Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The evolution of the 'Freak'

A chandala asked Adi Shankara, "Is it my body that is fed by the same rice you feed on or my soul that's the same as yours, that you want to move away from?" And not till the chandala revealed himself to be Lord Siva did Adi Shankara acknowledge the unifying traits of being human - we all breathe, eat, sleep and do more the same way. This incident or the ensuing Manisha Panchakam however, didn't stop race, colour or class rooting itself in the Hindu community or entrench itself in Indian culture. It didn't help that Lord Krishna is dark. It didn't help that Siva chose Kannapa Nayanar, a hunter over the supposedly supreme brahmin. It didn't help that Tamizh, the language of Dravidians, is as ancient and steeped in spirituality as Sanskrit, the language of the fair-skinned Aryans. The need to classify, the need to distinguish, the need to build a hierarchy, create uniformity, seems to be as old as creation of the world itself. And it continues to grow unhampered by geography or time.

The need to distinguish hinges on the creation of a majority and the propagation of a herden mentality. The classifications arise from what constitutes not fitting in. And hierarchy arises when not fitting in is aligned with being a social aberration i.e. anything deviant from the normal, regular and the usual. And today, this could mean anything.

Initially, not fitting-in was restricted to the surface i.e. complexion. And colour is the most wide-spread aberration that reaches way back into time. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, the founder of scientific racism theories, built on Bernier's classification by complexion and body structure that had four components (European, Far Easterner, Lapps, Blacks), and added a fifth, namely Malay, which included Polynesians, Melanesians and Aborigines. He colour tagged them for quick identification - white, yellow, black, brown, red. And these in turn implied hierarchy, intelligence, strength and capabilities. But it was just easier to club white and non-white and neatly tie-off any questions on supremacy as it didn't make a difference cause no matter which way you looked at it, white headed the list. This easy-way-out is evident in Jean-Joseph Virey's claim. It is reported by Bruce Baum in A Political History of Racial Identity, that Virey found it easier to divide the human race by those who are fair or white and those who are dark or black. This seems to have laid the foundation for the usage of "people of colour" today.

But racism and racist theories were beginning to be chipped, proved wrong. The path soon turned to exploring what it meant to be of a particular ethnicity in terms of conditioning and what it enabled them to do or be medically as opposed to defining opportunities and benefits by those traits. The need to question racial notions was propelled by the Abolitionist movement, marked by UNESCO's The Race Question, the burgeoning Anti-racism outfits and even Naomi Campbell's big break on the cover of Vogue enabled by Yves Saint Laurent.
But with this aberration threatening to go out fashion and facing widespread, well-covered opposition, a need for other reasons cropped up.

Where as complexion was applied to a mass, an ethnic group, it still entitled them to a communal feeling. The distinction led the aberrants to bond greater, give rise to art and literature. But where do folks with one-off congenital disorders turn to? There's no sense of oneness or belonging except in a circus with beasts. Almost all of them join show business but the effects on them are determined by sympathy and luck.

The first recorded conjoined twins Christina & Ritta fell prey to medical curiosity and popularity. The bearded lady, Annie Jones (left), got lucky that her parents identified her potential as a show-stealer and money-minter instead of seeing her as a bane in patriarchal 19th century. With her success and support of her mother, Annie went on to be a person with self-esteem and even found love twice. The Mummy or Dominique Castagna wasn't so lucky. He withdrew into himself, was rejected by his family, found fame and fortune at a circus even though he did it grudgingly and hated being paraded. And when he lost his one friend who saw him for who he is, he shot himself. Literature and music have immortalised the emotions of these aberrants, condemned to being only about the way the look and denied an identity, opportunity or a hand in friendship. The most memorable one being The Phantom of the Opera.

There are instances when people with deformities surpass fame and fortune to garner status and social acceptance even though it did grow out of curiosity. Take for instance, General Tom Thumb. On his wedding day he was received by Abraham Lincoln himself. The Elephant Man got half lucky. He was embraced by British high society but craved love which he was never destined to receive.

Though these 'freaks of nature' are one-off genetically determined creations, there have been instances when external influences have caused physical abnormalities. For instance, the Thalidomide babies that caused a huge uproar in the 60s. They were seen more as mutants than freaks of nature. Only 5000 of the estimated 12000 Thalidomide babies made it past childhood. And with widespread media publicity, awareness that this was a mass accident across the world, there was empathy and more focus on how to work with these children than sympathy or a spotlight on their 'queerness'.

Ignorance can either harm or sometimes protect and the latter is possible in the case of deformities in India, where there is a chance of the abnormality being sanctified. With Ganesh, the god with the elephant head; Muruga with six heads, Vishnu's avatars Vamana (dwarf), Kurma (half man-half boar) and Narasimha (part man-part lion); Siva with a third-eye on his forehead; Ardhanarishwar (part-woman, part-man - left) and Vishnu as Mohini (transgender), chances are that a physical abnormality can find sanctuary in religion and mythology. It affords a certain amount of security from persecution and instills awe instead of revulsion. For instance, the girl with four arms and four legs who is worshiped as Devi. No one would dare insult her. This niche needs to be navigated into by those around her, her family. And this capacity or assurance that they will be able to cosy into the corner and protect the child from harsh treatment, totally depends on the individual's luck. Or else it could be the case of the werewolf-boy, shunned by villagers, feared and friendless.

And then it wasn't just about the freak show anymore when the rights and dignity of the 'freak' were beginning to be clamoured for. So the focus was turned to other not-monstrous disorders. For instance cerebral palsy. You're a 'spaz' if you trip or are a klutz. Joey Deacon were one of the few who made it and got lucky with friends and support, who brought to light that cerebral palsy though affects motor functions doesn't affect intelligence levels. I studied with a girl who has cerebral-palsy. She's talented, writes poetry, got good grades, dresses snazzily and even had a cameo in a movie and made several television appearances. And no one saw her as an aberrant.

Soon lesser defects came into the spotlight of the bully - thick glasses, braces, pimply-faces, obesity. It's one thing to be shunned and it's another to be hunted down just because one doesn't fit in. When people go out of the way to mock, taunt and hurt an individual with a supposed abnormality, loneliness seems to be a safer option. Reena Virk (below), a 14-year-old, who would've been as old as me if allowed to live, was cruelly cornered, battered, chased and killed. There was nothing wrong with her. She had no facial abnormality. She wasn't physically or mentally challenged. She was obese and an Indian in a white Canadian community.This incident is a frightening example of how deep the sense of symmetry has entrenched itself in us. Not a single student in her school revealed what had happened to her. Not one of the gang who beat her up owned up. And the girl who killed her had no real reason to do so except that she felt Reena's complexion and obesity visually disrupted the sameness of the white community. The body had to be found by the cops under the bridge for Reena's story to surface. When the two sides of our faces aren't the same, why is symmetry such an issue?

The need to be fair is an obsession with women in South India. The need to have perfect skin is a must to be considered eligible. That is why the threat hollered by unruly men, 'eve' teasers, battering husbands to hurl acid at their faces evokes such shock, revulsion and fear, that they cower under it, not knowing what to do. The face is where it will hurt the most. Anything but a cruel deformity. Anything but dark skin. A friend of mine went to a store to get a moisturiser. The attendant handed over Fair & Lovely (watch ad).

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It was assumed if she wanted mosituriser or a face cream, it had to be to grow fair. But with the expansion of media and it's reach and the likes of the dusky Bipasha Basu making it big, gradually dark complexions are growing to be in. But the racial supremacy assertion seems to be working overtime to maintain its importance. With fairness creams not being such a big deal with women anymore, they seem to be targeting men! And I thought we liked the bronzed man who's not conscientiously applying a fairness cream to his face.

There are however certain individuals who are fair but aren't white and are non-white but fair - albinos. There's no sense of belonging on either side. They walk the no-man's land. In Africa especially, considering apartheid and where colour is so distinct, to be fair-skinned is blasphemy. The lines from Frost's Mending Wall reveals the story on the other side:

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in o
r walling out

Differences and deprivation in the long run cause a sense of rebelling against what one doesn't have and builds a sense of pride in acceptance of what one is, especially in the black community where jazz, hiphop, black literature is also about celebrating being black. And when this acceptance has been made, cutting slack towards what doesn't fit their mould is hard to come by.

It wasn't enough to tie-down an aberration to not fitting sameness visually. So it jumped to behaviour. If a guy wanted to be a ballet dancer, he's queer. Homosexuality is an aberrant. Being goth is an aberrant. If you're a book worm and introverted and not hanging out with the 'in' crowd, you're an aberrant. A friend referred me to a scene from the movie Midnight Express and the novel Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult. In Midnight Express, there's a scene where Billy Hayes, the protagonist, steps in with the zombie-state of the institution-like Turkish prison. There's an everyday circular walk that the inmates take. One fine day, the inanity of the walk hits Billy - why on earth was he following the person in front of him in a clockwise motion without even wanting to be there. Having snapped out of the imposed mind-dead state, Billy chooses to go anti-clockwise. But instead of snapping the rest out of their mind-dead state by doing so, it disgruntles them that their routine is being thwarted.

This poignant scene along with Picoult's protagonist Peter, a regular guy, who has a hard time fitting in with the popular kids, is picked on time and again till he can't take anymore and seeks revenge, reveals that the need to fit in is begging for an excuse to be made worthwhile.

The notion of social aberration has seeped past the skin, personality and is now in the bloodstream. Rebati from Orissa, India, who has a rare genetic disorder is now in the spotlight because her blood has been stolen and is being treated like a guinea pig instead of being treated. Virumandi from Madurai, Tamil Nadu, who has the M130 DNA marker found in man who crossed over from Africa to India 70,0000 years ago, makes him the 'missing link'. But popular notion is that 'missing link' means what connects ape man to man and not a pinpointer to roots. And therefore Virumandi is being ostracised by his own village folks and has to face constant digs at his "monkey blood".

Numbers = power therefore the need to consciously set oneself apart from the minority, exert superiority and power is growing more and more complicated. It's pretty much on the lines of the movie Hostel - LSD's done, ecstasy's done and so the next high must be in torturing. Similarly man's need to fit in and create a majority has moved from complexion, genetic disorders, physical appearances, non-homogenous behaviour to blood. And it seems to be getting out of hand like a hysterical Nero about to set Rome on fire, so that he can build Rome in grandeur as he sees fit. Wonder what's in line next.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Where's JLO by the Cooum?


Ranjitha Gunasekaran's article in The New Indian Express on life by the Cooum was read more out of curiosity (read article). Weirdly, it excited me more than enticing sympathy. From the rubble of utter despondency has come the world's most stunning revolutions or breakthroughs. Apart from the French Revolution that rose from the 'let them eat cake' ignominy, it's the more spiritually uplifting movements such as jazz in New Orleans and rap from the Bronx.

Forget karma, forget the soul, forget a higher power. The most evident sign of life, as we know it, is water. The two are immutable. Everything from Mars space expeditions to WALL-E's girlfriend Eve have their eye on this tie. It is not for nothing that rivers and water bodies are known to be the cradle of civilizations. In fact when the world was Pangaea, the floating mass was in a cradle of water. There 's a lovely line from the Upanishad that talks of a river's unconditional love and giving nature - Nee elavatraiyum thuppavaki vittu, nee aaviaagi maraindhu vidugirai - meaning you give so much, you cleanse us and it's you who vanishes without a trace (it doesn't sound half as good in English but it's poignant in Tamizh). But with the vanishing comes the invisible; the masses who get left behind by the banks to create a community out of squalor and poverty. This is one constant in a river's history, be it the Cooum of Madras or the Bronx of New York.

Much like the Bronx, the Cooum too was the site of industrialisation and the hub of a settlement. Francis Day and Andrew Cogan strolled past looking for an ideal port after failed attempts on the East coast. And they spotted a large piece of land by a meandering river that flowed past cotton-rich Chintadripet or Chinna-dhurrie-pet and they knew that they had struck gold. And so on August 23 1639, the Nayak of Poonamalee handed over the land where Fort St George (a view of the Western entrance above) was to be built a few hundred yards north of the mouth of the river leading out to sea. Soon villages around the Fort cropped up, industries came up, the waterway began to play a key role in trading and in the creation of Madras.

But again like the Bronx the Cooum has a history that reaches way past the arrival of Europeans. The Bronx was the Aquehung for the Mohecan Indians and the Cooum was the site of two sacred Sivan temples (Ilambaiyankottur temple [R]) whose beauty has been immortalized in Thirugnanasambandhar's Tevaram. Both rivers sustained a past culture that fell to industrialisation that left in it's wake effluents, sewage and slums. As always the uneducated, the manual labourers get left behind in the wake of success.

Ranjitha let the teenage boys tell their stories, their favourite spots by the stench, their ambitions "fashioned" around the bottle and dope much like their fathers. It's the same set of experiences that the young boys who turn into hustlers on the streets of the Bronx and the one's by the Cooum face - school drop outs, drugs, booze, violence. And as for the girls - early motherhood and drunks for husbands (if at all they stay), are the norm.

It was the apathy, the borders, the palpable difference that gave rise to rap in South Bronx. It was a tool to express their frustration, the way it felt to be ignored, to be black or Hispanic, to vent what they want even if it was just a fuck with the most bodacious black woman on the block. It ranged from social activism to gangster rap. And it spread from East Coast to the West. It was a way out, an option like no other to get close to all the bling in the world that they only saw from afar and got killed trying to get there much like 50 Cents' Get rich or die tryin'.
There's Fat Joe, Grandmaster Flash, Mary J Blige and the diva JLo who cleaned up and got out of the Bronx. But as many new talents come out, there are several more queuing up or not knowing how to get out.

Projects like the Art-Start's Hip-Hop Project cater to the one's lagging behind or the one's hustling, dropping out of school, or stepping out of prison to find a route. The Hip-Hop Project was kick-started by Chris "Kazi" Rolle, a student who discovered Art-Start in 1999 as his last option to a regular life. He brought together several kids with talent and those without any to pick up rapping and make something out of it for themselves even if it's only their pain they can talk about. After four years of working on their skills they produced an album and had their experience documented and showcased around the world. Bruce Willis set up a studio for these kids and also produced the docu along with Queen Latifah. The docu's won several awards across the world. (Drop by the Hip Hop Project)

Much like rap, we in India have gaana or koothu paatu. The rhythms are pretty much the same and it focuses on the same issues of poverty, lack, desires and more. Unfortunately though, the music industry here is primarily dependent on the movie industry. But it has picked up koothu on and off in the past. But of late it's taken it and turned into a dance routine with elements from the west. And usually it goes the way of gangster rap or the cheesy hip-hop where it's all about curves and who wants to lay who. Gaana paatu is not yet a mainstream art form, it's not even respectable poetry to many. People listen to Amiri Baraka. Who's going to listen to the guy on the steep side of Spurtank Road? One of the most brilliant things about rapping is, it's not entirely about the voice. DMX was known for his barking tones. And so it is with koothu. Content is right here. Rhythm can be picked up. What the folks by the Cooum need is the door to the option.


With music directors like Yuvan Shankar Raja picking up kooothu and infusing it into the storyline of movies such as Pudhupettai, not only authenticates the experience but has gotten us to acknowledge it as well. It's songs like Variya and Yenga Area Ulla Varadhey (watch video below) that bring out the experiences of the invisible folk and their territorial markings more than Yogi B & Natchathra from Malaysia.
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Hip-hop's going through its whole commodification phase. One's trying to figure out who has real talent and who has the producers backing them up. Though not to that extent, here too it's a case of what's authentic. A friend was disillusioned when he found out that Blazee was a Tamizh brahmin. He felt that to be a true hip-hop artist you've got to serve time or at least have a single police record.

But like the Hip-Hop Project proved it's not about reveling in one's misery. What the youth by the Cooum need more than its beautification plans which is as stagnant as the filth in it, is a project that would get them to talk about their experiences, see it for it what is, see what's more to life and show them a way out of the rut. And maybe all they need is just one Gill Scott-Heron to step out, speak up, cut an album and then it's up to them.