Friday, June 13, 2014

The Mumbai challenge, part 2


Yesterday, I had to say back at work till about 11 and because I was exhausted, I decided to walk to the train station and take a train back home, instead of getting into a cab. Walking helps me unwind. My job includes a decent amount of moving around, but the bigwigs I see are usually in their offices or at 5-star lounges. I don’t fault them; many of these people are too pressed for time. I once met a man at the airport because he didn’t have time to travel before his next flight! Plus, it’s not always the physical activity that drains, for me it’s the pressure of finding the right people, of staring at the screen till you find the right angle, the mental exhaustion from all of it. There are days when I just decide not to look at my phone any more when I get out of office. *Hint: if I’ve not returned a couple of calls or texts, this is why.  

So I decided to walk. And I noticed how Mumbai changed around me, post 11. The place I work at is what can be called midtown, with a lot of offices and people in suits and high heels and cars. But on Thursday  after office hours, they were all gone.  Mumbai roads are never really all empty, so there were people, but I was able to more or less saunter across the crossing that I usually dare not cross on my own. Old trick: I just wait for another person and follow him/her when they cross.  

Where there are cars parked and makeshift shops, there were now people making their beds.  Some had pulled out rugs to lie on, others found a relatively clean spot on the pavement. Where there is incessant traffic during the day, municipality trucks were: workers cleaning the roads as much as they can. The waste, I noticed, was mostly vegetable and fruit peels and plastic.

The train station had a few stragglers from work like me, but I think I mostly saw daily wage earners going back home. There’s a policeman in the ladies’ compartments around that time. The good thing about this city is, people are helpful on the whole. And when you know there’s no fight to get a seat (the first class ladies compartment is always comparatively less crowded), they become nicer.  An elderly woman had struck up a conversation with the girl selling hair accessories. I was in no mood to talk to anyone, so I took the empty carriage. They are linked and you can see into one from the other through the grilles.  The policeman looked like he wanted to say something, but then decided to let me be. I’m thinking he wanted to ask me to sit in the one where he and the lady were, for safety, maybe.

Mumbai’s borderline schizophrenic , there are at least three of them living in here. There’s the city by the day, where everyone’s hurrying and rushing and doing their own thing to earn their daily bread. There’s the Mumbai of the clubs and pubs and hotels and fancy hangouts, some that change so radically from evening to nightfall you’ll wonder if it’s the same place. There’s the Mumbai of the streets at night, which is peaceful (everything’s relative in this city) and of the people who take over after the ones like us are done using the roads.

 I thought riding a train at night in Mumbai can be a pretty nice experience. You’re not stuck in the city’s ever present traffic snarl  (nights are usually traffic- less, but you never know when you get caught in one), it’s quieter and you can eat samosas at the station shops.  Another thing, the last one out always turns off the fans and the lights. I don’t know if they do it in the men’s compartments, but the ladies almost always do it without fail. Given where I live, I’m barely ever the last one , but yesterday I did.  There was no queue at the auto stand and the friendly woman who reached the one approaching auto at the same time as I let me take it.  “I’ll just go to linking road (local shopping and hanging out spot), you get in.”

Unthinkable in normal hours. 

As I got home, I looked around from my balcony—it had rained earlier and the dust layers on terraces and trees seemed to have been washed away. There was a moon.  I looked at my phone and for sure, it said we were having a “clear” night—a rarity for the perpetually haze-ridden cities of Delhi and Mumbai. I was smiling to myself, thinking about how the city’s growing on me. The people here were right—everyone gets used to it in various degrees, some sooner than others.


Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mr Prime Minister Elect

Mr Prime Minister Elect,
Yesterday was an important day in the life of any Indian, especially for those under thirty. For many like me, it was the first time we saw the possibility of a single party majority translate into reality. A novelty for roughly two generations born and raised in an environment of coalition politics, never knowing what a single majority, stable government in Delhi can really do, or cannot.
No wonder then, tired and frustrated with the farce that politicians have reduced the noble profession of politics to, a bunch of people—the majority, as we see now--  voted you into power. They bought into your promise of development; they believed in your charisma, they backed you in your attempt to destroy nepotism in politics. And now, they are all waiting with glassy eyes for you to deliver.
I hope you do. You said your party is gunning for inclusive development, which is what one would expect from the leader of a billion diverse people. But you cannot ignore those who are not totally convinced.
For the greats say, that in itself is the essence of  a democracy. 
I’m not trying to undermine your achievement. It would be silly and blind of me to do so. I don’t support those few who’ve taken to Facebook and Twitter to deride the country as a whole for voting you into power.  I believe in a democracy the majority opinion holds and needs to be respected.
One may or may not like that mandate, but it does not give anyone the right to call the country and its people names for it. I, in fact, take great pride in being a part of a country that can conduct a largely free and fair election on this massive scale. While dealing with as many logistical and societal issues that we have to deal with. And in this confusion and diversity you emerged the clear winner. It takes for one to be an absolute spoilsport to not acknowledge that.
But the journey, as they say has only begun, Mr Prime Minister Elect, as you must know.  You are the shiny new leader of a country reeling from disillusionment of a vast population upset with thievery, mismanagement and more.That people are expecting deliverance from this massive web of corruption is the reason they bought into your promise of development and decisive governance.
I want that too. But what if I say I still don’t have answers to all the questions I have on my mind, despite the many campaign speeches you and your party members made? You’re now in power. Isn't it time for you and your party to do away with vagueness?
Today, as you made your way to Delhi in what the media is calling your “victory march”, Shaina NC was on a panel discussion on NDTV. On being asked how the BJP will reach out to those who feel apprehensive that you are in power, she came up with the line on how development cannot be targeted towards specific sections of society.  Just as I was thinking “that is extremely wide-eyed for a party spokesperson”,  Shashi Tharoor, also on the panel, pointed out that development can and has been specifically targeted in many parts of the country for years.
So then, I ask you again: what is your message to those, especially to those Muslims, who feel wary that you are now in charge? To those who (maybe sometimes facetiously) say now that you’re in power there’ll be a decided saffronization in government policies ? That apparently  like Juhapura in Gujarat, many Muslim majority localities in the country could be passed over when this much awaited wave of new development sweeps the country?
“The people of India have spoken decisively for the first time since Independence”, said your party president, Mr Rajnath Singh. He’s right. The people of India have given you power and now the people want some clear answers. I’m not nit-picking, I’m riding on the back of your promise that to run a Government, you can’t differentiate between those who voted for you and those who didn't.
I’m not a card carrying member of any political party. But as a citizen I'd like for you to do more than speak. 
I don’t have to spell out the magic of marketing to you. Judging by your campaign, you know it only too well. But now that you've reaped the benefits of what marketing can do, it is time to spell out the "how"s and "why"s.  
I’m not even going towards what they are calling “snoopgate” or about your sudden acknowledgement of your wife. Frankly, India has bigger issues on hand than to delve into these things, though I suspect even your most ardent supporters will agree that in any other part of the world a politician hiding the existence of a wife till the very last moment would have lost all his women voters to say the least. But we are not “other parts of the world”, so let’s leave it at that. Let us just talk development.
India is not just an economy, it is also a society. One that has a constitutional right to be a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic. I’m technically a Hindu and a Brahmin, though I've read that my religion says women have no claim to a caste, it is the men who are to be grouped. But anyhow, like Hartosh Singh Bal said, I want to know from you, in no uncertain terms, that those who do not follow the Hindu way of life won’t have to go an extra mile to prove their allegiance to the nation.  Unless they are engaging in unlawful activities, in which case the law must be decisive, irrespective of what religion or caste they belong to. And that should apply equally to all miscreants, even if they are ministers.
“A rising tide lifts all boats”, I've been told over and over again. Here’s my question: when there’s already a huge disparity between sections of society in this country—and here I don’t mean just on religious grounds—isn’t that a very simplistic answer to our problems? If section A is already behind section B when it comes to, say, education, is it enough to say a blanket tide will do for everyone? As opposed to saying we need to make special efforts to lift section A to average levels for if not, the difference between A and B will never narrow.
On my return to India, to Mumbai, I was amazed to see the blatant show of disparity in this city and in the country on the whole.  I've known about it all along of course, but it hit home harder after I’d had the chance to compare us to another country. No progressive society should have a “financial centre” of a country that has multi-tiered slums right across the road from world class hotels and retail showrooms, Sir. And have the world go one like this divide does not exist.
If this has been the rule for years and years, where a section of the society is continuously bombarded with the temptation of fancy condos, international vacations, world famous brands, hi-tech gadgets that are beyond their reach, where for generations their lot has been to clean those very condos and gadgets and dresses the TV makes them covet with no way to attain, it is naïve to not expect a push-back and cynicism.
 I want to know from you, how you’ll work to remove this offensive divide. It isn't the task of a weakling, but then I hear you’re not one.
And because you aren't one, I want to know that from now on, the likes of Praveen Togadia will not  rally people on divisive lines in my country, asking people to keep Muslims out of Hindu neighbourhoods.  I’m sure you know this has happened many times, in many forms. In your own state. And when people ask you about it, I want to have a clear answer, not the flimsy lines of how these things “deviate your campaign” or are “petty”. These are not just petty things, Sir. Speeches like these, especially made in volatile neighbourhoods, are stuff that lead to communal violence.  I want to know that starting today, my Muslim friends won’t be denied rental housing in cosmopolitan Mumbai because of their religion. This happens, you know.  I personally know two who've been openly denied housing in this city because they are Muslims.
Shaina NC also said that “the young generation” does not care about history, that they want development. I’m afraid that may be right, for I've heard sentiments of “who cares what happened ten years ago” a few too many times to ignore them. Mr Prime Minister Elect, I know you are wise enough to see the fallacy in that. To rightly understand that no society can progress ignoring its history.  You wouldn't have come all this way if you didn't know that.
Astute that you are, I also suspect you know to enjoy the support of the multitude but not to take capriciousness seriously. You've hinted at as much on a TV interview : “kuch kaam mujh par bhi chor do.”
Aapka kaam aapko hi karna hain, but still, as an Indian citizen, I would like to see you put cynical minds to rest. And I'd like to see some immediate action to take forward your promises. To quote another leader, maybe not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially.
Convert the cynics, Mr Prime Minister Elect. That is also your challenge. A billion people are watching.

PS: I rarely do this, but look what I found in today's Hindu:: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/an-open-letter-to-narendra-modi/article6022900.ece?homepage=true&theme=true#comments  

Friday, April 25, 2014

He who screams the loudest...


    My cycle of buying televisions seem to be curiously tied to elections. I bought my second-last because I did not want to miss out on the best TV America has to offer-- election campaigns and debates. I bought my last TV just in time to be able to catch up on the Indian election coverage.
    And I'm thinking it might be enough to put me off TV news for forever, because coverage as of now seems to be a blur of people trying to outscream each other, blatant and crude favoritism and poor anchoring rolled in a mind numbing capsule, punctuated by a host who typically tries to outshout them all.
    I have always had a problem with too much noise. Screaming, loud music, hysterics, honking, dancing, dirty neighbourhood fights -- whenever decibels go unnecessarily over acceptable limits I get uncomfortable. I am not very proud of it, but sometimes I just flee.
    That is not to say I don't go to movies or clubs-- I do. But movies are a controlled environment, as are clubs.
   The few times I do go out I still take many breaks to go out and clear my head, much to the annoyance of my friends. Anyway, the point of this long digression is that I am simply not well equipped to handle unnecessarily loud noise, including ma on the phone.
    And then I landed in Bombay. I am extremely happy with the city on many levels, but I doubt I'll ever fully come to terms with the constant noise. That made me begin to wonder, why do we love noise so much?
    Bombay might be an extreme, but we as a people are noisy. Just peep into our classrooms, canteens or even toilets. There's this one junction in Kolkata just near a famous university where ambient noises hit such horrifying levels  no normal person should be exposed to them. Yet, being close to the university, this crossroad is also a popular adda spot -- the young and the old hang out there day after day.
    Sure, habit is a big leveler. It would be dishonest of me to say all the noise bothered me as much three years ago as it does me now, but I've never really been able to figure out this love of it.
    I told you, I've always disliked too much loudness, the reason for many a cold war between ma and me. I had at one point stopped calling her more than once a week because she won't stop yelling into the phone. That might sound too rude to you, but desperate times call for desperate measure. She talks normally on the phone now. Disclaimer: please don't stop talking to family because of this anecdote. Try asking before you do it. ;-)
    So we talk loudly, we watch TV loudly, we drive loudly, we eat loudly, our movies and TV shows are loud and come with too much background music and distractions.
Even our leaders seem to gain popularity on the basis of who can bray the loudest.
When I was in school, they came out with a movie called "Taal". You remember it for the songs, I remember it also for the scene where the hero, without raising his voice one bit, silences a raving man and proves his point. If there is one thing Akshaye Khanna should be proud of  in his acting career it should be for carrying off "maine aapse 10 zyada glass todey, toh kya mera sach aap ke sach se bada ho gaya?"
 Go check it out.
    So what is it that makes us love noise so much? Especially when we all seem to appreciate quietness when we can get it?
    Almost everyone I know here thinks Prannoy Roy is the best anchor we have on TV now and the man seldom raises his voice.
    In school my friends and I were decidedly more scared of the teacher who never raised her voice than we were of the teacher who would scream at us every single day. Fun fact: we also took her more seriously than said yeller. And she got more Teachers' Day cards too.
    We all laugh at saas-bahu background noises, but won't try and control our own voices while yakking in the canteen. We will put up pictures with hastags like #silenceisgolden #serenity and other similar words and phrases when we go on vacations, but once home we instinctively turn our TVs to the 50s in volume, without bothering to check if we need to at all.
    We insist music must be blaring to be able to enjoy it. We will yell across the store aisle for our lost friend instead of just trying to walk a few steps and check if they're just round the corner. We will yell even if the person is standing right next to us.
     I'm not propagating library standard quiet everywhere, I love talking too much for that. But why can't we all be a little quieter, please?
 


 
    See? That's the sound of silence. There's a reason they wrote a song about it. Which sounds sweetest when played in moderate volume. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Bombay challenge

   It's been a whirlwind month- half of which I spent in freezing temperatures and frosted roads and the rest in sultry heat and showering twice a day. As you may have imagined, moving cities comes with its own set of baggage; countries, even more so.
    This blog is for those friends who asked me to spell out what it actually is like. You know, the BIG return, so here goes. The rest of you are more than welcome to read too, but remember, this is not going to be a romanticized post about desh ki mitti with violins in the background. Read, enjoy, laugh, be horrified and then return to your country.
    1. All stereotypes about big Indian cities (in my case, Bombay) stem from truth. The moment you step out of the international airport, the heat, humidity and stench hit you like a Fireball shot. And if you are in Bombay, which is quite a different animal altogether, you'll also be hit by this omnipresent noise.
    2. The Noise, mainly from indiscriminate honking, is a thing in Bombay. If you are in Delhi or Bangalore, you can get away from it, but in Mumbai, no. Mumbaikars revel in their noise. They don't want to change their habits. Because, "everyone gets used to the noise, you will too." Sound pollution? Say what?
    3. You will fall sick. The food will tempt you and you will give in. You'll be careless with the water you drink. No matter how expensive the restaurant is, you will still fall sick. Caveat: has never happened to me when I hit Bangalore on my trips, but I got the Delhi Belly in Bombay. The doctor said it's the water.
    4. Bombay is an expensive city. If you have a budget for house rents in your mind, add 10k INR a month to that already, for that is what you'll end up spending. Or considerably diminish your expectations of what a house should look like.
    5. No matter how much you pay for rent and what locality you choose to live in, you'll never be too far from the omnipresent slums. Unless you live outside the city altogether. Burberry showrooms coexist with multi-tiered slums like happy neighbours. I have almost forgiven all white men who have, for years, written, filmed and documented this phenomena. I have also laughed at my conversation in LA about how a high end store was placed right next to a Target , and about wondering how they hadn't planned the city that well. Someone was laughing up there when my friend (incidentally, a Mumbaikar) and I were having that chat.
    6. You'll take time to adjust. I am still unable to ignore the city noises, but every single person I've met or have spoken to has assured me it takes time. And then, suddenly, you fall right back in love with the city. I'm still in the "maybe" stage.
    7. People are helpful. They understand the challenges a newbie faces in the city. This is true for all of India, but Bombay will go out on a limb to help you fit in. If you give it a chance, that is. Step one is to lower your defenses. Step two is to accept the city, dirt, noise, sweat included. Step three is to go to Cafe Mondegar.
    8. Everyone knows it is a city that will and does overwhelm any outsider. So they make sure you are ok during the adjustment phase. The broker who helps you with house hunting will check on you to make sure you have dinner at home, colleagues will ask you out and to dinner till you have your house set up, cab guys will give you right directions or will even help you find your way, acquaintances will walk you through the city's system-- how to ride the trains, how to work the traffic, how to find your rhythm.
    Oh also, adjustment phases are subject to changes. A colleague has been here for three years and says he's still adjusting. Another one took three months.
    8. Don't expect anything to be done the American way when you are in India. No matter how tony a neighbourhood you are in or how fancy your office is, never forget this is not the USA, it is another country and has its own dos and don'ts. So no, your plumber might not be right on time when you make an appointment, but know what? If you are thirsty and have no water at home, he will get you a bottle of Bisleri. And sometimes, not even accept money for it. The autos may drive you crazy, but if you are lost, they will take you to the point where you can get into a cab and wait till you are safely on your way. And you don't need to tip. In fact, they'll happily take a 50 if the meter says 52 and you don't have change.
    9. If India is chaotic, Bombay is its crown jewel. But like a friend born and raised in Mumbai said, you need to find your rhythm in the city. I am guessing it is more or less true for all new cities you move to, but in Bombay it is not just a "good to do", it is a must. And once you find it, the city suddenly becomes very beautiful.
    10. For all the disadvantages, you are home. If you are not Indian, how about this: for as long as you stay here you will never have to do your dishes, do laundry or even go grocery shopping out of necessity. There are helping hands who do it for you. And the local grocer will be only too happy to take your orders via phone. And even pick up other stuff on the way if you become friends.
 
    That's about it for now. I'll let you know how things change when they do.

PS: adding one more. Total dependence on plastic money does not fly in India. Always keep some cash with you. If you're in Bombay, keep a lot of cash with you.
 
    

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Our fragile egos

The other day, I was out with a few friends and as the nature of many such “outings” go, the group got bigger and more acquaintances joined with time.
After suffering some, I have long set up a rule of thumb as far as “meeting new people” goes. I avoid this game as much as I can, unless the new people are somewhat vetted by a friend I genuinely like to spend time with.
The rule has served me well—I no longer spend time trying to make nice with people I couldn't care less about, I save others the same trauma and most importantly, I am not stuck in the middle of boring conversations any more. If I am, I leave.
But no man is an island and I have a lot of work to do before I get an Iron Will, so sometimes, the group gets bigger and if it is not a mortifying experience, I play along.  
And sometimes, it pays to stick around; because you learn interesting lessons.
So in this motley group was a girl who walked up to me and said “you were so much fun the other day, you should hang out with us more.”
It took me 2 minutes to figure out she had me mixed up with another Indian girl. It was a casual conversation, so I playfully retorted with “It’s OK, we all look the same, don’t we” and got on with it, never giving it a second thought till my friend came up to apologize to me, dragging said offender with him.
And then there was a barrage of apologies about her being ignorant, his being mortified and so on till I had to tell them it was really OK, sometimes white men and women look the same to me too.
Then I started getting accolades about “being a sport” and I realized, that I was not offended or was not making it into a big racial discrimination issue was so new that I was being looked at as a novelty.
“Thanks so much for not letting her offend you!”
I was about to protest against the ridiculousness of it all when I realized it was true: we get “offended” too easily these days and we give too little thought to whether we should be, or are even entitled to be.
So it does not matter that a kid is 15 and cannot still spell basic words correctly- a teacher has to weigh her words while talking to her parents so as not to cause any offence. It does not matter that a man is totally uncouth and upsetting your dinner table, if you are the host you have to be careful not offend him by asking him to shut up.  It does not matter most people don’t know what they are talking about when they call for bans on books, but because they are still “offended” by what is in them,  governments and publishing houses have to destroy or ban them.
So how did our egos get so fragile that we are not able to distinguish between genuine offence, honest mistakes and plain non-issues? Why has it come to this that a teacher who fails a kid because she has done miserably or says “your child is a brat” with good reason is answerable to parents and school board; that you cannot tell a mother that dancing is not something she should push her daughter towards; that an author cannot write a book of honest discourse without running the risk of “offending” political activists?
And no, I am not mixing little instances with big ones, because think about it. It is the same gloated and friable ego that makes a child howl "injustice" when a teacher fails it, that makes angry mobs scream "murder" when an author questions them. The basic sense is not that different, is it?
"How can s/he challenge me?. How can they think I am not as invincible as I think I am? I have a right to be angry, so I will make sure the entire world knows I am!"
Does it draw directly from that massive sense of self importance that I wrote about last time?  That we are all so important in our little heads that any word of criticism, anyone challenging our thoughts or any small sign of unpredictability gets us unsettled to such an extent, we start taking things personally.  We get offended.
We rally our friends and look for support, we decide to wall out the guilty or go after them with our pitchforks and then, when the adrenaline runs out we retract into the pathetic little worlds we build for ourselves, feeling good about our non-existent victories.
Parents justify this by saying they are protecting their kids. Are they really, though?
I see a world where kids are increasingly growing up to think they can get what they want, when they want, lack manners and sulk all the time.
I see fragile young girls “going into depression” because a boss or a friend has been rude, or not given them as much attention as they thought they deserved.
I see a world where teachers (not just school, any kind. Think art, games, music) are increasingly afraid to give honest feedback, lest they hurt someone’s ego.
I see a world where grown-ups cannot talk to each other without sounding like corporate jargon machines, because hey, you never know what upsets the other person. So it's safer to pepper sentences with the insipid "that is interesting, but...",  "we should touch base" (this one really annoys me. When I was a teenager, 'touching base' was not something you wanted to do with every Tom, Dick and Harry you met. Why can't we just say "I'll get in touch with you"? Maybe I'll write about these phrases the next time) and other mind numbingly dull expressions that'll make any reasonably sensible person want to flee.
And worse, we sometimes don’t even pause to reconsider if something even merits our getting so upset. Take for example my experience with the girl I mentioned in the beginning.
I know of other Indians who got upset about it when I shared the story, ones who have otherwise happily shortened their surnames so they go easy on Western tongues. That does not dilute their sense of identity, but if someone mixes me up for another person (and also apologises for it), it’s a problem.
And I wonder how this case of fragile egos is ever going to serve us well, if it is true that all great ideas and movements in this world have been a result of honest and enlightening discussions. That criticism is necessary; it calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
We all want to live in a free society, and yet somehow we have decided we’ll only account for the good of that arrangement without being responsible for the bad.
That because we live in a free world, we will say it is our right to blast music at 3 am in the morning and blame our neighbour if he complains about disturbance. And yet, when he wakes up early at 6 am and turns on the lawn mower/ says his prayers loud, he is the insufferable one.
We think because we live in a free world where we have a right to be heard, we can call for the banishment of an artist, can call someone we don’t like evil names, can kill people and burn communities because what they did “offended” us.
Like one of my favourite authors famously reminded us, no one in this world has the right not to be offended. That right simply does not exist. It is then, on us to decide and differentiate between what we take as offence and what is criticism, what is a challenge, what is an honest mistake, what is a question and what is a crime.
We live in a big world, my dad is fond of reminding my mom. It is full of things that can upset us, but it makes sense to deal with them with what I thought was common sense.  If you think your neighbour is being too prying, ask her to stop, don’t build a wall so high that no one else can get in.
If you think you have overstepped a mark with a friend, apologize and don’t do it again. At least, try. If you don’t like a movie, a painting, a boss, a teacher, book, talk about why not, instead of burning and banishing. Or move away.
But more than anything isn’t it important we think before we decide to get upset? What is it that is upsetting us so much, so frequently? Does it even merit that much heart burn? Or are you simply being silly because you think your ego has been hurt.
There are real issues in this world that merit our getting offended and upset. When someone shoots a young girl because she dared to go to school, it merits our being upset. When kids drop out of school because they can’t pay for tuition, it merits our being upset. When a deserving candidate is passed over because of blatant favoritism, even that merits our being upset. And in all those cases, we need to do more than just be offended. We need to do what we can to stop the offenders.
But if  we keep mixing criticism with offense, if we cannot handle a contrarian view, if we do not know self importance from a worthy cause, we are going to keep getting offended over little things that do not count, and we’ll keep living in that little sad world we build inside our heads.
This would be fine, except that the real world, the one which does not really care about your fragile ego, will not make an exception when you’re the one who “gives offence.” And you never know when you do.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Princess Attacks!

I never thought I’d admire any actress as much as Meryl Streep until I watched 30 Rock and discovered Tina Fey.
And I think I justified my admiration for Fey when I read her book, “Bossypants” yesterday on a flight and was blown by her intelligence, humility and sharp sense of humor. Not that I didn't know any of that about Fey before—being a good comedian is hard work, especially if you’re the kind who relies on sarcasm and dry wit. In a world where most people only laugh at fart jokes, made by men.
The book is not a great piece of literature—I already told you I read it on a flight (and finished it by the time I was home.) But I think it takes a great deal of courage , down-to-earth-ness (ok, I just made up that word) , wit, knowledge and forbearance to make it work as a woman comedy writer in the TV industry, who’s also looking to change TV. Fey not only managed to make it work, but built a successful satirical show that somehow included politics, gender debates, fart jokes (mostly to show how they are disgusting) and men peeing in pots (again, same reason) and still went on to win Emmy s and Golden Globes.  Factoid : 30 Rock woo’d juries and judges but struggled to get enough audience, at least until it won all those awards.  Memory jog: a world where most people only laugh at crude buffoonery.
Then she had the guts to write a book while still in the industry, in which she is not afraid to put up pictures of herself that are not photo-shopped, to compare to ones that are and boldly admits that every single woman including herself that you've seen on cover pages are only able to wear those really weirdly small dresses because those are not zipped up. No one, she says, not even Heidi Klum can get into those and zip all the way up, so we are really all O.K.
And that brings me to the actual point. Which is this one place in the book where my wonder woman talks about how dangerous it is that young kids in this country (and now also in India, from what I hear) are conditioned to think that they are very important people. She talks about a lot of other things in the book—I am telling you, read it. It is a good example of deceptively light hearted reading that makes some very serious points.
When I was going through that part, I couldn't help but think of my own experiences, as I often do while reading.  So I thought of all the instances where self importance wore me out so much I wanted to cry. Or laugh, depending. Because it’s not just in kids. Or maybe it starts with kids but then they grow up into men and women who still somehow continue to think that way. And god save us if they are also “young and pretty.”
Perfectly likeable women turn into insufferable pains when they get what I have termed “princess attacks”, perfectly bearable men become validated jerks when they do this, and there is no going back. In my experience this disease is more common in women, though because of social settings it is more deplorable in a man.
I can’t decide if this means we are more stupid or that we are more beautiful, but either way, it does no good to anyone.
So here’s something I've wanted to yell at many people for a very long time and somehow haven’t. If you think there is some kind of nobility in being a princess (I’ll just say princess all through. You can read it as “prince” if you want to) and/or declaring the same at a gathering, please stop. It is not a good thing, chiefly because you are not. And like Anne Hathaway and Julie Andrews have taught us, real princesses do not have to declare to the world that they are one. Much like real bosses, real ladies, real power brokers, real drug dealers. No one in that room, not even your friend who awwwws at you is really interested or impressed. You are a drag. If you are lucky, you’ll have that one friend who’ll say as much. But judging by the amount of princesses I've had to interact with, there are not many good friends around. So here goes:-
1. You are NOT a real princess, so don’t act like one because you get it all wrong. It’s the attitude equivalent of fake accents. If you have a fake accent and pretend to be a princess and you’re above 21, you should stop reading this now.
        If you are a real princess, can I be your friend?
2. Expecting men to treat you well, adding sparkly things to your phone/clothes and acting naïve about the world do not make you a princess. All women should expect men to treat them well; most women like some shine and sparkle in their wardrobes and no one should fake naiveté because when faked, it comes across as stupidity. Is not cute that you do not know that child prostitution exists and/or you cannot speak in your regional language without an accent because you went to a pricey school.  Look around you, eyes wide open. Priyanka Gandhi speaks perfect Hindi when she does and her family is more pricey/storied than yours will ever be. Angelina Jolie is way more beautiful, famous and rich than you are and she is politically and socially aware.  So if you’re not Sleeping Beauty and can legitimately claim you've not come in contact with the world of men and women for decades, don’t say you “never saw those dirty markets” because if you've not, go walk through one.
3. You are the apple of your dad’s eye. If you are lucky, maybe your husband/boyfriend’s. No one else is really obliged to like you. Actually, correction. No one, not even your parents are obliged to like you, but because they are parents they’ll probably not abandon you. But don’t expect that from others. Don’t ever think saying “I need attention” will get you anything apart from snide chuckles or the tired but forced company of a loyal friend. If you want attention, say something really funny at the dinner table. Some people do it because that's who they are. If you are not that person, slave at it. Or do/say something clever and/or knowledgeable. Or, strip. But beware, if you are stripping to get attention, don’t complain “no one ever listens to you”, because you are asking them not to. Same rules for men and women, I keep saying.
4. Are you young and pretty? If the average life expectancy is 70 years, 35 is middle age. Now place yourself in that age graph. How close are you to 35? I thought so. Just saying you are young does not make you so. And here’s a word about beauty—it lies in the eyes of the beholder. Our school books taught us that, remember? So quit using that as leverage, because the only people that’ll give you leverage over those are people who are only looking to sleep with you or otherwise want something from you. And you are obviously free to be OK with that because after all, free world. But in which case, cross reference to point about stripping above. Also, reality check for all wannabe Megan Foxs : you will be shocked to know how many of the men who are putty around you actually don’t think you are beautiful at all. Hot body? That is mostly it. Or, easy catch. How do I know? Because I have male friends who have very little secrets from me. Or me from them, but we are getting distracted. So, here’s to your being a butherface.  I learnt that term from the Kardashians. We all have our uses.
5. Nobody cares if you think you’re important. Unless you’ve done something to prove you have, the world does not care, except for very stupid people. And your having tonnes of money is not exactly = your being important. Just to make it clear for once and for all: Richard Branson is rich, Mandela was important. Warren Buffet is the one example I think probably makes it to both sets, but they are a very very rare species. But coming back to my point, 1. very few of you actually even have tonnes of money. 2., if you made that money by selling your family life to a cable network or feuding over an ex lover on TV, you are not important. You’re just a rich loser and people laugh at you. So stop tormenting everyone around you with your tantrums and just relax a little and gel with the crowd. Maybe even donate some of that money to people who need it. I promise you it is a nice thing to do.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Man on man.



An ex-colleague shared this on his FB wall. Before my work day was over a few others had done so and all their walls were populated with comments on how this was an atrocious bit of writing, ranging from how it is in bad taste that the columnist is using Tejpal as an example of anything good, to how he is "cashing in".  
But to my reader's eyes, the writer does not come across as championing Tejpal's case. He isn't suggesting that Tejpal, if guilty of abusing a colleague, should be allowed to go free. 
 He is asking if we, as a society, swing wildly from one extreme to the other. And taking forward his point, I’m wondering that if that is indeed so, whether such a society -- so prone to teenage-like mood swings --  should indeed be given the right to make any important decision.
And maybe more pertinently in this context, if male-bashing has become the ultimate symbol of liberalism, especially if taken up by the Man of Today.
That most women have long forgotten what feminism had originally set out to achieve is not news today. Or, maybe because it did achieve a lot of its goals, we decided to let the end fizzle out. Like Mehrotra says, women like Lessing (and all others who have worked for the equality of men and women) have themselves pointed out many times that the solution to the woes of women does not lie in some vindictive turning of the tables. I’m thinking, neither does it lie in stubbornly refusing to look at our own problems, or by blindly supporting whatever pro-woman statement is issued by whichever talking head is free to take to Twitter.
And it makes me wonder why our men are more ready to go into ostrich mode today than our women are. Not so long ago, this post by Chetan Bhagat went viral on the net. As can be expected, there were many debates and arguments over this. Just like in the case of the Mehrotra article, there were more men bashing Bhagat than there were women.
In fact, I clearly remember many of my girl friends and acquaintances (including me. I really do think this is one of those rare articles where Bhagat make sense) freely agreed that his assessment was right.  
But the men won’t agree. “What gives him the right to tell women what they should do”, raged a man friend. Many "likes" followed.
How about this: why not? Why can a man, if he is sensible and observant and balanced enough, not have the right to point out what is wrong with women today?
Why is it considered audacity if an even keeled person calls out that the needless laughing at jokes that are not funny to feed a man’s ego does not doing anything for the cause that everyone from Wollstonecraft to Rammohan Roy fought for?  And if gender is not important when it comes to evaluating a woman social commentator’s point of view on men, how is the fact that Bhagat is a man important here?
Here’s what gives him the right to write : not that he is a man, but that he is a person who is making a fair point.
Now my question is, how do men not see that? Do they really not see, or is it that they do, but choose to go silent for fear of being labeled insensitive MCPs?
I am a woman. I presume I get the trials and tribulations and restrictions of being a woman a little better than a man does, simply because while a man can understand, I live through it. I have lived through judgmental snubs about how my “looks could never tell you understand politics”, supposedly meant as a compliment. I make sartorial decisions based on the locality I’d be travelling to/through. I constantly battle the “you’re a girl, you need to settle” preachers. Driven to a snapping point, I've slapped a co-passenger in a crowded train. I've been asked to not “do that again because you never know what he’ll do in return”. I've been afraid of getting mugged in dark alleys. For me, the fear is compounded because as a woman, I can get mugged and raped – a fear the average man does not face every day while travelling to or from work or from partying. I've felt helpless rage when well wishers of the family have expressed concerns about “young girls these days living by themselves and doing what they want.” I know there’s a very good chance if I get into trouble while I’m out with my friends, it will more readily be put down to my “looking for it” or “pushing fate” than it would if I were a man.
I am grateful I've never had to face anything more worrying. But even so, I would think “feeling for us” as we fight these everyday troubles is not the same as living through them.
And yet surprisingly, I still see more women ready to give the Man a chance than men are.
And there, I can’t help wondering if this is really about change, or about a fad. That it is cool to be a man basher these days. That it is so important to be in fashion that we should completely crush all voices of reason, lest we get thrown out of the cool kids’ group.
For I know from personal experience that the same men who rave about feminism on FB also smile when they say “Delhi is a man’s city, nothing you can do about it.”
The statement, stated as a fact, does not bother. What bothers is the smugness in the saying of it.  
And I know most of those liberated men will not help me out if I am lying in a street corner beaten and bleeding, for fear of getting involved with the authorities.
I also know many will act outraged when they read this, but will silently know in their heads that they won’t lift a finger when it comes to that.
Like you, I’m tired of dealing with this eternal debate of man vs woman. I’m tired of having people judge things I do as done by a woman, instead of just being done by someone who can do it. I think it’s all rather silly: people who really move mountains have never cared about that stuff anyway; they just go ahead and do it, and the rest fall in line. But I’m also tired of this ridiculous man-bashing that I see growing among people . And I’m scared, because this is not stuff fads should be made of. Violating a woman’s right is a serious issue: people do it every day, sometimes even unknowingly.  And there is nothing fun or fashionable about being on the receiving end. If you’re thinking raising hell on FB for a couple of days is your contribution to correcting this wrong, you are mistaken.The truth is, you are only adding to the traffic, creating confusion and distracting those who are really trying to help.
 If you really do care, start at home. The next time your mother berates a girl for wearing “short clothes”, or staying out late, teach her a thing about individual choice instead of standing there like an idiot.
The next time your brother makes a lewd comment about the college heartthrob, talk to him about being respectful towards others instead of smiling indulgently. When your dad says your kid sister should not go to another city to get her college education because she’s a girl, stand up to him.
The point of my post is not to insist every man, no matter how evil, should be forgiven. It is to say that every person, not matter a man or woman, should be given a fair chance. I know there are people, many of them women, who think it is OK to let the scales tip the other way just a little to make a point. To let a man or two be more sinned against than sinning, just to drive home a message. To say and show, “this is what will happen to you if you dare cross your limits. This is for all the centuries of thinking you can get away with being cocky, simply because you are a man.”
 And I’ll be honest. There have been times when I've agreed. When you hear of what men can do to women just because they can,one wishes the scales did tip over to the other side.
But a voice in my head keeps telling me that is not, cannot be the answer.
I’m not a feminist. I quite like Victoria’s Secret. I think there are things a man is better at, and there are things a woman is better at. Broadly, for exceptions do prove the rule. I don’t see how it is important for me to be able to lift heavy suitcases or dress like a man to prove that I am equal to him. So yes, I shop at MAC, love shoes and am interested in reading about politics.  I am not seeking to be a man, I’m saying respect me for who I am and what I bring to the table. And if I am to be respected for who I am, I must give back that respect, no? And also learn to acknowledge that there are problems with us and that just because someone is pointing that out and raising a few valid questions, it does not automatically make him (or her) evil. 


where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..

where the mind is without fear and the head is held high..