Thursday, January 27, 2011 12 comments

Journey in a time machine.

Okay, I know this comes too soon after that very sentimental birthday post but I just could not resist doing this. I stumbled upon something interesting on another blog that I was surfing through  "Wandering thoughts" by a person named Rinaya. She had this quiz about going back in time to meet oneself . This reminds me of how  when at sixteen I wrote a letter to myself. After  sealing  it in a cover   I had written my name and after that in bold  " not to be opened until you are 25". Well that letter got lost somewhere in my "treasure island" and during one of our various moves across India I stumbled upon it again. I was not 25 yet but I read that letter and laughed my head off before I tore it.  But going back into the past is more serious.

So I decided to give it a try.  Problem  is that I have a much longer journey than Rinaya and her young friends...

Well here it is...

Depending on your age, go back 10, 15, 20, or even more years.
. Tell us how many years back you have travelled and why.
I am going back 30 years to the time when I  was  13.. (Gosh,, I am really tiered after this long journey)

. Pretend you have met yourself during that era, and tell us where you are.
I find myself  in  Kolkata. Class 8 at St. Teresa's secondary school

. You only have one "date" with this former self. . Answer these questions.

 Okay, as we start, what year is it and how old are you? 1981, Kolkata, Jan 23rd, School has reopened and I am in 8B giggling and whispering with my good friends.

1. .Would your younger self (YYS, from here) recognize you when you first meet?

 "Hey who are you " is  her response. Only she does not say it. She looks at me inquisitively.  I take off my specs to make myself look less intimidating . " Are you a relation? You look like my grand mother. But she is fairer  and only  wears nine yard sarees" she giggles ( Disappointing! Ok you fat kid I will  forgive you )

 2.  Would YYS be surprised to discover what you are doing job wise? 

Ofcourse. " You mean there is a career in social work and development? I thought that was only the government's job..." I explain about the non profit sector. " Okay but do you earn enough? Can you buy enough clothes and books with the money you earn?" I assure her that I certainly have surplus for savings after buying books, clothes and other luxuries.

 " Do you get to travel a lot?" she asks? " Yes.." I assure her. "What is the name of the organization that you work for?" I tell her. "

Will it be there when I grow up"? "Sure" I tell her. "I will reserve a job for  you there. You have a lot of promise".

 3. What piece of fashion advice would you give YYS?
None... I love her innocence. Anyway, she spends most of her time in her white school uniform varying it on Tuesdays and Thursdays for a yellow PT uniform. On weekends she wears her old faded clothes and when it is a real occasion she wears midis- stitched by tailors who are not allowed to take her measurements any longer as she is "growing up". Her mother takes her measurements. Her mother's measurements are not too accurate and her mom also wants to make sure that these clothes last for at least 3-4 years. So finally she ends up looking like she is wearing clothes that belong to someone else. But I do tell her that her white midi with the green stripes with its long frilly sleeved jacket  is  "out of this world" She is ecstatic coz that is the closest she has come to fashion- her first "ready made" dress from New Market. (She looks at my clothes from "Fab India" and wants to know how much they cost. I tell her and she thinks I am joking)

4. What do you think YYS is most going to want to know

"Have you kissed anyone .. you know on the lips"? What...???  A real nut ..why does she want to know such things?

" I mean me and my friends read it in the Mills and Boons novels. But I have never seen anyone in India - even heros and heroines in films kiss like that. I have come to the conclusion that maybe only foreigners kiss"

 5.How would you answer YYS's question?

I explain to YYS that the Kamasutra is an Indian piece of work and that kissing has been mentioned in that ( I am a little shaky now. I hope this kid does not ask me where she can get this book/ what language it is written in etc etc. I am just taking a chance here coz  I have never really read this book)." It is a natural thing. Everyone does this".  Thankfully she does not want any full blown explnations about the how of the act..!

She asks me instead" So did you get pregnant when you kissed a man?" !!!

My god, what is this??  What do they teach them in the biology class? " Yes, Mrs Nair explained the reproductive system. But that is science. What I am asking you about is romance".

I cant deal with this folks . I am getting back into that machine and returning to 2011 where thirteen year olds know as much as 43 yr olds (if not more.).

 6.What would probably be the best thing to tell YYS?

That real love exists but not the way it is written about in those books she reads.

 7. What is something that you probably wouldn't tell YYS

That friends can betray and when they do it hurts so much...!

  8.What do you think will most surprise YYS about you?

That I do things that I beleive in and not what the world expects me to do.

  9.What do you think will least surprise YYS?

That I continue to dream.

10.At this point in your life, would YYS like to run into "you" from the future

Well... this kid sure seems to be liking me. She thinks I am smart, open and speak with conviction. She is excited about the work I do the places I have travelled to and the people I have challenged  ( Including her parents !)

She wants to meet  my daughter who is afterall another future me...! " I would like to be friends with your daughter" she says.

Sure, my dear travel back with me... You will be surprised to see how thirteen year olds are in my time zone... Bye...
Sunday, January 23, 2011 7 comments

Counting my blessings.

As I turn forty three today, I look back at my life -! When I was in my teens I used to think that forty and above referred to really "old" people. Twenty was the age that I wanted to be- the age by which I was sure I would have been done with education, would have a job and be ready to be my own person in this world. So there I was in my twenties and life still seemed to have a lot of unfinihsed things to deal with- for e.g a job that I would love to have, a nice man to marry etc etc. The twenties came to their end with me meeting my own version of Lochinvar ( "Daring in Love and Dauntless in War..."). Then came the thirties and motherhood- problems with paediatricians and schools. The job scene was still not ok. By the end of the thirties I found what I thought  was my "dream job" and got ready to face the forties. Now that I am in the beginning of forties I am looking forward to life with optimism.

I think back of the blessings that have helped make all this possible. The wonderful parents ( after all this is as much their day as it is mine) who beleived in me . Those evenings when my father would return home from office with a severe bout of asthma and still sit down to work out  sums on Archimedes Principle with me ..! His gentle reprimands to get me to clean my cupboard ( my "treasure island" as he used to refer to it). His acceptance of the fact that his daugther was not going to be an engineer like him. But supporting me in all my decisions - including the controversial ones relating to the shift from a post graduate degree in soil chemistry to social work and the decision to marry a man from another religion. My mother quietly supporting  with her wisdom and practicality the "do-able" things and steering both Appa and me  away from the  wild ideas that  we used to sometimes think of. I remember fondly birthdays when Amma used to cook up a storm- Puri and Aloo Dum to feed a platoon of hungry school girls.

I dont know what I was expecting from marriage- initially probably a Mills and Boon Story but slowly coming to terms with what real life was all about. Another blessing that I have been given-a really good friend in the form of  a husband. It is rare to find a man who is not threatend by his wife and who is actually proud of her achievements. Probably one of the reasons why we are able to co exisist very compatibly as two individuals following two different religions. I also thank my stars that unlike many women I dont have to look my best or behave in a coquettish manner with him to "keep him interested". I am amazed at some of things that I can tell him without shocking him- thoughts that I never  acknowledged even within my own mind!

Somehow I seem to slot my sister and daugther in the same category. I often confuse their names.. But seriously, I think I am really lucky to have them both. Glad that I dont have to indulge in "one upman ship" that sisters often seem to do. It is amazing how she has turned from that pesky little pest into a good friend!
My daugther ofcourse is my dream and my hope..! So far I think we have done the right things-she is shaping out to be a good human being. I thank god for the unselfish love that she has for us -this at a time when children manipulate parents for their own ends. Her moods as a teenager can be frustrating but I know it will pass...!!  I love the way both these girls bond with each other- so I know that if and when I am gone she has another part of me to act as her mother...!

Then ofcourse are my friends.. there are so many of them. They are my treasures! Starting from Tiklu ( my first and best friend who sadly is not in this world today) to all those girls at STS and all the others...  I have learnt so much from all of them!

Finally there are all the others who have touched my life in so many different ways. My inalws for instance. Another blessing ! In a world where most women face problems with their inlaws I think I have cordial relations with most of them.  I spent almost as many years with my mother in law as with my mother.. My days with my mother were spent less with her as with myself and my friends as those were my growing years but those with my mother in law were spent more with her in the sense that I was older , at home and had the time to talk to her.. !

I know I complain often about the various little problems that I have - my inability to deal with the stress of day today existence sometimes- fights with auto drivers, trouble with maids, frustration about my daugther's lack of interest in improving her math scores, office work that spills into my home life..... They overwhelm me and I sometimes think I probably have the most miserable existence! But I know I am a very blessed person. There are many who would give an arm and a leg for a family like mine, friends like those I have and a job like the one I do !

Sunday, January 16, 2011 4 comments

Perilious Pilgrimages

15th Jan- Pongal or Sankranti, the day of the harvest festival in India. The day when new avenues are supposed to open up - "Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum" as it is said in Tamil. The month of Thai which begins with Pongal is also the day when the auspicious calender opens up as the sun journeys its way out of the Tropic of Capricon.

But the 15th of Jan this year was not such a pleasant one. The early morning headlines reported that nearly hundred pilgrims had died at Sabarimala during their way down after witnessing the "Makara Jyoti". A jeep had apparently lost control and in the confusion that ensued there had been a stampede resulting in this terrible accident!! There were interviews with the Devasoam board officials, ministers etc all of whom gave their condolences while stating that "a high level probe" would take place. Compensation amounts were announced for those dead and those injured. But the point is that those who had died were not going to be back. And, it was ironical that they had died while performing a pilgrimage!

The Sabarimala incident is only one among many. There were those who had died in a templed in Maharashtra some time ago, some in Puri and ofcourse we also hear about people who suffered accidents during the Hajj! The number of such incidents seems to be on the rise.

"Can't do anything about it. Population is on the rise" says a friend. But I am not so sure that it is increased population  that is the sole cause. The population ofcourse is on the rise everywhere but why does its dark face show up only around places of religious worship? "A lot of people travel these days" said someone.  "Life is so uncertain these days. So  many people have to go on pilgrimages" was another reason .

I wonder if it is a combination of all the above. Yes, more people are able to afford to travel on pilgrimages these days but there is also the question of obtaining information about these places. It is very interesting to note that the maximum number of pilgrims who come to Sabarimala are not from Kerala where the temple is located but from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. So this little temple that is located on a hill within a forest which originally was designed to accomodate only those from that region is now trying to accomodate crowds way beyond its capacity!

As I had mentioned earlier the question of access to information about such places , the religious significance of certain days  for e.g the need to be assembled during the "makara jyoti"- has been popularized by the media in a manner that most people probably expect miracles by going there and being there on a particular day!

I sometimes wonder how all this mindless crowd navigation would actually make a person feel religious? I have on my part braved hours of waiting in crowded cage like structures in Tirupati for a Darshan and finally when we reach the sanctum sanctorum there is always a stampede. I have never had god on my mind when this moment comes- what I usually think about is my foot, my bag and my purse( Lord Venkateshwara please forgive me!) Alternatively I think back of the experiences I have had at the Ramakrishna Mission Math in various places or the Mother's Samadhi at Pondicherry- such peace and tranquility that it often brings tears to my eyes!

I also wonder about what has happend to the local temples in the various little villages and towns that used to be so popular with the people living there. Why have those temples and their gods lost their popularity to the reigning few like Lord Venkateshwara and Lord Ayyappa? And anyway these are but only forms of the one supreme being. Hinduism as a way of life does not prescribe any particular form of worship. We dont have to really go to a temple to pray. We can pray at home if we want to...

Sometimes I wonder what is it that religion has come to these days. Temples seem to have become  commerical establishments that sustain themselves through pilgrimage economies. Someone plants a story about some wish having come true after having visited a particular temple and the media picks it up and there it goes.. the temple and its god becomes a star!!

But seriously, has all this temple hopping made us in any way better human beings? I dont think so. One of the most dangerous situation for a woman to be in is to be on a train alone with returning Ayyappa devotees. Ater nearly a month of abstinence from alchohol and sex, they try to make up for it by getting drunk and harrassing any woman they meet...!

So why all this sham? Why cant we be like Abou Ben Adhem who woke up one night from a "deep dream of sleep" and told an angel sitting on his bed to write about him not as someone who loves god but someone who loves his fellow human being! Until we can all do that we will continue to be the nasty lot that we humans usually are, take a pilgrimage every now and then to "wash away" our sins and in the process be subject to accidents like the one a couple of days ago.
Friday, January 14, 2011 6 comments

The Monsters of Chennai

No this is not a fairy tale- it is very much about real life.

So what or who are these monsters? For those who live in Chennai the answer should not be difficult. This is a breed of extremely awful individuals who prowl the streets of the city in their yellow vehicles with black tops supposedly providing "public transport" . Yes I am talking about the auto drivers of Chennai. Anyone who arrives in Chennai are assaulted by them from the moment they get off the train. They hound you until you make your way for the "prepaid counter". This service by the way is a recently introduced one. Until about a year ago one had to deal with them oneself . As all Chennaites know there is no concept of a meter and whatever these guys say is the rate is what one is expected to pay.

For someone like me who has a job quite far away from home and who cannot drive any vehicle, these creatures are a part of the daily existence. While mornings are not too bad in the sense that I deal with familiar specimens from these species the return journey is an absolute nightmare! One of the first things that I have learnt while dealing with auto rickshaw drivers is to avoid negotiating with them at the auto stand. An auto stand is literally the "wolf's den". I have found that it is safer to stop autos that are cruising along or engage  those who may stop for you.

So what happens next? They ask me where I want to go. I tell them. They ask me how much I usually pay. This is actually a pointless question because they would never really accept what you tell them. Usually their quote would be at a minimum Rs 50 higher than that. We negotiate and then after a lot of haggling (during which time I may have to switch my attention to other monsters slowing down nearby  and play the competition card) we decide on an acceptable fare.

But seriously does the problem end once the price has been negotiated and the auto engaged? No! It is just the beginning of the nightmare.

Auto drivers always .. and I mean always would like to drive through the worst roads in the city! Try telling them that the particular route may be congested or longer but no they are not willing to listen. However if there is a serious problem like a heavy traffic jam ( how much heavier can traffic get for this to be superlative I wonder?) they would turn round and squarely blame you. If they discover along the way that they have made a mis calculation then who is to blame? The poor customer! They would keep grumbling at you, using words that sometimes even border on abuse! Finally when you reach your destination they want another twenty or fifty ruppees more ( there is no concept of a Rs 10 with them!).

I have been living with this problem for the last eight - ten years of my working life in Chennai. I have travelled across various other  Indian cities and nowhere have I encounterd such aggressive people like these monsters. Not only are they aggressive, they are dishonest  crooks.

I have often been told that action cannot be taken against them because they pay off the traffic police and / or the vehicles themselves are owned by traffic policemen. What a predicament!

While I agree that travelling by buses might the only other solution for me,  it is not a practical one given the distance I commute and the multiple roles that I play as wife, mother, employee etc etc. So until then I guess I should try to hone my skills in dealing with them and long for the  time when I may retire and not have to venture out daily into this jungle trying to fight the monster. People tell me that the Chennai metro will solve these problems but I would like to keep my fingers crossed on that!
Saturday, January 8, 2011 7 comments

Of Virtue and Virility

It was an interesting situation. A male colleague called me , quite agitated and reported that he had been called a very "bad" name by a colleague during the course of an argument.

So what was this word?

He told me .

I looked puzzled as I am not exactly conversant with all the nuances of the Tamil language. Realizing this drawback the gentleman explained to me " Madam this word means impotent man!" Oh really?

Now how does this relate to the work environment? I mean we have not exactly recruited him for his virility. He has to implement projects and not impregnate people  right? So why does this agitate him so much? I would have understood him feeling upset if someone had accused him of incomptency or dishonesty.

On my way back from work that day while travelling by an autorickshaw I was witness to another kind of name calling. A vehicle overtook this autorickshaw very rashly pushing it into a corner and the driver shouted out " You son of a ...." Shocking because the word he used was something that abused the offender's mother!

Another case of  name calling!

Over the last couple of months I have started observing  abusive language when I hear it being used. I find that whatever the language the abuses are essentially of two categories- one that directly abuses men which attacks their virility ( impotent man/ transversite etc etc) and another that targets women either directly or indirectly by abusing men who as said to be the sons of such women- this category of abuse is about the said womans' virtue!

I was discussing this with my husband the other day and wondered how this came about? Abuse is afterall also a part of language. We finally came to the conclusion that language mirrors social norms and values. In any society the expectations of a "good" woman is  to be chaste and virtuous while there are no such expectations of men ( man we are told is polygamous by nature). So if femininity is seen as synonymous with chastity or virtue then masculinity is signified by virility..! We are conditioned to accept these definitions and thus any thing outside of this is seen as deviant behaviour and therefore worthy of  taking on the status of an "abuse".

It is appalling how we continue this legacy of using such words in our anger. If our society is to change we should change our thinking and such changes are mirrored not just in our behaviour but also in our values. One of this is to desist from using these derogatory words by way of abuse and perpetuating antiquated social norms.

So next time a woman makes us  angry let us  try telling  her something that reflects her behaviour more directly. For example if she is being manipulative we tell her so and if she is being aggressive we tell that as well. Similarly if a man is being difficult or rude we tell him that he is a rude man or an awful person instead of abusing his mother or casting aspersions on his virility!
Monday, January 3, 2011 4 comments

Bearing the burden of a negative stereotype

All of us have read fairy tales in our childhood. We remember the evil step mother in many of them- women who were out to destroy the poor little princess or the nice girl/boy or women who promoted their own children while illtreating poor young Cinderella!  We have also seen endless movies which have these awful mothers-in-law who harrass their daugther-in-law and selfish daugthers-in-law who throw out their poor mother/ father in law!

These stereotypes are so strongly embedded in our minds that we tend to just assume that people are like that in real life too. But the question is are they?

Let us take the case of a step mother. Have we ever tried to understand the burden of responsibility that she might be bearing? I have a close friend who is in this situation and I really admire the patience and grace with which she has handled this role. Children as we know may not take well to the concept of a step parent and often react badly. How does a step mom deal this? While a mother has the freedom to discipline her children ,when a step mother does so it is interpreted differently. So what does she do? She tolerates bad behaviour , bad habits and risks in turn comments about how she may not really care about her step children? It is therefore a situation of "heads I win tails you lose"! It is probably the most difficult situation for a person to be in - managing a marriage and kids who may not take kindly to her  and God help the woman if she also has in laws staying with her!!! Often a step mother, particularly in an Indian context might also be living with the insecurity of what the future may hold for her and her children when she loses her spouse. In a situation where children do not care for their own parents would they look after  a step mother?

Same is the situation with mothers-in-law and daughters-in -law. There is one woman who is insecure and worried about her son's affections going away from her to someone much younger and another who is wondering if she would ever be able to compete with someone who has shaped her husband's life all these years and who may still have the power to influence his treatment of her. In the case of the mother-in-law / daugther-in-law equation, depending on which side of the fence we are on we beleive the steretype most suitable to us.

These stereotypes are very powerful and they often colour relationships. People refuse to look beyond what they believe of that particular "negative" stereotype. So are postive stereotypes really positive? Are all biological mothers really selfless? There are number of mothers who have often been very manipulative of their children for their own little ends? I know of mothers who are control freaks and mothers who frankly don't care.  But most mothers - biological and step ones are human. They have their good and bad sides which they try to balance. Unfortunately in the case of the step mother we love to see the bad side while ignoring the good side.  The same is the case with mothers / daugthers in law.

We are so scared that we might be judged and made into the negative stereotype that we spend all of our time taking that "extra effort". But does the extra effort ever win the praise from that so called  world that we are trying to please? Do people recongize the contributions  made by a step mother towards the upbringing of her step children. Do we acknowledge as mothers - in- law and daugthers-in-law the contribution of the "other"? Sometimes..! But times when we try to do that we end up sounding defensive! A defensiveness that seems to in itself again reinforce the same stereotype and sometimes a discrimination too.

I have often encountered some of my late mother-in-law's friends saying " We really appreciate the way you are looking after our friend even though you dont belong to our community"? Now that is insulting! Does that mean that daugthers-in-law from other communities might behave worse that daugthers-in- law of the same community? Similarly I have heard my relatives say " It is so nice of your mother -in- law to accomodate you in the same house as her even though you are not from her community"! Again unfair!

I have often wondered whether we will ever break these stereotypes? When will we have fairy tales where the fairy god mother is actually a step mother in disguise or stories where the mother- in- law and daugther in law get together to deal with the chauvinistic men of the family? It is only when we are able to project more of these stories that the old stereotypes will fade. Until then folks we just have to continue being that "wicked step mother" or the "cunning mother in law" and the "selfish daugther in law"!