Frame Narratives of Abuse: Notes on Maid

The recent Netflix web series Maid is the kind of brilliant series that comes in silently without fanfare especially in the general gloom of the pandemic and leaves acclaim in its wake almost as if by accident. This exquisite series with breath-taking writing and story tackles difficult and complex issues like addiction, mental health, emotional abuse and the pitfalls of the American social security system in ways which are powerfully stark, understated yet poignantly effective. Based on Stephanie Land’s memoir Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive, this 10-episode series follows the incredible journey of Alex, a young woman who leaves her emotionally abusive and alcoholic partner in order to start a life from scratch as a cleaning maid and provide a better life for her three-year-old daughter Maddy. This is not just the story of a young mother fighting to survive but also of the ways in which women from different classes, races and social walks of life can come together to create a support system against the machinery of non-physical abuse.

The series star real-life mother-daughter duo, Margaret Qualley as Alex and Andie MacDowell as Alex’s mother Paula, and other A-listers such as Nick Robinson as the abusive Sean, Anika Noni Rose as the wealthy and childless Regina, Billy Burke as Hank- Alex’s abusive father. The creator of the series Molly Smith Metzler in casting Qualley observes in Collider that what was required for the role of Alex was a genuine human being with “an incredible lack of vanity and a great sense of humour”- a quality that was raw, unaffected, and unstudied,  “not someone trying to win an award, just genuine commitment to the material.” All of this comes through amply with Qualley. The series stands out for its subtle portrayal of emotional abuse and of a woman who is consistently let down in terms of all the support systems that she should have been able to count on from family, friends, partner to the government and in the end has no option but to rely on herself to support her daughter.

Emotional abuse as a subject although increasingly discussed and talked about today has been difficult to show accurately on screen. From earlier films like Gaslight, Sleeping with the Enemy, to Provoked to more recent ones like The Great Indian Kitchen, Out of Love or Criminal Justice Behind Closed Doors in the Indian context, Maid follows an already extant trend in films to explore the nuances of this subject through the visual medium. Maid is certainly one of the most stunning and balanced representations of emotional abuse and the messiness of its internal dynamics. Emotional abuse is slow and corrosive; it happens over time and through a terrible grind. It cannot be portrayed through one violent incident of physical harm. This series takes the viewer on that slow, grinding journey and unsurprisingly, there have been a lot of online responses about women writing how they have been triggered and how accurately the series resonates with the crazy-making, the self-denial, the erasure of self, the learned helplessness, the PTSD and all the other symptoms associated with abuse. The series also takes the trouble to show as Metzler says, that the bad guys “don’t have twisting mustaches, they don’t look like villains. They could often be victims of their own experience.”

Alex’s relationship with Regina, her former boss whose house she cleans and who eventually ends up being her friend and gets her a lawyer, is an interesting one. Their relationship reverses the traditional idea of employer employee along class lines and also opens up motherhood as a common trope for bonding. Denise, the woman who runs the secret shelter for abused women is perhaps the only support system that Alex can count on and who consistently supports her journey in finding her way out of abuse. Alex’s mother Paula suffers doubly not only at the hands her former abusive partner Hank but also due to her own mental health issues that prevent her from staying out of abusive relationships. This series while showing multiple frame narratives of abuse, of abuse within abuse, presents a complex yet compassionate picture of abuse and survival in interpersonal violence, and the need for awareness around coercive control.

In one of the most beautiful scenes in the series, Alex enters a fake boutique at her shelter. The boutique experience has been created (with fake tags and cash counters) to help women remember what it feels like to exercise choice, and to reclaim their selves from the stupor of long-term abuse. At the fake boutique, Alex, who initially doesn’t even remember what she likes and what her preferences are, comes back the next time and quickly picks out a blue sweater and says ‘It’s sky blue, my favourite colour is sky blue.’

On Happiness: Notes from Pamuk

Brief reflections on reading Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence

Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence is an interesting piece of work that creatively uses the novel as a museum of stories. The novel itself which is scant on narrative but rich with life and insightful musings, spans across several years, sometimes a lifetime and even a generation. The story of Kemal who falls in love with a poor distant relation when he is already engaged to Sibel, follows one man’s obsession with love, loss and a lifetime of longing and yearning which finally result in his undoing. Yet, what in the eyes of society is a life wasted and ruined, is triumphantly countered in the end by Kemal’s assertion ‘Let everyone know I lived a very happy life.’

Through this novel, Pamuk delves upon the notion of happiness and in a strange way this happiness is so closely associated with innocence that the novel might as well have been called ‘The Museum of Happiness’ and it might not change the spirit in which the story has been told. Happiness for Pamuk is a retrospective feeling. One always realizes one was happy only when one looks back. Happiness in this sense, can never be lived in the present. And yet, when one looks back it is always through the prism of memory. Happiness and memory seem to be interlinked for Pamuk. The idea of the museum, is then a way of preserving memories through objects and their stories. These objects become portkeys (using a term from Rowling) to the past and one can re-live the emotions associated with them. The reason Kemal steals objects from the Keskin household is that he wants to preserve the time he has spent with Fusun and her family. A museum, Pamuk remarks, is the place where Time becomes Space. The objects are not only a way of preserving the past but of preserving a world into which one can escape. The museum of innocence that Kemal founds with his collection of objects through more than half a decade, create a world in which ‘the living can live with the dead.’

Pamuk interestingly uses the museum as a symbol of difference between the cultures of the East and the West. In the West, the concept of the museum is often associated with a collector’s pride in displaying his collection. In Istanbul, Kemal and other collectors like him are seen with disdain as their passions are regarded as an eccentricity that can only serve as negative examples to deter others. But Kemal decides to build a museum with the hope that he will be able to cope with the shame of collecting these objects throughout the years. It becomes a way of turning shame to a collector’s pride. It becomes an empowering act as he can finally put his story before the world.

Pamuk seems to be more of a feminist than has ever been acknowledged. In recounting the whole story from Kemal’s point of view, he reveals all the misogyny, chauvinism and hypocrisies of a privileged Istanbul male with a Western education. Through the specific male and highly biased perspective he also seems to reveal a lot more about the women characters than he would have been able to as an impersonal third person narrator. Pamuk’s women characters, both the modern Sibel and the traditional rebel Fusun are both stronger than Kemal who follows in the footsteps of his father in his obsessive love for a younger girl. While Kemal’s father wilts away his days in the memory of this girl, looking at her black and white photograph and drinking, Kemal’s story is also similar. The only thing different, as Vecihe, Kemal’s mother remarks, is that while Kemal’s father ‘did it’ quietly, Kemal’s story was fodder for gossip to everyone. One wonders how Vecihe, aware of her husband’s adultery, accepts it for the sake of keeping the family together in the eyes of the society and also still loves her husband. This is also seen in the way Kemal frequents the Keskin household in spite of Fusun being married to Feridun. Everyone knows of Kemal’s true intentions but everyone turns a blind eye and the situation becomes one in which a rich man comes to inquire about his beautiful, poor distant relation.

Fusun remains mysteriously unresolved as a character. We see her mostly through Kemal’s mind through the major part of the novel. In the beginning when Kemal has an affair with her, she is nothing more than ‘a girl who is taken advantage of.’ Kemal is perfectly happy having both, a mistress and a fiancée, at the same time. He even invites Fusun to the engagement party. His selfishness in wanting her to be close to him even as he cannot leave Sibel is likely to irk every female reader. He does not think of Fusun’s reputation or future. But in her resolute will to keep distance from Kemal and not encourage him when she is married, she becomes very much a woman of her own mind. She also punishes him by withholding from him that she found the earring he had left for her on his first visit to the Keskins after her marriage.

She never passionately proclaims her love for him, the way he always does. Her desire to become a film star and make something of her life is more important for her than a life of love. And in this desire we see her need for independence, a need that is thwarted by both Feridun and Kemal who prevent her from interacting with the ‘wretch’ of the film industry even though Fusun is clearly able to handle her share of anything in life. But it is perhaps this desperation, of not being able to achieve anything that she had wanted, of being ‘used’ by Kemal that ‘she could kill him’ and finally of not being able to hate him completely either that she deliberately rams the car to her death in an impulsive moment. Even in the moment of the crash, Kemal romanticizes the death of two lovers dying together. One wonders whether he has really ever understood Fusun. In spite of her tantrums and her moodiness, Fusun remains a character we empathize with, while Kemal although his suffering is strikingly poignant at times, remains in general ‘a sloshed lover’ who needs to be shaken out of his obsession and megalomaniac self-pity. Sibel as a character also commands admiration in the way she stays with Kemal in the hope of helping him out of his desperation. When she realizes her efforts are in vain, she has the courage to break off the engagement even as Kemal cannot. In the end, this monumental story about love, loss, innocence and happiness transcends its superficial love story of a jilted lover and comes alive in the details, in its nuances which contain the world and the human condition in its most vulnerable rawness.

Prendre Le Large: Un Récit Initiatique

Prendre Le Large (2017) un film français réalisé par Gaël Morel sur un thème inhabituel.

A Still from the Film
Photo: Bonnaire et Fettu. Credit:

Prendre Le Large (2017) est un film français réalisé par Gaël Morel et incarné par la formidable Sandrine Bonnaire, Mouna Fettu et un aimable Kamal El Amri. C’est un film qui c’agit d’un sujet plutôt non-conventionnel. Il nous raconte le parcours d’une femme d’âge moyen, Edith Clerval, ouvrière textile, qui laisse sa vie confortable dans un pays développé pour travailler dans des conditions atroces à Tanger, Maroc.

Tandis que certains ouvriers decident de partir en grève pour protester la délocalisation de l’usine à Maroc (où la main d’œuvre est moins onéreuse), d’autres préfèrent le chômage et acceptent les indemnités. Seule Clerval, refuse le licenciement proposé par son entreprise textile et à la surprise générale, décide d’être reclassée au Maroc comme couturière.

La seule justification qu’offre Morel pour cette énorme invraisemblance est la profonde solitude de la cinquantenaire, veuve, rejetée par son fils gay et qui veut ‘prendre le large,’ une expression qui se traduit en Anglais comme ‘Catch the Wind.’ Elle est tellement affamée de connexion humaine qu’elle voyage au bout du monde à une ville sulfureuse et inondée de mer où, comme nous le dit le Musulman au volant, ‘il y en a autant de fous que des chats.’

Il y en a déjà dizaines de films à propos des voyages des immigrants aux pays développés dans l’espoir d’une vie meilleure. Mais ce film prend comme prémisse le voyage à l’envers. Enfin, il devient un récit initiatique d’une femme qui va se confronter à une autre culture et d’autres mœurs que les siennes et dans un pays où la religion a un poids très fort sur la vie des femmes. Le film se fait l’écho aussi du fossé entre deux manières de travailler dans des usines qui sont bien différentes. En effet, il réfléchit sérieusement sur la notion du ‘travail’ elle-même, qui chez Edith est une question d’éthique et de principe, mais chez Mina, la logeuse Marocaine, c’est une réalité incontournable.

On apprécie aussi comment le film met en relief le privilège que jouit Edith à cause du couleur de sa peau et aussi la vulnérabilité simultanée qu’elle expérience comme femme et ouvrière dispensable. En effet, ce qui avait commencé comme une simple balade finit par des expériences d’être agressée, malmenée, accusée à tort et renvoyée de son travail et finalement d’être ramenée à un hôpital en raison de l’épuisement.

S’il y a quelques baisses de rythme dans le dernier tiers et un passage un peu exagéré, ce film aborde des sujets épineux d’actualité avec subtilité et cette balance et son dénouement heureux charment durablement.

Haikus for the Pandemic

The simple elegance of the Haiku as a poetic form is intended to slow us down and live a more contemplative life. An important lesson for our times.

Haikus are well-known poetic forms from Japan renowned for their striking visual suggestiveness and their brevity of expression. They explore themes of life, nature and the impermanence of the world. Called haikai until the 20th century, haikus are usually defined as three-line poems of 5-7-5 syllables with references to the seasons. But with the experimental free-verse Haiku, this definition is fairly variable. Also, the freedom from syllabic restriction is useful for haikus composed or translated in languages other than Japanese. English for example has a different rhythm from Japanese. Where the former emphasizes stress, the latter marks its syllables.

The true power of a haiku as a form comes from its economy and the simplicity of the image that it evokes. This open-ended image made visible as a glimpse of a scene or into a landscape, taps into larger philosophical and often existential questions of the human experience. The haiku is also indicative of a more contemplative way of life and thought that emphasizes looking at the world, seeing process of transformations in their depths and slowness. In a world reeling under a pandemic and forced into isolation and introspection, the haiku is a reminder that a slower way of life is never irrelevant. It is centered on those experiences, explorations and sensations that essentially make us human. Here are a few haikus describing beautiful scenes of seasonal change and with them kernels of universal truth. The haikus have been taken from Haiku: An Anthology of Japanese Poems, by Stephen Addiss and Fumiko and Akira Yamamoto, published by Shambhala Publications in 2011.

   The spring sun
shows its power
    between snowfalls

   Not in a hurry
to blossom-
   plum tree at my gate

   The warbler
wipes its muddy feet
    on plum blossoms

   Is the dawn, too,
still embraced by
   hazy moon?

   Over the violets
a small breeze
    passes by

   Each time the wind blows
the butterfly sits anew
   on the willow

   Spring chill-
above the rice paddies
    rootless clouds

   Crazed by flowers
surprised by the moon—
    a butterfly

    Misty day-
they might be gossiping
    horses in the field

    Out from the darkness
back into the darkness
     affairs of the cat

     On the temple bell
perching and sleeping
      a butterfly

     Flower petals
set the mountains in motion—
     cherry blossoms

     Summer rains—
leaves of the plum
     the colour of cold wind

     Alone, silently-
the bamboo shoot
     becomes a bamboo

      At the sound of the sea
the sunflowers open
      their black eyes

     Dragonfly on a rock
absorbed in
     a daydream

     On a withered branch
linger the evanescent memory
     of a cicada’s voice

     A rinse of vermilion poured
from the setting sun, and then
     autumn dusk

falls on snow-
     and remains silent.

     In the abandoned boat
dashing sliding-

     Sharing one umbrella-
the person more in love
     gets wet

     Having given my opinion
I return home to
     my wife’s opinion.

The Left Hand of Darkness

Revisiting Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hugo-award winning science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)

The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel by Ursula K. Le Guin (1929-2018) that is breathtaking in terms of its world-building and deceptively simple given its slimness. Le Guin is a well-known name in the world of fantasy writing and children’s literature. Writing primarily in the 60s and 70s, she was one of the few women who wrote in a field largely dominated by mostly white men. Le Guin’s writings, especially The Left Hand of Darkness, which came out in the year of the Stonewall Riots, added a different perspective to existing literature. Most of all, it tackled larger human, social and philosophical questions through science, calling attention to an ideal of humanism, understood in its best sense, and of the need to rally beyond barriers of race, ethnicity and culture.

In The Left Hand of Darkness, an Envoy named Genly Ai from an advanced humanoid race is sent to the land of Karhide on a planet called Gethen to propose an intergalactic alliance with the Ekumen, a coalition that seeks to forge unity between the far flung planets of the universe and to unite them. In a land of political intrigue and vendetta, the astute and exiled Prime Minister of Karhide, Estraven is the only one who believes in Genly Ai’s cause and eventually dies for it after saving him and making an incredible journey across snow, mountain, forest and ice.

Each state in Gethen has evolved into its own society, politics, language and custom which the Envoy observes and analyses in an anthropological manner typical of Le Guin’s writing. Among these, one of the most striking aspects of Gethenian society, is the notion of gender understood by the term ‘kemmer.’

Gethenians are androgynous and ambisexual and become female across a cycle of 28 days at the end of which they go into ‘kemmer’, a few days in which they are sexually active while any partner in kemmer can conceive. This idea about cyclic gender was incredible for its time and had important implications. It envisaged a society in which continuous sexuality was no longer a norm which meant that a person could be on any point of a gender spectrum at any time. It also put forth the idea of ‘men’ sharing the reproductive labour of child-bearing and rearing so that gender was no longer one of the most prominent organising principles of a society. This reproductive serendipity is novel even for today’s times.

The study of the polis between Karhide and its rival state of Orgeryn run by a Commensal instead of a king, is another scintillating piece of writing. It traverses the gulf between a monarchy and communal governance touching upon notions such as Shifgrethor or personal prestige in Karhide to Orgeryn’s group conditioning and the boundaries between love for one’s motherland and nationalism as a political tool for power.

Amidst all this, Le Guin throws in mystical narratives about spiritual cults (inspired by her interest in Taoism), stories of origins about places, people and names from the points of views of different characters. There is also a breathless nightmarish account of the Envoy himself, describing his experiences to the Farm which eerily echo the treatment of Jews in concentration camps.

What is especially stunning is the journey that Estraven and Genly Ai take together, a journey that is both metaphorical and spiritual in order to meet halfway across their cultural differences and to forge a friendship and loyalty for a greater cause. The ecological descriptions of snow, forest, mountain and the terrain they traverse are vivid and detailed as is the empathy with which societies and polities are described.

While the novel is majestic in its sweep, it does have a few setbacks. The most striking of which is the representations of gender itself. Although we are reminded that Estraven is both a man and a woman, even in his/her mysterious elusiveness s/he appears largely ‘male’ both because of the travesty of language and of a template of femininity that has itself come into question in recent years. But The Left Hand of Darkness is a world by itself like most of Le Guin’s novels and seen in the context of its own time, it certainly spoke to a different age.