Friday, August 30, 2013 8 comments

Of “BAD BOYS” and “BAD GIRLS”



So Janmasthami is over! All of us have celebrated the birthday of the “naughtiest” and the “notorious” Lord Krishna. The butter thief and the flirt! A darling of women, both as a child and when he was older!  Though he is also the originator and orator of the “Bhagvad Geeta” which  expounds  the wonderful philosophy around life, few of us actually think of him in that role! For most of us the image that comes to our mind when we think of him is a dark cherubic infant polishing off a pot of butter or the young man playing the flute on the banks of the Yamuna! Poets like Surdas and Meerabai wrote about him building and embellishing those images and finally that is what sticks to the average human mind! 

But this post is not so much about Shri Krishna but the qualities of mischief and notoriety that mark his childhood and teens.

I remember when I was  in primary school there was this  fellow who never did his homework and  was always pulled up by the teacher . He managed to contort his face in the most amazing way from his position outside the class which was generally where he was relegated to !  All the other boys seemed very “tame” in comparison! I used to be full of tales of this boy whenever I got home. While my mother does not remember many of my friends from primary school his name has certainly stuck in  her mind. She pulls it out every now and then and wonders what became of him. She can even recall his mother’s name and face -  a harassed looking lady who used to go home with a red face after listening to the complaints about her son! 

Unfortunately, I had to move to an all girls school later. Interestingly the “bad girls” did not seem so interesting! Ofcourse, one used to be agog listening to their exploits on the grapevine but that was it!! They did not acquire the aura of heroism that the “bad boys” had! 

College was again co educational. Being a professional college there used to be strict segregation between the sexes. However some of the boys managed to break that invisible barrier!!  And yes, they were the “bad boys”! I was paired with a couple of them during practical classes.  Though it was supposedly three of us who were the “practical batch”, it was as though I was working alone because both of them would never show up!! They were confident that they could copy the reading off me or if I was feeling more benign borrow my record and copy the entire experiment! It used to be annoying but they had their uses. They used to chat up the lab assistants before the practical exams and find out what were the salts being given for analysis. I, being their favored friend would be provided the information just before I walked into the lab for the exam. People used to be amazed how these fellows managed to score such high marks despite bunking most of the practical classes. 

Even the women professors were not immune to their charms. When one of them broke a retort during a practical class (this was on one of those few occasions when they managed to grace the lab with their presence) he managed to “talk” his way out of paying for it!! Chivalrous chap that he was, he employed the same technique once again in the final semester when I broke a burette! And that was how I managed to get my provisional degree without losing any of my caution deposit! 

I wonder what is it about these fellows that  makes them attractive?  I guess it is something about their being non conformists and  original that is the point! Women, having been brought up in a society where they are expected to behave in a certain way  are secretly tiered of conformity!! Otherwise why would Scarlett O” Hara be fascinated by Rhett Butler? But one must admit that they come with a lot of charm which makes them get away with “murder” and the best thing is that they know how to manipulate a girl or woman in a way that makes them putty in their hands ( remember Shri Krishna asking Yashoda how  could he have stolen the butter because he could not reach it where it was hung and his hands were anyway so small)

But what about “bad girls”?  For starters, they are certainly not liked by their own sex. Firstly, their overt expression of non conformist behavior (often an exaggerated projection of sexuality) makes them very unpopular with their own sex. Many boys are also scared of them for the same reasons. They feel a threat to their masculinity in the presence of these girls / women. The interesting part of being a “bad girl” is that charm is not a part of  the adjective that describes you! These girls/ women also know how to manipulate but they are often called “B___HES” because they do so. 

I suppose bad girls do hold a fascination for the opposite sex the same way that bad boys do!! But what happens to relationships with the a “bad person” ?  Is the attraction a fatal one? After all playing with “fire” is not without its consequences? One is bound to get hurt. 

I have had so many women friends who have walked into such relationships with “bad boys”  with their “eyes wide open” so to say and found themselves miserable. I think the problem is that we women think we can change these fellows! And where “bad girls” are concerned, they themselves die a slow agonizing death as somewhere along the way they get badly hurt by all those who decide to take advantage of them. Unfortunately being a “bad girl” means you cannot allow yourself to exhibit these feelings of vulnerability – you are fighting a gender stereotype as you try to sustain the  negative image. Both your feelings and your reputation gets hurt. 

While people can forgive a bad boy by saying “Well boys will be boys” one can rarely say that about girls! We girls and women carry a lot of burden on our backs- it is called social responsibility. One bad behavior on our part and our entire tribe can get branded! 

I remember a muslim classmate from school who had a boy friend. She used to often miss school to go out with him. When it was found out by the principal all hell broke loose!! Her  parents were called and she was suspended from school with threats of expulsion! I sometimes think now about how it must have affected the prospects of education of other girls in her community.. She came from a fairly conservative background and in those circles it must have been interpreted that education gives girls too much “freedom” and they go “astray”! 

Being “bad” might just be a passing phase in some people’s life! People grow up and start acting more responsibly Even Shri Krishna quit chasing the Gopis and started focusing on politics and diplomacy!  As a bad boy, the qualities of charm might aid you in whatever you do and whenever you do them and being a bad girl might just give you the hard headed ambition that could make you focus on your career! After all. no image is devoid of its opportunities!

Just because someone calls you “bad” you do not become bad! It is the way society interprets human behavior and slots them into categories. The gender classification is unfortunately not fair across the same category! No wonder we do not have a female equivalent of Shri Krishna!

Sunday, August 25, 2013 8 comments

SITTING IN JUDGEMENT



This post pertains to my earlier one where I had shared my problems of being a minority –a  resident of an independent house in a neighborhood composed predominantly of flat complexes and belonging to a mixed religious family in a upper caste neighborhood. I had given vent to my frustrations about being unable to solve some of the civic problems surrounding my existence here. 

As is my usual practice, I had posted it on various forums – one of them being the Chennai Bloggers Club of which I am a new member. 

I was quite open to critical comments because I had ,after all brought up something about a city that people from here would  be ready to defend. I was not wrong. I got a lot of interesting comments from suggestions about owning dogs to frighten away unpleasant people to those who also pointed out that prejudice is not limited to Tam Brahms but also  exhibited by other communities. There were those who empathized and those who were non committal. But overall, it was not something that I was not prepared for. 

But what shocked me was a comment from one person. His words were really vicious and judgemental. He told me to put myself in my neighbor’s shoes-that cars cost a lot of  money and if they complained they had the right to do so. Agree but they are complaining about something that I can do nothing about!
And then he made a really nasty comment  which I am pasting below 

The problem in Chennai is from root level, people like you have been well off from those days and what your see in the new generation is "pudthu panakaran". They have worst attitude problems than you.”

I still cannot get over the anger and hatred that is simmering here. This person has not defended his city but made some really judgmental comments about me  and my family. He has assumed that as an independent home owner I consider myself superior to those who live in the apartment complexes around my house. While I responded to him explaining that ownership of an independent property is no longer a symbol of wealth I am still not past the shock!

I realize now how people like Mr. Mody build their constituency! Such constituency is built on hatred like this-hatred against minorities ( I am presenting myself as a religious as well as a residential minority) for perceived comfort and wealth! 

I think I may be very naïve but my understanding about why people blog is to share personal experiences, raise issues and create a forum for a healthy debate on things that they believe or do not believe in. I guess I have been very lucky about the people who have  commented on my blog until now. We have had serious arguments about many issues but nothing was personal. We argued about what we believed in and I have enjoyed them and admired some of those who argued. They continue to comment on my blog and I visit theirs. 

But what surprises me is that someone should do this in a forum for bloggers and get away with it! When we write or blog we do more than express ourselves. We connect with people. Giving vent to hatred like this is not the best way forward in terms of establishing and retaining connections. I wonder if I should bring this comment to the notice of the site administrators of CBC? But I am not very sure that they can do anything- afterall it is a free country. As a nation most of us do not know what is meant by freedom and this person who made that awful comment is just a strong case to the point. 

If he thinks that he is defending his city by attacking me he is mistaken. It has only strengthened my negative attitude towards the city!!



Thursday, August 22, 2013 16 comments

STANDING ALONE



It was about 7 PM this evening. I was returning from the dentist with my daughter. She was happy that her braces were off and I was relieved that I would not have to nag her again about carefully brushing her teeth . We had decided that we could have cereal for breakfast tomorrow so I would not have to race against time making the regular dosa, idli etc. On the whole, it was a happy evening and all I was looking forward to was getting dinner over with and hitting the sack! But then things do not always go as they are planned! 

Just as we approached our gate, I found something strange. There was a car parked right against our gate- which meant that I could not even reach my gate. My first guess was that it must be a customer from the vegetable shop opposite. So I stormed in there demanding whose car it was. Meanwhile the watchman from the flat next door came running to me saying that the vehicle belonged to a visitor at flat no xxx in their building. I sent the daughter to their house to verify this piece of information. Just as she was getting into their building the owner of the car – a smartly dressed young man and his aged father came out. I asked the young man why he had parked outside our gate. All he said was “Sorry” !! I wish I could express in words what I felt at that moment!! Any way I told him that he could not get  away with an apology and I was going to call the police. He then told me by way of an explanation that he could not park inside the next building because their watchman was not allowing it. So what did he do? Parked at the gate outside the independent house next door where there was no watchman, not caring that he had parked so close to the gate that the occupants could not even walk in or out of the house!

Meanwhile, my raised voice brought the hosts downstairs. They apologized and I could not do anything but allow this duo to drive away!! 

This my friends, has been our plight –residents of an old independent house on a main road flanked on all sides by flats – most of whom have committed building violations resulting in their top story windows touching the fronds of the trees inside our compound! Our neighbors in these flats are constantly complaining to us about coconuts that fall down from our trees  and dent their parked cars. I wish I could do something about it. But it is almost impossible to find a coconut plucker in a city!!! 

There was a very unpleasant situation in January this year when one of the occupants of the flat behind our house brought a coconut plucker and asked me to use his services to remove the fronds. I agreed to do it (at my cost). However when the chap cut the fronds he refused to remove them. Since it was my mistake in the sense I had not negotiated the deal properly before agreeing to let him climb the tree, I agreed to have my maid remove the ones that had fallen inside our compound. But soon, I found the watchman of the flat on whose complaint we had done the cutting of the fronds, throwing in the fronds that had fallen on their side into our compound! He refused to clear them away from his side and his employers, the residents of the flat said that he was right in his refusal because it was not part of his job description to remove fallen coconut fronds from trees inside our compound!!! They accused me of having trees that were a “hazard” to their vehicles and windows and that if I did not cut them the least I could do was not to “inconvenience them or their employees”!! To say, I was shocked would be an understatement! The unfairness of it all still hurts! The house where we live is 52 years old. The trees were planted around that time. The flat is less than 10 years old! 

We also have recurring problem with a garbage bin outside our house. The domestic help from these flats do not bother to throw the garbage inside the bin and most of the time, it is littered on the  pavement outside our house resulting in garbage flying inside! I have had a lot of arguments with these women but I guess when their employers lack civic sense then you cannot expect uneducated  people to have it! 

Our road, has just two independent houses- all the rest are apartment complexes. People tell me how lucky I am to live in such spacious surroundings. But only I know what I am dealing with! While selfish neighbors lacking in civic sense is one part of the problem, another is the constant stream of intruders. 

I was shocked one morning as I returned from my walk to find a strange woman with a dog prowling inside my property. When I asked her who she was she told  me by way of an explanation that she had come inside to pick up mangoes that had fallen from our trees!! I cannot even believe that someone could use that as an excuse ! I told her that as she was entering my compound without my permission she was an intruder and since she was picking up mangoes fallen from my trees inside my compound she was a thief!!! She ignored me completely and continued to pick up the fallen mangoes until I had to tell her that I would call the police if she did not listen to me!! Many people may think I am making a fuss about nothing but folks it is not a question of some fallen mangoes. It was the arrogance of her belief that she could get away with it!! If she had asked for the mangoes I would have gladly given them to her. School kids often throw stones during the mango season trying to hit mangoes, I generally ignore them but I sometimes ask them to come inside and pick up the fallen mangoes or even give away some fallen mangoes that I may have collected earlier.

People outside India may not even understand what I am talking about. They may wonder why I am ventilating like this instead of just complaining to the police. But you know our system here. There are no stringent laws for trespassing, illegal parking or poor garbage disposal practices. People will do these things as long as they think they can get away with it! And get away, they do because we are just one family against some 40 odd families around us. We do not have a watch man outside our gates yet. Soon, we may have to – not because we fear for our safety but because we have to protect ourselves from the awful habits of our neighbors and their visitors! 

I have found some of the most unfriendly people living around me. They rarely acknowledge us or anyone from the neighborhood when we run into each other in the grocery or vegetable shops nearby.  I do not ever see their children playing with each other either!! Actually, I rarely see any children playing around here ( they are too busy attending, tuition chess / key board class, carnatic music classes etc )so I guess I  do not have enough data to make a generalization. But on the few occasions that kids from the neighborhood came to play with our daughter when she was little, they refused to eat any snacks that we offered. My husband tells me that it was always like that around these parts. The reason being ours is a Christian family in a predominantly Tam Brahm neighborhood!! Can you imagine ,people used to avail the professional services of my late mother in law who was a doctor without paying her anything claiming neighborhood bonding but when it came to accepting her hospitality they would baulk at it !! Irony of ironies!! 

Today, the architecture may have changed from independent houses to flats, but the attitude remains the same!! And how can it vary, when the social composition remains the same? Chennai residents would be familiar with rental ads which say “Vegetarians only” which is a code word for “Brahmins only” (I wonder if Bengali Brahmins and Saraswat Brahmins would qualify considering that they are flesh eating twice borns). My neighbors used to look at me as though I am some alien from outer space – the Tam Brahm woman who is married to a Christian who probably cooks meat in her kitchen ( there used to be veiled enquiries about that in my early years of marriage). She is usually in westerns, wears  limited gold jewellery, often does not bother to use a “bindi”/ “pottu” (“Has she converted ?” ) I have grown immune to those stares now. 

 I compare them to my mother – a fairly orthodox Tam Brahm lady who used to welcome all my friends home feeding them and who used to painstakingly note down recipes of the food sent in by Bengali, Oriya , Bihari neighbors because all of us loved the “exotic” fare!! She used to spend much of  her free time  in their kitchens trying get a first hand demo. The fact that many of these kitchens were also spaces that were used to cook non vegetarian food never bothered my strictly vegetarian mom!  It was so different from the situation here -my mother in law used to buy snacks from “Grand sweets and snacks” during Christmas to give out to the neighbors because “they will not eat what is cooked in our house”! So they ate the “Kai murrukus” , “Thenkuzal” etc  rather than the plum cakes and the achappams/vettaiappams which my mother in law used to make for Christmas. I used to wonder why she bothered giving them anything at all!!

I cannot imagine how these folks manage when they go abroad? And they leave the country in hordes!! I guess they behave like this even when they are abroad, making themselves unpopular. But I am sure they will not dare to strew garbage or park illegally or trespass into houses there!! That is reserved purely for the  mother land!!

These people living around often ask me “When are you giving your property to a flat promoter?” or “ When you give your flat for development to a flat promoter please inform us, we would like to buy a flat here” ! My blood boils when I hear this. For starters, given their relationship with us, they have no right to ask what is a very personal property issue and secondly, do they think we are idiots that if and when we do develop our house into a flat complex we would invite them to buy flats here so we would be marginalized in our own house? 

Today is supposedly the 347th birthday of this city which has such wonderful non inclusive  residents. Can you blame me if I do not join in the general euphoria and celebratory messages that are being passed around?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013 4 comments

THE EVOLUTION OF “TEENAGE” LITERATURE



I remember the reading material from my teens. I had outgrown the Grimm brothers and Enid Blytons. I found Nancy Drews stupid and just about tolerated the “ The three investigators”. I found comics silly, so "Archies" were out!  I was introduced by a friend to Mills and Boon romances. I read them avidly trying my best to relate to those young women living in England, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Those tall, dark and handsome heroes in their thirties seemed geriatric ( lets face it folks, these guys were just about half a decade younger than  our fathers at that time) and those girls working as governesses, nurses  and secretaries seemed like doormats! But I read them all the same because … well there was nothing else to read! By the time I was fifteen, out of sheer exasperation, I switched to what can safely be called ‘adult” reading material- Sydney Sheldon, Irving Wallace etc! 

As my daughter started reading, I wondered if she would also have to take the same path! But I was in for a pleasant surprise!

For starters, one does not have to restrict oneself to the western contexts- there are a lot of books today that are written for teenagers in different cultural settings. There are first person accounts of the lives of  girls/ boys from India, Afghanistan, Benin and even Somalia. There are stories of children growing in different cultural contexts- the issue of being migrants in a foreign land, the prejudice they face etc!  And the nicest part of all this is that these stories are all written from the teenage perspective.  These books talk about problems with parents, crushes, drug abuse, sexual abuse  and various other problems that are  part of the teenage angst! The teen reader can relate to the characters and imbibe the well camouflaged message without it sounding preachy! While not denying the fact that today’s teens are more exposed to everything thanks to the electronic media, I must say that printed material has evolved since the last generation. These contemporary books treat the teen like the young adults that they are.  They are not prudish. They acknowledge that teens have sexual feelings but that sex is not something that can be casually experimented with.

Being the mother of a daughter, I only have access to books preferred by girls. I must say that the stories are very empowering. Right from a fictitious first person account of Ashoka’s daughter Sanghamitra to Harsha’s sister Rajyashree to the story of Shameem a Pakistani girl born and brought up in the UK, these stories bring out the inner strength of the main characters.  I particularly  like the way the stories  focus on how these girls fought restrictive social  customs and emerged stronger. I remember her reading a book “Do they hear you when you cry” a first person account of a girl from Benin who ran away from home to escape Female Genital mutilation. My daughter was twelve when she read this book. She wanted to know what Female Genital mutilation was about.  I used this opportunity to explain it to her – about how it was an violent act performed on a young girl so that she was denied sexual pleasure. It took some time for her to understand but I think she grasped the entire concept of Patriarchal control over female sexuality rather well.  I cannot help but compare her comprehension to mine which came in much later – in my twenties when I had started to question the sugar coated romances that I used to read in my teenage – their warped value system where marriage was shown as the ultimate goal of any woman, however educated she may be! 

Literature is a reflection of the society we live in. There has  been a lot of social change since the time we were teens and that finds reflection in the writing.  Besides, today’s world is less polarized in terms of east and west. It is not just the “American teenager” who is the symbol of rudeness and nonchalance. We have enough of that in our country too. Having boyfriends/ girlfriends is also more “tolerated” these days. So there are more reading vistas opening up for today’s teen. They can relate much better to the “To Sir with love” context than us, coming as we did from a restrictive background with segregation of the sexes. 

But most of all, one must admire those who write for this age group! There are publications like "Scholastic" that specialize in children's and teen literature! Teen fiction, teen writing is emerging as the new literary space. It requires a lot of sensitivity and empathy to write for this group. Many parents tell me that their children have given up reading for television and the internet. It is therefore a challenge to retain the few who still read by writing books that they can relate to. 

Teenage years are like the “shadow space” between childhood and adulthood where a person searches for who s/he is.  Teen lit I am happy to say has evolved into a strong presence that helps guide these  youngsters through this shadow spaces!!  
 
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