Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Comprehensive Manual to Being a Good Girl

Be a good girl, they said.

Be quiet.
Be silent.
Raise your hand when you want to say something.
Better yet, say nothing at all.

Don't use swear words.
Your brothers will, of course.
But then, boys will be boys.
You watch your tongue. Hold your tongue. Curb your tongue.

Be a good girl.

Wear your dupatta.
Don't you know only loose girls wear jeans and shorts?
Don't you know only character-less girls wear short skirts?
Don't you know only sluts let their bra straps show, provocatively, while wearing spaghetti tops?

Cross your legs.
Don't spread them - literally and figuratively.
Hold your arms tightly by your sides or cross them across your bosom.
Don't swing them loose and free.
Squeeze yourself into a small box, and stay there.

Be a good girl.

Don't drink.
Don't smoke.
Don't walk alone.
Don't drive alone.
Don't speak to strange men.
Don't smile too openly. You may be misunderstood.
But don't be an ice queen either. Then they will think you frigid. Proud. Arrogant.

Be polite. Be well brought up. Be lady-like. Be nice

Be a good girl.

Don't argue.
Don't talk back.
If you have opinions, learn to keep them to yourself.
Nobody likes an abrasive girl, you know?
Go along with things.
That's what women do, you know?
They shift, mould, bend.
They chip pieces of themselves away so they can fit with the men in their lives, like jigsaw puzzles.

Don't you know about the rising divorce rates?
It's these girls with their new-fangled notions of independence and careers.
Family comes first.
Go start one now. It's time.
Your ovaries are drying up and it'll soon be too late for you.
Barren-ness awaits.

Be a good girl.

Wear soft make-up. 
(Only prostitutes wear red lipstick. And overly smoky eyes mean you're promiscuous.)
But don't look too pretty.
You don't want to give them the wrong idea.

Be willing to smile at movies and shows and videos that demean women.
It's all in good fun, after all.
Just a movie.
Just a show.
Just a video.
No need to get het up.
Enjoy it.
Just don't laugh too loud. (You may giggle coyly though.)

Be a good girl.

Be appropriate.
Be acceptable.
Don't make people uncomfortable.
Don't test the norm, stretch the limits, break new ground.
That's reserved for the men. The adventurers and conquerors.

You be the guardian of tradition, of the solid and the stable, of our collective morals.
When women stray, things fall apart.
We are Atlas, carrying the world on our shoulders.
Don't shrug.
Be the status quo.

Be a good girl.

You were always meant to be the other half.
Someone's daughter, sister, wife, mother.

You are the space inside a rectangle.
Defined by the lines.
These borders give you existence. Without them, who are you?
Don't you go thinking you are one of the lines that make up the shape.
You are the white emptiness inside.
Meant to be shaped.

Be a good girl.

Be Sita.
(But don't be Draupadi, okay? She had the gall to speak out.)
Be Lakshmi.
(But don't be Kali, okay? We worship her but let's face it, strength like that is reserved for fictitious goddesses.)
Be one of those lovely girls in those wonderful soaps with Indian values.
("I don't want to do this. But I will. For my family. For the greater good. To keep the peace. I will sacrifice.")

Adhere to the Lakshman rekhas made by the many Lakshmans in your life.
That will keep you safe. Keep you moral. Keep you where you're supposed to be kept.
You know?

Save us all some trouble.
Just be a good girl.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Heartbroken and Guilty: The Road to Freedom is Paved with Introspection

“Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me.” 
– 1984, George Orwell

My country has always been my first love. I love its essential spirit: the inclusiveness, the ability to assimilate differences, the tradition of dialogue and argument, the vibrancy of daily life that we so take for granted. I’m the sucker that cries at any ad that pulls at my nationalistic heart-strings, the one who cheers like a maniac at cricket matches where India’s playing, the emotional patriot who knows every word to songs like “Bhaarat humko jaan se pyaara hai.”

But today, India, you are breaking my heart. I am left hanging my head in great sorrow and personal shame. Yes, personal. Because how can I distinguish myself from this country, separate “India” from “Pallavi”?

We strut arrogantly through life, through the world…setting up outposts everywhere, believing we are the very best, secure in our “cultural heritage”, aiming for a UN Security Council seat, cutting billion-dollar defense deals, laughing proudly when we see Aishwarya Rai on Oprah.

And yet, when you think about it for a second, the massive problems in this country are only too obvious: widespread poverty, malnourishment, disease, systemic political corruption, a patriarchal system that is a daily nightmare for most women, high crime rates, an inefficient police force, vulnerability to terror attacks…need I go on?

We seem to have lost either the will or the ability to introspect.

Bring up a flaw, highlight an issue, take up a cause – and hundreds of naysayers will strike you down. “So negative”, “so unpatriotic”, “so extreme”, “so boring”, “who cares?” – responses are varied, but pretty much translate to the same basic message: “shut the hell up and let us get on with our lives”.

So most of us do. I know I have – I am as guilty as the next person of shutting up about things because it was EASIER.

It’s easier to keep your friends when you stay quiet about their characterization of certain women as “loose” or “slutty”.

It’s easier to keep the peace in a social gathering when you laugh along as someone mocks a “feminist”.

It’s easier to not rock the family boat when you don’t challenge relatives’ medieval notions of a woman’s place, a woman’s responsibility.

It’s easier to take home a regular salary when you pretend the “sexual harassment committee” at your workplace is not a complete farce.

It’s easier to not care. It’s just more…convenient.

We are all guilty here, let’s make no mistake about it.

Oh, I’m not saying the political class is not at fault. It’s their JOB to run this bloody country and we ALL know they have failed magnificently on that account.

But they say you get the politicians you deserve, and maybe that’s true.

We continue to let them play us, divide us, rule us on the basis of frivolous concepts: caste, religion, region. And then we act surprised when the country is falling apart. We are only too happy to go cast a vote on some preconceived notions (how many of us do ANY research on the candidates we’re voting for?) or not vote at all (“what are the options, yaar?”), and stop there.

It is OUR fault that our netas are not accountable. 

If a candidate with a rape charge against him is in power, how do you think he got there? We VOTED for him.

If a corrupt politician stays in power for over a decade, how do you think she got there? We KEPT her there.

If the police force is corrupt, how do you think it keeps going? We BRIBE our cops – for skipping a red light, extending party deadlines, a drunk driving charge.

If society mistreats its women, well whose fault is that? We COLLUDE with society – we snigger at women who have multiple sexual partners, we call dowry “gifts”, we nod along when someone says “women just don’t know how to compromise anymore” when talking about a divorce, we “understand” that big business families want a male heir, we don’t want to be called “feminists” because – let’s face it – “feminist” is a four-letter word in these patriarchal days and ways.

In sum, we dodge our responsibilities – and I include myself in this completely.

Well, democracy is a two-sided coin. And since we haven’t held up our end of the bargain, the system is NOT working. What a shocker, right?

It’s the end of the year, and it’s time for me to introspect. Time for all of us to introspect.

What can I do differently? Where will I fight my battles once these protests cease?

Will I walk the talk?

Will I take my maid to self-defence classes with me?

Will I support a friend/relative who wants to marry a rape victim?

Will I speak up when someone says “slut” next time?

Will I acknowledge that feminism, in all its militant glory, is the reason I have a Masters degree, the reason I had the right to marry the man of my choice, the reason I can vote, drink, work, party, drive, and even stand for elections if I so choose?

Will I show up in court and pay the fine next time I commit a traffic violation, instead of paying the cop 200 bucks?

Will I get involved, like I’ve been saying all these days, and start volunteering with a counseling/women’s rights organisation?

Will I stop and intervene next time I see a person in trouble on the streets?

Will I research the candidate in my locality next time and do what I can to spread the word, to try and make the election agenda-driven rather than party- or community-driven?

Will I, as a patriot, stop being in denial and actually DO something about these things?

India, it’s time for us to think deeply, to become self-aware.

Then, it’s time for us to act – thoughtfully, consistently, collectively.

India, it’s time for us to heal you.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Housekeeper in Paradise

An Edenic Maldivian Island

It’s amazing what people do to provide for their families. Today, at the idyllic island resort in the Maldives where I’m staying, I discovered that the gentleman who does our housekeeping speaks Hindi – so of course we were soon chatting away like old acquaintances.

The housekeeper is originally from Bangladesh and has been working on this picturesque island for many years now. His wife and children live back in his village in Bangladesh. He makes a good salary and sends back most of it to his family each month, so that his children can go to school and have a shot at white-collar jobs, at a brighter tomorrow – a chance he and his wife never had.

“Do you like it here?” I ask.

“Yes, it’s beautiful and they treat us very well, but –” there is a flash of pain across the housekeeper’s face and suddenly, I am terribly sorry to have asked him such a question, a question that doesn’t bear thinking about for solitary migrant workers all over the world. “It’s hard,” he continues, “living away from my family. Sometimes, a year and a half, even two years, go by before I can visit them. It’s difficult, not being able to see the children for so long.”

What can I do except listen and nod, my heart silently breaking for this man, with his weather-beaten face, his slightly-different Hindi, and his impeccable bed-making and towel-folding skills? It’s such a familiar story: men and women, unable to eke out a decent living in their own countries, migrate to other lands where the money is good, the living quarters are small, and home and family are reduced to memories that keep you going.

(Surely, sometimes, in the middle of the night, those who are parents must be gripped by some sort of panic: Are my children all right? What if something has happened to them? Do they miss me? Do they even remember me? What if they’ve forgotten? Oh god, I’m too far away to look after them, please keep them safe.)

I remember that my housekeeper does not have easy access to the wondrous gadgets and devices that make long-distance relationships bearable for people like us: smartphones, international calling cards, WhatsApp, BBM, notebooks, iPads, Skype, FaceTime, GoogleTalk, Facebook, Picasa, and so on and so forth. And I feel so horribly guilty, with my wasteful plethora of gadgets scattered all around the hotel room….

I wish I could have said something wise and comforting. In all probability, though, I would have just sounded patronising – trying to provide commentary on a situation I have no key to. Just as well then that I nod and say, “I see. Okay… Well, thank you for doing the room. It looks great. Shukriya. ”

The housekeeper looks relieved, smiles and walks away into the palm-fronded paradise that is this tiny island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

On days like this, I fervently hope there’s a method to all this melancholy madness.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Getting Off the Goddamn Fence

I do not consider myself religious.

I was born a Hindu, and have a degree of affection for the religion of my birth. During moments of crisis, I find it calming to recite the Gayatri Mantra. I think the Mahabharata is one of the best stories ever told. I like the concept of doing one’s duty, regardless of personal benefit or harm. And I have a weakness for indigo-skinned, flute-playing men.

However, I couldn’t care less for the larger, ritualized Hinduism that is routinely touted as “authentic” or give a flying you-know-what about Ram Rajya and other associated nonsense.

I also know I’m not alone. So many of us – born Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs – have a residual fondness for the religions we were born into but don’t buy into the organized, systemic aspect of them. Some of us don’t even believe in God.

We are the religious moderates. The ones who may not believe in something, but don’t have a problem if someone else does. We don’t fast or go to places of worship or believe in auspicious dates…but it’s okay by us if someone else does – as long as they don’t try and stuff it down our throats.

We don’t have faith (or, perhaps, some of us have trace amounts of faith), but we acknowledge there are others out there who do – and we respect that. Frankly, as long as it doesn’t affect us, we just don’t care enough what other people believe.

As long as it doesn’t affect us.

That’s the key phrase.

The problem, I think, is that it has started affecting us – or at least, things we like or people like us. Maybe it always did. But it seems, in the past few years, that the world around us has degenerated into a state of continual religious fervor. Whether it’s increasing religion-based violence, a dangerous clamping down on freedom of speech and the written word, or violence towards authors, film-makers, cartoonists, journalists and whatnot…the indicators of a religious crisis are everywhere.

In the melee, we moderates seem to have been drowned out. Everyone else is shouting: religious fundamentalists of all kinds, atheist zealots, pressure groups that want to appease certain religious communities, politicians with vested interests, hysterical journalists and news anchors, military personnel, priests, monks, mullahs, clerics, terrorists…

Everyone is shouting, and nobody is listening.

And where are we, in this unholy fracas? I don’t know about you, but I think I’ve been sitting on the fence. Oh sure, I speak out in a general way about current events – the Gujarat riots, the Mumbai bomb blasts, Mitt Romney, the Oslo bombings, the arrested cartoonists, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the – well, the list is endless.

But when religious extremism stares me in the face, up close and personal, I tend to walk away. “It’s not my problem,” I tell myself. “It doesn’t affect me. What good will it do to argue with this friend/relative/colleague? Let them believe what they do and say what they will. It’s not like I can change their minds. And anyway, it doesn’t affect me.”

But now, I think, it does. In immediate ways, as well as more subtle ones. I want to be able to buy The Satanic Verses in my country of birth. I want to go to a museum and see MF Hussain’s paintings of Hindu gods. I want to laugh at funny religious cartoons. I want to be able to walk into any freaking temple that might catch my fancy – even if I’m having my period. I don’t want to have to tiptoe around religious topics that I have opinions on. I don’t want to sound apologetic about eating beef or pork in anyone’s presence. I don’t want to speak in whispers about drinking, contraception, abortion, and other perfectly normal topics just because other people may take offense. I want to be able to say, freely, that certain parts of all religions are just stupid and meaningless.

Because nothing should be off-limits for discussion. If ideas are strong, if beliefs are true, they should be able to survive questioning and criticism. I love how religious zealots are allowed to preach to moderates or non-believers about the state of their souls till kingdom come, but if we respond and disagree, the “faith” card is played – and all of a sudden, we’re the “intolerant” ones.

We’re not intolerant. We may not believe what you do, but we respect your thoughts – whether you choose to believe in holy trinities, billions of gods, unclean meats or alien ancestors, WE DON’T CARE. Unless you start using those beliefs to oppress freedom of thought and speech – or begin telling us that other religions or what we believe (or don’t) is horseshit. The moment you do that, your faith is fair game. If you can’t take criticism, don’t be so eager to dish it out.

I refuse to sit by quietly anymore. I don’t want to shout, or run people down, or mock them, or be violent in thought or speech. I still want to listen, I want to understand, I want to know what other people think and where they’re coming from.

But there is a point where faith becomes fanaticism – too often, we give the latter a free pass because the former is such a volatile factor. Too long, I – WE – have sat on the fence and just refused to get involved in “somebody else’s problem”.

No more.

I will do my best to understand your views – but I will also speak, and expect you to listen in turn. If you are opinionated, I will also make my views clear. If you tell me how my soul should be governed, I will question the state of yours. If you tell me how to live, I will tell you what you might also do to be a better person. If you criticize someone else’s religious community, I will help shine the spotlight on the skeletons in your cupboard. If you promote censorship of speech, I will talk all the more.

I will be polite. I will rely on facts. I will try and be fair. I will not mock genuine faith. I will be willing to learn.

But I will not be quiet.

Between religious fundamentalism and atheist zealotry, there lies a balance. We, the religious moderates, occupy that space. We are the voice of reason – and tolerance.

Let us engage in meaningful dialogue with people around us. Let us speak our views. Let us not sit by silently, and watch our families, our workplaces, our social groups, our communities, our cities, our countries, and our world be taken hostage by those who are shouting loudest.

Who’s to say we can’t change minds? Who’s to say that if we listen and speak reasonably and sensibly, other people won’t do the same? Who’s to say we cannot turn the tide, and bring a balance, a moderation into this minefield, so fraught with tension? Who’s to say we might not change something, somewhere with our words?

Let us talk, you and I, before the cacophony defeats us and all that we value.

Let us get off the goddamn fence before it’s too late.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Nothing Comes Easily

Nothing comes easily, fill this empty space

Sometimes, it seems like we don’t want to be happy.

There is, after all, so much beauty in the world and in most of our lives (and I’m talking about you and me here – lucky enough to be traipsing through blogsphere, sitting with our laptops and tablets and smartphones in our comfortable homes) that it should be enough. Enough for us to not complain. Enough for us to appreciate life. Enough to be happy.

But nothing, it seems, is ever enough for us.

Why is that?

Are we just a dissatisfied race? Incapable of being content? Programmed to find flaws, create issues, foster division, cause grief?

I’m not talking about those of us who have suffered soul-wrenching loss, wrested with actual problems, emerged from truly agonizing periods in their lives. They know what we often fail to remember – that life is unpredictable. That real disasters strike suddenly on a Tuesday at 4:00 am, without warning signs and well-laid escape plans. They know that what we sulk and fume and stress about is mostly frivolous nonsense. That these are precious moments we squander in our sullen refusal to open ourselves to joy. Because when life gives us something to really worry about, we’ll wonder why on earth we didn’t seize every previous, worry-free day with both hands and hold on tight.

Raise your hand if you can tick off most of the following: well fed, well clothed, well housed, well educated, well read, well liked, well loved.

Seriously, raise your hand. Good. Now, think about how few people in the world are as privileged as us.

Yet, we fret and talk endlessly about something someone said, or didn’t say; about something we can’t afford, even though it may not be something we really want; about how we look, or someone else looks; worst of all, about what someone believes, or doesn’t.

Really, now. Are we doomed to this pettiness forever? Or is there light at the end of this tunnel?

Nothing is like it seems, turn my grief to grace