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.


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


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.

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Does Rising Unemployment lead to increased Rape?

 The unemployed youth, turning to crime to find a vent for his frustration is a common motif in popular culture.

But is there really a co-relation between growing unemployment and an increase in sexual crimes? Maybe not.

If you look at recent years, there have certainly been two complementary trends- a increase in crimes against women, and a growing population of employed youth failing to find sustainable livelihood opportunities.

It is convenient to link the two.

Globally, there is a body of research on the positive and negative association between unemployment rate and crime. The Cantor and Land (1985) model studied two distinct and counteracting structural effects on the linkage between unemployment and crime against women: the motivational effect and the opportunity effect.

The positive association is predicted by assuming that reduced job prospects and increased income disparities can result in frustration which would in term lead to increased sexual crimes against women. Unemployment would also reduce the opportunity cost of facing the consequences of committing a crime. This is the ‘motivational’ effect.

The negative ‘opportunity’ perspective argues that since unemployed youth are more likely to spend time in or near their home, there have fewer opportunities to interact with vulnerable targets and therefore to commit crimes.

Globally, opportunity dominates motivation, and there is a negative association between rape and unemployment. Or to put it the other way, increase unemployment leads to fewer incidents of rape.

Prashansa Srivastava looked at data from 11 states (Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi, Odisha, Assam, Karnataka, Chattisgarh, Haryana and West Bengal) which contribute to 80% of reported rapes in India to analyse the relationship between unemployment and rape.

The data was very clear. Regions with higher unemployment reported a lower incidence of rape. Which means the opportunity perspective holds true even in India. Unemployment reduces the opportunity to come in contact with potential victims of rape.

This was supplemented by the fact that increased population density led to higher incidence of reported rape.

Interestingly, the data also showed that increased literacy levels had a positive co-relation with rape, but this could be explained by the fact that a higher level of literacy may increase the probability of the rape getting reported.

Most significantly, there was a strong co-relation between a higher Women Empowerment Index (WEI) score and reduced crimes against women.

This study conclusively proves that there is no link between unemployment and rape, and merely providing more employment opportunities will not bring down the incidence of rape and other crimes against women.

The only thing that will bring down rape is deconstructing the patriarchal mindset of society. States where with greater gender equality showed a reduction in rape.

Thus, instead of making excuses for youth and focusing on their frustrations, a concentrated effort needs to be made to improve the socioeconomic status of women through better access to health services and hygiene, safety from domestic violence, involvement in household decisions making, empowerment through ownership of land and amenities like cell phones and financial autonomy.

Till women are empowered and men are taught to accept women as their equals, sexual violence against women will continue, regardless of economic conditions.

The study can be accessed here -


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