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. 

Friday, October 25, 2013


A reader told me he did not like my last post as much as the earlier ones and I decided to re read again. And I saw my page of rant had hit 10,047 clicks!
While it is a free widget that calculates traffic for me, there is a setting that has allowed me to discount my own clicks, so I figured this is where I should say thank you.
For clicking, reading, commenting, critiquing  and most importantly, sticking by.
When I started scribbling here, I was in J-school and was living in what would be the second in the line of many adopted cities I'd call home.
10,000 visits later, I'm not in school any more, have lived in two countries, four more cities ranging from a couple of months to a couple of years, met scores of new people, had a few adventures of my own and am hopefully somewhat wiser for that.
Eh, I guess the blog will tell if I am. For now, thanks again. Let's move on before this turns into one of those long, doleful thank you notes. It's a Friday, let's bring out the wine!

Friday, October 4, 2013

Things I do not understand. Do you?

I’ve been sick lately, and in the tradition of sickness all over the world, I stayed in bed (or couch) and watched TV and read and wondered as the world passed by. Kind of.  As I was swallowing Amoxicillin and taking shots, the government of the world’s most powerful nation shut down, a leader in the world’s biggest democracy cried “mummy”, Mahalaya (and so, Durga Puja) settled in, another Gandhi Jayanti came and went, Jhumpa Lahiri brought out yet another book to talk about identity loss among second and later generation immigrants, mad men killed almost 70 people in Nairobi, Tom Clancy died, there was a car chase in D.C, and I re-learnt the use of the Oxford comma. I also realized there are some things I never understood well and ask as I may, have never really gotten good answers to. Worse, I've been carrying around some of these for years and have debated and fought over with friends every single time we’ve met over chai, but be that as it may, there have never been satisfactory answers. I’ll list some here, not is order of preference. If you know the whys and hows, do tell:

   We’ll start with the Government shutdown: apart from the fact that no one should be totally surprised by it, no matter how outrageous the concept, I never really understood the opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. I've very little political sympathies; my question is based on general curiosity. Everyone understands the concept of universal healthcare, and from what I read, Obamacare is broadly based on the premise that those who can afford to, will pay more in taxes so that that money can be used to expand health coverage to those who cannot afford to get it. Mitt Romney used this model and it was successful. So it can’t be a Democrat/Republican thing. So what is the deal? And whatever it is, is it worth shutting the Government down over? My tax refunds are stranded because the office is closed. Come on, now.
For those of you who want a ready reckoner, I think this is easy. If I share the other stuff I read on Obamacare, you’ll think me mad for reading that through a fever. But I did re read Harry Potter and Famous Five, so we’re good. Meaning to say, I’m not a nerd. Ok, maybe a little.
I also don’t totally get the transformation of the Republicans into conservatives. I mean, given that this is Lincoln’s party, won’t you think they’d be more tolerant? Yeah fine, he was a moderate and this is no more Lincoln’s party than the Congress in India is Gandhi’s, but I still can’t help wondering. About both.

 Somewhat related, but more broadly, here’s a rider to question 1. Why do we grumble so much about paying taxes? If we pay up, they get to have money to do stuff like build schools, roads, get potable water and feed the army. Of course, if you’re a corrupt Indian politician you’ll eat up all that money and build a bridge that breaks in two months, but those who think that is reason enough to grumble about paying taxes, what is your better solution?
Also, from what I see, corruption is an unavoidable by-product of democracy. Even of autocracy, but the point is, as long as there are taxes, how is it unfair to say that the rich should pay more than the poor?
And while at it, how on earth do we think we can demand better trains, roads and other public facilities but not pay for those? Strictly in the Indian context, we yelp every time they raise fuel rates. Even those of us who read the papers and know that India subsidizes fuel to a fault.  Or public transport charges. So what do we really want? World class service at rates that were good in the 1950s? And when the government says that cannot be done, they are no good. Sure.

  Talking about public transport made me think of this fight between aesthetics and utility. I visited Jamaica recently and found out that the big cities there (at least the two I visited) are very much like the tier two cities in India. The roads are potholed; the bazaars a melee of make-shift stalls put together in a haphazard way, there's a lot of use of plastic, even the Caribbean could have been so much more attractive if they’d beautified it more. I see the same in India: we have so much prettiness, but we take it for granted and do nothing to conserve it. And we’re always shouting about how beautifying things are a waste of money. On my last visit home I found out that the chief of a state that is not doing very well had installed street lights and put a fresh coat of paint on structures that had been discolored by paan stains for decades. I thought residents would be happy about it, but local university boys (and their fathers) were grumbling the same: if you have no money, why spend it on beautification? Ok, so no one’s really saying starve to make yourself look good, but as a state (or a country) trying to impress investors, I’d think a well-lit street, an international standard airport and a city that does not look impoverished are important. Why do we always think utility and aesthetics have to be mutually exclusive? When I looked at the reading room in the Library of Congress, with its airy room and stained glass windows and oculus, I wanted to spend time there and read. When I looked into a classroom in Calcutta University with its broken furniture and cobwebbed halls, I wanted to write my epitaph. I know great minds have come from both places but there has to be a reason why Washington built that city so beautifully and why they have a “reflecting pool” outside the Capitol, right? Or why Apple spends so much time over design and looks? If just utility was everything, they wouldn't spend so much time, energy and money on beautification. And Keats wouldn't write Endymion.

 I’m also getting a little tired of the Modi vs Rahul G shout outs. At one point I’d wished they’d put out Gadkari/Kumar and Chidambaram as candidates but despite what the Economist said, a small part of my head knew it was wishful thinking. RG suddenly woke up from his slumber and like a high school student, ranted against the potential ordinance. While I support the rant, I laughed out loud when I read about how he did it, and how he returned to salvage himself. If you still need your mom to tell you that using words like “nonsense” at a presser is wrong, I don’t know what to say. I laughed. Yes, I laugh when my brain freezes. It helps the brain unfreeze. And then he thought it is fine to somehow salvage his situation by the feeble excuse of his being “young”. My cousin of 18 is young. RG, you’re 43, for god’s sake. I am almost as scared to see you as my chief as I am your opponent.

 This will bring me to my eternal gripe. Why will people not read? How are these two related, you ask? Here’s how: Julius Caesar. Gharey Bairey. Godaan. The Mahabharat. Grapes of Wrath. To Kill a Mockingbird. Great Expectations. Every single piece of good literature (fiction, even if autobiographies get too tedious) have taught us, no spelled it out for us. That the fear of missing out is not the same as support. That not thinking is not a good thing. That the “fool multitude” does not know. That tempestuousness is not the same as patriotism. That no greater good comes out of cheating yourself.  That the only thing new on earth is the history that we do not know. That was Harry Truman, by the way. Yet, like idiots, we go on repeating the same mistakes. Is it because it is important for every person to make their own mistakes and then understand? But surely, learning from someone else’s mistake is the more effective way? I don’t know, I’m asking. And if reading helps sort out so many problems, why won’t we still do it? All great men and women do. They run countries, invent life-changing things, make history and still find time to read. We copy-paste software codes or stuff we hope will pass off for "thesis" (and often don’t even get paid for the extra hours) and claim we don’t have time.  

    This list is making me sad, and adding to it is going to make it longer still, so I’ll stop now. I’m thinking I’ll deal with the other questions in part II. Let’s see. For now, I’m going to go laugh my brain freeze off.

Monday, August 5, 2013

ADD is the new thing?

   There are too many people around me, my age and younger, who I notice, cannot, or will not read anything that does not stick to twenglish. Correction: will not do anything that requires any form of long term involvement. And we have a fashionable term for it. ADD.
    For a long time, when friends said "I can't focus, I think I have ADD", I used to think that is a concern. That s/he realises it's a problem (ADD stands for Attention Deficit Disorder. See? Disorder. It is now called ADHD too) and wants to correct it, just like I do. My attention span has dwindled and reading any article that is more than 60 lines is peppered with browsing and checking the phone. Sure, everyone's has, but that does not make it okay. It's like saying because everyone around me has a skin disease that spreads easily, I should be fine with it.
     So I make an effort because it bothers me and cannot, for the life of me, imagine a situation where I can complacently  declare, "I can't process information if it comes to me in a string of more than 10 words at a time. God help me if there's a comma involved somewhere."
    I wonder how this happened. I understand young kids brought up on FB and Twitter say that, but those born in the 80s (and before, at least in India) were not even trained on sms language. Most of us got our first cell phones only after we were grown up teens, so what is the excuse?
    Hang on, I know of one. Texting was costly when I first got my cellphone so I used to squeeze in as much information into one message as I could. But was that enough to catch on so badly that  we simply forgot normal writing? Seriously, how many nanoseconds does it save you when you annoyingly type "lyf" instead of "life"?
    And if this be true, why are youngsters now taking to that kind of language? Texting is mostly free now, or at least not a quarter as costly.
    Or do we really believe we can "simplify" language that way and honestly do not see the difference between simplification and dumbing down?
    Noble as that thought is, I think it's better we just accept that most of us just don't have the calibre to do that. Change the course of language for the better, I mean. Things like that are best left to the experts. Same reason as why we won't ever go and perform surgery on a man just because we know how to use a pair of scissors or wield the scalpel on a dead roach.
    We are too ignorant, and please, it took the likes of Johnson and Shakespeare and Premchand and Tagore to modernize their languages. If it were everyone's cup of tea, Everyman would be pundits. But we are not.  Plus, it took almost 30 years for them to put together the Oxford English Dictionary, and our problem seems to be a lack of time, patience and concentration.
    Shouldn't then we take a step back from our uber inane arguments of "I can say what I like because I have a mouth"?
    Really, for all of us who have had more than 12 years of formal education, I would think it's a little shameful.    
    I keep getting reminded by Sir: all animals have mouths. We are different because god gave us a head with brains inside that allows us to think and process.  And they say that is one thing that actually grows with use.
    I try it in my limited capacities, feels great.  So I would volunteer help to fellow sufferers, or share what works for me: "try to take time out to read, it helps concentrate," or, "read your news, don't just listen to it. NYT's OPed is really good" and so on.
    But over repeated conversations, I now realize that it is not concern that makes people talk about their, let's call it "situation". Many are proud of it. I've been trying to understand just how that works inside their heads:
    "I can't process anything that goes beyond junior school english (or any language), yeay!"
    "I will not even read the news anymore, though I used to/could do so when I was a child because I can't sit still and read anything that forces me to think. And I won't do anything about it. Because ADD is cool!"
    Here's the thing. It is not cool. It is, if anything, embarrassing. So maybe, just maybe, instead of being complacent about this disease or worse, pulling others down to our ranks,  we should start taking steps to correct it.
    And no, I will NOT change my style to write five word sentences.
    Because, none of the world's best movies or literature has come out of Twitter. Yet. And that is why, reading Meg Cabot is a little different from reading Hardy. And watching James Bond rough up cars and women on screen  is a little different from, say, watching Wild Strawberries. Take your pick, there are many examples across the world for both kinds.
    Of course there is a need for both, I for one can watch Pierce Brosnan chasing villains over and over again. And yes, I do think he's the best Bond, Connery notwithstanding. Come on, what is Bond without Brosnan's blue eyed glint?
   Oh and here's the other thing. Even if we, with our small capacities and bloated egos refuse to accept the truth in what I said just because we cannot accept it, how about this: don't plain facts tell you which is the better kind of book or movie that we should invest more time in? Unless we have decided we will make a concerted effort to only like trash, that is.
    How is it that all the bests and greats of the world tried to keep things simple, sure, but were not trying to play to the gallery too much by dumbing themselves down?
    And let's not get into the "oh they have to sell their trade" argument. Shakespeare had to sell his plays as well and he did include scenes which would entertain the stalls (some of which can make you go very crimson. Crassness is not something he was a stranger to). But he did not make his plays all about crass humour and short sentences. He was not writing for the stalls.
    More importantly, we don't remember his plays for the slapstick bits that don't make us think, his most famous plays and lines are ones that contain deep philosophy.  So would SRK gain more respect or less if he chose to give the "lungi dance " a pass? Really, someone should talk to the man, he makes me see red these days.
    And we, as audience/ readers: why do we consistently want to be part of the stalls and why will be ridicule anyone who says s/he does not choose that?
    Bullet points are for power point presentations and CVs. But then, the world can't keep communicating though PPTs. I know the few people who love talking to me and spend time with me don't do that because I talk in PPT language. I don't. In fact, I often ramble. I had a friend say this to me today itself. He decided he'd rather spend time chatting with me than go out and spend time with people who can't talk about much else than work, money or shopping, so I'm not making this up.
So, if you cannot process simple but long-ish sentences, it is your problem. Fix it.
Meanwhile, if you want to check out the other extreme, try  this. I found this on Twitter, by the way. :)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

For the greater good.

A few days back, a homeless man on the street asked me for money as I was about to step into a restaurant for dinner, and I gave him a dollar.
 Just as I was about to get in, I caught a look of semi disapproval on my companion’s face, and I asked what the matter was.
Here’s the gist of what I got: most of the people on the streets are homeless because they choose not to work, they are able bodied and not old, so by giving them money, I am just making them lazy.
What about children? (I haven’t seen kids begging on the streets here, but such conversations almost automatically take us to India, hence my question) . “With children, it is even worse, because you are teaching them that there can be an easy way out at a very young age, and that they don’t need to work,” my friend said.
What if it is someone really in need? “None of the money (in India) goes to those begging anyway, their pimps will take it all away from them, so what is the point? For the greater good, we must not give them money."
This is not the first time I’ve been hit with that logic, I  give out money to those asking for it if I have cash on me. I give food if people ask and don't  really understand how people can keep gorging on their sundaes and burgers while shooing away underfed kids latching on to them at the same time, children claiming to be hungry for days. Never mind if the claim is right or wrong, they obviously need help!
So,  I’ve been badgered with the “why are you doing this” question for forever now.

There’s a simple answer to why I do it: because I feel bad that while I’m going to spend $30 on one meal there’s someone who might not have eaten for the day. So if I can, I will.

There’s also the not-so-simple answer, which is that I do not agree with the “logic” in the “what are you doing” line of thinking. Just because while I know a lot of people (especially in America) might just be begging to raise enough money so they can buy their next hit, there are many who are genuinely in need and I would rather give people the benefit of doubt.
Now I obviously don’t suggest helping shady looking men lounging in the subway station looking visibly stoned and potentially inviting trouble, but that man on the street corner looking hungry?
 I also don’t really live under a rock, so I know the horror stories of how they force their kids to wail to make people give them money, I know how some people cut off limbs off young kids so that they “look needier” and I know that many of those on the roads are drifters who have cut class.
But beyond the granular details of why exactly are they begging, can anyone deny that no matter what the reason, they are doing it because they need help? So yes, they cut off the young boys legs so that his situation tugs at some Ritchie Rich’s heartstrings and brings him a 50 instead of a 10.  I’d count it as a criminal offence (same as I would when my classmate’s dad broke his arm when he beat him up in standard 6), but don’t you see the difference here?
The boy lost his legs for it. Who in their right mind would do that if they had an option? And if the deed is already done, how on earth is it “more helpful” to not part with the little money they are asking for, for which he lost his limbs is the first place? Do you really think starving them to death is going to make their manager (or whatever the term is) any less cruel, instead of their finding other meaner ways to earn money?

Of course there are practical considerations. I can’t help every single person asking me because a) I don’t make enough to be charitable on that scale, and b) I traded cash for the convenience of cards ever since I got to operate my own bank account. So many times I mumble a “I don’t have anything on me”. The post, I guess, is more about the intent. Or the lack of it.

Here’s another story I’ll tell you. Stone ages ago when I was in college, an old man wearing worn out but a a neat pajama-kurta came up to me and my friends and asked for money to catch a cab. His story was made of text-book con artist stuff: he claimed he knew the Principal of our college (he knew Father Principal's name, but then so does half of the city), he was an ex student, he was in the neighbourhood on an errand and he lost his wallet so now he’s stranded and can’t go back home. So will we help him? He will return the money the next day.

Like everyone else, I saw through the story, but gave him 20/-. That’s all I had on me, saving my own bus ride home. If you were born after 1990 like my kid brother, you would find that silly but believe me, once upon a time we did go to college with all of 25/- in our wallets. And that covered minor trips to local eateries at the back gate of my college.
Anyway, none of my other friends gave him anything and one girl admonished me severely after the old man had thanked me and gone away. “Don’t you see he’s lying? Which self respecting elderly man asks young college girls for help if he really just lost his wallet? You lost your wallet last month, did you beg?”
Of course I knew he was lying, but is it really that difficult to understand why I would still give him the money? A well spoken greying old man is reduced to conning kids less than half his age for a mere tenner or twenty. I doubt that was a matter of choice. He might have been an employee at some factory or firm that closed shutters. He might be lying for food. It might not have been anything sinister, but I doubt he’d do what he did if he had other options. So, even if he was lying, I played along. And I'm hoping those you would thought like my friend in the first instance, will now understand why I say if this happens once more, I'll do the same thing again..

“So if he is in need why can he not just beg? Why lie? I hate liars,” said my friend. Right, because it is that easy to swallow your pride and share your misfortune with a bunch of giggly college girls and unfeeling strangers who are not likely to help in any case. Or is it because it is infinitely better and fulfilling to stand on a high pedestal and be charitable, than to help without the fanfare associated with it?

On my last visit home, I gave a beggar at a bus stop 50/- because I didn’t have change and she looked needy. I got the usual dose of “tor shobtatey barabari” (You always overdo it). I'm kind of used to that by now (trick is to ignore or smile depending on who you're with and let it slide), but I still find it supremely strange that those who find my giving away 50/-  (I can’t afford to do that regularly, it was a once in a while thing because like I said, she looked like she could use some help and I didn’t have change) are also the ones who would blame the Buffetts, Birlas, Murdochs and Ambanis for  “not doing enough for society”.   Of course they don’t know that many of them actually have made many charitable contributions. But to the question of “not enough”, here’s my rider: absolutely for the reason of argument, let’s say 50/- to you is 50,000/- to a very rich man. Meaning he will spend 50,000 with the same nonchalance or thrift you would 50/-. If   you can’t bear to part with your share or even bear the sight of another person parting with it for a good cause, why do you expect a rich man to part with his 50k?
And shouldn't you only grumble about other more famous men of not doing their fair share only when you know you do yours well?

I work with a voluntary non-profit organization that has adopted a few schools in various parts of rural India and tries to keep them going.  We buy them supplies (think chalk, notebooks, pens through mid-day lunch), counsel the teachers (not many well educated and qualified candidates want to get posted to rural public schools, so they often get very under qualified teachers) and now we have also started a campaign asking people who can to "adopt a child".

No prizes for guessing how much that has flourished. Things have come to such a head that we might have to let a couple of our schools go, because we don’t have enough money to give them. I once wrote an email to all my friends and acquaintances asking them to help, explaining that it was not for my benefit and that a onetime donation could cost less than a mug of weekend beer. Very few did, and I got a lot of “I gave money the last time you guys were asking.”
Right, because parting with $10 more than once a year is going to make them destitute. Not to mention the vanity in announcing how they paid up once before.

And what is it we sing at all prayer meets? Par dukhkhey upkaar karey toh yeh mann abhimaan na aaney rey.

I wonder if it is in the chasing of "money" and "career" ( Sir says, none of us are actually making any serious money or have that important a career anyway, we just delude ourselves into thinking this will get us somewhere in life) that has made us all insensitive. So much so that not only do we not help others in need, we come up with brilliant excuses to justify why we shouldn't.
Only, I sometimes wonder if these reasons ever come back to haunt people sometimes, when they are with themselves and with their thoughts? Or have we killed that inner voice absolutely and completely?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Judge not?

There's a soap on Indian television that threw some excitement at us this past week in way of a child born out of wedlock of an already married man. Peanuts, you say? That thing is the lot of every soap ever written?
     Maybe, but I thought this one was different in that the man who duped his wife and got another woman (who he married later) pregnant was not made into the  proverbial bad guy. But, as the female protagonist pointed out, he did wrong, so no matter what the explanation is, the act is done and no amount of justification should acquit  him of his punishment/responsibilities.
     It was a little eerie that they chose to air these episodes right now, for I've been wondering about this for some time. Not about double-crossing spineless men, but about rights and wrongs and justifications, I mean.       
    For as long as I have been able to think for myself, I've known that it is not a good thing to judge others, especially if you do not know their story. "To judge" here largely meaning to not look down on people or proclaim they are wrong simply because they operate in ways you are not comfortable in.
    Now, I'm willing to make exceptions.
 To judge, is to “form an opinion about through casual weighing of evidence and testing of premises.” So, what if, through careful observation and repeated experiences, your opinion of a thing, situation or person is not casual, but the opposite? Is it so wrong then to say “I know what this is about and I can tell you this is wrong?”
     Sure, there is a reason why "I do not judge" is the libertarian banner most young urban people like to  brandish as they try and break free from their traditional and orthodox settings. Because, our society is almost always too eager to punish anyone who is happy doing things differently,  and the mark of a modern man is/was to distance himself from that kind of madness and keep an open mind.
    But then, are there really no rights and wrongs, and is it necessary to interchange “I do not judge” with nonchalance and shirking of responsibilities? I doubt disinterest and taking the easy way out is what the great saints meant to propagate when they said "judge not, and you will not be judged." 
I say this because I see people doing that every day, in big and small measures.

The friend will not be asked to cut back or get help for his borderline drinking problem because hey, who are we to judge? Plus, calling people out on these things can brand you “uncool”. The husband will not tell the wife that she should stop dealing in inanities or be better behaved in public because well, it’s her life. (Also, which husband can dare  tell a wife that she is terribly ill mannered?) The employee will not tell the colleague that when he keeps playing Pacman on his computer during work hours it is not only distracting, but also detrimental to his career, because hey, it’s his life. Who are we to judge?

 But here’s my question, if you are a responsible, thinking human being who cares (or claims to) for that friend, colleague or wife, why is it a problem for you to call them out when they are wrong?

    Now of course you'll have comebacks to the tune of who am I to decide right or wrong, but then I already said, this is on the premise that the call is not based on “casual weighing of evidence and testing of premises.” That’s the thing with the universe, you see. There are some things that never change and cannot be. Being unnecessarily loud and ill mannered = people don’t really like you,  no matter how much they pretend to, is one such rule.

    Also, there is a vague chance that if you do hear me out, you may be ready to give this a thought and we may be able to agree or disagree like adults.

    Take that man in the soap for example. He was married and claimed to be in love with his wife. Then he fathered a child with another woman who did not know he was married already.
I do not have a problem with the fact that he slept with one woman while he was married to another so much as I have with the fact that the woman and the wife were both not made aware of each other's existence. Would it  be so bad if I said the man is spineless and has done a wrong thing and there are no excuses?
 There, I judged. And do you really think there is any valid argument that can make any reasonably well-balanced person say or see otherwise? 
    I see people lying through their noses every other day and then I see people validating those lies or shrugging off the responsibility of calling those out because they "don't judge." Little do we realize that that attitude also says that we do not have any opinion on things or that we are choosing not to think. Which can't be a good thing if we claim to have fully functional brains.
     Now, if to opinionate is equal to immediately branding a person a philanderer or a liar or in some way unfit to live in civil society just because his or her style is not yours, or s/he is challenging age old norms, of course I do not side with that.
    But in what I see around me, people are largely hiding behind the open minded democratic banner of "I do not judge" simply to shrug off responsibilities and validate their wrongs. 
    "I had my reasons. He had his reasons." Sure they did, but whoever said that makes it OK? Not to mention my nagging doubt that what people think of as "reasoning" is most often than not a fear of missing out and following the herd.
    Anyway, giving reasoning a chance, I'd still say this in various forms might as well be used to validate anything ranging from Hitler murdering thousands of people to crazed men shooting openly in schools to parents dressing up toddlers like grown women in dresses that draw attention to their non-existent cleavages. It's quite gross, really. Only, no one seems to mind.  Here, I see nothing wrong with those who say that is not their style, for how many of the above can you really justify ?
    If it is not OK, then you are agreeing that it is a wrong thing to do, which means somebody or some people are responsible for perpetrating that wrong. Would you seek to justify Hitler by way of any "he had his reasons?
    Most of us, educated that we are, try to establish how modern and broad minded we are every chance we get.
    And so, even though a small voice inside the head keeps telling us it cannot be a good thing that a classmate is drinking too much, we try to act "cool" with it.
    So it goes with going to the temple, reading vernacular literature, objecting to that extra skimpy dress.  The pressure to be "cool" overrides sensibility and in such a manner that not only are we unable to talk sense into others, we ourselves give in too.
I’ve gotten my fair share of “but this is what everyone does” in my life, so I know.

    This is our way of telling the world that though I come from a family where parents are likely to get a heart attack if they knew their teenage daughter is sexually active, I'll still never warn the girl I call my "friend" against unprotected or callous sex because hey, you know what? I do not judge, I'm cool like that.

    No, seriously. I once asked some men friends if they would take any woman who spent most of her energy trying to draw people's attention to her pout and low neck line seriously. This, as you know, can be done in many ways, right from how you dress to how you talk. Come on, I’m not really thinking Mamta Kulkarni.
    None of those men said "yes". One said if that's what she did actively and knowingly, she was not asking to be taken seriously, so why should he care? Not that that justifies sleaze or rape, don't get me wrong, but if such a girl then cries about how people are always taking her for a bimbo, I find it difficult to sympathize for her, and I also find it difficult not to judge her for what she is doing to herself.
    Ditto for men by the way, only that pouts and low neck lines are more common in women.
And then the other excuse is that people are trying to be politically correct, which often translates into  "I'm too scared to speak my mind or make a decision."
   You know what Dante said? If you've read Inferno (I'm not expecting anyone read and remembers The Divine Comedy), you're familiar with this: "The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis."
    So, you're not doing any good by not speaking against what you know is wrong. On the contrary, you're even reserving your spot in the darkest place in hell, which I hear is not a place where they care much for political correctness in.
   I recently had a somewhat heated discussion with friends over a situation that involved an extra marital affair. I had no problems with the affair, but I could not bring myself to justify the lying that came with it and I said as much.
    So apparently, I made the terrible mistake of judging and someone at the table tried to tell me this was because I am Indian and that this behaviour would be acceptable in other parts of the world. I asked which part of the world, what religion or what mores justify lying (notice, I am not calling it "cheating"), disrespect and stupidity.
   And it does not always have to be these soap opera type situations. I'm sorry, but if after more than 10 years of formal education all your conversations revolve around boys/girls, cosmos/cars, and partying, I am judging you a little. People who know me know I do my fair share of going out, but that cannot be but more than a small percentage of who I am.  Besides going out,  I also  tried things like reading more (Hosseini’s latest is a must read), returning to formal/professional dancing and rekindling my wobbly chess-playing skills over the week (Baba taught me how to "castle" when I was still writing with pencils but then I somehow just stopped playing. I'm hoping Apple's magic apps can undo some damage ). 
Anyway,  you may not have any interest in these things, but you get the point? 
    And if you decide it is OK to shoot at and kill your girlfriend on Valentine's Day I will judge you, no matter how fast a runner you are. If you decide if is OK that your 10 year old son is calling his teacher "sexy" and you decide to laugh along instead of correcting him, is it because you have your reasons to do so?
    And please, don't tell me people are different. They are, which is why some tenets of right and wrong are important. And that’s how there are good people and bad people.
  Of course you have your reasons for what you do. What matters is whether they are the right ones or wrong ones.

Monday, June 10, 2013


They say your family has a huge hand in shaping you into who are, because even when you’re an infant, you unconsciously imbibe their tastes, mannerisms and choices. I've always thought it is really difficult to bury that root altogether (for those who try, for any reason) and most people, when they do, become strange cross breeds that fit neither here nor there.
So, I was shaped by my parents too, but then I was shaped some more. This post is about how, and more importantly, by whom.
There’s a reason they ask young headstrong teens to “listen to your parents,” (though you could beat me to death and I won’t agree to that when I’m arguing with my mom). For when I was about 17, the mother semi-forced me into Suvro Sir’s English coaching classes. And that, I still think, was the single most important thing that has happened to me while I was growing up.
A lot of you who read my blogs and think they make some kind of sense have asked me, “who is  Sir?”  When you've known a person for as long as I've known him and as closely, answering that question gets more difficult that one would expect.
You know how you sometimes meet a person and know; somewhere deep down, that this is someone you always want around you? That is one of the most important things I've learnt in life and this is largely a story of how.
Like in any small but reasonably prosperous small town in India, tuition classes are a rage where I grew up. It does not matter if you really need extra help. It does not matter if the teacher is actually able to help. There is some underlying belief that you need to attend coaching classes.
 I had let my parents know that if I don’t like the teacher they found, I’ll bail. Baba agreed while Ma said something to the tune of Baba always letting me get away with these things. But because I really did not need help scoring marks in English, I won that argument. So I went, because a) I’d rather spend time reading Dickens than doing Maths, b) someone had told me it is “really difficult” to get into Sir’s class, c) that Sir is a really grumpy person, and d) that Sir did not like to teach students from my school. Now b, c and d – none of that was true, of course, but which 17 year old worth her salt does not like a challenge?
So, I went expecting an angry and condescending man. For everybody and their uncles knew Sir is extremely learned and has many feathers in his cap, so the ‘angry and condescending’ bit fit into the image. Yet, I met a polite and reasonably friendly man, despite my producing a very crumpled mark-sheet quite unfit for submission anywhere. But I had run out of fresh photocopies and was already building up a quasi-revolution against the supposedly stuck-up English tutor who did not like students from my school, so I deliberately did not make any effort.
There was an amused "this is the copy you have?" to which I think I must have mumbled an incoherent "yes", as far as I remember.
Then, I attended his classes.  I did not bail.
And my world changed.
I don’t much like clichés either, but they exist for a reason. When the world changes, you say it changes.
 We've remained friends ever since. Yeah, that happened. Somehow, the most learned and wise man I've ever met or know of became friends with me and let me hang around for more than a decade. Still counting.
And I’m very serious when I say he’s really the most learned man I've known in my life.  You can talk to Sir about any subject under the sun and be sure you’ll actually learn. Last time I was fretting, he helped me learn about turbofan engines. Don’t ask.
But turbofan engines and English scores are not the reason why I say what I say. Engine technologies change (though I bet he'll keep up somehow) and marks stop being important after a point in time. What he really teaches to those who care to listen (and it takes intelligence to listen to him), is the infinitely more important lesson of how to be a good, thinking person. Tall order, indeed.
So I learn from him (OK, let's go with "try to learn"). Next time you’re impressed with some great philosophy I come up with, don’t be surprised by my conviction. Chances are it is borrowed and then modified, but tried and tested. I made Sir my mentor and he let me, look upon him as a father, fight with him (not proud of it, but then I’m working on it), ranted and vented and then found peace.

Peace, yes. That’s what I said.

Happens when you know you have someone wise and sensible to listen to you patiently and respond with care, no matter how silly your “problem” is and no matter how much you’re responsible for getting yourself in the mess.
Have you ever met a person who makes you feel so comfortable that something inside you tells you that it is OK to open up to this person and s/he’ll listen?
That kind of peace.
It was in Sir's classes that I saw an adult tell a bunch of teenagers, without any hemming and hawing, that respect and love are a function of action and not of age. As I learnt from him how to do that, I took that to my friends as well and what a difference that has made!
So, teacher-friend-father-mentor-confidant all rolled into one. That's who Sir is to me. Only, it took me about a decade to realize that. Anyway, better late than never, no?
Plus, that taught me how to decide who is important in my life. Very crucial. Which is why, I keep insisting, if  you've found who is important keep him/them, even if it means you have to forget about your stupid false ego (you know, “I love him/her and I’m happier when we’re together, but s/he did this and I can’t be the one to make truce.”  OK, don't. But is that helping you?  So?)

 Because, I've known through trial that if you let someone who makes you feel that way go, you’re the one losing out. Which, apart from being a very bad feeling, is also pointless. You only have one life, no?
Now, most people in this world do not have Sir’s infinite patience nor capacity for caring  so I told myself it is necessary that I follow through every “you’re important” with suitable action. Try it, often results in friendships that last a lifetime. Also, because there are idiots out there who will take you for a ride if they can, also evaluate other people by their actions. Not entirely fool-proof, but comes close and can save you a lot of unnecessary trouble.
Like you, I've seen teachers and I've seen schools and I've seen coaching classes. But I've barely seen another teacher or even heard of one who would, as a rule, goes beyond the mere curriculum set by university boards and actually teach. He even gave us a quiz on General Knowledge once (English tutor, let me remind you), through which I realized more than half of my classmates, at age 16-17, did not know how to spell "Raisina" Hill. Or that a "disc" was really a "discotheque".

This, while also doing the infinitely more important work of teaching us life lessons that can be used well after the immediate need to score good marks is over. As you grow older and older and report cards become distant memories, you realize how important this kind of teaching is.
For people used to equating "coaching classes" with "take down notes", this must be a really difficult and new concept.
My parents told me that it is important to be a good human being. It is from Sir, I learnt (yeah, fine. “trying to learn”) how to actually do that. No, really, he can actually tell you how to do that, I don't mean it in way of some vague rhetoric.
And he can show you too, for he’s a living example in himself. Which makes it very difficult to brush it all aside saying “but that’s all mere ideology” and can be very inconvenient at times, but then who said being a good person is easy?

Little things that can not only help you but also help in evaluating those around you: be honest, especially with people whom you love and who love you, no matter how inconvenient it could be for yourself. Don’t ever, ever, use other people to further your own immediate, petty gains or interests. Communicate well. People react to your actions, not only to what you think or claim to feel. OK, I can some close friends laughing as I say that but come on, I look around me and see such strange cases I think I make the cut. Teach yourself some discipline but don’t become an automaton.  Learn to love.

And then the most important, learn what “love” really means and also how to show people you love that you do so.I’m not talking about just the boyfriend or the husband or the pretty girl you want to ask out but don’t dare to. If you've read on till here I'm hoping you know as much. Oh, and start with having the strength to acknowledge to the world that you do. Believe me, it gets easier once you do it.

And yes, that last one's one of those used, borrowed, tried and tested philosophies, so don't bet against it. You'll lose and I'll make you do my dishes for the next six months.

In case you’re wondering if I've over sold my tutor, here, go try his blog. You’ll see why I'm writing this post now, but more importantly, why I keep saying I’m extremely grateful to whichever gods up there decide on these things that I know him. And to fate that he chose to be an English tutor and not one for Physics or Maths. That just might have made it a different story, and my loss. 

Monday, April 29, 2013

In Pursuit of Happiness

I was reading Srikanta, a semi autobiographical novel by Saratchandra Chatterjee over the weekend. Who? The man who wrote Devdas and Parineeta.
I have also been talking a lot to my friends, and recognized a pattern in our conversations, and hence this post.
But the book first. It’s an account of the life of a wanderer, a “bhoboghurey”. I was first introduced to it by baba when I was a child.
The first story baba ever told me was of “The Mayor of Casterbridge. No kidding. Michael Henchard rocked his world, and in effect, mine. Also, if you think I'm strange, now you know why.
That’s my earliest memory of a bed time story. Of course, dad would abridge it to fit a 5 or 6 year old’s mental capacity and then add details through the year till one summer vacation, when I was in class 8 and badgering him for a rerun, he gave up and handed me the book itself. I think that kind of killed our story telling routine, but I’m freakishly like my dad (and as days go by, I think I’m becoming more like him. No wonder my best friends are boys who now like to call themselves men.) I didn’t mind.
From there it graduated to “what are you reading now? Is it good? Ok let me have your book when you’re done with it.”
The other book that is a very similar early memory is Srikanto, or rather, that of  baba reciting the opening paragraph of the book, in which a wanderer looks back on life and begins by thinking of how it has been wasted. A whole lot of “chi, chi, chi.”
But of course, if you have a life that can be made into an entire book, it can’t have been a waste, and it is not. It is a rich collection of experiences, meeting people, knowing people and growing as an individual. And traveling, and finding happiness, or not finding happiness.
And for us, who can’t afford to be Srikanta or don’t have the guts to try it, learning from his experiences and yearning and hoping to be the better for it.
As I was reading it for the possibly 15th time or so (yes, I do that with favourite books and movies. I recently watched Shakespeare in Love twice, back to back!), and talking to friends across this country and that, I suddenly began wondering why is it that most of us are unhappy?
I mean, I don’t mean unhappy in the eternally depressed, morose way. No normal person can go through life that way and there is enough good food, discs, music and shopping to take your mind off things that really matter and give you the illusion of happiness.
But if you ask any average 20-30 year old, “are you happy?”, why is it that the answer is “no”, if they are honest (and close enough to confide in you), or an embarrassed and/or thoughtful pause?
I’m talking of reasonably well-to-do, has a roof over their heads, can buy themselves little pleasures as and when they like, reasonably well educated people with decent, if humble jobs. Kings and queens, compared to the millions of underfed, uncared for poor men and women around the world. And yet, the answer is barely ever a full throated “yes!”


This is where Srikanta helped. In a weird way I cannot explain ( or maybe because it has Indra in it) that book, and talking to my friends suddenly gave me some clarity (or so I think) and the gall to put up this post.
You see, I realized that most of us are not happy because we don’t know what we want. And in case we do figure it out, we don’t work towards making sure we make it/those/them a part of our lives.
Worse, we give ourselves excuses for not working towards that and think we’re doing some great service towards mankind by behaving this way. (If I quit the job I hate, my parents will be heartbroken. Or my wife will not be able to cope with the change in lifestyle if I toss my banker’s job and become a teacher. Duh, really?! Change the wife AND the job if she can’t see how important it is to you. You can’t change your parents, but they'll hopefully want you to be happy at the end of the day, so don’t use that for an excuse. Remember the old hindi adage? Jo khudh khush nahi hain, who kisiko khush nahi rakh sakta.)
Doing any one of those is bad enough by itself, but if you’ve hit a place where you’re doing all of them and trying to convince yourself you are doing a good thing, let's just say you may need to revisit some actions.

I’ll harp on jobs because I’ve been giving this some special thought.  Are you happy with it? Like Sir tells me, no job will be ever-thrilling like that of James Bond’s. I like being a reporter because it has the potential to come close ;-) But on the whole, are you doing what you always thought you would do, or are you just doing it because that is what is available and you’re too scared to chase your real dream?  No, don’t axe that right away. Chasing dreams is not all poetic and idealistic (I’ll come to that later, maybe in another post), it is important. Unless your dream is to be a junkie that lives off her parents’ money, in which case you just simply need specialized help and my blog isn’t qualified enough to do that.
 I’m not saying we all have to be Don Quixotes. But, are you excited to go to work everyday?  No? Well, work takes up so much of our lives, if that does not excite you, of course you’re not happy!
Bummer, I know. So do you know what will make you happy? No? Ok, not a problem, We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. But if you do, are you doing anything to get towards it?

If you still haven’t, why not? What is stopping you? Remember what happened when Madhavan’s character  in 3 Idiots ditched engineering to become a photographer? He became a happy man. If he stuck to his engineering job he’d be miserable, and because he’d be miserable, he won’t even do well in his career. And make others around him unhappy. So why do it?

All it needs is a little bit of honesty. And the gumption to say to yourself, “no, I don’t like what I’m doing and I’m going to accept that, even if that means friends and family are going to think I’ve gone loco.”
For you know what? No one will remember in 3 years' time that you gave up a stupid career after wasting stupid amounts of money on it, if you find your calling and find happiness.  Or, you need a friend like Aamir Khan who'll take it upon himself to see this through. But because it is difficult to find such people in real life, how about helping ourselves?
I can’t not recall what baba told me when I declared I’ll go for a major in English Literature after I chased science for two years. “Do what you are good at doing, and aim to be the best at it. If your skill lies in cutting grass, do it like no one else can. If you can do that, money will not be a problem.”
Profoundness in an express train as we were heading to Calcutta to try my luck in Literature. We really should give dads more credit.

I recently wrote in a blogpost how my parents and Sir keep teaching me simple lessons in life and how those simple things are so easy to forget. Till I remember, and go back to following them and voila! Life’s not that complicated any more. You see, all of this is actually coming from some amount of self introspection and experimenting and is not all talk.

So there go jobs. Same with love and friendship, (the other big problems in the life of the youngs in the cities. Or not youngs. Whatever.) Same questions, same lessons. Are you excited about the person/people in your life? Does being with him/her/them make you happy? (If you have been together for a while and are still unsure, you probably still have a bit more searching to do. When it makes you happy, you know.)

Do you know who makes you happy? Are you doing anything to keep that person in your life? Done and dusted.
And here, I’ll tell you this. Just like you, yours truly has met a few people in life, thought of a few as friends, let a few come close to her and been hurt a few times. Mostly because my ability to judge people tends to trend in the 0 to negative side of the scale and I often need friends and well-wishers to show me, quite literally, how all (wo)men are not good or nice or will not take advantage of your niceness.
But despite that, when I’ve known a person is important to me, I’ve stuck around and made sure they are in my life. Caveat: don't shower affection on people who are likely to take and toss it. Very unrewarding, tiring and effectively, insulting.
When spared these kinds, I've found others who have done the same for me. The making sure I'm in their lives bit, I mean, so it's not all crazy me. Good people behave that way.
I have a friend who had a thing for me. Then he decided having me as a friend was worth much more than fooling around. And we can laugh about it now and we both use each other as a shoulder or a sounding board as and when needed, no explanations needed. Do you know how rewarding that is? Happens when you decide who is important, and treat them that way. After all, it is not about the number of people around you, it is about finding people of the same wavelength. And having found them, keeping them.

Same story here too.All it needs is a little bit of honesty and a little gumption. And if this post is making you sad because you have answered “no” to all the questions, don’t be. No one would be able to answer “yes” to all, especially if you are anything like me. Read: ordinary, working, city dwelling person who gets thrown off by life every once in a while.
But we can all try to make the majority affirmative. Because, it is never too late to do the right thing. And find happiness.

Oh, and if you haven’t read Srikanta, you can begin by starting to correct that.
I'm sure they have translations.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Go ahead then, fall in love

Firstly, thanks to the few people who said they missed my scribbles. I have been travelling and I’m going to use that as a flimsy excuse for leaving the blog unattended for a long time. This vacation has been special and more educational for me in more ways than one, and emboldened by it, I’m going to dare to write about that complex human emotion, love.  Let me know what you think.

Saraswati Puja, which for all practical purposes has served as Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate it for ages. Saraswati, you see, is the goddess of the arts and education. So her worship is almost entirely the responsibility of students and young people, an excuse for them to dress up and look and feel grown up.
And which young person has ever looked and felt grown up and managed to not lose their heart to someone? 

We’ve all felt that stirring at some point in our lives. I hope for your sake, you have. For if you have not, you don’t know what you’ve missed  and I do feel a little sad for you. On the other hand, if you have, you probably have a treasure trove of memories that you can dwell on in lazy winter afternoons, and smile. Very widely.
 I know I do.

And then I wonder, how did it get so difficult for us to fall in love? And when did we make it so complicated?

I never tire of saying this: I have been very lucky growing up;my parents drilled in the importance of being a good person and to not trick, cheat or knowingly hurt others. Sir taught me that there is beauty in loving and in being loved. He also taught me the importance of evaluating others for what they really are. All basic stuff, all very hard to follow.

If that is too confusing, here’s a simple example. I learnt early on how to choose my friends extremely carefully and love people for what they mean to me. To not automatically seek good looking and rich studs with sexy smiles, for whoever looks at beauty after it has been around for three days?  I swear to god, even SRK got boring on the sets of KBC after the first 15 minutes.

In fact, for a long time in my teens I used to think this is so basic, such a no-brainer, it isn't even worth a mention. And then I moved out of my comfort zone and met new people and kept meeting newer people as life took me from one city to another. Let’s just say I realized how wrong I was.And how lucky I was to have grown up around the people I did.

Combine that realization with some dose of literature and I was tuned to rather fall for people who can actually keep me interested after the newness of that sexy smile wears off. 
It is always nice to learn from other people’s mistakes,even if they are fictitious. If you want to read about some over the top, mad love and be forewarned,  try Wuthering Heights. Or, The Return of the Native. Or Devdas. 

 I can tell you with no iota of doubt that that has not stunted my prospects anywhere, neither has it made me into a lonely soul with no one to turn to in moments of sadness.Quite the contrary. I have friends who have known me for years and love me to death, as I them. How many people can say that without a shred of doubt in their minds?

And no, not all of those bonds were formed in the innocence of childhood, some of them were formed when I was an adult and very much in the thick of all things worldly and blasé. 

So then, how did it really get so difficult for us to fall in love? In our world, Valentine’s Day is Big. I had to wait about 20 extra minutes at Trader Joes on V Day because of traffic : men and women  queuing up with bouquets of flowers. Mostly men, and roses, to be specific.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all an evil party pooper. In fact, I quite appreciate the bouquet and dinner and read poems of love at leisure. So, safe to say I am pretty mushy romantic myself. But what I do not still get is when did we start playing by rules so much that it took all the fun out of falling in love? Worst, and I really do think this is the worst of all, how did it get so difficult for people to accept that they love another person? Given it is the right person (one who is not taking advantage of you or is not misleading you. Hence the importance of knowing people for what they really are) , acceptance can bring much more than excitement. It can bring peace. 

My pet joke about the young society in the US is that the national pastime for urbanites here is not baseball anymore. It is “meeting people.” They even call it “networking”. “I go to the bar to network”.  Some people even go to the temple to network. No,seriously. Why can’t it just be called “meeting people because I have nothing in particular to do today in the evening”? It is perfectly fine and accept able and I have done it at times. But “networking”? 
 There are meet up groups and activities and book clubs and hang out groups and so many other ways of “meeting people”, it is quite overwhelming. Society at large joins forces here to make sure no one is ever alone. Only, that does not take care of them being lonely.
Two. Different. Things. I have seen “it” boys and girls in both parts of the world feel scarily lonely and vacant at times, despite all the noise around them. That Deepika Padukone character in Cocktail? Not entirely untrue, though I should really not get started on that movie.

I’ve always had a hard time controlling curiosity and boring bores me to death, so I’ve tried a couple of these meet up/hang out things.
One of them is actually a nice idea: you meet backpackers travelling across the world with buckets full of stories there. Creep alert: there are some, but basic common sense will keep you safe. They also arrange subsidized off-Broadway theatre shows that an outsider like me would never have known of otherwise and also accounted for my first Thanksgiving dinner. Then there are burlesques and naked bike rides and scrabble nights and other things. I can’t/don’t attend most of their events because there is bread and butter to be earned, and because I like my bread and butter to go with some wine, work has to be dealt with.  
I dumped the other group after two meetings. It mostly consisted of young, single people my age with reasonably stable jobs and a choice of three broad conversation openers. “So, what are you doing xxxday?",  “Are you looking for a light”, “Are you Indian?" I told you, boring bores me to death.  I made one friend from these events. Just one.

The few other interesting people I know are not from mass organized events, nor from playing date-poker in my head with all guards up.

I’m a lousy poker player anyway.

I wonder how many have actually met people that they would like to know for life, or for any considerable time, from these places, when you are desperately trying to stick to the rule book in your head? Except for some instances, you are so prone to be judged and scrutinized for so many small and otherwise inconsequential things, it is a miracle people still manage to talk and get each other’s numbers. If they do, that is.

I have been asked so many times why I have gone out with people who are not Adonis lookalikes (“you have better options!”) that it is embarrassing, really. For one, it bothers me to think that there are people who think I could and would choose my company only on the basis of what they wear and how they look. And for the other, I feel sad for those who think like that or do it themselves, and then howl about how they have no real friends or love.
I read recently in an otherwise smartly written column in a magazine that men get exactly one chance at a joke before they lose the woman of their dreams.
Witty men rule my world, but one chance, really? And what do women get?
The same if not worse, if the urban landscape in this country is anything to go by.
It is amazing exactly how critical men, who themselves are not Prince Charmings by any stretch of wild imagination, can be. “I would ask her to dance if she had thinner arms.”

I overheard this, gulped my drink, looked at my reflection and wondered how many people were marking me off right then.

 I get that we are all busy. I get that there are too many creeps out there, both women and men, for us to not have some internal checks in place. I also get the concept of “leagues”. Somewhat. But if rules, that too, those that don’t really make much sense, is what steer us so much, maybe it is time for us to stop crying about “where are the right people we want to fall in love with”?

For you know what? He was right there, but it was a bad day,and he blew his one-time chance at making you laugh. She was just off her gym routine.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Was making India "secular" a big mistake?

 If you are remotely connected to India and even very casually interested in general affairs, someone that only glances at news pop-ups while shoe shopping on the internet, you already know what the latest pet discussion in that part of the world is.
Shah Rukh Khan and his recent interview, which has done more good to him publicity-wise than his last elaborate catastrophe on screen did.
  Let's not have the discussion about whether what he said was really what he thought or was a smart ploy to get him back on headlines. Almost five years of journalism has made me cynical enough to not discard the possibility of the latter, and SRK's star, after all, is on the decline.
    Whether you support SRK or don't, one thing you cannot deny in this hoopla is that modern India, for all her various examples of secularism (of which SRK himself is a shining example: his wife is Hindu and he tells anyone ready to listen that he celebrates both Eid and Diwali with equal gusto) is yet to really accept the concept in its totality.
    Indians have made gods of the Khans that have ruled Bollywood for years and years, we have head-banged till the wee hours of the morning when Rupam Islam has strummed his guitar, our hearts have swelled with pride when Abdul Kalam or AR Rahman have been felicitated by the world and yet, deep in our hearts, we've always somehow fostered the feeling of "they are different".
    Depending on who you are and where you've grown up, that difference could become immaterial when we talk about really famous or really rich people, but that's only because a lot of money and success creates a class of its own. It's not fair to compare, say, Aamir Khan, with my friend Aftab.
    To say India is a complex society is a gross understatement. There are so many shades to her cultural tapestry that it is overwhelming to sit and take stock of the situation. This is what makes this country a very difficult work field for foreigners. They tend to vacillate between the "good" India and the "bad" India at alarming rates or with equally scary one-track minds and almost always end up missing the point.
    I know, I know, some of the best works on the country have come from non Indian authors but my blog is about what I generally see everywhere-- anyone or anything that is an exception to a rule is by default not the topic of conversation here.
    The point is, despite all the love, success, fame and popularity that even SRK gets in the country, he can still claim to feel victimized.
    It is somewhat similar to how many people in the United States treat Black Americans and vice versa, but because the US has a much longer history of being free and has a much better economic grounding that India does, maybe it is not a fair comparison.
    Justified or not, SRK's claim touches chords among some and rubs others the wrong way, to the extent that the man now has an open invitation to live in Pakistan if he feels "threatened" in India. (By the way, SRK, the only thing I read from you in response to that invitation was a mumbling "I'm offended" or some such. How about chinning up and saying "I don't want to leave my country you idiots, I'm Indian and this isn't even an option”? Apparently, claims to patriotism can only be made when it is for complaining about our troubles. Or did you decide you've had publicity enough? Why stir up trouble if you're not ready to see it through to the end?)
    There, that bit out of my system now, let's get back to my main point. Which is that, despite the average middle class in India growing up in reasonably secular surroundings (non Indians, trust me here. We do not chase each other with knives every time we meet around the corner, no more than all of us are snake charmers), we are yet to really accept secularism on the whole.
    One of my closest and best friends, the kind that knows your deepest, darkest secrets and loves you nevertheless, is Muslim. I've been born in a Hindu Brahmin family. My family knows of our closeness and I've never heard anyone ever mention anything that can remotely be translated as "but he's not Hindu". Yet, I wonder: If instead of being friends, say we were lovers and wanted to marry each other, would the family still be so Zen about it?
    I understand the practicalities that account for this apprehension. It's two different ways of life. If you think about it, the Hindu-Muslim violent history aside, most people would treat any intercaste/class interaction with the same apprehension. We are similarly skeptical about Malayali/Punjabi weddings, Bengali and Marwari tie-ups. One of my Assamese friends once told me he had a standing request from his parents to "marry anyone but not a Bengali." Lots of baggage there too, but you see the point?
    It really is simple if one thinks about it. How long do you think can a Malayali, fed on a daily diet of academics and comparatively simplistic living adjust to the innate "pomp and show" that comes with being a Punjabi? And god forbid if that Punjabi is also from Delhi. Or say, how long can a Bengali, born and bred on fish and Tagore, live and adjust with Marwari vegetarianism?
    You think it is a trivial non-issue? Hah, say I.  Of course, in today’s set up, it does not matter as much. We’re all eating instant noodles anyway. But the people that have a problem and worry about these things are generally not the live-on-frozen food-in-extremely-nuclear-setup types.
    Does that mean Punjabis and Marwaris are inferior in their choice of lives? Most definitely not. It is not even about superior or inferior; it is about different ways of live. Now throw religious difference in the mix and I think I can begin to understand why people get on their haunches.
   Plus, unlike say Christians and Hindus, Hindus and Muslims have been fighting very violently since the beginning of time and people in power have always swung rules in their favor.
    So, was making India a secular democracy a mistake that goes against the basic grain of human nature?
    The BIG thing to not ignore being: the majority of a country’s, any country’s, people choose not to think at all. Of this I am convinced. Even of those that do, very very few have the courage to actually stand up and go against the tide and face the repercussions.    
     When they inserted the term "secular" in the Preamble to the Constitution, it was already late 70s. Sure, the "feel" was always present, but making it official is a big thing. It usually means we've given this some thought and are ready to shoulder the responsibilities that come with it.
    When a constitution says its land is secular, it means we, the people (and hence, the Government) should not discriminate on the basis of religion at all. That "at all" should ideally be non-negotiable. It should also mean every man of the land is and will be treated equal and be subjected to the same set of rules.
    Yet, we have a separate set of rules for Muslims in India that they can choose to follow and are acceptable in a court of law. The Uniform Civil Code is still a Directive Principle, but if we are a secular nation, it should have been legally enforceable.
    We are supposed to be a  "Sovereign Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic." Given how complex India's history and culture is, I'd have said we've done a good enough job of upholding those tenets if a Godhra and the entire circus related to it had not happened. If only we could blot that entire sequence out! People often say it was "unavoidable" and yet I hear a similar situation was much more effectively resolved by that patron of modern Kathak and last of Awadhi Nawabs, Wazir Ali Shah, a long time ago.
    Not only do we not learn from our past mistakes or from past successes, we consistently lack the political motivation and/or courage to stand up to people who keep flouting those guiding principles on a regular basis.
    Sure, the powerful will always abuse. But the problem here is, we are a democracy. We choose to elect these people who then go about their crazy carnage.
   Twenty years after Babri Masjid and some ten odd years after Godhra, my friend is still rejected housing in Bombay because he is Muslim.
   Does make me wonder—did the architects of our free nation enforce a feeling of secularism in a country where there never was any?
    I don’t come from an overtly religious family; my brother and I were taught to be decent, rather than devout. (I try.)
    The quintessentially middle class Indian neighbourhood that I still call home has never been touched by communal violence. Most of its residents are striving for decency and are largely peace loving. I’m not counting spiteful neighbourhood gossips because they, well, don’t count.
But in this flat, boring middle class society, I've heard modern families sit with coffee cups in their well decorated living rooms and talk about how it was “right that the Hindus burnt a few of their houses down. They need to know who is in charge,” when the newspaper lying in front of them tells them what happened to the Best Bakery.
  It will be unfair to throw this out there without a little bit of background.  Issues mainly stemming from minority appeasement for vote bank politics have come to such a head that the non-rich non-minority feel threatened and frustrated all the time. Hence the “in charge” line of thought.
    But dangerously, they do not realize what is wrong in thinking that way, and worse, everyone in that sitting room agrees. Including the woman who had tears in her eyes that morning while reading that article about the bakery.
    One can point out stupidity and callousness and can try to show people why they are wrong, but it is very difficult to change personal opinion. Shaming people into silence is one thing, really really making them change their views is another. 
   I know putting a few words in a book will not change the vast population of India. I also know a thousand wrongs do not make a right and that is why I keep repeating, no matter how good a businessman you are and no matter how much money you bring in, a murderer is a murderer and in my books, it is extremely irresponsible and callous to go about saying we can forgive one mistake and focus on other “better” things.
   You see, there are mistakes and then there are crimes. Kissing your husband’s colleague could be a mistake. Categorically planning the execution of hundreds of people or not stopping it while you could is a crime. Yet, ask around and you'll be surprised how many categorize the two in the exact opposite order. 
   If this be the real pulse of a nation, would it have saved us all a lot of heartache if we were not made secular in the first place?
No luck there. Like a friend pointed out, communal tension, specially of the Godhra kind, is not generally the doing of commoners like you and me. The architects of these are people who chalk out such madness for different ends altogether. So if they didn't have the easy topic of Hindu vs Muslims, they would find something else. Every society has problems that could and often have resulted in deplorable violence. India is more or less surrounded by countries that are not secular, and no one can say they are doing any better.
    Plus, if we were an all Hindu state, I would not have met my friend and would be hobbling in life without one of my rocks. There would be no SRK to pine over and no Eid ka biryani or Christmas caroling to look forward to. Upsetting, isn't it?
    Secular, you win. We'll deal with the rest :)
PS: After I posted this, King Khan held a presser and had this to say:  “I am an Indian and am extremely proud of it. I feel extremely safe in India. My safety is not a concern to me and not for someone else either.”  See how I have gone back to calling him "King" Khan? :D 

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

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