“When you are observing me, who do you think I am observing?”
Octopuses are also called Medusae.
The American naturalist, Henry Beston, wrote, “Animals are not brethren, they are not underlings.” They are, “other nations”, “gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained.”
Sy Montgomery in her beautiful book, The Soul of the Octopus, mesmerizes with her descriptions of these ghostly specters that haunt the ocean. Their tentacular arms as they weave through the waters; the verb “wade”, it seems to me, was invented for their manner of “walking”, the arms now robes as they glide through the velvety sands.
And the bonelessness!
The octopuses can wriggle, wiggle, jam themselves into a bottle, push themselves through a hole the size of an orange, no matter how huge their bodies; as long as it’s big enough to accommodate their eyes.
The world’s as big as an eye.
On her first interaction with an octopus named Athena, Montgomery writes:
As I stroke her with my fingertips, her skin goes white beneath my touch. White is the color of a relaxed octopus; in cuttlefish, close relatives of octopus, females turn white when they encounter a fellow female, someone whom they need not fight or flee.
I was 12 when I travelled for the first time in the Mumbai local. It was early morning, and my parents, sister and I were seated in the relatively empty compartment as the train sped through the suburbs, leading us to Borivali West.
In the pleasant morning hours, the world outside a blur of images, my mother on the phone, my father gazing outside, and my eight year old sister asleep, I caught sight of my fellow passengers.
There were four women. Two on each blue seat, facing each other. One was an airhostess, in her black, carefully ironed skirt, white shirt, and dark blazer, applying a thick coat of red on her already red lips, her stockinged feet stretched before her while her black pumps were strewn on the metallic floor as if it was her bedroom and not a train; next to her was a soldier, in her olive green uniform, an AK-47 across her lap, eyes strictly on the passing world witnessed from the mesh that lined the window; in front of the airhostess and the soldier sat a fisherwoman, cross legged on the seat, saree bundled between her thighs, her wares on the floor, one with the gun and the pumps. Next to her sat a woman I only imagined as the CEO of her company; the grey of her formal office pants, the deliberation that went in her pinned up hair, the kohl lined eyes, as she typed furiously on her laptop, her red nails beautifully manicured, unmindful of the world that passed her by. Neither bothered the other. There was no “Other”.
This tableau left a deep impression on me. There was a self assurance, a sense of self fashioning; that anyone can be anything and no one will mind. That no one was ogling at the airhostess or the corporate woman, or making a fuss at the fisherwoman, or side eying the soldier—even at 12, I was recognizing that the world looked differently at women.
One by one the women got up to leave.
Each time one of them rose, she left behind her scent, perfumes from different lives and lived realities. Call it the “Perfume of Bombay” or the “Fragrance of Cosmopolitism”. To that 12 year old, it was the “Scent of (Be)longing”.
Montgomery describes Athena, the octopus’s touch as an “exceptionally intimate embrace”. I can imagine the suckers on my arms, perhaps tender, perhaps hard, like cartilage. Athena’s embrace is “at once touching and tasting [her] skin”, who already knows her “in a way no being had known [her] before”.
When she describes this interaction to her friend, the friend is alarmed, calling the octopus a “monster” .
Ocean Vuong once wrote,
A monster is not such a terrible thing to be. From the Latin root monstrum, a divine messenger of catastrophe, then adapted by the Old French to mean an animal of myriad origins: centaur, griffin, satyr. To be a monster is to be a hybrid signal, a lighthouse: both shelter and warning at once.
Shelter and warning. Warning and shelter. Like womanhood.
Perhaps it’s the blood. Perhaps its the way a woman’s body changes and changes, like an octopus’s, born from a seed as tiny as a grain of rice and continues to grow and fill up, only to shrink at will to flee predators. Perhaps, its the rage that lives right under the skin, like venom, the primal anger that manifests time to time, which no amount of poetry can exorcise. Bloodlust, bloodthirst, blood red. Only that the woman has learnt to disguise it under a gossamer thin garb of civility. Men call it servility.
The octopus too is a master of disguise. The 3D texture of its skin allows it to blend into its surrounding, becoming rock, kelp or coral. The octopus is a mirror, aiming to copy the world and disappear, because to be seen is to die.
The octopus doesn’t rely on camouflages alone; they modify, they adapt. A researcher observed that the octopus changed its colors and textures 177 times in the span of an hour. However, the irony is, the octopus is said to be color blind. The skin of the octopus is sensitive to light.
A woman too sees with her skin: the prickle of flesh, the rising of hair; she feels the eyes before she even sees them. She knows how she is being perceived, the way she is being surveyed.
John Berger in his seminal book/show Ways of Seeing wrote,
Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.
When I came across Justine Kurland’s Girl Pictures, there was a thrilling joy in looking at women, or rather these not-quite-woman girls.
Tender girls, naked girls, girls in the arms of one another, girls braiding hair, girls smoking together, girls carousing , girls picking at lice, girls being girls, unbothered by the burning, foul gaze of the world.
Because they are the monsters.
They aren’t still life paintings. All they had to do was look at you and watch you turned to stone, eyes cold and lifeless, animated only when caressing one another with their lashes.
Octopuses are also called Medusae. That the image of Medusa’s snaking hair owes it to an octopus or an jellyfish. Or the octopus itself represents the severed head of Medusa, begs the question:
What came first?
The monster or the monstrosity?
Medusa was cursed to be a monster despite being at the receiving end of Poseidon’s monstrosity. Poseidon, the God of the Seas, had raped her in Athena’s temple. Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare, chose to punish Medusa by severing her of her beauty, the very thing that made her worthy of looking and being looked at.
A precedent was set.
“History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past,” Berger said.
Looking at Kurland’s photographs, of the various girl women at play, a sense of challenge can be felt. The girls are daring you to look at them.
How long will your gaze last until you too begin to yearn for the merry casualness with which these girls slip in and out of their skin, out of frames, out of sight into a remote horizon, forever out of reach?
Your eyes rove over their bodies. Even through the cold picture you can feel the pulsating life that runs in their veins. The girls are made of red, hot, fiery blood. They are the real monsters, no longer slumbering, but wide awake. And they aren’t afraid.
Horror movies loves its girl monsters. Bodies smeared and drenched and marked with blood. Vaginas with teeth. Still born babies tethered to bodies. Mouth a gaping maw, a dark endless scream. Finger nails that crucify, gouge out eyes. And eyes that petrify, that reduce a man to ash and dust.
In Kurland’s pictures, men or boys are an interruption, a road sign that asks you to slow down when you want to ram the car off the cliff, full throttle, volume turned up.
So it is in Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire: the arrival of men marks the end of paradise, a haven made of, for, by women, to search and sear one another with love and desire.
Because a woman that desires and hungers for love is a monster. A woman that attributes herself the dignity of mind is a monster. A woman that adorns herself in her skin, in the soft of her flesh is a monster. A woman that loves another of her kind is a monster. A woman that isn’t a woman is a monster. And monsters must be stopped.
Or so they want you to believe.
John Berger said,
Every image embodies a way of seeing. Yet our perception or appreciation of an image depends also upon our own way of seeing.
Judith Slaying Holofernes, Artemisia Gentileschi, c. 1612-1613
Octopuses have been long reviled in Western folklore. The image of tentacles devouring a ship was a cautionary tale for anyone who longs for the seas.
Colossal Octopus by Pierre Denys de Montfort, 1801
John Ernest Williamson, an underwater filmmaker, once wrote, “No words can adequately describe the sickening horror one feels when from some dark mysterious lair, the great lidless eyes of the octopus stare at one…”
Poison Ivy, 1999. Justine Kurland
The leeches embedded on their bodies; sickening; disgusting; horrifying.
But when the eyes move past their pale skins, and falls on their faces and then their hands, love blooms.
The care with which she pulls the leech off her friend’s body, while those dark creatures suck her own blood. And the friend? The trust she puts in her companion’s touch; the red marks on her leg shows the price of yanking the parasites off her being. And yet, the tenderness. The trust. The touch.
So much of womanhood is just that.
Another pair of hands helping you with your saree, kneeling by your feet — feet that are the shrine of hierarchy, yet for her it is a site of generous tenderness — tugging at the folds to “fix” the pleats. Or to tie the strings of the blouse, or weave the threads of the corset behind your back. The woman’s wardrobe is a communal event, of bodies coming together to assist in her adornment.
Reflecting on her book, Kurland notes, “The first condition of freedom is the ability to move at will, and sometimes that means getting into a car rather than getting out of one. It’s difficult to describe the joy of a carload of girls, going somewhere with the radio turned up and the windows rolled down.”
Girls move out of each other, into one another. The keeper of secrets and mysteries. They evade the gaze of patriarchy by looking to and at one another. By looking out for each other.
A visit to a beauty parlor and you know the ways in which bodies come undone at the touch of a woman. No more object, surveyor and surveyed. The sentence reaches for its subject.
It’s beautiful, to watch the octopus glide through the seabed, seeking the camera that follows, challenging its gaze. Curious, playful, mischievous. Like the girls in Kurland’s pictures.
Still from Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)
Which is to say, if beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, then so does monstrosity.