Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The True Gift

Is it a gift only of the young and innocent to believe someone is better than they can ever be, to look up in wonder, to love them as if they deserved it?

Or are these just reflections of fairy tales fed to them like tonics since babyhood- that someone has to be better than them, be the solution to all their problems, and sweep them off their feet?

Is what they feel nothing but a reciprocation of what they believe someone feels for them? Is it just the headiness of becoming the center of someone's world for the first time?

Does experience and knowledge take the edge off from these notions, open our eyes, and in turn make a cynic of us? 

Someone tell me- is innocence the true gift or the cynicism?

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Handmaids Around Me!

Been watching The Handmaid's Tale slowly for the last 10 days. Savoring is a better word. Just finished the last episode of Season 3 yesterday. So sad to say goodbye to a friend, because that's what June Osborne has become to me.
For those of you who haven't seen it, it's about dystopia in a new ultra-religious country carved out of the US in the times of rising infertility and consequently, extremely low birthrates. Women in this world are relegated to being wives, maids or handmaids (whose sole purpose is to produce children for the husbands of the barren wives). None of the women are allowed to read or go out without chaperone or contribute to society in any way. They are left with no agency/influence of their own. The only women who seem to have any power are cruel bullish women, who train other women for their roles and punish them for any transgression.
Thinking about the suffocating stifling world of these fictional women, I just realized that this dystopia is not all that fictional. I personally know women here in my town, who were married off in their teens before they even finished schooling, have no financial freedom and so are at the mercy of men in their homes, are watched like hawks when they step out of the house, are expected to give birth to boys, and are nothing but glorified house maids (not even that because they are not paid for their daily toiling). To top it all, they are controlled by cruel bullish mother in laws! The same story with girls with college degrees. The only difference between their reality and the world where June is trapped is that they get to keep their babies.
Did Margaret Atwood visit our village before she wrote her novel?

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Chandrama 2020 - As Beautiful as the Moon and as Loony too!

Every time I write something, it is like gathering ideas and thoughts scattered all over, bunching them together and shaping them to somehow makes sense. But this process also brings a sort of finality to the ideas. Once they are captured, they stop being the very things that inspired me to write in the first place. 

Maybe that's the reason I can't write about my mother. I do write about incidents involving her, but I can't write generically about her. The thoughts I have about are too many and scattered too randomly over the years of my life - gathering them is nearly impossible. They are hard to capture also because they are evolving, changing, growing every day. Also, gathering them will mean there will be a finality to these thoughts, and I can't allow that. She is a constant source of inspiration and self-knowledge and I need it to be like that. 

Today is her 82nd birthday. For the last 7 years, it has been my absolute pleasure of living with her in her favorite Dharamshala. The thoughts I have tried to capture here are bits and pieces about what I have learned from her. But no finality or boundaries here- there is lots more that I haven't even figured as yet.  

From her, I learned to be the best in anything and everything I do. And this was purely by example- we never discussed it. I just had a mother who was great at her work. She was the star. How can you be her daughter and accept mediocrity for yourself. You just don't.

From her, I learned the meaning of being truly happy. I have never seen my mother being moody or depressed, despite whatever was happening around her. I have always wondered how that is possible but because she is a living example, I know it's possible and can hope to achieve that life-state one day. 

From her, I learned to be brave. I have never seen her scared of any challenge that life throws in her way. She took up a WHO fellowship in her early thirties and lived in the US alone for a year. It was her first trip abroad, working with absolute strangers and getting used to a totally different lifestyle. If that didn't require bravery, I wonder what did. Once when she was the Principal of LHMC and there were student demonstrations clamoring  for her dismissal, I was shaking but she was unafraid. She was not even afraid at 60 of  moving with my dad (who needed a lot of care) to a small town and starting a new life. When he passed away, she was not afraid of living her life alone on her own terms. And even now, she lives her life as she wants, doing what she likes, despite having her bossy daughter live with her!

From her, I have learned how to have fun. When I was six, she blew my little mind by playing a trick on all of us- she returned from her year-long trip abroad with short hair. This was early 1970's and decent Indian women were not supposed to cut their hair. Her short hair caused so much turmoil in the family- my brother refused to hug her, my grandfather, her father, called her a "Par-kati kabootri (wingless pigeon)" and the elders on my father's side found it scandalous. Then a couple of hours later, she took of her wig and exposed her still long lovely hair! She created a memory that hasn't faded in 40 years and triggered a certain mad streak in all of her kids.

From her, I learned to love travel. My earliest fondest memories are of our travels together to hill stations, where she made us walk crazy distances, sing songs and eat express no-nonsense meals that she would cook. Later, she filled our heads with exciting stories (coupled with slide shows) of all the cities and country she had visited in the one-year fellowship. I grew up believing that the purpose in life was to travel and live in exotic places, meet new people and then talk about these experiences forever! I still believe it. 

From her, I got my gaming genes. In early 2000s, my dad rang me in Singapore and complained about mom' computer game obsession. In his typical funny-serious way, he said "Puja, apni mummy ko samjha. Sara time games khelti rehti hai! (Puja, please drive some sense into your mom. She is always playing computer games)". How could I tell him that at that very moment, across thousands of miles, she and I were playing an online boggle game together!

Nowadays, she plays Sudoku, Rahjong (a solitaire version of mahjong) and 4 pics 1 word type of puzzles on her iPad that I bought for her 7 years ago.

Much like her, I play till I drop off to sleep. She is a true role the picture shows!
From her, I have learned to embrace change and go with the times. My beautiful mother, who for over thirty years, wore the best sarees in the whole of Delhi, and nothing but sarees (even a Salwar Kameez was too casual for her), now wears pants and t-shirts that she buys from the trendy stores in Singapore and Delhi. My super popular mother, who was once the life of parties in Delhi, now spends her time walking the mountains, playing computer games and painting. My smart mother, who once surrounded by intellectuals and professionals and spoke in an impeccable polished accent, now finds joy in talking to simple village people, using their language and sharing their concerns.

From her, I learned to love music.  My mother sings beautifully and prolifically. As young children, we would sit on her bed, listening to her sing with gusto inside the bathroom as she got ready for work. Even today, there is no greater pleasure for me than to hear her sing her (and mine) favorite Hindi songs and ghazals. Unfortunately, I don't have her singing voice, but I enjoy listening to the songs I grew up and with and spend hours trying to play them on my keyboard.

From her, I learned to go out and appreciate the beauty of nature. My mother is an avid walker. In the last 15 years, she has climbed every mountain and visited every village in the neighborhood. I have heard all the stories and now it is my aim to recreate those experiences. We walk to every village that she has talked about, climb every mountain that she had climbed, enter every dhaar that she had visited.

Happy birthday Chandrama, my cool as the moon Mommy, and quite as loony. May you have a great great day today, with your butterflies and flowers and mountains and the khudd and the sunset. May you live fully in health for at least another 20 years so I can learn more from you and get a chance to enjoy your company even more. 

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Something to be Proud of

Two days back, I heard from my ex-husband, whom I had not seen or heard from for 20 years. This corona pandemic is changing a lot of things! Hearing from him initially had no effect on me. But something he wrote brought back memories of the days and months following his announcement of wanting a divorce and eventually the divorce itself a few months later. 

I am a fearless woman, I'd like to believe. I was never afraid to be alone in the night, like some of my friends were. Supernatural stuff had no sway over me. I wasn't even scared of dying really, though I almost did every year.

I was, though, afraid of hopelessness, of despair. I would see it now and then and quickly fight it off. Every year, I fought my illness with a courage I can't understand now. I would not give up hope even  when the doctors looked at me with a certain type of knowledge that I didn't have, knowledge of how hopeless my condition really was. I could handle even that. I always held on to hope. It was in my control to have hope and I exerted that control fully.

So, when I came face to face with fear for the first time in March of 2000 (when I first heard that my husband a divorce just weeks after I had relocated to a foreign country) , it brought me to my knees. I did not recognize it, and I did not recognize my reaction to it. It took me years to understand that what I felt was fear. I was afraid of everything- the new country, new job, poverty, loneliness, unresolved questions, people, colleagues, but mostly of this pitiable person that I had become. And I felt total despair. I couldn't summon hope anymore.

It is so important to label one's emotions, because labeling something is the first step towards fighting it or enjoying it. So here are some more labels for what I felt in that moment, those weeks, those months and perhaps years.

I felt overwhelmed and helpless. I did not know anything. I did not know how to find a house to live in, how to manage my money, how to find a school for Atreya, how to take care of him, how to take care of myself, how to be effective at my work, how to smile, how to be happy. It was all too much.

I felt ashamed. I had no dignity left. I was abandoned like I was damaged goods, and while I did not really believe it and had some sense of outrage, I felt a reflection of that on me. I would catch myself at times truly hating myself.

I felt lonely. There was no shoulder I could cry on. There never was, but then I had fewer reasons to want to cry. Now suddenly, all I wanted to do was cry, and there was no one to say it will be okay one day.

I felt impotent, useless. I could not get anything to work. I would stay up late at nights trying to complete proposals with next to no information or training. I would meet customers without knowing what they really needed. I didn't know how to be excellent at what I was doing, and it was devastating for a perfectionist like me.

I felt dark. There was no joy in anything I did. I was trapped in this dark dark room with no way of getting out. And I had a child who needed me to be happy. It felt darker when I could not even smile for his sake.

I was lost and I could not find my way back. I just went on doing what had to be done without any direction or foresight. I was a machine, and a very ineffective one at that.

I felt poor. For the first time in my life, there wasn't enough money to live a decent life. I lived in a house that was falling apart, using furniture that had lived its life.  It was ugly and impersonal. And I was running out of money every month. Hand to mouth- first time!

When I look back, I wonder how I came out of this and made a life for myself and found a way to be happy again. I wonder why I never gave up the fight, never said- this is too much, I can't do it anymore, somebody help me please!

Bravo Puja, you would say! Well not really. I am not proud of the tenacity that kept me going in those years. How can I be proud of a trait that came not from a place of strength, but from lack of self worth? I did what I did because I did not think I deserved to be taken care of, to be helped, or to be supported by anyone. I did not believe I was important enough for anyone to make adjustments in their lives for my sake. I stuck on because I felt there was no one in this whole wide world who would share my burden happily, because you know what, I just wasn't worth it. So it was my burden to carry alone and carry it alone I did.

None of these are good reasons to be proud of, even though the outcome of my actions were good. I did reclaim my dignity, control and direction eventually and light entered my life once again.

Today I examined my feelings deeply, to see if things have changed after all these years.

Do I believe I am worth getting inconvenienced for, worth taking care of, worth helping, worth offering a shoulder to cry on, worth someone's time, worth loving? A timid YES to all.

Am I any weaker because I have this net under me in case I crash and burn? A resounding NO.

Any act of courage that I do at this stage in life, under these circumstances, will be something to be proud of! 

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

My Cross to Bear!

From my window
I see the silent mountain
Wearing its crown of white
Standing tall and very distant,
Unaffected by this insignificant me
Who is mesmerized by its towering presence.

My feelings don't matter to it
Whether I stay silent like I did for years
Or pour out my love
In an uncontrolled flood of words and tears,
In either case, I get nothing back
Except an echo of my own actions.

I can't touch you, so distant you are
Not with my hands, nor with my words
Not with my acts, nor with my thoughts
Not with my anger, nor with my love,
What a cross to bear for life
Focused on you despite your dignified indifference.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Death Penalty for Whom?

Here is a translation of Kamla Bhasin's gut wrenching poem against death penalty for rapists.
Click to enlarge the picture. 
Who should really be given the death penalty?

We scream and shout from rooftops, demanding death penalty for rapists, but remain silent at the murder of 4 to 5 crore girl foetuses!

We scream and shout demanding death penalty for rapists, but we treat boys like kings and spoil them, never once saying no to them.
We allow minor boys to ride motorcycles and cars, sending them off to kill others and themselves.
We don’t teach boys to treat girls as their equals, to respect them.
Instead, by giving the boys better food, education, freedom, resources, we ourselves teach them inequality.
By teaching them to never shed tears or feel any emotions, we turn them into spoilt selfish brats and macho men.

We scream and shout demanding death penalty for rapists, but we call our girls "wealth belonging to others", and "give them away in marriage" as if they are not humans but things, ours to give away!
We teach them the virtue of silence and tolerance in the face of repression, and tell them to "adjust"!

We scream and shout demanding death penalty for rapists, but see how we call our husbands "lord and master", how we fast for their long life, and kill our widows as satis, as if women’s lives are worthless without men.
By saying “boys will be boys”, we teach boys and men that they can get whatever they want by force, without any consequences.

We scream and shout demanding death penalty for rapists, but watch pornography freely on smartphones, salivate at scantily clad women in item songs, and bow in awe to movies and TV shows that project men as macho and women as mere objects.

How is it we can say both these things in the same breath?
How is it we can think the two things in the same thought?
Don’t we know that violent rapist men are not born that way?
They are made that way by years of real-life lessons in patriarchy.
Our patriarchal families, schools, colleges and society make them who they are.
And our traditions and religions fine-tune their transformation.
That's how are made fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands, and fathers-in-law, who rape within the so-called safe havens of homes.
That's how are made editors, actors, directors, professors, and NGO leaders - against whom women say "He too"!

So friends, if anyone deserves death penalty, it is all of us, who are participating in patriarchy and enabling it, who are creating macho men and weak objectified women.

Death penalty to rapists will not stop rapes from happening.
To stop rapes, we will have to give the death penalty to patriarchy, and along with it, to casteism, classism, racism and capitalism!

If you are ready to fight for this worthy cause and stop rape for good, then let's all jump into the battle and chant heartily:
Down with Patriarchy!
Hail Equality!

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Boys of Tomorrow

Kamla Bhasin has written another poem, this time for boys. I translated it quickly and shared it with my students (young college going boys and girls). We then practiced enacting it. 

It is my dream that the words will ring in the boys' ears whenever they are dealing with women in their lives. It is my dream that these powerful words of a powerful woman, which I will ensure they memorize, will transform them. 

The Boys of Tomorrow
Original written in Hindi by Kamla Bhasin; English translation by Puja Anand

Boys are learning to help around the house
They enjoy carrying out their share of responsibilities
They won’t keep, not any more
Their sisters and mothers in servitude

Boys are learning to stitch and darn
They enjoy fixing things that have gone bad
They don’t want, no they don’t
Destruction and its celebration

Boys are filling their hearts with equality
They enjoy being equal partners
They won’t carry on, not anymore
Pointless domination of others

Now boys too are becoming motherly
They enjoy taking care of others
They are rejecting, yes they are
Their so-called right to command others

See, boys are also becoming compassionate
They enjoy supporting others
They won’t participate, not anymore
In bringing anyone down

Boys are becoming truly strong
They enjoy protecting others
They won’t accept, no they won’t
Oppressing or seeing anyone being oppressed

Boys are also becoming sensitive
They are beginning to understand their emotions
They won’t accept, not anymore
Being forced to hold back their tears

Boys are also becoming decent
They enjoy being polite and respectful
They do not want, no they don't
To be labeled "Dabang", "Badtameez" or macho

Boys are becoming honorable too
They enjoy sharing their resources equally 
They won't steal brazenly, not anymore
What should rightfully belong to their sisters

Note: "Dabang" and "Badtameez" are references to popular Hindi movies and songs. I have retained these words because of their Indian context. 

Here is the original poem in Hindi. Not very clear since it's an image. Will figure out a way to fix this.