Neither am I dead, nor is this series.
Hello and welcome to the second episode of Prose-tinted glasses. If you have no idea what the hell is going on here or need a refresher, head on over to the pilot episode where I introduce you to this new venture of mine and talk about Orwell’s 1984. Seriously, do it. It’ll save you from my wrath by preventing you from calling it a book-review series.
I’m assuming you’re now familiar with the previous episode. So, in keeping with our theme of Books we all Pretend we’ve Read, the book for today is The Handmaid’s Tale.
*cue theme music*
I know, I know. It has over seventy thousand reviews on Goodreads, who knows how many more articles, entire research papers, and a whole TV show. But will any of that deter me from writing about it? Did any of that compel me to read at least one article about it? Did I watch the show?
I call it being authentic.
The first thing that struck me as soon as I started reading the book was the first person POV, and how up close and personal it was. It was not the story of a totalitarian regime and its structure and how it had created a dystopian society, it was not about the bigger scheme of things, it was not an overarching omniscient perspective; it was the story of a single woman living this ground reality. But it wasn’t confined to just her either. We caught glimpses of the society through Offred’s white head-wings, and that was just the right amount of exposition woven into the story— neither did it leave you in the dark, nor did it blind you with too much light. That’s a difficult thing to do, to narrate a dystopian tale from a first-person perspective who knows things already and resisting the temptation to just blurt it all out.
As for the narrative voice of Offred, it’s a quietly watching, observing, made-peace-with-reality but retaining-that-little-spark-of-defiance-inside voice which works well for the story. It convinces you right away of the grim reality of the life that Handmaids live. If 1984 were character-driven instead of being theme-driven, Winston would’ve sounded exactly like that.
I can’t promise there won’t be any more 1984 throwbacks.
Moving on, the first person I want to talk about is Aunt Lydia. Inside the book, she is the embodiment of Gileadean propaganda. Outside it, though, she also resembles most people of my parents’ generation and older. (Is that GenX or Boomer? I always mix up these terms). She’s mentioned a lot throughout the book, because she’s the one who drilled all that crap the Republic wanted them to believe into their heads.
She’s mentioned the first time when Offred is walking to the market and thinking about how she used to go jogging on this very pavement in the past, taking care to run only in the daytime and beside well-frequented areas because women weren’t protected back then like they are now. Aunt Lydia said that there are two kinds of freedom, freedom to and freedom from. In the ‘days of anarchy’ women had freedom to. Now they are being given freedom from, so they should value it.
First of all, this isn’t true even in the context of the book. In the ‘days of anarchy’ freedom to wasn’t complete either— glass ceilings still existed for women. Freedom from also isn’t complete in the Gileadean era— women don’t have the freedom from being treated as machines with specific functions. It is all a matter of twisting words to suit your purposes.
Second of all, it doesn’t merely echo, it is the opinion held by many people around the world, who tell women that they can have either kind of freedom, but not both.
You can have the freedom to do as you please, but then you’ll have to give up your freedom from being mistreated. You can have the freedom to go outside, work, earn, party, meet people, whatever, but then you gotta give up your freedom from predatory men. You can have the freedom to exist, but you can’t have the freedom from being treated as a second-class human being.
Or you could keep your freedom from all the bad stuff, but then you’ll have to give up your freedom to live your life. Stay home, stay safe. And not just in the times of a pandemic.
Most women choose to compromise both of these a little bit. We go outside, live our life, but we keep ourselves ‘within limits’. We come home before sunset, we don’t wander in public places as freely as men do, we try to be unthreatening and apologetic at our workplaces, we just generally hold ourselves back in every sense. It’s like we have a fixed amount of sand with us, and two tins, and we try to divvy up the sand equally between those two tins, with the result that both of them are never more than half-full. The size of those tins and the fixed amount of that sand are culture-specific. So, middle-eastern women have little tins and a handful of sand. South Asian women some more. Western women some more. Rural women have less than urban ones. Poor women less than rich ones. And so on, but the amount is always fixed.
If you want more sand in your, say, freedom to tin, you’ll have to take some out of your freedom from one. As an example, say you want the freedom to dress as you please. Occasion-appropriate, of course; you won’t wear a glitzy dress to a funeral, that’s just stupid. All right, but you’ll have to give up some freedom from unwanted stares. The sand you put into the freedom to tin will have to come out of the freedom from tin. You wanna wear shorts in the summer? That’s a lot of sand you’ll have to take out of the freedom from tin.
This concept of sand and tins doesn’t seem to exist for men, though. There’s no dichotomy between the two kinds of freedom. This unrestrained freedom, this delicious fruit is forbidden to all except the golden combination of cisgender-heterosexual-male. Here, I could elaborate on the tiny tins and the few teaspoonfuls of sand GSRM folks get, but why bother? You know it, I know it, everyone knows the amount of that sand and the size of those tins.
And logically, it’s absurd for the non-existence of this concept for only this golden combination, seeing how it’s because of the non-existence of this concept for this golden combination that the concept exists for all other combinations. Take a moment and read that again.
You get it now, don’t you? If the concept wasn’t non-existent for this golden combination, then it wouldn’t have to exist for all other combinations either!
Fine, fine. I’ll put it simply so your two brain-cells can comprehend it. If it’s because of the activities of cishet men that we have to put a leash on all the other kinds of people, why don’t we put a leash on cishet men instead until they start behaving?
I know, right?
Sigh. Thirty pages into the novel, the real world already resembles a dystopia and I’ve already exhausted a thousand words.
Let’s continue with more of Aunt Lydia’s thoughts, because there are so many of them dispersed throughout the book and they are so much the opinions of ‘lovingly-sexist’ people, as I like to call them, that I have to put them all together to not let this episode become an unstructured mess.
I hear you, you snarky little shit saying ‘Oh, so you think your essay is structured otherwise?’ *over horn-rimmed glasses intimidating stare* The exit button is there in the top right corner. It’s marked with an X. You may leave.
Just two paragraphs later, there’s another Aunt Lydia quote. ‘We’re a society dying of too much choice.’
Petition to replace ‘Karen’ with ‘Aunt Lydia’.
What this means is that she thinks choice, inherently, isn’t a bad thing. But choice should be controlled, regulated. And to what extent, what is the reflective-yellow-barricade that must not be crossed, where it lies, is ‘traditionally’ defined. If you cross that barricade, you have set out on the path to destruction. This, according to my interpretation, is what she believes.
For people in Gilead, that barricade is pretty close. For the women, of course, but for the men as well; young boys are made Guardians, and then Angels, and finally into Commanders who’re the old men fucking young Handmaids. Which really made me wonder why they didn’t just let young people have sex instead— after all, the population problem of Gilead isn’t just because of decreased fertility in people and increased abnormalities in babies due to all that toxicity in the air and water, partly it’s also because the Commanders are so old that they’re practically sterile and therefore can’t make babies at all. The arrival of a baby is treated like you’d treat the Queen if she came to your house. Why is the state so intent on pinning the blame for not birthing children on strapping young lasses with viable ovaries and not ancient grandpas who can barely get it up? Just for the sake of misogyny? Or is it some pseudoscientific bottling-up-horniness-so-they-let-it-all-out-in-one-go bullshit? I haven’t read The Testaments, but I hope Atwood gives some answer to that in the sequel.
For people in the real world, this is exactly what people who secretly enjoy the freedom of more choice but decry it publicly say. “Kids these days are so spoilt. When we were young, we only had this-and-that and we kept our mouths shut and did what we had to. So much choice is the reason these youngsters are morally degraded and disrespectful and commit crimes and so on and so forth and what have you.” This, or a slight variation of this, is what’s commonly heard in a gathering of aunties and uncles. Before you say that I should cut older people some slack because things have changed from what they used to be in their time and that adjusting to change takes time, hey, I get it. I’m not calling out individuals; it’s no fault of theirs, that’s the kind of society they grew up in. Probably the future generations will find present times regressive as well. I’m not calling out individuals, I’m calling out people. There’s a difference. Let me elaborate.
The problem is unnecessary judgment and living in an egotistic bubble.
See, I believe that the limit to your freedom lies where another’s freedom starts; you can do whatever you want, as long as that doesn’t hinder another’s ability to do whatever they want. I’m clarifying this for the kind of assholes who reason ‘How come I’m not allowed to murder or rape someone and get away with it? Isn’t that a restriction of my freedom?’ (True story, I met three such assholes in a debating competition).
Coming back to the point, the problem is that boomers (please be aware that I’m using ‘boomer’ as an umbrella term for all the people who do this, whether young or old. Oh yeah, I’ve met some ‘young boomers’ as well.) prefer to stay in an echo chamber with other boomers so that the discussion is reduced to Boomer 1 says X, and all other boomers repeat X with vigorous nodding and congratulatory agreeing. If a millennial (please understand again the umbrella-term context I’m using ‘millennial’ in.) tries to make them see their side of things, what usually happens is a shouting match that begins with ‘Don’t try to teach me, you haven’t seen the world yet’ and culminates in ‘Ok boomer.’ Let me digress a little and mention here that ‘ok boomer’ doesn’t mean ‘Fine, whatever, I don’t wanna listen to your side of things, just stop spraying so much spit at me’ but ‘I’ve tried to explain this to you a hundred times before but you never listen and stubbornly stick to your preconceived notions, so I’m fed up now and I give up.’ It is because of this very problem that liberalism too has now largely become an echo chamber.
Alright, we’ve covered the egotistic bubble. What about unnecessary judgment? This one’s pretty easy to explain with an example. Uncle sees girl wearing shorts on street, girl isn’t bothering uncle in any way, uncle makes completely unnecessary comment about the immodesty of girls these days and the moral degradation of youth. Pretty self-explanatory. Was this person’s material choice affecting you? Was it impinging upon your freedom? No, right? So shut it, let them do their thing, and you do yours.
‘Modesty is invisibility. To be seen is to be penetrated.’ That’s the reasoning people provide towards rapes and other sexual crimes towards women, and probably the reason why ‘immodest’ attire makes people uncomfortable. Classic victim-blaming. I still don’t get why the society’s so intent on shielding men and pinning the blame on the woman instead. It’s manifested in a pretty literal way in the book when Aunt Lydia condemns the women of the ‘days of anarchy’ and attributes the things that happened to them to their behaviour. If they were nice women and lived good lives, she said, such things wouldn’t have happened to them. She also convinces Janine and the rest of the to-be Handmaids that Janine being raped at the age of fourteen was her own fault. That she was the one who led them on, and that the rape was God’s lesson to her. I wanted to find this fictional character and give her a slow death when I read that.
That was pretty obvious, but beyond its literal relation to sexual crimes, you can see that it’s related to daily life in general as well. A woman who stands up, speaks out is instantly branded a bitch and becomes the butt of crude misogynistic jokes. Forget speaking out, even a woman who’s just being, who’s literally just existing in public isn’t safe from jackasses. Look at a picture of a mildly popular girl on social media in literally a turtleneck and you’ll find at least one ‘Show bobs and vagene’ (sic) comment. Look at any meme page on the internet and you’ll find plenty of testosterone-fuelled misogyny. You’ll also find it flooding the comments section of a stand-up comedienne’s video. I’m prepared to bet that all comediennes have received unsolicited dick pics one time or another.
“But Anisha,” you might say, “all kinds of people are loose on the internet. You can’t generalise it.” Fine, take a look at the world around you. You remember the ‘Not all men’ hashtag that came after the MeToo movement and the ‘Yes all women’ that followed? The purpose of #YesAllWomen was to say that true, not all men are bad, but sexual harassment in some form is something all women put up with in their life. It’s a part of being a woman, in a way. I’d like all my male readers to do a little survey— ask all your female friends and relatives. Don’t ask them if, ask them when. Ask them how old were they when they first experienced male predatory behaviour. Seriously, do it. The answers will shock you. I, for example, was eleven when a strange man fingered my butt and flashed at me.
That’s changing, of course; people do condemn it, some cishet men are feminists and many are becoming better people, but that doesn’t mean this problematic behaviour doesn’t exist. As Red from OSP said, Proof by Contradiction only works in Mathematics.
Offred and Ofglen’s little run-in with those Japanese tourists is an exact copy of when foreign tourists visit Indian villages. Rural women, who usually have to have pallus draped over their heads, would, I imagine, feel the same mixture of repulsion and fascination that the Handmaids felt at the Japanese women. Repelled, because they’ve been taught to be repelled by women who show any skin from the beginning. Secretly fascinated, because they’ve never had this much slack. Their desires have been subdued by years of the patriarchal lessons of chastity, but they’re there nonetheless, in the deepest darkest corners of their minds. What would it feel like, the shy, chaste woman thinks, if she was allowed to dress up all pretty and wear lipstick one day? Then she instantly replaces that with repulsion instead, dismisses the idea, forgets that she even thought about it, forgets that she willed herself to forget about it and that’s, well, doublethink. (I told you the 1984 throwbacks won’t stop).
It goes for the foreign tourists as well. I imagine they get that same sense of enigma and excitement the Japanese tourists felt when they see these purdah-ed women; that they’re secret, forbidden, so they want to capture little pieces of them as souvenirs of their run-ins with such a locked human being. They want a peek inside their lives.
The part with them faking happiness and lying about their state was also very real. There are no Eyes around rural women in the real world, but their dread (What if someone found out?) and their fear of the tourists’ reaction not sitting well with their family plays the role of the Eyes pretty efficiently.
‘Ordinary is what you are used to. This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will,’ said Aunt Lydia. Just a better way of putting ‘time heals all wounds’— better, because firstly, it’s much simpler, straightforward like that, and secondly rather than glossing over the bitter truth like ‘time heals all wounds’ does, it actually makes you realise that it’s not necessarily a good thing. If something keeps happening for a long enough time, it becomes ordinary, you don’t bother with it any more, don’t give it a second look, it becomes a part of your life. That something could be a special thing that mutates, like if you’re an indulgent parent who likes to give your kid a little something special frequently, and then something happens that really merits your kid that little gift, it loses its charm; now your kid wants something that’s bigger than what they deserve, because that little thing is no longer special. You have in your hands a spoilt kid.
Or it could be injustice that’s no longer seen as injustice because of its frequency. In a direct relation to the last few paragraphs, for example, women have more or less accepted casual sexism and harassment as a part of their everyday life. Time makes everything ordinary is also the reason why the righteous passionate fires of adolescence, that fire to change the world, simmers down in adulthood. We give in to the injustice because we no longer think it out of the ordinary. This list won’t be complete without an India-centric example that’s scarily relevant: all the undemocratic things that happen in our country on a daily basis now don’t get much more than a sympathetic sigh or two, and the stoic resignation that follows.
Free speech is encroached upon every day here— critics of the government are branded anti-nationals and forced to issue public apologies, stand-up comics are arrested, the showrooms of a company that put out a sweet advertisement preaching communal harmony are demolished by extremist right-wing mobs. A cow’s life is valued more than a human being’s, media houses are the government’s little bitches and create non-issues to distract from its failures, the government dictates who you can love and marry, both political allies and voters are bought with money and muscle— I could go on and on. In November, I think, I read a newspaper report about how in the UK, they’d investigated the death of a little girl in London and had found that she’d died of excessive pollution. Because of a single child dying, they were making changes and ramping up their anti-pollution measures. London, which is already bathing in fresh air by Delhi standards. Here, thousands if not millions of people develop health problems and die every year because of the gas-chamber nature of our city, but public health and the environment remain mired in politics. Tax rates remain high for middle-income groups as well, but this is the group the government does the least for.
All of this is as usual. We live as usual by ignoring. There’s only so much a human being can rage against injustice. And all of this wasn’t a sudden change. As Offred says, it’s a gradually heating bathtub. Such intolerance had always existed in our country, sure, but not to the level it is under this government.
The recent Coup Klux Klan (credit where it’s due: that’s a TOI headline, not my original invention) at USA’s Capitol Hill was shocking and distressing, but the reaction to it, with calls of invoking the 25th Amendment/ impeachment, Republicans condemning and deserting Trump, the media and the public’s anger— such things would have been nearly impossible here. A bitterly humorous column in our 11th Jan newspaper puts it very eloquently:
Time, as I said, has made this ordinary for us.
With that, I think we can officially kick Aunt Lydia out of the way. That’s all we’ll be seeing of her for this episode. If you can call 3200 words ‘all’.
Now let’s look at Offred’s observations because they really are profound. ‘We have learned to see the world in gasps’, for example. Apart from the context in which she says it, that of the Handmaids stealing glances at the world around them because their wings restrict their vision, this sentence can be interpreted in another way. Instead of reading it as ‘using gasps to see the world’, read it as ‘finding the world in gasps’. See what I mean? The second thing is true for the Handmaids as well, because they try to find joy in, to live for, little moments of freedom. Like when they’re going through a barricade and she and a young guardian make eye contact. Later in the book, her little exchanges with Cora, the cigarette Serena Joy gives her, reading magazines in the Commander’s room, Nick.
This ‘finding the world in gasps’ is true of many people in our world as well. A few hours of peace in a war zone. A little act of kindness in a place torn by riots, like when that BLM protester carried an injured white supremacist to safety, or when that Muslim man helped a group of Hindu people escape to safer locations during the 2020 Delhi CAA riots.
Sometimes the two meanings overlap, like that time you went out for a little while in the lockdown and that ‘gasp’ of freedom was enough to energize you for the rest of the day cooped up inside.
Another one is an observation is about the stories in newspapers. She puts it perfectly— they’re like dreams to us, nightmares dreamt by others. They’re awful, but not believable. We are the people who’re not in the papers. We believe such things will never happen to us.
That’s true even of the most passionate, activist-type as well. I have to admit it’s true of me too. Much as we call out the wrongs, much as we wish for things to change, much as we draw attention to issues in the hope more people will rally behind it and ultimately force those in power to give in to the pressure, much as we try to do something at our own level, still, we’re all secretly thankful that we’re not the one that report is about. We’re all secretly convinced that such a thing can never happen to us. We’re all disillusioned about our safety.
The beginning of Chapter 23 is what took me the longest to write about. Because when I was reading the book, I didn’t fully understand it, so instead of making a note about my thoughts on it like I’d done for all the other bits, I had to stick a red post-it (yes, the colour of the post-it was deliberate) there until I had something concrete to say. I do now; something at least.
Forgiveness is a power, Offred says. I got why being the forgiver was a power, to withhold or bestow it was a power. Being the forgiver is a power because it places you on a kind of moral high ground, that you’re the better person in this equation because you haven’t done anything wrong, and of course forgiveness is seen as a virtue. You’re also the bigger person, because you’re willing to give the apologiser a second chance, you’re believing in their capacity to change, and you’re willing to overlook the wrong they did to try and make them a better person. It puts you in a good light, and it makes the apologiser indebted to you.
That’s why, Offred says, it’s hard to resist the temptation to forgive. ‘Forget and forgive’ is what we’ve been taught from the beginning, even though it’s not always healthy to do it, and that’s why we, sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily, forget details of bad experiences because then it’s easier to forgive.
At first glance I didn’t understand why begging for forgiveness is a power. I had to repeatedly read it and the next paragraph about her theory of control and forgiveness, turn it over and over in my head, ruminate, as they say, to make some sense of it. To beg for forgiveness is a power because not only does it mean that you admit to your mistake, are willing to change, and are looking beyond your ego (even if all of this is only superficial, it places you in the ‘acceptable’ light of being regretful and admitting to what you did), it also means that you did something wrong and by placing yourself in this light, you have a chance of sidestepping any unpleasant repercussions if the forgiver forgives you. If they do not forgive you, it places you in a better light than the forgiver in front of everyone else so you still have a chance of avoiding negative consequences.
Her theory about all of it being about forgiveness and not control made sense after I understood that. If it was about control, about who can do what to whom and get away with it, it means they would’ve been safe for the time being, but later on they would have to face what they did when things changed. Maybe they would’ve even remained safe for their entire lifetimes, but the future generations would not forgive them. They would forever remain tainted.
If, instead, all of it was about who can do what to whom and be forgiven for it, they would’ve effectively sidestepped all of that. If they were forgiven in the beginning itself, there would be no reason to make them pay for it later. Even the future generations would ‘understand’ their ‘predicament’, like the forgiver had done, even if only to be in league with the forgiver. The perpetrator, in effect, would’ve been absolved of their sins.
The next insight is about our tendency to humanise. Offred is thinking about a documentary of WW II she saw as a kid where people still alive from that era were being interviewed. One was the mistress of a man in charge of a concentration camp, and she remembers her saying ‘People say he was a monster, but he was not one.’ How easy it is to invent a humanity for anybody, Offred remarks. To focus on some endearing trait, like whistling in the shower or giving the dog treats, and focus on it, enlarge it until it blots out all the inhumane acts a person has committed, is a very available temptation. The instinct to not think, to try and soothe that person and make it better, treat them as a ‘big child’, that instinct is overpowering.
The first thing that came to mind when I read that was people fangirling over fictional villains.
But it applies to real life as well. Take abusive parents, for example. For a long time, at least while they’re young, children of such parents try not to think about the wrongs they do. It’s a subconscious process, true, and that’s what’s so scary about it. No child wants to think their parents are bad people. So they try to humanise them. They focus on that one time in a week that their father takes them on a car ride. They focus on those moments their mother lovingly runs her hand through their hair. They blot out the constant shouting, looking-over-their-shoulder, those fingerprints on their cheek.
They may even try to rationalise their abusive actions. The best example of this I can think of right now is Dean from Supernatural, but I’m sure it’s true in real-life cases as well, seeing how some people relate to his and his father’s dynamic. Since childhood, John Winchester has always forced Dean to grow up faster than he should have. Trained him rigorously, teaching him to use all kinds of weapons, putting him through all kinds of stress, ‘toughening him up’ so he could take on the monsters and protect his little brother. The last subclause in that sentence is Dean rationalising his dad’s actions.
There was a fan theory I read that pointed out that in season 4, episode 1, *spoiler alert, greying out the Spn spoiler part* Dean clawing his way out of a coffin under the ground wasn’t something a normal human being could’ve done. What if, when he was a kid, John had trained him for that very thing too? What if, as part of a drill, he’d closed child Dean up in a coffin underground and told him to break out of it, waiting until the last moment to get him out himself if he couldn’t do it, and then scolding him about it afterwards?
I hated John Winchester more than ever after that. I should mention, for all its merits, Supernatural didn’t really address John being an abusive parent— there was plenty of canon stuff as well that proved it, sure, but it constantly put him in the same light of ‘He was trying to protect his kids and doing his best. And oh look a flashback of him talking nicely to his kids.’ It’s one thing to have Dean view him that way, which is very real, but another thing for the show to try to ‘redeem’ him as well.
Right now, I can think of one show which didn’t try to redeem an abusive dad. It’s called Deception and it’s about twin magician brothers, one of whom gets falsely accused of murder and the other tries to get him out. It got cancelled after a single season, though, so you probably haven’t heard of it.
Cameron Black, the protag, acknowledges that it was his father who taught him everything and made him the famous magician/escape artist he is today, but resents him as well. There’s a scene of him thinking how his brother, Jonathan, has always been there for and with him— they show a flashback of him zip-tied and locked up inside a huge metal canister of sorts which he has to escape out of. He has nothing but a single flashlight with him inside. He’s trying, but inside the sealed canister his oxygen’s running out fast and he’s panicking, he’s reduced to tears. Jonathan’s outside, and he offers to help him, but Cameron refuses because he knows what will happen to his brother if his father finds out. But Jonathan stays, constantly encouraging him and tapping on the can from outside to assure him he’s there with him. The point is, the show didn’t try to paint his dad in a positive light.
Sorry for rambling on; it’s just… something I feel strongly about.
Let’s take a look at the Commander, who is the embodiment of a male chauvinism, the only one benefiting from the system and thus trying to justify it. Take that crap he spouts about this system being better because now women are protected and can fulfil their biological destinies in peace.
This ‘biological destiny’ bullshit is something that even educated people still believe, it’s so deeply ingrained that people think it’s better for women to be confined to household duties. Please understand that I’m not patronising household work in any way, it’s a part of life, and if someone chooses to devote themselves solely to it by their own choice, I respect that decision. But nobody should be forced into it. As far as childbearing is concerned, it’s something people with a uterus can do, but there’s no ‘destiny’ angle to it. Biology explains how our minds and bodies and work, but in no way does it define us, our lives, and our choices. Science should never be used for propaganda. It’s almost reminiscent of Hitler excusing his atrocities with the Darwinian concept of evolution.
Another incident of the Commander’s pseudo-biology is seen when he takes Offred to Jezebel’s and reasons that ‘nature demands variety for men, it’s part of the procreational strategy, which is why women had so many different clothes in the old days, to trick men into believing they were a new woman each day.’ Offred hits back with a sarcastic ‘so now that we don’t have different clothes, you merely have different women’, but the Commander doesn’t notice the sarcasm and says ‘it solves a lot of problems.’
I don’t even have anything to say to it. This is the epitome of MCP-ness. It takes a very special kind of idiot to believe in and propagate such vomit.
God, Atwood is a good writer. It takes skill to get people to hate people who don’t even exist. Maybe the trick lies in the fact that she modelled her characters after real people, not archetypes.
The last theme I’d like to look at is that marriage ceremony, because elements of it are so, so similar to Indian marriages I can’t not address it. Mass wedding ceremonies are held over here, though not in the manner of the Handmaid’s Tale; the couples are already due to be married, it’s just that a bunch of couples get married at a bunch of mandaps pre-arranged in a huge hall or whatever. The vows not only reflect the silence, modesty, chastity and unopposed endurance of blame and suffering that Gileadean society expects of women, they’re strangely reminiscent of some Indian wedding vows as well which pitches the wife as the lesser, dependent partner and the support system of the husband in married life.
And of course, the arranged marriage culture. Indian society’s still opposed to even heterosexual love; falling in love is seen as bad and against traditional values. What’s called ‘arranged marriage’ in Western countries is just ‘marriage’ here, and what’s ‘marriage’ over there is the ‘love marriage’ here, spoken with a generous helping of scorn and secrecy. In English-language media we see children introducing their (serious) dates to their parents, bringing them over for meals and festivals, even talking about break-ups openly with them. Here, all dating’s done in secret. You introduce your love interest to your parents only when you’ve decided to get married, and then a long procedure ensues— too long to detail here.
That’s slowly changing, though— young people are now becoming bolder, more open about dating and ‘love marriages’ today are much more common than they were, say, five years ago. The general mindset, though, will take some more time to change. Parents are still prouder of the ‘ideal, obedient’ kid who does an arranged marriage, and a love marriage is something they allow, a favour they bestow upon their kid for their happiness. And who knows when this wave will reach non-hetero unions as well.
In conclusion, I’d like to draw one last comparison between The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984. Offred trying to make herself think her own past is fictional, the forbidden nature of reading and writing are elements that were there in 1984 as well. But I liked The Handmaid’s Tale more, because even though it’s a dystopian tale, it’s not hopeless and cynical like 1984 is. It’s dark and gritty, but it’s not grimdark. I know a lot of people like Grimdark, but I can’t. I can’t have everything sucked out of me after reading a book. It was distressing to see the badass Moira have the fight sucked out of her and end up in Jezebel’s towards the end, but, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that curing shit that happened to Winston was a complete soul-sucker.
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! I know this was a very long episode; I don’t remember the word count of the previous one, but I’m pretty sure it’s longer than that. Really, I appreciate it if you read the whole thing and would love to hear your thoughts. Even if you gave in to your social-media-shortened-attention-span and simply scrolled down, don’t hesitate to present your views down below.
And if you’d like a blog whose posts don’t start resembling a PhD thesis in their length, check out my little sister’s blog. She’s a budding poet, so she’d really be thrilled if you could read some of her stuff and provide some feedback.
(Of course, it’s totally your call. It’s not like I’ll hunt you down and zip-tie you to a pole until you read her work.)
Until next time, then!
15 thoughts on “Prose-tinted Glasses S1, E2”
I also want to add that I have never been sexually harassed. I don’t publicize that one because you’ll get a range of responses, but it’s true.
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Not gonna lie, you are the first woman I’ve come across who hasn’t experienced predatory behaviour. I can’t tell you how great it feels to find an exception to this unpleasant rule.
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As always, Anisha, you astound me. You’re the most brilliant person I know.
Given the detail, intelligence, and exceptional perspective of your lengthy passage; I will attempt a short response:
I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale. I am familiar with the gist of the story and, after reading your review, understand some of its nuances. The issue of women’s roles interests me greatly.
I agree, somewhat, with your analogy of the sand and tins. Where I disagree is in saying it only applies to females and does not apply to cis-het-males in the slightest. Every person has to balance choice with consequence.
I feel lacking in an Indian perspective of this, which you did help with your descriptions of marriage/expectations/etc. toward the end of your review. Where do you fit in this? How are you ‘allowed’ to attend school, ‘allowed’ to read these books, or ‘allowed’ to write critically?
In thinking over your analogy and StarNinja’s comment, I think you’re right about size of tins and amount of sand applying to people of certain sexes in certain countries. Women, in particular, get the short end of the stick quite often.
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Oh, you should totally read the book as well. It’s very clever, and it’d be interesting to know how a person from an older generation analyses it and the different roles of women in it.
Well, the sand and tins analogy wasn’t really about actions and consequences. It was more about freedom in general. Maybe you could elaborate on what you think so I can understand your opinion?
As for the questions you asked, I can only speak for myself, not for every Indian woman. The answers to those questions will vary not just on a person-to-person basis, but on average as well. Like, I belong to an educated middle-class family living in an urban area in Delhi, so attending school, reading and writing aren’t really things that are restricted for me (it’s a good thing my parents didn’t read this post, though). And the reason I’m able to write critically here without being hauled off to the police station is probably that I and my blog aren’t really famous, and WordPress isn’t a social media platform. I have read reports of commoners being persecuted over tweets critical of the government. There are ongoing cases against stand-up comedians going on right now in our country.
But just a few metres away from my house there’s a slum and of course, their answers regarding education will be completely different.
Thank you for taking the time to read and share your thoughts.
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This post is making my mind explode with thought. So refreshing to read something like that on the internet for a change!
For starters, thanks for episode 2 of the Dystopian Review Series. I look forward to a chummier one in the future, but I’m also loving these soul crushers so do as you may.
Your analogy of sand and tins and freedom from and freedom to resonated so hard with me. As a Cis-Het Male *adjusts golden wrestling champion belt they hand us at birth* I struggle with this as a writer. How much sand do I put in one tin vs the other? Male characters don’t have to consider it. Imagine a guy with no sand in the freedom from tin getting judged for their attire. “You saw the sunglasses on his hat and the flip flops. He had it coming!” Absurd. If I write a complete rebel tomboy with no consideration of freedom from and no social consequences thereof, I’m basically writing a male character with boobs. A totally traditional wall flower that had no sand in either tin would feel like I’m overly victimizing a woman character who “didn’t deserve it”.
Ugh, this world really drains me sometimes. The ever present Patriarchy lies hidden just beneath the surface. Scratch it even a little and the system slaps back. Power isn’t stagnant. It flows from one place to the next. Men raised in the elite or political class can sense this flow. Anytime I read a headline that says “More women elected to Congress than ever before!” I have the same thought: where did all the men go? They didn’t hang up their hats and take up farming. Or asked in the reverse: why did they let all of us in? Is it because the real power has gone elsewhere and the Powers That Be are content to let us have the trappings of power? Same goes for minorities and people of color. Why did they let us in? Where did the white people all run off to? In American politics, the answer to that question for the last decade or so has been lobbying and consulting firms. That’s where the real power is now. When more women and minorities become lobbyists and consultants, look to see where the white men went. That’s where the power slipped away to. The money and status left behind are mere table scraps and it’ll make everyone think progress was made and things are more equal now, but it’s all illusion.
Is it any wonder that at the same time that there are more women in government than ever before that the government is viewed as weak, toothless, and shrill? I hate it. I hate it so much. And yet, watch the correlation commence. Next time the number of women in Congress “breaks records” listen to the media decry at how useless Congress is. Jesus, my soul hurts…
Had a good laugh at young Boomers. So true. It’s like they were born middle aged.
And thank you for sharing your experience with sexual harassment. At the risk of sounding patronizing, thank you for your bravery. Every woman I know has been harassed. Some as young as 12 being cat called by grown men. I feel shame and infinite rage in equal measure for the the enabler cultures of the world. I have a lot more to say that this review forced me to consider, but I’ll have to cut it short for now. Thanks again for writing stuff and posting it. Never stop.
Shameless plug: I wrote a flash fiction story that was “Handmaid’s Tale meets the Bible”. Because I was so tired of hearing people claim we were living in a Matriarchy and women rule the world now like it’s a bad thing, I decided to gender bend it and write what I thought a dystopian Matriarchy would actually look like if it existed in the real world rather than the fever dreams of Men’s Rights Activists. You can read it here:
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Blame it on reading your excellent response on little sleep, but are you agreeing that a c-h-male receives a golden belt and never considers sand? I love Anisha’s brilliance and analogies but am uncertain whether I fully understand you or she in reference to freedoms.
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Anisha can speak for herself, but as for me I agree on the sand and freedoms. The belt was just my hyperbole 😋. Until I got older and got to know a few women myself, I wasn’t really aware of this unspoken reality. But it was there, even in my own still forming brain. I too saw the world of women as “how much they comply to social standards” compared to “how much they deserved what happened to them.” If a woman was assaulted in the news I would ask, “what did she look like? How was she behaving? Did she invite this assault on herself?”
I am older and wiser now and I know that line of thought is total bullshit… but also how society approaches the situation. A woman explorer who wears men’s clothes and starts her own company gets assaulted by some dude. What’s the usual response in locker rooms and around dinner tables across the world? “Well, you know, look at her.”
So gross. Anyway, hope that clears things up.
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Yes, thank you. 🙂
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Yes, I do believe the sand and tins concept, in other words, the limited and restricted nature of freedom, doesn’t exist for c-h-males.
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Oh no, the two successive episodes on dystopian novels don’t mean this is a ‘Dystopian review’ series, not at all. It’s just that so many dystopian books seem to fit this season’s theme of books we pretend to have read. God knows I’d love to analyse a chummier one; I’ve had enough darkness for now. If you have any such books in mind that fit the bill, do tell.
I like how you applied this to writing as well. Good to know you’re trying to portray women realistically in fiction as well. Hell, we need to move on from like the five female archetypes writers usually stick to. And, well, you’d know this, seeing how good a writer you yourself are- the best way to figure out your sand proportion is to talk to different people! Feel free to ping me in the contact section when/if you feel like it.
You’re a true Star (pun intended) for relating your own experiences and American politics to what I said here. Always interesting to see on-ground perspectives from real people living in other countries.
This may sound slightly misandric, but thank you for reinforcing my belief that sensible cishet men do exist. Thanks for being an ally.
I’m heading on over to the Wormhole now to read your mashup tale. I hope the biblical knowledge I have from Spn will be enough for me to understand the references.
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Not misandric at all. Glad to be an ally 🙂
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this literally made my day. I have so many thoughts now, even though i have not read the book. I agree with you, atwood seems to be a nice author who made you hate fictional characters. But for me, look at this piece of writing! You made me dig up all the opinions and hurt feelings 14 year old me used to have that I had suppressed for my own sanity. It’s true; one can only outrage so much. I am sorry for your childhood experiences, and I know how that feels. Nothing is fair in this world. But you reminded me of the magnitude of the unjustness, even if I was reading this while sitting on the type of luxury and privilege not all can afford. Art is supposed to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable, this did both to me. I am really in awe of your ability to think so deeply, my epiphanies are almost always spontaneous and emotion driven, never as well thought out and deliberated as yours. And thanks for the two-braincell explanation; more people will need it than you are thinking.
I can’t wait for the next episode
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I feel so satisfied knowing that I made you think and analyse the world. That’s exactly the goal of this series- to make people see the world through prose-tinted glasses, for lack of a better phrase, and make them notice things they would’ve otherwise missed or ignored.
While writing this I was thinking, kitna chilla loge, but then I was reminded, kabhi to chillana hi padega.
It’s really the highest compliment for anyone to know that their creation had any of those two effects of art you mentioned, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, but to know that it had those two effects together; that’s another thing altogether. It’s not a compliment, it’s an achievement. You say my post made your day? Your comment made my week, no hyperboles involved.
WordPress needs a good long debugging session for throwing the nicest comments in the spam folder and depriving people of their great achievements.
And spontaneous, emotionally-charged epiphanies have their own important place; they’re necessary for one’s own well-being. And anyway, any kind of epiphanies mean your brain’s at work, so you, of all people, have nothing to worry about.
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