Fadedredrose Reviews: In Xanadu

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It was a pity I read this book. I used to like Dalrymple. But this book turned out to be yet another account of a White man on a daring trip across the world in dangerous lands from whence it is next to impossible to come out alive, all while writing encouragingly of every stereotype the Whites have ever come up with of every other race apart from themselves. Anyone who is not a British is either dangerous, “stupid”, uncouth, imbecilic, unfriendly and hostile or subservient to the White man in a servile way. In way too many passages, Dalrymple speaks less like a historian and more like an inflated Cambridge spoiled brat and the pages are full of his whining.

The beginning of his journey reveals him as one whose ego cannot seem to accept the fact that the Byzantines lost and the Ottomans won in the years past. There is not a single positive word I have come across written of the Ottomans or of the Turks in general. Any positive comment that the reader comes across is only when Dalrymple has run out of something negative to say, and even that is immediately followed by a passage with disparaging humour that negates what came previously. Dalrymple’s words stink of the awareness of their wretched losses in the past. His patronising tone does not help to conceal his thinly veiled racism and antagonism towards other cultures. Even his Islamophobia shines across in this telling exchange:

‘”You like Islam?”
“I like many Muslims, I replied.’ (pg. 236)

His humour is one of the worst I have come across. Eager to be a success, Dalrymple’s attempts to make people laugh comprise of mining the Englishman’s guidebook to stereotyping the rest of the world. He makes fun of people’s inabilities to speak English, often translating what they speak in their native tongues into broken and incorrect English in order to elicit cheap laughs from his colonial audience. A lot of the conversations seem made up as they seem very convenient to Dalrymple’s cause of sounding witty. I do not know if it is an attempt on his part to come across as a “critical scholar of Cambridge” but if it is so, it falls flat on its face, only highlighting his racist mindset. There is an air of self-aggrandisement in every page and his spoilt White-boy privilege reeks from every word.

Dalrymple does not even spare his female travel companions. His portrayal of Laura and Louisa reads like caricature, which is true of his representation of practically everyone he meets on the way as well. While he subtly puts across messages like how European girls are the only girls worth calling beautiful etc. and equating fairness with European skin, he also does not attempt to hide his innate sexism. Laura, his travel companion in the first half of the journey is painted as a tough, domineering and indestructible woman while Louisa, who accompanies him in the second half, is the polar opposite of being “beautiful, delicate and fragrant” (his words not mine). He is also genuinely surprised to find Laura reading Mills and Boon at one stage of their journey and seems incapable of reconciling the fact that someone as tough as Laura could be capable of having healthy sexual desires as well, and that she would choose to read erotica out in the open rather than the obviously intellectually superior Fall of Constantinople which he makes a point of boasting before changing the topic. The exchanges with the natives are almost all carried out by Dalrymple with Laura and Louisa sometimes chipping in to not let the reader forget about their existence. I pity those poor, intelligent women who had to suffer William Dalrymple’s company for such a long, overland journey.

I am willing to excuse him on the grounds that he was merely 20 years old when he wrote this book. Still, that is not excuse enough as that is old enough to know the difference between good humour and outright disrespect of other cultures. I also applaud his determination in following this journey out to the end, and for laying the ground and following up with an original idea. Credits where credits due: following Marco Polo’s footsteps across the Silk Road is, after all, quite a feat and I give it an extra star only because of his excellent command over the turns of the English language. I only wish this journey was attempted by someone who would show more respect to the cultures and peoples that are encountered in this journey. I wonder, sometimes, if a person were to write a travel book about the West in an equally disparaging and patronising manner, would it get published?

At best, this book is comical in its approach. It is certainly not deserving of the label of a serious travel book.

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Fadedredrose Reviews: The Age of Innocence

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This book took a while to grow on me. It must be a reflection of how impatient I’ve become because the first part of the novel, which reads much like a novel of manners, had me rolling my eyes intensely. Halfway through the book, I hadn’t found a single likable character and Newland Archer, the protagonist, was fast on his way to becoming a member of my list of Annoying Protagonists That Deserve No Sympathy From Me (he made it to the list, by the way). A closer look, however, revealed the adept intelligence of Edith Wharton’s writing. The world of Old New York was something I had never really been introduced to and this period of time before the Wars hit, before modernism took a solid hold, before the glitz and glamour of the Jazz Age and the Roaring Twenties, before EVERYTHING, in fact – intrigued me, and Edith Wharton depicts it well. She makes intelligent use of her protagonist to reveal the carefully built world of the old aristocratic class, that she was once a part of, as he stares snootily down from his intellectual tower, unaware that Wharton is making fun of him just as much as she does of the society he is a part of.

Newland Archer really tested my patience. Here is a guy for you who mansplains his way through the novel, and considers himself modern and different from the rest of his society because of his “progressive” notions about the way women should behave. However, it should be noted that he makes these notions only when it is convenient excuse for him to commit adultery. When it comes to his wife, he cannot imagine her as a woman who should seek the same freedoms as such other “free” women and is perfectly aware that should his wife ever dream of such freedoms he would firmly revert to the way of functioning that his society sees fit. Much of his disappointment in his married life and wife comes from the fact that he fails to see May for who she really is rather than what he has accepted from his society that he should see her as. His opinion of May Welland Archer is that she is “naive”, “innocent”, “empty”, a “type” rather than a character, and as someone who is unaffected by change because she is too good to believe in it. He is proved wrong again and again till the end of the book, but he never really seems to realise this.

I didn’t have too much of an opinion about the Countess Ellen Olenska. I did not find much depth lent to her character and she bored me with her predictable mood bursts and antics, to be honest. In fact, I found May’s character to be the only one who took me aback and who had actual depth, substance and potential worth talking of. What started off as one of the most annoyingly simple characters took me pleasantly by surprise when she revealed just how scheming, cunning, and viciously savage she is and I found myself cheering for her when the plot twists rolled round. Wharton gives us only small peeks into her character from the eyes of her unappreciative husband, but there are other trails that Wharton leaves behind which really gives the readers a sense of May’s internal struggles.

This book, on the whole, would have been completely unremarkable had Wharton not added her masterpiece of the last chapter. As a movement through time into the future of the new century, thirty years from the time the novel begins, the nostalgia this last chapter evokes is what truly sets off the previous pages as revealing their true symbolism. The new century with its fast paced younger generation, new inventions, and a slow and gradual erosion of the majesty of the older aristocrat class as more and more “outsiders” enter and change the landscape of New York, hearkens back to the world that Wharton was once a part of and which is now forever lost to the pages of history. It was a period with its own suffocating rituals, certainly, but it had a timeless glamour, a touch of class and nobility that fails to be captured or enumerated today. As someone who was thoroughly irritated with the pace of the society through most of the novel, it is a testament to Wharton’s skill as a writer for me to have been moved to miss that older world when this closing chapter made the distinctions. As for my sympathies for Newland and Ellen? Nothing, I daresay, could move me in that direction!

What’s Up, Facebook? (Part 1)

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It has been a little over a year since I went into hiding from my Facebook. Unable to cope with harsh words, trolls, fake news, faker people and the constant negativity pouring all over my feed every day, I fled and nestled in the relatively safer arms of Instagram. Of course, having a wonderful new job with demanding hours also helped. I barely had the time to remember my closest friends’ birthdays let alone scroll endlessly through what others have been up to. Instagram on the other hand, as  a prettier, safer haven, does not let you know about others’ lives with as much detail as Facebook does.

With Facebook, you can’t escape the clutches of society no more than if you were hosting your entire community in your living room. As much as this generation prides itself on wearing the label of being ‘anti-social’ on our sleeves, we’re only fooling ourselves if we consider ourselves ‘Facebook otakus’. It is what it is – an anomaly, a blind oxymoron. Who are we kidding? Hiding behind our Facebook screens, yelling at each other about who’s right and who’s wrong – we wouldn’t be half as aggressive if we were sitting in front of these same people engaging in an actual conversa…

Oh no. This is going to turn out to be another one of those ‘SOCIAL MEDIA IS A DEMON GET OUT THERE AND LIVE A LIFE’ posts, isn’t it? Dammit. And I’m only two paragraphs in. Well, let’s rewind a bit and churn out some context. What was my deal with Facebook? Why did I see such an urgent need to turn away from it, when my closest, and then some, allies will tell you how big of a social media fan I am? Hell, all of my Instagram followers will tell you I can’t keep myself from oversharing. So why one platform and not the other?

I realised it perhaps only when I started my job last year – a space where I learnt the concept of feedback, or more correctly, how it needs to be given. That was when I came to the realisation that Facebook and most other social media platforms operate on the basis of instant feedback. We thrive on making our voices heard and the easiest way to gauge that we’ve been heard is through the the number of likes, shares and comments we get. That is, after all, the basis of all human interaction and communication. Without getting a response, there is no communication. Without feedback from our community, we will never know if what we are saying/doing has any actual benefit. Except, because of the layer of anonymity in some cases and the barrier afforded by our screens, we somehow become bolder. We reduce the people on the other end of the screens into something less than human, just because we aren’t able to physically interact with them. The negativity, as a result, snowballs and turns uglier by ten times. And because of our inherent desire to be liked and appreciated, this negativity leads to something much worse – a dependency of our self worth on the validation provided by these comments and likes.

The effect that Facebook had on me was that of constantly appraising myself on whether I sounded smart enough or not when posting anything. No matter what I might post, I became so afraid of the backlash I might receive that I limited myself to posting harmless pictures rather than release myself all over the keyboard. I began limiting myself in everything, began to think less of myself, began censoring myself when it wasn’t needed, let my anxiety get out of hand, began to think less of myself because I thought differently. The fact that most of my views are starkly in opposition to the Liberal camp I belong to did not make things easier. My views will also always be coloured through the lens of a Muslim woman in this country, where there is a daily witch hunt for Muslims under the protective gaze of the government. And truth be told, no matter how progressive you might think yourselves to be, the Liberal movement in India is sadly lagging far behind when it comes to inclusivity and representation. (No, your fierce stance on how religion should be abolished just because you don’t believe in it does not allow breathing space for others who do not hold this view).

To be honest, I think this issue is related more with the crowd I associate rather than Facebook. When I began to mingle with people from my old crowd once again after a year of hanging out only with my colleagues, I recognised the same old bleak, negative tone I had tried so hard to escape. Each time someone talks about how there is hopelessness in the future of this world, or puts someone else down because of their interests, I am reminded of how this percolates down into eating away someone else’s self confidence. We are all bullies, whether we are conscious of it or not. It doesn’t hit us how our words and actions might be affecting others. In our thirst to prove ourselves right, to sound the smartest, to be the most relevant, we bulldoze our way through this world: on and offline. It cannot be helped, you’ll say. It’s a dog eat dog world and this is merely a survival issue. And the fact that I fled was merely an instance of the weak picking themselves out.

To be continued. 

Rant: Mis/-Representation

“If you think that representation doesn’t matter, that’s probably because you’re already represented.”

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This might come off as slightly politically incorrect to people who do not look too deep, so let me state outright that I have nothing against representation of marginalized people: as a brown, Muslim, Assamese girl, I understand exactly how important and necessary it is for the shaping of a mass consciousness and in challenging the preconceived notions that people hold about a class of humans they are not particularly familiar with.Especially in my country, India, which is known for its diversity of cultures, and which is currently going through a propaganda of forced homogenisation by the ruling government this discussion is relevant. For instance, even though my country, with all its diversity and easy-going ways, has a pretty impressive media industry I highly doubt that there will ever be the portrayal of a character like myself in any format that I can point to and relate with. What? A dark-skinned, Assamese, Muslim female character as a lead in some mainstream (even alternative media) production??? Unheard of! Unbelievable! Unacceptable!! *insert uncomfortable acquiescent laughter* So yeah, I  am not unaware of the importance of representation. However, that is not my problem because whether or not someone of my community who might share these characteristics is represented in mainstream media or not is not a discussion my country is prepared to grapple with at the moment. What I do have a problem with is misrepresentation.

 Yes, that exactly. Because – moving away from the domain of a purely nationalistic perspective into that of a more global one – I see how many complainants there are these days, mostly in social media networks, about how anything dominated by White Caucasians is a problem and so the immediate solution seems to have become putting in larger numbers of humans from other communities to encourage a more “level playing field”. So, it no longer matters about how a person is chosen or elected (be it the MTV VMAs 2015 nominations or even certain Presidential nominations, because there will now be louder, more vocal arguments about how you are a racist prick for not supporting such-and-such race/class/community/religion/sexuality/ethnicity over the dominant Whites. You know exactly what I’m talking about. OK, I see the implications: I see how it can be a positive thing; I see the downsides to such an approach too. Which is why I believe what I am about to write is so important for people to understand.

I am going to move back to a personal viewpoint here now into the most basic form of representation – that in the entertainment industry. Growing up as a brown girl, it never bothered me when I watched those Western flicks that there were hardly any brown people cast in movies etc, because we have our own industry and I believe that is more than sufficient for us as a space for representation. I mean, I don’t really see our industry being any more accommodating of outside communities either, y’know.The problem, I feel, begins when a Western production would cast brown people, they would *always* have prominent, exaggerated features with pronounced accents to generate a comic effect and hardly ever given anything to do other than reinforce stereotypes the Western audience holds. In addition, there would always be some sort of massively incorrect culture reference because of a lack of proper research. For references, see the character Raj from The Big Bang Theory,  the 2002 film Anita and Me, the 2010 film Sex and the City 2, among many others. What happens when you do make a pretense of listening to the the marginalized communities and throw in characters to appease their feelings, but compromise on the way in which you portray them? Misrepresentation is as much a part of the problem as being ill-represented, but no one talks of it as much.

In fact, it is worse because of the damage caused to the larger social consciousness. It feeds into the already damaging stereotypes the marginalised communities suffer from and such a way of being portrayed may be more harmful to their cause. It is, essentially, two steps backwards on the road a more progressive and liberal world. How can you, as a person belonging to a less-privileged populace, be expected to be taken seriously if the only kind of representation you are dealt involves jokes on curry, the excessive population of your country, how you are a nerd and great at studies but with zero social skills because of course your country only produces geniuses and focuses on little else? You see where I’m going with this? We need to fix what is already being presented to us before we can go full out on the numbers of our representation. In our fight for a more equal, diverse society this is an important step that we are skipping because we are too busy in yelling out our opinions on the internet (as I am doing right now).

“So, does this mean that there is no one who is taking corrective steps in this at all? Are you telling me that there is no one shouldering the responsibility of their respective communities and creating alternative productions to challenge the misrepresentations so far?” Of course not, little voice inside my head. There is more going on in the alternative creative arts than you would believe. This is where the free space of the internet comes in handy. There are more and more emerging artists, writers, illustrators, comedians, actors, vloggers, Instagrammers, Snapchatters, etc, etc that are helping in this fight and doing it the right way. It is an underground movement still, but gaining more ground as we speak/write/read. They create mindblowing quality content that is miles better than most of the rubbish being spouted by the established industries. It is a seismic movement that is slowly, but I can see quite surely, taking over. In some other post, some other day, I hope to elaborate on this further and talk about some of the wonderful people doing this job and doing it well. For now, thank you for going through this incredibly long rambling with no proper connection in my thought process.You are appreciated. 

First Post: On Writing

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem

I begin with the name of Allah

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I have found that I am happiest expressing myself with pen and paper. It allows me a fluid hold over my thoughts that I do not enjoy if I were writing through any other medium, like a keyboard, or even recording through my voice – yes, recording your voice also counts as a means of ‘writing’ because, according to Wikipedia when you record your voice you are basically effecting changes in atmospheric pressure which are picked up by a microphone diaphragm and recorded on a medium like a phonograph, which are in turn sensed by a stylus as recorded grooves. I assume the focused energies spent on holding the pen and controlling its movement reflects, in some way, my control over my thoughts. The hand and the pen then become an extension of my fired up neurons physically manifesting themselves onto paper, where they may be held up and examined for years down the line, if preserved properly.Words in and of themselves do not reveal much – it is the ‘light’ behind them that lends meaning, by which I refer to a ‘sense’ carried by the words. But to reach it requires a lot of groping. Most miss the ‘light’ and focus only on the ink of the words, unfortunately. Some the ‘light’ reaches for on its own, taking them unawares.

Speaking of light,my mind turns to another mode of writing – that of photography. It is another form over which one exercises a certain form of control which, though illusory, is a sort of control nonetheless. Why illusory, you ask? Because in photography, one works only within the parameters of what already exists – the subject matter is already laid out, unlike while writing with a pen which is akin to weaving with a web. The depth of your writing matters on how intricately you can ‘weave’ your ‘web’. The control in photography, on the other hand, lies only in how you can manage to tweak the image you are presented with. In this sense writing with words is freed from this particular limitation that bounds photography. Of course, if we are talking about a form of ‘writing’ that transcends artificial limitation, music trumps this round. As an art form that does not depend on any artificially constructed grammar, other than what is already inherent in its nature, none can surpass the superiority music boasts of being the ultimate medium of recording what has never existed. But that is a ruminaton for another day.