Sleeping with Movie Stars by Gitanjali Kolanad: Memoir of an Indian Dancer on (mostly) adultery

A year ago, I listened to Gitanjali Kolanad reading a script of her novel Sleeping with Movie Stars (during a literature panel), which went along like this:

“Don’t you hate this part of India?”, I asked the American girl, who also looked out the window while her fingers moved as if covering and uncovering the holes of the flute. She shrugged, “Everybody has to shit”. Long pause.

Like magnet, her reserved predisposition and cathartic story-telling drew me into reading Sleeping with Movie Stars. The book consists of 9 short stories pertaining the life of Gitanjali Kolanad, an Indian dancer who moved to India when she was 17 after spending her entire childhood in Canada. Now, she is currently living in Toronto.

The first chapter, titled Sleeping with Movie Stars, recites the experience on how Gitanjali ended up literally sleeping with an Indian movie star. Unfortunately, her boyfriend acknowledged the swift affair and decided to cut ties with her. She was left broken-hearted with the inability to boast about making love with a movie star, as no one in Canada had ever heard of the actor’s name. In this particular chapter, Gitanjali touched on the subject of sexual assault, on the case of groping. She said:

I tried to figure out what it felt like to touch my breast, from a man’s perspective; not what the breast felt, but what the forearm felt on contact with it. Not a bare one, but through a bra, a blouse, and the numerous folds of a sari draped over it. I could achieve no frisson (excitement).

Basically, she implied that men randomly groping was not a turn on for women; instead, it actually bewildered women how the action itself could excite perverted men.

A good quote in the chapter of Tala, in which Gitanjali got disappointed when she found out that the guy she was having an affair, Pacha, could love another girl beside her own self:

Do you think your mind is weightless? No. Your mind has a weight, it is what gives each movement its force. Bring your mind into each movement, let it be there, not go anywhere else.

The story of A year in Delhi mostly discusses about a coward old man, rape, and her English-teaching on children from slums. Gitanjali met with one of her father’s friend who was already married, yet he always attempted to physically touch her. Once, while he was touching her all over, Gitanjali only stayed still and kept reading the same sentence of a book, over and over again. When she challenged him to sleep with her, the old guy refused by saying, “No, I have a wife already”. From the short story, Gitanjali wishes to show how egoistic disloyal men can be: they justify the act of groping here and there, or sexual assault in general, but are too afraid of actually doing the real stuff. Unfaithful men are a bunch of cowardly hypocrites who establish false justifications on women. One night, Gitanjali was almost raped by a bunch of men, but fortunately she escaped by running as fast as she could. She wrote how the men who almost raped her were the very same men who, in the day, opened doors for her, fetched her tea, and swept the floors — such an irony. A year in Delhi includes the time when Gitanjali taught English to the trash-picker boys. These boys were around the age of 10-17 years old, originally came from Bangladesh and did odd jobs in Delhi by begging or picking up trash. The slum in which these boys lived smelt of thick and complex shit, old spit, and decomposing flesh of dead dogs/pigs. In this chapter, Gitanjali also explained why her father chose to stay in Canada — if he ever came back to India, he would have been held back again by his low-caste origin due to his poor family.

In the chapter of Aalok Lodge, Gitanjali worked with her friend’s husband, PG, on a social service program. Basically, the program was like child-adoption — a child was portrayed as someone better, so that some random rich white family could adopt him/her. Besides, every rich white family needed a third-world country child to adopt, right? PG made it seem like all of the children were impressive; when a child loved animals, PG quickly wrote ‘zoology’ as favorite subject. When another child said she loved the moon, PG wrote ‘astronomy’ as her dream career. Everything was a make-believe reality: a bunch of ‘intelligent’ orphans from India who dreamed to become astronomers, zoologists, actress, and musicians waiting for random Americans to adopt them. Again, PG wanted to sleep with Gitanjali, yet she refused because he was her best friend’s husband. However, she would be okay with it if he would have made a poem, or kiss her first. The last chapter, A Different Lion, is about Gitanjali’s experience on being attacked by a lion during her dance routine for a magazine. At first, I could not believe that the story was true; I thought she was high or something while writing it. It turns out to be true, though — there is a video (here) and even pictures on Google. A quote from A Different Lion:

Emotion enters into the memory at every stage. We register the sensations that make us feel, and each time we recall the event, we recall it with feeling. As the feelings change, the memory changes.

All in all, Gitanjali is a free-spirited sensual woman, and all of her characteristics are clearly showcased on the short stories. Personally, I find it rather disturbing how, throughout the book, Gitanjali normalizes the act of adultery/affair. She said, “We are all adults, so adultery is inevitable”. When her husband had an affair with his student, she just let him be — instead, she chose to have her own affair with another man too. I suppose they had an open relationship. Gitanjali’s justification of adultery shifts my own perspective for a brief minute, “Oh. Maybe having an affair isn’t that bad? Maybe it’s normal when two people get bored in a relationship after being together for years, even decades.”

Still, everyone should just be loyal to his/her own spouse. Isn’t that the point of relationship? To commit oneself to another person’s disposition? Then again, everyone has different opinions. On a lighter note, it’s interesting to know how India’s folklores (Arjuna, Pandawa, Ramayana) apparently have similar story lines and characters to those from Indonesia. Besides, on the beginning of the novel, the author herself wrote, “The stories are grounded in the real, yet entirely false. The ‘I’ of the narrator is not me, though we share some common history”(meaning: some of the stories might not even be about Gitanjali herself).

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