Tuesday, December 03, 2013

On Nigella Lawson: In Kindle magazine's year end special this month

Dear old Su gave me the idea for this story. Thank you, Su, for this and for being that nagging voice of reason in my head!

Kindle magazine seems to get better and better with every passing issue. I love the freedom of style and form and thoughts and dialectics that they allow themselves. December's is a year end special highlighting twenty images from India and the world that made big headlines for various reasons. I wrote on celebrity TV chef Nigella Lawson being publicly abused by her then husband, art collector and ad mogul Charles Saatchi. This piece on domestic violence was a difficult one to write, for personal reasons. But well, time does merge the sharp outlines of old ghosts into the grey background. 

Read the piece here on the Kindle website or see the unedited version below.

The Fall of the Domestic Goddess

“…should have the quiver of a 17th century courtesan’s inner thigh.”
It takes a woman of a certain kind of imagination and an image to nurture to come up with a line like that. It is small detail that this manner of quiver was what the domestic goddess pronounced a humble Italian dessert like panna cotta ought to have.

Nigella Lawson.

A voluptuous paragon of sensuality, a picture of domesticity, even the ideal to aspire for. That’s the picture, somewhere along the way to her meteoric rise to worldwide fame, that she must have decided to draw around herself. It sure helped her build a formidable empire that includes bestseller books, popular long-running television shows and ensuing celebrityhood. The women want to be like her because the men love her.

And then, that photograph. It was an ‘Et tu, Brute?’ moment. For the first few minutes at least. Not her, not her! Outrage. Not because it happened, but that it happened to her. Her of the rich marriage, successful life, gorgeous kitchen and wholesomeness, it couldn’t happen to her too, when it was supposed to be restricted to us lesser females.
The story that the tabloid photographs narrated was that her then husband, Charles Saatchi, grabbed her throat, caused her distress and made her cry. A ‘confidante’, albeit a dubious source, told a journalist that Lawson never cries, it goes back to certain incidents from childhood. Then for her to shed tears, that too in public, and be photographed doing so, was like some last shred of hope shivering and dropping upon the ground to be cruelly trampled under hurried feet.

Let’s make her a hero then, a different icon now. Let’s make her the poster woman, the go-to girl for the cause of marital/domestic abuse. Let her be the misunderstood definition of a feminist, that of a man-hater, the victim, the oppressed.

Lawson’s reluctance for being typecast into an icon of this kind and for that cause perhaps has led to as much disgust as for the photographs themselves. She has not yet spoken about the incident where in an instant, her carefully constructed image of a queen of the kitchen was shattered. Perhaps, in her years of being married to the former advertising mogul and art collector Saatchi, she passed through many instances of domestic abuse. Perhaps this was really a one-off incident; photographs can lie too. Perhaps her silence is a hint loud enough that she doesn’t want to be tagged a victim for the rest of her days. She has a public image to protect and life to move on with.
In her silences perhaps Lawson has attempted to reclaim the dignity she so publically lost that day of the photographs. It is a tall order to expect her to click her heels and fall in line to speak now for the domestic abuse victims of the world. Yes, it happened. Yes, it was shocking. Yes, it was high profile. But there are also hundreds of thousands of silent women around the world for whom Lawson would a compatriot. In India alone, between eight and 31 per cent of married women are estimated to have been victims of varying degrees of domestic violence. Each of us have stories to tell, either our own or those of maids or mothers or sisters who live each day in fear of the raised hands, raised voices of their menfolk.

The recent abused Goddesses of India campaign was meant to create awareness about domestic violence. The campaign claimed that 68 per cent of women in India have been abused in some manner of the other. What the carefully reconstructed photos of models dressed as Goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, with black eyes and deep bruises, did was to feed into the fantasy of the damsel in distress who needed to be ‘saved’. By glamourizing the idea of violence, it pushed the issue itself aside. It is tempting to add a little sheen of glamour to ideas and contexts; those get much attention. You could counter argue that it gets much attention too. But there is only so far you can go with glamour and clever make up.

The reality is that domestic violence is far too common. There isn’t anything sexy about any part of it. While there are a dozen changes that the world ought to see yet, grant the reluctant victim her dignity. She has the right to remain silent. She has the right to refuse to be a hero, an ambassador. Nigella deserves to carry on publically as if this was just an inconvenient blimp. That doesn’t mean she, or the rest of us in our own pasts, haven’t weep privately.

This piece was inspired by a conversation with an ardent Nigella Lawson fan and a pretty good cook herself.

No comments: