April 9, 2007

The Rebels

Three young women, two different eras, one common thread.

Sayuri is forbidden to love her love. Meera is denied her right to live her life. Catherine could not have proved what she proved.

Why? It's the tradition, the religion, the culture, dammit. Don't you dare to act against the time-honored beliefs and norms of behavior!

They did. The rebels.

In the Memoirs of a Geisha, Chiyo, a child sold to Nitta Okia (a house of Geishas), grows up into Sayuri, a much sought after Geisha. She never grows out of her beloved Chairman, though, whom she met when she was still Chiyo on a bridge to nowhere. The Chairman had won her heart with kindness, and a piece of candy that he bought for her. Yet, she could not yield her heart to the man who had won it with a piece of candy. That would violate the exalted tradition of the Geishas. Her heart belonged only to the highest bidder for her hymen.

In Dor, a few thousand miles to the west, and a few decades after, Meera's husband is killed in an accident that's misconstrued as a murder. Her in-laws keep her locked up in their house, out of sight from the world, barring occasional visits to the temple. Meera is still in her teens, but there will be no music, no dance, and absolutely no men in her life. Her religion demanded that, and the million gods, not counting her in-laws, who imposed the sanctions on her, could not be defied. She would live to be one hundred years old, but without a life.

In Proof, in the post-modern era or whatever that is, Catherine is a mathematical genius in the making. Her father, also a mathematical genius, has lost his prime, and his beautiful mind. A devoted daughter, much like Cordelia, Catherine cares for him, even at the peril of failing to make the grade in ordinary differential equations. One day, the father, falsely believing that he has got his prime back, urges her to assist him in proving a theorem that hadn't been proved until then. After going over his writings — some balderdash about the winter months and the bitter cold — she obliges him out of love. Until the day she derives the proof on her own. Mocked and egged on by her mindless father, and in a fit of anger, she lets him in on the reality of it all. With the death of her father, Catherine, who is now filled with misplaced guilt, files away the proof. Only to show it to her boyfriend, also a mathematician, whom she trusts will understand. Her trust, unfortunately is misplaced, too. How could a woman, with her rudimentary left brain, have proved what had eluded so many men endowed with so much more left brain? She must have stolen her father's proof!

Celluloid fiction, you say. Baloney, I say. If anything, the happy endings in the movies have less to do with the reality than their main themes. Here is an example from this month and the year, from the world's largest secular democracy:

Omar, 22, had Thursday reportedly run away with Priyanka, 21, and the two got married after the boy converted to Hinduism. However, the girl's parents are not prepared to accept the relationship and have lodged a First Information Report (FIR) charging the boy with kidnapping their daughter... 'In Bhopal, Hindu girls are being lured by Muslim boys of (sic) and on and this has become a routine. We will not tolerate it anymore,' said Bhagwandas Sabnani, former BJP district president. Meanwhile, the girl is said to have told some of her relatives over phone that she was not kidnapped or lured by anyone but had gone with Omar of her own accord and married him.

Closer to home, I knew personally someone who was in an abusive relationship. She came from a fairly well-to-do family, was educated, intelligent, and capable of supporting herself. Her husband, a smart fellow, also well educated, was in a respectable and well-paying job. He had one shortcoming, though: he liked to beat his wife routinely. It didn't stop with her. When the first child was born, a girl, he started beating her, too, and for an added measure, would insist on starving her occasionally. After a while, my friend thought that enough was enough, and decided to walk out of the marriage. Unfortunately, that was not to be, as the elders in the family tied her hands and locked her back into a marriage that was anything but. As a pathiviratha she should "adapt" to her abusive husband, she was told. To their credit, they admonished the husband, too, but to date, he hasn't changed. My friend lives the life of a pathiviratha, but without a life of her own.

Not that such transgressions into the personal lives of women are isolated to the remote and the "uncivilized" regions of the world. One of my erstwhile colleagues, a professor at a U.S. university, was involved in a relationship with a married man that ended the latter's marriage. I was on the committee to review her performance. To my utter disbelief, the chairperson of the committee, a conservative Republican, was quite firm that she should be given a below par performance report. Why? She lacked character and integrity, and would be a bad role model for the impressionable young men and women she taught! That was in the nineties, in a "civilized" country, and in an institution that swears by academic and all other kinds of freedom.

What about the predicament of Catherine? In a recent party that I attended, I posed this age old riddle to the crowd:

A father and son were involved in a road accident. The father died on the way to the hospital, and the son was admitted in critical condition. He had to be operated on immediately. The surgeon came in, took one look at the patient on the operating table, and exclaimed, “Oh my God! It's my son!”

How could this be? "The surgeon is the step-father, right?" "Hehe, a trick question! Obviously, the surgeon is the father. You said that a father and son, and not a father and his son, hehe." Barring one young man, no one else had a clue. And, the gathering included several successful professional women, among them a psychiatrist, too! If you haven't solved the riddle yet, try sleeping over it. The answer will dawn on you tomorrow, I hope.

Once again, the predicaments of Catherines are not all stories and riddles, but reality, too. A gentleman whom I know very well, claims to be a liberal, almost a communist, and a champion of the underprivileged — in words at least. Nevertheless, he could not be shaken in his belief that girls are under-represented in the Indian Institutes of Technologies because they lacked the intelligence to compete effectively with the boys in the entrance tests. When challenged with my observation that girls seemed to outperform boys in the school finals, often in almost all subjects including mathematics, he would dismiss those results with a wave of hand, "They are just better at rote, you know, not smarter".

Culture, religion, tradition... cast those into the winds. And fly, Sayuri, Meera, and Catherine, fly wherever you want to! Yes, if I can, you can, too!

  1. Stereotypes never vanish, they come back in a new avatar!

    As we move towards a more 'civilized' world, old irrational beliefs are being repackaged into newer ones!

  2. I've seen many self-proclaimed feminists failing to answer that "age old riddle"!

  3. If a bird has been caged long enough, it doesn't attempt to fly away even when the cage is left open. It has forgotten that it CAN.
    Needs constant reminding.
    Yes " fly, Sayuri, Meera, and Catherine, fly wherever you want to!" Yes, if he can, you can, too!"


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