Wednesday, October 16, 2013 19 comments

Anonymously yours

This month has been a particularly busy one for us.. what with festival and holidays. But we found time to watch a movie together. 

The movie, “Lunch Box” is one of the best I have seen in recent times. The story. to put it simply is about a young woman who is a great cook but has a very unappreciative husband. She cooks wonderful delicacies for her husband, packs them into his lunch box and sends them through the Mumbai Dubba system . By a unique chance of fate, there is a mix up and her lunch box does not reach her husband but an unknown man who works in an office somewhere in the city. This middle aged widower leads a lonely life and has no friends. He is initially surprised that the restaurant that usually sends him lunch has improved its quality so suddenly, but after sometime realizes that the lunch was not meant for him. The sender realizes it too. However she finds in this stranger a person who really appreciates her cooking!  She sends him notes along with the lunch box to which he replies. It is initially about the cooking but after sometime they start sharing snippets about their lives. They start looking forward to these small letters accompanying the lunch box. 

This story brought to light something that I am increasingly observing in our urban existence today.  Many of us lead very lonely lives. There are some like the protagonist Sajan of the “Lunch Box”  who are really lonely as they live alone, there are others who are part of a family but are lonely because they are unable to communicate with the rest of the family. The later category of  individuals are much more in number than we would care to admit. There are those who spend hours at work and by the time they get home, are too tired to spend time connecting with family. And then there are those who do have the time but have nothing to communicate about. Husbands and wives leading separate lives under the same roof. No, I am not being judgmental.. I am just saying that it is a  phenomenon that probably existed for sometime but what might be different now is that spouses who are feeling this sense of disconnect are trying to reach out to people outside of the family. 

There are for instance, office relationships that are  more than friendship. After spending nearly eight or more hours with a colleague it is but natural that a man or woman would relate to  the colleague than to the spouse who they see after  6.00PM.  All of us are familiar with this. But I see now another emerging trend. I find people reaching out to complete strangers. 

This is particularly so with those who use social media like face book.! I have observed some people  flirting online with  absolute strangers!. While they may not actually approach a random person with a friend request, they often approach perspms who might be friend of a friend, someone whose interactions they have observed. This third party, generally somenone of the opposite sex might arouse their interest! Some of them are quite casual about this and refer to them as their “facebook friends” !!  I don’t know if these people ever meet outside of the virtual world or are content with connecting with each other online. I don’t probe because I don’t want to know… 
I am now beginning to wonder if people are doing this on the internet because of the anonymity it offers you? Like in the movie “Lunch Box” , does anonymity help in opening yourself up and saying and doing things that you may  not do or say with a known person? Can you be yourself with someone you don’t know? I used to think it was the other way around. We lower our barriers and expose our innermost selves to those who are closest to us because we know they will not take advantage of us. But I think with a stranger it is probably the opposite. You don’t have to be yourself, you can be someone else! A quiet person can appear gregarious and a timid person can find courage to say outrageous things in a virtual context. 

I remember when we were in school, there used to be this concept of having penpals.  There was an organization called the International Youth Centre ( I think that was the name) where you could register for  penpals. Invariably all of us girls wanted male friends from the western world. There used to be a few letters and then a request for photographs at which point we would stop corresponding !!!  Some of our parents knew we had pen pals from Norway, Sweden or Timbuktu and some did not.  In those days it was the only way to interact with someone male . We would pass this pen friend thing off as a school activity and parents would not bother us much about it. And the farther the country was the better ( as the fellow could definitely not find his way to your doorstep) it used to be. But those teenage fancies came to an end when we entered college and encountered real members of the opposite sex. The real interactions replaced the imagined ones. 

But the reverse seems to be happening now. I am not a prude as in I think someone unhappy in a relationship has every right to seek solace in another one. But the question is whether a virtual one with a little known person is the right choice? I guess a stranger comes with his/ her own attraction and advantages. For instance there would be no gossip.. or that is what people think. But what they forget is that a virtual flirtation does not escape the notice of other friends. Sometimes they probably do guess others might be watching and might move on to the chat mode…!! 

As a person who likes to observe society I would say that we are undergoing some sort of change. Today’s Indian woman , particularly the urban educated woman is not the quietly suffering kind. She may not do anything very spectacularly revolutionary but she is asserting herself by seeking out companionship to meet her own emotional needs. The social media and the anonymity it offers is probably the first step towards this. It gives her a confidence to voice things that a face to face interaction might not. 

People might argue saying that such behavior is an indication of a breakdown of social institutions like marriage and family and I would be inclined to agree with them. Social institutions are but a creation of the need of the times. If human beings get their emotional sustenance through interfacing at the workplace or through the world wide web, then probably that is what the world is going towards. Children need not be conceived by man and woman coming together. Sperm banks  and rented wombs might become the order of the day!   Biological origin can remain anonymous. It really does not matter as long as society gets used to it.. Sometimes I think it might be better that way. Anonymous relationships might not bring with them problems like possessiveness and jealousy..!!! There might be less of violence and may be there would be more peace in this world?

What do you think?

( Wishing all of you a very happy Vijaydashami/ Dusshera and Eid)
Sunday, October 6, 2013 11 comments

Unraveling the tangled web of relationships

(Book review series The Lowland  by Jhumpa Lahiri)

It has been a while since I was this disturbed by a book. 

I started reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book “The Lowland” at about 2.00 PM on the 2nd of October. By 5.00 PM I was so hooked to it that I forgot it was raining and there were clothes drying on the terrace!! I did not take a break from the book until I had completed reading it at 11.00PM!!

The story set in Calcutta of the 1960s and 70s is about Subhash and Udyan - brothers separated by a mere fifteen months gap in age. They are more friends than brothers. They study in the same class, have similar hobbies and spend almost all their free time together. Udyan, the younger one is the more mischievous, intelligent and creative  of the two ,given to spurts of genius. He is the one who gets more attention from the parents. Subhash on the other hand is the quieter child who tries to seek parental approval through obedience. Both brothers do well academically and go on to college in different parts of the city pursuing different subjects. While Subhash studies chemical engineering at Jadavpur University, Udyan enrolls for a Bachelor’s degree in Physics at the Presidency college.

It is while he is at college that Udyan comes into contact with students who are part of the Naxal movement. He goes on to join the movement, keeping it away from his family, though his older brother suspects that he is more than a sympathizer. 

Subhash in the meanwhile gets a scholarship to pursue a Ph.D program in the United States. He moves to Rhode Island while Udyan stays behind in Calcutta, teaching at a local school after his post graduation. He receives a letter from his brother one day with a picture of a young girl enclosed within it saying that he had married this girl- Gauri. She was his friend’s sister. Their parents disapproved of the marriage and the girl but were slowly coming round. Subhash is just a wee bit jealous that his younger brother  has married before him and to such a striking looking girl at that. 

Life goes on in a rather placid way for Subhash until he is jolted by the news he receives from Calcutta that his brother has been killed in a police encounter. When Subhash reaches home he meets the widowed Gauri for the first time and is struck by how beautiful she is. He is also disturbed by the news that Gauri is pregnant. His parents want the child but not Gauri in their lives. After some thinking he tells his parents that he plans to marry Gauri. His mother is horrified. Gauri herself is not willing. However after some time she agrees to marry him. Jhumpa describes his mother’s anger in the line  “A girl who she disliked was entering  her family for the second time as her daughter in law”.

Gauri joins him in the US as his wife. Subhash takes care to keep his distance from her when they are alone while at the same time trying to maintain the facade of being a new husband and expectant father to the rest of the world. However this distance dissolves as the baby Bela is born. Subhash feels a sense of closeness to the child that he  had never anticipated. For twenty three year old Gauri it is different. She is on one hand very nervous about caring for the child, thinking that one wrong move on her part might prove life threatening to the child. But she slowly gains confidence in caring for the baby. Subhash helps out in both house work and child care. Gauri slowly begins to accept Subhash as her husband in a real sense. She also realizes that of the two brothers Subhash is probably the better human being. But this does not in any way lessen the deep love that she still holds for Udyan. 

 The books moves on to explore the relationship that Subhash and Gauri share with Bela. To the child, her father is her world. To Subhash she is the reason for his existence. To Gauri the child is an obstacle to her academic ambitions. She realizes soon enough that Subhash though not a biological parent is much better cut out for fatherhood than she the biological mother is. It is Subhash who deals with Bela's psychological problems that come up as a result of this. It is at this  point that Subhash realizes that though he may not be the father who was responsible for her birth, he was the father who was responsible for her rebirth! 

As Bela grows up, she charts out a life for herself that is completely different from what her academically oriented parents do. When she becomes pregnant and moves in to live with her aging father, life for Subhash comes full circle-he finds himself again looking after a pregnant woman

The book explores familial relationships in a way that no other book I know of has. On one hand is the relationship between the two brothers. On the other hand is the relationship they share with their  parents and the third angle is the relationship that Subhash and Gauri share with Bela. There is a fourth dimension to this too- the relationship that Bela shares with Subhash and her feelings for her mother who abandoned her. 

The book questions the entire theory that parental love is something that we get by instinct. While there is certainly a primeval instinct for protection of the child that show up in all parents, the nurturing role is not something that comes naturally to all. Infact, it is not even biologically inherited. The book confirms something that I always suspected. The motherhood role  is reinforced more by social learning  than biological instincts. Many mothers go about doing things for their children because it is expected of them and not because they may naturally want to do it. Sacrificing one’s ambitions for a child is something that we do because society expects a mother to do it. The guilt that comes into a mother’s mind when she feels that she may be giving her career more importance are all indications of this social pressure on living up to a role. The character of Gauri is a key example of someone who undergoes this inner turmoil. However she is able to come to terms with her conflicts and decides to make a choice that does not follow social dictates. She embarks  upon a long and lonely journey in the quest for her individual goals. 

The character of Subhash brings out the opposing elements of whatever we in Gauri. Here is a man who is driven by a strong  sense of responsibility towards everyone in his life – his parents to whom he sends money, his wife to whom he remains faithful even when he knows that she does not love him the way she loved his brother and to the child Bela to whom he is the most caring father!  When Bela refers to Subhash as “Baba” ( father) , the writer says that it was a “both a lie and the truth”!

A better man may not always be the preferred man, is something that stands out in the way Gauri relates to Subhash.  She remains  passionately in love with Udyan- a man she was married to for less than two years and whose child she bore more out of her love for the man rather than her own desire for motherhood. A man to whom a revolution mattered more than providing a secure home to his wife.  This is probably what love is all about –something that sees no reason. 

The book spans two worlds – the east and the west. Though the value systems that come into play in these two worlds are different, the emotions are consistent. There are times that the book brings tears to the reader’s eyes. 

To me this book holds a very special place as it is set in the city that I grew up in. It describes events that are too faint in my memory to be classified as news yet too fresh to be called history. The marshland near Tollygunj where the story begins to unfold, may not exist today but its importance in the plot is central. The historical and ecological descriptions of the place make it come alive in front of the reader. 

For a book that deals with such heavy emotional undercurrents, it is a surprisingly easy read with language that is descriptive and simple to understand. I would say that it is probably Jhumpa’s best work yet!!

A must read for everyone who is a parent!