Monday, September 26, 2011 21 comments

365 days in blogosphere

Yes folks- I am one year old as of today - to the hour in fact! I wrote my first post  " The world of women" exactly one year ago on 26th September 2010. After that it has been a love affair with the key board in this virtual world! Blog Adda has featured me among its 100 Notable Newbies and I am humbled by all the comments that I have received from you!

I sometimes wonder why it took me so long to start blogging. I mean, I wanted to write and could write. My sister Deepa who had been blogging for over a year  used to constantly urge me to write but somehow it never happened until one day when I sent in an article to a well known newspaper published out of Chennai. I received no response from them and after repeated inquiries was told that the article in question ( which was about how the state was taking over the task of social concientization and therefore trying to subvert the  efforts made by non profits in this regard) was "unfit" for publication! I was furious as I had seen articles far lower in standard being published every now and then. Was it my being an unknown person that was deterring the acceptance of my writing?  I decided on that day  that this Unknown Indian will find her own space for expression!

My first post was about an intensely personal experience following the death of my mother-in-law. I was overwhelmed by the comments that I received but almost all of them were from known people. It was only after about 4 months of blogging that I actually started receiving comments from unknown people ( I will not call you strangers because all of you are now so dear to me!).

As I wrote, I also read. There were so many souls like me out there! I could identify with other bloggers not just on the issues but on the style of writing! I have mental images of every one of you and believe me when I say so, none of this has any connection to that profile picture on your blog! I see you through your words. 

A blog to me a space for expression so I try not to get too influenced by ratings ( though I must say I was disappointed when my Indirank dropped from 72 to 67 :-) ). I have often wanted to enter contests but somehow I back out  at the last moment because I don't want to turn competitive on something that I enjoy. But I get thrilled every time I see a new person following my blog. Nearly 4000 visitors from 85 countries have entered my world.. and I cherish each comment left behind.

I learnt about the most important etiquette of blogging- when you visit a blog comment only if you feel the need to and not to just leave a back link to your blog! I try to visit all the blogs on the list of those I follow but I find that there are some which I visit regularly and some which I visit only occasionally.  No, it has nothing to do with the content, it is just that I probably have been able to connect better with some bloggers than with others.

After ten months in the virtual world, I felt confident enough to diversify my style of writing and move on to fiction. Thus was born Kaleidoscope. I don't advertise  much of what I write on that blog because there, like the true author, I want to be "discovered" by the reader! I wonder if I am embarrassed at some level to have known persons read all that emotional stuff that I write there.. I don't know!

Interestingly, I found that some visitors to Kaleidoscope have sent me friend requests on facebook. (One of them has even requested for my phone number on a FB message following the friend request  !**!). Sorry, guys, I can't accept them because I don''t know you personally. FB as you know is a network of friends and I am not sure that I can introduce someone I don't know well to my other friends! However, I have made two exceptions to this rule when I accepted friend requests  from Nivedita Louis   and Shomoita Alam Lopa . In both cases I must confess it was initially because of their gender! But the other reasons being that Nivedita was  an employee of the Indian Railways and therefore family ( I am a railway kid) and Shomoita reminded me so much of myself when I was her age!!

The first year as you know is an important milestone in one's life and I am glad that I survived it. I still have a lot to learn. For instance Indi blogger keeps telling me that my scores are low because I am not able to position my blog well enough. I really do not know how to do it. In fact it has been quite embarrassing to shout about it from my FB wall- (the nuns who taught me at school have obviously done a good job with modesty I guess...). But yeah, the positioning of every new post on Indivine has helped. Thanks to all those who have voted for me.. ! Being featured on blog adda's  Spicy Saturday picks and Tangy Tuesday posts have also helped

My father reads some of these posts when I ask him to and then tells me " You should send it to a newspaper"! How can I explain to someone of his generation about this alternate space and its significance? I remember an article that I had read somewhere which talked about alternate histories - the histories that do not get chronicled because it is the history of the subaltern. But over  time when the "old order changeth"  then it is these histories that are read to understand the real situation during the time and space. Newspapers also have their blogs but unlike the editor there who decides what goes where the free birds of the blogosphere fly everywhere ...

( I request fellow bloggers who comment to please leave a link to your favorite post from your blog. . Please.. this is my birthday and I would love a gift from all visitors)

Sunday, September 25, 2011 15 comments

Driver Diaries

In India where many people do not drive , employing a person to drive your vehicle for you is usually the done thing. Not just individuals  even organizations employ drivers  to drive their various vehicles. In a labour surplus country like ours it provides employment to many- particularly in the government which employs drivers by the kilogram! . Of late the rapid expansion of taxi companies are new avenues for employment of any young man ( yes they are usually men) with a driving licence!  Dealing with drivers is therefore something that  most people in India do. Please note that I use the word Driver and not Chauffeur because the word Driver like all those men that this post is about suggests someone  dynamic unlike  "Chauffeur"  which has a very passive ring to it.

My first memory of a driver dates back to the time when I was about six years old. My father, an engineer  in the central services had been alloted a Mahindra jeep and with it came the driver- Mr. Rajender- a warm hearted Bihari . Rajender unfortunately did not like driving a jeep. He was used to driving a crane earlier and he considered his transfer to jeep driving nothing short of a professional come down. Though I never heard him say anything to my father, he used to constantly regale me with stories from his crane driving days. Unfortunately, he tried one day to drive the jeep like a crane ,probably doing some irreparable damage to it and was therefore granted his wish of being sent back to the workshop to drive cranes. Actually, drive is the wrong word because when I visited the workshop with my father during a Vishwakarma puja I  got a taste of what  " Driving" a crane was all about- you sit somewhere high up and watch the arm of the crane move up and down when you press a lever in front of you- a most aweinspiring experience for a six year old!

Then, there was Yadiah who drove my father to and from his office during his posting at Hyderabad. Yadiah for some strange reason considered himself to be my guardian though he never really drove me. He used to constantly keep my mother updated about my whereabouts whenever he happened to run into me anywhere in the twin cities ( this was prior to the Cyberabad avatar of  this former princely state- so a person could actually could run into someone at least twice day if s/he traversed the same route!) A most annoying situation for a college goer as you can guess..! But my most trying experience with Mr. Yadiah came when I went to submit my application form for a passport. The passport office was located at Mehdipatnam- outside both Yadiah's  and my regular beat. Yadiah was convinced that " baby"  should not actually talk to the person on the other side of the counter. He decided to intercede on my behalf  trying to grab the papers out of my hands. He had in the meanwhile obtained a stool for me to sit on and observe the proceedings from afar. After the threat of a  near tantrum a very hurt Yadiah went back to sit in the " bandi" while I stood in the queue and submitted my papers.

The years went by and my experiences with drivers began to expand in variety.

It was 2007 and as part of my work with an international NGO, I had to go to Nagapattinam to supervise a survey . The office had arranged a taxi for me that was to report at about 5AM. It was 7.30AM when the taxi finally showed up. There was this young man at the wheel who seemed completely unaffected by all my grumbling about the delay. He sat silently at the wheel and it was when we were on the East Coast Road that he slowly cleared his throat and asked me " Madam.. can I ask you for  a favour?" " Sure, go ahead" I said. "  I will give you a phone number. Can you use your mobile to call that number ? A girl called Selvi will answer. Please explain to her that I cannot meet her today because I am driving you to Nagapattinam" !!!! This was a new situation for me- I was being asked by the young man to mediate a tiff between him and his girl friend. No way was I getting involved.. " Sorry my boy. This number is an official one. I can make calls only to officially permissable  numbers"  I said trying to get out of the situation. But "getting out of the situation"  was easier said that done.  Mr. Young man would keep stating that there was some problem with the taxi which he needed to check. When he stopped he would make a pretense of opening the bonnet and then  make his way to the nearest  phone booth .. I  noticed that the taxi would miraculously need to be examined everytime  we passed a phone booth. After about a  dozen stops we reached the field site. Once he dropped me  there he disappeared. Soon the driver of our district office vehicle came to complain to me that the driver of the taxi in which I had come had disappeared with his phone. Finally on the return journey I threatened to take a bus back if he continued with his phone calls.. Eyes filled with tears he tried to explain to me about his relationship with his  very jealous girl friend. Romantic though I am,, I had no intention of giving in to the phone cravings of a obsessive lover. I kept a stoical silence while we drove back to Chennai.

Unfortunately, emotional needs are not half as bad as those relating to the bodily functions. I was driving back from a coastal village in Nellore in Andhra Pradesh in a taxi with a colleague from our Bangkok office. We were both quite tired after a hard day's work in the hot sun. I was sitting up front with the driver and W was at the back trying to catch up on sleep ( I had picked him  from the airport in the morning and driven straight to the field site, so I guess the poor chap was jet lagged). I think I must have dozed off too because  about an hour later  W was shaking me awake and asking me " where is he?" pointing to the empty driver's seat. The taxi was parked on one side of the road and I could hear the other vehicles whizzing past on the highway. It is strange the way silence on a highway is accentuated when the engine of your vehicle is switched off. I was more or less sure where our driver was but I did not know how to present it   to W. " Shall I go and look?" he asked me. " No lets wait"  I told him. After about ten minutes of waiting our man emerged from the bushes with a bucket in hand and trousers rolled up to his knees.. He was most embarrased to see that we were up and were waiting for him. " Madam.. my stomach has been giving me trouble since this afternoon. But please dont mention it to my boss"  he said..   Meanwhile W wanted to know where our friend had been to with a bucket in his hand. " To water the crops in the fields around"  I said. The sarcasam was lost on W who  kept quizzing me about irrigation practices along the coast for about one hour until in sheer desparation I feinged sleep.

The experiences as you can see are very varied - each one leaving me completely unprepared to deal with the next. The next one being a journey to   Krishnagiri with three other colleagues in an " INOVA" taxi. We found that the driver had adopted a most peculiar posture  while driving. It was not until we had reached Vellore that we realized what the problem might be. He had a boil in a very crucial part of his anatomy that affected his sitting comfortably. He therefore rested only part of his gluteus maximus on the seat and drove in that odd posture! He was too shy to see a doctor about this problem until we forced him to. After a surgical procedure at the Krishnagiri hospital and some antibiotics life for all of us inside that Inova became easier..!

Life on the road for a frequent traveller like me would be most boring without these experiences.  I sometimes feel like Arjun in much has been the influence of these " Sarathis" in my life! So next time you need some dope on drivers, I guess you know who to contact :)

Wednesday, September 14, 2011 12 comments

The RIME of a Wedding Guest

Well folks, I am turning Coleridge around a bit. There is no ancient mariner here but a wedding guest - yours truly, who is narrating her experiences from the wedding !!

It was  a Sunday in the beginning of September that this happened. The  invite to the reception seemed unassuming enough- medium sized , hand made paper etc.. The parents were senior bureaucrats and the bride's mother is a very nice lady who  had once been my boss.So I decided to attend it. My daughter took one look at the card - the name of the bride and groom and decided that she wanted to tag along with me. She was sure that with part of the bride's family being Muslim there was bound to be biryani on the menu! I wondered if my husband had similar thoughts. He did, I guess but somehow even the lure of biryani did not seem to draw him out of his relaxed Sunday evening mood. He said something very prophetic when he dropped us both outside the gates of the  well known college where the reception was being held - " Enjoy yourselves ladies.. this is going to be circus"

We made our way from the driveway wondering which hall within the college the reception was being held in. As we walked further, I was confused - I wondered if I had walked into a meeting of a political party. There were fairy lights everywhere and huge posters that welcomed the guests. Each poster seemed to be sponsored by some association!!! Anyway, we followed all the brightly dressed ladies blindly and found ourselves in the central quandrangle of the college. I was still confused because it looked like we had walked into some sort of a fair- there were many biryani counters ( I counted 25), candy floss and popcorn machines, portable merry-go-rounds, and that thing with air pumped into it on which kids jump! There was a loud speaker where someone was announcing the guests to join the queue to greet the newly weds.

We looked at the queue- it seemed about 50 people long. I looked at my watch .It was about 7.00PM - half an hour past the time indicated on the invite. I strained my eyes to look for the bride and see if it was indeed the girl I knew during those days.. My daughter alerted me to my ringing mobile( I could barely hear it in the noise around me). One of my former colleagues was on line - " Meera where are you"? He asked me. " In the queue"  I said.  " I am also in the queue but where exactly? "  near the CCTV monitor. " Which one of them"  he shouted into my ear. I looked around and counted them. " The third one on the left" . " Okay then I am way behind you"  About five minutes later he had merrily jumped the queue and  joined me.

" Mummy why cant we just go and eat ?" asked junior

" What about the bouquet then? "  I asked waving the huge bunch of flowers we were trying to manage between the two of us..!

" Then I will go and eat. You give her the flowers"  she said. Now, that is the height of greediness. I scolded her. Besides, I was worried that I might lose her in the crowd ( I think I have watched too many Indian films about children getting lost in a fair). So we stood for the next forty five minutes in  line watching with interest the goings on up on the stage . The band began to play " Khwaja mere Khwaja"  and " Babul ki duayein leti jaa"  . I realized that if this was all that it took for professional singing then I could seriously consider it as a career option!!

Meanwhile some guests on the stage were taking out garlands from plastic covers and making the bride and groom exchange them. The bride's father ( also a beauracrat) was announcing on stage welcoming Mr XYS, IAS along with his wife- " Varuga, Varuga" !! Actually he would do this every once in a while interrupting the band.

We finally made it to the stage, wished the girl, handed the bouquet, registered our  presence with the mother who very kindly  asked us to " eat and go" !

Then began some of our practical problems. While there were 25 biryani counters there was only location with some 30 odd tables where vegetarian food was being served. " Chee! I am not going to eat veg food. I came for the biryani" said junior with disgust. I was still worried about her getting lost in the crowd. So I accompanied her to one of the counters. where she patiently stood in a queue and got her biryani as I hunted for two chairs.

While she ate biryani I got myself some soft drinks and popcorn from the counter nearby. I saw somewhere a sign board that said " VIP enclosure" !! Noticed some known IAS faces going there.. Must say, these government types dont forget the system of preferential treatment wherever they go. I wondered how many " chamchas"  of the brides' parents were seeing to the VIPS in the enclosure!!

I felt full after about two bags of popcorn. We went hunting for some ice cream. As we went we watched with interest the diversity among the guests. There were some classy Muslim ladies and some bright Kancheevaram clad Tamil ladies ( former from the bridegroom's and the bride's mother's side and the later from the father's side we guessed). There were some safari suited govt types around and many oily looking " kakkajis" too. Ofcourse there were Mangalgiri sari and chikan kurta clad odd balls like me and the daughter respectively. I spotted somewhere another odd ball- a lady wearing a chanderi sari in a muted shade.. Ahh, I knew her.. She was in the line waiting to go up the stage to wish the couple. Only this time the line was longer almost winding itself out of the gate.. ! " Hello !  I said" .. " Oh hi...! When did you get here? " she asked me " Oh about an hour ago. We are ready to leave now" . " I am not sure how long I need to wait in this queue" she grumbled.  " Can we keep her place so that she can go and eat? " whispered  my socially concious daughter. I glared at her.. I had no intention of staying any longer. " It looks like the line outside a ration shop" grumbled my friend.
" Good luck! Hope you get the subsidy rice" I chuckled as I looked around for the mother of the bride to  formally take her leave before we left. She was busy on the stage trying to put an elaborate pearl necklace round the neck of her daughter on the stage-the guest who had given that gift was insisting that the bride wear it!! Someone was putting a ponnadai round the groom and his father in law!!!

I realized the futility of waiting around any further and decided to leave.

" Do you think the students who live in the hostel of this college would have been invited?"  asked my daughter. " No I think they would have gatecrashed"  I murmured. There was no way the crowd that was eating there were all invited. But the caterers seemed to be prepared for this eventuality!

My last thoughts as we left the over crowded car park was that how was such a wedding possible on two government salaries? I guess it was government clout that made this all possible and ofcourse not to forget all those oily babus who probably bent backwards to accomodate all this as part of their official work!!

I remembered another senior government officer who had very carefully planned budgets for his two daughters conducted at his home and another at a religious math. In both cases the reception was at a " regular"  reception hall in an ordinary hotel in the city. What a world of difference!
Friday, September 9, 2011 13 comments

Motherhood - a COMPULSION or an OPTION

Yesterday and the day before I was at this strategic planning meeting for our organization where we were deep into visioning and strategising  exercises. As a Non Profit organization involved in the “Change business” visioning exercises often take on a dream like quality and people get quite emotional and poetic. It was while we were engaged thus that someone voiced aloud the thought about how maternity is central to a woman’s life and we cannot empower a woman unless we first address her needs as a mother.. Though there were counter arguments to this , the  gentleman maintained  that  womens’ choices in life always revolve around their motherhood.

While not disputing the fact that a woman’s choices may revolve around her needs as a  mother , I would like to reflect around a very basic  question about motherhood itself – what are the choices that women have around it?

We women are taught from childhood to aspire towards this one goal in life- to be a mother!! Motherhood in most cultures is the most exalted status that a woman can hope to achieve within her family and community. Despite education and employment outside the home, we still aspire for motherhood. But the question is – how much of this is our own real aspiration and how much of it is something that we have internalized in order to prove ourselves and our reproductive capacities?

In India, a woman who does not have children is called very derogatory names. She is shunned in society as an “unlucky” woman. Couples who can afford it, spend a lot of money trying all possible ways that science has to help them  conceive…!

It is funny that no one acknowledges it but  motherhood is a way that a patriarchal  society uses to  control a woman life and sexuality! If you ask those millions of women in our society who live in loveless, unhappy and violent marriages as to why they do so the answer would be “Because of the children”.  Most often women have no way out of these situations because their ability to cope alone with the social responsibilities of being  a parent is very limited. This would seem  ridiculous if we see that women in most families are the ones who are actually burdened with the responsibility of parenting. It is usually we women, who look after the children, feeding them, giving up careers and caring for them when they are ill. Yet to be able to able to do that while living alone without a man by our side is something that  we find very difficult – never mind if that man is a drunkard or an abusive person!  In my work I have seen that most poor women are not able to participate in economic activities as much as men and take risks around businesses because of this motherhood thing!

Yet we aspire for mother hood like nothing else in this world…!!! Why is it that everything about ourselves finally boils down to our wombs?  Aren’t there any other choices that we can exercise to prove ourselves in this world? Why is the answer to that even from someone like me a hesitant YES and not an emphatic one I don’t know…. Education has given us opportunities that our mothers could not dream of – yet we are unable to exercise them fully – we educated women live still in this “twilight” zone where we want to exercise the new choices AND continue with being mothers… “Either” “or” options are difficult to exercise but they give us a clarity of purpose in life. It gives us a direction to move with confidence.  Otherwise we will never be able to live life by our rules. By no means am I suggesting that we should not be mothers – my opinion is that we should become mothers because we want to and when we are ready for it and not because our inlaws or the woman next door makes snide remarks about our child less state.

And frankly, folks, womanhood is after all a social construction- the biological aspect is only a side to it! Let us move our lives out of our wombs and into our heads.

Sunday, September 4, 2011 17 comments

TEACHERS - Enablers or Service Providers?


For many of us the above mantra is not something new. A sloka or a prayer saluting  the teacher, it equates the teacher or " Guru " with the creator, to the one who sustains and the one who annihilates!

The " Guru Shishya Parampara"  or the " tradition of teacher and student"  in the quest for knowledge has been written about a lot in our ancient scriptures. The teacher is said to be the guide who helps students  in this endeavour.

I wonder how this relates to today's context, when knowledge is no longer the privelege of a chosen few but a fundamental right that is guranteed to all citizens? 

I remember  those days when I was at school..! Teaching was serious business. Teachers joined a school and usually retired from it. Every teacher ( and I mean each one of them! ) who taught us at school saw our learning as a sacred responsibility entrusted to them- not just by the management of the school that they were employed in but  by their own concience! Ms. Mazumdar-who taught us English and History in classes 6-7 always corrected homework thoroughly often writing at  the end of some badly written eassays - " SEE ME" which meant that we had to meet her during our lunch break when she would point out the mistakes we had made. She kept track of the mistakes each of her 40 odd students usually made alerting us each time they were repeated. Mrs. Ghosh in class 8 read out the best written eassays to the entire class pointing out all the good parts. She saw to it that every good eassay written by every girl in her class found recognition of some sort! Mrs. John ensured that we understood chemsitry almost as well as she did. Chemistry to me always takes on the form of this plump lady in a cotton saree ,  wearing glasses -  a trifle hot tempered but never one to bear any grudges! She ruled her lab like an empress and taught us how to handle the chemicals safely. There were so many others... right through school and college who I will never forget and neither will I forget what they taught - so clear was the way they instilled those concepts in us.Now that I think back, I realize that it was not just knowledge that they tried to give us. They also instilled a lot of values in us - values which they demostrated through their own behaviour.  

 Those days education was not  a Fundamental right yet, teachers did the best that they could with what they had. There were no fancy pedagogic methods and salaries were very modest.  They enjoyed a lot of respect not just from their students but from society in general. There is a flat next to our house in Chennai today which is still called " Teacher amma's house". The flat has been built on the land on which stood the house where she lived for over three decades. Teacher amma  has been gone from this world for over two decades though  her presence  still lingers!

But I am pained to see the way things have deteriorated today! Education has become highly commercialized and with that there is a change in the way teachers are being perceived. In the Private schools, parents have started behaving like consumers - looking at "value for money"  and teachers as service providers while in government schools teachres behave like government officers with absolutly no relationship with the community from which their students come. There is a study done by the ASER centre which brings out annually a state of the sector report for school education in India. It was shocking to see that in a state like Tamil Nadu the number of children who go for " tuitions" after school is equally high among both categories of students- those who go to private and government run schools! If private tutoring was the option then why should we have schools?

With respect to the private schools the less said the better! There is a very popular group of  private schools in Chennai where I am told that students who score lower than 70% aggregate marks in class 8 are given a transfer certificate and asked to leave the school!!! The school is very proud about the 100% over 80% scores that their students get in the class X public examinations. Now I would like to ask what is the contribution of the teachers and the school towards this considering that they are " weeding"  out all those children who may slip on the wrong side of 70%?  Admission in this group of schools is unfortunately very much in demand!!

This is so different from when teachers used to take a student's performance as a reflection of their own teaching skills! There was also what I remember fondly, a feeling of possessiveness about all students - good or bad. The words " My students" that my teachers used sounded so similar to the " My daughters" that my parents used!  I remember my Biology teacher in class XII teaching me the correct way to dissect a frog and display it on a tray saying "  I dont want anyone to  ever say that one of my students did not learn to dissect a frog properly".  I dont know how many teachers feel that way today...!  

The education system is undergoing a lot of reform with new pedagogic methods being introduced. But my question is that if the committment towards learning is not there from the side of the adult who is to implement them then how can a child be expected to benefit from them? Why, most private schools are not even able to ensure continuity of the same teacher for more than two years? The high teacher turn over is shocking! No longer do teachers retire from their job- they seem to be hopping around just like others in the corporate sector from job to job.

The government schools are obsessed with maintaining a high enrollment ratio as the headmaster/ headmistress is afraid that they would otherwise be pulled up by the district education officer. For the private schools it is a business just like another...!! For many men and women ( women more than men) today education is an employment sector for which they aquire a B.Ed degree and join the bandwagon of service providers/ government officers.

So what happened to the Guru- Shishya tradition? The God who guided us through the darkness of ignorance towards the light of knowledge?

Dr. Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan whose birthday on the 5th of September is celebrated as TEACHERS DAY must be pulling out his turban in despair.. Sorry Sir,, there are no more teachers like you!