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The Well of Loneliness November 26, 2008

Posted by qmediawatch in Uncategorized.

The Well of Loneliness

Somak Ghoshal
Opinion column
The Telegraph (Calcutta)
Tuesday, November 25, 2008


In the beginning there is death. A double suicide, to be precise. Amruta Patil’s Kari — so far the only Indian graphic novel looking at female, in fact any kind of, homosexuality — begins with the protagonist, Kari, and her lover, Ruth, jumping off the terrace of their respective apartments. There is an intensely Frida Kahlo moment before this fall, when Kari and Ruth sit hand-in-hand, hearts popping brutally out of their bodies, twined around by a single, slender artery, like the tendril of a delicate plant. “There are two of us, not one,” the text says. “Despite a slipshod surgical procedure, we are joined still.”

“I cannot part with her… Bury us together,” said a suicide note. Not the one Kari and Ruth left behind, but one that was found on the bodies of Lalithambika and Mallika in 1980. These women from Kerala tried to kill themselves because they could not bear to live apart. The same year, two married women jumped before a train in Gujarat for a similar reason. These reports go back to a time when the 29-year-old Patil was probably only a few months old. Since then, almost all the stories of lesbian affairs and ‘marriages’ that have appeared in the media have been marked by tragedy. In 1987, after two policewomen, Leela and Urmila, ‘married’ each other in Madhya Pradesh, they were suspended from the force. They went on to live together with Urmila’s family in her village. Some neighbours were outraged by what they considered unjust treatment of the women by their employers. They saw nothing wrong in this marriage, which was but “a wedding of two souls”.

After watching Dostana recently, I wondered if the lighthearted comedy around a ‘gay’ couple that had been so expertly manipulated in the film, could ever be adapted to a lesbian situation. Can a frivolous, but inoffensive, explicit (without being prurient) idiom be forged by Bollywood to show same-sex female relationships? So far, female homosexuality has been badly served by the film industry. Deepa Mehta’s Fire justified lesbianism as a virtue made of necessity by unhappily married women, while Girlfriend and Men Not Allowed were more sleazy than sensitive, intended for the straight male, rather than the queer female, gaze. In a gender-unequal society, lesbianism is used only as pornographic titillation, offered up for male voyeurism rather than for female pleasure.

Given such skewed perceptions of female homosexuality, Kari is possibly the first-ever testimony of an authentic lesbian imagination: it makes no apologies, it does not try to rationalize or explain away. Patil works with pure feelings, without a hint of sentimentality. An adolescent Kari watches k.d. lang for the first time on TV in 1997, bewildered by her feelings of desire and recognition: “What kind of creature was this, this genderless one, and why did she make me feel this way? All I knew was that if I ever stood in a room across a creature such as this, my heart would be in serious peril.”

Patil’s visually powerful narrative gives us glimpses of lesbian fantasy — an erotic frisson with, and the desire and romantic yearning for another woman — when Kari drools over the imagined sexiness of the yet-to-be-seen Susan Lush. As Kari and Ruth meet for the first time, we see the poster of Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge on the wall behind them; their romance is as full of adventure and social disapproval as the one between Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol in the film. There are impossible, but unavoidable, longings. “Isn’t it great?” Ruth says in a moment of passion, “We never have to worry about getting knocked up by mistake?” “I’d give anything in the world to be able to knock you up, Ruthie,” Kari replies, her dark eyes welling up with sadness. Then there are times when Kari simply wants to wish away her breasts and look like Chow Yun Fat, or goes for a “2mm buzz cut”, leaving her barber crestfallen (“Madam, face looking boy type”).

Kari opens up hidden structures of feeling, where female beauty is recreated against the grain of patriarchal notions of comeliness, of the models of womanhood fostered by advertisements for nubile or homely brides. But even as Kari co-opts its readers into this ‘other’ world, where the ‘natural’ and the ‘normal’ collide and collude with the ‘unnatural’ and ‘abnormal’, it opens out the darkest mysteries of the human mind. Kari is alien and familiar all at once. The novel knows the way of all flesh and the irrational weaknesses of the human mind — how a maddening but forgiving and self-sustaining bond of affection holds Kari and her flat-mates together; why Kari seeks out her dying friend, Angel; what keeps Kari and Lazarus (futilely in love with her) together. Along with Kari, we too hurtle through air, fall headlong into the sewers, dream her deadliest nightmares, and emerge sadder and wiser. “I still love Ruthie more than anyone else in the world,” Kari tells us in parting, “but I won’t be jumping off the ledges for anyone any more.”



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