Strange Lands: A Creative Writing Assignment

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Photo by Diana Westberg from Pexels

Hello everyone. Been busy around these parts.

I’ve been taking a creative writing course online called ‘The Craft of Setting and Description’ on Coursera that I’ve been enjoying very much. These two elements have also been my Achilles’ heel so it has been quite a bit of work.

Fiction is hard.

That being said, I finally produced something that made me moderately proud, so I thought I’d share it here. It is hard to judge my work, so do please feel free to provide feedback 🙂

This is the beginning of a story (the title will not make sense just yet). The brief was to set it in either:

1. a hospital
2. a foreign country
3. a blackout

P.S. I began working on this before the Notre Dame fire, which I was quite sad to hear about. I intend to take up The Hunchback of Notre Dame as my next reading project, so stay tuned (currently reading Aatish Taseer’s The Temple-goers).

Paris in the Day

A soft twilight breeze ruffled my hair and tinkled through my large earrings. I pulled my modish beige coat a little tighter around my dress.

The Seine was bathed in the red and orange glows of sunset. I could see the Eiffel tower in the distance, roughly the size of a thimble or a tourist’s keychain.

I began to walk towards it.

As I drew closer, strains of a gentle acoustic melody wafted towards me on the wind, along with the scents of street food. A student busker was crooning softly to the twangs of an old guitar.

Suddenly I was a naïve fourteen again, standing under the massive arches of the Eiffel, tilting my head up as far as it would go. Thinking that one could get lost in the sheer size and hypnotic curves that looked almost like some optical illusion. Some strange man had come up to me and begun to jabber in French, proceeding to tie something around my wrist, which I had absent-mindedly allowed him to do, much to my mother’s consternation. Then also there had been this slight chill in the air. An immigrant was selling tiny Eiffel keychains and a busker was setting up on the lawn a few feet away.

In coming to Paris, I was escaping a certain melancholia. I had been trying, for two years, to write the magnificent novel that I could see so clearly in my head – unsuccessfully. I was convinced that I had something important to say, but after these years of what felt like wasted effort, I was spent.

Of course, I had also had my heart thoroughly broken.

I took off my heels and sat down on the lawn, lining them up precisely beside me and spreading my legs out in front of me. I smiled when the tower lit up, the lights chasing each other like frantic fireflies, blinking in and out, just like I remembered.

Why was I here?

Not wanting particularly to think, I let my mind go blank. Here I was, in one of the loveliest cities of the world, young, pretty and free. If I could just savour the feeling for a moment…

Strange that one could change so much in the space of a decade, I reflected. When I was last here, still a child, nothing could have tempered my joy. Now I feel joy, but it is tainted, every second of happiness accompanied by a small twinge, a pensive reminder that I have failed, in love and in life.

I shook my head. It was a morbid way to think.

I got up, restless now that the light show had ended. I started slowly on the long way back to my hostel, stopping every now and then to loiter at some spot that caught my fancy.

There are worse places in which to be afflicted with so romantic a sorrow as this, I thought, with a small smile. To not only have one’s heart broken but to be a struggling writer and to be both in Paris

Then I grimaced. Suddenly I felt shallow and stupid.

My hostel room was neat but shabby and almost Spartan. I switched on the bedside lamp and stared dully at my latest draft. I had not touched it in the two weeks I’d been here.

Seized by a sudden rage, I picked up the manuscript and walked out onto the balcony. Then with all the force of my impotent frustration, I hurled it out onto the street.

I was immediately filled with regret. Pale and unsatisfying though they might have been, those pages were the culmination of years of dreams and work.

I sat down on the bed and buried my head in my hands.

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How I got my reading mojo back

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When I was a child, I was a devourer of books.

I gobbled them up. I was forever ravenous, forever waiting to be transported, to escape the mundane confines of my urban existence.

And indeed, I constantly inhabited the worlds of my precious books. For most of my childhood, I barely registered the realities of the space I actually inhabited.

Then I lost my reading mojo.

There were many factors that contributed to this sudden and utter loss of connect to the books I held so dear. As a teenager, I had lost my footing and my carefully constructed world had collapsed around me. With my eyes suddenly open to what was going on around me, I began to feel distant from the Anglo-centric literature and media I had consumed all my life. For a vast majority of my thirteen years, I had almost exclusively consumed Western media – whether it was literature, or movies, or TV. My dearest friends had been Anne Shirley, Canadian; Heidi, Swiss; Jo March, American; and a variety of British heroines including Darrell from Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers and, strangely, Anne Elliot from Jane Austen’s Persuasion. At home, we didn’t watch too many Bollywood or Telugu movies. My mom was never fond of the masala formula – of the glorification of violence or the blatant objectification of women – not to mention the wafer-thin plots – and she considered most of the fare unsuitable for children. So apart from a few good regional films, we mostly watched Disney and Pixar films, which I loved with the same passion as my books.

I had an unspoken, even unconscious belief that white was normal. By some strange trick of the mind, I had managed to other myself. With my Carnatic music and classical dance, my articulate and slightly accented English and my imperfect Telugu, I was a peculiar hodge-podge, a paradox that inhabited the space between worlds. When I was a child, it was not something I questioned. I retained what I liked. That was it. It never occurred to me to ask why, out of the protagonists of all the stories I adored, not one looked like me. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t hard for me to suspend disbelief, to hear the rustling of Heidi’s beloved fir trees in the concretest of concrete jungles.

It was not until I came across Chimamanda Adichie’s incredible TED Talk, The Danger of A Single Story, that I began to understand what had happened and why, as I grew up, I suddenly began to find it difficult to relate to freckles and gingham frocks. Watching Adichie articulate her experiences, I felt an overwhelming relief. All my life, I had felt like an odd duck, oddly displaced in the only place I had ever called home, my reference points alien to most of the people around me. Now, for the first time, someone had put words to an experience I had been struggling to parse for years. I, too, struggled to imagine writing Indian characters, despite having grown up in India. I, too, was alien, somehow separate from a homeland that I loved, but could not comprehend.

It has taken me years to get back into the swing of things. For a while, reading became a painful experience. That mysterious magic whereby one is instantly able to relate to a character across space, time and ethnicity, had forsaken me. It became an academic exercise, technical. It was no longer a labour of love; it was a grappling of the intellect. In perceiving literature through the mind rather than emotion, something interesting happened. I was no longer hankering for escape. Now I looked for meaning, for tools to help me understand the perplexing nature of the world around me. In doing so, I found myself reconnecting to literature in the most unexpected ways.

William Goldman’s Lord of the Flies. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Albert Camus’s Stranger. Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. All difficult books that demanded introspection and refused to provide easy answers or platitudes. Books I would never have dreamed of picking up if not for my IB curriculum, that ended up challenging my notions of the world and staying with me.

I could never claim to love The Crucible. It haunted and plagued and terrified me when I read it at sixteen. And yet, even though I haven’t read it in years, I can still quote from it, and the characters and their dynamics are etched firmly in my mind. I was as fascinated as I was horrified by what the book had to say, and there’s no doubt I still find it a useful lens through which to view mass hysteria – for example, hyper-nationalism – and online vigilantism, among other things.

I could go on about what these books taught me, but that could take up the length of another post. I gradually realized that I needed to start looking elsewhere. Gentle Victorian drawing room dramas weren’t working for me any more. There had been a time when I could read nothing else, but now I hungered for something that felt more raw, more real, something I could relate to now, as I began to understand India, and home, differently.

So I began to look for good Indian literature. For the past few months, I’ve been slowly looking for interesting Indian English and regional literature. I’ve taken my time, but the results have been gratifying.

I started with A Girl and A River by Usha K R. I had stumbled across it in my favourite second-hand bookstore in Bangalore years ago (Blossom Book House) and it had just been lying around. Mostly set in the years before India became independent (1930s), it’s a compelling portrait of everyday life at the time. It’s not something I feel I have been much exposed to – mostly we hear about the freedom movement from history textbooks rather than the vantage point of ordinary people like ourselves – and it was especially interesting to observe how radically different (and regressive) notions were in a time period that is not so far in the past and yet feels so distant because so very much has changed. There are some interesting characters too, and although I was ultimately disappointed in the book and did not care for the framing device (having a modern protagonist go on a journey to find out more about their past and their family and alternating between past and present seems to be something of a trope in modern literature), I read the book almost in one go. Something that had become so rare that I was inclined to celebrate its occurrence.

Then I read The Way Things Were by Aatish Taseer. I was blown away. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to start over and read it again. There was so much to think about, so much that had been said – and the beauty of the prose! Taseer interweaves the past and present much more masterfully than Usha K R, although – inevitably – the past is so much more interesting. And once again, I learned a lot about a time period in the recent past that I didn’t know much about (the Emergency and the Sikh pogroms). In fact, I was appalled to find out how little I knew. This book was the kind of masterpiece that inspired me to sell it to everyone I knew while I was reading it. I would highly recommend it.

Then I read Pather Panchali, then English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee (a cult classic from the 80s about an Indian civil servant’s experiences in the hinterlands), and then Transmission by Hari Kunzru (a well-written and very readable book about the struggles of an Indian programmer in the early aughts). All great, great reads. Now, I’m reading Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

I realized, to my delight, that I had begun to fill in the spaces in my day with books again. I was no longer putting a book in my bag out of remembrance and fond hope – I was genuinely invested in what I was reading and genuinely waiting to grab moments to plunge back in. That long-forgotten feeling – where everything, everyone, ceases to exist except the characters that people the book you’re holding and the world they inhabit – it was back.

I had my reading mojo back.

 

Twelve Horoscopes from Yours Truly

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(Disclaimer: I am not an astrologer.)

Aries: March 21 – April 19

You will meet a kind stranger. You might feel impulsive, but you absolutely should not dye your hair green. If you find a three-leaved clover, preserve it in your favourite book. Green is your lucky colour today (but do not dye your hair green).

Taurus: April 20 – May 20

You will meet an unkind acquaintance. Smile, for it will vex them. You may feel conservative, but that is exactly when you must push the bounds of what you feel you can do. A significant risk is worth taking. Your significant other is not.

Gemini: May 21 – June 20

It will rain good fortune, but only if you are open to the wisdom of the universe (or cats. You may stumble across some wise cats). You may also stumble. On an uneven path. Beware the colour purple. If your tongue is purple, you may be sick (or you may have eaten some very sugary candy, in which case, sugar is the new tobacco, you know).

Cancer: June 21 – July 22

Lies are cancerous. The sky is ominous. It might be prudent to stay indoors and meditate upon the meaning of life (specifically, the meaning of your life, and whether your childhood self would regard you with glee or dismay). Be like a sage and respond to provocation with only a maddening smile.

Leo: July 23 – August 22

The heavens roar with the force of your anger towards those who you feel have wronged you. Like lies, anger is also cancerous. Let go of your deep-seated grudges with a deep exhale and maybe an ice cream. And also the knowledge that those you hate have probably forgotten you after all these years (I regret to inform you that they do not lie awake at night remorsefully recollecting their transgressions).

Virgo: August 23 – September 22

Ah, Virgo. Your delusions of romantic love continue to blight the possibilities. No individual is worth (or really, can hold up under) the weight of your expectations. Perhaps look for fulfilment in a meaningful vocation rather than an unrealistic hodge-podge of dreams cobbled together from silly rom-coms and sillier romantic novels. And perhaps re-read Austen to discover that she was not quite as idealistic about love as you may suppose (Austen was essentially a satirist, if a gentle one. Ignore the wet-shirt adaptations and go for the originals.)

Libra: September 23 – October 22

The scales are not in your favour. But then, they never are. Forget about the scales and focus on what you can do to improve your odds in this very strange game that we call life. A white dog might be lucky for you, if you can overcome your fear of dogs and give it a belly rub. Expressing yourself artistically is more important than finding a financially fantastic job right now.

Scorpio: October 23 – November 21

Hmm. Pass.

Sagittarius: November 22 – December 21

Ah, this most glorious of signs. Have faith in the incredible gifts you were born with. Bestow the bounty of your presence upon others sparingly and only as you deem fit. Indulge your every whim and glory in the fact that you were born as yourself and not as some other poor sucker. Every colour is lucky.

Capricorn: December 22 – January 19

By virtue of your heavenly proximity to Sagittarius, timings-wise, some of its good luck will bless you, also. Take advantage of your good fortune to go for that musical career you always wanted. No doubt your spouse(s) will step up to the plate, if you have a family that needs taking care of. They will grouse a bit initially, but you just have to weather it until they are too wan from the stress of being responsible breadwinners to have the energy or time to complain.

Aquarius: January 20 – February 18

Find a water body and stare at the calm depths until you feel serene. Today, there will be much aggravation. Your mother will call you one time too many. Your father will insist on an account of your spending. Your younger sibling will be reckless and require financial assistance. Your family will be ungrateful. You will feel much put-upon. Just remember, it could be worse.

Pisces: February 19 – March 20

Go vegetarian. It’s good for the planet. It’s good for you, also. You eat too much red meat.

Is fish vegetarian…it depends on who you ask. Make sure you ask someone likely to give you the response you want. Today is the day to start running. Buy some decent shoes, your 10-year-old Nikes are quite sick of you and would like to be retired.

I’ve been nominated for the Sunshine Blogger Award

I’d like to thank my friends, family, brother, imaginary dog Pebbles and my old pony friend Emily for this vast honour.

Seriously though, thank you to the amazing, the incredible, the one and only Nanu Gelda from Aksharbet for nominating me. I’m sorry my response is so delayed! Busy days…

Sunshine Blogger Award

Here are the questions:

  1. Why did you start your blog?

I answer this question in my About page. I love blogging and used to blog extensively at Thoughts And Whimsies, particularly when I was in college. But I felt that I had changed and evolved as a person and that my blog had to reflect that; that I had entered a new phase of my life and very much wanted to start anew, in a sense, create a bit of a different persona. You’ll notice the care with which I crafted the logo (the girl with the skeptical eyebrow) and came up with the name (do comment below on what you make of it!)

2. How has your blog/writing style evolved over time?

Ha! These questions have been written for me.

This is a tough question though. When I wrote my first blog post, I was sixteen. It’s been eight years since then.

I like to think that I’ve become less rambling, more coherent. That I’ve evolved into my own voice, developed something of a distinctive style (although of course, this is always an ongoing process).

I’ve become less afraid to say what I think. Less afraid to look outside my comfort zone a bit, to wax sentimental if I wish, to try metaphor and poetry. I’ve also learned brevity and economy, how to say more in less, how to use spaces to create effect.

But these are all by-products. I just simply loved the act of blogging. Even now, when I look at my old blog, the fact that all of that writing is in one place – writing that I put some effort into, writing that I’m proud of, writing that captures a specific moment in time – this gives me joy. It’s really like no other medium. A diary that’s not a diary; articles that are not articles. Logs. That’s what they really are. Logs. But somehow they evolved into personal essays and sweet little anecdotes that I look back on with great fondness, as well as some pretty powerful pieces, that once again, I am still proud of.

Through blogging, I have evolved as a writer. For a long time, it was the writing I would put the most into, and it was entirely a personal thing. Entirely a source of joy. No one was making me do it. It was a labour of love…and writing for myself in that way has changed me as a writer and person in ways I can hardly describe. It has certainly changed the way I perceive the world: now I see that I have a voice with the power to move and reach and amuse. It’s a potent realization and one that has certainly changed my life in many subtle ways.

3. Describe some of the things that are on (or in) your desk right now. Anything special?

Hmm. The Last Nizam and Negotiating Languages: Urdu, Hindi and the Definition of Modern South Asia. I’m not really “reading” reading them – they’re reference for a personal project. I’m “reading” reading Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors very slowly and savouring each story.

Apart from that, a random silver purse I used last week, a pair of headphones, Pond’s powder (haha), hair serum, a hairbrush, All Night mosquito jet, little bag I take with me sometimes for my phone when I walk, business cards I just got yesterday (yay! so important!) and two sheets of paper (sorry, my desk is a few feet away and I’m too lazy to check what they are).

Probably more detail than you needed. But there you go.

4. What are three things in your fridge right now?

This question is not particularly interesting to me. Why is it interesting? Probably dosa batter, vegetables and ketchup 😀

5. Describe a fond memory from your childhood.

How to pick…I’m going to plug an old blog post instead: Those Halcyon Days.

I had a great childhood. There were a lot of lovely moments, many of them spent reading, many spent running around with friends and creating clubs like they do in the Enid Blyton books, many, many hours spent making things – cards, flowers, crafts, all kinds of things.

I guess a particularly fond memory would be seeing the Niagara on summer vacation after 6th standard. I was mesmerized (especially by the lights at night). A refrain from Aladdin’s ‘A Whole New World’ song kept running through my head: unbelievable sight…indescribable feeling…

6. Describe your hometown.

Would this be the place I was born or the place I grew up in?

I was born in Hyderabad. I grew up in Bangalore. Bangalore was home.

Bangalore was warm, green, cosmopolitan and very liberal. At least, that’s how I remember the Bangalore of my childhood. In sepia-tinted hues. I loved growing up there. I went to many schools, of which Prakriya Green Wisdom remains my favourite. The great thing about Bangalore is how multicultural it is (where I grew up anyway, in Indiranagar). So all my friends were from different places. It was great.

7. What’s your favourite way to spend the weekend?

Reading, dancing, watching a good movie. Writing, if possible (trying to do that oftener). Walking around, exploring the city, attending an event or two…maybe something a little exciting but also time just to sit with a good book (to read or write in) and contemplate.

8. Who are your role models?

This question would have been easy when I was five. Now I don’t know what to say. They’re too many to count. So many authors, so many activists, so many women and men who’ve done incredible things…

I love Diana Wynne Jones and Lucy Maud Montgomery with a particular fondness, and venerate Jane Austen to a degree that is probably unhealthy. I like good ol’ Shakespeare quite well, too. I realize my tastes are Eurocentric. I’m working on remedying that. I read Pather Panchali recently and it was incredible. I would love to write like that someday.

Outside of the world of books, I really admire Atul Gawande, Professor Walt Hakala from college (also the author of Negotiating Languages!) – if I were a professor I would want to be like him, my mother, certainly…oh, and my music teacher and my counselor…I realize many of my role models are personal and very specific 🙂

9. What are your pet peeves?

Arrogance. Hubris. The shallow vanity of the Instagram age and the general superficiality of conversation in the social media age…and how people resist contact and real connect…

10. What advice would you give to your younger self?

Be easy. Find a way to really talk to an adult you respect and love and know that, really, even for you, this too shall pass.

11. If you could write the name for a new Crayola crayon, what would it be?

Uhh…scrumdiddlyumptious. I’m sure that could be a colour. A nice, neon colour that Dahl with his weird mind would approve of. Probably some kind of neon green.

 

Phew. That was tough. A huge shout-out to Nanu for her encouragement and excellent feedback on so much of my work. Many hugs.

Wow, 11 bloggers. That’s tough. Do I have to make up my own questions? Nanu, can I steal yours?

Here are my nominees:

  1. Fiction Fan
  2. The Captive Reader
  3. Stuck In A Book
  4. Book Snob
  5. Heart Ranjan
  6. Adora Svitak
  7. A Year of Reading the World
  8. Normal People Worry Me

That’s really all I can think of!

Here are my 11 questions:

  1. Why do you write?
  2. What has blogging given you?
  3. Have you made any connections through blogging?
  4. How has blogging changed or affected your writing?
  5. Are you a dog or a cat person? Why? Do you like animals at all?
  6. What else do you do for fun?
  7. What are your latest reads?
  8. What are your latest watches (sorry, I feel like that should be a thing) – series or movies?
  9. What was something you came across lately (in real life) that intrigued you?
  10. What was a piece of writing that recently provoked thought or moved you in some way?
  11. How do you perceive the world? Through logic, emotion? Rationality? The arts? Science? A combination of these things?

And here are the rules for nominees:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you and link back to their blog.
  2. Answer the questions.
  3. Nominate 11 other bloggers for the award and ask them 11 new questions.
  4. Notify nominees by commenting on one of their blog posts.
  5. List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger award logo on your post or site.

The Poetry in the Commonplace

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Source: http://grangettosgardenclub.com/beautiful-bougainvillea/

I was walking down the road recently when I saw masses of pink and white bougainvillaea spilling over the brick walls beside me. I paused for a second, smiling. So abundant, so lovely.

You might be surprised to find that the lovely bougainvillaea, named after the French explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, is not actually indigenous to India, but South America. And yet it has so successfully permeated our landscape that we barely notice it anymore. Somewhere in there is a metaphor for the seemingly benign dominance of foreign thought and narrative in an ancient land with its own valuable heritage. And perhaps a metaphor for the dominance of Western literature and media in my own life, in an equally seductive and compelling garb.

If so, I’ve never been immune to its allure.

What I love about the bougainvillaea is how beautiful it is in every iteration, no matter how often we see it, and how easily it flourishes, without fuss or melodrama. We’re not a country that gives much importance to aesthetics but somehow amidst the dust and pollution and crowded sidewalks, the bougainvillaea has been allowed to flourish.

Despite its massy appearance, the individual petals of the bougainvillaea are distinct and individual, containing both fineness and firmness.

This is the real analogy I saw: an overfull country in which the worth of the individual is swept away.

Amidst a billion people, what is one worth? There is a callousness, a disregard for life, a Darwinian struggle for survival that informs our existence (as has been much documented). Even the affluent are not immune: there’s always someone to trample on the way to the top.

The consequence of this is that people blur together into the masses. For the newly minted upper and upper middle classes especially, they don’t exist except to provide us services. Of course, most of us don’t see ourselves as part of the general fabric of the nation; we hold ourselves apart.

This is a part of the problem and most of us don’t recognize it. The alienation, the apathy, the lack of belonging – it comes from a lack of connect. We see right through people. Walking past a slum, we barely register the kids swinging from a tree or playing in the mud. Beggars are a part of our landscape, some disabled, some disfigured. We might throw them a few rupees, but when it comes down to it, we’re separate, they’re separate.

We’re not monsters. Growing up in this country, we’ve developed defence mechanisms that enable us to survive. Or perhaps we’re so used to it that it no longer seems noteworthy. The magnitude of it is such that we choose to ignore rather than confront it. As we hang out in our exclusive little cafes and high-end restaurants, the world outside our windows fades away. Our carefully constructed bubbles of privilege and shame, intact.

Perhaps if we were to lower those shields, place ourselves on equal footing with the human beings around us, open our eyes to the humanity of our neighbours, we might be amazed by what we see.

What Will People Say?

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Maria Mozhdah in ‘What Will People Say’

Iram Haq’s Norwegian film What Will People Say? – a literal translation of the Hindi ‘log kya kahenge‘ – is a gut-wrenching exploration of the conflict between immigrant parents and their assimilated second-generation kids, and the damage parents can cause when they refuse to let go of what they imagine to be the superior moral codes of their homeland.

Nisha (Maria Mozhdah) is a beautiful, vibrant, intelligent teenager. She’s gorgeous, with her long, lush hair, distinctive brows and spirited eyes, and we’re told that she makes good grades. Her parents are Pakistani immigrants and they now live in Oslo, where her parents dream of having doctor children rooted in Pakistani culture (Nisha has an older brother).

Nisha leads a double life. At home, she’s the perfect Pakistani kid, greeting everyone politely, speaking good Hindi, helping out with chores, doing her homework. Outside, and when she sneaks out at night, she becomes one of her carefree Norwegian friends, dancing, hanging out, playing basketball, drinking, even copping a smoke or two.

<<Spoilers ahead. Skip ahead to the last four paragraphs to avoid>>

Everything shatters when her father Mirza (Adil Hussain) discovers her boyfriend in her bedroom. He beats the boy, he hits his daughter, and Child Services is called. Nisha’s protestations of innocence (she doesn’t do much more than share a shy kiss with the boy, even though the camera seems to deliberately frame it as something more scandalous) fall on deaf ears. Her words are irrelevant, anyway; through her actions, she has ruined herself and her family, and that is how the community will perceive her.

It is hard to believe sometimes, even for those of us who live on the periphery of these communities, that this kind of thinking could still be so prevalent. The idea of a woman being ‘compromised’ is certainly straight out of a Victorian novel (and indeed, Mirza does ask his sixteen-year-old daughter if she will marry the boy).

Things spiral out of control very quickly after that. Nisha is kidnapped to Pakistan, where she is dumped with her aunt’s family some 200 km from Islamabad and the nearest airport. Her abortive attempts at escape are punished severely and disproportionately; a scene where her uncle burns her passport before her eyes is particularly heart-wrenching.

Matters get even worse for Nisha after this, but first, you see the spark leave her eyes, wariness and caution taking residence there instead, as her ‘community’ resolutely crushes her spirit. Very little happiness is allowed this girl who dared to step outside the bounds of what is allowed.

There are a lot of horrors visited upon Nisha during the course of the film, particularly a very difficult-to-watch scene involving lecherous Pakistani policemen drunk on power. It would have been easy for the film to tip over into ‘misery porn’ – I have heard the sequence of events called too much to bear or believe, but the film almost never had me questioning its realism – on the contrary, it felt too real, hit too close to home even as I counted my lucky stars for being born into a more liberal family.

For me, Nisha stands beside Maggie Tulliver, Machinal’s Helen Jones and scores of other restless, passionate women in literature that society tries to extinguish over and over again. Women with the power to change the world if only they hadn’t been born into the wrong family at the wrong time. Only, where, say, Maggie frustrated me with her passivity, Nisha has courage. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” she maintains, at two crucial junctures of the film, and she believes it even when her family turns on her and casts her out. She is unwilling to buy that she is who they say she is, even though she sees over and over that the world is arrayed against her.

There’s something unquenchable about her, something fiercely brave in this unjust ‘Scarlet Woman’ world she’s been thrust into. Even when she becomes subdued and wary, the change in Maria’s body language brilliantly telegraphing her loss of trust in those closest to her, even then it seems the heartbreaking bewilderment of someone learning just how senseless the world is, how arbitrary its rules, rather than someone who’s internalized the oppressive moral codes of those around her.

I cannot say enough about Maria Mozhdah’s performance. It is astounding. Words fail, really.

<<End spoilers>>

The film raises larger issues for me about immigrant culture and the tug-of-war between the old and the new. I have a lot of Indian-American friends and family and on a much smaller scale, I have observed these conflicts over the years. It is clear that they stem from first-gen immigrants’ insecurity about losing their connection to their roots and heritage – an understandable fear – but especially from the fear that their kids will not know enough about where they come from or become ‘too American.’ It’s a heavy burden to place on a child and one that seems to be unthinkingly, even unconsciously done.

More shocking for me – every time I encounter it still – is the deep and abiding fear of women’s sexuality. It shouldn’t surprise me – I live in a country that over-sexualizes and objectifies women while resolutely refusing to demystify desire and sex – but it does. It does surprise me that a country like ours has become a country of prudes (courtesy of our colonial rulers, I suppose). It does surprise me that educated families are so uncomfortable about something so normal, something that should be mundane.

I can testify to the damage these attitudes can do. I cannot recall freely discussing these topics or feeling free to do so growing up. Either outside or at home, I absorbed some very unhealthy notions and there was nobody to tell me differently. For years I struggled with a very Catholic guilt (and I’m not Catholic!) – something that astonishes me looking back because it seems so unnatural – but struggle I did.

If there’s one thing we should take away from stories like these (What Will People Say is reportedly based off some of the director’s real-life experiences), perhaps it should be that it’s time to take down the walls. Time to talk. Time to demystify, destigmatize. Time to open ourselves to the fact that the world is changing and we cannot hold our children back from changing with it. Time to try to understand, to acknowledge that all that is different is not bad, that different lifestyles and different beliefs might not signify immorality.

It’s time.