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What We Talk About When We Talk About Freedom

Five kids in a garden were huddled together under the shade of the tree, whispering. Nobody else was around. But they talked hesitantly, as if they were forbidden to discuss it. Hence, their voices were hushed; voices that were urgent, amused, and thoughtful. Voices that could not be heard, seen or come to be known. It was two o’clock in the afternoon and the sun was not very gracious, but these voices kept mingling together under the shade of the tree, whispering.

Andy spoke first in her usual careless tone. Arjit, on the contrary, sounded quite grave and intense. Daniel was intrigued and confused, and Deepa sounded very frustrated. Ayan rarely spoke but everyone knew he was thinking.

ANDY [popping gum in her mouth]: Frankly, I do not know what this means.

DEEPA [scowling at her]: What’s there to know? Freedom is to be able to do anything you want.

DANIEL [Looking up at the sky, groaning]: Hey! I’m not allowed to do anything I want!

DEEPA [in a matter of fact tone]: That is because you are young.

AYAN [tying his shoelace]: Does freedom depend upon your state of being old or young?

Deepa frowned. Andy shrugged her shoulders. There was dust in the air and some of it had gone in Arjit’s eyes. He was rubbing them ferociously.

DEEPA [standing up]: There are different kinds of freedom, I suppose. Anyhow, we live in a free country, isn’t it? We should be glad about that.

ARJIT [still rubbing his eyes]: But I only heard yesterday that a journalist was burned for exposing some high status politician’s scandal. Looks like the politician implemented his freedom to do anything a little too much! [He added after a few seconds, laughing at Deepa]

Deepa started to speak but Arjit interrupted her. His voice had suddenly acquired a high tone. He liked it because it made him sound important.

ARJIT [with urgency and excitement]: And that’s not it. I sometimes hear my parents talk about certain sections of the society being mistreated, you know, for being impure and all. And there is more such news, much, much more. I don’t understand most of them but…but…it sounds terrible. We know how our elders are, right? Constantly droning on about freedom. Freedom this, Freedom that. Freedom, freedom, freedom. But freedom of what? Freedom from what? Freedom by what? I don’t think most people even know that they are in bondage, let alone know what bondage is.

[Pauses to catch his breath and then continues slowly]

I tried asking her, my teacher I mean, but she shunned me away, telling me to learn “Fundamental Rights.” Fundamental rights, she said! Huh! Those rights didn’t answer a single question of mine, let me tell you that.

DANIEL [mumbling]: I bet they didn’t! They never answer any of the questions in my exam either.

Everyone laughed.

The watch on Andy’s wrist struck half past two. The sun was still not gracious enough, but nothing would budge these five voices from sitting huddled under the shade of the tree. A certain restlessness hung in the air.

DANIEL: I am sure that politician was hanged though.

AYAN [calmly]: He ran away.

DANIEL: What about hunting of animals? Are they not allowed to be free? I sometimes play with my neighbours pet. I have never really thought about it but now I wonder if it ever feels free.

DEEPA [sighs]: Some of the stories, they don’t make it to the news but they exist all around us. My sister is in love with someone from a different background. She is doing computer engineering from the city and is so smart. She does everything on her own but she is not allowed to marry the person of her own choice. She decided to end the relationship only a month back. I asked her yesterday if she still loves that person. She said “no” but her voice broke down.

ANDY [aggressively]: My grandfather forces me to study our religious scriptures and it all seems very questionable to me. He exercises his authority a lot. I don’t like it. My parents say he loves me, that is why he does that.

AYAN [thoughtfully, singing almost]: There is no love without freedom.

DEEPA [frustrated]: Freedom…It seems to harbour so many restrictions.

AYAN: Fight for it.

ANDY: Huh?

AYAN: Don’t you know? You always have to fight for freedom. History tells us that.

ARJIT: Haven’t you heard that they are now condemning the man on our rupee notes? History reveres him as a great freedom fighter but now he is being condemned.

ANDY: I think everyone lives in some kind of bondage. We all are living in a system. I mean how can you be free? Won’t that impact the system?

DEEPA [angrily]: We are not wrecking the system. Marrying someone of your choice is not wrecking the system.

Silence followed. Was the restlessness in the air because of the heat? They asked themselves. But the sun was not ungracious anymore.

DANIEL [hesitantly]: Sometimes…I feel terribly afraid. I…I don’t feel free from myself very often.

The heat was subsiding now but the restlessness? It was still present. They heard other voices from the opposite direction. More kids had started coming to the garden.

DANIEL [suddenly]: Ayan, haven’t you ever felt caged?

AYAN [gazing up in the sky and speaking in an almost dazed tone]: I want to be free…free like this bird.

Everyone looked up and looked at a brown-coloured bird soaring in the sky, and murmured in agreement, whispering “me too.”

And then within a moment, out of the blue almost, the bird was hit by a rock thrown by someone from the opposite end of the garden, and it fell right in the front of the restless five voices in the garden who were huddled together under the shade of the tree, dead.

Written by Shanna Jain
Edited by Sukriti Vats
Photograph by Najma Shamim

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A Big Blue Paper Boat

When I lie on my bed today and close my eyes, I can still hear the murmurs of unsure excitement that passed through the crowd in my locality as we all sat on hunched knees and leaned forward to let ourselves hear the announcement. Had it been any other day, Ma would have ushered me to our house, all big-eyed and screechy. But today, as Baba said, was a different day, a new day. Why, I asked, and he just said that he had heard from ‘reliable sources’. “Today”, he said, “we will be free”. I thought about this for a moment. Did this mean I could stay past five at Noor’s place then? “No, of course not”, he said, shaking his head and clicking his tongue. “You don’t understand. The fair-skinned men, they are leaving now”. Were they the ones who had beaten up Kachru?, I asked. “Him, and all the others” he said. I didn’t know what to make of this.

I knew about the fair-skinned men, angrez, Noor had taught me. He always taught me new words. His Abba taught them to him. I liked Abba; he would stay around, and say things to Noor, and answer him. Baba mostly shooed me away if I bothered him too much. He also smoked too much around me, I felt; he smoked too much in general. But he did it around me too and even if I coughed sometimes, he would just stick the beedi between his teeth and remark, “What girl coughs like that”. Now—I remember as it happened—I could see him become restless. He told me to hurry home and tell my mother to set dinner early today. I hurried home.

“We will make paper boats today.”

I was immediately intrigued by this proposition, despite having resolved not to talk to Noor again. I was done helping my mother around the house and she had gone to do some extra work in the kitchen, so I slipped out of her sight and into the longish corridor that led to the book room. The book room was where Noor would generally wait for me when I got free. Then if Abba was around, he would treat us with some of those colourful, plastic wrapped sugar balls. Then Noor would tell me about the new words he had learnt. Except, today, he wasn’t there in the book room. I waited for a while until the other grainy short lady spotted me and ratted me out to Ma. After that, Ma gave me a good thrashing and told me not to think too highly of myself. “You don’t live here, this isn’t your house, and Masterji’s son is not your friend” she said. Abba never said that to me, he even gave me the coloured balls. She made her eyes big again and told me not to call him Abba. Masterji. “You have no business going around him too much and you don’t act like the slightest of a girl,” she rebuked. She went on to say a lot of things that I didn’t pay attention to because I was looking out of the kitchen window to the sunny backyard, and the mango trees, and the little pond. I ran out even as my mother continued her string of complaints.

It was two weeks after the announcement that I saw the packed cartons and the big trucks pull into Noor’s backyard. Ma had been telling me there would be a lot of work but she wouldn’t tell me why, and now it dawned on me, and I had twisty feeling in my tummy—like when I had had too many of the sugar balls that Noor’s Abba gave us; except, there was no sweet feeling in my mouth now. She also praised Abba a bit too much. I couldn’t figure why. Baba didn’t like it either—he even threw the food plate at her. “The smoke gets to his head”, I would hear Ma say. I didn’t like how loudness would enter with Baba every time he walked in through the creaky doors of our small house. He screamed too much, and so did the things that he threw around after his friendly games with his ‘reliable sources’. My mother screamed a lot too when that happened. She was more or less a quiet person otherwise. Anyway, I felt twisty in my stomach and hot on my cheeks and I thought I’d better be sure, so I asked Ma. “You never listen”, she told me looking above from the lower shelf she was emptying. But weren’t we free now, as Baba said, from the fair-skinned men? She shook her head. People were always shaking their heads at me. “Yes, but now Masterji is free too, so he will go to his mulk.” I blinked. “—his place.” But isn’t this his place? She shook her head again. “No, no, the other side, that’s his place.” The other side? “Yes, the other side of the border.” What border? She now threw down her cleaning cloth and sighed at me in irritation and told me to not bother her with so many questions.

I was dipping my feet in the shallow end of the pond when he crept up from behind. I had noticed this before, but I was no fool. I had resolved, and when you resolve you don’t shake, so I just kept pretending that I couldn’t hear him when he told me that he was too caught up with his Ammi and she wouldn’t let him go to the book room until he tried on the new clothes and that he then went to fetch old papers and learnt a brand new trick from Abba and that it wasn’t even a new word.

“We will make paper boats today!” My big eyes squinted a little and I thought I’d just make the boats while continuing my not-talking-policy. But that didn’t work out too well as I couldn’t help but release a little muffled squeal when he folded the corners and pulled at the edges and turned the flat folded paper into a boat!

He didn’t have much to say when I asked him the questions Ma didn’t answer for me. He always had answers, but today he didn’t and it made the twisty feeling grow stronger. He kept saying that he didn’t know.—he didn’t know why or what. “The announcement has been made and we are free now.” that’s all he said. I demanded to be explained what it had to do with him leaving. He just didn’t say anything. He had worn new clothes today, I observed; It suddenly made me angry. Abba happened to pass by us and gave me several sugar balls, and ruffled my hair and told me to ‘say my goodbyes’. But I didn’t want to say goodbye. I didn’t know if there had to be a goodbye. Why? “Because we are free now.” that’s all he said. I think it must’ve been then that I started crying. He looked pale and squirmy, and he couldn’t speak properly, so I just said that he was all decked up but he looked sick and he wouldn’t be too free. Did freedom just mean people leaving? But Noor wasn’t one of the angrez. His skin was like mine. Baba didn’t say Noor had to leave. But he was. Why did no one have a problem with this? Abba trotted all over the house inspecting things and my mother hummed her songs while she packed their things. I felt angry that she hadn’t lost her job. I wish she had. Abba gave her some replacement job at the darzi’s place. No one told me why. No one ever tells me anything, and I just keep asking, and they blow smoke or beat me blue and black. He didn’t say much, he just told me he had made something and I told him I didn’t want it and he gave me the paper boat anyway, and it was bigger than all the ones I’d made and it wasn’t even made of old papers. It was nice and blue and smooth. But I didn’t want it. He said, “…please” but I was ready to spit at him—a good trick to show disdain that I’d learnt from the streets the other day—but he just said “please” again and his face was red now. “Please, please, Chandni.” I warned him not to say my name and told him I won’t take it. His voice was unlike his own; it was croaky and wrong. “Please.” I finally took it. Then he left. “We are free,” he said. But I still couldn’t stay past five in his house—couldn’t stay there at all as it turned out. It didn’t mean a darn thing anymore; I didn’t know why they hunched up to hear the announcement that day. It was all muddled up in their heads I think—being free. It was supposed to be a good thing, like floating paper boats in ponds. But I couldn’t make paper boats anymore. I just had this big blue paper boat he had left me, but he was gone now.

It just happened on its own that I wasn’t mad at him anymore and we made many boats—more than I could count, more than he could count, and he knew many more numbers than I did. The sky turned pink when we were done, and the little pond was crowded with boats and not all of them floated, and some sank, but they were there, and we had made them.

Written by Tinka Dubey
Edited by Eshna Gupta
Artwork by Parul Nayar

The Jungle of Freedom

The curious one looked at the monkeys, caged behind bars. They were high above him, on a plank. He failed to understand the reason behind this. A guard passed by and saw the child staring at the cell, at the least unique animals of the lot, and wondered why he was wasting his time on them.

He asked, “Son, why are you looking at these common animals? Why not the scary, endangered tigers instead?”

The child looked thoughtful, and answered, “I’m looking for Gandhi’s message. It’s been said that these monkeys embody his ideals of freedom. But they sit so high above, and do not communicate with me what I was promised. They sit with their hands on parts of their faces and I’m trying to understand why. I want to discover what is it that Gandhi taught them but not us.”

The guard shrugged and casually explained to the child, “It’s simple. Do not see the evils of the world, avert your eyes. Do not hear the voices that scream violence, ignore them. And most importantly, do not speak of any monstrosities, hide them. Easy guide to peaceful living.”

The child stood there thinking. Would all the evil and injustice in the world be warded off if we didn’t acknowledge it’s existence? Would violence become a thing of routine if we learned to ignore voices of anguish and pain? Would India be a better place if we managed to hide all that was wrong with our nation? He wondered.

Written by Zoya Bhargava
Edited by Sukriti Lakhtakia
Artwork by Ayushi Kapoor

Freedom, Cut Me Loose

I turned my head towards her. Perfect, I thought. Why could I never look like that? She was twice my age and yet she was more beautiful than I could ever hope to be. Mahogany hair curled around sun-burnt cheeks in haphazard torrents and intelligent, compassionate, eyes the colour of chocolate encouraged you to tell them all your secrets. We weren’t formally educated – women in our areas rarely were, but she’d taught me how to read and more importantly, she’d taught me to see the world around me.

“Ma,” I said in a hoarse voice. She smiled as I looked down towards our linked hands. “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t be here.” Tears rolled down my cheeks blurring my vision as I turned my head away. She could sense that I was on the verge of hysterics. Her hand tightened around mine.

Was I here because of Bapu? The men in their starched kurtas and leather sandals had brought him to our dying village with their words, imbuing us with his legacy, distributing ideas of autonomy and convincing us that we could change our circumstances. We could do this without hatred, without violence, just like Bapu had got us Independence. So was I sitting here because I had believed in Bapu and his ideas? Or was I sitting here because for the first time I had a glimpse of power and I wanted more?

A prison guard passed by scanning all the cells and I shifted further behind my bed so that I could be more hidden. I didn’t see him, but I could imagine him rolling his eyes and walking along without a second thought. I was a murderer, you see – not the bottom of the prison chain nor the top – I was relatively irrelevant.

The buzz in my ears was a reminder of the short-lived joy after their visit. They had disappeared soon after, spreading Bapu’s lineage to another dot on the map. But for those few months, I had felt infinite – infinite and undefeatable. Then the men in the suits came in.

Their polished shoes reflected our abject poverty; their flashy smiles and understanding eyes asking us to help them ‘develop’ the nation. Honestly, ‘asking’ was a polite way to put it – now that I think back, they had demanded with a subtlety that confused us. In the beginning, it looked like we still had the right to choose what happened to our forests, our land, our livelihoods, our lives. It was a wonder, they said, that we had gone unnoticed for so long. We were a reservoir of untapped potential and they wanted to help us, they said.

I didn’t understand how or why I ended up here. I closed my eyes against the images in front of me- images so real I could almost touch them- the pipelines and leaking oil, people falling ill, the contaminated waterways, the struggling economy. The memories swam in front of me like a swarm of angry bees- me standing up in the Community Assembly and questioning these activities, the yelling in the crowds as they screamed in agreement, the women running out of their houses to join the men as their tattered pallus flew behind them, me running behind the mob as they broke through the gates of the big corporation and the realisation that it was too late. And the deafening cheering, cheering, cheering.

I covered my ears to block out the sound.

Was I wrong? Was it worth it? I didn’t know anymore. I didn’t burn the place down. I wasn’t even there when it all crumbled to rubble and dust, so why was I the one in prison?

I could feel my mother pulling me in towards her, pushing my head down on her shoulder while I stared straight ahead.

“Listen to me, sweetheart, it’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine. You don’t need to worry. Always a worrier, you were.” She affectionately chastised me. “Look at me, beta.” Her hand settled on my chin, lifting it up. “What do you want to do? What do you think you should do right now? Because there is nothing stopping you. You can do whatever you want to, so do it.”

She knew how to make me feel better. My hand tightened on the jagged piece that I’d spent two months and nine days prying off the lower edge of my bed. You wouldn’t believe the amount of time you had when you were stuck in prison for fourteen years and you were only one year and thirty one days in. It was eventful in case you got stabbed- more eventful in case someone else got stabbed. Otherwise, prison was monotonous. Dull. I twirled the edge of my makeshift knife in my hand and it pulsed with a life of its own. It yanked itself forward in my hand and then thrust backwards towards my abdomen.

The knife goes in, the knife goes out.

This time I voluntarily turned to look at my mother to ask for her support. She always knew what to say.

“I want you to close your eyes.” I did as she asked. I could hear the smile in her voice. “Imagine you could be anywhere. Doing anything. What would you want to do?” The knife goes in, the knife goes out.

She could sense my indecision. “Do you want to be a government babu?”

The idea was laughable; my head had slowly migrated back to its home on her shoulder. The knife goes in, the knife goes out.

“Do you want to be a doctor?”

That one didn’t even seem close enough to dream about. The knife goes in, the knife goes out.

“A teacher?”

I shook my head again. The knife goes in, the knife goes out.

She leaned down and I could hear her whispering in my ear. “I think you know what you want to be, sweetheart. Why don’t you tell me?”

I opened my eyes. Black spots now covered her face. The men in the kurtas had said Bapu gave us freedom, the men in the suits had said it was our time to stand up and be counted – why were we then so choiceless? “I want to be free,” I whispered.

Ma, I tried to say, Ma, I didn’t do it. I didn’t do any of the things they said I did, I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. I didn’t know, I didn’t know, I didn’t know but the words died in my throat and all that came out was an incoherent voice. In my sheer desperation, I tried again and she smiled at my efforts.

She pulled me in closer. “I know. I know, baby.”

I fell right through her and slumped on the floor. The ruby stain was eating up the monotonous grey.

“Go. Be free.” Her sing song voice echoed above me, urging me. Just as the garbled sounds of a commotion reached me, the door to my cell was thrown open.

Shoes.

Black on the red.

A face.

Many faces.

Shoving.

Pushing.

Dragging.

It’s too late, I smiled. It’s too late. The knife had already gone in; the knife had already gone out.

Written by Pallavi Baraya
Edited by Sadhana Gurung
Artwork by Kajol Tanaya Behera

My Search for Gandhism

Freedom – the very word brings a thousand memories. Memories of struggle against the colonial yoke, of united protests, of mass movements, of unsung heroes, of partition and the massacre that followed; and somewhere amidst these emerges the hazy picture of Bapu. School going children present impressive assemblies and display boards hailing the Father of the Nation, newspapers publish full length remembrances and radios play the quintessential “dedi humein aazadi, bina khadag bina dhaal, Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamal!” but that is exactly where it all ends.

The wooden miniatures of Charkha sit adorned in the lavishly done living rooms of the elite, and given as mementos to the foreign delegations, the essence of production by the masses having been razed to the ground in my free India. Ironically, Khadi remains elusive to the poor. Capitalism at its play!

Gandhi said that Swaraj would not come in a hundred years if the lowest sections of the society are not integrated within the mainstream. Untouchability was a venom slowly paralysing the social dynamics of India. How much have we changed? How far have we come? Not so much. Dalit, Harijan, scheduled castes, call them by whichever name, their plight remains unchanged in our free India. Casteism at its play!

Gandhian vision was one of unity and of harmony. Yet, the same vision was a witness to communal discord and bloodbath at the time of partition – the Indian Holocaust. And have we changed? Amidst our many identities of religion, caste, region and language, the ‘Indian’ is taking his last breath in my free India. Communalism at its play.

In these many isms of free India, my search for Gandhism is still on.

Written by Pakhi Pande
Edited by Sukriti Lakhtakia
Artwork by Himangi Shekhawat

 

 

Unknown to His Own

“The story of Gandhi is not only the story of India and partition; it is also the story of a father with high expectations and four sons who found it hard to measure up.”
Rajmohan Gandhi

For Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the idea of family contained a broader dimension and a wider spectrum. He expanded the notion of a family to an entire nation, reaching the hallmark of any leader. His philosophy was that there was a greater good for the society which demanded individual sacrifices. He was not partial to his sons, at a time when India was looking for a leader who would neglect his own family for the greater cause. When a whole nation deemed him to be the Father of the nation, tensions grew strained back at his own house. A Godlike figure to many, he was far from being a perfect father or a husband.

His eldest son, Harilal, challenged his ‘saint’ like father’s morality and principles that had driven the British back to London. His wife, Kasturba, rarely acceded to his wishes easily and had sharp disagreements with him. In his own words, his failure at persuading his son to follow his principles was one of his greatest regrets. He had lived his life in the shadow of the Mahatma or the ‘Great Soul’ and resolved to carve out his own identity. Harilal turned out to be an alcoholic gambler who traded in imported British good and converted into Islam later in his life. Their conflicts sprang from Gandhi’s demands as the Father of a nation and as the Father of his children.

Kasturba was known to be his pillar, his integral companion. Her tenacity and fierce independence of judgement was the reason she disagreed with him frequently. As a staunch patriarch, Gandhi demanded obedience from his wife. However, Kasturba would do as she wished in spite of his pressures. This caused periods of estrangements between them. She was a beloved mother and his struggles to create ideal symbols out of his sons angered her. “You want to make saints out of my boys before they are men.” 

People assume that Gandhi was a wonderful miracle worker who was always in control of himself. Gandhi’s grandson, Rajmohan, says that this was not the case. People might have put him on a pedestal, but he was an ordinary, flawed human being who strove to achieve something and lived by his principles. Gandhi once claimed that his son was a ‘more difficult problem’ than the struggle for Independence. His children constantly rebelled against his ideologies and way of life. Gandhi might have lost hope of political superiority from his sons. But he held his wife in great respect. He wrote in his biography that Kasturba stood above him. He considered her to be his better half, stating that he cannot imagine a life without her. Kasturba’s cycle of life and journey beyond, both ended and began on her husband’s lap, while Gandhi held onto to his faith.

Written by Athira Raj
Edited by Shriya Kotta
Artwork by Ambika Narang

Break Free

Once there was a fairy
Her name was Li’l Spring
And everytime she tried to fly
She couldn’t open her wings

She tried and tried, day and night
But all was in vain
The reason for her faulty wings
Nobody could explain

The fairies would laugh, the fairies would mock
She had soon become a laughing stock
She wanted to protest – but couldn’t reply
It was all her fault- she couldn’t fly

Sad, upset and in dismay
One day she thought of running away
To a distant land on the other side
Where a flightless fairy was considered alright

When the Fairy Queen heard of this
She knew the matter had to be fixed
She told her, “The trouble is not with your wings,
The root cause is deep within.

It’s the shackle of fear that binds you
Unless you break free, you can’t fly even if you try to
If you ask, can I? You will not fly
Just say I can and give it a try”.

Inspired by the words of the Fairy Queen
Li’l Spring felt a little stronger than she had been
‘I can do it,’ she said aloud
She flapped her wings and reached the clouds

To escape the cage of inhibitions, You are the key
Just say ‘I can’ and you will break free.

Written by Aaheli Jana
Edited by Tinka Dubey
Artwork by Nehal Sharma

 

 

 

In a World of Their Own

I saw an artist’s head somewhere it couldn’t have been and that sent my thoughts on a flight of fancy. There emerged a singular train of thought that I tried hard to follow through.

It is a matter of ordinary banter that artists often ‘live with their heads in the clouds’, as you must have heard it too. Even when spared any mocking jeers, their creative act is elevated to a distant and clouded tower of ivory. Thinkers, poets, artists, and others of this lot are easily exempted from our ordinary world to retreat to their hazy ivory towers of pristine perfection. Anywhere on the bridge between those general gibes and their lavish indulgence of artistic license, there does not seem to lay a stretch of space which belongs to an ordinary world—ours and theirs.

Whether exalted or marginalised, either way they are positioned at a distance. It might be the very position of distance that which brings them their unique perspectives, and introduces them to new places to explore with the ticket of their artistic imagination. Where does the distance end and which are these new places they come to find for themselves? Are they too out of the common lot’s reach—even farther than the clouds?

This is where my train of thought ended up after I saw the head of that artist—not in the clouds, but in a glorious gathering of the greatest minds of ancient Greece. The artist himself couldn’t have been there but he had a special access—the creative power of that head, the ticket of imagination. This was the singular train of thought I tried hard to follow, to accomplish framing a piece of writing after its trail, which started from that head I saw.

On the extreme right edge of Raphael’s The School of Athens painted in 1510, amidst the expansive crowd depicted in the painting, there is a miniature head which is unmistakably similar to another full-sized portrait of the same artist. The fresco is an emblematic depiction of an assembly of numerous well-known Greek philosophers, astrologers, poets, artists, and other representatives of classical knowledge. In the scene of that assembly, there is one peculiar head—disengaged from the entire crowd, looking away from the central subject and at the viewer instead. It is the head of the artist who painted it; where he himself couldn’t have been, his head is placed.

Among early Renaissance artists, there emerged a tradition of coyly incorporating self-portraits in grand depictions of historical, mythological, and classical scenes. They only appeared as members of the crowd, somewhere in the background, often at the edge of the frame. Such incorporations, called ‘inserted self-portraits’, can be found in Botticelli’s The Adoration of Magi, and his disciple Fillipino Lippi’s The Dispute with Simon Magus, among many others.

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Raphael’s The School of Athens
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Botticelli’s The Adoration of Magi
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Lippi’s The Dispute with Simon Magus

These early Renaissance paintings, besides some written evidence of inserted self-portraiture in medieval biblical paintings, are the earliest surviving examples of self-portraiture in western art. Inserted self-portraiture has been repeatedly featured in western art in various forms till later as well, and the earliest origins of self-portraiture date back to antiquity. However fascinating, I will not take it up presently. After all, I am supposed to follow a single train of thought to accomplish framing the said piece of writing.

Though, it is of immense interest that the earliest self-conceptualisations—as we know of Western art—take place in fantasy. These were the stories which were current in popular imagination, were heavily reproduced and thus would have inevitably haunted the imagination of these artists too. They depict themselves as participants in these scenes, which were readily available as visuals but never accessible in experience. The motif of interest in these paintings is not the inserted self-portrait alone, but how the artist re-creates fantastical moments and participates in them by the virtue of his creative power.

Every devout Christian would have wanted to live the holy moment of the Adoration, as fervent followers of Greek philosophers would have given all they could to stand amidst that assembly. Everyone holds such fantasies but who could live them, even if virtually?

And thus, my train of thought ended up in these dreamscapes—realistic to paint but impossible to experience—that these artists create and end up dwelling in. Probably when others are busy mocking them for being removed from reality, they are busy constructing their alternative realities which the down-to-earth fellows can only look up and wonder at. The world might or might not oust them, but why wouldn’t they wander if they have the ticket—to the clouds and beyond them.

Say as one might, that they live with their head in the clouds; I saw one who was living in an experience available exclusively to him. Glorify them as one might, that they are too fantastic to inhabit reality; I saw one as an ‘inserted’ head, real in aspect but in a world of his own.

Written by Eshna Gupta

Edited by Shriya Kotta
Images provided by Eshna Gupta

Hollywood’s Coming-Of-Age: A Timeless Timeline  

“I get older, they stay the same.” Perhaps that is why coming-of-age films will forever hold a special place in my heart. They never really come of age. The films in this genre are time warps bearing the magic of timelessness. What they trap within themselves, is the beautiful gamut of complex emotions, that dominates our youthful years. What they teach us is acceptance, freedom, friendship, and of course love. Each one is like a life manual, disguised as a film, seeking to reach out to every brain, athlete, basket case, princess and criminal out there.

It would be sacrilege to begin reviewing these masterpieces without invoking James Dean’s path breaking magnum opus – the iconic Rebel Without A Cause – that generated waves of furore in a 1950s America, one that had already begun its ascent towards becoming a crockpot of culture with megastars like Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley cementing their foothold in the industry. Jimmy’s portrayal of an anguished, disoriented, wronged urban teenager hit home with millions, granting him overnight stardom and the status of America’s youth icon.

The acting genius of Dean, most perceptible in the scenes which required expression through body, not words, struck me hard. I was so transfixed by his screen presence – I instantly knew, I had found a favourite. The reason Rebel has remained relevant from 1955 to up until now is because it is the story of every young adult, trying to navigate their way through life and its challenges.

In the 1960s released The Graduate, garnering wide acclaim and awards. The film, starring a somewhat stolid Dustin Hoffman playing an impressionable graduate seduced into a sexual correspondence with an older woman, took on a bolder primary plot, while also dealing with a secondary plot of Hoffman’s professional aimlessness post graduation. While this movie was a little too slow for my liking, I wholeheartedly cherish it for its landmark Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack.

Stand By Me came out in the 80s and while I don’t quite recall how I chanced upon it, I remember sitting motionless for a few minutes after the end credits began to roll. No film before this had ever elicited such a wholesome response from me. Stephen King’s plot, straightforward and sweet, was ridden with sombre emotions that were delivered seamlessly by the four young boys. Most notably by River Phoenix, who emerged as the unrivalled star of the movie and quickly became another newfound personal favourite. Goonies, featuring a similar quartet of boys who embark upon a fantastical adventure, followed suit and emerged successful. A cursory scan of these films’ posters may not attract “mature” audiences, but these airy films – laden with nostalgic overtones of the 80s – rendered through grainy frames ever so slightly, are tailor-made specifically for those who were once children with vivid and colourful imaginations.

Simultaneously, during the 1980s, unbeknownst to most, the stage was being set for one of the most influential and culturally important periods of the coming-of-age genre. John Hughes, who had already created a few ripples in the industry, didn’t know that his forthcoming projects would bring about a torrential flood of change in American cinema. His films sought to capture the sensitive realities of growing up and were known for their realistic portrayal of teenage angst. He was adored for being one among the many adults, who did not belittle the turmoil of the youth, and according it the dignity it deserved.

Beginning markedly from Sixteen Candles, he began churning out hit upon hit, each film more phenomenal than the last. From his slew of work, the ones that shone the brightest were The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty In Pink, and sometimes even, Home Alone. I am not exaggerating when I say these films were touchstones of the coming-of-age genre, because I can unabashedly admit to a flurry of chills and tears every time Brian signs off with “Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club,” while a final shot of Bender’s iconic fist pump fills the screen.

A majority of pop culture references today are borrowed from these classics. So if you’ve ever captioned your Instagram picture with “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it,” you have Ferris Bueller to thank for it. St. Elmo’s Fire and The Outsiders, though not directed by Hughes, are also two of the very memorable films from the “Hughesian period” (as I like to call it), made in the same sincere vein as his own.

It’s easy to confuse one film of this decade with another, because directors were recycling the same ensemble cast, mixing and matching them, experimenting with different combinations. The faces that defined this game changing era of teenage films were collectively referred to as the “Brat Pack.” They had a notorious public image, attributed to their exposed drug indulgences, sex tapes, and non-conformist attitudes. But they were really just rebels of a newer generation, faintly reminiscent of the James Dean school of deviance, only more reckless, and I for one have fantasised more than once about being a member of this exclusive inner-circle.

As hard-hitting as this decade was, the one that followed was doubly insouciant. Dazed and Confused was the most outstanding of the lot. Set on the last day of high school, Dazed is a celebration of the lazy, hazy teenage years sans adult supervision, best described as a full-fledged town-sized party, with much of the screen time devoted to simply cruising around in cars. Devoid of any emotional baggage and concrete storyline, the film advances at an easy pace that is pleasant to revel in. Each character in the film is refreshingly vivid, and the accuracy with which they have been portrayed, makes them appear vaguely familiar. This film was Matthew McConaughey’s rise to prominence, and provides the original context to his pet phrase, “alright, alright, alright.”

Maybe it’s the retrophiliac in me speaking, but I find that the charm exuded by the cinema of yore is almost non-existent in the films of the 21st century. They don’t speak to me as coherently as a Hughes or a Linklater film would. Resonation is few and far between, because the specificity of their plots are unshared with mine which softens their impact, and so, there is rarely any applicable take away from them. What survives in the end, is an aesthetic frame of art which is to be looked and marvelled at and that’s it. This is not to say that I don’t enjoy them, because I do. They are ultimately fulfilling their virtue of being creative compositions, and true art, and makes them automatically laudable.

One of the key elements of movies today is unprejudiced representation, a truly admirable cinematic and moral accomplishment. This genre’s colossal scope for encouraging normalised discussions around hushed topics such as homosexuality, mental health, and sexual awakening has been milked wisely by filmmakers. Award-winning films like Call Me By Your Name and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower fit the bill.

Call Me By Your Name is the story of two young men and their relationship, loaded with the changing dynamics of love, longing and indifference. Most scenes in the film are unusually tranquil and there are no loud parts. This cause is furthered by the stunning landscapes of Italy where the movie is set. While these qualities certainly appeal to the senses, the movie didn’t quite work for me. The tone was too solemn and the scenes too protracted. But it still gets an honorary mention due to the thematic significance that it upholds.

Perks is primarily focused on its Charlie’s insecure emotional state, stemming from a history of suicide, depression and sexual abuse. The film traces his story of hurt, love, and liberation in the maturest of ways, with strong lead onscreen performances. In spite of dealing with a heavy subject matter, the film still leaves you feeling a lighter by the end.

There are countless other films in this genre – some obscure, some mainstream – which have sculpted sensibilities of the youth all across the world. All you need to do is look for them. It can be quite a hustle, rummaging through the mounds of sap, crap, and trap of clichés disguised as coming-of-age films. But keep digging, because once you find your special reels, they will be your closest friends for life. All through the gloomy days, heartbroken nights, empty thoughts, and happy times, your films will be right there with you, constant, unchanging, waiting patiently, as you last left them.

Written by Tanvi Akhauri

Edited by Sukriti Vats
Featured Image edited by Tanvi Akhauri
(A still from “The Breakfast Club”)

Do Aliens Exist?

Believe it or not, aliens exist. The likelihood of an alien species of life existing is exponentially more than them not existing.

There are immeasurable galaxies and planets in the universe (that we know of; keep in mind we have only explored a teeny tiny part of the universe). If you logically think about it, humans aren’t special or even lucky enough to be the only intelligent species in the universe. There have to be at least a few dozen more. The questions remain: Why haven’t we had any contact? Why are people so reluctant to accept the argument that aliens exist? Are our space agencies incompetent or are the planets inhabiting aliens so far away that we cannot reach them? Well, there are a few explanations.

The first explanation is that we simply cannot reach them. Maybe they’re too far away. Maybe our technology isn’t as good as we fool ourselves to believe. This seems like a solid explanation but is too mundane to be believable.

The second explanation makes much more sense in the current atmosphere of the world (both the literal atmosphere and the metaphorical socio-political atmosphere). Humans are so centered on themselves that they do not think of anything outside of their existence. Their idea of aliens is that of green-skinned big-headed spindly-legged beings that make weird groaning noises and are incapable of intelligent conversation. Perhaps it is because of these ideas that we are ourselves sabotaging our quest to “find” other forms of life beyond our planet. A team of psychologists in Spain did a small study where they asked 137 people to look at pictures of other planets and scan the images for signs of alien beings. Hidden in these images was a tiny man in a gorilla suit. Not so surprisingly, only about 30% of the people noticed and identified the gorilla man as an alien. Maybe if we opened up our minds a teensy bit, we would come closer to finding aliens.

The third, however, is the kind of explanation that gets the party started. So, we all basically know how NASA lies to us all the time (I’m not just pulling it out if my hat, I promise. Exhibit A: most of the pictures we see of Earth are not images taken of the earth like those taken on a phone camera and just sent to our textbooks and Google feeds. They’re “composite images” which means that the scientists floating in space take pictures of the earth from various angles and then combine them to form one image. Exhibit B: the entire conspiracy theory regarding the moon landing being fake. More on these later.). So, the possibility is that NASA has already come in contact with aliens, maybe even on a semi-regular tea-party basis, but hasn’t told the world about it, certainly exists.

Theorists have tried to imagine what people across the world would do if told about alien life. Naturally, there will be quite a lot of panic, speculation, mistrust and a general aura of fear. (It’s more of an adults-only thing though, millennials are more than happy to know more about aliens.) To prevent the world from going into a state of massive panic and fear, NASA might just casually have kept it under cover. But as you dive deeper into the world of conspiracies, you would realize that the government of the United States especially and of most first world countries, generally, keeps many things wrapped under multiple covers of hush-hush secrecy. So, it becomes hard to believe that a government funded organization like NASA (by funded I mean heavily funded both financially and politically) wouldn’t hide something like this for its own gains or to prevent worldwide mayhem.

If you’re wondering (and I hope for your sake you are), there is evidence. There have been multiple sightings of UFOs – Unidentified Flying Objects – all across the world. There are pictures, videos and hefty research about the same. Even the Pentagon has acknowledged that it studies UFOs. In 2017, a Pentagon report came out which featured two videos of UFO encounters. In October, an object passed through our solar system that looked a lot like a spaceship. “Astronomers spent much of 2016 arguing over whether the weird pulses of light coming from a distant star were actually evidence of an “alien megastructure”, wrote the New York Magazine in March this year. Around the same time, another video came out which featured a Navy encounter off the East Coast of the US. We have long been dismissing gripping and highly convincing evidence of alien spaceships and UFOs and even alien life forms, but when the Pentagon releases videos and Trump (forgive me for dragging him in here but he ­is the President of a superpower so he is kind of a big deal) seemed to announce the creation of an entirely new branch of military called The Space Force, even the annoyingly skeptic skeptics were inclined to believe it. Sometime in the future, we will know about alien life forms. Maybe we will all freak out and go into a massive panic. Maybe we will be thankful, considering how more people than ever have been seeking life outside earth as a form of escapism. Or maybe, we will just be wiped out one day without a two-week notice like we seem to be expecting.

If you go on the internet and search on Google if aliens exist, you’ll get a pleasant mix of enthusiastic believers from researchers to scientists and astronomers who will term all of this a bunch of hocus-pocus game of attention. I can’t tell you what to believe, but I can tell you not to believe everything.

Written by Himangi Shekhawat

Edited by Tinka Dubey
Artwork by Ambika Narang