The repressive, corseted Victorian culture of the novel found a perfect foil in the rigid caste strictures of Indian society. (The Times, 27 April 2009)
Nesrine Malik’s scathing review of the ITV drama Compulsion got me thinking a lot more about modern day adaptations of pre-20th century literary works featuring ethnic Indian actors. She has fair enough reasons to be perturbed: it seems that when diversity is presented on British TV, what’s served up for a wider, mostly white audience are actually tired stereotypes of overbearing family members, arranged marriages, and the ever recurring theme of honour and shame. Oppressive family values have become the only representative force for British Asians in the media.
The impetus for disaster in Compulsion begins with Parminder Nagra’s character Anjika, who flatly refuses a marriage arranged by her dad, sending out all sorts of warning signals to women out there who disobey The Great Patriarch. The one person who knows of her troubles happens to be her sleazy chauffeur, Flowers (played by Ray Winstone). He offers to ‘fix’ her potential suitor in exchange for one night of sex with her, which she later, tearfully, accepts. So far very Indecent Proposal.
This leads to her discovering how great sex with Flowers is, sealing her doomed fate. But with every tryst she demands of him, we are made to feel diminishing sympathy for her, and somehow more for Flowers, as he is by now treated as a sex object(!). Murder and a spontaneous yet elaborate cover-up ends with Flowers dead, leaving Anjika happily off the hook to marry her secret White boyfriend. The end.
In an early sequence of a 1991 Channel Four television feature, Northern Crescent (a film about the white-Asian conflicts in Britain following the Rushdie affair), shows a new primary school headmaster, Mr. West, who introduces himself at assembly to his students, most of whom are of Pakistani ancestry.
Mr. West asks the students to name the greatest storybook in the world. After replies such as The Guinness Book of Records and Ghostbusters, he tells them that it is The Bible – his own ethnicity is thus quite apparent. He proceeds to read them the story of Ruth as an example of people making their home in a new place and being welcomed there – he applies this to his own arrival at the school that morning, seemingly oblivious to its application to the Pakistani immigration in this Yorkshire town (the film will go to question whether any sense of ‘welcomness’ is given to these people). The headmaster says he’s not surprised to have received such a welcome, as it is part of the great tradition of this country and particularly of Yorkshire. He notes that of the 180 pupils in the school, 176 were born in Yorkshire. He then asks them whether they would say that are Yorkshire boys and girls. Only four students (one of Pakistani ethnicity) put up their hands, leaving the headmaster looking surprised and perplexed.
Mr. West’s ethnocentrism (i.e. references to The Bible as the best book ever when talking with presumably a mostly Muslim audience) and naïve notions of belonging is commonplace here in Britain. Despite the fact that the students above feel ambivalent about their ‘Britishness’ or even perhaps ‘Englishness’ (which by the way is claimed almost exclusively by white folks), most people in Britain would still identify themselves in terms of nationality and would assert that this is an essential part of their being.
Once upon a time, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella had to battle witches and overcome spells to find Prince Charming. Now, young women are discovering that the road leading to “happily-ever-after” is wider, shorter and much less of an obstacle course.
In recent years, a large number of the fairer sex have chosen to sign up with matrimonial websites to increase their chances of meeting a knight in shining armour. The mail-order bride industry has been around for ages. However, limited to print ads in monthly magazine, singles had a slim chance of finding their perfect mate.
There is something decidedly twisted about comparing mail-order brides to fairy tale princesses. But perhaps due to sheer naivety, the news report ignores the fact that mail order brides have long been an established object of racism, poverty, sexism, and comedy. Despite Malaysia’s notoriety for pompous display of first-rate infrastructure and tall buildings, it shares with a number of foreign bride exporting-nations the kind of urban and rural impoverishment that invariably affects women the worst.
So, for the many women involved, the reasons are largely economic. But there is nothing romantic about meeting and marrying someone you barely know for the sake of an improved standard of living. Except for Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella were, after all, born from affluence, not economic refugees. For the men who search through mail-order bride websites, however, it’s all about accomplishing an impossible romantic dream:
Fatimah Busu has a gift for telling stories of social alienation. Her stories are often a provocative social critique of Malay society but are easily accessible and good for philosophical rumination. In Salam Maria, her protagonist is a misfit, a social castoff who is forced to the depths of the forest to live with those of a similar fate. In Ombak Bukan Biru (The Waves Are Not Blue, 1972, Pekan Ilmu Publications), the turmoil of class, cultural and religious differences is told from the point of view of Imrah, a young Malay teacher from Kelantan.
Emotional, though paced at breakneck speed, Ombak Bukan Biru is a joy to read. From the beginning of the novel we know that Imrah has little patience for her boyfriend’s dalliances and leaves him with a broken heart and broken gifts from happier days. But a surprise visit from the school headmistress and an English guest teacher, Cik Celine, forms a kind of emotional distraction that relieves her from the painful break-up. Unbeknownst to Imrah of course, of the greater melodrama that will unfold following this chance meeting.
Celine and Imrah quickly become close friends and share a mutual enthusiasm for traditional court dancing, the tarian lilin (candle dance). Their friendship leads to an invitation to Celine’s home in Pulau Pinang where she meets her future love, Lawrence. Their relationship is encouraged by his family and Celine, but the same could not be expected from Imrah’s family. The clash of cultures she experiences is striking; while her white family and Lawrence are welcoming and permissive, her own family is uncompromising and suspicious of others different from themselves. The Malay attitude towards inter-religious marriage she discovers is both sexist and arcane. She learns from her deeply religious father that a marriage between a Muslim woman and convert (mu’alaf) is destined to doom. Feminine persuasion cannot lead a man to an Islamic way of life the way a man can lead a woman:
“Ours is a classic story of forbidden love, elopement, family estrangement and reconciliation. People say it’s so romantic,” says Englishman Tim Wallace from the veranda of his home in the town of Tura in north-east India.
“People say it’s so romantic”, he says. Honestly, I hate stories like this, and I can’t believe the BBC has dropped its standards so low as to publish yet another white man-meets-‘tribal’ girl-girl’s family object-but they live happily ever after in the end sort of staple you find in cheap tabloids or mail order bride agency success stories. Tales of intermarriage such as this are always imbalanced, because it is always told from the man’s point of view, who is always white. This is because the women involved are unlikely to speak his language fluently enough to express their innermost thoughts, and because it’s likely that she is poor and uneducated. What makes their love story newsworthy has largely to do with where the woman is from. In this case (in a David Attenborough voice), from the remote Garo hills nestled in the north-eastern Indian state of Meghalaya. They have a daughter together, Amazonia, because she’s like, from the jungle, and all jungles are like all the same y’know, whether it’s in India or South America. But it gets much worse: