Sunday, December 30, 2012 10 comments

CANDLE IN THE WIND


I held back the urge to write about her. I don’t know why. Deep down there was this hope that she would survive.  Her survival, in my mind had become something symbolic  and akin to hope for a new tomorrow, where there would be greater safety and equality for about half of our country’s population. I  don’t know her name. I don’t want to! She represents to me multiple identities of Indian womanhood all rolled into one ! Needless to say, ever since I heard about her death, I feel very down . My mind wants to believe that there is hope and that things will change for us.

But will her death change anything is the question? Will better legislation really result in better implementation? Those brutes in Delhi will definitely get convicted- not because of what they did or the media hype. But because they were who they were –nobodies! They were not sons of politicians or rich business men or some  powerful honcho.  For every rapist who actually gets convicted there are a few thousands who roam free! There will be some talk about this young girl until, the media finds something new to report on and our attention shifts to something else! And status quo will prevail!

Rape unfortunately is a crime that is very complex- particularly in our context. Our social structure makes the entire crime sound like a “virginity-virtue” thing! In fact if you analyze the word for rape in many languages it actually means that. For e.g in Tamil many people use the word “Karpu Azhipu” or “Removal of chastity” or colloquially the word that is used is “Keduthuthan” which means “spoilt her”! In a society that thinks like this is it strange that many thousands of rapes remain unreported?

I do not watch many Indian movies nowadays but during the 70s to 90s any movie that had a rape would show the woman commit suicide or being made to marry the rapist-  both being the worst possible options thrown up by a society that points to her as the reason behind the crime-“ Why was she out in the evening?” “ Why did she go alone?”  and so on!!

A social system that still thinks like this is definitely not going to survive rape or rapists!

Preventing rape is not something that can be achieved only by law enforcers. It is something that each one of us can do if we decide to change ourselves. Parents need to bring up their sons to respect girls and women. And such respect needs to be something that children see as they grow up , in behavior that their parents exhibit. If a father is violent to his wife in the  presence of his son violence against women will be internalized by the child no matter how much of indoctrination is done through lessons and books about the need to respect women. A boy child who sees discriminatory practices at home when it comes to the way he and his sister are treated internalizes the fact he is “superior” and can get away with anything – including rape!

If women are treated as commodities then people will aim to gain “control” over them! How many movies show sexual harassment of women masquerading as courtship! Is it strange that a population that is brought up on a diet of such movies should find it difficult to believe that when a woman says “No” she means it?

What we are seeing today is not a protest against a particular incident! It is a culmination of frustration that has built up over decades! A frustration against a legal system that drags its feet  and when it does convict someone of rape the loopholes are so large that the criminal can easily wriggle out….For the first time people seem to be questioning the system.

A moment in the life of a maturing democracy… some might say! Will it  pass or will it stay? The candle held on for nearly two weeks before it was extinguished. Point is, whether the other candles lit with the light of this little flickering one will continue to show us light or will there be complete darkness now that the light is extinguished?

I want to vote for light!  I want to vote for hope, safety and equality. I want to see in the new year, a new world where there are no more women fighting for their dignity or their life.

 
Wednesday, December 26, 2012 13 comments

OVERCOMING THE BARRIER OF CLOSED MINDS


In my last post I had committed blasphemy-  I had trodden on what can only be called the “holy cow” ! I had dared to criticize the “purest” of the “pure” form of music enjoyed and appreciated by the “twice born” and their close brethren! I had also made some comments about making it more “inclusive”. One of the readers challenged my question about why other singers were not invited to the Thyagaraya festival at Thiruviyaru by telling me that it was as odd as wanting to chant the “Vishnu Sahasranamam” in a Church on Christmas day!

Today is Christmas day –a day of miracles! I was witness to something close to that. I watched today a performance of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” by the 2nd year students of the National School of Drama – presented at the Museum theatre here in Chennai! . So what is so miraculous about it you may ask?.The miracle my friends  lies in the way it was presented.  The entire performance was in the “Koothu” tradition of Tamil folk theatre using the medium of song and dance in … … Hindi with a few occasional dialogues in Kannada and Tamil! The  presentation and the accompanying music were also of the “Koothu” style. As in all folk traditions, there was a narrator and accompanying musicians using the traditional folk instruments of Tamilnadu. The only little innovation was that  the lyrics were in  Hindi which the actors sang to bring alive the performance!

Shakespearean theatre is considered rather high brow and intellectual.  The ability to adapt it using a folk form like the “koothu” is therefore  very innovative . “Koothu” as many of us know is the theatre form performed in villages. To be able to bring it from Scotland to Chennai, almost scene by scene retaining the original dialogue is an absolutely creative way of making art and theatre inclusive. Let me tell you something else - my introduction to Shakespeare was thus. I was six or seven years old when I first watched “Hamlet” being performed in a small town in West Bengal at a “Jatra” which is the traditional theatre form of the state! Even today whenever someone mentions “Hamlet”  it is the actor who played the role in the “Jatra” who comes to my mind.   

One may wonder about the relevance of using Hindi as the medium of communication in the play that I had watched today. I can only say that this was probably done because a majority of the student performers were from northern India. However, there were  two actors who were not familiar with Hindi so they  used Tamil and Kannada. It was an interesting diversion to watch Banquo speak in Tamil and hear one of the witches prophesize in Kannada. The language barrier –if indeed there was one, did not seem to have any problem in the communication.  The audience could relate completely to the  charachters, music and the costumes. Interestingly, it was not your usual  snobbish English speaking theatre going crowd of Chennai that thronged the seats inside the hall . It was an ordinary middle and lower middle class Tamil speaking audience that predominated. The children in the front row laughed loudly at the antics of the narrator or the “sutradhar” who pranced about like a monkey using humor to reach out to the audience in typical street theatre form. It was almost as though we were in a village square. And like all street performances it was absolutely FREE!  Last but not the least was they way the "sutradhar" connected some of the situations from the play to  the current issues that we as a nation are facing –particularly the craze for power.

To conclude I can only reiterate that art and music are without boundaries. It is for performers and audiences to be inclusive and take it to the common man/woman.

And about Vishnu Sahasranamam being recited inside a Church, well I would say why not?  Here is the translation of Shloka one

Visvam Visnurvasatkaro

Bhuta bhavya bhvat prabhuh

Bhuta krit bhuta bhrdbhavo

Bhutatma Bhutabhavanah

Vishvam / a) Universe or Cause of Universe b) One who is full in all respects. Om visvaya namah.

 Vishnu: - a) One who permeates everything, is inside every sentient and non-sentient being. b) One who surrounds everything.

vashatkara / One who controls and directs (not merely pervades).
bhuta-bhavya-bhavat-prabhu: The Master of all things past, future, and present. Nirukti - trikAla vartinAm seshi - The Lord of all things that exist in the past, present, and future.

 Bhuta-krit / The creator of all beings.

 Bhuta-bhrt / The supporter of all things. Bhutani bibharti iti bhuta-bhrt - One who supports all.

 Bhavah / He who exists with all the splendor. He who exists always, independent of anything else.
Bhutatma / The AtmA or soul of all beings - sarvesham bhutanam atma

Bhuta-bhavanah / One who nourishes and nurtures all beings that He created.

  Tell me folks once this translation is made known to a Christian, would s/he object to its recitation inside a Church?
Ofcourse if  I as a “Hindu” feel uncomfortable and want  to hold on to those 1000 names of the Lord by way of intellectual property then it is another issue!






Merry Christmas! Peace be with all of you!


Sunday, December 23, 2012 15 comments

FROM THE “EXCLUDED” TO THE “EXCLUSIVE”


Come  December and one can see the city of Chennai  come musically alive. All the various “Sabhas” and their timetable of “Kutcheris”  are topics of discussion among a group of people who call themselves ‘rasikas” or music lovers.  National dailies like  “The Hindu” give these events a lot of prominence especially in their Friday review section.  If you go past some of the auditoriums where these performances are held you can see ladies in brightly colored Kanjeevaram sarees with diamonds glinting on their ears and noses. The men can be seen wearing long kurtas ( called Jibbas) over freshly laundered “veshtis”. I am told that there are NRIs  who come every year from their home aborad just so they can attend these concerts.

But wait, this is not a post about this wonderful “culture” that defines Chennai during this month of Margazhi! For starters, I have never been a fan of Carnatic music!  May be it has something to do with  having been forced to learn it during my younger days. I was often told by my mother that I had absolutely no ear for the “finer sounds” given my love for Hindi film music. It was towards my late teens that I realized that I was not incapable of appreciating classical music! That was the time that I discovered Hindustani Classical music!

As I heard more of Hindustani Classical music I learnt  about the artistes who performed and one of the first things that struck me about this form of music was the way , music and melody helped transcend religious and communal boundaries. If there was a Bismillah Khan playing the Shehnai or Ustad Amjad Ali Khan playing the Sarod, there was also a Gangubai Hangal  or a Pandit Bhimsen Joshi singing or a Pandit Ravi Shankar playing the sitar .  And what I found most unique about this form of music was that people associated themselves with styles of music or “gharanas” which roughly translated can also mean “lineages” in musical styles. Hindus, Muslims, Maharashtrians, Bengalis, Punjabis – they were all artistes united by the identity of belonging to the same “lineage” or genre of music. They were almost like members of a family and treated one another so. But more than anything, what really moved me was the way that music served as the inclusive force.  This diversity did not limit itself to the performers but extended to the audience or the listeners who were as diverse.

However when I look at the Carnatic music scene today (or for that matter that of yesterday's) one of the first things that strikes me is the fact that its appreciation and access is limited to people of a certain community. Yes, there are a few exceptions ( like Sheikh Chinna Maulana) but overall it is dominated by people from a particular religion and caste.  This obviously extends to the “rasikas” too. You only have to overhear conversation at the food stalls in some of the Sabhas to know who they are. Interestingly  this exclusivity is seen much less in the dance scene of the south – Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Mohiniattam do have a diversity of performers. In fact I have also seen a Catholic priest perform a wonderful Bharatanatyam recital. Unfortunately ,I am yet to see a Catholic priest sing a Carnatic vocal. Yesudas,  the only Christian Carnatic musician that I know of, I understand is facing some excommunication issues within the folds of his church  
I have sometimes wondered why the Carnatic tradition is so insular while the Hindustani tradition is more open and inclusive? One of the reasons I guess is that the later  has had the benefit of taking in influences from different genres of music – Indian and West Asian as both the Moghul rulers and the Rajputs popularized it. The Bhakti saints Meera, Surdas, Tulsidas and Kabir introduced a folk angle to it and brought it even closer to the people as they used local dialects like Brij, Awadhi etc in their compositions.   While Carnatic composers like Andal, Thyagaraya and Ramadas did compose songs in Tamil and Telugu I am not sure it was the dialect of the weaver, the potter or the fisherman that they used!
Another interesting point of difference between these two traditions that comes to my mind is the largely “Bhakti Ras  content of the Carnatic style. The Hindustani style includes within it a number of “Shringar Ras” compositions. The emotions of Shringar –love, separation, longing are universal! They can be expressed by a person of any religion openly while the Carnatic  compositions were in Sanskrit or high flown Tamil, Telugu, Kannada  in praise of a God - Rama or Krishna etc. Is it a surprise then that the Church should feel threatened when Yesudas sings “ Hariharatamajam…” in praise of Lord Ayappa?

There is a certain close mindedness to fusion that I see in the Carnatic style. While Carnatic musicians have adapted western musical instruments like the violin and the mandolin to their  style very effectively, one does not really see them infuse the western style into their rendition. The closest that one can imagine “fusion” in this context is a “jugalbandhi” between the Hindustani and Carnatic musicians. I am yet to see something like the musical fusion that George Harrison and Pandit Ravi Shankar brought forth! Why, even the so called musical “Aradhana festival” held in “Thiruviyaru” is largely composed of Carnatic musicians – if this is not exclusion even within the world of musical performers then what is it?
One does not have to do a detailed social profiling of the Carnatic musicians to prove exclusion.  Carnatic music teachers like Dronacharya are reluctant to accept a student who may not be from a certain social category! Madurai Shanmugavadivu Subbalakshmi (popularly known as MS )who was from a Devadasi family was probably  “accepted”  and “acknowledged”  into this group more because of her marriage to a person of  this exclusive community rather than the community where her singing skills were honed. Over the years she was appropriated into the identity of the community that she was married into.

The musical and dance forms of art in the south were originally practiced by the Devadasi community. A Devadasi was a woman “dedicated”  to the God of the temple she was attached to. She could not marry and had to live her life through her art under the “protection” of the local big wig, often becoming the mother of his illegitimate children. It is ironic that this art which was practiced by a group of women, who were considered to be part of a socially “excluded”  community  is today incorporated into the heritage of a socially “exclusive” community!!
This brings us to the question of what constitutes music? There is an untapped subaltern culture in the southern states each with their own musical style. The folk singers who sing the villupattu ,the drummers engaged in “tappattam” or even the women who sing a song as they transplant paddy are in no way inferior to Sudha Raghunathan or Lalgudi Jayaraman! Unfortunately, no one acknowledges their art as music because of who they are (or may be because of who they are not!).

I would like to sign off on the note that cordoning off cultures in order to create a status of exclusivity is an insult to something as divine as music! We are already guilty of having done it with God in our temples, let us  now not extend it to music!

 
Sunday, December 16, 2012 10 comments

PUBLIC OREINTATION IN DELIVERING OF PUBLIC SECTOR FINANCIAL SERVICES


Our generation is what I call “Children of the Public Sector “era.  A large number of today’s middle class India had parents who were working in it and we grew up believing that public sector was what kept the country going and the economy safe.  The post 1990s era was full of misgivings as people wondered how this country would shape up with the “opening up of markets”. NGOs held dharnas to protest against the  new economic policy- I myself have been part of the audience in many such “anti globalization” talks. But globalization is here to stay and we the children of the PSU era are now anyway part of it…!

Agreed we were raised on a diet of the PSU virtues but as educated and aware adults why are we still so fiercely protective of it? Does it really guarantee any public service or public support or for that matter even orient itself towards the public?

 All of us have read about the nationalization of banks done with the objective of ensuring that the financial institutions reach out to everyone. As a student of agricultural economics I have studied about the importance of Priority sector lending and how it benefits the farmers through provision of credit. But have you ever tried to deal with a typical public sector bank? Let me share my experience.

One December 1st some National Savings Certificates of mine matured . I received the amount as a cheque issued by the Post Master – Mylapore. This cheque was drawn on the  State Bank of India, Guindy Branch.  I decided to deposit it on the 5th of December at a SBI branch very close to my house where I have an account. My presumption was that, being a local cheque it would probably get cleared within a day or two. I had plans to check on the 8th but I was rather busy and then  I had to travel on the 10th and 11th . Finally on the 13th of December I decided to drop in at  my bank to update my passbook. And guess what?  The amount  had not been credited!  The cashier referred me to a lady whose designation said “ Manager – Operations “. An interesting character, she eyed me as though I was asking for the keys to the bank’s vault! She finally decided to “help” by saying “ Why did you deposit the cheque here? In these days of core banking systems you should have gone to Guindy and deposited it there” I asked her why should I do that as I had an account in their branch which was at my door step.   “ But you are unhappy that it has not been cleared. I was only trying to help”  she said glaring at me. I asked her if I wasn’t justified in  becoming “ unhappy” considering that it was eight days since I had deposited the cheque?

One of the other Managers observing  this interaction from a cavernous cabin inside suddenly seemed to take pity on me. He called me in and went through some records tracing the journey of the cheque. It showed that my bank had sent the cheque to Guindy only on the 8th of December! I asked him what they were doing for three days? He did not have an answer. He referred me to the Chief Manager who took a photocopy of my payment slip and promised to call the Guindy branch.

I  presented myself at the bank again  the next day. This time, Mr. Helpful noticed me immediately and told me” Madam, the Guindy branch is short of staff. So there has been some delay”. I could not believe he was giving me this answer! I asked him if  their bank would like to hear from the Banking Ombudsman? That seemed to give him the jitters. He took me the Chief Manager’s boss. This gentleman was informed about my case ( with some editing on the date when their branch had sent the cheque to the Guindy branch). He in turn made a call and told me to check in the afternoon! I was really annoyed by now. The amount was fairly large and I asked him if their bank was willing to bear the burden of the interest amount I had lost in transit.  He then gave me some cock and bull story about how “ government cheques”  tend to get delayed! Anyway, I guess I had scared them a bit. So by afternoon when they called and informed me about the amount having got credited I felt like I had just won a war…!

While this is an example of our usual systemic Indian inefficiency, there  has also been an occasion where I have been a victim of a personal  bias. This was during the early days of my marriage. I was looking for a locker to keep my jewellery. Lockers as some of you may know  were not easy to come by those days. I went to the Canara Bank  near my house  and enquired about a locker. I was referred to the person in charge of locker allotments. I explained my case to him and asked him if a locker was available. He looked through his records to verify the amount of deposits I had in their branch and then told me that lockers were certainly available. He asked me to come the next day and collect the application form as he had run out of them .  He was very pleasant and even offered me coffee. I went back and told hubby that the locker search was now over.

The next day, I asked  my husband to go and meet the gentleman in question at the bank and get the application form.  He came back in sometime and informed me that I had probably misunderstood– that no lockers were available at the bank. I could not believe it! I asked him to tell me who he had met. He  mentioned the name of the person he had met and also described him. The gentleman was the very same person I had met the day before. But from the way my husband described his interaction with the person at the bank I was getting a niggling doubt that something was amiss and I had a guess what it could be.  I decided to go there myself.

This time, I decided to dress for the part- I wore a sari, put on the largest bindi I could find, and wore my “thali” chain like an armour around my neck before I entered the bank.  My “locker contact” saw me and beckoned to me loudly from inside “ Hello madam. How are you? Have you come for the locker application form? I thought you had forgotten”. All this in typical Tam Brahm lingo. I in turn using the same lingo  went on to say about how I was held up because I had to finish the cooking before coming there. He beamed at me and then produced the form.  I filled it in and handed it over to him.   I could see a sharp change come over his demeanor as he read through the details like “Name of husband”. He had probably never imagined that someone called Meera Sundararajan could have a husband with a Christian name. But he could not back out now. He completed the formalities and allotted the locker to me. When I finally took a look at the locker, I found it to be so small that if I put on a few kilograms my hand might get stuck inside it! I asked him if a bigger locker were not available. He said “ No” in a very short voice. I shrugged and signed the form taking possession of the keys!

All through my childhood I had been told how privately run enterprises run on the whims and fancies of the owners. But was this any different? These so called “custodians” of such public services behave like it is their private property using which they can hand out favors. But unfortunately, this ownership attitude does not extend to covering accountability issues!

The RBI has come up with a scheme called “financial inclusion” which seeks to ensure that every individual has a bank account. Zero balance accounts are accepted under this scheme just so that citizens get access to financial services. From a conceptual point this is wonderful! But when it comes to operations how are people going to get past the guys who implement them? How is a farmer in a village going to access a loan and ensure that the cheque comes in time for him to start his agriculture operations? All that bankers in rural branches seem to grumble about are the loan “write offs”  by the government. But what about their own outreach services?

It is very unfortunate that in our country, these so called government owned services are not objectively delivered to citizens. Unless you  “know someone” nothing and absolutely nothing can get done on time!  Yes, there are a few conscientious bankers who are interested in efficiency and public accountability but they are few and far in between!  Your average nationalized bank employee is only concerned about warming his seat and attending to customers depending on his mood. S/he likes your face or your background then they are willing to help. Otherwise… well I guess it is too bad!

All the technological progress that has come about in the banking sector has not in anyway changed the mindset of the people using and implementing them. These guys are like elephants- they cannot get behind the wheel of the Ferraris that are being designed and even if they do they prefer to drive them like an Ambassador car!

I used to sometimes marvel at the few bank robberies in my neighborhood thinking that the security systems must be excellent. But  now I think otherwise – the banks are certainly being robbed. But the theft is a slow one in the form of delay in systems and procedures which consume our time and energy. And whoever said that criminal activities are restricted to  just that kind of theft- isn’t communal orientation and prejudice also a crime?
Thursday, December 13, 2012 9 comments

THE FOURTH DIMENSION


It was Einstein who said that time was a fourth dimension .But time is strange,  it  does not behave like a spatial dimension. You cannot go back in it  and  while moving forward you cannot go at different rates…

Time however can make fantastic changes in human beings. We change as we grow older – not just physically but also mentally and emotionally. It is this change inducing ability of  time that I find most fascinating!

The interesting thing about this change is that we usually do not perceive it on a concurrent basis. One needs to see someone or something after a gap of time in order to be able to perceive change. And the tricky thing about time induced changes is that while we can easily perceive physical changes what is difficult to perceive are the non tangible changes – the changes in a person’s way of thinking or action.

We are all molded by our life experiences which when looked at through the mirror of time can be stunning! We may start out as a caterpillar and can turn into a butterfly or be a serpent that becomes bird. Though as a concept it is interesting to write and talk about this, as a personal experience of seeing the impact of time on a person can be rather shocking.

I will take the example of a few close friends of mine from college.  Today when I see them I cannot believe they were who they were when I knew them.

was a confident , dominating person who I used to think would end up as a CEO is today a home based person leading a life that is close to retirement. Married to an extremely nice but a much older man, she lives a life that is rather puzzling to me. Both of them had rather good jobs in a public sector undertaking which they left in pursuit of enterprise. However what they do today by way of a living is a mystery to me. They gave up the business and came back to the city they were originally from. She is today an extremely superstitious and ritualistic person given to a lot of narrow minded thinking around caste.  She used to often tell me about her inability to have a child and how it impacts her social interactions. Difficult, … I know in an Indian context where everybody is curious about your reproductive status.  But adoption was not an option for her unless it was a child from her caste!!

But none of this has diminished in anyway her domineering nature. She has become what I call “suspended in time” – in her mind she is still the leader of our group and me the girl who used to be lacking in confidence. So she gives me bagful of advice on how to bring up my child, what sort of job I should have and how I should deal with my parents and inlaws! I groan inwardly every time she launches into something like this. And what is her source of information considering that she rarely leaves her home? Oprah Winfrey, various other TV programs and magazines.  I have had to often tell her that my experiences in life are first hand, I have tried many things, and learnt from my mistakes in some case and repeated those mistakes in others. 

Then there is B who comes from a very small town. She had to fight every step of her way to get an education. She is one of the few in her family who is educated. Most of us used to think that she would grow up, take a job and make something out her life- such was her determination to break the shackles of her narrow existence. However what I have been seeing of her over the years is a gradual settling down into the reality of her existence. She quit her job, came back to live with her parents in the small town, got involved in family politics of buying ,selling, bequeathing  agriculture land getting cheated by many in the process also getting into debt on behalf of some unscrupulous people for whom she borrowed money.. Money that she used not for supporting someone’s education or business but money that she gave out for dowries or as expenditure in elections which the person in question did not win.

She also got married- to a nice  but poorly educated man. It was actually a shock when we attended her wedding. But then it was her decision or her family’s .. who were we to say anything! This nice man is from a family that is politically connected to various big wigs in the state. Unfortunately they use him for their ends –almost like an errand boy. However he is in such awe of his powerful relatives  that he cannot stop talking about them. Today when I met them I found my friend talking similarly about these so called powerful relatives – how close they were to minister X or minister Y or how minister Z’s sister in law’ s mother’s cousin is such a warm and loving  person. As I am not into politics I was not really interested about these things. It was a challenge making conversation with her …!

There is also  C - a completely carefree and irresponsible friend. An intelligent chap, he treated his studies with an absolute zero level seriousness. It used to be a nightmare being with him in a group assignment. Post college he continued behaving similarly – one was never sure how long he would stick to a job. He was not clear about what he wanted..often mirroring the aspirations of some of his peers as his own. When he got married we felt a sense of pity for his wife. However, today he is in a very senior position. When I talk to him I sense a maturity that I never knew existed. He complains to me about how it is difficult to deal with A and her lack of interest in pursuing a career despite his assurance of being able to get her decent job. He  told me to steer clear of B as she might unwittingly embroil me in some deal that might involve some undesirable political type!

Some of us go through some very difficult experiences during our childhood or youth which leaves its scars . These scars show up differently in different persons. D, was a class mate in college who was very effeminate. The guys used to give him a hard time bullying him while many of  us girls used to giggle every time he was spotted around campus. Today he is doing very well for himself in the media business. But I see the signs of those scars in him every time I Iook at pictures of him on facebook. He has obviously worked very hard on his appearance developing a macho physique which he flaunts in all the photographs that he posts regularly on his profile. His poses in all those pictures would make one wonder if he were an aspiring model?  If I did not know about his past, I would found these pictures very annoying in their narcissism.

And finally, there is me, who was the true conservative- at least in action. However, today I find that I am probably the most unconventional among my friends – marrying a person outside my religion , dressing in ways that I never did and speaking openly about things that I never could. I have also risen above my feeling of inadequacy in the looks department and developed a confidence in myself…! While I can say that it was my parents who shaped me during my initial years, I owe a lot of this post college metamorphosis to my husband who I think helped me evolve! I think each person reacts differently to different life experiences and the presence of a spouse who is supportive helps. I never realized this when I was younger but I think who you marry often decides what you may become as a person later in life  ( and I do not mean it in terms of the physical existence of the kind of house you may live in or the assets you may have).

As the moments go by and the earth completes yet another revolution around the sun  it is not just the grey hair on our heads  that increases but the person in us also changes. The point is what we become… I am not sure how much of what we become over time is within our control. Unfortunately, it is not possible to go back to that point where the change began and set the course! And even if we could make that change, would we know exactly when it happened? But I am not complaining, not all change is undesirable- in the larger scheme of things, I believe that change helps us adapt.
Tuesday, December 4, 2012 14 comments

INDIANS - GAINING INTERNATIONAL"NOTOREITY"


Photograph from Times of India news report dated 1st Dec 2012
We Indians are in the news again - for the same reasons! For violating child protection laws as parents. I remember writing about this in a post at the beginning of the year ( Jan 30th ). Not even 12 months have passed and there is a second case that is being highlighted in the media.

While the reasons mentioned in the last post about the need for countries like Norway  to  be more sensitive to differences in culture with regard to child rearing practices still remain, I think  it is also time we take a look at ourselves.  No, I am not going to preach about child rearing practices because I would not call myself an exemplary parent in any way.

What I think needs to change with us is how we should understand the expected behavior in a new environment.  I find that it is not just child rearing practices that one can fault us with in a foreign land but  our general behavior leaves much to be desired!  We want to live abroad and enjoy the benefits that life there brings without making an effort to integrate with the culture of the place. We have some jingoistic notions about “Indian culture and traditions” and keeping them alive! 

The above notion is something that I am seeing more among those who go on work visas for a few years. Most of them are married by the time they go there, many are also parents. They are originally from small towns and even within India their exposure can only be said to be “limited”. So you can imagine how they might behave when they go abroad!

Speaking in loud voices and criticizing everything western ( food, climate, culture of the place – just about anything!) we probably attract a lot of unpleasant attention.  There are many European countries that do not like Indian tourists because when we visit those countries we do not  provide opportunities for their tourism to earn revenue. We even carry our own food – thanks to our notions  of purity and pollution!

I remember my trip to Canada in 2007. During my onward journey I had an  awful time trying to ward off the attention  of a persistent man who wanted to know where in Chicago I was staying and which IT company I was employed in . The flight was connecting to a Chicago flight via London . It did not occur to him that maybe I was not going to Chicago at all!  Ofcourse , for  my own safety I let him think that way until I lost him en route in London.  The travel from London to Montreal was a dream in comparison- I did not have to hold my nose inside the toilet or pretend to sleep just so I would not have to get into unwelcome conversations- pleasant stewards / stewardesses of the same airline.  My sympathies were with the crew that flew in the Indian sector!  When we are in a group our behavior is at its worst  but when the number is smaller I guess it is more tolerable!  If I as an Indian found my fellow countrymen/ women so terrible as companions for eight hours in an enclosed space, one can imagine what people of other nationalities think of us!

About the way we handle our children, I can only say that we encourage them to behave exactly like ourselves!  I am yet to see children of any other nationality behave as badly as ours do in public! For example, we fail to realize that not everybody may be appreciative of a child kicking his legs about while sitting on an upper berth of a train and hitting the head of a co passenger on the lower berth!

Our children do not learn civic sense from us. We travel in expensive cars  but roll down the windows and throw out litter on the road. When we do this at home no one cares! But when we do this abroad it is not the same- people frown!

We think that getting good marks is the be all and end all of education! Unfortunately it is not. We push our children towards academic performance while ignoring their basic good behavior and values.

We refuse to mingle socially with people of other cultures freely- I don’t know if is a lack of confidence or  a feeling of superiority! No wonder there are “ Indian Ghettos”  all around North America! I guess with enough Indians in these places the local populations have also learnt what to expect from us and may therefore even be staying away!

It is about time that companies that send people for short assignments on work visas give cultural orientation to their employees and teach them to behave in an acceptable way in the country they go to.  They should also be told of the consequences of such actions so people take them seriously!

When we travel or live abroad we must realize that we have to learn to integrate with the society there and follow their laws. I guess, the effort itself may be very stressful if you come from surroundings where your exposure to anyone or anything , outside of your immediate community is limited. As a IT professional if all that you have seen are only Bangalore, Hyderabad or Chennai, you might find living in a place like .. say Norway very stressful and this may transfer to children whose problems may increase ( as in this case where the child had a bedwetting problem)

It is important that we learn to integrate in a foreign context and understand their laws well enough. If child protection laws extend to parents we need to follow them and be careful because the consequence of violating them seems to be the loss of one’s child who may go into foster care as we are jailed.

While not justifying anything to do with bad parenting, I can only say that the issue in India is that we become parents to fulfill a biological responsibility and not because we want to become  parents. Therefore in most cases we are not emotionally ready to cope with the parenting demand. This coupled with the stress of being located in a new environment results in our taking it out on each other or the child with terrible consequences!

I strongly believe that putting a child in foster care if the parents cannot care for it properly is not a solution to the problem. But I also realize that countries like Norway believe in it strongly! I guess the better option would be to deport such people back to India. And while they are considering deportation they can expand the scope of the offence and include other typically  bad Indian behavior- unless someone deprives us of the opportunity to make money we will  probably not change the way we are !
Saturday, December 1, 2012 10 comments

WHEN YOUR NAME REFUSES TO GROW UP


“Bhombol….”  Shouts a middle aged Bengali lady at the retreating back of her twenty something son. The young man  walks away without responding. Then the father yells “Bhombol..”  scolding him for ignoring his mother when she was calling him. The young man comes back sullenly and gives his mother a patient hearing after which he whispers fiercely   into  her ear to refrain from calling out to him publicly using his pet name!
Sounds familiar?  How many of us have faced the embarrassment of having a childhood “pet” name following us into our youth, middle age and sometimes even our old age?

I remember an incident when my daughter was about three years old. We were in Trivandrum ,  visiting my husband’s grand uncle. This old gentleman – the youngest in his family was called lovingly by his older brothers and sisters as “Baby” . The brothers and sisters grew up and so did he but the name stuck! He was known by the following generations as “Baby Appachen” ( Baby Grandfather). When we reached his house, the three year old announced loudly that she wanted to meet the “Baby”. The octogenarian replied saying that he was the Baby. She refused to believe him because he was an “old man” and therefore could not be a “Baby”.   He in turn tried to tell her that he was once like her a – a baby and that was how the name came about. I don’t know if it convinced her but she probably thought that the old man was pulling her leg because she could not imagine some one so old being  ever a baby!
My daughter herself has a pet name with which she used to introduce herself proudly when she was a little girl. Ofcourse, we are no longer allowed to use that -especially around her friends. We have to constantly remind my father about this rule because of his failing memory!

But I find this tradition of pet names  very interesting. I mean it is one thing to shorten a long name like Priyadarshini to Priya or Manoharan to Mano for ease of use but to actually use some other name –something that usually means something silly or does not mean anything at all is beyond me! I think it is  probably unique to us in India.  Infact each region has its own special group of such names.
Bengalis are definitely the monarchs of this  pet name culture. They give their children beautiful flowery names from history and mythology. This name called “Bhalo naam” or “Good name”  is rarely used anywhere except probably at school. Most of the time the children are called by their “Dak naam” or “calling name”. An entire book can be compiled on Bengali  “Dak naams’. They are gender desegregated too. Some common female pet names “Mamoni”, “ Tinky”, “ Rinky”, “ Rinku” “ Mithoo”  while male ones include “Babla”, “Khokhon” “Bhombol” “Boomba” “ Tutu” “Pintu” etc !

Malayalis have their own list. But the interesting thing about Malayalis ( particularly the Christians) is that these can sometimes also be formal names. I had a friend in primary school called “Jijo” . His brother was called “Sojjo” . This was how their names were entered in the school register!  Some of these names can also be unisex but generally the suffix can be safely used to predict the gender. For e.g Shiji would be a girl while Shijo a boy! There is also the habit of adding “Mol” to pet names of girls. “Mol” is an affectionate way of addressing a little girl but it gets tagged on to your pet name or sometimes your regular name if you are Mallu. How many “ Mini Mols”  or “ Suja Mols” do you know of ? I know of five- 3 MMs and 2 SMs!
Tam Brahms are not so complicated. They restrict the pet name business to a few common ones “ Ambi” is usually a boy. Unfortunately “Ambi”  can also be used to denote a very nerdy kind of fellow who likes to remain tied to his mother’s apron strings! Viji or Raji are common female pet names but  they are usually short forms for Vijaya , Vijaylakshmi, Rajashree or Rajalakshmi. “Paapa’  I understand was a hot favorite at one time ( I am sure there are many “Paapa patis” or grandmothers in many Tam Brahm families)

Girls who answer to names like “Pappi” “Paapayi”  and boys answering to “Babu” would be from Andhra. “Babu”  is actually a sort of common noun to address a little boy ( like “Mol” or “Mon” in Malayalam). “Bujji” is a unisex pet name-both boys and girls answer to it in many part of Andhra!
And then there are the Punjabi pet names which are probably the most interesting! “ Sweety” “ Pinky” “Guddu” , “ Gulu” are just some examples from that vast list! Unlike the Bongs, the Punjus          ( except may be the Sikhs) don’t really invest much effort on creating a flowery sounding “Good name” for the external world. Sometimes these little names also function as that “proper”  names. So it may be rather surprising to find someone  with a grand name like “ Tejinder Singh” or “ Amanpreet Kaur” actually being called “Gullu” or “Neelu”  –seems like a sort of come down in life doesn’t it?

As parents we use a lot of endearments with our babies and these unfortunately stick around right through their lives. How many of us have used our knowledge of a friend’s pet name as black mail during college? The fear of  their  pet name becoming common knowledge within the campus would probably be a young girl or boy’s worst night mare- I sometimes think that boys dread this more than girls. Maybe it is because girls are more understanding about these things.

But I can understand the difficulty that we as elders have in remembering this. I guess this comes from our associations with the person as a child. We probably do not realize that the person has grown up and outgrown his/her childish name. So next time before  you decide to yell “ Tinku” at your twenty year old cousin brother remember he may be the college hero or your little niece “Babli”  may actually be “Sush” ( short for Sushmita?) in her class. I know I should  also follow this strictly and remember not to call a recently married young man ( my cousin ) “Chikki" - particularly in front of his wife !

 
Sunday, November 25, 2012 11 comments

PUBLISH AND BE DAMNED


As I type out yet another blog post I just hope that I can hit the “publish” button! I had written two posts which are just lying among the documents section in my computer.  I suppose you can guess what those posts may have been about considering the doubts I have about their publication.

The last one week has brought to light at least two unpleasant reports about  violation of the basic rights of an individual to express themselves. Though blogs have not yet been targeted, I as a blogger am deeply perturbed.

The blog world is one where common people like you and me can find room for expression. But now with these happenings, I am not sure that people want to write about what they feel. For example, I do not know who reads this blog-some of you comment regularly on what I write.  I also visit some of your blogs and comment on them. I have formed some impressions about some of your views based on the regularity of your visits here. While I may not always agree with what you say, I respect you for your views just as  you do mine – this  is the world of freedom.

Into this world of freedom it seems has now crept in a mind full of fear. Yes, I am turning Tagore around- (please forgive me Gurudev)I am unable to stifle my feelings as a citizen and as a human being. I cannot believe I live in the world’s biggest democracy!

I remember about ten years ago I had attended an international conference where a friend from one of our neighboring countries made  very carefully worded remarks about the prevailing condition in her country. She told me during lunch that as a civil society member she was under surveillance and had to be careful about what she spoke in public forums. I was amazed that such fears existed and I thanked my lucky stars that I lived in this country where people can speak fearlessly! Now when I say "fearless" , I am not saying that we just speak rashly during official meetings – far from it! We represent an organization or a country as a delegate and need to be prudent about what we say. However when we express ourselves as individuals I think it is alright to be frank-particularly if it is a personal blog or a social networking site where we do not represent any organization or a country!

But not any more!  For the first time I find myself  exercising  caution as  I  word and reword  even simple face book posts. I am glad that I have “unfriended”  some people who may have used this opportunity to get back at me for my “liberal” views. I have also been told by some friends who have lived in other countries about things like “ultra surf” ( whatever is it? Sounds like a detergent to me). I think maybe I should be like the other narcissists and just post pictures of myself in differently colored saris!

It is not that freedom of expression is completely curtailed. We still have strong articles written in newspapers about the happenings in the country.  The point is that these are written by well known journalists who have the backing of their newspapers behind them should something happen- and folks nothing really happens to them. It is  Unknown Indians like you and me who are at risk. We have another life which cannot be jeopardized  by this. I remember warning a couple of  blogger friends to be careful about what they post. One of them is a young girl  who had been quite outspoken about what she had written. I pray for her personal safety and   I just hope I don’t see her name in the newspaper for the wrong reasons !

It is not that the cyber world has suddenly become unsafe. As a woman I have received personal comments from people who visit this blog-comments that I have had to delete simply because they were so inappropriate and sometimes obnoxious. Some people commenting on this  blog have followed me into face book and tried to send me friend requests which I have squashed. I have taken all of this in my stride as I consider this to be one  of the hazards of writing.

But what I am feeling now is something completely new because I do not know who is “out there”.  I thought a lot about this and finally I decided that I should not let my fear get the better of me. I am not hurting anybody or abusing any politician. I am only voicing my fears about the unknown. So am I going to be targeted for something as simple as this? I hope not… but nothing will surprise me anymore!

Arthur Wellesley , the Duke of Wellington is supposed to have said “Publish and be damned” to his mistress Hariette Wilson when she threatened to publish his letters in her memoirs. Unfortunately, this quote has taken on a rather literal meaning today!
Sunday, November 18, 2012 12 comments

WHEN THE TEMPERATURES DROP AND MEMORIES RISE


Remember the Cliff Richards number – “ In the summertime when the weather is fine..” ?  In India, I guess it  should be “ In the wintertime …” !

Yes folks, it is one of the best times of the year. Even hot and sticky Chennai becomes pleasant.  This drop in temperatures can be felt slowly towards the end of September. There is a subtle change – I don’t know if I should call it Autumn because it is so subtle that we can sometimes miss it. Chennai ofcourse has a spell of cyclonic rain during this season but towards the middle of November the skies clear up.

This time of the year always takes me back to my childhood in Calcutta. The Durga Puja in Sept-Oct heralds the change in the season. As a child I could not identify it as a seasonal transition but  used to link it to the festivities.

Winters in India are not  bitter as in temperate climates. We do not have snow in most places but the nip in the air and chill around are most welcome.  It is the season when we  have a profusion of lovely flowers- most of them attract you with their colors and not so much by their smells ( as summer flowers do). I do not see much of these colorful flowers here in the south though I remember them from those days- marigolds, snap dragons, dahlias and others. There is a special beauty that can be seen around- even in urban centers. Among the metros I guess Delhi is at her prettiest best during these months. But Calcutta is not far behind.

Midmornings in winter spent on the lawns of the Victoria memorial having a picnic suddenly come to my mind. The sunlight really soft and pleasant – Gulzar expresses this beautifully in his song “ Dil Dhoonta hai” where he calls it “sardiyon ki   narm dhoop aur aagan mein let kar

Getting ready to school during this time would involve a lot shivering as we quickly rushed out of the bathroom and got into our clothes  and that light blue school cardigan. Those were times when I used to wish that we had trousers as school uniform. Some of us had “half sweaters”  which would be brought out at the start of the season progressing into the “full sweaters”  by December. 

An old building, our school was full of unexpected dark corridors which would make our teeth chatter. There would be a general smell of ponds cold cream around people.  December was also the time for the annual exams ( those days our schools followed the calendar year).  It was the season when we would also be practicing for the Christmas play.  Come 20th of December the school would close for winter vacations.

Winter holidays were great fun as the academic year would have come to an end and there would no nagging from parents to study. These were also the holidays when we stayed home and did not travel down south.  Quilts would be out and afternoons spent lazing around reading books.  Oil massage with mustard oil would precede bath time –sometimes we would use olive oil and feel very exotic.

Winters were the time  for lovely vegetables like cauliflowers, peas, carrots, radishes –unlike the all round stuff that we get these days. Food always tasted better during winter.

There would be trips to New Market especially to the dry fruit section which would be abuzz with shoppers buying dry fruits and cake accessories. One would also get a lot of party hats in anticipation of the impending new year celebrations.

Very few of us actually bought sweaters those days – you see most of them would be hand knitted by our mothers and other benevolent aunties. My mother had this habit of every two years or so unraveling a sweater and re knitting it. She once came up with a brilliant idea to dye the wool a different color. Dyeing technology not being what it is now, I ended up with itchy arms and neck after I got into the once red sweater now dyed navy blue!  Knitting is something that I don’t see anyone do these days.  In fact, I have forgotten those images of balls of wool with needles stuck into them.

My father used to don his evening attire which consisted of an old sweater and a “muffler” tied sardar style around his head with his ears covered. He had also developed an  affection for the famous Bengali “monkey cap” which of course neither me nor my sister favored.  Windows would be shut by  6.00 PM and the mosquito net up by 7.30PM with the smell of “flit” around ( yes there were lots of mosquitoes and we grew up inhaling the pesticide as we slept). Washing hands after dinner would involve a lot of shrieking when the cold water hit our hands. Sometimes we would cheat – not washing them well enough and having to go back to washing them again. Drying our hands quickly we would snuggle into our quilts drifting into blissful sleep.

Waking up in the morning would be the most torturous experience as Appa in sheer exasperation removed the quilt off us forcing us to get out of bed.   

I don’t know what it is that I miss – the winters or the memories. The temperatures in Chennai are cool enough in the mornings these days  to evoke that nostalgia. When I go for my morning walk I see people bundled up in sweaters watching me curiously as I walk about in my T- Shirt and sweat pants. On my way back, I see the children getting ready to go to school . It is then that I realize that they do not have a uniform cardigan here-  not required I guess.

My daughter tells me that she would never like to live anywhere where it is “cold” . I remember  as a teenager being very surprised when some visiting relatives from Chennai borrowed our warm clothes.     “ There is no winter in Chennai. So they do not have any sweaters” explained my mother.  I told her that I don’t think I would like to live where there is no winter.  Ironic…  because I have now lived for nearly eighteen years in a place where winters are almost non existent!

 Life takes you to places where you least expect you would ever be. But memories  remain with us  transporting us in a moment to any  time or place where we want to be!
Thursday, November 15, 2012 16 comments

AB TAK HAI JAAN


When my sister called me suddenly on Diwali evening saying she had got tickets for “ Jab tak hai jaan”  from someone, I should have guessed that something was amiss- I  mean how come we got tickets for the first day ( not sure if it was the first show though). Anyway, romance crazy woman that  I am, I quickly finished lighting  the lamps and met her at the theatre ( there was no question of asking the husband to come along. You see the invitation did not include him). I looked around for the BIL- he was not there. “ Just the two of us” she said . Now when I think back I am so glad that we left  the husbands behind ! Why you ask me? Read on..

Yash Chopra movies as all of us know are like eating “double ka meetha” – sweet and best handled in small quantities. But this was like being handed a huge tub full of the stuff- it just refused to get over !

SRK attempts an AB in the opening scene  when he mutters some heavy romantic sounding dialogue in the back ground while he drives around in Ladakh on his motor bike. But sadly, he is unable to get that “ Main aur meri tanhayi” tone of  Big B in Silsila. Anyway, what is it that he does for a living? A Major in the Indian Army – he diffuses bombs without any protective equipment using just an electrician’s pliers!  

And then we have Anoushka  Sharma being introduced (literally), with a splash-she jumps into the Pangyong lake after stripping to her bikini. Wow! I have been to the banks of the lake in May and it was so bitterly cold that I had to be coaxed out of the jeep by the husband to pose for that family snap. But then, I guess I am not Anoushka.. ! SRK watches till she almost sinks. He then jumps in and rescues her and leaves the place draping his jacket over her. The pocket of the jacket of course has his dairy in which is written his love story ( oh, how I wish I could hand write those stories I type in Kaleidoscope and hope that a publisher would find them in my jacket in some exotic location ).

The love story begins with Katrina running through snow fall wearing a pink lehenga ( why?) into a Catholic church ( I thought England was largely protestant.. but then a catholic church looks more impressive on screen I guess) and make deals with Christ as SRK who is sweeping the snow follows her inside and eavesdrops.  SRK is an immigrant sharing a flat with a fellow immigrant from Pakistan –Punjabis sharing the same culture from both sides of the border  ( wonderful marketing strategy Yashji!). SRK, waits tables, delivers fish and also sings for his supper.

So the love story develops as he is hired by Katrina during one of his singing sessions to teach her to sing a Punjabi song. He in turn tries to get her to “let go” and be herself. They fall in love and she continues making her deals with Christ ( yes at the same church) that she will give him up and not cross “boundaries” in the relationship. She is of course engaged to a good friend who she is planning to marry just to please her Dad. And in the midst of all this we are introduced to her mother who had left her when she was a child to “follow her heart” and live with the man she loved. So we have Neetu Singh the mom and her lover Imran managing a Vineyard in England ( now don’t tell me that vineyards are found only in Mediterranean locales- remember it is a Yash Chopra movie). The gorgeous Neetu and her obese real life husband Rishi Kapoor enact a mushy love scene which gets Katrina to go back on her promise to Christ.

She is just going to talk to her Dad about the change of plans around who she now plans to marry that SRK gets hit by a passing vehicle ( awful traffic in London- they keep having accidents!). As he is being revived by paramedics she makes a deal with God that if he lives she would never have anything to do with him ..

Now back to the present.. Anoushka the Discovery channel film maker is out on an assignment filming the man who diffuses bombs- SRK! She gives him the diary and tells him how much his story moved her. Then she is there with him trying to shoot while he is diffusing those wires. I must say the guy must be one hell of a bomb diffuser- he hangs suspended from under a  bridge playing with the wires while this film maker ( also suspended from another wire parallelly) with camera on her shoulder confesses to him about her love . WOW! The Indian Army sure needs more people like that !

So, finally the shooting done, Anoushka has a presentation to make in London for which it is required that SRK come. Just as he is arriving there what should happen to him- you are right ! He again gets hit by a passing vehicle ( told you that London traffic is awful!).  He has a head injury and when he recovers.. guess what? He has gone back in time to the period when he was with Katrina. He has forgotten Anoushka and his bomb diffusing abilities ( I am sure many guys will now want to be hit by some vans in London to get similarly afflicted. You can conveniently forget a present girlfriend and have the excuse to link up with a previous one).So there goes Anoushka looking for Katrina and then begs her to pretend to be married to SRK so that he could recover.  Get the drift?

I think among all the mindless nonsense that passes for entertainment these days, this is probably the worst! I mean a love story needs a basic ingredient – Chemistry between the lead pair! No amount of lovely clothes, beautiful women and wonderful locales can compensate for that basic thing! There is that scene where SRK asks Katrina just as she is getting ready to board a train whether she would slap him if he kisses her. She stops there , the train leaves and they kiss… ! Sadly this very romantic scene fell flat on its face!  I felt bad that SRK could not capture the magic that came through in his saying  “Palat” ( turn back) to Kajol in that now famous DDLJ scene!

The only redeeming feature of the torturous experience was Anoushka Sharma. She was supposed to be the antithesis of Katrina – a tomboy in jeans and sleeveless T shirts ( even in Ladakh) swearing and speaking the guy language…!

While the first half was not so painful, I spent the entire second half of the movie shivering in the very cold cinema hall and complaining that the movie was not ending. The sister was less vocal but felt similarly about the movie I guess. And when the movie ended we almost shouted with glee…! Coming back home I was surprised that I had the survived the experience –so here I am folks –Ab tak hai Jaan! Watch this  movie at your own risk!
 
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