Of wrist watches, coin purses, handbags and character certificates

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Image courtesy: Google images Fearless under the umbrella

Every creaking joint, every aching limb and tired muscle and sinew in my body sings with gratitude and says a daily prayer of thanks to my little army of helpers. I owe a huge debt to the ladies who come home to help me with my household chores, sometimes neglecting their own. They are the ones who very often make my life that much more pleasant and who don’t balk at giving my feet a quick rub if they are aching, or my head a gentle massage occasionally.

They are a group of three – two who are officially on the rolls of my household and the other who comes in to help her sister. Self-assured women, they can teach me a lesson or two in grooming. They troop in to work every morning, wearing impeccably tailored cholis and sarees draped and pinned to perfection,  every hair on their head combed and neatly in place, fresh flowers woven into their braids. They are adept at using, and avoiding use (when they don’t want to be reached) of their mobile phones, which are carried safely stored in small purses bearing names of local stores called Sharada Jewellery Mart or Venkateshwara Gold Palace or something similar. When I need to use a new feature on my phone, I seek their help. I also get their advice when I want lower phone bills because they are adept at using mobile phones at virtually zero cost. They all belong to micro-credit groups, are the main breadwinners of their families and own bank accounts, passbook and all. Sharp as pins when it comes to managing money, they can put professional bankers to shame. These women – Ratna, Ganga and Shivamma are formidable women- empowered and strong. They possess every card required to make life easy – Aadhaar, BPL, APL etc, etc etc. One of them even has an Uber App on her phone!

And yet…

And yet, despite the obvious progress they have made on external fronts, nothing much has changed for them on the home front. This was brought home to me with force in the strangest ways. On one of my travels, I wanted to bring back some gifts for them. So I picked up inexpensive, but very grand looking Chinese wrist watches. Even as I was choosing them, I imagined the joy on their faces. They could wear the watches to weddings, or other community functions I thought. They were happy to receive them too, but the joy I had imagined was somehow missing. They looked apprehensive, scared almost. The reason soon became evident.

The next day two of them came to work looking sad, even crestfallen. Ganga’s husband had given her a severe dressing down when he saw the watch and demanded to know the name of her secret boyfriend who had given her it to her! He had also attempted to hit her. 25-year-old Ratna’s husband had roundly reprimanded her and wanted to know why a mother of two needed to wear such fancy things and attract attention! Shivamma is a widow and her neighbours cautioned her against wearing anything that would attract unwanted attention.

Today Ratna’s husband wears the watch I gave to her, Ganga has given away her watch to her teen-aged daughter and Shivamma’s watch is waiting safely in her cupboard for the son of the house to get married so the new daughter-in-law (a suhagan) can wear it.

I was more careful the next time I travelled. From the bustling markets of Chembur, I bought them little coin purses, which they could tuck away into their blouses, where no one could see them and pass judgment on their character, sexual habits or other grave matters. This time they were happier to receive their gifts, but didn’t use the purses, because their younger relatives took them away.

Not one to give up, I bought them bags with names of the places I had visited on them. These were rejected for fear of people questioning their character or suspecting them of being show-offs. Exasperated, but still determined to buy them something that could be of use to them, the next time around I bought them an umbrella each. This time I had struck gold!!

Now, rain or shine, they flaunt their umbrellas fearlessly because these innocent objects neither cause a further dent in their already tottering marriages, nor result in their character being questioned. They are also able to hide their faces below their open umbrellas, thereby being able to protect their image even further because it’s difficult to say who’s below the umbrella!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Comic moments in the midst of tragic circumstances – societal anomalies

This post comes close on the heels of my last one as they are connected in a sense. I’d like to begin with a little story.

Amitabh Bachchan has shared somewhere that when he was going through tough times, he had a member of his staff park his car outside his (Amitabh’s home). He did this to give people the impression that he still owned a car when in reality, he didn’t.  Such is the tyranny of society! He had to do it because as Amitabh Bachchan, his image was so important that any dent in it could break him.

Thankfully, I am not Amitabh Bachchan; I am a person who can walk past you on the street without attracting any attention. But notwithstanding our ordinariness, we too got our share of flak from society. Our changed circumstances brought with them changed societal perceptions about us and we too were victims in a sense, of a rigid societal order, which was uncomfortable with anything that rocked it.

For how we coped with it, I speak only for myself , and not the other members of my family. They were fighting their own battles; mine was simpler because I had always been able to manage with very little. Because I did not miss the trappings, I had the mind space and opportunity to view society from a distance as it were. I was learning on the ground everyday…

We were the same, and yet, we weren’t…

When we became poor overnight as it were, we didn’t grown horns, or an extra head or anything like that. Even as I saw our net worth getting steadily eroded, physically we were still the same. There weren’t too many changes in us, barring the fact that we used autos and buses in place of cars. From living in a well-appointed, attractive apartment, we had moved into a little rented cubby hole. I worked at paid jobs now and had to reign in my instincts to be the boss. I had to constantly remind myself to keep my head down as I had a boss whose head was bigger. I was now preoccupied with finding cheaper ways to commute to work, finding money on lean days to reach office and a hundred other details.  I had seen my domestic help juggling meagre budgets and coping with so much with such grace in the past. I didn’t realise how much I had learnt from them. All that came into use now. I also learnt that the world had so many options. If auto charge was hard to come by, I could use a bus; on days I did not have bus fare, I could walk and on days I couldn’t walk, someone was kind enough to offer me a lift – not friends but strangers. We always have options to replace despair.

I could have avoided all this and gone and lived with my parents, family and all. They were waiting with open arms, but would I be where I am today if I had done that? I’m wizened, hardy like a cactus plant, and fearless because I’ve seen the worst and survived. I repeat, I’m talking for myself and not my family because their experiences, their learnings and their decisions were their own. Disaster affects different persons in different ways.

From a distance…

I didn’t have the time to socialise anymore and I suspect no one missed me! Despite this, my biggest learnings came from societal perceptions which slipped out quite innocuously when I met people from my past. I  fielded them in the best way I knew how to – with disdain and detachment. They knew no better and were greater victims entrapped by society I told myself. Sounds like grapes are sour? It isn’t. It worked for me. I grew stronger by the day when I broke the bonds. I reproduce here, some gems which I have etched into my brains, if only to use as quotable quotes!

From a writer friend who invited me for coffee one day after he came to know I had fallen on bad times – the first thing he wanted to know was whether as a working woman I was being sexually exploited. I hadn’t, but wait… A boss of mine once told me he had seen me around Bangalore and had ogled me in the past. Was that to be construed as sexual exploitation? Maybe yes.

My friend also kindly suggested that in time I would have enough material from my own experiences to write a book! Maybe it was a good idea! Maybe I should!

From someone who had been a very, very close friend and who had mysteriously begun avoiding my calls –  I bumped into her once at my club, where I had housed a guest who I went to meet. She looked at me, mouth agape, and kept repeating, “But you’re ok! There’s nothing wrong with you!” Of course I was ok I wanted to tell her! Today I will. Dear friend, all it took was for you to pick up my call when I tried to call you. You would have been spared the wonder on that day!

From a friend who claimed my husband was like his older brother and went ahead and looked the other way when they met somewhere – Dear friend cum younger brother, what happened to us can happen to anyone and if you had fears that your friend would somehow use you, rest your fears today. He wouldn’t have.

I have a whole host of instances and examples, but airing them will be tedious and will sound resentful. I quoted these because I want to give a message through them. It’s not the fault of these people. Society is like that. Rigid and tyrannical! Dare to break rules and live to regret it! It is also true and just that each person looks to protect him/herself first. What if we were really out to exploit them? While we were unwise in reaching the stage we had, they were wise in protecting themselves. I bear them no ill will. I still send out birthday and anniversary wishes and wish them well. They have been great teachers!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

 

 

 

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

We’re Indians – we know about a thing or two about sex and don’t tell us otherwise!

I’ve been reading endlessly about atrocities that are committed in the name of culture in India today, and have been watching some ridiculous debates on Indian culture on television and they’ve descended to the level of comedy and ludicrousness. Day after day, we have the so-called moral custodians of our society take charge and mouth puerile arguments on Indian culture on our behalf. I’m probably going to be trolled endlessly on social media for this post, but I have to say it! I am a very ordinary citizen of this country and I say Enough is Enough!

We live today in the hypocritical world of Article 377, moral policing, ban on certain kinds of clothing (only for women), and cruelty in the form of vigil on courting couples in parks. We are scared of the culture vultures who profess to know everything, but probably prefer to think that storks brought them home, and their parents didn’t indulge in ‘dirty’ sex!

We need to face a few home truths. And we need to face them regardless of how unpalatable they are for those who think Indian culture is about denying that life is about love and relationships.  We also need to face that love is not a sterile and monotonously colourless emotion. Love is all about deriving joy from the loveliest part of being alive – the pleasures of relationships. It begins with the utter joy of touch, feel and warmth and goes on to lasting bonds that keep society healthy and growing.

I cringe every time a transgender is harassed in the name of culture, or a couple in love is hounded for improper behaviour. This is such a deviation from the time when our predecessors had joyously celebrated love and diversity – as is evident from the walls of temples, or on the gopuras above the entrances. A search on Google for ‘erotic temple frescoes in India’ for the purpose of this article, turned up 1000s of images in

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Pic Source: Google Images

seconds.This demonstrated with undeniable proof that our ancestors had their priorities sorted out. They were creative; they excelled in the arts, in academics, in spirituality, and just about all areas. But they also revelled in the pleasures of life and living, and even documented them on temple walls, thus giving it religious sanctity!

I refuse to be conned into believing that merely speaking to or calling upon a God as Kunti did when she was a young, unmarried girl resulted in Karna being born. Our epics are replete with stories of virtuous women, truly good women, who chose to cohabit with men other than their husbands in order to beget children. They knew it was required in order to keep their family lines alive. Men from our epics who we hold up as role models, were least apologetic about the fact that they had libidos which functioned normally.

But what do we do? We deny all that glory we should be celebrating; we shut our sensibilities to these realities and live in denial; we shroud these realities in stifling cloaks of culture and morality and judge people on impossible yardsticks.

Am I advocating that India suddenly becomes a permissive society? Am I advocating that all of India forgets that some of the most spiritually uplifting scriptures and philosophies have originated here? NO! I am demanding that we do not misunderstand our ancestors and misinterpret their messages, which were of acceptance and tolerance, and not of misplaced ideas of morality. I’m suggesting that we stay rational, and just and accepting. I’m strongly suggesting that every transgender, every gay person and every other person who is accused of being deviant has many things in common with those considered ‘normal’.

We all have beating hearts, and other vital organs that keep us alive. We are bound by these commonalities that cannot be wished away. We all feel pain, both physical and mental and this is the only thing that must be considered. Everything else is immaterial. Respect is the only emotion that is relevant. It’s time we understood this and lived it! Go on you trolls, come and get me! I’m waiting!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Summer of 2004

The summer of 2002

I will never forget the scorching summer of 2004, while my colleague and I were travelling in Orissa (now Odisha). The heat pinned us down even as we attempted get out of bed and temperatures climbed impatiently up to 420C well before noon.

Odisha is a unique state of contrasts. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly divine, incredibly backward, and incredibly poor – divinity emanates from the temples that dot the countryside and the towns, while poverty and under-development co-exist cheek by jowl.

That year, that day

An air of tranquility washed over us as we drove through the state. I remember a feeling of peace even as the extreme discomfort of the heat bore down on me heavily. Our work involved travelling deep into the interiors of rural Odisha to research and write about HIV/AIDS interventions and we were told to start our days early and spend the afternoons indoors in whichever village we found ourselves.

The heat was intense enough to swoop down and tie you up in a steamy tent and make you breathless till you felt that life would swiftly go out of you. As a small concession, we were given an air-conditioned vehicle to travel from one village to another. At one village, I saw a man suffering from sun-stroke being brought out and buckets of water being poured on him to prevent him from being roasted alive. And this where drinking water was scarce. Should I have felt guilty about travelling in comfort when I was there to write about people like him? I silenced my conscience telling myself I hadn’t gone there to die after all.

Midway through our stint, at the end of a day which had been unbearably, stiflingly hot, we came to a village. Entrances to most Indian villages are barely enough for two bullocks joined by a yoke to pass through; this village was no different. This meant we had to stop our vehicle and proceed by foot. Passing the customary temple, we wound our way around the haphazard lanes, avoiding heaps of surface-dried dung and huge, well-fed flies. Scrawny children played in this filth, scarcely affected by the heat. I love Indian villages now, but back then, I remember feeling more than mild discomfort.

The coordinator of the HIV/AIDS project we were there to write about, whispered in my ear, “Ma’am, two AIDS patients live in this village. But we will have to wait till nightfall to meet them. Let’s look around till then.”

So we looked around – at the poverty, the emaciated old people who sat at the entrance to their homes, and at the women who looked strangely alone and worried. We noticed there were no young men in the village and asked about it. The coordinator said, “They all migrate for work in this season, leaving their wives, children and parents behind.”

Ironically, while the men were away, a meeting was being held in the panchayat hall to demonstrate the use of condoms to women. There were no men in the meeting and the women sat shyly, sarees drawn over their faces, as the woman volunteer held a ‘wooden demonstration model’ and nonchalantly drew a condom over it. None of the women even looked up!!

The seed for Journalists against TB is sown

Darkness fell, and we were furtively taken to an empty house outside the village, where three people, a man accompanied by his father, and a young woman had been ‘brought’ to meet us like two exhibits. The man breathed in short painful gasps. Skin-covered ribs stuck out starkly on his chest and his father spoke for him as he hadn’t the energy to respond to our questions.

The woman waited inside the house and looked up as she heard us enter. Very young, probably in her early 20s, she seemed marginally better than the man but we were told she was dying of HIV related TB as well. As I spoke to her, I looked into her eyes. They reflected several emotions – bewilderment that seemed to question why she was dying for no fault of hers. Anxiety because she knew she was dying and was going to leave two little children behind. Her husband had already died after infecting her. I also saw her wince from the pain of the fever and cough that were consuming her.

But most of all I saw her puzzled. She seemed to wonder why we were there. What could we do for her? Her despair got to me. I turned away, ashamed that I was even attempting to ask her irrelevant, impertinent questions about how she contracted HIV, who gave it to her etc. Questions had no place in her life now.  In fact nothing had relevance; she was dying. What could I say? Could I say I would pray for her, giving her the impression that there was nothing else that would work for her? I stumbled out of the house finding it difficult to hold back my tears. The tears came, later in my room. But so did a determination that I would do something, if not for her, at least for people like her.

That day I hated the woman’s husband – a migrant, who had infected her. Today, I don’t. Because I know that he was ignorant. Had he been aware of the dangers he had exposed himself and his wife to, he might have been careful. His choices might have been safer.

For TB, the situation is even worse – because you don’t do anything to get TB. You just breathe. This makes awareness even more vital to protect yourself. My tryst with TB began back then. It wasn’t easy to negotiate media space for TB because it was such non-issue. Back then, other than people from the programme, very few knew about or spoke about TB. At least, with the advent of HIV, it got its place under the sun, albeit merely as a co-infection.

But I persevered and one day, in frustration, after several publications had declined to take a piece I had written on TB, I decided to start my own paper! It was easy because opening one’s own paper simply meant founding a blog and feeding it with news! ‘Journalists against TB’ was born, for what it was worth, and I had kept my promise to the nameless woman in Odisha, who is probably looking down at me from wherever she is. And it was never difficult to find space again to speak about what mattered.

The TB sector welcomed me with open arms. I have seen change happening slowly, but surely and TB getting the attention it deserves. We’re not where we need to be just yet, but there is hope because there are hundreds like me who care about doing something. And they will!

Note: Journalists against TB has never been and will never be funded, in order to stay completely impartial. Travel grants have been accepted from time to time in order to build knowledge for informed writing.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

My imperfect world

Tree

Welcome to my imperfect world! The picture says it all. My harum-scarum world that only I understand. The chaotic world where only I can see the flowers – they grow any which way. Even the sky in my world follows its own order. In my world the grass grows the way I want it to – wild, without rules, not in any order – because being in an ordered world is to defy the ‘larger plan’. Being in a world of big plans is to defy and ignore the small ones that make life worth living. And yet, there are some perfect things even in my imperfect world. Like the tree!

The perfection in an imperfect world

The tree is exactly the way I want it to be, and the way I want to be – strong and unshakeable. It gives strength when all else is crumbling. It defies the sky sometimes; it nurtures all the little creatures that grow in its shade. It allows uninvited guests to come and make their homes on its strong branches – and doesn’t voice a whimper when they leave without as much as a bye leaving their untidy nests behind when their little ones have grown up and away. Is the tree something of a ‘doormat’? No, it’s a welcoming host.

It’s the tree that provides shelter against threatening storms and drenching rains. And when the rain is past and the refuge seekers have left, leaving their litter behind, the tree just smiles, forgiving them and waits for the next batch of refuge seekers. Is the tree devoid of self-esteem? No, on the other hand, it’s actually very sure of what its role in the world is.

The tree it is, which gives fruit to the stone-pelters, the free-loaders and the exploiters. It gives fruit without asking pesky questions. What will you do with it? What is my ROI (return on investment)? I need to meet my targets so I’ll crush my neighbouring tree. Is the tree unambitious? No, it’s just self assured.

The tree is not insecure; it doesn’t need constant reassurance about its place on earth. If that were not true, the tree would not live by its own rules, swing to its own music; it would not send fresh shoots up into the very place that the tree-cutter left his destructive trail. That’s because the tree spent years growing roots before it grew into the sky. That’s because it was in no hurry to grow up before it grew from inside – defiant, spunky and unafraid.

In my chaotic, imperfect world I take strength from the tree. There will be order in chaos one day. I am growing inside. Like a tree.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

 

 

 

The tyranny of social norms

11.04.2017

After a gap…

It’s been a while since I visited here. Tonight, at the end of a long working day, I’ve silenced my creaking joints, defied a body that’s crying for rest; and allowed my mind and resolve to take the lead and am sitting down to do this.

I’ve got it coming out of my ears – this question, again and again. “Why do you have to do this at your age?” I’ve stopped replying now and answer with a vacuous grin, which can mean nothing or a lot – depending on who it’s directed at. If it’s a person who’s genuinely concerned for me, it can mean a lot, and I reassure them that I’m still fit and will be fit hopefully for many more years to come. If it’s a person who’s bound by social norms and believes that a woman who crossed a half-century+10 must wrap herself in a shawl, wear socks and shuffle helplessly around the house, it means, I didn’t want to be rude and ask them to ‘you know what’!

That brings me to social norms and a conference I attended a few weeks ago. During the discussions, I realised with a mental thud that we in society are tyrannised by social norms. Social norms are, as I learnt, norms of behaviour that society expects us to conform to and we do it, fearing sanctions on failing to do so. And this is why I will think twice before going to a bar or pub without a man accompanying me – I don’t want to be seen as lacking in character. This is why I will refrain from dining out with a male friend from college, if my husband does not accompany me. Or this is also why I will refrain from walking out of a bad marriage, even if I’m being beaten just short of death, physically and emotionally every other day. What will people say?  What will they think? Who will marry my daughter? And the list goes on…

Social norms are ubiquitous. There are norms for every action in life – dressing, talking, marrying, not marrying, eating, and I read yesterday, there are even prescribed norms for women and their hair – hair shastra! And they all seemed to be designed and reserved for this special species called woman, who everybody in the world is out to protect, and strangely enough, destroy at the same time. Hmm..

Am I lecturing from an ivory tower? Have I tried to change things? Have I had the courage to walk the ‘road less travelled?’ The answer is yes, and the answer is also no. I tried stepping out for dinner alone one night when I was out on business travel in Delhi, and bored of eating kathi rolls night after night, sitting in my room and watching or rather hearing Arnab Goswami screaming into my ears. There was a famous restaurant down the road from my hotel and I figured no harm could come if I popped in and popped out after gorging on their renowned tandoori chicken. How I wished I hadn’t. All the while I was there, I felt the glare and the unease of the manager, the waiters and the other diners on me, questioning, maybe judging or conjecturing too. The chicken tasted like charcoal in my mouth and I beat a somewhat hasty retreat after doing some service to it. And yet, when I went to Liverpool, UK recently, I had to step out alone for dinner and didn’t attract even a glance from anyone – my ego was shattered, but…

But there are happy experiences too. My mother, recently left alone after my brother died, decided she would have none of staying with her children. She was determined to live in the home her husband had given her and where his soul still lived. She’s managed pretty well and has managed to silence all those awkward questions that have come her way. It’s difficult though, and more strength to her.

We are seeing more examples as we see our daughters rebelling against norms, sometimes at great cost to themselves. But the churning has to happen and someone has to pay the price before things get better for women. Our support is with the women who are daring to swim against the tide and hopefully a time will come when a 60-year old will not be questioned when she wants to stay alive mentally and wants to work well beyond society’s perceptions of when she should curl into a hole and go to sleep!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

On Women’s Day – All about some Ammas

I have never met her. And yet, it seems like I know her well.  I have heard of her, heard of her work and heard her speak. And she has always embodied the quintessential woman. Madhu Bhushan – for me, is a woman who wears her femininity with pride and grace and yet, is a fiery feminist. For me she signifies what all of us women should aspire to be. I believe that feminism is NOT about competing with men – it’s about loving your femininity with the same love that nature displayed while giving it to you; it means looking beautiful because you are beautiful inside out, being soft, and reveling in your ability to give and nurture life – something that men can’t do (at least not yet). And above all it means being quietly firm and sure of your place in the order of the world – equal, if not the greater half. As yet another Women’s Day rolls by, who better to share her experiences about women, than her? Thank you Madhu, you made this Women’s Day special for GRIN! Madhu Bhushan is a feminist activist, writer, (re)searcher, part of Vimochana for more than three decades since 1983 and now works independently.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Over to Madhu, unplugged…

Bharathi did me the honour of asking me to write something for her blog for March 8. Memories of a woman or women who have inspired me down the years. It did not take much to coax me, since I am getting to that age when it takes very little to get me to relive the past! At first I thought I would write  only about Dodyelgamma. But as I began to write more memories of more women  started flooding the page. But in the interest of space, I edited many out to include just two other Ammas in my life. Kamlamma and Ceciliyamma.

Kamlamma, my grandmother…

The gentle matriarch of her large family. Just thinking of her life makes me breathless. She started the babies coming when she gave birth to my father at the tender age of 13 years. And then did not stop till she had thirteen children. It became so routine that she was conducting  deliveries for her daughters even while she was going through her own.

Despite being debilitated and disabled by rheumatoid arthritis from young, she also became a full time nurse for her husband, my grandfather, who lay in bed totally paralyzed and bedridden for 12 long years. This apart from cooking and caring for her children and scores of grandchildren like us who kept flowing in and out of the house at regular intervals.

And yet through all this, she managed to  have time and inclination to tend to her little garden in front of her little house that exploded with  flowers – pearly mallige, the perky purple spatika and the cheery orange kanakambra. And lovingly nurture the tiny backyard that boasted of a little banana grove, a solitary cotton bush, a coffee plant and a mandatory lemon tree that never failed to yield its produce year after year.

Kamalamma, a woman of her times whose stoic resilience sustained a generation; for who choice and freedom were hardy home-grown ingredients, not ready-to-eat products, processed, packaged and sold in the supermarket of convenience.

Ceciliyamma, my first feminist comrade…

A village nurse and midwife who evolved her own special brand of fiery organic feminism forged in the fires of her domestic battles with a husband who had abandoned her and their three children.

For me, as a young, idealistic awe-struck activist in the 80s she was not so much a ‘case’  I was supporting in her fight for justice. She was a woman who inspired with her grit and determination to build a new just world for women, despite or perhaps because of her own personal sense of injustice.

Her unexpected death at the hands of her husband who she forgave and took back into her home was as much tragic as it was traumatic for those of us who thought she and her convictions were indestructible.

Ceciliyamma in her life and death taught us about the fragility of all ideologies when faced with vulnerability of the human spirit for which love continues to be a curse and benediction, both.   

Dodyelgamma. A life teacher. A woman whose life was as hard as her faith…

The image of her praying to her beloved Goddess Yellamma one memorable night when she got possessed is indelibly etched into my soul. Standing in front of the deity in the ramshackle hut she called her home, arms akimbo, feet astride, hair all white and wild, saree all tattered, teeth all betel-stained. And emerging from her mouth a steady stream of curses against the goddess. Berating her for not caring enough or doing justice. For her or for her people. Irreverent. Free and fearless. Yet full of faith. Her colourful vocabulary, infinite wisdom and beautifully personal, democratic relationship with the divine continue to inspire!

Thank you Dodyelgamma for teaching me the value and worth of uncompromising freedom and autonomy in our relationship with power. Be it sacred or secular.

The final word…

 Resistance through resilience. Love through vulnerability. Power through autonomy. There is much to learn from the vast canvas of transformation into which women paint colours of hope and hopelessness from their everyday realities that anchor them firmly. A valuable lesson learnt from being part of the very diverse women’s movement over the past three decades that despite all the questions and contradictions has taught me to look for the universal in the specific; the political in the personal; the poetry in the pain. And yes, sometimes the other way around too!

I agree Madhu, entirely!

 

7 Men and 1 Woman – Rocking it in London!

International Women’s Day is looming, and GRIN has something very special lined up to mark the day. But before that, here’s a story I love to tell, and it’s about men! It’s about a trip I went on, where I was the only hapless woman, unwittingly ‘stuck’ with seven men! And what I got to see are sides to men we women might not acknowledge exists! Without much ado, here’s the story – in all its glory!

The year – 2006

Six of us – four men and two women had won a prestigious award and as a part of the award, we were getting to go on a study tour to London, no less for seven whole days. Of course I was excited. The trip was to a phoren land after all!

In my flurry to beg and borrow clothes, camera, warm wear, and other thingies one needed for a foreign trip, I quite forgot to get acquainted with my fellow awardees. I had met them all during the awards ceremony and then we all went about our job of getting ready for the trip. Two days before travel, I got to know that my sole lady co-awardee had opted out of coming owing to a personal problem. So there I was – with seven men (including the three persons from the organization sponsoring us). I wasn’t prudish or anything; rather other worries plagued me. Who would go shopping with me? I couldn’t after all shop for lingerie and cosmetics with men accompanying me. Would they know the difference between nude lipstick and otherwise, or padded or not? Out of question! And what if I needed to speak about my myriad health issues? Back pain, cramps and what not?

But it was too late so I decided to grin and bear it! I wasn’t going to compromise a trip to LONDON because of a flimsy reason such as this. My colleagues were all ‘boys’ in a sense. They were all much younger than me, and I think chivalry comes naturally to men when they see an older woman!

The next week saw me being made ‘one of the boys’ very quickly, even while recognizing that I needed just that wee bit of extra support when it came to setting foot on escalators that went to dizzying heights, or to slowing down their pace of walking just to ensure I could keep pace.  And all this with gracious acceptance and not condescension, “Oh, she’s a woman, give her a break.” Over the next week, I was pampered, coddled and treated like fragile china! I came back with my opinion about men taking a huge upward spiral. But enough about me. Meet them…

  1. Biju Mathew – All India Radio – he collects awards with prolific ease and I’ve lost count of how many he has won after we returned.
  2. Rajeet Sinha – Currently Press Advisor to a high-profile MP, but still exudes the same warmth and affection and humility whenever we speak.
  3. S Nagarathinam – effortlessly added on a PhD and a son to his portfolio after we returned and currently heads the Communications Department of a renowned university.
  4. Sanjeev Sharma – All India Radio – hasn’t aged a bit since I last saw him but I’ve kind of lost touch with him.
  5. Jacob John – I’ve lost touch but I’m sure he can never change. Lovely, lovely human.
  6. Khorrum Omer – Ditto. But I do see him on TV occasionally.
  7. Savyasaachi Jain – The BIG BOSS.

I have names for all of them.

The Wall (a la Dravid) Biju – solid, soft-spoken.  Took copious notes unobtrusively at all meetings.  I could sense a whopper of a story, or several stories in the making. He proved it on his return with all the awards he’s collected.

The Buzzzzzy bee Rajeet – here, there, everywhere.  Knew the tube lines inside out.  Assumed the role of gentle leader in no time.  Chased stories with the vigour of a seasoned newshound who knew the value and the volatility of TRPs and was committed to do his bit to make them spin.  Packed in 28 hours into a 24-hour day.

Waterman Sanjeev – affable, quiet, unflappable.  A very endearing mixture of fun and serious intent.  Mischief shone through his eyes.  Why Waterman?  He had the lovely quality of water about him and fit the vessel he was in.

Superstar Nagi – Hmm… found scoops lurking around every corner.  He found Tiruvalluvar wrapped in a shawl sitting in statuesque splendour under a tree in the University College of London.  He found Gandhi tucked away in a park.  He visited the Tamil BBC and walked away from there triumphantly holding a BBC diary like a war trophy.  Brought a smile to the Tamilians working in a store by talking to them in Tamil and giving them a taste of home.  Nagi and his camera were inseparable.  And he wanted himself in all his pictures.  We all ended up as near-professional photographers attempting to catch him in the myriad poses he wanted!!!

Jacob? Willing to learn, to participate and yet not pushy, or abrasive.  Great to have around.

Saachi – the long-haired genial boss! He had the London A-Z and the tube map in his head.  Even though he referred to it desultorily sometimes, one knew he did not need to.  Like a sure-footed antelope he set a dizzying pace that I at least went blue in the face trying to keep up with.  Many a time I found myself lagging behind.

Khorrum – always at hand to help. Silent, strong, dependable. Had all kinds of useful tips having been to London more than once.

To my utter horror, I once found myself setting up easy conversation with a long-haired individual in jeans and jacket, to whose back I spoke about the weather etc.  Only when the individual (a woman as it turned out), turned round and looked at me strangely did I realise I had detached from the group.  Huffed and panted my way back just in time to catch the tube with them. And they were all huddled together and watching me, giggling all the time!

A truly unforgettable experience. Especially when I once realized I had left behind my folder, notes and all at a bus stop and Rajeet ran back almost a whole kilometre just to retrieve it!

But this is not just a travel memoir or about singing paeans to my male friends. This trip in many ways changed my perceptions about men. The reason I enjoyed the trip immensely is because while I was with them they did not make me once feel I was different from them. Except perhaps when they mysteriously disappeared every evening to do ‘men’ things. After all they were in London – the land of pubs and nightclubs and all sorts of sensory pleasures! It is to their credit that they made me feel completely at ease – give me seven men like these any time and I will begin to believe there are no other kind in the world – that misogyny, patriarchy and male dominance are figments of female minds. More strength to them!

P.S. We still keep in touch over Facebook and other ways and on every ‘anniversary’ flood each other with memories and photographs, some of which are featured here!

Bharathi Ghanashyam