Wednesday, July 1, 2015


In 'The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant', an amazingly well-written and intense fantasy book series, there exists a beast simply called 'Nom'. Incapable of speech yet powerful and driven, this creature would barely allow itself to be tamed. To even name it was to invite self-destruction. Funnily enough, in the fantasy disguised as reality that rules the Indian orthodox mind, there is a similar beast- the Norm. But where Nom is so single-minded that it is beyond artifice, the Norm is a shady and hypocritical shape-shifter.

The Norm, if I must define it, is the set of rules that governs one's personal life based solely on what is acceptable to orthodox society. Let's take the example of a man who lives by the Norm. Let's call him Spineless (I'm in a charitable mood today.) So Spineless was born in the 50's. As a baby, he is still more a possibility than a person, with a mind as vast as the Universe and an imagination unbound by reality. But even as an infant, he finds himself introduced often to a mysterious stranger- the one called Norm. A beast, yes, but one with a persuasive, comforting voice. It started as a casual acquaintance, but as he grew up, Spineless found himself turning to Norm more and more, making it his guide in all things.

Spineless grows up, doing the things he is expected to do, becoming the man he is expected to be. In this, Norm has trained him well. For reasons known only to him, Spineless decides to get married. But he won't let his wife have a career. No. 'What kind of man allows that?', Norm asks him. Spineless agrees. Wifey is properly put in her place. A few decades pass by. Now, fickle Norm has quietly changed. A daughter who does not work, and what more, work in the same field as everyone else's daughters? 'It is beyond shame', Norm tells Spineless. Spineless agrees again. He is nothing if not obedient.

Open another door into the past. Caste, Norm says, is important. Spineless adopts it as gospel truth. Wifey is of the same caste, of course. Years later, we see Spineless arguing with his teenage children about caste. Norm shouts silently in his ear- 'This is how it has always been, how it will always be!' Spineless pauses for a second, his ancestral memory trying to surface, to remind him of times when this was not true, but Norm fights off his deadliest enemy, the voice of reason. Spineless finally ends the debate with a flat out refusal to accept any dissenting opinion, his faith in Norm making him blind to the saddened faces of his children as they turn away, young minds unable to like the man they love. Behind him, smug, Norm nods and smirks. Cut to a future where children are defying parents left and right, traversing beyond caste and even religion as they choose their own mates. Spineless and Norm communicate quietly. Norm admits to certain grey areas and blames it on 'modern times'. It advises Spineless to relent a tiny bit- he must definitely throw a fuss, be deeply wounded, and volubly opposed, but in the end he may give in, in a grudging, bitter manner designed to sap all joy from the celebrations. Norm calls it 'adapting' and pats Spineless on the back for being so amazing. Norm is satisfied with Spineless. Spineless is satisfied with himself.

Another flashback. Spineless' mother sits in the corner of a gloomy kitchen, where she pounds the grain that will feed her family that night. Her brown sari is so faded, it matches the stained cement floor. She beckons and Spineless happily walks up to her. In his outstretched hand, she places a ball of fine grain mixed with sugar and held together with water. He leans against her bare shoulder and takes small bites. Her sari barely covers her naked torso- a good gust of wind would reveal her chest- she would just as nonchalantly pull it back over herself. Norm hasn't discovered body-shaming yet. Fast forward. Spineless sits with a group of men, his friends. With vehemence and violence-laced passion, they denounce the 'women of today', their skimpy outfits that entice otherwise good men to commit crimes, crimes that would have been unjustifiable had not Norm pointed out the obvious reasons. Spineless returns home that night and looks at his daughter. Though covered from neck to ankles in a churidhar, he nonetheless barks at her- Where is your dupatta? He glares at his wife and slams the door to his room, enraged that a woman under his control would walk around without disguising the shape of her form. Norm sympathizes with him. 'You are unique in your goodness, no one understands you', says Norm. Spineless wallows on his lonely pedestal.

As a constant companion, Norm is quite powerful. Thoughtless, and therefore naturally evil, it often sends human representatives to visit Spineless. They sit around, these strangers with a cause, and take apart everything Norm dislikes in Spineless and his family's life, questioning and denouncing every major and minor life choice- from physical appearance, career path, finances, matrimonial designs, progeny, interior decoration, medical treatment to clothing styles. Nothing is too private or personal, nothing is beyond judgement. Spineless listens to it all, his heart beating fast, terrified of defying Norm. He gazes at the one red wall his son insisted would enhance the guest room and imagines people walking in, laughing, judging. He mentally hugs Norm, drawing strength. The wall is too small a gesture to truly be called defiance, Norm reassures him. It can be laughed off, even ridiculed as a foolish boy's 'artistic' vision. Yes, that is what he'll do. Spineless sighs in relief, his pride intact, his son's in shambles.

Sometimes, Spineless takes turns being a minion himself. He feels compelled to go out and support his best friend Norm, and reinforce whatever ideals Norm has chosen to subscribe to. Norm walks with him, a shadow that seeks more grey. Norm tells him to fight change tooth and nail, all the time slowly changing itself, evolving so that it can continue whispering in the ears of the generations that will come. Spineless does not see- he does not want to see. In this way, they take turns feeding each other, a sick symbiotic relationship that has no goal except one - to constantly even out the world so that it can fit within his shrunken mind, and thus make it a place where he can be... Normal.

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