Lone Star and Thunderheart
On a superficial level, the protagonists of both Lone Star and Thunderheart are cops and are investigating a murder. Both films are categorised as Western mystery films and refer to important events in history significant to both peoples-the Alamo and the Wounded Knee Massacre. Both protagonists are attracted to schoolteachers of a different heritage. But when broken down into their “cardinal traits”, in context of the ideas that the films were trying to convey, the similitude between the two runs far deeper than surface details. The connections emerge through ideas and also in terms of the questions they evoke in one’s mind.
One of the links was the concept of land, the question of its ownership and the subsequent conflicts that follow. In Lone Star, it is the people of Mexican descent who are the oppressed ones, although the animosity towards them is slightly less overt compared to Thunderheart-where racial slurs hurled at Native Americans is a daily dose of life. One question that emerged: In conquest, is it fair for the conquered to forfeit their land, in context of the fact that there is always an ever present conflict between the two peoples?
In Thunderheart, there is a quote that speaks for the question, “I feel for them, I really do. They’re a proud people. But they’re also a conquered people”. In Lone Star, this animosity emerges in various ways- the scene of the American lady vociferously declaring to a group of teachers and parents that Pilar, the school teacher of Mexican descent is teaching wrong history. Sherriff Charlie Wade discriminates against non-whites on a regular basis and also turns out to be responsible for disappearances of prospective illegal Mexican immigrants, especially when they attempt to cross the border.
This links to the broader theme of oppression and conflict, leading to another question: through continuous oppression, does the deprivation of land lead to loss of reserves of memory? It could be a possible explanation for the existing conflict- the attempt to change history. As Maggie Eagle Bear, a Native American schoolteacher and political activist (Thunderheart) says, “My family’s been involved ever since Columbus landed”. And after all, Texas used to be a part of Mexico.
In both films, the process of interior decolonization is evident; it has affected ethnic minority families and groups that until now have possessed reserves of memory, but little or no historical capital 1 .Contemporary Navajo poet Luci Taphonso insists that land that appears arid and forlorn to the newcomer is full of stories that hold the spirits of people, those who live here today and those who lived centuries and worlds ago. Each cliff formation, each watering hole, every boulder or ancient tree has a story that roots it to the landscape and in the people’s psyche. One could say that loss of land results in a loss of a sense of belongingness which results in a blow to the collective memory of the people, and consequently, leading to a loss of identity2. Hence the struggle to hold on to it- again, seen in both films, although to different degrees. For us, our land isour memory; containing lieux de memoire-important because they act as a replacement for our past; a true memory that has ceased to exist3.
The theme of conflict is also internal. Sam Deeds has never identified with his father but through a murder investigation; he gradually understands that Sherriff Buddy Deeds was more than just an absentee father and a cheating husband. Thus, the question of identity and family comes into play again, albeit in a different context. In the case of Thunderheart, it leans more towards Ray Levoi denying the identity of his father- who was Native American. He is hostile towards them partly because of it being a “taught” attitude, and also because it is a conflict of blood within him. Both the films depict a gradual “coming-to-terms” that culminates in a feeling of kinship in terms of parents and family, and also perhaps, the people around them.
The concept of different times stands out as well; Lone Star contrasts the present with the past through flashbacks, and Thunderheart contrasts the present with the future; in the form of visions; albeit in a metaphorical way, since visions are never what they seem to be. The visions could also be construed as a glimpse into the past, since the Native American tribal elders consider Ray to be the reincarnation of a legendary hero Thunderheart, born again to save his people from troubled times. It is mentioned that Thunderheart was killed while heading for the Stronghold, and Ray dreams a vision of himself in history being shot in the back while heading to the same. He also experiences flashbacks to his childhood, where he is torn out of the arms of a Native American man. These are all memories that he has submerged to the point of denying the identity of his father, but now they resurface. He barges in onto Grandpa Sam Reaches, asking him vehemently, “What’s happening to me?” To answer the question, he is being reminded of the other part of his identity. Sam Deeds too, has memories of only one side of his father; the other side is the one that he uncovers through the film.
Thus, what we remember and how we remember are threads that run through both films. Such questions are important, not just in terms of personal memories, but also on the concept of “we”. Who is “we?” This is yet another question that both the films attempt to answer. In Lone Star, it is Sam Deed’s recognition that the oppressed are still people, and therefore, fall under the generic term of “we.” In Thunderheart, Ray experiences the same recognition, but it has far more of a personal touch. And finally, an umbrella question that resounds through all aspects of both Lone Star and Thunderheart: What happens when you dig up the past? What happens when one visits sites of memory left untouched?
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1. Pierre Nora, Between Memory and History (California, University of California Press, 1989)
2. Luci Tapahonso, Blue Horses Rush in (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1997)
3. Nora, Between Memory and History
I met Aryan* when I was fifteen. I would like to say that it was love at first sight, but if I have to be factual about it, Aryan thought I was obnoxious, and he hated me. Well. He was attracted to my impossibly handsome features (laughs). I started interacting with him through common friends; you know how the social circles intersect in Delhi; structures like Venn diagrams. They show all possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets, and even though Aryan went out of his way to avoid me, mathematics brought us together. Almost makes me regret that I dumped it in eleventh. We realized we had more in common after about twelve tequila shots – isn’t that the beginning of all great love stories in Hollywood? Well, one thing led to another and here we are. (Pause) Excuse me, he apologizes, and then proceeds to bury his nose into a handkerchief. I look away politely, and after a few minutes, he is himself again, with his sinus area slightly reddened. I’m sorry, he apologizes; he has a cold. So I write it down dutifully: Karan* has a cold. We both know its camouflage for that catch in his throat.
Well, where is Aryan now? He isn’t entirely sure. It is really hard to keep track of someone who is continents away, and right now they have a spring break. Many of Aryan’s friends are heading to Cancun, Mexico, and Karan expects Aryan to be accompanying them. A light enters his eyes and his mouth begins to tilt upwards in almost motherly pride. Aryan is studying English Literature in Oxford, and Karan was expected to join him; right up till his father ripped his acceptance letter into half- an action mirrored on Karan’s heart. You see, although nothing was acknowledged, apocryphal stories had begun to circulate, but to Karan and Aryan, it was irrelevant. They were both incapable of the conception that their joy was a sin.
Jacques Derrida asks: Is love the love of someone or the love of something? Suppose I love someone; do I love someone for the absolute singularity of who they are? I love you. … I love you because you are you? Or do I love your qualities, your beauty, and your intelligence?
For if it is the qualities that one loves, to be fastidious about the gender one finds it in is to discount the value of the qualities themselves. A person is viewed as a collection of qualities, and love is then given to the most sought-after combination. But then, if a person is not his qualities, what is he? A person is how his mind operates, and qualities are a manifestation of the mechanism of the mind. So how does the discrepancy between the love given to the “you” and love given to “qualities” arise?
I come from a very orthodox background. Arranged marriages are the norm; in fact, dad has already got a girl in mind for me, some distant family friend who I met when I was five. But Aryan is someone who I can talk to about anything. The kind of person he is, me loving him was inevitable. Our love for literature, our common thought. I don’t know if you can call it love or a deep connection and understanding between two people, who just happen to be of the same gender. I doubt whether the family would have got so riled up if Aryan was Aadya instead.
Plato said that according to Greek mythology, human beings were initially two headed with double the number of arms and legs. But Zeus feared their power, so he split them in half, condemning them to spend their lives searching for their other halves. And it is assumed that the other half of a male is always a female, and vice versa- and this thought is used to fuel an “anti-immoral” propaganda. But individualism recognizes that a person cannot run another’s life, nor should he allow anyone else to run his own. Just like a single meal can be shared among people, but cannot be digested by a collective stomach, the same way an idea can be propagated, but cannot be imbibed by a collective brain.
If even a matter of personal choice can be opposed by society to such an extent that it escalates to brutal violence is not just shocking for the community involved, but also raises questions about people in general; people who dare to be different. If society can feel outrage over something as paltry as sexual orientation, what is the barrier that separating brutal violence from anyone with a voice?
Do you think you’ll see Aryan again, I ask Karan frankly. He pauses for a long while before he answers. I don’t know, he says. Maybe, when he comes back for his holidays. What if you never see him again? He has a bittersweet smile on his face as he speaks. It’ll be an imagined life, he says.
Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code dates back to 1860 and criminalises sexual activities “against the order of nature”.
But half of an apple is still an apple.
*names have been changed as per request
Riding in a bus is similar to being churned in a stomach. There is secretion of bodily fluids, and everyone keeps touching each other.
So there I stood, ruminating about my life and how I had ended up in this situation. I was wedged tightly between a metal pole and the brightly draped posterior of a lady that extended into even the peripheries of my vision. The gajra in her hair was uncanny in context that it was in two places at once; entangled in her oiled hair, and squashed against my nose. On a closer inspection, the bright pink sari had a gold edging to it; too lurid for the morning; in fact, when I turned to look outside the rattling, plastic window, the fleeting glimpse of greenery that blurred into my vision seemed to be unembellished in comparison.
To be philosophical about it, a bus is one of those rare forms of vehicular transport where people of all caste and creed are brought together, and compelled to co-operate- figuratively speaking, because I have seen people holding on to the leather covered seat for dear life while someone pulls at their other end in a rather determined sort of manner. Today the crowd was a little more daunting than usual. Every single shuddering, gasping halt of the bus was accompanied by about ten people bludgeoning their way through; arranging themselves in strategic manners around the occupied seats, reminiscent of the various vyuhhs in the Battle of Kurukshetra. Furtive glances were daggered; handbags exchanged hands frequently, and a one degree shift in a seat could create seismic vibrations felt throughout the bus; stout figures in saris and petite ones in kurtas threatened to converge upon the unsuspecting individual.
The bus conductor was a capricious soul with red mehendi coloured streaks running through his hair, and a dappling of grey on his otherwise jet-black sideburns. He clutched his satchel and disappeared for a few moments barely fifteen minutes after I had squeezed myself into a corner – trying to blend in with the dull steel and the posters that were constrained within the bounds of decency by a fraction of an inch of skin and sinew. He returned in moments with a plastic bag wrapped around a box rather haphazardly; a lady with burnished copper skin close at his heels. Blended with the brouhaha of rush hour, she was incoherent, but obviously agitated; streams of histrionic Kannada emerging from her Goddess like mouth. The rudraksha beads around her neck were the skulls of her rapacious appetite, the jasmine flowers in her hair trembled with intensity and steam emanated from her skin.
“Is that a rolling pin?” I exclaimed to no one in particular, but I received answering nods from women all over the bus; those in my vicinity, who had heard me. Some were nodding in acquiescence, self righteous expressions; eyes still on the soap opera that was an impediment to effortless traffic. Meanwhile, the lady in question had kohl rimmed eyes –eyes that seemed to be a physical manifestation of her internal fire being stoked.
“Oh yes. “ An old woman spoke; whose age had created running wrinkles through her face that threatened to converge at a single point; her mouth, giving her rather unfortunate resemblance to a lemon.
“What did he do?” I asked in a breathless whisper.
“The question, my dear, is what he did not do. It would be a shorter list.” The lady swelled in a feeling of importance as she edged closer to me with visible physical effort.
“But what did he do?”
The lady cocked an ear and listened intently for a few seconds.
“Didn’t finish his Sāmbhar-rice, I think. I tell you, it’s a wonder that woman sticks with him. If I were her, I would have used that rolling pin as an actual weapon, rather than just brandish it about. One phatak “: she paused to exhibit a swing with her frail arms; a gesture that would have aroused the admiration of a professional baseball player as well as an executioner of a guillotine. She let her sentence trail away into an ominous rattling as she cut an arc through the empty air above my head, and the heads of five others as we looked to gravity for cover. A second slower and we would all have been strutting around looking like Marie Antoinette or convincing impersonators of a dog with an ear infection.
A lady in a neon green sari alighted onto the bus. She was slightly rotund and shone out like a traffic light. Even the conductor who wasn’t interested in anything but the give and take of the tickets stood stock still in his tracks; riveted by the sight of the green butterfly that had wandered, perhaps mistakenly, into Hell itself. As we stared at her, she dropped her pallu coyly over her head. In retrospect, it was one of the better examples of biological regression that I have seen; this slight adjustment in garment caused her to resemble a caterpillar about to burst forth from its cocoon, showering all in its luminescent glory. I blinked, and she changed, looking like a brightly lit mummified Frodo.
The bus then proceeded to throw itself into lurches. We were all airborne for brief periods of time: I was flying, though in reality it meant that the bus was teetering dangerously on one wheel. Space, time and physics hung somewhere near the garland of marigold flowers on the windshield- they were rapidly shedding petals and shriveling into black ash. I saw my life pass in front of my eyes, as well as a distinct feeling of regret that I had not devoured the scrumptious Chettinadu chicken of yesterday. I mean, I could think of better ways to die than with the taste of spices of the subcontinent in my mouth. And as the bus screeched painfully into a sharp turn, I saw my stop in a distance; a blur of red and white dots dancing in my vision.
As hardened survivors, one thing that we all have learnt over time is never, ever, forswear even an inch of space if it is rooted in generosity and isn’t in quid pro quo. Despite attempts to move, the group of people I faced were faceless; they were like dough, like fevicol, and they refused to budge an inch; forming a glutinous mass where entanglement was directly proportional to the energy of the attempt.
“Excuse me.” I said softly. No reply.
I tried again. “Excuse me, can I please…?” I was rewarded by a disdainful look by a man with a handlebar moustache. Do you think, his gaze was saying, do you think that a bus is an area of Victorian manners and genteel personas? Nay, girl, it is the reason humans have a primal side. He smirked slightly; an upward tilt to his mouth.
Damn you. I threw myself forward, bag in one hand, and the other outstretched- like superman. However, unlike superman, I didn’t fly, but sank disproportionately, as if my body was weighted with unequal iron blocks; and received, as a way of thanks, curses that would make Satan himself shrivel up and tremble in fear. Immediate collapse was avoided because body and soul were thrust forward with an iron will made tangible- I wanted more accomplishments in life before being trampled all the way to Yamalok; no one ever experienced the joys of heaven by dying an ignoble death of being squashed under feet caked with mud and tar. Just imagine what I would say to St. Peter before the golden gates of Swarga to explain a footprint on my face? Oh no, sir, heh, that’s actually a heroic deed. I had a tendency to be so self-sacrificing that people often mistook me as… uhm… a doormat.
Picture therefore: a pale female with an expression of abject determination, launching herself yet again, over a mass of heads, handbags and leather seats. I was swimming through the English Channel that was the aisle of the bus and hands reached out to clasp my ankles- like gnats; those tiny midges like insects that decorate your skin beautifully with dappling of pinpricks. I was hoisted none too gently ; like those yesteryear rockstars, except there was a distinct lack of hero-worship here- and deposited outside the bus as neatly as a sack of flour. I stumbled to my feet in a flurry of dust and pebbles, and the bus sped off, belching hiccups of foul smoke into all directions. My bag was tossed to me as an afterthought through one of the windows.
I brushed myself off grimly, promising myself that I had learnt my lesson. Next time I would carry a hatchet. Ahimsa could rot in hell where a bus was concerned.