Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Glided Cage

 


"I will never let you want for anything”,
He promised me on our wedding night.
He’s done his part.
     I have all I need.
          And more.

I’ve never repeated an outfit at a wedding.
My diamonds glitter brighter than my chandeliers
I have a driver who takes me where I want,
and a cook who knows all the family recipes.
I’ve not had to lift a finger except to check my manicure.

I have everything he wants me to have-
I even have his love.

But
    I don’t want any of it.
All I long for is to be me.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

I Like You


 It will not end well, they said. You are rich

she is not. She will marry you for your money.


I was besotted. I pursued her. She was not interested.

"Will you paint my front door", I asked. She agreed.


For the next week, she was with me everyday 

I’d pile her with food. She’d paint.


“I like you”, I finally confessed. “I like you too”, she replied.

“But not that way. There is too much I want to do.”


She won a scholarship and went off to study art

I still stand at the threshold, hoping she will return.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Not Summiting Bongir Fort



“I don’t think I can go on much longer”, my friend told me when we were halfway up the final ascent to the citadel of Bongir Fort. “You go on up. I will wait for you near the temple.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. If you aren’t going up, I am not either.” I shot back.

Predictably, it started off the familiar game of, “in that case, I’ll come with you”, and “absolutely not. Let’s turn back.” 

It is always that way. When you are with family or friends, you are constantly trying to out-guess the other person and doing what you think they would want you do to, instead of what you really want to do. While we stood on the rock surface and argued, the sun was getting hotter, and we were getting more and more drained.

“Listen, we have absolutely no idea how much further we have to go”, I said, trying to sound reasonable. “It may be just a few meters more, or it may be much longer. Let’s just turn back.”

“I tell you what, let’s go till that turn in the rock and decide”, she told me.

“No, let’s turn back”, I insisted. I knew my friend well. She wouldn’t have even suggested turning back, unless she just couldn’t go any further.

“I have come here when I was in school. You haven’t. You go up. I will wait.”

I tried reasoning with her. Told her that I had three reasons for suggesting we make the trip- I wanted to see the famous batholith of the Deccan, I wanted to hang out with my friend, and I wanted to see the view from the top. Achieving two was more than sufficient for me. But she was not convinced. We would have stood there arguing for the next hour, if we hadn’t sighted a family of three making a descent.

“How much further to the fort?”, she asked in Telugu.

Chala duram”, the lady replied. The two of them launched into a long discussion on how much “duram” the “chala duram” actually meant, but I was having none of it. I grabbed my friend by the arm and started walking down. “If she says ‘chala’, she means chala. We are not even attempting it.”

“But why don’t you go up. I will wait”, she began again, but this time she was speaking to a retreating back. I didn’t let up my pace, till we had climbed down 100 meters and reached a lily pond nestling in a small depression in the rock face. In admiring the stratifications in the rock face, and wondering if the lily plants had been introduced there, or if they had found their way there naturally, we forgot all about the citadel that we didn’t reach.

After talking about a hundred photographs, and giggling non stop for what seemed like forever, we made our way to the temple, and plonked ourselves in its shade. The granite rock rose in front of us. Shaped like a whale and much more massive, it towered over us. It did not require much imagination to picture the molten magma pushing its way up from the centre of the earth and solidifying into that gigantic egg shaped rock.

We pictured the awe our ancestors must have felt when they first stumbled on the batholith. We marveled the audacity of the builders who decided to perch a fort on top of the rock. We saluted the engineers who chose to construct over the rock, instead of blasting it as we now do.

As we marveled at the rock, we heard of group of women talking among themselves as they made the climb. They were beautiful in their multicoloured sarees, but when you pictured them against the backdrop of the rock face, you realized with a start exactly how massive the rock was.


At that moment, I truly appreciated the grandeur of the site. Had we climbed all the way to the top, we may not have stopped to rest where we did, and we may have missed out on what turned out to be the most memorable part of the experience.


That also encapsulated what 2020 has meant to me. This was the year before my 50th birthday, and there was a lot I intended to do this year. There were places I wanted to go, and things I wanted to experience. But the pandemic scuttled all those plans.

However, the year has also given me  a lot. It has given me time with my family. It has made me reevaluate the things that are important to me. It has taught me patience and gratitude. To accept and appreciate what I have today instead of seeking something I feel I must have. It taught me to let do, and let life take its course.

I may be back to Bongir to attempt another ascent. Or I may not. Either way, the awe I felt when I sat under the shade of the temple and stared at the rock face will not diminish. That will forever remain one of the moments when I witnessed eternity.


Monday, December 21, 2020

My Patti, my Role Model

 "You must be Shambu Mami's granddaughter. You look exactly like her", someone exclaimed when I was visiting my mother a couple of years back. It turned out that the lady had been my grandmother's neighbour, and had memories to share. Though I was touched that someone remembered Patti years after she had passed away, what gave me a greater thrill was realizing that I look like my favourite grandmother. Can there be any greater joy than that?


I always had a special bond with Patti. When I was three months old, my grandparents engaged a professional photographer to take photographs of me with all my relatives. Even in that photograph, I was cheerfully communicating with her. What we spoke about then, I don't remember, but I do remember most of the subsequent conversations we had. Each completely enriching.

Married in her early teens to a hot-heated scientist, she was a fiercely independent lady. Though she grew up speaking Tamil and Telugu, she easily picked up Hindi when her husband was posted in Bombay. English was harder, and when she found it difficult to converse with the wives of her husband's colleagues, she asked him to teach her the language. In his inevitable style, my grandfather thrust a copy of Shakespeare on her and told her she would pick up the language if she read it. Patti didn't fall for that trick, and she engaged a tutor to teach her English and gained fluency in just a few months.

Somewhere along the line, she got addicted to crime fiction and legal thrillers. While my grandfather was trying to get a teenage me to read Dickens and Shaw, she slipped me a Perry Mason and said I'd probably enjoy it more. I didn't, but I did learn that the purpose of reading need not be elucidation, it could be also be fun.

Patti hadn't studied beyond grade 5, but she made sure all three daughters completed their undergraduate studies before marriage. However, her one big regret was that she didn't encourage her daughters to get professionally qualified. She made amends by ensuring her granddaughter did not make the same mistake.

"No matter what anyone tells you", she told me the summer before she passed away, "do not even contemplate getting married before you are financially and emotionally independent." She had seen too many marriages fall apart, and didn't want her granddaughter staying in a bad marriage because she didn't have any other options. I didn't realize it then, but I now know how revolutionary that thought was.

A deeply spiritual person, Patti observed all the religious rituals she had been taught since birth. She, however, never forced her beliefs on anyone else. She was a staunch Hindu, but never missed the Novena at Mahim Church whenever she was in Bombay. She could hold her own in a discussion on the religious texts, and it was from her that I learn that one was perfectly justified in questioning the texts and seeking answers.

My grandfather was an Atheist, and I sometimes wonder how they lived together so harmoniously despite their fundamental differences. It was because of the deep respect they had for each other; neither ever sought to impose their will on the other.

Patti was the perfect wife and mother - she kept a beautiful house, served delicious meals and almost always had a few guests staying over. But she always made time for herself- Mondays were movie days, and she never missed her date with herself unless unavoidable. Today, we talk about self-care; long before the term was invented, she practiced it.

She cooked, she knitted, she sewed. The neatness of her stitches were legendary, and it is said that when she embroidered something, you couldn't make out which side was the front, and which was the reverse. Despite being the expert, she didn't mind asking her teenage granddaughter to explain a pattern to her when she couldn't quite follow the instructions. When I succeeded in figuring out the stitch, she was full of pride because her student had gone ahead of the master.

She was always impeccably turned out in her handloom sarees paired with white hakoba blouses. By observing how she dressed, I realized that style was far more important than fashion. That if one chooses the traditional, it remains timeless.

From Patti, I inherited the desire to learn and the willingness to fail. I learnt to be independent, and empathetic. Every girl needs a role model, and I am glad I found mine in my own family.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Silent

 We are taught to be silent; invisible.


“How does it matter who gets credit”,

we are told, “as long as the job gets done.”


And so, we soldier on. Doing things

while others stand up to make the speeches

and soak up the applause.


But it does matter. 

Credit, validation, acknowledgement.

All of it matters.


Maybe not to us, but to those

who come after us.  We owe it to them

to demonstrate it can be done. By us.


For too long have we shied away

from seeking our due. It is now time

to demand that we be seen.

- natasha

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Dreams of my own


 My sister. My clever sister.

The smartest in the school.

Perhaps in the whole mandal.


Everyone’s hopes are on her

She is the one who will study

She will do the family proud.


Nobody even notices me.

The tiny bougainvillea flower

Eclipsed by my magenta sister.


She has to succeed.

I have to make sure she does;

I am expendable.


When the well dries

I drop out of school 

To fetch water. She studies.


She will achieve success

The family will prosper.

They will no longer be poor.


But what of me?

Am I not allowed 

Dreams of my own?



Tuesday, December 8, 2020

You want papers?


 

You want papers?

What papers?

The aunt who eased me out of my mother’s womb

as the candle spluttered and died in the wind; she

couldn’t read or write. She knows I was born

on the day of the heaviest rains.

That is my birth certificate.

Will that do?

No, I don’t know the day, 

or even the year when I was born.

It may have been fifteen years back, 

Or sixteen

Time has little meaning for us , you know.


What?

Who are my parents, you ask?

That stone you see there? 

That’s not a stone. That is my mother.

My mother who died giving birth to me. 

My father, his father,

his father’s father, 

his father’s father’s father,

our fathers, all the way to the first man-

We were all born here.

We belong here.

Every stone in this valley is us.


You want papers?

Why do I need papers?

This is my legacy. 

These trees, these hills, these streams.

Every plant in the forest, every stone on the hills. 

It is mine.

I don’t need no papers

This is my land.

The land of my forefathers.

The land where we’ve always lived.

The land where my children,

and grandchildren and great grandchildren will be born


Everything you see around me is mine.

These are my papers.

You cannot displace me from my land.


Not even if you find bauxite under the ground


- natasha ramarathnam

[This poem was written during the protests against CAA+NRC. Indigenous tribals will be most affected by NRC.]

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Shopping for Vegetables


Returning from her evening walk,

She catches a whiff of dinner being prepared.

Palak paneer! Yes, she would like that.


She takes a detour through the market.

Her shoppu vendor is there. Pink saree. Big smile. 

“Amma, I haven’t seen you for long.”


They talk about the daughter

Of how she’s doing in school.

She sifts through the greens.


There is no spinach. But the methi looks fresh.

There is curd at home.

She could have methi paratha tonight.


She now makes weekly trips to the supermarket.

Where cold vegetables choke in plastic bags.

And masks hide even the smiles.


Friday, November 27, 2020

Bangles, bangles and more bangles


 I never liked wearing bangles. They were noisy, they were heavy and they got in the way when I tried to do anything. There would be times when, in a misguided attempt at 'fitting in', I would pick up a couple. But they wouldn't last long on my wrist, and I'd gift them to the first person who complimented me on them.

First my relatives gave up commenting on my bare wrists, then my in-laws did. For the times when I just couldn’t get away without wearing bangles, I had that slim gold bracelet that my mother had encouraged me to buy with my first salary.


Why the hell can’t you wear bangles, people would ask. They are too heavy, I would reply, knowing fully well they weighed less than the heavy earrings I was so fond of wearing. They get in the way when I am writing, I would mutter, but that couldn’t explain why I took it off even while making presentations or talking.

And then I met Durga. She of the perfectly colour coordinated clothes. She who never stepped out of home without matching earrings, necklace and bangles. Those bangles which picked out every shade of her attire.


"Come with me to Lal Bazaar once", she challenged. "I will make you fall in love with bangles." 


I scoffed, and made excuses. But one day, got corned into going with her. The lanes leading off Charminar resembled rabbit warrens. Stepping gingerly over the puddles and dodging wooden carts, I wondered what I had let myself into. And then suddenly, we were in Wonderland.

There were bangles everywhere. Who knew there could be so many types of bangles- glass, lacquer, wood, metal, cloth. Bangles with mirrors and beads. Bangles with wires twirled around them, and bangles with enamel work. Painted bangles, and bangles covered with embroidered cloth. Bangles in every shade imaginable and a few beyond imagination too.


While I was mesmerized by the place, Durga got to work. She directed the shop assistant to get down every kind of bangle she decided I needed. There were glass bangles in shades of blue, glass bangles in green and red. Glass bangles painted in pearly shades. The metal bangles with shiny red, gold and black stones embedded on them. The bangles with silver and gold glass laid out in neat rows. She taught me how I was supposed to mix and match the bangles to reflect the patterns on my saree.

I was sure I could never get her lessons clear, but in a week, I found I had become quite a pro.


And she was right. I am now a convert.

There are still days when I slip the bangles off as soon as I reach the desk, but rare is the day when I step out in a saree without at least half a dozen bangles jangling on my wrist.

Viva la Laad Bazar. I miss thee.


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Battling the Shadow Pandemic

 hey call it the ‘Shadow Pandemic’.

In 2020, as countries went into lockdown and restricted movement in a bid to contain the spread of COVID-19, people were not only forced indoors, many were adversely affected financially. During this time of uncertainty, stress and isolation, men took their frustration out on their women.

Cases of violence against women, especially domestic violence went up, with some countries reporting a nearly five-fold increase in reported cases of domestic violence. Even before the pandemic, 243 million women and girls were abused by their intimate partners every year. The pandemic merely intensified the violence, and made accessing support much harder.

In India, during the early days of the lockdown, many women complained of increased sexual demands from their menfolk and ASHA workers reported an increase in the demand for contraceptives. Given the fact that the supply of contraceptives was disrupted, this would have most certainly resulted in a large number of unwanted pregnancies.

With the economic downturn, the number of cases of female infanticide has gone up, with new cases of abandoned female babies being reported almost every day. There are also many more cases of women being publicly shamed and punished for bringing “dishonor’ to their community or family.

During the initial weeks of the lockdown there was a spike in trolling and abusive behavior online. Women were especially vulnerable to this harassment and were exposed to greater sexual harassment online than in the past. Cases of non-consensual sexting, cyber bulling and doxing went up, even as the support services struggled to cope with the increase in number of complaints.

Though there is no official data to support the claim, many believe that a disproportionate number of girls have been forced to drop out of the education system because they cannot access online teaching. Most of these girls have become or will become victims of early marriage.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against women takes on special meaning in 2020 because of the ‘Shadow Pandemic’. The objective of the Day is to create awareness about the scale and nature of this violence against women, and to push governments to implement measures to break this cycle of violence.

What can we as individuals do to help reduce, if not eliminate, violence against women?

Believe and support a survivor when she comes forward with a story of violence. Talking about the abuse is the first step that a woman takes when she wants to break the cycle, and at that time, she should not be questioned on the circumstances that may have led to the violence. The perpetrator is the only one who is responsible for the violence, and it is important to avoid any victim-blaming.

The next generation should be taught to respect consent. Both boys and girls should be taught about consent, body autonomy and accountability. They should be taught to recognise and question gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles- young men, especially, should be provided the toolkit to navigate the world of empowered women.

Men should learn to understand and accept consent. With popular culture spreading the misinformation that ‘no’ does not necessarily mean ‘no’, the common perception of consent is extremely blurry. Men should learn that a freely given and unequivocal consent is mandatory before indulging in any sexual activity with a woman. Words like “she was asking for it” or “boys will be boys” should be eliminated completely.

We need to watch out for signs of abuse, and do all you can to help the person access professional support.

We must speak up against an environment which normalizes sexual violence, and perpetuates gender inequalities. When we speak about gender based violence, it is important to remember that while women and girls suffer disproportionately, men (particularly LGBTQI+ community) and boys can also be victims. Even among women, women who identify as LGBTQI+, women from lower castes, tribals, the economically underprivileged, refuges, migrants and women with HIV or disabilities are particularly vulnerable.

It is equally important to call out sexual comments, sexual jokes, and verbal harassment. This is extremely common, especially in professional and academic settings, and helps create an enabling environment for other forms of sexual violence.

Ending violence against women is everyone’s business. The promise of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — leave no one behind — can be fulfilled only when we end violence against women and girls.

#orangetheworld, #16Days #GenerationEquality

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sustained Behaviour Change to deal with COVID

 In August when I went to a patisserie, they didn’t let me in till I donned a pair of plastic gloves. Today, when I went to the same place, all the did was a thermal check; even the sanitizer dispenser was empty.

We have clearly let down our guard, and that’s scary.

Do I want to go back to the days of paranoia and plastic gloves? Certainly not.

As I had pointed out to the management even then- plastic gloves are counter productive because they lull you into false complacency. You are likely to touch the front of your mask with gloved hands and leave germs behind.

[Plus the unnecessary use of single use plastic that cannot be recycled.]

But what was needed then, and what is still needed today is an understanding of how the virus spreads, so people can guard against it.

And that is something that is sadly missing.

If you are going to wear a mask on your chin, you’d be better off not wearing the mask at all. Masks do not emit a force shield that keeps the virus away.

A mask acts as a physical barrier, and can only work if it covers both the nose and the mouth.

If you are a carrier of the virus, you discharge the viral load through your mouth when you speak, sneeze or sing. Pulling down the mask while speaking to make yourself audible defeats the whole purpose of wearing the mask.

If you are a carrier, the germs would settle on the part of the mask that covers your nose and mouth.

If you, like most people do, keep fiddling with the mask, you get the germs on your hand and leave it behind on the surfaces you touch.

There are even people who pull the mask down, sneeze, and pull it up again. If they paused to think about it, they would know how foolish that is, but none do so. To them, mask wearing is the mandate, and they do it merely because they are required to.

And then there are people, many people, who are so fed up of being cooped up that they have just decided to pretend the virus has gone away, though there is absolutely nothing to suggest that.

What then, is the solution?

Behaviour Change Communication (BCC)

The only proven way of changing behaviour of individuals and communities to bring about positive public and personal health outcomes.

Five Stages of BCC

BCC works by raising awareness, creating an enabling environment to adopt new practices, adopting practices and supporting each other to sustain the practices.

In India, BCC has demonstrated positive results in adopting practices to combat waterborne and vector borne diseases.

Ad hoc messaging by the government, especially when it is not backed up by their action, does not serve any purpose. The Corona message you get instead of a ringtone has been unchanged for months, and is easily ignored.

What is needed, instead, is a sustained campaign.

Behaviour change is required because intermittent lockdowns do not serve any purpose, and neither do punitive actions like fining people for not following guidelines.

We need to understand the nature of spread and adopt suitable behaviour to mitigate it.

At this stage, we seem to have given up, which is reflecting in sudden spikes in numbers. We certainly cannot afford a situation similar to the one in Delhi to spread across the country, and neither can be afford another lockdown.

We need to change behaviour patterns now.

If you look at the countries that have fared relatively well in the current pandemic, most of them are countries which were previously hit by the SARS virus, and where people adopted mitigating practices.

The sooner we take this up, the better for us as a nation.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Of What use Dharma?, Janaki asks

Magnolia champaca


You talk of Dharma, Ramchandar.

Rajyasi Dharma. Is that the only Dharma 

There is?


Are you not required, as a husband,

To protect your woman? Your wife. Well,

You failed.


Even if I had been violated, 

It would still not have been my fault.

Would it?


I did not ask to be abducted, did I?

Why must I be asked to prove

My chastity?


Do you not have the courage

To stand by me. Is it not your Dharma to 

Defend me?


You can keep your Dharma, 

It is of no use, if when I most need you, 

You fail.


Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Biggest Mask she Wore

 

Orchidaceae

She went through the old photographs.

Swiping though most. Pausing at some.

Moments of joy; captured, frozen for Eternity-


Chucking her graduating cap into the air

Striking a seductive pose at her cousin’s wedding

Running on the beach, racing a dog

Making the okay sign on her scuba dive

Grinning from behind the masquerade mask

Rejoicing after climbing the walls of a fort


She. The girl with the gorgeous smile.

The girl who hung herself one night.

No photographs were taken at her funeral

Had they been, might she have smiled there too?

That smile. The biggest mask she wore.


The Babies never came

Jasminum sambac

“When are you giving the good news?”
her nosey relatives would ask.
Did they not realize she was 
in no hurry to start a family?
The curiosity soon turned stringent,
“Don’t delay or it will be too late.”
They gave her names of IVF specialists,
told her which temples to visit.
They didn’t hesitate before throwing 
barbs of ‘carrier woman’ at her.
Choice or not, they never knew,
but  the babies never came.
“We told you not to delay,
now look at you”, they said cruelly.
Shouldn’t there be more for a woman 
than to be reduced to her ovaries?

Monday, November 9, 2020

We’re made of star stuff

 I was in high school when Carl Sagan’s 13 part television series, Cosmos, was aired on Doordarshan. I had always loved science, but by the end of the first episode, I was in love with Science. And with Carl Sagan too. That was the only show I watched on TV, and when the power went out on Sunday morning, I almost abandoned my atheism to pray that the power be restored before the serial started. (That the power came back on, without me having to resort to prayer only strengthened my belief that I could manage fine without religion!)

Everything about the series was incredible to the teenage me. The themes it dealt with, the footage shot on site, the special effects that showed Sagan walking though different environments, the music, and most of all the presenter. With his mix of intelligence, compassion and good looks, he was certainly my dream come true.

It was after watching how Eratosthenes calculate the circumference of the Earth that the concept of time-zones and the significance of the International Date Line started making sense to me. The whole idea of hopping across the Date Line and going from tomorrow to yesterday was fascinating for me, and for a few days, I harboured the idea that I had discovered time travel. Discussing that with my grandfather, I told him that if I kept traveling round the world from East to West, I would add days to my life. To which my pragmatic grandfather replied, “instead of adding days to your life, try making the days you have count. That would be more useful.”

Though the television series was telecast only once, the book based on it came out soon after, and that could be read and re-read till I had committed almost all of it to memory. Almost every book of popular science I read subsequently, from Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of Man’ to Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’ built on the foundation that Cosmos laid.

It was Carl Sagan who, in the last episode of Cosmos, introduced me to thoughts of the nuclear war, of the position of women in science, and left me with the lingering question, “who speaks for Earth?”. The powerful mix of science, wisdom and compassion is what characterized the serial and all the other books authored by him.

These were themes he would constantly return to. His description of the R-Complex of the brain as being the site for tribalism, aggression and other reptilian behavior still helps me make sense (and forgive) of the behavior of certain people and societies.

A Glimpse of Eternity

But more than anything else, I will be grateful to Carl Sagan for showing me the window thought which I can look out anytime and catch a glimpse of Infinity. It is because of him that I can revel in my sheer Insignificance in comparison to the grandeur of Space and Time. And at the same time experience the high of knowing that as an intrinsic part of the Universe, I too am just as magnificent. Why would anyone need religion when one can experience the same intensity of emotion at the foot of Science? When you know that you are made of star stuff, you don’t really need a God.

In the vastness of Space and the immensity of Time, I am glad I met Carl Sagan when I did.

Happy Birthday, Carl Sagan.

“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

The Elections

[This is a work of fiction. A drabble in poetry form].

He was the dreaded school bully,
She the topper of her class.
She despised school politics, but since 
Nobody wanted to challenge him,
She ran against him for School Captain.

They all certainly hated him, 
But were not sure of her either.
She generously shared her notes, 
But could she bark orders?
All the teachers loved her, 
But maybe a bit too much?
She won honours for the school, 
But somehow just didn’t look the part.
She was brilliant, but didn’t she lack
The commanding presence to lead?

But
But
But 

More than half the school despised him-
He won.

Monday, November 2, 2020

How Patriarchy affects Men

 Men often feel threatened when we speak about the political, economic, social and personal equality of the sexes. Secure in the privilege that their gender confers on them, men do not realize that they too are victims of the patriarchal mindset.

Yes, Patriarchy does benefit men. It confers the title of “superior” gender on men. It empowers them to dictate how women behave. Their bodies aren’t policed, and they are certainly not in as much danger of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.
However, even though Patriarchy favours men over women, it does extract a price from men (and boys).
[I shouldn’t need to say it, but to avoid being accused of drawing false equivalence, I will specify that the price is not comparable to what it extracts from women]
Patriarchy confers the title of “protector” on men, which restricts their professional choices, and often requires them to give undue weightage to financial considerations while making decisions. This puts severe pressure on men, affects their sense of self-worth, and leaves them exposed to societal expectations.
A man who chooses to step back professionally and support his more successful partner is often subject to derision, because he chose to go against societal norms.
[women suffer more by being forced to be “homemaker” despite having a career, but men suffer differently]
From birth, boys are discouraged from showing emotion. They are brought up to believe that “boys don’t cry”, and if they show emotion are silenced by being told to “stop behaving like a girl”. This doesn’t allow them to give vent to their emotions.
Forcing men to be stoic, often results in them either turning to substance abuse or overcompensating by acting aggressively towards women/ non-binary men/ children. Men would be better off if they were permitted to display their feelings.
The cult of masculinity, which abhors any sign of weakness, also ensures that men are less likely to seek help for emotional problems.
[though the strict gender norms imposed by patriarchy affect women much more, they affect men too]
While motherhood is excessively glorified [to the detriment of women], fatherhood is not considered on par with it. This forces families to conform to patriarchal stereotypes and discourages fathers from taking on the role of primary caregiver. This works against both genders.
Though both male and female children are victims of sexual assault, the family considers the girl child to be more vulnerable and is more likely to take steps to protect her. Boys who are abused often do not know where to complain and are left to process the trauma on the own.
Adolescent girls are sexually violated much more than adolescent boys. However, while the girl can tap into the moral support of her female friends, no such support system exists for the boys, and those that are abused are compelled to suffer in silence.
Adult men, particularly homosexual or non-binary men, do not even have an adequate legal structure to protect them from rape or sexual assault. Male sexual assault is almost always subject to derision or dismissed outright.
[again, not drawing any equivalence with what women go through]
The patriarchal mindset barely acknowledges female-on-male domestic violence. While such incidents may be low, they do exist, and the victims struggle to even admit to themselves that it is possible, much less seek redressal.
Another case of Patriarchy letting men down.
By definition, Patriarchy is stacked against women. However, by placing financial expectations on the men, denying them the right to express their emotions and leaving them open to abuse, men too can become victims of patriarchy.
It is in everybody’s interest to dismantle Patriarchy and replace it with a system that ensures and enables everybody to reach their full potential in an equitable manner.
That is called Feminism.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Our Cultural Diversity

 


To me, Navratri has always been associated with Maa Durga. Though born in a Tamilian household, my childhood and youth was spent in communities with a predominantly Bengali population, so Durga Puja is a part of my cultural heritage, not Navratri golu.

The frenzied beat of the dakis. The sound of conch shells being blown. The smell of camphor and flowers, mingling with the tantalizing aroma of street food. New clothes and conversations. And reigning above it all the benign face of Maa Durga, who’s come on a visit with her four children.

Dashami was the day when all the excitement came to an end. Ma Durga would leave her earthly home, and return to her heavenly abode. For us, the excitement would come to an end, and we would be left with three words on our lips, আবার এসো মা/ come back soon, Ma.

If you asked me my family’s traditions for Vijaya Dashami, I wouldn’t be able to answer. Perhaps even my parents didn’t know; they had both grown up in other states and had most certainly picked up traditions from the places where they lived.

Dussehra assumed significance after I married into a North Indian family. But I was never comfortable with interpreting the epic battle between Rama and Ravana as one where Good triumphs over Evil. Rama spoke about the moral code when it came to others, but he was not above breaking them if it suited his purpose and Ravana often conducted himself with more honour than did his antagonist. As I saw it, in that particular battle, good and evil were labels reserved for the victor and the vanquished.

I am not the only one who thinks that way. There are communities which mourn the death of Ravana, just as there are communities that celebrate the victory of Rama.

And that is what makes Hinduism unique. There is no common ‘Hindu’ culture or tradition. There is no single version of Hinduism. There is no one God all Hindus worship. There is no one way in which all Hindus worship a particular God.

In the last few years, there has been a strong attempt to homogenize Hinduism. One deity has been given prominence over the others. A deity that in my part of the country is worshipped in a benign form has metamorphosed into one who is ready for battle. A singular narrative is being thrust on the country.

The essence of Hinduism has always been its plurality. It has been the ability to assimilate and cherish different cultures and traditions. To cherish our differences, and to take pride in our collective tradition. It would be a shame if that is lost.

In my tiny home, we cling to the plurality. Though none of us is a practicing Hindu, and only my husband even identifies himself as one, we carry forward parts of the traditions of our families. On Ashtami, I make kala chana, sooji halwa and poori for lunch because my mother-in-law always did so, and requested me to keep the tradition going. But I soak a larger quantity of kala chana than required, and keep some of it aside to make shundal and payasam the next day because my mother wants that I celebrate Saraswati Puja on Navami. And I am hoping that neither of the kids comes to know about the tradition of smashing a pumpkin on Dashami day, because they will most certainly want to adopt that tradition, and I don’t particularly want to clean up after them!

Navdurga- Durga

 


She clasped her palms in prayer, closed her eyes.

Unbidden, the images came rushing in.

Uncle taking her dress off.

Uncle rubbing her body.

Uncle pushing his fingers into her.

Pain.

She opened her eyes; pushed the pain away.

She looked around. Nobody had heard her cry.

Except Ma Durga. Ma’s eyes were on her.

Her kind, compassionate eyes.

Ma knew. She understood.

Don’t leave me, Ma, she pleaded.

You aren’t alone, Ma whispered. You are Durga.

She nodded with comprehension.

Tonight she will tell her mother.

They will force Uncle to stop.

She is Durga. She will vanquish Evil.

-------

She is everywoman, she is every girl

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Navdurga blooms- Siddhidhatri

Plumeria rubra

The oldest child. The eldest daughter in law. She always had things under control.

Every birthday party was meticulously planned. Every wedding went off without a hitch.

She helped pick out engagement rings. She knew where to hire a Spiderman costume.

Even for her own farewell party, she was the one who ordered the cake.

When they saw her, people relaxed. They knew nothing would now go wrong.

They depended on her. It was flattering, but sometimes she longed for more.

She tucked a plumeria behind her ears. Rolled down the window. 

Long drives is where she could be She.

_____

Siddhidhatri, Goddess of the Supernatural Powers

Frangipani. She keeps the world moving


Saturday, October 24, 2020

Navdurga blooms- Mahagauri

Cassia fistula

 Invisible.

She tried hard to make herself invisible.

Geeky glasses. 

Unflattering hair. 

Shapeless clothes. 

Head downcast.

Nobody looked at her, she preferred it to be so.

It was safe to remain unseen. Overlooked.

She kept her voice low; let others take credit.

All she wanted was to be left alone.

Sometimes, she’d slip up and flash her smile

She’d catch herself and slip on her mask

But not fast enough. The transformation would be seen.

“You’d be almost pretty if you tried”, they’d say

Don’t they know that beauty is a curse?

That for a woman it’s better to hide. 

_____

Mahagauri, the Fairest One

Indian laburnum. She blooms but briefly


Friday, October 23, 2020

Navdurga blooms- Kalaraatri

 

Clitoria ternatea

I wanted to run away. Be a heroine like Madhuri.

Instead, I landed up here. Everyday, men would have me.

I’d cry out in pain. Beg to be sent home.

But I’d been bought. I had to pay Madam back.

Sometimes, they hurt me. I bore it. I couldn’t escape.

I got pregnant. I had a baby. My expenses rose.

I’d slip her under the bed while I serviced my men.

She learnt to be quiet, as only young girls can.

I bore the abuse. Sent my daughter to school.

Today she becomes a doctor. She will do me proud.

_____
Kaalratri, the Ruler of the Night
Butterfly pea. She is beyond fear

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Navdurga blooms- Katyayani

 

Hibiscus rosa-sinensis

Barely six months into her wedding,

He wants her to leave her job.

Creating a home is her responsibility.

Doesn’t he earn enough for both?


How happy her parents had been;

Good family, well settled groom,

No expectations from the family.

She’d agreed to the match.


Right after the honeymoon, the fights began.

He wanted an educated wife,

But didn’t want her to work.

She loved her job too much.


She shrugs the fights off; they can wait.

She dons her PPE, and goes into battle.

For an anesthesiologist in a COVID ward, 

There are real demons to be slayed.

_____

Katyayani, the Slayer of Demons

Hibiscus, evil doesn’t stand a chance against her


Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Navdurga Blooms- Skhandamata

 

Catharanthus roseus

She divided the food equally,

Then took a bit from her share

And added it to her child’s.

He’s a growing boy. He needs more.


He gulped it down, asked for more.

She looked at the piece of bread, 

Looked at her son. Gave it to him.

She would go hungry again today.


She lay down and closed her eyes.

Sleep would keep hunger away.

Three days without food

How much longer could she last?


She felt him pulling at her clothes

She wanted to tell him he’ll be fine.

But couldn’t.

Periwinkle gives, till she can give no more.

_____

Skhandamata, the Mother of Shand

Periwinkle, she’ll do anything for her child


Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Navdurga blooms- Kushmanda

Tagetes patula

The oldest daughter, the responsible one.

Her youth went in settling her brood.

There was nobody to see her bloom,

Hers was what is called an unfulfilled life.

 

When she should have been chasing her kids,

She was caring for her bedridden mum.

Orange petals caught the rays of the sun,

Teaching her class gave her so much joy.

 

Her petals shriveled. She retired.

On her 70th birthday, a zoom call-

Her students popped up one by one.

Doctor, architect, politician, mother, teacher.

 


Each one had done her proud.

Even after a marigold dies,

Each petal grows into a plant.

_____

Kushmanda, the Creator of the Cosmic Egg

Marigold, the Universe is created from her smile

Monday, October 19, 2020

Navdurga Blooms- Chandraghanta

 

Lilium bulbiferum

“Let it not be a girl”, she prayed.
She had two daughters already,
The next four had been taken away.
“Let it not be a girl” she prayed.
She took a deep breath, and pushed.
One boy, and this torture will end.
It was a girl. Durga born on Navratri.
Something snapped inside her.
She would not give this one up.
“Don’t you dare touch my child”, she cried.
“She’s better than any son.
If you don’t want her, I’ll go away.”

A tiger lily remains a bud for long.
But when she finally unfurls,
You can’t ignore the bloom.
______
Chandraghanta, the Fearsome One~
Tiger Lily, she fights for her own

Navdurga blooms- Brahmacharini

 

Nyctanthes arbor-tristis

The night-flowering jasmine wakes up,

Stretches gently and unfurls her petals.

After washing the dishes, and cleaning up,

She pulls out her books and starts to starts to study;

There is an exam tomorrow. She must do well.

 

The night-flowering jasmine fills her senses,

As she goes through pages of equations.

Nothing matters, except an Education-

That will set her free.

 

By sunrise, the night-flowering jasmine is ready to let go.

She too puts aside her books, and grabs her pots.

She has a long walk to the village well.

Her feet crush the white and orange carpet.

Beautiful still.

____

Brahmacharini, the Night-flowering jasmine. She is the Seeker of Knowledge

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Navdurgas Blooms- Shailaputri

Crocus sativus

They call it Jannat. Paradise.

It is the saffron hidden

inside petals of crocus.

The knock on the door. Has the Army

come to take someone away?

The petals that open out one by one.

The wait when someone steps out.

Will they return, or not?

Acres of purple smudge.

 

At the heart of crocus is the saffron.

The pellet gun injuries.

The lack of connectivity.

The fear. The loss. The agony.

Never knowing what tomorrow will bring.

All real. Real petals.

Covering our resilience.

The precious saffron, our soul.

 

These Mountains you see.

This is Paradise. This is Home.

_____

Shailaputri, the Daughter of the Mountain.

She resides in Kashmir.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Was this how it was meant to be?

[On the Day of the Girl Child, a few girls share moments from their life.] 

The cold steel blades advance towards her.

Merciless. “I don’t want to die”, she screams.

Her shrieks echo off the walls of the womb.

 

Firm hands grip her head, and ease her out.

Gently. The touch changes. “It’s a girl”,

A voice snarls, dropping her in disgust.

 

She wakes up from the dark. Something soft

Pressed against her. “I can’t breathe”,

She thinks before slipping back into the black.

 

Dizzy with hunger, her eyes are fixed on the bread.

One piece. She wants just one piece.

Her brother grabs it. She will sleep hungry again tonight.

 

Chocolate. She hats chocolate. Chocolates are secret.

‘Uncle shouldn’t tell mother what she did.’

She takes the chocolate. Good girls always smile.

 

She smiles. Her clothes are itchy. She smiles.

Yesterday, she was going to school. Today she is married.

“It is for your own good”, she’s been told.

 

She married him in a temple; one he can enter.

They ran away. Started life together.

Her brother found them. Raised his sword. She shut her eyes.

 

Pain. Excruciating pain. Flashes of faces.

Men entering. Leaving. Laughter. Kerosene. Pain.

Through the flames, her last thought-

 

“Was this how it was meant to be?”




Saturday, October 10, 2020

I Am Not Okay

[On #MentalHealthDay, let us acknowledge that it is okay to not be okay.]

The last few months have been difficult for most of us.

The stories of bodies piled up in hospitals waiting for mass disposal, of obituary pages thicker than Sunday supplements, of hospitals having one ventilator for five patients that needed it. A virus as deadly as Nipah, but as contagious as the flu, struck fear of a kind we had not dealt with before.

The suddenness and completeness of the lockdown made it worse. We were completely cut off from the routine of daily life. Many were cut off completely from human interaction. Others were stuck far from home. All worried about loved ones who were far away. We struggled to hold it together, physically and mentally.

There were job losses and salary cuts. People were learning to manage without household help. Balancing work and home was particularly difficult for women.

To add to all that were the images of migrants streaming homewards. For perhaps the first time, the middle class was exposed to the plight of migrants, who had, till then, been largely invisible. We felt anger and helplessness. We also felt guilty about thinking of ourselves when others were so much worse off than us.


All of this took a toll on our mental health, but most were not able or willing to acknowledge it. 

I still remember the silence that greeted me when I wrote in our office WhatsApp group that I was not in a good position mentally, and needed a couple of days off try and get myself sorted. I almost wondered if I should have made up some physical ailment instead of confessing that I was not able to function mentally. But in retrospect, I am glad I did not choose the easy way out. By acknowledging my weakness, I made it easier for others to accept that it is hard to not be affected by things going on around us.


The last few months also showed us how difficult it is to know when someone really needs our help. A few weeks into the Lockdown, a friend was devastated because a relative died by suicide. “But I never even knew”, she wailed. “I even spoke to her a few days back. She was perfectly fine.”

None of us is ‘perfectly fine’. We are all different degrees of broken. But regardless of whether we wear a surgical mask when we go out or not, we rarely forget to don the mask that hides our mental state.

A routine “how are you?” always gets a “I am fine”, or “couldn’t be better.” I have given that answer myself, before interjecting the subsequent conversation with a “no, who am I kidding. I am not fine. But I will get over it. Do I have a choice except to?”


We have no choice but to proactively reach out to people we care about. Merely asking how they are isn’t sufficient, we need to look out for signs they may need mental support. At the same time, we have to train ourselves to seek support if we need it ourselves. Neither is easy, but both are necessary.


Laying down the mask is hard, particularly if you fear you will be judged. In this, perhaps, women fared better than men.

Men are corralled in by far more expectations than women. They are taught that it is weak and unmanly to confess to an emotional void. They are expected to not display emotion, and they are required to act mentally strong. All of which makes it much harder for them to seek the help they need.


One positive fall-out of the last few months is that people are a little more amenable to speaking about their mental health. It is still considered taboo in most circles. It is still stigmatized in others. But things are changing, however slowly.

Till then, let’s watch out for each other. Let’s reach out when we need help, and let’s reach out when we suspect someone else needs help. And let us acknowledge that it is okay to not be okay, and to take time off to let ourselves heal.




Thursday, October 8, 2020

Never give up on anyone

 Two years back, when I returned from a work trip, I found my mother had thrown out my plumeria.

“That plant is dead. You are just clinging onto it because you are too lazy to throw it out”, she chided when I asked her why she’d thrown out a perfectly good plant.

To be honest, she wasn’t entirely wrong. I am too lazy to weed or prune, and I almost never give a plant up for dead. The plants in my garden thrive on neglect and hope. And in this case, I had hope that, though it had shed all its leaves, the plumeria still had life left in it.

I sneaked the plant back in, and kept watering it. It appeared dead, but I insisted it was just dormant, and six months later, it proved me right by letting out two leaves.

A year back, we moved homes, and with much more direct sunlight, the plant thrived.


“You are lucky to have inherited your Patti’s green fingers”, my mother told me when she last visited us. I didn’t tell her the plant with the glossy leaves in front of her was the same one that she had given up on.

 

A couple of weeks back, the plant gave out buds. Plants often give buds but don’t bloom, so though I hoped for a couple of flowers, I didn’t get my hopes up. I knew I would continue to love the plant even if the buds dried up the way they often do.

But this plant is a survivor. It had to show me what it was capable of.

 


This may be the only time the plant flowers. Or this may be the first of many flowering seasons. But one thing I know.

Whether it is plants or people- never give up on them.



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