It’s that time of year again. Our calendars lined up with one festival after another. Navratri came and went, with lots of sweets and sundal being prepared and consumed. Eid was celebrated just a couple weeks earlier, and Diwali will be celebrated a couple weeks from now. It is a good month, especially for me, as the H celebrates his birthday this time of year as well. This means I can be usually found frantically searching for the “perfectly perfect” cake recipe, and soon thereafter, my kitchen counters engulfed in a cloud of flour.
Another festival is coming up in a couple of days, the Karvachauth. I have not observed it, but know many people who do. In trying to understand why a married woman must fast all day one day of a year, with nary a drop of water being consumed from sunrise to sunset, I am directed to legends and tales from the Mahabharata rife with morals portaying perfect ‘wife behavior’, to asinine monologues in the blogging world about how it is the wife’s dharma to sacrifice for her husband, to explanations about it being a celebration of sisterhood(!)
I understand very well the rich emotional pull that rituals have, the weight of their nostalgia, especially once we get married and move away from home and begin to celebrate in our own new homes. Which traditions do you uphold? Which do you ignore? What makes you wistful? What passes you by so quickly you don’t even notice its coming and going? You begin to feel the weight of these things when you have to make these decisions yourself. Decisions that will become the traditions that your own children will follow (or not). But stuff you did unthinkingly as a child, begins to seem different when viewed through the lens of an adult. At that point, what do you do? And it is here I come to the reason for this post today.
In today’s day and age, what makes an educated woman want to willingly observe this fast?
Putting aside the blatant sexism that is screaming from every description of the ritual, is it because this guarantees a long, healthy happy all-things-nice-and-wonderful for the husband? Just by me not eating one day in a year? What about the husbands of those women who can‘t eat for many, many days each year because they cannot afford a pot of rice? Are these men reaping the benefits of this sacrifice? What about if I observe the fast twice a year? Twice as much spiritual goodies for the H? What if I never do it? Does everything in my H’s life hang on that tenuous thread that is my food intake on that one day?
I cannot put aside any sexism for too long. Why the woman? Why, as I have asked before, is the brunt of all our traditions squarely placed on the shoulders of a woman? (and then later, to be told that we are the weaker sex and that it is but natural that we cannot do everything, and must not try to. But I digress. More on that later).
This is an actual conversation I had with someone last evening about this.
Me: “Do you plan to fast?”
Her: “Yes! I do hope it’s not an overcast evening. Sometimes the damn moon takes all night to make an appearance, so sometimes I just eat after it gets dark.”
Me: “Who cooks the food? Or do you go out?”
Her (aghast): “Go out? Of course not. I cook as usual, and a couple of sweets as well. I have to break the fast with a sweet preparation”
The conversation petered out after this point, as most of these things always do.
You might have noticed this hashtag making an apperance in your social media feeds “#fastforher”. It’s an initiative by that compulsive attention-seeking hack named Chetan Bhagat, that seeks to equalize the ceremony a bit. By asking men to fast along with their wives. And this is of course, being hailed as visionary and forward-thinking by his legions of admirers. Please, if you love your wife/husband and want to show it, go out for dinner and take a walk somewhere and have a conversation. Break open a bottle of wine and put your legs up on that balcony. Go visit your parents, or give them a call. Go watch a movie. Buy a book. Or just have a regular day doing your regular things. Any of this is preferable to starving yourself while simultaneously cooking up a feast, starving yourself while silently cursing the emancipated ways of the world and Chetan Bhagat, and being cranky all evening as your stomach rumbles merrily. If you’re a “forward-thinking” man (and no forward thinking man will actually need to go around announcing the fact, beating his chest), don’t join in your wife’s fast. Trash the entire ceremony and go eat at your favorite restaurant and give her a break.
Do you know anybody that writes lists? Are you one of them yourself? No piece of paper is left alone when some folks are around. Every blank scrap of paper, backs of receipts, margins of notebooks.. they all serve as a canvas for this obsession. I was one of them myself, until recently. The fridge door would be plastered with at least two full-sized sheets of paper, one filled with my tiny writing. The second was the list-in-waiting, very important, placed there because I hated searching for a piece of paper when I had a list to create. As you are probably thinking, this wasn’t just a habit. It was a disease.
I’ve always scribbled stuff down that needed my attention. I started way back when I was still in school. At the time, it was just one of those things that seemed grown-up and cool to do. Also, I simply loved post-its. One of my happy childhood struggles was always: “Do I hoard all these little impossibly cute post-its or do I succumb to the urge of filling them with lists and more lists?” Really. I think there are still little stacks of post-its back home in India, decades old, that I never wrote in. I wonder what pressing reminders lived in those early lists, but draw a blank. They probably would make me wince slightly were I to look at them today, and I wish I could see those little snippets of my then-young-can’t-wait-to-grow-up-self. (What was I thinking?!)
Post-wedding, living what might be finally called a “grown-up” life, my lists contained gems like “soak the beans”, “buy dishwashing fluid”, “reply to that email”. These were not the lists of my childhood, which existed entirely to satisfy my need to scribble on brightly colored tiny paper. These were a different animal, daily reminders of things I needed to do that multiplied magically when I did attend to them. The small surge of achievement I felt when I scratched off an item, quelled the moment I remembered the two more that I needed to do next.
A while ago, I finally understood that list-making was just making me feel inadequate. They made my life seem like a never-ending sequence of chores. It was a remnant of a childhood habit that persisted and never went away. Life is hardly the stuff of our “best” memories, our “best” vacations, our “grandest” successes. More frequently, it is a daily and gentle accumulation of mundane acts and exchanges that connect us to people and to our selves, as we all muddle about in our little corners of this big sandbox. Now that I have stopped plastering the fridge with my lists, two good things have happened. 1. Bits of paper and lovingly collected magnets don’t crash to the floor a few times every week. 2. The dishwasher is never without it’s soap, chores still magically manage to get done, I potter about the house in relative peace, and our home hums along daily. Nothing has been burnt, forgotten, neglected or destroyed by my discarding this old habit, but I am a happier person by it. Whatever feeling of liberation I had hoped to achieve by writing to-do notes like a maniac (and checking them off, of course), I actually ended up achieving them all when I threw the lists away.
Two days ago, the H and I stood undecided at Meijer. We wanted to get hummus, and were spoiled for choice. Stay with the tried-and-tested original? Roasted red pepper? Spinach-artichoke? Garlic? Cilantro? There were all calling to me, these neat little round tubs of delicious. It was a mundane conversation we have had many times in the past, little decisions of little consequence.
If you’ve been to a Meijer before, you know that there’s always a staff member who stands by the doors chiming “Welcome to Meijer” to every single customer who walks in. It is an exhausting way to earn a living. The lady who had greeted us earlier, walked over and smiled “Don’t you know how to make hummus?” in halting English. I wasn’t sure what to say for a second. Was she asking me why I had to buy something that can be made at home? Why would she discourage a purchase from the store, anyway? She was a tiny little thing, more than a head shorter than myself and simply dwarfed by the husband, and stood there with a tiny smile on her face. I told her I knew how to prepare it, but didn’t do so usually. She smiled wider this time and asked, “Could you tell me how to make it? It has chickpeas, no?” I gave her a quick rundown of the recipe. She had questions about the ingredients, how expensive they were, where would we find them in the store… The H stood by patiently.
When we were done, she remarked “I’ve always seen the hummus by this cooler. I’ve never bought it because it’s so expensive, but have always been curious how it is.” Once again, I didn’t know what to say. I pointed out that there was a promotion on it where you get two for the price of one today, and that’s why the H and I were trying to choose. The smile on that woman’s face! She grinned like a child, and told me she would pick two boxes on her way home today, for the first time. I melted a little.
All the way home, I couldn’t wipe the tiny smile off my face. I saw that she had really meant “Do you know how to make hummus?” What significance that one word has. It was a sobering reminder of the world being much bigger than this little bubble the H and I live in. How thoughtlessly we go through the daily motions of our lives, for the most part doing what we desire… while there’s a woman watching us a few feet away, who has looked at a humble package of $3.99 hummus many times and desisted buying it.
This little exchange was a valuable reminder of many things for the H and I that day. At the end of her shift, I hope that she spent a happy few minutes trying to choose what to get just like the H and I did hours earlier. And I hope it didn’t disappoint!
Every city has it’s share of beggars, panhandlers. A few weeks ago, I was in Chicago with a bunch of friends. Walking down Michigan avenue, we passed at least six people on the sidewalk, all with different signs asking for money. I handed one of them a dollar bill, and this sparked a long and lively conversation about how useful (or not) it is to give them money.
Almost everyone I know of looks at the practice of handing over spare change with disapproval. “You only encourage them to beg on the street”, “You enable their laziness”, “Look at him! Can’t he find an honest job at a construction site or a McD?” “He’s going to buy cigarettes/alcohol with our hard-earned money” “You’re a sucker for this” are a sample of the kind of things I have heard.
A very large number of people think this: If every person gave a little change away, it adds up to 20-30 dollars per day per beggar. They comfortably feed themselves with this and spend the night at a homeless shelter, or outside Walmart. They know they don’t have to look for work, as this money will take care of all their needs. The first time I heard this, I was horrified. So many of us truly believe that a handful of dollars and a sidewalk to sleep on is all one needs for a fulfilled life for these people. (Don’t get me started on what makes a fulfilled life for the rest of us) What about a home? family? health? do they have children? But people have already tuned out by the time I ask. I am aware of the economics of charity, how welfare and subsidies do not always have the outcome desired. About how they do sometimes facilitate the need for further welfare, and do not end the problem per se. But what about the lives they save?
I am bothered by the above simplistic explanation I always get, on so many levels. Does the spare change you throw away really matter so much in the life of a homeless stranger? Just how significant do you really think it is? It is spare change. Does handing over what you can dismiss without a thought, something you will not miss, give you any right to judge how your precious 50 cents will be spent? So if he buys a single cigarette with it, you will huff in disapproval. What if he buys a soda? Will you moral-police him then as well, preaching about a good wholesome diet? What gives you the right to disparage a man, bemoaning his laziness, when you’ve known him for all of a few seconds as you walk your busy walk, live your full life? Oh, and the worst is when I’ve been told to observe and note the sincerity and effusiveness of gratitude I receive when I give money. If this gratitude is even a little muted, even a touch less sincere than what your fifty cents demands, the complaints begin anew. I wish people stop being so full of themselves, expecting nothing less than a prostrated man weeping with joy at the pittance he receives. I wish people got over themselves just a little bit.
This is not to say I walk around with a bleeding heart, emptying my wallet whenever I see a person in need. But I give when I can, which is not always. But, I never to judge them for asking. It’s the moralizing that comes before and after that enrages me.
Then there are the panhandlers. A lot of them are con artists. Once, the H and I were at an intersection and we were approached by a man who “needed twenty dollars for gas money as he and his wife were driving to their home in Michigan, and he was broke”. We didn’t have the money, neither did his story seem like the truth. He went on his way. Since that day, I’ve seen this man at least twice afterward. He wears the same clothes, has the same bag slung on his shoulders, and is clearly not heading home to Michigan like he said. He might even approach us again with a different tale, not recognizing us. I know this. And I know of people who have given money away, believing someone was a cripple, only to have him dash off with fully functional legs the moment the money changes hands (true story. On a train in India).
I do not know enough about the economics of charity, or the trickle-down effects that handing over money creates. Neither do I think that this is a problem that can be resolved by the generosity of a few ordinary people, every day on the streets. But when you see someone, visibly hungry, visibly suffering, how can you walk away?
I had written this over a two years ago almost, while I lived in Bangalore. Life was different then, and one day I just wrote a bunch of random observations down. It was fun to read it today.
It’s comically incongruous: a rather portly security officer, complete with uniform and shiny shoes and hat and baton and radio. And on his hip, a cute little shiny yellow canister, with even one of those little easy-spray attachments at its head that brings to mind the spray bottles at salons, resting proudly attached to his belt. The combination of somber grey uniform and shiny yellow pepper spray is striking, hard to ignore once noticed. I kept having images of baby canaries, salon treatments, a child’s toy… as my bus moved and he rolled away from my amused view.
Later that evening, I go to the local crowded café to order a takeout dinner. As I stand waiting for my food, I spot an older couple in the rush. He is dressed immaculately, as men that age somehow tend to be. She wears a sweater over a saree that is worn a tad higher than would be by a younger woman. Women over a certain age always tend to wear their sarees higher than I would wear it. They care less about the fall of a garment than the dust and grime on Indian roads. They carry plates of fried rice, and shuffle about the tiny restaurant looking for a place to eat. A certain type of restaurant in Bangalore saves on space and time by not having seats at all, instead having tall tables that are periodically wiped down by grubby boys. Not finding any free space, they stand and hold their plates in one hand and a spoon in the other. I can’t stop observing them, willing some of the younger people to do the right thing and make room. No one does. My sensible quiet voice tells me this is different from being in a crowded train or bus where it’s almost obligatory to give up your seat. Not so here. Still I feel outrage, and realize I cannot see people who remind me of my parents (minus the manner of saree draping) being placed in a less than desirable situation. I am seized with longing about my own parents as I see these two, and filled with affection for two strangers who order fried rice of all things, at a little restaurant with no seating. Within the next minute, my order is thrust into my hand, they find space on a table, and I walk out.
Almost every day of the week, I buy vegetables and fruit at a lovely little shop. The shop keeper and his helper are young men from Kerala, who are unfailingly gracious to me. They speak in broken English and I reply in broken Malayalam, and we are kind to the others’ mistakes as we carry out our daily transactions. They ask after me if I don’t show for two days, they apologize if the prices are higher than average, try to talk me into buying another fruit here, another one there. It’s a lovely ritual that is so common to a regular shopper in India. Then one day, one of them reminds me to bring my Malayalam-speaking mother to the shop when she visits, as I smile yes. And the other wonders if I am married, and my smile slightly freezes as I nod no. Why do I freeze a little bit? I am courteous but offer no detail. Isn’t it strange how we are comfortable enough to breed familiarity with people, but are jolted into slight unease by the most harmless question? Would I have frozen if a similarly educated colleague posed the same question over a coffee in perfect English? What does either answer say about me?
I return home and see my landlord’s father. An old retired gentle, gentle man. He regularly plies me with food and sweets as only Indian elders can do, and repeatedly makes kind offers of assistance should I ever need help. He makes sure to switch on a light on at the entrance to my apartment so I do not stumble in the dark while returning home late. This is also the same man who called out my name from the upper terrace one night. Inside the apartment, all I can hear is the suggestion of my name being called from outside. I go out but see nothing. While all of a sudden I hear my name again from somewhere above me and am startled pretty badly. He wants to know if I am alright. On so many levels, this annoys me. The excessive worrying about someone who can take care of herself perfectly, the insanity of calling to someone from the terrace while they are unsuspectedly inside their apartments, the whole thing baffles. And annoys. And then the next day he hands me a laddoo with a sweet smile, and says “take it”. What is one to do?
But this is exactly it about India and being here. Experiences linger, make a conflicting impression, make you think. They brand themselves onto your senses here, if you pay attention. And all the time, I am made aware of how very thin that line is between affection, distrust, annoyance.. Sometimes I think India thrusts these daily conflicts onto your face, wondering what you will make of it, wondering if you will see the hypocrisy that is rife in everyone’s lives. It can be alternately disconcerting and liberating, depending on the kind of day you’ve had.
I urge any of you reading this who love me even a little bit: Get me a puppy(I am looking at you, H)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved dogs. I’ve basked in borrowed pride when I was told the stories of my father caring for both a cat and a dog decades earlier. Growing up, I’ve wanted to bring home every puppy I saw on the streets. That this never happened, not once, didn’t deter me one bit. I still look at every pup I see, homeless or not, with a slight wistfulness and wish that I could take it home.
The first dog about whom I heard a bunch of stories was of course, Caesar the first. This was the stray that dad picked up somewhere. Caesar would apparently eat curd rice (he’s definitely not the first Indian dog to do so). He would leave our home when he pleased to loiter about and return when he was hungry. He would run behind my dad every time dad left. He slept in dad’s bed. Hearing many stories about this dog fondly recollected, made a big impression on me. We had a bunch of dogs after that. As a child, I remember Lassie, who gave us five puppies (two were given to the postman and two for us. My brother (I think?) named them Caesar (the second) and Brutus.) The fifth pup I really wanted to keep also, but here my parents drew the line. I had even named him “Roger”, in my optimism that having him named would mean I get to keep him. The gardener took Roger home. Later, we had Caesar the third. I really wanted to name this one “Alex” or “Max”. I remember a pure white puppy with no tail, Simba, that was with us for a very short while. My insistence on these Western names came from my then-preoccupation with Enid Blyton novels (where a Roger always showed up, seems like). I suspect Alex/Max were inspired by some books as well but I do not remember which. Either ways, our gardener (and grandfather-figure to me that I’ve written about previously), Perumal thatha, couldn’t say “Alex” OR “Max” at all. I tried to to teach him these names, but “Alec” and “Mac” were the most he could pronounce in this strange new language. It must have been no small torture to him, having a bossy little girl asking him to repeat “Alex” over and over again. He humored me for a while, but in the end I gave up in the end and we named this puppy Caesar as well. This was also when I realised that every dog we have from now on would be named Caesar.
This Caesar was a little dynamo. He was a scrawny little thing but had a massive amount of energy. His favorite activity involved running circles around me, on our patio, at great speed until I couldn’t follow him with my eyes any more. The little idiot would run and run until he collapsed, exhausted and jubilant, at my feet, waiting to be congratulated. You couldn’t help but be totally conquered by this mad abandon. This absolute and complete surrender. I loved him to bits, and have never experienced such a display of exuberance before or after. When you have a dog, even returning home from the store becomes a matter of great celebration. You are welcomed with such joy, homecomings are never the same after that. He loved grapes, and I would sneak out routinely, feeding him sweet, cold grapes.
My grandmother was scared of dogs. But that changed one night, during Diwali. He was terrified that night, with all the fireworks and noise and smoke around him. He crept underneath chairs and would lie there, trembling, not eating, not moving. None of us knew what to do, and really, there isn’t any way you can muffle the noise that happens during the week of Diwali. Suddenly, he shot up and ran to where my grandmom was seated, and hid under her chair. She was mostly blind by this time, but could tell that there was a scared dog at her feet. She bent down and reached out to him and patted his head. I will confess that though he had never hurt any of us, I was afraid for her that moment. I didn’t know how he might react to her, shaken as he was. But he let her pat him awkwardly for a few moments and she relaxed around him. Perhaps he relaxed too. From that day on, she lost her fear of dogs and would pet him happily every now and then, calling his name again and again. Somehow, he had managed to win over someone with decades of fear for dogs.
It’s more than a decade since this memory. And now we have yet another Caesar. Cheechu. This one was brought home one day by my cousin, a tiny little fawn colored pariah dog that has won my mother’s heart the same way his predecessor won her mother’s heart. He’s five years old now, a strapping dog that hates being left alone, that bristles at the mere sight of someone outside our gates, that goes mad with joy when he sees us all. He’s a beauty.
Sitting here in my apartment in the US, I wish for a dog sometimes. If I do get one, I know that it will be a much different experience from the many dogs I have known back home in India. I don’t know the first thing about caring for one, here, alone. Especially without Perumal thatha who could only say Caesar. But dogs once loved leave a very strong imprint behind. Perhaps the H, who has never had a dog (nor wants one, in honesty) and I will get to share this experience in our future someday.