India in Mira Nair’s Vanity Fair

Over the weekend, I watched Mira Nair’s 2004 adaptation of William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. I had seen it several years before, and even before I rewatched it, I remembered that the movie left me feeling more affectionate toward the characters than the notoriously satirical novel did. I tend to have this experience in general with adaptations–it’s usually easier to like a character I am seeing portrayed by a flesh-and-blood actor as compared to a character described by a (sometimes vicious) narrator and perhaps, in the case of a Victorian novel, illustrated in a cartoonish style. But I think there’s an additional reason why Nair applies a more charitable interpretation to the characters, which is simply that she’s a woman. This is no doubt why main character Becky Sharp, while every bit as strong and smart and (a little bit) ruthless as in the novel, appears less like a shrew and more like a woman who has spent her life striving to overcome the disadvantages of poverty and orphanhood.

I also remembered that India, a distant backdrop for some of the plotlines in the novel, takes a more prominent role under the direction of the Indian-American Nair. But not until this latest viewing did I realize the extent and nuance of India’s presence in the film. Unlike some other movies of the last few decades, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its sequel (which I have to admit I really do enjoy), Vanity Fair does not carry the message that if British people (or white people in general; I think this message is also implied in Eat Pray Love) go to India, they will have a magical experience and all their problems will be solved. While Vanity Fair celebrates the music, cuisine, and clothing styles of India, it doesn’t slap a simple, single symbolic meaning on the entire nation or its culture. For example, in one scene, India seems to represent heartwarming family values (when the lonely Dobbin, who has escaped to India to nurse his unrequited love, watches the happy parents and child), but in a later scene, Indian music, dance, and costume are associated with moral degradation in Lord Steyne’s creepy-sexy “ballet.”

The connection with India is, I think, the reason for Nair’s significantly more positive portrayal of Jos Sedley, a British colonial bureaucrat home on leave from India and also the first man who makes a bit of a fool of himself over Becky Sharp. In the novel, Jos is a minor character who is regularly mocked by his fellow characters and the narrator–for being fat, for being nonconfrontational (or cowardly, as Thackeray seems to present him, but I think it’s a good thing to have a peaceful young man in a novel full of hotheads and warriors), and for having, in the eyes of his hidebound friends and family, nearly “gone native” in his affinity for Indian clothing and cooking. Although Jos is part of a colonial machine whose purpose is to impose British rule and culture on India, as an individual he seems to be doing more absorbing than imposing. Whenever he appears in the film, he is portrayed as a respectful and delighted fan of Indian culture, which he (again respectfully) tries to share with the folks back home. Although he remains a minor character in the movie, he does not, as in the novel, finally and ignominiously drop out of the story about halfway through, fleeing from the Battle of Waterloo. Instead [SPOILER], he shows up at the end, after Becky has lost her love and many other things, and we learn that he’s been looking for her and hoping to take her back to India with him. The film ends with the two of them riding an elephant in what surely looks like a wedding procession. And while the scene looks a little bit like an India tourism commercial, I love that Mira Nair found a way to celebrate her family’s ancestral land and set Becky Sharp up with the man who’s loved her all along. Thackeray purists may have a problem with the ending, but I think it’s lovely.

my first winter in Michigan

Here are some things I learned during my first winter in West Michigan:

  1. Weather-related cancellations are rare. They are more likely to happen due to cold than to snow. I understand this because I know that cold can be dangerous, especially to the very young and the very old, but driving on slippery roads with low visibility is also dangerous–just saying.
  2. Speaking of slippery roads, I learned that I can drive okay in snow but that I will feel much more comfortable in an all-wheel-drive vehicle. I came to this decision when my Mazda 6, which has served me well for nearly 10 years, got stuck in the snow twice in one day in February. I plan to begin shopping for a small SUV soon.
  3. On the other hand, I learned that I probably don’t need a garage or carport. This had been one of my must-have items when I began home shopping, but I ended up buying a garageless house that fit nearly all of my other needs and desires. I talked about installing a carport, but now I don’t think I need it. Defrosting my windshield in the morning is a minor inconvenience, and anyway, I live close enough to my job to walk when I don’t feel like digging out the car.
  4. I also learned that you find out who your friendly neighbors are in the winter. During the late January polar vortex, one neighbor whom I hadn’t met saw me struggling to shovel out my driveway and came over with his snowblower. It was too cold to exchange pleasantries, so I still don’t know his name, but I’m grateful to him. Other neighbors helped me push and shovel on that day in February when my car got stuck twice.
  5. And finally, I learned that I can handle a Michigan winter. So to those of you who were hoping to gloat when I came crying back to Virginia–sorry, you don’t get that satisfaction. Heh, heh.

exploring my characters’ pasts

This is going to be an arcane and self-indulgent post that probably only one or two people who read my blog will actually care about. There, you’ve been warned. I may share this in my writing group, though, since some of them might care about it. I have decided to use this post to explore an idea I had the other day regarding my fictional work in progress, “Sam’s Town”–the zombie apocalypse story I have mentioned a number of times on my blog. Originally, Sam was going to be this lonely soul who never got a girlfriend and died at the end of the story. Now, not only does Sam survive, but there’s also Ramona, this “brilliant and startling” (his words) woman who is into him, which he doesn’t understand because he thinks he’s an affable sidekick at best. And now, after this thing I’m about to share, it seems that he may have a history of seemingly out-of-his-league women falling in love with him. It sounds wildly improbable, and it also sounds like a cliche. But as I’m finding that people who read about Sam usually come to love him, it makes sense to me that he would also be lovable (and not just to his parents and friends) within the world of the story.

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Here’s what happened: In one of the Facebook writing groups I’m in, an administrator shared a picture of a pretty young woman with stylish hair and clothes, sitting in front of wallpaper with a tortuous yellow pattern on it (this so distracted me with thoughts of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s haunting short story “The Yellow Wall-Paper” that for a while I couldn’t think of anything original to write), and lobbed some character development questions at us. This is what I finally wrote in response:

You guys are all so good at politically complex fantasy, dystopian, and historical stories. I’m going with plain old contemporary realism.

This is Charlotte (a nod to the author of “The Yellow Wallpaper” 😁). She is the most popular girl in school, but not a mean queen bee—everyone likes her, even teachers. She is smart, poised, and articulate, and she knows what she wants out of life. Well, that last part isn’t true. She has no idea what she wants—only what others expect of her.

She is hiding the fact that she really hates herself most of the time. She hates that she always has to perform. She hates her body, and she is bulimic. This is an open secret among her group of friends—most of them are bulimic too—but she’s hiding the fact that she doesn’t want to do that to herself anymore. (So are all of her friends, actually.)

She is also hiding the fact that she likes the boy who sits in front of her in English. He is quiet and terribly awkward, and his goal in life seems to be to disappear. But Charlotte sees him. She hasn’t told her friends because they wouldn’t understand. They call him Ghost Boy. (And no, he’s not an actual ghost—contemporary realism, you guys. His real name is Peter, by the way.) And she can’t tell him because he would think she was just making fun of him. So she just keeps playing her role. THE END (for now)

Almost immediately after I wrote that–actually, maybe while I was still writing it–it occurred to me that this Peter fellow sounds an awful lot like my character Sam (now in his early 30s) as he describes his teenage self. The disappointing interpretation of this is that I only know how to write one male character, over and over, with slight variations. The more cheerful interpretation is that this is Sam and I need to incorporate this into his backstory. I had already come up with a vaguely outlined character named Becky Olson, whom Sam had liked in high school and who might show up again (not as a zombie) in my vaguely planned sequel, but this so-called Charlotte is quite a bit different from Becky, who was supposed to be sweet and quiet and sort of a background type like Sam.

It would be interesting and perhaps vindicating for my Sam fans if the adult Charlotte (also not a zombie) confessed her teenage feelings for Sam, but would it be realistic? Even if she did like Sam back then, would she remember all these years later? Is it a bit corny and idealistic for all these attractive, put-together women to be falling in love with shlubby, semi-reclusive Sam? I think the answers to those questions are probably no, no, and yes, and yet–I can’t help imagining a flashback scene in which Charlotte goes (with her parents, or some friends, or a date) to Clemenza’s, the restaurant where Sam works, and they strike up this awkward, “oh, you’re in my English class” conversation (even though each knows perfectly well who the other is), and even though Sam is just a busboy, he gets her some cannoli in a takeout box, and he rambles on to her about all the ingredients and how good the cannoli is at Clemenza’s and how he’s been practicing at home and he can almost make it like the chefs here do. And she still remembers all these years later.

I’m almost equally torn between gushing and gagging at what I just wrote. If you’ve read this far, let me know what you think.