Monday, 25 August 2014

On gender and development

This is something I think a good deal about, and have done some work on. Pending any new writing I can find the time to do, here are two pieces on the subject published in Pragati Mag



Monday, 18 August 2014

WHY THE PM'S SPEECH IS DIFFERENT


I attended the PM's flag hoisting and speech at the Red Fort for the first time this year. There were some vague rumours about non-attendance being penalised, but I simply HAD to be there anyway. I hadn't seen the PM yet except on TV, and I was desperate to hear his mind, to understand who exactly I was working for now. 

It was a truly beautiful morning, with mild sunshine and a cool breeze. My dad's sudden reminder, just as I was going out the door, to carry an umbrella, was fruitless- scatty me had no clue where her umbrella was- but then it wasn't needed. No clouds in the sky.  

When I seated myself and squinted into the sun looking at the podium, I wondered, where will he speak from? Where's the glass enclosure? 

Then he came, visible to us at our distance mainly because of his jaunty turban, and as we all stood up, quietly murmuring the Jana Gana Mana, I thought- he really made it! He really is addressing the nation from the Red Fort! What a dream to come true! What an inspiration for anyone hoping to achieve something that looks beyond reach! 

And then I realised, he is going to speak from right there.. no enclosure! I tried to get a good photo but it was too far away. Fortunately my mum had taken great screen grabs from the TV at home- and grabs of the housefull, humongous crowd, which I couldn't make out from the middle of it. An Indonesian tourist couple in matching batik dresses were sitting behind me, totally excited to be there. We were shading our eyes from the sun with the brochures handed out at the entrance, including one with a list of new schemes being launched. 

And he started speaking. This wasn't a bombastic orator's election speech. This was a man who had something to say and he was saying it- just talking to us, to all the people of the nation, and of course to all the people of the world, because which country's leaders wouldn't be eager to hear this man who his country had believed in so completely? 

We have all heard his speech, or read about it. We know about the girl's' toilets, the model villages, the free insurance, the skill development, the Digital India and Make in India themes. We all noted his generous acceptance of the work done by leaders who came before him, his mention of only three great men- who are undisputedly the greatest Indians of the last century- Gandhi, Patel and Vivekananda, his leg-pulling of us bureaucrats which had us all guffawing though a little embarrassed. His straightforward admission that he was an outsider to Delhi disarmed us. 

The speech left us all happy and fuzzy. We were hoping to hear our leader's mind, and he had fulfilled our hopes. When the Jana Gana Mana played this time, everyone around sang it with full gusto. Everyone made sure to get a photo or a selfie in front of the big LED screen in the parking with the ramparts in the backdrop which was playing footage of the PM among the kids. 

There has been a lot of media coverage and in general a lot of praise for the speech. But somehow, I feel, due to the man's straightforwardness and simplicity, no one has quite grasped the truly historic significance of what he said and how he said it. 

He spoke in the first person, as Narendra Modi, not as the Prime Minister. He really wasn't speaking on behalf of anybody but himself, the man who today is the Prime Minister. 

He made not the remotest attempt to show his greatness or his past achievements. He did not make a single mention if the work he has done in Gujarat. He didn't even mention anything about his incredible victory in the elections. No, he was completely in the present, in the moment; it was almost a stream-of-consciousness speech. 

He was brutally frank about his struggle to learn and understand the world of the Government of India, and made it clear that he was still learning. He shared his observations- such as departments of a single government fighting each other in the Supreme Court- with bemusement, the way any outsider who hear of such ridiculous things for the first time would react. 

He hit the most fundamental issues before the country in their natural order of priority- the sex ratio- which leader last mentioned the sex ratio, and what can be more fundamental?- the dignity of women- half the country, half the voters!- how delighted it made me and the fellow lady bureaucrat sitting next to me to hear him on the subject! And to upbraid parents for not pulling up errant boys and controlling girls instead! 

Cleanliness and toilets! What is more obvious to any foreign visitor than these basic things? Who last discussed them? And really can a government do it all by itself without the people pitching in?

Skills and manufacturing; everyone knows they are necessary but has anyone dared to put them front and center? Schools are bad, there's no power water or roads, I heard people around me grumble that day and later. But if you don't articulate a vision, how can you achieve it? Everyone knows what goes into making a country skills and manufacturing- led. Why isn't enough happening on either front then? Not due to a lack of money nor due to a lack of knowledge or talent. 

Getting rid of the Planning Commission- which leader anywhere would have had the guts to announce it and admit that he had no clear idea of what would replace it? And yet, he could convince us that he would be able to create the right institution in its place. The jubilation with which bureaucrats of all seniority have received this news, as they mourned their best development schemes having never taken off because they got caught in Yojana Bhavan red tape, has to be seen to be believed. 

The simple vision of sava sau crore Indians stepping forward together- what more potent symbol can there be of unity, harmony and development? And yet I saw cribbing in the media later that this wouldn't be quite right due to the multiplicity of cultures in India. 

And all of it looked like completely achievable things- no super grand dreams, no bleeding hearts about poverty- only a clear set of steps which had to be taken. 

No, the media and the bureaucracy hasn't quite grasped what the country has got. 

It has got a man who actually cares about the country. A man who actually believes in what he is saying. A man who as an outsider and therefore can see clearly what is wrong with the way things have been going on, and dare to declare when the emperor has no clothes. A man who knows where he has come from and where he wants to go- and has the power and the capability to take the country with him. A man with the moral courage to scold the people instead of coddling them. A man who understands the need of a leader to provide social leadership more than anything else. A man who respects the capacity of Indians to raise themselves from poverty and backwardness instead of promising that the government will provide the sun and the moon. When did we last have a leader like this, at any level of government? 

The country couldn't ask for more from its leader at this moment in time. 

Friday, 30 May 2014

The Girls of Badaun

They were hanging from the tree
Brightly clothed puppets
Their square shoulders jutting out from thin bodies
And as it happened, arranged more artistically than a Calder mobile
The perfect angle for photography 

They were puppets, randomly chosen 
Suitable by gender, caste and age
They,who were done to.

And those who did to them
They were puppets too
Suitable by gender, caste and age 
Doing what they were conditioned to do 
By centuries of normal
With added layers of new normals.

And shall we all be puppets too? 
See without seeing? 
React without thinking?
Absorb and do nothing?
Move on with forgetting? 

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Mother's Day


I had a remarkable conversation with some friends recently. One of them asked- did you feel your baby was yours, with an instant bonding, the moment he/she was given to you to hold after birth?

As it happened, all the friends present replied- no! The baby felt like an imposition for a long time, especially when it would cry all night and drive me crazy.

I passed up the chance to comment. I knew that I had felt it the moment I held him, eyes defocussed, happy to feed, minuscule grasping hands. He was definitely mine, flesh and blood. 

But I hadn't been a very good mother before birth. My waters had broken seven weeks early the night before, because I was at that time juggling four high powered posts at work and had run around all day organising a VIP function, to culminate my efforts of several months, to complete an important project which had defeated others. And I was living alone, in a different town from family.

The gynaecologist- surgeon said as much to me on the operating table ( I didn't get contractions despite buckets of oxytocin and they were forced to do a Caesarian). As she cut me up, she was yelling- "what do you young women think you are, you're very smart, with your high powered jobs? What if something happens to the baby? I can't guarantee". 

As it happened, this cruel mouthed woman was a great surgeon, and several hours later, there I was, groggily awaking from anaesthesia, with the Head Nurse delightedly handing over my bundle of perfection to me. 

Most people looking at me don't think I'm much of a mother. I look too cerebral or spaced out maybe. I don't cook much and am out of the house more than 12 hours a day. I have nothing on the fifties housewife. At least one friend told me that in his opinion I have been more of a dad than a mom.

I, however, refuse to give in to insecurity. Not on this count anyway. I know what I have done. The small and the big.

From waking him up to getting him to sleep. Feeding him, reading with him, helping with projects, watching over him as he sleeps, knowing when he has done something and when he has forgotten to do it and needs to be reminded. Knowing several hours in advance by just looking at him that he has a fever coming on. Knowing from his breathing as he sleeps that the illness is past and he'll be fine in the morning. 

I know the years I have spent not traveling because he couldn't bear it. The glamorous postings and trainings I have passed up because they would disturb him. The family arrangements I have made with the sole aim of making sure it works best for him. The books and toys and surroundings I have strewn around him as subconscious influences. The introduction of new foods, new places to travel, new experiences, new friends. The slow lifestyle changes, designed to make him adapt to new needs as he grows. The sly introduction of topics which I know he needs to talk about with me, but wouldn't, left to himself. And today, he has left home for the first time to go to summer camp. I know he couldn't have handled it last year, this time he is cool and confident. 

Motherhood simply comes naturally. The friends who felt like their child was a monster because it wouldn't sleep at night are no better or worse mothers than me. All of us find it a struggle sometimes. All of us agonise if we're doing it right. I think we should trust ourselves more.

 It doesn't matter if a mother is a housewife or a career juggler or a socialite. Whatever sort of persons they may be, mothers are compelled by their genes, by the fibre of their being, to put their child before anything else, every hour of every day. That's why mothers do their very best and more for their children. That's why they tend to unthinkingly give up their need before the child's, whatever it may entail. Most mothers couldn't do differently even if they wanted to. 



Saturday, 19 April 2014

Persephone

Persephone was plucking flowers, she did not choose to be abducted by Hades. The Underworld was not of her making and not her choice of abode. 

Becoming Queen of the Underworld was a costly bargain and the months of going over ground every year to bring forth spring for others, the wisdom gained, the guidance she is now empowered to give to lost souls, cannot wipe out the darkness inside which she did not ask for, was never part of her essence, and does not want. 

The worst thing about being a goddess is that it is an eternal condition with no hope of redemption. No wonder Buddhism, Christianity and Islam won decisively over the ancient faiths. There is an ultimate end of responsibility in these new religions which comes as a great relief. 

How strange that the only major country where an ancient faith survives is India. Or, rather, it explains a lot. 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

The Little Mermaid

I haven't figured out what was or should be the correct ending of The Little Mermaid. The Andersen version, not the hopelessly American Disney version. 

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_Mermaid

But never mind what happens in the end. I'm not sure how to interpret the overall theme either. What strikes me is the terrible feeling of (a) losing your voice, (b) being given legs that hurt like hell all the time and (c) to top it all, not even getting the guy, or the immortal soul, by most accounts.

And my mind goes straight to Cinderella's sisters, who cut off their big toes to fit into the glass slipper. 

Or even to L'Albatros, qui est comique et laid :


So, irrespective of the ending- (the voice was gone, and the legs would hurt forever)-  

Is it worth one's while to change oneself irrevocably and lose one's uniqueness to fit into another world, one where one doesn't belong?

There's an aspirational take on this, obviously- immortal soul etc- or the opposite earth mother take, about preserving authenticity. 

I'm not drawing any conclusions on whether it's worthwhile or not. I'm only focusing on how painful it is. 






Friday, 24 January 2014

HAPPINESS

I stand alone amidst dappled sunshine, in the clover filled, rosebush bordered office lawn, on a peaceful Friday afternoon. A young cat, white-and-tawny, gambols among the bushes, then pops over to investigate the underbelly of my parked car. Traffic roars and booms outside, showing that the world is at work though I’m having a lazy lunch break.
 
A friend had asked me- what is happiness?
 
Why is it that the question had drawn a tight band around my heart? A sharp draw of breath, demanding of myself- am I happy? Right now, at this moment?
 
Why had my mind driven itself at top speed to the it-could-have-beens and it-should-have-beens,  guaranteed to squeeze tears of its-not-fairs, like a child denied a treat that other children seem to nonchalantly enjoy? Or, even worse, what-shall-be and what-had-better-not-be, a more adult kind of self imposed suffering, leading perhaps not to tears but definitely to depression?
 
This lawn has seen me happy, in several different ways. This lawn is itself one of my greatest immediate sources of happiness. I know every tree and bush in it, and every soft spot on the ground, and where the spider webs are. I am the one who tells the gardener where there’s a wasp’s nest to be got rid of, and which tree looks droopy. Or I will look up a plant whose name he doesn’t recall, and let him know about it.
 
I have photographed the pink poppies in March, and the red roses twice a year, and the (is it really?) cannabis plant surreptitiously growing in a corner.
 
The odd part is, I don’t own this lawn. It is in my office, and I don’t even have any direct responsibility for it. Possession, I find, is not particularly related to happiness.
 
This lawn has seen me happy in a different way too. When everyone in the office had gathered in it to celebrate what a great job we had all done together, and I gave the main speech, and sort of ran out of words describing the fabulous sense of teamwork and achievement, and my boss just smiled, could there have been a more happy moment for everyone who was there, remembering the sleepless nights, the loud arguments, the hastily sorted mess ups, and the perfect results finally sprung on the world?
 
And I remember a phone call I took standing by the rosebushes, from a man whom I had helped in fighting his battles against unfair official decisions, when he had finally won his case and got what he deserved. I remember how my heart had leapt up at his news.
 
I have not been in this job forever. I have been in other places, and some have been places of hard struggle. Peering into the past, I can see those meeting rooms, those parking lots, those phone calls, those nasty letters. I don’t think about them often, and even now the images slide out of my mind leaving no trace of emotion. Here, I am safe, but I shall not be here forever, and when those points of struggle will come again in the future, which they surely will- I shall see to them. I’m sure I will know what to do.
 
The would-have-beens and should-have-beens, the what-shall-bes and what-had-better-not-bes, they still tug at the heart sometimes. But if I remember to breathe, I can remind myself of what there is today, and in fact today is everything I could have wanted, just the way I want it. Why, then, cling to impossible dreams? Why not relax ones shoulders and breathe the free air when it is all around? 
 
Happiness is beauty and harmony.
 
Happiness is to create what you love.
 
Happiness is justice done.
 
And the greatest happiness is letting go.