Category Archives: Women

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.

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.

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.

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.