Saturday, March 26, 2011 14 comments

Bribing for votes!

My mixer had  been giving me trouble for over a week and two days ago it finally conked out on me while I was trying to grind chutney for our morning breakfast! Now, life without a mixer is not very easy in an Indian kitchen... so.. as they say in India " What to do?"

While I had almost made up my mind to buy a new mixer, I suddenly remembered where I was - I was in Tamil land - the land where policiticians are now running the race on who can promise the maximum number of consumer durables to win votes! Mixers and grinders figured in both the opposing parties manifestos. So the question of buying a mixie is strategically not right considering that I might just get a free one if I can manage to get the relevant documents ( the ration card folks ?)  right!!!

I looked up the list of goodies promised and here folks it is - mixer, grinder, refridgerators, washing machine and electric fans!! WOW...! In addition there were lap tops for all the high school kids.. Women who were to be married would get a plot of land and some gold.. Just imagine- you can get married, get some land, get appliances to set up your home.. where else would you find this? The previous election in this state had been a trend setter in the sense that the current government had promised TVs for the poor. However what actually happened was that every body ( and I mean everybody!) had options to get a free TV when it finally came to power... I have colleagues who say that they were forced to take a TV set by the party workers..! I see villages when I go for work where small huts boast of two TVs- one operational and another gathering dust in a corner - " Nobody is willing to buy it off us since everyone has one" says Tamil arasi one of the  centre coordinators in a village where we have adult learning centres.

It is amazing how the situation has come to this...! I can imagine parties trying to please various lobbies by declaring lower power tariffs, better roads, transportation etc but this is the pits! They are now promising creation of individual assets in the form of consumer durables..! So these are in effect nothing but BRIBES that will be paid once the vote is cast!

I am shocked that the DMK party thinks that providing laptops would improve the quality of a child's education.. There is an all India survey done by an NGO called Pratham which rates the quality of school education across Indian states and beleive me folks Tamil Nadu with its high enrollment ratio ranks nowhere near the top. So why not invest in good teachers and better a educational system that produces kids who would actually learn something and teachers would want to teach? Why lap tops? How will they help?  Recently there was an ally of the DMK party who was quoted in a newspaper as saying  " The AIADMK is promsing you goats and cows while we are promising your children laptops so that they can get good jobs!!". Ofcourse not to say that the AIADMK is in anyway better- there are just not enough cattle to distribute to the people who need them...!

With regard to the consumer items- the question that should be asked is about the power situation. A refridgerator consumes quite a bit of electricity- Who will pay the bill ?  " Oh the government will ensure that there will be powercuts every alternate day" jokes one of my friends  What about water to run a washing machine? As far as I know most villages do not have running water that comes in all through the day. So how are people going to use these washing machines? Mixers and grinders again require power and are going to shoot up the electricity bills ..

With only about two weeks to go for the Tamilnadu elections, the situation is rather tense. In the smaller towns ATMs are not working - a precaution taken to prevent transfer of cash to the voters. NGOs are not being allowed to hold group meetins of their micro finance self help groups for fear that this would be one channel to transfer money to people. But the Election commission I guess is flummoxed with the announcements about these consumer items on  party manifestos!

However the saddest part of all this is that whether we get a mixer, grinder or a fridge is not the question- what we would get is a government that is going to be as bad as before! There are going to be huge scams and corruption while the state budget would continue to use the revenue generated from its liquor sales to keep the voter sated through these freebies. Some government officers might make some money on tenders given to private companies for large scale  procurement of  mixies, fridges, lap tops etc .

Ever wondered what is going to happen to the average person in Tamil Nadu? A person who is going to get various consumer items just like that is not going to be inclined to work and enjoy the fruits of labour. This person would end up being a whiny and lazy man/ woman whose basic needs and some luxuries would be met through populist welfare schemes and then there is going to be reverse trend on development with increasing immigrants from other states coming in to reap the economic benefits... Crime rate is also going to go up and finally the TV numbed mind has to by force bring itself out to wonder whatever happened ..!

But by then it would be time another election and at that time who knows? We may be promised Cars... (never mind the fuel shortage). It is afterall a democracy folks- we get what we vote and what we vote is what we deserve.. So enjoy youselves with all the gadgets while I try to wrangle for myself that mixie...!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011 15 comments

Super Stories about the Supernatural

Ever since I have started blogging, I find myself staying up quite late ( when I say late I mean really late -post 11PM !) in the night trying to make use of the  peace and quiet to collect my thoughts. Most often there is just light from my PC illuminating the room ( I know it is bad for the eyes etc etc but what to do- I need to conserve energy!). Often I feel a shiver down my spine and get the feeling that maybe someone is standing behind me reading what I am writing. Then I tell myself not to be sillly and continue with the writing. Sometimes it is not so easy ( especially when there is a gust of wind that makes my curtains fly around) and I  keep looking back and finally switch on the light over the table. In the morning I cannot beleive that I let myself get scared like that !

But seriously folks, tell me if you have never felt like that ....?

My introduction to ghosts began in my childhood. Living as we did in those huge colonial bunglows we grew up hearing stories about these creatures. I think Bengal probably has the maximum variety in terms of ghost stories. There were stories about entire villages being wiped out by cholera and the lone survivor ( usually a student who lived away from his village in Calcutta)  coming back to his village to encounter weird happenings before realizing that everyone was dead and what he was seeing were their ghosts. Then there were stories about the previous occupants of the bunglows we lived in - Sahibs who climbed up and down the wooden steps during the nights. The stormy "Kalboishakhi" summer nights were the scariest .. when we imagined stairs creaking and windows opening and closing by themselves. The stories extended beyond our homes in true railway tradition to include that abandoned siding in the railway station in our little township where people claimed that ghost trains were seen. In addition to these were the bengali stories that we devoured - Tagore and Satyajit Ray which had enough about the supernatural. I can still remember that scene from Ray's " Teen Kanya" of a woman clad in a red banarasi saree and when she lifts her veil all you see is a skull. But all bengali stories had the same format- a ghost that screeched and laughed to announce itself. There were stories of horse carriages that stopped outside houses and shadowy figures coming out of them. I am sure many of you would have heard the famous story of the ghost of Warren Hastings of Hastings house in Calcutta!

Hindi films had their own version of ghosts- beautiful women clad in white sarees with jingling anklets and flowing hair often on a swing ( remember Madhubala singing " Ayega Ayega...!"). Some film makers have tried to vary the format and so we had Dimple Kapadia clad in dark robes holding a lantern in Gulzar's "Lekin". But somehow the setting was always the same - huge mansions or colonial houses surrounded by trees with the ghost making its appears on a windy, rainy night.

Ruskin Bond is another favourite of mine where ghost stories are concerned. He is probably the only Indian author  who has written about "railway ghost stories"!

But coming back to our main protagonist - the ghost...! I am not really sure what to make of it. I mean the rational mind does not accept this but there are irrational moments in our lives when we allow ourselves to be governed by our fears. For e.g whenever I read a particularly scary ghost story, I keep imagining things that definitely do not exist!  I saw a program on Discovery channel once which was about a haunted house and one of the statements made was " Ghosts draw  their power from our fears".

People at home have a wonderful time playing on my fear of ghosts. We live in this old rambling house with dark corridors. One of my husband's favourite activities is to lie in wait for me outside a corridor that leads up to the bathroom so that when I switch off the bathroom light I would bang right into him in the corridor and scream out in fear...! The daughter is also beginning to enjoy these encounters.

I remember while in college a group of us were trying to summon a spirit. We positioned ourselves in a dark corner of the college building ( which was deserted except for a few cupboards) and tried to concentrate on a spirit. Suddenly, we heard a shuffling sound behind one of the cupboards and before anyone could mention the "G" of a ghost I got up and ran away from the spot..! Ofcourse, none of my other friends were that silly..some of them went  to investigate and guess what they found? A couple in action behind one of the cupboards- we had apparently invaded their secret rendevouz. This story is one of the most popular one among my batch mates- I am sure I must be known as that girl who was scared of ghosts!

That I am scared of ghosts is a reality..! I remember watching a film called " The entity" which was about a ghost but you never saw anything faintly resembling a ghost throught the film- it was only the background music and other sound effects that were used to instil a sense of fear.  I still shiver when I remember that scene of  doorknob turning and a door opening by itself!

So if you beleive in ghosts this is not the right blog for you to read...! If you do not ,, then you can laugh and comment about how silly some people can get! But sure , please share your comments and if you have any experiences I would love to read about them...

Good night and hope you have no ghostly nighmares!

Friday, March 18, 2011 11 comments

The "Kill Joys"

This post is dedicated to all the "Kill Joys" of this world.!

Don't know what it means? Come on, I am sure you have met as many as I have ( provided ofcourse you are as old as I am or who knows... you may have been lucky enough to meet double the number in half the number of years .. it all depends!)

Remember those teachers back in school who used to turn excursions into some kind of torture? We could not sit with our friends , we could not talk or laugh in public ? "Don't ... Don't...." was all that we used to hear!

Recently while clearing out an old cupboard I stumbled onto a "school handbook" belonging to my husband when he was in the 12th standard.. Now this is what I call a "how to" book for all the "Kill Joys" of this world. Let me give you a taste of some of the gems that we found

The list begins with an instruction -
" Read through the hand book carefully. Every page of it has information specially meant for you"  and then come those nuggets:
  • Class rooms are meant for study so if youar inclined to be noisy , make the nise outside before you go into the school building 
  • Do not run about or play inside the school building. There is plenty of space outside.
  • Do not steal time between the periods to ease yourself or to drink water. The intervals provided for this are long enough (  I wonder what one does if one has to "go" during a class...? And imagine intervals with long lines of boys waiting to "go"?)
  • Never creep through or jump over fences and walls. You can afford to spend an extra miute to go along the proper road.
  • If you must cough or sneeze in public do it quietly into a handkerchief but refrain from doing it if you can ( I love this one...! )
Just imagine what effect it can have on the enthusiasm and energy levels of an average seventeen year old boy? Devastating...! No wonder I say that it has been designed by a list of people whose Ph. D and post doctoral thesis must have been on  the "Kill Joy" theory! Not to say that my school days were without these scholars. They had their own list - more suited to girls. Some like the first one was explicitly stated while the others were implied.
  • Dont run down the stairs. Walk in a "lady like manner" ( meaning "take mincing steps")
  • Dont react if you see anything male ( well you can.... I guess provided it is a dog or a cat but no reactions allowed for the human male)
  • Dont pollute your mind by reading romance novels
But life in school went on despite the "kill joys"... ! We survived ....rushing down the stairs, sliding down bannisters and reading romance novels. Some of us even managed to talk to boys.

"Kill Joys" unfortunately do not die with the end of school days..! They evolve along with us into a new entity ( something like viruses who mutate to get past the new drugs) to fit in better into our new lives.

During college days there were these "kill joy" profs who used to shuffle classmates around during practs so that you ended up with some geek for a chemistry lab assignment. Ofcourse the question of who was the geek was often a relative one considering who was the other in the pair.

My own dad has often been a "kill joy" sitting next to the phone while I was trying to talk to friends about something verrry interesting. Those days phones were rather rudimentary and one did not have a cord less hand set or cell phone. So we just had to sit on that stool next to the telephone stand in the living room hoping dad was not "dropping eaves"!

But I think nothing compares to my friend's mom..! I guess she was royalty where "kill joys" were concerned. She used to join us for conversations everytime  I went to my friend's house. We never got a moment alone to discuss all those juicy things that college did not have time for. She even used to read all incoming and outgoing mail ( I mean mail as in mail not email). That poor girl could not seal a letter without her mom having read it first! No code words were allowed - they had to be explained to "her highness".

Life however, has a way of getting us past these people. Despite dad, I managed to talk to my husband ( then my boyfriend) over phone and finally got married to him!

Post marriage we had my mother in law who often chose a most "opportune" moment to call out to either of us from her room downstairs! Then ofcourse, was the little one who was the empress where "kill joy" behaviour was concerned- choosing to yell out for attention when we had just thought we were going to have some quiet moments together! But, as my husband says.. these are essential in keeping the country's population under control!

Last week ofcourse, I had the most interesting experience. My daughter was on the phone giggling about something and guess who was the kill joy?  None other than my dear husband who shouted - " I heard that" !!! (I must say  that over time "Kill joys" seem to revel in their identity .. the way they announce themselves)

I just ran out of the room before I was accused along with "Daddy cool" and called " Kill joy"!

Life, I must say, sure has a way of  turning itself round ...!!!

Saturday, March 12, 2011 11 comments

Behind Every Successful Woman

We have all heard this saying - " Behind every successful man there is a woman" but have we ever thought about who is behind a woman's success?

Or is it just that we do not somehow associate women with success?If you ask an average woman what success means she would tell you it means being able to have a decent job, keep the family together, raise healthy , happy children and have enough for her old age. Some women may also extend this to include the ability to manage home and a career successfully. It is not very often that a woman is able to identify success as an individual achievement.

It is not to say that by this we mean that there are no successful women. There are many of us in various different fields- doctors, writers and other professionals. How have these women managed to achieve their success?

Let me illustrate this with my example - I consider myself to be a reasonable successful woman in the sense that I have been able to achieve atleast two thirds of what I had planned for myself in my life. I  had the best opportunities made available to me by way of education which I have used very well for myself. When I look back to see how this was possible, I realize that I probably had a very enabling environment to nurture my dreams and move ahead in  life.  Let me now try to deconstruct and demystify this word "enabling environment"- a very supportive family is what emerges.  Supportive family certainly.. but  it all boils down to two men in my life - my father and my husband!

As women, men form a very important part of our lives in the sense that they are our other half and socially the more powerful gender. Men  decide their own destinies as well as that of the women in their lives or under their control. My father beleived very strongly in the independence of his daugthers and encouraged both me and my sister to beleive in our dreams and follow them through. We never had to negotiate or manipulate our way into getting anything out of him. What he always wanted to know was whether we beleived in what we wanted to do and if we did so did he!

The same is the case with my husband. Never had I to seek his "permission" to do anything. He always beleived in my capacities to handle any situation and encouraged me in everything that I wanted to do. Decisions are always jointly taken and he has always respected my views on any issue.

I sometimes wonder why this is not so with a large majority of women in our country? We often find that men are the main obstacles for a woman's success. Why?

" Because they are afraid that if we become successful we may not respect them" said Kuppamma, a woman I met in a village in Vedaranyam, some time ago. But isn't a woman's success as much his? For e.g if she is a successful entrepreneur, financially it is the family that would stand to benefit. But why is it that a large majority of men do not like to "let go" of this power that they  have over women?

And no, it is not just the likes of Kuppamma who face these problems to develop their capacities and become successful. I have seen this in women from middle and upper middle class families too. Women often try to "hide" or "play down" their success so as to keep their men happy. But is it their men's happiness that they are interested in or is it the desire to keep the man's insecurity at bay?

It is surprising that for a gender that has the best of everything insecurity should be a problem! This insecurity shows up in different ways with different classes of men. While it is a very "in your face" insecurity in a rural context , resulting in domestic violence, in a more educated and sophisticated environment it may be more subtle.

Again not to say that all men are insecure. Certainly not!

I have been observing around my immediate environment to see what causes this insecurity- I think it is a certain lack in one's own self confidence. In a rural area, a poor labourer is completly powerless in front of a richer and more powerful person. He is extremely meek in front of the more powerful men. But when he comes home he transforms himself into the power centre and feels most insecure if he perceives his wife as transgressing the lines of control. His upbringing in a patriarchal society like ours ofcourse reinforces these behaviour patterns. The same cause and effect theory can be applied almost universally. The lesser the confidence a man has in himself the more threatened he feels about his wife's capacities.

This also  shows up in a work environment where male bosses sometimes cannot accept a female colleague questioning a decision. While ofcourse the organizational hierarchy vests power in the boss irrespective of gender, I have often found that male bosses with little confidence in themselves find it difficult to handle a woman who reports to them. Conversely there are some supremely confident male bosses ( yes I have had a wonderful boss like that!) who encourage women to grow within an organization often changing policies to suit women's requirements. These kind of bosses ofcourse encourage independent thoughts irrespect of whether it is men or women who are thinking them.

Now, coming back to my original question- who is behind a woman's success?

I think the answer is very clear- it is men! It is the men in our families - our fathers, brothers and husbands ( sometimes also sons) who can encourage women to step out and follow our dreams. Organizations with sensitive men as bosses can create the right environment to nurture talent. A society that has men like this would soon see a lot of success as half of its population would slowly start coming out of the shadows!

" It takes a brave man to support his wife in her quest for success" says Kasturi from Nagapattinam.

We need more of these brave men.. ! Success for a woman would then be because of men and not inspite of them!
Monday, March 7, 2011 7 comments

Being a woman

With the International women's day being just one day away, I thought this might be a good occasion to write about what being a woman is all about.

However, this is not about me the woman who can write and express herself. This is about those women who are voiceless- women who form a large segment of our population! Women from the villages of Southern India- women who I met on Saturday in a  small village of Cuddalore district.

We began by asking women what they liked about being a woman. It was sad when almost all said "nothing"! This takes  me back to an expression that my mother often uses to signify her disgust or displeasure about something- "Naan ponna perinda madiri irrukkum"- meaning "it is as awful as my being born a woman!".

But coming back to my friends from Cuddalore, we probed more to understand why or what they did not like about being women. Then, it all came out... experiences about taking on the complete responsibility                 ( "burden"?) of the family , inability to take any decisions on their own and when they did earn some money from labour that they did, they had to hide it. If they managed to earn something large enough to buy a sari or some other trinket they had to tell their husbands that it was a gift from their mother.

So what would like to see as change in their lives? What are their dreams?

We were again surprised...! "Our husbands should  love and trust  us more". " They should share some of the responsibilities of the family"( please note that they are not talking about helping out at home. What they meant was responsibility as in parenting and other more basic functions).

How will we know that our husbands love us ? We were curious to know about the expression of love as they defined it ... "We would like them to beat us less". said one of them.. We were appalled! Is this then a regular part of their lives? "Yes ofcourse"said one of them ! Life goes on despite all this..

What are your dreams we asked?

" To be able to send our children to a better school", "Be able to have some property in our name""Be able to go and come without having to seek permission"

"What about your ability to decide on the future of your children"" - I asked?

"When cannot decided on how many children we want to have how can we decide on their future" asked one of them.

I came back to my hotel room with a heavy heart and mixed feelings..

If this was the condition of the women from a so called "more developed"state of our country what about the women from Bihar and Uttar pradesh where they probably had to struggle for more basic requirements?

Somehow friends , this experience has a been a very humbling one for me as a woman- I have realized what I took for granted was a dream for my sisters in the villages. Unless we change that we can never call ourselves a developed country.

Poverty unfortunately is not a uni dimensional thing- it is different for different people and obviously for women it means more hardships, greater burden . If we super impose caste on poverty and then look at it through a gender lens the picture is even more grim.

As I am writing the conclusion of this post , I look at the televison. I see  an advertisement about a "beautiful"woman laughing with lovely lipsticked lips and holding a painted finger nail across her mouth. Now is this the what we think being a woman is all about?

To me the most beautiful women are these ladies from the villages who toil hard bearing the responsibilities of home and life on their frail shoulders. Their bodies  covered with dust and sweat and disfigured by years of child bearing are far more perfect than the hour glass figures that I saw on television just moments ago!

This is the woman of India ( or probably for that matter from any developing country).

But where is the pride about these beauties on whose labour rest our lives? If she does not toil in the fields in the harsh sun then we will not the food that we eat. I remember a song by Shubha Mudgal a wonderful Indian singer. It goes like this "Tere baansuri se chulhe jale. Tujo saaz chhede to jeevan chale". which means that your flute lights fire ( she refers here to the pipe used by women to blow into a cooking fire) and when you play the flute life goes on.

If we cannot make every woman in our country enjoy being a woman then we have a society, as a culture and as a nation!