Category Archives: Indian-ness

Please, don’t fast for me.

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.

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Bangalore Observations

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.

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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. 

 

 

 

 

Neighbors

This evening we visited a family that has lived here almost as long as we have. It was all quaintly old-fashioned. My dad called them in advance, checked if they are free, mentioned that I am in town, we just want to say hello. My parents have a firm sense of propriety about these things and as a kid, I hated the very idea of visiting someone and making small talk (or watching someone else make it). I  would wriggle out of as many of these as I could, but there were always some visits more important, that required the presence of the entire family. So we’d march out, one sulking kid in tow. Sometimes walking to see neighbors; and sometimes in a car to visit relatives. I was evenly prejudiced against all this.

A couple days ago, my mother mentioned that she would like to see the C’s. I found myself agreeing.This evening at their home, I found that suddenly I was making small talk having a conversation on one of these visits, and I enjoyed myself immensely. Now I see that there is a pleasure to be had in conversing with someone you’ve known since you were born, whom your parents have known since before you were born. It is a comfortable and assured friendship that carries no fuss to it. Such friends do not hold grudges that it’s been more than a few weeks since we’ve talked, or keep any sort of count about such things. They welcomed us into their home with warmth and I finally understood why my parents enjoy this.

We are lucky to have many such neighbors like this, and many more relatives. Last night I was the recipient of another such neighbor’s generosity. I see them take happiness in simply talking to others, and I find myself sharing the same. I have many friends myself, but you begin to discover that you won’t carry them all into your latter twenties, or thirties, and so on. This is a shrinking set of people, and the ones that survive all these decades are the ones that need little explanation, who become friends like the kind my parents have.

I’ve read somewhere that one of the hallmarks of being in your thirties is that you will begin to understand, and empathize with, your parents more. With this evening, I’ve got a head start on this!

 

Women and Traditions; Happy.

It’s not even 5 pm yet and the sun will set soon. The days are shorter, colder, whiter (yes!) and beautiful. Every evening the H stomps his way home, all tall and cold and trailing snow on the carpet. And it doesn’t seem to matter because it’s snow. Christmas is nearing and this time of year reminds me of Eliyamma aunty. Every year, for as long as I can remember, we’ve feasted on her plum cakes. This is a tradition beloved in Kerala, the Christmas plum cake. Rich and crumbly crust, baked a beautiful brown, studded with raisins and nuts and candied peel, these cakes do not contain plum at all but are known by no other name. We’d wait, all of us, for aunty to finish her marathon baking sessions for a taste of the best homemade cake I’ve had.

Last year, she passed her recipe to me when I asked. Mom woke me up so early that morning, and I went groggy, book in hand, to a warm house bustling with activity. There it was in the centre, a big urli, Sanu anna was stirring it gently, mixing the flour. Aunty was calling out instruction after instruction, Pappa walking back and forth, checking, correcting. Julia, Joanna watching TV, as yet unaware of the lovely tradition they were passively witness to, Sibi aunty smiling indulgently at Sanu, making jokes. I sat there for around two hours, watching the lovely alchemy of flour and egg and sugar turning into fragrant cake. The recipe I wrote down then is my most scratched, corrected one. Everyone offered me suggestions and corrections and tips to bake it the ‘perfect’ way. They shared generously, happily.

This is a generosity all women I know share.  Sharing this wisdom earned over years of experience, their own and others’. They pass it on, and I am lucky to know many women who have. My mother taught me everything I know about caring, be it for a person or a home or myself. My aunt taught me what the ‘unconditional’ in unconditional love means. Another aunt taught me by example just how undefeated it is possible to be. Raman aunty taught me music and so much more.

I don’t know if it’s because I am newly married and away from home, but their lessons trigger memories quite often. There are very few days, if at all, where I am not reminded of something my mother says or does, which in turn likely was something her mother used to say. A particular turn of phrase, even a turn of wrist while flipping a dosa in the kitchen. It might be as simple as me being homesick at certain times, but I am sure it is more than that. Every woman is shaped most by the older women in her life. They leave bits and pieces of themselves in her. She collects and stores these carefully, watching them grow and age with her. Their legacy never really goes away, even if it’s source might be forgotten eventually.

Next week, I will begin my own annual tradition at home and use the recipe Eliyamma aunty shared with me.

Deviation.

Too many people in our country have made it their national pastime to point their fingers, roll their eyes, and judge the rest of humanity on the many ways in which they are deviant. Clearly, the people who look down in disgust at the so-called “modern” woman or a gay man or an atheist or anything else that has stoked the national ire, is not part of that demographic themselves. This being established, why does the average joe in India have a problem with somebody else being gay? Why does a “conservative” woman look down on the women who are different from her? Why are atheists targeted as immoral? These people, these armchair judges of our modern world, are not being asked to join any movement or change their sexual orientation (while we are on this topic, let me state: sexual orientation cannot be changed. It is part of your identity, it is not a choice you make) or being asked to renounce their God. Why then do they have an overwhelming need to shove their beliefs down other unsuspecting throats?

I am not gay, and my faith in God is strong and alive everyday. My faith in humanity, on the other hand, dies a little everyday. I wish I could find one person who can sit me down, and calmly state to me his reasons for wanting everyone to be the same. Everyone should believe in the same God, everyone should have the same sexual orientation, everyone should know their place in the social strata and never attempt to change the status quo. Whatever happened to dissent and differences of opinion? Whatever happened to embracing difference?

Today, we reached a new low. When the Supreme Court passes a ruling saying that homosexuality is illegal, that’s when you know that the judicial system has failed us all. When a court declares illegal an activity confined to the private lives of consenting adults, when it remains powerless against the thousands of public ills that plague us everyday but passes judgement on being homosexual, it has taken away the rights of Indians. It bends down for an archaic sensibility that has no place in today’s world.

India is headed toward dangerous times. We are among the most unsafe countries for women. Child labor, child prostitution and trafficking, caste and class discrimination, Dalit oppression, religious and regional and communal discord, rampant corruption, and now this, we keep adding to the malaise that already ails us. None of these issues are being addressed in a manner constructive enough to make a difference. But the list grows. Where will it stop?

No good will come of this.

English

I am sitting at the H’s office while he completes some work, on a Sunday evening. This evening I met a man who has an unusual timbre of voice. I wish I knew what words to use to convey how a voice sounds. I am sure words for this exist, but if I open yet another tab now to figure that out, this post will never be completed. My powers of digression are legendary. Back to the meeting of said man. So many intangible little somethings form our first impressions of people. I dislike squishy handshakes, wishy-washy hello’s, and am always game for a smile and something new. Well, who isn’t? But coming to the topic of this post, non-native speakers of English are judged on their English all the time, all the more vehemently by their own countrymen, and in a twinkly benevolent manner by everyone else. That I find Indians to be the most judgmental people wherever I go is old news to anyone who knows me (or knows Indians!) but this mental note-taking on how good someone’s English is a universal trait, seems to me.

Why?

Because it’s the most common language in the world? I am sure a few wisely chosen statistics could disprove that. Because it is the language of the United States aka the spokesperson of the world? Again, no. The US doesn’t actually have a national language (and why India has a national animal, a national bird, a national language, a national *insert word* (but zero national tolerance) will always confuse me. Does anyone expect a bunch of people to stand straight and together under the unifying emblem of a peacock or to the lilting strains of a song sung in Hindi? If anyone thought that in the innocent days of yore, they surely do not think so today. But I digress again.) Is it because English is the easiest language in the world? Ha. You grinned a bit there, didn’t you? Because it’s got the most extensive vocabulary? No. Because it’s the most rigorous and hence the strongest language to express important ideas in? Hello Latin! Because it’s the oldest? Pshaw. Now I am grasping for straws. But you get my drift surely. Why this obsession about English? (and why God, especially in post-colonialist societies like my own?)

Don’t get me wrong. No one likes a well-crafted sentence in this language as much as I (yes, I exaggerate too). The pleasures of finding the perfect word to nail a thought onto paper (or phone, or onto another thought) is a very, very sweet one. But somewhere along the line, we began to attach a superiority to those who could do this better than others. It is not as prevalent in any other language to this extent. I do not know why but I see its ramifications everywhere, and when I think about it a little, it has always been around, trailing behind all of us like an invisible little cloud.

We’ve most of us (and by us, I mean the English-school-educated-Indians) been to schools where at least one teacher admonished us for speaking in Hindi or God forbid, Tamil (Taaamil. I swear I grind my teeth a tiny bit every time I am subject to listening to a Tamilian say Taaamil instead of Tamizh. It feels like a betrayal of the entire language to me that its native speakers cannot even be bothered to pronounce its very name properly). We’ve all been envious of that kid who could pronounce alas and not say “Alice” while reciting in English class. We’ve all smirked a little but squirmed internally when the portly neighbor aunty visits with a bowl of “salaaad” that she just made. We’ve all wished we could disappear when an uncle says “gah-rej” for garage. Admit it. Never have I seen a single kid subject another to the kind of mental torture that ensues at being caught making a flub in English, in any other language. Mistakes in the native tongues are laughed off with a gay insouciance or worse, they are totally ignored. Like they don’t matter enough to be corrected.

This is not going in the direction of an anti-Western, pro-Dravidian rant about how “aping the West” is “destroying our culture” and “killing the soul of India”. Hell, I believe some of our culture would do well to be destroyed in entirety. It is simply a puzzled wondering on my part, Why did English become so powerful in the worst possible way in India? Whatever happened to realizing it is simply a tool of expression, and that the essence of an idea expressed in a native tongue is no less real than in English?

 

The people who work for us

Everyone from certain sections of Indian society has had domestic help. They scrub floors and wash everything from vessels to curtains to floors to toilets to baby’s bottoms. Countless Indian girls have had their domestic maids check their heads for lice. They throw our trash bags spilling over with diapers and worse daily on their way out. They take with them leftover food that is grudgingly packed in the most disposable of plastic bags, because giving them a container is unheard of. They take home your children’s broken toys, your faded old clothes, that plastic chair no one in your home will sit in, that bag of rice spotted with insects that’s been neglected in your kitchen for ages, those bananas you bought last week and forgot to eat.

I know what some of you are thinking. Surely the Indian middle class isn’t this rotten? What about the rest? Most of us are middle-class, and we give them new clothes for Diwali, don’t we? We give them loans and salary advances, don’t we? We pay part of their childrens school fees, don’t we? Oh yes. We do. But we also do those other things.

Our children use their first names to address domestic help. Forget honorifics, it is not normal or common to see a middle-class family member address or treat domestic help with too much respect. What is this “too much respect”? This is a line I cannot describe to you, but by the time a child reaches a certain age, imbibes a certain awareness; it knows that calling the gardener by his name is okay, but calling the postman is not. Later it learns that calling your neighbors ‘sir’ is okay, but calling a postman this way is not. These things are absorbed into our very skins. Steep in this long enough, and you will never wash it off. And why should you? Everyone around you, everyone you’ve heard of and mingle with, has a similar experience. To be normal, all we really need to do is be like everyone else. Tell me, what could be easier?

I grew up with domestic help too. My family is firmly middle class. Our domestic help, a man and his wife, had been working for us for decades by the time I was born. This man saw my dad as a gangly growing teenager, saw and spoke to my grandad who passed away too, too early, watched my dad grow up, marry my then-shy mother, witness the births of all the children in the family, you get the idea. This is not common, but it happens. Of course it does. So I had the unique experience of being insulated from the all-too-common prejudice that I wrote about earlier. For this unasked-for, unknown-at-the-time blessing, I will always be grateful. By the time I came along, this man and his family were a part of our family. He doesn’t work for us anymore, he’s too old. My dad visits him every month and gives him his “pension” and some food and enquires after him. When he met the H for the first time, he cupped the H’s face in his and told my delighted, if confused husband “You’re dark!” He squinted into the H’s face and shouted in that voice of the nearly deaf, “Take care of her”

This slice of family history is to explain better where I am coming from. By no means is a single person’s experience representative of anything but what it is: a single person’s singular experience. Especially if that person has anything to do with India, it is best to steer clear of generalization. I know my experience is very, very far from the norm.

And what is the “norm”? Every day, there are thousands upon thousands of people who shuffle to other’s homes, leaving their own kitchens unwarmed by food, their own children untended. They clean the entrance of our houses, they paint the customary floor painting, they sweep and mop our floors, clean our bathrooms, walk our kids to school, some cook for us, pick up after us and fill the next few hours doing the countless things that make a home what it is. Things that seem so trivial, so petty when listed singly, but a few days without which all our expensive homes would begin to crack.

This is not a problem endemic to India alone, I know. If you have a population that has “cheap labor”, soon you will have people who cannot throw out their own trash. I worked for a company that employed three thousand people to do this kind of thing in its sprawling campus. It made me ill sometimes to see over-entitled yuppies leave their cafeteria tables littered with food and cups and plates, knowing full well a uniformed worker will clean up after them. These three thousand people saw us, every day, dressed sharply, mannered shabbily, traipsing through the campus, clicking away on our phones, walking amidst them as if they didn’t exist, earning salaries wildly inappropriate to the work we sometimes did (not), traveling abroad, driving cars. Cutting birthday cakes worth more than one day’s wage and smearing it on skin, taking so many photos of such and other mindlessness that no one would see more than once, if that. They were silent witnesses to this kind of waste every single day. What about them? Some of them were no older than us, yet they would never advance in their jobs the way we would. They wouldn’t get a severance package. They don’t get pensions. They don’t get promotions. What do they get? Uniforms. They get used as a tool for the company’s “Sustainability initiatives” or “Community giving” where the corporation pats its own back at hiring thousands of local people.

So many things bother me about how domestic help is treated, but one struck home yesterday. I am in India, enjoying the total luxury that not ironing your clothes entails. Last afternoon a man knocked on our door, I was told by the in-laws this is the person who irons their clothes. I counted and handed over a bag of clothes to him, a short middle aged man, surely with children. He smiled, was so deferent, dipped his head again and again and yess-ed every line I said. It hit me then, how unused I am to being treated this way after being out of India. Unsettling. It feels wrong to me that this person has to bend lower each time and thank me for giving him work, while actually he is the one who is doing me a good turn. Sure, I will pay him for it. But that’s business. You iron. I pay. Why the excess deference? The bowing, the calling me madam? He probably has a daughter my age. The whole thing left me feeling uneasy and not a little sad.

This is my biggest problem with domestic labor: this extra deference. This unasked for, unearned respect for employers that is thoughtlessly given away. In an Indian setting, the added layers of caste, class, religion, skin color and a myriad other ways of separating people contribute to the problem of oppression. Similarly, the otherness of our domestic help spawns another system of difference, a hierarchy that even subsequent generations cannot escape. One group grows up expecting reverence, the other grows up seeing this and are beaten down into doing the same. There is no escape, there is no salvation.

If you employ somebody, do not expect respect from them you have not earned. Give them their due, the due that they have not sacrificed in working for you.