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Sunday, October 01, 2017

Navaratri

It is the morning after several nights in a row. Nine nights, to be precise. The gods are carefully divested of their crowns and garlands, their long black tresses tied back with wispy cotton threads, packed into recycled plastic bags and put away in the big black trunk that holds the history of inter-continental crossings and multiple house-movings.

The living room reclaims its position as marginal to the life of the household--so maybe it is more correctly named the "(with)drawing room" (we don't really live there, do we?)--after having served these ten days as a site of communing with friends and family from a variety of circles, many of whom we see only once or twice a year. But there's a temporary void beneath the window where the steps stood, making space for the descent of the gods from the storage area off our terrace to the level of our everyday. It will take a couple of days before the mundane reasserts itself and the memory of green and blue-tinged bodies, and their other-wordly aura, fades. "The room seems so empty now," my mother in law remarks after we've cleared the last of the festival paraphernalia.

Navaratri, like almost every other festival, brings up all kinds of ambivalent feelings in me. There is nostalgia, of course, for uncomplicated times and the innocence of childhood, where the only protests had to do with getting up early or having to take an oil bath or going around with the invitational kumkum bharani, exposing oneself to the curiosity of the neighborhood aunties who would comment on the length of one's hair or the inadequate number of bangles on one's wrist. But that was always made up for by the innumerable varieties of sundal and sweets that one was offered by those very same aunties. And I was also one of the fortunate few who was never asked to sing for my sundal, having deftly sidestepped those obligatory Carnatic music classes that most of my contemporaries in the Tam-Bram circle were privileged to attend. Much to my parents' regret, I suspect (and truth be told, to my own as well).

Now that I'm an auntie myself (as my children often remind me when I show embarrassing signs of forgetting), and I am the one offering the sundal and sweets, not to speak of being the one who has to spend that extra time in the kitchen cooking it all up, the ten-day festival (even though it is technically nava-ratri or nine nights) represents not just the opportunity for silk and music but also... work. And that work, and everything it represents, is implicated in all sorts of politics that my academic self cannot ignore.

My friends who are more deeply rooted in the progressive academic discourse would have much more to say about this discomfort and its relationship to modernity but for now, I'd just like to lay out some of the contradictions that I am constantly trying to reconcile (and why one even needs to reconcile them is another question, for another time).

--how does one deal with the notion of the oppressive Brahminical without discarding everything that is beautiful and good in tradition?
--how does one hold on to the aesthetic aspects of culture while also refashioning the meanings held within the form(s)?
--in other words, how does one appropriate the form while discarding all that this very form may have represented in the past?
--how does one learn to take pleasure in the social and cultural opportunities that such festivals offer in a truly secular--and egalitarian--way?

Each year, I try to deal with these questions, sometimes subconsciously, as I put the bomma golu together and make my list of people to invite and balance my time between the demands of work and the extended kitchen time. Many of the dolls that we display have a special meaning for my family; the main pieces were made by my mother in law over forty years ago, lovingly and painstakingly, and each time we bring them out is a chance for her to recall her younger, more agile self and take pleasure once again in the sense of crafting something. Each year, as we prepare the display, we listen to stories of the making of the dolls, the years the family spent in Shillong, the many people who came and saw and what they said. This invariably leads to conversations about other navaratris in other places, and my children (if they happen to be here) and I are treated to glimpses of the past which tend to stay buried the rest of the year as we go about our regular business. We remember people who have turned into faded faces in our photo albums, and get a sense of what life was like before modern telecommunications.

So clearly, the sense of ambivalence also derives from another sort of nostalgia, for the loss of neighborhood, of the ease of getting around, of dispersed families, of a calendar that respected the personal and the familial and recognized the need for a periodic slowing down of the professional. The days leading up to the festival, I'm anxious and nervous about managing things, and I allow a resentment to build up, telling myself that I am only meeting expectations, that I am doing things that are not part of my modern-liberal psyche. But that's only partly true. I am myself loath to give up the practice, because it is tied up with so much that I value and respect, with so much that--when I allow myself--I truly take pleasure in.

And in the doing of things, in the ritual of setting up the display, the resentment fades. While those questions and contradictions remain, I set them aside for another time, another space, another context.




Friday, August 25, 2017

Freedom and all that jazz

Sanjeevaiah Park, Secunderabad
When I was in the ninth grade, I won the second prize in a short story writing competition. I fashioned my story in the realist style of R K Narayan combined with the cinematic sensibility of Shyam Benegal who had just punctured our urban development myth with the explosive Ankur, and its images of a persistent feudalism and class oppression. Perhaps it was telling that the first place went to a sweet, hopeful story about a lost-and-found pet and my own somewhat cynical narrative about a young woman and her alcoholic husband was an uncomfortable second. Or maybe the good nuns of St Ann's Convent thought I was writing a tad above my station--as a 14-year-old.

My fiction unfolded on Independence Day--India's 17th--and its underlying point was that we were a long way from having achieved freedom for all. Granted, it was an unsophisticated, somewhat naive treatment of the kind of plot that is not uncommon in both commercial and literary fiction, but it was deeply felt, and at its core was the beginnings of a disenchantment with the rhetoric and reality of nation building.

My politics haven't changed much in the forty-years since (gosh has it been that long?). I might write that story with more nuance, less black and white and more grey and even some glimmer of color, because as one grows older one also learns to see hope and happiness in small acts and tiny corners, and take joy in the moment (and the momentary).

Still, I can't not be a bit irritated each year when the 15th of August comes around and we find ourselves subjected to all manner of lofty claims about progress and whatnot by whichever government is currently in power. Don't get me wrong. I too get goosebumps when I listen to our "Tryst with destiny" speech, and I too am humbled by the manner in which so many united to end colonial rule. But you don't have to look too far to see how far we have not come. And then there are all those tragedies that have dogged us in the wake of independence; they endure like a long low scream that Edward Munch would have had a hard time capturing.

I still find my refuge in writing.

August 15, 2017

What exactly are we celebrating?

The various impunities made available, like candy 
at our Made-in-India vending machines?

Freedom to turn personal frustrations into public hatred?

Freedom to allow babies to die, un-breathing,
because you/they wouldn't/couldn't 
pay for air?

Freedom to change words in textbooks
and remake histories in some singular,
monolithic image?

Freedom to spread hate in the name 
of some version of love (so you say)
for that completely unnecessary thing called Nation?

Freedom to draw boundaries around notions
of personhood, being, loving, even 
living?

I can list enough of these...these freedoms
to fill the 70 pages of your
new history books

That turn wondering children
into accepting, repeating automatons,
better to work the algorithmic gears
of this unconstitutional republic.

As far as I can see, you've used up
all the Freedom.

And now, you're selling it back to us
in byte-sized plastic tirangas

that we are free 
to buy
with the spare change left to us;

relics 
of a demonetized economy.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Watching the women's world cup: of wagon wheels and multiple screens

The big season is over for the women in blue. They've had more attention from audiences in India than in all the time they've been playing, forty years or more...not in blue, of course, but in the good old whites. Despite the heartbreaking finish, they come home sheroes, having displayed remarkable spirit and doing something few women's team sports have been able to do in our country--getting prime time coverage on a major network. For the whole tournament, no less.

For me, this season--as has been every season the women have played over the past twelve years--was a poignant reminder of a child's unfulfilled dream. I'm sure there are thousands of parents--maybe millions--who feel the same, but I can only talk about myself. And perhaps it is because of this that I--all of us in the family--pay more attention to the game than we would have otherwise.

Each year, from September till February, the BCCI runs the sparse season for women's cricket. The senior women play the inter-state matches in Plate and Elite groups, then the two top teams from each group play the super leagues. This happens for the one-day series and again the T20 series. The zonal team is picked based on performances in these matches, and the five zones play a series of 3-day matches against each other. Those who perform well through this short season are selected for the Challengers--a three-team playoff that throws up the players for the Indian team, the fifteen women who will represent the country. It's a season filled with hope and excitement for the players--and their families. Through the season, there are few headlines and fewer photo-ops. If you get mentioned in a scorecard in a tiny item under "Sports Round up", you're lucky. Even when there are headlines--as for instance, when Smriti Mandhana scored a century in the match against the West Indies--not many pay attention. It was telling that a young man who said he was a "cricket enthusiast" and had been playing at the state level for several years reacted with an "I have no idea" when he was asked to identify her.

Little surprise then that until this ICC World Cup in England, the only names that were somewhat familiar to Indian audiences were those of Jhulan Goswami and Mithali Raj. You had to reach that level of play, and records on the world scale, to achieve public visibility. With this World Cup, we know a few more names, but give it a few months, most people will be hard put to match those names to faces.

So every year, when my daughter plays in the inter-state tournaments (she's been fortunate to be part of the Hyderabad Senior Women for several years now, and the U-19 and sub-juniors before that), the entire household logs on to bcci.tv to follow the live updates. Her two grandmothers keep their iPad screens ready to follow the ball-by-ball progress, and if Ananya is bowling, they don't budge. I keep my phone browser open even as I drive, as I don't want to miss a trick during my long commute. If she happens to play in Hyderabad, we join the scraggly band of parents and former players who show up at the ground. Some seasons are better than others, and each year, there's a tiny bit of hope--maybe Zonals this year? Maybe the Challengers? When she was picked for India A in 2015, we travelled to Bangalore to watch her open the bowling in the practice match against New Zealand. Soon after, she began writing about the game, peppering her stories with analytical insights and an insider's grasp of detail. But the writing is a far second to playing, and covering the very games she dreams of being a part of is...not easy.

So watching the Women's World Cup live on television, as they played in front of record crowds, seemed like an extension of our engagement with Ananya's game. Many of the playing eleven were for us familiar names and faces, some friends, and many of whom had been opponents on the field. So the connect was intensely personal. And it was something to watch Ananya watching. During the play-offs, on days when there were four simultaneous games, she watched them all. Apart from the live telecast of the India game, she accessed the web stream on her laptop, smartphone, and a device borrowed from one of us at home. Notebooks open, a pack of pens of a dozen different colours for her detailed field drawings. And those wagon wheels--which to my un-sporty eyes look indecipherably technical.

Since the World Cup final, many have commented on how watching the Indian women's gritty performance has inspired many more girls to play, and maybe even given many more parents the confidence to let them play--seriously. But let me warn you, it's a tough journey--for the child and for the parent. For every Harmanpreet Kaur and Smriti Mandhana--not to mention Mithali and Jhulan--there are hundreds of others whose dreams may not be realised in full, and who will keep those dreams alive on the scores of dusty fields, in small and big towns, in inter-college and inter-district matches, in the inter-state and super league tournaments. In the hope that one day, they will wear the blue jersey and don that monogrammed cap.

And some will fill the margins of waiting with words...and wagon wheels.