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Women at Work

 

As March draws to a close, I think back on two key women and work-related hashtags that were dominant on my social media feed all month. There was IWD and there was this other rather viral campaign, which used the tags IAmWorking and GettingtoEqual. The latter had the theme of work at its core, and women shared what work meant to them and tagged other women to share their stories. I almost ended up writing about myself on the suggestion of another friend, but then I did not, out of a mix of confusion and laziness. I started thinking about an aspect common to many of the IAmWorking stories. These women were working, but their work was unpaid work, or paid very little. How was it a way of GettingtoEqual, then, and what really was the Equal all about?  Despite the unpaid work posts, there were no housewives claiming the hashtag as fit for their story of work. This caused me not a small level of confusion.

For a vast number of us who have careers or jobs when we marry, marriage leads to, first, the taking on of a double-shift of work – at home and outside – and sooner or later, to dropping out of paid work outside the home to stick with one work domain – the home. The data on leaking pipeline of mid-level women in the workforce is telling in this regard.  We don’t stop working, when we shift domains of work, but the reward system undergoes an abrupt change. 

Clearly, evaluation criteria differ for the work domains of home and outside. And so do the rewards. While almost all adult humans work, it is usually only women who work full-time at home, and even when they work outside their home, they still work many more hours at home than do men. Work in the outside world has far bigger financial worth, and housework (including caregiving, active parenting and childcare) has intangibles like contentment touted as their big reward. While so many changes have come about in how the law looks at marriage, and at women’s property rights, what hasn’t changed is the difference in how the world looks at and rewards two clearly gendered and separate domains of work.

We assume that the answer to this discriminatory situation, this lack of financial empowerment for domestic work and for the women who do the work, is that all women must work outside the home. I was taught to think so, and I teach the same to my daughter. But the fact is, I also see many chinks in this argument, and today I want to call them out loud.

was working full-time, years ago, and seemed to have it all, balancing my marital home and parenthood. And then suddenly, a series of crises made it imperative to make a choice to stay at home. The thing I wonder about is, was it really a choice?  It was a fait accompli that life served up. It wasn’t quite a matter of choosing. It was a matter of coping, with the greater good in mind. It was a choice between a career outside the home and the safety and well-being of my children, if one insists on still seeing it in terms of choice. It meant financial disempowerment was the price for the safety of my children. Is that an equation anyone can ever balance?  When the family kitty shrunk, from a double income to one, was it fair to demand that the children’s father make a provision for putting aside a part of his salary as my ‘allowance’ in addition to household expenses and basics like food, clothes, etc.?

I had thought I was working as an equal. Suddenly, out of the blue, I was not quite equal. I was the one who, when asked by strangers at parties as to what I did, started responding with ‘Nothing.’ As though it could ever be true for anyone! But people did seem to accept my ‘nothing’ as a valid, true descriptor for the nature of my work. Did my work in the home not deserve more? And did I not deserve some financial power for the work of helping build a family and a home, especially since it was my body that gave birth and fed the children of that family? Without money of my own, could I feel even remotely empowered, never mind how much my husband ‘allowed’ me to spend

Does all work count as work only when it performed outside the domestic sphere in the modern world? Has the time come to change the paradigm of work and how we reward it?  Can we imagine treating domestic work as serious work, on par with every other kind of officially recognised work, and as a contributor to the GDP? Could we perhaps create ESOPS like value for such work that could be encashed? Perhaps that would be the way to ensure that all who do such work be seen and counted as real workers, with real jobs.

Perhaps then IAmWorking could be the hashtag housewives would use with as much pride as other workers.

 

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What I Think of When I Think of Kindness

 

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I have been thinking a lot about kindness lately, and I have begun to doubt our sincerity around what we say about being kind. We don’t have any celebrations focused on kindness, the way we celebrate love, romance, heroic deeds, bravery, beauty, wealth, and physical strength. Even when we venerate saints and prophets who are exemplars of kindness- like Jesus, Guru Nanak, Dalai Lama or Ma Anadamayi – we put them on a pedestal and distance their qualities from their and our humanity.

We say we want to be treated with kindness. We seem hurt by meanness. And yet, mostly when we are face to face with selfless, random kindness we don’t accept it at face value. We look for hidden agendas; we doubt. We calculate and measure how much of kindness we may dispense to whom, why and when. We weigh it by the results it might get us, rather than be kind because we feel kind. But what if we played this differently? I was reminded of one such different encounter when a Facebook friend posted pictures of her visit to the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles some days ago. Years ago, I too had visited this area on the slopes of iconic Mount Hollywood, with my son. What had made the outing particularly memorable and special was our taxi driver for the day, and his quality of kindness.

We say we want to be treated with kindness. We seem hurt by meanness. And yet, mostly when we are face to face with selfless, random kindness we don’t accept it at face value.

The cabbie was a sociology graduate from Berkeley, and was driving a cab to pay for his second degree, this time from film school. He shared with us stories of some of his favorite films and plays, and then told us about the script he was working on. By the time he drove us to the Observatory, I knew his life story, and he knew some of ours. His ancestors had been brought to America as slaves and he had grown up poor and abused. He was fifty-two when we met, but he looked thirty something. He was very careful with his health, he said, because he had only himself to care for himself. He ate with care, he meditated, and he spoke with care, he told us. He hoped to marry and have at least one child soon, but if that didn’t happen, he was okay with that too. He was not a science student, but he could hold his own in discussions on astrophysics with my son.

At the observatory, specially because of my son’s passion for astrophysics, he asked us if we wanted more time at this place – more time than we had fixed with him when we hired him to drive us around. We said we would have liked it, but our taxi budget was really already stretched to the limit. We could not afford to pay for waiting time. So a short visit would have to do.

“No, you don’t worry about that. You stay longer. Take your time. I will find a spot of free parking and wait. No extra charge.”

Our cabbie was going to have a siesta in the extra time we took to look around. Since he loved his siesta, he saw no reason to charge us extra. We could stick to our budget and have extra time out. He could keep to a personal routine he enjoyed.

My own experience, again and again, is that in so many places, in so many avatars across the world, people are kind to each other for no apparent reason.

We returned to the cab after a lovely afternoon of explorations and discoveries and shared our photographs with the cabbie. He offered to take a few more at the location we were parked at, with the Hollywood sign in the background. Then we drove off back to LA as the silver sky spangled with advertising balloons turned rose pink above us, and the ocean turned a darker shade of navy blue on the far horizon. Stuck in traffic in LA’s evening rush hour as the cab crawled into the city, our driver wanted to know if we had plans for dinner. He said he was asking because we were passing very close to his neighborhood, and it was dinner time, and if we stopped somewhere for dinner now, he too could make a quick trip home, have his home-made dinner and get back to us to drop us home. Of course he would not charge us for the few extra kms or time this might involve. We did not argue with his logic.

Can we also own up to kindness as easily, as something that is an integral, authentic part of us?

When I share this story, it strikes people as unusual. But my own experience, again and again, is that in so many places, in so many avatars across the world, people are kind to each other for no apparent reason. And yet, we treat kindness as a fluke, and accept meanness, hatred, violence, greed, dishonesty as givens, and look out for them and guard against them.

Can we also own up to kindness as easily, as something that is an integral, authentic part of us? Could we do this not to get kindness in return, or because it will make us popular or well liked, but because for the world to be a kinder place, kindness has to begin with us first.

I do believe it was our cabbie’s choice to be always kind to his own self, to rest when he needed to rest, and to eat when he needed to eat, which also made him pass on kindness to us. All real kindness is an inside job, a gift to our self. When we are full, it spills over and spreads in the world.

(This piece was first published in https://www.shethepeople.tv/tag/outloud-with-kiranjeet)

Why Make the Effort

I am sometimes asked what am I doing with the writing community and the writing sessions, reader events and courses we run. I am asked about the viability of this, about the business model, and plans for the future. A very popular and gifted writer who held a session with us left me
speechless when she asked me, ‘Why work so hard, make all the effort?’ When I take such questions seriously, I falter with my replies. I wonder if I can come up with a good enough reason to stay the course.
I sometimes also feel like a pretender and wonder about the point of any of this, given how wary and shy I am about putting my own work in the public domain. Then there are days like yesterday, that shine a light so clear that all doubts and questions turn transparent vapour.
 
The last session of our short summer writing course stretches late into the night. There is a festive, celebratory mood as one of the participants has arrived at a professional and personal milestone. She has brought wine and chocolate to share. Another participant has got us cupcakes. Someone has brought their child along, as there was no babysitter available. My pet dog is a good babysitter, we discover. I bring out a basket of celebratory chocolates as well, as there is a personal milestone in my family too.
 
We get down to work.
 
After everyone leaves, I look back at the four weeks that have gone by, when stories have emerged from almost nothing into lifetimes of yearning, homecoming, loving and losing. Where I have seen someone move from not writing a full page to seeing stories in every moment and everything. I see the difference it makes when someone recognises the story they want to tell, and have had in them for ever, but had always ignored. I see what happens when we allow each other permission to own our stories and our life experiences, and our dreams and flights of imagination. I see us all hold space for each other, so that our words do not falter, and our sentences stay together.
 
And even though I don’t always find clear answers, for why and how this group makes sense, or the nature of my work, or what it adds up to in the bigger scheme of things, I feel the questions change. I sense dreams waiting to step into the world, eager to be shaped in new forms. I feel the power of speaking up, of writing things out, of sitting back and hearing a story read out loud. I share the lightness which comes when the unsaid and the unheard no longer weighs down your blood and bones. I feel the strength in bonds of friendship and in our coming together in vulnerability and trust. I fall in love once more, and I know love takes work.

The Queen of Jasmine Country

Book Report – March 2019
The Queen Of Jasmine Country: Sharanya Manivannan
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Books that have to do with retellings of things religious or mythological find me resisting them, or reading them with a critical and vary eye. Even if sometimes a book holds my interest initially, it is hardly ever able to retain it for long. But The Queen of Jasmine Country is not quite myth, and it is not quite religious retelling. It is steeped in the religious, and the mythological, but it is also beyond the familiar treatment of myth and religion. It is a book like no other – a book I won’t forget, and one that is far more than a book for me.
I came to know of Andal and her work through the author’s social media posts, and while I was not too interested in a saint-poet of the 9th Century, I was very interested in the way Sharanya wrote abut her, and about the dream that had made the author write a biographical novel about her.
By the time the book came out, I had read and re-read the author’s refreshingly different The High- Priestess Never Marries, and found it to be one of the best lessons in self-reflection. It is also a deep -dive into in surreal, lyrical, magical prose. So it didn’t matter what the story of the new book was, and who it was about, anymore. I simply had to read more of this writer’s work. And I was amply rewarded for my faith.
Written in the first person, The Queen…tells the story of a teenager who, after a mysterious birth and adoption, lives as the beloved daughter of a poet-priest, and is a great devotee of Vishnu, and finally gives up earthly form and life to merge into the deity she adores.
What happens between the beginning and the end of the story, and how the author imagines it to have happened, and how she tells the story to the readers, is what makes the book remarkable. The author makes Andal or Kodhai come alive as everywoman, with wishes and dreams of her own. At the same time, there is something about her that is way more than what the limits and norms of her situation, as framed and decided by others, will allow.
From praying for a good match in marriage, to rejecting marriage to any mortal man, to surrendering completely to the longing for the Supreme Lord, as a carnal, erotic and sensual need, this Kodhai is Meera and Radha to my north Indian mind, but only more real, more relatable and more clear.
The setting, the people, the kings and court, and markets and temples, the rituals and the farms and the towns and the cowherds and the seasons are all there in rich flavors, holding the story, as it moves. I feel Kodhai’s heartbeat in the words of the author, and know her desires, her frustrations. The quality of sensuality and earthiness in Manivannan’s writing goes right to the reader’s bones, and I have had to stop to breathe, to stay with and feel the feelings rather than rush on with the reading. Even though it is a very slim book, I took my time reading and re-reading the lyrical prose, letting it change the texture of those moments for me.
That a young woman so long ago owned her voice and wrote her heart out when it was not the norm for her to be even literate, was surely the gift of divine grace. And it is divine grace that has brought the story to us. Do yourself a favor and allow this beautiful gift to touch you, to seep into your heart.

Why be Limited by Our Blind Spots?

 

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“By God’s Grace, everything is good with us. Everything is fine, we are happy, and touchwood, no issues like that.”

RK’s smile was bursting with pride and relief, and something else indefinable. She rubbed her hands. In glee, or relief, or was it thanksgiving? MV could not say. The impassioned comment was a response to a question MV had asked. A question about marital status. MV had no intention or interest in RK’s marital status, though. They had met for a work related conversation. They didn’t know each other personally or socially. But just a minute ago, RK had raised the matter of MV’s marital status.

“You support these causes with passion and put in so much work. It is very admirable.” The comment was one MV heard often. She took it as a compliment. She thanked RK for the acknowledgement. RK’s was an impressive CV, with global business success and pioneering, groundbreaking initiatives to her credit. MV felt good that such a sassy, smart woman appreciated her own small-scale pioneering endeavors. MV felt especially gratified when women built the sisterhood, when they leaned in.

But RK wasn’t done. “I haven’t heard a mention of a spouse all this time. I am assuming you are single, or divorced? Not that it matters to me. But you seem so free, so unburdened.”

“None of your business” was the response MV almost let out. But then she decided to play RK a little. She had asked for it, really. MV told her that while she was still legally married, the very cordial relationship she and her (un)spouse shared no longer fit the conventional rules of marital engagement. That she believed there were ways and ways to configure domestic arrangements, within or outside the framework of a typical heteronormative marriage, and it should really be no one else’s business except of those really in the thick of the situation. And then, she asked RK the same question.

“I didn’t think any of this was relevant to our conversation or the task we are working on, but since you brought it up, I felt I must take it head-on, and make a few things clear. And then RK, I must also ask you, what is your marital status?”

“By God’s Grace, everything is good with us. Everything is fine, we are happy, and touchwood, no issues like yours. It’s all working well.”

MV was not taken aback at all. That RK had needed to ask the question, framing it the way she did, had already revealed a blind spot.

“By God’s Grace. Really? No Issues like yours? Will you listen to yourself?” MV wasn’t letting this pass.

Surprise lit up RK’s face. Like a searchlight pulling apart a dark night.

MV would not let anyone force-fit her customised, hard-won, unique and rather fine, rather pleasant version of a good life, a good home, into RK’s definitions of lack of grace, lack of happiness, or not ‘working well.’ She had to lean in, push some notions aside.

“Did I say there were issues? Just because mine is a different situation from yours does not make it an ‘issue’. Okay? And what makes you think I do not feel fortunate to have the arrangement I have? Why this narrow imagination of what God’s grace can touch and not touch? My rules work well for me. What didn’t work was trying to fit into others versions of my life, my marriage. And you, of all people, should know better.”

The Wikipedia, describes a blind spot as “an obscuration of the visual field. A particular blind spot known as the physiological blind spot, “blind point”, or punctum caecum in medical literature, is the place in the visual field that lacks light-detecting photoreceptor cells on the optic disc of the retina. Because there are no cells to detect light on the optic disc, the corresponding part of the field of vision is invisible.”

Metaphorically, though, blind spots aren’t a matter of just our physical field of vision, or for motor vehicle drivers alone. Let me bring up a few more examples.

Mr A : “I live alone, so I can’t bring anything to the potluck.”

When I heard this from an adult male, I couldn’t let it pass.

“What does living alone have to do with getting some bit of nashta to this meet-up?” I asked.

Mr A’s face was a perfect composite of coy smile and superior grin.

“You see, you didn’t get me. I am unmarried. And I live alone.”

“Alright, so what is your issue, if you live alone? Thing is, if you are eating at home, you could also bring something for these sessions. We aren’t talking big amounts or complicated dishes.”

The grin had left his face. Silent stupefaction remained. The conversation was interrupted and then moved on to other logistical matters.

As the meeting came to an end, my friend and I walked to the door. Mr S, who was already at the door, smiled at us.

“I love the interesting points you ladies raise. Would love to know more about your thoughts. But tell me, how do you manage to come here, all the way early in the morning?”

“Oh, it is truly no problem with the Metro and all the cab options…”

He wasn’t really asking how we got there, more the fool me. He wanted to know how we managed to get away at all. Even while he and ten other men were also there at the same time as us, on the same Sundays.

“No, no, of course, of course Uber and Metro are fine. I meant, how do you come – I mean, you cook breakfast and lunch early on Sunday, for the family, before you come here? How do you manage that?”

I am sure Mr S was very interested in us. He just couldn’t see us as anything beyond a certain role he had framed in his mind’s eye.

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What are we going to do about these automatic patterns, these blind spots of thought and belief and words?  To add to the biology lesson I shared earlier, “as there are no cells to detect light on a part of the optic disc, the corresponding part of the field of vision is invisible.” Our biology may be a given in this matter. But not so our mental perceptual field. Why must we block the light of open-minded acceptance, of alternate possibilities, in our mental models? How about more inclusive, diversity-spectrum thinking, in place of this or that, black or white categories?

To go back to the physiology of vision, ” although all vertebrates (humans being included) have this blind spot, cephalopod eyes (of which the octopus is an example), though superficially similar, do not. In them, the optic nerve approaches the receptors from behind, so it does not create a break in the retina.” Therefore, cephalopod eyes have complete visual perception of their visual field.

May we all learn to see from the cephalopods then. May we channel our inner octopus. Let that be the new metaphor for perfect vision.  May we build fresh possibilities of connection, instead of rigid, predetermined frames, which box us in isolation and otherness.

This was first published here.

https://www.shethepeople.tv/top-stories/channel-inner-octopus-perfect-vision-kiranjeet-chaturvedi?sfns=mo&fbclid=IwAR2q3QavfBFq3_fyQw4Sja5uQKpwBUKsmb6g8yGQjYpkY3AXrns5Nzh5Ue4

A Fractured Life. February 2019 Book Review

A Fractured Life : Shabnam Samuel. Green Writers Press.

I came to know about this book and its author through Facebook, and what I came to know made me most curious. A Fractured Life is a memoir, and it is an unusual story in so many of the facts. Yet, it is a most relatable and universal story too. It is a woman’s need to tell her story to herself above all, to ‘prove that I exist’ after all the mixed messages her life has been full of.

Shabnam’s is a cross-race and cross religion family, and her story for me is a palimpsest of the lives of all our forbears. We quite often do not know or forget the intermingling and the boxing in that all of our stories and pasts necessarily involve. Reading A Fractured Life reminded me that all of us are looking through a tunnel of limited vision at fragments of our stories, arranged in a vast and ever moving mosaic, quite like the images seen at the far end of a kaleidoscope. A shift in focus, a twist of the wrist, and the image changes, never to be the same again.

Shabnam is the granddaughter of a Russian Revolution refugee and am Indian man from Orissa. They were working – she as a nurse and he as a soldier- for the British Empire in Iraq during WW1. When the war ended the two married and come back to Cuttack to start a new life. The two had little in common except the Christian faith, which made the marriage possible at all. Moving to India, the family found worldly success, and many children were born to the couple.

The Russian refugee’s life as a displaced, alien presence in a land she came to without any connection is described and evoked wonderfully by Shabnam, with her own memories and from her grandmother’s musings. Those parts of the book filled me with wonder.

Shabnam’s mother marries against her parents wishes, and later her’s turns out to be an unhappy marriage. Its breakdown leads to Shabnam’s abandonment by her mother, at age two. Shabnam is brought up by her grandparents. The conflict, the tension between love and loyalty, anger and betrayal falls heavy on the child caught in the middle of it.

The parts of the book dealing with Shabnam’s family background and how it was for her to grow up with her grandparents, and her own state of mind as nobody’s child are what gripped my attention and had me emotionally invested in the story. It is heart rending storytelling, and is written with fearless openness. Shabnam shares her grandfather’s journal to show us his point of view on the matter, and we get to see the situation from different perspectives.

In the later half of the book, when Shabnam is an adult, and then married and when she moves to America with her estranged husband and little son, I felt the richness of views and stories petered out somewhat. But then it is here that the real shift in Shabnam’s life and personality emerge, as she finally finds her own sense of self and can begin to live by her truths, on her own, overcoming a lifetime of fragmented fragility, thwarted dreams and suppressed longings. The book ends on a happy and hopeful note, with a promise by the author to tell more about the current and more recent story of her life in another book, soon.

I am glad Facebook led me to this book and its author. In the simple, stark, at times uneven and rough telling of her own life, in her insights and her heartfelt questions, Shabnam Samuel and her book have made me relook my own life experiences from yet another angle, and discern new patterns.

Beloved Delhi. January 2019 Book Report.

51iw8cfz9fl._sx322_bo12c2042c2032c200_ Speaking Tiger books.

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I grew up in love with Delhi. And I grew up in a family where Urdu was a lived experience. And yet, I knew so little of the past of both Urdu and the city of Delhi- beyond the verses of Ghalib, beyond the common usage in spoken language, beyond the monuments and the modern part of the city, or the kings who ruled here, or the wars that were planned and fought over it. Reading Beloved Delhi (with its English translation of Urdu verses in Roman script) has been a delightful guided tour of discovery.

Saif writes in his Introduction, “I am neither a historian nor an Urdu scholar. But I have grown up around dining-table conversations not only about but also in Urdu Poetry. This book is the culmination of those conversations.” And he asks us to “read it also as a taster’s menu for those who love Urdu, its poetry and cadence, but have little or no access to it.”

I know very little Urdu myself, even though my father had learnt to read and write in the language in his early years. For my paternal grandfather, who ran a dairy business in Lahore, and whose relatives had farming interests in undivided Punjab in pre-partition times, it was very much the language of literature and business. For my maternal grandparents, this was not so, despite their roots too being in undivided Punjab, and despite my great-grandfather being a sort of raja of a small principality comprising Urdu and Punjabi speaking populace. Having pledged allegiance to the British Crown, my maternal ancestors embraced many kinds of cultural and linguistic changes, and become an early version of brown sahibs.
I remember looking at sepia toned photographs of grand-aunts in chenille ghararas, with tiara type hairband on their carefully coiffed hair, holding tennis racquets in one picture, posing with a hunting rifle in another. The photographs were almost all captioned in English, with a smattering of a few words in Gurmukhi on some. And I remember thinking to myself, “these are English princesses from the Arabian Nights’. When I told my mother and her mother what I thought, they told me about the North West Frontier, the connections with Persia and Afghanistan that Sikhs and other Indians had through centuries, and that we had relatives who had lived in and travelled to Basra and Bhagdhaad.
I imagined those long lost relatives speaking in Faarsi, even writing in it, even as I admired my Naana’s perfect cursive hand, and tried to emulate it. I don’t recall if he knew Urdu, but I am sure his father and most certainly his grandfather would have known Urdu and possible Faarsi as well if they had anything to do with the court and government work in their time. Courtly language in North India, till the middle of the nineteenth century was Persian. Urdu was what was the language of the margins at first, of the bazaar, and common people… and then, thanks to the poets and their popularity, it became the language of art and culture and emperors and nobles wrote in it, and were patrons of it. Till the next churning of times, and the shift in fortunes of kings, company, crown, commoners and cultural capital, which made my Naana proficient in English and Hindi as his work languages, and which is how it has continued with his children and their children.

While the idea of Farsi speaking relatives lent a romantic air to my sense of my family and their adventures, it is only in recent years that I have started to discover stories of what happens when languages, cultures, geographies and histories churn in a massive vortex over centuries of comings arrivals, wars, trade, and cultural innovation. Only recently have I begun to notice that we exist in a continuity of ideas put in words by the famous Mughal Delhi poets. For instance, it is in reading this book that I learnt that a much loved Hindi Film ghazal I often hum is not some modern poet’s work but that of Mir Taqi Mir. And so is my personal non-favorite …Patta Patta boota boota, which I never liked in the film, but have found a new fondness for, when read in its original form.

When worlds collide, it isn’t just always terra-firma that rubs together, nor just oceans beds that rise into mountains, and not just river that flow anew or change directions. Languages are born that didn’t exist before, and new art forms give shape to the zeitgeist of the changing times. Urdu or Rekhta is one such creation of the sub-continent, forged and birthed in the flux of the cosmopolitan, multi-national cities, serais and Sufi khwankaahs from the 17th to the 20th Century. As the political and economic nerve-centre of the region, Delhi soon became the place where a lot of Urdu poets worked and earned a name. The flowering of Urdu however, was also the time of the collapse of an era, an ebbing of the tide of all that had made Urdu possible. Saif Mahmood’s brilliantly compiled book captures the story of those times through its telling of the life and work of Mughal Delhi’s eight most popular and well regarded Urdu poets. The book opens with a Foreword by Rakhshanda Jalil, that sets the context for the interplay of poetry and politics in the book. A deeply informative Short History of Delhi’s Urdu follows, written by the master storyteller and historian Sohail Hashmi. In these early pages, the Dilli-wali in me was entranced with the book before I even got to the stories Saif goes on to tell. It has taken me a long time to read the book, and I have already done a second quick scan through of my favorite marked out parts once. I am sure I will be going back and discovering new enchantments again and again, digging about in the old world I didn’t quiet know, and one in which somehow always feels familiar, like being back at home.

In Love with your Body…Truly?

The world used to go on about ‘don’t ask a lady her age’ when I was growing up. These days, I hear this phrase far less. Does it mean that we are more easy with the idea of being/not being a certain age-bracket? Or have we eased up on hiding our age because we are more and more able to look ‘youthful’ for far longer than the generations before us?

When we don’t mind saying we are forty-five, or thirty… is it about our ease with our age, and what it implies for our body, and our physical form, and the place of all that in the scheme of things? Or is it really the knowledge that even at forty-five we can elicit the comment, ‘you don’t look a day older than thirty…?’

Have we truly come to accept ageing and the changes it brings, or it is that we have got better filters than ever, on our cameras and our minds, and therefore find it easier to claim ageing agnosticism? What is it that we have come to terms/not come to terms with? And what is, or isn’t, the issue at hand – being older, or how older woman are thought about by some others in terms of sexual attraction and desirability? Could it be that, we too still acceed to that discourse, despite saying age is just a number? Doth the lady protest too much, then?

Have we truly come to accept ageing and the changes it brings, or it is that we have got better filters than ever, on our cameras and our minds, and therefore find it easier to claim ageing agnosticism?

What were the assumptions underlying the idea that to ask a woman her age was somehow impolite, and that to expect a woman to answer factually was not right? At what age did this rule start applying, and till when was it valid? What was there to hide, really, which necessitated this usage? Was it to be circuitous and seemingly avoiding making calculations of a certain kind, related to a woman’s fertility potential? Was it to avoid the instant judgement of how many years a woman had remained unclaimed on the marriage market? Was it to avoid being instantly slotted as past-the-prime, of no longer being optimum mate material, or of carrying child-bearing potential?

It could have been all of that. And have we really moved on, despite or in spite of IVF and Embryo banks and surrogacy and Botox and body sculpting and honeymoon stitches? Why the insistence of the whole world treating every age the same? I am not the same from one day to the next, so why carry the notion that I must look the same years down the line, forever 21 once I reach a certain age?

Why the insistence of the whole world treating every age the same? I am not the same from one day to the next, so why carry the notion that I must look the same years down the line, forever 21 once I reach a certain age?

What is really being said, when it is said that women of a certain age are ‘invisible’ in the world? Invisible to whom, and to what intent? Is that sort of visibility really something one even desires? Because if it is simply a matter of being noticed and being attracted and liked and appreciated, I can vouch for so many of us having felt visible at every stage of our life, age no bar. But if seek the same male gaze, and treat the desire we prompted at twenty with the desire one evokes at forty, I guess things will be different. But then again, would I  judge my worth, my attraction and desirability, with the yardstick of how much men notice me and acknowledge me as a potential mate at different ages?

What is really being said, when it is said that women of a certain age are ‘invisible’ in the world? Invisible to whom, and to what intent? Is that sort of visibility really something one even desires?

At the ripe old age of fifty, I do not agree with all the noise that is made about the ‘invisibility’ of older women. Simply because I do not look at ‘visibility’ in the same way as is implied in those claims. If a man of fifty wants to date a woman of twenty or thirty or whatever, isn’t that is his choice? I know of men of thirty, wanting to date a woman in her forties or fifties. Obviously, she is visible to them. Indra Nooyi is very much visible now as she was in her younger days, for yet another set of reasons. My daughter’s music guru is past sixty and her professional and personal visibility is global. My visibility since my forties has surpassed anything in my twenties and thirties for various reasons, mainly to do with the way I began to look at myself and my life, than how and where was the focus of the gaze of others. Are we to feel invisible just because a man does not feel attracted to us romantically or drawn to notice us for our looks or the allure of a mate-worthy body? The question for me today (and I regret that it wasn’t always so) is simply this  –  do we really ‘see’ ourselves, and  are our bodies still ‘visible’ to ourselves in ways that are affirming, accepting, and appreciative?

My visibility since my forties has surpassed anything in my twenties and thirties for various reasons, mainly to do with the way I began to look at myself and my life, than how and where was the focus of the gaze of others.

A few days ago I read an article where French author Yann Moix, 50, told a glossy magazine “Come on now, let’s not exaggerate! That’s not possible … too, too old.” He was talking about older women and love. Moix then added that women in their 50s were “invisible” to him. And he didn’t just stop at that. There was more coming.

“I prefer younger women’s bodies…The body of a 25-year-old woman is extraordinary. The body of a woman of 50 is not extraordinary at all.”

Now, those words say many things, but mainly what they tell me is how happy I am to not be a 25-year-old woman on such a man’s radar. This is a fifty-year-old man reducing a woman to just her ‘body’, and passing judgements on women’s bodies like they were some assembly line item of food production. Let us never do the same to ourselves.

Let us not be afraid or ashamed of our age or our bodies, because  it is through them that we live and love.

Age may be a quantity of time, but it is no depreciation chart for the lovability of any body’s ‘extraordinary’ quotient. Love isn’t something transacted in numbers, with quantified measurements. It is our quality of awareness, experiences, learning, loving, and living, which make each moment expand or shrink to nothingness, or stretch into eternity. Let us know and honour the extraordinary in our hearts, in our bodies, at any age. Because we are not someone’s plaything or  specimen for evaluation. Let us not be afraid or ashamed of our age or our bodies, because  it is through them that we live and love. We are invisible at any and every age only to those who have some serious blinkers on. Let us not be blind to ourselves.

(Image courtsey http://beautifuldecay.tumblr.com/post/82197661829/anatomically-correct-body-art-turns-the-human-body)

(This article first appeared as a column on SheThePeople.tv as https://www.shethepeople.tv/top-stories/truly-accept-ageing-changes-brings-kiranjeet-outloud?fbclid=IwAR0V_VV0YJ9LRz0HkW2eQBpgtMEWFyBhnbcxUPLMamdZJ9PuoYffjqNw4kc)

What’s in a Name – Householder or Homemaker? And Who is to Say?

Vanessa wasn’t happy at all about being described as ‘homemaker’ in the byline of an article she wrote. In a profile she sent to the newspaper, she had clearly listed all the things she was – theatre professional, copywriter, and author. Despite that, her byline began, “Homemaker Vanessa writes…”

“What do they mean, HOMEMAKER? What sort of term is that, anyway, to describe anyone? Because I do not have a paid full-time job, outside the home? But I don’t do any of the chores of a so-called ‘homemaker’… Tell me, who isn’t a homemaker? What is so specific to anybody being a homemaker? Is it really a job description? If one is not a homemaker, is one then a home breaker? Bet you, that editor wouldn’t be calling herself a homemaker. Why does she think I can be called a homemaker, and she gets to be called editor? Who is she to decide this for me? And why are all the homemakers only women?”

I pondered over that. Monks and nuns in a monastery or ascetics meditating and meandering in the Himalayas may well say they were not homemakers. For the rest of us, aren’t all of us homemakers? Why then, are some of us labelled with /use the term as a descriptor, and not some others? I have never called myself a homemaker, even while I love few things better than creating and keeping a comfortable, cosy home and a lot of my energy does stay invested in nurturing connections and relationships that centre around my home/ homes. And there must be those who are slotted as homemakers who say ‘domesticity is not their thing.’

I don’t see the term homemaker as a particular, specific enough label, to use it to convey my life-situation or work status. Unemployed sounds more real and precise. Stay-at-home mother is specific enough. As is the term wife. As is householder, which conveys ownership and rights. Homemaker, in comparison, is such a vague category with no clear boundaries and differentiation; a sound bite with no substance. The term ‘householder’, interestingly, comes closest in my mind to the Hindi term gharwala/ gharwali. Does it mean the same thing as homemaker? Can we use the two terms interchangeably? Apparently, not, because the householder was historically the owner of the house or the one who paid the rent. By that logic of ownership/ rightful occupancy following payment of rent, a householder was also the head of the household. The status of homemaker, on the other hand, has no such legal claims or rights.

I don’t see the term homemaker as a particular, specific enough label, to use it to convey my life-situation or work status.

Nor is there any uniformity in the definition of ‘homemaker’ itself, as it plays out in real life. Neither does the term accrue anything positive in terms of social and cultural cachet, leave alone monetary benefits. Would it get the person so described any leeway, say like what happens when it gets known in a public situation that one is a doctor or an investment banker or a teacher or a writer?

If ‘homemaker’ is to be used only for married women who supervise a home’s upkeep, and tend to the care and needs of its members, what does it make the other household members? What does it make my neighbour who is single, works as an air hostess and owns and runs her own home? Householder, or homemaker, or both? Or just a single working person? What of my two single cousins who share a home? One of them works in an office, travels out a lot, and pays most of the recurring household bills, while the other is an artist who works from her home-studio and thus by default takes care of more of the home chores, and pays some of the non-recurring bills as and when her non-regular income allows. If we call them working women, are we ignoring their homemaking role?

If ‘homemaker’ is to be used only for married women who supervise a home’s upkeep, and tend to the care and needs of its members, what does it make the other household members?

I grew up in a home where my father and mother shared household chores in a non-gendered way. Both cooked, baked, gardened, cleaned, did our hair, taught us, helped with homework and school projects, dropped and picked us from school, stitched our clothes, helped each other with their coursework when both of them pursued further professional education while running a household, working at full-time jobs, and bringing up their children. Till his retirement, Daddy had a continuous professional career outside the home, but Mummy sometimes did not work outside the home. Did that make Dad the lesser homemaker, even though he was the one who best handled any home-maintenance issue, staff issue, party planning, cooking disaster or emotional breakdown? Did it make Mummy less of a homemaker that she was more passionate about political theory than about the different kind of bhaghaar for different dals, had anxiety attacks before and after hosting each party that their social situation demanded, and could not be bothered shopping for the best bargains for home-decor? Now, retired and mostly at home, would you call both of them homemakers, given how they both tend to their home and to each other, and to those they are connected to? But would calling them homemakers now be the truth about their primary identity?

Daddy had a continuous professional career outside the home, but Mummy sometimes did not work outside the home. Did that make Dad the lesser homemaker, even though he was the one who best handled any home-maintenance issue, staff issue, party planning, cooking disaster or emotional breakdown?

When I really start to think about it, ‘homemaker’ seems to be an empty euphemism for a default condition. A convoluted term with limited attributes, assigned rather thoughtlessly in an arbitrary manner. I am glad Vanessa made me relook this societal and personal frame of confusion.

Reclaim Your Life. Book Report

December 2018 Book Report.

Reclaim Your Life. Shelja Sen. Westland Books
#mentalhealth #depression #anxiety #narrativetherapy #mindfulness#nostigmanoshame

Closing another year of posting about books that have made me learn, grow and live. In this series of monthly posts I almost always write about books which have left a lasting impact on me, are meaningful personally, and are therefore books that I will go back to again and again.
Reclaim Your Life is definitely one such book. It is my good fortune that I also happen to know the psychologist- therapist-author Shelja Sen and her work at Children First through my two children. But that connection apart, this is a book that stands on its own merit, and is a refreshing mix of the personal and the professional in talking about mental health issues. Specifically, the book is about looking at depression, anxiety and other related matters with the belief in personal agency, and potential for change inherent in all of us. It is also a book very much aimed at ‘normalising’ the fact that that people with mental health difficulties are faced with a particular set of disability, but that their life is not just the disability. To thrive and cope well, their difficulties needs acceptance, not silence and shame, and they need coping skills rather than stigma. I would also say that this book would be great read for those caring for loved ones with diagnosed, labelled difficulties, but falling in the ‘normal’ category themselves. Because these difficulties lie outside what is accepted as the typical way to be, they are difficulties not just for the one with the issue, but also for those they are in relationships with, and frequent contact with. So as much as it is a guide for the person with anxiety, depression and so on, it is also a manual for those not diagnosed but still affected by these issues by proximity and emotional labour.
Using her grounding in Narrative Therapy, Situation Focused Brief Therapy and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness and loving-kindness Shelja Sen shows us what is meant by the principle “The person is not the problem, the problem is the problem”. With this kind of an empowering and positive lens, she has structured the book into seven sections of Lightposts of COURAGE, which is her acronym for the tools and means of coping which are expanded on in specific chapters.
The author argues her case with the help of her own lived experience with depression and with the stories of her clients. Throughout the book she affirms her unalloyed hope and acceptance of the magic possible despite the dark and painful destructive episodes that visit each life, some more devastatingly than others. She offers many practical and simple ways to practice reclaiming one’s life, be it Owning your Light or Change the Channel or tuning out the Radio of Negativity and switching to the Mindful Brain, for example. She shares the progress and triumph of her clients and her own successful negotiations with anxiety and depression.
While it tells us about the horror of abuse, of depression and the disability it brings on, of anorexia and grief and guilt, it also shows us that it was possible to come through those and heal, with the right kind of interventions. The book is free from heavy jargon and impersonal labels and expert-speak. The accounts feel personal and compassionate, are imbued with care and dignity, and therefore all the more appreciable and believable. The simplistic acronym-making and light bantering tone of the book also helps make a heavy, little known and disturbing topic accessible and easier to come to grips with. Above all, Shelja’s personal experience as part of the story makes the powerful point that while we are all – in varying degrees- less than perfect, we are all deserving of life’s richness and beauty, and capable of reclaiming our lives, re-scripting our stories, no matter what.
Do yourself and your friends and family the good deed of adding this book to the Christmas hampers. This is a gift of love.

Champagne & Caviar Woman

I’d say I am that woman. Not literally though. I don’t even like caviar. But it is the symbolism of the idea that I like. I think it gives an irrepressible bohemian tinge to my commitment to self-care. Today, when Gunjan Pant, a writer friend posed a question to her readers, I was reminded of the time I first thought of myself like this. Did we manage with mismatched leftovers for a meal if we didn’t have someone else to cook for, Gunjan wrote and wondered. Were we bread and sambar women, putting ourselves last, essentially, in catering to the needs and preferences of everyone else in our care? I was travelling on a much longed for, much planned for family holiday. We had already lost a week’s booking in Spain because of Visa delays. Those were high-pressure times for us. My son was almost nine years old, and my daughter almost two. I had a full-time job during the weekdays, and carried home lots of office work. I was chronically sleep deprived. I’d leave home before 8 am and reach back around 8 pm. After dinner, I’d clear the kitchen, prepare for next morning’s breakfast and tiffins, then get back to dealing with office work, before turning in for the night. I was struggling to keep everything in control, and was on edge all the time, because nothing would stay in control the way I wanted it to.

I was struggling to keep everything in control, and was on edge all the time, because nothing would stay in control the way I wanted it to.

I was a kind of superwoman wannabe, most concerned that my house be picture-perfect, my children be fed the most balanced meals, and their time be spent in the best-planned manner with the right kind of activities, interactions, stimulation, rest and recreation. My husband who had as busy an office schedule as mine, would somehow just slip into the relax-at-home mode once he entered the house. How he absolved himself of most ‘domestic’ chores by some automatic inherent programming, while managing to also gain a reputation for always ‘helping’ is one of the great mysteries to which I no doubt subconsciously contributed. We had only part-time house help and a part-time Nanny for the children. I wanted to relax, and yet felt guilty about the tiniest of self-indulgence.

How he absolved himself of most ‘domestic’ chores by some automatic inherent programming, while managing to also gain a reputation for always ‘helping’ is one of the great mysteries to which I no doubt subconsciously contributed.

Inside the airplane, the first in-flight meal service had started. Baby girl was in my lap, our meal aprons were in place, the tray table was open, and the pasta smelled delicious. My son sat separately from us, wanting very much to be a big boy travelling on his own. I lifted the spoon to baby girl’s mouth, and she simultaneously lifted the tray table up and slipped off my lap. As the pasta arrabbiata fell on her shoes, my lap, and on the plane floor, I tried to stop tears of helpless rage. Baby girl was howling and struggling to get away from the mess, but I was immobile. There go my grand holiday plans, and how the other passengers must hate us, I thought. That’s when the tall blonde senior air hostess saved me from myself. She picked baby girl up, and gently offered me a wet towel to clean my dress with. Then she told me to drop my soiled apron next to the seat, and she led me to the washroom, while she took baby girl off to the pantry area. Strangely, baby girl had stopped howling by now. When I returned to my seat, the air hostess was waiting next to my now spotless seat. “It is my job to make sure you enjoy your holiday, Madame. Stop worrying. Have a glass of Champagne. With caviar. Your daughter is enjoying her meal with the cabin crew. Then she will watch a film with her brother.” She held out a champagne flute for me, and pointed to a bottle of authentic French bubbly. The holiday had begun. This post was first published on my new monthly column OutLoud With Kiranjeet, in SheThePeople.Tv on 13th November 2018. https://www.shethepeople.tv/top-stories/startedair-hostess-offered-champagne-caviar?fbclid=IwAR0VkRJOSxLrjYd701e8idKttFiIkuGniVANq-hW6w295eeNOLl-nxdzNHE

September 2018 Book Report : Island of A Thousand Mirrors By Nayomi Munaweera

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Nayomi Munaweera is the author of two books. The first, Island Of A Thousand Mirrors, won the Commonwealth Book Prize for the Asian Region in 2013.
In this book, the story builds around the lives of a Sinhala and a Tamil girl in Sri Lanka, growing up in the shadow of simmering societal strife that soon turns to a bloody civil war. I was a school girl when news of the war in Sri Lanka used to be on newspaper front pages in India, but it was still always a far away matter, at least in our circles. Today, among most people I know Sri Lanka is a cool, more-affordable-than-other exotic location for a holiday. But apart from the holiday pictures of friends and family, and very cursory reading of some fiction and non-fiction about our neighbour, I was pretty much tuned out of any realistic contemporary story about the place and its people. After reading this book, I can never think of Sri Lanka just as a tourist paradise or a shopping destination. As I reader I relish Nayomi’s exquisite descriptions of Sri Lanka- the verdant beauty, the rich sights and smells of a Sri Lankan home, the delightful ocean. But now I can see it as much more than a stunning backdrop for holiday pictures. I can see it as a real place with people whose lives I can imagine – to the extent one can imagine reality from fiction.
Reading about the politics of war, even politics sans overt war tires me and enrages me, and I avoid books with such themes. But Nayomi’s book is not like that. There are no big heroes and no very specific villains in her telling of the story and no complex plot lines to tie up. She leaves the politicians and the war lords and their specific machinations mostly at the periphery of the telling of her tale. We meet the foot soldiers, the mobs, the ordinary man turned hero, the ordinary village girl turned suicide bomber, and we see them as humans in search of meaning, driven by love at times, and hate and revenge at others. Stark in-your-face brutal violence never leaves the reader for long in this book, and neither does a sense of beauty. We see the play of old prejudice, stereotypes and we see how they can be overcome or fed, even in the same people.
I am no longer the school girl who didn’t look beyond the headlines, and now I relate to the horrors of war anywhere as if it could be happening to us, to me and to my loved ones. I read about Yashodhara and Saraswathi and Shiva in the book, but I imagine many others… in Kashmir, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nagaland, Manipur, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, on all sides of the conflict, in every such conflict. I read about a family leaving their war-torn homeland, and settling into new lives abroad, and I think of the displaced everywhere, and their stories. In so many big and small ways, at so many levels, this book speaks of our times and our world, and about the universal nature of human pain and human redemption.
I would count this as one of the most necessary books on our times in my fiction collection.

AUGUST 2018 BOOK REPORT

I have been writing and reading a lot of women focused work the past two months. My essay on a related theme has been published in the WE Anthology Equiverse Space this month. I have been explaining a lot of stuff to my daughter about hidden bias and the erasing that women face in reporting on news and in documentation of our lives and times. This is also the time I have started work with a small group of women on exploring our deepest selves as beings, sans, societal roles and frameworks.

Most apt then that I also read Shaili Chopra and Meghna Pant’s Feminist Rani (Penguin 2018) at this point, just after I finished Interrogating Motherhood by Jasodhara Bagchi ( Sage Publications, 2017; Theorising Feminism series). Feminist Rani is a collection of fourteen essays based on interviews with fourteen remarkable and often time pioneering persons from many walks of life. Most are well known names, a few somewhat less known. While I do think it is arguable if they are, as the cover tag line says, ‘India’s most powerful voices of Gender Equality’, it is no argument at all that these are vital voices that need to be documented. These are stories that need to be household talk in our homes, in our friends; circles, if we want to see a better dawn for all genders and gender relations.
The fourteen life stories come from Kalki Koechlin, Gurmeher Kaur, Sapna Bhavnani, Aditi Mittal, Tanmay Bhatt, Deepa Malik, Malishka Mendonsa, Ankhi Das, Aarefa Johari, Rohini Shirke, Rana Ayyub, Sorabh Pant, Shree Guari Sawant. Some of the pieces are written by Shaili, some by Meghna. The essays in the Prologue and Introduction by the two authors are also very direct, personal and jargon free. Overall the book is immensely readable, relatable and relevant. It brings the often times vexed topic of Feminism into the day to day discourse of life, and takes a very necessary pluralistic editorial approach to the matter. Reminiscent of Roxanne Gay calling herself a ‘bad feminist’, Meghna Pant’s writes, “India’s inherent heterogeneity has led to multiple patriarchies, which has led to multiple feminisms. Feminism in India does not abide by a singular narrative, which leads to dissension within ranks and outside. This weakens the movement. Even if my feminism is not your feminism, it is still feminism. We are united by a singular cause’.
The subjects tell their stories, and there are a series of common themed questions they authors ask them, and weave into the narrative. There are some revelations, some epiphanies and a lot to make the reader pause and ponder. The stories – honest, varied and memorable, will stay with you long after the slim and fast reading book is back in the shelf. As you read about how the fourteen people in the book resurrected themselves, found and spoke their truth, I hope you too will find in yourself a Feminist Rani, whatever be your gender. As Shaili Chopra says in the Introduction, “This book is a rich and powerful source of experiences and stories by people not afraid to be different, to voice an opinion, question current beliefs, and posit a new, more inclusive future. Regardless of their gender, complexion and sexual preferences, these people believe in equality of all. For them, feminism isn’t a poster on the wall, it is an unseen, empowering belief and force.’
And then, if like me, you want something more grounded in academic rigor, theory and history, there is Interrogating Motherhood. This slim and richly packed volume unpacks the complex construction of the modern day Mother archetype in India in the context of our past, Hindu mythology, social structure, colonialism and the Nationalist struggle, and does all this with the lens of Feminism as a global movement refracted locally. As Series Editor Maithreyi Krishnaraj puts it, ‘Bagchi’s contribution is an admirable approach on the joys of motherhood as against the agony of motherhood embedded in social structures. …A puzzle in the social construction of motherhood is the contradictory delineation: veneration in the one hand, and on the other hand, deprivation of actual living mothers of enabling conditions that would reward their dedicated service in bringing forth the regeneration of the human being.’ This is a puzzle and a paradox at the heart of my examination of my gender and its place and enactment in society, family, home and my own psyche, and this is reason enough for me to recommend the book as a must read.

Solo. Slower. Inward.

I travel slower, I travel inward. When I travel solo.
 
 
Yesterday a journalist messaged me to ask if I would speak to her about my experience as a solo woman traveller, and also share contacts of other woman who travelled solo. She was interested in Gurgaon residents only for the piece. It was fun reliving some of my experiences in talking to her, though I am sure she would have liked some more sensational or sound byte friendly stories than what I could offer. I also realised that so few of the people I know actually go solo when they travel. Women or men.
 
My solo travel experiences have been the mellow and miraculous type, by and large; never very newsworthy in clickbait manner. Also, the whole issue of ‘woman’ and ‘safety’ has not connected in my mind in a big way in this context. Touchwood. Actually I haven’t felt any different or been faced with situations too different on my solo travels than what we go through as a family, when we travel. In fact, overall, solo travel is far easier and simpler, for the sort of person I am.
 
I know some of you are going to say I must be super protected and super privileged or super blind to be able to say something like this. Maybe, Maybe not. All I know is that I have been super lucky to be travelling solo and to have the kind of experiences I have had.
 
Not that I don’t notice how my existence as a solo woman traveler in places where clearly I have no ‘work’, evokes certain questions, concerns and behaviours from others. But they are not my business to be bothered with. At best, I am amused or touched by the concern shown; at worst I put it down to just how the world is, and carry on.
 
Though I travelled solo for work for years, the almost agenda-less personal voyages of my more recent past have been the real deal, by way of a vital rite of passage to being my own person. I believe that travelling solo, to a more or less unfamiliar place, with a very open-ended program, a very rough itinerary and some loose ends, without a work agenda, minus a visiting so and so plan as the central purpose, is a wonderful way to get to know yourself. It can be transformational in the most pleasant, memorable and lasting of ways. I say this for both men and women.
 
When I was young I travelled with an outward focus. It was so much about the place I went to, the people I met, the things I did. Now, while all that is still of course part of the picture, I travel slower, and inward. It helps that being older I am more at ease with the novelties I might encounter. I have less at stake in being a certain way, in presenting a certain front or holding on to an image of who I am.
 
Not surprisingly, the journalist who messaged me was someone I met on a recent solo sojourn in the hills. She had been sent on assignment to the local bureau of her paper. I was breaking a long journey with a stop-over. We met and talked over lunch with the BnB host family, and she took down my name, saying she was interested in a few things that I was doing. Two months later she gets in touch again – she has this story to write and she remembers me, the solo woman traveller she met. She tells me that on that same assignment soon after we met, she too went on her first solo trek. A certain story lead had not worked out, so she had time on her hand, and the trail beckoned. She says a local tea-stall owner told her she was so bahadur to do this. I tell her how a sister-in-law called me Jhansi ki Rani for taking off alone into parts unknown, on my own. We agree there is nothing brave or warlike in this. And yet, we realise, as we talk, that this – you are so bahadur, you are such a Jhansi Ki Rani- is just the sort of thing so many will think is needed, when they think of venturing out as they are.

July 2018 Book Report

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Love And Marriage In Mumbai- Elizabeth Flock
 
This book had me intrigued. Its coverage in the press had me waiting to lay my hands on it. But having started reading it, I almost didn’t want to finish it, and almost gave up on writing this report. But then, a disappointing, baffling book too needs talking about. Maybe someone else has a different point of view, and will share that in response.
 
This book a hard one to classify. It is reportage, it is creative non-fiction, it is sociology, anthropology and ethnography, and all round confusion. Probably inevitable, given that the topic it covers is in the throes of some of its greatest upheavals and confusions. On top of that, it is written by an American, for whom Mumbai and India are new territory.
 
Elizabeth Flock comes to Mumbai, just out of college, and is fascinated by the filmy, ritualistic, larger than life notions of love and marriage she encounters. She wonders if there is something new and deep that Indian marriages and Indian couples in love can teach her. She is looking for such perspective in the shadow of her parents’ multiple marriages and divorces. And she has a book idea. About the kind of book she feels no one has written about India, about Mumbai. She decides to write that book.
 
Mumbai and its middle class are caught in economic and socio-political transformations. Middle class marriages seem to be going through tectonic shifts. It takes her almost ten years of repeated visits, months of being immersed in the lives and homes of her three case studies, and hundreds of hours of interviews and observation, to create this book. In the process she realizes that the impressions she first formed about love and marriage did not stay the same over time. This book is her deep deep dive into what happened to three couples through that period, and even before they became couples. There is plenty of show, and some tell, about their lives. But there is little else.
 
In the story of Maya and Veer’s surreal love affair and runaway marriage one sees a desperate grabbing for the fantasies of Bollywood. In their arriving at some sort of peace after experimenting with an ‘open’ marriage does one see pragmatism, or fatalistic resignation? Is Shahzad and Sabeena’s arranged marriage (and later issues with infertility, and a crisis of the man’s sense of self) the more typical case, closer to the reality of millions, and not just in their particular sect of Muslims, but almost all Indians? Ashok and Parvati are well-educated, professional, urban upper middle class Tamil Brahmins who get married through a matrimonial portal. Parvati is haunted by the memories of her Christian boyfriend. Ashok has never quite been able to hold on to a girl friend, and has a broken engagement behind him. Both understand that marriage is something that takes work, and that love is not always the best beginning for it.
 
The book opens with great promise, and feels unique and refreshing. But as the couple’s marriages grow and change, the narrative seems to drag, and get repetitive. The excruciating details and stretched out sequence of things tends to get boring, rather than interesting. I felt much irritation at typical ‘firangi’ mistakes in writing about India. Sharp and careful editing should have taken care to remove those bloopers. Also, Suketa Mehta’s claim on the cover that it is “Easily the most intimate account of India that I’ve read…” makes me wonder about how little he really reads about India, if at all.
 
All in all, the inside picture of love and marriage in the life of three Mumbai couples, as written up by Flock, is likely to fascinate Westerners. As an Indian having had my share of the laddo of marriage, and heard hundreds of inside stories of friends, relatives and strangers on the matter, I was left wondering as to the point of the book.

Book Report: May 2018

I am two weeks late, by my own rules, for the monthly book report for May. The first and only time I am allowed to do this. (Promise to self).

Knot for Keeps – Writing the Modern Marriage. Edited by Sathya Saran

Any attempt to dissect and discuss marriage is bound to be mired in complications, contrasting viewpoints, and dollops of hope and despair. Pretty much like the thing itself, it can follow no simple trajectory or denouement except a clear beginning and an uncertain end. So this book is an ambitious project in every way.
It gets sixteen writers together within its well designed, prettily packaged and bound pages, offering readers different perspective and stories on marriage. In that diversity of approaches, content and concerns, readers can find plenty of information and insights, and possibly a connection to their own unique situation vis a vis the idea and practice of marriage.
The stories, essays and a lone poem together offer a general overview of the modern state of marriage, and at times the telling is refreshingly at variance from the more popular presentation of coupledom in entertainment and art.
Sharanya Manivannan leads us into the book with a stellar essay that both questions marriage and posits the singledom as a state of arrival. Most poignant, incisive and deeply personal, this piece asks us to reconsider the idea of pairing as the default adult mode of existence. As she says, ‘…the first thing I must tell anyone about finding a meaningful paradigm for an unpartnered life : It is possible’ …..’Consider the absurdity of the term ‘pre- marital sex’. What is that except the presumption that sex before marriage is out of the norm because marriage is an eventuality?’
The book ends with an assessment by Vijay Nagaswami, of the nature of the recently emergent New Indian Marriage and its participants, the New Indians. Based oh his work with couples he holds out hope of a uniquely Indian response to the changing contours of individual expectations in the evolution of marriage.
In between the challenge posed to inevitable partnering in the first chapter and the hope held out in the last for an evolution to a better form of marital bliss, there are varying shades of marriage stories shared.
Milan Vohra‘s recounting of a husband and wife’s breathless, racing complaints against each other entrances us into their love story, only to leave us achingly heartbroken in the end. This story captures beautifully the ‘gusse mein bhi pyaar’ notion in its most positive expression, in my view.
Krishna Shastri Devulapalli and Chitra Viraraghavan offer us fictional glimpses of marriages navigating infidelity and incompatibility, but the absurd games of one-upmanship the stories move through are not too far fetched for many a real real life marriage as well.
Neha Dixit’s piece on the rigmarole and harassment that goes with a ‘court marriage’, specially in the case of ‘love’ marriages of interfaith and intercaste couples, is something Hindi films never show.
Abha Iyengar writes with searing pain about the lot of a girl of a certain age in our culture, where her marriage is deemed more important than her selfhood.
Further heartbreak, as also warmth awaits us in the real life story of a married couple living with the foreknowledge of death of one partner, cherishing each other and their time together. (Rita Mukherjee wrote this piece and did not live to see the book in print).
On the other hand, Noor Zaheer’s piece lays bare the inherent biases and blocks to the dissolution of the most prioritised and protected of social and religious institution – that of marriage – across cultures and political systems even today, with her focus in particular on the struggles of Muslim women.
Wendell Rodrick’s touching personal essay on same sex couples being forced to the margins of love and legitimacy is another pointer to the long march ahead in the transformation of marriage towards something more just, equitable and in keeping with the progressive individualistic values of the modern world.
Not all is serious gloom and doom though, in a collection as varied as this. There are essays on the imperfect pairing of a chhottoo and lamboo as the Hindi term goes, the winning over of relatives and their prejudices in a Bengal-Punjab pairing, and the choice of marrying late and finding it surprising suitable and enjoyable, after being opposed to the idea of marriage for years. There is the heartening story of Aparna Sen’s marriage to Kalyan Ray as told by the husband – a long distance second marriage for both, of over two decades, across continents.
On balance, this is a book for keeps, for reading in small doses and large, as mood dictates, and thinking over, as your married or not married life throws curve balls at you. I wonder if the absence of a divorced or widowed contributor was a choice or an oversight. After all, what the once married and now single have to say about the modern marriage is also an important reflection on the subject.

New Office and Some News

It was at a casual lunch on a Sunday five years ago that Rajat Batra surprised and honoured me, by inviting me to the governing board of his fledgling Not For Profit, STENUM Asia. I have always been keen on Renewable energy and a cleaner world but I am not a professional Environmental scientist. To be asked to serve on the board of a pure science consulting group along with hard core scientists and engineers was something entirely novel.

Over the years I have watched as Rajat, Sanjiv Bhatia and the rest of the board, and our small but immensely talented and dedicated staff built that dream from a couple of small projects to a world class consultancy that is respected and looked up to as an expert its specialised field. Along the way I have learnt and grown as a person just being in their company. My grey cells have new ideas to chew on, with every meeting I attend. the beginnings were small, and pretty much like any start up, we didn’t have resources for the extras like a proper office at all, and then we graduated to a basic kind of a place. We hoped one day to be able to make it to a workplace which felt better in material terms too. 


It has finally happened, I am delighted to record. Last month we shifted into a new office, but I was out of town, and missed the inaugural party. Today was the first time I attended a meeting in our newly settled, cleverly designed office. As a resource and energy efficiency consultant committed to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, we have tried to be the change we help bring in the world. Be it in our sensitivity towards use of electricity, use of natural light or keeping ambient greenery in view, and minimising use of embodied energy in materials used, or mindfulness towards reuse, recycle and reduce principles. 


The rope hung, adjustable height foldable worktops are designed by another friend and well wisher of the founders who is also a leading product designer. The exposed brick partitions are low cost and extremely pleasing to the eye, and bring an ageless charm to the space. And most of this beauty, ergonomic efficiency and comfort in a rental space can easily move with us, if and when things come to that. And it didn’t cost a bomb at all. 


This new office is also where we officially launched the business entity we have been planning to branch out into. With SUSTENT consulting Private Ltd. we now offer all the expertise of STENUM to the B2B commercial segment as well, in areas of energy audits, clean production and resource efficiency.

As always, we help keep your enterprise and our world healthy, wealthy and green.

Conde Nast features us as in its Secret Homestays series.

https://www.cntraveller.in/story/whos-up-for-fresh-mountain-air-and-birdsong-at-this-uttarakhand-homestay/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=CNTIndia-SocialShareConversions&utm_content=42B0BBAE-2803-414E-C144-5435079B0BC0

 

Who’s up for fresh mountain air and birdsong at this Uttarakhand homestay?

Birdsong & Beyond is off the beaten track and ideal for a secluded holiday

Birdsonglead

It is the view you notice first. The horizon awash with myriad hues of the afternoon sun interjected by steep snow-capped mountains. The crisp breeze, chirping birds, verdant greens, and wildflowers have you next, and before you know the fatigue of hours of travel has dissipated in the fresh mountain air. We’re at the very serene Birdsong & Beyond in Uttarakhand, run by the organic farmer and writer Kiran Chaturvedi.

About the homestay

Birdsong & Beyond stands inconspicuously in a small settlement of mountain homes in the rugged hills of the Himalayas. It is off the tourist trail, in a little village in the Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, known mostly as the birth place of the Chipko movement.

Surrounded by hills and jungles, the house is a mix of traditional architecture and contemporary décor. Spread over two floors, five bedrooms, a hall, a balcony and a terrace, the space is personal, comfortable, modern, and yet retains the rustic charm of a hill cottage. Here, you’ll see owner Kiran Chaturvedi’s personal touch everywhere—think cozy rugs and cushions, classics and novels, board games and art supplies and comfy chairs you can sink into.

At Birdsong & Beyond in the Himalayas

The slanting rays of the morning sun illuminate every corner of this wood cabin; every room has huge windows that overlook the sun, the sky, and the hills. The ranges of Badrinath, Mansa Devi, Trishul, and Pindari, stand right across the meadow in the front yard. Endless birdsongs, crystal clear air, rustling forests, and glistening stars makes Birdsong & Beyond nothing short of a storybook escapade.

About the owner

Birdsong & Beyond is the culmination of a lifelong dream of sociologist, writer, and organic farmer, Kiran Chaturvedi. “Birdsong is your quintessential cabin in the hills that so many of us have grown up dreaming of.” Kiran tells us over a cup of coffee. “We are completely off the tourist trail and only a few like-minded wanderers looking for an offbeat location manage to find us,” she adds. Looking at her pine wood cabin with sun-kissed terrace, organic kitchen garden, and fully stocked pantry one cannot but agree with her.

Photo: Birdsong & Beyond

Food

The homestay offers fresh home-made meals prepared in-house using local ingredients. Most of the produce is sourced from the kitchen garden at Birdsong and adjoining farms. Mandua, or black millet, ferns and nettles, and local lentils like rajma, bhat ki daal are some ingredients used to create the simple yet satisfying spread. The specialty however is the mutton curry made by Jagat, the caretaker, with his secret sauce and spice mix, and the bhang-jeera, (cannabis seed) chutney with fern fritters. But of course if you prefer your eggs on toast, the kitchen is open to you to cook, only you may have to carry your own bread, for the supply comes only when the truck driver wants it to.

How to spend 48 hours around Birdsong & Beyond

“The best way to spend time at Birdsong is by doing nothing,” Kiran tells me. Watching the sky with the glistening snowcapped peaks, listening to the birds, exploring the tiny village is work enough, we think. But, given the strategic location of the home stay, there is much you can do and see from here.

The shorter, half-day trails include picnics to nearby places like the Valli village temple, and the Dukhtamba Devi trek. Sunsets are beautiful at Duthkhambha. The trek takes about an hour to leisurely walk up with stops and forty minutes or less to walk down. You can reach Valli with a 3kms drive from the homestay or alternatively a 1km walk on stone steps through terrace fields downhill.

The Nagnath Forest and a visit to Mohankhal Forest Department for an introduction to the rangers’ work is another fine option. You can chat with the ranger and his guards during a guided tour that includes explanations about the surrounding flora and fauna as well as a few animal sightings, if you’re lucky.

Go camping close by. Photo: Birdsong & Beyond

The choices for day long trips include a visit to the region’s highest peak Kartikswamy, home to the only Kartik temple in north India—uniquely situated on the peak of a cliff at over 10,000 feet—it is an experience of a lifetime. Driving down riverside to Mandakini for a picnic on its bank and the views of Kedarnath range, or into Chandnikhal village to check out old carved wooden homes and ancient stone temples are great options too. The place also serves as a base for camping at the meadows of Chopta and the peaks of Tunganath and Chandrashila, the Alpine lake at Devariyatal, Badrinath and Kedarnath. While you can eat at the many dhabas along the way that serve Maggi, buns, paranthas and tea, the homestay can pack a meal that includes parantha, sandwich, boiled eggs and fruits for your day trips.

Prices:

Doubles from Rs3,000 excluding meals; Rs250 per meal per person.

How to reach:

Birdsong and Beyond is located in village Guniyala Khal, 2kms from the tehsil town of Pokhri Nagnath, in district Chamoli, Uttarakhand. 430 kms from Delhi, 210 kms from Rishikesh, into the forested rural mountain tops uphill from Rudraprayag. The area is also known as the hunting ground of the legendary Jim Corbett. You can reach there by car, bus, or cabs.

Lost Connections: Johann Hari. May 2018 Book Report.

Image result for lost connections johann hari

For all the familiarity with the term Depression, it is still shrouded in confusion. For all the exhortations for removing stigma and shame around those who suffer, there is still too little focus on context and systemic causes. Johann Harris is an award winning journalist and best selling writer who has suffered from depression since childhood. He has been taking medications since his teen years and believed that his condition was all about a chemical Imbalance that pills could put right. But his experience with drugs- while it provided some relief, specially early on, did not lead to lasting improvements. It led him to ask what wasn’t working and why. 


What he found in the course of his wide ranging investigation is the story of this book. 


The stories and data he investigates are surprising and shocking, as well as commonsensical and intuitive – sometimes all together. He looks at the nature of pharmaceutical research and trials and publishing of trial results. He looks at the nature of the experience of grief and other emotional and relational trauma. He looks at social context. He looks at man as part of the natural world. He talks to scientific and scholars and doctors and social workers. 


He comes to see that Depression is a lot more than a chemical imbalance that pills can put right for ever. Some of his suggestions for course correction are utopian and because they point to the need for systemic changes, they may sound impractical; and yet there is a core idea in all of it that is possible for us to follow in our lives and interactions.
Given pervasive thoughts of stress and anxiety in our lives, this is a book for all of us, a book that takes a wide angle sweep and a close up into what all of us are now touched by directly or indirectly. 

Book report – Home Fire By Kamila Shamsie

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I read A God in Every Stone four years ago, and found it stunning and unforgettable. It is a very complex and layered book, contains centuries of history and references and literally digs into archeology and archives to tell a story of people caught in geo-political shifts and between betrayals of a more personal kind. It is staggeringly well researched and well imagined tale.
 
So I expected a lot from Home Fire. And it has lived up to the expectations, but it has also surprised me with how different it is from A God In Every Stone. It is very current story – an adaptation of Antigone’s story to this period in time, and it takes the old concerns and conflicts of ties of family, love, religion, and nation states, and places them in today’s world of immigration, terrorism and Jihad, and Muslim identity in the West.
 
Home Fire was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2017, and has everything that a smash hit must have, and it is presented in great style. There are strong, memorable characters- the three siblings Isma, Aneeka and Parvaiz, the love interest Eamonn, and his politician father. Isma is the much older sister who had been almost mother to her younger twins in London for years since their mother died. Their father had been a Jihadi, long absconding from their lives. Free at last to go and pursue her own dreams independently, in America, Isma can never be free of the fallout of her family’s history.
 
Isma stands by the rules of the country that is their adopted home, above all. The younger twins are closer to each other than to their elder sister, and Aneeka is willing to go against sister and country and ‘use’ her lover to save her twin when he seeks to undo his ‘mistake’ of trying to be his father’s son. The story feels like a true life narration because of wonderful characterisation, and because of the contemporary nature of all that goes on.
 
We move through the story with trepidation through airport immigration security hold up, attempted and aborted romance in small town America, politics and fiery love and guilt in London, and Jihad in Istanbul and Syria and the climax across London and Pakistan played out to the world over television.
 
The story steps up in tension as it progresses. The choices keep getting starker and the characters more and more desperate as the plot unfolds. The ending is one of the most heartbreakingly bleak ones I have read in a novel in recent times. It is so real and yet so fantastic that it could certainly be tonight’s news.
 
The book raises eternal questions about the nature of love, and the conflicting claims of family, lovers and the state, to our loyalty. In the life and deaths of its characters, we also see the longing for home, and the craving for a fixed identity. The author is masterful in braiding all of it together powerfully, and unforgettably, in a bravura piece of elegant and refined storytelling.
 
This is a memorable, classic novel you won’t forget in a hurry, and will go back to again and again to find new stories with each new reading. I really cannot add a negative point to artificially try to be more balanced in my view. I think Kamila should have got the Booker too.
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