The Queen of Jasmine Country

Book Report – March 2019
The Queen Of Jasmine Country: Sharanya Manivannan
images
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.

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.

July 2018 Book Report

download
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.

To Mr. Shiv Visvanathan: About MeToo & the Chilly Justice of The Gulag

 

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off ”said Gloria Steinem.

 

Mr. Shiv Visvanathan had a choice. To stay pissed, when faced with new truths, or to unlearn, relearn, and move into freedom. What he chose was to write something which scapegoats women as the reason for men being victimised, romance being threatened with extinction, and for his being unsettled by all this.

 

His article is a particular kind of farce, given that Mr. Shiv Visvanathan, elsewhere in his life and work is a scholar, social anthropologist, professor, and Public Intellectual who coined the idea of Cognitive Justice – a concept that talks about recognising different truths of different social groups.

 

It is a truth too well known to need mentioning, that in man-woman sexual/romantic, desire-led interactions, men have wielded worlds of power in rather unequal proportions since ages. This raaz is being stripped of covers faster than Vera’s seven veils, even for Public Intellectuals who have a theory for everything but cannot stand in someone else’s shoes.

 

I am trying meanwhile, to stand in Mr. V’s shoes and see why he wrote that whiny confused piece of obfuscation, comparing a public voicing of private pain, through MeToo and The List, to ‘chilly justice’ and the Gulag, and bemoan the death of romance that this has supposedly led to. And while at it, why did he lay the blame of all of this on women’s need for instant gratification?

 

Poor innocent men, what are they going to do now, worries Mr.V. The world runs on sex, desire and all that follows….And women have decided to turn cold as a dystopian version of hell, and we are heading for apocalypse! Here is the end of love and mating and sex and marriage and relationships and all things nice and warm that lit up our hearts and made the world such a singalong place.

 

The idea of Cognitive Justice that Mr.V floated is the idea that there is not one hegemonic way of knowing something; that there are divergent and equally valid systems of knowledge, experience and lifestyle among different groups, and that asking one such group to “abandon their felt experience and identity is a form of injustice”. He has written about how “trying to normalise a group’s felt trauma is an act of erasure”. That “indifference and erasure become two rituals of normalisation of violence”. Can Mr. V please then look at MeToo through this lens of Cognitive Justice? To quote his words, “what adds insult to injury is that often people protest in favor of the perpetrator, ignoring the pain of the victim.” Time to walk the talk a wee bit, Mr. Public Intellectual?

 

It is ironic that the creator of the concept of Cogntive Justice should be calling someone else’s story of their experience ‘essentialism’. And he doesn’t stop there. Giving in to the worst exaggerations, misappropriations and false equivalences, he goes on to compare The List to a kangaroo court, the online naming and shaming of perceived sexual misconduct and harassment and assault to a Stalinist/ Naxal tactic, and regrets that the the targets of such naming shaming are being ‘eliminated’ in a feminist version of the Gulag. To compare the methods of state control employed by a powerful dictatorial ruler of a world power to the methods of a guerilla innovation by what is at best a small movement within feminism, is strange strategy for a social scientist who presumably should know the difference.

 

One wonders why indeed Mr. V fears the death of romance and the end of fulfilment of desire, simply because some women have started saying they would like to have a say in what they do with their own bodies. It isn’t like all of womenkind is suddenly discarding estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from their bodies along with all the other essentials of carnal capabilty or romantic attachement. As a gender, women have been programmed into prioritising male desire. This programming is so steeped into culture that it does not get fully wiped out after decades of feminist sloganeering or substantive gender training. We have barely begun to reclaim ourselves. It is even harder wired into men, to take women’s bodies and existence as an entitlement for the male. After all, we still put adults into arranged marriages as the most normal of procedures, and balk at the idea of acknowledging marital rape as worthy of notice or intervention, in the name of preserving social order.

 

As ones who got to call the shots since all living memory, males feel the pinch, and resent having to watch their ps and qs after MeToo and TheList. It is an odd sort of unfamiliar place for them, to be mindful of their desire, their behaviour, and to take steps in keeping with how the object of their approach feels and accepts, or does not accept their moves. It was so much nicer, wasn’t it, being assured the right to instant gratification, and not having to bother with what a woman might want or feel? Why, all of a sudden must these women wake up to some sense of ‘what is it that I want’ instead of going along silently with what men want?

 

And worse still, to make it all open, and open source, by making use of technology and mass communication and social networks, to talk about things that need never be mentioned? Social media technology is a tool that patriarchy has not been able to pull away from some women. It is the kind of thing they are at ease with, and majorily the users of. As someone whose work helped develop the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS) Mr. V could have tried another way of understanding this social shift, but to do so would need him to put aside his entrenched entitlement, and presumption of innocence of all men and the meanness of all women, and confront the reality of the power differential in gender relations.

 

The talk of innocent men facing the chilly justice of the Gulag is beyond ridiculous. For one, calling out on social media is in no way a legal conviction. There is therefore no legal punishment to serve. What then does a man have to fear? Women have been named and shamed in all sorts of ways as far back as we can remember in relationships, marriage, family and at work. A girl is brought up fearing for her ‘reputation’. Men smugly judge every women they set eyes on. Now here comes a little ‘judgement’ their own way, nothing more than a sharing of someone’s painful personal story, and oh lord, the prickliness! So much fear – it invites you to ask how many of the “innocent men” too feel guilty, how much and for what, and whether they fear the lid coming off their secrets?

 

Perhaps obfuscation is the only line of defense left to a Public Intellectual, when he cannot change his views and thus will know not and care not about what others go through. Sample this next – “I understand the poignancy of pain but I feel there is a one-sidedness to it. To make a man suffer just to open him up to women’s suffering does not add up. I admit mine might be a more innocent, stupid world where people learnt to confront each other’s mistakes”. Did I read that right? “Confront each other’s mistakes”? Does he really mean confront? Well, then TheList is just what he ordered, isn’t it?

 

He goes on with his fantasies of what men and women in relationships had and will no longer have post MeToo. “There was romanticism here but also a genuine attempt to work out a more humane relationship.” Seriosuly Dude! A woman asking for her consent to be respected IS asking for things to be more humane in a relationship. But there is more confounding bilge up ahead. “Yet this search for shaming eliminates the joys of a man-woman relationship.” Darling Mr. V, if there had been joy, reciprocity and humaneness in the man’s approach, believe you me, there would be no need for lists and telling stories on Facebook.

 

MeToo is a ritual of grieving, for loss – loss of trust, of hope, of faith in the mutuality of desire and the value of consent. Grant us the dignity to grieve without your judgement. Millions of women have been shutting their minds and abandoning their sense of inhabiting their bodies, to live with the violation they feel on their wedding nights and in their marital beds and with men they love and respect or fear and dare not say no to. This is the collective consciousness of the female gender, Mr. V, and it seeps into even the most seemingly ‘bold’ woman seeking to chart her sexual and romantic destiny independent of the shackles of conditioned constraint. With MeToo and TheList there is a safe space and community for women to speak up about the disquiet, to find release from shame and guilt of violation, and feel heard and understood. It is a first sigh of relief for many. It is a precious moment of owning and realigning fragmented bits of our selfhood. It is subjective experience being respected, and what I thought could be understood with the lens of Cognitive Justice.

 

First published here :

http://theladiesfinger.com/shiv-visvanathan-chilly-justice-gulag/amp/

November Book Reading Report

The Whole Shebang – Sticky Bits Of Being A Woman

By Lalit Iyer

Despite the somewhat misleading title, the book is really not about women in general, or even some women. It is a series of personal opinion pieces sorted into seventeen chapters on varied aspects of being Lalita Iyer, the woman. The author herself is at pains to point this out in the Prologue, which I would recommend as necessary first reading on picking up the book. Above all, it is a book for anyone interested in how a particular woman thinks of her life and herself.

This slim 142-page compendium based on earlier columns and writings, connects, soothes, provokes and preaches, and manages to feel mostly likeable and a just a little unsettling. There are the usual suspects- bitchy schoolgirls, teenage angst, breast longings, and infatuations based on nothing but a look…and then there are unconventional storylines playing tug of war with the standard issue memo on being a woman. There is frankness, wit, courage, confusion, confession and hope. And listicles in some chapters, with authorly gyaan and tips.

Claiming to be still figuring out “How to be a woman’, Lalita lays down her belief that “being a woman is a serious amount of admin.” And talks of the sense of things “left undone” and “checklists crawling beneath our epidermis, reminding us” of this. The rest of the book then unravels the author’s sense of being a work in progress through puberty to middle age, to be an independent person, in delightfully devilish detail.

Being pre-millennial, her recollections of childhood and youth bring to life times and images we have almost archived into non-existence, like the compulsory chemise worn under the white school uniform, wax-coated paper packed Parle-G, mixed tapes as courtship, and Ovaltine. A serial job changer, a science-y working as a journalist and writer, a woman who married later than most, and became a mother at almost forty, and is now at forty nine a single mother to her son, Lalita’s stories bring an unusual lens to the common and uncommon issues of her and every woman’s life.

I for one could not see the merit of so many pages devoted to getting one’s period, the travails with ill-fitting bras and the cruelty of thongs. But some of these, along with body size and image are topics I see many women of all ages obsess about almost forever. In Lalita’s blunt and vivid telling of these issues lies a comment on the tyranny of conflicting forces acting on women, and the cinch women are in, ironically, all at once, of seductive fashion, modesty dictats and a deeply conditioned desire for approval.

“Every once in a while, I muster the courage to walk into a Mango or a Zara or a Promod and try on clothes which fit one part of my body but don’t fit another and I tell myself – I am totally out of proportion. What I don’t tell myself is that these clothes were made to squash me into someone else’s shape.”

In the personal stories and stern guidelines of sorts, many readers will recognize how they don’t take themselves seriously as a person; beyond the relationship they have to significant others in their life. And how ambivalent they are about owning their careers and especially about money matters. And how they lose themselves even in the role that is supposedly their identity- that of a mother, or a wife.

“Mother love was not enough for me to feel me. I needed more, and I went after it. That was the only way I could retain my selfhood. That’s the only way I want Re to remember me when I am gone. Not someone who lost herself in him.”

The Whole Shebang has a bold, specific and contemporary tonality to its slice of life writing. There is vulnerability and openness of voice and individuality of details that draws the reader in. With confessions and intelligent wit it also exudes hope and sisterhood, and give wings to the reader’s imagination. The reader is likely to be comforted with a realization that she is not alone in all that confuses and confounds her. Someone else has been there too, and lived to tell the tale.

The most enjoyable bits of reading this book for me were the chapters on love, marriage, money, friends, the in-laws and the future. It is here I felt the writing acquired the most natural, most nuanced richness and depth. With engrossing self-deprecation and eyes open wide practicality Lalita reflects on the changes in her own thinking and the changing ways of the dating game. The affliction of imagining love stories is examined threadbare. The Idea of self-love is embraced.

“We are constantly examining our imaginary love stories in our heads – constructing and deconstructing scenarios – decoding what he said to reveal what he really meant, looking for signs, seeing signs while none exist: in text messages, whatsapps, Facebook, Instagram, and in all avatars in which it is humanly possible for one person to exist.”

I also specially liked the fact that topics like money, work, and motherhood are covered in a matter of fact way, without getting heavy handed or frivolous. Like in these lines from “Planning for retirement’.

“You need to have a nest egg both as assets and savings for retirement irrespective of a spouse or lack thereof or whether your parents are going to leave you a nice inheritance. … You will be surprised how few women factor this in. I have already budgeted for a halfway house with my friends when I am sixty. I don’t believe children should be treated as old-age insurance.”

Given the book’s chapters covers a wide span of time in a woman’s life it can grow along with the reader’s experience, and be a sounding board for the long haul, as well a companion for a brief fling. Rather like a combination shampoo-conditioner, unlike the dichotomous category of men someone put across to the author – that of being either a shampoo or a conditioner. (The shampoo is meant to leave, the conditioner meant to stay….read the book to know moreJ)

“When relationships are depleting, it’s friendships we turn to for replenishment, connection, a shared sensibility and laughs. Our women friends help us raise the bar; we look up to our friends more often and in more ways than we think. … How many times have you told a female friend, “You know, I should have so married you!”

The Whole Shebang is just one such friend every woman could commune with at least once.

 

In Hot Blood. By Bachi Karkaria. A Review.

Bachi

I have not watched a single one of the Nanavati murder trial and ménage-e-trios inspired movies, not have I ever been remotely curios about this so-called national sensation. Yet, after this book came out last month my book club decided to go for it. That compulsion, rather than the topic made me read it. And it turned out to be more than worth the time and effort. An enjoyable, educative and thought provoking read, in so many ways this turned out to be.

 

Bachi Karkaria has gone through exhaustive and extensive research to make the story richly detailed, in-depth, and almost a full sociological treatise on the times (1950-60) of the events, their background, context and aftermath on various aspects of the nation’s judicial systems and particularly Bombay’s socio-cultural life. From interviews with those who were around in those times, and those who can tell us something new as well as retell the old facts, she presents a fresh look at one of the most talked about murder cases in the history of modern India. Not a simple task, this, which Bachi carries off with élan.

 

The facts are supposedly known to everyone, but I will recap. Kawas Nanavati is being cheated on by his wife, Sylvia. She confesses to the husband, and tells him to be careful – she fears for his life as her lover, Prem Ahuja has a gun. The shattered husband is a naval commander. He too can get a gun. Which he does. And he then goes to confront the lover- to ask him what his intentions are, and if he plans to do the honorable thing by marrying Sylvia and taking care of the children. Kawas is seen going to Prem Ahuja’s room. There is no witness to what happens inside. Three shots ring out from behind closed doors. Nanavati walks out, his white dress unblemished and surrenders himself to the naval police for having shot a man. Ahuja is found dead with gun shot wounds.

 

In court, Kawas pleads not guilty. On purely circumstantial evidence the jury too calls him not guilty. Throughout the trail, Nanavati is the hero of the masses and the media. The jury system earns its nail in the coffin with this case and is never used again in India. Nanavati is found guilty on appeal, but again pardoned by the state governor.

 

These are the facts. But behind them lies a fascinating maze of coincidences, manipulations, prejudices, class and community networks of allegiance and privilege. Partisan media uses its power of mass opinion making, and forgets journalistic neutrality. The Blitz goes all out to defend Nanavati and runs petitions for him. How did all this actually play out? What factors could have worked behind the scenes to move which levers? Why was murder not seen as murder but a point of honor? What made Nanavati the hero he seemed to be viewed as? What made Sylvia not a vamp but an object of sympathy or even indifference? What made Ahuja a villain who no one shed tears for?

 

All this and more is the focus of Bachi Karkaria’s elaborate delving into this old story. Her recreation of the Bombay of the late 50s is picture perfect, in all details. The courts, the Navy areas, the localities of posh Malabar Hill, the cinemas, the markets, the streets all come alive as if a movie runs in real time. The dialogues, the imagery, the aura and ethos of the communities that play the main roles are all vividly and precisely depicted.

 

The writing does get over the top at just a very few places, in typical Bachi style, which I (in a case of absolutely subjective aesthetic preference) found a tad out of place in reading a serious book of investigative/reconstructive journalism, but I can’t say it took away much from the book. For a case as sensational as this, hyperbole and drama is part of the territory in the retelling. Bachi manages to keep the drama alive while she remains almost clinically detached in the retelling. Nothing is assumed or taken at face value, and the alternate possibility is considered and the alternate voice is given a legitimate place. Through it all if the author tends to lean towards anything, then it is to constitutional values and the spirit of constitutional law, and a sense of fairness and open minded questioning.

 

It can tend to feel repetitive and maybe slow reading for those looking for the more juicy kind of sleaze and gossip, but that is not the author’s intention, though she does not shy from presenting all of those facts too.

 

After all the points of law and constitutional propriety and Naval and Parsi privilege are debated and understood, the book still leaves me with the biggest mystery unsolved. How does a couple pick up the shot to hell pieces of their relationship after a man is killed in hot blood, over the matter of the wife’s infidelity, and go on to build a new life? The author does reveal a lot of factual details of the Nanavati’s life after their move to Canada, but those chapters lack the insights and depth of the proceedings of the trial, or of the context around it.

 

How did these people later forgive each other, if not totally forget the tragedy? I guess that will remain for us to guess and for them to know. Or food for another book.

 

 

 

An Open Letter. In the open season on women.

images

Dear lady speaker on Women’s Day program, and those multitudes who wondered ‘how could she’, when she came on the scene,

This is in reaction to statements made by the first, in public, on the occasion of a media event to mark International Working Women’s Day. Statements which I feel owe something to the said lady being once picked on quite publicly for her choices on personal matters.

I wonder lady speaker, what made the media geniuses invite you to be a speaker? What are your credentials as a Working Women? Or is being a woman enough? Or being a privileged homemaker, wife and mother of a few months? Or being a star wife? I guess the point of it was to have you speak about …women, I suppose? How  women must be themselves and do their own things… like, maybe, reach for their dreams, and so on? Only, I do not see you being yourself. I see you mouthing platitudes unthinkingly, unless you have really given careful thought to what are the ideals and tradition you speak up for. At age 20, seriously? You are wiser than most humans then, I suppose. I know, I am being so ageist, no?

I still wonder what makes you a speaker to dole out opinions on IWWD.

It befuddles me.

Maybe the media felt they had to balance the act, after printing all sorts of things that were not always complimentary to your decision to opt for an early arranged marriage? That was stupid of the multitudes who said ‘how dare she’. Why? Because it is her life, her choice, people. It was none of your business to get at her in public, whatever you may think of her choices personally. It is a tough world out there, and we all need to support and wish each other well. Even those who might not easily understand what we do, and in their narrow minded self-absorption, not realise the gaps in their views.

Celebrity bashing, and paparazzi interest in their weddings and babies and so on…it doesn’t catch my interest, much. I ignore it. I felt bad for you, but I put it down to the down side of being a star-wife.

But pronouncements to run down serious socio-political causes on a public forum from a celebrity does become a big deal. People listen. It has impact, so it is important to hold it to high standards of examination.

Is it really your reasoned choice, lady speaker, to decide and declaim publicly that unless a mother can be there full time with her baby she’d be better off with a puppy? Does every working mother have the luxury to stay at home? Does every stay at home mother want to? Not everyone’s dreams are the same, just as their reality is different, as are the options available.

I know about the life and times and work of the feminists who gave us this Day as a marker, and what they did, and stood for, makes sense on every count of humanity, justice and peace. I am sure you would say you believe in these values, and perhaps wanted to use the opportunity your privilege gives you, to speak and share your views. Many young and not so young, impressionable and not so impressionable women listen to such messages, and many of them do actually try to take meaning out of them, and use those words and claims as lights of direction in their own life. It is a huge responsibility to use a public voice. I wish you had used it to say what might not cause harm or reinforce self-defeating cultural indoctrination.

I have some more questions for you, lady speaker.

Did you ever consider reading up, understanding the issue of IWWD before agreeing to be a public speaker on this occasion? Did you read up anything on the term Feminazi before using it? Did you mean to be abusive? Or does you privilege just make you blind and insensitive to others’ reality?

Do you have any idea at all why 8th March is important to the women’s empowerment issue? Do you even have a clue about women empowerment? Were you told to play by a script?

Imagine a scenario, in your own life, which is not entirely about you. Imagine your cleaning maid had a baby. Imagine your cooking lady too had a baby around the same time. Imagine how much you wanted them back at work. They both delivered human babies. Not Puppies. Yet they come back to work after two months of un-paid leave which you generously gave them. How could they do this? Why did they have the babies at all, if only to leave them to come to work? What are they chances they will not have their jobs for long if they keep taking days off? Not all women can afford to stay at home when they have babies. It s not only dog mothers who need to get food home.

To defend your personal choice of, and bliss about marriage and being a homemaker and mother at a young age, in the face of some misguided judgement, will you abuse a just cause? Why not stick to speaking up for your choice, and telling the critics to mind their own business, or engage them in a debate, to call out their unfairness as you see it? A fair fight, won’t you say? Why throw out the baby of feminism with the bathwater of judgement you were washed with, as it were?

Imagine another scenario. Nothing to do with you at all. Another girl your age gets a job with a multinational company after working very hard through her college course. Her parents are lower middle class people. She does well in her job. She gets posted abroad. She helps take care of her parents. She buys a home for herself. She marries. She has kids. She manages both roles with the help of her parents, and her company HR policies on maternity leave, paternity leave, child care leave, day care facilities and health care and health insurance. You know what made a lot of these things a part of the organized sector? Feminism. The education and employment opportunity she had access too. Even the right to buy property. The right to take care of her parents. All of that.

Ask this girl, though, Mrs. Smug Star Wife, why did she have the baby. Why didn’t she wait till her ‘responsibilities ‘ were taken care of , to build a career? What responsibilities were you referring to , when you said once you are done with them, you have your whole future open? The responsibility of bringing up a baby with all kinds of support and facilities? Not everyone has that luxury and privilege. A lot is needed before many more women can talk so comfortably as you of being able to prioritise things so glibly and smoothly. It is feminism that called out the change needed, and showed the way to that change. Just because you happen to be safely up the ladder, as you think you are, is no reason to kick the ladder and make it useless for others.

How much time do you think Karan Johar, as a single working father, will be able to devote to his new born twins ?  Are Roohi and Yash puppies or what?

What the Puppy mother will have to say to this, is another matter. Or any puppy pet-owner.

70,000 babies are born everyday on average in India. You know how many of those mothers can afford to just sit around with a baby, take selfies and look cute, and talk about having their future ahead of them, wide open? Are they Feminazis, out to wreak destruction on this world order?

Most women have hard working lives, whether in the home, on the farm, on a road-work or construction site or an office or anywhere else. You know how many of them want a better deal? MOST.

Ask yourself, what would make their lives better? Try to see who speaks for them. Yesterday, our Parliament approved a bill to raise the benefit of maternity leave to six months from three. You realize it is years of slog by feminism that leads to changes like this? And that this is still just a tiny blip, because the majority of women and men who suffer because of unjust systems are not working in the organized sector where these rules apply. So there is still along long way to go, and a lot of work to be done. Statements of ignorance like yours are harmful, biased and abusive.

I am happy for you, that you get to bask in the warmth of newly wedded bliss and motherhood, which must be even more wonderful when it comes with the trappings of wealth, luxury, glamour and privilege. Such as yours. Maybe you do feel humbled and thank your lucky stars. Maybe you take it for granted. You know, people will say all sorts of thing to individuals, for their luck, their choices, for whatever happens or does not happen. But to take personal criticism to heart, and then to attack a critical and vital human rights movement is short-sighted and narrow minded.

You are lucky. Why stretch your luck by being judgy about others who make choices different from yours? Or those who have no choice?

Why do women with all the privilege like you fear the F-word so much? Do you know the term you used – likening a feminist to someone who supported the mass murder of millions because of their identity, is a slur of the worst kind? Why would you want to use such a term, and then speak of it in a warped context? Do you realize you owe your own relatively ‘safe’ position as a wife and mother without a job or the qualifications for one, to the hard work feminists have put in for women’s rights in marriage and annulment of marriage? Feminism is the reason those like you can still hope for a fair settlement in case your marital bubble bursts with infidelity or abuse or worse.

So please, dear young blessed girl with stars in your eyes, go use the reading and comprehension and thinking skills that your very elite education and background might have instilled in you, and study these topics. Understand that you made a choice and so do others and there are valid reasons on both sides of the fence, and that defending your choice does not have to be at the cost of dissing the very very vital forces that in fact help keep you safe and empowered. The personal, after all, is also political. We live in social systems. What goes on around us comes home to roost.

Respecting diversity of choice is a foundational belief of feminism and of any call for equality. And choices can only be made by the powerful. And power has to fought for, earned, built up, when the starting point of the game is highly skewed towards one party. As is the case with those who speak up as feminists. Someone has to speak up, fight the good fight. You may not want to, and that is fine. But you will enjoy its fruits. So know that the warriors, the radicals, they all work for your rights too, and you would have not much without them. When the status quo of power is shaken, there is always backlash, and some of it takes the forms of abuse. Terms like Feminazi come up, and are mistakenly adopted by some who have not cared to learn any better.

Grow wise, be informed. And then maybe you will not let derogatory slurs pass your pouty lips so casually. Do not demonize a struggle for basic human dignity. It is denied to too many. Please do not let your youthful lack of perspective  and good fortune make you gloat. Do not look down on what you have not much idea of. Do not abuse. Be Woke. Go look that up, because you have no idea what it means, I am sure.

And those multitudes, can you leave people’s personal lives alone?

Desperately seeking Romance. The Spin on Karwa Chauth.

shahrukhkhankajol

Most ladies of my mother’s generation never called their husband by name. Most women in my generation have not held hands with or made willing and happy eye-contact openly in public with their husbands, except to glare or signal something urgent. Many of us in any generation before or after my age cohort have not had a romance before marriage, and even less had a ‘love-marriage’.

But to watch our films one would think every street corner had a dozen love stories blooming. Actually, they may have bloomed in secret, but the path of true love never did run smooth in our part of the world.

Into this culture of romantic lack comes the glamour of married, fully legitimate and socially approved romance, with the filmy version of Karwa Chauth. It is the stuff of dreams. What is not to like? And then, along comes liberalization and the big push on consumerism. A heady cocktail of unarticulated, burning  desire meeting unlimited supply. A match made in consumerism heaven.

Thus unfurls the yashchoprafication of an old, outdated, regressive and cautionary tale of patriarchal control.

Today, I wonder how many of the modern, financially well off women who fast and feast on this festival know the story that forms the bedrock of the rituals they follow in the name of celebration?

When they say they should have the choice to celebrate their marriage and the love in their marriage, do they know what their choice endorses?

The Karwa Chauth story I know is a cautionary tale for women. It stresses in no uncertain terms how marriage was a woman’s sole security and refuge, under the benign grace and fidelity of her husband.

This grace and fidelity though, is most precarious, the story warns. It could be lost at the slightest slip. So you have to be very careful you never let your devotion falter, least of all in favor of your own physical needs or your paternal family’s ‘misguided’ concern over you. Husband comes first, last and everything in-between. After all, you derive your existence and role and validation only as his wife.

So, the story goes…

Once upon a time there was a girl named Veerawati.

She married a brave and handsome chieftain and was delighted with all her finery and the position of a chief’s wife. But this was a spoiled and pampered girl, the little sister of seven doting brothers.

The brothers often took her to visit them back in her parental home. And there, during her Karwa Chauth fast, this girl was going to faint with weakness and hunger. Her brothers, concerned for her, tricked her into believing that the moon had risen, when it had not, and made her break her fast.

Barely had she taken some food and drink, that her misdemeanour brought a curse on her marriage. Her husband fell ill/ was wounded in battle and fell into a coma. Veerawati realised her mistake, and repented and prayed and begged gods and goddesses …and they said ok, he will not die but after many years, if you are good and fast well, he will awaken to life again.

So, began the PUNISHMENT of Veerawati, and her penance.

She took care of the husband, fasted properly every year…and took out the pins which pricked his body. When the last pin was left, she went out to arrange for her fast…in the meanwhile, the maid came and removed the pin, and the husband woke up and in his jumbled up memory, mistook the maid for the wife (maybe it was part of the continuing curse of punishment for the wife). Darn!

Now, the wife had the husband alive, but not with her! The maid became the wife, the wife now was the maid. Still Veerawati devotedly served him as a maid, and sang a song all the time about the switching of two dolls…at length, the chief asked her what this meant, and she told him the whole story. Then finally, he recognised her , and all her seva bore fruit and the husband – wife were re-united.

Bad Veerawati. Bad brothers who led her astray from her devotion.

What do we choose when we sing this katha as we pass the thaali around in the Karwa Chauth Puja.

Are we Veerawati? Should we be? Do we want to be her ?

If the modern KC following woman has no truck with this story, I wish she would drop the Veerawati song and katha from her thaali round  and her moon gazing ritual. I wish there was no ‘touching the feet’ of the husband.

I wish we were a society more open to romance in our lives overall and did not need the cover of filmy fantasies which glamorise misogyny, to fulfil our dreams.

She is Your DAUGHTER – NOT Your Son!

My encounters with TV entertainment are limited. Only very occasionally I do tune in to the popular trending shows. If only to assure self and others that I still belong to the world, here and now. That I am not quite a dinosaur or an alien already.

So, when it comes to catching snippets of Indian Idol Junior‬, ‪I have learnt to ignore the painful drama of the presenters, the silly, sanctimonious and repetitive script of the judges, and the sheer pointlessness of the format. After all, my taste in art, music and entertainment is not what the nation wants, and if a gladiatorial decimation of young talent is what sells, who am I to rail against it?

But today even my serene, accepting, let-it-go attitude has had enough. Hence this post. From a rattled and ranting me. On the raving lunacy I perceive being playing out on a widely watched iconic show. In praising one of the contestants, a young girl called Naheed, Sonakshi Sinha prattles thus : “I noticed what your Dad said to you right at audition time, and that is what my Dad says to me, and it makes me feel very proud. That you are not my daughter, you are my son.” Or in Hindi, ” Beti nahin, Beta ho Tum”.

So, we were being told again, on a very popular nationally broadcast family TV program, at PrimeTime, by a young working woman, a daughter of a famous yesteryears cine-star, that being a daughter is after all a cross. And only when your father can see you as a son, are you blessedly redeemed! And if and when that happens, count your lucky stars for the wonderful, progressive and great man you have as a father. A man who can so magnanimously let you step into the shoes of a son!

I only wish we were in a time-capsule and this scene was taking place at least 40 years ago. Or even 20? But we are in 2015.

I felt sickened to hear Sonakshi do this. I felt the toxic touch of a deep rot that seems embedded into the psyche of so many of us. I wonder if Sonakshi has at any time felt bad that her Dad is not proud of her as a beti (daughter)? Did it ever ever bother her, as to why there is even a need to bring in the beta (son) comparison ? What is the sub-text of these statements made so blithely and so proudly? Do Sonakshi and the millions who mouth the same kind of lines realize that by deigning to respect a girl only by accepting her as a beta (son), you invalidate her very being, her very natural state? You deny her a valid existence in the skin she was born with. It is as if only when the taint she carries- her daughterhood, is relegated to irrelevance,  supplanted by her being seen as a son, that she can truly make everyone proud, and truly be one with her worldly achievements and glory!

The fact is in our minds and in our ways of framing world views, we are still lagging behind. A show like Indian Idol allows all genders to participate as equals. It is not like some places having rules that forbid certain things for a girl. But no, we have to still act like we are in the times of the ‘abla naari’ – the helpless, victimized and weak woman. We are like this only, and we will extol misogyny! Being a girl is still not congruent with worldly success in our minds. Else why the need for the imagery of a son, to tell the tale of a daughter’s glory? I doubt I can wrap my head around this one, but I promise you I am trying very hard!

Naheed did well because she is hardworking, talented and so on. She should not have to bear the ignominy of being validated as a son she is clearly not, and being invalidated as the daughter she naturally is. Can we respect our daughters just as daughters, without the need to see them as proxy son‬s? Can we stop stripping them of their natural birth-given identity and sense of self in moments of their greatest triumphs, by not saying about them ‘beti nahin beta ho tum?’

At the birth of a girl, many so called modern, progressive parents decide to be really good to their daughter. By asking her overtly to not do ‘girly’ things. By drilling into her how she is the beta, and is therefore free to do all the great things a beta would. What about telling her instead, dearest daughter, you are a wonderful new life we are blessed with, go live your life to the fullest, chase your dreams, and let us be the wind beneath your wings?