This is a guest post by Suchitra Vijayan
When I first read the Myth of Sappho, I was reasonably troubled that a famed Greek poetess would jump off the Leucadian cliffs for love of Phaon, a deeply flawed man. Why would a woman like Sappho kill herself over unrequited love? Did she not realise that she deserved better than the love of a loathsome man? Rationality dictates that no life is worth giving up for another. But the prudent pragmatist in me would beg another version, a rethinking. It was not unrequited love that made Sappho’s leap – a mainstay of our myth – it was something else. It was a comforting misogynistic tale attached as an afterthought, many hundred years after her death. First it suggested that a “woman” who had dared to trespass, and be different had to be mad all along. Second, the subversives always had to be reclaimed. Political rebels, internal subversives and non ideal types had to be tamed or done away with. In Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, a man “acquires” a headstrong woman as his bride. Minus the comedic sub-plots and slapstick humour, the bare bones of the story include “notoriously aggressive” Katherine and her “tamer” husband Petruchio. But Katherine is neither aggressive nor notorious, she wears her indescribable naivety and sheer straightforwardness with the innocent integrity of a woman who is comfortable in her skin. This sits uncomfortably with the author, readers and commentators. Later Petruchio drags Katherine away from her own wedding celebrations, insisting she is his “chattel”, he deprives her of food and sleep until she learns to bend her will to his entirely. Some have argued that Katherine subverts patriarchy by acting like a submissive wife, manipulating Petruchio to her ends. Whatever interpretation you choose to favor, the fact remains that the woman had to be tamed, she had to manifestly re-fashion her self to comply with the new set of realities. To win she had to transform herself into something else, someone she is not.
Feminism and its hard won victories are not simply about women having equal opportunities and better pay, they are about making it possible for women to be wholly who they are, to have the right to choose without being pigeon-holed into archetypes. Feminism means that Sappho’s right to be a poetess in a largely male dominated creative world; her love for women, her sexual desires and her act of political subversion can all exist without her story being rewritten after death, inventing an unrequited heterosexual love.
Sunanda Pushkar burst into the imagination of the nation through a tweet relating to the IPL equity in 2010. She was the “other woman”, the consort of a reigning Minister, quickly the scandalous vamp and a gold-digger. Hate, misogyny and acerbic vitriol were hallmarks in most reporting about her. Her “insatiable ambition”, her “Louis Vuitton victimhood”, her “peroxide blonde” highlights, her clothes and make up – all became symbols of a woman who simply did not resonate with our ideal type. Not only men of course but women too chimed in to create vindictive narratives, frequently dismissing her as a “wannabe”. Hélène Cixous in her essay The Laugh of the Medusa asserts, “Woman must write herself: must write about (other) women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies.” Yet, the way in which Pushkar’s body was made the centerpiece by another woman was deeply ironic: Vrinda Gopinath’s account Got A Girl, Named Sue And she knew just what to do: Sunanda’s eye-popping life-story may be considered the most acerbic of all salacious accounts about Pushkar, epitomised in the following extract, “ Sunanda was the p3p Queen of Masala Dubai, chasing the glittering mirage with vampire-like thirst—” “Dubai flash trash of peroxide hair streaks, heavy make-up, razzle-dazzle, seductive couture, false eyelashes, chrome nail paint, and Louis Vuitton victimhood. It was a sign of her arrival in the league of the neo-rich tycoons.”
In an interview with Tehelka, Sunanda Pushkar tried to reclaim her story. She spoke of early mistakes in life and love, about loss, doing odd jobs, becoming an entrepreneur, putting her brother through college, being a single mother and raising a son against all odds. If we did not know what Sunanda Pushkar looked like, we would have easily seen her as a modern day Nargis from Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. But she wasn’t. She did not fit our idealisation of a middle aged women. She was confident, brazzy and hot. Then she became Mrs. Tharoor and the world was still unkind. We had bestowed upon her the archetypal “vamp” title, but vamps don’t become wives. Like Katherine from Taming of the Shrew, Sunanda Pushkar was an unlikely figure who spoke her mind with a certain unbelievable naivety. Unlike other political wives who took the back seat, she was visible. She publicly commented on Article 370. Later, she made another candid remark, that she had to choose between being a wife and being a Kashmiri. When the question of Mr. and Mrs. Tharoor came up, journalists across the board had similar reactions in private – they smirked and followed it up by comments about the “old dog getting some”, or about Mrs. Tharoor’s haute couture choices.
The saga of the extramarital affair when it was ‘revealed’ only made things worse. Mrs. Tharoor and Ms. Mehr Tarar both took pot shots at each other and became engulfed in an avalanche of diatribe. Mr. Tharoor made a clinical statement and was at best chided for having a penchant for controversy and being a ladies man. But the women in this saga became the irrationally jilted and madly depressed wife; the whore and the femme fatale ISI agent seducing an unwitting man. We reduced them to madness-induced maidens fighting over a man, manipulative vixens and much more. Even the nationally famous Amul’s cartoon depicted two grown, accomplished women fighting over a man like a bunch of hormonal teenagers. Apparently, it is still the original sin of eve that leads to the fall of man.
Carol Karlsen’s study of witchcraft trials in both Europe and New England in The Devil in the Shape of a Woman found that a vast majority of the accused and executed women were often over forty, past their childbearing and childrearing years. They were women who did not fit the typical framework of a good, obedient wife – the one who is supposed to help reinforce the male-dominated structure of society. Karlsen shows in her study that the accused and executed women were predominantly those held in higher esteem by society; those who by exhibiting non-conformist views and employing independent judgment endangered male hegemony, and were often vilified by other women. Bounded submersion was one of the many tests instituted to confirm witchcraft allegations against these women. The accused women had their hands and legs bound, a heavy rock was attached to their body and they were cast into the water. If the body floated to the surface the accused was indeed a witch. If she drowned she was innocent. The accused were sentenced to death, much before an actual determination of guilt. How little have we changed?
The witch hunt that tore down Sunanda Pushkar is now focused on Mehr Tarar. The Twittersphere is full of hateful comments about her, succumbing to a garden-variety pettiness, vindictiveness and hysteria. Men and women have joined in to call her a whore and a home-wrecker. Ms. Tarar has herself gone on record in an interview saying that she is “only a housewife, a soccer mom”; how indeed could she be the philandering vamp she is made out to be, because we all know that a “good wife” can never be the vamp. Mehr Tarar, the journalist is gone. She will forever be infamous for her alleged dalliances, just as “Mrs. Tharoor” become the infamous “Sue” for her clinging sarees and peroxide blonde hair. Hélène Cixous said, “There is no greater love than the love the wolf feels for the lamb-it-doesn’t-eat.” Now the love is lost and the daggers are being drawn for another slaughter. May you rest in peace.