Category Archives: Issues

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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To give or to not.

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? 

 

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.

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.