“What’s the point? That can never be true!” — this is the refrain people use when advising people not to engage in fantasy, or as the local term would be — “khayali pulao” (good it wasn’t khayali biryani, or else our friends in orange would use that also to divide us and prevent us from the antinational act of imagining).
Recently a few things have happened that have made me think about the importance of Fantasy. I have followed closely the work of Agents of Ishq and also worked with them, of late. In Feb of this year, they did a delightful zine-like essay called “Without Fantasy There is No Liberty” which talks about the role of imagination in thinking about more than just the reality around us and giving it its due place in revolution and individuation, beyond just “an escape”.
Secondly, I was recently part of Nirantar’s Looking In Looking Out course, a residential one in Goa. It was a beautiful course, looking at sexuality through the lens of the unconscious, and the major themes were: psyche, messiness (i.e, going beyond the feminist-fantasizer binary, among others), power, pleasure, vulnerability and uncertainty. As part of the day on pleasure, we read and wrote erotica, which was read aloud as a class. As one of the course instructors said, “this is our political fantasy, to celebrate the lingering in pleasure collectively”. It was so important to be surrounded by folks who shared some common frames of world view, but at the same time, were also different enough to learn from. In many ways, I felt seen for the first time. And I felt the impact viscerally. My shoulders relaxed. It was as if a chalni, a tea strainer, was removed and now my heart and mind were directly connected to my mouth. I found it easier to admit confusion, fear and upset. In Esther Perel’s words, it was the right mix of safety and challenge and it definitely did bring about shifts.
The third contributor to thoughts on fantasy is Shrayana Bhattacharya’s “Desperately Seeking Shahrukh”, which traces SRK as an idea, as it bonds women in the desires of intimacy, independency, respectful love and much more. As the review by Suman Joshi puts it, “Fantasies’ give a glimpse into what Shah Rukh inspired in young elite girls growing up in the 1990s. The stories, one of which is the author’s own, and interviews of women bring out the contradictions women confront and the compromises they have to make despite being educated and upwardly mobile. Questions are raised regarding gender relations among the well-heeled. “Why do women resign their love lives to the trappings of male power and prestige? Why do so many successful women acquire a taste and tolerance for inequality in their private lives?”
There are parts of the book that also go beyond Elite women, and touch upon how the fantasy/idea of SRK pervades the economic and familial lives of women. Sometimes, it makes them put up with bad behaviour, sometimes it makes them escape their reality mentally. As with all things, fantasy here too, is neither good nor bad, but just a function of being human.
And a very important function at that.
In the Nirantar course, one of the instructors, Amrita Narayanan, said, “The psychological model of sexuality, and a lot of Freud’s thinking — was on the pleasure principle — the role of imagination and fantasy — and in that way, it was more dignified, colorful and real that the biological model that focused only on reproduction”. She also spoke of how allowing and acknowledging fantasies may itself be enough at times, even if we cannot realise them. In fact, from her professional reading of Freud, he was saying that the “too much-ness” of Hysteria in women was because there was a “not-enough-ness” in women’s lives — they were not heard enough, cared for enough and definitely no one gave two hoots about their desires — of any kind.
Fantasy has played a very important role in my life. It has allowed me to imagine a free, empowered, fun, engaging, resourceful, fulfilling existence when I was negotiating day to day safety, fighting to continue my education, fighting to be able to work, to not wear religious clothing and so on. Without fantasy, the trappings of my reality would have me believe that these powerful forces around me would continue to hang over me in the same way, forever. Fantasy allowed me to have an “after”, that I could realise, even if I had no idea about how to create the steps in between.
However, I do not want to reduce fantasy as a “pre” version of a reality you will have one day. Because it is so much more. I have a fantasy that this country will heal its partition wounds so that our repeating of what we have not repaired, via communal violence, will finally stop. I have a fantasy that our country won’t just have laws for trans people and mental health but will actually execute them on ground. My fantasy is that men/AMAB people will heal from the patriarchy and be their fuller selves and use their powers well. My fantasy is that one day, “fat” will not be an insult and we will not try to find “better” or less fat angles for our photographs.
Fantasy is the anti-thesis of reality at times, or parts of reality chosen and mixed together as we wish. Fantasy is an escape at times, or a vision of the future. Fantasy is that which is not allowed, and that which may some day become utterable.
When Amrita Narayanan was explaining male control of women, she said, “Well, patriarchy is a fantasy. We are all born of women, and are greatly dependent on them as infants. Women/girls/people assigned female at birth get over it using our own bodies. But men, they are foreign to the idea. They want to overcome the dependency. And unfortunately they use the easiest way — control. They cannot say, I need you and so they say, I will use you, hurt you.”
Very well, I thought. But I asked her, “that is men’s reason for doing it, but why are women putting up with it?”
She smiled and said, “Of course, it is a complex issue. Systems and structures force women to comply. Violence is often used to ensure they do so as well. But I feel a significant factor — and what could bring respite — is that women’s imagination is completely overtaken by men’s imagination. Women view themselves as how men do, and try to fit the ideas created by men. What the men in their life are doing, are they safe from said men, liked by them etc etc, keeps them occupied”. According to her, reclaiming our imagination and making it our own, would be one big step towards being truly free from the patriarchy. This also answered my long held question as to why empowered women comply to tradition an suffocating situations. It’s because in their imaginations, lonely or unpartnered is still equal to unlikeable and unworthy. They cannot imagine themselves outside of approval, comfort, belongingness and prestige.
And I am starting to think that this is why, women are often so occupied. They are always encouraged to engage — in house work, mothering (adults and children alike) paid work, or both and sometimes, we mistakenly think it modern to do everything all the time — for daresay, were she to have leisure, she might do the dangerous act of imagining, of having fantasies.