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 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.

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


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.

Monday, 18 November 2013


The problem of balance in a relationship is the same as the problem of balance in interaction with the world. 

One hopefully enters a relationship because the sum total of being in it exceeds what each partner individually is. And then the hypnotic urge to fuse completely with the partner has to be balanced with the necessity of preserving oneself, one's source of creativity, if one is to contribute positively to the world, and indeed not to become a drag on the relationship and the partner.  

Similarly, one needs to engage with the world and other people, learning more, absorbing more, if one is to create value and meaning. At the same time, engaging with oneself is the only way to bring forth one's own unique contribution, or one becomes not much more than a funnel or mirror for the creations of others. 

And I mourn again for all the generations of women whose original creativity was lost by fusing with their partners, or at best in cooking unrecorded recipes, or weaving unknown fabrics; and those whose contribution to society was as  hostesses of intellectual salons though it could have been as co-creators; simply because the world was made so in their time. 

The world is different today; women must value this difference and do everything they can to leave their mark. Losing oneself in a relationship and in socialising is still the normal and expected thing from women, making the task of staying afloat despite the temptation and ease of so losing oneself even harder than it already is. 

Work and creativity is hard and exhausting. It needs "Leaning In".  It needs sacrifice. It needs standing up to the way the world is designed to drag women down, and carrying out the needed changes to oneself and one's surroundings to make it possible. 

Women must make it possible. It's easier than it used to be. 

Sunday, 10 November 2013


Lavanya Sankaran’s piece on The Good Men of India, published in the New York Times got a lot of attention.

Pitting “feral, untethered” men against the “Common Indian Man’, she inadvertently achieved a feat of confusion and misunderstanding reminiscent of the Piltdown Man. She seemed to have forgotten the self-evident fact that all men are from the same species.

On the other hand, the piece was immediately and ruthlessly torn apart by any number of commentators, with the substance of their objections being "But Rape!” This was one of the responses.

While the facts laid out here are undeniably true, isn’t it a bit much to reduce every discussion on gender relations to rape?

Yes, rape happens. But female foeticide, female infanticide, dowry deaths, domestic violence- they happen too. Widen the scope of the violence beyond women and you see at once that murder, brawls, and war happen as well, and men are in general more likely to be victims of violence than women, as is clear in the WHO World Report on Violence and Health, 2002 (32.8% vs 30.7%)

Two recent, stomach- churning incidents of violence, in which the victims are women,
are fresh in my mind.

The first is the rape/ murder/ honor killing of a daughter by her father.

It is an inexpressibly sad, and very human, story. While the father is plainly a criminal here, can we completely discount the various triggers acting on him? The social expectations, the taunts, the general misery of existence?

The second is the death of a maid, allegedly at the hands of the wife of an MP

And a telling follow-up story about why the maid had not run away

Here the perpetrator is a woman, and a privileged woman at that; social pressures and general misery are by no means mitigating factors here; what seems to have led her into such organized and escalating depravity is simply the privilege she lived in, due to which no one stopped her.

We must not forget that not only are all men of the same species, but also all women are also from that very species.

Most men- and women- are good and kind. They’d like to stay that way. They’d like to be thought of as doing the right thing. Most of the time, they think they ARE doing the right thing. So they go on doing what they are doing. If this leads to the Common Indian Man looking after his family, (and ditto for the woman, and for every country on earth), this also leads to honour killings and the abuse of domestic help. It leads to warmth, security and nurturing, but can also lead to perversion and sheer evil going unchecked. And this will always be the case as long as humans are around.

Every country, however, has special problems of its own.  And India, like it or not, really has a gender problem.

We are among the worst in the world when it comes to gender disparity, as the Global Gender Gap report 2013 shows. And this is only in a small part about gender violence; the disparities are far-reaching.

What I found most interesting, as is clear in the table in the report, is that India is among the bottom countries- below 110- in sex ratio at birth, life expectancy, health, education, and work, which, one would think, covers pretty much everything. However, it chips in at an impressive 9th rank in one category- political empowerment.

This means that women are far better empowered politically in India than in most parts of the world.

And yet women in India are at the bottom of the barrel in everything.

So can we blame the men for rape, and other terrible things, and leave it at that?

A woman cannot rape a man. This makes rape just about the only crime which only men can commit. But women are victims of many other kinds of violence, which are equally perpetrated by men and women.  And they are victims of deep, unrelenting injustice of many other kinds, even without the slightest hint of violence. Therefore talking about rape in itself is one thing; talking about rape as the touchstone for gender relations or other sociological thinking is dangerous and misleading, because too many noncriminal things are already wrong for women in our society, and they need urgent correction.

Why is society so unfair to women? Primarily because a woman’s life, by default, used to be very different from a man’s till less than a century ago. She was bearing children every year throughout her prime.

That left her too physically unfit to travel, too mentally exhausted to show intellectual strength, and too invested in her children to take any risks with their welfare.

She, therefore, stayed home all her life, and her mind, body and spirit functioned as best as they could within her home, within the social structure she lived in- and no doubt with as much subversion as she could get away with- often unrecorded and unknown. She had no choice but to let men run the outside world as they liked. The achievements and rebellions from the nineteenth century onwards, for suffrage, higher education, and alternative lifestyles, made small waves and rarely led to large-scale changes.

This changed in the period around the two World Wars; partly because of the wars themselves, in which all the men went to be killed, and the women had to go out to do all the other work; and due to the advent of birth control.

Also because of all the labour saving household gadgets of the consumer economy.

Now women became as good to go as men, except in relatively infrequent periods of pregnancy and early motherhood. And they went- they went everywhere, from flying across oceans to pushing the frontiers of science; from freedom struggles to high politics. For an individual woman, the potential became almost as good as for an individual man. For women as a whole, though, things were not so easy, because it takes time for society to change. And across the world, different societies changed in different ways, at different rates, and for different reasons.

In India, change has been slow indeed. Oh, there has been a lot of change in consumption patterns, and that is widening and deepening to cover smaller towns and rural areas. But the social structures of India- the caste, the feudalism, the religiosity, the very rhythms of life- they have turned out to be very, very hard to shift indeed.

This is by no means a bad thing! It brings a stability and a richness to life that many other societies have lost in modernity. Perhaps we have been lucky not have had the kind of sudden and extreme changes many other societies have had to face- big wars, dictatorships, communist regimes- which have destroyed in great measure their cultural roots.

On the other hand, it hasn’t been such a great thing for women in general. In fact, modernity has made things worse in many ways where it should have been getting better. The correlations between increased prosperity and increased dowry deaths and female foeticide are well documented. And the honour killings and the rapes are showing up more now, though more probably due to better reporting then due to increased frequency.

What, then, about the Good Men of India? If they exist, why are our gender indicators so bad?

What, in Indian culture, defines “goodness”?

What are the expectations for a successful life a young man in India carries?

He must get a good job and get married.

Preferably to a girl of the same caste, approved of by his parents.

Hopefully he will be worth a reasonable dowry, if not because the parents are greedy, at least so that they look good among their extended family.

He must look after his parents till the end.

He must participate in the social life of the family, all the festivals, the weddings and funerals, make the trips to the hometown at regular intervals, get his sisters married, and fulfill all his “obligations”.

If his income does not allow sufficient fulfillment of these obligations, he should find ways to make enough money to fulfill these obligations.

These obligations may have nothing to contribute to his wellbeing, or even necessarily to that of his family members. Yet, he takes them up, because that is his responsibility. This family responsibility fills his horizon, leaving, very often, no room for civic responsibility, or for a larger, thinking life. And this need for extra income is one of the primary reasons for all-pervasive petty corruption.

And what if a young man wants a different life? What if he wants a different career? What if he wants to marry a different kind of woman, or has an alternative sexual orientation? What if he would rather not have his family take any dowry?

What if he is an atheist? What if he doesn’t believe in caste and dreams of a corruption free life?

He has some chance of living such a life by emigrating, maybe to a big city, or maybe abroad, where he doesn’t have to see his family much, but that’s a price he has to pay- disengagement with his birth family.

About the Good Girl, enough has been written ad infinitum and there is no need to repeat it here. Very little of it has changed over time, except that now a woman may possibly work outside the home, but as an add on to whatever duties she already had.

How will all this change? Who will change it? Who, indeed, but we ourselves? The men and women of this country, of today?

Social change starts with the responsible individual, who thinks differently, and is able to pass on the thinking to his or her surroundings, by courageously living the difference, showing how it's done; by talking about what's wrong with the status quo; and by working actively to change it. This, of course, entails a certain amount of sacrifice, of big things or small. 

In the late nineteenth century, with the impetus of exposure to English education and the heat of the struggle for Independence, a dream of a society of responsible individuals had come into being. Social reformers of Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu led the way, and Gandhi, Vivekananda and later Ambedkar took this thinking to great heights.

As the decades after independence have passed, however, this thinking has dissipated. Forward thinking individuals still abound, but they rarely aspire to making a dent in the society they come from. Either they escape, or they assimilate, unable to take the burden of personal sacrifice that seemed to come so easily to that earlier generation.

The good man who is good when tethered to his social moorings, but runs the risk of turning feral when unmoored- he is a lesser man than some of his ancestors were. We need more from our men, and for that matter from our women, to make our society more livable for everyone.