I’d like to offer you a trip inside my brain. Come into my early morning, pre-shower, post-insomniac mind. But, as with the experience portrayed in “Being John Malkovich,” be careful what you wish for and enter another’s psyche at your own risk.
I woke and turned on a podcast, per usual. Today’s entertainment, an episode of “This American Life,” on the weight and power of words. Ah, a writer’s dream. The first vignette told of a young woman who read “Little Women” hundreds of times in the years she was held captive in Peshawar, Pakistan by her biological family. Peshawar? They make great naan.
Her biological family had kidnapped her from her adoptive American family. She described how women are bound by cultural traditions and mandates in Pakistan generally, but noted that Peshawar was a particularly strict enforcer of gender roles and their attendant prohibitions. The slightest smirch could “dishonor” the entire family.
“Little Women,” smuggled into her bedroom and read in secret, ironically gave her instruction into how to survive a patriarchal society as a teen, and gave her the strength to imagine and plan her eventual escape to her American family… and, then?
I closed my eyes, imagining this teen surreptitiously reading “Little Women” as her mother cooked Peshwari Naan bread in the next room, preparing for an arranged wedding. I could smell it, recalling I ate that delicacy only a few weeks ago. The puffy naan studded with pistachios and raisins, slathered with ghee; the tandoori char marks on the light bread’s surface adding delicate crunch and tang. Heaven. “Peshwari Naan,” I thought, “is one of my guilty pleasures.”
Zip! I’m back to 2011, hearing Tim Minchin’s “Guilty Pleasures” routine, where he mocks the banality of what most people list: bad TV shows, junk-food and desserts, or odd hobbies. “Those are your guilty pleasure?” he ribs. “That shows an incredibly low threshold for both guilt AND pleasure.” He continues, through a list of escalating obscene possibilities, until arriving at a vulnerable, honest admission of what he considers his true guilty pleasure: alcohol. He avers that he downs red wine at a rate of a bottle a day, and is often guilt-ridden that the “Seven-odd quid I pay any given day on Cabernet Sauvignon could have been better spent buying some Somalian village a pump… <pause>… but that’s why I savor it. Nothing tastes as good as that sip of wine that you know could have inoculated an infant against tuberculosis.”
Yes, it’s a guilty pleasure chewing the fluffy, sweet Peshwari Naan, marveling at the culinary apotheosis achieved by and — who knows, perhaps a direct result of? — a culture dedicated to the principle that women are inferior, owned by their parents, subject to death if they blaspheme or are indecent. Now that’s guilty pleasure.
But my brain wasn’t done with me.
“That’s an imperfect analogy,” my pedantic grey matter screamed. “What you’re feeling is not ‘guilty pleasure.’ Rather it is cognitive distress connected to enjoying art when you know the artist is flawed. Can you separate the artist from the art? How can you enjoy the fruits of Pakistan when you know the culture of Pakistan? How can you think “Chinatown” is a perfect movie, when its “accused”-rapist director, Roman Polanski, remains (tellingly) on the run overseas, avoiding prosecution in the United States? How can you love America, your homeland, when (in your name and with your tacit consent) she drops drone bombs into arranged-marriage wedding ceremonies in Pakistan, charring their Peshawari Naan bread – and every living human – to a less than savory blackness in our war on terror?
Conflicted, I step into my marble shower, and turn on the free-flowing pure water to wash myself as I continue listening — but only after adding an appointment to my iPad calendar: “Friday – read Little Women.”
The mind-tour is over. Please exit to your left. Mind the last step into a ditch beside a New Jersey Turnpike. It’s a doozy.