The first syllable of this word comes from nowhere in particular. Your tongue hangs about without really touching anything in the mouth, making room for its own stomach to gather the ‘guh’. Indeed, it’s a word that requires more than your mouth to say it. It needs the tightness of your fists & the firmness of your stomach. I first heard it in the film, ‘The Holiday’ & understood its meaning entirely from the way Kate Winslet had banged the door on a man- an asshole, turned around with infectious energy, punched the air with her fists & celebrated having fallen out of love with him. When he asks her what had gotten into her, she says ‘Gumption’
I don’t have gumption. My mother has it, my aunts have it, & mouma who passed it on to her daughters will always have it. It’s what caused amma to hold a broom over her head one day & chase away an old Brahmin man who had stopped at our gate to teach her manners. She was cleaning the front yard & he stopped to tell her that in America, people didn’t do things like that(!) She screamed, ‘saakappa hogu, naavu nodidive jagattu’ (enough man, keep walking, even we have seen the world)
My aunt showed gumption by pushing an abusive brother-in-law into a chair, her foot firm on his chest, her eyes dancing with fire, while her index finger launched a threat at his face to never ever lay a finger on her sister.
As a child, I believed that mouma’s gumption was hidden in her blouse and perhaps it is. It’s why she never wore a bra. She barged into temples, ate their food, prayed to their gods because she never believed that anybody should have the right to stop her, even if it’s all they did. She grabbed her paysa & ate it too. And ate it how – standing tall against all the poojaris united.
Savitrimai’s gumption was in the extra saree she carried in her bag because she didn’t have time to fight Savarna losers whose only job was to stand with cow dung to throw at her. She had work to do – her work was her gumption.
Sujatha Gidla’s mother had gumption when she ran after a train that was leaving the platform with all her belongings – marks cards, certificates. She ran with the speed of an athlete, still carrying the water bottle for which she had deboarded in the first place.
It’s the English-language’s poverty that even a word that needs you to thrust your fists in the air like a martyr, like a woman newly out of love, will never fully lend its energy to understanding Dalit survival in this country. And this is why, G for me, is Gumption & I am claiming that word to tell our stories.
Jabya smiling, Jabya laughing, Jabya crying, Jabya studying, Jabya singing – is a boy in love. Jabya doing homework is Jabya writing Shalu’s name on the slate. Jabya, in uniform, is Jabya dreaming of wearing t-shirt & jeans some day. Jabya who makes his friend wait while he combs his hair, who rubs powder on his face, powder dropped carefully from a paper is a boy next to whom nobody sits with in school. Jabya who reminds me of a student who loves to dance, Jabya who reminds me of my brother who pushes his hair back when nervous, is a boy who has to hide himself so he can watch the girl he loves & smile.
Jabya climbing up trees with his friend to catch a black sparrow that will bring him luck & love, is young Ambedkar climbing up trees to read. Jabya’s friend who doesn’t know how to climb down trees is young Ambedkar jumping down trees. Jabya at Aashiqui cycle mart is Jabya in love. Jabya pulled away from Aashiqui cycle mart to remove a piglet from the ditch is Jabya not allowed to remain in love. Jabya who has nightmares of that piglet when he sleeps is Jabya who chases a black sparrow every morning so he can convince himself that he is not the pig that Shalu has to flee from.
Jabya who cycles out of the village to sell ice lollies is Jabya standing outside a Van Heusen billboard in town, staring at the white man’s sharp nose & feeling his own flat nose. Jabya dancing on Chankya’s shoulders is Jabya closest to Shalu who is watching from above, even if momentarily. Jabya’s Chankya is a man who saves Jabya without even letting him know that he was in danger all this while. Chankya, who guides Jabya to remain alive, who sets him to chase a black sparrow, distracting him, even if momentarily, from the horror of this impossible love.
Jabya chasing pigs is Jabya hiding behind the walls, hiding from school, hiding from classmates, hiding from Shalu. Jabya still inches away from the black sparrow is Jabya never losing hope. Jabya, inches away from catching the pig, Jabya standing still for the national anthem is a slap on your face, my face, and this fucking country’s face.
Jabya pelting stones at the pig is Jabya learning how to pick up the stone differently. Jabya has picked up stones to catch the black sparrow before but he always did it out of love. Jabya carrying the pig in front of his school walls where Ambedkar, Savitrimai, & Jotiba look on grimly is the image we need to remember everyday. Jabya picking up the stone in the end, is Jabya finally picking it up for himself. Jabya throwing the stone at the camera is throwing the stone at you. Manjule’s slap for you, for me.
I first saw Silk Smitha in Halli Meshtre and got impatient with the camera which took forever to show her face. Unfortunately, in all the songs that followed, that camera remained and so did the man behind it. Same man, same camera. They were interested in her face only when it was accompanied by the sounds of moaning. And in more ways than one, the Savarna feminist aka the saree-bindi feminist (I will forever love you for coining this, Darde-discourse) is no different from a man like that.
They both see what they want to see: a site to perform ‘perversions’ that won’t be performed on a ‘purer/fairer’ body or an opportunity to rescue a “poor, hypersexualized, lower-caste woman” who might not know better. (I don’t have to explain why I am more uncomfortable with the latter)
All I can say is that if you’re having sex, neither the man behind that camera nor the saree-bindi feminist will care about your pleasure. They will come and go.
Is there another way of looking at Silk Smitha then? She doesn’t make it easy to answer this and maybe she doesn’t have to. What she still brings on screen are possibilities that are not easy to confront. What do you do with a woman who has paid so much attention to a body alone in pleasure & its need to submit to shamelessness — that she is able to imitate the same tremor, bend, gesture, and moan when not alone and for a roomful of crew and cameras?
At the end of Love me allow me to love you, the ‘actual heroine’ of the film arrives to watch Shankarnag and Silk Smith rolling on the grass in some park, hugging and kissing. She tears them apart, calls Silk Smitha a ‘dirty bitch’, slaps her and throws her into a pond. Many have pointed out that this was the tragedy of Silk Smitha – that despite the power she held over men and women alike, she was, in the end, alone. They will say this but they won’t acknowledge caste in this. Silk Smitha’s loneliness is not very different from the loneliness of Dalit and Bahujan students who are murdered in institutions.
But I’d like to keep her alive in other ways too – by imagining & believing that she pissed people off because she taught savarnas how to have better sex. By acknowledging that no other actor was able to achieve what she was able to, that she single-handedly recognized the uselessness of savarna men. Whether it’s Ravi Chandran, Kamal Hasan, Rajinikanth or Shankarnag – all the men she acted with are so similarly boring that they are all easily interchangeable. Take all their songs, exchange the men – it won’t change a damn thing. What you’ll still see is one Silk Smitha, shining. Always.
Chhapaak (2020) has an interesting moment that I want to remember.
Malti (Deepika Padukone) and her team are in the office, celebrating the new amendment in the IPC (326 A and 326 B – which ensures a separate section for acid attacks) There is a cake that says ‘Happy Birthday 326 A 326 B’ – there are chips, samosas, juice, and loud music (Radha from Student of the Year) At one point, the neighbours phone them up, and ask for the volume to be reduced. They scream noooo and keep the party going. There’s mauj in the air. The women (all acid attack survivors) look happy and continue dancing.
Amol (Vikrant Massey) – activist, and founder of the NGO walks in and turns off the music. He looks displeased. Malti tries to pacify him (“come, cut the cake”) and he patronizingly asks for an explanation of what 326 A and B mean. Malti answers him and he goes on to berate her and all of them. It has only been amended. That doesn’t mean acid attacks will stop. Even cold drinks are more expensive than acid. Acid hasn’t been banned. Your own petition to ban acid has gone nowhere in the last 7 years and you want to party?
I want to slap his face.
Everything I want to take away from the film rests unfairly on what Malti will say next. And as I inch closer towards Malti, she calmly says “Amol sir, you know what your problem is? You behave as if you’ve been attacked with acid. But the acid was thrown on me, not you. And I — want to party“
The people standing tensely around them loosen up a little, and begin laughing. Amol doesn’t know where to look. He has just been served so he retreats.
I was left amazed but more importantly, I was left with a stone to throw at every idiot who took my personal and made it their political. Every so often, I meet young people who want to change the world. I don’t have very many feelings about them but it’s beyond irritating when they begin to act like Amol. Everything is either black or white. They won’t notice love but they talk about change. Nothing is political if it isn’t spelled out or doesn’t come with the color of dissent. You can’t party or run fests in times of dissent. What kind of a Dalit are you if you are happily sitting and organizing fests when the country is crumbling around you?
They ask this so articulately and with so much passion that you will wonder if they are Dalit.
In the past, I have felt extremely inadequate next to these super articulate people, looking back at my childhood and parents with bitterness, accusing them of having taught me nothing. Growing up was bitterness, inadequate, insecure, always doubting if I was thinking correctly, and always on the lookout for approval from super articulate people.
I craved the clarity that the Amols of the world had – they knew when they were right and that was ok but they pakka for sure knew when you were wrong. How do you arrive at that confidence? The Amols of the world have convinced us that we need their stamp of approval even to confirm our victim hood, even if it means that we want to party, despite our victim hood.
It began changing when I discovered being Dalit and then I didn’t want to be that kind of articulate anymore. That kind of articulate is rooted in privilege, in the safe knowledge that there are enough people under you over whom you will always be above and therefore ‘better’ and ‘correct.’ That it’s somebody’s great fortune that you are forsaking this privilege to share their miseries. That you must be right because you have impeccable English and speak so fiercely and articulately.
When I became more and more watchful of my parents as Dalits, I went back to my childhood, and their early parenthood with a force that was still very new to me. There was guilt and I didn’t know where to put it in the middle of seeing them in a completely different light. I discovered them as heroes who did more revolution than anybody else and they did this without patronizing other people or knowing anything about activism. What can be more articulate than that?
The clarity with which super articulate people speak comes with its own share of arrogance and that made me thankful for everything I didn’t have as an adolescent. I still wish I had the courage to speak my mind when I thought I was right but I am glad I didn’t take that chance because as I have come to discover – constantly wondering if I am wrong is a better way to learn. It’s perhaps why in my adulthood now, I have very little to undo, to unsay, to apologize for. And like Malti, I can tell you to fuck off if I want to party or organise litfests.
To watch Katherine Hepburn inSummertime (1955) is to have a dream-undream realised. There is the simple pleasure of watching her arrive in Venice – alone (unless you count her camera-companion), in love with the idea of being on her own, and worrying that she won’t like the city.
Sitting next to a man on the train, she asks him, even if her attention at this point is really on the city unfurling outside the window –‘Do you think I will like Venice?’
She follows the porter carrying her luggage out of the railway station with the briskness of a free woman chasing her dreams, with the stubbornness of Rani in Queen who wouldn’t let go of her bag.
She is not going to let anybody ruin this for her, not even herself. Even so, despite the joy she brings to her face, and ours – when she swallows the city with her eyes, she is also sincerely vulnerable in the way we are when we find ourselves companion-less in strange cities. No matter how much we have longed to be there, how much we have fought to finally be on our own, sometimes the silence of empty chairs next to us is too loud.
When I was 25, I took myself to Goa – alone. It was better than I thought it’d be. I was happy: I ate, I drank, I read and wrote, I watched Magadheera in Hindi on Sony Max. Everything was great – except on the last day at lunch, when the only other occupied table next to mine, paid their bill and left – I felt so abandoned that I began to cry.
I couldn’t understand it. They were total strangers and I was perfectly alright the next moment and before it but I still blame them for leaving me alone when I was still only half- done with my prawns.
I should have known then that Katherine Hepburn had a solution. Hepburn’s Jane Hudson deals with the silence of an empty chair as if it were not an empty chair – but an ‘extra’ chair. She puts it to sleep by making it lean on the table uselessly. This may have been done out of desperation to not feel alone, yes. Still, what we see is a woman fiercely straddling between alone-ness and companionship – not knowing how to ask for either.
One particularly lonely afternoon, she finds the courage to ask a young married couple if she could join them for drinks – the man declines. She’s heartbroken but takes herself out to lunch where she sees this couple strolling with another couple. At this point, she puts the ‘extra’ chair next to her asleep.
When the man who has been waiting to woo her shows up, she is happy but he sees the sleeping chair, thinks maybe she wants to be left alone, and excuses himself. Hepburn’s hand reaches out to stop him but it’s too late. She can’t reach him and neither can her hand. When she breaks down, we are humiliated on her behalf. But we don’t know if she is.
Two is good number, she says somewhere else in the film. But when she becomes two, she just wants to be one again.
Why? Because despite it all, and despite herself – she is the first to say ‘I love you’ to him, after resisting-letting go-resisting his kisses. She doesn’t know what she wants, which is perhaps the one thing that independent women are wholeheartedly compassionate about. We root for her when she’s in love, we root for her when she doesn’t want to be in love and we root/hoot for her when love pushes her into a canal.
It is charming to watch Hepburn resist love. She does it unwillingly and we watch it willingly. She tells the man a story from her past – the only story he and we know so far. And it takes us a while to realise that we actually know nothing about her – except that she’s from Ohio and that she’s a ‘fancy secretary’.
The only other story we are allowed is that she always wanted to wear gardenias. Later in the film, she gets a gardenia if only for a while before it falls into the canal, and when he rushes down to catch it – it is obviously out of reach, just like he was a few scenes ago. I was left wondering and then knowing that had she gone after the gardenia instead of he – she would have got it.
But that perhaps is the beauty of finding and not keeping the romance that one stumbles upon in strange cities. This idea of them being just as out-of-reach as you are. Jane Hudson never gets to keep the gardenias that men buy for her. Either they are too late or she loses them and they become unreachable. The only things that remain hers are the things that she buys – shoes, a dress, a glass, a somewhat sisterly affection for a small boy (not bought but given)
In the middle of a passionate kiss with the man, I worry that she will drop her shoe (which she is holding in her hand) The shoe is frighteningly close to the balcony and just when the kiss climaxes, it falls gently inside the balcony. I needn’t have worried. It was a shoe – not gardenia. She bought it with love while in love. It is hers to keep.
She loves looking at birds that fly over the buildings in the city. She likes to see the bells ringing, she won’t just be having the sounds, no thank you. She will see them. She will carry cigarettes but won’t smoke them, she will down a glass of bourbon mixed with something else. She will cry when she wants to. She will ask for company when she wants to.
There is something spectacularly ordinary about Hudson when she tells the man why she’s leaving.
All my life I’ve stayed at parties too long because I don’t know when to go. Now with you, I’ve grown up, I think I know when to.
I know that in the years to come, I will come back to this moment again and again because it’s the most extraordinary lesson you can learn on your own. No one can teach you and we get to witness this as she learns to recognize it.
Twelve years later, Joan Didion will say something similar about New York in this essay.
I was grateful that he comes to say bye to her (despite her request) — when she’s leaving – leaving forever – on the train. I was grateful if only because she was expecting him. I was even more grateful when their hands never meet.
And again, the final gardenia that he brings for her – she cannot touch, because it is still, after all this time out of reach. But that’s alright – I write this bearing in mind that all the things she bought in Venice are neatly packed in her many blue suitcases.
The little boy has the grace to continue walking with a man hellbent on embarrassing himself. He keeps slapping his forehead, meaning Karma- doing it in the most Kannada way possible — which is to slap your forehead and wipe that slap onto the rest of your face – as if to say my whole face is saying fuck you to you, you ass – stop being in love.
The man walks in and out of the song with no sense of what he is doing, often losing himself, falling again and again – on the road, on the beach. It doesn’t take very long for the song to move from desire to distance and finally to powerlessness. The woman laughs like a poem is finally finding the courage to be shameless with you. She does it often but when she does it with his glasses on her face, the poem is now grabbing your bum and dancing with you. And the man can only blush and say ayayayyooo nagthavlaaa (ayayayyooo, she is laughing!) — celebrating but also mildly nursing something wounded so he is also sweetly complaining.
I saw the bullet only after Kiruba pointed out that he was riding it very slowly. If you have a bullet and are not vying to draw attention, then either the bike must be really old or you must be really in love. What can be more powerless than a roaring bike made to submit to silence, to slowness, to pause?
The Kannada word for a man (bike) in this stithi is ಮರುಳನಾದನು. The Savarna feminist word for this is stalking. My word for this is that after a long time, a song is living in my body and my days are endlessly smiling at each other because I too want to ride a bullet like a man in love and think about Sairat’s Archie.
Take this stick. When its shadow is getting shorter, it means that it is almost noon. When there is no shadow, it means the sun is fully up and you must be back home.
All three stories in The Day I Became a Woman begin in the middle. It feels like being caught in a conversation between lovers.
In the first one, little Hava cannot play with her friend Hassan anymore because, on her ninth birthday, she is believed to have become a woman. Her mother and granny fret over her for a long time before finally permitting her to play with Hassan. She is told that she must be back by noon.
They stitch a chador for her, and she runs to meet Hassan. But his mother has locked him inside the house. He is told that he cannot come out until he finishes his homework.
Hava has to scream his name many times before he comes to the window and the more he delays, the more she worries that her stick’s shadow will be gone. And then through the window, Hava and the boy hang out.
She buys sweets and puts her tiny hands through the window to give him a lollipop. Behind her, the stick is buried in a small mound of mud. She keeps looking back to check on the shadow.
If you don’t stop right now, I will divorce you
Ahoo is running away from everyone. She is one among the cyclists in a marathon but there is something sharp about her eyes that never lose focus as she peddles fiercely. In the beginning, we can only see her back. She is in one corner of the never-ending road. It is not too long before we see who she is running away from. Her husband chases her in his horse, galloping away. For miles along, it seems like the only people in the world are the girls, their cycles, the horse and its man.
Toka toka toka.
She knows he is here and peddles faster. Kitchi kitchi kitchi kitchi
She barely looks at him. Sometimes she covers her face, annoyed clearly by this rude intrusion. His screams continue– I will leave you, I will divorce you.
Ahoo keeps cycling.
She doesn’t stop, she never stops – not even to acknowledge her own anger. And this is the most surprising and the least surprising thing about the film. Most surprising because – of what use is anger if you can’t show it? Especially to the person you’re angry with? But Ahoo doesn’t care about him enough to show him anything; she cares about herself which is why all that energy is going into peddling – so she can run away from him. It is least surprising because it’s what we have all heard many times over – let them do what they want – you just do your work. And in that moment Ahoo showed me how to be.
For many more miles, the only people in the world are Ahoo, her cycle, and her focus.
Earlier this year Faye D’Souza shut Maulana Yasoob Abbas up on her show.
“He (Maulana) hopes that he will rile me up. He hopes that I will throw a fit, and I will lose control of my panel and forget how to do my job. Let me tell you Maulana ji, I have seen the likes of you. I am not afraid of you, I am not threatened by you, I am not rattled by you. All you men think that if you rattle Sana Fatima when she is doing her job, if you rattle Sania Mirza while she is doing her job, if you rattle women when they are doing their job, then they will run back into their kitchens and leave the world for you again to conquer, I have news for you, we are not going anywhere.”
I am reminded of this when I watch Ahoo cycle as if nothing else in the world matters.
They are both vastly different moments but filled with such similar, deep urgency.
Ahoo’s husband throws a tantrum and leaves, and along with her, we sigh.
The women cycle – Ahoo is going fast and slow and fast and slow. Often, she rides slowly.
In Persian, Ahoo means Deer. And she moves like the deer when he comes. He goes and comes and when he does, he returns with more people. The only thing you need to know about the intruders is that each time they come, there are more and more men.
First the father, then – hold your breath – the mullah who is so thin and weak – he might just fall from his horse and die – and then, finally, ultimately – a troop of her brothers on their horses.
When they surround her, the camera zooms out and we never find out if they carried her home or killed her or took away her cycle. She may even have borrowed a cycle from one of the women. We’ll never know.
I have a feeling I’ll never remember what this ribbon is for.
In the third one – a very old woman has suddenly become very rich. She has ribbons in varied colors tied to her fingers – each ribbon reminding her of all the things she needs to buy – things that she could never buy before – a refrigerator, a bath tub, a dining table, teapot, crockery, AC, oven, gas, sofa. She finds a boy and pays him to cart her around the city. Every time she comes out of a building, a trail of carts with packaged goods follow her and so do little boys pushing these carts around.
All the goods are unpacked by the shore of a beach because she cannot remember what the last ribbon is for. She hopes that unpacking and organizing everything might remind her. The boys build the inside of a make-believe home for her as she lounges on the sofa and demands some tea.
All you need to know about the ending is that when the old woman sails off on a boat (all her things with her) – to catch a ship, so she can leave forever and find a home for herself; Hava, her mother and a couple of girls from the cycle marathon all step out of their stories to watch her leave.
All these stories, all these women – teaching me how to live, how to survive, how to breathe, how to ignore, and how to continue doing work as if nothing else in the world matters.
And again, I find that I’m grateful for stories like I’ve never been and always been.
So I wanted to watch this film in at least 6 different theatres and write about the audience reactions – because there were so many and so varied. I couldn’t afford it but I wrote something. Tell me what you think.
It is odd that people lay claims to specific ways of being feminist as if there are clear–cut designs to patriarchy that make us open the manual and go, ‘this is right way to respond to that’, ‘we must go to Town Hall and protest this; otherwise we are not being political enough.’
Aren’t there little pockets of silent, clichéd rebellion that our mothers and sometimes even we wage every day? The quieter yet steady rebellion that made my mother go to her favourite tailor to get measurements done – even after my father had made a big fuss about a man making such measurements. She even went ahead and got him a suit stitched from the same tailor.