Friday, December 31, 2010 0 comments

Loneliness and the "social animal"

A year is nearing its end as I write this post. We will be moving into 2011, hopefully a  new and happy year! Nearly forty such new years have come and gone through my life.. But ushering in the new year seems to have become something so different from what it used to be when we were younger. The news today on television was full of how Bombay is getting ready to "party" despite possibilities of a terror attack. Police in Bombay are considering extending liquor sales hours in the bars till 5AM. It is not just Bombay but conservative Madras ( or Chennai) also seems to be gearing up to party! Advertisements abound in newspapers about hotels hosting "New Year Extravagazas" for which one has to pay a huge entry fee.

Life in Metros certainly seems to have undergone a huge change! To "party" is something that appears to have become a compulsive need. Now, this is not something bad-going to a party and meeting friends and/or relatives is a part of being a social animal that defines being human. But given the way we seem to be living our daily existence with little or no contact with our immediate neighbours and investing a large part of our day at work it is really surprising that we should want to define our social existence amidst strangers...!!

Now let me explain this a bit more. We leave our homes in the mornings for work and come back often so late in the evenings that we do not have much time for either our friends or our families. Then, when an occasion comes to celebrate we prefer to go out again into the maddening crowd to enjoy ourselves!! We like to go into crowded resturants or discos to spend an evening with family and friends. I wonder how it might have been  had we stayed at home and spent quality time together - either having a pot luck meal or ordering food from outside ( from the same resturants where we wait endlessly to be seated on a Saturday evening or new year)?

I think it may be the complete loneliness of our existence in these urban settings which seeks comfort in a crowd.  I rarely see groups of 2-3 youngsters these days in any public place - they are usually in 2-3 dozens! Now when a dozen or more in itself is a crowd why do they have to go out again into a crowd is something that beats me!!

So, when loneliness is the unstated fear that most people have, invitation to join a crowd in the name of socializing becomes the psychological weapon to wield power. Birthdays for kids are no longer events that involved inviting a few  friends with mom cooking- they are now complicated affairs which involve strategising on who to call and who not to- they certainly are learning young these days!! People become so desparate to be included into the crowd that they are willing to do anything for it!!

I remember meeting a young girl on the street some time back when my daugther and I were coming back after grocery shopping. This pretty twenty something girl stopped me and asked " Ma'm is there a mall somewhere nearby where I can  hang out?" When we moved on after informing her that there were no malls nearby for her to "hang out" my daughter voiced the question that was ringing in my mind  " Why does she want to be out in a mall?"- the same reason I guess why people want to be out on a new year- deriving comfort from the presence of a large number of people around them rather than being home alone!
Friday, December 17, 2010 2 comments

The Value of Time at the workplace.

We Indians are a peculiar lot- we haggle over prices of most things that we buy. Despite the huge amounts that some of us may be earning, we do not want to spend even one paisa extra on any  item in the interest of "not wasting our money". 

But there is something that we waste liberally -time. We are very lavish in the way we throw it away little realizing that this probably is the only resource  that we may never get back/

To illustrate this let me take you to a familiar scene - meetings in Indian offices. They are probably the best examples of how we throw away this valuable resource. A meeting that is scheduled to start at a particular time rarely does. No body and nobody adheres to the time limit mentioned in an agenda !! We love to talk and this becomes a major challenge - each one of us trying to "out talk" the other and all this finally exceeding the agreed duration of a meeting. Nowadays with powerpoints aiding us in the talking - we make the world literally "our stage". A fifteen minute presentation usually has more than 30 slides and the presenter reads through all the material on the slide finally taking another good ten minutes to speak about things not written on the slide. Others, not to be outdone then give their opinions/ views and we slowly find that the topic goes way out of focus but no one realizes it until we have lost about one hour or so and we have to come to some decision regarding the original topic under discussion. So we get back and start again...

So what does all this do to a eight hour working day ? It extends to nine , ten or eleven hours and we leave our office feeling great about having worked so hard. The quest ion is - have we?

We seem to confuse time spent on an activity as the mesure of effort and that in turn is linked to the sincerity of any employee. The first to arrive and the last to leave in any office is seen as the best role model.

It is really sad the way we seem to be conducting our lives these days. Given the difficultites of commuting to work and back it becomes all the more important to ensure we complete our work within the eight hours alloted and get back in time to see our children awake , play with them and enjoy their childhood. We will never get these moments back but we do not seem to realize this. We become embroiled in a system that wastes our time and that of others and we contribute to it in our own ways.

I have a friend from abroad who once told me " Eight hours is the normal time it takes to get a day's work done in an office. If anyone takes longer to complete something s/he is lying". 

I guess in India, if someone took less time than that to complete something they are probably perceived as insignificant people within the organization with no "work". Our entire system revels in working on an average for 9-10 hours perpetuating inefficiencies at every level and ending the day with a smug and happy feeling of having been recognized as "hardworking"!
Saturday, December 11, 2010 2 comments

Celebrating festivals - then and now.

I love Autumn and Winter-they have a very festive air about them! First and foremost, the weather - an oppresively hot city like Chennai, starts getting cooler once we cross October. Navratri, Durga Puja Diwali, Christmas and Eid- so many festivals ! Let  me try and express  how I feel about this season. Since we are in December or Marghazi  I will start with this month and go backwards.

I love the early "Margazhi mornings"- the music playing from the temple loudspeakers as I go for my morning walk. Occasionally I meet a troupe of Bhajan Singers dressed in thick sweaters and scarves braving the Chennai "cold" weather. I remember a childhood waking up to listening to my mother play M. L. VasanthaKumari's Thiruppavai- songs of Andaal ( our own South Indian version of Meerabai) of Sriviliputhur asking her friends to join her for a morning swim and pluck flowers to make garlands for her lord.

I absolutely adore the "Christmasssy" feel of the December evenings- the brightly lit houses and churches with the stars hanging outside, the Christmas trees that are put up. At home, I enjoy the hustle and bustle of getting things together to bake a cake ( though I dont actually bake I definitely participate in the spirit of the activity!), the conspiracy of buying presents to put under the Christmas tree and ofcourse listening to any carol singers who might come home. At college I remember being part of a carol group that used to go singing within and outside the campus.

Going further back into Oct- Nove,  I cherish the feel of  the Diwali and Durga Puja season. I love the crazy shopping adventures, the "bakshanams" to be bought and distributed for Diwali and the lighting of lamps in the evening. (What I probably do not like about Diwali is the sound of the crackers that in Chennai starts so early in the morning. )

Durga Puja - which is the first  festival that heralds this season of enjoyment has a very special place in my heart-it is the festival of my childhood. Early mornings on Mahalya day ,  All India Radio used to play the Devi Shloka " Ya Devi Sarva bhutesho"..... Sanskrit shlokas recited by artistes of the AIR Kolkata in a distinctly strong Bengali accent. Come Saptamai, the memories are of evenings  spent at  "pandals" with beautiful Durga Pratimas, the bustling crowds, the blasting music in loudspeaks and the new clothes that we used to wear.

Somewhere in this season would also come Eid after the month of Ramzan when our Muslim friends used to share Biryani and Sweets  ( in my case only the Sevai sweet as I am a vegetarian) with us during my days at Hyderabad.

I sometimes wonder if I had lived anywhere other than in India, would I have had the pleasure of being part of so many festivals in a matter of just 3-4 months? Right from my childhood every festival was a celebration whether I understood the religious significance of it or not.  There was a spirit of brother/sisterhood in everything that we did during these celebrations. Our muslim and christian friends would be as much a part of Diwali cracker bursting as we would be part of the carol singing. It was more than just "religious tolerence" that was expected of citizens of a secular country.  As  a secular country, in India  all  festivals  have a cultural angle to them which make them very inclusive.

But these days I sometimes sense a feeling of aloofness among some people when it comes to celebrations. I first sensed this during my college days when one of my classmates asked me "Why are you joining all this carol singing. You are not a Christian"? I was so shocked to hear that. I had never thought that there was a religious angle to it. 

Today as a Hindu married to a Christian and living in a largely Tamil Brahmin neighbourhood I sense again this feeling of exclusion when I am not invited by any of my neigbours for the navrathri gollu exhibitions. I dont know if they think that I may have converted and become a christian and are therefore punishing me by exclusion. But the question is what is wrong in inviting a Christian neighbour for an exhibition of dolls?

What in my understanding seems to be the change these days is that a certain religious "perversity" seems to be underlying celebrations of all festivals. This has led to certain behaviour patterns that border on aggression while celebrating any festival- an aggression that seems to announce the fact "yes we belong to this relgion and we will jolly well celebrate this festival!". Now there is nothing wrong in exercising that right in a secular country like ours. What I am lamenting about is the loss of that  genuine spirit of happiness that used to be so infectious in those good old days- when cultures used to diffuse from one religion into another like a fragrance.

Today though we growing technologically and economically more prosperous as a nation, we seem to have become narrower in our thinking. We seem to be  heading towards an India where we are trying to reinvent ourselves using religion as the parameter of defining difference. And while defining ourselves we are also defining the "other' who is no longer  accepted as the neighbour who lived with us for decades and whose children played with ours on the same streets!

Sad but true...!
Sunday, December 5, 2010 3 comments

Out of Africa

" I had a farm in Africa..." says Meryl Streep as she plays Karen Brixen in the film "Out of Africa".
This sentence  fired my imagination when I was nineteen years old and ever since then Africa became a place that I definitely wanted to visit. It took me over two decades to actually get there- get right there to Karen Brixen's estate, her house and see for real the rooms that I saw in the film, Probably what was missing was seeing Meryl Streep and Robert Redford sitting in there.  It  is an interesting story - a story of an extra marital love affair, somehow made more romantic by the beautiful Kenyan landscape around.

One of the first thing that strikes you when you get off at the Nairobi airport is a feeling of warmth. The accents are different but the smiles are broader. I actually saw an immigration officer smile at me when he took my passport in- very different from his Indian counterpart at the Chennai airport who quizzed me on why I was visiting Africa so often- " You have been to Cairo, Addis Abba and now Nairobi? Why Madam? What kind of work do you do?"  I did my best to explain the kind of job I was doing but I am not sure if I convinced him.

Once out of the airport the interesting thing you notice are the number of placards that carry names of NGOs- Action Aid, OXFAM, IIRR- so different from Chennai where you see either hotel names or names of different companies. I think if I were to explain to an African taxi driver what I do he would probably understand it better than an officer from the Ministry of External Affairs in India.  I wonder if that is the trajectory of how development shapes our thinking.

A 30 minute drive with three other South Asian participants takes me to the KCB training centre at Karen ( yes, named after my favourite Karen Brixen!) . Once I get into my room I am intrigued to see the mosquito net- reminds me of the romance scenes in Hindi movies- a white curtain draped over the bed . It certainly does not bear any resemblence to the white cage from my childhood which used to be tied to the four posters of the bed and tucked under the mattress!

I wake up at 5.45 AM- 8.15 Indian time when Airtel 121 religiously sends me a message telling me my unbilled amount (or is it billed amount? I dont know). Deciding to go out for a walk I realize how cold it is! I am glad I brought a couple of sweaters with me despite some well meaning well wishers who gave me advice like - "Oh why woolens in Africa? Isnt it near the equator always hot and sweaty"? or " It is in the southern hemisphere must be summer now so why warm clothes". Tells us how perceptions about Africa differ ..! I meet two crested cranes who look up at me curiously,  3 Maribu Storks who stand huddled in the cold and then meet some of the workers on the training centre. Every one of them smiles and wishes me "Good Morning"- this is a memory of Kenya that I will always carry with me - the smile and the cheery greetings!

Work begins and we start getting together at the "write shop" producing that book we came here to write. Interesting experience meeting so many people from so many countries. I must confess this - I always used to think of Africans as one group but this was the first time I realized that there were many Africans who were as foreign to Kenya as I was - participants from Ghana, Cameroon, Tanzania, Uganda..!! This interaction with Africans also told me something about how we Indians are perceived in Africa. The perception unfortunately is not a very pleasant one. "Indians do not treat people working under them well" said a Kenyan friend. " They dont want to live with others. They have exclusive buildings where they want only their kind to stay". Sad but probably true. We Indians have a ghetto mentality which prevents us from integrating with other cultures and we probably are as much a group of racists as the whites treating Africans badly. I try to explain to them about how I am from Southern India  and racially a Dravidian and therefore closer to the Africans. " So you are not a Patel"? asks someone. " No I am not" I assure them.

Work goes on and as we get ready to go back to our rooms in the evening, some of us women spend time chatting about ourselves and our families - interestingly all conversations that we have some how comes back to discussions about mothers-in-law. This is probably a universally common topic that women across the world like to discuss! As development professionals all of us have faced disapprovals from our mothers in law for travelling too much- some have been more vocal than others in their disapproval.

The weekend appraoches and we take a break on Friday night dancing away till early Saturday morning. I am really surprised at the popularity of the Bollywood dance moves- people from as far away as Peru are doing the Bhangra Steps...! " I will show you some Bangla Dance steps" says Kohinoor from Bangladesh as she does "Rabindra Nritya" to the Salsa Music !!

We visit the Karen Brixen museum over the weekend, go to the Masai market in Nairobi and strike some hard bargains on the lovely bags and jewellery- I think this was more difficult than Sarojini market or Gariahaat.. though the rules of the game were very similar.

Sunday morning we leave very early to see the wild life at the Nairobi national park- we are lucky as we see 3 out of Kenya's big five - Lion, Buffalo and Rhino. Tiered we get back to the training centre and begin work again. A Kenyan friend starts laughing when I tell him that we have a dairy project here with buffaloes. "What about elephants? When are you going to start milking them?" I try and explain to him the difference between the Kenyan wild buffalo and the Murrah buffalo in our project areas. But he is too amused to listen.
I hear a participant from Ghana tell me about Shea Butter and how that goes into making cosmetics. I try to imagine women pounding it out of the nuts. He shows me a small video clip on his computer.

Suddenly I realize that I just have one day left. With good byes being said over the eveining I leave for the airport. At the check in counter as I try to manage my bags  the airline check in clerk asks me if I am "OK"? I travelled by the same airline from Chennai but the check in counter clerk there did not glance beyond  my ticket and passport- what a difference!!!

I board the flight to Dubai and from here I change flights to Chennai. The stewardess assumes that I would need a vegetarian breakfast- I tell her NO and ask for eggs and bread. I recall how on my onward flight from Chennai to Dubai another Stewardess had just assumed that since I was a woman I would not drink anything alchoholic. I had asked for wine with the same vengence that I now asked for eggs...!!!

Reached a rainy and wet Chennai- tiered  but happy to be at last back home!!

Certainly folks.. this has been a wonderful experience. I want to do this again -this time with the rest of the family.
Saturday, November 6, 2010 9 comments

The musical value chain

Writing  as I have been on value chains for the last two days, I suddenly stopped to think if hindi film music were a value chain - how would it work?

There is a poet or lyricist who writes the words in which s/he probably tries to convey the emotions that the situation demands. This then is taken forward by the music composer who has to set a tune to the words and then the singer who has to infuse passion into the words and the music before it goes on to the actor who emotes it on screen. However in reality it is obvioulsy not that simple or linear. The music has to do justice to the poetry, the singing to both the music and the lyrics and the actor being the lynch pin who brings it all together to get the magic to work on screen. Just imagine if Gulzar's " Mera Kuchh Saaman" had been set to music by Himesh Reshamiyya and sung by Sunidhi Chauhan and emoted by Katrina Kaif.?

Doesn't gel does it?

Good music requires all of everything to come together in just the right quantities. This is particularly challenging in a Bollywood context where, unlike in western musical albums the person singing does not write the song and compose the music. So how do different people put their little bits together so perfectly to make up a magical whole? I think it is chemistry. Chemistry that exists between people who think alike and feel alike about similar things. So we had Gulzar- R D Burman and Kishore Kumar coming together  to create that kind of a chemistry. O.P. Nayyar and Asha did that often as did Asha and R. D later on.

It also probably explains why singers and composers often get emotionally involved. The chemistry of creating magic I suppose rubs off on them  ( though I have not really come across singers falling in love with lyricists- guess they are too far away in the musical "value chain").

It is interesting to note at this point that  when the final product has to be showcased by the actor on the screen it may not really do justice to the efforts lower down in the chain. While it is easy to blame the actor it is also the situation on screen that may not do justice to the song. Imagine the song " Roz roz akhon tale" written by Gulzar with lovely music by RD, sung with feeling by Amit Kumar and Asha is finally picturized on Sanjay Dutt and Mandakini is a very mundane situation sans emotions. Compare instead with " Tum aa gaye ho noor aa gaya hai" with largely the same combination - Gulzar, RD, Kishore and picturised on Sanjeev Kumar and Suchitra Sen? So where has it all gone wrong? A change in the way music is made these days I guess. Much of it probably has to do with the fact that what passes for music these days in Hindi films are different prefabricated pieces that are joined together- they dont evolve out of each other.

I will conclude by quoting  a song from  " Prem Pujari" , " Shokhiyon mein ghola jaya thoda sa shabab/ usme phir milayi jaye thodi si sharaab/ Hoga phir nasha jo tayaaar woh pyar hai...". 

That folks explains the ingredients of good music very effectively - love and intoxication!

Monday, October 25, 2010 4 comments

Jane Kahan Gaye Woh Din- health drinks and hard times

I read somewhere that there are roughly three stages in a person's life - Stage 1 " My daddy can beat your daddy"  followed by Stage 2 " Oh dad you dont know anything" and finally " My father used to say....". I guess I am fast approaching stage 3 because I have often been thinking about what it used to be like those days when we were growing up.

Somehow, health drinks seem to be the triggers that cause these musings- Ovaltine, Horlicks and Bournvita being the important brands. I remember my childhood when my grandmother used to refer to all chocholate flavoured powders to be mixed into milk as "Ovaltine". " Drink up your ovaltine" she used to say and I remember gazing at  those orange coloured tins lining her kitchen shelves. Followed by Ovaltine are memories of primary school days when radio jingles and programs used to talk about some one called "Suchitra" and her healthy family consisting of her husband Shankar and children Sujata and a son whose name I am unable to recollect. Suchitra was this smart housewife who used to manage her house efficiently and keep her family on a healthy diet of which Horlicks was an important part. The Horlicks stage was replaced by Bournvita - memories mainly being of Amin Sayani and his "Bournvita Quiz Contest".  Lunch time on Sundays were never complete without hearing Amin Sayani's cheerful voice saying "Cadbury's presents the Bournvita Quiz Contest" followed by the jingle " At school at play all through each day .. with that energy .. you stay ahead.."

Today when I go shopping I see so many brands but somehow  the mind is unable to focus on a particular brand. I wonder if I am getting Attention Deficit Disorder in my middle age.

But coming back to the health drinks- I remember the Bournvita tins and collecting the labels to buy the Bournvita book of knowledge. I remember being  crazy about the Moscow olympics mascot Misha popularized by Bournvita . I had so many posters of this bear that I think it caused a psychological stress on my poor grandmother who once had a nightmare that she was frying dosas and suddenly found the bear sitting on the tava. She woke up shouting "Help! Help !".

I wonder how my mother managed the family during those hard times when there was a shortage of almost everything. Guess Suchitra of Horlicks was modeled around women like her. An era of shortages also included I guess a shortage of wants. The most exotic thing that I have ever wanted while in primary school was a "scent rubber"- an eraser which had a mild perfume ( or so we thought). One of my friends craved for a "parle orange ball" - an orange plastic ball filled with orange coloured hard boiled sweets. We used to spend hours fantasising over what it would be like when we could actually get these things.

Today when I spend over Rs 1000 every time I go for a mid month  casual grocery shopping  I feel guilty because I wonder if my father would approve of some of the things I have bought - frankly, even I know that I dont need them. I sometimes cringe over the number of plastic shopping bags that I bring into the house thinking of the newspaper packs and the wicker baskets of my parents' grocery shopping expeditions.  I do not total grocery bills and recheck them and I often do not count small change.

How have I become so careless and callous? Suchitra, I am sure would not have approved. But then today's efficient housewife or mom is not a Suchitra. She is a fashionable , multi - tasking super woman who like me, is a super consumer. 

Everyone is aspiring for this and much more. Wants are replaced by more wants... But the question is whether and how long we can sustain this?
Sunday, October 17, 2010 5 comments

Tall, Dark and Handsome Men... whatever happened to them?

The year was 1982 when I first came across this description- Tall, Dark and Handsome ( hence forth to be referred as TDH) . These were adjectives used to describe the central male charachters in the romances that we used to devour through our teens. All these romances  brought out by a publication house called "Mills and Boon" played an important part in the shaping of our growing female dreams and fantasies. We used to have a TDH scale on which we graded film stars that we swooned over (being in an all girls school we had limited opportunities to meet real males worthy of being rated on the TDH meter!). Later in college, when we did meet guys, we found  many of them modelling themselves around these charachters- some successfully and some disastrously unsuccessfully!!

Today nearly nearly quarter of a century  later  I was curious to know what or who fueled my nearly thirteen year old daughter and her peers' fantasies. So began my journey into the world of what is called the "Twilight saga". Written by someone called Stephenie Meyer these books have interesting names like " Twilight", "Eclipse", "Breaking Dawn". The central charachter in this book is a person called Edward Cullen who is .. hold your breath- A VAMPIRE !!! Being a vampire he is immortal and is frozen at the age of seventeen though he is in reality about a hundred years older. So who falls in love with him? An eighteen year old girl called Bella who longs for him to bite her and turn her into another vampire...!!! There is also a small love triangle in this folks- another guy called Jacob who is a werewolf...!!!! Vampires and Werewolves apparently dont get along ...!!! All these charachters study in some American High School...! Bella wants to marry Edward and become an immortal vampire like him. Her parents ( who are divorced) are surprised but agree because she is eighteen and can anyway get married with or without their blessings. There are other interesting parts of this love story- a baby who is part human, part vampire and apparently part werewolf. It has to be fed on donated blood ( formula does not agree with them)... and so life goes on..

These books throw up an interesting question about teenagers today. Is "normal"  so boring? Are S&M fantasies going to shape their sexuality? How then would they relate to a real person? As a mom I am a little concerned. Though my daughter is a late entrant into this world of vampires she has read four books in a matter of four weeks just so she could relate to her peers and join in the discussions around Bella and Edward.

Going back to my school days I wonder if our thinking about TDH  males was considered abnormal by our parents? Though I dont think we actually allowed them to know that we were reading such books as they were carefully covered in newspapers ( to guard prying eyes from looking at those lurid covers), people like my father who were naturally nosy did find them and I think even read a couple of them finally pronouncing them as "trash"!! He also felt that the only real kind of person(s) who might actually meet up to the description of the central male charachter would be the rickshaw wallahs of Kolkata- his way of dealing with   discomfort about his daughter's growing female sexuality!!

But seriously folks.. I wonder what is so attractive about a thin, white and cold vampire who longs to suck blood? Are we talking about a future where men might start modelling themselves along these lines or are Haemophlic men going to be the icons of the future?

I (and I am sure a hundred other moms ) certainly do not want a vampire for a son-in-law...nor do we want grandchildren who have to be fed on donated blood..!!!
Thursday, October 14, 2010 5 comments

The loss of passion

Last week one of my colleagues accused  me of  "having lost my passion". He told me that he now sees me "just doing my job". I have been reflecting ever since on that..

 I go back in time to my student days when "passion" was my problem. I was told to remain "emotionally detached" by one of my professors.

I wonder what has happened to me within the one and a half decades of work in the development sector?

One of the answers that I can think of is that over the years one goes from being an individual who is working for change to being an employee of an organization that specializes in the change business. Though organizations like these are supposedly driven by a collectivisation of passion for change it is very rarely the case.. these are organizations just like others and over the years people's dreams of social change begin to include in them dreams of individual achievements.  Not something to be ashamed of - we are afterall not Mother Teresa. We work as paid employees in an organization.

But I realize that passion is probably a premium that is very much in demand.. Organizations view such passionate people as the adrenalin that keeps them on a high. But the problem is that passion is not something that is in unlimited supply. It is something that has to be kept alive. Each of us goes through different life experiences and often the passion runs out. Human failings keep cropping up - afterall even true love comes with  blemishes like jelousy.

So the question is  should someone be blamed for the loss of passion?

And anyway what is wrong with doing "one's job"? After all in India we celebrate the performance of one's duty- "Kartavya Palan"!!! We can then save the passion for something or someone that we really love.. organizations are unfortunately not so -they are self perpetuating.

But that brings us back of the issue of the loss of my passion -
I would like to say that passion for issues does not die out but passion for work on those issues along the lines of organizational deliverables may rise or fall depending on the extent of motivation. That folks is not an individual failing but probably an organizational one.... !!!
Friday, October 1, 2010 1 comments

GARBAGE……………………… and its disposal

After a very “insightful” first blog ( your words…  not mine !) I am now going to write about Garbage!!!

My life is very closely associated with Garbage- there is a garbage bin right outside our gate. It has become such a permanent fixture there now that we have decided to formalize its presence  by mentioning it as a land mark – “ the house next to the Kuppa Thotti” is what  we say while defining where we stay. The years that it has stayed there undisturbed has led to the Corporation authorities deciding to designate the pavement outside our house as THE SPOT for residents of 2nd

Main Road  to dispose their garbage in- they have even built a small little alcove for it to rest in comfort!
So what happens when there is a garbage bin outside one’s home?

Garbage becomes an integral part of one’s existence!

We found  that our home took on the character of  the stands of a football/basket ball stadium. We, as strategically positioned spectators watched  when “missed goals” in the form of garbage bags aimed carelessly landed inside our compound wall. Unfortunately, we did not feel like cheering. In fact, the various maids from the surrounding flats who were the star strikers/shooters in this basket ball/ foot ball match did not pause for us. They left the spot even before we could say “hey”!!!

We thought often of putting up sign boards that say “ Please do not aim your garbage into the bin- remember to throw it in” . But  it was a little baffling to decide which language to use – Tamil or English. We were also not sure if the offenders would read them ( after all there are so many such “preachy” sign boards all across the city). My husband , who is more experienced than me  in communicating with people with lower IQs and shorter attention spans said that we should instead have a sign board that  that read “ Do you want to learn how to aim right? Contact xxxxxxxxx”

But as Indians we spend such a lot of our time making decisions  that when it comes to implementation we find that the situation has changed. This is exactly what happened.

Old age stuck the bin and it began to groan under the weight of its contents. The Corporation authorities decided to replace it – with an even older bin ( I think our bin was not old but “experienced” !) The last I heard , our experienced old bin  was seen on  Warren road (where many VIPS live)  reveling in celebrity garbage.

Meanwhile the new bin found the load of garbage on 2nd Main Road too much to handle. With so many twice born citizens populating the area, there was heavy cleaning of homes twice, thrice and often more in the name of ritual purity. While homes sparkled, garbage started overflowing onto the pavement outside our house . To add to this problem ,we found that all the inner road garbage was being collected by the Corporation authorities and brought all the way to this poor bin. So, we were literally surrounded by garbage which made its way inside our compound and right up to our front door!!

I was amazed at the kind of things that people were trying to dispose off - thermocole sheets being one of them- these huge sheets were flying all around the compound ready to hit any one who was not careful enough to avoid them. The sea breeze did not make life any easier as garbage lifted itself to higher levels moving on to our first floor balcony.

Complaints to the corporation authorities did not result in action. Garbage continued to pile up and be strewn around.

It was then that I decided to take action. Years of experience in the social sector with enough   interaction with “rights based groups” had taught me a few things. One of them being – Communities address a problem only when it is common to all its members. My daughter and I devised an ingenious plan- we would drag the bin to the middle of the road early one morning and topple it over! Garbage would then be strewn all across the main road ( not to mention bits that would take the aerial path into the balconies of the flats nearby). We were almost finalizing the last strategic bits when the daughter in all her enthusiasm decided to share it with her father.

Unfortunately, her father does not believe in “rights based approaches” to problem solving. Poor man, being a diplomat was horrified ( I don’t know what alarmed him more- the outcome of flying garbage across the main road or visions of his wife and daughter pushing a garbage bin across the road). He started leveraging all his contacts. To say I was impressed is an understatement! He called beaureucrats, he called elected representatives, he called opposition parties. As Sir Walter Scott writes in Lochinvar –        “ Fosters, Fenwicks, Musgraves- they rode and they ran”! Calls came on mobile phones, land lines – upstairs and downstairs. Before I could say "Garbage",  I found a fat new bin outside – this time with a lid!!

My daughter is really impressed that even the threat of “direct action” could result in such a quick remedy to a difficult situation. She has shared it with all who care to hear about it. I now feel like a small celebrity in my circle of friends and relatives. People ask me “ Would you really have done it?”. “ Why not ?” I ask.

A week passed. Other things began to occupy our minds and we forgot about this until we had a visiting relative from overseas. A relative. with whom there is no love lost from my side. I don’t know if she had heard through the family grape vine about my travails in the garbage disposal arena or not but I must tell you something- this wife of a high profile banker, brought for me all the way from the US,a “wonderful” gift – a pack of bin liners!!!!
Sunday, September 26, 2010 11 comments

The world of women

A woman's world, I realized during the last one week is an extremely complex one-so I thought I should start this blog with my thoughts on this.

Our female world has unwritten rules with boundries that are defined by the roles we play. It is surprising that I had never realized this earlier! I guess it has a lot to do with the fact that I had been brought up very differently from other women- my father brought both me and my sister up as human beings and not as girls (though my mother did try her best to shape us to fit into the female world better). A career in a non traditional sector like development,  gave me an opportunity to analyze the lives of other women purely from an academic point of view looking for windows of opportunity for interventions  to improve their lives.

But it was not until  I got maried that I realized that I am very much part of this world - especially when I play the role of a daughter-in- law.

As  a daughter- in- law from another community I found myself in a situation where I had to tread carefully ( to put it mildly). My mother-in- law after the inital hiccups had accepted me with open arms. Women as we know are the gatekeepers to the family relationships defining by their behaviour who is " in" and who is "out" I recall now that this acceptance from my mother in law -a senior woman of the family was the first step in my acceptance into the world of the women of my husband's family and community.

She used to take me with her for all social events introducing me as her younger daughter-in- law. I think the message that she was giving out was " She is now part of our family even though she does not belong to our religion. If you disrespect her you disrespect me".  No one from her family, during her life time dared to be rude to me.  She guided me through the social intricacies of the world of women in her community where I learnt who was to be called "Ammachi" and who was to be addressed as "Kochamma". She taught me the customs and traditions of her community and helped me fit in. I on my part decided to  keep my "controversial" opinions to myself because I did not want to tip this fine balance that she had established.

I saw this world change breifly, after her death last week at her funeral. Without her beside me, I experienced for the first time in fifteen years a feeling of exclusion. I had to literally fight for my rights as a former care giver   of the dead person to bathe and dress her body for the last time! I also realized that  few people from my in laws family were  offering their condolences to me- Did they not think that a daughter in law may actually grow to love her mother in law through fifteen years of living in the same home? But as it was pointed out to me by one of my friends -   we women are defined by our associations - whose wife, whose daugther  etc.  In a woman's world, it is not enough to be a man's  wife- you require certification from another woman to be accepted.

For those few hours when my home was without its rightful mistress- the women of the family were not ready to transfer powers of control to me ( though I was the  operations manager right through the years of my marriage). They decided to order the shamiana, tea. snacks and even decided where it should be served and in which vessels

But as they say " The Queen is dead- long live the Queen". There is always one matriarch to replace another in a family. I found a subtle change in the situation when my mother - in - law's younger sister arrived on the scene. I saw the way in which she quietly took on the mantle of her older sister. Women of the family  began defering to her for her opinion .

 I  appreciate the way she quickly perceived my exclusion and reached out to include me in the activities at home. The situation further improved in my favour when my mother-in-law's friends started coming in and each of those dear old ladies reached out to me demonstrating in every way that they accepted and acknowledged me completely as a member of the family and of their community. So now I found that the same women who had excluded me  asked me " Do you want the phone number of the caterer?" " Do you have a bigger vessel for the rice?" It was quite interesting to see this change! I almost sensed my mother in law smiling from wherever she was at that point- I also sensed a feeling of achievement in her sister who realized that she had been accepted and acknowledged as the matriarch !

Post funeral I have been reflecting- is all this so important to me?  I think it is -because families are all about acceptances and inclusions. In Indian families women play an important role in keeping this going. We need to bend the rules of our world a little and include more women into the inner circle- that is what keeps female fraternity going. Elders play an important role in this but  we younger women can appreciate this more and stop being threatened by each other. Threat perceptions do not build solidarity. Acceptances and inclusions do...!!!