Thursday, September 12, 2013

Basi Kapor – Yet Another Example Of The Double Standards Of Indian Culture

Talking and laughing about a good friend’s ma-in-law’s horror at her attempting to cook in basi kapor (stale clothes), I have to wonder again at the huge and constant double standards of this culture I belong to.

What is basi kapor then? Literally, it means stale clothes, the clothes you have slept in. But, hold on, why does this apply only to women, and only to married ones? And how does sleeping in some clothes make them so totally unsuitable for anything the next morning? So much so that the first thing you have to do is change out of them before you contemplate tackling your household chores and duties? Why can you not step into the kitchen, or the place of worship, in these stale clothes? It is when you begin to think about these questions that the truth strikes you. They are not the clothes you have slept in, they are the clothes you have had sex in, or put on after sex.

Given the overpowering, all exclusive emphasis that Indian culture places on getting and staying married, serving “every need” of your lord and master, and on being a mother (that is giving birth to offspring, preferably numerous, preferably male), it is quite amazing how much we denigrate, hate, abuse, and hide everything that has anything to do with these aims.

Be fertile the culture tells you. Being unable to produce children is the biggest sin a woman can commit. The baanjh, or barren woman, is the most inauspicious creature in this culture, excluded from all good/auspicious occasions and rituals for fear of her infertility blasting everything her shadow touches. Whether she is infertile or not is decided merely by the fact of her not having any visible kids, regardless of whether her husband is impotent, or infertile, or simply not interested (because a man cannot be at fault after all). And no…this is not some middle ages, long-outgrown-in-the-modern-world syndrome that I am talking about.

This mentality is so ingrained that when my partner and I chose to wait four whole years before reproducing, we got numerous enquiries, and offers of help and medication for me, not just from extended family and nosy neighbours but from almost strangers. I have friends in similar situations whose husbands get random colleagues coming up to them, people who they hardly even speak to more than once a year, to recommend some gynaecological magic worker they know.

As for women (with supportive partners, of course) choosing to be childless! OH MY GOD! Every stranger, every chat contact, every relative, friend, family member, (none of whose business it is) will argue and persuade and try to convince her and her partner that a woman is incomplete unless she is a mother, that every woman dreams of being a mother (how would you know what she dreams, asshole?), that it is every woman’s greatest joy/pleasure/duty/desire to bear children. They will be called selfish, weird, unnatural, and so many other things.

And this is ONLY if she has a supportive partner, because without one, she has no choice in the matter. Her body, her womb, and the choice to use those as an incubator, are not hers at all, and pregnancy and childbirth will be forced on her by her husband, in-laws, and society at large. If this is how much our society wants each woman to breed, why do we feel such disgust, shame, anger, at everything that makes women breeders? Why is everything leading up to and contributing to fertility and pregnancy such a hush hush, hide hide, ugh, dirty, nasty?

From the day she first starts to menstruate, the girl feels the brunt of this shame. In milder form, she cannot let anyone become aware that she is bleeding. Not even her father or brother. Personal products (not surprisingly called SANITARY products) must be bought shamefully, in hushed voices, and wrapped in newspapers so no one, familiar or stranger, can know what it is. Staining is a matter of life or death, not because it ruins a good dress, but because people will KNOW that you are now bleeding, at this time. She cannot call it period, or menstruation. It must be euphemized as “shorir kharap” (being unwell), chums, that time, those days, or anything that does not directly reference the actual process or name.

The undergarments, that touch the sanitary products, even when washed and clean, cannot be hung out to dry in any place where they touch a growing or fertile plant. If they do so, the plant will supposedly stop fruiting/blooming. (Let me get this straight, the mere touch, at second hand, of something which is a sign that I am fertile/fruitful, will kill the fertility of something else? What kind of sense does that make?). a girl/woman who is having her period must not step into the kitchen or the place of worship in her home, because she is impure. How the evidence of her greatest power, that of bearing life, can make her impure, I have no idea. She cannot enter a temple. Even goddesses are not exempt! For HER menstrual period, the Ambubachi, the goddess Kamakhya has to endure days of no worship. Why? Because goddess or not, if she is bleeding, she is too impure to give or receive worship.

And these are the milder forms. In more severe forms, the first period, the onset of a girl’s menstruation is marked by a huge feast, for which she is dressed up like a bride and paraded around the village/neighbourhood (to display to prospective grooms and their families that she is now of breeding age and hence marriageable), and then confined to a “menstrual room” for the rest of the duration. I remember how shocked I was the first time a classmate of mine – in Chennai – first told me of her experience. This menstrual room, or menstrual house is a fact of life in many states and communities. All the menstruating women of the house/village are sent there for the duration of their period. These houses are badly constructed, and most often lacking basic amenities like running water, sanitation, and even decent bedding.

The same double standards, unhealthy attitudes, and woman shaming occur in anything to do with sex or sexuality. A girl is supposed to not exist from the waist down until she is married. After she is married, her body is merely the vessal of “service” to her husband, her lord and master. She cannot and must not have any desires or libido, and must actively dislike all sexual activity while willingly submitting to her husband every time he wants some, never enjoying it, but considering it her duty, and a stepping stone towards fulfilling her ultimate duty – the production of offspring.

And this is exactly where the concept of basi kapor comes in. Having sex with her husband makes a woman and her clothes impure. It does not do the same to the man…of course… for men are built for sex and have no control over themselves (the excuses given to rapists all the time). For the woman however, it becomes essential that she change those “sex” clothes, and bathe, before she participates in something as important as cooking or worship.

So, a woman can and should menstruate… because she has to have kids, but to menstruate is a sin, is dirty, is shameful, and a fact that must be hidden from everyone (presumably not the husband, because he has to know when to schedule his baby making activities, and god forbid an Indian male should wade the red tide. Come to think of it…that’s a good thing too, or she would have to bear the brunt of cleaning up, probably hearing scathing judgmental things while doing so.)

Being repeatedly pregnant in her effort to produce as many male heirs as she possibly can is her sacred duty, as is pleasing her husband in bed (like a prostitute as some of our scriptures and our marriage rituals famously quote), but she can not only not enjoy the act, she must be shamed for allowing it to happen (beaten and raped if she doesn’t allow it though). She must feel so unclean, impure, and ashamed that she must clean herself immediately upon rising, before she can do anything auspicious.

And then we wonder why women have such a bad time here, why we are such a rape culture, almost celebrating rape rather than condemning it, and considering marital rape to be nonexistent (obviously…since she is NEVER supposed to want it, so how can doing it when she does not want be a crime???) and why most Indian men grow up to be such misogynists, sexists, and chauvinists. It is a miracle that ALL of them don’t!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

New and growing obsessions – age old impulses

For the last few years, I have found that I am hardly ever without a camera. Whether I am at home, dropping monkey off to school or fetching her from it, shopping for vegetables, paying bills, going out, working, or at an event, some form or another of photographic equipment is never far from my fingers.

I used to be, until comparatively recently, one of the “occasion”al photographers who make up about 90% of total camera sales around the world. When we travelled, and we did travel a lot, we took a lot of pictures, or when there was an occasion – like a birthday or a wedding – but that’s largely how it was.

Part of the reason, back then, for not being a totally obsessed shutterbug was cost. Film photography is expensive. Cameras were expensive too. Add to that the cost of film, as well as the cost of development and printing, and the recurring expense became almost prohibitive, especially for a student, or someone just starting out in life.

At this stage in life, photography was mostly event based, whether that event was a trip or an occasion, a party, wedding, or Durga Puja. Like with most people, the albums were filled mainly with the pictures of people and monuments. Although, as early as age 12, the odd still life had made its way into the shots I took, by necessity, most of the shots were of the relevant occasion.

Over the last 15 years or so, the frequency and type of shots have both changed. As I became more able to afford development and printing costs, I took more pictures, outside of the structure of events. As I took more non-event pictures, I clicked more of the everyday things – skyscapes, still life, interesting faces, anything that appealed on the spur of the moment. But still, it was not a constant activity. I didn’t walk around with a camera all the time.

Digital storage, and photography studios making CDs of the pics I took added another layer. Now I didn’t have to worry about printing costs, and I didn’t have to get shouted at, all the time, about how much space my negatives and pictures took up. I didn’t have to worry about damage to the negatives, I didn’t have to worry about fading quality, I didn’t have to stress about losing all my pictures every time we moved. I could just dump them all on to a hard disk, put all the CDs into one of my massive CD tins, and forget about it.

Then came digicams. What a boon! Now I didn’t have to worry about any development at all! Click and download! The small digicam became an almost regular companion, but for occasions or trips, things I particularly wanted to record photographically, I still reached for the big guns… the EOS, loaded with film. Until I could afford a Digital SLR (not the cheapest thing on the planet).

Today, there is the cell phone camera, that always travels everywhere with me (obviously), and can be whipped out at a moment’s notice to record anything that catches the eye… from an interesting cloud formation to a bird drinking out of a discarded tyre by the roadside. Then there is the little digicam, a much more advanced version compared to the first one I once owned, with numerous interesting settings, and much more chance to tinker. This sits in my purse, constantly. Wherever I go, it goes, and is reserved for those shots where I feel like I need a little more precision, resolution, or more pixels.

And, of course, there is the big gun. The digital SLR which travels on opur trips, participates in our occasions, and yes… gets whipped out of its case everytime something interesting catches my eye out of my bedroom or living room windows. From catching every nuance of expression on my little one’s face, to freezing the egret on the neighbouring rooftop for posterity, it serves all purposes.

Unsurprisingly, I find myself more and more behind a lens, at everything, almost to the point of actually experiencing discomfort, and vague distress, when I am without a camera. And I can trace that distress, maybe, to a theory advanced by one of my favourite thriller writers. Photography is a distancing mechanism, he says, a way of putting something between you and the world, of becoming the observer rather than a participant. It is also an exercise of ego, putting yourself in the position of commentator, albeit a silent one, of the beauties as well as the foibles and ugliness of the world.

As I have grown older, and progressively more cynical and disillusioned, my attraction to photography has increased exponentially, keeping perfect pace with the growth of this disillusion. As I find myself more and more withdrawn from the world, from the grating ugliness, selfishness, and sheer stupidity I see around me (there's the ego again, thinking I am any better), I also find myself more and more constantly behind a camera. My frequency of taking pictures has gone from one roll of film (36 shots) per trip to over 6000 shots on my recent US trip (not counting the ones from my cell phone cam). I am so much more comfortable now when I am just recording rather than reacting, making my silent comments – nasty or nice – rather than saying it all out loud.

Silence is becoming so much a larger part of my life, that words are no longer enough of an outlet. I engage too much when I write, put too much of myself into it, words are too from-the-gut. Photography is more my “meh”. The coment I toss out, the things I say not-so-emphatically. But it is also where I probably unwittingly and even unwillingly reveal more of my real personality, my soul, things even I don’t know about myself.

Maybe that is why I am comfortable sharing my words with the world so easily, through books, blogs, and more, while I cringe at sharing my photographs with people I don’t know and trust. 

Monday, September 9, 2013

One evening of the sublime with Urubhangam

As people close to me know, I have a thing for theatre. From Prithvi to Madhusudan Mancha, I catch a good play whenever I possibly can. With Kolkata’s reputation for good theatre, it is not surprising that I try to see as many as I can whenever I am in town. However, not all of them come up to scratch (as you can see from 
Two evenings of theatre), not even some of the more hyped ones.

It was with equal amounts of Trepidation and expectation, therefore, that I set out to watch URUBHANGAM, by Kasba Arghya Productions. Directed by Manish Mitra, this is a MEGA performance – a retelling of the main narrative of the mahabharat – lasting SIX hours! Just the thought of that was a little daunting, if not for me then for my 65 year old mother with her osteoporotic knees. But, the concept sounded good, so being die hard theatre goers, we decided to chance it.

A breath of relief was taken when they announced that there would be four breaks in the performance, but it seemed strange that they wanted everyone to leave the auditorium, each time. Being more used to the informal and “almost sitting on the stage” ambience of Prithvi, I am more familiar with sets being changed as I watch. I later realized that there are performances going on outside the auditorium in the breaks, which act as fillers, completers, enhancers for the main narrative.

When the performance began, not knowing what to expect, I was a bit unsure how I would like it. When it began, it seemed a little pretentious, and a little too wannabe. But that was for about five minutes before Ronit Modak took the stage, and took the narrative by the horns. One young man becoming a whole bunch of characters over the space of 6 hours. He is Satyavati, he is Radha, he is Arjun, he is Draupadi, he is Bheem, Krishna, Mohini, Duryodhan, Dushasan, Kunti, Gandhari, Dhritarashtra. A consummate actor, and a true chameleon, he seems to almost channel the characters on stage, his body language, his posture, his entire personality seems to morph while you watch, becoming the new person, until you can no longer see the actor in it.

Mother or child, man or woman or a third gender, god, or hero or mere mortal, he flows from one to another in the blink of an eye, and does it so well that you know what character he is in, before he opens his mouth! That alone would have made the evening completely worthwhile for me (not to mention the fact that he is a good looking, toned, physically fit young man with long hair, which I happen to like in men), but the rest of the performance far outweighs expectations too!

What a rare and pleasant surprise it is for me to go to something with high expectations, and instead of being disappointed, to come out feeling enriched, overwhelmed, and soul-satisfied! The multiple layers of the performance, the multiple languages, the multiple threatre styles, the dance, the art, the lighting, the music, the multiple focused areas on stage, the choice of which parts of the massive Mahabharata narrative to highlight – it all combines to lift Urubhangam from a play to the level of a sublime experience. The only complaint I have is that some of the dance sequences, especially the ones depicting the various instances of one-on-one hand-to-hand combat could have been shorter. By the end of the 6 hours, they begin to grate on the nerves a bit.

They tell you, at the beginning of the performance, that it took four years for the play to be developed to its final form. I say that those four years were extremely well spent. This is one COMPLETE experience, one not often found even in the rarefied layers of “good theatre”. The replete, heart heavy, almost-want-to-weep feeling I stepped out of the auditorium with is my measure of a perfect play. So much so… that I am going to re-experience it on the 22nd.

Pretentious – apparently, but not quite
Overlong – in bits
Overwhelming – certainly
Difficult to sit through – for many
Worth the effort --- undoubtedly

All in all… an evening extremely well spent, and the afterglow still continues. Thank you Kasba Arghya, Thank you Manish Mitra, See you again soon.