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).

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.

1 comment:

J. Tithonus Pednaud said...

Without a doubt, the best article I have read in quite some time.

Bookmarked and stored for future reference and referral.

Excellent work and thank you most sincerely for the hat tip.

~ J. Tithonus Pednaud