Books

'Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows', 'Marriage of a Thousand Lies' & 'No One Can Pronounce My Name'

While the post-9/11 period and its racialization and criminalization of brown bodies marked one epoch of the South Asian experience, recent South Asian immigrant literature suggests the beginning of another frame: sexuality.


Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows

Publisher: William Morrow
Length: 304 pages
Author: Balli Kaur Jaswal
Price: $26.99
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-06
Amazon

Marriage of a Thousand Lies

Publisher: Soho Press
Price: $25.00
Author: S.J. Sindu
Length: 288 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-06
Amazon

No One Can Pronounce My Name

Publisher: Picador
Price: $26.00
Author: Rakesh Satyal
Length: 400 pages
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-05
Amazon

September 11th and the wars that followed plunged not only Americans, but much of the world into a moribund existential crisis about the meaning, fictive and lived, of war, patriotism, and home. These themes found their way into much of our pop culture and it became commonplace to feel their effects in what we saw on the big and small screens, and on the page. While the post-9/11 period and its racialization and subsequent criminalization of brown bodies and identities marked one epoch of the South Asian experience, particularly in Diaspora, recent South Asian immigrant literature suggests the beginning of another frame: sexuality.

In three new works of fiction, South Asian British and American authors take up the mantle of sexuality in unique nodes of interpretation. In Marriage of a Thousand Lies, S.J. Sindu offers an original and deeply personal tale of sexuality and struggle amongst the Sri Lankan Tamil community of New England. Across the pond, Balli Kaur Jaswal’s Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows uses the guise of humor to offer a moving account of loss and love among British Sikhs. And back in America, Rakesh Satyal has written one of the funniest, yet deeply emotional tales, about Indian Americans that I have ever read in No One Can Pronounce My Name.

While sexuality is a constant reference point across all three novels, it is the guilt associated with sex and freedom of movement that forms the connective tissue of these novels and the South Asian communities represented in Cleveland, Boston, and Southhall. From that angle, these characters are not so different than those in much of past South Asian American and British fiction; they are all, essentially, struggling to balance their desires and wants with those of family, particularly parents. But I see something different in this new wave of Desi fiction: confrontation followed by a rugged insistence on individualism and the acknowledgment that sex is a deeply personal act that cannot fit what Tagore might have called “the dreary desert sands of dead habit”.

The Punjabi widows in Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel may be deprived of active sexual partners, but they know pleasure. However, their wants are muted and forbidden to be public; a free writing class at the local gurudwara becomes the unlikely site of the widows’ literary engagement with their private lust. Yet, even in that space, their young and non-traditional teacher, Nikki, fails to recognize the validity of the older women’s sexual experiences. In a moment reminiscent of the silenced voices in Alifa Rifaat’s gorgeous Distant View of a Minaret (1983), Arvinder challenges Nikki: “We’d be invisible in India … I suppose it makes no difference that we’re in England. You must think it’s wrong for us to discuss these things because we shouldn’t be thinking of them.”

To be fair, Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows was much better than I expected. Part of the joy in reading this novel comes from the author’s insider perspective on Sikh life. It's undoubtedly a very British tale, but one interspersed with a brand new cultural voice. Nikki, the teacher, is clearly a major character, but this is not just her story. It's also about Kulwinder, the strict, fearful, and lifeless gurudwara volunteer who is also Nikki’s boss and whose married life resembles a desi version of the John Prine classic, “Angel from Montgomery”. It's easy to dislike Kulwinder, but it’s also easy to see her as a person drowning in grief, whose relationship with her husband has also suffered due to that very human problem of not being able to truly share feelings with the person with whom there should be no barriers to sharing anything. Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows also unexpectedly delights with laugh-out-loud moments courtesy of the “widows”, whose short stories feel like they are inspired more by Peaches than the Punjab, with many more uses of ghee than I ever thought possible.

While sex is in part the subject matter of Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows, it's also a plot device to set the stage for an unlikely literary, and gendered, liberation movement that sweeps the fictional Sikh community in London. Sex, in Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is in-your-face. This is not a book about making love, but like that famous line in Clerks (1994), more like “making fuck”. Lucky, the queer female protagonist of S.J. Sindu’s Marriage of a Thousand Lies, is married to Krishna, a man, but both partners are gay. Their marriage was a dull and submissive nod to the respective sets of parents, who never acknowledge their children’s non-heterosexuality, but feel equally helpless under the weight of Sri Lankan Hindu custom.

When I was an undergrad at Purdue, one of my professors commented that my writing was “full of rage”. Of the three new novels, Marriage of a Thousand Lies seethes with a striking amount of anger that author S.J. Sindu declares with her opening dedication to “all my families -- blood, chosen, desi, queer”. Very quickly, Sindu lets us know that Lucky feels that the torment about her identity is part of her DNA, and cannot be overcome simply by repeating lie after lie:

“Let me tell you something about being brown like me: your story is already written for you. Your free will, your love, your failure, all of it scratched into the cosmos before you’re ever born ... Everyone is watching you, all the time, praising you when you abide by your directives, waiting until you screw up. And you will screw up.”

Sindu uses Lucky to remind us that sex is beautiful, but it's also ugly, especially when it's done for tradition and without lust or wanting. In a particularly wretched scene, which made me squirm like the first time I saw “The Ceremony” in The Handmaid’s Tale, Lucky and Krishna have sex to try and get pregnant. The sex is consensual, but clearly disgusts Lucky who knows she should not be fucking a man, but feels that every action of independence is met with swift rejection by her family. Maybe a baby will solve things, but again, probably not.

If Marriage of a Thousand Lies and Erotic Fiction for Punjabi Widows represent two ends of a unidimensional scale on South Asian literary approaches to sexuality, than Rakesh Satyal’s No One Can Pronounce My Name falls somewhere in the middle. Hilarious and heartbreaking, Satyal’s second novel is every bit a deeply comical examination of inter-generational immigrant life, but with a layered approach to sex and sexuality. Satyal is an excellent interpreter of the American desi experience and this novel does the difficult work of providing commentary on those aspects of immigration that often go unseen.

Several characters populate No One Can Pronounce My Name, but chief among them are Ranjana, an aspiring novelist who seeks to create Indian-inspired vampire fiction; her unrelentingly-horny and college-age son, Prashant; Harit, a painfully shy and insecure department store worker; and his friend and co-worker, Teddy. While Teddy is not of Indian descent, his presence becomes vital as the novel progresses. At the very least, he's responsible for bringing Ranjana and Harit together, and their friendship creates the courage that each needs to pursue their own journeys of courage.

Satyal loves to use food as a convenient metaphor (or substitute) for sex. Prashant attends a Holi celebration at a local community center, mainly to gorge on the free food (after he “rubs one out” in the bathroom because he is always horny). Mohan, Ranjana’s husband, is an overweight college professor who has allegedly lost his interest in sex, but never for eating or his favorite hobby: finding the cheapest gasoline in town. He loves rotis, but does not put the same effort into food or his wife. This also leads Ranjana to eat more.

“As her tongue sang with flavor, she realized that just last night, she had been lamenting the sour hub of Mohan’s body in her bed. She had been thinking about how little desire she felt for him, or, rather, how she felt none at all, and she had gotten up today with a craving for bondas and raita. She had replaced her husband with a feast … They were getting fatter in their sexual sadness.”

While it would be easy to focus on Ranjana as the star of this novel, I believe that this is Harit’s story, which is told with little humor (compared to the other characters). Like Lucky in S.J. Sindu’s Marriage of a Thousand Lies, Harit might actually be the voice of Rakesh Satyal but he could also just be the author’s excellent attempt at building a character who represents all the loneliness that immigrant life has to offer and who remarks that the Indians who do come into his life “were merely accessories”. Harit’s despondency is rooted in a number of issues, one being he doesn't feel desired; “he had been in India just long enough to see his marriage prospects pale in comparison to other men’s, to see how undesirable he was.” While his sexuality and the introspection it brings is a vital part of the character development, Harit carries the sadness of his father’s unexpected death -- too soon after the family’s emigration to the US -- not unlike Casey Affleck’s voluminous grief in Manchester by the Sea (2016).

When another family member dies in a freak accident, for which Harit feels personally responsible, he's left to care for his elderly mother (whose own story forms another astonishing and well-developed backstory). As he struggles to comprehend death and life and his place in a country for which he feels no loyalty, Satyal writes:

“It was only then that Harit understood that all of these Indians who had come to the States would end their stories here. For some reason, he had always envisioned their deaths as occurring on Indian soil, their bodies cremated amidst the rustic-commercial swirl of their upbringing. But there was no guarantee that they would make it back to their homeland before they died. Life wasn’t a circle but a line. The blurry opening of the film may have taken place on the subcontinent, but its counterpart, the fading into darkness, was decidedly American.”

My favorite scene in Emily Gordon and Kumal Nanjiani’s amazing 2017 film The Big Sick occurs towards the end when Nanjiani has a deeply emotional confrontation with his parents and asks them why the family moved to the US if they insisted on still living according to an obdurate Pakistani code. The fear of upsetting parents, which often ends in protagonists leading double lives, is hardly original to recent fictive retellings, but these new novels by Balli Kaur Jaswal, Rakesh Satyal, and S.J. Sindu, all play on the role that ethnic and religious communities and their extremism, manifest in often subtle, but ultimately deeply hurtful ways. In all three works, characters suffer from the Hawthorne Effect, i.e., they alter their behavior when they know they are being watched, or even think that someone might be observing them with suspicion.

In The English Teacher (1945), R.K. Narayan wrote, “This education has reduced us to a nation of morons; we were strangers of our own culture and camp followers of another culture, feeding on leavings and garbage … What about our own roots?” While Narayan was the quintessential Indian writer, whose work captured pre- and post-independent India, these three new works of fiction showcase South Asian writers who have transplanted those “roots” in new ways. This new wave of South Asian Diasporic authors have imbued their characters with a rich blend of the intersectional experiences across sex, continents, and religion. Or, as S.J. Sindu writes, “The real story lies in between the pigments.”

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting, and creative audacity.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominating committee's yearly announcement of the latest batch of potential inductees always generates the same reaction: a combination of sputtering outrage by fans of those deserving artists who've been shunned, and jubilation by fans of those who made the cut. The annual debate over the list of nominees is as inevitable as the announcement itself.

The Hall of Fame has been harshly criticized for some of its more inexplicable exclusions and for neglecting certain subgenres of music. Cynicism and negativity over the Hall's selection process and membership is fairly widespread. That said, despite the controversies and legitimate gripes, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is still widely viewed as a career milestone. The Hall's stature feeds its surrounding controversies: after all, nobody would care to argue so vehemently about the merits of one artist over another if it wasn't important. Very rarely will a newly inducted artist miss the opportunity to appear at the star-studded ceremony to accept their honor.

The criteria for nomination is as follows: "Artists -- a group encompassing performers, composers and/or musicians -- become eligible for induction 25 years after the release of their first commercial recording. Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock and roll." Specifically for performers, "This category honors bands or solo artists which demonstrate musical excellence. Such a descriptor includes (but isn't limited to) influence on other performers or genres; length and depth of career and catalog; stylistic innovations; or superior technique and skills."

These standards allow the selection committee wide latitude with their choices, and generating a list that would create zero controversy is an obvious impossibility. As for those deserving artists yet to be included, their time will surely come. There has purportedly been an emphasis on increasing diversity among the nominating committee and voters in recent years, and the list of contenders for the class of 2018 reflects this.

Radiohead, as expected and deserved, are nominated in their first year of eligibility, and there is little doubt they will be inducted. Other nominees include Bon Jovi, Kate Bush, the Cars, Depeche Mode, Dire Straits, Eurythmics, J. Geils Band, Judas Priest, LL Cool J, MC5, the Meters, the Moody Blues, Rage Against the Machine, Nina Simone, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Link Wray and the Zombies. It's a strong and varied group.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise on the list, however, is the British duo Eurythmics. Even though they've been eligible since 2006, this is their first nomination. Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox certainly deserve recognition for their important contributions to the musical fabric of the last 40 years. While Eurythmics have always been generally respected, they've never been darlings with the critics like some of their contemporaries. It's puzzling as to why. Very few of their peers surpass Eurythmics in terms of artistic vision, musicianship, songwriting and creative audacity. Lennox is second to noone as a vocalist, not just in her lead parts but also in the creative, often rhythmic way she uses her voice as an instrument. This nomination could boost the stature and perception of Eurythmics' body of work immeasurably.

Although Eurythmics are often consigned strictly to the synthpop genre, that designation fits only a portion of their repertoire. Each of their nine studio albums has its own unique vibe while retaining the duo's core identity. Eurythmics never repeat themselves, often taking bold risks and swerving in unexpected directions. Unlike many of their contemporaries, Eurythmics didn't "sell out" or compromise by chasing after obvious Top 40 hits. Even their most popular singles aren't commercial in the traditional sense, and they've always sounded like nobody else on the radio.

Despite the sudden emergence of their 1983 single "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" as an MTV staple and international smash, Eurythmics are far from an overnight success story. Their story begins in London, 1975, when Stewart fortuitously encountered Lennox at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. The Scottish singer had recently dropped out of the Royal Academy of Music, which she felt didn't suit her musical interests. Stewart and Lennox strongly connected over their love of music, and they quickly became a couple who were inseparable. Along with singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Peet Coombes, Stewart and Lennox formed a short-lived group the Catch. After one failed single, they added two members and renamed themselves the Tourists.

Coombes was the dominant creative force and primary songwriter behind the Tourists. Lennox and Coombes shared vocals on the band's dour and melancholy power-pop. The Tourists released three albums and managed a handful of chart appearances in the UK. Two of their singles, a peppy cover of Dusty Springfield's "I Only Want to Be With You" and the hard-rocking "So Good T\to Be Back Home Again", made the UK Top 10. The band toured extensively, but their success was fleeting. The Tourists' third album, Luminous Basement (1980), tanked badly despite containing their strongest material yet, and the group dissolved shortly thereafter.

Lennox and Stewart also endured a painful ending to their sometimes tumultuous romance, but they recognized the power of their musical chemistry and decided to continue working together as a duo. They were a pair "who couldn't be together, and who could not be apart", as Lennox reflects many years later in the song "17 Again". History has shown that they made the right decision: Stewart and Lennox compliment each other intuitively through a shared passion for music, the thrill of experimentation, and the need for emotional release that songwriting and performing allows.

The name Eurythmics was derived from a technique used to teach music to children based on sensory and physical methods of learning rhythm. The newly-christened duo signed with RCA Records and in early 1981 headed to Germany to record their debut album with highly-respected krautrock producer Conny Plank.

Plank already had a long string of acclaimed albums to his credit, including collaborations with Neu!, Can, Ultravox, Kraftwerk and Brian Eno among others. The sessions for what would become Eurythmics' debut album, In the Garden, were held at Plank's studio in Cologne. He brought several of his regular collaborators into the proceedings, including bassist Holger Czukay and drummer Jaki Liebezeit of avant-garde rockers Can, Blondie drummer Clem Burke and D.A.F. electronics whiz Robert Görl. Stewart has described the sessions as a learning experience that helped expand his perception of what pop music could be and how it could be created without following any rules, a perspective that served Eurythmics well.

Eurythmics' austere and hypnotic debut single "Never Gonna Cry Again" was released in May 1981. They filmed a low-budget video and landed a couple TV slots to promote the track, but the song's haunted nature did not translate to mainstream success: it barely scraped the lower reaches of the UK singles chart. A second single, the dreamy guitar-rocker "Belinda", followed in August but failed to chart.

In the Garden was finally released in October 1981, but without a hit to generate momentum it was barely noticed. Despite scant sales figures, the album's gloomy psychedelic guitar-pop makes for a rather strong debut. In the Garden exists in late summer shadows, densely atmospheric and shrouded in a veil of dread. Lennox's vocals are understated, subtle and lower in the mix than on subsequent albums. Sound effects, odd vocalizations and bits of sonic experimentation fade in and out like flashes of hazily repressed memory.

RCA wasn't eager to invest in a follow-up to In the Garden after its disappointing reception, so Stewart financed Eurythmics' second album largely through a personal bank loan. Faced with a minuscule budget, they worked in a London warehouse to avoid spending money on studio time. They were able to purchase cheap second-hand equipment for the sessions, including the basic TEAC 8-track on which most of the album was recorded. Adam Williams, former bassist for the ska band the Selectors, helped the duo learn the equipment while co-producing some of their earliest tracks.

The primitive set-up was the ultimate blessing in disguise. Since they were financing the sessions and self-producing, Eurythmics had the freedom to experiment with no oversight. As both Lennox and Stewart were enduring periods of deep personal strife at the time, the sessions evolved into an emotional and creative catharsis that helped shape the mercurial nature of the music. It was out of this environment that a classic was born.

Despite appearing only a few months after their debut album, the first single to emerge from the new sessions proved radically different than any of Eurythmics' prior work. Released in April 1982, "This Is the House" is a flamboyant, horn-driven spectacle on which Lennox belts out a vocal more confident and brash than any of her prior work. The song's odd mix of synthpop, R&B; and latin influences renders it completely unique, but despite its infectious ingenuity and beguiling loopiness (or perhaps because of it), "This Is the House" failed to chart.

The follow-up single that landed two months later is even better. Entrancing and soulful, "The Walk" exudes the anxiety, drama and innovation that became Eurythmics' hallmark. The vocal arrangement is ingenious, and Dick Cuthell (known for his work with Madness, the Specials, Fun Boy Three and others) lets rip a blistering trumpet solo. As in many of their songs, "The Walk" slowly ratchets up the tension through hypnotic repetition and the gradual addition of more layers of sound until it reaches a haywire frenzy. Although a brilliant recording, "The Walk" fared no better than its predecessor.

With the duo's second album Sweet Dreams (are made of this) completed, RCA began a strong promotional push, issuing the opening track "Love Is a Stranger" as a single in November 1982. Lennox's dazzling vocal ranges from icy cool to fiery passion over a relentless electric groove bracketed by sinuous lines of synth. "Love Is a Stranger" rose to #54 in the UK, their highest placement yet, and momentum was finally building for the duo thanks in part to the single's provocative video.

The first significant chapter in a series of visually arresting promotional clips that Eurythmics generated over the span of their career, "Love Is a Stranger" showcases Lennox's dramatic presence and her innate ability to command the viewer's attention. She plays multiple roles, ending the clip with her red hair slicked back and dressed androgynously in a man's suit. Image was quickly becoming an important part of the Eurythmics' equation, with Lennox always compelling no matter which character she inhabits, and Stewart often appearing as her sort of mad-scientist counterpart.

Sweet Dreams (are made of this) hit the shelves on 4 January 1983, along with its title-track, a single that continues to reverberate through pop music nearly 35 years after its release. Suddenly everything changed for Eurythmics. An obscure British duo, barely managing to survive in the music business, soared to the top with one of the more unconventional songs ever to scale those lofty heights.

"Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" has an unusual structure, with no real verses or chorus. Lennox has described it as a mantra, and indeed it is. The lyrics, which Lennox rattled off spontaneously in a matter of minutes, are a simple but profound statement about the human condition: "Everybody's looking for something," the search for meaning and fulfillment, the ephemeral "this" of which sweet dreams are made.

Lennox begins the song with a single line of vocal, then starting with "some of them want to use you" at the 0:24 point it doubles. From there the song gradually builds intensity, with the vocals increasingly layered. A masterful finalé combines all the sonic elements before fading to black, the mantra repeating endlessly, the "this" still stubbornly undefined. The booming minor-key bass riff and the epic string-motif solo starting at 1:31 are played by Lennox on a Roland Juno-6 synthesizer. The main riff (improvised by Lennox while listening to Stewart working on a drum-machine pattern), is a simple two-bar arpeggio that loops throughout most of the song. Two parts were recorded separately and panned on opposite sides of the sound spectrum, creating a richly resonant effect. "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" is no dated relic from the early days of MTV burdened by the limitations the time. Its massive waves of synth flood out of the speakers with enormous power, as inexorably as the tide.

The music video, which became wildly popular on MTV during its heyday, is forever entwined with the song in listeners' collective consciousness. The iconic image of Lennox in her masculine suit and flaming orange flat-top helps to define the new wave era. Her forceful demeanor, nervy confidence and the subtle nuances of her facial expressions amplify the song's inherent tension. She confronts the viewer directly by pointing right in our faces at the 0:24 mark. At 1:56, she offers a sly half-smile with, "some of them want to abuse you", and at 2:15 she pounds her fist just as the song reaches its dramatic apex. Stewart appears throughout the video stoically pecking away on the drum machine he used in the recording of the song, the Movement MCS Drum Computer MK1 (except for that part where he and the cow have, well, a moment… It's all in the eye contact).

After a slow climb up the US pop chart, "Sweet Dreams (are made of this)" was finally able to derail the Police's "Every Breath You Take" from its seven-week reign at the top during the week of 3 September 1983. It would be Eurythmics' only chart-topping pop hit in America, and it reached #2 in the UK. In the wake of Eurythmics' new-found fame, "Love Is a Stranger" was re-released, this time becoming a major hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

The album's deep cuts are every bit as strange and fascinating as its better-known singles. The ghostly "Jennifer" is a narcotic reverie of keyboard swells and spectral atmospherics. "I've Got an Angel" and "Somebody Told Me" are serrated neurotic fits, swerving dangerously off-the-rails from anything that would normally be considered pop music. A long and mesmerizing exploration of urban isolation, "This City Never Sleeps" is a powerful finalé. Sweet Dreams (are made of this) is an examination of the human psyche fraught with turmoil, a series of jagged recurring nightmares and anxiety attacks set to music that is soulful and experimental, melodic but eccentric, a stark electronic soundscape that bristles with horns and unexpected sonic jolts.

Next Page: Potent and Ferocious

This film suggests that all violence—wars, duels, boxing, and the like—is nothing more than subterfuge for masculine insecurities and romantic adolescent notions, which in many ways come down to one and the same thing.

2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) crystalizes a rather nocturnal view of heterosexual, white masculinity that pervades much of Stanley Kubrick's films: after slithering from the primordial slime, we jockey for position in ceaseless turf wars over land, money, and women. Those wielding the largest bone/weapon claim the spoils. Despite our self-delusions about transcending our simian stirrings through our advanced technology and knowledge, we remain mired in our ancestral origins of brute force and domination—brilliantly condensed by Kubrick in one of the most famous cuts in cinematic history: a twirling bone ascends into the air only to cut to a graphic match of a space station. Ancient and modern technology collapse into a common denominator of possession, violence, and war.

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Here comes another Kompakt Pop Ambient collection to make life just a little more bearable.

Another (extremely rough) year has come and gone, which means that the German electronic music label Kompakt gets to roll out their annual Total and Pop Ambient compilations for us all.

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Winner of the 2017 Ameripolitan Music Award for Best Rockabilly Female stakes her claim with her band on accomplished new set.

Lara Hope & The Ark-Tones

Love You To Life

Label: Self-released
Release Date: 2017-08-11
Amazon
iTunes

Lara Hope and her band of roots rockin' country and rockabilly rabble rousers in the Ark-Tones have been the not so best kept secret of the Hudson Valley, New York music scene for awhile now.

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