things by making hideous, embarrassing mistakes.

Each of the episodes are named such that they sound like names of college courses, and the episodes are generally a parody of pop culture references and common TV tropes, whilst not losing the real essence of the show – the characters. There is a certain warmth and depth to the show that I see lacking in most sitcoms, and this is only one of the reasons why Community is a show that very quickly became one of my favourites.

The show has been on air since 2009, and just started with its fourth season in February 2013. This season was supposed to be aired in October 2012, but got delayed. This particular season is only a half season and has been written with a series finale, because it is not hoped that the series shall continue. The show has always been in danger; there had a been a protest asking NBC to continue the series for atleast six seasons and a movie, but most fans have lost this hope now and hang on to the few episodes left that we could watch. Dan Harmon, the creator of the show, is no longer a part of the show running which not only brought a lot of disappointment to the fans, but also made me skeptical about how good the show will remain. It is also interesting to note that Community, Scrubs and Arrested Development all have writers in common. But one of these writers Megan Ganz left Community for Modern Family. Fortunately, the show is still quite funny, and we now begin to see the shifting in the idiosyncratic behaviour of the characters, and see them defined. This is only an indication to the coming series finale. I recommend that everyone watch this show, I can guarantee atleast a few laughs. The way to watch the show is to watch it from the beginning and not just pick a random episode.

Here’s to hoping that many more shows like Community are yet to be aired.

On Troy and Abed (in the morning)

Note: This post may contain some not very important spoilers to the show Community.

What prompted me to write about Community and The Big Bang Theory is the recent posts by Donald Glover (Troy, from Community) on Instagram talking about his reduced role in Community, and how he might not be making an appearance in Season 5 of Community at all. I am yet to come to terms with how I will take that, as personal as it is for me to admit something like that. For someone who sobbed while watching the finale of Breaking Bad, it is slightly shameful to admit that most TV shows (or just literature in general) is extremely influential, in terms of emotions and perceptions. Community has only been one such show.

Analyzing the circumstance a little better, I would like to ask a very important question. What is a culture reference? Comedy is induced by a culture reference because a group of individuals relate to it better than people who have not been a part of the reference. This may be because of reminiscence and nostalgia (or even just thinking about that reference). That is why a culture reference joke works with only a set group of people, and whoever has been culturally exposed will understand it.

I try not to be a negative person. And I do not try to trash things that I do not like or appreciate. Which is why I could never really explain to people why I stopped watching TBBT. I mainly told people I had no time, and was even faced with comments like, “You are not a nerd, and you won’t get it anyway.” It took me a while to point out exactly why I was uncomfortable with watching a show that only celebrates “nerd” culture. But the truth of the matter is, that it doesn’t. When we watch the show, we are supposed to relate to Penny, and not the four brilliant scientists who are apparently the protagonists of the show. We are supposed to laugh when Howard mentions playing “Dungeons and Dragons” or when Leonard is excited about dressing up as “Hobbit” or “Thor” when Penny invites him to a Halloween party. The joke is not about D&D, it is the mere fact that a nerd currently wants to genuinely and obsessively play D&D. We are supposed to find it funny that Leonard is more excited about dressing up as his favourite fictional character as opposed to want to look “cool” because that is what we are supposed to relate to. And of course, I know this because the laughter track tells me it is supposed to be funny. And watching TBBT only made me realize that at the end of the day, they were laughing at the social misfits that the four men are (and eventually women); and they were essentially laughing at me.

Sheldon is the annoying inconvenience that everyone has laughed at. Even the other three men who understand that Sheldon has trouble understanding human emotions and culture. He is distressed by changes in structure that he has formed in his mind, and is oblivious to sarcasm and other forms of non-literal language. I hate to draw parallels; but Abed is a similar character. He is unemotional to a certain extent, and is easily confused by a blatant show of emotions by other people. He also causes annoyance to the rest of the characters most of the time. Abed is also obsessed with television and movies (albeit different kind), but I think the essential nature of these characters is the idea that they are pleased by literature that most people do no relate to. While TBBT makes us believe that the “nerd” culture is to be ridiculed, Community has celebrated it.

I do not wish to say one show is better and the other isn’t. It is a matter of choice, and that has always been the case with any sort of criticism against any form of literature. That said, Community has celebrated so much more than TBBT could ever hope for. When TBBT makes a pop culture reference, it mentions D&D and you are expected to laugh at it. But when Community makes a pop culture reference, it bases an entire episode on that trope or genre. TBBT laughs at “nerds” playing Paintball, Community makes a season finale, takes Paintball as seriously as it can, and eventually makes people feel like whatever they have been obsessed about all this time, is worth it, and definitely not ridiculous at all. Community has celebrated being me.

But my agenda of this article was not to insult TBBT and glorify Community. These words a tribute to a show that has been kept so many of us going for a while now, and we are finally not ashamed to admit that we love characters that we have never met. That is what Community has taught me. Community gave me a set of seven people who were nothing like each other and told me that I do not have to like them. I do not even have to understand them. This is much like who we encounter people in real life, with no ultimate goal of being comrades. There are certain parallels that need to be drawn between a show with complex characters and one with none. Unlike Sheldon, Abed has been confirmed to have some sort of mental disorder (most likely Asperger’s disorder), and yet unlike Sheldon, Abed is a hero. When you ask for bread, Abed gives you soup. Because soup is better. Abed is better.

We are, no matter what kind of people, supposed to relate to Abed. We are the group of individuals who are knowledgeable about the things that we have loved and will pursue it madly, because that is what makes us happy. It does not make us ridiculous or funny. It makes us human beings.

Donald Glover possibly leaving the show hit me hard, and it hit hard most people who watch Community. His posts made it worse. Here was a man who had made us laugh, whose friendship with Abed has been effortlessly perfect. I can only think of the episode about the Inspector Spacetime convention, where Troy was the only one who ever came to Abed when he was screaming for help. A run through majorly impressive episodes of Community made me realize that Glover leaving was not going to sit well with any of us who have loved Community like one loves a person in one’s life. It may not mean a lot to people who do not understand how much literature (even a TV show) can genuinely help someone. It began with Abed telling us,

“Britta, I got self-esteem flowing out of my butt. That’s why I was willing to change for you guys. When you really know who you are and what you like about yourself, changing for other people is not such a big deal.”

… Continued with Pierce telling me,

“Jeffrey, when I was born, I got my umbilical cord wrapped around my neck, both arms and one of my ankles. Mom told me there came a point when the doctors stopped delivering me and just started laughing. I mean, if I ever let being bad at something stop me, then I wouldn’t be born. That thing some men call failure, I call living. Breakfast. And I am not stopping until I’ve cleared out the buffet.”

… and practically gets very dark when Todd tells us,

“What is wrong with you people?! Huh?! I thought you were supposed to be friends! I thought you were supposed to love each other! Your love is weird! And toxic! And it destroys everything it touches! I no longer care about grades! Or Biology, or finally graduating from college like I promised my dying father. I’m going home. I’m going to hold my wife and my newborn child close and I’m going to finally take my insulin shot! Offense taken! Offense taken.”

When I read the notes that Glover had posted, I cannot help but admit that it became an emotional roller coaster ride that I barely disclosed to anyone, for the simple reason that not many people might understand how obsessively important the show was for me. And it wasn’t just about the show. It was about Glover and how he had, without any inhibitions, admitted to his fans what he was going through. It was private, and it was liberating. It almost made up for the fact that there will be no Troy and Abed soon, and that we will be left with a told story that we can only repeat again and again, until we finally realise that the only remorse we, as fans, deserve is the fact that these people will remain immortal.  It may mean nothing to some people when I say that Community has changed pieces of us that will never be the same, and Glover was a part of all of that.

And Glover, you will always be allowed to be better. You are always allowed to grow up. If you want. I believe you.