Fair and not-so-fair

There used to be this ad on TV years ago. I don’t remember what it advertised. I remember the last few seconds only.  A  woman, short hair waving in the wind; one toned arm resting on the steering wheel of a convertible as she looks at the camera. She speaks about wanting to get away from it all every now and then and feed her wanderlust. Of course this begs the unasked question “But how safe will you be, a woman all alone driving who-knows-where?” She tosses her head back and smiles as a big, gorgeous dog appears next to her. She slides her free arm around him and asks “I have him”.

As a kid, I loved this ad. Perhaps it advertised a watch, a backpack. Whatever it was, I was certainly not part of their target demographic. But the attitude that the came with it, I drank up. How I liked the idea that a woman could just pack a bag, hop into her car with beautiful dog in tow and just drive off wherever she pleased. All she needs is right there. Heady stuff.  Today? Not so much. Now, the earlier promise is but an echo. Today, all Indian women would shake their heads and dismiss it as fanciful, forgettable, made to fool. But there are no ads on TV like this anymore. Today’s ads show conventionally pretty, if boring-looking young women, lissome and long haired, fair to a fault, dressed in pastel colors with very little hint of unique, peddling fairness creams and make-up products that come with foolproof guarantee that a similarly insipid man’s eye will be caught by this sight of wholesome, demure, pretty-enough-to-attract-but-boring-enough-to-not-intimidate, feminine “beauty”.

An obscene amount of energy is expended the world over, in some parts more than others, to mold women. She is stifled, oppressed, harassed, silenced. Some display this horror with a sort of sadistic pleasure-power, others will not dive, but will daintily step their toes into it and let it color a few unseen facets of their lives. But it happens, every day. Every one of us has noticed this: this hazy but strong line where admiration ends and intimidation begins. There is a critical point beyond which further qualities that the woman herself might prize, are viewed as liabilities that drag her down. Tell me, have you heard at least once in your life variations of this remark “She is too successful/beautiful/smart/ambitious/confident..”

Unfairness and inequality assault my eyes everywhere I look these days. The more I see, the more I am primed for this sort of news. A vicious cycle is born. Women are advised not to drive their cars alone at night, not to dress in “western wear”, not to go to pubs, not to stay back at work, not to live alone in a new city, not to attract too much attention to themselves, to be comforting and never jarring, to be fair and slim and long-haired, to carry on our shoulders every vestige of traditionality known. They are blamed if they are assaulted or molested. We are judged, every single day, by eyes that never stop staring.

Will the day come when I see a confident, olive-skinned woman with tousled hair and no make-up, ignore the pansy imbeciles that inhabit our television screens and walk out on fairness creams and the unfairness they promote? Walk out on mindless traditions and demeaning expectations? It won’t. There’s too much money and too many industries at stake for the former, too many narrow minded people for the latter. This will take a few generations. But will it happen at least in your neighborhood if not your TV screen? Will it happen in your home? Would you let your daughter befriend a woman like that, be inspired by one? Would you approve if your son fell for one of them?

How many women do you know who have been groped, whistled at, followed during a routine commute, made uncomfortable by leering creeps, abused verbally and mentally, shamed, raped? I lived in Bangalore for a while, falling in love with the city, marveling at how this India seems different and new. While returning home one evening, thinking about nothing in particular, I see a biker driving by too close for comfort toward my corner of road. This is not uncommon, you witness all sorts of vehicular acrobatics. This one rides by me, his pillion rider stretches out a lazy arm and touches me as they go by. I am consumed by thoughts of repeatedly washing my arm as I rush home, my skin suddenly dirty and repulsive. Even as I write this, I feel that same anger. And still I know that this is nothing. I don’t know what violation really is. Thank the Gods I don’t.

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Of dads and grace

Last week, the H and I were both miserable with runny noses and itchy throats and all the ickiness that comes with a cold. I felt like a half-drowned kitten for the most part, and he wasn’t much better. Though the memory of a body without pains and aches seemed far far away at the time, as all colds go, so did this one. A morning finally came when we woke up as ourselves. I tend to go overboard in my complaints when I fall sick, which I do rarely (the falling sick part. Obviously).

Later that day, I got to thinking about my dad. My dad has had diabetes for decades now. In fact, he’s had it for all my life. So I grew up watching him not partake of the desserts that lined our tables on special occasions. I also watched him take small portions sometimes. I grew up watching my mum use the smallest amount of oil possible while cooking, watched her make a sugar-less version of everything that was possible to tweak in this manner for him and make full, rich versions for the rest of us, and I grew up eating salads and greens much, much more than the average kid.

All this has helped me enormously with my own food choices and with what the H and I put on our plates every day in our home. What I do not know if I have also imbibed with these habits, is my father’s stoicism. I grew up a happy kid, aware of his diabetes but never knowing or seeing the fear it generates even today amongst others. He didn’t let it adversely affect life more than it had to, and totally shielded us from it. This is a common thread that runs through most of them from his generation, their quiet strength. I have seen it mirrored in the attitudes of beloved aunts and uncles who share this with him too.

I have heard many times, and seen some times, that when you are beset by something unfortunate, whether or not it is of your own doing, most of the time, you will gain a grace that previously you did not possess. I have also seen people crash spectacularly when things didn’t go too well for them. But mostly what I have seen is grace. It is a quiet grace, upon which the weight of weighty matters seems to rest easily.

I read a magazine snippet this morning that left me shaken. The recently elected President Mugabe of Zimbabwe is alleged to have remarked that people who cannot stomach his win, supporters of his opponent, “can commit suicide”. This is a man who will rule over the entire nation, and not simply the people who voted for him. This is a head of a state. Political ideology has become a deeply personal issue. Everything is taken as an offence, an insult, an affront. Everything is personal.

Almost everywhere I look, I hardly see traces of it. Where is grace?

Women and Tradition

Why does the brunt of tradition fall squarely on the shoulders of women? I am fortunate to have been surrounded by strong and compelling women throughout my childhood. But this is sadly still the exception to the norm in India. And lately, I am finding out, even among expatriate Indians.

It is natural that when you leave your country, it becomes dearer to you. I miss my family, the home I grew up in, the city where I worked at, even the plants I tended to. And as it almost always is with memory, I tend to paint mine over with an indulgent brush that removes all harsh edges and sharp corners. I understand why one might try to hold on to these parts of our lives and attempt to recreate them in new lands.

This notwithstanding, I cannot get my head around some things. A woman I know here has been trying to get her husband’s permission, in vain, to cut her hair. Another I know was told she would have to remove the nail paint she’d whimsically painted on her fingers, each one a different shade. She is a girl of 22. A child, in my eyes. She has also been denied the ‘permission’ to change her hairdo. Some men lay down the law in no uncertain terms. This is how things are, this is how I like them, this is how a married Indian woman ought to be. I didn’t think men were this backward, this blatant about backwardness, even in this day.

Today India celebrates her 66th year of independence. I don’t know what we are celebrating. When a man treats a woman this way, and the woman lets him, whom does one lay the accountability on? These instances are just a sample of little injustices that are endemic to Indian society. There are horrors that are wreaked everyday that I doubt I have the stomach to write about.

What disturbs me is my own powerlessness. Aside from talking to people, or venting to the H, I can’t get involved in other people’s marriages, other women’s lives. I have begun to feel the only things we can really do well are these: Be good people, raise kind children free from bigotry and prejudice, and keep our little worlds as ideal as possible. It’s sad to think I can’t change the world, because when I was a child I used to think I could.

Write, for catharsis.

This was told to me in an effort by the founder of my school to enable us to become thoughtful, reflective young adults. Each time I tried writing though, I’d end up with petty reminiscences of an ordinary day, or the typical longings of that time in my life. I didn’t know then what catharsis meant, neither did I have a need for it. I wrote diary entries on many books. A while later, mortified, I would find my thoughts inadequate and find ways to destroy the book. I did this at least three times that I can remember, finally stopping altogether.

Now I am in my later 20’s, I have a husband (will refer to him as the H), I am a happy woman except when I am not. The written word has enticed me for decades now, to seduce me into pouring all of myself into black scribbles on white. Here you will find a glimpse into my life, things I think, marvel, rage about. You will probably find it self-centred, in fact I am almost certain you will. Writing is a selfish act. If you know how to read, you will find that writing reveals more about the writer than what she is writing about.

Ray Bradbury, him of the simplest, clearest writing, says “Just write. Don’t think. Write” He says a lot many other things, but this is the hardest for me. I am not used to writing for consumption, not that there is a riot of people clamouring to consume this, but a girl can dream, you know?