Next In Line

by Zahra Hamdulay

‘Queen of Her Castle’ by Scheherezade Junejo

A tower has two stories. The top floor window depicts a woman wrapped in black. Her hair is ragged and her expression distraught but the most striking thing about her is her wild, piercing cry that shatters the night sky like a wolf at a funeral. Her name is Mad Madonna and she howls at a moon that the audience only sees reflected in the windowpane. The moon is curvaceous and wholesome though I can’t tell if it’s supposed to represent lunacy or romance, but perhaps they overlap. In the window below her on the ground floor,  a man prods the ceiling with a broomstick. That awful, offensive omnipotent noise. Little does he know that she howls for him; as a Catholic, she cannot marry her Protestant lover. Ironically, the howling is reminiscent of a pack of wolves, but Mad Madonna seems trapped in her tower of loneliness. The visual poetry of her costume is striking, with her black funeral attire that mourns a relationship she can never have because of the “dogmas of their different faiths.”

I think about barriers to intimacy. Two people who are told that opposites attract, but always remain two separate individuals with no overlap. They strike up conversations like matches, but there is only friction, no sparks. Each day with the other feels like an effort. Every day, the distance between them grows. Unfortunately, lived experience underscores that the line between physical and emotional chemistry is blurry. One almost always tends to create the illusion of the other. Imagine, then, living with someone under the same roof, always feeling like the other person is just out of reach, even though they are lying right beside you. Your cheek is against their chest and their nose nuzzles your forehead, but after they fall asleep, you stay awake, listening to an asynchronous heartbeat. 

I think about barriers to intimacy. Two people who are told that opposites attract, but always remain two separate individuals with no overlap.

Antonia, the film’s central character and dutch matriarch, is a foil to Mad Madonna because she recognises that physical and emotional needs can be separated. She meets her own emotional needs. She is a person so fulfilled that she does not need many other people for support, besides family and friends. It is as though she pioneers the idea in her village community, and perhaps, for many in the audience. 

II.

Antonia, who returns to the village as a widow with her daughter Danielle, is approached by Farmer Bas, seeking her hand in marriage, most probably as a marriage of convenience. But Antonia revels in her detachment from societal norms just as much as she is a respected member of society. 

Farmer Bas:  Hello. I wanted to have a word.

Antonia:       What about?

Farmer Bas:  About you and me… About marriage.

                      You being a widow and my wife dead.

                      You are a good-looking woman, my sons need a mother.

Antonia:        But I don’t need your sons.

Farmer Bas:  No?

Antonia:        No.

Farmer Bas:  Don’t you want a husband either?

Antonia:       What for?

Shortly after, she says to him, “Some years ago you asked for my hand. You still can’t have my hand. But, you can have the rest. After all these chaste years, I’ve got the urge again. Let’s say once a week?” 

Where is The Woman, begging for commitment? Where is The Woman whose wedding day is the most important day of her life and who dreams about her unborn children after a second date? Antonia lets her primal instincts drive her rather than societal laws, as Freud posited years ago; that a life is built around tension and pleasure. Could a marriage, or at least, a marriage of convenience be avoided if people acknowledged it was simply a legal formality? That it is possible to coexist under the same roof, learn from and love each other, conscious of the choice to leave every single day and yet choosing to wake up next to their partner’s beaming face, as opposed to because they are legally roped to them like a goat to a tree, free to roam a five-mile radius?

III.

Antonia resembles Beauty and the Beast’s Gaston as he marches towards the castle to kill the beast, but holding a shotgun instead of a flaming torch. She sweeps through the village towards a pub in which her granddaughter’s rapist Pitte leans back in his chair and pops open a beer. As she steps in with the rifle, the men sitting at the bar burst into obnoxious laughter until Antonia shoots at the glass next to Pitte, shattering it. The laughter stops. In what might be the biggest power move of the entire film, she shoves him out of the bar with the butt of her rifle. He opens his mouth to explain himself but she doesn’t let him. Instead, she curses him. At once, the men from the bar, almost possessed by her incantation, file out and attack him until he is on his knees, spitting blood.

Years later when Pitte dies, no one bothers asking questions.

It puzzles and amazes me, the way rage can sometimes stem from the pulsating desire to help a situation. To fix hurt with hurt. To let all the bottled-up helplessness of a bystander finally explode into the courage to say how they really feel, to reveal the rifle in their chest nested below their lungs and fire bullets of stifled truths from their tongues. To finally be able to voice ‘you make me feel like I’m not enough to save you’. To be comfortable with the silence that follows.

I’ve heard the shriek of Mad Madonna and recognised her voice, it is something I have heard for years. I’ve heard the Protestant shoving the broomstick into the wall, again and again, to make that awful noise stop. One day I swallowed up my ability to hear. I’ve seen third people that went on to become thirteenth people and fifty-eighth people who all have opinions on the matter, who don’t really understand the situation but pick sides and jump to conclusions. Who sensationalize the headlines. People, like Farmer Bas, who chatter incessantly about how society would respond. Not helping anybody.

I go back to Antonia from time to time to remind myself of the control she holds over her life. I accept how I will not always have control over my own. She cradles my head in her arms through the screen.

Zahra Hamdulay is co-editor of The Missing Slate.

Scheherezade Junejo was born in 1986 in Karachi. She graduated from National College of Arts, Lahore, in January 2010 with a BFA (Honours) Degree. Scheherezade has produced seven solo exhibits, and participated in over 70 group exhibits, both national and international since June 2010. She has contributed work to several fundraisers, charities and auctions for causes such as Art For Education, Covid-19 Relief, and Special Olympics Pakistan. You can read her interview with The Missing Slate for our Spotlight Series here.