Sunday, August 31, 2014

Strange Fruit; probing a conflict within

Strange Fruit begins with Maya, a Sri Lankan who is flying away from home. The reader gets a glimpse of what makes up Maya’s memories of home, of Sri Lanka, when her fingertips touch the sand in her pockets, left behind by the sea she waded into with Malik, the one who made her fall in love with Sri Lanka after years of being away and considering pain and violence her only memories of the island.

The first chapter, the girl with the storm in her head, begins with Black July, when Maya is only ten years old. The reader is given a detailed account of how Maya spent that day in July, at first trading cheese and chilli sandwiches and scotch egg, waiting for her mother to pick her up and finally that ride back home. The author simply, but strongly, describes the events that take place, how Maya and her mother are questioned and asked to pronounce the word ‘baldiya’ or bucket. Being made to pronounce this word was a simple trick to determine the ethnicity of people. The events are described in simple English, almost as if it was ten-year-old Maya writing the story in third person instead of first person.

However, the writing style of the author is not a weakness and does not bring down the quality of the story. It instead makes it easy for the reader to relate to the characters and understand the events that took place as experiences adults and children have alike, instead of being events that belong to the adult world. This is seen throughout Strange Fruit and it makes the conflict in Sri Lanka something that affected everyone and not just people of a particular ethnicity, area or age.

As the story unfolds, the reader learns how Maya, her sister Varuna, mother Lakshmi and father Arun are forced to hide in a neighbor’s house to escape the mob, later walk in a house that was now a ‘shipwreck of a home,’ and how Maya is diagnosed with epilepsy. When the family is tired of the emergency drills, Maya’s mother suggests moving to London.

Authors who write about Sri Lankan families who left the country for safer and greener pastures often paint a rosy picture of the lives abroad. Aziz doesn’t. He instead, in Chasing Leopards, starts with how Maya hated the cold and the grey. Maya’s thoughts on the British climate are expressed this way, “That’s what being British was all about. Insulation.”  The author goes on to describe how the life Maya lived was different to those of others living in Britain, starting from Maya’s family never going on holiday, how her mother missed her life in Sri Lanka and how Arun, Maya’s father, is a “husk of his former self.”

“Varuna was the one who endured the schoolyard taunts with a steely stoicism: Maya was the one who ended up responding to them and ending up more often than not in detention,” Aziz writes. The reader then learns how Maya becomes known as ‘The Fighter’ and how, thanks to the right medication, Maya’s epilepsy is held at bay.

The second chapter, the boy with the crooked smile, starts with Malik. Predictably, the girl who grabs Malik’s attention is Maya and an epileptic fit results in Maya spending the night at Malik’s. They fall in love as the story goes on. The reader is also introduced to Kiran, Malik’s happy-go-lucky friend. The two boys, lifelong friends, are also from Sri Lanka. The reader is then given a detailed account of Malik’s childhood and regarding the terrible days of 1983, Aziz writes, “They have had parallel experiences of living through some of the worst days and nights of their lives, and somehow found comfort in that common memory.”
The story really starts when Maya decides to join Malik and Kiran on a trip to Sri Lanka. When Maya’s family objects, she assures them the ceasefire made it safe. Maya’s father’s words, “When will you learn Maya, that it will never be safe. Never. We thought it was safe all those years and then see what they turned around and did? Took everything from us. Everything,” give the reader a hint of what awaits Maya in Sri Lanka.

When Maya returns to Sri Lanka, she rediscovers everything she loved about the island, especially the beautiful beaches. Maya, Malik and Kiran are often joined by Grace and Fish, friends of Malik and Kiran, and the group has fun exploring Sri Lanka. It is during their visits to beaches and trips to various locations in the island, that Maya and Malik fall in love and their love for each other grows as Maya’s love for Sri Lanka grows stronger.

“I think I need to try and find…a third place. A place where I can be free to be whatever the hell I am, without anybody needing to fit me into a neat pigeonhole. Where I can just live my life without constantly being reminded of the fact that I am neither one thing nor the other,” Maya says. This is what, it feels, the entire story is about. Strange Fruit isn’t a story about a conflict between two ethnic communities and it isn’t about a war that resulted in many deaths, injuries and dark memories.

Strange Fruit is about the conflict within us all, to find a place where we belong, a place where we can call home. Maya leaves her place of birth, the place she calls home because she doesn’t know any other place to call home. She builds a life in Britain, where she never fully belongs. When she returns to the island, all is well, until she realizes that Sri Lanka will never be a place where she could settle down. This game of tug-o-war in Maya’s mind nearly costs her the life she built with Malik. However, it is this conflict that makes Strange Fruit not just a story about Sri Lanka or about love, but a story about humans and the lives we live.
Strange Fruit is also not a story that is only about Maya, Malik and Kiran. It’s also about Soldier Boy, whose story interrupts Maya’s story. Soldier Boy’s story is in italics, so the parallel stories do not confuse the reader. Soldier Boy’s story meets with Maya’s story at Buddha beach, and this is a turning point to both Maya and her friends and also to Soldier Boy. The character of Soldier Boy is one of a young boy hardened by battle. He kills people with no second thoughts and follows orders without questioning if the orders are moral or immoral. However, this seemingly cold nature of his changes when he comes face to face with Maya, who spends her days in Sri Lanka, helping orphaned children.

Strange Fruit is thus more about discovering oneself instead of being about themes that have been explored and written about by many. We aren’t given a detailed account of the war and the author never attempts to color either party of the conflict as good or bad. Strange Fruit is also not a love story. Maya finds strength in Malik’s love and they build a life of their own. However, Strange Fruit doesn’t make us realize the power of romantic love alone, instead we see how important the love of parents are and how lost we are without the love of our parents. Aziz also writes about the love between friends. Often, literature ignores and even denies that there is love between male friends. The word love is rarely used by male characters. However, in Strange Fruit, the love between Malik and Kiran is as strong and important as the love between Maya and Malik.

Strange Fruit was written by Afdhel Aziz, who lives in New York after growing up in Sri Lanka and living in London for 15 years. He visits Sri Lanka often and is interested in “exploring the tension between the beauty of the country and the violence that sometimes lurks beneath its surface.”

Thursday, August 21, 2014

An apology for taking a stand against harassment

There is a river that cuts through a village. The villagers use a bridge to cross the river and this bridge is used daily. After years of being walked on, one fine day, the bridge crashes to the river below. There was a man crossing the bridge at that time and he fell into the river. At first the villagers wondered how that man’s weight was enough to bring the bridge crashing down. Slowly, they realized that while it is what made the rope keeping the bridge in place finally snap, that man wasn’t the sole reason for the bridge to collapse. After years and years of being used and after years and years of rain and sun, the bridge finally gave up and collapsed.

I doubt there is a single woman in this country who hasn’t been harassed, especially by a man. Even girls as young as ten are leered at. We grow up hearing disgusting comments about nearly everything about our bodies. We tolerate it, we put up with it because it’s even worse when we raise our voice against these monsters that we deal with on a daily basis. We keep quiet because we would rather pretend we didn’t hear that comment about our ass, than deal with something worse, like rape. Yes, we do keep quiet because that seems safer. But at some point, we will snap.

This is obviously about the Wariyapola incident. Watching the video, it looks staged. It looks like the girl was slapping that man for other reasons; to prove some point that I don’t know of. But if you look at the incident as it is presented to us, a man makes a comment about a girl, the girl snaps and starts slapping him and shoves him. His head knocks on the walls behind him. He apologizes but she continues to shout at him and hits him.

I’m not saying women could just go around beating up men. But men too should stop with those looks, words, touches and everything else. I’m sure this girl has had to listen to so many such comments, she has had to deal with so many wandering hands. So many bodies pressing against her. So many men staring at her body. So she has had enough of being treated like some worthless object. And I’m sorry this man had to pay the price for those actions of other men but as someone who has had to deal with disgusting men, I’d say those three or four slaps aren’t enough.

Men make us feel disgusted, guilty and ugly. No matter how we behave or what we wear, someone always have some disgusting comment to make. And this needs to stop.

I know that not all men do this. Not everyone harasses women. But the majority of men harass women in one way or another. You know how you were checking out some girl at a store? She was flattered at first, but slowly doubt clouds her mind. Were her clothes too tight or too revealing? Was her behavior indecent? What was she doing wrong?

I don’t know if I will ever snap and slap a man for harassing me. But if that ever happens, I wouldn’t want people to think my behavior is outrageous. Think of the wife who goes through years of abuse from her husband. She puts up with it. Until one day, she has had enough and like that bridge, she finally snaps. And when this happens, people can call her names. A bitch, a slut, there are so many words used to insult us. And these only get worse when we snap and finally take a stand against years of abuse.

"But he apologized," people argue. Oh, so if I shoot you and then apologize, does this mean I can walk away without being punished? Is it okay to commit a crime as long as you apologize?

“Men. They are all the same,” women say. This isn’t because every man is a monster. No, there are good guys too. But sometimes it seems like all men are after has something to do with sex. You can’t smile at a man without a disgusting comment as a response. You can’t sit next to a man in a bus without his hand somehow reaching for your body. You can’t walk past a man without catcalls. You can’t talk with a man without him expecting something more than just friendship from you.

There are good guys out there. I know quite a lot of decent, good guys. But I have come across a larger number of disgusting men who let their (sexual) frustrations get the best of them. We pretend to not see and not hear and not care, we pretend we haven’t been victim to sexual harassment but this is mostly because we are tired of the look of surprise of other people. We are tired of having to prove that we aren’t just imagining it. And we are sick and tired of being treated like objects, sexual objects.

We are tired and if men (and now, even other women) don’t get their shit together and stop harassing us, there will be more Wariyapola incidents. There will be much more and there should have been much more too.

And if you think we are over-reacting, that we need to just put up with the harassment, well, sorry. Sorry for snapping, sorry for not being more tolerant, sorry for arousing you, sorry for being female.
Sorry for wearing tops that expose our arms, shoulders and necks even though men still walk around topless. Sorry for wearing skinny jeans even though men do too. Sorry for wearing knee-length skirts even though men wear shorts or pull up their sarongs to their knees. Sorry for having an ass and boobs but you’ll have to ask god or Mother Nature, or whoever is responsible for us being this way, why we look like this. Sorry for being what we are. Sorry for existing.

(While it may seem like I'm justifying the Wariyapola girl's behavior, I really don't know the whole story to say if what she did was right or wrong. And who am I to judge? But if its a simple case of a woman taking a stand against harassment, I can't say that I wouldn't have done the same thing to that man or any other man who makes some crude, sexual comment.)

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Suitable Boy

If you come from one of those typical families, where every single relative has a say in your life, then you would have already heard them discuss your marriage. You can be 20, just starting university and with no intention of tying the knot anytime soon, but the females of your family won’t even care about that. It’s never too early to start looking, they firmly believe.

Girls are the first victims. At the family gatherings, those aunties and achchis will ask your age, whether you are studying or working and then, somehow bring in the topic of marriage. “Ammala oyata galapena kenek hoyala dewi,” they will say (your parents will find a suitable boy for you.) The suitable boy in their minds will most probably be related to you, a few years older, stocky and boring, but with a ‘good job’ and someone who is not at all interested in anything romantic. At first you ignore their banter, laughing along, but soon enough, you’ll realize that they are not joking. They are actually trying to set you up with that one male cousin you’ve always found annoying.

As you get older, the female relatives will start suggesting marriage in a more urgent manner. They will scare you with stories of old maids, ‘Remember Alice Nanda? She was my grandmother’s sister. Dark, like you. Stubborn too. Didn’t find a man on time and had to spend the rest of her life taking care of other’s  children. Not a life for a woman, no?’ they will go on and on. So your earliest memories are of ladies in too-rich-for-the-occasion saris saying you must find a suitable boy before it’s too late.

At some point, you wonder what exactly people mean by a suitable boy. Can you ever find someone you are totally compatible with?

Doing some observations, a suitable boy seems to be one with a good job, a house and vehicle, a good family (basically, a good surname) and an acceptable reputation. It is better if he went to a Colombo school and is fluent in English. Some grandmothers and mothers will also go as far to check if his nails are trimmed, what kind of perfume he uses, how he treats his parents and what kind of words he uses.

It may seem like the matter of marriage only concerns the unmarried females of the family. However, the love lives of males are also questioned by inquisitive relatives. If the boy is friends with some despised lady’s daughter, the entire family starts a lengthy investigation. The boys are also put through an interrogation at family gatherings. The relatives start with a question like, ‘now putha, you must be fancying one of these girls here, no? Marry a cousin, then no need to worry also.’

A girl is considered suitable if she is fair, smart and homely, has a good reputation and hasn’t mingled with many men. I’ve heard my grandmother talk about marrying off two unmarried relatives, saying that girl is smart. They’ll make a good couple. But she’s dark. So even if the boy looks like he fell in a jar of black ink, the girl must be fair.

One may wonder why we can’t find a partner and decide who is suitable and who isn’t. However, our female relatives and even some of the males have made it their life goals to marry us off to someone of their choice.

When we do find someone, when we do fall in love, our parents, especially our mothers, won’t be comfortable with the idea at first. They find fault in our choice of partner. We think this is because they don’t think we are capable of making such a decision, although the decision will directly affect our life and not theirs. However, the reason for their initial rejection is simple. They don’t want to lose us, and no matter how suitable or perfect-for-us this man/woman is, he/she will distance us from our parents. Our parents feel like they are losing us to someone who will never love us enough, who will never know us fully and who will never know what’s best for us.

Most of us end up getting married. Some of us choose husbands/wives who don’t fit the description of suitable boy/girl. Most marriages last, some don’t. No one’s to blame. We can’t blame our parents for finding a man or woman who we never got along with and our parents can’t blame us for choosing someone who didn’t suit us or our families. Marriage is complicated, it’s difficult to decide who suits us the most, and yet, our families will continue their searches for suitable boys and girls for the unmarried relatives.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Not everyone is beautiful

Beauty doesn’t matter, right? It’s more than your looks, it’s more than your skin or hair. Beauty is about those qualities that make us good people. All those inspirational posts about beauty tell us that beauty needs to be redefined.

While men often hesitate before admitting another man looks good, most women openly admit it when other women look pretty. I’ve seen beautiful women and I’ve seen drop dead gorgeous women. Men, too. But men aren’t allowed to be beautiful. They are supposed to be handsome, with rugged good looks, maybe some facial hair, a slightly mean twist to their lips and piercing looks.

Going back to beauty, you can’t say everyone is beautiful. Yes, beauty is subjective but we all have some definition of what isn’t beautiful, and through this definition we come to some agreement about what and who can be considered beautiful.

When we compliment, we choose our words carefully. ‘You look nice today’ isn’t the same as ‘you are wearing a nice dress.’ Even the words nice and beautiful have such different meanings. Nice, pleasant, cute, beautiful, pretty, hot, gorgeous, there are so many ways to describe a person’s appearance.

If a girl calls herself ugly, people try to convince her that beauty is much more than looks and that everyone is beautiful in their own way. But before you do this, remember that this girl really knows what she looks like. She knows that next to the girls who appear in movies or advertisements, she is a real Plain Jane. And yet, people try to convince her that she is beautiful even though the internet is full of posts that ridicule people with unibrows, stretch marks, flabby tummies and dry hair. They convince us that we are born beautiful even though they can’t leave the house without painting their faces.
Image results when I googled 'beauty.' Where are all those posts about natural beauty?

We don’t need to redefine beauty. Van Gogh paintings sold because those paintings are beautiful. So many other painters couldn’t make it because their work lacked beauty. Beauty should be appreciated. Then what about us, those who aren’t beautiful? What about the people who will never be fair enough, good enough to be appreciated by others? Will an art gallery continue to display an exhibit no one stops to look at? I doubt it.

So we need to get rid of those ‘beauty doesn’t matter’ posts, because they aren’t helping anyone. Instead, we should be told to appreciate beauty but also remember that life isn’t only about being beautiful. Sure, no one wants to live in a garbage dump but the world needs those garbage dumps.
Yes, I did just compare people to a garbage dump, but that’s the truth, right? Not all of us are beautiful. Some of us are born ugly and we would be able to live with this if the world stopped always telling us in subtle and not-very-subtle ways that beauty matters. We would be able to not obsess over our thick eyebrows, thin lips, crooked noses, awkward facial hair and blotchy skin is people stopped telling us that what we look like doesn't matter because beauty is more than how we look, for this is another way of saying, "you are ugly, but it's rude to say that so I'll tell you something that might make you feel better about your ugly face."

We know what we look like, we really do, but we were born this way and there should be no reason for us to change the way we look.