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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.




Saturday, July 08, 2017

Long way home

Travelling back from the new city to the not-so-new-yet-not-quite-branded-old at the hour when some buildings glitter and others take on a cold, dank hue, I am offered unaccustomed views into the life of this predatory, leaching, leaking metropolis that my daytime commute obscures. If that is a sentence too full of qualifiers, well, sorry, that’s the nature of urban habitation these days. Or perhaps habitation anywhere on this planet.

Night has its unexpectedly revealing ways. It wakes you, when you least expect to be woken, and presents you with fears that you never knew existed. It can nudge you with a seductive brush into confusing dreams with reality. And it can render transparent the sheen (and the dust) that the day layers over the lives of others.

So it is that one evening, late out of work and wishing to beat the roadway traffic I am persuaded by a kindly colleague to take the train that passes for rapid transit. It takes the back route that ploughs through the underbelly of industrial estates, forgotten now by all except those who have made their homes along the walls and gutters and the faithful railroad that has no option but to run new cars over the old lines. A diverse array of workers—blue-collar, white-collar, collar-less—people the compartment along with a range of those who travel daily in search of diplomas and degrees…or just in search. I am fortunate to sit by the window, and I slide a sly glance over at the young man across from me. He is shut off from the sights-sounds-smells of the immediate, plugged in through shiny blue earpods to a sonic world of his choosing. Two others jostle in the single seat next to him sniggering at something on their phones, a WhatsApp forward perhaps? They look furtively at me, clearly unbelonging in my tightly clutched bag and marble-printed silk, unconvincing in my adoption of a slower, more reflective mode of travel, one that forces you to stare life in the face instead of beeping it out with impatient honks and swift overtakes. I move my gaze to the grilled window through which the peripheral city air blows in, carrying the remnants of many workdays—thing-making, metal-beating, brick-laying, beam-hauling, garbage-clearing, load-lifting, truck-driving. All the multitudinous ways in which the city makes work that makes a living—barely. Houses—homes—lie folded in untidy rows on either side of the running track, their interstices sometimes wide enough to allow a shiny bike, a resting auto, a hopeful car; at other times narrow enough for skipping children to find their way home from school.

I wonder if I can find this clutch of life on Google Maps, an old wrinkle in the young skin of Cyberabad?

At other times all it takes is a different turn, one that follows intelligent navigation instead of time-worn instinct, to find oneself in the middle of something that seems straight out of some futuristic architectural vision. Except that this is right here, right now. Steady lights on all fourteen floors, the smart set waiting on the sidewalk (yes, there actually are such things in this part of town!) for the next cab, wondering whether to go straight home or stop at some new-age adda for a drink and good natured cribbing about the tedium of coding. Across the broad avenue two large earth movers work overtime, lifting rubble and making space for more towers, more lights, more homes, more offices, more shops, more cafes.

More.

As for this clutch of life—such as it is—I’ll have no trouble locating it on that intelligent map.

I need to get on the train more often. To see the city that I’m losing sight of, to trace its lines on a map whose features are disappearing beneath the neat, unerring stream of data that’s redrawing it anew in ahistorical clarity.


Tuesday, June 06, 2017

What are you smiling at?


There's this photograph in an article in The New York Times, a group of people taking a selfie, smiling (some more enthusiastically than others) at the phone held up to their faces. It makes me wonder, as we sometimes do, in completely random ways, about completely pointless things, about that selfie smile.

Who are we smiling at?
What makes us smile?
What does the smile say?
What do we hope the smile achieves?

Or...are we thinking at all? Has smiling for a selfie become one of those automatic responses that we can put down to our internet-enabled consciousness?

Image result for cheshire catOur smiles then populate our social media feeds and personal digital albums, toothsome, reluctant, wistful, joyous, sometimes a bit embarrassed, crimson-lipsticked or quickly plumped and moistened, a bit crooked or self-consciously straight, even forgetful and resentful...or just automatic. Like Carroll's Cheshire Cat, they waft around to be looked at and thought about, dismissed or dwelt upon, acquiring meaning in memory even if they were nothing at the time, other than the perking up of facial muscles in the face of an upheld phone ("Hey, let's take a picture!"). The context and the body of presence disappears, and the smiles remain, to become the core of remembering. Most often we can't even figure out what we were feeling so that we can footnote TFW.

Is this any different than the smiles we produced for that old-fashioned camera stuffed with film to be exposed in the darkness of a studio and then cornered into the pages of a photo album and left to yellow and fray and come unstuck? Photographs that we knew we would pore over in family gatherings and cohort reunions, calling together the contexts from which those images arose?

Is there something different about the enthusiastically called upon image that poses for itself, that becomes one of hundreds (and over our networked lifetimes, thousands) of moments that find themselves floating in binary space, that can be rearranged chronologically to pop up, five years later, on a Facebook feed asking you to share your memory, yet again?

But back to that smile. It must be different when we smile for our own cameras, holding those not-quite-mirrors up to see for ourselves what we look like, and when we smile for another's high-handed phone, with or without a selfie-stick (they have become quite the opposite of de rigueur!). The smile in the first instance is a reminder to ourselves about who we are or who we hope to be/become, to ourselves and to our various relational circles. In the second maybe it is something like a badge of belonging, to a place, a moment, a community, a marking of our occupancy of a point in a shared timeline.

When we look back at old photographs, whether on a screen or paper, we search for those de-familiarised portraits of our selves, our eyes linger just a bit longer on the face which used to be ours, whether it is framed solo or in a group. It's as if we can read ourselves by looking into those captive eyes. To be sure, we also try to read others the same way, but there is an additional interest in trying to figure out the person we once were, within that moment that caught the smile.

So perhaps that's what we mean to do, all along. To smile at that future self, transmitting something like hope and its fulfillment in that instant... we're banking that smile, in a sense, and for a moment of pleasure in return.

Saturday, May 06, 2017

Fringe benefits

It's on the edges of formal meetings (and for that matter, even informal ones) that one chances upon moments of learning of a different kind; in those unexpected overflows of energy and fellowship that escape the confines of strict agendas and constricted sessions.

So it was that I joined a handful of others at the brave hour of six-thirty in the morning, in search of birds and tiny beasts, on the quirky yet charming campus of the (hopefully named) School of Ancient Wisdom, itself a place on the edges (of Bangalore city). We were led on this treasure hunt by Suhel and Vena from the Nature Conservation Foundation.

"There are no useful lessons to be learned from Nature," notes Suhel, with more than a hint of wry humor. Meaning, of course, we should not be looking to nature for answers to human problems or to address The Human Condition. Even though we (humans) may be responsible for much of the problems of nature.


"Bird watching is a bit of a misnomer," Suhel says, as we try hard to spot the coppersmith that had flown into the topmost branches of a flowering jacaranda. "It's more like bird hearing...or listening." But then, following his expert pointing finger, we do see the creature, twisting its neck this way and that as it called out to a potential mate.

We stop under a fig tree where we get into an extended discussion about the value of the species to the forest ecosystem, including the curious way in which a type of wasp helps pollinate it. No wonder, then, the last time I broke open a wild fig fruit,  hundreds of eager young wasps scurried out of a hollowed interior. "The domestic figs are specially bred, that's why they don't carry insects," Suhel explains.

A small bridge over a goldfish pond offers us a bird's' eye view (bad pun?) of the Jesus spider, lazily skimming its way across the water. Suitably impressed, we walk further into this modest tangle of greenery, and the naturalists point out the expertly tailored nests of the fire ants and the conical sand pits where the lion ant awaits its prey (I hear: "In the jungle, the sandy jungle, the lion ant sleeps tonight"--sorry, wrong lyrics right song!)

The lynx spider 
Soon Vena directs our urban gaze to a tiny, tiny frog clambering up a rock--so tiny I mistook it for a bug. She's been hanging back, peering at tree bark and bending over bushes. She waves us over to look at a lynx spider, its six bulbous black "eyes" (I imagine) watching us watching it. 

The tiniest frog I ever did see!


On the next bush are a couple of farmer ants, minding a mealy bug (at this point I have the Ugly Bug song running through my head). "These are the original pastoralists," quips Suhel (didn't he just say there were no lessons...?).





The ant minds the mealy bug

The short walk gave us glimpses of bulbul, golden oriole, magpie robin, swallow, crested heron, and several other birds I can't remember the names of.  Suhel tells us about the long and arduous journeys of the migratory birds and others chip in with pieces of naturalist non-trivia.

As we near the end of our circuit Vena chances upon an orb web in the making, its creator quivering in slight nervousness as the ground beneath vibrates under some half-dozen trampling feet.



We ooh and aah as silently as we can, watching the faint outline of the concentric circles of spider silk catch the light of the speeding sun, before we turn our steps softly towards breakfast.




Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Feminist Mom-ent

I hadn’t heard the term “feminist parenting” until I was way past the age of raising kids, and well into raising young adults who thought they were well past the age of being raised. But I’ve been a feminist ever since I can remember, even before I knew the word or grasped the full implications of the feminist fight. I’ve never regarded myself as anything other than perfectly capable of doing the things I wanted to do—whether it was the short-lived dream of becoming a world renowned molecular biologist or a drug-designing organic chemist, or the other one of writing that killer investigative story that would win me the Pulitzer—or at maybe the Ramnath Goenka Award. And not for a moment did I attribute not being able to do the things I wanted to do to my gender. Looking back, of course, with a keener—and more critical eye—I can see the points at which an unconscious response to deeply entrenched expectations on my part and a structural orientation on the part of society, nudged me in one way or another, or made a certain choice easier—or more acceptable--than another.

So when my children were born, one lovely girl after the other, there was no question that they would be raised as human beings, first, and human beings last. This is not to say that there were no gendered paraphernalia in their lives; given the plethora of adoring aunts, uncles and grandparents, they had their share of little-girl gifts. At different points they wore pink and purple and lace and frills, they fantasized about being princesses and mermaids, they demanded Barbie dolls and glitter, which I gave in to reluctantly and always with a bit of a deconstructive lecture. But they also had swimming and soccer, karate and cycling, and were encouraged to climb trees and when possible, mountains. They watched me and my husband share tasks and responsibilities, they watched him defer to me on some things and me to defer to him on others. Yes, we also found ourselves and our ideas often hemmed in by the expectations of a traditional South Indian family structure, but despite this, there were spaces for conversations that steered around and through these constraints, acknowledging them yet offering possibilities of resistance and change.

It helped (and helps) that they are surrounded by female strength of different kinds: grandmothers with a strong sense of self and their own respective passions; aunts who laughed heartily, unafraid; cousins who had made unpopular choices and those who had adopted convention but retained a measure of choice. And it also helped (and helps) that there were many men in their lives who never used the words “you’re a girl, so…”.

It's never easy being a parent, and it wasn't easy for me--who had strong feelings about the ills of the world and what to do about them. It's even harder when you are constantly trying to resist conventional wisdom while keeping the peace. I’m not a natural non-conformist, and I hate to rock the boat…I’m the kind of person who will nudge it sideways, a little at a time, believing firmly that the course will eventually change.

But ideology has not really been a conscious part of the parenting approach—although, one might argue, our political beliefs form the subtext even of our domestic lives. They surface occasionally in our interactions with family members, run through the arguments we have in spoken and unspoken words, the ways in which we treat those who work for and with us, and in the manner in which we approach the market. But I suppose the ideology would have been evident in the books we bought for the girls, the activities we enrolled them in, or the ways in which we dealt with the ups and downs of life, or in our interactions with people and the world.

So it was no surprise that daughter number one made choices that were fiercely her own, challenged only in relation to how they spoke to her mind and soul rather than their “value” in the employment market, that there was no question that she would follow her heart no matter where it took her and how long a journey it would be. And it was no surprise that daughter number two found her passion in sports, that there was no question that she too would stumble through those highs and lows in her own way, that we would neither shield her from disappointment nor set any ‘external’ standards.

What I have done is try to be (pretty much) transparent. I’ve talked with them about my own uncertainties, frustrations, hopes and dreams. I’ve shared with them my vulnerabilities and my anger. I’ve also done things I’ve enjoyed, and taken my space as and when I’ve needed it. But there is one thing I haven’t been able to do, and that is, to lay down my own guilt in the face of not meeting imagined expectations. Fortunately, though, they see the futility of that guilt and often try to talk me out of it. It’s in the middle of those conversations that I stop and think, “Wow, they have grown up, indeed!” 

Perhaps in the final analysis, feminist parenting is really about creating a space where there is both conscience and consciousness, a space where self-concept is untethered to the limitations imposed by expectations of [gender or other] roles. It's not to say that things have been ideal. They still have to deal with the [gendered] anxieties that arise when they're out late or in unfamiliar contexts. They still need to offer justifications about being safe. But I can see that the same anger I feel simmers in them too. It's an anger that leads one to uncover narratives of oppression in popular culture and the other to rally against discrimination in sports.


But still, twenty-seven years later, when my daughter admonishes me fondly upon my asking if my dangly earrings look “too young for me”, saying, “Ma, what sort of a feminist are you?” it makes me smile inside.