The Dance of the Maiden

Well, it’s that time of the year once again. A time when the old gives way to the new. A time when there is a certain song in the air. Of new beginnings. Of merriment. Of love. And of hope. That, dear readers, is the promise of spring. A time much awaited and celebrated with great fervor across the country.

In many parts of India, especially in the regions that are agrarian (which is practically most of it), springtime is an important part of the entire agricultural cycle. In Assam, it is celebrated (as we all know it)  as Rongali Bihu and marks the beginning of sowing of seeds. In that sense, it is also believed to be a fertility festival. It is this aspect of the festival that is particularly interesting. In earlier times, young unmarried men and women dressed in traditional finery sang and danced the beautiful and rhythmic Bihu dance in open fields. The Bihu dance form itself, with its sensuous movements of the hips and arms by young women was seen as a celebration of their fertility. It has therefore been described as a mating ritual. According to Praphulladatta Goswami in his book Festivals of Assam “ The Bihu dance seems to have sexual overtones, suggesting its association with springtime fertility cult of earlier times.”

Needless to say, the Bihu songs too are mostly based on the theme of love and “constitute a language of love”. “In fact, at one time, it was through these songs that affections were indicated and later even elopements took place.” It was almost as if, the entire process of finding a mate and the courtship that follows was given a societal sanction.

So, if ancient societies recognized and validated one of the most natural acts of creation – that of procreation, and thus giving the female its due place under the sun, where has modern society gone so terribly wrong? When did healthy flirtations and harmless acts of love (all part of the mating game) began to be perceived as perverse and shameful? When did the sensual songs of love as sung during Bihu simply disappear or change form to vulgar renditions that only seemed to objectify women? When did misogyny replace the reverence that was a prerogative of the female – from where all creation flowed?

The answers, though not that simple, are much closer to home than we may think.  For instance, how many of us may have at any point in time, reprimanded or frowned upon a teenaged son or daughter’s closeness to a friend of the opposite sex? Or worse still, how many of us continue to stereotype our daughters and women around us everyday? This is in fact the whole point of the Bal Panchayat programme in, Delhi, started in 1993 by an NGO Community Aid and Sponsorship Programme along with Plan India as reported in a leading national daily just a few weeks ago. The progressive programme reportedly “encourages young girls and boys of the locality to interact freely and bring an attitudinal change in how they perceive each other.”  The aim: to have a more “balanced view about gender roles” and help “develop a healthy camaraderie between the sexes”.

To do that, maybe we need to look into our past, and remind ourselves of our rich and meaningful customs that provided the very balance that we seemed to have lost. Look at the heritage of Assam, a state that is perhaps known to worship the feminine form like no other. Take the practice of Ambubachi, which is a celebration of the yearly menstruation course of Goddess Kamakhya, when the temple remains closed for three days. Or the practice where young girls – who once they start their menstruation – are decked up as brides and pampered and showered with gifts as a celebration of her being fertile.

These practices deeply revere the female but sadly, it is a reverence that today seems hollow and hypocritical. For while a young girl can celebrate her fertility there is no question of her exploring her sexuality till well, she is married. Or take the still prevailing practice of marrying off pre-adolescent girls in rural areas. On one hand, eleven or twelve year olds are considered old enough to handle married life but on the other hand, those who aren’t married, are expected to wear their chastity belts till they are!

This does not mean that we just let everything go. However, we do need to relook at our skewed societal values and find that balance between the traditional and modern.  We need to question our own conditioning and attitudes, rather than the actions/feelings of our children. Of course, decades of social conditioning will not be easy to undo so fast, I suspect. But a beginning needs to be made. Only then, will our beautiful songs of Bihu resonate the spirit in which they were intended.  And only then, will the maiden’s dance be truly hers.

References:

  1. Praphulladatta Goswami’s Festivals of Assam

The Promise of Tradition

I know. I haven’t written for quite some time now. The past few weeks have been unbelievably busy! Quite a rollercoaster ride, come to think of it.  From new beginnings – a couple of weddings followed by the birth of my niece, and a new job – to journey’s end – the passing away of a dear friend; from never-ending festivities to preparations for Advent and even a rock concert….a  rather dramatic finish to the year!

And if that was not enough, this also happens to be my favorite time of the year. Festivities apart, it’s a time I like to keep aside to quietly reflect upon the year gone by, and to dream and make plans for the coming year.  And I continue to do that year after year, as I had always been a stickler for tradition.  Hmmm. I was quite rigid about some of them, come to think of it. And that brings me to the point of this blog.

Tradition. Christmas, as we know it, is a time of tradition and this is THE one time in the year that traditions take precedence over everything.  As the beautiful lines from The Fiddler on the Roof go:

“Because of our traditions

We have kept our balance for many, many years

Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is”

I quite agree. Traditions are good as long as they last and especially when they bring joy and meaning to life.  For some, tradition is the glue that holds families together. For some, tradition is something that needs to be done at a certain time of the year, or a certain time in life. For some, tradition is something that you pass on to the next generation, like a precious heirloom.  So yes, I don’t deny that traditions are an important part of our existence. They help us stay connected to our roots and remind us of the very reason for our existence – who we are, where do we come from and what kind of individuals we are going to be.

For me, it was not any different. The ones that revolved around family and holidays were most precious. They gave me a sense of security and stability, and were the only constant in the changes within and around me…for a long, long time.  

Talking about tradition, there are two kinds: those that outlive you and the other kind, the ones that you outlive.

I am talking about the second kind.  (The traditions of my childhood, and youth perhaps). What I am trying to say is that there comes a time, in everyone’s life, I guess, when you know that you have outlived the tradition.  Maybe because you changed direction, or maybe because you’ve been too busy, or maybe simply because you KNOW you need to let go of the old, and make way for the new.

The realization dawned on me a few days ago when I was in the midst of a ferocious spring-cleaning at home. Maybe some part of me realized that I needed to clean the cobwebs around me. Throw out the clutter.  Exorcise.  No more holding on to things, people, traditions that have no meaning in my life. 

Or let me put it this way: I guess its time to make new ones. (Yes, yes, I know. It’s Christmas time, and a time for traditions, so –yes- I- see- the- irony!)  I am looking forward to it actually – new traditions and the promise they hold…

So here’s to tradition – old and well, in my case, definitely new!

 

Admission makes strange bedfellows!

And so it begins. The journey of life – for my son as he is about to go to formal school (well, he is currently going to a play school but that’s not the same thing, is it?) And for me – one of the most anxious moments of parenthood as I go about selecting the right school for my son. Well, the second-most anxious moment, come to think of it. The first was when we discovered that my son had elevated thyroids levels at birth and that it could seriously affect his mental health.  But thanks to timely detection, it all turned out well in the end. Just as I know this will too. But till it does, it is turning out to be quite a roller-coaster ride!

“It’s all so confusing!” remarked a much-harried friend who is seeking admission to nursery for her daughter as well. As we swapped stories, we tried to make some sense of the madness that was around us. But at the end of the hour-long chat we still had no answers, only more questions. The one that had been nagging me (and quite a few equally harried parents) from the time my son was about two years old: How do you know which is the ‘right’ school for your child?  And wait that is not all of it! Even if you did happen to stumble upon the answer, how do you ensure that your child gets admitted into your dream school?

Believe it or not, it is in search for these elusive answers that most parents around me (yes, including me, I’d admit albeit grudgingly) have done things that they would not ordinarily do. But then these are not ordinary circumstances and times like these call for tough (read desperate, if not downright extreme measures!) Foes have become friends, friendship has blossomed where previously there was none, and alliances have been forged (and you thought politics makes strange bedfellows!).  They’ve struck up conversations with so-called strangers at parties or even called long-lost friends, friends of friends, relatives of friends’, colleagues, friends and relatives of colleagues, neighbors, and relatives and so on and so forth. They have joined online communities and forums for parents seeking admission to nursery, struck up inane conversations on Facebook, or even taken the boss’ twice-removed cousin out for coffee. All in the hope of getting some much-longed for answers (and also, the kind of questions that are asked at school interviews).

But I digress. I couldn’t help it. Just log on to one of the parent forums and you’ll see the kind of frenzy I am talking about.

Coming back to my question: How do you know which is the right school for your child? (This question may not be applicable for those who had the privilege of studying in some of the finest schools in the country. For them, the story ends right here. Or maybe not.) Funnily enough, it was a question I had asked a family friend (who happens to be a school teacher) out of sheer curiosity sometime back. Her answer was simple: go with your instincts, you’ll know.

Hmm. I got my instincts working overtime when I did the mandatory rounds of schools in the city. The fancy shmancy ones (with the central air-conditioning and color-coordinated potties) I had no patience for. The so-called progressive schools or experiential learning schools seemed too idealistic and were yet to convince me. The ones that had some kind of legacy (and there were just a couple in my city) – the wholesome, no-nonsense, honest-to goodness ones – well, let’s just say it would be easier to get into Fort Knox! And the missionary/convent schools – well, there were none. Nope, not a single one. Where did that leave me? Do I put my son’s life (or least the next 12-13 years of it) in the hands of half a dozen shining, brand new schools that have mushroomed overnight in the millennium city, in the hope that they will make a man out him eventually? Oh wait, that’s my job, isn’t it? Okay, so give him the kind of education that he deserves?

After much thought, (discussions on the dinner table, heated debates and arguments too) we narrowed our choices down to just a couple of schools, two of them not even in the millennium city. And that was the easy part.

The tough part was yet to come. Now that I know which school to send my son how do I assure his admission? With every school following its own system (RTE be damned!) it’s almost like a game of roulette! The only answer I got to this one was from an old friend who refused to join the admission madness for his younger son. (He has just applied to the one school where the older sibling is studying) So exasperated was he with the entire process that he is willing to take a chance this time round. He summed it up for me in one word: sycophancy.  Alright, before we put on our moral hats and get all judgmental, let’s just step back and think for a minute. However much we hate to admit it, he may be right.

The question is: why should I, or any parent, have to resort to sycophancy or curry favors or even learn roulette for something as basic as educating my child? Whatever happened to the good old system of just walking into your neighborhood school, meeting the principal and well, just paying up? That’s it. The entire process took a couple of hours, not 3-5 months. That’s how it worked for me, and my sister, and our cousins. For my hubby too. Or maybe that’s how it’s always been played; all I need to do is learn the rules of the game.

While you are figuring this one out it’s time for me to go roll the dice! Jokes apart, some thoughts on this would be welcome. I am curious to know – from parents who have already walked down this road, and those who have yet to: just how do you do it?

Hey, Mr. Teacher!

A few days ago, I was having lunch with a couple of school mates and one of my high school teachers. She happened to be one of my favorites in senior school and taught me Political Science – a subject I dreaded till I took her classes! (I’ll come to that later.) It was indeed lovely meeting her after so many years (close to two decades, I’d imagine!) – you know that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you meet certain people.

Anyhow, she hadn’t changed much – she was just as spirited and passionate as she had been when I was younger. And she still treated us very much like adults and individuals in our own right (as she had when we were school kids.) I mean, when I look back, I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to keep a group of raucous, hormone raged teenagers hooked to her lectures! But she did.

Maybe because of the beautiful stories she used to weave into her lectures. Or maybe because she was just different. (At least she did not think that we did not know what we were talking about and she did listen to what we had to say, which I must say made us feel pretty good!)  Whatever it was, it worked. My grades remained pretty good because of her, I am sure of it, as did my love for the subject. In fact, she was perhaps one of those rare teachers who taught us to think for ourselves, to look beyond the classroom and the books.

Good teachers, come to think of it, do that to you. They leave you with much more than just knowledge. Though you may not realize it at the time, they shape your lives in more ways than one, and their words stay with you long after the lessons are over.

The special ones have the ability to recognize your talent and the vision to nurture it. Just like fifteen-year-old Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen’s primary school teacher. She took special notice of her pupil’s exceptionally large hands and feet and realized that the girl had what it takes to be a winner. For all the brouhaha over China’s ‘medal factories’, it paid off. At the age of 16, Ye Shiwen has not only set a new world record, she has become a poster girl for aspiring swimmers. (Yes, I am aware that teachers in China are trained to spot school kids with special physical attributes, who are then packed off to training camps -  but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, is it? If anything, it proves that there is at least a will to nurture excellence.)

It makes me wonder. Do we (at least in India’s current education system) have teachers who are capable or even equipped to spot talent? And if at all, are they even bothered to do something with it? Are they willing to look beyond the ordinary, to go that extra mile? Or are they willing to settle for mediocrity (as they have been doing for years) as long as the syllabus is complete and the grades are good? Are they ready to break the mold and create winners?

These are some thoughts that come to my mind. Partly because of that stimulating conversation over lunch; and partly because my son is about to enter school life and thus begin a new chapter in his life. As a mother, I truly wish for it to be a positive and enriching one.

‘Where the mind is without fear…’

India turns all of 65 years old tomorrow, the 15th of August.  People across the country are getting ready for the celebrations.  Not me, for this is one party I am giving a miss.  What are we celebrating anyway? Once again, our growing economy (which is swimming in troubled waters)? The inauguration of another glitzy mall or residential complex, read condominium with a Jacuzzi, a sun terrace and the works? Or our so-called medal haul in London? (Well, our performance in the 2012 Olympics is being cited as the best ever, despite the elusive gold. So it may actually be a cause for celebration given that the medals were despite the odds, despite the dismal state of our sports infrastructure or lack thereof, and despite the sheer lack of political will.)

For many of us, yes, these are indeed reasons to celebrate. For me, at this point, most of it is a lie. Where is the freedom when a woman cannot be safe in her own home, let alone her city? Four cases in point: One, the brutal murder of a young woman lawyer in her Mumbai flat a few days ago. Ironically, she was killed by the security guard of the society where she lived. Two, the barbaric and shocking  public molestation of a teenaged girl on the busy streets of Guwahati by a mob of 50 men last month. Three, the kidnapping and rape of a young pub employee of a Gurgaon mall earlier this year. Four, the abduction of a young woman from one of Kolkata’s best-known residential localities and subsequent rape just a couple of days ago. (This is the latest in a series of rapes that have shocked the city, starting with the gang-rape of a woman in a car in February).

And these are cases that were reported. Even as I write this post, a woman somewhere, in some corner of the country, maybe in your own neighborhood, is being molested or raped, or beaten, or murdered. For some, these may be seen as isolated cases. But seen collectively, these paint a pretty scary picture. (Scary enough to have prompted one of our national dailies to have taken up a campaign for the safety of women in the country.) It is a breakdown of our civil society and governance. Especially in cities that were previously considered ‘safe’ for women (the notorious distinction of being a rapists’ haven went to the capital city of Delhi till recently).

I have roamed the streets on Mumbai at night in the dreaded local trains and felt perfectly at ease. Guwahati, and most of northeastern India, I held in high regard for the women were treated with utmost respect and lived with a certain dignity, or so I believed.  Kolkata, the city of my ancestors, I believed to be the perfect place to bring up a family in, with its cultural leanings and progressive thinking. And Gurgaon, well, it has been home to me for over a decade now; and while its definitely more populated than it was when I first moved in here amidst nothing but vast expanse of empty fields it certainly felt more safer back then.

Today, I don’t feel safe in my own home; irrespective of the city I may live in, irrespective of how old I may be, irrespective of my ethnicity or religion. (Why, there are newborn girls, and even unborn ones, being killed, or abandoned or thrown in dustbins almost daily; and thousands forced to live a life of abuse because they don’t have a choice – sexual, physical, and psychological abuse at the hands of employers, ministers, caregivers, and worse still – relatives and even parents!)

So, I ask again, where is the freedom? Is this the India we woke up to, the one Pt Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of, on the night of August 14th, 65 years ago, the one poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote of in his classic Where the mind is without fear? While the events of the recent past may have shaken some of us to the core, I would like to believe that we have not fallen off the edge…yet. Small, but sure footsteps are being taken: a yoga guru’s crusade against corruption, the triumph of the individual spirit (@ London Olympics), the battle against polio. Let’s just take a minute and think of the India that our forefathers dreamed of, the country that we want it to be – a country where women are safe and free. Let’s not look the other way this time.

Maybe we need to remind ourselves of the words that were written by Tagore:

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high

Where knowledge is free

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

By narrow domestic walls

Where words come out from the depth of truth

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit

Where the mind is led forward by thee

Into ever-widening thought and action

Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

 We need to wake up. Only then, will we be really free.

The story of us…to be continued

I’m still bathing in the afterglow of a memorable weekend spent in the company of dear friends and family, celebrating our marriage.  For me, it was a celebration of something much more precious – our relationship. After all, we’ve been best friends for twelve years and married for nine. So, what’s the big deal, many of you may wonder. It is a big deal to me. Especially in a world where more time is spent updating our Facebook status than working on real relationships. And especially in a world where having a huge number of Facebook ‘friends’ is more fashionable than ‘relationships’.

Why? Because any relationship worth its salt requires hard work. There are no shortcuts, no ‘buttons’ to click that will tell you what to do next, no three-minute guides to success. You got to figure it out for yourself and you’ve got to make it count.

So, when I look at us, I can’t help but feel a wee bit overwhelmed. Where did all the years go? The memories of our marriage day are still fresh. The smell of fresh earth after the rain (yes, the rain Gods had decided to shower us with blessings and I happily took it as an auspicious sign), of jasmine in my hair, my red sari that I wore in traditional Bengali style, my husband looking the quintessential Assamese in his creamy white pat (pronounced ‘paat’) silk dhoti-kurta; both of us equally nervous as we walked around the sacred pyre. I still remember staring deeply into the fierce flames, the priest’s chants a pleasant drone in the background when my husband gently slipped his hand in mine and held on tightly. I felt reassured; I was not alone in this.

And so the journey began. Nine years, and countless moments later, it has been quite a journey. Yes, we’ve had our moments. The bad, and the good. We’ve fought, we’ve raved and argued to the point of sheer exasperation (hmm, those are the times when I’ve actually forgotten why I loved the man in the first place!). In retrospect, none of it really mattered, except that we came back stronger maybe. What stayed were the good times; like the time we bought our house, or made our first documentary, or got that promotion, or even better, had our son.

For my part, I think some days we learned to just let go, and other days we learned to hold on.  Some days were spent in considerable silence, while others in pleasant, mindless chatter. There have been times when my husband has made me want to be a better person; and then, there have been times when I have just wanted to bang my head against the wall (or bang whatever I can get my hands on! )

What’s made this bittersweet journey possible is two things. One, the ability to constantly stimulate each other’s minds, our thoughts and feelings. Of late, it’s been uncanny how often we’ve been able to read each other’s minds…scary yes, but comforting nonetheless. Two, is my firm belief that after I’ve peeled away the layers, somewhere at the very core of our relationship is a simple, uncomplicated, honest-to-goodness friendship.  I try to never lose sight of that!

And till we have that, the journey ahead should be just as amazing.  I’ll toast to that!

Are we raising a generation of sissies?

Are we mollycoddling our kids? Are we raising a generation of sissies? I seem to be running into these questions everywhere I look. I won’t deny it: The first one has been plaguing me almost every single day of my mommy hood; as I am sure it has bothered many others of my kind. In fact, this parenting debate is almost cyclic (not to mention endless which is why I choose not to enter it though I have a ready reckoner for it – you’ll find it at the end of the blog); with each generation lamenting on how pampered (or not) their progeny is! My parents never miss an opportunity to chide me when they see me ‘pampering’ my toddler (Gosh! Are you still feeding him? Why, by the age of three you could eat an entire meal by yourself. Or, he goes to an air-conditioned school? What! You never even had an air-conditioner at home till you were sixteen!) Hmm. Well, hold your horses folks. The second question had me equally worried. After all, the millennials are the ‘I, me, myself generation’. Cut me some slack, or rather, cut our kids some slack. There is no reason to get paranoid. There is one thing we all seem to be missing out. It’s called evolution.

So what if my son goes to an air-conditioned school? He was after all, born in an ‘air-conditioned’ hospital, sleeps in an ‘air-conditioned’ room and rides in an ‘air-conditioned’ car, and what the heck, even plays in an ‘air-conditioned’ mall! He was born in an air-conditioned world – that is his environment. Just as my generation was born to a world of air-coolers (desert coolers, as they are popularly called). Yes, I know there is this whole debate of what will it do to his immunity, but I’m not worried. We adapted to air-coolers (and we were not worse off for it). He will adapt to his ‘air-conditioned’ world. And as far as feeding him is concerned, well, that is something I love to indulge in (he can eat by himself and is a pretty independent three-year-old otherwise) as that is the only time I can get his undivided attention and talk to him about his day.

Now, coming back to the point….My generation was born in pre-liberalization times.  My parents and grandparents’ generations (the baby boomers) were still reeling from the affects of the world wars. Austerity was the need of the hour. It was only in the late eighties and nineties that liberalization and a fast growing great Indian middle class catapulted the Indian economy to new heights.  The nineties and the new millennium saw consumerism in all its fine glory; and our kids are reaping the benefits of that growth.  So yes, they are inundated with an ‘excess’ of everything, even options. (I can almost hear my mother’s voice scolding me as I write this…we never had options, you had few but kids today have too many! They are spoilt for choice….) Alright, they do have plenty of choices today; like other things that is good or bad, depends on how you choose to look at it. I choose to look at the good.  It’s made them better decision makers; they are smarter, wiser, sharper, more focused and definitely know their mind. And because they have options, they are sticking around. (Unlike my generation, also known as Generation X, or the baby boomers, who chose to immigrate westward in search of ‘better options’.  In fact, when I became a Facebook member, I was surprised to find almost sixty percent of my schoolmates settled in foreign lands!) They are compassionate, willing to make a difference and ready to take chances. That takes guts.  I know many young kids around me who have quit high-paying jobs (or simply not taken one) to work with the underprivileged, or in the rural heartlands or simply follow their dreams.  (According to Fortune Magazine ‘fifty-four percent of America’s millennials either want to start a business or have already started one and 46% of Gen-Y wants to start a business in the next five years, while 35% of Gen-X and only 21% of baby boomers do.)

So, we must be doing something right, even if it means a little bit of pampering.  Love, as I know it, never hurt anyone.  (With my three-year-old, it works wonders; not yelling or ranting but love and gentle reasoning.)  Kids today, much like the generations before them, will face their own challenges; they will face fear, know pain and heartbreak and loss.  And they will cope, I am sure of it. Love will only make the journey easier.

My ready reckoner:

Respected Teacher,

My son will have to learn I know that all men are not just, all men are not true.

But teach him also that for every scoundrel there is a hero;

that for every selfish politician, there is a dedicated leader.

Teach him that for every enemy there is a friend.

 It will take time, I know; but teach him, if you can, that a dollar earned is far more valuable than five found.

 Teach him to learn to lose and also to enjoy winning.

 Steer him away from envy, if you can.

Teach him the secret of quiet laughter. Let him learn early that the bullies are the easiest to tick.

Teach him, if you can, the wonder of books.. but also give him quiet time to ponder over the eternal mystery of birds in the sky, bees in the sun, and flowers on a green hillside.

In school teach him it is far more honourable to fail than to cheat.

Teach him to have faith in his own ideas, even if every one tells him they are wrong.

Teach him to be gentle with gentle people and tough with the tough.

Try to give my son the strength not to follow the crowd when every one is getting on the bandwagon.

Teach him to listen to all men but teach him also to filter all he hears on a screen of truth and take only the good that comes through.

Teach him, if you can, how to laugh when he is sad. Teach him there is no shame in tears. Teach him to scoff at cynics and to beware of too much sweetness.

Teach him to sell his brawn and brain to the highest bidders; but never to put a price tag on his heart and soul.

Teach him to close his ears to a howling mob… and to stand and fight if he thinks he’s right.

Treat him gently; but do not cuddle him because only the test of fire makes fine steel.

Let him have the courage to be impatient, let him have the patience to be brave. Teach him always to have sublime faith in himself because then he will always have sublime faith in mankind. 

This is a big order; but see what you can do. He is such a fine little fellow, my son.

Abraham Lincoln’s Letter to his son’s teacher.

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