Sunday, February 27, 2011 12 comments

Sita- deifying meekness and passivity

I was trying to help my thirteen year old daughter with her Hindi lesson-a play called "Raj Rani Sita". The entire play is about how Ravan the king of the island of Lanka tries to convince Sita to accept him as her husband. Set in the Ashok Vaatika ( the Ashok Garden) in the golden kingdom of Lanka the play is all about how Sita rebuffs his advances stating that he is no match for her husband and is ready to be killed rather than accept the demon king as her husband.

For the uninitiated, this scene is from the great Indian epic of Ramayan which is about Ram the prince of Ayodhya who is banished to the forest by their father to keep a promise made to one of his wives. Sita, the wife and Lakshman the younger brother follow Ram into the forest. While in the forest Shurpankha the sister of the demon king Raavan falls in love with Ram and tries to entice him. Ram defers her attentions to his younger brother who in a rage cuts off her nose. There are series of events during which the brothers run after a magical golden deer and during their abasence the demon king comes dressed as an ascetic begging for alms and Sita steps out of a the protective circle drawn by her brother in law Lakshman and in the process gets kidnapped by Ravan. Ravan is so charmed by Sita's beauty that what probably began as a revenge on his sister's insult now becomes an obssesive passion .

One of the  things that  I always wondered was what was Sita doing while Shurpanakha was trying to entice her husband? Was she just sitting there smiling and stringing flowers? Why did she not tell her - one woman to another to "lay off"? It would have probably been quite easy to do that. It would have ensured that the woman did not get insulted by her brother-in-law Lakshman.

The word "Lakshman Rekha" or ( Lakshman's circle) is often used as a euphemism to describe the controls on women's mobility. It is by stepping outside the circle that Sita got kidnapped..! So the message for all women is quite clear - dont go outside the boundaries defined by your traditional roles!

Going back to Ramayan, my daugther and I were wondering why Sita did not try to escape. Yes, she was heavily guarded but then she could have used some way to trick the demon king..! Infact even when Ram's emissary Hanuman offers to carry her on his shoulders and fly off across the sea to Rameshwarm where her husband was she refuses the offer. I guess all this  would have messed with the plot that was essentially about celebrating a man's valour- Ram's! The relgious texts interpret it differently -  the objective of Ram's birth as an avaatar of Vishnu on earth was to vanquish Ravan. But none of this explains the inconsistencies with regard to his very human like behaviour which I will explain in the coming paragraph.

Well, there is a war in which Ram emerges victorious . But instead of getting ready to release his wife and getting back to Ayodhya, he suddenly seems to develop doubts about Sita's chastity. So the poor woman has to attempt burning herself to prove her purity- an "innovative" practice that was later institutialized with a few modifications in the form of sati in Indian society! The man again ( Ram) later seems to be more concerned about what people think about his having accepted a woman who has lived away from him for a couple of years in the kingdom of a man who was trying to convince her to marry him. So what does he do? He banishes his pregnant wife into the forest..! Towards the end of the epic the poor woman probably had enough of all of this and asks the earth to swallow her up..!

Yet, Sita is the idol that most Indian women are groomed to aspire towards - the word "Pativrata" or devoted to one's husband is a very peculiar terminology in most Indian languages! An ideal wife is supposed to be like Sita, bearing all the injustices heaped on her by her husband. I am actually a little surprised that the Council for Indian School certitifacte examinations should select a play like this for children to read... There are a lot of contemprary works in Hindi that are about more assertive women than Sita. There are also stronger women than Sita in our mythology and history.. yet nobody has achieved her kind of distinction and fame.

I think this is a celebration of patriarchy... a tradtion that deifies meekness in women. The daughter of mother earth- one could have epected a more realistic potrayal of the princess of Mithila- a woman of the Kshatriya clan who in all probablility would have also been trained in war fare. A woman who would have not been contained inside a circle that restricted her movements. A woman who could and would have hunted for deer as well as her husband and her borther-in-law!

But I guess mythology and history is all about interpretations and in a society as patriarchal as ours the passivity of women is a virtue that is very priced! It helps to maintain status quo with regard to the power equations..!

The sad thing is that we continue to deify her qualities even in this age and times!

Thursday, February 24, 2011 15 comments

Technologically Challenged!

My mobile rings... keeps ringing! I look at it with suspicion!

No, I don't suspect a blackmailer or an obnoxious caller at the other end! I just am not sure which  button to press to answer the call! The green one.. I decide! But somehow a red window pops up that says " Call rejected"!! Now, how did that happen I wonder?

This friends, has been my state since last Saturday when I became the proud owner of a Nokia C7 touch screen mobile! I remember my visit to the shop. I had decided I would buy a "functional" phone, something like the five year old relic that I had with me .. but the salesman and my husband both convinced me to go for this "smart phone" and here I am wondering how I should go about learning to use it. Please dont tell me to read the manual- a person like me who cannot even follow a recipe finds manuals completely useless!

I ask my husband to call me- he does but the name display does not show. So I run back to the shop. The twenty something boy who sold me the phone looks at me with pity-" Ma'm your numbers must have been stored on your old phone and not on your sim. Please give me the old phone". I take it out from the depths of my bag. He looks at it as though he has seen something pre historic- "How old is this phone"? I tell him. He looks shocked! "Ma'm you mean you have not changed your phone in five years?"  " No" I tell him- not even when it fell into a pot of sambar- I just wiped it and continued talking into it...! He looks at me with new interest. I stare back.

I come back and try to send a text message to a friend. He replies " Why have you sent me a blank message?"  Did I?

I try to get into face book and announce my new aquisition on my wall. The letters seem very small. I rub my fingers across the screen as I was taught to do and suddenly I feel that I am looking through a magnifying glass- only one word is visible. I try to minimize it and after a lot of struggle succeed. My sister comments on my wall post " So you like your own comment?"

My daugther comes back from school and grabs the phone.. she quickly figures out how to make a call and is on the line with her friend. I look at her with respect! She starts clicking snaps and arranging them in a collage to make a screen saver..! My god.. why cant I do what a thirteen year old is doing so effortlessly?

I think there must be something genetic about this challenged state.. I remember two years ago when I had gifted my father a new mobile for his birthday. I had taken his old one away and bought a slightly advanced version of the same phone- the poor man was really upset!  Even after two years of using his phone he finds it difficult to access his list of contacts from the phone book -so what does he do? He has a physical phone book into which he writes down the numbers and types them out! The last I heard , he was complaining to my brother in law that his daugthers have not taught him how to text messages..!

I think technology is changing so fast that challenged people like us often find it difficul to keep pace with the evolution. Or may be I am just getting too old..!

I dread the era of voice commands.. what would I do if I get a cold  or lose my voice due to a sore throat? When a touch is causing so much of confusion a voice could wreak a lot more by way of havoc!

But I love the interest that this new phone is generating at my work place. Everyone wants to know the features and I tell them things like - it has a camera, internet etc.. They listen to me patiently and then look up on the internet and tell me " Ma'm it has a 8 pixel ( or is it mega pixel?) camera, it is 3G.. blah blah...". Suddenly someone asks me " Did your husband gift you this phone?"

 "No my dear friend I tell him " I  brought this upon myself.. all by myself" ...!!!
Friday, February 18, 2011 12 comments

The Bridegroom Bazaar.

I will begin this post with a story about a smart young girl in her twenties..... lets call her Ms. A.
A is a post graduate and works for an organization at an executive level. She shows a lot of promise and the organization has her in mind for bigger and better things. As a person A is very warm, bubbly and vivacious. A very kind hearted person, we never see her without a smile.

But today A is not smiling.... She looks unhappy. I ask her what the matter is and that is when the story comes out- a story that is not unique to her - a story that is part of  life for  many young girls in India. A and her family have been in the "marriage market" for a while now looking for a suitable husband for her. As an educated and confident woman she rightfully feels very humiliated by some of  the "demands" made by the prospective bridegroom's family.

The marriage market in India is a strange place - it is a seller's market but the commodity sold does not become the property of the buyer!! Let me explain this better- men are prime property in this market. There is literally a "price" that they command- a price that depends on their social status, educational qualifications, job and finally the physical attributes ( please dont miss the order...). Parents of brides have to pay this price in the form of cash, property, electronic goods, vehicles and jewellery - there are usually no either or option in the list mentioned- one pays for many of the listed items as well as others that may not be listed .. So a girl like A despite her post graduate status and ability to earn an independent living would still have to pay the "market price" to be able to marry a "decent" man. This is further complicated by the fact that all marriages are endogamous within one's own caste - a girl's family either pays or  the girl stays unmarried.

Most families start saving the moment a daugther is born. Many invest in her jewellery ( because the bridegroom's family also demand a certain amount of jewellery ). There are fixed rates for each type of occupation- Rs 1 million for a doctor/ Rs 50 lakh for an engineer etc etc . There are inter caste variations but the essential rule remains the same- as a girl one pays to get married and then goes to live with the man and his family slaving away and being the "perfect" wife.

I am surprised that all this continues despite the fact that girls today are educated and in many cases smarter than these men that they pay to marry. It is easy to say " They should say no" but in reality it is not.. In a situation like it is in India, if the arranged marriage option fails then one needs to have tremendous confidence in oneself to make the decision to marry someone of one's own choice- . A society that keeps sexes seggregated and a society where only one or two  generations of  women have been able to access higher education and employment does not create an enabling environmen to build this confidence.

As part of the technological advancement match making is now being done online- often directly by the man/ woman in question. But does that solve the "dowry" question? No, not always! Many men would still expect to be paid their "market price" ( I wonder for what? ).

In addition to the financial demands there are other requirements that a girl has to  meet with - she has to be fair, slim and in some cases be employed in a sector that is seen as favourable. For e.g dark women like me who work for non profits are definitely a "no-no" in the community that I was born into. Infact the initial screening is around the looks and then the business deal is struck! In some cases there is a pre screening - like looking through a CV within the HR unit of an organization- the horoscope of the girl is scrutinized. God help her if there is a problem with it...!!! Then ofcourse there are other twists, a family should be "blemish free" in its lineage and membership ie it should not have women like me who are perceived to have "brought shame" into their families by marrying outside their religion. Each community and family has its own level of paranoa with regard to this purity of lineage.

 So what are the essential qualifications of a prospective bridegroom in this market? All qualifications are unfortunately priced and so the essentiallity question depends on the purchasing power of the bride's family.

My blood boils when I see smart girls like A having to go through this rigmarole of having men coming to "see" her - this is a commodity inspection in which we pay for the inspector when we are sold...!!I am seriously confused- what is being sold and who is being bought? Parents who were proud of their daugthers until sometime ago suddenly lose their confidence when they reach this auction yard. They  agree to all kinds of demands often being unable to fulfil them which in extreme cases  may also endanger their daugther's life. This market place is also very subtly manipulative -it plays on the self esteem of the girl's parent linking it to their ability to pay . ( " A person of your status would surely not hesitate to provide X grams of gold...?" is an oft heard dialogue in the negotiations)

If marriage is really a business deal, then  a man  who wants to marry a beautiful, well qualified girl working in a well known company should be willing to pay "bride price" as it is in some tribal socieities to compensate the family for the loss of a productive member. Otherwise he should be willing to move into his wife's house and  become her "property".

Whoever said that education would empower women to come out of all this? Education today has just turned into an additional qualification that a girl must have as also a job. The list just seems to be getting longer and longer.. No wonder girl babies in many parts of India are killed by their parents on birth and in some cases destroyed in the womb itself..!With a sex ratio that is alarmingly titled against women, some states in India who indulged in this form of killing of females have to now import women from other parts of India for marraige.

When will we see an end to this bidding for bridgrooms? When will a girl have the confidence to look a man in the eye and tell him that he is a "spineless jerk" who is thinking of making it rich just by virtue of the fact that he possess the male organ?

As a woman and as a mother of a daughter  I hope that day dawns soon !

Wednesday, February 16, 2011 14 comments

Is "Falling in Love" only for Beautiful People?

We were having lunch at the office on Feb 14th when someone brought up this topic on Valentine's day. After some heated discussions about the commercialization of love, we started doing a head count of  who had a " love marriage"? Now this is a strange question to any one who is not an Indian. But to most of us whose marriages are "arranged" the concept of falling in love and getting married is a novelty! Well, coming back to this census on love / arranged marriages..  one colleague said " I had an arranged marriage. Love marraiges are only for good looking people". No one seemed surprised except me who has had a "love marriage" and who does not exactly qualify as a beauty queen.

But yes that seems to be the impression that many have... ! I wonder how all this came about? I think we can trace it back to literature ( both ancient classics and popular fiction) which are full of "handsome" men and "beautiful" women. Films with beautiful heros and heroines also play an important role in shaping this kind of impression. Added to the looks angle is also youth- people seem to think that falling in love is only for young people...

I think all this playing up of looks and youth is done simplly to "dress up" this emotion called Love.!

Yes looks do play a role in the initial attraction. But there is no absolute format for "good" looks. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. A person I find attractive might not seem so to another person. Besides, looks as such is not just the physical attributes - it is an entire package of one's personality which includes among other things, the charm, wit, kindness and many other qualities. How many of us after getting to know a "good looking person" have actually found them quite obnoxious in terms of their values ?

Ofcourse,  there is the initial chemistry that brings two people together but for them to stay together there has to be something more than looks. For example - conversation? I remember the hours I used to spend talking on the phone with my husband during our  days of courtship. I could not even see him when I spoke on the phone! Infact, the first time I met him I did not even notice him and neither did he notice me. It was when we met the second time that we realized that we had met before. So did we fall in love once we realize that ? No! I did not even like him much during those days and used to be quite rude to him..! But over a period of time I came to know him better as a person and that was when I found him " interesting"

 I think what passes for attraction or "love at first sight" is the ability of a person to interest us in some way. This may be due to many reason- beauty as is perceived by the beholder, conversation, wit , humour , anything..! Sometimes this attraction dies a natural death when we do not find anything beyond that initial "interesting bit", during other times we find what interested us was only the tip of the ice berg- more inside and the relationship grows as we discover each other and get to know each other better.

But beauty and youth as I had mentioned earlier are required to sell this emotion to the world! These days the media has begun to standardize and format a certain brand of looks ( tall, skinny women with fair skin and light eyes for e.g) and it is these looks that we employ to package love and sell the product in question - be it a film or a romance novel.

Poets have described love- most often it is about the emotion and the description of the beloved from the eyes of the lover-it is an interpretation..Beauty as defined by the person in question. When we try to turn this into a visual it becomes problematic and we begin to use this standard formats of beauty...!

The same probably holds true for youth. As people grow older they do not stop feeling emotions and attractions. It may just be different attributes that attract at different ages.

With media playing such an important role in our lives today, it is not surprising that people should think that  good looks are the entry tickets into the kingdom of love! But linking beauty to love trivializes this wonderful emotion.

Love is for anyone who can find it
Sunday, February 13, 2011 9 comments

Valentine's day- celebrating love or consumerism?

Well, it is getting ready to be 14th February  and  VALENTINE's day once again..! I cant help but notice all the products that are being advertised in the name of Valentine's day- greeting cards, chocolates, flowers you name it... even langerie ( yes I got some text messages from a shop advertising special sales for the 14th of Feb)!

I am trying to think back to the time when I was younger to remember if there were any special celebrations for Valentine's day? I dont think so...! Yes we knew somewhere that 14th Feb was called Valentine's day after a St. Valentine(?) but thats about it...! Never did we see this kind of hype about this day..

But wait- are these ads all about the day or the products? I think the later may be the case. It was not as if there was no love before the greeting card companies started printing mushy cards and the gifts shops strated putting up teddy bears with hearts on their windows.  It is just a marketing gimmick that is trying to cash in on an emotion that many feel but do not know how to express.

I am sometimes very surprised at the way we think that love would be incomplete without candle light and roses...! Really sad because true love is something that is felt in so many different ways. It often does not even require to be stated. When I see my father sitting with my mother during their various visits to the doctor's I know that this is love. This love has endured over fifty years of married life and one near loss  during their early days together, when my mother almost died of haemorrage due to an ectopic pregnancy. This love saw them through hardships and bringing up two children on one person's salary. It saw them scrimp and save so that their daugthers could have the best education. Yet, if you ask either of them if they  have heard about Valentine's day you would draw a blank!

The closest I came to getting a gift for Valentine's day was on 14th Feb a couple of years ago when my husband managed to fix up our kitchen sink- a job that took over a week and finally came to an end on the 14th of Feb after the plumber and his team packed up their tools. " Is that my Valentine's day gift" I asked him?  "Uhhh?"  he said.. But I was touched- he had noticed the trouble I was having with a sink that was not working properly and this was his way of  telling me that he cared...!

But coming back to all this noise about Valentine's day -Yes noise..! There are some political parties in India which say that it is an "un Indian thing" to celebrate Valentine's day ! (Next they will be saying " No love please - we are Indians" - but then that is something else.. will have to write about it some time) All the young people today suddenly seem to awaken on Feb 14th and declare their love! I am curious to know what they would do with all these gifts when the relationship breaks ? And these days the breaks I understand are quite often.

It is really ironic that all this celebration and exchanging of gifts are not really helping people bond better and deeper.  I wonder- who is getting the best out of this day? The people in love or all those companies who are cashing in on this emotion  called love?


Saturday, February 5, 2011 18 comments

Surviving in a man's world

I would like to begin this post by taking you back in time to a conversation that I had with my late mother in law during my early days of marriage. She was sharing with me her experience of being a working woman-a doctor, in a world that was dominated  by men. She was often the only woman in an office or health centre. "But they ( the men)  were so nice to me you know" - they used to take on the more difficult work..!

Not anymore- I mean the minority status of women at the workplace! We see so many women in offices and other public places that it often seems really like we have achieved some kind of "revolution" in terms of right to employment. But the question is, have we really really achieved empowerment? How do the men in our lives and work place view this change? I will concentrate in this post on men at the work place - our colleagues / bosses and how they may feel about this. I agree that much of this may be subjective and written from a woman's point of view but then it is very much to do with my perception of a situation as a woman!

One of the first things that I have often perceived about male colleagues and their attitude towards us  women is - " Is she serious about this job?" This is particularly so if you happen to be single, in your twenties, on the threshold of marriage, or newly married or married with kids..! Many men seem to think that we women, may be actually "passing" time at the work place till we get married, start a family or deal with whatever may be important to us in our families at that point of time. So how do they deal with this? This is a very interesting state of mind in the sense that it seems to make  men ( both colleagues and bosses) almost voice aloud the thought " So you want to work? Let us see if you can manage the stress of it all? Can you stay long hours like us?" These same men at home would probably not "allow" their wives to work or if the wife in question did have a job they would ensure that these ladies came back home in time for to receive the kids when they returned from school and had a hot dinner waiting for them when they themselves reached  home

It is ironic how these double standards work!!

Ofcourse, we women work as hard as we can to prove that we are not in anyway less than these insensitive men and in the process end up burning our candles at both ends-we reach home late, we are guilty about not having enough time to spend with family as a result of which we spend weekends making up for lost time cooking and doing things that we cannot do during the week- all this resulting in ruining our physical and mental health. Some of us are lucky enough to have husbands who understand - but the question is how long will they continue to "understand"? At some point they may also feel being taken advantage of ...

Someone once told me that to be able to compete in a man's world a woman has to be twice as good. I wonder if it means that if a man works till 7 in the evening we women need to work till 8 PM ?

Most organizations today have some sort of gender policy- but very few of them practice it in spirit. Creches and maternity leave seems to be the beginning and end of many of these interventions ( important certainly but not the end ..). Others throw in a bit about addressing sexual harrassment at the work place. But I am yet to come across an organization that can deal with the simpler things that are important to a female employee- Ensuring that they can leave office at the scheduled time . ! In our crime ridden urban centres, it is  important that women leave at an earthly hour...! Very few women make a noise about all this because then we know that we will lose what we have gained in terms of access to the world of ecnomic opportunities.

Many would say that this is the price that you have to pay for the luxuries that come with a double income family; yes, it is a choice we women make but folks, it was a choice that was made on the basis of insufficient data in terms of inside information about work culture!

There is ofcourse the option of "working from home" that is being introduced by many organizations. But it will probably be a generation before it is internalized in many organizations.

To wrap up I can say that there are two mind sets that I can see in male colleagues/ bosses. One, where they think that female employees require "special" treatment and are therefore reluctant to offer it to them. Others who think that they are promoting equality by treating women like their male counterparts without realizing that while women may be willing and ready to perform these tough new roles, the outside world has not changed that much- the burdens remain the same for her. She works at home as much as she works in an office and few men at the office understand or appreciate that.

This is not to say that all male colleagues/ bosses are insensitive. Some of my best friends at work are  men. But this is an issue that is beyond them. They may not perpetuate it, they empathise with it but can do little about it.
As a society in transition, this generation of us women would probably have to bear the burden of multiple  roles- at home and at work. It would be nice if we had people at our work place who understood this balancing act that we perform and help maintain the equilibrium so that we do not topple over from too much pressure arising out of any one role.