Durga’s World

 

It’s a little after 8.00 a.m. on a deliciously cool April morning. I sit down to read the morning papers having just sent off my seven-year-old to school. The hubby is working on his laptop getting ready for an important meeting. The house is pleasantly quiet. I skim through the news and shake my head at film actor Hema Malini’s tweet on ‘senseless suicides’ which apparently is directed at television actor Pratyusha Banerjee’s recent death. Just as I was mulling over her words, the doorbell rang. My husband called out to me: “It’s for you”.

Wondering who could be calling so early in the morning, I saunter into the living room to see a lady who happens to be my fishmonger’s wife (will call her Durga – not her real name of course – for the sake of this story) and the mother of two of my husband’s protégés at his football academy. I smile to greet the pleasant faced, soft spoken lady thinking it is just another visit maybe to ask about her boys who were away at a training camp. Just then I noticed her red-rimmed eyes and trembling lips and body and my smile froze. She wanted to talk to me privately as it’s a ‘women’s matter’, she said looking at me in despair. My husband discreetly leaves the room to give us privacy. I make her sit on the sofa, give her a glass of water, which she refuses and wait for her to talk. She looks at me and starts sobbing inconsolably. “Memsahib, I want to thank you and sahib for all that you have done for my boys and I know that with you they are always in good hands.” Sensing that there is more to this I keep quiet and look at her with trepidation. Sobbing and shaking uncontrollably, she continues, “Memsahib, please forgive me. Please, I just can’t do this anymore! I want to leave my two boys in your custody. I don’t want to live anymore! I can’t, I just can’t!”

The despair and inexplicable sadness in her voice was unmistakable. Taken aback, I took her hand in mine, and held her shaking and fragile body. “It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s going to be alright,” my own words sounded hollow as I tried to make sense of what she was trying to say. I felt her despair, her hopelessness and wondered what could have happened? What could have driven to this state? I held her tight and let her cry. What were the right words to say? I didn’t know. All I saw was a broken down young woman, a mother who was so beaten, so lost, so desperate. A broken spirit, a bruised body, and haunted eyes.

What could have made her this way? “My husband, memsahib, I can’t take it anymore. I tolerated it for twenty years for the sake of my children, my home, my family but I can’t do it anymore.” What did he do? Did he beat you? Was he drunk? “No, no memsahib. He was not drunk. But he abuses me. I am scared of him. He is very dangerous. He will kill me! I know he will!” And then she showed me the scars. The stab marks all over her body, the bruises and seared flesh. I shuddered. Tears ran down my own eyes. I was shocked at the brutality of it! And there was more. Two decades of mental torture, physical violence, marital rape, infidelity and several attempts to murder her and her children. This was no less than the Nirbhaya case, or any of the countless rape cases that make headlines almost daily. And it had been happening for twenty years. Day after day. Night after night. WHY? Why, I thought? Why would a human being do this to another? And why did she suffer such cruel depravity? There are no easy answers.

Married off at the tender age of 12 to a man much older to her, she had her first child when she was just 14. Two years and countless beatings later she gave birth to another child. The beatings, the cruel taunts, the rapes, the physical brutality, the humiliation, the indignity, continued. For her, and her small children. That was her world. The only one that she had known of since she attained puberty. The only one that could ensure that she gets two meals a day and a roof over her head. The trade off was incidental. Why didn’t she leave him, you may ask? If only it was that simple. Leave and go where, memsahib? She asked me when I questioned her about it? Born to extremely poor parents this marriage was her ticket to survival. “And anyway, I had to make my marriage work, memsahib. “Or people would point fingers at me. After all, isn’t my husband supposed to be my God? To obey and honor under all circumstances?” It was simple economics in one way. Societal norms, in another.

And yes, she survived, if only for her children. But sadly, bit by bit, life and laughter was snuffed out of her. What was even worse, (if there could be anything worse) fear took over. Fear for her life. Fear for her children, her family. Fear of constantly looking over her shoulder. Fear of saying the wrong thing. Fear of simply breathing. So great was the intimidation, the children grew up equally scared of their father. Strapping young teenagers today, they lack the nerve to stand up to this tyranny. Helpless, bound with the shackles of abject poverty, a non-existent education and a psychotic misogynist for a father, what does the future hold for them? What kind of men will they grow up to be?

I tell the story of this woman at length, because somewhere here, I think, lies an answer (or at least a possible explanation) of all that is going wrong in our society today. The ever-increasing violations, the molestations, and the rapes; even suicides and honor killings. Look around you. The story of this woman is the story of thousands of women in India today. Hunted, haunted, suppressed, abused at the very hands of those who swore to protect them and love them. Some may argue that things are changing and that many women are standing up for their rights. Maybe so. Yes, there are women I know who have walked out of such abusive marriages and are living lives with dignity and freedom. But they were the lucky ones; they perhaps had a choice. What about the countless women who don’t? Does that mean they don’t have the right to survive? The right to live with dignity? The right to say NO?

Of course she has. At least, that’s what the media, and advertisements/cinema reminds us often. But consider the odds. What hope of justice does Durga (and many in her situation) have? Yes, she can go to the police station and register an FIR. And we all know where that will lead! “You are a married woman! Why do you want to break your home?” Or she can take shelter in a women’s home in the hope of getting free legal aid and start life anew. Sadly, here too she will have to very lucky to file a case at all because as per the Indian Penal Code marital rape is considered a crime only when the wife is below 15 years of age! Marital rape victims have to take recourse to the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 (PWDVA) where the offender if guilty is liable to a fine of Rs. 20,000/- and a jail sentence up to one year. That’s it. One year for years or decades of mental, economic, and physical torture! The offender is free, after a year to go back and indulge in some more. In most of the cases the victims, if they dare to raise a voice, are shushed up by society; or get so intimidated by the legal system that they don’t have the wherewithal to pursue. Many go back to their parental homes and try to rebuild their lives, many live destitute lives on the fringes of society, in the hope that one day they will finally be liberated. And free.

This is a story that I began some time back and like the women that I write about, didn’t have the wherewithal to pursue it. Till I saw the movie PINK by Shoojit Sircar, which deals with similar issues about the women living in India today. It gave me hope that one day we too could be liberated and free to live the lives that we WANTED to, that we choose; and not the ones that were imposed on us by family, society, or our circumstances. Just like Durga.

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!

 

‘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.

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.

Hey man, sing me a song…

It’s a hot, hot summer morning. There is a strange stillness in the air; an uneasy calm. Despite the lazy rhythm of the morning, I feel an inexplicable restlessness in me.  A restlessness that is becoming hard to shake off, even harder to fathom. I just couldn’t put a finger on it. Maybe it is the mind-numbing heat. Maybe it’s the fact that I am suffering a writer’s block. Or maybe it is just one of those days (I’m sure we all have them).

Midday. The sun shows no mercy. I am just about to resign myself to a state of utter languidness when I hear it. The faint, yet unmistakable, strumming of a guitar.  And the sweet, sweet sound of music. Ah, I closed my eyes, and let it seduce me. As I strain to hear the words, I can already feel the edginess easing. That is just what I needed perhaps. Or rather, longed for desperately. In fact, it is after a long, long time that I had heard a song (new, that is) that had managed to stir my senses, just about.  It is what inspired me to pen this blog.

Music has always been the chicken soup for my soul. (as I am sure it is for most people) From the soothing lullabies of my infancy, to the cacophonic sounds of my youth, music was always an intrinsic part of life. I consider myself lucky to have been born at a time when the songs of the previous decades (50s and 60s) were still young and carried well over to the next generation. I (and most of my generation) was only too happy to borrow from my parents, and even my grandparents, come to think of it! Then, came the sixties and seventies with music that just “played into our lives”. Songs/albums that you could “carry with you till you died”.  In the words of Elton John, “In the 60s and 70s, you could buy 12 albums a week that were all classics.” There was something magical about that. And then there were the anthems. Almost each generation had one. A song that defined who they were, and was truly their own. Songs that made you sit up and look at the world around you, or the one within. Songs that made you happy, or sad.   Songs that acquired cult status and became classics in their own way.

Interestingly, the Rolling Stone magazine’s latest compilation of the Top 100 Best Selling Albums of all time (if at all indicative) does feature these very songs/albums. Curiously, the newest album on the list is perhaps U2’s Achtung Baby (1991)! So, does that mean that the past two decades (almost one generation) has not produced a single song/album worthy enough to be given cult status? Are we so devoid of inspiration? Or is there is nothing to talk about: no stories to tell, no pain to share, no heartbreaks to get over, no love to find, no wars to win, no causes to rebel for? I find that hard to believe.

As I look at my toddler son – happily tapping his feet to Bob Marley’s Is This Love – with much amusement, I really hope this generation, (for their own sake), finds their song soon. That they can carry with them for the rest of their lives. Till then, they can borrow one of ours.

I leave you with this song by Slice called Five for Fighting:

There was a time a long, long time ago

Chevys and levees played on the radio

No cell phones, just 20,000 lights

Swaying on a Saturday night alright

Can you imagine that slice of time

Rock and roll was young

People stood in line

To hear music that played into their lives

That you could carry till the day you die

Hey man, sing me a song

When we were everyone

We were more than just a slice of American Pie

Have you read my blog today?

300 million little USA’s

Your doorstep is just a click away

We’ll get together one of these days…

A visit to the neighborhood mall the other day with hubby and my toddler son for lunch at our favorite eatery had me in quite a tizzy.  Mind you, being a seasoned journo, there is not much that gets my goat, so to speak.  But after a long, long time, there was something that had begun to distinctly bother me.  For want of sounding prudish or even (heaven forbid!) puritanical I just needed to share this.

Now, I am no fashionista. Far from it. But when I see gawky ten something -year-olds wearing 3-inch wedge heels, or seven-year-olds in sequined halter dresses (looking decidedly uncomfortable), or a twenty something year olds in blingy chiffon/velvet gowns and five-inch heels to a mall (or rather, any public space) it makes me cringe.

The way I see it, there are two sides to it. One is about an inherent sartorial sense, or the apparent lack of it, leading to a blatant disregard for propriety. There, I’ve said it.  The dreaded word, I know.  Most of my teen years were spent questioning it. But today, ironically, it makes perfect sense.  We are all an intrinsic part of a society.  And where there is a society there are codes, sartorial ones notwithstanding. Take the mall, for instance. A mall is a mall is a mall. Let’s face it. It serves the basic function of catering to your shopping and at times, entertainment needs (with a movie hall, a kids play area, or a skating rink thrown in). Period. It is NOT a clubhouse, or a discotheque, or an exclusive eatery (even these have a fine, albeit unwritten dress code) or the imaginary red carpet even.

Living in a city (Gurgaon) that has been in the news for all the wrong reasons in the recent past this blatant disregard for propriety is a cause for concern. Why, even alpha-woman Kim Cattrall (as Samantha) in the sassy Sex and the City 2 was forced to cover up her bare arms and back in public places in Abu Dhabi. It was, as her friend Cynthia Nixon (as Miranda) kept reminding her, the proper thing to do, out of sheer respect for the customs of the land.  But Samantha’s subsequent disregard for propriety eventually landed her in big trouble, when she and her friends were evicted from the hotel.  That of course, was reel life.  No doubt, the message was real enough.

The other side is what has me far more worried. WHY would a ten-year old wear three-inch wedge heels in the first place, and WHY to a mall at all? WHY dress up an eight-year-old in a halter dress? WHY paint a sixteen-year-old ‘s face to make her look twenty? Or is that it? Are we in a hurry to push our children into adulthood? Are we so worried about competition that we are willing to go to any lengths to parade our daughters, hoping that somebody will notice? Or are we so caught up in the frenzy of being hip, and trendy that anything goes?  Even worse, are we mindlessly aping celebs in the hope having some of the stardust fall on our children?

Maybe it is none of my business. I am all for girls having their bit of fun, living it up a little.  Dressing like grown-ups, experimenting with make-up; we’ve all done it.  But not as public display. After all, the moment we dress up and step out of our homes, we become socially responsible for what we say, how we behave, and what we wear. In the public realm, it DOES become my business.

As I couldn’t help but stare at this ten-something year old in her wedge heels, and loud make-up, (who was accompanied by her mother by the way) it dawned on me.  If the idea was to grab as many eyeballs as possible, the girl (and many others like her) was doing a very good job, indeed.  And that was worrisome. It was not that she was dressed inappropriately in as much the attention she was drawing.  Was she even capable of handling the attention?

Call me paranoid. Call me archaic even.  (Yes, yes, I know all the feminists will be waiting to rip me apart on this one; what with all their talk of  ‘what I wear is no one’s business’) But it’s the brutal truth.  Look around. And then, take a good, hard look at the mirror.  Do you see your little girl? Don’t be in such a hurry to make her a woman.

I’m fifteen for a moment

Caught between ten and twenty….

Fifteen there’s still time for you

Time to buy and time to lose

Fifteen, there’s never a wish better than this

When you only got hundred years to live 

–Lyrics of ‘100 years’ by Five for Fighting

A matter of faith

I was filling up my son’s pre-school admission form when I came upon a pertinent question often asked by educational institutions: religion of father? Religion of mother?   While filling up the appropriate responses (Hindu and Christian, respectively),  I was a tad nervous. Would this in any way affect his chances of securing admission? My friends assured me it wouldn’t. Apparently, some schools give points for intercommunity and intercaste marriage. I was relieved. But the entire episode transported me back a couple of decades when during my first job interview, I was actually asked about my religious preferences. (Fresh out of college and pretty naïve when it came to matters of the corporate world, I did find the question quite out of place). Nevertheless, I went on to answer: Christian. The interviewer looked at me closely and chose to pry further: how come? Your name doesn’t indicate that! (At that point I actually started to wonder where the interview was headed, while mentally venting my angst at my poor parents for not naming me appropriately, whatever that meant). Feeling rather downcast, I answered quietly: Well, my father’s a Hindu. Obviously. So why didn’t you choose to follow Hinduism, asked the interviewer. (By now, I was visibly worried. What IS it with this gentleman? With as much dignity I could muster, I said firmly: It’s a personal choice, sir. Very personal. The gentleman, thankfully, got the hint and gave up.

Little did I realize that this was only the beginning. My family’s background (my parents interreligious marriage) would eventually become a matter of great curiosity in subsequent workplaces and social events. What was commonplace for me was seen as something extraordinary by some. Others actually began to view me as some sort of exotic and rare bird, to be poked and prodded and scrutinized. I was happy to oblige. (Deep down, I was quite proud of my lineage). What was the big deal anyway? Yes, so my parents had different faiths. And to add to that, they also came from two starkly different communities (For those of you who have seen the recent Bollywood blockbuster Vicky Donor, you’ll get the drift. My father is quite the Bengali bhadralok, while my mother draws her lineage from the hardy Punjab immigrants who migrated from Pakistan and subsequently converted to Christianity). A heady mix, some would say. Ironically, it was this very diversity that made our home a truly exciting and enriching place to be.

From Christmas and Easter to Diwali and Durga Puja the festivities were never-ending. Ilish maach, aloo posto, begun bhajja and scrumptious rosogullas were devoured with as much gusto as plum puddings, chocolate Easter bunnies and Christmas cakes. The putting up of the Christmas tree was just as sacramental as the lighting up of the Diwali lamps or a visit to the Puja pandal. Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali folk songs were heard with as much devotion as carols during midnight mass.

The excitement, the passion, the fervour, and the fun were incomparable. The lessons learnt: priceless. I learned to be accepting and tolerant of not just different faiths, but cultures, languages (by age 5, I was speaking Bengali, Hindi, and English) , and people. I learned to be patient. I learned to explore and question. I learned to respect the choices I had and the freedom that followed.

Of course, much of this may not hold much relevance today (after all, I am talking about the seventies when inter-religion and inter-communal marriages were nothing short of sacrilege. My parents’ marriage in 1973 caused quite a furor in the two families!)  But, if media reports and a popular celebrity talk show are to be believed, things are not radically different today. Intercommunity, inter caste marriages are still frowned upon. The instances of such marriages may have gone up but the intense reactions that stem from it haven’t changed much over the decades. Sad, but true. It makes me wonder: will my son (also a product of an inter-religion, intercommunity marriage) too be subject to the same scrutiny? I fervently hope not. While I cannot give him any guarantees about what will come his way I CAN only give him this:

  • An enriching and fun environment laden with experiences, stories (about his lineage), and discoveries.
  • A celebration that lasts through the year (in fact, my three-year-old is luckier than me as he gets to celebrate all Assamese festivals in addition to Bengali and Christian ones. He is also learning 4 languages simultaneously – English, Hindi, Bengali, and Assamese.)
  • Openness of thought
  • A will to accept and be tolerant
  • A kaleidoscope of cultures, beliefs, and practices
  • And most of all, the freedom to make his choice.

Summer camp

As you proceed to read this post, you may at some point begin to wonder why I chose to name it so. After all, it does NOT talk about the dime-a-dozen summer camps that seem to have mushroomed overnight in Gurgaon. It does NOT talk about how summer camps have become a rage with suburban parents. And it certainly does NOT talk about all the ‘fun’ activities that summer camps offer. Ostensibly to keep your children ‘creatively engaged’ lest they ‘dream away the summer holidays’.

What it DOES talk about is summer camp of another kind – the kind most of us went to when we were little – @home. Call me old-fashioned (you can even accuse me of not keeping up with the times) but I see little sense in sending my three-year-old (some camps even enrol one-and-half year olds!) in the searing heat for art and craft or gym activities. I’d rather let my three-year-old just be.

Do we really need to tailor –make his days? I’d rather let him enjoy the whole idea of a summer holiday – with complete abandon, no structure, no timetables. Only then will he learn discipline. I’d rather given him time and space to do whatever he wants to do away from his school environment. Only then will he value school life and the simple pleasures that come with it – riding on the school bus, sharing his lunch box with friends, or playing in the sand pit.  I’d rather let him create his own activities in the confines of his cool room (or as cool as I can make it with the summe

pooltime@summercamp
Nothing like a dip to beat the heat!

r sun pushing up the mercury to 45 degrees!) Only then will he learn to manage his time. Let him even stare into space, if he wants to. Only then will he learn to use his imagination and explore the wonderful world of make-believe.

Let him feel the intensity of hot summer days, the stillness in the air, and the idleness of each passing hour. Let him yearn for the setting sun and the promise it brings; of a game of ball in the park, taking a dip in the splash pool, cycling with friends or feeding a stray dog. Only then will he appreciate the camaraderie between friends, the joy of getting dirty, even a sense of pride in showing of his latest injury (a scraped knee) or something as inane as enjoying a glass of cold milk.

art@summercamp
Just discovered poster paints & finger paints…what fun!

After all, weren’t most of our childhood days filled with inane, simple joys? Just regular stuff that any childhood is made of. Hide and seek. Playing house. Playing pretend. Climbing trees. Sharing glasses of cold lemonade with friends. Hosing down the garden, the dog, and oneself. Gobbling homemade mango ice-cream. Plucking raw mangoes from the neighbour’s prized tree. Topped off with a visit to the grandparents where other aunts, uncles, and cousins would join the summer fiesta. Just ordinary, regular stuff. Simple, pure fun. Most of us lived it. And were none the worse for it.

Music time@summercamp
My three-year-old just loves the casio…can play for an hour without distractions!

These were summer camps of another kind. The kind that lived on in our memories long after they were over. The kind that showed us that just as there are lessons to be learned in school, or a gym class, or a hobby class, there are equally valuable lessons to be learned from the ordinary, simple things in life.

Maybe few years down the line, when my son turns seven or even eight, I’d probably start thinking of channelizing his energies, so to say. When he is better able to understand the words he can spell, maybe summer camp would make better sense. Till then, I’d rather just let him be what he is – a happy, active, regular, three-year-old!