Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Tyranny of Beauty

I had a very interesting, if a little one-sided, conversation with an old friend from Ruia's theatre group who I ran into, not too inexplicably, at the Prithvi theatre fest way back in July. We were sitting in Prithvi cafe, that most favoured of suburban smoky pseudo-intellectual open-air hangouts. We were reminiscing about old times when we'd set out to stage the play, Hamlet, except we'd reversed the genders of all the characters. So now, there was a King with a manipulative second wife, who'd plotted to get rid of the Queen, and Hamlet was now a princess, called Hamda. Now, all this, of course, was in Hindi and ultimately, in my opinion, came off as more than a little soap-operatic on the stage (maybe that cant be helped becoz of the way Shakespeare actually wrote his plays). But we won the "Adapt a Shakespeare" inter-collegiate at Malhaar, and my friend, who played Hamda, was praised and uniformly feted by our college folks till pretty much the end of that year. My part in all this had been simply to read the original play and help the 'playwright' Tauseef translate it into suitably clear and correct Hindi.

She was telling me about how she'd found work in this experimental theatre group and I was very happy for her. She was surprised that I'd chosen to study medicine, thinking I wud have chosen to pursue more "literary inclinations" as she'd called them.

I told her that I quite frankly admired her gumption about having chosen to follow her passion for acting while pursuing a Batchelor of Arts degree. She told me that she occasionally modelled to earn some extra money, becoz "As everyone knows there's not much money in theatre unless you're Naseeruddin Shah, and even then it's a struggle."

She seemed to be in this strange confessional introspective mood, she kept telling me about how everyone, even in theatre, was more than a little obsessed with good looks. "It's not enuff that you're talented. You have to appear striking."

I pointed out that on the stage, you can be almost anyone almost, irrespective of what you look like. And it didn't really matter anyway becoz she was quite lovely looking herself.

"Thats just the problem, Karishma! I dont know if the people that say they like me, like me becoz of the way I look or becoz of who I am!"

I thought that all this was coming from someone in particular and I asked her that. She nodded, frowning a little. "Yeah. I dont know if thats why he liked me."

I didnt know how to respond to this, except to assure her that that cudnt be the case, at which point she said something that surprised me completely, though I cant say I was shocked.

"Its so different for you, Kari! People like you always get other people to like you for your mind. You're cute but you know what I'm saying. I mean, its just different for me."

What she left unsaid was plain to me. I wasnt pretty like her. She thought that for some reason that that worked to my advantage, becoz I knew people genuinely liked me for my, ahem, my thoughts and "my nature", apparently.

I wud be lying if I said the thought stated in words was a little hurtful to me. But it is the truth after a fashion.

Besides, being a friend, I had to offer comfort. So I said to her what I firmly believe, "It doesnt matter what you look like, atleast not after the first few days. The people we love become beautiful for us. Honestly, if you met someone you liked right now, you'd smile and feel this warm rush of emotion for them. You wudnt really take time to notice if their hair was messed up or if their shirt was crumpled. That's secondary. What's beautiful is the person."

I dont think I managed to convince her. "Yeah, but what about that very first time? Most people have already judged you by then. Love enters from the eyes and leaves through the eyes, like de Bernieres said."

"I dont believe that." I told her. "People who judge you the first time arent really worth all the trouble."

She looked directly at me, and I cud see contempt on her expressive face, "Yeah, well, atleast that's true. Anyway, Kari, you're too idealistic!"

The conversation came to a rather premature stop while we sipped masala chai and then, she met a friend of hers who called her away. I sat under the tree for a while wondering about how other female mammals had it so much easier than us. In the animal kingdom, only the males worried about vanity. How had humans got it all reversed, then?

The answer must lie in the exaggeration of the ideas of beauty that humans indulge in. So much so that even the very beautiful are bothered by these ideas. And if that is true, thenI do really wonder if beauty cud be more than a little over-rated. Guess I'm not that idealistic after all.


T. said...

Im glad u told me u wrote this considering i'm in it too. deepi's right in her way n u're right in urs. but translating that play was fun hahaha remember that day u were like "what does moharroom mean? what is intehkaal?" lol n u know what, we all loved u the moment we saw u. u were like this ball of warmth and energy.u were like the sun cookie! :-D

Mohit said...

The grass is always greener on the other side.

Tangled up in blue... said...

Dear, dear T.! Always the fence-sitter! :P Thanks for calling me a star, tho which is what the sun is..and yes, you sure had a whale of a time noticing and pointing out loudly that my Hindi sucked. But well, not all of us have lived in Lucknow the major chunk of our lives I hope you know.

Leo, oh yes.

R said...

hahah sun- cookie. i think i would like to meet you, Karishma :)
Idealism is over-rated. Inevitably leads to cynicism and/or disillusionment.

Deeksha said...

I don't know if I can say this with authority (because I have not grasped it overall yet), but honestly speaking I feel I have a certain authority simply because, and this is without any claim to present glory and past heroism, I have been on both sides of the fence as far as dealing with people is concerned.

We cannot reduce these matters to an equation. Good looks = attention = like/love, Liking someone for 'themselves'.....these are simplistic attempts at understanding something very complex and ironical.

I will never deny the impact of the physical. Often we become drunk on our own (pseudo?) intellectualism and pretend to be above the body. We are not, we can never be, and we mustn't try. Why and Why not people develop affections for each other entails so many intricacies, physical and beyond, and so many subconscious decisions and 'deals' (is it worth it? Is it not?)that to develop a theory about it is impossible.

It gets even more complicated for women, who (their intellectual selves) will forever have an intimate relationship with their bodies for obvious reasons. I don't think a man will ever get it. To be able to connect both is something I find even the most gifted of us (physically and/or mentally) struggle with. I personally believe a woman's physicality and her perceptions about it are an important part of her. But only when she has found a way to discover and nurture this connection. It is unfortunate that the means of expression of feminine sexuality largely coincide with the means of objectification of her body, and that both are stigmatized in a way that hinders open exploration of either.

Personally, I do not see the poin in falling in love with a man who does not do a double take upon seeing me. :)

pankaj said...

oh, mai kitni sundar hun, oh mai kitni dukhi hun.

Tangled up in blue... said...

Riddhi, I'd love to meet you, too! And totally agree. Idealism is more often than not ill-starred.

Pankaj, :D Yeah, thats pretty much how it goes.

Dee, thank you for that comment. It gives me a lot to think about. I see that you have thought about this a whole lot more than I have. I also see which side you prefer to be on, and why. :) To each, her own, I guess.

Anushka said...

You know,I have this BURNING desire to take part in Shakespearan production, anything from purist to experimental adaptaion. I'd even play Rosenkrantz/Gildenstern, or little boy Macduff if I had to. Hamlet is one the best things that ever happened to me.
But for the rest of your post... I have a strange instinctive feeling that what your friend meant about you was- that you're physically attractive but despite that, people tend to love you more for your mind. The focus is not on the amount of beauty you lack, but on what is the thrust of your appeal, and Would have been even if you looked different (better/worse).

Anushka said...

in a*

Antara said...

We always want we can't have. Idealism and the search for love has been long fraught with annoyance. Often enough, it comes out in ways that we cannot predict, such as this.

JD said...

I guess Leonardo's comment sums it up.
There's a quaint sort of ruefulness in what your friend said. I think all theater-folk go through that phase in some form or the other!

Tangled up in blue... said...

Anushka, I know! It was one of the best things that happened to me, too! I always thought Shakespeare plays were for snotty show-offs, but there is a lyricism and depth in the language, if not in the plots that makes Hamlet one of the best things I've ever read.

And that's an interesting way to interpret her words, perhaps, I was too easily stung then and I never tried to look at what she said another way.

Tangled up in blue... said...

Antara, indeed! I wish this much-exalted process wasn't so annoying in real life.

JD, that just sucks becoz its so unfair! Some of the most passionate and talented folks work on stage. I hate that their talent doesn't bring them the recognition they deserve.

JD said...

@TUIB It absolutely does suck, no two ways about it. There's immense amounts of talent there, almost all unrecognized. Which is why that sadness is there in all that is talent :)

Old Fitz said...

beauty is the culturally conditioned eye of the beholder.

Old Fitz again said...

*is in the

Tangled up in blue... said...

JD, I understand the subtext in this conversation better now. You guys all helped. Thanks.

Fitz, :D

Ketan said...


There was so much to observe and ponder in what you wrote. In fact, everything is so complex that my own thoughts are going to be quite intense a flux.

What I wish to write here is about myself. As you might know, it is only once that I had been in what I considered "true love". Your observation of how who we love automatically starts looking beautiful rings pretty true. My ex-girlfriend (I don't know why I detest this term "girlfriend"; I feel it objectifies the woman/lady), I know, did not look beautiful. Just a few days back, I had added her as a friend on my Facebook account, and I was going through her album. I felt an automatic curling of my lips breaking into a smile. Just a look at her smiling photo was sufficient to make me smile my most careless, mirthful smile. And then there was this barb when I realized that it was all over. I am describing things exactly the way they happened, and I am not the one who likes to indulge in rhetoric for the effect.

Anyway, when we were in relationship, I had been pretty clear why I liked her (or at least why I thought I liked her), though she had always maintained that she was not as introspective as me, and she liked me "just like that". She had on occasions told me that she had developed a crush on me the very first time she had seen me smile. Though amused and somewhat flattered, this knowledge had always kept me somehow insecure. So, the seed of her liking for me was sowed by something as inconsequential as how my smile looked?

Of course, all of the above is not to mean that she was a superficial person. She had always been someone I could connect with very well on an emotional front. I felt no need to have a 'guard' in revealing myself to her....

Ketan said...

...Then, we broke up.

Then, a two years later, in an online chat, we were discussing one of the precipitating events that had led to our breakup (which was of course multifactorial, perhaps this event only served as the proverbial 'last straw'). On one occasion, she had asked me to not tell something she had told about her (by then almost estranged friend) to one of my best friends. I had explained to her why I needed to tell the same to my best friend. The next day I had revealed it to my best friend & also informed her that I had done so. While discussing this (two years later), she told me she had concluded that I had defied her only to satisfy my ego. I was heart-broken. I realized my ex-GF had never really understood me. The degree to which I had 'submitted' myself to her had left no room for any kind of oneupmanship. Despite my breakup, which had been very painful, I had all along thought that at least for 10 months for which the relationship had lasted, it was the most idealistic relationship possible. But with that chat I had realized I had been wrong. After our breakup, she had approached me twice during the internship to reconcile, but I had 'moved on' (the breakup had been on her 'initiation') and more important, been not ready to enter a committed relationship till I would become financially more self-sufficient. So, I asked her during the chat, "if you thought I had ego-problems to the tune that I would defy your wishes only to serve my ego, why did you approach me in the internship? Don't you realize, it is harmful and wrong to be in relationship with someone having such ego-problems?" (I did not ask in anger; I was quite genuinely curious). She repeated, "I don't know, I just loved you"....

Ketan said...

...It was at that point, I was forced to conclude that her undying attraction had most fundamentally something to do with the first time she had seen me smile. When the above chat had occurred, I knew I was disturbed, but somehow I had chosen to not ponder over it. It is just a two days back that I again thought all about my relationship. I had been thinking of it as one monumental 'achievement' to have been in such a beautiful relationship, but when my realizations hit me with full force, I was filled with an emptiness I cannot describe. I for the first time, felt that I had "wasted" those ten months of my life. There is nothing else, nothing else, I repeat, that I felt was a wastage of my life. I could not get the feeling out that all I was liked for by the love of my life was my smile. Perhaps, that is a very unidimensional and uncharitable thing to say about that relationship, but well, I cannot get the feeling out of my mind...

I typed out the above rant, because I just wanted to be heard. :)

Sorry, TUIB. And I also understand fully what your theater-friend meant, though, her doubts (evidently) must be much more valid than are mine. :)

Had I been in your place, I would not have thought of assuring being the purpose of my talk with her. Perhaps, I might have ended up only bolstering her suspicions in my attempts to be honest. :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

I think people's physical appearances have often been, and in our times, often are a great source of trouble and insecurity, whether they admit it to themselves or not.

I personally fail to understand why being loved for your smile wud be so disturbing to you.But I hope you do find peace of mind about it.

I wish there was something I cud say to reassure you as well. But I am certain if that was the initial attraction, then she must have found a lot to appreciate in you since then, Ketan, as we all do. Take care. :)

Ketan said...

Hahaha! Of course, I don't think all she liked in me was my smile. :)

Doubt is this: did she like me, I.e., Ketan (K) or Ketan-primed (K'). How disparate were K & K'? I could never know who her K' was. I had valued that relationship so much because I was K, but turns out she was in love with K'. Of course, in every relationship we after all love an image only, so why am I complaining? Because, the love felt by K was of much, much higher order than what could have ever been felt by K' (who was a conceited being willing to defy his lover for some cheap oneupmanship).

So, all the love that was requited by her was for K' & NOT K. How can I partake in love meant for such a lowly species as K'? Turns out, I had been - for 10 whole months, and perhaps even more. I hope I could explain why this realization ended up being a personal crisis of such great magnitude.

What is the connection of this crisis with her loving me for my smile?

You guessed it quite right - the fear of her having been primarily attracted to me owing to something as physical & inconsequential as a smile.

Did I want my other (than smile) qualities to be appreciated?

No, at least not in the simplistic sense. It's just that I wanted that love to be for me (K) & not K'. It's a different matter, I consider love (and the submission it entails) as the highest form of appreciation.

I think I will never be able to get the feeling out of my mind that I "wasted" those 10 months, but now perhaps what's changed in last few hours is that I'm quite alright with such wastage. After all, everyone makes mistakes & there would be many more such 10 months to waste in my life. :D

I'm sure, none of what I write above is difficult for you to understand, though you might find it patently silly, but such is the warped world of a hyper-romantic as yours truly! :D

Thanks a lot for your patient hearing & goodwill! As you might be able to make out, I'm feeling lot better. You can take the credit for writing a very insightful post that acted as a laxative... oops, cathartic for me! :P And mind you, it facilitated catharsis on a very significant issue in my life. So, thanks again! :)

Take care. :)

Ketan said...

And BTW I never thought someone would've possess the linguistic balls to say *your* Hindi sucked. But apparently, someone (Taufeeq) did! :D

Tangled up in blue... said...

Haha..everyone just keeps getting his name wrong..thats why he calls himself just T. :D Well, Ketan, my most proficient, but slightly ill-tempered playwright friend has the superior advantage of having taken Urdu as second language for most of his academic life. And since he's from Lucknow, he finds Mumbaiyya Hindi decidedly barbaric. :D Altho you're right, my Hindi most certainly does not suck! ;)

And you know what? K and K' are both you really. Or K' is a subset of K. How we are perceived by others is just a small portion of our own true selves. Your smile is a part of the rest of you. And I dont think a smile is inconsequential at all. I use that expression quite a lot actually. :D So, on its behalf, I'd say you're underappreciating yours. :P

And I am glad you feel better now. That's what friends are for! :D

Tangled up in blue... said...

As far as my understanding goes Urdu words are often intermixed with the 'Khadi boli' in Lucknow and which is why it sounds richer than the short-cuts people adopt with languages in Bombay. I most certainly am not overly familiar with the language, so I didn't know those words back then. My Hindi's mostly learned from Bollywood films. But you most certainly do. :)

I'll ask him what, what was that again? "Bemurravat" means. :D

I dont think it's weird. You have a different way of perceiving events from me. Or maybe everyone has a uniquely different perspective.

In that sense, Ketan, I truly wonder if we can ever truly "know" another person. We only perceive a minuscule part of their minds' function. What they represent to us may not even be their true self. In that sense, we must be truly isolated.

Also, I don't think it wud be fair to completely deny the presence of the physical and its links with our mind. Our body is a great instrument and to consider it so terribly inferior to our minds seems unfair, no?

I have a friend, Parth, who has similarly attenuated facial expressions.

Once I kept asking him why he wasn't happy with his result. And he burst out with, "I am happy! People can't keep smiling all the time to prove they're happy. And that they're smiling doesn't mean they're happy. Not everyone's like you!" is what he said.

I was a little hurt that he had assumed I don't understand this already. But well, he is poker-faced and I don't really ask him about his feelings since. Must be a touchy topic with him.

One more thing, holding a normal person up to "highly idealised" standards also doesn't really look to give the best results. That is simply becoz people aren't ideal. But I'm sure I'd be oversimplifying this since I know you must understand this already. Just felt I shud say it.

Again, I am glad you feel better. And trust me, whatever I wrote I believed to be accurate when I wrote it. My intention was not to give false hope or hollow assurances. :) You, take care, too/ :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

*But you most certainly do know a lot of words, I can see.

Ketan said...

*Warning*: absolutely politically incorrect comment ahead. :D

I tried to think the way you suggested about connection with the physical, but I still couldn't find one, at least not a strong one.

The closest I came to what you suggest is because of my alopecia. I believe I used to look lot better before my losing my hair. I do feel bad sometimes looking into the mirror. But I do not know if that is because I look worse now or because I feel a sense of 'loss'.

I believe, a few girls had liked me [they never told me, but I trust my mind reading abilities in something as slippery as this also! :D ] for my general conduct, intelligence & perhaps, sense of humor and yet I found their liking for me superficial and I never took it seriously. That's because except for intelligence that might come through even without my trying, the conduct and sense of humor are very well thought-out constructs. My conduct is usually not what I feel like doing, but is what I feel is the *correct* thing to do [I'm less spontaneous/impulsive than most]. And there is always an agenda for using humor. In the past it largely used to be to see others around happy, but now even more than before I use it because I would want to deflect attention away from the *real* me (I don't know why, perhaps, it's my haughtiness that I believe very few people 'deserve' to know me). Of course, I'm mostly cheerful with my closest friends and without overt pretense. :)

I again feel there is a need to strike a distinction between 'idealized relationship' and 'idealized life partner'. I somehow don't feel that for a relationship to be ideal, the partner also needs to be as such. In fact, I feel even with slight incompatibility what I think to be ideal relation can be established. :) [I have a feeling you might be surprised by what I wrote :) ].

'Khadi boli' with Urdu words is called by some people as 'Hindustani', but some people do not recognize the existence of such an entity & feel it has been deliberately forced upon us. :) These are perhaps the people who might want to say "samachar patrika" instead of "akhbaar" and "hastaakshar" instead of "dastakhat"! ;)

Tangled up in blue... said...

I wudnt pretend to really understand all of that about ideal relationships, I consider myself really ill-equipped to do so. But I think, in this case, atleast, to each, his/her own.

I really have not given it as much thought as you have. I don't think some things can be so thoroughly analysed. But I have come to see, in this respect, we are very different. :)

Personally, and I've had this argument with Tauseef as well as other language purists I know, I think language is meant for communication primarily. And, therefore, sneering at someone attempting to communicate with you, as a lot of people I've seen from "convent schools" do with people from "non-English medium" schools is very wrong and it's completely missing the point of the English language, which is a bottom-feeder.

I think a language must be learned either out of necessity or out of curiosity and then, nurtured out of love, if developed. So, language purists really get on my nerves when they judge people by virtue of the words they use and how they use them.

And what I meant about the connection with the physical was that, if I wanted to reach for a book and read it, my body helps me. So also to listen and sway to the music my mind loves. And to turn on the tv to watch an interesting movie. It is a fantastic instrument for our mind. I didnt mean in terms of beauty, which is again as Fitz pointed out up there, an extremely relative concept.

Tangled up in blue... said...

*which is a bottom-feeder and therefore, so successful at being widely spoken (the British colonial conquests apart).

Arumugam said...

"Personal beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference"- Aristotle

But in the end it doesnt matter whether one is ugly or beautiful-the body is still a curse because it opened up a gulf between the way one felt and the way one was seen.
The elephant man and the top model though at different ends of the fashion spectrum share a structurally identical psychological fate

PS:Elephant man is a movie by David Lynch,one of the moving movies I have ever seen in my life.