The recent photographs of Nigella Lawson splashed across UK tabloids narrated a shockingly distasteful story, contrary to the one conjured by her exotic spices until now. What does her silence on the matter smell of? Deepa Bhasti takes a whiff…
“It should have the quiver of a 17th century courtesan’s inner thigh.”
It takes a woman of a certain kind of imagination – and an image to nurture – to come up with a line like that. It is small detail that this manner of quiver was meant to describe how a humble Italian dessert like panna cotta ought to behave.
The pronouncement came from the domestic goddess Nigella Lawson, a voluptuous paragon of sensuality, a picture of domesticity, even the ideal to aspire for. That’s the picture that she must have decided to draw around herself somewhere along the way to her meteoric rise to worldwide fame. It sure helped her build a formidable empire that includes bestseller books, popular long-running television shows and the ensuing celebrity. Women want to be like her…not least because men love her.
And then, that photograph. It was an ‘Et tu, Brute?’ moment, at least for the first few minutes. Not her! Not her! The outrage! Not because something horrible happened, but because it happened to her. Her of the rich marriage, successful life, gorgeous kitchen, and wholesomeness, it couldn’t happen to her too, when it was supposed to be restricted to us lesser female mortals.
The story that the tabloid photographs narrated was that her then husband, Charles Saatchi, grabbed her throat, caused her distress and made her cry. A ‘confidante’, albeit a dubious source, told a journalist that Lawson never cries, it goes back to certain incidents from childhood. Then for her to shed tears, that too in public, and be photographed doing so, was like some last shred of hope shivering and dropping upon the ground to be cruelly trampled under hurried feet.
Let’s make her a hero then, a different icon now. Let’s make her the poster woman, the go-to girl for the cause of marital/ domestic abuse. Let her be the misunderstood definition of a feminist, that of a man-hater, the victim, the oppressed.
Lawson’s reluctance for being typecast into an icon of this kind and for this kind of cause seems to have led to as much disgust as for the photographs themselves. She has not yet spoken about the incident where, in an instant, her carefully constructed image was shattered.
Perhaps, in her years of being married to the former advertising mogul and art collector Saatchi, she lived through many instances of domestic abuse. Perhaps this was really a one-off incident; photographs can lie too. Perhaps her silence is a hint loud enough that she doesn’t want to be tagged a victim for the rest of her days.
She has a public image to protect and a life to move on with. In her silences perhaps Lawson has attempted to reclaim the dignity she so publicly lost that day of the photographs. It is a tall order to expect her to click her heels and fall in line to speak now for the ‘domestic abuse’ victims of the world. Yes, it happened. Yes, it was shocking. Yes, it was high profile. But there are also hundreds of thousands of silent women around the world for whom Lawson would a compatriot. In India alone, between eight and 31 per cent of married women are estimated to have been victims of varying degrees of domestic violence. Each of us have stories to tell, either our own or those of maids or mothers or sisters who live each day in fear of the raised hands, raised voices of their men folk.
The recent abused ‘Goddesses of India’ campaign was meant to create awareness about domestic violence. The campaign claimed that 68 per cent of women in India have been abused in some manner of the other. Unfortunately, what the carefully reconstructed photos of models dressed as Goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, with black eyes and deep bruises did, was to feed into the fantasy of the damsel in distress who needed to be ‘saved’. By glamourising the idea of violence, it pushed the issue itself aside. It is tempting to add a little sheen of glamour to ideas and contexts; those get much attention. But there is only so far you can go with glamour and clever make up.
The reality is that domestic violence is far too common. There isn’t anything sexy about any part of it. While there are a dozen changes that the world ought to see yet, grant the reluctant victim her dignity. She has the right to remain silent. She has the right to refuse to be a hero or, an ambassador. Nigella deserves to carry on publicly as if this was just an inconvenient blimp. That doesn’t mean she, or the rest of us in our own pasts, haven’t wept privately.
This piece was inspired by a conversation with an ardent Nigella Lawson fan and a pretty good cook herself.