The Elephant in the Room: A Review

ARZUMAN ARA

What it takes to be a woman? Is it only her physical body? Puberty? Motherhood? Her services to the family? Or anything more than that? Can women be more than these? Do women feel pain? Or deprived? Do women have dreams – fulfilled or unfulfilled, cherished or nightmarish? How much does it take for a woman to fulfill her dreams and aspiration? How and why women make compromises to fulfill the social expectations? Beneath our naïve traditional understanding we have deeper concerns and ideological structures that mostly remain hidden and we serve a “false-consciousness” in understanding issues that concern our women. “A woman is not born, rather becomes a woman”- asserts Simone De Beauvoir. How do we become women? What are the forces that make us so? The book The Elephant in the Room gives some answers to that revealing the layers of different structures and forces that condition a woman in our society and culture.

The Elephant in the Room is a compilation of graphics and drawings by a group of women from Germany and India. It is a sequel to — Drawing the Line — another graphic narrative published by Zubaan.  The book explores those issues and concerns of women’s lives that people usually consider a taboo or prohibitory to talk about. It makes a rethinking of the patterns and roles of women across the societies, in this case Germany and India. A number of issues find expression here, such as, motherhood, puberty, career choice, domestic violence, rape, relationships, and becoming conscious of one’s selfhood as a woman.

The very first narrative by Katrin Stangle, “Some Questions” brings out the core issues by raising questions like, “Is it good to follow ones needs?”, “Is blue a flattering color?”, “Is it useful to have a husband?,” “Is it necessary to make mistakes?,” “Do Children make sense?” “Does it help to follow anyone?” “Is it always good to face problems?” What shade of lipstick shall I wear?” “Left or right?” What does it mean to be independent?” “Is up the only way?”

These questions evoke the counter questions- Why shall not one fulfill one’s needs? Do we really need to follow a color pattern for our gendered identity?  Why can’t a woman live her own life without a husband?  Why can’t women make mistakes? Why can’t motherhood be a matter of one’s choice? Why can’t one be her own self without following a gendered role model? Why do we always face problems? Is it necessary to put lipstick and conform to a patriarchal fashion of male gaze? Why should we not make decisions? Or be independent?  

The Elephant in the Room tries to explore the answers to these questions. The narrative titled, “Otherly Urges” ponders on the importance of making a choice of motherhood. The fear associated with old age and the desire that the children look after the parents in their old age has become stereo-typical. So is the curiosity and invasion of one’s private space with the queries, suggestions, advice and back-biting by the friends, relatives and others in the society.  The third narrative “What’s Wrong With Me” shows the issues of being a single-mother. The dilemma and the guilt-consciousness associated with not playing the typical role of a mother get highlighted here.

Along with the psyche, women’s body makes an ideological representation of the gendered world order that the book strongly contests. The narratives in this book make us see women’s body from women’s eye. Nina Pagailes “Temples” makes a strong narrative in painting different idolized representation of Vagina- a tabooed word. Nina’s paintings used vagina as a logos to de/re-construct the negative meanings associated with the word. “Holy Vagina” is a temple with all its pathological and biological complexities, (menstrual) fluidity, a centre of male-gaze, a site of power and love- it is both Shiva and Shakti. Therefore, it deserves a celebration and not condemnation. Issues related to women’s body, shape and fashion get represented in “Bum Power” by Larissa Bertonasco. The idea of a “beautiful shapely body” is contested here. Women are always made conscious of the size of their breasts and bum- the sites of phalocentric gazes. With the different stages of a woman’s life, the shapes of the different parts of women’s body keep changing which is a natural phenomenon. The narrative ends humorously and wittily that the bums are the “life-force” and they need to be constantly recharged without being worried for its size or shape- a realization that can resist the stereo-typical images of a “perfect” woman’s body.

Conditioning is the key word in grown up as man or woman. Reshu Singh’s “Looking Up” reveals how women are conditioned in their upbringing that makes a difference between a “boy” and a “girl.” Amma, being deprived of her education, takes trouble to educate her sons but not her daughter as education for a girl at her time was “too progressive”. Amma insists her daughter on having a son as she believed that, “only a son could complete a family even though she stood up against these very issues growing up” (P.71). Amma loses her position as a “hero” from the eye of her granddaughter for her conformity with the patriarchal ideology at the end. Prabha Malya’s “Bitch” is another stunning narrative that focuses on how the society condemns women’s choice and independence by constantly giving names and shaming them as “Bitch.”  “Whose Bra is it Anyway?” “First Love,” “Bra Mythology,” unveils the women’s inner feeling about wearing a bra. Bra- which was burnt at one point of time signifying that the women do not conform to the male gaze of desire becomes a trope for asserting a woman’s selfhood. “Juicy Lucy” makes some strong statements about the secret hair, menstrual pains, choice of motherhood and social behaviour – “Shaving identifies us as true delicate females.” This narrative asserts a need for a role-reversal and a change of attitude as women do not need to apologize every time for whatever is considered “wrong” on her part. 

The objectification of women (as eatable fruits) needs to give way to women’s selfhood – “I don’t want to be seen just as a sweet thing, I don’t want to be expected to dress up, put my make up on or shave to be a real pineapple, I don’t want to be treated as though I can’t handle things of my own, I don’t want to be a women first or to be seen as an object, I don’t want to think I have to become perfect, I don’t want feel never good enough, sweet enough, ripe enough, tender enough,  juicy enough……not enough” (P.112). “My Sweet Crop” draws an analogy between the crops and the hair where the hair is nurtured like a “secret crop” and a need to guard the secret desires from being crushed as a part of one’s selfhood. “The Hungry Guest” shows how women can treat the “insects” as intruders in their lives. For the Sake of” is another strong critique of patriarchy that renders women voiceless which makes the granddaughter ponder upon the behaviour of her grandparents, particularly her freedom-fighter grandmother, “How could she fight for the country’s freedom but not her own?” the grandfather dominates and makes all decisions. His decision of not sending the daughter for higher education and the failure of a hunger-strike by the daughter to resist that shows his adamant nature. A woman is forced to give up education, career and freedom for the sake of her marriage. This narrative compels us to think of a different life for women. “Daughters” by Stephanie Wunderlich reflects how our upbringing divides the spaces between the girls and boys.  This narrative highlights how certain changes of attitude in favour of women’s career choice and sharing of responsibilities can open new ways of living a better life. “The Man I love”, “New Dads,” “Bugaboo Task Force” also assert the need to change our traditional ways of a gendered living. “Penis Issues”, “Tiny Penis” reflect women’s choice of sexuality in relationships. “An Ideal Boyfriend”, similarly redefines man-woman relationship as- Getting married is the new ‘not getting-married’ (p.175)- where companionship and sharing and caring get more importance than the traditional role-play of a man-woman relationship. “Trapped” by Ampu shows how our apparently “comfortable” “living environment” can trap us in an all engulfing barrier from which we need to come out. “Darko”, “Window”, “Sleep” deal with the fear that women grow up with and deal with as a part of their lives. “A Lack of Independence” shows how women need to get rid of their dependency syndrome. “Freedom versus Security” displays how a woman can be raped in both outside and inside her house. No woman is safe as there is “no women’s land.” One of the most poignant narratives is “Ebony & Ivory” that tells us of a silent suffering of Rose who is deceived by her husband but had to tolerate all her pains alone for the sake of her children.    

The Elephant in the Room makes a compelling reading. It focuses on the internal dilemma- “to be or not to be” of women that can lead to a choice of a decision maker, of subjectivity and of agency. From being subjugated by the social pressure, women’s crushed selfhood finds an expression in this book that voices her inner self, her dreams, her desires and a right to live a life of her own choice.  

When I received the copy of The Elephant in the Room, I immediately started reading it. In its all aspects, it reflected my life and the life of many other women in and around me.  In a turbulent time where we have incidents and events of atrocities on women, like the Nirbhaya case, honour killing, killing of female-foetus, disrobing and public shaming of women, particularly of the minority communities- when the very existence of women is threatened, this book makes a narrative voice which is as strong as the “Me too” campaign. It is a mirror of what we are as women.

This book should be made a mandatory reading in the academic sphere.

The Elephant in the Room (2017)

Zubaan & Spring

Price: 850 INR

ISBN- 9789385932243

Reviewed by: Arzuman Ara

Arzuman Ara teaches English in the English and Foreign Languages University, Shillong campus.