Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How cheap is human life?

My head is full of the horrendous events in Kolkata on last Friday. Having a party to attend in the city that evening, I had woken up in a fairly good mood, and planning outfits for my little monkey and myself, wrapping gifts, driving to the venue, these were some things I expected to be doing that day.

Not someone to normally watch the news, I had no clue about what had been going on since just after midnight. The first intimation of the tragedy was a phone call from a colleague of my man’s, asking us to turn the TV on and switch to a bangle news channel. And immediately my day went to hell. A massive fire had broken out at the basement level of the high-end AMRI hospital at Dhakuria, and while the actual fire had not yet appeared on upper floors, over forty people were feared dead from smoke and toxic fume inhalation.

The news just kept getting worse through the day. The toll rose from “forty feared” to ninety confirmed deaths by evening, all of them helpless patients of the orthopedic wing, the ITU and the ICU, all of them slowly and painfully asphyxiating to death while unable to get the hell out. Staff was nowhere to be seen, and no attempt was made by the nursing staff or doctors, or anyone else connected to the hospital to evacuate the most helpless of patients. The only shining stars were two Keralite nurses who pulled quite a few patients to safety on one of the floors before succumbing to the fumes. A sad loss that only added to the weight of the tragedy.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, as more and more facts emerge, it is clear that sheer greed and the systemic negligence we are so blasé about are the direct cause of the death of ninety one people, all but two of whom had gone into a “top class” and very expensive hospital to get better and come home well again. The first rung of those responsible, is obviously composed of the employees, management, and directors of this establishment, who are almost directly responsible for the huge disaster. The fire originated in a lot of stored cotton, surrounded by other highly flammable objects such as paper records, wooden crates, various chemicals, and other junk stored illegally in what was supposed to be the basement car park for the facility. Not only was the car park no longer a car park, but it had been turned into a series of offices and store rooms, along with labs for radiology and filing systems.

Apparently, a routine fire department inspection – probably the only one undertaken since the facility opened, -- had found these lapses, and the hospital had been warned that they should empty the space ASAP. This was six months ago, and the hospital had filed an affidavit claiming that action would be taken at the soonest. Of course, no action was taken, and no follow up done by the fire department to ensure that instructions had been followed, leading directly to the tragedy. In addition, all kinds of chemicals, diesel cans, and surgical spirits etc were stored there, again illegally, leading to the noxious and poisonous fumes which claimed so many lives.

When the fire started, no call was made to the fire brigade. Some calls went to the directors and upper management, mostly unanswered (it was after all 2.30 am, u cant expect them to lose their beauty sleep over something as trivial as an inferno in a hospital), and not much action taken to evacuate the patients, or to curb the fire. None of the patients’ relatives were informed either. When one or two of the patients called home to say breathing was becoming difficult and black smoke and fumes were pouring in through the central-air-conditioning ducts, and relatives rushed to the hospital to take the patients home, they were denied access, and told that everything was fine and there was no emergency.

As the hours passed, and the situation worsened, some of the private attendants of the patients, and some of the patients themselves tried to leave the wards, only to find no staff to be found anywhere, and all the windows sealed (for better functioning of the AC). Without recourse, they broke some windows (not an easy task as they are thick ones to prevent weather damage and such like which would entail frequent replacement) to try to let some fresh air in, and maybe to escape. The fire department was finally notified at about 4.30 am, two hours after the smoke first started pouring into lungs weakened by disease, surgery or medication, and they were notified by the cops (themselves notified by relatives of the patients) and not the hospital management.

When the fire department arrived, and tried to enter the basement to put the fire out, they were actually prevented from doing that by the employees of the main branch, and the management. The annexe, a deathtrap at the time, had no staff inside, and a wall of them outside preventing the fire department from doing its job, and stopping volunteers from surrounding areas from going in to try to save lives. When the police and fire department finally pushed through, they had to break through multiple walls to try and find the source of the fumes, and to try and put out all the fires, and it was already too late for most of the patients upstairs.

Patients’ families had arrived by this time, all informed by various friends and relatives who were watching the breaking news bulletins, and none of them were given any kind of clear version of what was going on. There was no list of patients in those affected wards, and no word on who had made it out and who hadn’t. The fight to find loved ones went on all day, and well into the night, as did the unavailing war against the fire. Ugly black smoke could still be seen billowing out the windows as late as the next afternoon.

Total tally of loss, ninety one people, some of them about to be discharged that very morning but most helpless and immobile, and almost all of them very much awake when their oxygen starved lungs finally gave up the struggle to keep them alive – and the two selfless nurses who saved lives before giving up their own. As of now, the six members of the board of directors are residing in police custody. The new chief minister of the state was there, at the site of the tragedy, facilitated and smoothened the process for the relatives to claim the bodies, and immediately suspended the operational license of the hospital and ordered the arrest of the directors.

While that is a good thing, deeper questions need to be asked, and lessons learnt. Why were the fire alarms switched off? Whey were there no fire exits? Why were the windows un-open-able in an emergency? A hospital making 11 crores per annum, officially, couldn’t afford fire fighting equipment? Why were the staff not trained in rescue, evacuation and fire drills? Why were the sprinklers non functional? Why was there never a follow up on the basement storage issue even after it had appeared on the radar? Why are there still no regular checks or stringent measures to check and implement fire safety measures at ALL public buildings?

And …biggest Question of all – will the villainous greedy six, who saved a few rupees in training and equipment jeopardizing so many lives, be punished? Or will this end the way all other tragedies end in India? I’m afraid that the moment the media glare shift to the next big tragedy (or political comedy), the six will be handed their “get out of jail free” cards and go and open another deathtrap somewhere else. I am afraid that the victims will go unanswered in their silent plea for justice, that the survivors and loved ones will go uncompensated and without closure, and that the greedy but wealthy will continue to accrue more wealth at the cost of more innocent lives.

I do hope that does not happen. Time will tell.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The fantastic Indian role models

As anyone who knows me, offline or through my blogs, knows – I am, and always have been unhappy, irritated, angry and disappointed with the way I see many of the people around me behave, and with how they ARE. While venting about my understanding of the “why” behind how the new generations are turning out (Kids today!), I got to thinking about why the people I hate are the way they are. When you really think about it, it is hardly surprising, given how problematic I find most of the greatest cultural role models that we grow up with.

The epics are more than just books in India. They are all pervasive, underlying a huge number of festivals, traditions, daily lore, and even anchoring much of the language. So, we grow up with the stories and the characters, and overtly and covertly they are set up as role models, as ideals for us to follow or emulate. Considering what some of these characters and ideals are about, this can be a hugely problematic thing.  

Possibly our biggest ideal, the most IDEAL of role models, the one beacon that pretty much all men are supposed to aspire to be and all women are supposed to aspire to marry or give birth to is Ram. The title character of the ubiquitous Ramayana (practically THE cultural icon of India – worldwide), is otherwise known as the maryada purushottam – literally the best among men. Held up as the shining example of the ideal dutiful son, the perfect brother, the perfect husband, and the ideal warrior and king, he is the man who does no wrong, whose every move, every decision is another step on the path of righteousness.

This is drilled into us, in myriad spoken and unspoken ways, from the day we are born. Most of us never bother to think about or question these assumptions, and as I attempt to do so now I am expecting a large amount of flak, especially from the orthodox, traditionalist, narrow thinking, blindly following majority. If you really think about it, how does the life, and actions, of the great role model Ram stand up to scrutiny? Not very well in my opinion. What I find instead is a sometimes selfish, sometimes callous, sometimes egotistic, sometimes unethical MAN. Not a god, not an avatar, not the shining example of all righteousness, not the ultimate perfection in manliness, not an ideal anything, just a man, and not a particularly likable one either.

A man who kills from hiding (the Bali episode), kills someone he has no personal enmity with, who has done no harm to him or his, merely to form a political alliance may be human, and even shrewd, but is certainly not an epitome of ethical behaviour in my book. A man who spends roughly 10 years planning and executing a revenge for a slight to his ego, fighting a war in the process, killing thousands and laying waste to an entire nation, is hardly the best of men. OH wait! The war was supposedly about getting his beloved kidnapped wife back…right? WRONG! If that was true, the first reaction after rescuing her would not be “walk through fire to prove you have not been fu*#ing your brains out with that demon everyday”.

Even as an average woman with an average man as a partner, I know that the moment I have to PROVE my innocence/purity/chastity whatever is the minute I walk out of the relationship. And here we are talking about a GOD! An incarnation of Vishnu himself! One would expect a modicum of trust in his long suffering wife who has followed him into exile and lived in hardship all those years just to be near him! Also, she was kidnapped. So if she is no longer “pure” how is that her fault? RIGHT! It’s that old monster of victim blaming. Rape is the fault of the woman right? Now we are told in the Ramayana how Sita fended off the amorous advances of the demon with the sheer power of her fidelity … good for her, but unrealistic. If someone is strong enough to kidnap you, and really wishes to do further harm, chances are, he will. Does that mean the woman no longer has the right to be a wife? And is unacceptable to her family? No wonder we are still murdering the VICTIMS in the name of honour.

So what are we to learn from this IDEAL man so far? It’s ok to drop or ignore all your so-called much vaunted ethics if you have something to gain. Hmm that sounds about right, sounds like most of the people I know, and most human beings. It is ok to cause as much harm as necessary in order to avenge a perceived or real slight or insult. And it is not just fine, but divine to suspect your spouse and demand proof of purity and blame the victim. My! What an amazing role model so far. Already I begin to feel my insides churning in that special way that is reserved for the narrow minded MCP’s of the world.

So, now that the war is over, and the wife rescued and PROVEN 100% pure, one can head back to the long abandoned kingdom being looked after by the brother. Arrival, ascension to the throne, blah blah. Once he gets a taste of the throne, like all others who get one, he does not want to give it up. He is willing to throw his pregnant wife out of the kingdom, into the forest, because people gossip about her CHARACTER (a word which means only sexual purity in India), rather than relinquish the throne.  Not only that, he does not have the basic guts to face her, and tell her to her face that she must be sacrificed under the wheels of his royal ambitions. So, he sneakily sends his brother instead to take her for a nice drive, and then abandon her without any warning! The word of one narrow minded washerman, beating his wife for having stayed out all night, is worth more to him than any trust in his partner, any sense of the respect due to her, or any love she is owed. WOW! How perfectly divine!

So now, the pregnant wife lives in the forest, without any knowledge of what caused her fall from grace. She is lucky that she is taken in by a sage and gets to live, and give birth to her twins, in his hermitage. She could equally easily have become a fine meal for some wild animal, or been murdered or worse by bandits. Now, many years pass. In the meantime the chariot of royal ambitions rolls on until just one nation is no longer enough, and he sets out to perform an Ashwamedh yagya, a proxy way of establishing dominion over the neighbouring nations. In the course of this great proxy war, the horse is captured – and its escort regiment soundly defeated – by two children, preteens who live in an ashram, and appear to be the offspring of some ascetic.

Now what does our paragon of all virtues do? Does he go to bow to these amazing children? Does he laugh it off and move on? Neither! He sends an ARMY against two kids, again not led by himself, but by others. When this too loses, Lakshman, Bharat and Shatrughna sent back in shame, and hanuman captured, he finally arrives himself, not to laud and praise the children, but in anger, to fight them. Presumably he too would have been soundly defeated, if the sage Valmiki hadn’t intervened to prevent the fight. He still doesn’t seem too interested in such amazing children (as any normal human being not jealous of their prowess would have been) and makes not much attempt to find out who they are, returning to his own capital instead.

When the sage Valmiki finally takes matters into his own hands, and takes Sita and her two sons to court, and their identity is finally revealed, much melodrama occurs. Of course, now that heirs have been found for his not inconsiderable empire, much of it newly acquired, the past is forgotten, and all imagined and real trespasses forgiven. Until, that is, another murmur arises about Sita’s chastity. After all, if she could have slept with Ravana during her captivity, how much more opportunity for being unfaithful in a jungle hermitage full of handsome, fit, young sadhus? So, YET AGAIN! Sita must walk through fire to prove she is PURE.

FINALLY! She shows some backbone, refuses this new test of her chastity, and basically leaves the man! Should have happened much earlier…but whatever, better late than never and all that. But what, let me ask again, does all this say of this paragon, this role model, this demigod? Nothing particularly good as far as I can see, and mostly things I would not stand for in anyone, let alone my partner or significant other!

No wonder we are the way we are. No wonder we have such screwed ideas about duty, love, relationships, marriage, honour, and what have you. And this is just one of the role models which permeate our consciousness as a nation. I will continue to analyse more, both men and women, in the next few blogposts, in an attempt to understand where a lot of our TYPICALLY Indian thought processes come from. 

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Kids today!

It’s a common theme at most gatherings these days, especially ones where people of “a certain age” are present. Psychiatrists and pop psychologists, agony aunts and parental advice columns, the next-door aunty and the maid servant, everyone is losing sleep over how badly the “aaj kal ke bacche” are turning out. It’s an incessant refrain wherever I turn. Kids today just don’t measure up! They are too selfish, too aggressive, too materialistic, too brand oriented, too rude, too mercenary, too something or the other.

While I do see the signs of all this in most kids, it would be wrong to say ALL kids are this way, because many are not. And as for the ones that are, I think it is important to look at the why, what, and how. If the kids, and by kids these discussions mean anyone between 2 and 32 these days, are the way we think they are, the way we hoped they wouldn’t be, the question is haven’t WE made them this way? As parents, teachers, role models, and general authority figures, haven’t we set all the wrong examples that have created this generation of self centered materialistic human beings? After all, no matter what big WISDOM we cram in their books and how much we lecture them on right and wrong and values, monkey see monkey do.

When a parent at my daughter’s school, the guardian of one of her classmates, complains for 40 minutes at a time about how her kid keeps watching this particularly disturbing cartoon, which the parent disapproves of, and doesn’t listen to directives to change the channel or turn the TV off, I wonder which is the parent in their house, and who makes the rules. How does a barely-six-year-old have the temerity to ignore parental directives so easily? Obviously it has never learnt that no means NO. and that’s hardly surprising given how I see most parents handling discipline (and no discipline DOES NOT mean hitting your child). At home, in malls, in cinemas, the scene is almost identical. The kid asks for something, parent says no. kid throws a grandmother of a tantrum, screaming, crying, kicking, falling on the floor and in general making a scene, parent gives in.

What the child has learnt – all it takes to turn a no into a yes is a little waterworks and public embarrassment. A valuable lesson that the child is NOT likely to forget in a hurry. I really don’t get it. If I can get the child whatever it is, and if I think my child should have it, I wouldn’t say no in the first place. If I can’t, or won’t get it for the child, then I simply WON’T. initially my monkey tried the tantrum routine, until she realized that mommie has an exceptionally thick skin, does not get embarrassed at all, and the no never changes to a yes. In restaurants, especially in India, kids are a menace! They run around, getting under the feet of the serving staff, running into chairs and tables, disturbing other diners and making a godawful racket. The parents seem to be blind and deaf! Assuming the kid has never been taught to behave itself and keep its seat in a restaurant or other public spaces, I don’t find it surprising that these kids grow up to be obnoxiously loud in restaurants and plexes, and NEVER turn their phones off in a movie or a play.

Increasingly, the ONLY focus of the parents seems to be the GRADES of the child. With all consuming obsessiveness about grades, parents ignore all transgressions as long as the RESULT is good. The child need not socialize (in fact socializing is often actively discouraged), and need not have any hobbies or extra curricular interests. In addition, relatives and friends are discouraged from coming over, or coming to stay, especially around exam season, and every whim of the child, healthy and legitimate or otherwise, is indulged in order that the child is in the RIGHT frame of mind for the EXAMS (even if they are the mid term evaluations of a 5-year old). Then, when they grow up, we suddenly expect them to care about relatives? Having taught them that nothing matters except their academic records, and that people are unnecessary, we suddenly complain when they behave as we have taught them to.

We complain ad nauseum of how materialistic these kids are, and how they talk brands all the time. We compare them to how simple, down to earth, and innocent we were at their age, when all we cared about was climbing trees and playing kho-kho. How accurate that self-portrait is, is anyone’s guess, but what we don’t examine is how we are making them that way. I know of mothers who throw away dadi ma’s home made roti and bhindi ki sabzi (in front of the kid) to replace it with salami and pizza for his packed lunch. I know parents who don’t buy any electronics, not even their own phones, without the advice and permission of their pre teen kids! I see kids in school, and not even high school at that, who sport the latest brands in everything, who carry expensive and high tech phones, tabs and what have you. They obviously didn’t buy all this for themselves, so who taught them the BRAND thing?

We don’t socialize anymore, not really. At best our CIRCLE is a small set of people of similar social and economic background. We have done away with the gift giving and family gatherings, because they cost too much time and money, both of which can be better used elsewhere. Time….in making more money, and money … in buying the next dress, bag, pair of shoes, phone, etc. so the kids don’t learn to share or give. They don’t learn to tolerate nosy or irritating relatives, just because it is something that is done, and they don’t learn that some friends may have a LOT less stuff than others. They only learn the importance of having the PS2, and of going to shop in DUBAI. We don’t give to charity, and would rather buy more clothes we don’t need than sponsor a child. We would rather throw away discarded clothes than bother to cart them to an orphanage.

And we still expect our kids to grow up to be amazing human beings with all the right values? That’s a little childish isn’t it?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Mass production mess

Food, or rather things and attitudes surrounding food, has been on my mind for a few days now (as evident from my last two blogposts). The thing is, some of these attitudes and issues are met with every day, while some are seasonal, brought to mind by things like the wedding months. Wedding season is something many of the people I know seem to look forward to… all year. Why? Because it is a time of many invitations and much feasting, with GOOD food. For me, it is increasingly a time of intense gastronomical boredom.

I do remember a time when every wedding feast was different, and truly something to look forward to. But that was a long time ago, in the age of the halwai and the khansama. That was the time when masters of the art of cooking (aptly known as karigars) would come to the home, take over a large, usually open, area, surround it with some kind of fencing, and get down to creating the gems for the banquet. That was the time when every spread had a different menu and each dish tasted different. That was the time when the “haath ka fark” or the difference of the human touch was pronounced and very noticeable. After all, two people cooking to exact specifications from the same recipe will still manage to create slightly different tasting dishes.

That age seems to be a long time gone though. These days, it is all caterers and cardboard. The amazing thing about catered food, at least in India, is how similar everything tastes. Not only are the menus merely mild variations on a general theme, but all the dishes, across the banquet and across caterers, seem to turn out pretty much the same! Always wondered how they manage to do that! Almost an art form really. As a person who likes cooking, I know how difficult – if not impossible – it is to replicate the exact taste, even with the same person following the same recipe. How then, do they manage to do it on such a mass scale?

There is something about mass scale cooking by people doing it because they have to because it is their job. Their lack of liking for what they do, and an absence of personal investment seems to lead to this generic, not so nice taste that is the hallmark of all the catered food at every single wedding I have attended over the last 10 years or so.

People too seem to be losing whatever imaginations they had. Families and parents and couples seem to have stopped paying much attention to setting the menu for their big day. With the frenetic pace of modern urban life, and double income couples, planning a wedding must be a huge undertaking. Not surprising then that a lot of things get outsourced to simplify the process. A caterer is much more stress free than having to hire individual cooks, arrange for all the shopping, provide space for the cooking, keep an eye on progress and so on to lay out an old fashioned feast.

And once a caterer is hired, it is easier, safer, and more economical to pick a menu from a list of dishes recommended by the caterer. After all, these are presumably things they make well. Who would want to take the chance, and incur the extra cost for thinking up a radically different and interesting menu? And even if one did, what happens if the caterer screws it up? So, from the point of view of the organizers, it makes eminent sense to go with the general formula with slight variations.

For the discerning gastronome, it translates into yet another plate of generic dal makhani, yet another helping of over-sweetened pulao, and some more badly done bhetki paturi, followed by the inevitable vanilla icecream/gulabjamun. All in all, not much fun, and definitely no longer something to look forward to!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Bongs love fish and mishti and bhaiyyas eat chana fit for a horse

What is it about us that makes most of us unable to think in anything other than stereotypes? As a culture, we are happiest and most comfortable when talking – and thinking – in stereotypes received from community, parents, media, and so many other sources. Sindhis are miserly, Gujratis are happy go lucky and business minded, Marwaris are unscrupulous, Bengalis are intelligent and arty, south Indians are studious and nerdy, Punjabis are dense – there’s so many of these blanket generalizations floating around in our psyches that I sometimes wonder how we keep them straight.  

Like all generalizations, these are good for pigeon-holeing and dismissing people, and helps each community feel better about itself at the cost of all the others. How many times have I heard “eww how do you eat those animals!” or “oh khottas(usually people from UP, Bihar, etc) eat horse food….all this chana and things.” However, it does nothing whatsoever in helping to interact with individual members of any given community. I know plenty of really dumb and totally aesthetically impaired Bengalis, just as I know plenty of intelligent Punjabis and fun loving people from so-called “south India” (a massive and problematic generalization in itself. WAKE UP PEOPLE there are FOUR, count it FOUR, separate states down there!)

The all pervasive nature of these stereotypes extends equally to food as well. The minute I identify myself as a Bengali (albeit an non Bengal one), the assumptions click into place. So, I must love fish, and sweets. I MUST perpetually subsist on a diet of JHOL and JHAL, and - in a nod to the nawabi tradition – love biryani. In reality, only one of these generalizations is true, and that’s more of a personal choice issue than whatever BENGALI genes I possess, if they even exist. I like fish yes. Love it. BUT – horror of horrors – I prefer sea fish which is a total anathema to Bengalis. Bongs eat fresh water fish … most of which I cannot stand!

As for sweets … I can sum up my attitude to the world famous Bengali mithais in one word – YUCK! I detest them, yes, even including the rasogolla that bongs are assumed to consume by the kilo. The worst form of torture for me is visiting kollkata relatives who insist on serving up five or six different kinds of MISHTI, and insist that you eat them! I would rather be slow roasted over a coal fire than have to send even one down my gullet. But, it’s a massive surprise to all … bongs and non bongs alike… don’t like mishit! What kind of a bong are your? Um….. the thinking, I can make up my own mind about what I like and not blindly eat whatever is culturally prescribed kind????

Similarly for biryani. NO I DO NOT like the damn thing overmuch. Once a year or so… especially the much milder lucknowi kind of biryani … ok…I can enjoy it. But unlike most Bengalis I know, it is NOT my first choice when eating out, especially not all the time! And NO I don’t order a curry with it. Biryani is supposed to be eaten with its own rassa or a raita. If you order curry or chaap or whatever, what’s the point of ordering a spiced rice? Why not just order white rice since you are going to overpower it with the curry anyway! Also, my daily diet is definitely not the traditionally recommended dosage of jhol. In fact, I am not even all that fond of the jhol.

Home food, on a day to day basis could be anything from chholey to sambhar, kaali daal to ilish bhapa, pasta to soup and noodles, and anything else that springs to mind. Combinations are unusual too, with sambhar rice being followed by a bong fish curry or chholey being preceded by shukto, and we LOVE it that way! Having lived in so many places, and enjoyed such varied cuisine from around the world, I see absolutely no need to have the same boring menu for 30 years at a time! I would go out of my mind if I had to eat the traditional bong spread everyday for even a month. And this works all around. I have Gujrati friends (supposed to be vegetarian by stereotype) who love fish, I have Punjabi friends who practically live on pasta and pizza punctuated by the odd tandoori chicken, and I have Bengali friends who most frequently eat dosais and appams, at home and out.

So, why are we still thinking in these boxes? While they might vaguely apply to interior areas and rural settings where traditional ways of life still continue and the community and surroundings exert a much greater influence, they hardly seem to have anything to do with the modern, urban, middle class, educated, travelled Indian. Or is it just my clique? Looking around, I also see many of my peers stuck in the OLD ways, not by choice, but by inertia. “This is how it is” carries the newest generation into the same – often unhealthy – lifestyles, until they arrive at their own old ages (or until the older generation dies, which is usually when these people have access to real decision making power), at which point it is too late to change things, and they are set in the ways which are perpetuated.

Hmmm, how insular human beings are!

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Inventing SOCIAL eating

“Are you a foodie?” they ask “What kind of food do you like?”.

Well, it’s impossible to explain my attitude to food to most people.

After all, traditionally we categorise attitude to food into just two categories – “live to eat” or “eat to live” – and recognise no other category. That’s like saying are you a teetotaler or an alcoholic-fall-down-drunk-all-day kind of person. Now, anyone with half a brain, and any knowledge or exposure to modern urban middle class and above lifestyle will easily recognise the stupidity of such a binary distinction. Even matrimonial websites these days list a category of “light, social drinker” and of a “light, social smoker” recognizing that there are levels between the two extremes.

A person may not be a total abstainer, but they may enjoy the occasional drink with friends, or appreciate a fine wine. It also does not mean that anyone who takes a single sip automatically becomes the stereotypical Hindi-filmy drunk (so wonderfully portrayed by Johnny Walker or Keshto Mukherjee) who was forever seven sheets to the wind and falling down all over the place. Most people I know enjoy alcohol, drink (some more than others) at parties, weddings, and such, but none of them can be labelled as alcoholics, and none of them requires drink as a fuel to function in their daily lives. There is, after all, a huge difference between the occasional indulgence and addiction.

Why doesn’t the same thing apply to food I wonder? Yes, I enjoy all kinds of different cuisines, and really appreciate the diverse flavours of world food, but – and this is a BIG but – I DON’T like rich foods, and I don’t, can’t, eat large amounts. Yet, the minute I answer a question like “what’s your favourite cuisine” with something like “I enjoy North and South Indian, Bengali, Thai, Chinese, Italian, Mexican, French, Malaysian, Indonesian, Greek, Arabic, Lebanese, Syrian, whatever”, I am automatically branded FOODIE.

People, especially Indian people, have no concept of the difference between a gourmet and a gourmand. A gourmet is a connoisseur of fine food and drink, an epicure, whereas a gourmand is someone who is fond of good eating, generally in an indiscriminate manner and mostly to excess. Which would make the foodie a gourmand. And I am definitely not one of those. I am a gourmet. I enjoy fine foods, wines, cheeses, but in small quantities, and I am VERY choosy about what I like. Also, gourmands generally favour rich foods, while I hate oily, spicy and rich foods like biryanis.

So shouldn’t there be a concept of social eating to describe people like me? So that I can say I am a social eater, and avoid the dichotomy of starving versus hogging? So that I can enjoy food without being an addict, and eschew overeating without being a Spartan? 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Little birdie’s first solo flight

It has been a strange few weeks. What should have been some of the happiest and most fun days of the year, actually turned out to be some of the most boring.  Durga Puja and Kali Puja this year SUCKED, and sucked HARD. Mental emotional states were at a fairly low place to begin with, and breaking my foot just before the festivities began didn’t help. The plaster cast on my foot effectively put an end to all and any enjoyment of the normal puja activities, and confined me to home. It also put paid to all the holiday and travel plans that I had been so thrilled about.

The major concern, of course, was not letting all the negativity affect the little one’s fun. She, after all, deserved her puja and diwali fun, no matter the state of mommie’s health! So, after months of convincing, little miss decided she was going to spend the duration with the geographically closer grandparents. They have a durga puja in their building, (what fun!) not to mention a new set of kids who have taken up residence there.

Now I’ve been trying to get the little one to have a sleepover for quite a while now. Various reasons of course (not the least of which is some LOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG forgotten privacy and solo time with my man) some a little selfish, some not so much, behind the drive. She’s almost six now, and its past time that she begins to outgrow her dependence on us. She’s a pretty independent little character, having inherited strong woman genes from both sides of the family tree, and there has never been a problem with her learning to do the basic things like dressing herself or tying her own shoelaces. She plays little imaginary games for hours, needing little or no constant supervision (so only half my mind needs to be focused on her at any given time :D ). However, until now, staying away from us for an entire night has never been an option to her.

She’s happy being with the people she knows and trusts, like the grandparents or close friends of ours, for a few hours, especially in the daytime. But as evening approaches, my little lark begins to droop with sleep, and when that happens, no one else will do. Either mommie, or daddy, or preferably both, MUST be around to do the bedtime story and the tucking in and the putting to sleep. And god forbid she should wake in the morning (4.30 or 5 am being her usual time) and turn her sleepy head and not see at least one of us there.

As a result, date nights and late partying have taken a beating, and we didn’t mind. Seemed important that she feel secure in her little universe. This time, however, it was different. She realized (smart little thing that she is) that clinging to the parents was only going to ruin her holiday. So, for about two weeks prior to the main event, she primed herself up to stay over. Of course, the added temptation of kids her own age to play with helped the psyching process. As lonely and isolated as kids are these days, any chance of company of the same age is a huge draw.

So, off she went! One test night, hassle free, and there she was, staying with the old folk for the entire week! Not just that, she was too busy and too happy to even bother with talking to mommie on the phone! Much fun was had, with almost seven kids congregating there, and a lot of dressing up (which she loves to do) and playing. For Diwali, once the fireworks were all accumulated, she insisted she wanted to go over again and burn them there, with her friends. So, three successive nights she spent playing and letting off fireworks with her buddies, in complete bliss.

How fast they grow! Now that she is having sleepovers, I feel a little weird. Happy, of course that she is stretching out the umbilical cord and finding her own identity, but a little sad to be losing the little creature who depended so fully on me. Yes, it was a chore, one that lasted almost six years, but it is truly amazing to be NEEDED like that. Now that she needs me a little less to be happy and peaceful and secure, I am getting a tiny foretaste of the empty nest syndrome. Suddenly I can flash forward to college, job postings, marriage, and every other thing that is one day going to put a lot of distance (physical if not emotional) between us, and truth be told…I am dreading it.

And yet, cest la vie. She will grow up, needing me a little less each day. She will learn to do more and more things for herself, and depend on me less and less for her basic needs. She will have more and more people in her ever expanding life, getting a little further away –at each step – from the all encompassing mother-need that ruled her life for over five years. All of this is inevitable, and healthy. So why on earth does it make my gut wrench so? Now I really feel an almost overpowering need to rewind life and go back to the day I brought the little bundle home, wrapped in her teddy bear blanket. Mothers are weird :D 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Durga Puja tales

The Bengali, worldwide, begins going totally nuts around three and a half months before Durga Puja. Held sometime in September/October of every year (the date varies due to the fact that it is based on the lunar calendar), Durga Puja is not just the biggest festival of Bengal, and not just a Hindu festival. It is a cultural festival, a reaffirmation of one’s Bengali roots, history, and heritage, everywhere on the planet outside of Bengal. Within Bengal, it is one of those rare festivals that are completely enjoyed by all communities, and whose religious significance is the least important thing about it.

The countdown begins, as I said, some three months before the event, with all the satellite channels beginning to air pointed adverts, and promos of Pujo related competitions and such. Text messages start arriving from friends and relatives telling me how many days remain, and chat contacts begin to ask if I will be in Kolkata for the event. When I give an emphatic NO in response, they, especially the ones FROM Kolkata, are flabbergasted, amazed, and confused. “But why!” they ask, after all you are a bengali, so why wouldn’t you wish to enjoy the biggest festival of the Bengali year?

Well, first of all, I am not MISSING anything. Because no matter where they are on the planet, Bengalis always have their Durga Puja. From the full 6 day extravaganza in Chennai, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, et al, to the weekends only but massive affairs in the US, there is no WAY a Bengali is not going to celebrate this single largest event of his/her cultural year. And, secondly, I MUCH prefer the probasi…or outside-of-Bengal version of the festivities. Of course even saying this is enough to cause most of my Kolkata Bengali contacts to freak out completely. From being anti Bengali to being mentally unstable, all kinds of theories will be brought in to explain this complete impossibility.  And such is the knee-jerk nature of the response these people have to such a sacrilegious statement that even trying to explain is often futile. To the slightly more rational, my reasons sometimes make sense.

First of all, I am not from Kolkata. And never have been. For most Bengalis and non-Bengalis living in Kolkata, Puja is the time to catch up and hang out with friends and relatives. Like many people go home for Diwali, or Ganpati, Kolkattans flock back to the city, from wherever they may have gone to study or work, for the Puja week. As a result, long lost friends reunite, people you haven’t seen for years are suddenly in town and ready to spend hours in adda at college square, and cousins are vying for the honour of hanging out with you. However, this is true ONLY IF YOU ARE FROM KOLKATA, HAVE GROWN UP THERE, AND HAVE A CONSIDERABLE GROUP THERE! For me, all it means is having to leave home, and be in an unfamiliar city which doesn’t feel like home, and to compete for the attention of the few friends and cousins I have in the city with all their friends! It's meaningless! Why would I want to take them away from their groups, or be the unwanted tagalong with a bunch of people i don't know very well, or at all ?

Secondly, I really don’t enjoy what Puja seems to stand for in Kolkata. All it seems to entail is getting dressed up to the nine pins, stepping out into the impossibly hot and sultry weather, fighting wave after wave of teeming humanity, and walking for miles and miles to get to serpentine queues which can stretch for more than 2 kilometers, for the privilege of standing and sweltering, getting my butt pinched and being felt up, and crawling along foot by foot for hours to get into ONE pandal. Multiply this exercise by about 4 or 5 per evening, and you have basically managed to get a very clear picture of my idea of hell.

Our PROBASI pujas are a lot more user friendly. Having seen the annual event in at least 10 Indian cities, I can see the clear differences. We live far from our roots, in places where if not all the time, at least part of the time we feel like outsiders. So, the festive week is out time to celebrate our cultural and genetic heritage. It is a burst of reveling in our Bengaliness. It is a weeklong fest of Bengali food, music, dance, drama, film, and more. A normal probasi puja day for me goes something like this. We wake, bathe, get dressed up, and head for the pandal. Once congregated, it is one long session of adda, frequently punctuated by such bong yummies as chicken rolls and cutlets, and mishti, until it is time for the BHOG.

The bhog is lunch, and is a massive endeavour, feeding thousands of people in huge batches. Everyone who comes to the pandal gets fed, regardless of language, religion, social or economic standing etc, and they all eat together. The seating, service, and tableware are all the same. The serving is done by volunteers, from among us. That stuck up kid that you dislike so much suddenly seems to forget his/her uppishness, and thinks nothing of carrying heavy buckets of hot khichdi and sabzi to serve to all those rows of hungry people waiting for the Prasad.  The only things I can think of where the atmosphere is similar is the Langars of the Gurudwaras. The same communal atmosphere permeates, with very la di da, perfectly made up women thinking nothing of sitting down on the dusty concrete verandah in her muli thousand saree to chop tonnes of vegetables, and normally particular youngsters never wearing anything but the best western clothes begin running around serving hot food with not a care about the spillage and splotches on their expensive ethnic festive wear!

The massive undertaking of lunch being over, the older crowd heads home, while the younger crowd settles down for some more “hangin out”. One does head home around 5 ish, for a change of outfit, before getting back to the pandal around 8. From then on, it’s a fest of culture, with locally produced and imported (from Kolkata usually) shows of Bengali music, dance, dance drama, theatre and so on. After these, late at night, is movie time. Some of my best puja memories involve multiple and disastrous accidents with ancient projectors and trashy commercial bangla films, where half the time you hear nothing, half the time you have no picture, and most of the time its all out of sync anyway. But who cares! That’s part of the fun! And while I have sat through utter trash like “Beder Meye Josna” on these occasions, I have also seen some masterpieces of older Bengali cinema that I would otherwise have missed.

And, unlike in Kolkata, this is all a family event! In Kolkata, all the puja seeing, travel, pandal hopping, seems to be done by the younger crowd only. Even the middle aged don't seem to step out much, forget the senior citizens. And even if they do, it is almost never as families. The kids take off on their own, and the parents do their thing separately. With us, we go as a family. Maybe the older generation leaves sooner to go home, or sits in one central location while the younger bunch does a few surrounding pandals, but overall, its a FAMILY thing. The day only ends at something like 5 am, when we finally stagger home, to catch a few hours of sleep before a repeat performance begins the next morning, usually at a different pandal! After all cool stuff is happening at all of them! Sure we don’t spend lakhs on décor and lighting, but we have a LOT of fun. That’s Durga puja for me, not to mention being around MY friends, hanging out with MY crowd. Now what on earth would I want to give all that up for? So thanks a lot but no thanks is how I feel about KOLAKATAR pujo. Probasi pujo does just fine for me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Analyzing my greatest addiction

“Let us read and let us dance - two amusements that will never do any harm to the world.”  - Voltaire

In The Tale of Despereaux – by Kate DiCamillo, Despereaux is a “weird” mouse who prefers to read books rather than eat them. This gets him into all kinds of trouble, as any “otherness” does in most societies. When he is sentenced to languish in the dungeons, Gregory -- the rat jailer, offers to save him. Despereaux asks "Why would you save me?"  

The answer that Gregory gives is a good place as any to begin my own examination of my greatest addiction in life. "Because you, mouse, can tell Gregory a story” he says. “Stories are light. Light is precious in a world so dark. Begin at the beginning. Tell Gregory a story. Make some light’.”  That’s exactly what a good book, or in a pinch – ANY book – does for me. It opens, illuminates, and pleases my mind. It’s my almost free ticket to go anywhere and be anything I choose. It is the best way I can think of to force my mind open, experience completely foreign cultures and lives, live other peoples’ existences, and feel what they feel, and learn….just learn so many things, facts, trivia, science, and so much more! And the more I do so, the more I want to.

More and more people I meet these days do not read. I feel a little saddened and sorry for them when they say things like “books are boring”, or “I would rather do anything than read a book”. I know the futility of trying to explain to them what they are missing, no one who doesn’t have the bug can ever comprehend what it is like. Then again, to each his own, I guess, and if someone thinks they get all the pleasure they can out of life from TV, internet, and sports, that’s entirely their choice. As for me, I cannot imagine living without books. I can manage pretty well without many things that I once considered essential – parties, adda, TV, regular soirees, going out every evening, being surrounded by people – but books are as essential to my life and well being as breathing. My house is full of books, seven crates and counting, and I would go mad if I didn’t read at least a few pages a day. In fact, I can’t fall asleep if I haven’t read something first.

Teaching a kid to read is hard work, as I realize now that I am teaching mine to, and I am glad my parents invested the time and effort into teaching me to love books. Because of them, and their efforts, I will never be lonely, bored, or restricted ever in my life. Most parents don’t. They pay token lip service (and not all of them either) to the “kids these days don’t read” complaint, but obviously don’t care enough, or see it as enough of a problem, to actually make the effort to remedy the situation. At worst, they themselves read nothing other than the odd newspaper, and don’t see the need for a reading habit in their kids. At best, they are the exclusive Grihalakhsmi, Women’s Era reading mothers, and Newspapers and business magazines only fathers who see no need for either them or their kids to read anything else given that the parents are doing “just fine” without it. A third category also exists, that of people who vaguely wish their kids to read, and are trying to make them, but too little and too late.

Except in very rare cases, a reading habit is hereditary. Not genetic, or passed down with the genes, but cultural, passed down with the other memes we receive, like religious beliefs, orthodox/liberal worldviews, political stands, and such. The earliest memories I have (and I am sure my brother – another voracious reader—will agree) involve books. Not only did my parents have an extensive library of their own, most of them classics and “non popular”, leisure at home often involved a toddler Jia holding a book upside down fiercely emulating the parents, who – lying on either side of her – both had their noses buried in a book. Reading, and talking about, books, was very much a part of the general background of home life, and an important part of familial bonding. Given books from infancy on, by age twelve – when most of my peers were beginning to read the bigger Enid Blytons, I had gone through Nancy Drew, and Hardy Boys, C S Lewis and Lewis Carroll, and moved on to Of Human Bondage (which I have since re read a dozen times, discovering something new each time I pick it up).

For CONCERNED parents these days, listening to the expert advice of psychologists and sociologists disturbed by the increasing intolerance and lack of depth in youth, the shorter and shorter attention spans, and the addiction to instant gratification, teaching their kids to read is becoming somewhat more of an issue than it would normally have been. However, how is the kid supposed to get the message if the parents don’t read? It will just end up being another of those “do what I tell you, don’t do as I do” lessons that kids learn duplicity from. Also, the time to hand the kid a book is BEFORE it can read. Most parents don’t, because a} the kid can’t read, b} it will just tear it up, c} I’ll have to take time out of my busy life to read the book out to him/her. While all of this is true, this actually IS the time to introduce the child to the concept of books. Looking at pictures, and yes, tearing the occasional page, will raise a curiosity about what it says. Reading to my child has been one of the nicest, closest, quietest bonding experiences I have ever had.

Yes, I had to read out the same stories again and again, but now that my little monkey has learnt to read some of them on her own, I miss it. Having always been around books, and having seen both parents, especially mom, so much into reading, my daughter already sees books as an inalienable part of her life, and --- at age 5 and a half – often chooses to read rather than watch endless cartoons. Another thing I learnt from my parents is not to force my tastes in reading on to my child. Sure, I do hand – and will continue to hand her – books that I consider good reads, but she is, as I have always been, free to read anything she chooses.

I hope, that as she grows, she will find in books what I have found. A perfect and constant friend, accessible and cheap “anytime entertainment”, enough information to set me well on the path to my ultimate ambition… “to know everything about everything”, some of the best antidepressants on the planet, the perfect escape, and so much more. I hope she also realizes the pleasures of re-reading. A lot of people I know… who supposedly read … don’t get how I can keep reading the same books again and again ( I have some that I have read as many as 50 times and can pick up again anytime). “But you already know the story!” these are the people I classify into the same category as the ones that say “I never read Wodehouse, the stories are so juvenile!” I for one don’t read JUST for a story. Every word, every line, every page, has something to offer (particularly if it is Wodehouse. hehehe). It’s about suddenly discovering a new idea or thought that you missed on previous readings. It is re-appreciating a turn of phrase or a juxtaposition of irreconcilables. It is seeing the same characters and plot from a place of slightly superior experience of lived life. “When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than was there before.”

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man's mind can get both provocation and privacy”  according to Edward P. Morgan, and I find that increasingly true as social contact leaves more and more to be desired, and everyone seems to be beginning to think in black and white. I like the freedom to play the devil’s advocate to my own mind, I enjoy making myself uncomfortable in my beliefs, if only to test how deep they run. So, yes, I love to read, and can never have enough books.

No wonder then, that my idea of home décor is basically asking “do we have enough bookshelves?” :D

Monday, August 15, 2011

Yet Another Independence Day Hoopla

Another I-Day passes amidst a lot of noise. My newspapers (all 5 of them) are practically unreadable for all the “messages” by various government agencies, departments, and private firms, not to mention all the tokenism of “freedom related” news and features which are basically rubbish. News channels are doing their twice yearly rehashes of the same old footage, and old patriotic film songs (necessarily old because new Hindi films have done away with the genre) and strange programs (presumably the last minute brainstorms of some harried studio executive) interviewing really odd people. The radio is strangely thanda this year, with most of the FM channels ignoring the occasion altogether. Only All India Radio seems to be doing the yearly rundown of the top 20 march/war/aggression songs from films.

Schools, government offices, and enthusiastic mohalla committees are hoisting the tricolour, and my eardrums are practically blasted off by loudspeakers blaring deshbhakti songs at full volume, all day. People are leaving enthusiastic and over-the-top messages on social networking sites, and text messages, wishing everyone a Happy Independence Day. (now I am not going to get into this whole deal of happy this and happy that, that’s a whole other blogpost in itself). Most of these people couldn’t really care less about this entity called the motherland, or don’t bother to even think about it beyond two days a year (click here for a previous blog post on this topic). And really, most people don’t have the time or the occasion to do so either (doesn’t seem to stop them from having knee-jerk reactions to things that are seen as un-Indian, against our culture, etc, but that a whole different kettle of fish too.)

Watching the hoopla, I am reminded again of all the news over the last few years that has been cumulatively strengthening my belief that FREEDOM is actually declining at an alarming rate in this huge “democracy” of ours. A primary case in point, of course, is the new bill which, in a few months from now, could very well penalize me for saying what I just did, shut down my blog, and even imprison me. (click here for more information). This bill, presumably soon to be law, is only the most recent and OFFICIAL step in an atmosphere of increasing intolerance in a land that has always been a melting pot of widely divergent cultures, identities, and belief systems. The very basic, and primary, fundamental right of every citizen in ANY democracy – the freedom of speech and opinion – is the one that has been seeing the fastest and sharpest decline not just from increasingly touchy groups of fanatics, but also in a more organized and formal manner, from the government itself.

Books, films, art, advertising and blog content, all are under the scissors of self appointed keepers of our collective morals and culture (whatever that means). Taking offense at the drop of a hat is bad enough, but translating that feeling of being offended into violence, book burning, vandalism, forced shutdown of film screenings, and such like are worse. The capstone of the tomb, of course, is the attitude of the state, which loses no time in banning “sensitive” material. It has now gone beyond the ridiculous. Instead of the state acting like a grown up, and telling these trigger happy fanatic groups to “don’t watch/read/see it if it offends you, but let others have the freedom to choose”, it is telling people like me that we MUST bow to the opinion of a handful of fundamentalist jerks about what I should be able to watch, see, or read.

And that’s not the half of it. People in some of the biggest and most reputedly cosmopolitan cities in the country (Delhi and Pune) are now officially unable to have a drink until they are 25. This in a country where I can drive at 18, marry and have kids at 18 (21 for a man). So, according to these laws, I am mature enough to drive, placing my life and that of others in danger, at 18. I am mature enough to marry and procreate, placing my physical, mental, and emotional health and future in jeopardy, along with that of a partner and a child, also at 18. But I am not old enough, or mature enough to decide if I want to indulge in a beer? How ridiculous is that? Other fundamentalist groups, unopposed, and therefore aided and abetted by the state machinery, are telling me where I can hang out, what I can wear, who I can marry, and threatening me with violence if I refuse to follow their diktats! Pardon me for being over reactive if this reminds me of the beginning of the rise of the Taliban!

The government doesn’t have the money or the personnel, (let's call it what it really is… it doesn’t have the will) to prosecute criminals for known and proven crimes, it doesn’t have the machinery to investigate the ridiculously large scams coming to light everyday, but it DOES have the time and infrastructure to tap my phones and monitor my blogs, facebook page, and twitter posts to make sure I don’t put anything OFFENSIVE on them? As foetus, the machinery cannot prevent me from being killed before I am born, as an infant it cannot prevent me from being killed or abandoned for being a girl, as a woman it cannot prevent me from being bought and sold as chattel, or persecuted and killed for dowry. As a grown woman of legal age, in some states the government tells me I need my parents’ permission to marry who I choose, even if it is in a civil court! When my family kills me for marrying against the diktats of some ridiculous bunch of old men, the state machinery does nothing to either protect me before the fact or avenge me after!

When, as a citizen of India, I live in a state that is supposedly not my own (click here for more) the government and its machinery does nothing to safeguard my civil rights, or to prevent hooligans from beating me up, squeezing me out of my livelihood, burning my home and business, or preventing me from taking recruitment exams. As a writer or artist, if I write, draw, film, or create anything that OFFENDS a group of fanatics, they are free to beat me up, destroy my creation, vandalise my home, vandalise public facilities like libraries and shops stocking my work, ban it from curricula, and I have no one to turn to! Instead of protecting my fundamental rights, the machinery of the state will either stand by and watch the naked dance of destruction, or aid in the crime by banning the work or worse, forcing me to leave the country! And these are simple things! God forbid I should demand more contentious things like sexual and reproductive rights!

Do I really think I am FREE? The answer is a resounding NO! do I really feel like celebrating independence? I think not!

Friday, July 29, 2011

More pernicious ads

In my continuing tirade against bad, misogynistic and pernicious advertising (click here for more), I have two more that i have discovered that enrage me as a woman, and worry me as a parent.

Picture this. Harried wife and mother, presumably a homemaker, is rushing around in a dressing gown, getting the child ready for school while the father gets dressed for work off-screen and upstairs. He suddenly starts calling down to her for his black socks. The woman grumbles her way up the stairs, goes to the chest of drawers right in front of where he is sitting, pulls out a visibly well organised drawer, picks up the rolled up socks which are sitting right in front of the drawer, and hands them to him. The voiceover takes over at this point telling the woman how a fiber rich bran flake breakfast will clear her system and stop her from being irritated with such “small and trivial” things, and make her happier. What’s wrong with this picture?

A fully grown man, (35 according to the ad) can’t, or won’t, find a pair of socks out of a highly organized drawer right in front of his nose, expects his wife to drop everything, stop whatever she is doing, neglect her other work in order to come all the way upstairs and retrieve them for him, and it’s the WOMAN who has to change????? It is HER problem that her husband is a total incompetent and so callous he cannot be bothered to even TRY to do his own work for himself? SHE is the one who is irrational to be irritated at this obvious display of self centered nincompoop-ness?
She is the one who is unhealthy to be angered by this display of a total disregard for her and her work/energy/comfort?

What a horrible country I live in, and what a horrible place to bring up a daughter! The message is clear. It is a woman’s place to serve, and a man’s to demand, no matter how meaningless and over the top that demand may be. It is perfectly fine for him not to bother to lift a finger to open that drawer in front of him and pick up a pair of socks, but it is irrational and horrible of her to complain or even fume to herself (as she does in the ad) for having to drop whatever she was doing and to come all the way upstairs just to take them out and hand them to him! SHE is the one who has to fix herself, with an all bran breakfast of all things, so she can continue to serve his every whim with a smile! Good lord! Now THAT’S a message I definitely don’t want my daughter to learn, because these are the messages that have, for centuries, forced women to be mere slaves or chattel in their marital home, to be taken advantage of, abused, tortured, and even killed.

And here’s another picture. Mother constantly on her feet, doing all the housework, running errands, going vegetable and grocery shopping, suddenly groans aloud with severe backache. Her pre-teen son snatches the heavy shopping basket out of her hands and runs on ahead. At this point you realize that the father is with them, and the son goes up to dad and says, “dad, why does mom have to do all the work.”  So far so good, one would think. More power to the son for noticing mom’s pain, and recognizing all the work she puts in, and curses on the father for not being MAN enough to at least carry the heavy shopping basket for his wife. The voiceover says something like “don’t let your pain hurt your loved ones” and I am warming to this ad! Seems to be going the right way, I think.

Cut to, the child and the father – later that night – massaging a popular pain relief cream into mum’s back (enough in itself to get the father branded as Joru ka Ghulam – or slave of his wife, a highly denigrating insult in India). And then, the ad joins the ranks of all those brainwashing, misogynistic subliminally conditioning ads with the mother back to shopping with the same basket the next day, albeit with a spring in her step. So, the message is, its ok to be metrosexual and apparently caring, in the privacy of your bedroom where no one except your wife can see you, because that’s a nice way to keep the woman functioning, so she can do all the work everyday. Don’t have to help her in public, don’t have to stand up for her or share her chores where (god forbid) people can actually see you, don’t have to carry her burdens, definitely don’t have to share her workload, simply have to be “nice” enough to massage pain relief cream into her aches every night! Five minutes of comfortably private effort to ensure that you don’t have to make ANY extra or public effort to improve her life all day! How convenient!  

What does it say about our combined national values and ethos that these ads pass muster, that no one even notices that there’s something wrong in the basic premise? What does it say about our ideas of a woman’s place and her social role that these are seen as not just normal but “good” ways of selling popular products? And what (I shudder to think) is my five year old girl subconsciously absorbing about what is OK and NOT OK for a woman? 

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Solitary by choice -- but not lonely

I have often been accused of overanalysing everything, including my own emotions and motives, and of being an insufferable know-it-all whose only aim in life seems to be to appear Different, and to be contrary to all accepted and received, traditional and popular, thoughts and opinions. It used to irk me, hurt me, bother me substantially, especially when a lot of people I cared for and loved seemed to be of the same opinion. Over time, I have come to realise that these accusations spring from places of blindness, weakness, and refusal to think, even in those whom I had thought of as fairly rational and “thinking” as human beings. As I grow older, and more assured, more sure of the basic rightness of using the brain I was given for the purpose it seems made for, I have come to take these accusations as badges of honour. To me, someone flinging this at me means I have made a dent, that I have made them uncomfortable with their “this is how it is because this is how it always was” lives, and shaken or at least made them question even if only in passing, their opinions gleaned solely from popular media or received from TRADITION (or both).

What it means, realistically, is that I am more and more alone, more and more often. My close friend circle has shrunk, from nearly 30 or 40 people, to a select handful, as I weed out the ones most persistently bothered by the fact that I have strong opinions on practically everything, and that I insist on being vocal about them. To me, disagreement, even healthy argument, is the elixir of life. What I do not, and will not tolerate is the twisted barbs, the sarcasm, and clear denigration, even from people I love very much. I know that it is very much a part of the Indian mentality, and especially Bengali mentality, to deal in what is called “friendly insults”. The closer friends or cousins are, the nastier they seem to be to each other. Now, while I am a great fan of honesty and straight forwardness, I do require (as I give) basic respect, and an absence of wilful nastiness and sarcasm from people close to me. If I care about someone, I may pull a leg occasionally, but will do my utmost to avoid being hurtful and insulting, and I expect the same from my people.

Some people, who genuinely care about me, are getting worried at my seeming sanyas. Here’s a woman, they seem to think, who could hardly survive without being constantly surrounded by hordes of people; someone who was constantly throwing or going to parties; someone who HAD to get out of the house every evening, even if it was for an adda at the neighbourhood cafe, or would go mad. And, over the past few years she has become increasingly home bound. Parties have become less and less frequent, the huge numbers of friends have dwindled to just a very few, and pubs and going dancing and coffee addas are nonexistent. Surely she must be unhappy? And this perceived unhappiness makes them want to FIX things; to draw me out of my shell, to get me to DO more again.

Do I miss that life? Those evenings? Sure I do, sometimes. It’s all a lot of fun. But it is a question of choices now. I’d rather have a quiet evening with a few people with whom I can talk and exchange ideas and argue and debate in respect and without acid, than have a roomful of people bent on proving how much superior they are to everyone else, mainly through the twin alleys of denigration and sarcasm. This, obviously, means less contact with the outside world in an attempt to avoid all the sheeples in it. So, do I miss the intellectual stimulation of searching for, and finding, other people with half a brain and a conscious and rational approach to life? Nope, I don’t, because the internet has filled in quite efficiently. Blogging is a fine way of letting off the steam I would otherwise have let off in ranting to so-called friends, and I have found far more interesting people on chat than I seem to meet face to face these past years.

After all, when one is in college, or at the university, the very nature of campus life ensures a certain amount of worthwhile contact. People from all over the country, sometimes from all over the world, from various backgrounds, socio economic strata, upbringing, all in one place – it’s like having a specially created pool of people likely to provide some new opinion or experience. Also the fact that they are young, at a stage barely – if at all—out of their rebellious phases, and many of them are likely to be as open minded and iconoclastic as one would wish. Ten or fifteen years down the line, unless you have emigrated, chances are that no such pool is available to you any longer. If you work outside the home, things are marginally better, for you at least get to see a few new people every once in a while, and there’s always your colleagues. With luck, you can have almost the same kind of a group as you did on campus. I say almost because by now everyone has work and personal commitments, significant others, spouses, kids, bills, mortgages, and so on, all of which tends to drag even the most “interesting” of people into the morass of living, thinking, and being like the “typical” bunch.

If you work from home, like me, or are a stay at home wife and mom, access is virtually zero. The only new people I am ever likely to meet at this stage in life are nosy neighbours and the obsessive, helicopter parent mothers of the other kids in my daughter’s class. I could strike up a conversation with any of them at the daily pick the kid up from school vigil, get pally, introduce the men to each other, and for a “social circle”. Truth be told, the idea horrifies me. From what I have seen, the only thoughts these people seem to have is “school school school-work test exam exam books notebooks marks” interspersed by “in laws in laws” and a little bit of clothes, popular movies, and so on – none of which is my idea of regular brain food. I am totally un-obsessed about schooling and exams, (she’s five for god’s sake!) and none of the other topics I have heard bandied about so far has left me anything but totally disinterested.

Me? I’d rather be searching for, reading, and commenting on interesting blogs that I can share with my fellow searchers after meaning and thought in the cyber world. Come to think of it, I’ve met  lot of people really worth knowing, people I m proud to know, people who help my own mind keep evolving, right here in cyberspace, over the last few years. The chances of meeting them in my limited day-to-day circumscribed life would have been impossible. They r spread all over the world, some new acquaintances, some friends of friends, and some total strangers I’ve bumped into through their blogs. I feel a lot more connected with most of these people than I do with many of the people who surround me every day.

The flock mentality, the flock lifestyle, and the common and daily concerns of the flock, whether small or large, leave me cold. And while I may have the occasional passing pang for a wild night of partying and pub hopping, I am much happier with the fellow non-sheeples, some of whom I have never met, and may never meet.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Rude seems to be the new cool

And no, you don’t need to have any special powers to be able to see that. Watch any of the new, popular, “youth” type movies, look at any of the new ads, or watch any episode of the dozens of “Reality Shows” that are airing on any and every channel. The first and most obvious thing that jumps out at me in any of these things is how rude, badly behaved and unethical everyone is.

For years I have been cursing and ranting about how progressively ruder the world seems to be getting. How people NEVER turn off their cell phones in a movie or a play; how they insist on being loud and obnoxious in public places like movie theatres, malls and restaurants; how they push and shove and run people down on the sidewalk, in supermarkets, and everywhere else; how they never offer seats to ill, pregnant, or older people anymore; how they yell and curse and are rude to people regardless of age etc; and so much more. Now, it’s gotten to a point where I’ve practically stopped going out, and completely given up watching TV because of how angry these things make me.

Getting out of the house, going anywhere and doing anything has become so much of an irritation generator, that I would rather spend time at home, with my friends, books, music, or a good movie, rather than go OUT for something. Luckily urban living also means not having to step out for necessities or luxuries. Most things come to your doorstep at the end of a simple phone call.

As for TV, where do I start? When each ad seems to be about lying to, cheating, or manipulating your girlfriend or boyfriend; about sleeping around and stringing people along; about snatching, and greed, and shortcuts, and cutting corners, I am hard pressed to figure out what to let my five year old watch. What are the values she will imbibe from these images? No matter what I try to teach her at home, I cannot deny that a huge amount of influence is exerted by these images and subliminal messages she imbibes and absorbs from that fascinating screen.

And its not just ads! A majority of the cartoons that are on air these days are horrendously rude and abusive! And these are programs for kids! The worst culprits seem to be the Asian ones, especially the Japanese and Korean cartoon series, which seem to be populated almost entirely by shrewish mothers who are perpetually screaming at and beating their kids, bullies who are forever tormenting and beating up other kids, and a weak, spineless, and totally unethical protagonist. Moreover, most of the six and seven year olds in these series seem obsessed with the opposite sex, dating, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc.  what this says about the structure and values of the societies that produced these cartoons, I shudder to think. What does concern me, though, is what kind of things my daughter is picking up from them. In spite of rigorous screening and control of what and how much she watches, I find my monkey behaving in ways that apes the behaviour of those characters. I have to keep reminding her not to be rude to friends and family, especially those older than her.

Reality shows are another whole layer of rudeness and abuse. Normally I wouldn’t watch any of them if you paid me a million bucks. Recently however, teenage cousins were staying over, and seemed to be addicted to these programs. With them watching these series practically all day, I ended up having to see quite a bit, whether I wished to or not. The common denominator, as far as I could see, was the fact that all the people on screen were perpetually screaming at, abusing, cursing, and generally being unbearably rude and uncouth to everyone else. Whether it is you current or ex boyfriend or girlfriend, just other contestants, or the world in general, the only desired action or response seems to be cheating, unethical behaviour, and highly uncivilized language.

Orchestrated and scripted as these programs obviously are, they seem designed and made only for the purposes of seeing how rude and uncouth it is possible to be on TV. And the growing tweens and teens, the biggest audience demographics for these shows, are lapping it all up! The ruder, louder, and more abusive the program, the higher its ratings. No wonder then, that this entire generation thinks its cool to be disrespectful, and rude. Parents these days don’t seem to wish to exercise any control over what the kids watch, and they don’t seem to have been able to inculcate good taste so that the kids would voluntarily refuse to watch such shows. Funnily enough, there also seems to be no censor control over Indian television. Much as I hate the idea of censorship, I find it ridiculous that sex on TV and in movies is such a problem in India, but this kind of pure excrement is allowed to air day after day, and month after month.

There is zero meaningful content in any of these ads, cartoons, and shows, and the whole point of the exercise of even making them seems to be to demonstrate how “KOOL” and “HIP” and “WONDERFULLY rude” they can be.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Random musings – of anti feminist ads, valentine’s days and other nonsense

Ok…so many pet peeves…so little time…. Haven’t ranted in a while… today…taking the things foremost on my mind…one at a time.

·         “ladakh ki barfili wadiyon me hum teen akeli ladkiyan (in the frozen valleys of Ladakh, three girls alone) …we were lost”  …anyone else see the GLARING grammatical error and the problematic thought process here? First the grammatical….TEEN ladkiyan AKELI kaise ho sakti hain? It is impossible for three girls to be ALONE. By definition three people means none of them is alone. So, let me get this….this is the bharatiya ABALA NAARI (helpless woman) syndrome right? Women…even if there are three of them…are alone, and helpless, without a man to take care of them and protect them? Even if that MAN is a 14 year old boy….and the women are (supposedly) more mature 20 somethings….right? hmmm… and MAGGI is shamelessly selling its crappy noodles with this. And what REALLY gets to me is I am probably the only one whose teeth are set on edge every time I hear it (in my immediate circle at least)! Am I overreacting? Probably…. But I think it is symptomatic of how little things have changed in the India of feminism and women’s rights that copywriters come up with such a line, editors and clients pass it, it is aired, repeatedly, and no one even notices! “Must we take umbrage at everything?” I can hear the detractors moaning. No we don’t. me…I don’t care if we spell it wommyn or wimmin or just plain old women. I don’t care too much if someone calls me a poetess instead of poet (simply shrug and think they don’t know better). But this one grates on my nerves because of how subliminal it is. It is just SUCH a big example of the mental processes of the writer, as well as everyone else… YES YES YES it irritates me.

·         On another track… this V-day hoopla just seems to get more and more all pervasive every year. And I can’t seem to explain to most people (thank god I know some who feel different) why I don’t CELEBRATE valentine’s day. Theories range from me being a loveless/lovelorn bitter loner to being heartless…. And unnecessarily trying to be different. Whatever man. The way I see it… I would prefer to express my love for anyone… parents, brother, friends, significant other, child, every day of my life. Would also prefer the same in return. What’s the point of not acknowledging what someone means to you for the rest of the year, and then, on a day decided and hyped mainly by greeting card companies, deciding to buy flowers and chocolates? Flowers that cost about 20 times the normal price mind you. Why not just do nice things everyday? Things that don’t cost a shitload of money, but say very clearly and loudly…I care? Like a cup of tea at the right time, or doing the washing when she’s not feeling too good, or sharing a quiet moment, or holding hands in a sad film? One “gyaani” gave me the historical defense. There is a historical context to the day, to the celebration. That’s why we should celebrate. ….don’t necessarily see that…first of all, whatever historical context there supposedly is, is from an early Christian martyr ….relevance to moi in today’s day and age? also…there is no evidence that there is any historical fact behind the ROMANTIC associations of St Valentine of Terni. Most of the current legends about secret marriages and patronship of lovers seems to be either a product of Chaucer’s imagination (quite the imagination), or extrapolation by 18th century antiquaries. So….whaaat? I’d rather not make impossibly rich greeting card companies richer thanks. I’ll just say a quiet “love you” everyday instead.

·         With a five year old at home, I end up watching a lot of cartoons, as can be imagined. Hating, as I do, all kinds of things dubbed in Hindi, its painful for me that a lot of the cartoons are Hindi-dubbed, at least in the area I live in. I could switch language and choose the English versions, of course, but monkey kind of prefers the Hindi versions because she can understand all the dialogue, and until her English gets better, looks like I am stuck with this. It’s irritating enough to have Tom, Jerry, Bean et al spouting dialogues in Hindi. But what’s worse is things like Oggy and the Cockroaches, which in the original version has no dialogues whatsoever. In deference to the much lower IQ of the Hindi audience, or some such, the Hindi version comes complete with a voiceover and dialogues, forced into the action. And, to top it all, these are done in spoof voices which sound like certain ham actors of the Bollywood echelon. So…what is this about? Are we afraid that Hindi speaking kids are not smart enough to decipher the action from the extremely broad physical comedy going on, on the screen? Do we think they need a roadmap to find their own behinds? What? I just find it extremely patronizing and irritating. And what’s with these dubbing companies anyway? They can’t look up a dictionary if they r unsure of a pronunciation? Can we please not pronounce orchid the way it is written? It's ORKID you idiots…and its sets my teeth on edge to hear or chid or chid. And its Wilbur and Orville Wright… pronounced Or vil ….not or wi le. GOD!

·         And what’s with the movie channel subtitles these days? Is crap really a better word than shit? And how is intercourse a more polite/less vulgar word than sex? And does son of a witch fool anyone? And ass is just missing…so you smartass becomes you smart, hardass becomes hard, etc etc….that’s plain retarded man. Just bleep out the words and leave them out of the titles why don’t you? I can lip read them fine thnx…and I don’t have to spend half the time and attention of watching a serious thriller or drama laughing at your inane transmutations.