Tag Archives: pain

Review: Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong (trans. Howard Goldblatt)

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Published as part of The Myths series, which retells timeless classics from around the world in the words of some of the best contemporary writers, Binu and the Great Wall by Su Tong recreates a two-millennia old legend from China about a woman who travels hundreds of miles in search of her husband, who has been conscripted in the construction of the Great Wall.

Like all of Peach Village, the orphan Binu was brought up to believe that tears are taboo, a conviction that took hold after 300 of its residents had been executed for having wept at the funeral of someone who had fallen from the favour of the King. The women of the village devised new ways to cry, which would leave their eyes dry but their breasts, ears, lips (or which ever body part was most beautiful) wet with tears. Binu wept through her hair, as she does on the day that she discovers that her husband Qiliang has disappeared.

When she learns that her husband has been taken to Great Swallow Mountain, to work on the construction of the staggeringly ambitious Great Wall, she becomes determined to take a coat to him so that he can stay warm through the winter. Warned that this act will carry her death by sorceresses and shunned and envied by her co-villagers for her stubbornness and peerless devotion, Binu sets forth on a journey of a thousand li.

Along the way, she is assisted by a blind frog, whom she suspects is a reincarnated mother looking for her missing son. But she is also accosted by a group of half-deer children, encounters cities where people are sold as “large livestock”, and is chained to a coffin, having been sold off herself as a dead man’s wife. Her weeping takes on legendary scope – she is hired at one point to weep into a vat because her tears contain the five tastes needed for a pharmacy. It overwhelms her to the point where every part of her body begins to cry, and she journeys the thousand li with “eyes dripping like house eaves after rain”, leaving a stream wherever she walks or crawls. As the story proceeds, we understand that Binu did not set out on her adventure under any grandiose illusions of success, but because it was the only thing that, in the face of her loss, she knew how to do.

In the preface, Su Tong says that “Binu’s story is a legend not so much about a woman at the bottom of society, but rather a legend about status and social class”. Perhaps this accounts for the matter-of-fact nature of his retelling, where another writer may have emphasized the mystical and metaphysical nature of events in the story including rebirth, animal familiars, prophecy and the like. Yet Binu’s loss, as all who have endured pain will know, is profoundly intimate. From the work of scholars such as Joseph Campbell, Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Carl Jung, we know that myths exist for the purpose of deconstruction – not in a literary sense, but as a means of projecting our private lives onto narrative structures that allow us to see the bigger picture even as we endure intensely personal experiences.

The story of Binu, in that scheme of things, functions as an allegory on the necessity of grief, and how far one may need to go to truly access – and release – it, against every self-preservative instinct that may prevent it. The great wall that ultimately shatters under the weight of her loss is the one that had been raised by her upbringing, which forbade all but the most discreet, controlled displays of such emotion. Weep, the myth seems to instruct the reader. As Binu herself says to one who questions if she too is dead – “I am still crying, and that proves I am alive.”

An edited version appeared in The New Sunday Express.

The Venus Flytrap: Dentally Retarded

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I want to be a dental dunce. I really, really do. The first of my wisdom teeth has declared a very conspicuous appearance, and it’s making me believe that the person who christened these mofo molars as such was probably the same one who came up with that adage, “ignorance is bliss”. I’d rather be a dental dunce than be equipped with intelligent enamel.

Given that like all offspring of doctors, I am predisposed to mild hypochondria (again, strictly genetic – my father looked at a recurring heat boil I had on my knee at 10 and pronounced that I had cancer), a disbelieving friend raised an emoticon eyebrow. “Just wondering if it’s real wisdom or a bad ulcer,” he typed.

Which is ridiculous. Everybody knows that real wisdom can only come from deep reflection, autodidactic curiosity, and a generous infusion of ayahuasca (substitutable by chocolate where required by law).

Wisdom teeth, however, are less discerning. They come inconveniently – like when someone suddenly calls and wants to put your mumbled statements down on record for the press. And when your friends want to treat you to a fancy celebratory lunch (of course, one can always drink the pain away, ahem). They also swell up your cheek – on your good side, too! – so that you’re forced to do that fabulous photo shoot like some demented supermodel gone kawaii-style, all sucked in cheeks and carefully-positioned sign language.

I’ve been flexing my jaws more often than, well, a venus flytrap. It hurts to keep my mouth closed. But it also hurts to eat, to swallow, and to talk, in roughly equal measure as it hurts to do none of those things. I have one hand perpetually on my cheek, open-mouthed, like some perpetually gasping, pouting heroine. Or a goldfish with a hand. Growing wisdom teeth just bites – and not in any good ways.

I suppose by this point you would have realized that my ironically idiotic ivories are coming out only on one side of my face. This is probably a saving grace of some sort. For instance, you only need half your face to be on a postage stamp, throw an attractive silhouette, and be drawn in hieroglyph. All useful distractions when one does not have the mercy of anesthesia or anything but evolutionary glitches to blame.

Wisdom teeth are supposed, both in folklore and etymologically across the world, to signify the development of sound judgment. I would have to say they’ve certainly helped me make some sensible decisions. I’m too sore to think of clever arch remarks, so now I just say, “My wisdom teeth are coming, so goodbye”. And no more wasting time trying to settle on where or what to eat. I just go home and sniffle into some lukewarm soup while the mutton curry sits in the fridge, as tempting as Eve’s apple. If it’s bigger than a piece of fusilli, I can’t put it in my mouth. Something tells me that the tooth fairy is really an anorexia enabler.

And it’s not like I even actually need them. After all, I’ve been masticating, speaking and avoiding dentists to great success for nearly 23 years. If I must grow new teeth anywhere, I’d rather have vagina dentata anyway (for reasons not to be held against me if you look like Gael Garcia Bernal or Salma Hayek).

So really, I would rather be foolishly fanged and dentally retarded than have the sullen, starved sagacity of wisdom teeth. Life should be devoured in healthy slices, not in timid little slurps. And I am very, very hungry for it.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.