27 February 2010

Death of a Facebooker

(Obituary, in memoriam, Ms. Ananya Borgohain)

It grieves us to announce the sad and timely demise of Ms. Ananya Borgohain, alias Cynthia, on this 28th day of February, 2080. Matriarch of a fledging family of five children, twenty-five grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren, she breathed her last on a lonely hammock in a far away corner of her peaceful pastoral abode in the rolling hills of Dhemaji, Assam. She was 91.

Our association with Ms. Borgohain goes back to the summer of 2009 when bored after jilting hearts and betraying lovers she fell to the manifold charms of Facebook. Then it was that she discovered the limitless potential of our multi-faceted institution, the diversity of our feeds and the plethora of our online gaming portals. The unrivalled facility of writing long-winded notes and statues as well as commenting on her friends’ walls and in their albums particularly appealed to her then lonely soul and thus helped us become what no (wo)man alive could ever be for: a true friend, an alter ego to project and propagate all her ideas, ideologies and inner most desires.

Indeed, for in this we alone can proudly claim to have been privy to her bottomless heart. In all these past seventy years no incident, no little occurrence in her eventful life was secret to us: be it a movie she particularly disliked, a dish she had cause to criticise or a man she fain would smite, all was revealed to us. Her love, joy, sorrow and lust, all came to us first and thus made us the sole connect between herself and the world at large.

Of course, when we talk of the world we talk of reality as she knew it: we refer to that which lesser mortals in those antiquated days of her youth considered virtual reality. In doing so we cannot but help reminding readers of Ms. Borgohain’s instrumental role in shifting the focus of humanity from that musty arena of physically realisable entities and relationships to those infinitely better ones forged in the corridors of cyberspace. Her own married life was witness to this unflinching devotion to the cause: she had met her lately deceased husband in the famous group Chefs Anonymous; her nuptial was the first in the subcontinent to be solemnised by the Facebook branch of the Marriage Registrar and the first time she heard her eldest daughter cry ‘Ma’ was when she showed her a video of the prize winning aari prepared by her husband in the International Food Fest held in London in the year 2020. Truly, ours has been the bond of a lifetime.

Indeed, not just of but also beyond: even in death Ms. Borgohain remains with us. Her last status update, the monosyllabic ‘Dying’, has seen in the past one hour about fifty likes and over a hundred congratulatory messages. In the meantime, even as members of the group Cynthia Rocks! hotly debate the possibility of the ghost of this Lady Farmer suffusing the software of Barn Buddy, a wizened old man by the name of Mital has claimed to have received a poke from her account ten minutes after she passed on to occupy her own little chicken farm in heaven.

As in life, so in death, Ms. Borgohain continues a transcendental signifier. Her material remains will be cremated the day after tomorrow on the sandy banks of the Brahmaputra, an event which the bereaved family has graciously agreed to telecast live on Facebook. Further, as a final mark of respect Facebook Inc. will remain suspended in limbo for an hour immediately after the much-awaited event to afford the Borgohain clan a few moments of solitude and peace. May she eat in peace.

13 February 2010

Ram Naam Satya Nahi Hai

This paper will attribute to mythical narratives and structures an essential, inescapable fluidity which makes their ossification impossible. To do so, it’ll begin with commenting upon the animated movies Hanuman and Sita Sings the Blues as artefacts in contemporary culture which illustrate by their very being this flexibility that allows for multiple interpretations of a received mythical heritage. Next, it shall critique Hanuman as a consolidation of popular perceptions of the Ramayana and thus, in this way, a retrograde step towards the ossification of these opinions. Thereafter, Sita Sings the Blues shall be analysed as an unconventional, intensely personal yet universally applicable reading of the Ramayana which threatens the creation of the aforementioned monolithic verities. Finally, it will conclude with an overview of the arguments thus presented, contesting therefore that the very conception of originality and reinvention in context of myths is, in spite of being a catalyst in their evolution, essentially fallacious.

In this post-structuralist world it would not just be difficult but also unadvisable to attempt a conclusive definition of myths. Tracing the etymology of ‘myth’ to the Greek muthos, meaning ‘utterance’, G.S. Kirk opines that “Myths are an uncertain and vague category, and one man’s myth is another man’s legend, or saga, or folktale, or oral tradition”. Just so, even as there is no concrete defining what is a myth and what not, there cannot be forwarded without sweeping assumptions any single mythology, or methodology, to understand myths. That myths are a reflection of a society’s anxieties and give it valuable tools for self-realisation is apparent and almost universally applicable; however, beyond this, to assert for a homogenous understanding as sacred archives or primeval science or ritualised nature or kinship concerns would be dangerously redundant. What is a myth and what constitutes a myth was, is and will always be a matter of contention…

This, however, in the case of Western scholarship, particularly dealing with so-called classical mythology. In our own context as a predominantly Hindu nation, such questions as regards the nature of myths do not generally arise in the popular imagination. The very connotations of the word myth, conveying in this English language a sense of the falsified fantastic, gets ameliorated in our own context of a culture more or less in sync with the dynamism of the past- our myths to us are sacred verities, truths unquestioned precisely for the deep rooted religious sacrosance invested in them. The myth-rather the series of myths-I take up here is immortalised conveniently as an epic- the Ramayana. I will assume, not totally without justification, that everybody here is acquainted with the barebones of the plot and that a detailed exposition of the same will be unnecessary. Instead, I shall plunge directly into the primal-and not primeval-concern or this seminar and this paper- the reinvention of myth in contemporary culture.

When it comes to the Ramayana, the word reinvention does not fully hold: the connotations of discovery and originality it evokes come in direct confrontation with our rich legacy of unceasing dynamism with the past. The works which I’ll discuss here are therefore not as much as reinventions in this sense of creative extrapolations upon a dead past as varying interpretations of a living, continually evolving heritage. That they’re both different types of a genre of entertainment which comes from a so-called twentieth century Western tradition of reinventing and disseminating classical as well as urban myths in ways amenable to the masses is further indicative of the uniqueness of their position within our own context of multiplicity of form, narrative and plot of the said epic. Indeed, for in thus being widely circulated animations on a myth still central to Indian communal life and public consciousness, these artefacts embody that spirit of syncretisation of cultures and narrative styles which increasingly typifies our lives and which reflects the fluidity of mythical structures within an overall, ostensibly unchangeable framework.

Hanuman conforms to this. It is by and large a saleable condensation of the Ramayana which shunts through the entire epic in order to visualise those areas of the story which would bring in the maximum of profit without affronting public sentiment. Hanuman is born as part of a grand design to rid the good earth of foul rakshakas who plague honest Aryan souls with perdition and hinder yagnas of the pious rishis: his ultimate calling in life is to assist Ram in the annihilation of Ravan and his Lanka and so restore the reign of righteousness on earth. All here is black and white, overlooking even that deep shade of grey which first in the Sundar Kand and then the Uttar Kand of the epic proper render Ram dangerously human. In Hanuman the demarcations are clear cut and it’s just a matter of time till our hero grows up and fulfils his glorious tryst with destiny.

Here we make another interesting observation. Though it deals with one of our most venerated myths, Hanuman is widely marketed as a children’s movie. This indeed is its USP- it caters specifically to the preteen audience of four to ten or so year olds for whom the fascination with myths and stories has not yet been challenged by the fashionable atheism of adolescence. The initial half an hour or so which deals with Hanuman’s childhood seems to be constructed specially to satiate the emotional needs of the projected audience: a child prodigy who fights all kinds of demons, Hanuman is also an easy going lad who roams the forests singing catchy songs and playing pranks on innocent rishis deep in meditation. Consider, for instance, the sequence akadam bakadam which depicts him doing exactly all this; notice then the terminology employed here, the inclusion of phrases like jadu ki takat and hawa se tej na bijli se kam which evoke Western concepts of magic and the superhero and so help the middle class audience, already exposed to all these in school and through popular culture, make another connect our protagonist. Being as he is thus-every small boy’s dream come true, a superhero who saves the world during the day and gets tucked in by Mummy at night-there’s no wonder that the movie did well.

Therefore, with that impressionable section of society which will grow up to represent our civilisation as its target audience, Hanuman is particularly effective as a carrier of culture. By thus guiding the interaction of this section with our mythical past and heritage it plays a vital role in determining what our future as a community and a culture will be.

However, as it is, Hanuman’s success is one which threatens in the long run the existing fabric of society as we know it. By essentialising personality and narrative as morally unquestionable truth, Hanuman takes away whatever space for open interpretation the popularly acceptable form or version of the myth has and thus consolidates it for the generations to come. The perception one is to form about the Hindu religion and mythological past is bound to be linear and simplistic. In fact, the very nature of Hinduism is being changed by such movies which exclusively glorify a single deity in the pantheon and thus erode slowly the diversity which has been its hallmark ever since its conception. Of course, one can argue that the movie generates interest in mythology and so paves the way for future intellectuals like those present before me in my audience, but the numbers who will get affected thus will necessarily be much lesser than those who will be silently co-opted into the system and its dominant ideologies.

Ideologies which our next case study Sita Sings the Blues challenges. Made by American Nina Paley, the movie functions at two levels: first at the intensely personal level of. Paley’s relation with husband Dave and then at the ostensibly universal, timeless relation between Ram and Sita. Ostensible because even as Ram and Sita are acknowledged ideal the fact of their failed relation is delved into and paralleled with that of Nina and Dave to bathe them in a light quite characteristically human. Ram cannot bring himself to trust his own wife’s fidelity and is convinced only after making her go through an agni-pariksha.

Of course, an interesting detail to be noticed here is that while many renditions of this episode will make it part of Ram’s grand design of defeating Ravan and proving his wife’s chastity to the world, Nina sees it clearly as the first portend of failure in their marriage. Be it some great design or not, something has clearly soured in Ram; as likely as not, it’s his very vibrant sense of masculine pride as a Kshatriya prince hurt at facing the wife taken away him: he could not defend her earlier and now seeing traces of that defeat in her form he transfers his own guilt to infidelity in her. Ideal son, ideal warrior, ideal prince, Ram fails to be the ideal husband.

This motif of estrangement is rapidly developed hereafter. Ram and Sita return to Ayodhya and to all appearances settle down to a happily married life; tensions, however, abound and soon he starts getting ‘cold’ to her. Here again must one draw attention to Paley’s delineation of Ram: while in accounts of this particular section of the Ramayana he’s usually shown devoted to Sita, Paley will have this devotion more a surface attachment, even pretension, than the deep-rooted affection Sita has for ‘her man’. As Ram’s abrupt, almost relieved tone suggests, the dhobhi incident is just a valid excuse to be rid of Sita. The fact that she’s pregnant at the time he turns her out causes him no great regret- such is his suspicion of her fidelity that in his vengeful indifference he literally tramples across Sita. Even at the end when he’s united with his two sons he’s hesitant about acknowledging the wife in Sita and says instead in a casual, hasty voice that she must yet again give a test of her chastity. This, of course, is the last test Sita gives: she calls Mother Earth to take her back as proof of her fidelity and so ends her tragic life on earth. Wife of an ideal man, ideal wife herself, Paley’s Sita leaves without understanding the reasons for their failed marriage.

Sita Sings the Blues, therefore, challenges our received notions of the Ramayana, especially those which seek to garb this one inexplicably traumatic episode in the altruistic light of a universally beneficial grand design we as Indians are accustomed to: no, this is rather to assert that what Paley does in imaginatively identifying with Sita is drastically different from anything done before even though it is admittedly not too radical in itself. By this we imply that though the work is created from a woman’s perspective and presents as such Sita’s reaction to the happenings around her, it does not give any corrective measures to ameliorate the pain she experiences at the hand of an uncaring patriarchal society. However conventional, Paley does give the female subject a voice and that itself is a revolution of sorts considering the strict gender mores of traditional Hindu society. For the first time Sita sings her blues in a way that is essentially hers as a woman and it is in this, the particularisation of the timelessness of her relation with Ram as being universal and by that virtue local and human that Paley’s interpretation differs from the others.

It would be easy in conclusion to claim that Hanuman and Sita Sings the Blues are two very different interpretations of the same source and so be done with it. It is indeed true, but as I had remarked earlier in this paper the very idea of source with all its aura of incorruptible authenticity and authoriality is in fact a convenient illusion. What we regard as the source is just the earliest known record of the tale so that a myth is ultimately untraceable and must remain, for this very virtue of being so, somewhat shrouded in uncertainty as regards its precise origin. The whole idea of reinvention comes from this comfortable assumption of source so that without that the very basis for dialectics such as these would fall. What would one then call a seminar like this, a paper like mine? Do we not create our own snug myth, the workability of the academia, the pertinence of discourse? Are we not all myth makers then, inventors rather than re-inventors?

I’d like to end, therefore, with a correction: Hanuman and Sita Sings the Blues are two very different myths in a long, continually evolving series of myths roughly centred on the same plot. The difference is vital.