marriage Posts

Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”


I have spent a good deal of the past fifty years of my life with these ‘first millennium Romans’. I have learnt their languages as well as I can. I have read a good deal of the literature they have left us ( no one has read it all), and I have studied some of the hundreds of thousands of books and papers written over the centuries about them, from Machiavelli and Gibbon to Gore Vidal and beyond. I have tried to decipher the words they carved into stone, and I have dug them up, quite literally, on wet, windy and unglamourous archaeological sites in Roman Britain. And I have wondered for a long time about how best to tell Rome’s story and to explain why I think it matters. … .

I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill advised. … .

But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing. 

We do not want to follow Cicero’s example, but this clash with the bankrupt aristocrat, or popular revolutionary, with which I started this book still underlies our views of the rights of the citizen and still provides a language for political dissent: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ The idea of ‘desolation’ masquerading as ‘peace’, as Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome’s British enemies, still echoes in modern critiques of imperialism. And the lurid voices that are attributed to the most memorable Roman emperors have always raised the question of where autocratic excess ends and a reign of terror begins. 

(Mary Beard, SPQR, p. 534-6)

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard takes its title from a famous Roman Romecatchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of SPQRRome’. For a scholar who has lived with her subject for nearly half a century to produce a clean narrative and create a thoroughly readable book, not packing it with jargon is indeed very commendable. As she says in the opening pages of the book her intention is to write a story that “has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence — a single fragment of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone”. What is truly incredible with crystal clear clarity she make innumerable connections with the literature (written material, myths and oral legends) left by the Romans to the evidence found at archaeological sites and linking it to contemporary politics. Not for a moment does it become dull. One of my favourite examples is how she analyses the founding myth or legend of Rome to the legend of Romulus and Remus, linking it to Cicero, and interestingly enough to Benito Mussolini. Apparently the nurturing wolf was an addition made in the fifteenth century explicitly to capture the founding myth Wolf and baby twinsand baby twins. But copies of the famous image are found all over the world thanks to Mussolini who distributed them far and wide as a symbol of Romanita. Later she adds that Livy was one of the Roman sceptics who tried to rationalise this particularly implausible aspect of the tale. “The Latin word for ‘wolf’ ( lupa) was also used as a colloquial term for ‘prostitute’ ( lupanare was one standard term for ‘brothel’). Could it be that a local whore rather than a local wild beast had found and tended the twins?” ( p.59) Similarly throughout the book there are many more examples of such absorbing detail. Whether it be about marriage, politics, elections, citizenship, status of women, adoption, warfare, military, trade, migration etc.

For those in Italy and Britain who live surrounded by Roman ruins and have constant engagement with Roman history this book must be utterly fascinating. Mary Beard has a wonderful agreeable style of writing that makes the history of ancient Rome accessible to everyone. It is not a prerequisite that a fair understanding of the history is required. And yet she has packed SPQR with a detailed bibliography, a timeline, an index and plenty of illustrations/photographs that it can work for the lay reader or the scholar.

In India most Indians go about their daily lives doing exactly what this book is spelling out — talking about the huge impact mythology and ancient literature has had through the ages and in modern times. Indians do it all the time with their oral traditions, myths, folklore and ancient texts. A testimony to this is the immensely successful commercial fiction. It is a fine art by contemporary storytellers to create fantastical stories that blend the modern with the ancient and myth with history. Since these writers are not historians like Mary Beard they take full advantage of their creative license to spin imaginative yarns. Whereas Mary Beard points out in the utterly fascinating SPQR that there is sufficient empirical evidence at ancient Roman archaeological sites whether in Italy or abroad to prove much of the written records inherited over two millennia is more or less authentic.

SPQR has been on the list for many literary prizes including the inaugural British Book Industry Awards, in the adult category for the 10th IBW Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle — deservedly so!

Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Profile Books, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 600 Rs 2250 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India) 

5 April 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Anne-Marie Slaughter “Unfinished Business”

unfinishedbizSheryl Sandberg and I agree on many things. We both encourage women to speak up and take their place at the table; we both want to see many structural changes in the workplace. To some extent the difference between us is largely a matter of which side of the equation to emphasize — a difference that, on my side, at least, is a function of relative age. I would have written a very similar book to Lean In at forty-three, Sandberg’s age when she published her book. My kids were very young and I had never met a work-life challenge that I could not surmount by working harder or hiring people to help out. By fifty-three, when I wrote my article, I found myself in a different place, one that gave me insight into the circumstances and choices facing the many women who have found that for whatever reason, leaning in simply isn’t an option. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business was published in 2015. It is a book based upon her extremely popular article published in the Atlantic in 2012, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” (July/Aug 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/ ). It went viral. Three years later this book was published and another article in the Atlantic. This time by her husband, Prof. Andrew Moravcsik called, “Why I Put My Wife’s Career First” ( Oct 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/10/why-i-put-my-wifes-career-first/403240/ ). She also did a TED talk in 2013, ‘Can we all “have it all”?’   ( https://www.ted.com/talks/anne_marie_slaughter_can_we_all_have_it_all?language=en ).

Of late there have been many conversations about women, feminism, the work and home balance etc. Many puritanical feminists firmly believe that men should do their share of household chores and chipping in with parenting etc. Many women are made to feel wretched for not being professional enough at work if they mention their children and family responsibilities as being of concern too. Many women are denied opportunities to grow professionally for being mothers and having a family. Being a single woman or preferably a woman without children raises the chances of professional growth exponentially. But seriously, is it important to lean in so much that either work or family suffers? Why cannot it all be seen as a slow dance that evolves and grows?

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Unfinished Business is the feminist bible for now.  Another text may come along and replace it very soon given with what speed content is being uploaded on the internet. But for now this book works wonderfully well. Its arguments about striking the balance, importance of family and institutional support for working women, essential to have male role models like her husband who opted to look after the children without any hassles and of keeping egos at bay. Many marriages fall apart since it is so deeply ingrained in society that the man should be earning more than the wife and if roles are reversed, even when the husband is supportive, societal pressure can get to be so much that it puts undue stress on the relationship.

Personally I feel that many of the institutional structures are based on a very fixed linear notion of how time operates, inevitably a patriarchal construct. Whereas most women work on “stolen time” especially when there are children involved and they are the primary caregivers. Alas, it is this masculine interpretation of time as being linear that dominates our daily function. Motherhood is a slow, nurturing process and sometimes it is the mother’s presence that is required more than the father’s — an argument that may not go well with too many traditional feminists. Similarly with work responsibilities and one’s career. But it is true. Feminism is not simply about being empowered by acquiring more masculine characteristics to prove that irrespective of being born a woman, you can do everything on an equal if not a better footing than a man. Modern day feminism is about being an empowered woman who has the ability to voice her opinion, make her choices and stand by them. Women negotiate and make choices on a daily basis in whichever space they inhabit. This is why Unfinished Business is relevant for everyone.

Read it.

Anne-Marie Slaughter Unfinished Business Oneworld Publisher, London, 2015. Pb. pp. 330. Rs 499

24 February 2016

 

Nell Zink, “The Wallcreeper”

The WallcreeperNell Zink’s debut novel, The Wallcreeper, was published in 2014. (It has recently been followed by Mislaid.) The Wallcreeper is a slim novel, about Tiffany and Stephen who met when they were colleagues at a pharmaceutical firm in Philadelphia USA. They married within few weeks and relocated to Berlin, Germany. Tiffany learns, “I wasn’t a feminist. Even men in their seventies…would raise their eyebrows when I said I had followed my husband from Philadelphia to Berne and then to Berlin. I couldn’t come up with a step I’d taken in life for my own sake.” The Wallcreeper  is also about birding, open marriage, environmental activism and later, environmental sabotage too.

From the opening line of the novel you are hooked to the story. “I was looking at the map when Stephen swerved, hit the rock, and occasioned the marriage.” The novel continues in the same calm, confident, feisty and forthright tone. The former bricklayer and secretary, fifty-year-old Nell Zink was published for the first time last year at the insistence of Jonathan Franzen. She had written a fanzine to him a few years ago. Upon reading her prose that she began sending him regularly, he persuaded her to stop writing for an audience of one and consider a larger readership. Her debut novel, The Wallcreeper, had already been accepted by a small press called Dorothy that specialises in women’s writing. So Nell Zink’s second novel, Mislaid, was represented by Franzen’s agent and got Zink a six-figure advance. Both the novels have received a resounding reception in USA and are soon to be available in India too.

When you write for an audience of one, it is inevitable that the writing is imbued with a rawness and a sense of intimacy that is refreshingly confident. It a no-holds-barred style of writing. Surprisingly Nell Zink’s novels are churned out rapidly in a period of three weeks. They are well structured, with no flabbiness to the prose and bring in pithy observations on issues such as science, ethics, environment, feminism, freedom, the institution of marriage etc. On marriage, Nell Zink writes, “Marriage isn’t a sacrament. It’s just a bunch of forms to fill out. It either works or it doesn’t. Do what you want.” She is an eclectic and voracious reader judging by the literary references sprinkled throughout the novel. Otherwise how else do you account for a casual reference made yoking together Stanislaw Lem and The World of Apu in one paragraph? ( The World of Apu is a 1959 Bengali film drama made by noted filmmaker Satyajit Ray. It was based on the 1932 Bengali novel, Aparajito, by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay.) She writes as people would speak when sure that their statements are being made in confidence. The one-liners that are embedded throughout her story come across as off-the-cuff perceptive comments that seem to have been carried over from the spoken word onto paper and fixed. This probably occurs due to the speed at which she thinks and writes prose. It is an incredible form of writing.

The cover design for the book is stupendous showing a wallcreeper feather. Yet I cannot help but think the design is Burial Ritesvery similar to another fantastic debut novel, Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

This profile of Nell Zink in the New Yorker by Kathryn Schulz published on 18 May 2015 is fabulous. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/05/18/outside-in . Some other links worth reading are:

Robin Romm, review of The Wallcreeper, NYT, 17 Oct 2014  http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/19/books/review/nell-zink-wallcreeper-review.html?_r=0

From the Guardian, January 2015: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jan/04/nell-zink-jonathan-franzen-clear-distinction-taking-career-seriously-writing-seriously

The Paris Review, December 2014:  http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/12/08/purity-of-essence-one-question-for-nell-zink/

An interview in  Vice, June 2015: http://www.vice.com/read/nell-zink-is-damn-free-585

A profile in The Literary Hub, May 2015: http://lithub.com/the-mislaid-plans-of-nell-zink/

I cannot recommend this book enough. It is not necessarily only for the story, but the style too.

Nell Zink The Wallcreeper Fourth Estate, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, London, 2014. Hb. pp.168 

4 September 2015 

 

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

Veena Venugopal, “The Mother-in-Law”

( I read Veena Venugopal’s fabulous book, The Mother-in-Law, in one sitting. Instead of posting a review online, I immediately wrote her an email.  It was a mad flurry of emails one morning. What follows is an edited version of our conversation. )

The Mother-in-Law8 July 2014

Dear Veena,

I finally finished reading your book. Earlier I had only dipped into it. But last night I sat up till well after 1am reading it through.

Fantastic work! Thank you for making these vices public and not making them only the purview of the Saas-Bahu serials.

What stomach-churning experiences you have recounted. What is horrifying is that these are real. You do not intrude into the narrative too much but without having the personal, how can you possibly write something like this? Everyone has a mother-in-law story. I wonder why you only stuck to the arranged marriage route? Unfortunately the 12 stories you include in book only confirm the MIL image as being a dragon, a nasty one at that too. (Bollywood is going to have a gala time using your stories for their films. Think about it.)

I have always maintained that the worst perpetrators of crimes and violence towards women are other women. Also the most manipulative, shrewd, wily and preservers of patriarchal traditions are women. I am not making excuses for men at all but stating a point of view I have evolved. This is after spending years of working in the development sector, with feminist publishing houses, engaging with women’s NGOs, mapping the women’s movement visually etc.

I am absolutely stunned by the impressive work you have done. It must have drained you to be privy to so many conversations, gently teasing out these narratives is not easy. For the reader they read smoothly but did you actually write these essays in one fell swoop? Surely you went back and forth. I ask since traumatised women tend to gloss over a lot of details or create these fictional bridges at the heart of which lies the truth. So to create a clear story as you have done calls upon some sharp journalistic skills and a sensitivity that is commendable. The women you have profiled too are brave to come forth and share their stories.

Years ago the newspapers used to carry regular news stories about dowry deaths. At least it kept the conversations about domestic violence alive. People may or may not have been sensitised to it. It resulted in the Domestic Violence Act and much more. But now that DV has been “addressed”, it has been wiped off the news pages, thus silencing a crime that continues to exist. I suspect it is getting worse with the greed for material comforts.  I have a theory and I have not tested it as yet. The more our society gains in creature comforts and the middle class is able to show-off its wealth, the women are fast becoming the victims to this new form of imprisonment–birds in a gilded cage. The women are bejewelled, wearing only branded stuff, splurging money on retail therapy, always smiling and available for chit-chat, gossip; ultimately representative in direct proportion to their family’s prosperity. It makes me gasp at times. I flinch internally when women with smiles plastered on their faces tell me “Oh, I am happy all the time”, but scratch the surface and stories come tumbling out. I see how well-educated, professional women have been mocked at by their husbands for pursuing their dreams. …their husbands have thrown money at them and said, stop working for measly amounts. If it is money you want, I will give you more but forget this job. Made the wives quit. Mostly made the women cite the reason of the children and family’s health. It makes me wince since I feel helpless. I do not know what to do about it.

Your book The Mother-in-Law gives a peep into the complicated world these middle class women inhabit. There are constraints that they have to take into account. There is no point in putting the women down for appreciating a bit of material comfort, but at the cost of being shackled to a mind-numbing degrading life baffles me. I am so glad you have written this book. You have made public the daily struggles most women go through to achieve these balances. Thank you for writing this book.

….

What truly saddens me is that these stories never end. It is a vicious cycle.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

 

Dear Veena,

A short postscript to what I wrote earlier.

I like the fact you kept reiterating that a supportive husband is very essential. Also laying down the ground rules early on in the marriage. If this book of yours can become a handy manual for young women on the threshold of marriage, I would be truly happy. More than that, I suspect it is the women/brides who have to be mentally and physically very strong to prepare for an Indian marriage. I liked it when you said aggressive feminism is here to stay. Unfortunately many young women of today seem to take much of the freedom they relish as “for granted”. They are unable to see the struggles many before them went through to achieve this basic freedom and dignity. Also it is like a mirage. It is there and yet not. It is the daily negotiations that are important to keep that flicker of breathing space available. For that to happen women need to be able to see the injustice and most importantly have a language to articulate it, without going off the handle. If only the grooming and etiquette classes held regularly included a component or two of gender studies/workshops on how to recognise and address silences. Not necessarily make these spaces in the activist mode but in a genteel manner, infused with forceful ideas. Otherwise the women who have signed up for the classes will run a mile!

I may be speaking in a garbled fashion for now but I simply had to send these emails off to you asap.

With warm wishes,

JAYA

PS A supportive and understanding husband is a rarity!

 

Thank you so much Jaya, it is heartening and encouraging to receive a mail like this from you.

The book was hard to write and I must confess I struggled with the voice right through it. I started my research for the book with Rachna’s story, when she had met Gaurav for the first time. I thought it hilarious, this very Rajinder Nagar mother-in-law taking her under her wing, going on shopping sprees and movie dates. And I assumed all the stories would be like that– a caricature of all the stereotypes of mothers-in-law that one hears about. It shocked me how quickly the stories turned dark. And as the year progressed, I began to worry about Rachna. I remember Copote was annoyed waiting for a verdict on the murderers so he could finish his book. I truly hoped Rachna would dump Gaurav and get out from Auntyjis iron fist even though it would mean that i wouldn’t be able to use her story.

And then I met Deepa and Nikita and Keisha and the stories kept getting worse and worse. Some of them are active on Facebook. Keisha for example is one. And if you saw her profile or read her posts you wouldn’t believe that she lived that life. I was very, very disturbed after meeting Keisha. And eventually came Arti and I couldn’t sleep for a week. Her story is the worst. And the strangest thing was how easy it was to find these stories.

The interviews themselves were spread over a period of time. I would ask them the same question in various different ways. I would point out inconsistencies in their telling of an incident. It was hard to ascertain the authenticity of their stories. I am sure if I spoke to their mothers-in-law I would have got their side of the story, but no one would have been honest knowing fully well that I had a channel of communication to their MIL. (Most of the stories were love marriages in fact. Only Lalitha, Arti and Rachna’s were arranged.)

I agree with you about violence in families. It is during the research for the book that I began to start railing against the term “fabric of Indian society”. Arun Jaitley used it a lot in keeping marital rape outside of the new rape law. The fabric of Indian society is a soiled rag, sadly, and I see no reason why it should be preserved. It is appalling the kind of abuse people take. With Keisha especially I kept wondering why. It is, I suppose, easy to be an uninvested third party and see clearly that she should have got out long ago. But she felt a certain urge to not worry her aunt, her grandmother. And I suppose because of the fact that her aunt didn’t marry in order to look after Keisha, she feels that love is necessarily an unconditional sacrifice. I see her now, she is the first to “Like” any post about the book. She was desperate to get copies of it. I think for her participating in the book was her final retribution. She gets a great degree of joy from the fact that her story is out there.

… I think I should use the book to build a community of daughters-in-law – give them a place to vent. At the end of the day, that’s what most people want – a forum where they don’t have to pretend that everything is hunky dory in their family. I just worry that i don’t have the bandwidth to run that along with my job. Like you said, these stories never end, and if just talking about it makes people temper their future behaviour, then it should be worth squeezing some time out for…Let’s see.

The ideal husband is a rarity, I know, but I’m hoping there are more mothers out there raising some than there were in the past.

Warmly

Veena

 

Dear Veena,

Do you realise that your interest in putting together a forum for women is to step into a vacuum left by many women organisations drifting away from this focus? It has been now over a decade but fewer and fewer women NGOs maintain helplines. The time required to listen and counsel victims/women and their community is a mind-numbing and thankless task. Also it is not recognised as a crucial need. I guess more of a social service. So there is no funding available for these activities. Your idea is a good one …Just remember to think this through. Helping women or any individual should not be a lifetime crutch, but a brief sounding board to help them address their challenges and to face the world. Otherwise you will be an emotional wreck.

I am not surprised at Keisha “liking” Facebook posts abt the book. There are many women who are in a much messed-up space. Sometimes, and I do not know if this makes me a coward, I simply do not want to know. The horrifying stories one sees more than hears is very depressing. I used the word “sees” advisedly. Many times you see these women trotting about all dolled up, but observe carefully and you will see the chinks. Try telling me that a slim gym-going figure, well-groomed, well-dressed young mother, carrying a new born infant in her arms and doing the school run with the older kid has not been put through pressure to look respectable to the outside world. It worries me about the women and for their children. And these are the middle class and nouveau riche I am talking about. It is equally worse for women of other socio-economic strata. I am not generalising.

Women’s movements have really painted women into a corner. It is only a clutch of women who can speak with confidence about injustices they experience or perceive. Others now have this dual burden of being a professional and efficient at home. This is where I feel your book is showing the chinks. Look at the amount of stress these women are subjected to?

…..

With warm wishes,

Jaya

 

Veena Venugopal The Mother-in-Law: The Other Woman in Your Marriage. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, 2014. Pb. Pp. 264 Rs. 299.