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.

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.

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?

Thoughts.