23 November 2017 07:15 AM

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SHOMA A.CHATTERJI | 17 MARCH, 2017

The Cinderella Syndrome


The Cinderella story has many facets to it, not the least being the one that relates to Cinderella getting back into her rags and out of her pumpkin at the stroke of midnight. The modern Indian woman, married or not, successful in a career or not, identifies with the tragedy of Cinderella.

But this comes much, much later. What comes in the beginning, during the teenage years to be precise, is the Prince Charming factor that every bright-eyed teenager, nourished on a generous diet of fairy tales, Mills and Boons and Hindi films teenagers love to fantasize about.

A random survey of literature in the form of books and magazines written for teenage girls has a recurring theme. They go on harping on the same note that girls must be clever enough to catch a man, but never to outsmart him. As Arelene Dahl says in her book, Always Ask a Man, a woman “must never let her competence compete with her femininity.”

So, young girls, thanks to the popularity of Hindi mainstream films, are encouraged to be docile, intellectually low, and to cultivate childlike dependent qualities and social, manipulative skills. As B. Kreps wrote in 1970, “she is exhorted to play out the role of Cinderella, expecting fortune and happiness from some Prince Charming, rather than to venture out by herself. Be pretty, be pleasant, use mouthwash and deodorant, never have an intellectual thought, and Prince Charming will sweep you off his castle where you will live happily ever after.”

Maturity and marriage mellow the teenager. She realises, not without some sense of loss and pain, that Prince Charming does not exist, and that the husband is more earthy, less handsome, and lesser still, the prince of the fairytale fantasy. The woman realises that she must shed her coyness in order to jack up her maxie to attend to the mundane business of running a household. She wakes up to the fact that she must take up a job to bring in the butter or even that extra slice of bread in order to keep up the show of apparent affluence. There she goes pretending again, playing as big a hoax on herself as she plays it on those around her. And out go those teenage fantasies off the window.

All this however, does not quite liberate her from her Cinderella dreams. Whatever a woman might be, she is chained to her responsibilities of wifehood and motherhood and daughterhood and sisterhood till the end of her life. Never mind the fact that Shyamasree makes documentary films. This does not free her of the responsibility of reminding her husband about the keys of the house. She therefore, is tied to her modest pumpkin-and-rags at the stroke of midnight. Never mind if Ranee is a sculptor of renown and a Padmashree to boot, that does not save her from holding the ladle and frying hot dosais more often than she holds her sculpting knife and scalpel.

I carry vivid memories from childhood of a strange scene I will never forget. We happened to peep in to say ‘hello’ to the famous classical singer Lakshmi Shankar at her apartment in Mumbai. We were amazed to find her kneading a massive mass of flour for the dough for the evening’s chapaties. Who would have ever thought that a singer of her stature had to knead her own atta for the family’s quota of chappaties! Yet, there are many women who just revel in reverting to the Cinderella role once they are back home. But sorry, there are a few exceptions.

Many women, like yours truly, simply hate to get back to our rags and our pumpkin. We would love to put our feet up and watch the late night movie on television or on cable but we are afraid to speak our minds. We would love to catch the news we missed from the morning papers at night before we put ourselves to sleep but no ma’am, sorry, that cannot be! We’ve got to see to the kitchen, the children’s homework, the husband’s suit for the conference next morning and the movie can always come later. ‘Later’ never comes.

Like our lovely fairytale counterpart, we’d love the dance to just go on and on. We’d love the clock to forget its job for once and fail to chime on the dot of midnight. But then, it does not forget to strike the midnight hour perhaps because it is a man! But then, no one can stop us from dreaming – of Prince Charming and of all the maids-in-waiting who could have been at our beck and call at all hours of the day and night!

Did you know that there are hundreds of versions of Cinderella that prove how different artists present the tale, uncovering new insights? There is a Chinese version, a Korean version and Egyptian version that make exciting contrasts to Disney. Walt Disney struck upon the idea of framing these fairy tales for posterity through the use of picture books with dialogue balloons backed later with animated films on these stories. Disney’s celluloid versions of fairy tales have stood the test of time and place across centuries. Several monographs have been written on the international occurrences of the Cinderella tale. They date back to the days of past theoretical perspectives in folklore scholarship, but the texts are still recoverable.

Anna Brigitta Rooth’s The Cinderella Cycle (Folklore Fellow Communications) Lund, 1951, and Marian R. Cox offer some examples. Cox’s book in fact, is called Cinderella: Three Hundred and forty-five Variants of Cinderella, published for the Folklore Society by D. Nutt, in 1893. Carfolyn Kost, feminist children's librarian and professor of religious studies, takes special interest in this subject.

Two books she recommends are Cinder Edna (1994, author not mentioned) and the Story of May, (Mordecai Gerstein). The former compares Cinderella's helplessness with the self-reliance of her more pragmatic neighbor, Cinder Edna, who wears loafers to the ball because she knows she'll be dancing a lot, and who saves her money for a dress and takes the bus to the castle, etc. The latter can be interpreted as female version of the hero myth. But then, I would still opt for the fairytale Cinderella any day!

The quote I picked up from A Story of Rose comes back to plague me from time to time. “You’ve got to have a dream. When you lose your dream, you die. We have so many people around us who are dead and don’t even know it!”

I hate to be counted among the living dead.

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