being brown

Posts tagged “feminism

The Curious Case of Cousin R and I

Cousin R and I were born a month apart to a pair of sisters under the vigilant supervision of my grandmother. So Cousin R was my first peer ever and perhaps, the first person I felt older and therefore, indulgent, towards. All this meant that Cousin R and I have a very special relationship. The most outward manifestation of this ‘specialness’ is the seemingly unprovoked mirth that the two of us burst into when we meet. Lasting for minutes (sometimes hours on end), just a suggestive nudge would send us into peels of laughter that we cannot recover from for days. Infact, we have discovered that there are only two ways to check such outbursts; putting large distances between us and the absence of the other from our memory. Both solutions are rather tricky because the more we tried either, the more intense the memory of the other became.

A couple of weeks ago, Cousin R and I decided to make a hurried visit to Amritsar since I was in the neighbourhood. As we had booked Tatkal tickets from Delhi, our berths were in different corners of the compartment on the Golden Temple Mail. This train had already spent 24 hours enroute from Mumbai and much of the other births were occupied. We sat on one of the seats and waited for the TC to come and give us a birth near each other if possible. A large, curious lady sat opposite us, so evidently spoiling for a chat.

Aunty ( using the term of respect for any older woman in India, we called her Aunty): Yes yes! Sit here . sit here. Can you imagine otherwise???? What if a sardar comes and sits here!!!!

There was something so comical about this comment and the way she said it, both R and I smiled. This should be fun!

Aunty: Where are you from?
Me: Mumbai
Aunty: Oh ! Where in Mumbai? I am from Meera Road
Me: Kanjur Marg. Its near Powai.
Aunty: Acha. Good good. Where do you work>
Me: I work for an NGO
Aunty: Good good. Where is your office?
Me: Bandra
Aunty: Oh Bandra East?
Me ( a little confused that she should know where my office was): Yes.
Aunty: oh there’s a big ONGC headquarters there.
Me: Yes! I work very near that.
Aunty: How is the work atmosphere there?
Me (confused): In ONGC?
Aunty: yes
Me: how should I know?
Aunty: Arey you just said you work there!
Me ( through the corner of my eye I see that Cousin R’s body is convulsed with silent laughter): No no! I work in an NGO!

Cousin R couldn’t quite keep it inside. So she excused herself, saying she thought she spotted the TC somewhere and ran through the rest of the compartment hollering like she was the first Mrs Rochester from Jane Eyre! I regained my composure ( distance between us, atlast!).

Aunty, unfazed, continued to talk.

On seeing a child near the door she said in Hindi, “ arey Sardar ka bacha dekho, sardar ka bacha’ ( Oh look, it’s a Sardar’s child, a sardar’s child) and proceeded to laugh helplessly. Cousin R, having returned from ‘seeing the TC’ couldn’t help herself once again. And this time she didn’t even try! She burst forth and I couldn’t help myself either. We both held our stomachs and laughed. Aunty, a little confused at our outburst, decided the best course of action was to join us and good naturedly, she giggled along. I apologized, lest she should take offence, “ aunty, we both are known for giggling. So please don’t take offence, we just find these situations funny and then once we start, we cant stop!’

As the night advanced, she kept up a constant flow of funny comments and we continued to laugh. She asked Cousin R what she did and when Cousin R said she was doing her PhD, Aunty smiled vaguely and said, ‘ these days girls are also studying a lot’. Cousin R and i were convulsed once again. Suddenly, she grew serious and shushed us saying, ‘ I am going to call my aunt in the US, so you be quiet.’ After a long conversation with her aunt in the US in which she reassured her about the latter’s son’/daughter’s marriage etc, she cut the call and we could resume our raucous laughter.

As I tucked myself to sleep that night, the giggles gradually fading as sleep took over, I racked my memory for a similar situation in the past, where Cousin R and I had been afflicted in public. What had we done then? How did we control our laughter even as people provided an abundance of provocation around us? In short, how do we travel together, normally, without making people feel that we were two run-aways from a mental hospital? I found no such memory. Cousin R and I have never travelled together, ever. Note to self: need to do more journeys with Cousin R.

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Literature at its shocking best

When I was 18, I wrote a short story for my college magazine. With a first person narrative, it was the story of a commercial sex worker from a ‘respectable’ middle class background who ‘chose’ to sell sex in an attempt to run away from her boring and rather predictable life. When I wrote it, the first people to read it were family and reactions were as varied as could be. My mother loved it but as usual had lots of inputs for me to improve it. One cousin was ‘relieved that your description of Kamathipura (the commercial sex district in Bombay) is sketchy’. Another cousin felt I was ‘trying too hard to shock’. And my 13 year old sister, who couldn’t disassociate the ‘I’ of the narrator from her sister, was in tears. She couldn’t understand why I would feel this way about life!

Many years later, I wrote a short story about an old man. A friend read it and her immediate reaction was, ‘I don’t like it one bit’. A week later, she called to say that she might have been mistaken. Perhaps she just wasn’t ready for what the story was trying to tell her. Later, she thought there were some great ideas that were in there and that she must be open to them. A writer aunt loved it from the beginning and gave me inputs to improve it.

My friends reaction would be how I would describe my own reaction to Meena Kandasamy’s poetry.  The first poem I read of hers was

Becoming a Brahmin

Rather crass, I thought! To the extent that it mocks the caste system, it is political. It is also full of sarcasm, hatred and irreverence- all conducive for making great poetry. And yet, to me this was and is very very mediocre stuff. Then I read,

Advaita: The ultimate question

Again, I wasn’t impressed. Don’t get my wrong. The questions are all legitimate. And yet, theres so much concern with the content, that the play with new structure i feel is a half-hearted dabbling. This is when I start feeling that ‘here is a woman with all this legitimate anger and has decided to use poetry to express it…but what next?’ This is also where I feel that there is more ‘activist’ in her than ‘poet’. And then I read this delightful piece,

An Angel Meeting Me

Beautiful, powerful, political, angry, and indignant! This was just what I wanted to read. I could now see the ‘poet’ in her. And then this,

Mascara

oh haunting poetry at its best. Loving it…anger, despair, the injustice of it all with a skillful wielding of words. And then I read this,

How they prostitute a poem

By now I am converted. I love Meena! I decide to go back to the first 2 poems. Give them another chance. I tell myself, ‘Perhaps I am not ready for their hard-hitting candour. Perhaps I don’t like them because they are, infact, threatening my caste. Perhaps I am a casteist after all.”

But no! I am not liking those even now! And now I am thinking may be for someone churning out poems by the dozens, Meena is entitled to a few crass ones.  Literature serves two purposes for the writer- to communicate and to be therapeutic. Sometimes the therapeutic side takes precedence and the general aesthetic of it is thrown to the winds. Either way its legitimate poetry.

Like my story on the commercial sex worker…however unlikely, i think the story is today, it just had to be told because all my commentators were right. I was trying hard to shock; I was talking about something (Kamathipura) I didnt know; and I was writing from the perspective of an 18 year old middle class predictable girl who was literally no different from me!Funnily enough, all this ‘criticism’ is exactly why the story needed to be written.


Coloured? I am!

I have learnt that in Tamil if you hear, “nalla colour da, macchaan” (“good colour dude”), it is usually a comment made by a guy to another guy about the skin colour of a passing lady who is ‘fair’. What a contrast to what ‘colour’ means in the western world of skin tones.

In yesterday’s episode of Neeya? Naana? Host Gopinath began the show by asking participants to describe the specific features that made them beautiful. Interestingly, nobody mentioned skin colour as their single most defining feature of beauty. Responses included features, smiles, vivacity, etc. The next question was which colour (fair/dusky- the dark people would rather be called dusky than dark!), they thought was beautiful and why? The answers came pouring forth. I watched as self-assured women made a case for what they perceived to be their own skin colour. ( interestingly those who considered themselves ‘fair’ wouldn’t pass for fair in Bombay.They would possibly fall under that unique category of skin colour exclusive to India, wheatish)The ‘fair’ brigade said that all kinds of colours suited their skin tone; all kinds of jewelry, from gold to silver to platinum showed up on their skin tone; their skin tone gave them an educated look; it provided the trump card in most arranged marriage situations. The ‘dusky’ brigade said that they could in fact carry off light coloured clothes the way their fair sisters couldn’t; their skin tone allowed for a clearer definition of features; their eyes and teeth shown in contrast to their dark skin. Political incorrectness to the hilt, sure! But the candour must be applauded!

In a country that is obsessed with skin colour, I thought this show was imperative. Fair & Lovely and Fair & Handsome are doing extremely well here and the reason might have a lot to do with the pursuit of that elusive Caucasian colour.  And instead of some kind of simmering resentment among the young, airing politically incorrect opinions out in the open might just do the trick.


A Javali after my own heart

Yes! I have a predilection for Javalis. Recently, I saw a kannada Javali called ‘Sako ninna sneha’ where the nayika(heroine) tells the nayaka (hero) ‘enough of all this (show/pretense) of love. Remember, you had a good time with her as well’. The music was in ragam Kapi set to Mishra Chapu talam. Before I rave about the Javali, let me say that it would have been lost on me were it not for the beautiful execution by the dancer, Swaratmika.

In terms of theme- the expression of love and devotion between the nayika and the nayaka- a Javali resembles the Padam. In a Javali, though, the music is generally more lively. In a Javali, the nayaka-nayika devotion is expressed in terms of love between two mortals while in a Padam it is the love/devotion of a Nayika for the immortal lord, Nayaka. Moreover, in a Padam, I think, the bhavam is more of surrender to the beloved. Not only is the mortal being surrendering to the lord but even vice-versa. After all, the lord has to surrender to the devotion that the mortal being expresses, a devotion, that in effect, has been his making. I have heard that this fundamental difference comes from the fact that the Padam was danced by devdasis in temples for the lord while the Javali was danced by rajdasis in the courts of kings where the nayaka was supposed to be the mortal king himself.

But, what is fascinating about a Javali for me is the absolutely mundane expressions of  love that a Javali portrays.  Like this one I saw had a tinge of jealousy and exasperation. The nayika says, ‘ I see through you, man! I know the games you are playing. I am done with you. you just be on your way.’ Now the gauntlet is thrown and it is up to the nayaka to pick it up and assuage her as best he can. But even as she says these things, she knows he is irresistible and that ultimately she will be back with him. A Javali is playful, what in real life we may call ‘silly in love’.

Expressions of bhakti in Padams, I feel are slightly more esoteric and quite lost on me because, frankly, I am yet to feel that kind of devotion to anybody or anything. I believe that the mundane expressions of love is what would ultimately lead you to realizing that kind of bhakti and devotion. That might take a lifetime (or beyond, though I don’t believe in life beyond). But, hey! I am in no hurry. Until then, bring on the mundane, physical intimacy !


Ranting!

Ok! This has to be written about. I am fuming. My heart is racing. I feel like I am being choked and stifled. Why?

Because the Bangalore Municipal Coproration doesn’t allow me to do the one thing I want to do ( I need to do to retain my sanity) at any other time than 3.30 PM to 4.30 PM. Unfortunately, that’s when I have to be hard at work. But fortune has nothing to do with it.

One of the main reasons that my shift to Bangalore wasn’t bad was because the Bangalore Municipal Swimming Pool was but 10 minutes away from home. I went there on Saturday evening to find out the timinigs, now that the winter is well and truly on retreat. And I realized that the pool is open from 6.00 AM on wards. Also there was a 3.30 – 4.30 ladies special batch. The rest of it was general. I mentally noted the timings and resolved to come by on mornings before work.

I went there this morning, sharp at 6.00 AM. And I was told the ladies batch was at 3.30. I said I knew it was, but I wanted to go in the general batch. Errrr…the person at the counter looked taken aback and said, but that’s only for gents. A little more debate with him, I was proudly told that this has been the rule for the last 25 years. I asked then isn’t it time to change the rules considering lost of women work now. He asked me to come at 10 AM (another impossibility for working people) to speak to the officer in charge. (seriously, I have never hated anyone as much as I have hated him for no fault of his).

As I walked back, the tears welled up in my eyes. I have been turned away from places because of rules before. But this cut too close to the heart. Quite literally, me outside water is like fish outside water.

Heres what I think happened?

Theres the general timings for men, women and children. And theres the ladies special timing. Both rules made 25 years ago by men in the largess of their hearts. ( their generosity just bowls me over). Over the years ladies have been using that exclusive time slot not venturing to go another time. So it soon became the ladies slot and the gents slot. I am sure if we were to unearth the dusty rules, this is what we would find.

Apart from the obvious implications of this to women, women’s’ development, feminism and the general gender sensitivity of the government, what this also says is that women are not expected to take on exercise/entertainment that requires them to strip to the bare minimum.

Bangalore, grow up!

P.S. part of me wants to take this up with the authorities. But I am afraid I will end up slapping someone…or worse.


सातवाँ खून किस का था?

I just  had a wonderfully lazy weekend thanks to Nikki. Our lethargies were in sync and we liked nothing better than to eat huge amounts of macaroni and cheese and watch tv and talk. And that’s what we did.

But we did venture out Saturday evening to watch the movie सात खून माफ. Now, this seems like a thriller, what with murder (and 7 at that). But it isn’t. It’s a movie about a woman who marries several times and each time she kills her husband . There’s no suspense about the murder. The movie just describes the characters of the woman and the husbands and we are told exactly why she kills them each time and exactly how she does it.

Due to a pantheon of brilliant actors doing husband roles, I think Priyanka Chopra’s talent also came to the fore. She seemed to have absorbed  some acting lessons along the way. In order, the husbands were Neil Nitin Mukesh ( tolerably good acting), John Abraham ( the absolute worst ever), Irfan Khan ( brilliant as ever), Anu Kapoor ( really awesome, his character was so mean and small and cheap, must have taken some fortitude to play that character), and a Russian dude ( I don’t know his name, and acting wasn’t very noteworthy) and the ever finest Naseeruddin Shah. The narrator of the story is a young boy played by Naseerudding Shah’s son, who was a child growing up in Priyanka’s house.

Priyanka’s character, one feels, is undergoing this spate of bad luck that she seems to always end up with men who abuse her, physically, mentally, and otherwise. She seems to always fall for the men with horrible vices that makes her want to kill them. And so each time she finds out about their vices she begins to plan their murder aided and abetted by a loyal staff consisting of a nurse (played by Usha Uthup), a butler cum chauffer and a jockey. Finally though, we are left wondering which the seventh husband was. Which was the seventh murder? Nikki and I really liked all aspects of the movie until we came to the end. As Nikki said it almost seemed as if the script writer had to answer an urgent call of nature and ended it abruptly.

Konkana Sen gives a memorable performance to a really small appearance, as usual. And the surprise element is that Ruskin Bond makes a cameo appearance. ( The story is based on his short story). A good word must be put in about the music. Its lively and each song is mod appropriate.Overall, please go watch it. Its great!

And do tell us which was the seventh murder.


Unknown wars in unknown places

One of the strongest images I have of Egypt (other than the museum and the pyramids and the Valley of the Kings) is the overwhelming presence of the Egyptian police. In white pants and white shirt like Indian naval officers (the only difference was that the shirt was not tucked in but was held by a black belt), these well built, hawk eyed, men were everywhere. On the streets, in the museum, at the railway station, at the pyramids, in the Valley of Kings – everywhere!

We were waiting for a train at Cairo station. The train was to take us to Aswan (where Agatha Christie stayed as she wrote Murder on the Nile). At Aswan we were to board a cruise that sailed on the Nile all the way to Luxor. We had arrived at the platform slightly early, which meant that we had to wait and entertain ourselves as best we could. The station was like any railway station in India (less crowded, of course). A whole lot of people were waiting about for trains; some families, some individuals, no individual women though. The platform was dirty and there were quite a few stalls selling snacks and other knick-knacks. In fact, we felt quite at home.

My father asked one of the policemen about our train and he said it should come in sometime but there were two trains due before ours. Did I mention there were police men to the tune of one for every 100 metres at the platform? In fact the station was so well secure, the car that carried us to the station was stopped for security check and our driver had to tell them who the car belonged to, who we were, where we came from and where we were going. As a family, we look pretty harmless so after a cursory glance at our faces we were allowed to pass.

My sister and I decided to take a walk down the length of the platform seeing that we had quite a bit of time on our hands, to do with as we please. As we walked the length, we realized that a lot of the men that had gathered at the station were in military uniform. With their large rucksacks and their huge metal boots, they looked ready to jump into war. Back at ‘campsite’ (where mum and dad were standing with the luggage), I asked if Egypt was in some kind of war. Mmy father answered in the best way he knew (read longest way). Apparently, Egypt had had/has forced conscription of males in the military until sometime ago. Not sure if the practice continues now and definitely not sure if it will continue after the revolution. Now, forced conscription is one of the things that interest me immensely. The reasons would make for another blog post that I would save for another day.

One of the primary things that interests me about forced conscription is the individual’s own perception of this kind of conscription. And as I watched the young men, some alone, some with their families waiting for a train, the writer in me was building for each one, a story. Sitting atop our luggage, I removed my camera meaning to store this poetic picture for ever. I did not focus on anything in particular but wanted to catch the length of the platform with atleast some of these men with their romantic baggage. And as I held out my camera, I heard my father saying that its against the law to take pictures in public places like the railway station. But I had already clicked and as I clicked, I saw the severe expression of the policeman in the screen of the digital camera staring right at me. He slowly moved forward a couple of steps, raised one arm and shook his finger from side to side, scowling all the time. I meekly put the camera back in the bag and realized that being a girl just saved me some uncomfortable moments. That and the fact that mum, dad and sis exude a certain respectability that the policemen read as ‘good people’. Moreover, my father looked ready to give me up to the policeman, if need be.

Well, in a rather anti-climactic turn of events, the already full military train arrived and the platform turned in to this long film strip of goodbye scenes. As men packed into it like sardines in a tin, Egypt’s military strength left for unknown wars in unknown places for an establishment they may or may not have loved.