The ‘Subway’ way of life

I wanted to eat a sandwich the other day. In the days before Subway, a sandwich, for a middle-class person in India meant two square slices of bread with butter and jam or some tomatoes or cucumbers in between them. A sandwich was something that was rustled up when time was short and one was really hungry. It was mostly done at home.

Today, there’s Subway. Sandwiches don’t look like sandwiches and don’t even feel like sandwiches anymore. Try ordering for one. It’s first the length – 15 cm? More? Less? Once you’ve got the math around your head, it’s the choice of bread. On one really hungry day, I was confounded just trying to choose from the eight kinds of bread on offer. I settled for honey and oatmeal bread, simply because it ‘sounded healthy’. And then I agonised on toasted cheese or plain or… The stomach was rumbling louder by now.

I scrolled down then to the extra meat and cheese section and decided to pass. Then it was a tussle with the toppings. Choosing three out of the eight on the menu was tough believe me. It was even tougher to settle for a sauce which offered simple choices like mustard and honey and mayonnaise, and some which were tough on the Indian palate. That done, I was reminded say yes or no to the chicken tikka! Phew! And I thought it was just about a humble sandwich.

Is this post about sandwiches and Subway? Obviously no! But it is about choices. The choices in life, which are as confounding as putting together a Subway sandwich.

Cut to alliances vs relationships

Time was when ‘relationships’ was an alien word and ‘alliances’ were better known . Alliance meant that an extended community got together, decided to ‘get’ a boy and a girl married and went about the job methodically, beginning with horoscopes, and finally, white sheets on the wedding night which served as a virginity test. I’ve always wondered but never got a reply on what the girl would suffer if she did not stain the sheets!

There were no other choices. Not even for the boy and girl because they were obliged to marry the partner chosen for them by their parents, aunts, grandparents and assorted other relatives. Some bold ones went out and fell in love and often paid dearly for their guts with their sanity and peace.

And now we have the ‘Subway’ way of life

The Subway way of life give you choices – more choices than you might want to have. I’ve heard of alliances but am now increasingly hearing of relationships. There’s a menu to choose from and couples fall into them quite like fingers sliding into well-fitting gloves – easily, and without too much ado. There’s the live-in, the open, the married but separate, the divorced but still together for the sake of the children, the dating, the seeing each other and the committed and waiting to be married. There’s also the same-sex, bi-sexual, occasional gay or lesbian and several other, yet unexplored ones. Am I confused? Not really. But I’m sympathetic – I sympathize with the ones who need to make these choices. I understand life must be difficult for them, having to face life that now offers so many choices, just like a Subway counter does. And I always wish them well and hope they make the choices that are most appropriate for them.

With choice comes the churning

I invariably finish off a Subway sandwich with regrets, wondering whether the whole wheat instead or oatmeal and honey bread, or the any of the other toppings would have made my sandwich more tasty. Till the next time I feel grubby and face the same dilemmas while ordering a Subway.

Choices in life, without meaning to trivialize them, have brought similar dilemmas with them. In the past few months, I have watched three films which have mirrored these dilemmas and churning in society starkly, and reflected them in all their beauty, ugliness, sensitivities and conflicts. Pink, Dear Zindagi and Lipstick under my Burqa are all commentaries on life and living. They are honest, brutal, sensitive, disturbing and funny in turns. Even when they are funny, they are challenging us to look society in the eye and acknowledge that change is coming. And none of the films are sugar-coated.

It is as disturbing to see a woman verging on senior-citizen, climaxing in a dirty toilet, after having phone sex with a man young enough to be her son. Just showed she had urges that couldn’t be stilled with bhajans and satsangs, and she forced us to look her in the eye and agree that she was entitled to feel the way she did. It was disturbing to watch a woman indulging in a quick sexual encounter with her boyfriend while her fiancee (who she’s being forced to marry), waited for her to make an appearance at their engagement ceremony. But she was asserting herself in the only way she knew how.

When a girl just out of her teens teeters on the brink every time she has to display commitment in a relationship, you cry with her because you know the ghosts that torment her. They tormented you too when you were her age but you did not have the courage to confront them. And when a group of friends (young working women) step out to have a nice evening and are almost raped and do what seems to be the right thing in defence (beat up one of the boys), you cringe when they are repeatedly accused of lacking character because they went out with boys they didn’t know too well.

I am often driven, like many others in society, to the brink of judgemental statements when I hear of or watch women breaking boundaries and paying for their courage or ‘sins’ as society still like to term them. But I hold back, thinking of my encounters with Subway. If it’s so difficult to buy a sandwich, it must be double, treble and multiple difficult to make choices in life that are often inevitable, but avoidable. I would think that there will be mistakes, which will be more costly than my mistakes with Subway. But make them they will. Because change doesn’t happen without mistakes.

I very often remind myself, in the midst of this barrage of messaging that everything old is not good and everything new is not bad or vice versa. Certainly we have to evolve in thought, word and deed; we have to acknowledge realities, however uncomfortable they make us. But do we also have the maturity to respect the humble homemade sandwich as much as the more complex Subway? Do we have the courage to stand up for old fashioned alliances as much as we need to welcome the new evolving relationships and the need for women to be just as liberated as men? Can we not hit at patriarchy and yet be dignified and assertive rather than defiant and screechy all the time? Do we always have to scream that we need need change? Can’t it be more dignified?

Think of it!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

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Living in the moment – aane wala pal jaane wala hai

Her fingers were working magic on my scalp. But as she gently tried to massage and tease out the tension in my knotted nerves, I was oblivious to her efforts. My mind was busy fretting. It was getting late for dinner. There were dishes to be washed before my favourite Sunday programme began on television and the husband with his meticulous ways would allow no delays. He would end up doing it all himself and my guilt would not let me relax. The masseur’s fingers toiled on, futilely. All this after I had waited two weeks to book myself for a head massage and was spending a near fortune for this. Suddenly, a switch came on in my mind.

Why had I come here at all if I couldn’t set my life aside for a mere 30 minutes and enjoy the moment? Today, I had the means, the time and the ability to come in to a parlour and pay for a massage. Tomorrow, I might not have all this. And yet, I was frittering away the moments. Dinner could wait, television show could wait – I was going to enjoy this. And I did.

On my way home, I thought of all the moments that I had frittered away in my life, without realizing that the present is all we have. I’ve read dozens of quotations on this and none of them registered, as had the masseur’s fingers, which had tried so hard and succeeded in drumming the message home.

I thought of the costly holidays we had taken, without quite enjoying them because our thoughts all along had been on the jobs that awaited us on our return, or the worry that we had not turned out the gas, or locked the front door, or informed the domestic help. What if she quit because we had not kept her informed? I lost the best moments of our holidays. Now, we’re too busy, or too tired to take any more.

I thought of the times the daughter had called out to me to watch television with her. I had more often than not refused, saying I had an early start the next day and couldn’t go late to work. I could have. I could have sat up with her occasionally and still not lost my job. But anxiety for the future had spoiled the moment for me. Now that she’s all grown-up, call her if I may, she has better things to do. I had lost the moment.

I had lost the moment in a lovely, old souk in Morocco and a market in Mexico when I was fretting about whether I would make my connections back safely, or whether my baggage would be over the free allowance, though my return was two days away!

The beauty and the wondrous sights, the flavours, colours and fragrances of spices in the souk, the lovely cane products, the shoes, the bags, the gorgeous hand-woven rugs, the hand-embroidered linen being sold from the streets didn’t touch me quite as much as they should have. The romance of the antique markets of Mexico was lost on me. I have only photos that a friend took to remember them by. I had lost the moment.

The times that I went to see Dad and he asked me to stay back awhile, and I said that the daughter’s homework had to get done, dogs had to be fed or whatever reason I gave – I had lost the moment. He will never call me again because he is not in this world to do so.

Not anymore. The masseur’s fingers were almost like the shade of a Bodhi tree. They conveyed to me the importance of the moment. I shed my worries and gave in to the magic. And it worked wonders for my nerves.

As I write this, a song comes to mind – it’s in Hindi. Aane wala pal jaane wala hai. Ho sake to isme zindagi bitado – pal ye bhi jaane wala hai! I also salute Bollywood, and particularly Gulzar for giving us such gems.

Yes I will practice living every moment in life. At least I won’t have lost moments that will never come back!

Bharathi Ghanashyam